Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Let It Show! A Testing Holiday Remix

I’ve been shopping, therefore my brain is full of retail remixes of holiday songs. Here is my reflection on this week’s midterm/dd-EOC experiences remixed with holiday music, for funsies. Enjoy!
Oh the testing in here is frightful
But my lessons were so delightful
And since we’ve learned all we know
Let it show! Let it show! Let it show!

Oh, tests don’t show signs of stopping
And my students’ energy is dropping
High level questions and low
Let it show! Let it show! Let it show!

When we finally get items right
How I’ll hate to see any wrong
But if my lessons did engage and excite
Despite mistakes, scores will be strong!

Now the kids are really trying
and it looks like no one’s crying
But as long as we learned all we know
Let it show! Let it show! Let it show!

I hope that despite some glitches and confusion, your testing went as smoothly as possible and that it reflects all your hard work this semester. Have a wonderful, restful, joyful vacation!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Monica's Towels and Midterms

Monica’s Towels and Midterms

So, as a ‘90s girl, I love the TV show “Friends”. I am pretty sure I have seen every episode --  from regular “Must See TV nights” to the years and years (and years!) of syndicated reruns. I love it. I know the ins and outs of every character and every minor character and even the plotline of the monkey.

So at some point, someone bought my then-roommate and I the “Friends” version of Trivial Pursuit. Sweeeet! I was going to ROCK that game on game night!

And then I lost, pitifully. To the guy with the super-amazing, detail-oriented memory.

Man! I thought I knew my “Friends” but when they asked me the name of Ross and Monica’s childhood dog, or who died in season 2, episode 3 -- I was LOST! How many pages was Rachel’s letter to Ross or what color was Phoebe’s first bike? Heck if I know!!

When they asked me how many categories Monica had for her towels, I gave up. I donated the board game to Goodwill. I know why Ross and Rachel broke up (the first time -- they were ON A BREAK!!!) I know why Phoebe carried her brother’s twins (his wife couldn’t). But some of the trivia was so absurd and useless and, well, trivial!

For a history teacher, I really stink at names and dates and details.

Well, good news! Our dd-EOCs, midterms, and state EOCs don’t look like the Friends Trivial Pursuit. There is very little (if any) trivia on there! No one cares how many categories of towels Monica had or how many people fought at the battle of Trenton or what the name of the archeologist at Mohenjo Daro was!

So a lot of the old-style study guides I used to give out (you know -- the big lists of names, terms, places, and concepts) is probably NOT as helpful as it used to be.  A couple of big refresher terms for each unit are probably useful, but much more than that probably isn’t. I don’t know if I would have more than a half hour this week to spend on names and vocab and level one review.
If I had to review my students for a dd-EOC (district-developed EOC) midterm or semester test, here’s what I’d do.

  1. Stimuli: I would help my students practice answering questions with stimuli. Maps,charts, graphs, quotes, art works, political cartoons, graphic organizers, documents, etc. More than half of the questions on our dd-EOCs, state EOCs, and our midterms are stimulus-based. The more comfortable they are with stimuli, the more comfortable they will be with the test.  
  2. Levels of Complexity: I would explain the three levels of complexity. We, the teachers, all know that the test is 20-60-20. Meaning that roughly 20% of the questions are Level 1, 60% are Level 2 and 20 % are Level 3.  I truly think that the kids do better with this when we spell it out for them.
    1. Use the AVID strategy of using of using your (or their) hands to explain the three levels.
      1. For level 1, have the kids (or you) use one finger on the text to remind kids that in Level 1 questions answers can be found “right there”, or require one step to solve.
      2. For level 2, have the kids put one finger on the text and one on their heads to symbolize that there are two steps. Remind kids that they will need to use the text (finger on the text) AND their knowledge (finger on their head).
      3. For Level 3, have kids put one finger on their text (to symbolize using the text or stimuli), a second finger on their foreheads (to symbolize using their outside knowledge) and a third finger up in the air, to symbolize that they have to use something else or DO something else with the info.
3. Kids Write Higher Order Questions: I would have my students write Level 2 test questions. Not that I don’t have enough (I do) but because when you write, you read better. When you throw, you catch better.  
  1. I would give my students a stimulus (probably on a topic that was way back in August or a concept with which they really struggled).
  2. I would give them a couple of Level 2 key words (Describe, explain, give an example, cause and effect, impact, compare/contrast people). I would make them use ONE out of three or four choices.
  3. I would explain the four parts of a question (a. directions b. stimuli c. question d. answer choices).
  4. I would explain that we can’t use silly answer choices (like, “Mrs. Newman is Awesome” or “Fluffy the Dog”)
  5. I would have them write questions in small groups
  6. I would have them share or present those questions with the rest of the class.

I did this last one with 6th graders at a turnaround school this week. Our youngest kids at one of our most struggling schools -- aaaaand they ROCKED it.

Were their questions perfect? Of course not! Was the spelling and grammar atrocious? A little. Did they show me that they had learned the content and that they understood some higher-complexity questions? Absolutely!

Seriously! The teacher and I were both incredibly impressed with what these 11-year olds created (many of whom are ELL and most of whom are reading well below grade level).

Here is what I gave the kids, after I showed them examples of Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3 questions. (6th grade is Ancient World History)

“Farming lets you feed far more people than hunting and gathering. In a one-acre wheat field, there's more to eat than in a one-acre forest. In a one-acre sheep pasture, there are more animals to eat than in a one-acre forest.”    -Jared Diamond, author of “Guns, Germs, and Steel” 1999
Use the words “explain” or “give an example” or “compare” (level 2) in your question.

Per 1:
Please use the quote and your knowledge to answer the question. Give an example of what term Jared Diamond might be referring to.
  1. Agriculture
  2. Irrigation
  3. Neolithic Age
  4. Paleolithic Age

Per 2:
Please use the quote and your knowledge to answer the question. How does the Neolithic Age compare to the Paleolithic Age?
  1. In the neolithic age, they had a stable food supply
  2. In the neolithic age, there were no cities in the paleolithic age there were a lot.
  3. In the paleolithic age there were domesticated animals
  4. in the neolithic age, there were hunters and gatherers.

How awesome are those questions? I’m pretty sure that I didn’t write questions that good when I was in the classroom!

Now, those kids know what goes into a good level 2 question. They can write one so they can READ one and, hopefully, ANSWER one well. I really believe strongly that kids learn more by writing higher level questions than by re-memorizing terms and names and knowing how many towel categories Monica had.

Anyone have any luck with any of this? How are your kids doing at writing questions? Are your kids ready to rock next week? Do you know how many pages Rachel’s famous letter to Ross was?

As always, I really do like to hear about it! Let me know how it goes!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Fifteen Desserts and Collaborative Structures

I love Thanksgiving food. At my family’s Thanksgiving, we had seven pies, two cheesecakes, two dessert breads, and four kinds of cookies -- totalling fifteen different desserts.  (There were 22 of us). It took us three days to eat most of that sweetness!

I made two pies for my contribution. I really like to bake but I really only bake things during the holidays. I enjoy it and all, but it doesn’t seem to be worth the mess and the empty calories unless it’s part of the holiday festivities. I don’t feel like all that measuring and mixing and cooking work for, say, a random Tuesday in January.

I know a lot of folks who feel that way about having students collaborate. We enjoy it when it’s done right, but sometimes, it’s not worth the hassle of the mess and the work and the empty learning calories (Get it? Learning that doesn’t stick with you? Like calories that make you hungry in an hour?)

In the past month or two, I have spent a lot of time in classrooms observing rates of engagement. That means, every five minutes I wrote down how many students were engaged out of a total number of students in the room (for example, 19 out of 21 were doing bellwork)

Do you know what I discovered? Other than the fact that rates of engagement drop after twenty minutes in ANY activity, I discovered something I knew, but I didn’t really know.

Groupwork sucks for engagement.

No, wait, hear me out.

Most teacher’s rates of engagement seemed to be at a rough average of 75-80%. At any moment, 75-80% of the kids were engaged in the activities. When teachers switched to groupwork, those numbers dropped below 40%, sometimes, down to 25%. I   

During groupwork, kids slacked off. They talked about their social lives or Snapchat or reading class. They did their math homework. They flirted. They divided the work and did individual parts.

What many teachers know is true, by my observations in probably 20 classes, is that groupwork sucks for engagement. It’s the dessert -- the sweet, empty calories of activities -- fun but not (ful)filling.

BUT -- I discovered a huge BUT (not a huge “butt”, although that is a common discovery right after Thanksgiving)

BUT -- when teachers do collaborative structures INSTEAD of groupwork, that engagement level stays the same OR EVEN RISES!

Trace, what’s the difference between groupwork and collaborative structures?

It’s the structure of the collaborative structure.

That’s like asking what’s the difference between letting my four year old go crazy with some random ingredients and baking a pie according to a recipe.

The outcomes will be pretty different. One will be a odd-tasting mess and the other (hopefully) will be a tasty pie.

What I mean is, when you let kids do “groupwork” (i.e. unstructured collaboration) you are letting them add any old ingredients in any old quantities and you will get a product that is not really what you meant. It might not be identifiable. It might even be safe. It certainly doesn’t add up to a delicious pie (or a neat, tasty piece of learning).

When you give them structure to their collaborative structure, you’re giving kids a recipe. You’re telling them how much of each ingredient and when to stir and when to use the mixer and how to grease the pan and how long to bake at what temperature. When you give the kids a good  recipe for collaboration, you are much more likely to get a delicious pie. Or, a neat, tasty piece of learning.

Tons of research has been done on the benefits of collaborative structures. (http://tep.uoregon.edu/resources/librarylinks/articles/benefits.html)
  • Kids learn more.
  • The learning sticks with the kids longer.
  • The learning is more meaningful.
  • It is student-created learning.
  • It’s more engaging.
  • Engagement helps kids to be more successful in more classes.
  • It helps kids learn to get along with different kinds of kids.
  • It helps ESE and ELL students.
  • It helps higher-level students when they explain to others.
  • It promotes positive attitudes toward the content.
On and on and on. The benefits of collaborative structures are many and are powerful.

But those benefits don’t apply to groupwork. They ONLY apply to collaborative structures.

Some quick tips for turning your groupwork into collaborative structures.
  1. Time everything. Give kids two minutes to turn and talk or ten minutes to read and summarize. Make sure kids know how much time they have allotted for each activity.
  2. Give everyone a job. I don’t care if they’re necessary or not. If every kid in each group has a separate job, he or she will perform better and be held accountable.
  3. Be very clear on your behavior expectations (this is the hardest part) I’ve shared my “O Group” Rules before, but if it helps, here they are again
On task
On topic
On your seat
Only your group (talk to)
Ok volume (level 1)
  1. Monitor, monitor, monitor. Don’t sit down, don’t exhale, don’t take attendance. Circulate again and again and again until your kids learn that contrary to Mr. or Mrs. So-and-so down the hall, who does groupwork, you do collaborative structures and you mean business. Prove to them that you care if they’re learning or off task. Prove to them that you care if they are on or off topic. Stay on their case the whole time.

Can you do it? Can you increase your classroom engagement rates with collaborative structures instead of groupwork? Have you noticed your students engagement drop off during groupwork? Are you ready to try collaborative structures instead?

As always, I live to hear from you! And happy belated Thanksgiving. I hope you enjoyed your pie(s).

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Help Me Obi-Wan!

So, I saw a bumper sticker on Monday morning that cracked me up.  Take a look

Haha! Vote for Obi-Wan Kenobi “Our Only Hope”.

And then I went to work. And through conversations and emails with teachers, administrators, coaches, and district staff, I heard a lot of anxiety about the upcoming middle school midterm exams and the high school semester exams.

  • What is on the exam?
  • What should my kids study?
  • How can I prep my students?
  • How should I make a study guide?
  • Are we ready?

With Obi-Wan Kenobi as my only hope in my mind, I thought about what might be OUR hope as we prepare for high stakes tests coming to so many of us next month.

(Help me, Obi Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope!)

I don’t think we have an ONLY hope. Not just one Obi-Wan. I think that we have several tools and Obi-Wans that should give us hope. What are they and how can I use them? Let’s look.

  1. If we have followed our curriculum guides, the force will be with them.  
Our curriculum guides were written by PCSB teachers with benchmarks and test blueprints in hand. They weren’t decided by “those people” at the district or state..
2.            If we have stayed on pace, the force will be with them.

            Again, our pacing guides were written by PCSB teachers with curriculum guides and benchmarks and test blueprints in front of them. They were crafted by regular teachers at PCSB schools who were trying to teach all the benchmarks in the best time frame. Standards and benchmarks are dictated by the state DOE. Our colleagues did a great job putting those benchmarks into the most do-able calendar they could.
3.            If we have spent time in our blueprints, the force will be with them.
            Our blueprints tell us what is on the test. If you have spent time digging into that, you know what’s on the test. You know which benchmarks are assessed, how many questions are on each benchmark, and how many questions per benchmark are at each level of complexity.
4.            If we have broken down our benchmarks, dug into what each is really asking for and taught the benchmark instead of the topic, the force will be with them.
Our kids are assessed on their benchmarks, not their broad topical content knowledge. So, they need to understand the benchmark, not everything about the topic. They need to (SS.912.A.4.1)Analyze the major factors that drove United States imperialism, but they don’t need to know the minor factors or the details behind those factors.  

Can you exhale a little yet? If you have been doing all the things that Linda and Matt and your department head have been telling you, your kids (in general) should be ok. The force will be with them.

For those of you who are still nervous and feel the need to take additional action, we still have time to use the force...

Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi! You’re my only hope! I have two suggestions to help you better get the force to be with your kids.  

  1. Stimuli
Give your kids more and more practice analyzing and interpreting stimuli. In your 

assessments, the term “stimulus” will refer to maps, charts, graphs, document excerpts, images, political cartoons, quotes, or graphics. Most of the assessments for required SS classes are modeled after the state EOCs which ask for roughly 70% stimulus-based questions. So, throw some stimuli up on the screen or board for bellwork or exit slips.  Slip more stimuli into reading assignments and class activities. Use more stimulus-based questions on your classroom tests, quizzes, and formative assessments. The more comfortable and familiar and skilled your students are in dealing with stimuli, the better they’ll handle the tests.
  1. Higher order questions. So, the questions on the test are one of three levels of complexity.
Level one is recall level.
Level two is moderately complex (two-steps of thinking).
Level three is high complexity (multi-steps of thinking).
Our state EOCs and many of our district-developed EOCS are written at a 20-60-20 ratio. Meaning, 20% are level one questions, 60% are level two questions, and 20% are level three questions. Your Civics and HS US teachers should be able to rock this. The rest of us aren’t quite as confident in our figuring out which questions are which level.

It would be nice if we had practice questions, like a question bank we could use, huh?

So here’s the last battle you can do. You can come to the “Up Your Game Assessment” PD on Dec 2 (the Tuesday after Thanksgiving Break). High school is a 3pm. Middle school is at 5pm. We will spend some time discussing and going over the levels of complexity and how to write Level 2 & 3 questions.

Then, we’ll write some questions and put them in a question bank that we can all use.

The more people there at the training, the more questions we have in our question bank. It’s that simple.

So, as you plan for your week off and maybe give a thought or two to what your world looks like when you come back, please consider coming to the “Up Your Game Assessment “ training on Dec 2. It will help you, in your classroom, to write classroom test questions that look like higher-level EOC questions. But it can help all of us in writing those question bank questions so we can use them in the few weeks before the assessments.

I’m attaching the flyer so you can sign up on LMS. If you bring a friend, you can qualify for door prizes. The more folks we have, the better shape we’re all in, test-wise.

Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi! Help me, colleagues, and friends! You’re our only hope!


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Oh My Gosh! It's Later Than I Thought!

Oh my gosh! It’s later than I thought!

My husband likes to tease me by saying that if I ever got a tattoo, it would say: “Oh my gosh! It’s later than I thought!”

its later than i thought.png

(It would look sweet tattooed around my wrist, in lieu of an actual watch, right?)

I admit, I lose track of time a lot. I can be eating breakfast and all of a sudden -- Oh my gosh! It’s later than I thought! It’s time to leave and I still have to find my keys and my other shoe!

It happened a lot in my classroom a lot, too. I was always behind in my lesson plan or behind in my pacing because everything took longer than I thought.

Because of the “it’s later than I thought” phenomenon, I got behind on my pacing every year. Every single year, my final unit of the year from a three week plan to a two-day fly-by lesson.

Five minutes here and ten minutes there can really add up! If you mean for your bellwork to take five minutes but it really drags on to ten minutes every day (and it doesn’t need to take ten minutes), that’s 15-25 minutes a week! That’s an hour every month. That’s ten hours of instruction time a year. That adds up to two weeks of instruction time over the course of a year.

So, in an effort to tighten up lessons, to stay on pace, and to tighten up classroom management, I offer this “brilliant” advice:

Use a timer. All the time.

I know, I know. That sounds completely obvious. And pretty anti-climactic. But hear me out....

Timers can help us accomplish everything we need to accomplish. They can keep us stay on track. They can also help us gauge student understanding. They can help us craft more focused, multi-part lessons.

Timers can change your life!

Why I didn’t use them when I was in the classroom? I used the clock! I told my kids how much time they had for each activity! Isn’t that enough?

In a word, no.

If I went back to the classroom now, I would use a timer displayed every day for just about every activity. I might use a cool one from Online Stopwatch (at http://www.online-stopwatch.com/classroom-timers/) on my projector. I might use a cheap dollar-store digital timer, set down on my ELMO projector. I might use one that is an app on the SMARTboard.

Kids don’t need to look at the clock and do the math every few minutes. They need a countdown clock. They need to see, at any moment, how much time they have left in whatever activity they’re doing.

Kids need to be held accountable for staying on task. They need to know that they can’t drag their feet and dawdle and get out of the next part of your lesson by pretending to need more time. They need to know they can’t talk about the movies for twenty minutes and then write down the answers when you go over it.

Kids need timers to help them stay on track. Of course, as a teacher, you will always circulate during the timed activity, helping kids who need it, checking for thoughtful answers and correct responses and on-task behavior.

But I would use it frequently during a class period. Here are some ways.
  • As soon as the bell rang, I would set my classroom timer for five or seven minutes in which bellwork must be completed. I wouldn’t let bellwork drag on for 10 or 15 minutes like I often did while I was taking attendance or checking the ABC list or letting my kids ask for pencils 5 minutes into the bellwork.
  • I, personally, have the tendency to talk a lot. (I know -- those of you who know me are SHOCKED at this revelation!) I would set the timer for any teacher-talk that is more than giving directions. Mini-lecture? Set a timer. Modeling the strategy? Set a timer. I need to hold myself accountable and not ramble or beat the dead horse. I need to stay focused. I set a timer for myself to equalize out our class, so they know I am accountable for getting things done in a reasonable amount of time, just like they are.
  • I would time every turn-and-talk. Those could go on for a long time if I let them. I have a (good) habit of circulating the class and listening to each set of kids talk and asking them about their turn and talk. Meanwhile, the other ten groups in my class have started talking about TV or Taylor Swift or something. Two minutes is my default, but you can adapt depending on the task or topic.
  • Time each major activity. Give the kids an appropriate amount of time for each. Each time to read, each group discussion, each written response, should have a timer to help you and your students stay engaged.
  • Use a timer to gage student understanding. Don’t let the time drag on while you wait to see if kids understood the topic. Don’t let ten or twenty minutes go past before kids tell you that they don’t understand something. Set the timer for five minutes, check how they’re doing after that five minutes before you let them move on to the rest of the activity.

I’m not unreasonable. Obviously, if your kids genuinely need more time, please adjust accordingly. Call a “timeout” and reteach. Add extra minutes to the timer when necessary.  I would NEVER tell you to move on if your kids aren’t done or aren’t understanding the content. BUT on the other hand, if they’re goofing around because they know you will let them have another twenty minutes, then tighten up your times.

Some of us will be amazed at how much time we save when we use timers to tighten up our class time. Some of us will be amazed at how the on-task behavior changes when we use timers to keep kids accountable.

And, to be fair, some of us will be amazed that the rest of the world doesn’t already do this. I wish I was a person who had been using timers forever.

I have observed in more classrooms in the past six years than I can count -- middle school and high school, veteran teachers and first year teachers, men and women, north county and south county. One thing I have noticed across the board is this: teachers who use timers regularly, who set specific time goals and then follow up or adapt as needed, teachers who don’t lose track of time -- those teachers cover more ground and cover it more effectively than those who don’t.

So try using timers on your bellwork, your reading, your teacher-talk time, or your activity. Adapt and be flexible, as needed.

Then, drop me an email and let me know if you notice any differences in your pacing, content coverage, or behavior management! I love to hear how it goes!