Wednesday, April 30, 2014

'Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy

Have you ever mis-heard something and you had to listen to it again to better understand it? There are books and websites dedicated to the hilarity of misheard lyrics. My all-time best misheard song lyric is Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”. The misheard lyric is “‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy”. The REAL lyric is “‘Scuse me while I kiss THE SKY”.

I love misheard lyrics. They usually make me giggle out loud like a kid. Partly because I mishear lyrics all the time, partly because they’re so silly and funny, partly because they make you listen to the song again. I sung “rock the cash box” instead of “rock the casbah” until well into adulthood!

Here are some of my other favorite misheard lyrics

Dancing Queen by Abba
Original: See that girl, watch that scene, dig in the dancing queen
Misheard:See that girl, watch her scream, kicking the dancing queen

Tiny Dancer by Elton John
Original: Hold me closer, tiny dancer
Misheard: Hold me closer, Tony Danza
(Right. Who’s the boss?)

Rock and Roll by KISS
Original: I want to rock and roll all night and party every day
Misheard: I want to rock and roll all day and part of every day
(So much more practical)

Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival
Original: There’s a bad moon on the rise
Misheard: There’s a bathroom on the right
(good to know!)

All this silliness is to help us remember that sometimes, you just need to relisten and reread to get it right.  Sometimes, you need to listen to Elton John’s song a few bijillion times. Sometimes, you need to sing along with the KISS song.

And sometimes, in class, you need to read a text more than once. Sometimes you need to read it two or three times.


I admit that even as the literacy-in-social studies coach, I have pushed back a little against this read-it-more-than-once trend. I rolled my eyes. I thought I didn’t have time. I thought my kids “got it” the first time. I thought I had too much content to teach to stop and reread something.

The eye-rolling was even more recent than I would like to admit.

And then, I spent a half of class period on a document from Industrial Revolution mill workers only to be asked what the Industrial Revolution was and what a mill was immediately. My choice at that point was to either reteach it or grumble about ‘these kids” and move on without them learning it.

I chose to have them reread and I’m glad I did.

If you are having your kids read primary source documents (or more challenging secondary sources), the chances are pretty good that your kids will get tripped up at some point. It’s natural. It’s normal. Kids don’t always have the vocabulary, background knowledge, or reading level to deeply understand every primary source document you put in front of them.

If they could do it by themselves, you wouldn’t have to teach it!

Common Core and the new Florida Standards ask our kids to read complex text deeply. Nobody gets it right the first time. That’s why they call it complex. And that’s okay. That’s why second (and third) tries were invented!

First -- make sure your document is manageable. If it’s super long, pull out a smaller excerpt. If the vocab is way above them, annotate it a bit by defining a couple of words in the margins that are necessary to the understanding of the document (ex. industrial, mill)

Second -- come up with two or three separate reasons to read your document. Here are some examples, but JUST USE two or three
  • Overview read -- read the document silently or teacher read aloud to get the overall idea.
  • Text Marking Read -- have kids use a (?) for parts where they are confused, an (!) for an important piece of info, an underline for patterns or things that come up repeatedly, and an --> (arrow) for connecting one piece of text to another.
  • Vocabulary -- have kids read specifically to find meaning for vocabulary terms (either ones selected by you or by them)
  • Reading Strategy -- have kids read another time to use your reading strategy (Venn Diagram, for example)
  • Essential Question -- have the kids circle words or phrases that will help answer the Essential Question of the day.

There are a ton of different “types” of reads, or different purposes for reading. That’s okay.

PLEASE DON’T... have kids read it five times (too much!). PLEASE DON’T have kids do these on a long piece of text (it will take forever).

Instead,  choose two or three of the ones above and guide your kids through a close reading in which they read the document more than once.

We all have to read things more than once. It’s why millions of books or sermons are written on the same pieces of holy writings. It’s why people can read Shakespeare (or even their favorite novels) again and again. It’s why every time I look at a great work of art, I see something I missed last time.

I recently got a piece of furniture from IKEA. Even though the directions are pictorial and not textual, I still had to “read” the directions multiple times to get it right. And I’m a visual-learning, masters’ degree-holding, adult who has EXPERIENCE and LIKES putting IKEA furniture together. If I needed to read the directions more than once, why shouldn’t a kid who may or may not have background knowledge or confidence reading documents?

There’s no shame in rereading. It’s not just for lower-level kids. There’s honor and pride and rigor in multiple reads -- or IKEA directions or song lyrics or (hopefully) in primary and secondary documents.

It’s important to read important or complex texts more than once. There are several ways to do that. So, will you try it? Start with something complex but brief -- something like a short  letter or the Preamble or a paragraph from a historian.

Please drop me a line and let me know how it goes. And, please, hold me closer, Tony Danza!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Spoiler Alert: Game of Thrones and China's Cultural Revolution

Are you a book-before-the-movie person? I usually am. I had to read all the Game of Thrones books before we started watching the TV series. I read “The Book Thief” and now don’t want to see a movie version of it (there’s no way a movie can get that right!). I did read “The Fault in Our Stars” and I can’t wait to see that movie. I had to reread “The Hobbit” again before the first movie came out and I’m glad I did. I was rusty before that!

So, Game of Thrones is a fictional, medieval-ish, fantasy TV show based on a book series. It’s known for being gory and racy and unpredictable and terribly addictive TV. The going joke is that “some old guy has been publishing Game of Thrones spoilers” (referring to the author and the books he wrote years before they were adapted for the TV series). When the TV show is based on a book, there are a lot of people out there who know what happens next.

As I thought about the problem of spoilers in the Internet Age, I thought about the problem of spoilers in our social studies classes.

Have you ever done an activity in class where kids are supposed to choose what to do in a historical situation? You know -- “Should Truman Drop the Bomb?” or “Valley Forge: Would You Have Quit?”

Invariably, the kids want to know THE Answer. Should Truman have dropped that bomb? Did he? Did all the soldiers at Valley Forge quit? Would YOU, the teacher, have quit? I used to tease my kids by calling those answers “spoilers” and tell them they wouldn't get the spoilers until the end of the lesson/unit/DBQ. Of course, often a resourceful kid would check Wikipedia or the textbook and “spoil the ending” for everyone. I mean, it’s not like the “ending” isn't findable.

I kind of think of our textbooks as spoilers. They give away the ending without making us emotionally work for it. It’s like giving away the ending of the movie before we've gotten involved with the characters and made it through all the plot points.
*Spoiler Alert!!* (Wizard of Oz)  

Like, if you had never seen the Wizard of Oz and I told you, “Never seen the Wizard of Oz? Oh, Dorothy just has to click her heels three times and she can go home. No big deal”  

Sometimes our textbooks really do act as spoilers. Hey -- don’t know much about the Haitian Revolution?  Haiti ends up free but poor. Or-- What about Alexander the Great? He conquered a LOT of land from Greece to India. Or What happened in China’s Cultural Revolution? Well, it was a political, social, and economic mess. But it’s over now. End of story.

There’s something matter-of fact about our textbooks, which is part of what appeals to us. They make history sound neat and settled, black and white. Alexander the Great was Great. That’s why we call him Alexander the Great. Get it? It’s done. It does make it easier and simpler for teachers and students.

But history isn't neat and settled. It’s messy and debatable and full of grey area. Historians still quibble about whether Alexander was great. They still argue about the effects of the Haitian Revolution. They are still trying to figure out China’s Cultural Revolution.

How can I get a kid absorbed? How can I get him or her engaged in the story of post WWII China?

You really wouldn't care if I told you the end of the last Game of Thrones book -- unless you were already a Game of Thrones fan. Unless you were invested in the characters and plot. Along the same lines, a student is unlikely to care about the China’s Cultural Revolution unless he is already invested in China’s Communist Revolution, unless he can get absorbed in the major players and historical characters.

How can I engage a kid in the characters and the story?

The answer is documents. Good ones.

Through well-chosen documents, students hear the voices of the actual participants in history. They can become absorbed in an individual or group’s point of view. They can make history real and not just a spoiler for something they don’t care about.  Letters, speeches, advertisements, newspaper articles -- these things can tell the story, absorb the kids, and engage them.

Part of a speech from Chairman Mao and an excerpt from Mao's Last Dancer by Li Cunxin makes a kid really wonder how that whole Cultural Revolution thing turns out. It makes him or her curious and interested and maybe look up that whole "spoiler" thing in a textbook or online.

Use the idea of your textbook as the spoiler that tells the "ending" -- and the documents as the story itself. Think of good ways to "tell the story" through documents. 

At this time of year, I tend to get tired of the same-old, same-old and go hunting for new strategies. Although most of us already have tried and true ones in use, if you need a new strategy for examining and analyzing documents to mix things up, try the Six Cs. 

The Six Cs (by University of California Irvine's History-Social Science Project)are just one more tool to help you and your students analyze primary or secondary source documents. 

The Six Cs are:
1. Content (What is it about?)
2. Citation (Who wrote it and when?)
3. Context (What's going on at the time and place this was created?)
4. Connections (Link this doc to other things you know)
5. Communication (What's the point of view or bias?)
6. Conclusions (How does this document contribute to the understanding of history?)

Try to keep your kids and yourself on your toes as the year starts winds down -- see how the 6 Cs work for you and for them. The goal, as always, is for kids to internalize the strategy and be able to analyze a document without a worksheet. So, maybe the Six Cs are a great way to do that. 

Game of Thrones Fans are constantly avoiding spoilers. Students of China's Cultural Revolution should be avoiding spoilers, too -- because they're too engaged in the story through documents.

Either way, start thinking about your textbook as a spoiler. How can you get your kids engaged so that they will WANT to find out what happens next? How can you get your kids to get mad at spoilers in the textbook?  

Have you thought about this before? Do you have a tried and true document analysis strategy you love? Or will you try using the 6Cs (and let me know how it goes)? 

As always, I love to hear from you! Email me at

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Why I Hate the KWL

A few years I wouldn’t have been able to admit this aloud, but as I get older, I get bolder, so here goes...

My name is Tracy and I hate the KWL.

There. I’ve said it. (Is that edu-blasphemy?)

All the reading trainings in the world, from college courses to CRISS to CAR_PD seem to love the KWL. And I honestly can’t stand it.

If you don’t remember the KWL (how can you forget it?) it is a three-column chart (or organizer) that asks kids what they Know, what they Want to know and what they Learned about a particular topic. See? K-W-L.

And no matter how I tried it, in my class, I always had a handful of kids who answered those three questions with “nothing, nothing, nothing.”

What do you know about the Civil War? Nothing.
What do you want to know about the Civil War? Nothing.
What did you learn about the Civil War? Nothing.

No matter how I tried to persuade my students, with grade threats or learning promises, no matter how many zeros I gave for those non-answers, no matter how engaging the lessons, I always had kids who seemed to delight in frustrating me by giving those answers. And if I’m honest, the kids who answered “nothing” were the ones I was often especially targeting with my lesson anyway. The advanced kids did fine with or without that KWL. The struggling kids tuned me out as soon as they saw a KWL.

To be fair, some of my kids (especially my ESOL immigrant kids) really didn’t know anything about the American Civil War. They had never heard of it! They didn’t know enough about it to even come up with a question or a “Want to know”.

It’s like asking me what I know about balancing chemical equations. Nothing. What do I want to know about balancing chemical equations? Nothing. What did I learn in chemistry about balancing chemical equations? Nothing. (Apologies to my high school chemistry teacher, who was really good. My ignorance of chemical equations is my own fault.)

I don’t know. Maybe in the way dogs smell fear, my students smelled teacher-apathy. I may very well have been teaching the KWL wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time I messed up repeatedly. I know plenty of really skilled teachers who swear by it.

But it never worked for me.

What I discovered instead is a different reading strategy that takes that KWL idea and turns it around to make it similar to what historians, social scientists, journalists, the common core (or Florida Standards, now) and DBQs do.

Teach kids to use multiple sources to come up with a conclusion. Try an I-Chart.

It’s not really an equal, substitute-an-I-Chart-where-you-would-use-a-KWL kind of thing. You will have to use it a slightly different way

An I-Chart has students use multiple sources to come to conclusions. Again, like Common Core/Florida Standards ask, students make conclusions based on those multiple sources.

How do we do that? I’m glad you asked!

·         If you’re asking about the Civil War, first use something more specific than the whole Civil War. Ask about Andersonville or Sherman’s March to the Sea or the Emancipation Proclamation.
·         Next, give the kids several resources with which to examine that topic. For the sake of movement and limited resources, feel free to make “stations” where students consult a textbook at their desks, a primary source in another area, a particular website on a student station, or an image on the board or screen.
·         What did we learn from each site about Andersonville?  Students can fill in the I-Chart for the topic of Andersonville and then   ...  
and here’s the important Common Core/Florida Standards/authentic historian part --
·         Kids summarize or conclude based on what they learned from the two or three or four sources they just examined.

Why not have them just get it out of the book? Or from their notes?

1.    First, as you know, our book is not always perfect.
2.    It’s also not healthy for us as citizens to get ALL of our information from one place.
3.    It’s also teaching our students to synthesize.
4.    It’s also a lot like their AIR standardized test will look like next year (AIR replacing FCAT or PARCC, in case your acronyms aren’t up to date)
5.    Ahem...(*cough, cough*) That really IS what historians and social scientists DO!

And here’s a pretty simple page that explains what it’s about and how to use it.

Here's a teacher-adapted one

If you don’t hate KWLs, you might still think about using the I-Chart as a variation, to take reading from single-source to multi-source. To use two or three (or four?) sources to examine a topic from multiple perspectives.

Try to project an image of Andersonville, have kids examine a brief letter excerpt from an Andersonville prisoner, and read a paragraph or two from their textbook. Have them complete an I-Chart and see how more thorough their understanding of this topic is.

I bet they “get it” better with an I-Chart than they do with a KWL chart. Just sayin’ :)

Do you know how to rock the KWL in a more meaningful way? Can you tell me what I was doing wrong? Or do you (secretly) hate it too? (It’s okay. I won’t tattle on you). Have you tried an I-chart? How did it go?

As always, I love to hear from you! Email me 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Let It Go

 “Let It Go”

If you have a small child, a love for Disney, a musical theater background, Internet access, or have even been to Target in the past few months, you may have heard of a little movie called Frozen. My three year old is obsessed. Apparently, so is much of America, since the soundtrack is, so far, the best seller of 2014 and the movie is simultaneously still in theaters and released on DVD/digitally and the ninth highest grossing film ever.

I’m not a big movie person, but I have heard those songs a few bijillion times.

So in honor of Frozen, I’d like to invite you to “Let It Go”.

I’m talking about your kids’ DBQs, of course!

(*To the tune of “Do You Want To Build a Snowman”)

Do you want to write an essay?
Do you wanna make that call?
I think writing is overdue
I’ve started talking to
The teacher down the hall....

Here’s the thing. You teach DBQs several times during the year. Hopefully, three times before FCAT. Many teachers are getting ready to teach that last DBQ for the year. You have taught and taught and taught DBQs.  Knock on wood, but hopefully after all that teaching, there has been some learning.

Think back to the first DBQ you did, at the beginning of the year. Either your kids were new to DBQs (or they pretended they were new to DBQS) or they rolled their eyes and sighed about how they had done them a million-bijillion times. Now, they’ve done a few for you. They’ve done it YOUR way.

So, let it go. Let your kids try one (or more of one) on their own.

IF (and only if) you have done year-long gradual release, IF you have explicitly taught each piece of the DBQ, IF you have modeled during the first three DBQs, IF you have had your kids do guided practice, it’s time to release them. Let it go. Let them go.

What does it mean to let it go? It means to thoughtfully examine the gradual release you have done throughout the year, examine student writing, reflect on which parts of the DBQ Process your students have mastered, and take off the training wheels and let them try it with less help, less teacher guidance.

“Letting it go” means to continue to introduce each part, but to let the kids do more of the DBQ-ing on their own.

“Letting it go”  doesn’t mean to hand a DBQ packet to a 6th grader and tell him to do it by the end of the period (and then complain when he doesn’t do it perfectly). But it might mean that for a high school senior that has done four DBQs this year and four junior year that and four sophomore year. It definitely means hand it to an AP student and time her DBQ.

If your kids aren’t ready to do a whole DBQ by themselves, then move them along the gradual release spectrum. Here are some ideas to help them Let It Go a little further on the Gradual Release model...
·         Keep the hook. Let them do it in small groups if they’re ready. Read the directions if they need it.
·         Keep the background essay as a teacher-led portion. I still strongly believe that if kids don’t get the background essay (especially low readers), then the rest of the DBQ will be unnecessarily tough.  Read it aloud. It helps kids work on their fluency and background knowledge at once. Maybe you can let them choose what reading strategy you use with this -- text marking, vocab choosing, highlighting, etc.
·         Don’t model the first document analysis anymore. It’s April!! Instead, have them review the parts to a Doc Analysis for you. Then, have the students complete one or two Doc Analyses as group practice and do the rest on their independently.
·         Hand over the bucket OR the chickenfoot to the kids to do on their own. IF they are ready, have them do both independently. If not, you can guide them through one and they can do the other on their own.
·         Verbally review the parts to the Essay and then give them time to complete that in class.
·         Have them peer-review each other’s thesis statements to help reinforce how to write these.
·         If your kids have the essay mastered, try to do that portion timed. See what they can do, but don’t penalize the slow writers.

It’s that time of year. Time for kids to take tests. Lots of tests. Progress Monitoring tests. End of course tests. Advanced Placement tests. FCAT tests. Even final exams are looming in the not-so-distant future.

We assess the heck out of our kids, as we all know. This is how we assess how well our kids understand the DBQ Process.

Don’t abandon them. Don’t punish them with lousy grades.

But use this as a chance to see how much they have learned. Use this as a way to inform the teachers of the next grade (if possible). Use this as a way to guide next year’s DBQ instruction. Use this as a way to take off the training wheels and let them go, to see what they can do. Use this as a way to see what they mastered and what they still struggle with. Use this as data to inform instruction.

Take off the training wheels and let them crash or fly on their own. Let ‘em go.

So here is your tribute to Letting It Go, with regards to DBQs... (please sing to the tune of Tony-award winner Idina Menzel’s Oscar-winning performance of “Let It Go”. If you’re not familiar with the song, ask one of your students to hum it for you. Or, try this YouTube link

Don’t let them whine, don’t let them get a D
Be the gradual releaser you have to be
When they first started they didn’t know
Well now they know

Let it go, let it go
Can’t hold their hands anymore
Let ‘em go, let ‘em go
Gradually let them do more

I don’t care
If it’s the greatest ess-say
Let the kids struggle on
The handwriting never bothered me anyway . . .

Let ‘em go, let ‘em go
And they’ll rise like the break of dawn
Let ‘em go, let ‘em go
The hand-holding is gone

Here we stand
In the classroom today
Let the kids struggle on
Their handwriting never bothered me anyway.

Any thoughts about releasing your kids for one last DBQ? Have you done whole-year gradual release? How did it go? What have been your DBQ victories this year? What areas do you want to do differently next year? As always, I love to hear from you! email me at


TACOS and Political Cartoons

4/2/2014 Wednesday Words Tip “TACOS and Political Cartoons”

My three year old is pretty observant. Even though she can’t read yet, she can already recognize symbols. She knows what the Target store symbol means. She knows which door leads to the men’s restroom and which leads to the women’s. She has learned that the red circle with the slash through it is a symbol for “no” and likes to ask me things like “why trucks can’t go there” (a no-trucks sign). She recognizes that the person with the crown in a storybook is a king, queen, prince or (most likely, sigh) a princess.

Visuals are powerful. Even the new baby has learned that when he sees a bottle it means food.

Our students tend to have a love-hate relationship with visuals, particularly political cartoons in Social Studies classes. On one hand, kids tend to think images are easier to read because they don’t have any (or many) words. On the other hand, kids sometimes think they need to be in a Dan Brown novel to understand all the obscure symbols in some cartoons.

Understanding political cartoons is an essential social studies skill. It is an indisputable literacy skill that belongs to us, not to English/Language Arts or science or math. We know that political cartoons will appear on our EOCs and AP exams. Our kids need to get better at interpreting them and feel confident in using them. It’s a skill needed for civic engagement. It’s something informed adults do.

And it’s challenging!
If you’re looking for a new tool to use with political cartoons, try TACOS. It’s an acronym, of course, from an AP Institute. Teach your students to look for the following things in a political cartoon:
·         Time -- When was this cartoon created? Are there any context clues to help me figure out the time? Are there any actual dates referenced? What do I know about that time?
·         Action -- What actions are happening in the cartoon? What are people doing or saying?
·         Caption(s) – What captions are included? Students need to write down all of the words or text in the cartoon, including captions, speech bubbles, labels, text boxes, etc.
·         Objects -- What THINGS or objects do we see in the cartoon? Are any exaggerated in size or action?
·         Summary or So-what -- What’s the point? What does this have to do with real life or with what we are learning about in class? Why is this important?

If you find your kids are struggling with the very English/Language Arts skills of symbolism, irony, analogy, and exaggeration, the Library of Congress Classroom Materials have a wonderful lesson you can use to directly, explicitly teach the skills needed to interpret cartoons.

Check out the lesson at (copy and paste if this link doesn't work correctly)

It includes practice cartoons, identifying parts of a cartoon, teacher resources, and a pdf explaining symbolism, irony, etc. It’s very basic, but sometimes going back to basics is just what our kids need to learn or relearn this skill. It looks easy to implement as a mini-lesson in the classroom. I love the ability to digitally match the cartoon concept (like exaggeration) to the part of the cartoon it explains (like a giant door or huge Uncle Sam or Jay Leno’s chin). It would be a fun whole-class activity on a Smartboard or projector or more fun individually on laptops or ipads.

What do you think about teaching political cartoons? Do you have any favorite, tried-and-true, successful methods? Are you looking to update your teaching or reviewing of this skill? If any of you try TACOS or the LOC lesson will you drop me a line and tell me how it goes?
As always, I love to hear from you! Email me at