Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Final Countdown: Ranking the Docs

You may know that I love a good countdown. Or the Final Countdown song. (Is it playing in your head now? You’re welcome...) Who wore the best dresses at the Emmys? Count me in! What were the best hip-hop songs of the 90s? Heck, yeah! What are the top novels of the 2014? I’ll read a good handful! What are fifteen fun facts about Amelia Earhart? I’ll click on that!

Our world (particularly our digital media) is full of lists and rankings. Kids spend a lot of time online and are constantly seeing the best songs of the week, the top celebrity news stories of the day, or the coolest apps this month. They know how to debate and argue and rank items in their personal lives. It’s time to use that skill-set for Social Studies

You may have noticed from our discussions about assessment at DWT  that there are a lot of documents on the EOCs, both state EOCs (7th & HS US) and many of the district assessments (everything else).

A. Lot. Of documents.

Our EOCs (and many of our district-assessments) are supposed to be 65%-75% stimulus-based. That means 2/3 - 3/4 of EOCs and district assessments will have a document, an image, a cartoon, a map, a graph, a chart, an artwork, or something on which a question will be based.

Which means that this is NOT a trivia test. Kids need more than just facts and content to be successful.

It’s a skill test. Often, it’s a reading test.

One great strategy for helping kids practice analyzing and thinking critically about documents is Primary Source Stations.

Hear me out if you already do something like this -- I hope I’m putting a new spin on the way you do it.:)

I borrowed the format of the lesson from the super-great Glenn Wiebe from History Tech and his C4 Strategy Cards

Primary Source Stations

  1. Choose a good Essential Question for the lesson.
    1. Such as -- “What was the impact of the Triangular Trade in Europe, Africa, and the Americas?” or “What internal and external factors led to the fall of the empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai?” or “What effects did Social Darwinism and the Gospel of Wealth have on society?”
  2. Collect several documents that support your Essential Question -- images, letters, court documents, infographics, obituaries, paintings, editorials, ads,whatever.
  3. Place those documents around the room. If you’re feeling fancy, you can post them on construction paper or posterboard. If you’re not feeling fancy, just stick them on various desks around the room. The number and length of these documents will vary depending on your Essential Question, your time frame, your kids,and your resources.
  4. Give kids a common document analysis tool to use for each document. Here are a few suggestions. Use your favorite --
    1. The DBQ Doc Analysis sheet (this might make them easier to do when you get to your DBQ)
    2. Keep it short -- try “I See/I Think/I Wonder”
  5. Divide your kids into groups of two and three and have them rotate through the stations, using the same document analysis tool for each document.
  6. THEN, after the kids have analyzed all the documents (here’s my favorite part -- the “top ten” style listing!) have them rank those documents in order in which they best helped answer the question and give them to you as a countdown..  For example -- a document that shows a large impact of the Triangular Trade would rank higher than one that shows a small impact of the Triangular Trade. A document that that is better evidence of Social Darwinism would rank higher than a document that shows so-so evidence of Social Darwinism.
  7. Lead a whole-class discussion that tries to have the class come to a consensus about the value of the documents. This makes them use that evidence (Hello? Common Core/Literacy Standards?) to support their positions.
  8. Finally, have your kids close out the lesson with a short response to the question, using the documents to support their answers.

BAM! You just helped your kids analyze documents, prioritize those documents, and look at their value. They just rocked the practice of stimulus analysis for the EOC and/or district assessment. They looked at the value of various pieces of evidence. They answered the Essential Question in a real-world way, used our literacy standards (formerly known as the Common Core), and thought critically.

Woo-hoo! Great lesson! Super-adaptable!  All you need to prepare is a great essential question (check your curriculum guide) and some good documents (check your favorite social studies websites). Maybe some tape, if you’re feeling fancy.

Do you love a good countdown or ranking? Will you try this in your class? As always, I love to hear how it goes! Email me

Tuesday, August 19, 2014


So a few years ago, when I was still in the classroom, my school’s ten-day count came back and it was determined that we would re-do a good chunk of the master schedule. I know, I know. It happens everywhere, every year.

That particular year, six weeks into school, a new class of seventh grade Geography was created and given to me. Um, yay?  The counselor pulled two or three kids from one class, and three or four kids from another... and suddenly, bam! I had a group of kids who didn’t know each other and who were a little ticked at having their schedules and routines and peer-relationships disrupted at the end of September.

Although I know that teachers didn’t (and really don’t) send their roughest kids out for a schedule change, it sure felt that way. I had a room full of “hall of fame” kids (I used to call some kids “Hall of Famers” when everybody knew their name -- but not for good reasons) This was that group -- you know, the one where you can’t believe you have ALL of them  in one class.

They made me crazy.

Into this class walked Amber*, loudly. Amber (*Not her real name) had a lot to say. Amber had a lot to say about everything. She was mad about having her schedule changed and she wanted to complain and object and question the whole concept of schedule changes and why we had to take Geography anyway and why she had me for a teacher, instead of her previous teacher.

And I really didn’t have time to listen or answer because another kid had just tossed over a desk, puffed out his chest, and was about to start a fight.

That class was a struggle all year. It was battle, every day.I remember days in March where I felt like they hadn’t gotten any better than they had been in September.

And Amber was a struggle all year, too.

Amber was a smart kid who had a complicated and lousy home life. She liked to confide in me about it for some reason. I tried explaining that I wasn’t really the teacher for that. Other teachers were really good at that personal-counselor-thing but I wasn’t. But Amber didn’t care. She had so much going on that she would explode if she couldn’t talk about it.

Amber also had a temper and would lose her cool at the slightest hint of unfairness. If I asked Amber to sit down and didn’t ask Rafael to sit in the same breath, her anger would flare. If I asked the class to do an assignment she didn’t like, she would throw a verbal fit! Sometimes, she would throw her paper on the floor and slam out of the room. It was exhausting!

So all year, while I battled the class, I also battled Amber. I called home. I wrote referrals. I wrote notes on her work. I sent her into the hall to calm down. I sent her to a colleague’s class, hoping he could talk sense into her. I sent her to the office. I sat down with her and had pointed chats. I tried keeping track on Behavior Logs. I moved her seat. Weekly.

All year, Amber and I drove each other crazy. She tried to throw a fit -- and I tried to get her to use her brain for learning, not temper-tantruming.

So the next year, I was fine when I noticed that she wasn’t in any of my 8th grade classes.

But she did have the teacher next door. And somehow, through all those referrals and inspirational chats and paper throwing and verbal disagreements, Amber and I had worked out a weird-but-mostly-positive teacher/student relationship.

So now, I had a new problem. Instead of Amber the Combatant, I had Amber the Cling-on.

Amber was at my door or in my room between almost every class. She snuck into my class instead of my colleague’s. She tried to come during lunch, before school, after school. She begged for tutoring. I couldn’t get rid of her!

But that year, the weird positive teacher/student relationship strengthened. I made time to listen to her after school when she straightened my bookshelves or asked for help with her History homework. And as I listened, I discovered a pretty tough, very amazing kid.  

Even when she went to high school, she came by as often as she could get past the front office to check in and chat and ask me a million questions. When she heard a Holocaust speaker in 10th grade who inspired her, she had her teacher pony me the program and a free CD-rom she had gotten for me.

I never really did get rid of her. :)

Amber is going into her senior year at FSU this year, and has put her obsession with fairness to good use -- she’s a Criminal Justice major, interning with the police department. She’s engaged and has cute puppies. She has mellowed her temper, considerably and has become a thoughtful, intelligent young woman. I don’t know if she would even recognize the description of her twelve-year-old self.

This is a “chicken soup for the soul” reminder that the kid who drives you the craziest, the kid who fights you on everything, the “hall of famer”, even the one in THAT CLASS -- if you can survive it, he or she just might turn out okay. He or she just might turn out to be That Kid -- the one you are in contact with nine years later.

He or she just might turn out to be a great young adult. It’s hard to believe that in August.

As your kids start to show their “true colors” this week or in the coming weeks, it’s good to remember that even though there are days (or weeks, or months, or semesters) that feel like “battle”, your relationship with a kid can really make a difference.

And it’s crucial to remember that kids can surprise you. Don’t ever underestimate them. :)

I hope your first week is still going well. I hope you find your Amber of this year and that she’s (or he’s) not driving you a too crazy yet.

Thank you for all the relationships you build with your Ambers to make them just a little smarter, more thoughtful, more knowledgeable, more prepared. Have a great day!  


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Clash and Your Class: Processes for the New Year

Darlin’ you've got to let me know
Should I stay or should I go?.....
BAH NA NA NA NA NA NA.  (scritch, scritch)
            -the Clash “Should I Stay or Should I go?”

As I listened to the awesome Bill McBride at SS District Wide Training on Monday, I was struck (with a 2x4) by something he said.

He said, (ready for this?) “The systems you have in place are perfect for the results you’re getting”

Read that again. Don’t worry – I’ll wait :)

Here’s what I hear: If I want my kids to keep doing x, then I should keep doing Process Y. If I want them to do z, then I need to find another process to get them there. Process Y isn't going to do it.

As we begin another year, it’s time to reflect on what worked last year and what didn't. What needs to stay the same and what needs to change. In the words of a friend soon getting married -- something old and something new.

Every year is different. Every year we have the opportunity to do what we do a little differently, without changing the CORE of our classrooms or content.

As I think about my classroom, I like to think about what I would do differently if I was back in the classroom this year. I think about what I would keep or trash, based on my last year.

Here are some of my thoughts …
  • Keep: I would definitely keep my system for behavior slips (little slips of paper where the kid writes what he or she did wrong and how he or she will fix it for next time) This was hugely helpful in not disrupting my class every time a kid needed behavior correction -- and was handy to staple to a referral if necessary.
  • Trash: I would absolutely change my notebook procedure. A lot of kids had more trouble keeping them organized than it was worth.        
  • Keep: I would keep my assignment notes, descriptions, and directions in PORTAL (ex. Assignment 8/25: read page 12 and write what you and your partner summarized about it). This was awesome for make-up work and fending off parent questions. I could say “the assignment is on PORTAL -- you find it and do it”.
  • Trash: I would change my pass system. All passes should hang on necks. Anything they have to hold in their hands -- EWWWW! They don’t all wash their hands! Yuck!
  • Keep: I would keep Word Sorts, my favorite vocab activity  My kids did great with these!
  • Trash: I would trash the way I did Cornell Notes. I wasn't doing them right. I gave the kids too many notes, and didn't have them make their own notes enough.

I could go on and on as I reflect. I could tell you what I want to keep or trash this year in my current job, as compared to last year, too.

“The systems you have in place are perfect for the results you’re getting”

If your kids learn vocabulary well with your vocabulary strategies, then keep them. If they manage their classroom routines and bellwork well, don’t fix what isn't broken! Keep what works. And feel good about the areas where you rock!

But keep the words of Dr. Bill McBride in the back of your mind as you plan and set up. “The systems you have in place are perfect for the results you’re getting”

If you’re getting great results, you’re doing great. If you’re getting so-so results, you need to try something new.

If you struggled with homework last year, examine your system and see if you can try a different way of handling it this year. If you had trouble keeping kids engaged, see what you can do to increase engagement. If you had trouble with behavior, try to adapt your behavior system. If you had trouble keeping up with your grading, see what you can do to streamline that and make it easier on yourself.

Now is a new school year, which always brings to mind New Year’s Resolutions. Now is the time to think carefully and intentionally about your classroom instruction and management. Make some decisions about your procedures, strategies, and organization, and ask, as The Clash say, “Should I(t) stay or should I(t) go?”

Take a risk. If you stay, there may be trouble and if you go, there may be double -- or, something might work better for you. It’s worth a try. Your KIDS are worth a try.

Don’t hang on to something that isn't getting you the results you want. And don’t be afraid to (thoughtfully) try something new.

Be brave. Rock out to an old Clash song. Rock the Casbah. Or rock the bathroom passes. Or rock the gradebook. Rock whatever you need to. Just don’t be afraid to try something new to get new results.

Increase the tempo now and drum while you sing along...

What are you trying differently this year? What different results do you hope to get? As always, I love to hear! Email me at

Reading-in-Social Studies Coach