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 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!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Like a Surgeon

So it looks like I have to have a root canal. It’s not the end of the world that it used to be. Root canals used to be a byword for pain. Now, modern technologies and anesthesia help root canals to be no more miserable than plain old fillings.

That being said, I want a good, precise dentist or oral surgeon to perform my root canal. I do not want anyone just cutting my gums willy-nilly. I don’t want my dentist to look like the Swedish Chef from the Muppet Show, the one who chops and slices haphazardly while looking in the other direction and mumbling incoherently.

I want my oral surgeon to do surgery on me with surgical precision. There’s a reason we use that phrase. We don’t want that surgeon to cut even a millimeter away from where he or she should be. We want that cut in the precise location where it should be. We want that person to be exact in his or her work.

Well, with the renewed emphasis on our course benchmarks and the end of course exams coming (both state EOCs, like HS US History and 7th Grade Civics as well as district-developed EOCs for every other course we offer), it’s time to really dig in to our benchmarks (whips off sunglasses)...

...Like a Surgeon.

(Go ahead. Sing like Weird Al from the 80s. I’ll sing along with you...”Like a Surgeon! Cuttin’ for the very first time!”)

Yes, we all teach our “curriculum” when you define “curriculum” as a list of topics or chapters to cover. No one is teaching way-out-of-the-scope topics like a dinosaur unit in US History anymore.

But not as many of us teach our “curriculum” when that “curriculum” is defined by specific benchmarks. And even fewer of us teach those benchmarks with surgical precision

But with the amount of benchmarks we have to teach and the same 180 days, we cannot possibly teach it all (not all the topics, not the entirety of the chapters) -- and teach it all well -- unless we teach our benchmarks with surgical precision.

We need to teach the benchmark, the whole benchmark, and nothing but the benchmark. It’s the only way to do it all and do it well.

What do I mean by this? Let’s look at some benchmarks from middle school and high school. Get yours from, under “courses”. Let’s look at the benchmarks with Surgical Precision.

From 6th grade World History: SS.6.W.4.4 Explain the teachings of Buddha, the importance of Asoka, and how Buddhism spread in India, Ceylon, and other parts of Asia. Remarks and Examples: Examples are The Four Noble Truths, Three Qualities, Eightfold Path.
Look at the key words -- “explain”, “teachings”, “importance”, “spread”
  • I would skip . . . I wouldn’t spend time on how Buddhists live. I wouldn’t teach the entirety of Ch 16, 17, and 18. I wouldn’t spend time on Chandragupta or the modern Indian flag or more than an quick overview of Siddhartha for this benchmark. Surgical Precision. Don’t spend extra time on Mohenjo Daro or mandalas or anything else.
  • I would teach . . I would make sure my students could literally explain, in writing, the main teachings of Buddha. I would make sure they could explain (probably in a map or timeline) how Buddhism spread in India, Ceylon, and other parts of Asia as a result of Asoka.  All this benchmarks asks is: 1) teachings of Buddha, 2) the importance of Asoka (edicts, spread of Buddhism, unification).That’s it!
From 8th Grade US History SS.8.A.3.4 Examine the contributions of influential groups to both the American and British war efforts during the American Revolutionary War and their effects on the outcome of the war. Examples may include, but are not limited to, foreign alliances, freedmen, Native Americans, slaves, women, soldiers, Hessians.
Look at the key terms “examine”, “contributions”, “effects on the outcome”
  • I would skip . . . This is not where I would teach battles or individuals (that’s another standard). This is not where I teach George Washington or Abigail Adams or Burgoyne. This is not where I teach pre-revolutionary groups, either, like the Committees of Correspondence or the Sons of Liberty. This is not where I teach the history of each group or the entirety of Ch 7.
  • I would teach . . . This is where I teach about each group listed in the examples. I AM going to teach how each group influenced the war efforts, and whether or not each group influenced the outcome. I am would teach each group as part of an organizer or foldable or something and I would ask my students about the two things listed in the benchmark -- the contributions and effects on the outcome. That’s it.

From  High School Government: SS.912.C.3.5 Identify the impact of independent regulatory agencies in the federal bureaucracy. Examples are Federal Reserve, Food and Drug Administration, Federal Communications Commission.
Look at the key terms: “Identify”, “impact”, “independent”
  • I would skip . . . a full listing of all 19 independent regulatory agencies. I would also skip the former independent regulatory agencies that are now defunct or merged elsewhere. No need for the Committee for Public Information or the ICC. I would skip the history of most of those agencies. No matter how interesting it is, kids don’t need to know how the various colonial postal systems eventually merged into the USPS as an independent regulatory agency.
  • I would teach . . . The three specifically named agencies in the examples. I would teach their impacts -- how does each agency impact the people, businesses, and laws of our country. For each agency we discuss, my students would have to identify that impact. I would also teach the difference between an independent regulatory agency and another executive agency, to make sure they don’t get confused.

From  High School World History: SS.912.W.4.11 Summarize the causes that led to the Age of Exploration, and identify major voyages and sponsors.
Look at the key terms: “summarize”, “causes”, “identify”, “major”
  • I would skip . . . a majority of the exploration voyages. I would really focus on a couple of major ones and skip a lot of the petty, nation-on-nation squabbles during the exploration era. I would not get bogged down into multiple maps, routes, and small causes.
  • I would teach . . . The main causes -- God, Gold, and Glory. I would teach maybe five or six explorers, each as an example of a cause of exploration or as an example of a major voyage/sponsor. For example, I would teach English Francis Drake as an example of the “glory” cause.

You get the idea. Teach the benchmark with surgical precision. (“like a surgeon -- ooh!”)

How do I teach with surgical precision? It’s not as painful as it looks. And it’s definitely not as painful as Steve Martin over there --> makes it look. Here’s how:
  1. Look at the benchmark, not the textbook chapter.
  2. Find the key words, including the verbs (summarize, explain, compare, etc.) in that standard.
  3. Plan to teach just that benchmark, without the extra pieces. Use those verbs and key terms you found. If the benchmark says “explain”, your kids should be able to explain with minimal prompting. If it says “compare”, then your kids should be able to compare the two topics.
  4. Find the resources that JUST teach that benchmark -- JUST the paragraphs, JUST the mini-lectures, JUST the focused activities. Don’t overdo anything. It’s like cooking -- don’t dump in huge quantities of ingredients, but measure carefully. Teach the lesson so your kids can specifically answer the benchmark, not just talk about the more general topic.
  5. Don’t assume kids always need to know Piece A to understand Piece B. They often do fine with just Piece B or with a one-sentence summary of Piece A. My dentist doesn’t need to cut tooth #2 just because it’s next to tooth #3.

I know that folks who teach state EOC courses (7th Civics and HS US Hist) really teach by the benchmark -- how about the rest of us? Are you teaching like a surgeon? Or have you sometimes had a Swedish Chef moment (“Teach ALL the things -- in chapter 9!”) I know I have!

As always, I love to hear! Are you teaching like a surgeon? Email me at