Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Spring Break!! Road Trip!!

During my senior year of college, three friends and I took an epic road trip. While everyone else went “down south” to Florida for spring break, we Florida college kids decided to head north to Tennessee.

It was legen-waitforit-dary!

We saw snow. We toured Graceland. We broke down in Alabama. We visited a Civil War Museum. We partied in Nashville. We saw mountains. We sang in bars. We visited grad schools.  We drove across the Mississippi River to Arkansas-- to see 89-cent gasoline (I took a picture!)

It was so much fun!

I’m such a history dork. I loved being in Elvis Presley's house and seeing all his awesomely-sequined outfits and the famed “jungle room”. I loved peeking into the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and seeing where so many country music artists performed. I loved stopping at random historical markers on the side of the road and learning about Civil War marches or early English settlers or inventions created.

There is a lot of history that has happened in Tennessee. Or Alabama. Or Pinellas County.

This -- the idea of where things happened -- this is where geography and history meet. The history of place. The geography of the past.

These inspire the kinds of big-idea questions we social studies teachers love to ask. So many of those big-idea history questions are really about geography.  
  • Why did Ancient Greek city-states develop so differently?
  • How are the Boxer Rebellion and US-led Panama Canal project linked?
  • Why does it matter that the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts and not Virginia, where they had a charter?
  • How did Islam spread so quickly in the 7th century?
  • What does geography have to do with Dr. John Gorries’ inventions?

Geography and History are inextricably linked. You can’t often fully extract the one from the other.

So, this year, my spring break will not be quite as epic. We’re headed to Orlando with the kiddos to do the theme parks for a couple of days and then home to chill out.

I don’t know what your spring break looks like. You may be headed on an epic adventure. You may be staying home and relaxing.

But either way, I challenge you to think about how history and geography meet. And I have a couple of cool tech tools to help you do that.

  1. Story of Where  -- The Story of Where is an app for your iPhone or Android device. Take it with you and you can find natural, cultural, and historical sites -- with map markers for the National Register of Historic Places, National Historic Landmarks, National Natural Landmarks, World Heritage Sites, Florida sites (and a handful of other specific states), NFL sites, MLB sites and more as they are added. Have your kids take it with them as they travel -- or as they are out-and-about town and see what they can learn Stories Of Where they are. The Safety Harbor Shell Mounds are on there. So is Tropicana Field.
  2. What Was There -- What Was There is a website  -- not an app -- where folks upload pictures and dates to show what a place was like at a certain time in the past. It’s amazing to see what your street looked like 30 or 60 or 130 years ago. This allows anyone to upload a picture (with appropriate limits) with a date to upload and add information about the place and photo. I checked out the old entrance to the Treasure Island Municipal Beach and Downtown Dunedin You can look up info about the photo and even fit the photo into a current Google Streetview (mappy geek fun!!)
  3. The Historical Marker Database --  The HMDB is a website AND an app (but I find it much easier to use as an app). This site/app maps historical markers. It’s pretty basic in its rules: Markers must be outdoors, must be permanent, and must state historical or scientific facts beyond names, dates, and titles. Again, folks can add their own markers.  I learned about the lynching of John Evans on Central Avenue in St. Pete and the Rose Cemetery in Tarpon Springs.

True history dorks learn -- even on vacation. I challenge you to learn something about the geography of your spring break -- whether you’re travelling or staying home.

And help your kids learn about the history of where THEY are. They may or may not have smart phones, but they know people who DO have smart phones. They can go to the library and use computers. See if they can learn something over spring break -- without giving them boring homework.

Have a great vacation! I hope it’s relaxing and rejuvenating. And (at least a little bit) educational. I plan to find the marker in Orlando where Orlando’s first settler, Aaron Jernigan built his home. Because.....well ...... history. And geography.

If you learn something awesome about where you live, work or travel -- let me know! I’m always interested!  Drop me an email

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


I love slang. I love using outdated slang words and phrases like “mama jama”, “gettin’ jiggy with it” and “rock on”.

My favorite “jumped-the-shark” slang term is “cray-cray”. It means crazy to the next level. Like Super-Crazy. Crazy enough to say the word wrong -- TWICE! It was hilarious to say a few years ago. Now, it’s lost a little street cred and is used by lots of uncool grown-ups. Like me.

Speaking of uncool grown-ups, do you ever feel a little “cray-cray” about the cultural differences between you and your kids? During my first year of teaching, when I was 23, my students called everything “ghetto” -- to mean cool or good. As the history teacher, I couldn’t wrap my head around using the word “ghetto” which was associated with first, the Holocaust and second, with low-income housing projects. I couldn’t figure out what they were trying to say for awhile.

I tried to throw out some “cool” references to hip-hop by telling my kids to “pack it up, pack it in”  (from House of Pain’s 1992 hit “Jump Around”) but, somehow, the kids didn’t get it in the year 2000. Duh! Trace, they were, like, 5  when that song was cool!)

Sigh. I’m not super cool. Or cray-cray either.

Vocab matters. Whether the words are slang like, “groovy”, “swell”, “rad” or “cray-cray” -- OR they’re content-specific, like “allegiance”, “amendment”, “investment”, “reconstruction” -- kids need to learn a lot of words. The more words they OWN, the better readers they are. The better readers they are, the more they learn and retain about content.

Students need to learn 3000-4000 words a year to “keep up” with the rising expectations. In our classes, we’re lucky if they learn 200-300 over the course of the year.

We need to help them learn as many words we can -- but learn them well.

But there are so many words and there is so little time!  I had trouble figuring out the best ways to teach it.

  • I don’t want kids to copy definitions, because it doesn’t work for anyone but naturally verbally gifted kids. Average or struggling students don’t learn with that strategy. At all.   
  • I don’t want to do Frayer Models for every word, because, in Social Studies, that takes forever with the amount of words we want to teach.
  • I don’t want to do a Semantic Feature Analysis for every set of words because, sometimes, that strategy just isn’t right. The words may not be related enough.
  • I don’t want to do vocab sentences because half my kids write “cheater” vocab sentences -- the ones that don’t show that they know the word. Like “I saw alliances” or “He likes Marxism”. The ones that require no brainwork.
So what CAN we do?

According to Super-Researcher, Robert Marzano (ever heard of this guy?) there are three things that jump out at us in vocabulary instruction.

  1. When students copy a teacher’s or book’s definition of a term, it doesn’t do much for their learning. They have to explain it in their own words.
    1. Lesson: Have kids make their own meanings. That doesn’t mean they should look at a dictionary definition and change “a” to “the”. It means that they should put thought into the meaning and make it their own.
  2. When students draw their own explanation, they really process and absorb the word best. Well ...  when they don’t copy the vocab drawing from their neighbor, I mean.
    1. Lesson: Give the kids a definition and have them draw it. They may give you the “right to bear arms” (grrrr...) OR they may really make the meaning behind what they do.
  3. When students play games with vocabulary, they practice and retain the words better. Try some old favorites like Quizlet, or a new one of these.
    1. Lesson: Making learning fun and reinforcing vocab and content helps kids retain said content. Help them review or make connections with vocab games.

We know we have to teach vocabulary in context. We can’t take our vocabulary words out of context and make them a list that kids learn separately from their other reading or notes or content activities. So here are a couple of other ideas.

Word Questioning: Combine your word studies. Instead of asking about several vocab words separately, ask kids to examine them together.
  • How are Jacksonian Democracy and the spoils system related?
  • What connection might there be between the Parthenon and an acropolis?
  • How are stereotyping, prejudice, and racism alike? How are they different?

Ladder Strategy: Kids need to be able to decipher words on their own. Teach them HOW to break down words with the LADDER strategy. This is a strategy where the kids figure out how decipher the unknown words they come across on their own. The bonus of this strategy is that, when the kid is reading the newspaper or twitter and they don’t know a word, they might have some go-tools of their own to try to figure it out. They don’t need a teacher, a partner, or a worksheet.

L: Look Carefully at the word. Are there any parts of the word that you know?
A: Add what you learned from the word parts to your prior knowledge?
D: Define the word used in the context
D: Discuss multiple meanings the word would have in other contexts
E: Extend your knowledge of the word by checking out its origins or how its meaning has changed over time
R: Review the word by thinking about how and when you might use it in your speaking or writing

What’s your favorite vocabulary strategy in Social Studies? Do you use the Frayer Models for important concepts? What about the “B-list” terms? How do you teach B-list terms?  As usual, I love to hear and learn from you! Let me know your favorite vocab strategy -- or how it goes if you try one of these.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Person Doing the Talking

Today, after school, stick your head outside your classroom and watch the kids. 

Man, they have a lot of energy, huh? As soon as that last bell rings, they seem to perk up, and get energized. Suddenly, drama becomes louder, skateboards come out, and “tag”-style flirting becomes a legitimate sport.  

Meanwhile, most of us teachers are beat. There are days when all we can do is get in the car and drive home and collapse.

Seriously. We, as a group, are pretty exhausted in the afternoons.

So, I want to throw this adage at you and then I want to shut up this week.

Are you ready? -- The person doing the talking is doing the thinking.

Take a look at those words again: The person doing the talking (about content) is doing the thinking (about content).

Now, look at your class today.

Who is doing the talking? Therefore, who is doing the thinking?

Find that smart-but-bored kid in your class and ask him or her to time when you talk and when the students talk.

Look at those totals. Whoooo is doing the (academic) talking? Whooooo is doing the (academic) thinking?

But Tracy (you may say), my kids don’t KNOW anything! They can’t TALK about content. I don’t know how to manage them so they do it well. When I let them talk about content, they go crazy! They talk about the movies or twitter or gossip or that dress!

It’s ok. Relax. You can help them do more academic talking. Maybe if they talk more (academically) THEY’LL be more tired and YOU’LL be less tired at the end of the day

Here are a few suggestions for helping the TEACHER talk LESS and the KIDS talk MORE (about content)
1.    Allow students to struggle -- even though we, as teachers, want to tell them the right answers, it’s helpful to have kids struggle a little. It’s ok to give them corrective feedback (“I don’t think that’s really what you’re looking for. Try looking over here...”) but it doesn’t do them any good to give them the answer.
2.    Move away from the front of the room -- Sit in the back and ask a kid to show the class the procedure. Stand to the side of the room and ask kids to read the directions or concept aloud. Circulate and listen.
3.    Have the kids turn and talk -- It’s the quickest and easiest way to get them to to process and “own” the content. Give them an open-ended question and teach the procedure.
4.    Have the kids reciprocally read -- One of the biggest “bangs for your buck”. This is my favorite reading strategy.  When kids reciprocally read well, they better understand and negotiate the text.  The more they do it, the better they comprehend the content.
5.    Instead of asking “does that make sense?”, ask “can you put what I said into your own words?” Particularly when you give directions or explain a concept, have your kids tell you kids tell you what makes sense and what you mean.
6.    Stop summarizing and reviewing -- and have the kids do it. Again, get out of your own way and ask the class what the directions or the concept is. If you hear yourself saying once again, remember, as I said, as always, so to sum this up, or don’t forget” for the millionth time, stop saying it. Your kids have then learned that they don’t really have to listen. They can tune you out. Instead, have them turn to a neighbor and restate the directions/concept or have volunteers or use a call-on system (like Classroom Dojo) and have your students restate the big idea or the summary or the procedure.

In an effort for ME to do LESS TALKING and allow YOU to do more, I’m going to shut up for today. I ask that, instead of me still typing, you think about if you can add or increase the use of any of those ideas above. Try to talk less and let the kids talk more (about content). I’m hoping – that once you and the kids get used to it – that you are LESS tired and the kids are MORE tired. Let me know how it goes!