Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Napoleon Dynamite's Mad Skills

I love Napoleon Dynamite.  It’s one of my favorite movies (I know, I’m showing my age). For me, one of the funniest moments is when Napoleon worries about his chances with a girl. Here’s how it goes.

Napoleon Dynamite: Well, nobody's going to go out with *me*!
Pedro: Have you asked anybody yet?
Napoleon Dynamite: No, but who would? I don't even have any good skills.
Pedro: What do you mean?
Napoleon Dynamite: You know, like numchuk skills, bow hunting skills, computer hacking skills... Girls only want boyfriends who have great skills!

While Napoleon is right, most girls really do want boyfriends with great skills (although I’m not sure about the nunchuck skills) , I also know that our country really wants citizens with great skills.

The bow hunting skills are optional. The civic literacy skills are not optional.

That’s why my recent “ah-ha” really made sense.

A few weeks ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a PD session with the folks who wrote and reviewed the items for the Civics End Of Course exam from the State of Florida DOE and other associated groups.

Here is my take-away:

The Civics EOC is a READING TEST.

The kids need literacy skills in social studies.


By extension, the high school US History EOC is a reading test, too. So are the DDEOCs that our district has modeled after the state EOCs.

Let me say it again.  The EOC is a reading test.

Listen to the logic behind it.

  1. The test is only roughly 20% of low level items. That means, only 20% of the test is a trivia question. The other 80% is about thinking. Civic thinking and civic reading.
  2. Roughly 55-65% of the questions are stimulus-based. That means that more than half of the questions require the kids to read a piece of text or an image or a chart or a map and make some sense of it. That requires reading skills.
  3. There is only one question -- maybe two, at best -- on each benchmark. Your kids can’t become content masters enough to KNOW the right answer to everything. They would have to be the best Trivial Pursuit players in the world. What will better help them are context and reading skills.

The hardest part for Civics teachers -- and high school US History teachers, and everyone else who has an test that resembles the state EOCs -- is to teach reading and civic skills as much (or more than) the recall-level stuff.

And it makes sense, if you think about it.

It’s not really just about the test.

I want my students to become good, able citizens.

  • I want the students in my class to become citizens who can read the newspaper and who can read the ballot language and who can make informed decisions. They have to have civic literacy to do this. They’ve GOT to be able to read to do those things.

  • They have to be able to examine sourcing information to determine how to frame the source, whether the source is Donald Trump or the White House Press secretary or the Largo City Council or St. Pete Preservation  or someone’s mom.

*Note. Someone’s mom is no less valid than the white house press secretary. I just need to know so I can use context.

  • They have to be able to wade through some of the crazy language used on petitions and ballots.

So, no, we’re not teaching to the test. Well, ok, we are, but the test happens to ask for skills that we want good citizens to have.

The Civics EOC is a reading test. So is the US EOC. So are the DD-EOCs.

Reading historically and civically is the responsibility of social studies teachers.  

The National Council for the Social Studies calls it the C-3 framework -- preparing students for College, Career and Civic Life.

If you need help with that, check out my eLearning page or talk to your literacy coach or email me .

If you need help with Napoleon’s bow staff skills or computer-hacking skills, call someone else.  Maybe Pedro or Kip can help.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Life Hacks and Teaching Hacks: Part 2

I’m on a Life Hack “kick”. I actually watched an awesome video on youtube where my secret author-crush, John Green tested several Life Hacks out, kind of like Mythbusters-style. Hilarious and helpful!

Life Hacks that are dumb:

  1. Using your pants hanger as a chip clip. Are your pants on the floor now? Are your chip needs stronger than your clean-pants needs? I would vote for unwrinkled pants, but that’s just me...
  2. Using a cassette case as a cell phone stand. Do you really need to stand your phone up? Do you need that enough to get your cassettes out of that box in your garage and use one of the few cassette cases that did not break in the 90s and leave that cassette hanging out un-cased and put the cassette liner back in the box to get crumpled -- all because you can’t look down onto your table or desk or counter? Really?
  3. Using your soda can tab to hold your straw. First of all, do you really need a straw with your can? Do you carry straws with you, just in case you decide to have a can of soda? Second, does the floating straw really bother you that much? Really? It doesn’t float away into the sky, you know.

Teaching Hack that is dumb:

Hand sanitizer as a bathroom pass. Can someone count all the ways this could go wrong? Sprayed all over campus? Gotten in eyes? A “hand sanitizer flinging fight”? Someone ingesting that stuff? Yikes!

GOOD Teaching Hack:

Use a “call-on system”. Don’t just call on the kids with their hands up. Calling on only raised hands gives you four problems:
    1. Problem #1: Kids with their hands up learn. Everyone else sits back and lets the hand-raisers do the thinking. This is scheduled napping-with-your-eyes-open time for the non-hand-raisers!
    2. Problem #2: You, the teacher, have no idea what, if anything, the rest of the class is learning. And you won’t know for a week or two until the test and you say, “Wow! These kids didn’t learn anything!”
    3. Problem #3: Kids who don’t raise their hands learn that you won’t call on them and assume that you don’t care if they learn or not.
    4. Problem #4: Or they learn that being called on is a “gotcha”. When teachers run out of raised hands, they often call on the kids that look the least engaged as a way of “busting” the kid who is lost or daydreaming or whatever.

Instead -- use a Call-on system.

You can go low tech -- like putting a number on each desk, putting the same numbers on a set of popsicle sticks, and pulling a popsicle stick out of a bag and calling on the student sitting in the corresponding desk.

Or, you can go high-tech with Class Dojo which will randomly call on a kid when you have entered all the student names into the system. You-the-teacher can use it on your projector, your smart board, your phone, your ipad, whatever.

But however you do this, make sure you set it up correctly -- TELL YOUR KIDS WHAT YOU’RE DOING AND WHY. You can’t start a call-on system in October without some good preparation

Even high school kids need a call on system. Why?
  1. It holds every kid accountable. Every kid has to learn the material (or at least TRY) and be prepared to answer or share.
  2. It tells your kids that you care that each of them learns. That you’re not just interested in what the hand-raisers have to say (and what those hand-raisers have learned) -- you’re interested in what EVERY kid has to say and what every kid is learning.
  3. It helps you figure out where your kids are lost, stuck, confused, or wrong EARLY in your instruction. This way, you are doing formative assessment and you know where they need help or re-teaching BEFORE you get to the formal test or quiz. So you can, you know reteach or adapt your lesson.

  • Set up a plan for the kid who can’t or won’t answer. Do you allow him to “phone a friend” (I mean, talk to a neighbor)? Do you give him a minute to think and come back to him? Are you aware of the kid who just got a referral last period and is struggling to keep himself from blowing up this period? I would skip that kid if he asks you to.
  • Preach again and again that you are doing this because you CARE, not because you’re a “gotcha”-kind-of-jerk.
  • Be consistent with your system. Use it frequently, at least until your kids are used to it. Make it a part of your procedures.

Do you use a “call-on” system? How do you use it? What have you learned from it? Any tips for folks new to “call-on” systems?

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

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Life Hacks and Teaching Hacks

The internet is full of “Life Hacks” -- simple things you can do to make your life easier.

Some are silly. I have no interest in cooking noodles in my coffee maker. I have a pot and a stove top and I don’t want coffee-tasting noodles.

I will not put my bagel in an old CD spindle. Why do I need a bagel tote? What’s wrong with a ziplock bag? And how many old CD spindles are you storing in your home anyway?

C’mon, people! Don’t FORCE this whole lifehack thing...

My favorites ACTUAL life hacks?
  • The carabiner-clipped-grocery-bag = trash bag for your car. Genius.
  • Nail polish on your keys -- so you know which key is which. Fun AND sparkly!
  • Putting smelly shoes in the freezer (in a bag) to kill whatever bacteria are making them stinky.
  • Use toothpaste to patch nail-holes in your apartment walls. Or to make pimples go away. Or to fix scratches in CDs. Or to clear up hazy headlights... Toothpaste is the best lifehack.

What’s my favorite Teaching Hack?
It’s called “Turn and Talk”.

So simple. So quick. So powerful.
So underused.

The average teacher probably uses turn and talk once or twice a week.

How do I do it?
Step One: Ask a question, preferably higher-order (you do this a million times a day anyway)

Step Two: Give a time limit. I like 30 seconds, but you can choose a larger or smaller time frame depending on the question, your time frame, your students, etc.

Step Three: Have your students turn to a neighbor and discuss your question
*Use some explicit instruction -- teach them how to do this. I know you THINK they know how, but your expectations and your next-door colleague’s expectations may be a bit different. Teach your kids:  
  • how to stay seated
  • how to actually TURN their heads and shoulders toward their partners
  • how only 2 (or three in an odd-numbered class) per partnership
  • who should turn to whom
  • go over your group expectations  (mine are the Five Ohs: On task, On topic, Only your partner, One-level volume, On (in) your seat)

Step Four: This is the most important step. Walk around your room and LISTEN to the students turning and talking. If you don’t listen, you aren’t holding students accountable. How do you know that they’re not talking about Snapchat or whatever? If you don’t listen, the kids pick that up pretty quick and will never make this work right. *Fix the problem if kids are not on task and on topic.

Step Five: Ask each group to share out, either something they said or something they heard. Again -- to make sure EVERY kid has some thinking going on - and to make sure that every kid’s thinking matters!

Why is this a great Teaching Hack? (I thought you’d never ask...)

Here’s another Life Hack: People love countdowns. Spin it countdown style, and people love to find out the #1 answer.....  

So here are my Top Five Reasons To Do a Turn-and-Talk, countdown style

5. Because students turning and talking can break up monotony, make the pace pick up, and better “chunk” content.

4. Because when a teacher voices a great discussion question -- and then takes raised hands, the teacher only holds the students accountable who have raised their hands. The rest of the class can tune out and daydream and get away with slacking off. Turn-and-talk holds ALL kids accountable.

3. Because when students turn and talk -- and the teacher listens carefully -- the teacher can correct misconceptions and mistakes right there on the spot, instead of waiting until the quiz or test next week.

2. Because a kid who is talking about content is engaged in the learning. He or she is interested. His or her brain has woken up. Endorphins from talking about their own understanding and ideas can flow.

1. Because when kids get to talk, they get to try out their ideas and words -- and they OWN those ideas and words. The talking and thinking doesn’t belong to the teacher anymore. The learning belongs to the kids! And then they UNDERSTAND THE CONTENT BETTER. It seriously makes kids actually learn better!!!!!

It seems like we don’t have 30 seconds of class time to spare. But if those thirty seconds mean that the kids better understand and retain content -- they we don’t have time to NOT turn and talk.

If you take your class discussion questions (where you often take raised hands) and turn those into turn and talks -- you might actually GAIN learning time. (Hypothesis: it takes longer to call on 5 raised hands than it does to turn and talk for thirty seconds and share out? Someone test this one for me!)

I want to challenge you to use turn-and-talks obsessively. Every day, multiple times a period.  How many times a period can you turn-and-talk? 5? 10? 15? 20? more?

The more your kids turn and talk -- the more they retain. Period.

Best. Teaching Hack. Ever.

Let me know how it goes! As always, let me know!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Wake Up Sleeping Beauty

My five year old daughter is kind of a princess. Despite my best efforts to NOT create a Kardashian-style princess-narcissist, princesses are unavoidable in my house. They creep into my house through books, costumes, t-shirts, bags, toys, even princess soup!

I am learning to adapt to my initial dislike of princess culture. But I’m holding out on one.

I can’t stand Sleeping Beauty.

Seriously -- the girl is asleep pretty much the whole story.  Most boring -- and useless -- princess ever.

Do you ever feel like your students are kind of like sleeping beauties (minus the whole prince thing)?

Like they’re the title and the point of the whole thing (the “thing” being school) -- but that they’re asleep or not engaged half the time?

Well, take away the icky kissing metaphor and let’s come up with a solid instructional plan to wake the princesses (and princes) in our classes. Sometimes we need kids to physically, actually wake up, and sometimes we need them to wake up their brains and get engaged in their learning.

If you’ve been spending time with your Marzano Framework (always some light reading before bedtime, right?) you may have noticed Design Question 5 -- which is all about engagement.

Marzano himself says that “Nobody has students engaged all the time”, which, at first, I thought was kind of weird. But then I thought about myself-as-a-student, how even in a GREAT training, my mind sometimes wanders or I try to jump ahead in the training or jump back or make a connection that isn’t necessarily related or think of my to-do list or.....

What makes a class engaging is the ability to bring me back to engagement when I mentally wander. Or, really, Marzano Element #24 which says “Noticing when students are not engaged”.

But once you notice . . . what the heck do you do to keep ‘em or bring ‘em back?

Marzano, of course, has a list (Elements #24-32). Let’s look at my three favorites...
  1. 1. Lively Pace Element #28: I know, I know,  I am a caffeinated teacher. I know that it takes a lot of energy to do what we do. But a class that moves too slowly or too fast-paced will lose a lot of kids. How can you tell that your class is moving at a “lively” pace? You have multiple activities in a class period, your students are moving through them with minimal “what are we doing again?” moments, the kids are “with you” and not dozing off from snail speed nor unable to keep up. And you are adapting your pace to the needs of your class.
Check with your lesson today. What kind of speed is it? Are you keeping it hoppin’? Moving at warp speed? How can you adjust to meet the needs of your students?

  1. Movement Element #27: I hate sitting down all day. It’s tough on me -- and I’m not hyperactive (or regular) kid. Find a way to get your kids to move -- whether they do a gallery walk or just take a stand-and-stretch break, get your kids up twice during a traditional class period (three times or more during block). There are instructional uses (like four-corners or dramatic interpretation of history content) or just getting up to get materials or turn something in. Get your kids out of their seats (in a controlled manner) and your kids will wake up and learn more. I promise.
Again, keep an eye on your own classes today. Do your students get up? How many times? For how long? How is their engagement before they move? How about after? What do you notice about your own class?

3. Enthusiasm: The third of my favorite ways to increase engagement is Element #29: Demonstrate intensity and enthusiasm. Seriously. This one is one of my favorites -- act like you like what you do and what you teach and the kids might pay attention. Confession time -- when I taught US History, my least favorite unit was the Colonial unit. Ugh --  I just found the colonies boring. So do you know what I did? I wore a complete Colonial Lady costume and served tea (to set the stage of colonial culture before the Boston Tea Party and all that). You fake it (the enthusiasm) until you make it (you actually FEEL enthusiastic).
Again -- check your own classes today. How much enthusiasm do you have today? Is it contagious enthusiasm -- meaning, are your kids picking up the intensity that you’re putting out in class? Are they catching some of that enthusiasm from you? How can you demonstrate that enthusiasm?

Check your classes today! How is your student engagement? Are you noticing when kids lose engagement? How can you MANAGE your student engagement?

Wake up those sleeping beauties -- those lovely princes and princesses in your classes -- and let me know how it goes! As always -- email me at