Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The First REAL Thanksgiving

I don’t know what you call “spring fever” in the fall -- fall fever, maybe? but I have it bad. I can’t wait for vacation and road trip and turkey and PIE!!!

After listening to Dr. Michael Francis from USF at our Secondary Social Studies District-Wide Training this past August, everyone knows that the first REAL Thanksgiving was in Florida, right?

The feast in the spirit of Thanksgiving that we celebrate -- of different people coming together and giving thanks -- occurred 56 years before the one in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Instead of English Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians, it happened between the Spanish settlers  and the Timucuan Indians in St. Augustine.

In 1565, the Spanish were increasing their empire which began in Central America and the Caribbean. They started several settlements in Florida and up the Atlantic seaboard, one of which was St. Augustine.

Primary sources describe that it was in St. Augustine in 1565 that Spanish Admiral Pedro Menendez founded the fort about 30 miles south of the new French fort called Fort Caroline. After landing in this newly scouted spot, Mendez included all the rituals and trappings that make things official for him and his settlers.

He was greeted by an earlier-arriving chaplain, Father Lopez, who led a song of joy and thanksgiving. A Mass was celebrated and an official proclamation was read, claiming the land for Spain. Then, Menendez provided a feast for the Timucuan Indian guests.

We don’t know what they ate. They didn’t have the advantage of being there long enough to raise crops first, like their later English counterparts in Plymouth. Pork is a pretty solid guess, probably in a stew called cocido with garbanzo beans and onions. Red wine is almost a guarantee. Hard tack biscuits (think of colorless, dry play-dough) from the voyage across the Atlantic is also likely. Did the Timucuans bring anything to the meal? We don’t have records either way. It’s possible that they brought fish or maize or beans and squash or fruit, which were part of their regular diet. Or maybe they didn’t. The length of the RSVP period is a little cloudy.  

There is a wonderful book about the history of this you may love to use to teach this. Here’s a couple of fun articles about it, too.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I want to share some of the things for which I’m thankful.

I’m thankful first, of course, for my family and friends.

I’m also extremely thankful for my awesome colleagues. I work with some amazing teachers and administrators and coaches who care deeply about students both now and as future citizens. I am thankful for our colleagues who build strong relationships with students and work unbelievably hard at trying to teach those kids in new and powerful ways every day.

I’m thankful for so many wonderful students who come to school to learn. I’m thankful for so many students who come to school in spite of their piles of personal baggage and barriers--  to struggle through that learning.

I’m thankful for the ability to teach about our country and others. I am thankful for the freedom to teach about diversity and the varieties that make up the human experience.  

I’m thankful for the possibility of cooler weather (at least on my road trip to the mountains)-- and for sweaters to make a Floridian like me cozy.

I’m thankful for vacation and a whole week to travel and relax and spend time with my family.

I’m thankful for Thanksgiving. I’m thankful that I live in Florida, which I love, which had the first REAL thanksgiving, no matter what all those New Englanders say. :)

Enjoy your turkey. And/or garbanzo beans. And/or red wine (you have to be authentic, right?)

Hopefully you have no occasion to “enjoy” hard tack. It’s awful.

Have a wonderful holiday and time off!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

How Did They ALL Fail?

I remember very clearly giving a test I thought was pretty “easy” to my students, after teaching the heck out of European Exploration of the Americas.

I remember sitting on my really ugly-at-the-time couch and grading paper after paper with growing dismay.

54%;  60%; 52%; 46%, 58%
Woo-hoo!  A 68%!

The grades stayed steady, somewhere between 45% and 60%.

I was crushed. The grades were horrible! The kids were going to revolt! Their parents were going to revolt! My administrator was not going to back me up with an entire class failing.

But I taught it!

Was my test awful? Well, it wasn’t anything that would stand up to current 2015 assessment-writing standards, but for the time it was ok. My answer key was right. My questions weren’t too bad, not too vague, no tricks. They measured what I wanted to measure, although mostly low level.

I even had a long-answer portion to assess higher-order thinking! The kids BOMBED those, too!!!

Well, it couldn’t be my test. It couldn’t possibly be my teaching.

It must be the kids. They’re obviously dumb, right?

But even in my frustration, I had to double-think that.

Really? ALL my kids were dumb? Even that one who usually made an A on everything? Even the super-study-queen? Even the one who asked a million questions to tell me that he knew more than I did?

Not ONE of those kids got higher than a D?

I had to take a hit to my pride and admit it. I hadn’t taught it as well as I thought.

As a matter of fact, I had to admit that not ONLY had I missed the boat somewhere in my teaching, but I had gone three weeks without knowing that my kids were lost.

Three. Flippin’. Weeks.  

What happened?

Well, I neglected to monitor.

I didn’t know how to check if my kids were “getting it”. I only knew how to check if they were doing their work and getting the right answer.

Boy, there’s a huge difference between getting the right answer on some classwork or homework (which often happens through cheating, copying, Googling, hunt-and-find-in-the-reading, or just plain guessing) -- and actually LEARNING the material.

I should know. I am now embarrassed to admit that I copied homework off friends in high school and then made poor grades on assessments. And my grades were fine due to category-weighting (i.e. homework counting more than tests).

So, I didn’t monitor my kids and I taught for three weeks without knowing that they were lost.

What could I have done instead? The answer is formative assessment.

Formative assessment takes a million different forms. Basically, it means that I know how my students are learning DURING the lesson, instead of waiting until after I’m done teaching it.

Formative assessment is meant to monitor student learning and provide ongoing feedback for teachers to improve their teaching and for students to improve their learning.

How do I do it?

  • Read what they write WHEN they write it: It’s so easy to monitor for behavior and completion and to miss opportunities to monitor for learning. Read what the kids are writing and give immediate, helpful feedback. “Owen, you didn’t quite get this point that Jefferson made here. Let’s look at it again...”
  • Exit Slips: Have the students answer your essential question, define your overarching concept, or explain today’s concept in their own words. One caveat -- you have to read their exit slips immediately (or at least that day). You can’t put them in a stack to read next week or you lose the power of doing them. THEN -- use what you learn and adjust your teaching.
  • Plickers: Create (or better yet, use one already created) a multiple choice question or two about what you’re teaching that day. Then, give each kid a Plicker (a paper-clicker). Simply scan the class with your smartphone or tablet and boom! You have formative assessment, easily used and easily graphed.
  • Scale Reflections: At the end of every class, have your students reflect, in writing, about where they are on the scale -- AND WHY. Ask them to give evidence as to why they’re level 1s or level 2s or level 3s. Again, read what they write that day so you can use that info to inform your teaching tomorrow.

There are a million ways to use formative assessment in your class, but I don’t want it to be a burden. I don’t want it to be one-more-thing-you-are-supposed-to-do.  I want it to be something you-the-teacher-want-to-do because it’s valuable to your teaching and to your students’ learning.

Here’s how to make it really, really worthwhile.
  • Read it that day. Read it that period, if possible. Don’t wait, or your formative assessment goes “stale” pretty quickly. Like, by tomorrow.
  • Find some way to record it that isn’t a burden on your time. That’s why I love Plickers -- I-the-teacher don’t have to record anything. It’s recorded for me. But be able to reference it later or else it’s not very useful
  • Use it to help you plan and adjust your teaching. Did your kids ALL bomb because you could have taught it better? Did only some of your kids bomb? Did the kids who were off-task all period bomb? (Maybe you can use this immediate data to show them how their off-task behavior directly impacts their learning) Did the kids who were out last Tuesday bomb it? Did your Level One readers bomb it? Did your ELL students bomb it? Who do you need to help the most?
  • Use it to reteach and to group students. So 17 kids really “got it” and 5 kids didn’t? Let’s do something in groups and put those 5 kids in a group with you-the-teacher so you can remediate. Put the other 17 in groups for enrichment. That way, you get to target the kids who need that particular piece the most!

Don’t wait until it’s too late. Don’t wait, like I did, until a unit test three weeks later. Check up on your kids NOW! And adjust your teaching based on your check-ups.

What do you think? How do you do formative assessment? More importantly, what do you do with your formative assessment knowledge?  Have you ever assumed all your kids were dumb only to crush your own pride and find out that you could have taught something better?

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

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Driver's School

So, I got a speeding ticket recently. It happens, right? I totally deserved it.  There was a good song on the radio and I was jamming out and let my foot get a little too heavy on the accelerator.

Well, as many of you may know the deal is this. Some traffic infractions equal some points on your license. The more points you have, the higher your insurance will go.

So, in order to keep my car insurance costs low, I elected to go to driver’s school.


Here’s what I learned from driver’s school.
1.    Proper following distance in good weather is two to three seconds.
2.    You never “have” right of way; you can only yield the right of way.
3.    Your reaction time after reading a text is worse than your reaction time while being intoxicated.

Here’s what I didn’t learn:
How to drive slower when singing along with the radio.

I took the test at the end of my online course. There were 40 true/false and multiple choice questions about driving trivia. (I passed. Whew!)

Not one test question actually tested my driving. There was only one scenario and it didn’t ask me what to do, only who was at fault.

I really need to use my higher-order thinking skills. I need to THINK about MY driving and APPLY what I learn about driving to the real road.

I don’t know about you, but knowing ABOUT something doesn't make me good at it. I know about the benefits of daily exercise. That doesn’t make me GOOD at exercising daily. I know ABOUT how to clean my house. That doesn’t make me GOOD at keeping it clean

So knowing ABOUT history and government doesn’t make me a good citizen.

APPLYING my knowledge to the real world makes me a better citizen. Using what I learn to make informed opinions and informed actions makes me a better citizen.

That’s why we need to teach our kids higher order thinking skills.

Image result for higher order thinking skillsWhat do I mean by higher-order thinking skills? Well, use Webb’s DOK, Bloom’s Taxonomy or Marzano. But really, higher order thinking involves analyzing (breaking things down), summarizing (putting things together), evaluating (making decisions about information), hypothesizing (making predictions about content) and creating (using information to create something new).

There’s more to it than that, but that’s a start.

The DBQ Project says it like this:
Core Beliefs Box·         All students need to LEARN how to think.
o    They aren’t all naturally talented at thinking any more than they are all naturally talented at baseball or piano or driving
·         Learning to think requires practice
o    Like baseball or violin, even kids who are naturally inclined need regular practice every day
·         Thinking is hard work
o    We often get frustrated at mental laziness. But if kids aren’t taught that thinking is hard work and aren’t expected to do that hard work every day, they aren’t used to it any more than they would be used to practicing pitching or long-distance driving)
·         Thinking is clarified by writing.
o    You can’t get better at thinking if you don’t hone that skill with writing anymore than you can improve your piano playing with the same piece of music)
·         Thinking is for everyone
o    Thinking is not just for magnet students or AP students or advanced students or Level 3s or gifted students or native English speakers. IT. IS. FOR. EVERYONE.

Think about how you teach.

You don’t have to TEACH a DBQ to teach higher order thinking -- but it is one wonderful tool.

Do you use gradual release to teach HOW to think? Or do you err on the side of “I’m going to tell you the answers because you can’t do it”? Or do you swing to the other side of the pendulum and have the kids “just do it” without enough instruction, modeling, etc.

Do you “chunk” content, readings, and activities into small, think-able bites? Or do you give kids too much where they get frustrated and give up?

Take a look at your classes -- and your assessments. Are you teaching higher-order thinking every day? Are you giving students many opportunities to practice that thinking? Are you understanding that it is hard work? Are you giving opportunities to clarify and improve that thinking through writing? Are you really teaching higher-order thinking to everyone or just certain students or groups?

Image result for how's my drivingDriver’s school didn’t make me think. It made me use rote memorization, very little of which is impacting my driving. If you’re on the road please know that I am self-aware enough to try to be safer and less ticket-y. I promise I am not a danger on the road.

Don’t teach like driver’s school did.

Teach kids how to think.

Give them opportunities and practice and writing and expectations of higher order thinking.

It’s on their EOCs and dd-EOCs. But more importantly, it’s what we want from our citizens.

How do you teach thinking? Any guesses on what I was jamming to when I got pulled over? As always, I love to hear! Please email me at