Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Cruel Summer (It's so SHORT!)

I can’t believe how short this summer is going to be! Between family vacations, DIY projects, professional development, child-oriented activities and my summer reading list – I’m not going to get much downtime!

But, yes, it's that time again!! Time to gather my summer reading list that I may (or may not) complete this short summer!  I got a sweet new hammock for Mother’s Day (thanks, honey!) so I plan to carve out a little time here and there to actually (gasp!) read books!

Here you go! Tracy’s Awesome Summer Reading List

  1. Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the Selma Voting Rights March   by Lynda Blackmon Lowery and PJ Loughran. Our Clearwater High students went on an amazing Civil Rights tour and happened to meet the author of this book -- on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma, Alabama! It’s the autobiographical story of the youngest marcher on the 1965 historic voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Looks awesome!

  1. Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda. So, I’m OBSESSED with the Hamilton musical soundtrack. OB-sessed!! So this book about the show with lyrics, essays, historical documents (squeeee!!!) and other info and visuals may be my book “dessert” of the summer. Meaning, I am going to have to read something good for me before I allow myself to sink into this one. Historical documents, y’all!!
*Favorite lyric of the week: “I’ll write under a pseudonym, you’ll see what I can do to him”. Say it out loud. It is a tight rhyme!

3. Hacking Education: 10 Quick Fixes for Every School by Mark Barnes and Jennifer Gonzalez. I have been reading Jennifer Gonzalez’s blog posts on the Cult of Pedagogy (it’s way more accessible and useful for a regular teacher than it sounds) and I so far like a lot of what she has to say. So I’m curious what constitutes an “education hack” and if anything is as easy as that sounds. Stay tuned. After I read it I should have some thoughts on that.

4. Reign of Error by Diane Ravitch. I know, I know. This one is a little political (but thankfully, with a 2014 publication date, we can leave the current presidential campaign out of it). I have had this book come up in several lists and blogs that I read (both praising and critiquing) and, again, I’m curious. It’s about the privatization of education, something Ravitch says is a “hoax” and is “dangerous”. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t speak to whether or not I agree with her. But the woman is known for doing serious research, so I’ll give it a try.

5. The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopa. This one might be a little ambitious for this short summer, but I’m going to give it a try. This is supposed to be World History on a bigger-picture scale (but not necessarily “Big History”) and not from a western-Civ perspective. I know middle school folks are having some pangs of sadness for the World  History course. This may ease the pain so you don’t have to go “cold turkey”. :)

6. iPads in the Classroom by Tom Daccord and Justin Reich I just got this book and what intrigued me was the rest of the title “...From Consumption and Curation to Creation”. I really love the idea of moving from the idea of “putting content into the kids’ brains” to having the curated and make things with tablets. Plus, it’s short. And I think I have gotten overly-ambitious with my list this year.

7. Founding Mothers by Cokie Roberts I heard her speak about this book at a conference last year and LOVED both her style and her research. As we dig into the Founding Fathers, I find the Founding Mothers a fascinating look at the women who were a part but not a part of the creation of our nation. Plus, she is a heck of a writer!

What’s on your summer reading list? Are you actually going to get through much of it? Are you reading plenty of beach-reads, too? The countdown is in single digits, y’all! Are you ready for the year to be over? I always love to hear what you’re reading, too. Please share!

Have a great rest of the week!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Thirteen Days of Crisis

Thirteen days. Tense. Crazy. A million things going on at once. Miscommunication. Emotion.

There were thirteen days in 1962 when it seemed that the Cold War would explode into a “hot” war with nuclear missiles looming over us (particularly here in Florida). Those thirteen days were dramatized into the 2000 film appropriately titled Thirteen Days.

There are thirteen days left in this school year. They will also be tense, crazy, emotional, and have a million things going on at once.

Does it feel like ... something ... is going to burst at your school at this time of year? The testing? The packing up of the classrooms? The yearbook-signing. The OMG-I-can’t-possibly-cover-this-all-content-before-the-test anxiety? The am-I-going-to-pass-this-class-can-I-do-more-extra-credit? speeches. The if-you-studied-you-would-do-better-on-your-exam lectures. The where-or-what-am-I-going-to-teach-next-year drama.  

There’s a lot going on during these next thirteen days. Maybe not brink-of-nuclear-war levels of action, but sometimes personal-emotional-explosion levels of action.

It makes teaching more difficult than usual.

I’d like to offer some thoughts for these last thirteen days about making sure that your kids don’t stop learning because the EOC is over or because they’re all cramming for the final and not actually “learning” anymore.  I borrowed some of these ideas from a Smartblog entry by Carol Hunter.

First, I’d like to look at SURVIVING (and thriving) during the crazy 13 Days

  1. The Test Is Not Everything: Despite all the pressure and attention, remember to focus on the kids as kids, not as test scores. Remind them of all that they have learned this year (even if they have forgotten some of it by test time). Remind them of the things that they have learned that are NOT on the test (like how to write a persuasive argument, how to analyze documents, how to contextualize -- and that’s just in the DBQ).
  2. But the test IS something: Have some conversation about what the test actually is, who makes it and why they will take it and what those scores mean or determine. We pushpushpush so hard sometimes to have kids do well on the test, we don’t always contextualize that test for them. It helps to decrease the anxiety a little if the kids can define the test (and its limits)
  3. Wrap It Up: It’s time, at the end of the year, to have kids pull together their learning from all different points in the year and make some meaningful big-picture summaries, connections, and evaluations. Let students take the lead in projects (big or little), discussions, debates, or any highly-engaging big-picture activity that summarizes and wraps up the year (or semester).
  4. Give ‘Em Summer Ideas: Give your kids a couple of ideas of books or websites or games to review your course or prepare for the next course over the summer. Will they all do it? Of course not. But boredom and availability of the internet are powerful motivators sometimes. Help them make connections between your course and the next one.

Once you have assured your kids that you’re not going to watch movies for the last two weeks (please!)  but BEFORE the kids have actually, FULLY checked out, it’s time to get them to reflect.

The second learning from the THIRTEEN DAYS is about data and reflection.

Part of what made the Cuban Missile Crisis a, um, .... CRISIS, was data collection.

To be blunt, in October of 1962, a U-2 spy took photographs that clearly showed ballistic missiles in Cuba, 90 miles south of Florida (or only 321 miles south of St. Pete).  We had clear data, clear evidence that allowed us to react and plan and negotiate and re-plan.

We need to use data and evidence to help us plan in our classrooms, too, so we can react and plan ... for next year. After the Cuban Missile Crisis was over, both our leaders and our people reflected on what that “Close call” had meant and how to handle (or avoid) a similar crisis if it came up again.

I know, I know you’ve heard this from me EVERY year. But hopefully, this reminder will give you some new tools for reflection and data collection. I bring it up every year because it is THAT important!

Your job, as a teacher, only improves if you reflect. Of course, you reflect daily on individual lessons but the best time to reflect on a big-picture scale is now, at the end of the year.

  1. Your own feedback:  Write down a lot of your feedback. All that travelling and beach time and home DIY projects can seriously distance you from school -- which is the whole point of summer vacation!! However, that distance can make it some of those reflections that seem really, really important, um, a little lower priority. Write ‘em down now, before all the fruity beach beverages go to your head.
  2. Your students’ feedback: Sometimes, teachers are afraid of this. But, really, kids are super honest and waaayyy more perceptive than you think they are. You’ll get a couple of joker answers, but far and away most kids will give you thoughtful, useful responses. Here are a couple to check out, adapt, and make your own.
    1. Here’s a whole pile of student feedback forms form Vanderbilt
    2. One more! A wonderful blog about why and how-to get student feedback

As always, avert the crises! Manage the thirteen days and use them for good, not evil.

As always, let me know how it goes! Email me at

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

One Link To Rule Them All

Do you remember the last time you came across a wonderful piece of tech?
  • I made photo-cards of my kids for their grandmothers -- on my phone, using five minutes of my time (It’s still heartfelt, Mom!)
  • When we go for a walk in the neighborhood, I love to check my Zillow app and see how much that house is going for (I should have bought THAT house...)
  • I have recently discovered the joys of Uber -- a few taps on the phone and I had a wonderful driver in a nice-smelling car (unlike the last stinky taxi I took) ready to drive me home in under four minutes!
  • In the classroom, you all know I think PLICKERS is one of the most amazing pieces of classroom technology to come along in a decade -- and so much LESS work for the teacher than any equivalent... I have seen so many of you use it in so many different ways!

Well, this week, I  came across another cool piece of tech....

I know we used to shy away from digital pieces as homework, but I have had a recent revelation. You probably realized this a while ago.

Almost every kid has access to a device. If they don’t have a smartphone (or two!), their buddy next to them does. Their mom does. The media center does. The public library does. Their basketball coach does. As long as we aren’t giving them time-consuming tasks, they can TOTALLY do digital homework.

So what I love ... is Blendspace.

They can do digital homework in a way they like to learn.

Blendspace is a free web tool for teachers to collect resources in one place to form a bundled, interactive lesson for students (or colleagues).  A Blendspace lesson is where you pull in videos from Youtube, websites, pictures, links from Google ... or even Google Drive documents. And your kids get to access it from any device.

Which is super cool.

But as we wrap up the year, I discovered how amazing it is to ... waitforitwaitforitwaitforit ... differentiate review.

I often struggled to differentiate my reviews.

Watch this math teacher explain how she does that in under 3 minutes (use this link, not the picture of the video. Sorry. Technical difficulties. Hahahaha)

That quick video boggled my mind. The thought of curating all of my various review materials all on one page and have the kids review the WAY they learn best on the BENCHMARKS that they NEED help with ...


Mind. Blown.

How many times have I reviewed as a whole-class even though different kids needed different review?

How many times did I have kids review what I thought they needed to review instead of letting them choosing the areas to review?

How many times did I review in ONE style -- all games, for example, instead of varying videos, readings, games, and websites?

With Blendspace, it take One Link to Review Them All.

And yes, you can set up your classes, and add quizzes, and have them auto-graded and whatnot. And I highly encourage you to check that out in the summer or fall. Because you don’t HAVE to do that stuff.

Seeing that it’s MAY, I would totally just jump into it with that link and save the setting-up-of-classes for next year.  That’s too much for the end of the year.

Here’s one on the contributions of Ancient Rome  (I actually did that Rome one in 8 minutes)

What do you think? Can you figure out ways to teach or remediate or flip your classroom with Blendspace? I can’t get over the possibilities. One link to review them all....

Try it out and let me know how it goes. As always, email me at

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

What is "The Cube", Alex?

What’s your favorite review strategy? Flashcards? Digital flashcards? Jeopardy review?

What is "a great review strategy, Alex"?

There are a ton of great review strategies and review games. Most of the good ones do the same thing well: reinforce terms and vocabulary.

Terms and vocab are pretty important. Actually, they’re huge and essential.

So let me applaud you! The review strategies you use for general review work well. Your kids do pretty well, overall, at the level one and level two questions.

Now that you and your kids feel solid about the Level One and Level Two questions on their impending EOC or Final Exam, let’s take it to the next level.

Because it’s still our Level Three questions where our students continue to struggle.

I know, I know. Of course they struggle with Level 3 -- it’s SUPPOSED to be complex!

That’s absolutely true. But let’s give our kids more tools and more prep to attack those questions as they come up.

Here’s one more tool for your toolbox. What is “the cube”, Alex?

Many of you have used the cube in the past. You know the one. Not Ice Cube, the rapper. The paper cube.

I have seen teachers use it as a way of looking at the different dimensions of a civilization. I have seen teachers use it as a way of looking for certain features of a document.

I’d like to suggest that you try the cube as a review strategy for terms.

Purpose: This activity will challenge students to dig deeper into review terms, based on a variety of analysis questions while student groups compete for the highest points.
¨  List of review terms, as cards
¨  Review Block (print and cut it out and have a kid tape it together. I don’t recommend glue.)
¨  Point Tracking Sheet
¨  Student Instructions
1.      Break students into small groups.
2.      Announce to the groups to flip over one card.  
3.      Decide how groups will earn points for accurate answers. Groups could roll a die to determine the points they earn for each turn. Or, each question on the Block could count for a certain amount of points.
        1 point:  What?                                                       
        1 point:  Why?                                                         
        2 points: Cause(s)?                                                  
        2 points: Effects(s)?                                                 
        3 points: Make a connection to another topic                               
        3 points: Give an example or a NON-example of the term
4.      Instruct groups to roll their Review Block.
5.      Explain to groups they will explain the term on the Block based on the question rolled and discuss an answer.
6.      Use a timer and select an appropriate amount of time students have to discuss an answer.
7.      Once time is up, a spokesperson from each group will share their answer with the class.
8.      Award points to groups based on accurate answers.
9.      Instruct a recorder from each group to write down the following on their tracking sheet:
·         The term
·         The question rolled
·         The answer the group decided
·         The points earned
10.  The group with the most points based on accurate answers at the end of the allotted time wins! The duration of the game can be an entire class period or a given amount of time decided by the teacher.

Why does this strategy work? It makes kids think about several facets to a term or vocabulary word. It makes kids connect one term to another. It makes kids work in teams and discuss.

It makes kids use higher-order thinking about their terms. Hopefully, on a good day, it preps them for some of those higher-order questions on their EOCs or Final Exams.

Give it a try and let me know how it works. The Review Cube, not Ice Cube.  

What is “review strategies that really work”, Alex?

Email me, as always!