Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Hydraulic Cylinder: Own It

I have a three year old son. He is MY kid, so he’s a LITTLE BIT of a talker. He has a hilarious combination of “baby words” and regular words. He is obsessed with trucks, which I may have mentioned before.

This makes for hilarity at our house because he says things like “night-night” and “boo-boo” like a baby -- but also uses words like “hydraulic cylinder” that came up on a book of truck parts.

Yes, my three year old uses the term “hydraulic cylinder” and uses it correctly. I think it’s hilarious -- with his little baby lisp and everything.

I don’t tell this today because my kid is awesome (although I, personally think he is). I tell this because even though he is little, he is OWNING a term that most people would assume he couldn’t handle.

So I would like to propose that we help our students to “own” some of those words that sound tough for them.

There’s a difference between learning a term and “owning” one. Learning a term means you read or copy a term and its definition or maybe your teacher tells you the definition. It means you memorize a definition.

Maybe after that you can identify the term when you see it again.

Maybe not.

OWNing a term means you can recognize it -- AND use it correctly.

I have some suspicions about learning vocabulary.

  • I suspect that all the classroom minutes we spend having kids copy the definition have been for not much in the results category
  • I suspect that kids don’t OWN words by looking up definitions.
  • I suspect that if kids don’t OWN the words, they can’t actually use them

So how can we teach kids to OWN their vocabulary -- both content specific terms (like treaty, imperialism, or revolution) and academic vocab (like significance, impact, or contributions)?

The quickest and most effective way I’ve found is the vocab turn and talk. It takes literally one minute.

This is how it works.

  1. Pick a term you want your kids to “own”
  2. Explicitly teach it to them. Tell it to them -- use a dictionary definition, your own words, give examples, whatever.
  3. Have them turn to their neighbor and use the word in a “good” sentence.
  4. Have groups share out their sentences.

*Side note -- I usually explicitly explain about “cheater” sentences. Like “I saw a revolution” or “do you like significance?”. Sentences that show absolutely no understanding of the term. Then, I can bust them when they try that ridiculous nonsense. Because kids will try you. True story.

THEN -- have them use the word another time in that class period, like when they answer a question or do a quickwrite (Explain blahblah and use the word “imperialism”)

But a GOOD vocab turn and talk tackles several problems in vocab instruction. Like, it solves a WHOLE BUNCH of problems!

Why Vocab Turn and Talks Are Awesome:  

  • First, you don’t have to hold your breath that kids are understanding the dictionary or glossary definition.
  • Second, you can see from their faces if they are at least part way with you when you’re explaining.
  • Third, it gives kids a chance to practice the word -- so they own it. They use it, they think about it, they say it.
  • Fourth, it gives them a low-risk environment to practice the word. Meaning, if they don’t use it correctly, their partner can let them know and it doesn’t come with whole-class embarrassment or a red pen.
  • Fifth, they hear a whole bunch of uses of the word (and possibly some discussion on whether the word was used correctly or not) -- from their peers who will always make more kid-culturally relevant examples than you-the-grown-up will.
  • Sixth, if you eavesdrop on their conversations, you have a pretty good formative assessment to find out if they own it correctly or if you need to go back and explain it again.
Seriously -- so much bang for so little buck (and so little time!)

Try it -- explain the term, have them turn and practice it, and have them share out. Then, have them use it again that period

A couple of pitfalls to avoid...
  • Be sure to explain the word clearly so they get it
  • Don’t read the dictionary/glossary definition aloud. It isn’t any better out loud than it is in print.
  • Make sure to LISTEN in on their conversations. If you don’t, they aren’t accountable

Then, make it a big deal to use the word in class that day or week or whatever -- so they OWN it and so it doesn’t slip away from lack of use.

I think you will be amazed at how little time it takes -- in comparison to having kids write a definition. And I think you will be amazed at how much better your kids will OWN their vocab.

Try it. It takes 60 seconds. Let me know how it goes.

Hydraulic cylinder. Significance. Revolution.

There are a lot of terms kids need to know. Let’s help them OWN those terms. Try it -- and email me!

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

What's On The Test?

What’s on the test?
Is THIS on the test?
Kids, you need to know this for the test...

I feel like I have these conversations all the time with teachers. They want to know what’s on the test - the EOC, the Cycle Assessment, the midterm, etc.

Some are even still nurturing a grudge, all these years later, of not being able to “see the test” (like you could see the FSA or SAT or GRE of the FELE or whatever!)

So, I want to tell you what’s on the test -- by telling you what’s NOT on the test.

Are you ready?

It’s trivia. Despite what so many of us tell our students, the details are not really on the test.

Here are questions that are NOT on the test:
  • What year was the Battle of New Orleans?
  • What are the 15 Cabinet positions?
  • Define “push factors”
  • What two cities were decimated by the atomic bomb?
  • Who was the fourth president of the US?
  • What are the requirements to be a Supreme Court Justice?
  • What does “suffrage” mean?
  • What happened in Brown Vs. Board of Education?
  • Define “containment” policy.
  • Who invented the steam boat?
  • What countries were part of the Warsaw Pact?

One of my wonderful colleagues once wondered aloud to me “which set of trivia” his kids needed to know this year.

I feel like I say this again and again but folks still are confused. So I must not say it well enough Let me try again.

Your EOC, your midterm, your final exam ...  


It’s just not.

First, that would suck for kids. No one wants to memorize useless trivia.
Second, that would suck to teach. How boring is it to teach just pure memorization.
Third, that would produce good trivia players but lousy citizens.

So what IS on the test?

Historical/Civic thinking skills. Reading. Higher-order thinking. Application of knowledge.

You know ... the kinds of things a real citizen needs to be able to do to make informed decisions like voting...

You probably know (but maybe haven’t focused on recently) that EOCs, midterms, and finals are written at a 20-60-20.

  • 20% of the items are low complexity meaning they could include trivia, but more likely to include main themes or use low-complexity skills)
  • 60% of the items are moderate complexity, requiring multiple steps of reasoning and/or use of context
  • 20% of the items are high complexity, meaning they require multiple steps of reasoning AND use of context.

So even if there IS trivia on the test, it makes up less than 20% of the test.

Trivia is kind of a waste of time. No one needs to memorize very much now that we all have Google in our pockets.

Please don’t think I’m advocating that we skip teaching facts or details. I’m not. But I AM advocating that we don’t learn facts for facts sake -- but we use them.

Take a load off. Give yourself a break. I know how much you have to do in such little time. So take some low-level facts off of your “to teach” list and make sure most of the rest are really essential and related to some higher-order thinking.

Stop telling kids that they “need to know” the qualifications for office. The test won’t ask them that. And if they decide to run for office in the real world, they can look it up. But ask them who can run for office or why that’s important or whether those are the best qualifications.

Stop telling kids that they “need to know” when the Battle of New Orleans was. They don’t. But as you teach about it, ask them why a winning battle would affect national pride and identity or how do battles affect a national “mood”.

Let’s focus less on the details and more on the big ideas and enduring understandings and skills.

How do you teach with higher-order thinking in mind? Do you make sure to let your kids practice their higher-order thinking several times a period? Do you need ideas on how to do that? As always, I love to hear from you! Email me

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Binge Watching

We live in the age of Netflix, which encourages a strange habit these days of “binge watching” TV shows. “Binge Watching”, as a phrase, means watching numerous (too many?) episodes of a show all in one sitting.  I recently went to watch a new TV show I had heard about only, to download 8 episodes at once.

I know I sound old, but it wasn’t that long ago that we used to have to wait for a specific channel to bring us a rare “marathon” on an off-season Sunday afternoon. Now, with streaming TV, we can binge-watch shows all the time.

So, the problem is, when I binge-watch, I go on overload. My brain can’t actually process all that stuff. The next thing I know, it’s the middle of the night and I can’t actually remember what happened or in what order in the “Series of Unfortunate Events” or “Portlandia” or “Man in the High Castle” or whatever.

And then one of two things happens.Either my brain shuts down like a full belly on Thanksgiving -- orr I need to process some of the info to make room for more.

We used to take commercial breaks. Or wait a week for the next episode. Now, we have to force ourselves to pause it for a restroom break.

Kids brains get “full” too. They can really only handle 10-15 minutes of school content before they can’t handle any more and they either shut down or need to process.

What can we do to prevent kids’ brains from shutting down?

There are plenty of ways to process classroom content. Here are a few of my quick  favorites:
  1. Talk About It -- Turn and Talks are the best classroom hack ever.. Take a break from your lecture/discussion/video/reading/activity and have the kids turn and talk about it.
    1. How? You can either ask them to recap what they just learned or ask a higher-order question for kids to discuss/process together. I would eavesdrop to see how well they’re getting the material.
  2. Write About It -- Quick writes can be a brief and simple way to get kids to process content. They don’t require a lot of set-up and they don’t require a lot of management.

    1. How?  You can ask them what they just learned, how they can apply it, or what it has to do with another thing they learned. Give them a short time limit and ask them to write the whole time.Then, you can use what they write to see where they are in their thinking and learning
3. Draw about it -- Having kids create a meaningful representation of their learning is powerful -- if THEY make the drawing (not copying one from somewhere).
  1. How? Ask kids to make a visual illustration of a vocab term, a concept, or how two ideas go together. This makes them process the info and make it their own. Again, you can use this info to see where they are in their thinking.

There are, of course, plenty of longer, more involved ways to process content. But these three are the quickest and most adaptable. I highly suggest you give your kids a “processing break” and give them time to digest their learning. I honestly believe that they learn and retain better when they process their learning.

Do you give processing breaks? If so, how do they work for you? If not, will you try one? If you aren’t changing up the activity, try taking a processing break! Let me know how it goes!