Thursday, November 27, 2014

A Backseat Blog

Happy Thanksgiving to the assorted family, friends, Twitter associates, and complete strangers that read this...
Rarely do I ride in a car that I am not driving... But it gives one time to think.
I am only a few weeks away from the end date of my professional growth plan.  Crazy, I know.  I spent Wednesday at school in a teacher institute learning about the direction that our district is moving in.
Lots of initiatives were shown in various stages of implementation.  Long story short...  the miracle work is not going to end.  We will continue to do more with less, and the odds will continue to be stacked against us. 
It reminded me of the scene in Return of the Jedi when Han Solo asks Luke Skywalker "How are we doing?"  Luke replies "Same as always."  Han retorts "That bad huh?"
Come to find out that as a prize for being in the bottom 20% of schools in the state (after some really weird math and a list of exceptions), our district will be required to add a student growth component to our teacher evaluation a year early. 
Because if anyone needs less time to adjust to the metaphoric beatdown that is the Common Core, it is high-poverty, high-mobility, high-needs schools.
But that is for another day.   We also talked technology.  And while I got hopeful, I am confident in our ability to misuse this opportunity.  Whether it be rollout, training, support, or maintenance, my hopes will be dashed I am sure.
Meanwhile I look like a genius because I am taking the Google Apps Teacher Certification tests.  It sounds like we are going full Google.  So let me share with you my vision...
Currently teachers have Google Apps at their disposal...
Suggestion 1:  Give kids access. 
There is no reason not to.  It is the point.  Give kids Gmail accounts in our domain with privileges to do what they need to do.  Email can be modified to stay in district only... letting us keep our house in order.
Suggestion 2:  Use Drive for all storage needs. 
Our network is brutal.  Time to save to the cloud.  No more lost research papers. No more saving locally on accident.  No more disappearing thumbdrives. 
Suggestion 3:  Train teachers.  Then support them. 
This has to become institutionalized and sustainable.  There is such potential, but teachers are creatures of habit.  New ideas mean more work.  We have to show where more work now turns into less later.
Suggestion 4:  Update infrastructure
We are doing this.  Wireless overhaul along with a jump up in computers.  Looks like we are headed down the Chromebook path.  Which if true means...
Suggestion 5:  Give every staff member a Chromebook.
Not every teacher, but every adult in the building should be given a device.  It goes back to institutionalization.  Demand the use school wide through equal access and support.  If all adults use it, we can all help kids use it.  How do we get the adults to?
Suggestion 6:  Automate everything. 
This is where Google Calendar would be awesome.  Scheduling between teachers, administrators, support staff, etc. would be simple.  Imagine getting kids to do this.  Imagine posting assignments this way. 
Not to mention this is a handy way to organize the use of resources like computer labs.  Imagine knowing any time if the lab is available.  That impulsive midnight lesson you come up with that is a stroke of genius has a better chance of coming to fruition.
Suggestion 7:  Rethink PD
This type of change requires lots of PD.  But that time is most likely already allocated.  So why not ask for what needs to be done to be done through Google Apps.  Supercharge your PD by killing two birds with one stone.
Suggestion 8:  Give incentives.
Reward staff for their use of new things.  Recognize it.  This is where blogging and social media come in. Set up PD through the tools.  Collaborate from home.  Use Twitter chats.  Publicize the work.  Sponsor contests, have drawings or giveaways for participation.  Compel with kindness... and perks.
Suggestion 9:  Have a plan and commit.
Beyond what I outlined, someone has to steer this ship.  They have to be knowledgeable and accessible.  This is systemic.  It is not a one-time thing.  Commit to the use of integrated technology, not its token use.  Until teachers are secure in its use, the technology provided will not be utilized.
Suggestion 10:  Change the paradigm.
Someone will inevitably say that this type of technology integration isn't for them.
You are absolutely right.  It is for our students.
They will take over a world demanding cutting edge skills.  We have to show them as many tools as we can today so they can make the tools of tomorrow.
Like I said.  That is my vision.  Only part of it, but I am not getting my hopes up yet.
It doesn't exist in our district but I am going to be our director of technology one way or another.  I can't let us screw this up.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The New and Improved XP System

Well Education Universe, it's been awhile.

Been busy on blog #2, but I thought I'd share a little something I'm working on.  Well two things.  I improved my "XP System" for my classroom:

Second, I used Bitstrips to create a cool infographic/comic for my classroom rules.  Here it is:

Take Care,

Mr. J.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

What Am I Doing?!

Education Universe-

I have to figure this out.

The common core is here.  As a social studies teacher, I'm still sorting out what that means.  I think it has something to do with reading... Yes that was joke.

Here's the dilemma:  I'm a social studies teacher.  I don't excel at training a student how to read.  I know that they need to read and read often.  I know that primary sources and informational texts can be complex and challenging.  I know that insights should be taken from what we read.  But I do this instinctively.  I struggle to teach how to do it.  It is difficult to teach someone how to make up their mind for themselves and reference the text as evidence.

This problem compounds itself if students have no knowledge of the content that they are reading about.  A reading passage about the Revolution certainly makes more sense with some context.  If you don't know who Thomas Paine was, the last thing that his words will ever be is Common Sense.

So who am I?  Social studies teacher?  Reading teacher?  Both?  Neither?  It depends on who you ask.  I know what my degree says.  I know what my job placement says.  I know what the standards say.  I know what those in positions to make these decisions for me say.  Needless to say, I need to figure it out.

So let's start with what we know:

Currently, the common core standards for history and social studies are solely focused on reading and are as follows:

Reading in History/Social Sciences Common Core Standards (6-8)

These focus on evidence, citing text, comparing texts, identifying processes and opinions, and main ideas.  Nothing really new there.  There's that last standard that is just sort of like a pinky toe... it's there and that's really all.

And there are some exmplar texts that the standards include to give you an idea of what to use.

Exmplar Texts for Common Core Standards (6-8)

But that clearly isn't enough to teach a course on.  So the question remains, what texts come next?  What primary sources get used?  Illinois has laid out what is to be taught in social studies, so I assume the next step is to go the the Illinois learning standards for social studies.

Illinois Social Studies Standards

5 Goals:  Political systems, economics, history, geography, and social systems.  The texts that I choose should revolve around one of those goals, specifically the standards aligned to middle school.  My textbook, The American Journey, is already aligned to these standards.  It also provides texts and primary sources outside of the main narrative.  Maybe a few things will come from it.

But back to context.  Picking up a letter from John Adams and dissecting it is worthless without a story behind it.  History is our story.  It needs to be discussed.  Yes it is facts and people and places.  But without those bricks of knowledge, how can you ever construct anything out of it?

And it can't be done in a vacuum.  Perhaps older students may do better with this, but in middle school I find it a mistake to jump between historical eras, or even within themes in the same era.  Thematic classes are taught in history to those who have already been exposed to a survey course.  I didn't take American Problems in high school until after I took Civics and U.S. History.  There is a scope and sequence.  There is a canon so to speak.  And it is important.  It's our canon.  Take a look at this to get what I am trying to say.

I cannot believe the intention of these new standards was to find the main idea of the "I Have a Dream" Speech, but not have any concept of when or where Dr. King delivered it.  Tracing the argument, tracing the idea, tracing the thinking should not stop with the text.  It becomes a thread that we can watch become intertwined in our culture.  Sometimes it frays, sometimes it untangles, sometimes it disappears.  Then we can ask why.

So our role as social studies teachers is to help build literacy while working in our content areas.  As I have scoured the web for materials and ideas on just exactly what this looks like.  One thing stands out.  The background knowledge, the content, that we provide in social studies as well as in science are necessary to help students recall information and make more sense of what we read.  Whether it be fiction or an informational text, students who are able to generate comprehension because of context are going to read better.  I like this clip from New York because I see the standards being defended but also in a way that shows that social studies teachers and for that matter science teachers will be more than just presenting text opportunities to students.  This article also stresses the need for all teachers to get involved in literacy, but to leave the decision as to how it looks to those who practice in each discipline.

Inquiry is what these standards want from us.  Critical thinking is the goal.  Asking oneself "What do I think about this?" and "How do I know?"  The intention was not to forget about the journey for the sake of the answer, especially if we're not even sure why we are asking the question.

I like what History Blueprint is doing.  They are doing a far greater job thinking about this than I ever could.  Check out their Civil War unit.  This looks more like the types of things most social studies want to do.

History Blueprint:  The Civil War

And I LOVE the analysis tool the Library of Congress has made for primary sources.  Check this out and then share it with anyone who doesn't use it.

Library of Congress:  Primary Source Analysis Tool

We too need to practice our understanding of citizenship and democracy.  Bring in iCivics to do that.  We can read while we learn about all of these things.  We can learn about our rights and how to protect them.  But we need to do a little of this too to make sure we get it (and have some fun).


Additionally, even the wikipedia entry for the common core notes that foundational U.S. documents are required as part of the curriculum.  That again begs the question of which ones are foundational.  Fortunately the government has helped us out here with it's 100 Milestone Documents.

Even the State of Illinois notes that the shift is to focusing on complex texts and teaching students to be like detectives.  I can spin that with a middle schooler.  I like the idea.  We could even become full-fledged social scientists by performing a history lab.  Students can even engage in writing and discussion using online blogs and secure social media like Edmodo.  It ties together nicely.

Maybe I'm speaking out of turn, but as a social studies teacher, I don't fear these things.  I think this could be truly awesome.  But talk of comprehension, testing, phonics, and fluency are not what these standards demand of me.  Massacring a social studies curriculum to add reading minutes to the day isn't either.

I just solved the world's problems.  Here's what I need on my to do list to make this work:

1.  Technological upkeep, support, and access
2.  Resources for my classroom library
3.  Student participation and follow-through
4.  Parental support
5.  A green light to try new things

I can do this.  Stay classy Universe.

-Mr. J.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Couple of Sweet Tools I Came Across

Education Universe-

If you teach social studies, and you are uneasy about the changes the Common Core is bringing, you're not alone.  Here's a few more things that might help.  I know I am a bit worried about how our subject will fare in this latest push to infuse every moment of school with literacy.  As a teacher and historian, I know reading is so very important.  But I want to do things with the reading.  Finally I have found some things that can do just that.

The Library of Congress has created a phenomenal primary source analysis tool.  It is easy to use, and walks students through the process of inquiry into a multitude of different types of sources.  It is a great digital organizer for students to enter information and then print it out when finished.  Better yet, for those of us who prefer crisp electronic copies to crinkled up middle school paper assignments, a .pdf version of the document can be generated when finished.  Handy guides for each type of primary source are also available.

You can find this resource on the Library of Congress's website.

Combine this with the National Archive's DocsTeach website, and you really have something cool.  DocsTeach can allow you to create several different graphic organizers and activities to use to analyze sources.  There is a sharing of ideas on the website, and teachers can either share or create content.  Additionally, classes can be set up so that students are able to be tracked and assigned specific tasks through the site.

You can begin your work with DocsTeach by going to their website.  I'm extremely interested in what this can do.

I plan to combine these two tools along with an interface like Edmodo and Classbadges to continue to create a unique blended learning environment.  Someone should probably tell my students they're in for a culture shock.  On second thought, why spoil the surprise.

Yay federal government.  Good job on this one.

-Mr. J.

Monday, February 17, 2014

inSPECt Update

Hello Education Universe-

I have been plugging away with my 7th graders using the inSPECt process I have blogged about previously.  I have tweaked my form and do it now electronically.  Perhaps this will be the future of the process.  This is what it looks like now:

Here's links to the form itself, scoring rubric, and explanation:

Now just getting them to do it is the key.  If ever there was a silver bullet, that would be the time.  Here is the link to the previous post to compare:
Investigating a Text and Looking Smart Doing It

Take Care,

Mr. J.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Now I Am the Master

Education Universe-

I did it.  I am a master of science in educational administration.  Fear me.

Not really... to the fear part that is.  7th grade girls aren't even scared of me.

I haven't blogged in awhile.  Been busy.  Trying to keep up with my 3 month old as well as staying motivated in the toughest leg of the school year has been a job in itself.  But I thought I would post a few thoughts about recent events in my journey to make kids learn.  It has been an uphill battle.

The flipped classroom approach as I mentioned before is very intriguing to me.  However it has to be something that can be sustained throughout the year by a teacher, students, and the hardware. I'm not sure which of those three has the most work to do at the moment.  So that idea is still on hold.

Gamification however looks promising. Building in the XP system has motivated some students.  Adding in the accompanying title belt system seems to have worked well too.  That has some success behind it now and I want to improve it going forward.

So as the Common Core begins to shape our instruction, my district is using the backwards design model to try to improve instruction.  I'm hoping that gamification can continue as my units may turn into "levels."  Each summative assessment can become a "boss battle", or something like that.  I think that even looking at the formation of guilds and including ideas such as crafting and avatar creation are possible.  Time to start thinking again.

Sometimes I'm guilty of putting fun or cool in front of instruction.  I need some balance, but I still want to be different.  That's important to me.

Well that's it.  Just checking in to say I'm still alive... if anyone else reads this that is.

Mr. J.

Saturday, January 4, 2014


Hello Education Universe...

So I just logged into our grading software to clean up a few things, and I ran a missing work report on my homeroom.  They have 5 classes:  English, Math, Reading, Science, and Social Studies (saved the best for last).

Presently there are 23 students in my homeroom.  As a class, 911 assignments have been missed.  That is just under an average of 40 assignments per kid.  Dividing that again by 9 weeks in a grading period, that averages out to about 4.4 missing assignments, per student, per week.  Five days in a school week means that on the average, every student misses one assignment each day.

How ironic that it was 911.  This is an EMERGENCY.  I've read the studies on not giving homework.  I've read the studies on not giving a student a zero.  I get it.  We want to assess what students have learned.  However students have always been expected to do something.  I'd love to get everything that needs to be done completed within the confines of the school day.  My students also can go to a homework help program three days a week.  There is no way that this can be ok.

Whether it be federal mandates, the Common Core, the upcoming changes to standardized assessments, or the changing demands and expectations of the employable young professional, the expectations are going up.  More is being asked of education, of schools, of teachers.  We want to expect more of our students, but the urgency to do so is not the same.  Why?

I understand that giving homework for the sake of giving homework is pointless.  It is not an institution of school.  It is a tool.  Students need to pursue their learning on their own as well as with guidance in school.  They should bring something to the table each day:  their effort.

And I get it.  Being a kid is hard.  It really is.  Our students today deal with pressures from peers, media, parents, teachers, and the various social networks and online interactions they make.  They deal with a lot of stuff.  I'm 27, and even I am overwhelmed when I hear of some of the stress that they carry around with them.  Did I really grow up in the "good old days" already?  Am I already part of the "it was different back then" past that students feel their teachers existed in?  That's scary.

911.  This is an emergency.  I know it seems like nothing to them.  It's just some goofy worksheet, some boring reading assignment.  I know that's how they feel.  I try to limit what I send home to do.  I want there to be some significance to homework.  That doesn't seem to always work.  But the bigger picture is frightening:  a lack of dedication, of effort, of accomplishment.  Where can that outlook on life take you?

That's the battle we cannot lose.  Someday our students are going to have to replace us in the workforce and in society.  They may not need every fact we try to cram into their head, but knowing how to learn, how to work, and how to succeed will be needed.  From the fry cook to the Fortune 500 entrepreneur, you have to have tried.

Trying after all, is how we learn.  We try again.  Our failures make us wiser, our successes make us stronger.

Here's to trying... Take Care.

Mr. J.