Sunday, September 27, 2015

How Differentiating Led to a Revolution

Representing the Townshend Act, with taxes on
everyday goods. 
Differentiation. That word alone is enough to cause eye rolls, groans, and response that start with "Yeah, but..."

Bear with me, and let's take a look at classroom practice in a mixed-ability HS History classroom.

The events leading up to the American Revolution are complex, and, in the eyes of most highschool students, can be pretty soporific. So, it's up to us to be proactive about differentiating.

Tweaking an idea from the NC Civic and Education Consortium (click here to access link), we were able to differentiate in process, product, and access to the content.

Students were each assigned a pre-revolutionary event to research. After researching with their partner, they summarized the key ideas in writing, and rehearsed explanations for presenting the material to the class the following day. They were also asked to create representative props from simple construction paper and tape to use as they acted out the key ideas of their event.

Sounds like a pretty straightforward assignment, right?
Here's how we differentiated it.

  • Students were paired strategically according to strengths. 
  • As students researched, both Mr. P and I answered questions individually to clarify understanding, to engage students in further discussion, and to poke their thinking to extend it. 
  • Synthesizing and summarizing information is tough for anyone. We included sentence starters for those who needed them. For others, we encouraged partners to talk through information that could be included--talking it out with a partner is an extremely useful scaffold for writing. 
  • Students who were ready were asked to extend their summary to consider and verbalize the impact of their event, then to link it within the greater scheme of cause and effect. 
  • Different events could be explained at varied levels of complexity; those who were more proficient were assigned tasks with more details. Although one reason this type of activity worked so well, was that all tasks contributed to the overall main idea of events leading to the Revolution. This ensured a feeling of fairness, which in turn, enhances motivation.
  • Creating representations out of simple construction paper and tape equalized the playing field. Allowing students to do this type of project at home can often be difficult without support or resources---but the biggest bonus of letting them do this in class was to listen to the conversations about what and how to produce items. They were very excited! (Do provide a time limit; parameters can do wonders for creativity sometimes!)
  • Once they were finished, each pair presented their summary, impact, and acted it orally out with their props. Definitely lots of laughter, questioning for clarity and understanding (from the students to their peers!) 
  • Having students present orally upped the ante--both partners had to know what was written as well as understand additional information in preparation for any questions afterward. Bonus for authentic audiences of your teen peers!
  • The flip side of the oral presentations is that the audience was able to listen to others' presentations to glean facts and impacts. This in turn, develops empathy for public speakers, and helps foster yet another angle of classroom community. 

Once they had each presented their event, Mr. P added any additional details. (yeah...I sketched as they talked) :-)

Why it worked:
*The learning goals were clear and concrete
*The task was chunked in to do-able amounts to master, then immediately apply/ use
*Students were paired up to allow for pushback, feedback, and support
*Teachers were available for questioning and clarification at all times
*Time limit helped them determine their pace
*Students were particularly animated by the creativity aspect--they did so well!
*All levels of learners--even the advanced--also needed support
*Allows more time to talk to students, get to know them, and individualize instruction

Ship from England carrying the 5 Intolerable Acts. Nailed it.
What we could do differently next time:
*Increase the task complexity--now that the routine is familiar, we can focus more on how they access the content
*Allow for more student choice in how they could creatively represent their learning
*Increase the complexity and/or number of the goals
*Be more explicit about any cross-
 curricular ties
*Develop more ways for students to own their ideas--perhaps through topic choice, or having time to   explore and express understandings in other ways
A spot on sketch of a colonist learning about the tax on tea.
*Allow more time for students to connect the information themselves--this one was saturated with cause and effect, yet I feel we did a lot of the connecting for them

Overall, I think the students received a memorable introduction to the events leading to the American Revolution. There's always something more we could have done, but this was a pretty straightforward example about how differentiation might look in a history classroom. Notoriously tricky for ensuring access for all learners!

Carol Ann Tomlinson (How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms) says "a differentiated classroom provides different avenues to acquiring content, to processing or making sense of ideas, and to developing products so that each student can learn effectively." That sounds like a lot, and it can be, but once you're in tune with your students, and they know your expectations mean business, it gets progressively easier to  carry out. Seeing the light in your students' eyes will make the extra efforts oh-so-worthwhile.

Here's another great article by John McCarthy on Edutopia--with lots of ideas and links--on differentiation. I guarantee it will give you ideas to use tomorrow in your classroom!

Boston Tea Party--with "tea" to transport, then throw out
of the boat.
Preparing a representation for the Boston Tea Party.
My own edusketch about the events. (Pillars)

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

#WhyITeach: Takeaways and a How-to

I originally saw this activity last year, thanks to a colleague in Pennsylvania, Brianna Crowley.   (Power to the Virtual Learning Community!) The idea kept burning brightly in my mind, so of course, I turned to Brianna (find her wonderful writing here), and asked her for tips on getting started. We also garnered wonderful and unquestioning trust and a go-ahead from administration (thank you!), yep:

Cue the song "Ain't no stoppin' us."

We downloaded the toolkit, and placed copies of speech bubbles in everyone's mailboxes on Monday morning, in prep for a Wednesday afternoon meeting, and sent out the following email:

Fellow Jets,

In your mailboxes you will each find a "speech bubble", and here's why.
We know that our staff is dedicated, and that our school is unique within the county. We are asking you to share what motivates you to teach, from inspiring moments in the classroom, to the challenges that push you. 

Use a marker (black shows up the best from far away) to write your sentence(s) about why you teach. We plan on hanging them in the hallways for students to see, and to remind each other of the inspiration that surrounds us daily. There is power in teachers coming together, and we plan on celebrating it the JM way!

This is what happened: 
Our display, posted in the hallway for students, fellow teachers, parents, and community
members to better understand why we do what we do.
And love it. 

One single question:
Why do you teach?

1. It's harder than you think. One or two sentences about why you teach? Distilling your thoughts down to the bare bones essence works its own magic. So many of us were surprised at the inherent challenge within such a simple question.

2. It instills camaraderie. Glance through the photos below,  and you'll see that pictures truly do speak louder than words when it comes to the driving forces behind our daily routines.

3. It's infectious. Yep, even our big, bad football coach (ok, so we all know he's the teddy bear type, but still...), and our trash-talkin', joke slingin', never-take-anything serious teammates gave this a shot. Although a provocative thought exercise, it is relatively painless. And the photo opportunity was the icing on the cake for laughter. Definitely encourage "photo buddies" for maximum impact!

4. It renews and helps express that intangible "something" that keeps us going everyday. Veterans and new teachers alike can find a nexus of similarity. The passion, determination, and love for what we do can only truly be understood by others in the field, and this display does a pretty sweet job of expressing a collective passion found within our school.

5. It reminds us of the inspiration that surrounds us, on a daily basis. Hang the responses in a public space so teachers, students, parents, and community members alike can see the "why" that drives us. How can negativity survive, in the midst of this?

Together, attitude does really determine altitude, and as Jets, that only seems apt. 

By all means, include a red carpet. First impressions
mean everything! And we meant serious business!
Try it, and let us know how it worked out. Tell us why you teach, and pass it on!  

Find your toolkit here:

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Want to Celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month? Think again.

Think Hispanic Heritage doesn't relate to your content? 
Think again.

Think Science.....

Think geography, history, and culture....

 Think Literature...           

Think of values and opportunities...

And if you ask our students why celebrating 
Hispanic Heritage is important? 
Here's what They Think:

"It's important because to keep a life, culture, tradition and customs for our country."

"It is important because we keep alive culture and customs."

" It's important because we keep a life full of culture, that other people don't know, but many country have the same traditions or customs."

"It is important because we love our traditions and customs."

"Because is important have holidays and celebrate their food and customs, culture. We celebrate our family and friends."

"It is important because we keep a life full of culture tradition, hope and save the traditions."

And so we keep on learning, thinking, and appreciating the many gifts of cultural diversity in our classrooms, schools, and country. 
As you celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, remember:  "Think Again. And Again." 

**Note: The beautiful bulletin boards were created by my colleague Carla Jimenez. She has incredible vision, and her creativity is endless! She captures the Hispanic spirit like no one else I know. Thank you, Carla!!!"

Friday, September 4, 2015

Why you should bring a yellow horse into your classroom

What business do these items have in a highschool American history classroom?

Toys borrowed from my co-teacher's kids, unbeknownst to them. 
Homegrown tomatoes--could be dangerous to have all these goodies on
parade right before lunch.
Sharing some of the wheat-turned-crackers with
a handful of willing volunteers. 
Some of today's realia. 
American History. Animal toys--specifically a horse, pig, and cow. Wheat crackers. Tomatoes. Corn. Peanuts. Chocolate. Apples. Beans. Sugar. Potatoes. Coffee. Peanuts...Guess what our students were introduced to today?

If you guessed the Columbian Exchange, you are correct!

Realia are mainstays in language learning classrooms--what better way to make learning stick than through multiple modes of getting information? Realia are simply real-life objects brought into the classroom to help strengthen students' connections between the language and object(s) themselves. They are authentic and often tangible objects, although many more are accessible via technology.

Letting students touch things, see them, smell them, and even taste them, helps cement learning far better than if they had listened to us tell about it, or if they had merely read textbooks. (This is why, dear colleagues of mine, I have so many "things" in my classroom--just in case I want to, in essence "show and tell" to help make learning come alive.) Even things you may consider mundane can serve as useful realia--a train ticket with abbreviations, timetables, stops, baggage requirements, refund information, etc. can be quite the attention-grabber and conversation starter for those unaccustomed to a particular culture. Or the etiquette that comes to light when passing around a box of crackers, and the cultural insights/ beliefs it can expose. Realia are fantastic to include in your lessons, but for various reasons, they are neglected or their use is forgotten.

Bringing realia into other classrooms is a must, though. And here are 3 reasons why:
1) It's fun--pulling out a squeaky plastic yellow horse to demonstrate a major point in history makes kids wonder--and yep, laugh, in spite of their oh-so-cool selves.

2) It's memorable--it's multidimensional, often tactile, and sometimes, as my colleague demonstrated, a little bit silly. And we all know laughter helps lower that affective filter, which in delightful turn, makes learning stick.

3) It makes a happy brain. Pulling out an object and letting kids wonder for a minute what the heck you have "that" (whatever it is) for gets those synapses a-firing. Brains are seeking a solution to this puzzle presented in front of them, and then they are satisfied with an ah-ha. Which also makes learning more memorable because they make more connections.

All because of my colleague's yellow plastic horse. Hot diggety. (I'm just thankful he didn't dig up any smallpox...)

What realia can you add to your lesson tomorrow to help make it fun, memorable, and sheer mental manna for your students' brains?

PS--I wanted to send this shout out to my colleague and co-teacher, Mr. P!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Bilteracy--what's your experience?

We recently began what will be a yearlong professional development ("we" being the ESL and dual language teachers in our county) about the aspect of teaching biliteracy, reading and writing in two languages within US classrooms. Although not an entirely new concept, our presenters and the authors of the book  Teaching for Biliteracy, Karen Beeman and Cheryl Urow formalize the idea of purposefully bringing two languages together in what is known as The Bridge--the formal comparison and contrast of languages.  (Fascinating stuff, personally!) 

They promote the idea of learning something well, with an outcome of only needing to learn something "once", no matter which language--and for me, that idea really gave me pause for reflection. 45 minutes of teaching a concept in Spanish should transfer as readily to English as if I'd spent 90. In turn, this flips scheduling a bit on its head since 45 min of Spanish + 45 min of English are as effective as 90 minutes of each!! What would you do with that extra 90 minutes?

I'd never considered my own instruction and my students' learning through that lens:  was/ am I teaching a concept solidly enough that they will NOT have to relearn it in their own language? If not, how can I change that to optimize their cross-linguistic strategies and transfer abilities? 

Academic oracy--students' ability to express themselves and their understanding of a variety of concepts, well. It is this, that is the essence of their successful biliteracy. As for success, it rarely comes without a struggle of some sort, but as Beeman quotes: "There are no mistakes, only approximations." And this, in the world of learning among languages, reminds us that each of their approximations has a reason behind it. Use those "mistakes" to inform your instruction and look upon your students with an "asset" (here's what they can do--how can I use that to leverage their learning) mentality rather than a "deficit" one. (they can't do this...)

Use content to generate bridges -- create anchor charts that are unit-based, laden with meta-linguistic elements, speech events with differing underlying cultural norms, etc. Make sure the students are GENERATING language as frequently as possible, and create codes (whether with colors, visual markers, specific spaces in the room) to simplify their mental gymnastics between languages.

Speaking of mental gymnastics, explicitly promote their cognitive flexibility--as bilingual, biliterate, and bicultural learners, our students are pretty darn amazing. We want them to listen, read, write, and speak at grade level, in both languages, ideally. How often do we promote their native language(s) in our classrooms? Perhaps some of you would love to debate the question: Why should we promote their native language in our classroom if they are in the United States? (I'd love to hear your comments below!)  Think, too, of how often your students are immersed in English. That percentage of time immersed in English (or not) has a tremendous impact on academics--so what are we doing to minimize that gap?

There are several strategies when teaching language, and the Language Experience Approach is one opportunity to approach reading, writing, listening, and speaking naturally. Oracy (speaking and listening), once again, the oft-neglected portion of our classes, is the cornerstone of literacy.
Oracy leads to literacy! 
Get students to generate language, teacher friends, and let us know your successes down below. Always wear your formative assessment cap, too--observe and listen--then mine that Big Data to inform your next steps.

Talk to us and please let us know how you honor what your biliterate/ bicultural/ bilingual students know? I'd love to hear from you.

(All #sketchnotes #edusketches were done by me, Wendi Pillars, so they are my photos.)