Friday, September 27, 2013

Blogging in the Classroom begins! (finally writing a post again)

  Wow it has been some time since my last post.  I have felt the thrush of the school tidal wave hit and we are rocking along as my dad would say.  We're already 5 1/2 weeks into the year.  I'm thankful for the solid start to my year and I have really enjoyed getting to know my students.  I really have a great group who are willing to take risks and ask insightful questions.  All of my students have realized that history can be interesting and fun to discuss.  Many of them wouldn't have said this at the beginning of the year.  Since my last post here's a brief recap of our progress.  We've successfully set-up our blogs and students have posted three times, Open House for parents, completed our first unit on Native Americans and European Explorers, and completed an inter-disciplinary project with ELA and Science.  Are you tired yet?  I'll be posting about these activities in coming posts but wanted to give a glimpse of our progress.
Blog Day!
      To focus this back on the blog set-up, I could not have had success without the great help of my colleague Lorena Swetnam, Media Specialist Extraordinaire.  She and I were able to meet and plan out an approach to sharing info. about how to use blogs, examples of blogs, and appropriate comments on blogging.  We also spoke about editing one's writing.  In the examples below you'll see strength in making the point clear but help on editing.  Lorena's presentation was short and sweet but incredibly practical.  Blog Intro  After this discussion we proceeded to logging into  I found this site to be the best for my 6th graders.  One, it is safe and easily controlled by the teacher.  Two, I can approve or disapprove comments before anyone sees them to ensure respect is shown.  Third, it allows for my ultimate goal of connecting with other classrooms.  I'm a fan of Kidblog.


  • The free version of Kidblog allows up to 50 students per class.  Since I have 100 students, I decided to create 4 classes.  
  • To get students logged in create a "bulk" list in Excel with 2 columns.  One column titled "Student Name" and the other "Password."  
  • For password, start with something generic: DOB, phrase, or number, and then let students change password to something they'll remember after they log-in.  Trying to each individuals before hand is too much work on your part.   
  • Do those steps and you're all set to start blogging.  No other info. is needed on Kidblog for students to use site.  

The first topic:
  As I told in an earlier post, I used Ashton Kutcher's speech from the Kid's Choice Awards.  I wrote a transcription of the speech and read it to students due my feeling that some parts would be better for me to omit without losing the main point.  After reading, I had students write a post and then react to someone else's posts to get the dialogue going with one another.  Here are some examples:

"While  I was listening to the speech I was thinking that people under-estimate most actors hearing that speech told me that he is not just a shallow rich,actor like all of those magazines say. He is a very hard worker he has already had five jobs in his lifetime and he started at the age of thirteen. The most inspirational part in his speech was when he quoted jobs and the quote said to "build your own life." In my world that means be creative and don't do what other people want you to do, do what you want to do, if you don't you might be unhappy forever. So comment about what you thought it meant."

  Student Comment to this post:

"I thought that build your own life was really inspirational too. I totally agree with you on you post. Also I like how you said “be creative and don’t do what other people do."

Another Post: Great example of reflection but also challenging readers to respond and think.

"to answer the question i will ask another question what will you work hard for. for me i want to work hard on computers to game design that's what i work hard for. for that i need to be smart and patient for this. this is the base of the life i want to build the life i want to live. so what do you want to work hard for and tell us what it needs, what work it needs, and  if its the life you want to live."

Pics of our class work:

Closing and Reflection:
    I was really excited by the posts of my students because they grasped the point of the speech and found ways to make it applicable to their lives.  That's what I want out of learning in my classroom.  Find relevance and a connection.  When these two words meet in the classroom, I find myself in the "sweet spot" of teaching.   

1)  Going forward with blogging.  I'm trying to figure out the best way to view all the posts and provide feedback and assessment.  I don't want to hinder creativity by putting a grade but I do want to reward involvement.  Any thoughts as to how to best assess blogs? 

2) Secondly, the area I see where I need to improve our blogs is in the comment section.  I want students move from just saying good job but more consistently giving meaningful feedback to the post.  In some ways I feel like I should be looking in the mirror because I need to do that for them with the writing assignments I give.  Feedback that doesn't have depth to it is weak and unhelpful.  I want to improve this.  Anyone have successes or ideas for this?  

So glad to have another post written.  I feel like I've saved a quality teaching moment from the depths of "I did this lesson once."  As always, do your best!  

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Make Social Studies Real, Relevant, and Authentic

 I love to make connections.  From the beginning of my teaching career, my principal said that connections were my greatest strength in the classroom.  Thank you Mike Rutherford teaching strategies. A program not funded anymore in my district but a worthwhile approach to effective teaching.  My principal also gave me guidance that if I wanted my connections to be remembered I better improve my classroom management. Since the beginning, I strive to find the best and most meaningful connections for Social Studies.  Examples of connections can be as simple as linking a history concept like irrigation to digging a trench at the beach for your sandcastle or as higher level as discussing NGM's article earlier this year on whether to bring extinct species back to life.  This connects with our study of Early Humans.  I love thinking about what could be.  Where I've tried to take connections to the next level is bringing in speakers.  These folks offer my students first hand accounts of foreign cultures and that impacts how well students retain the content.

   The first group I had last year and am setting up this year's presentations is Thinking Globally.  They are from the University of South Carolina and seek to bring international students into the classroom to speak to classrooms about other cultures, religions, etc.  I teach world religions and world cultures through ancient civ.  As a result, their program hits a homerun for "authentic" connections to our content and that helps make what we study in class more real.  I can't wait for their arrival on Friday, October 4th.

    The second speaker came this past Friday.  His name is Brad Brown and he is the CEO of Uhuru Child.  His organization seeks to alleviate poverty in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya.  They have two main initiatives.  First, build high schools for students who cannot afford to go for further schooling.  The government pays for primary school for everyone and have over 27,000 schools.  High schools number only 7,000 and only those who can pay can get in to these schools.  As a result, the cycle of poverty repeats itself.  Uhuru Child seeks to provide education opportunities to help increase children's freedom.  The second initiative is sustainable jobs.  They provide these jobs by building Shambas (farm in Swahili) that can be a steady income for families but also gain a profit due to selling crops to market or elsewhere.  Where this link of the businesses links to the Uhuru Academy is that the profits made off the farms after paying the workforce go into funding the schools.  This means money from Africa funds the schools rather than the only pipeline of funds coming from the USA.  USA only funded schools unfortunately happen quite often.  As these are well intended efforts, the schools have to shut down when the money stops coming from the USA.  This is where Uhuru Child seeks to separate itself from this approach.  Below I have some pictures from the exciting presentation.  Brad is so passionate about what he does and I am thankful that I know him.  My students are still talking about the presentation and can't wait to see what opportunities will arise.  We're hoping to e-mail, Skype, Google hangout, or something with Uhuru Academy.  The year is full of endless opportunities.

What are you doing to build connections in the classroom?  They come in every size.  Don't miss a chance to make your content more real, relevant, and authentic.  Always do your best.
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Setting up Musical Chairs.
Talking about the shower buckets that do not shower good rain.  
Brad sharing a what motivated them to start working in Kenya.  

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Social Studies = DULL and BORING . . . NOT!!!!!

Social Studies Begins And What To Do With Textbooks
    The year has kicked into full swing and I have really enjoyed the energy that exists in my classroom.  The students are excited about school and I see the benefits our team building activities had on building community.  After the first couple of days working on team activities we are now meeting with our specific classes and sharing our content with them.  I love History and I work hard to show my students that I am passionate about what we will explore this year.  The first action I have that provides the biggest shock factor is how I view a textbook.  Textbooks are a interesting topic for teachers.  They do provide reference for students to some information but they largely are a hassle to carry around and they limit students to a certain amount of information.  To show students our textbook I hold up the book, flip through the pages, and then drop it into a bin.  I tell students, textbooks are out of date as soon as they are printed because history is constantly changing.  A large amount of facts do remain true but I want to students to see that when archaeologists make new discoveries they are able to inform the public of new information or updates to how different civilizations functioned.  This visual is powerful for students to realize because most of them think history never changes.  I make it clear to them that history is not dead but has new revelations coming out all the time.  I'm so thankful for National Geographic Magazine for their work because they write stories on so much of what I study.  I love being able to infuse their work into my classroom because this allows them to see various sources of information.  My classroom seeks to use multiple sources to explore our content and students know from day one the textbook is not the only place to find answers.

Opening Exploration of Content
      As we began introducing our content I got a great idea from a fellow teacher on how to evaluate student knowledge of our content but also give them a teaser of all the topics we'll study.  I have typically showed an intro video that does some of this but it does not lend itself to as much conversation as this new idea.  For the activity I put 28 different pictures into a PowerPoint and asked students to try to identify the civilization represented in picture.  If it was a person or statue I also wanted them to try and identify it.  I could not believe how excited students were to look at these pictures and guess the civilization.  There were literally arguments between students over what a picture was.  How cool is it to see students arguing over content?  I was so excited.  The pictures were of the River Valley Civilizations, Greece/Rome, Middle Ages Europe, Islamic Civ, Native Americans, Mesoamerica, Renaissance, and European exploration.  The pictures stretched students minds but made them take risks.  One student even said at the end of the class, "You're making my brain hurt!"  I couldn't have been prouder because for that student that represented how hard he was trying to describe the pictures.  Phil Schlecty talks about engagement a lot and says teachers should strive to get your class to engaged.  He has 4 other categories and tons of strategies for how to create this kind of atmosphere in your room.  Schlecty Where do your students fall?  I can't say mine are always engaged but on this day I had never felt closer to having 100% engagement as I did then.  It was so energizing to be a part of the class.

Let Students Have a Say
    When I had the picture activity I saw this as an easy but informative for students as we prepare for the year.  What I didn't expect was what would happen in my 3rd period.  As we reviewed the pictures, some yielded more conversation than others.  Somewhere in the middle of the set we reviewed the Terra Cotta Warriors of Qin Shi Huangdi.  He was the first emperor of China and built this massive mausoleum for himself.  Most students recognized the civilization and what they were but did not know much about the emperor who built them.  As this class talked, one student raised his hand and asked, "Can we study more about him today or tomorrow?"  At that moment, I had a choice.  I started to go into teacher speak and say "We can't do that right now.  We'll study him in a couple of months. I've got a curriculum map I need to follow."  All those statements went through my mind in that split second before my response.  Thankfully as I spoke back to him I didn't say no but honestly trailed off not knowing what to do.  It wasn't until after that class and into the afternoon that I realized how much of a fool I am if I don't do something on Shi Huangdi tomorrow. I thought back to all of my classes that day  Every one of them loved that picture of the Terra Cotta Warriors.  China is by far the most difficult unit for my students year after year.  What am I thinking?  I've got to do something or I'll just allow the lull of the schedule to rule teaching.  I have an opportunity for engagement and I've got the hook.  With that epiphany I realized that this would be a great connection with my talk I like to have about archaeology since so much of my content is known thanks to the work of these scientist.  This was my direct connection and it was better than anything I've done before.  Thank you student for challenging me and asking for something.
     I started exploring and found this article, "The Secret Tomb" , talking about the mystery of his tomb and if archaeologists should dig into his central tomb.  The culture during Shi Huangdi's reign believed in the afterlife and the desire for immortality.  I placed the article in a page protector for students so they could make marks on it with a Vis-a-Vis marker but not ruin my class set.  (Nice strategy to save paper but also teach students how to analyze.)  As we read we found that Emperor Shi Huangdi took lots of mercury pills and even created a moat of mercury around his tomb.  This fascinated students and me for that matter as I never knew that information.  I love getting to learn alongside the students.  I encourage you in your classroom to let students have a voice in what you're doing.  Who knows what kind of learning that takes place.  Here are my suggestions:

- Let students share with you what interests them about your content
- Use this info. to guide how you set up instruction throughout the year
- Be willing to take a detour on your content.  If it relates to what you're teaching but is out a place, who cares?
- Have fun!  If what you do every year isn't interesting anymore, switch it up and do something different.

So what are you doing different this year based on this year's class?  I hope you take that into consideration as you plan.  Each class is different and what helps one gain mastery may not help the other.  Always do your best!