Archive for April, 2010

Notebook Babysitting

Foreseeing the ridiculous amount of work over the next few weeks, I decided to have a “mini-notebook” check. The students turned in their notebooks after updating it according to the provided table of contents (theoretically). I went through each individual student’s notebook and placed notes where things were missing, incomplete, or incorrect. This was a boatload of work for me—according to some teachers, “over-grading.” It will make grading easier next week when they turn in their final notebooks (including additional material from the past few days).

Usually, the students turn their notebooks in on the day of the test. However, seeing as though the test also happens to be a day before the end of the grading period and two days before the conclusion of my student teaching, I feel that it is essential that I check to see that the students are on task and familiar with the material before it is too late. The last thing I want to do is leave my CT with irate parents and students who learned nothing during the unit. I will not have the opportunity to reteach and students (especially young middle school children) can easily slip through the cracks.

The students need to be accountable and independent; such extreme measures might be a bit overbearing according to some. I would argue that it holds students to a higher degree of accountability. The expectations are now VERY clear to them and they know that their notebooks are being thoroughly examined, not just glanced at (or only portions graded) Therefore, there is no debate regarding grades and a clear understanding that all in-class assignments and notes need to be completed thoroughly. Remaining on task and focused in class is essential (I rarely give homework other than completing assignments from class, study guides, and updating notebooks).

Some students didn’t feel as though it was important to complete all of the entries and were given “tentative failing grades” (and harassing, yet encouraging emails over the weekend). NINE students showed up before school for one of my extra help sessions last week; I’m interested to see how many show up tomorrow after getting their notebooks back today…A number of students are unable to get to school early due to transportation issues; I tend to give them a bit more leeway in terms of time frames (ex. Bobby-Joe will have until Wednesday to get everything fixed to change his “mini-notebook check” grade from failing to passing rather than tomorrow. He will also have the option of seeing me during lunch–*note: all students ALWAYS have this option).

IT Frustrations

There is nothing that makes my blood boil more than computers that don’t work and cell phones. My internet connection at my house will not allow me to upload my VLOGS; upload anything for that matter. I am an extremely patient person 99% of the time; but, I think I make up for it that last 1% when I get frustrated with uncooperative technology. Wow, I need to go for a run.

Is there some sort of IT class available free of charge anywhere? Voodoo doll? I am way too tired to drag all of my stuff elsewhere to do it; they will just come in groups and out of order with regards to when they were filmed. Until then, I’m typing my thoughts.

Teaching with the Smartboard

My biggest fear of student teaching was encountering the Smartboard. Now that I’ve had it; I don’t think I could live without it and some of its features. The applications available are AWESOME and have a hypnotizing effect on the students.

Opening Lesson Disaster to Fairly Amalgamated Unit…


The day I presented my opening lesson on the Civil War to the cohort was a DISASTER. I locked myself out of my house with the dog and no keys. Took the dog to the neighbor’s house, grabbed the spare and came to class with no materials. When I went home during lunch to get my stuff; I found a very stressed out dog and a shredded laptop… After a good cry and scramble to print out materials my CT had copied to my external hard drive, I went back to class and presented the lesson as calmly as I could manage. I feel as though I managed to maintain a composed façade; however, the lesson did not flow as well as I had originally planned.

Because my Smartboard presentation was lost, I resorted to tape, printer paper, and the white board to complete the “North/South Chart.” It got the job done; but it was not pretty, merely resourceful. The thought behind using the Smartboard while the students’ cut/paste their own chart was to keep their attention. Any lessons that employ the Smartboard mesmerize the students (at least that is my experience with the 6th graders I work with).

Categorization Confusion & Clarification

I used resources provided by the state to choose the wording of the northern and southern characteristics. The word choice made it so that the characteristics did not clearly fall into the designated categories; however, I wanted to be sure that the students were familiar with the descriptions provided. This was confusing to the students as well as myself, and threw off the lesson. When I presented the lesson to the students in my 6th grade class I was explained why each description best fit a particular box and pointed out how the characteristics on the right and left sides coordinated with one another. To further clarify this, I passed out copies of a chart I found in a 6th grade history textbook designed exclusively for the VA SOL.

Issues that Divided the Nation Chart from Textbook

The students were then asked to insert 6 images (one in each box), which represented the characteristics they glued into the chart. The chart, which I had provided from the book included images, to further clarify the themes of each box. I believe this helped them clarify the information presented. I wanted the students to draw and color their own personal images because I was hoping it would force them to summarize and comprehend the information, even if at a minimal level. In addition, when they flip back through their notebooks to study (theoretically), the images may act as a trigger and make the chart appear more aesthetically pleasing to the eye.

Completed “North/South” Chart: Student Work

Adaptations for Classroom Use

At the conclusion of the lesson to summarize the information presented, I had the students complete an exit ticket in which they had to determine whether it was more likely that an individual from the “north” or “south” characterizes each trait. I made a point to clarify that these were just generalizations and there were always exceptions; but, for our purposes of understanding, we were not going to dive too in-depth just yet.

Rather than use the Smartboard to make the chart itself; I decided to use it to make a T-Chart of the “North” and “South” and provide an elaborated list of characteristics. The students were called on randomly using the index cards to drag one characteristic to the proper side. They referred back to their charts we had just made a number of times to check their answers and those of their peers.

Tying the Unit Together

When I presented this lesson to the cohort, I had them complete the “Diamond Four,” categorizing the reasons they believe to be the most significant divisions between the North and South and thus causes of the Civil War. I determined that this was much too difficult at this point for my students and would rather use this activity at the end of the unit. The students could draw on what they learned throughout the lesson and elaborate much more when writing their persuasive or argumentative paragraphs. It would also be an effective way to review the material presented in the first lesson in a more in-depth and analytical manner. The students will be completing this assignment during Language Arts this week (after evaluating letters home from both Union and Confederate soldiers).

The students have completed a number of activities in which they have to analyze various aspects of the Civil War from different perspectives. For example, a few days ago they evaluated the Emancipation Proclamation from the perspective of a Southern plantation owner, a slave working on a plantation, and a Northern factory worker. We also discussed the document from an abolitionists’ perspective in-depth; however, they were not required to write about it.

Emancipation Proclamation Perspectives

Last week we read a picture book about the story of a family traveling along the Underground Railroad and the students completed a scaffold, which they used to develop a paragraph describing why they would or would not return to help other slaves escape after escaping themselves. The class was split, and provided great arguments for both sides! This especially pleased me because I am working very hard at presented information from a non-biased perspective.

Harriet Tubman/Fugitive Slave Writing Activity

Finally, we have been reading the novel, “With Every Drop of Blood” at the beginning of each Language Arts class. The novel presents the Civil War from the perspective of Johnny, a 14 year old boy who’s father was a Confederate soldier and died from battle wounds, and Private Turner (or Cush), a 14 year old boy who escaped slavery and joined the Union. The novel portrays the various perspectives of the War through outside characters and the unlikely friendship that develops between Johnny and Cush. Each day after reading, we discuss how the boys’ understanding and views of the War are gradually changing.

Backward Design

When using the Backward Design process to plan the Civil War Unit, I did not clearly foresee how effective using the “Diamond Four,” which I had intended on using for the opening lesson, would be at the conclusion of the Unit (in both Social Studies and Language Arts). As I continue to gain experience teaching; the cohesion of the material and unit became increasingly clear to me. The Backward Design process always made sense to me theoretically; however, due to my lack of understanding regarding my students and their intellectual abilities I was unable to utilize it as effectively as I now feel as though I am able to. Gretchen and Mark repeatedly tell me that there are some things only experience as a teacher will teach me and until I gain that experience, there is no way to truly understand.

I appreciate being forced to design a unit according to the Backward Design process, even if the initial product was slop and had to be repeatedly changed and re-worked for various reasons. But because I adjusted my thinking to the Backward Design process and always had the end goal in mind, I was able to produce a cohesive unit that merged learning requirements for both Language Arts and Social Studies. Bottom line: the process was a mess, confusing, and definitely not always clear. But, now that the Unit is coming to an end, I believe that it really came together pretty well. The majority of lessons were cohesive, able to be linked to the last, and all encompassing. *This is not to say that it was perfect and there is little room for improvement by any means…

Student vs. Parent Contact

We have a few students who do not submit assignments, even though they do the majority of them in class! And they actually do them in class, I watch over them! I can relate to the students on that level…sorry, I didn’t realize how much of a pain it is for the teacher until recently… Anyways, one parent in particular has been in contact with us and the work was STILL not getting done. I had offered to work with her every single morning before school, during lunch, etc. The parents were given the assignment lists (the whole nine yards). I can’t imagine what the battles at home must be like…

Speaking with this student during school and contacting her parents wasn’t working. I put some thought into it and after reminiscing on my own teenage years, I came to the conclusion that the arguments at home over schoolwork was probably making the household tense and the student even more resistant to completing (compiling) the work. Yes, i see the irony…

I got her email address and sent her a personal message. In the email I was very firm about turning in a complete notebook on the due date. I repeated my offer to meet her before school and gave her a time. Knowing this student is an avid animal lover, I attached a funny picture of my dog. She replied within an hour and promised to be there in the AM…

Much to my surprise, she showed up bright and early with all of the materials I asked her to collect! Her notebook is complete and ready for the check tomorrow; however, she asked if she could come again tomorrow morning to help other students put their notebooks together and to review the material for next week’s test! The ultimate kicker: I just received a PPT with information and images about her recent trip to Stonewall Jackson’s home…

Hopefully we can keep this up and relieve some tension at home! The goal is for the student to care and want to learn the material.

“Remember the time we let the student teacher plan the field trip…?”

I have an AMAZING CT and teaching partner who were brave enough to let a student teacher plan an all-day field trip…Prior to the field trip my CT kept commenting that I had set the bar high. I reminded her that the field trip had not happened yet and this could go down in the books as a great lunch-time story due to its disastrous outcome.

The Game Plan/Permission Slip:

Yes, we were in fact taking the BT to Virginia Tech’s Campus and making the 2.6 mile return trip by foot. With 55 sixth graders…On a whim, the administration actually approved this endeavor!!

Next step: execution. It was a small miracle. The trip went amazingly smooth! The kids really enjoyed the artifacts put out by the awesome staff at the library’s Special Collections (or archives). The rifle was by far the biggest hit. They got a chance to actually touch and handle diaries, bullets, letters (one from Robert E. Lee), photographs, paintings, official documents and discharge papers, etc. I was blown away by the enthusiasm of the staff. They actually wanted the students to really handle the stuff! A few items (such as the rifle) were “no touch;” but, most everything was simply stuck in a plastic sheet and laid out for them to pick up. There was something about actually seeing hand-written diaries and contracts for the sale of slaves that really struck home. They were REAL primary sources, not just replicas!

Not to brag, but I have the best students EVER, and they know SO much. The special collections staff was very impressed with their behavior and knowledge. This made planning a field trip easier than planning a lesson…

We split in two groups and rotated between “Capture the Flag” with Mr. Nash and the Special Collections. Union soldiers played the game to combat boredom during camp life (true fact). We ate lunch at the atrium below Hillcrest, played one big game of capture the flag, and make the 2.6 mile hike back to BMS in 55 minutes!

The students were given the chance to share their likes/dislikes and what they learned. Without a pep-talk, they all gave positive responses and did not just respond with the expected, “capture the flag was the best part.” The fact that the majority of their responses centered around the archives and artifacts themselves was very exciting from my point of view!

All-in-all, the trip was a success and explaining ideas and concepts in class is much easier now that I can reference different artifacts for discussion!

“The Seussification of Romeo Juliet”

One of our fellow “pod-members” was having a meltdown one afternoon during lunch because she was fed up with accommodating the high school and working the middle school play practices around their schedules. I’m not sure what came over me, but before I even thought about it I blurted out, “I was never an actor, but I did dance for 15 years…I can come help you.” Dr. Suess’s [name altered] sudden silence, followed by a very kind and motherly, “would you really?” sent me spiraling back to reality. I couldn’t help but think, “Liz, do you ever just keep your big mouth shut? You can’t get your own projects done…what makes you think you have time for this?!” It was too late for that thought though…

I have now found myself directing around middle school actors and actresses during extended (4 hour) after-school practices and painting props on weekends. Not to mention, playing detective and putting an end to all backstage ‘hanky-panky’ through discrete text-messaging –how’s that for technology use…? *Note, I was in a different part of the building at the time. A more direct approach is taken when I am in the vicinity.

While I definitely DO NOT have time for this, it’s 100% worth it. For starters, our fellow pod-member is much happier and calmer during the day. She even gave me a hug after practice one day (which is a big deal coming from her)! Spending time with her has opened her up to giving advice and offering a plethora of materials. She’s now very diligent about giving me tips and reminders about what not to do and what to do when I start teaching and giving me materials and ideas for future use. Which is AWESOME!

Second, I’ve gotten to know a lot of students outside of the confines of my pod on a more personal level. I am working with a handful of my own students; however, now I’m getting to spend a lot more time with older students in particular. Sixth graders and 8th graders are worlds apart! It’s nice to get a different perspective. It’s alarming too. I almost forget how rough middle school is and the things that they are already aware of! I had to pull a group into the hall to discuss what is considered to be inappropriate conversation topics and PDA backstage (I did not directly witness the PDA or conversation topics that were too extreme). I told them that, “I do not want my sixth grade babies seeing all that. It can be uncomfortable for them.” I got the, “it’s nothing they don’t see on MTV” argument… After discussing how MTV and school were very different, I finally dropped the bomb and said, “seriously guys, they’re 11. We celebrate 12th birthdays with cupcakes and cookies every other week. Can we maintain their innocence and be positive role models?!” They went silent. A few minutes after a firm, “THANK YOU!” and abrupt exit on my part, they began trickling to me one by one. “Are they really only 11 and 12? We’re sorry.”

I think I walked away from that one victorious. The older students continue to joke around and have fun with me; however, they do so on a school-appropriate level. The younger students are defiantly more comfortable and much less intimidated by the “big-bad-eighth graders.”