Friday, April 17, 2015

Making Middle School Even More Dramatic or Using Plays To Teach History

One of the more frustrating things about teaching middle school is their energy. I know we're not supposed to say that, but it can be hard. I would like to be able to talk and not feel like I have to battle for their eye contact. I would like for someone walking by my window not to derail my class for five minutes. And I would like for a simple instruction not to result in the class erupting into conversation.

But it's a silly subject to gripe too much about because it is what we signed up for. A middle school teacher grumbling about dealing with raging hormones is akin to a doctor complaining about sick people. And, despite how difficult they can be, I genuinely believe that their behavior (or misbehavior) does result in better teaching. I would like to think I'd still try to create multiple activities per class that allowed for movement and interaction no matter how my students behaved. But the truth of the matter is that if my students were willing to just sit and listen, I would spend more time talking while they sat.

One teaching approach I've had lots of success with is having them act out what we're learning. I feel like it is a fantastic fit for this age group, capturing their energy and applying it to good use. But that does not mean it has always gone smoothly. I still remember the first time I tried this. I gave groups different subject matters to make into plays. For the entire week there was laughter and engagement. As the week progressed they pleaded for more practice time, which I gave, pleased they were so intent on making quality productions. Then they performed their plays. Each was about twenty seconds long and made little to no sense. I was horrified that I had wasted a week of class time. The following are some ideas I've done since that have worked.

Play + Concept Map
This has worked well for me. I give groups a reading that they will turn into a play. On the first day students read quietly and turn it into a concept map. Over the next few days they get together with their group, plan out their play, decide on whose concept map they will present, and practice. I like this because everyone has had a quiet day to learn the material. Also, by their presentation being a play and a concept map, the audience has two different ways to learn the material.

Competing Plays
A slight twist on the above idea is organizing the activity so that every subject will have two groups acting it out. A major advantage with this format is that it is much more likely that the audience will get to see a good play for each subject. When I do this I  like to turn it into a competition and have the class vote on which group did the better job.

Jigsaw Play
I only did this once, but I really liked it. I gave each group a reading about a different time in Lincoln's life. They performed it in chronological order and we had now acted out Lincoln's life. For continuity, I had the same hat passed from play to play and worn by the student acting as Lincoln.

Write Your Own Play
One time after some mediocre performances,  I decided to write my own play for them to perform. I did this over a few nights and the first draft really wasn't that good: the play included grammatical errors; I had used some vocabulary that was too hard; there were important historical facts I'd forgotten to add...  But it didn't matter. They loved it. We acted it out twice and they begged me to write more.
          Wait, you don't have time? Well, you have come to the right place! (Warning- shameless plug coming) I have a three-book series titled "Acting History." Each book contains six plays, and each play has a vocabulary activity, short-answer questions, and an option for a longer essay. The books cover the Colonial Era to Reconstruction, the Gilded Age to WWII, and the Cold War to today.

Other Considerations
Beware of Props
Students love to make props for the plays. So much so, that if you are not careful, they will spend all their time making the props. They are quite wasteful about them too, using tons of construction paper for an item that they'll be throwing away immediately after their performance. I often ban props or tell students they can only make them after their play is ready.

Don't Give Too Much Time
Having students create plays can be a time suck. I usually err on the side of giving them less time than they need.

Where To Practice
It is often hard to give them a chance to practice. It gets a little crazy when there are six or more  plays being practiced in one room. I have had some luck spreading kids throughout the school hallways. This comes with many caveats of course. Many students can't handle the freedom, you have to be careful not to disturb other classes, etc. But it has gone better than I expected. Perhaps it's because they enjoy acting so much, but I feel they have outperformed my expectations with this freedom. The best situation is if you can borrow the room of a (nice) coworker who has prep that period.

Graphic Organizer
I usually have the audience filling out a graphic organizer as the plays are being performed. (And no, they don't have to fill out the section on their play(which they will ask)). These are usually pretty simple, like "What are three key facts." Students often like to enjoy the plays, and fill it out during the concept map or between performances.

I hope there's an idea you like or are inspired by. Please share if you have any of your own success stories! Failure stories are welcome too!

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Annoying Depictions of Teaching by Movies/Television

Here are a few depictions of teaching that I find annoying!

Just make it relevant
I feel like this comes up a lot. As if teachers have never thought of this. But not only do teachers try to do this as much as possible, it is quite difficult to pull off on an everyday basis and with some subjects, maybe impossible. The depiction of this that first comes to my mind is from "The Wire." I loved this series, but I couldn't help but laugh at how Prez wins over his class. In the show, Prez has left the police force to try inner-city teaching. He notices that many of the students play a dice game outside of school and decides to use it as way to teach probability.

This doesn't seem so ridiculous at first glance. But having taught probability, I know that it is not so simple. Most games that people play are actually ridiculously complicated mathematically. The curriculum I used did have a game we did; they moved left on a game board left for even results and right for odd results. When you had them multiply the rolls, this resulted in more moves to the left than they expected. This was a good activity and they did like rolling dice, but they would have never played this outside of school. BECAUSE IT ACTUALLY WASN'T THAT FUN. It also lasted two days versus the months it appears Prez had for his kids to roll dice.

It's too easy and boring
This was not a big part of the movie at all, but near the end of "Sideways" Paul Giamatti's character returns to his middle school English teaching job. In one scene they show him just sitting at his desk while his students quietly work; it's meant to be an example of how underused his intellect is. This scene should have made me angry, due to its patronizing attitude towards my profession. Instead, I found myself rapt with jealousy, thinking, "I wish my students would just sit quietly and work." The writer of this screenplay has clearly not been around hormonal teenagers in a while. Yes, I encouragement movement and come up with a variety of activities each class because it's good teaching. But it's also because THEY HAVE ATTENTION SPANS OF 1 MINUTE. I also try to have group and interactive aspects to my lessons since I think they learn better that way. But I also do it because THEY CANNOT KEEP THEIR MOUTHS QUIET.

You must break the mold
There are also lots of movies where a teacher strolls into a school and through toughness, wackiness, passion, having high expectations, or connecting they are able to reach their students ("Dangerous Minds," "Stand and Deliver," Mr. Holland's Opus," etc). These movies are not insulting per se; they definitely show that teaching can be a complex and difficult job. In other ways though they are more dangerous. They give off the impression that the only way to be successful is to be different from everyone else. And that it's more about effort than the actual skill of teaching (which can be learned). I think new teachers often come in with a "Lone Wolf" attitude and kind of look down on veteran teachers for being in the system. Actually, new teachers would do much better if they paid more attention to what the veteran teachers are doing (which really shouldn't be a surprising thing to say).

At least I would have. When I started teaching I thought I could succeed if I tried hard, cared about my students, did things in a unique way, and understood where they were coming from. Soon (well after two totally disastrous years of chaotic misery for everyone involved), I realized it was actually more important to be clear, create structure, and not get pulled into the emotional ups and downs inherent to this job. I realize that doesn't make good fodder for movies, but it's true. I, of course, also want to connect to my students and do unique lessons. And that actually became easier to do once I had a controlled classroom and knew how to construct a lesson that was actually good (versus sounding good).

All that being said, I don't think teachers are the only ones consistently misrepresented. (It is fiction after all.) I mentioned this subject to a principal, who laughed, and challenged me to find one movie where a principal actually wanted students to learn. And I have to think that police must be tired of violent interrogation scenes being the norm. Even parenting depictions could use some work in the realism department. My wife and I, when we were parents of newborns, couldn't believe how almost every baby on a show just sat there and slept. Maybe that has something to do with people denigrating moms who stay home? In the end, they are just movies, but I do worry that if an incorrect depiction is repeated enough, it starts to become what people expect when they do those jobs for real.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Proficiency Grading: Why I Like it and How I Modified it To Make it Work for Me

Ahh, educational buzz words. I've been on my break from teaching for a year and I'm already wondering if this one, proficiency learning, has moved on to greener pastures. But whether it does or not, I feel that by embracing it, with some modifications, my students learned more and my grades better captured their learning.

How it's different
What is it? Proficiency grading can mean different things to different teachers. The basic premise is that you assess students on how proficient they are at specific tasks.

But isn't that what teachers always have done? Sort of. Where proficiency grading is different is that their grade should only be for the job they did on that task. That means any practice sheets, journals, homework, etc. that prepared them for the main task (test, paper, project, etc.) does not affect their grade. Also, you should not grade them down for late work.

YOU AREN'T GRADING THEM DOWN FOR LATE WORK! Yes, I'll get to how my team dealt with that below.

Other then the ridiculously naive late-work policy, it doesn't sound that different to me. For me it was. Before proficiency grading, I graded everything on points. 10 point for this worksheet. 30 points for this paper. But with proficiency grading, those dinky worksheets were not part of the grade. Also, since I was grading them on specific learning goals, with proficiency grading I broke down all major assignments into specific skills (conventions, higher-order thinking, reading, etc.) and could let them know beforehand what I was looking for (with a rubric).

What I liked about it
1. Teaching Towards Learning Targets
 Some clear differences emerged after I switched. First of all, it helped me streamline my teaching around learning targets. Instead of what interesting assignment should I do today. I shifted to how will today prepare them for my learning goals. This made my teaching more organized and allowed me do a better job of getting them to do higher-quality projects/papers.

2. Better Distribution of Grades
This would of course depends on everyone's individual grading style, but my teammates and I both experienced this.  Our grades before the change tended to be high B's and A's, and then a lot of F's. Due to our grading so many little things, some students could bump up their grades just by diligently turning in their work. But disorganized/flaky students often failed. Although I agree that being a disciplined worker is important, I feel it was given too much weight under our previous system. Under proficiency grading for our team, we ended up having less A's and less F's.

3. Grades Better Represented Their Learning
Another change was whose grades shifted. In middle school, there are a lot of students who participate in class, are smart, and learning a lot, but have issues with organization. These students ended up getting much higher grades for me after the grading change. There are also students who don't pay much attention and aren't very engaged in class, but get every single assignment in on time. Their grades dropped. I thought this was a good thing and that their grades were now more accurately reflecting their learning. Also, if students wanted to get better grades, their focus needed to be on learning and not just getting work in. I feel that kids saw they would really have to learn at a high level if they wanted to get an A.

1. Just Collect it!
Our school did this for two years and, despite some of the advantages I listed above, teachers were really frustrated with proficiency grading due to the late-work policy. Since students could turn in work late, they did. Their homework habits got worse and I felt like half of my job was just nagging students to get work in.

And then we figured it out. Please, if you are going to do proficiency grading, read the next paragraph. SAVE YOURSELF FROM THE SUFFERING WE WENT THROUGH. Teaching so rarely has such straightforward success moments.

What we did is said, there will be no late work. On the day something was due, we collected it. If they weren't finished, we collected what they had and graded that. We made occasional exceptions based on the kid. You left it at home? Fine, turn it in tomorrow with a note. But next time I won't make this exception. A student who was passively rejecting doing anything? We might make him finish it in the hall. It's at home? How about we just open up that binder and check.

We assumed there would be more issues with the "Just Collect It" philosophy, but there really wasn't. Our work turn-in rates went up, homework habits got better, we had little-to-no late work to grade, less nagging after the due date... Seriously, all four of us felt it was the best thing ever and allowed us to reap the other benefits of proficiency grading.

2. Getting Kids To Do Practice Work
Other than the late work issue, another fear of teachers is that kids won't do the homework or practice sheets if it is not affecting their grades. I really worried about this and it went better than I expected. As any self-respecting middle school teacher, should, I harassed them if they weren't on task (as I did before) and if students asked if this was being graded, I'd explain its importance to the final task. I did not see a reduction in work effort in class. 

I should say though that (A) it was 6th graders, (B) my school is above-average S.E.S. (but not crazy above), (C) I didn't assign practice for homework (like I would if I was a math teacher). I think in a tougher school, this might be harder. And I know, having taught them for ten years, that 8th graders might be less willing to do work that wasn't getting graded. My advice is to give it a try, since they might surprise you, but to be a realistic and adjust. It would be easy to keep most of the benefits of proficiency grading while still giving some weight to practice work. (It probably wouldn't have to be much.)
3. Too Easy To Get a C?
Our team did have concerns that although we were excited to see our F's drop, that maybe a C was getting too easy. If we collected everything, eliminating the "0," it wasn't too hard to get their grade up to a C. I think this is its own discussion, but I think if it is concern, a teacher can raise their standards for how you grade them.

Is proficiency grading already passè? Maybe. But in my classroom ,I expect it to play a significant role for a while.