lifelong learning

A Teacher's Journey

Casting Off – Thoughts on a New School Year.

castSummertime for teachers is like an intellectual mooring.  The anchors, ropes, and cables that are used to hold us to our beliefs also give us the time and the place to reflect on the last year and prepare for the next. We do not cast off until our charges have arrived and we have prepped for the journey. This is my second year of workshop and we have a launching unit to help us get started. In the first couple of weeks we have had some wonderful moments I would like to share. A string of moments can grow into the momentum needed to sustain learning throughout the year.

First day started with a See, Think, Wonder on this guy.   Meet Rahu, the Hindu demon who swallowed the sun. His story is here. Since we the eclipse was 5 days away, it seemed like a perfectly good way to “eclipse” first day rules rahuand procedures. The point was to hit the students with an intriguing picture while demonstrating how we do things around here. Were we practicing thinking routines that would become a regular part of our classroom? Yes, both implicitly and explicitly.  After making our thinking visible by recording our thoughts about Rahu in our notebooks, the students moved around the room exploring a gallery walk on the ancient myths and history of solar eclipses. I saw relaxed smiles as the students moved on to their next class. Mission accomplished.

Then there was this. We had a chalk talk on the question, “What is thinking?” They must really think I’m weird now, but it actually went better than expected. Students did their best to write their comments down and then, as they moved around the room, contribute to the silent conversation. The sharing helped a number of students expand their thinking beyond the first awkward response (“I don’t know what to write.”) I listened to two boys discuss the big question, “Are we always thinking, or is it only thinking when we take it deeper?” And, “What do you mean by deeper?” Wow! 7th graders?!?!?


Those same two boys revisited that conversation when we practiced dialogue skills last week. How should we speak and listen to one another when our goal is understanding – not who’s right and who’s wrong? Through dialogue. Generation Global has wonderful resources that work well with students. The boys remarked that they were better able to respond to one another because of the active listening skills we were practicing, even if they still disagreed!

Our voyage has begun.


I’m Just Thinking …


I have been thinking … again. I do that a lot, especially in the summer. I have been thinking about thinking. I have blogged about my reader’s/writer’s workshop journey before. Well, a couple of things happened over summer break that have disrupted my journey.

I was excited to get together with a few social studies and language arts colleagues to write workshop unit plans. My enthusiasm was tempered by the fact that my curriculum specialist was leaving for another district. She was committed to the workshop model and the new hire was not familiar with it. This is not to suggest that the new hire would not embrace this initiative, but I knew the former specialist well and her guidance and knowledge drove the learning for me.  But she was still here to guide us through the writing of curriculum.

I was paired with another 7th grade teacher from another building in the district. The units we were writing were meant to be model units that we would both follow so we could evaluate the outcomes and judge the effectiveness of the units. That week we each wrote a quarter unit plan. We also had the framework set for the other two quarters, plus the curriculum specialists completed a launching unit for the beginning of the school year.

I was feeling confident about the direction we were taking. When we began workshop last year, we really didn’t know what we were doing. 🙂 We have so much more to work with now.

Remember I said a couple of things happened. My collaborative partner decided to drop out of the workshop cadre. She had an excellent relationship with her fellow 7th grade social studies teachers and wanted to work more closely with them which meant she would not be using the units we designed. I totally understand her reasoning and would have done the same if I had the same relationships in my building.

So, now I am on my own. I can do “alone”. I will have support from other teachers in my building, though not grade level discipline colleagues. It is just more fun when you are speaking the same language.

I started this post by saying I was thinking about thinking. I have always been driven by the goal of teaching my students to think. That was always more important to me than curriculum and I love the curriculum I teach – ancient and medieval history. The workshop model has given me the framework to do just that – create a thinking classroom.

My students and I will tackle our first essential question on day one. What is a thinking classroom? What does it look, sound, and feel like? What will my role be? And most important of all – what will the student’s role be in a thinking classroom? We will take this journey together.


Stripping Down to the Basics

wallpaperSummer. It’s time to relax, reflect, and reboot. And it’s time to do a couple of projects inside and out.

We have lived in our house for nearly 30 years. Our bedroom was always last on the list to be updated. The colors were grossly outdated but everything was neat and in order. Besides I didn’t really want to tackle that wallpaper that was older than our time in the house. I would have to move heavy furniture to do it, and I didn’t want to do that either.

So today I finally tackled the job. I spread the stripper on the old wallpaper. I scored the wallpaper to speed things up. After I let the stripper soak in, I tried to scrape it off but it needed a little more solution. After some experimentation I figured out how much solution I needed and how to best remove the paper. I had also tried scoring the paper per the instructions. I was a little over zealous with the scoring at first,  but I figured it was easily fixed and I learned something.

As I looked over the clean wall, I saw a blank canvas where I could change the world! (I mean the bedroom!)

Ever feel like you want to try something new, change things up a bit? Is it easier to leave things as they are? It’s not that big a deal anyway, so why do it?

Sometimes you have to scrape that old wallpaper off. You need to get back to a blank canvas. It’s never easy to get rid of the comfortable. You will fail along the way, but you will learn what works and what doesn’t from the experience. And there is actually joy in the process. Go create something new.

Do you want to build a text set?

Source: Do you want to build a text set?

Tipping My Hat

Disclaimer: This has been coming in spurts that last few weeks and took forever to finish. Enjoy!

Venn diagrams are not working for me anymore. I have used them for assessment and students really struggle with them. Today a student can probably Google any Venn I would assign, so it is no longer a measure of critical thinking. I recently asked my students  to use a Venn to compare and contrast Hinduism and Buddhism and was dissatisfied with the results. Some answers seemed trivial. Some students were looking for “opposites” to fill in the circles. So I did a little reading. Here’s what I found.

According to The Thoughtful Classroom Teacher Effectiveness Framework , there are six pitfalls when asking a student to compare and contrast.

The first is that teachers use compare and contrast as a summative assessment when it should be used as a learning strategy, in other words, a formative assessment. I was doing just that.

The second is that students, in an effort to complete the assignment, will look for just enough to fill in the “blanks” without reaching mastery of the material. It is important to give a specific description that will lead students to the content they need to work with.

The third is that “students don’t know what to look for”. Again, specific directions as to what is requested and where to locate it.

Fourth, students need a graphic organizer that allows them to visually organize the information in a way that makes it easier to find  comparisons and contrasts. A Venn diagram is crowded and cumbersome. My students said the very same things to me.

Fifth and sixth, we treat the comparison as an end game and then we do no
t require our students to do anything with the information. In real life, we compare things inorder to make a decision about them. We need to ask our students to do the same.

Enter the Top Hat Diagram.


Many of you may be familiar with this graphic organizer, but it is relatively new to me. 🙂 We used it twice recently. We divided the top in three to compare trade in three Mediterranean empires. In the bottom, I asked them to compare the three. I like that the students could take notes in the top without worrying about categorizing them as the same or different. The graphic organizer allows them an extra step to gather information before they do something with it. I can also customize the reflection I want them to take in the brim.  Some examples are shown below. We also used the diagram to compare citizenship in ancient Athens and Rome.


It needs some work to make it work harder for the student. Time to put our thinking caps (hats) on!


On the “make”?

This is just one of the parts of workshop that is a challenge  for me. A make is that “thing” students create at the end of a unit to demonstrate  what they have learned. It should be authentic, real world, be purposeful. So what could we do for ancient India? 

Lately I have been thinking that I need to find something unique in each unit. For ancient India we stress the planned cities of the Harappan culture and then look at the modern cities of India and the challenges they face. I thought that after this learning, why not have the students plan their own modern cities?

After some Internet surfing I found something I thought I could make work at the Arizona Geographic Alliance. Here is the link to the lesson I used. I was excited to try it out on my advanced studies students. I introduced the project on Friday and sensed the anticipation. I couldn’t wait for Monday.

Today was fun! Everyone was engaged. Teams were sharing the work, discussing placement of facilities and they cut and pasted them on their plans. I am definitely looking forward to presentations to the “city council” on Wednesday. To be continued…

Texting and Driving (to Think)

My workshop model experience this year has been … uneven. Sometimes I feel like a cheetah, running from student to student, conferring on the fly, never sure if I said the right thing or that what I did say was positive and constructive (oh God, did I say “awesome” again?) Then there are the times I feel like a sloth, hanging from that tree, slow to make decision about curriculum because I am stuck and don’t know what to do. I want to take a nap, hoping when I wake up I will have a bunch of new ideas that will be energizing and engaging. Right.

(Or is it “write”?)

We spend time nearly everyday reading and writing. I like to offer a variety of texts to my students. Creating text sets is challenging. According to Annenberg Learner, “Text sets are resources of different reading levels, genres, and media that offer perspectives on a theme.”  A well-crafted text set is all of these things, and engaging, too.   I can usually find a few, but I struggle finding the right text for the right situation. The toughest part is finding texts for different reading levels that cover the topic we need to cover.

What resources have I tried?

Yes, Newsela is great but it doesn’t often cover the ancient historical topics I teach. I did find some good sources on Egyptian leaders. Here’s another on protest that includes texts on both Dr. King and Mohandas Gandhi. Newsela allows the teacher to match the reading to the student’s SRI score.

I like to mix up the media. My below grade-level readers love videos. YouTube has many good short videos. Though not perfect, the close caption feature allows the student to read along. TED Ed also has many short videos with questions attached. Images of many different kinds are useful – maps, charts, diagrams, and photographs. These are everywhere.

I usually collect my text sets using Padlet. Padlet is an online bulletin board tool easily accessible to students. Pinterest could also work but you need an account. Anyone can view a Padlet with the link and you can allow students to comment on texts or add their own. Here is a Padlet I created to explore the concept of civilization.

Made with Padlet

I welcome suggestions for texts and texts sets. I think the most challenging part is finding the time to create them.

On the 12th day of blogging…

Reflection gave to me, 12 reasons to continue blogging…


It’s almost over. I spent the last 12 days blogging, whether I wanted to or not. If you read the posts, you’ll find the good, the bad, and the ugly.

A few minutes ago I finished a great chat with the #sschat crew. I am all primed for Semester 2. I have also pledged to meditate 365 days this year. That will help me to stay focused. I am going to leave you with a list of wishes, actions, and goals for 2017. And yes, there are 12, of course.

  1.  Reflect regularly
  2. Meditate daily
  3. Engage my students in more discussion 
  4. Try 3 more thinking strategies with my students
  5. More current events/ancient history connections
  6. Listen more
  7. Paint my cabinets with whiteboard paint
  8. Expand flexible seating
  9. Get back to Voice Thread
  10. More Thinglink
  11. Embed map skills in more lessons 
  12. Create a fabulous final project (hint:World Heritage Sites)

Now that it’s in writing, I’ll have to live u p to it. 

What do you want to accomplish?

On the 11th day of blogging…

Reflection gave to me, 11 students asking questions…

Last year I blogged about how the Question Formulation Technique had empowered my students. Questions in many shapes and forms fill the classroom.

Using the workshop model in my social studies classroom, continues to be challenging. To focus myself and my students, I now start each unit with at least one essential. For my last unit, Religions of the Middle East, the essential question for most of the unit was “What do stories tell us about culture and religion?”. What a great question, right? Storytelling is a part of every culture, past through present. I thought it made the unit more approachable and accessible to the students.

The students loved the story of the Maccabees and Hanukkah. Together with the Maccabeats music video, I think they understood the strength of the Jewish people.

Reading some of the Parables of Jesus helped students understand the beliefs of the Christian Church.

For Islam, we read a traditional story about Muhammad and a cat. That story taught about compassion.

We learn so much from the stories we hear growing up. The retelling of those stories from generation to generation extends the learning.

The study of history is, after all, the stories of those who came before us.

Image result for storytelling

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