Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Backwards Planning

I am in the process of creating a new Greek Civilization course for the fall semester, and there are a few key curriculum planning strategies that I recently received from my participation in the Klingenstein Summer Institute (KSI) that I have found to be incredibly helpful:

1. Backwards design: I learned about this before KSI, but one cannot underestimate how much the formulation of unit understandings and essential questions must come first when designing a course. It is only by articulating clearly what you hope students will understand that you can then work backwards to frame your lessons. 

2. Design with deeper understandings in mind, NOT content: While it is incredibly important to have a good knowledge base of the subject matter that you are going to teach, the trap that expertise can set is that you may prioritize teaching facts, especially if you have a passion for the content. The problem that can arise is that you'll just want to share what you know and love without really thinking about why you are sharing it. Exposing students to your passion is great, but exposing them to material for the sake of exposure is pointless. In other words, instead of worrying about the facts, it is important to craft your units based on what your students will understand. And what the students will understand should be something that stimulates inquiry rather than a 'correct' answer. In order to do this, at KSI we practiced creating units based on student misconceptions. Here are some photos of some of the unit understandings that we developed in our curriculum group.


We brainstormed some common general misunderstandings in history (listed below), and I am currently using this list to help guide my unit understandings. As you will see, a misconception is not generally specific to a time period or topic.

  • If a document has bias then it must simply be unreliable (i.e. students don't investigate why sources have bias) 
  • Content without context (e.g. students only memorize dates for the sake of memorizing dates)
  • There is no need to make connections between historical terms/events/phenomena
  • There is one right answer; tell me what I need to know
  • Presentism & its opposite (i.e. students interpret the past through their own lens OR think history is irrelevant)
  • Inevitability: students ignore contingency (i.e. students believe there was just one outcome)
    • (Note: this is a difficult misconception when we also want them to identify patterns)
  • Anecdotal evidence -false analogies
  • Monolithic behavior (e.g. all Chinese behave like this…)
  • Post hoc ergo propter hoc (--> logical fallacies and false causation)
  • The textbook is THE authority - that history is not an argument...what is a 'reliable' source?
  • Great Man Theory
  • History is handed down to us as is (i.e. students don't understand that we create history from analyzing primary sources, which come from a variety of sources (textual, oral, archaeological etc.)
  • Benefits of Interdisciplinary work
  • Compartmentalization of history (American history is not connected to any other history)
  • Myth of progress
  • History as good guys and bad guys - history as one single narrative (nationalism/identity/testing/simplifying stories for elementary kids)

With all of this in mind, here are the first two units of my course that I've drafted so far:

  1. Greek Myth:
    1. Misconception:
      1. Greek myth is just a bunch of fun stories
    1. Unit Understanding:
      1. Students will understand that the norms and worldview of a culture can be reflected in its mythology.
    1. Essential Questions:
      1. Why do humans develop myths? To what extent does mythology provide a worldview for a culture? 
    2. 5 class days, 1 day of summative assessment
      1. Sourcework: Hesiod, Homer, Campbell's Functions of Myth
  2. From Myth to Reality?: The Archaeological & Textual Evidence
    1. Misconceptions: 
      1. History is simply handed down to us.
      2. History is a single narrative
    2. Unit Understandings:
      1. Students will understand that archaeology and textual evidence is analyzed to present various understandings of a civilization.
      2. Students will understand that people migrate for a variety of reasons.
      3. Students will understand that while a culture has shared characteristics, it can also have pluralistic aspects.
    3. Essential Questions: 
      1. How can we interpret archaeological evidence? Why do people migrate? Can we talk about culture monolithically?
    4. 4 class days, 1 day of summative assessment
      1. Sourcework: Article on Heinrich Schiemann, Comparing Homer's Odyssey with inscriptions from Greek colonies, Archaic artwork, Olympus case study, Herodotus

From this point on I hope to craft lessons that will help students evaluate primary and secondary sources with these unit understandings and essential questions in mind. I am not sure my understandings are open-ended enough, and I hope my second unit in particular is coherent, so I will continue to work on them. But so far what I like about this structure is that it forces me not to think about the content until I am clear with what exactly I want to assess. So now I can begin to consider what formative and summative assessments I'd like to create, and that will hopefully help ensure that my lessons role model and build toward both content and skill objectives.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Using Twitter

One of my goals this summer is to increase my professional development by using the internet in a more savvy way; this includes taking online courses via Coursera, augmenting and organizing websites that have or will prove to be useful for my teaching, and joining Twitter since I had heard how useful it is a place to engage with other educators. After just a few hours as a member, what an enhancement this last step has already proven to be! Wow!

The first person I followed was my math teacher friend, who is a genius at using the internet for his personal learning network (PLN), and he promptly sent out one tweet that explained I had joined Twitter and was looking for some history tweeps. Literally within minutes other people had tweeted suggestions for people to follow and hashtags to look at, and from there I was on to exploring a blog from a new social studies teacher (which I quickly added here to my own blog roll) and I explored a link to an article in The Atlantic with images from America in 1963. This means I had colleagues and primary sources at my fingertips within minutes of joining Twitter. Needless to say I'm still figuring out the site...I've been using the Twitter glossary page to figure out how to use "Lists", "Favorites", and "Hashtags" efficiently, and I found another site that helped me embed my Tweets to this blog, so for someone who may need some help with this wonderful resource, here are some very small tips:

1. Retweets rule! I love the idea that people can so easily share information and web sites simply by retweeting, or copying a tweet for their own audience. With a mission of simply sharing information, I'm so surprised I haven't joined Twitter sooner.

2. Find helpful hashtags! #sschat was the first helpful hashtag I found for collecting websites and finding people to follow. I also liked #sstlap and #tlap, both of which are related to the book Teach like a Pirate, which I haven't read yet, but which is on my Goodreads list of books to read. These hashtags helped me find educators from different subject areas who were getting together to discuss pedagogy as a whole. I discovered that there are rich forums for social studies teachers to get together and discuss topics put forth by moderators in the subject area, so hopefully I'll join in the next 'conference' in about two weeks!

Any other helpful tips would be wonderful!

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Last AP Review

I had two weeks this year to review the entire course material with my students before they took their exam on May 16, and for the first week the students had time to fill in the gaps in their knowledge with a review packet that also forced them to articulate some complex ideas. This meant, however, that for that first week many of the students could only focus on what they did not know, and they became a bit anxious. So on the day before the exam I decided I needed to make them feel more empowered with an activity, and this is when I had one of the most rewarding moments. 

I split the class into three different groups of four people each, and each group was given a stack of cards with 60 identifications on it, ranging from important historical figures and artists (e.g. Simon Bolivar; Claude Monet) to important historical documents (e.g. The Tale of Genji; Truman Doctrine) to important historical concepts (e.g. Social Darwinism; umma). I told the groups that in ten minutes they had to categorize each card however they wanted, but they needed to consider how to group their cards based on similar themes or based on cause and effect. I was explicit that they were not allowed to group items solely based on time period or region, and that each grouping had to have 3-5 items.

It was fascinating to watch them work: each group laid out their cards in a haphazard way on the floor, and as the time ticked away, slowly I watched order come out of the chaos. The students had great debates within their groups about the creativity of their categories, the criteria for their groupings, and in the end we walked around the room and each group had to share and explain all of their categories to everyone else. They all enjoyed seeing how differently they connected the 60 items.

What was particularly rewarding about this exercise is that at the end of it, I reminded them of the first day of class, when they struggled with the first activity of the year. On that day I had written the six chronological units of the course on the board, and had placed six corresponding stations around the classroom that had a variety of images and artifacts from a unit. They had to rotate from station to station and match the images with their correct chronological unit, and on that first day they understandably had a different time just identifying some of the 25 laminated images in the stations. Yet now, on the day before the test, they had proven their command over the material and had each come up with different ways of understanding 10,000 years of history. It was a nice way to stand back in awe as the bell rang and I could wish them luck on the exam.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Department Leadership

My current department head has been an indispensable mentor during the last four years, and with his full-time assumption as a Dean next year, we are currently in the midst of the search for next year's department head. This has allowed for many fascinating discussions in my department about the vision and execution of department leadership.

Having never taught at another school, I am only familiar with what I've experienced here, but in this time there have been two methods of leadership that I really admire in our department.

  1. Our department meetings prioritize pedagogy. I know that some of my colleagues have felt that administrative details should play more of a role in our department meetings, such as handling textbook orders or assessment policies, and while I agree those are necessary discussions, I am grateful that our meetings do not revolve around them. The majority of our meetings involve sharing lesson plan ideas, or reading essays related to historiography (like this and even this). In fact, at the start of this school year we spent part of our orientation teaching each other a primary source, and I found that to be a wonderful method of not only beginning the year with the idea of cooperation and sharing, but it put me in the mindset for thinking about how to frame my history classes in such a way that they emphasize inquiry and evidence. This brings me to the second attribute of department leadership I have loved...
  2. Setting the right tone. Our department has a great rhythm to it - we don't have our own classrooms so during our free blocks we generally come to the department office. And we don't have our own desks, so we normally gather around the large table, which more often than not facilitates discussion. And boy can we discuss! We have not only intellectually stimulating conversations about history or current events, but pedagogy as well as more low-brow humor. It's simply wonderful. There's a level of camaraderie whose tone, I think, has been created not only by the choice of hiring (which our head has a significant hand in) so that our passion for the subject, teaching, and personalities mesh well, but because teamwork is prioritized so much.

So with the prospect of a new head of department on the horizon, what else could the vision be, along with the wonderful attributes of leadership above? Some colleagues and I have discussed creating a digital primary source bank. In a server dedicated to our department, we would all share, organize, and tag primary/secondary sources for future use. While this would require a day's worth of work, I would look forward to this task as a way to consider in what regions/themes/time periods we are all proficient or lack depth of knowledge. It would also reinforce the pooling of resources.

There's also been discussion about creating standards. I've been experimenting with this during the year, and have been very pleased with my clear rubric that delineates content and skill standards. Whether such an overhaul could be applied in one year is questionable, but the attempt could, I think, make the entire grade teams more aware of unit objectives and whether we are meeting our goals for improving the reading and writing skills of our students. In particular, I've had absolutely fascinating conversations with my colleagues about unit objectives, and to what extent content standards should be applied across the board. Whatever the case, I would press for units to be structured around debate questions so that students can consider controversies of the past as well as controversies surrounding how we remember the past. This would be meant to ensure that they would practice as often as possible the skills of drawing on evidence and rhetoric.

Down the road more interdisciplinary work with other departments (particularly the English department) would be ideal. We read an historical novel with the freshmen, for example. How great would it be if they were reading it for both classes and examining it through two lenses? And we could coordinate themes - while we might discuss arete and the historical development of Classical Greece, the English department could read selections from Homer and consider the heroic cycle.

Hence one of the blessings of having started my teaching career at a  young, visionary school has been observing and participating in the creation of curriculum with a group of people who can balance the values of teamwork with their own independent style of teaching.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Thesis Writing Exercises

My colleagues in the science and math departments have increasingly used small white boards in their classrooms as a way for students to do quick problem-solving in groups. Talking with them about this inspired me to consider how to use small, portable white boards in my own classroom for writing exercises, and now I do not think I could have a classroom without them again.

I have used the white boards mostly in my AP World History class as a way to practice writing thesis statements. First, students are put into groups and then given a sheet of paper with twenty to thirty pieces of evidence about one or two civilizations that we are studying (not all the evidence may be relevant; I want them to practice sifting through data). Then they are given a question and must use the evidence in front of them to create a thesis statement. When completed we line the boards at the front of the class and read each of them over, giving constructive criticism and praise where appropriate. This has allowed me to easily point out strengths in theses (such as using appropriate transition words and precise verbs) and to allow the students to quickly dissect what makes for a weaker thesis. One of my colleagues gave me the idea of calling such an exercise the "Thesis Olympics". 

Giving students the same pieces of evidence lets them easily gauge the differences between arguments since they can immediately see the various results from the same set of evidence, but I have also given them different pieces of evidence so that they can reflect on how important it is to articulate an idea well when you cannot assume your audience knows exactly to what you may be referring. For example, below are photos from a recent exercise we did concerning the trade of commodities in world history. Each group was given a packet of primary sources regarding a different commodity (chocolate, salt, fur, and rice) and then had to come up with a thesis answering this question: "How should we understand the role of your commodity in world history?" Considering that the other groups had not read the other sources, we had a good discussion assessing how well the theses articulated an answer. I also posted photos of all the boards from both of my AP sections so the students could review all 8 theses later in their own time. Here are two examples of theses below in their original form.

The white boards have also been great for review games - my favorite so far has been using them as a way for students to compete in Pictionary. Each team selects a member to leave the room and then they all must draw one or separate concept/figures in world history within a time limit. Then the team member returns to the room and the first to successfully figure out the drawing wins a point. They get an extra point if they can also explain the significance of the concept/figure in world history. Here is a fun photo of my students playing this game, with the team members trying to analyze the drawings while their team mates squirm in their seats, pace around the room, and stand in anticipation, waiting for them to figure it out.

Lastly, my freshmen often struggle to synthesize information, so the white boards have been a great way for them to quickly get into groups and try to summarize a complex idea in a paragraph together.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Technology in Class

I am initially hesitant to incorporate technology into my classroom just because I am wary of network reliability and the ease of use of some software, so I am excited to share the three ways in which technology has been beneficial in my AP World History class this year.
  • Google Docs - An Upgrade from Moodle: My students at the start of the year were required to upload, via Moodle, their answers to 6 questions from their weekly assigned textbook reading before we discussed the content of the unit. The upside to this was that class time was fairly productive since they came in with background knowledge. The downside was that it meant a lot of grading on my part with every student turning in individual answers (total: 186 short essays to grade per week), and Moodle doesn't make it easy to provide feedback without downloading and reuploading documents, so I would ask students to see me one-on-one if they had questions about their grade. A recent professional development workshop, however, made me consider how to make this process a little more streamlined. 
    • Every one of my students received a Google Drive account through my school, and through that account students are now required to send me their weekly answers via a shared document. 
    • I have given them the option of working alone or with up to 2 other students, and they really like this idea because it means they can cooperate with friends even in another class section and divide up the work. 
      • Ultimately, however, I want to make the 'collaboration' component more of a requirement, because right now they seem to be mostly just splitting up the work rather than peer-editing. 
    • Nonetheless, and despite a few technical kinks that our IT department is working through, this has made grading the documents a lot easier as well, so it's been a success.

  • Flipped Classroom: With our shortened school calendar putting more pressure on the pace of my AP class this year, I decided I needed to try a flipped classroom for one unit in order to minimize my lecturing and maximize the use class time as an opportunity to practice writing and applying content. So I spent a fair amount of one of my Saturdays trying to figure out what software would be most user-friendly and allow me to frame the material best.
    • I first tried Voicethread, which a colleague of mine who is running an online course suggested. Voicethread is a great tool for generating discussions between classmates, and it is fairly user-friendly, but it did not serve my purposes since I was not interested so much in a forum tool as a lecture tool. But it is worth considering for future lesson ideas. 
    • Another teacher suggested Camtasia, which is a software that makes it possible to audio record over a power point; the Camtasia record feature becomes part of the PowerPoint tool bar.  I may actually think about how to use this for future take-home assessments - my first thought is to make students responsible for narrating slides that we can then share - but for the purpose of a flipped classroom I wanted something that played more like a video and had a script.
    • I ultimately ended up using Photostory, which is extremely easy-to-use. It gave me the chance to add voiceover narration, transitions, and music to slides of my choosing. The product is a lot like a Moviemaker video, but the ease of making a presentation with narration was great. Here's a 5-minute selection.
    • Upside? My students were able to download it from our Moodle site and watch it outside of class, after which we did a few activities in class that gave them a chance to practice using evidence to write thesis statements. Many of the students said they found the video helpful, so it is something I would consider doing again in the future, especially since Photostory made it relatively easy.
    • Downside? Putting together a script and choosing the right slide images took probably a good 4 hours for a 20-minute video. But it is something I can use potentially in the future again, so in the long-term it is an investment.
  • Popplet: Since I felt like my AP class was having to rush through our 600-1450 CE unit, I wanted to create a project for students that would encourage them to organize the material in a way that incorporates the habits of mind required to analyze primary sources and consider continuities and changes over time. But I also wanted the project to allow them to share the results of their work with each other for future review. As I weighed my options, I came across this and this post by Indiana Jen, both of which give very useful advice for tech resources in the classroom. 
    • I thought about creating a Google site for our class through which we could all edit and share items with our Google drive accounts, but the set-up for the various pages was more complicated than I expected (although I would consider creating a site over the summer to bypass Moodle in the future). In the end I decided to use Popplet, which is free and very user-friendly. Below is the assignment and grading rubric.

    • The students had two days in class to work on this, and the results were very well-done, I think. I was very glad that the project allowed students to consider what it means to organize information, and I was particularly pleased by how many of them found primary and secondary sources that were not in the textbook. Indeed this allowed us to have good discussions about what criteria makes a source "reliable". Here are two Popplets that my students put together. 
    • In the end the majority of students said they enjoyed using the site and would visit their peers' Popplets, but they would like the choice of working alone or in a group. So I may consider this again when we review other units in the future.
Ultimately I am really enjoying these tools in the classroom, and while I was surprised by how some of my students were reluctant to try these items out because they prefer pencil and paper, in the end even they were somewhat converted to the benefits of these methods. The drawback I could foresee in using all of these many resources on the internet, however, is the amount of log-in names and passwords the students would have to keep track of. This is why I want to utilize our Google drive a little more frequently, so we can share items all in one place; I hope to get some more ideas in the future with regard to that.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Reassessment Survey

In my last post I said that I planned to give my freshmen a short survey to see how well they understood my SBG and to ask why they don't make reassessment or tracking their academic progress more of a priority. I made the survey in my Google docs account and sent it to them as a link; 15 out of 18 of them responded and their results were anonymous. Here are the results:

My conclusions from this survey are colored below.

The good news? Those who reassessed unanimously thought that that reassessing was helpful in meeting the standards. That is reassuring. 

The feedback from the students who didn't reassess at all was also interesting.
  • One student said he/she didn't understand it and simply doesn't want to
  • Another thought it wouldn't help, but this term plans to use their planner to remind themselves to do it
  • The others said that they would consider doing it, but it would happen only if they had time and they thought their grades needed improving

Hence a little more than half of my kids are committed to doing better (which is majority, at least), and the rest are basically not motivated to make this a priority. Over Christmas break I plan to consider how to make reassessments an integrated part of class rather than something they do only if it's a priority. For example, I may try something a colleague of mine here did, which was to make reassessment actually homework for students toward the end of the term. That would be a great way to get them to review too if I was creative with crafting a reassessment that would force them to synthesize material from multiple units.

Furthermore, to help those students who struggle to make time for reassessing, this term I decided to ask all of my students to email me instead of make an appointment in order to receive the reassessment. With this new system, I am forced to write down my reassessments (making my own record-keeping more effective) and they have to set a deadline for themselves as to when they will have the reassessment ready for handing in, and I will hold them to that deadline. So far I have already had about a quarter of my class email for the reassessment of a recent unit goal assignment, and about another quarter have told me in person they plan to email me, but they haven't done so yet. This makes me conclude that many would reassess if they had better time management, but so far I'm fairly pleased with these results if at least 50% of my students are already finding this system helpful and the others are aware that it could be helpful.

Final thought: parents are excited about this system when I meet with them during conferences, and for students who are doing poorly, the parents are much more willing to put the onus on their child to do better when they hear that the student is not taking advantage of reassessment opportunities. So it's been nice for me to also watch parents redirect the conversation to how their child can take the initiative to improve instead of having their hands held.