Monday, February 23, 2015

#Flipclass Flashblog: Deeper Learning w The Odyssey

February is Odyssey time for my students.  I have been teaching Homer's Odyssey for every year of my career, even during student teaching.  If there is a text to dive into deeply, this is it.  There are so many topics I cover with this epic.

To name a few...


  • Joseph Campbell's Hero Journey-- students analyze how both Odysseus and Telemachus undergo a heroic transformation
  • Oral storytelling techniques-- Trojan War Stories, Odysseus' guest-gift of the story of his journey to the Phaiakians
  • Persuasive techniques-- compare and contrast Telemachus' speech at the Assembly (Book 2) with Athena's request to Zeus during the Council of the Gods (Book 1).  
  • Societal Norms-- how literature teaches readers to behave in society and what happens when one doesn't behave (oh, those haughty suitors!)
  • Poetry Explications-- analyze contemporary poems inspired by the epic and write poetry explications

How I get students to dive deep into the Odyssey has changed over the years as I've tried different pedagogical approaches and infused educational technology tools. Last year was the first attempt at gamifying my instruction and, boy, did I get in over my head. While the delivery of the content and the tasks for completion were effective, I got swamped with managing "the game".  I had too many moving pieces and I couldn't effectively "level up" individual students. The content was organized in one Edmodo group with subtopics divided into small groups.  Students had to be manually added to the small groups when they were ready to level up.

Problem solving this with my colleagues in my Master of Arts in Instructional Technology cohort, Mr. Astin recommended automating the leveling up by using Google Forms and Flubaroo.  Rather than keeping all the content in one Edmodo group, Mr. Astin recommended having an Edmodo group for each topic, students complete the tasks, then take a mastery test on a Google Form with Flubaroo set to automatically score the test.  If students scored proficiently, they would receive an email with join URL for the next group.  I would get a notification stating that a student wanted to join the group and I could quickly see if they completed the previous group's tasks.  If so, I approved access; if not, I sent a message to the student that he/she needed to make sure all tasks were completed proficiently.

So far, this tweaked "game" design has worked very well!  I front loaded the content in each group and let students begin their epic quest to become an #OdysseyExpert.  Students are engaged, taking responsibility for their learning, and diving in deep.

My students have done some really cool things during our study of The Odyssey from tracking down on social media the actor who played Telemachus in the made for TV movie (and decorating t-shirts to honor said actor) to creating found poems to writing screenplays based on Trojan War stories to creating personal epithet Vokis to publishing projects on the #OdysseyExperts blog. There are so many things!




And if this evident of having an impact, one of my students from last year tweeted me on Valentine's Day with Telemachus themed cards she made! My favorite is the one on the right.



In addition to all this awesome deeper learning, I'm surreptitiously preparing my students for the PARCC -- they are using the exact digital literacy skills needed to be successful on the PARCC without me teaching to the test.  By the way, we begin PARCC testing on Monday. And my opinions on the PARCC are reserved for another blog post...

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Evolution of the Lecture: Trojan War Stories

My freshmen students have begun learning about the background information for our study of Homer's Odyssey.  In years past, I would give a two day lecture to the entire freshmen class on the Trojan War, repeating the stories during seven 43 minute periods per day.  It was an epic task-- I had to keep my pace and remembered the tales as I channeled the muses, but I enjoyed every minute of it, modeling age old oral storytelling techniques: pacing, repetition, voice variation, etc.

Years later due to scheduling constraints and other curricular demands, the other freshmen teachers and I decided not to continue with the live lecture. I still would tell the stories to my students in class. But when I started to give the tales last week, something changed.  My enthusiasm waned as it became an epic task to keep my freshmen students focused for the lecture.  I tried. I really did, but when they constantly wanted to interrupt and needed to be redirected back to listening, I realized I didn't have the strength of Hercules to continue.

Not wanting to face defeat, I decided to take a different approach.  Saturday morning, I wrote up a 10 page script to go with my Trojan War Stories slides and I recorded a screencast of the tales.  Using TechSmith's Camtasia to record and edit, my 90 minute lecture became a 54 minute video that still made students focus on listening skills.

Anticipating that playing the video for the whole class would still result in me having to redirect student behavior, I pulled it into EDpuzzle today and spent about 30 minutes putting in questions in the video to check for student understanding.  I purposely chose where to insert the questions, chunking the material.

Tomorrow students will wear headphones, watch my lecture in EDpuzzle, complete the questions, and submit a reflective writing task in Edmodo on the process and comparing/contrast the live lecture to the recorded one. I am looking forward to the formative data and reading what the students write, and I anticipate that most will state that they enjoyed the video more than the live lecture.  I will share screenshots of the data and student feedback later.

For now, you can check out the Stories of the Trojan War as told by me, Mrs. Baker.....


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Manipulating Texts: Unmagnetic Poetry

Since reading Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, my 9th grade students have been focusing on the concept of the American Dream, analyzing companion texts such as Steve Jobs' 2005 Commencement Speech at Stanford University, MLK's I Have a Dream, and Ashton Kutcher's  2013 Teen Choice Award Acceptance Speech. We close read them, answered comprehension questions, and made comparisons with how each text answers the question, "What is the American Dream, and how does one achieve it?" Wanting to provide them with a "fun" (ok English teacher's definition of fun) way to engage with the texts, I divided my students into groups and had them compose original poems from the words a la magnetic poetry. 

I'm sure we all remember the magnetic poetry kits.  I may still have a few hiding in a box somewhere from when we moved to our house four years ago.... Magnetic poetry kits are useful for sparking creativity, but there is no need to rush out to the store (or in my case, tear apart boxes in the attic).

Wordle: MLK I Have  Dream
To create the kits, I copy/pasted each speech into a Google Doc (Word works fine, too), played with the font and size of the text, and deleted common words, then cut the words out by hand and stashing them in their own envelope.  At first I tried creating word clouds of the speeches in Wordle, but the variation of font size and the way in which the words were laid out on the page made it difficult for cutting the words out. I was also running out of time and had to quickly devise a new method when I realized the word cloud wasn't working out as planned.  The Word doc worked fine and I varied the font per speech.

Students got into groups of 3 or 4, making a table top out of their desks. Each group received an unmarked envelope and got to work composing their poems and snapping pictures that were uploaded to our Edmodo class group. It was interesting to see how students initially maintained a linear structure for their unmagnetic poems, and it took prompting by me to try out other formations.

Towards the end of the period, I reconvened the class and we discussed their artistic choices and if they recognized the original text. Students easily figured out which speech was which, and we had a lively discussion about diction and theme.

Check out some of their poems below:

















Monday, February 16, 2015

Mentor Texts & Writing

Recently, during my English department meeting, we discussed ways to incorporate more nonfiction writing, especially writing that is research based, in our classrooms. Many of us agree that the 8 week research paper unit in which skills are taught in isolation to the rest of the curriculum is not an effective strategy, and while I've done well with integrating research skills into daily tasks, I know my students are still weak at pulling it all together into a cohesive writing piece.

In the beginning of the school year, I introduced my students to Joseph Campbell's Hero Journey concept and used the short stories read in class as mentor texts for fiction writing.  Rather than having my students write an original hero journey story (which would be a novel!), students drew a plot diagram for an original concept of a story and wrote one scene as if ripped from the pages of a book.  The students attempted to emulate the writing techniques of Richard Connell, Edgar Allan Poe, and Richard Peck in their original stories.  Using the short stories as mentor texts provided my students with models of effective writing techniques and the entire project was a success!  You can read some of their stories here, which we published on a website.

The mentor text strategy worked so well for fiction-based writing that I thought, "why not use this same strategy for nonfiction writing?" Students can read nonfiction pieces from acclaimed authors, identify the writing techniques used, and then write a nonfiction piece attempting to use the same techniques.  Sounds good, right?  Ok, well this is where I need YOUR HELP.

I think using mentor texts is a very viable strategy, but I don't know where to start!  There are so many texts to choose from!  I started this collaborative Google Doc in the hope that we can crowdsource some ideas for using mentor texts for nonfiction writing.  PLEASE, oh PLEASE, click on this link and add your resources, texts, and writing task ideas to this page. You can view the document below.

THANK YOU!


Monday, January 26, 2015

#FlipClassFlashBlog 3: Late Work Policies

I allow my students to turn in work late.  I don't take points off, but I do have a conversation with the student about why the assignment is late. Sometimes I get a litany of excuses, but other times I learn about my students as people rather than scores in a gradebook.

My students who choose to open up know that I care about their overall wellbeing. Talking with "Stella," I learned that she is working extra shifts after school to help out her family after the death of her aunt.  Stella turns her work in when she can, sometimes meeting my due dates, but most often not.  In the grand scheme of things, "Stella" helping her family is more important than completing my active reading assignment, but I also recognize that there is a fine line between legitimate prioritizing and procrastination-- I have to be very careful that I am not enabling my students' procrastination and reinforcing bad habits that will carry into adulthood.

Trying to strike a balance, I give my students choice: rather than a specific due date, students can choose within a window of dates for turning in specific assignments.  Will I take the late assignment even after the window closes? Probably, but not without a sit-down discussion with the student.  I really like Shai McGowan's policy of having students including a cover letter with the late assignment:



I may try implementing this next year. Here is the current policy as stated in my class expectations:


  • All Paper-Based assignments are due IN CLASS on the specified due date.
  • All online assignments are given a 2 day window for turning in the work that is to be submitted via Edmodo.  For online assignments ONLY, there is a 2-day window. All online assignments are due by 11:59 pm on the last day of the window period.  This two day window allows students to schedule their time accordingly and make adjustments in the event of issues.

Paper-based assignments are due on a specific date because we will be using the assignment as part of a class or group activity.  I'm more flexible with online due dates because I most likely will not have time to score it until a few days (or more) after the window closes.


The due date window attempts to encourage students to make choices within a reasonable boundary.  For the most, my students are able to complete assignments within the window.  When it all comes down to accepting late assignments, the question teachers must ask themselves is, "What is more important: the student be obedient or understanding why the work is late?"

Monday, January 19, 2015

#FlipclassFlashBlog 2: Classroom Hacks

The #flipclass chat on Monday nights is my favorite chat for a number of reasons.  One, this was the first chat I found when I enter the twittersphere and, two, #flipclass is always pushing my learning in new directions-- great people and great topics always keep me thinking.  Tonight, we are doing another flash blog post:  chat for 20 mins, compose blog post for 20 mins, and then share with the #flipclass folks for 20 mins. The topic for tonight is classroom hacks.

"Hacking" the multiple choice/true-false quiz, Edmodo's quiz feature is my go-to tool for replacing paper quizzes and scantron forms and providing instantaneous feedback on student performance.  Edmodo's quizzes have saved me so much time grading.  For tips and tricks, check out this post.  Edmodo's overall platform has done so much to move my classroom into the 21st Century and beyond.

Helping my students become better readers, Curriculet is my choice for a digital reading platform.  As with other digital tools, Curriculet provides instantaneous feedback on student performance and allows me to be there with my students as they are reading.  The annotations and questions embedded in the text are MY annotations and questions-- not some canned curriculum devised by a company that may or may not have seen the inside of a classroom. Curriculet is build by teachers for teachers-- they are an amazing company driving the digital reading evolution. Whether you use Curriculet to flip novel reading (I did it with Romeo & Juliet  and A Tale of Two Cities!!!) or for short reading assignments, you will love Curriculet as much as I do.

Aside from digital tools, one of my favorite lessons for the day before break or needing a filler between units is doing a card shower for alumni serving in the military.  A few years back, I asked the principal's professional assistant for a list of alumni serving in the military and any mailing addresses available.  I kept a master list and stock piled craft supplies (cardstock, construction paper, glue sticks, markers, glitter, etc).  On the day of the actual card shower, students were given the task to create a card for as many folks as possible on the list.  I then bundled each together in a large envelope (or more per alumni) and dropped them in the mail.  Usually we do this around holiday time so we can use a holiday theme.  My students learn informal letter writing and the alumni get a nice surprise in the mail.  Every now and then, I get to hear back from the alumni.




I Have a Dream....

While I am not nearly as gifted as an orator or leader on a national scale, in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I've listed some of my educational dreams...




I have a dream that one day America's students will free from the tyranny of high stakes testing, able to learn and showcase their prowess in any way they choose.

I have a dream that classrooms will be student-centered with all students engaged in learning activities that are relevant and promote higher-level thinking.

I have a dream of working with students in small groups and one-on-one without time or curricular constraints, that students will want to learn from their teachers in a collegial and collaborative manner without focusing on points or grades.

I have a dream that all classrooms will be provided with resources and tools regardless of budgets or demographics, that classrooms will be comfortable and engaging learning environments without desks situated in linear rows.

I have a dream that students will be knowledgable and appropriate digital citizens so that classrooms across the country and world will be connected, sharing their learning experiences.


I have so many dreams for myself, my students, classroom, colleagues, and beyond, but I feel that dreams of today's educators are being squashed by forces beyond our control.  How can we achieve our educational dreams when testing dictates schedules, access to resources, and curriculum?  How can my students achieve their dreams when they are pulled in so many directions?  I don't have the answers, but I can do anything and everything in my power to guide all towards a better education.

What are your dreams?







A big thank you to Sylvia Duckworth who made a #sketchnote out of this blog post. So cool! 

Class Dojo: All About Relationships with the New App

I am continually impressed with Class Dojo's ability to meet the needs of educators. Striving to keep all stakeholders informed on students' performance in the classroom, Class Dojo uses behaviorist techniques and positive reinforcement to track student behavior and provide real-time data for parents (and students).  Whether teachers use Class Dojo all the time or during specific class activities, Class Dojo is the only app for better classroom management.

In case you missed it, last week Class Dojo announced that they have redesigned the Class Dojo app.

From the horse's mouth, here is the update announcement:







Monday, January 12, 2015

Don't Let Your Birkenstocks Get Moldy

So I'm sure you've seen those cable versus satellite commercials-- yeah, those ones with the crazy trains of logic.  Here's one about lowland Gorillas...



Despite the crazy logic, there is sense in this, and I've had my own epiphany this school year.

If you haven't noticed (or maybe you have), there has been quite a lag in the number of blog posts I've written since this summer.  My teaching schedule is a tough one. I teach in 2 buildings, 3 different preps in 3 different classrooms.  Every time a bell rings, I must move to somewhere else because another teacher's class is coming in to the room. I embody my "Go! Go! Go!" mantra. I can barely keep things straight and I am only able to do 1/10th of what I normally do: Brody stays home, desks remain in 5 rows facing front, classrooms are not decorated with student work, blog posts are unwritten. But aside from what I'm not able to do, I've realized that I've forgotten tricks that I learned in my first few years of teaching when I last travelled. I became comfortable and complacent having my own classroom space for 10+ years of the 16 years of my career-- sure, I shared rooms with other teachers during that time, but it was still "my room" that the other teacher was entering. Now, I'm a stranger in a strangeland, and I'm having so much trouble teaching in spaces that are not "mine".   Despite the craziness of the schedule, it has forced me to me out & about more, connecting to colleagues I haven't seen often.

So, what does all of this have to do with moldy Birkenstocks?

Well, I digging in my closet the other day looking for shoes and I came across my much worn, beloved Birkenstocks that I haven't worn in far too long. The miles I've walked in those shoes... only to be buried in the closet, and, to my shock and horror, the cork footbed had a layer of dusty green-grey mold. How could I have neglected the Birkenstocks that walked me to where I am today?

My Birkenstocks are a symbol, reminding me to not forget to be ingenious, free spirited, and well-travelled.

So in the spirit of Direct TV's logical advertising campaign...

When you occupy a classroom too long you get comfortable.
When you get comfortable, you forget the things you learned.
When you forget the things you learned, you stop wearing traveling shoes.
When you stop wearing traveling shoes, they get moldy. 
Don't let your Birkenstocks get moldy.
Get out of your classrooms and keep learning.




Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Giving Voices to Stars

In case you missed in my myriad of tweets every Monday Night and Tuesday morning for the past few months, my former student, Matt McAndrew, has been a contestant on NBC's The Voice. Every Monday at school has been, "Matt McAndrew Monday!" and every Tuesday, students take out their phones as part of their Do Now to Vote for Matt. I am over the moon and so enthralled with Matt's performances.


I can't stop listening to Matt's duet with Adam Levine, "Lost Stars" nor reflecting on this whole crazy Matt McAndrew & The Voice craziness. Playing this video for my students today in room 5-1, I pointed at the spot where Matt used to sit in class and pointed at the screen showing Matt singing with Adam Levine. 





I am in awe and humbled as an educator. I cannot predict what my students will become. And sometimes, on a rare occasion, there is a glimmer where I can see the girl or "boy caught up in dreams and fantasies reaching for someone" he/she will be. But never would I have predicted what Matt has accomplished the past few months. Now, that doesn't mean I didn't believe he could do it... that means I didn't see it coming. I didn't recognize the glimmer or "lost star" back in 2005; I was too caught up then in the assignments & grades & rigor of education.


Thank you, Matt, for this gift of sharing your talent with all of us, for reminding me to look for the glimmer and the "lost stars". All I can do is be a teacher on a daily basis who will give students the skills and support to do whatever they want to do whenever they find their calling. No test score or homework assignment will ever determine the worth of the students in class. Thank you to all the Southern Regional High School (and everywhere in the world) teachers who shine for our students.


Regardless of tonight's outcome, Matt McAndrew is a star.