Monday, December 11, 2017


Lately, I've had lots of opportunity to talk and think about how our words and attitudes impact our students. Edutopia has a great article on positive words, but positive words are only the start. Kids are incredibly perceptive, even if they don't always fully grasp what they're perceiving. They might not be able to say, for example, "Well, Ms. So-and-so says the right things, but it always feels forced and artificial," but they can definitely feel when something isn't adding up right. If your room, your posture, your tone, and your attitude says "they can't," it doesn't matter how well your words say they can, they're going to hear what you're thinking loud and clear.

So let me be clear: they can. Every student in this county is capable. Yes, some have challenges -- but they might not be the ones you assume. If you tell me, quietly, privately, that "these kids just can't," well, that's going to be self-fulfilling. But here's the thing: if you just assume they can, they will.

When I was first assigned to teach an AP class, I didn't realize how students got into the class. I just assumed that every one of my students was highly academically motivated, highly intelligent, highly inquisitive, and highly capable. I assumed every one of them wanted not only to take but to excel on the AP exam. I was blissfully unaware that students at my school tended not to take the exam at that time (it was not yet required), and those who did tended to score mostly 1s and 2s. I just assumed they would all take it and do well, and everything I did in that class was built around that assumption and not wanting to let them down. And, come May, they all took the test. And while not all of them scored a 3 or higher, a far higher percentage did so than in other classes, where a smaller percentage took the test.

The logic is that if fewer students take the exam, only the ones with a legitimate chance to do well take it, and "pass rates" are higher.

The reality is, if the teacher sets an expectation that everyone will get a three, you can increase both the percentage taking it and the percentage passing it.

Afterwards, someone asked me how I got so many students to take the exam and I honestly didn't know. It just wasn't ever an option not to.

Now, it wouldn't have been enough if I told the kids they could do it. I had to believe. Because many of our students have had a lot of evidence presented to support the idea that they can't. So, until there is evidence that they can, someone has to believe. Not just say "You can do it," but really believe they can. If you say it to their face, but don't believe it behind their back, it just doesn't work. But if you really, truly, deeply believe in the capability of every one of your students, they will rise to meet that belief.

A colleague, right now, has 8th grade students writing five paragraph essays. They are good, well-constructed essays. I've read them. They're impressive. This colleague has told me, repeatedly, that they can do it, they just need to be taught how. Teachers at the high school these eighth graders will go to next year explain the low performance of their students by saying, "These kids can't write; they can barely read. They're not going to be able to do well on the NCFE."

So, who's right, the teacher who says they can, or the ones who say they can't?

The truth is, they both are. Because the kids are exactly as capable as we expect them to be. No more.

And no less.

What will you choose to believe about your students in the new year?

Friday, December 8, 2017

Mrs. Bracey's Mock Trial Activity

Mrs. Bracey's DBMS 8th grade class is a great example of how students will rise to the level of expectation set for them. In this student-centered, project-based learning experience, students started the activity by writing essays to "audition" for their role in the mock trial, then prepared and ran their trials. What a great learning experience, but, as Mrs. Bracey reflects, there is always room for improvement. Thanks for sharing, Mrs. Bracey!

One of my goals this year was to implement more student centered learning activities, project based learning and create more engagement. I have always wanted to implement a mock trial in my class but was not very confident in past years. With this being my 3 rd year teaching I decided that I had enough experience to take on the challenge.

The assignment was for students to put the British soldiers from the Boston Massacre on trial. One side would be prosecuting the soldiers while the other side defended them. My goals were to make the learning student centered, further their understanding of the causes of the American Revolution, and to teach students how to think critically.

Caution: I tiptoed into this with my students more for my sake as I wanted to make sure I was guiding them appropriately as I figured this out along the way!

Step 1: Inform students about mock trial

I informed my classes that we would be doing a mock trial and explained what exactly a mock trial is. I went through and explained every role in a mock trial (ex: juror, prosecuting attorney, defense
attorney, witnesses, bailiff, etc.) In order to be cast in a certain role, students would have to write an essay explaining which role they would be best suited for and provide an explanation. This doubled as a way for me to easily select students for roles and to implement how to write an essay to my class. This also makes the students more at ease because if they are someone who does not like to talk they can easily just select the role of juror while the students who want a more vocal role can select the role of an attorney or witness. There’s a role for every student and their personality.

Step 2: Select a topic for the mock trial

I chose the Boston Massacre as my topic. The topic for the mock trial coincided with just finishing the American Revolution unit and working through the Constitution/Government unit. The topic is also controversial with students able to argue both sides.

Step 3: Inform students of their roles

After reading and grading the essays, students were informed of which role they would be playing and which side of the argument they would be on.

Step 4: Mock Trial Vocabulary

Students were given a list of mock trial vocabulary words to learn. In order for students to have a sense of authenticity I felt it was important for them to be familiar with common legal jargon. Some of the words included: acquittal, conviction, verdict, evidence, admissible, testimony.

Step 5: Break out into two sides

I set aside class periods for the two sides, defense and prosecution, to get together and work on their cases. I had a separate assignment on the Boston Massacre for the jury members and the bailiff to complete while the defense and prosecution had time to prepare questions, opening statements, closing statements, and testimony. This part requires a lot of teacher guidance because students had no prior knowledge or experience so I had to constantly move around answering questions and guiding them through their arguments. Students were very motivated and excited though and worked very well with those on their team. The prosecuting attorneys had to prepare their witnesses while the defense attorneys prepared their witnesses and defendant.


Students would break out into their two sides and would have to work together to prepare 1) strategy, 2) opening and closing statements,  and 3) questions to ask the witnesses that help prove their case. This is a time where the teacher can assist the teams, answer questions and guide them but for the most part the students are working independently of the teacher.

Step 6: Rehearse

The day before the mock trial, students spent ten minutes rehearsing the movement and procedures. The desks were already positioned as they would be for the trial with a seating chart so that students would already be familiar with where they were sitting the next day.

Step 7: Mock Trial Day

Students run the mock trial from start to finish on their own. In every class it took students time to warm up and get comfortable. If you notice students are having a difficult time getting started you can “call a recess” where students get five minutes and you go to each side to help them along. Students will get very into the trial and will surprise you by how well they can think on their feet. I did not have to do much but stand back and supervise while the mock trial was conducted. The
students were able to carry the trial on their own based on their preparation of the topic. Students were encouraged to use evidence like primary sources to make their arguments. Verdicts were reached by the jury deliberating and voting.


This was a great first experience with a mock trial. Students that you would not assume would want speaking roles were begging to participate and worked very hard. It created so many opportunities for me to see my students think critically and formulate arguments. Looking back and reflecting I want to encourage the use of primary sources as more of a basis for their arguments next time.

The outcome that I wanted for my students was for the learning to be student centered. By the time the research and preparation was completed, students were able to conduct the mock trial on their own because they clearly knew the topic which demonstrated to me that this was a successful project to reinforce and further student learning.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

"Uncover the Content."

I was recently reading the transcript of an interview conducted by A.J. Juliani. He intereviewed authors Ross Cooper and Erin Murphy about their book, Hacking Project Based Learning. During the interview, Cooper said "It's a difference between covering, right? Covering the content, and uncovering the content."

And that's just it. You can cover content, and get to the end of the semester, and you've taught your heart out, but you don't know if the kids know anything and the test results are completely unpredictable. Or you can let the students UNcover the content, or even DIScover the content, and at the end of the year, they know the how and the why, and they know that they can figure it out, and they are better human beings for having known you.

Let me illustrate this by way of a story: When I was student teaching, back when American history could be taught in a single semester because half of it hadn't happened yet, I was working with a very laissez-faire cooperating teacher. She didn't observe a single lesson I taught, she simply waited in the room next door. Never saw a thing I did. She read through my lesson plans, and often questioned stuff, but she pretty much let me do whatever. Which meant, when it was time for me to go, she suddenly discovered that I was several weeks behind the class that she was still teaching. And she wanted me to catch up with her by the time I relinquished the class. The upshot of which was, while she spent two weeks of mostly direct lecture teaching about the Holocaust, I had... two days.

Two days.

Two days get my students to a really deep understanding of what this event was, why it happened, how it happened, and how it impacted the people then and since. This wasn't just basic world history, after all, this was an honors class required of the magnet academy students at a top-performing Philadelphia high school where about a third of the students were Jewish. These kids were expected to have a DEEP understanding of the Holocaust. And I had two days.

So I bought a copy of Maus, both volumes, and photocopied a few carefully selected pages. The students read, reacted, summarized, and discussed. And afterward, my co-op said, "I don't know how you did it, but your kids can explain the Holocaust much better than mine!"

In two days, my students had a deeper understanding of the Holocaust than hers gained in two weeks of lecture. I didn't have the language then to describe what I'd done; all I knew was that I had improvised like mad to make sure I didn't leave those kids unprepared. But today, I know what I did:

  • First, I determined what the essential learning was: what did the kids absolutely need to know? It wasn't the number of victims, the dates, the locations of the camps -- it was the impact on the people then and since. 
  • Next, I asked myself what was the best way to get at that essential understanding? I didn't want kids to hear me say it, I wanted them to feel it, and I arrived at the same conclusion Art Spiegelman did: they needed to read it in a way that was intense, personal, even graphic when needed: a graphic novel, or comic book. 
  • Finally, what did I want them to do to get this feeling? I wanted them to imagine themselves in those roles, in those times, in that place, and tell their peers what they imagined it to be like. So some kind of Socratic discussion.
Today, we call this student-centered instruction, inquiry-based learning, and using primary and secondary sources. But it's always been good teaching.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Standards Through the Content

When you make your lesson plans, do you ever find yourself thinking something along these lines:

"Hmm...what do I need to teach about next week? Let's see, we just finished the European explorers, so I guess we'll start with the Conquistadors, and then compare that with French and British settlements, before getting into the 13 colonies and the three colonial regions..."

And then you remember -- your principal wants you to put the standard on the board each day. So you go to the binder where you printed out the unit analysis last year, and you flip through until you find a standard that seems to fit.

Been there, done that, got the lousy results to prove it.

But I also got good results, and some of you get truly fantastic results. How? By planning just a little bit differently:

"Hmm... we just finished looking at the factors that led to European Exploration. We should expand that this week to explain the factors that influenced the patterns of settlement and explain the roles of various ethnic and racial groups in settlement..."

Who talks like that?

A teacher who is starting from the standards. Take a look at this example, from Ms Bracey's 8th grade classroom at DBMS:
See how the I Can statement quotes the standard, and the lesson is about an economic conflict that impacted the development of the United States? Good alignment! Is it perfect? No... we can discuss that in the comments. But clearly the lesson isn't just "tell them about Mercantilism;" it's give students the information so they can explain how an economic conflict impacted the development of the United States.

Why does this matter? Because when students are learning things, not just to learn them, but to lead them to a conceptual understanding, real, lasting learning can occur. Consider also these student work samples from Mr. Gilchrist's 6th grade classes at NCIMS:
Students drew pictures of key inventions from the earliest civilization in Mesopotamia. But the standard is 
6.H.2.3 Explain how innovation and/or technology transformed civilizations, societies and regions over time
6.H.2.2 Compare historical and contemporary events and issues to understand continuity and change.
With those two standards in mind, Mr. Gilchrist asked his students to explain, underneath the illustration, not what the innovation was, but what it's importance was, both to the society at the time and to us today:

Keeping his eye on the standards, Mr. Gilchrist was able to push his students beyond mere DOK1 description to think more deeply about the impact and importance of the history they are studying. In this way, students don't merely know history, the understand. And when the understand, they remember and can build upon that understanding for further learning and for life.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Summer Reading

Guest blogger Angela Westmoreland of PFMS talks about what she's doing with her summer. It might be a vacation, but for true lifelong learners, professional growth never stops!


Teachers are busy.  I know I am!  So sometimes, other than reading my curriculum or curriculum-related materials, I forget to read actual books, especially books that will encourage or inspire me in my profession.  We expect and hope that our students are consistently reading; why should we be any different?

I made it a part of my goal this summer to read books that would help me in my profession, but were not about Social Studies or history.  I amassed quite a Kindle collection in my pursuit!  I haven’t finished all of them yet, but most of these books are easy to pick right back up again (if you can manage to put them down!).

You may be wondering how I determined which books to read.  That’s easy--Twitter!  Twitter is teeming with ideas and inspiration for teachers.  If you’re not on Twitter, you should get on it immediately!  You can follow the authors of many of these books and more, and they will interact with you!  It’s amazing!

The two books in my collection that really influenced me the most this summer were Innovator’s Mindset and Shift This!.  If you’re looking for something to remind you of why our profession is the best and what you can do with what you have, right where you are, then these two books are for you.  I learned so much about how to be a leader from my current vantage point, and how to make shifts in my classroom to enhance my students’ experiences.

I highly recommend any of the books in my Kindle library, as well as following all of the authors on Twitter.  I have had several Twitter conversations with Joy Kirr, the author of Shift This!, and she is wonderfully personable and supportive.  Though they are world-famous, these authors still appreciate your tweets and positive comments about their work!

Which book will you read first?  Share about your choice on Twitter!  Be sure to include our new Social Studies hashtag, #InnovateSs. You can find me there, too, as @AngelalMLWestmo. I’m looking forward to seeing what you choose!

Monday, July 10, 2017

Planning for Digital Engagement: Tech Camp 2017

Two weeks ago, we published an interview with Cris Higginbotham that happened during Tech Camp 2017. Another Social Studies teacher who presented at Tech Camp was Gaundi Allen, who teaches 8th grade at ACMS. We talked with him about his philosophy and approach as well, and about how we in Social Studies have the unique opportunity to change tomorrow through teaching today's students about their world yesterday.

Jonathan Frantz: What would you say is your overall "philosophy of teaching?" How do you approach planning your instruction?

Gaundi Allen: I am a true believer in the blended classroom model. An engaging lesson that meets the 21st century skills needed to be successful in an increasing globally interconnected world through real world applications of knowledge learned, skills acquired, and real to life experiences is what my classroom is all about. In planning for instructional activities that meet the demands of high stakes testing, I examine my essential standards & content, and then from there I find or create digitally engaging lessons and activities that blend classroom objectives with digitally engaging methods and techniques. You provoke the students interests with the opening provocative statement, then get them the information to understand the factual questions needed, and then use instructional activities that allow students to understand the big concept and apply their understanding to produce something new.

JF: Why do you include digital technology in your lessons?

GA: First of all we must remember, technology doesn’t replace the teacher, it only digitally enhances & engages students in a way they already are in the world they live in. Several studies I have examined have summarized the “now” student into five characteristics- they are social, mobile, global, digital, & visual. That’s the world they live in and are a part of, so why use methods & techniques that don’t apply to who they are? This is a globally connected world, digital tech allows students to engage that world without the transportation costs.

JF: So what do you ask them to do with technology?

GA: In my classroom, I believe in blending digital engagement with the essential standards students are being assessed on. For example, instead of simply lecturing about personal financial literacy and taking notes, we will use digital engagement tools that instead bring the lesson to life for students using tools they already know and use & they can quickly apply their prior knowledge and what they have learned. Quality of life is a big concept that is essential to understanding the impact of personal financial decisions. So what can students do with technology, everyone wants a car, so students will use Carmax to find a vehicle they want and apply their understanding of how personal financial decisions impact their credit score which in turn impacts their interests rates. They will use the technology to determine the effect of interests rates, their monthly payments, and affordability based on prior personal financial decisions.

JF: Do you find that your students are good with the tools you use?

GA: Absolutely! Sometimes, I feel like we teachers are afraid of collaborating with our students. They have more knowledge and skills than we give them credit for sometimes.
JF: What would you say to colleagues who aren’t comfortable with technology, and might worry that the students know more than they do?

GA: You have to be willing to step out of your comfort zone and be willing to learn these things to professionally develop your craft. I love the quote, “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.” You have to be willing to analyze who you service (students), how they learn best, and then be willing to effectively adopt that into your classroom. Coach K says it best, “A common mistake among those who work in sport is spending a disproportional amount of time on “x’s and o’s” as compared to time spent learning about people.” We need to learn more about the people we serve.

JF: You said before that the lesson always leads students to “produce something new.” Why is it important for kids to be producers? Don't they just need to get down the important information we give them?

GA: Getting down the “important” information is not effective if that information isn’t used immediately and effectively. Too often teachers say. “This is important and you need to learn it.” But students, parents, and even business leaders are asking- why is it important? How is it important? How can they use what you are saying? I think about it like coaching, as a coach myself, I tell my staff and parents, it doesn’t matter what YOU know and players KNOW, it matters what THEY can DO! Production answers the a teacher's most essential question- Can you apply what you have learned? It is an awesome thing to watch our student’s produce products that apply what they have learned in awesome new ways. For example, products like music, movies all tell a story about experiences (that was the Harlem Renaissance). What if you let students take what they have learned about personal financial literacy and create a song about how they have seen people’s quality of life impacted by good and bad choices and create a lyrical rhyme about it. That’s all music is. It digitally connects the characteristics of our “now” student to what they have a passion for- music.

JF: Wow, what a powerful way to demonstrate learning. But don’t you worry that these methods don’t really prepare kids for the NCFE?

GA: The North Carolina Final Exam is all about the conceptual mind! When using digital engagement techniques and tools, the only thing that really changes is the delivery of material to students and students ability to produce or create using a more engaging method. The content, what they should know, and what they should be able to do doesn’t change. So, the NCFE’s content, what they should know, and what they should be able to do isn’t asking them anything different from what they have already been doing in class. As a teacher, you should analyze the following before using digital engagement: NC Essential Standards, previous NCFE tests (this will allow you to understand the style of questions, concepts, and what the NCFE is assessing students on), pacing guides, and other curriculum documents pertaining to your subject. Then you use digital engagement tools that ask the same questions and give the same situations students will be assessed, except you will be using a different platform to deliver that content & allow students to create & produce answers to content you know they will be assessed on. “Prior planning prevents poor performance.”

JF: I’ve always admired how smoothly your classes run. All that careful planning sure pays off! One last question: how would you say your philosophy of learning impacts your approach to how you teach history?

GA: I’m always looking for ways to get that “wow factor” (Darrell Sheets from “Storage War” quote) from my students. I want them to feel like my classroom is not a classroom but a place where they can see and learn in ways they never imagined. My approach to teaching is like my approach to coaching. If I am not willing to learn with my students, like they are willing to learn from me and always willing to get better, then it's time for me to go. Seeing who I teach, how they learn, and what they will need for tomorrow is what I am all about. My philosophy impacts me because I am always on an expeditionary exploration of how I can make them better for the day that I don’t teach them. Like I believe, I’m changing tomorrow, today.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Project Based Pitfalls

Of all the educational innovations being discussed lately, Project-based Learning (PBL) might just be the one that makes the most sense in Social Studies classrooms. Many of us, in fact, have come to PBL almost by accident. I remember one teacher being very embarrassed when I praised his PBL approach. "I'm not doing this because I'm some brilliant teacher," he said, "I'm just lazy." And indeed, a PBL classroom is a space that is much more comfortable and relaxing for you, just as it is much more engaging and even empowering for your students. But there is, in fact, a great deal of work that goes into a successful PBL lesson but, like many things, you more you do it, the easier it becomes! As you consider building (or expanding) your PBL toolbox, keep in mind these three pitfalls to avoid:

1. Trying too much too soon.

First, there's a temptation to either bite off more than you can chew. If you set your sights too high, perhaps by deciding over the summer that you will create a fully PBL course by August, you can quickly become overwhelmed and give up in frustration. To avoid this, first, choose a manageable goal: where is one unit you can "test the waters" of PBL with reasonably good chances of success? How could you possibly build from there? How long will it really take? Spend some time googling, contact me, or consider joining the Project Based Learning Community on Google+ to get ideas and support as you make your plans.

2. Don't assign "castle projects."

On the other hand, sometimes we're tempted not to do enough. This is the trap of creating projects that aren't really Project Based Learning. To be PBL, a project has to require students to think deeply about problems grounded in the content and standards, so that their conclusions are the learning that is needed. Otherwise, you might just be creating what I jokingly refer to as "castle projects:" big, beautiful creations that really demonstrate Dad's wood-working or Mom's styrofoam crafting, but don't really do anything to help students understand the lessons in the ways called for by the standards (and which might also raise some serious questions around equity for all students!). To avoid this trap, ask yourself some questions:

  1. Are students answering a significant, meaningful question through the project development process?
  2. Is the learning of the project aligned to the standards I'm intending to teach?
  3. Have I already taught everything I want them to know for this project? 
Your answers to the first two should be "yes," or you may be making a "castle project." Your answer to the last question, however, should be "no." If you've already taught what the project is demonstrating, you don't have project based learning, you have project based testing. 

3. Don't foreclose student voice, choice, or thought.

The final trap was recently brought to my attention while reading an article from Edutopia titled "A World of Project Ideas (You Can Steal)." The article talked about the starting point for any good PBL lesson: the driving question. The very first example was this:

Who were the most influential leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in terms of impact upon today's society?
Notice the phrase, "most influential." This embeds critical thinking into the project because it prompts students to develop criteria and then make a defensible argument for why they selected a particular leader. Imagine the wide range of products students might produce to tell the story of a particular leader. That's a good sign that students will have voice and choice in the project, deepening their engagement.
The question is a perfect Social Studies driving (or guiding) question. It's the explanation that caught my eye: critical thinking is embedded in the question, it says, because the phrase "most influential" prompts students to develop criteria.

Stop and think about that for a moment.

Prompts students to develop criteria.

How many of us would give students the criteria? No? Maybe not in your rubric, but what happens when a student asks "what do you mean by most influential?" We're teachers. Our instinct, when a student asks a question, is to answer it. And just like that, we've turned project based learning into a castle project. The point of this activity is not to pick the right Civil Rights leader. The point is to think deeply about what Civil Rights leaders did and said, and what forms of impact they have had, and how lasting that impact has been. And none of that will happen if you answer the first question students ask: "What do you mean?"

Because, in the end, castle projects are all about students showing you what you want to see. But Project Based Learning is about students telling you what they want to say. And there's no room to hear their voices if you're doing all the talking.