Friday, May 31, 2013

End of the School Year Has Us Climbing the Walls!

About 100 of the 8th graders from Parker Middle School went on a climbing field trip today.  I know it was a good day for them because...
  1. They pushed themselves harder than they'd planned to. 
  2. They cheered for each other unconditionally. 
  3. They were exhausted, hungry, and proud at the end of the day.
Couldn't have picked a better way to spend a hot Friday just before the end of the school year.

Tech Check: I used some copyrighted music in the video so the restrictions require that it must be viewed on a PC and that it can't be viewed on smartphones or mobile devices.

Click here if you're interested and check out metro ROCK.  They did a fantastic job motivating the kids, keeping them moving, and teaching them about balancing safety and risk-taking.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Galapagos: A History Teacher's Adventure in Science

For a couple days only half of the 8th grade (about 100 students) were here at Parker Middle School while the rest traveled on a school trip.  Four subject area teachers had to come up with a way to keep them busy, happy, and learning.

Challenge accepted.

First we looked into the educational movies that are playing at the nearby IMAX at Jordan's.  We found Galapagos.  It is only 40 minutes and can be watched in glorious 3D!  Here's the trailer.

Then we discovered the Teacher Resource Packet also available online.

Before we knew it, we were English, Spanish, and History teachers guiding 8th graders through concepts like tides, currents, geology, and natural selection.

Day 1:
In preparation for the film our students learned about natural selection, island formation through volcanic eruptions, and scientific poetry.  In my class they were tracking the survival of animals with various adaptations (paper dots of different colors) based on the success of predators (students picking up as many dots as they could spot within 30 seconds) in various environments (wrapping paper of differing patterns as backgrounds for the dots to hide).  We even simulated population increases with each generation by allowing surviving dots to multiply before another round of predators got their chance to collect dots again.  They discovered that some adaptations allowed animals to thrive in some environments while they died out quickly in others: survival of the fittest.

Voila!  I was a history teacher teaching science!

Other teachers had students design scale maps of the Galapagos Islands so they could learn their geography and topography, watch food coloring flow through water to learn about ocean currents that carry warm and cold water, and write poetry about the behavior they observed of certain insects.

Day 2:
Our students were introduce to the Ultimate Animal Competition in the morning.

They had to research the environments that exist in the Galapagos through websites like Cornell University's Galapagos Geology on the Web and the Galapagos Conservancy.

Then they had to research the vast array of animals on the Galapagos Islands through websites like the Charles Darwin Foundation and National Geographic.

Halfway through the day we went to see the movie at the IMAX.  There were other groups there from other schools, of course, but our students had the background information to understand the significance of the different shapes of the giant tortoise shells and the importance of the webbed feet of the marine iguanas shown and discussed on the film.  Our group was the largest in the theater, but was also the quietest and most interested in the film.

When we returned to the school from the theater it was time to get down to business drawing and explaining their ultimate animals!  In order to qualify for the bracket competition later in the day their animals had to:
  • possess and show the adaptations of at least 5 other real animals
  • be able to survive in ANY of the environmental, geological, and climatic conditions that exist on the Galapagos
  • attract mates
  • find food

Here are the results.

So, yes, I agree that the animals are largely implausible and the explanations of their adaptations were quite humorous.  But they learned the science of natural selection and the isolated environment of the Galapagos.  To prove this, here are a few quotes I heard from groups as they worked:
  • "Someone get an eraser so we can erase that dorsal fin!"
  • "No!  They aren't fins, they're wings.  He's not a marine animal."
  • "It is the same colors as the layers of the marsh so it can be camouflaged: grass, mud, and water."
  • "Our animal enjoys rock tanning and flying through the air."
  • "It has spikes for defense like the marine iguana."
Not bad for a handful of NOT science teachers.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

"Like a Chimpanzee in Captivity"

Making medieval life relatable to adolescents in 21st century is a challenge.  But in imperial China people studied long and hard for civil service exams and then waited anxiously for the results hoping they would earn a high enough score to enable them to work in a coveted career.  Similarly many jobs in law enforcement, medicine, law, and education depend on scoring well on licensure and civil service examinations today, I am quite familiar with spending hours and hours studying for my MTEL and for my Massachusetts Bar Exam and waiting on pins and needles praying that my time and effort had paid off.  I was one of the lucky ones in both instances.

So a great response to students who ask why they have to learn about medieval world history is that it tells us the roots of our modern system.  Indeed, the modern examination system will likely be a part of many of my students' lives as they journey toward their own career choices.  In fact, as I type this, they are taking a well-deserved break after toiling away at their second-to-last MCAS exam of the school year.  So they are already experienced with exam requirements since they must pass MCAS in order to graduate successfully from high school.

Pu Songling was not one of the lucky ones.
Pu Songling (1640-1715)

Pu Songling was born to a poor landlord-merchant family and yearned to have a high profile career in the imperial government.  Like many others in China, he studied for hours and hours for the civil service examinations.  As part of his studies, he became rather talented at reading literature and writing his own compositions.  One of his most famous is called "Seven Likenesses of a Candidate" describes the disappointing and frustrating process of studying for the exam, taking the exam, waiting for the results, learning of the failure, and deicing to try again.  Princeton University's Berkshire Encyclopedia of China conveniently includes Pu Songling's writing within its well-written article about civil service examinations in general.  It provides nice context and historical background for students.

In Pu Songling's descriptive account, he uses imagery and simile to describe the roller coaster of emotions an exam candidate must go through.
Excerpted from Berkshire Encyclopedia of China
He humorously compares an exam candidate to 7 vivid images:
  • a beggar
  • a prisoner
  • a cold bee in late autumn
  • a sick bird out of a cage
  • a chimpanzee in captivity
  • a poisoned fly no longer able to move
  • a turtle dove just hatched
I saw an opportunity to help my students with primary source analysis alongside teaching literary techniques such as simile and imagery.  But, of course, since they are teenagers something technological has to be included to keep them interested.  So, I decided we would make a video project together as a class within one 45 minute class period.

First we read the passage and identified the "Seven Likenesses".  Then I divided up the passage into 7 parts.
This is how I divided it up:

Next I assigned the students to 8 groups.  Seven of the groups each got one of the parts of the passage and the 8th group was in charge of the introduction.  I projected these simple instructions on the Smartboard and told them to get started.

We used the last 15 minutes of class to do the actual filming.  Because everything was already scripted and rehearsed, some classes did it in on the first or second try.  By the end of the class period we had filmed the video and even uploaded it to YouTube!

Here are some of the final products!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Act Now! China is On the Move!

Common Core has re-calibrated many teachers to consider their content alongside important reading, writing, and communication skills.  One of the standards for 8th graders covers persuasive writing.  I could ask the students to write persuasive essays, but a real world application of those persuasive communication skills would be more useful and more exciting for them.  Advertising is the best example of persuasive communication in action.  Students are exposed to it every day and are unconsciously familiar with advertisers' techniques.

My social studies classes were in the midst of a unit on technological and scientific advances in imperial China.  They were studying the impact of inventions like steel, the compass, movable type, and mechanical clocks.  When asked to imagine how life might be different without these inventions they realized their importance.  A great way to assess their understanding of the historical and social curriculum while working on the persuasive communication skills was to ask them to write and record a radio advertisement for a Song Dynasty invention.

Model (scale 1:48) for a Chinese astronomical clock from Asia for Educators

Chinese mariner's compass from Asia for Educators
Step 1:  I introduced the assignment after students had done some background reading on all of the inventions.  They received a handout with the requirements for the project.  This included the grading rubric so they knew where to focus their efforts throughout the research and writing process.

Step 2:  Find out how to make a great ad! Students learned about persuasive techniques that make a 60 second radio advertisement great.  Their source was an article written by a modern advertising executive.  Combining modern applications of this skill with the topic they are learning in history really piqued their interest.  I noted that their grading rubric was based on the standards set out in the marketing CEO's article.

Step 3: Pick a topic! Students were assigned to small groups of 4-5 and then they chose their topics.  A website that has great information on these inventions is Asia for Educators.  My students did a webquest of this site earlier in the unit to learn about the inventions.

Step 4: Make plans! Student read the advertising article and considered how they might incorporate the key elements of persuasion laid out by the CEO/author.  They recorded their group's thoughts so that I could check their progress.  Once they finished, they wrote a pitch for their radio ad.  The pitch had to be reviewed and accepted by me before they could move on to script writing.

Step 5: Write a script! Students started drafting and rehearsing their advertisements.  I also allowed them to download free sound effects apps to their mobile devices to help enhance their commercials.  This added another fun element to the project.  One of the most challenging aspects of the project was creating an add that ran exactly 60 seconds.  I stuck to the limit, though, because those are the constraints of real marketing professionals.

Step 6: Record!  I used portable audio recorders that our school technology department owns.  But you could certainly have students use a free audio recording app on their mobile devices as well.

Step 7: Blog!  Students had to upload their ads to their blogs and then reflect on the process.  Here are some examples.
  • Caroline's group chose steel as their topic.  She wrote about how this project fit into our unit, how her group developed their pitch, and wrote out the script.  Click here to listen to her radio ad.  The link is at the top of her blog post.
  • Eric's group chose the smallpox inoculation as their topic.  He talks about their approach to hook the listener and how sound effects were used to enhance the ad.  Click here to listen.
  • Emma's group chose the compass as their topic.  They did a nice job explaining how the compass could make shipping and traveling easier, but also showed that they understood how a compass works.  Click here to listen.
The project really accomplished two goals of all social studies teachers.  Students demonstrated an understanding of the societal impact of these innovations during the Song Dynasty, but they also incorporated real world persuasive communication techniques that fit Common Core standards.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Breaking News! Earthquakes & Time Travel!

Problem: Slightly less than half of our 8th grade middle school team students are out of the country on a French trip to Quebec.  What do 3 teachers and 2 paraeducators do for two WHOLE school days with 66 adolescents who resent being in school while their friends are on an adventure in another country?

Solution: Time Travel... Yup.

One of my missions as I spend one year teaching 8th grade, with the opportunity to work with a team of teachers who specialize in different subject areas, is creating as much interdisciplinary work as possible.  So, since the two subject area teachers remaining at school during the 2 day experiment were the science teacher and me, I saw an opening.

I teach medieval world history, including imperial China.

She teaches earth science, including the movement of tectonic plates and earthquakes.

Hold on to your hats, people, I have an idea!

You see, in imperial China people believed the the emperor had the right to rule because of the Mandate of Heaven.  The blessing from the heavens was presumed as long as nature and people lived harmoniously and happily in peace.  If people were suffering or if natural disasters (earthquakes) struck it was believed that the emperor no longer had the Mandate of Heaven.  He could be rightfully overthrown.

Perhaps not coincidentally, there is a major fault line in China and so it has suffered some devastating earthquakes throughout its history.
In the 12th century - Evidence for a Tang-Song Dynasty Great Earthquake Along the Longmen Shan Thrust Belt
In 2008 - Why the China Quake Was So Devastating
In 2013 - Over 189 Dead in China Earthquake: “We lost everything”

What if our 8th graders researched the recent and medieval earthquakes and reported on the differences between the modern scientific and medieval superstitious interpretations of these events?

The 66 students were divided up into groups of 22.  They were further subdivided into groups of news anchors, reporters, and people to be interviewed.  Some were expected to act as civilians and others were to be experts in various fields.  We also had set designers, camera people, and film editors.  Every had a job and everyone was busy all day for 2 days straight.  Here is the handout the students received about the roles. They chose their roles based on those descriptions.

They had to do some research and they were a little suspicious at first.  We made that part easy and provided them with links to high quality resources that were on their reading level.  Once they figured out how devastating these natural disasters have been and the stark difference between science and superstition, they were hooked.

They researched and wrote the scripts.

The designed and created backgrounds and sets.

And by the end of the two days, each of the 3 groups of 22 students had created a 10 minute time traveling newscast!  Here is one of them. 

They were proud of their creations and eager to show them to their friends who had traveled.  If you are interested in pursuing this interdisciplinary project, let me know.  All the resources you need are included in this post, but I can give more detailed advice on coaching colleagues, rearranging the schedule, and motivating the usually unmotivated students.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Paris and Seville - By Way of Parker Middle School

I have had the opportunity this year to work on a team of teachers of different expertise.  Half of the students on our team take French and the other half take Spanish.  I was looking for a way for our students to do an interdisciplinary project between their world language class and my social studies class, but I needed to coordinate it with several other teachers (French, Spanish, Special Education, Language Learning Disabled, and 2 paraeducators) and almost 120 students. 

We decided on ARCHITECTURE.

Some of the most important landmarks in France and Spain are incredible works of architecture from the medieval era, which is the time period I teach in social studies.

For the French students we decided on Notre Dame Cathedral

For the Spanish students we decided on the Real Alcazar.

We started by asking students to research the history of the structure itself.  Why was it built?  Who built it?  When and why were changes made the the architecture?  What does it mean to the people of the country today?  Students were given a list of resources and used school laptops or their own devices (smartphones, tablets, etc.) and time to research.  They also received a structured note-taking sheet to help them prepare for the writing phase.

In their world language class, they learned the vocabulary necessary to describe the architecture assigned to them.  Then they analyzed photographs together and came up with the descriptions in a grammatically correct way in the language of their class.

In special education and LLD classrooms, students were more focused on the historical aspects of their writing.  Many of the students in special education in our school do not take a foreign language, so their essay was adjusted a bit to take that into account.  They still felt as though they were a part of the group because they were given the same research, writing, and citation expectations.

Finally, students had to combine all of their work in both social studies and world language into one blog post.  Here are some of the results:

  • Katie wrote about how Notre Dame Cathedral is meaningful to the people of France like her favorite seaside town is meaningful to her and her family.  She also described the cathedral in French in the middle of the essay.
  • Alex wrote about how the Real Alcazar has been changed and used in different ways by different people over the centuries.  She also described the palace in Spanish in the middle of the essay.
  • Matt does not take a world language and sometimes struggles with adding detail to his writing.  In this example, though, he added relevant images and quotes from the sources based on his research.
The students learned research, writing preparation, new vocabulary in their world language, and how to cite sources and analyze evidence through the combined efforts of many teachers working together.  It really was a project that shows the power of teamwork among professionals.


“Image Gallery.” Notre Dame Cathedral Paris. Web.
“Category:Alcazar of Seville.” Wikimedia Commons. Web.

Role Play: Convincing Middle Schoolers to Research

One of the challenges of being a middle school history teacher is that adolescents are a little too old for the simple story-telling and artsy projects of elementary school, and they're too young for real in-depth research on complex topics like in high school.  Where is the middle ground for middle schoolers?

Role Play!

A colleague and I recently put our heads together and created a unit that required students to take on a role from feudal Europe.  They had to learn about the privileges and responsibilities that went with that role,  They had to fulfill those responsibilities and then as the simulation continued we threw some curve balls at them.  They found that the socio-economic system of feudalism developed in medieval Europe because it was the most realistic way for people at the time to solve problems and survive under the harsh circumstances.

Recently, we presented about our successful experiment at the Blue Ribbon Blueprint for Excellence Conference. Click the screenshot below to go to the website we used to structure our presentation.

On the first day of our simulation, students found out which kingdom they belonged to and which role they were assigned.  The had to research both the kingdom and the role and write a blog post about their identity.  The responses demonstrated the understandings they developed from that research.

"The Normans were originally Vikings from Scandinavia but then made their voyage to England and were no longer considered Vikings. Normans ate vegetables and any crops that they could grow. They also enjoyed hunting, which was not only considered a way to get food, but also a sport, involving the use of dogs and falcons. The prince of the Normans had many duties. Since he is the heir of the throne, his father the king must train him to be a powerful and mighty leader. Also, the king is to transfer responsibility bit by bit to the prince until he is king, so that he can be better prepared to rule."
-Niles S.
On their second day they got down to the business of fulfilling their roles.  They were enthusiastic, sometimes frustrated with the amount of work they had to do, and sometimes thrilled that their role gave them an importance they had not anticipated.  They found out at every person in a feudal system is essential to the survival of the system, even the lowliest serf.  One of the students, a squire, reflected:

"My task for today was to perform my exhibition in front of all ranks in the whole kingdom! My skit or performance was very challenging to accomplish. It was hard because in my performance I had to jump a slash of a sword then drop to the floor to evade another blow then quicker than light get up and eliminate my enemy. After my performance I was the only squire to be promoted to the job of a knight. I am so happy to fight side by side with these brave and respectful men."
Although these lessons were valuable, we wanted our students to have to problem solve as well: ENTER THE VIKINGS!  One class of students were Vikings.  They decided to raid some of the kingdoms to get the food and supplies they needed.

"Today, we began working on longships. After we were halfway done with our first one, a hurricane appeared, and we lost everything. So we started making another longship, which we finished. Creating longships was not difficult, but it would have been much easier if we had not needed to restart. We will also raid some European villages, although I do not know which."
-Tim S
In the end, all of the kingdoms rallied to help each other out the crisis created by the raids.  They decided to celebrate with a medieval alliance ceremony.  Kingdoms even choreographed medieval dances to prove their unity and loyalty at the ceremony.

Although this unit is long over and we have undertaken many other projects since, this is the one my 8th graders still talk about.  They are even putting together a two page spread of pictures for their 8th grade yearbook dedicated to the experience.  Through role play, my students were engaged, motivated to do research, worked together, and even did a lot of writing to demonstrate their understanding.  It was rewarding for me and for them.