A New Beginning


This summer has been summarized by change.  I’m changing schools, school districts, and subjects taught.  The thing I’m most excited about is that I’m going to be closer to home.  My commute wasn’t awful, but now I’ll work about ten minutes away from where I live.  This is going to allow me to work with kids in my community and hopefully allow me to bring about change for the good in my area of Denton.  I was so sad to say goodbye to Coppell, but it was a move that I had been thinking and praying about for a long time.

The other main change that I’ve been thinking a lot about is leaving the G/T classroom for a district that does not have a specifically gifted history classroom.  In my new district they have Pre-AP as their only distinctive grouping.  I’m not going to start a debate for one and against another because that’s not productive at all.  The change is stirring up philosophical questions for me like, “is separating gifted kids what is best for everyone?”, “what is the best way to break up students into leveled groups?”, and “how will my teaching need to change given my new context?”  I’m not sure that I have answers to any of these questions, but I’ll be wrestling with them throughout the next few school years for sure.


TAGT Conference Reflection


Every year my district’s awesome parent advocacy group for gifted students offers scholarships to go to either the National Association of Gifted Children Conference as well as the Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented Annual Conference.  Every couple of years I apply for a scholarship so that I can continue to grow in my teaching of gifted students and try and stay on the cutting edge.  This year the conference was in Houston, TX and I got a scholarship to go.  I came away with three thoughts on my time there.

  1. I love hearing about the different G/T programs that are offered around the state.  This conference is a melting pot of people from all levels of gifted education from all over the state as well as the nation.  Every time I go, I hear about how different districts provide services to their gifted students and I’m always amazed at the variety of programming.  I made a point this year of asking people to explain their programming so I can become better versed in all the shapes and sizes of gifted education.  I’m particularly fascinated, this year, by hearing about district’s magnet schools for gifted children.  This totally makes sense, but until this year’s conference I’d never hear of such a thing.
  2. I’m lucky to be in a district that is so forward thinking when it comes to technology.  Every time I go to a conference I’m interested in learning about the newest and greatest technology that people are using.  Outside of Dr. Brian Housand’s technology presentations, I really didn’t find too many new things this year.  I know that this has a lot to do with the technology specialists on my campus as well as my district’s push to put as much technology as they can in our classrooms.  One of the presenters was throwing out everything she could think of to try and stump me, but I’d heard of everything she had.  I’ve had the opportunity to see Dr. Housand a couple of times this year and I really enjoy his presentations because I always learn a few new things to try out.  This time it was some new techniques for designing presentations as well as geosettr.
  3. I made the decision to attempt to present at the conference next year.  I’m going to talk with a couple of my co-workers to see if they have any interest in presenting as well.  I’m mulling over my topics that I might present on, but for now I’m thinking it would either be on narrative feedback in the classroom or student voice and choice.

The tail end of my trip to Houston was possibly the most memorable part of this excursion.  North Texas was in the midst of one of the largest snow/ice storms I’ve been around for.  I left the conference a little early to try and beat the ice freeze on Friday, but unfortunately I didn’t leave early enough.  It took me around 3.5 hours to travel south to Houston from Dallas.  On the way back it took me 8+ hours to drive to Dallas, and I still didn’t make it all the way home.  Memories.

Presentation Fatigue


This last week was the first round of presentations for my classes.  I go into this first round every year hoping that the kids will come into middle school with and innate ability to present information that they have learned.  I show them previous presentations that have wowed me and point them to some of our eighth graders to help them with their technique.  Without fail, there are always a few groups here and there that do an unexpectedly good job presenting for whatever reason, but realistically no group of students is any better than the rest at presenting.

It frustrates me too because our eighth graders are so good at presenting by the time they leave.  I can’t help but wonder if the teachers are doing something in different ways that I’m not or if it truly is more about the age of the children.  I don’t want to believe that 6th graders cannot physically or mentally handle presenting and just need practice, but the more I have students present the more I think that’s the case.  If anyone out there has any suggestions  please let me know you’re experiences because I almost feel like I’m getting down on myself.

Minecraft and Play by Play


I’m not too sure why I have always shied away from Minecraft as a teacher.  Maybe it’s because anything that students want to play instead of doing school related things is difficult for a beginning teacher.  Maybe it’s because our district hasn’t put it on every computer and iPad, unlike other games of this ilk.  Or maybe it’s because I’ve been a bit stubborn and needed to change my attitude about something my students love to work with.  Any way you look at it, my attitude changed this week and I decided to step out and give Minecraft a chance.

In my Texas History class we’re talking about the Texas Revolution and I want my kids to understand the battles, understand the momentum swings throughout the course of the revolution, and put themselves in the shoes of the Texas freedom fighters.  With that in mind, I was putting together a project for our revolution unit I decided to try two different ideas that seem to be big hits with my students so far:

  • Create a reenactment of two battles of the Texas Revolution using Minecraft.  For each battle include at least two recommendations for the Texas army that would have aided their campaign.
  • Create an audio recording of yourselves doing a play-by play commentary of one of the battles of the Texas Revolution.  Be sure to describe major events, momentum swings, and who ultimately won the battle.

I wanted my students to be creative in their projects, but what I found is that the students are getting wildly creative with these two options specifically (there was one more) and have actively asked to get more time to work on these rather than doing other things.  All free time this week was spent with kids working on these projects instead of leisurely activity.  The kids really want to do well on these two because I think I tapped into some deep passions of my students without necessarily planning it that way.

I’m finding that my Minecraft kids are happy because they have a deep passion for Minecraft.  They were going to be playing it anyway, so why not give them an educational reason to play it?  On top of the engineering related reasons for them to play, now they can get another view of important battles in history using it.  I’m also finding that my athletes are really pumped about the play-by-play option.  Most of them watch sports religiously and are keenly aware of good and bad sports announcing.  I tapped into this passion with this project and the kids have already decided in their groups who is going to by the “play-by-play guy” and who was going to be the “color guy”.  The passion I’m getting for both is making me very excited to see the end results here in a couple of weeks.

TAGT Annual Conference


I found out this week that I’ll get the opportunity to go to the TAGT Annual Conference in Houston, TX.  I briefly looked over the session list for the conference and I got super excited because there are a number of wonderful presenters that will be there.  My short list of people I’ve seen before that I’d love the opportunity to see again are:

  • Dr. Brian Housand – I saw Dr. Housand present at Confratute this summer and really enjoyed his personality and way of presenting information.  He does a lot with technology and introduced me to some new things to try in the classroom.
  • Dr. Joyce Juntune – I saw Dr. Juntune at our district’s summer training conference.  She overwhelmed me with data at the time (it was the week after the end of last school year), but in a good way.
  • Dr. Bertie Kingore – I’ve seen Dr. Kingore at a number of conferences before and has left an impression on me as a gifted educator.
  • Kimberly Kindred and Melanie Ringman – These two find ladies work in my district and have done a great job teaching.  I’ve had the opportunity to hear Kim speak before and it’s worth it.  Great educators doing awesome things in the classroom.

I’m hoping to see some of these presenters at the conference, but also get the opportunity to find some new favorites.  I’ll be sure to share some thoughts after the conference is over in December.

Student Conferences – Round 1


This week was the end of our first marking period.  Most of the time this would mean that I was frantically uploading all the last minute grades for the students and ensuring that there were comments and citizenship grades.  This time, however, was marked by me sitting down with every student in all my classes and talking about their grades and setting goals for the second marking period.

The first thing I learned while I was meeting with students is that it takes a lot longer than I predicted.  I left room for the last three days of the marking period figuring that I would take two days to get it done, but giving myself some room just in case.  What I found was that it took me approximately 5 minutes per child for my sixth graders and between 5 and 10 minutes per seventh graders.  I think this has to do with the fact that I know my seventh graders better because they were in my class last year and we have more goals to set and things to discuss.  When you multiply that out, that is a lot of time being taken up conferencing with students, but I’m really looking forward to seeing the change in students this next marking period and the conversations that happen at the end of it.

The second thing I learned was that most students were pretty honest with their level of work and effort over the course of the marking period.  I would say that the students that did the best this marking period were often the hardest on themselves.  It was a great opportunity for me to remind them of all the awesome, creative things I’ve seen from them this marking period.  I only had one or two students that were way outside the range I would have given them as a grade.  For those students I reminded them of their effort and level of work and they revamped the score they gave themselves on their own.  I was shocked at how honest my sixth and seventh graders were.

My next iteration of student conferences will include some sort of google form or written assignment that has my kids think through the process of negotiating a grade and advocating for themselves.  I think my kids have the ability to think through their growth as a student and reflect on their output for a marking period.  If I can combine this while developing their ability to argue a position about their grade for a marking period I think it is time well spent.  I also would like to have a spreadsheet with all the feedback I’ve given to the student over the course of the marking period.  Our online grade book has some great features, but one that I still would like to see is the ability to print out the comments I’ve given the students over the course of the first few weeks of school.

These are minor inconveniences when compared to the potential revolution in the teacher/student relationship.  I’m so excited by the conversations I’ll be able to have with every one of my students in a few short weeks and I’ll continue to post my thoughts and reactions to this ROLE Reversal process.

Towers and Governments


I try to bring simulations into my classroom whenever I can.  What topic is better to simulate for students to understand better than governments?  I’m sure I’m not the first person that has used something like this to help teach government types, but I’ve really enjoyed seeing students better understand how governments operate after this classroom experience.

First I break my students into five to six groups, usually these have about four students in them.  I then tell the students that they’re “grade” for the day is based on how well they function as a group mimicking the government type that I give them.  There is no grade for the day (I tell them this after we’re done) and we have already learned a little bit about governments so this isn’t that big of a shocker for my students.  Next, I tell the kids that the job their government needs to complete is to build the tallest freestanding tower they can with a bare minimum of supplies.  I always use leftover things that I have around the classroom, and this year is was a few pieces of paper, some notecards, some straws, some pencils, and a small amount of tape.  I let the kids brainstorm their towers as I go around and give them their governments.  Some governments are tougher than others with this simulation, like communism, but most are able to be handled by my 6th graders.  The governments I used this year were:

  • Republic/Democracy – Every person must vote for every decision the group makes.  They may not vote to elect a leader or change their government type.
  • Dictatorship/Absolute Monarch – Appoint one person the leader the dictator/monarch and they must always have every person in their group actively doing something.  These can be productive things or non-sensical things like singing songs, doing pushups, etc.
  • Anarchy – Give only one group this government type.  These kids can go around and steal supplies from the other group.  No one can be physically violent to them and once they touch a supply it is theirs with no questions asked.

I usually give my kids about 15-20 minutes to build their towers.  What usually happens is the anarchy group is so busy stealing stuff that they have a ton of supplies, but barely something you could call a tower to show for all their materials.  The republic group is frustrated by how long it takes them to get anything done because they have to vote on everything.  The monarchs usually are passive or they completely take advantage of their powers as the ultimate leader.  After the activity is over and the towers have been judged, we have a class discussion about the good and bad of every government type and how those apply to modern day governments.  After that, my kids reflect on their governments and what type of government they think is the one they would select for a country they might start in the future.

Teaching with Zombies


I teach a split class schedule this year, with three gifted sixth-grade social studies classes and two gifted seventh-grade Texas history classes.  I just wanted to make this clear since some of my former posts have talked about my social studies classroom.  My lesson I’m going to share this week is how I chose to teach about the four regions of Texas.

Under normal circumstances, the regions of Texas are boring.  Usually people I’ve observed and I have lectured about the natural resources as well as the uniqueness of the regions.  In that scenario most kids tune you out as soon as you start your lecture and remember nothing about the regions of Texas, which end up playing a big role later on when we look at exploration and settlement.  My first time teaching the regions, I tried splitting my class into four teams and having a debate over which of the four regions was the best.  The problem with that is that there are two plains that are using the same arguments and lose the desire to be competitive quickly.  As I sat down to redesign my lessons I knew I had to scrap everything I’d tried before and completely start over.

I knew I wanted the kids in collaborative teams and I knew that the lesson had to center around the regions of Texas.  I’m always a fan of low stakes competition in my class, so I was trying to think of a way the groups could compete without catering completely to the athletes in my classes.  I decided to use the pop culture phenomenon of zombies to motivate my students beyond the desire to compete.  I started on Monday of this week by setting suspense for Friday by simply labeling it as “Zombie Apocalypse Day” in my agenda for the week.  When my seventh graders saw that on their agendas you could hear the murmurs of excitement.  I knew I had them at that moment.

When Friday finally came around, we started with a simple warm-up that got them to recall the lesson from earlier in the week where we learned what the regions of Texas are.  All the kids were still wondering how zombies played into the regions of Texas, but I didn’t answer any of those questions.  I told them, after hearing their responses from the warm-up, that we needed to start preparing for zombies with a completely straight face.  I told them that it’s not a question of ‘if’ but a questions of ‘when’.  At that point I got them into groups, decided in which order they would select their regions, and get every team a region of Texas.  I then gave them the rules of their scenarios:

  • Decide what you would do if zombies invaded your region of Texas.
  • There are no cities, roads, or other people.
  • You have only American Indian technology before the explorers came to the Americas.
  • They had to reference their textbooks for what resources they had at their disposal.

They basically had to think like an American Indian defending their lands from foreign explorers who kept coming after their land.  The kids looked up and planned how to defend themselves from and imaginary enemy.  The kids were very creative and immediately asked me what the limitations were of zombies.  Most kids agreed that they couldn’t swim and didn’t like fire.  They went to work and I went around and tried to fan their creative flames as they worked in their groups.  Hearing their plans at the end were awesome and funny.  We had good discussions about the weak sides of their plans as well as what they had really right.  These discussions lead to discussions of how the type of zombie that invades would determine how long you could survive.  For instance, if the zombies from The Walking Dead were coming after us we would probably survive longer than if the zombies from World War Z were coming after us.  In turn this lead to discussions of particularly interesting places in Texas that would be easier to defend than others.  It was a great day of learning and talking with my classes.  I think I’ll keep this lesson around for a while and hopefully I can use the lessons learned in this quick assignment to help them understand the explorers relationship with the American Indians.

Longitude/Latitude Differentiation


The first week of school is always a fun week.  I’d rather not have to act like a fool during the pep rally on the first day, but every teacher in the school is required to do that.  I’m terrible with new names and since I’m not coaching this year I have two more classes of kids to memorize, but that’s fun in an odd way.  This year is a little more challenging because our high school was introducing their one to one iPad program which means the tech integration specialists were swarming to handle any difficulties teachers or students might have.  This also meant that we at the middle schools didn’t get the opportunity to set up all the student login’s handled the first week, so I went the low-tech route on my introductory concept which is longitude and latitude.

Longitude and latitude is one of the few skills that I get to teach in my social studies classes.  Most of my kids have never used this to find absolute location, so it’s fun to teach a new concept and allow my kids to learn how to use it practically.  After having an introductory conversation about how their phones and most location based technology actually uses longitude/latitude to find your position, we go over the basic method of finding a spot on a map.  This includes finding the latitude on the side of the page and the longitude on the top or bottom of the page and tracing the lines to find the intersection.  The first day we spend most of the time practicing and me answering questions about the maps we use.  At the end of class, I give the students an exit ticket that has four basic questions:

  1. Give me the longitude and latitude of Ft. Worth, TX
  2. Latitude runs north/south or east/west
  3. On a scale of 1-10 how confident are you in your answers?
  4. Would you be willing to teach someone how to do long/lat?

Once the kids are done and the day is over I quickly sort the cards into piles:

  • Pile #1 – This pile is for all the cards that got #1 and #2 correct, were confident in the answers, and were willing to teach.
  • Pile #2 – This pile is for all the cards that got #1 and #2 correct, but were either not super confident or were not willing to teach.
  • Pile #3 – This pile is for kids that were wrong on either #1 or #2 or were not confident at all.
  • Pile #4 – This pile is for kids that were way off.

I match a person in Pile #1 and #3 for collaborative groups for the following day so that the kid who has grasped long/lat a little quicker can help his classmate that needs a little extra help.  I partner the Pile #2 kids together because they have the concept, but don’t necessarily want to teach the concept to someone who doesn’t understand.  I help the kids in Pile #4 since they do not grasp the material as well as they need to.  With this system I get to help the struggling learners while allowing the stronger students in class to help their classmates in learning.

The next day in class we have a few practice problems to work on.  when they have them checked to be correct they start creating one of three products to show their mastery of he concept:

  1. Create a song that reminds people how to keep the differences between longitude and latitude straight.
  2. Create a poster that visually reminds students how to find a location using longitude and latitude.
  3. Think of 5 careers that would frequently use longitude and latitude, tell me how you think they use it, and then predict what the modern world would be like if longitude and latitude hadn’t been invented.

This was also the first assignment I gave narrative feedback for in my ROLE classroom this year.  I found that my kids wanted to do their best and took the feedback well.  Some groups were still in process at the end of the day on Friday, so we’ll be finishing it up on Tuesday.  I think it was a great first lesson, especially since we didn’t have the opportunity to use technology at all for the week.

Chatting It Up


With the school year coming so quickly my wife and I got the opportunity to take a quick family vacation to the mountains of Arizona.  While we were up there I decided to take some time to try out a twitter chat.  One of my main goals this school year is to take advantage of Twitter for professional development.  With that in mind, I logged on to Twitter Monday night for the inaugural #RoleTalk chat and it was great.

Since it was the first time there weren’t an overwhelming amount of people participating, but that left us the ability to really talk with each other.  I use TweetDeck to track all my hashtags and it really does help.  I was able to monitor the overall scope of the chat while responding to certain people’s posts.  I really like Twitter for intaking information, but I do find it difficult to decipher some people’s tones.  I find that I see discourse on Twitter as a confrontation rather than a conversation so that will take some getting used to this year.  During the half hour I was able to participate I was able to both receive responses from other people about the ROLE classroom, but also help people find solutions to their own questions.  I really like the near constant flow of information during the chat as well as the ability to develop relationships with like-minded educators.

My plan for the year is to try and participate in two chats, #gtchat and #rolechat, as often as I can.  Hopefully throughout the year I’ll post some reflections on how the chats have influenced my classroom.  Between blogging and chatting, it should be a great year.  I’m really looking forward to this school year and seeing how I can innovate in my classroom and evolve as a teacher.