Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Making Homework Meaningful

Why is it that teachers often insist on assigning homework each night? Why do so many teachers complain that their students don't do their homework? Why do teachers assign handouts for homework that we ourselves wouldn't want to do? Why do teachers burden themselves by having to grade the same style worksheet multiple times a week?

On the flip side...

How can we ensure that our homework is meaningful? Is it okay to assign homework ONLY when it serves a clear purpose? How can our homeworks provide students with choices? How can we encourage a larger percentage of students to complete their homework? How can we encourage creativity in the homeworks we assign?  How can we differentiate to meet the needs of our students in the classroom? How can we ensure that students with various interests and readiness levels can complete the same assignment? How can we encourage student growth and learning through homework? How can we provide appropriate feedback?

The way I do this is by assigning RAFT homeworks once every couple of units.

RAFT stands for:
    • Role
    • Audience
    • Format
    • Topic 

Some examples of RAFT activities that I have assigned are:  



Colorado River


Travel Guide
What you will see if you travel my length




Treasure Map
Finding the Buried Treasure


Hot Air Balloon


What I Saw On My Trip Across the Country




Comic Strip
How Indian Groups Use Resources Around Them





 I Had A Great Visit



Test and Answer Key

American Indians Unit



Potential Crew

A Discovery Voyage: I’m Motivated, How About You?


John Cabot


The Importance of Exploration to the English


Cereal Contest Winner

Cereal Eaters

Cereal Box

Create Your Own Cereal Box: New England, Southern, or Mid-Atlantic


Sports Fan


Team Logo

Southern and Mid-Atlantic Football Teams


Large Landowner

Indentured Servant

Work Contract

I’ll pay your voyage, but…


Trading Card Co.

Card Collector

Trading Cards

Colonial People



First 5 Presidents
Personalized License Plates
Notable Accomplishments of first 5 Presidents


Bill of Rights


Love Song

We Belong Together


James Madison


YouTube Ad
Ratifying the U.S. Constitution


Equal Rights Advocate

Other Drivers

Bumper Stickers
Abolitionist and Suffrage Movements

The students may choose from any of the rows that I assign (usually 6-8 options each time). So, using the samples above, a student might create a YouTube Ad from the perspective of James Madison to all Virginians encouraging them to ratify the U.S. Constitution (#15). Or, they may choose to write a work contract from the perspective of a large landowner for an indentured servant (#11).

I find that giving the chart of RAFT choices is simply not enough direction for many of my young students.  So, what I do is provide a paragraph after the choices that clearly state the expectations. For example, what do I mean when I say, "Create a treasure map from the perspective of a pirate to his captain about finding buried treasure" (#2)? Here's what I write for students:

2.  For this assignment, you must create a treasure map for your captain so that he may be able to find some “buried treasure.”  The treasure should be hidden in southern Florida and the pirate is located in the St. Lawrence River.  You should detail on your map how the captain should get to southern Florida from his current location.  You must use the Mississippi River to get to the treasure. Be sure to label things clearly for your captain.

 Or, for the Constitution's Love Song to the Bill of Rights, entitled, "We belong together" (#14):

14. For this assignment, you should take the role of the Bill of Rights and write a love song to the Constitution.  Keep in mind that many Americans believed that the Constitution should not be ratified unless a Bill of Rights was attached to it.  Also, be sure to explain why the Bill of Rights belongs with the Constitution, what it is and why it’s important, and list some examples of individual rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. Your song should be at least 12 lines long.

When I assign RAFTs, I do so on Mondays, and they are due on Fridays of that week. I usually assign 4-5 a semester. It's a great way to assess students on the content before they actually take the test. It's also a great opportunity for us as teachers to provide excellent feedback for students.

Because I assign homework so infrequently, I kindly remind students that not doing one will significantly affect their grade. I also inform them of the quality that I expect from them as I am giving them a whole week to complete the task.

Okay, by now you must be wondering, "Well, how does he grade these?" First off, grading these is an enjoyable experience (for the most part). It's awesome to see how hard students have worked on their RAFT, and many of the students blow me away with the amount of work and creativity that they put into making their products.

Here is my "rubric", or grading criteria. That's right! 6-8 possible RAFT activities, but only one rubric:
Your RAFT assignment properly considers a role and the corresponding audience and topic suggested. (5 points)

Your RAFT assignment is in the proper format suggested and meets or exceeds the expectations laid forth. (5 points)

Your RAFT should be creative, thoughtful, and unique. (5 points)      
Your RAFT assignment is historically accurate and rich in detail.  It meets or exceeds all expectations. (10 points) 


Below each section I provide students with feedback on their work. To the left, I write the number of points they received, then tally it up below. NOTE: I use points, not percents, in my classroom.

RAFTs can be used in any content. I won't claim to know the best methods in Math or Science, but I have seen many examples of RAFTs across content areas.  For more information on RAFTs, feel free to check out this site on differentiation by Carol Tomlinson:  http://differentiationcentral.com/.

Thanks to the Curry professors who helped get me started with this stuff a few years ago!!!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

(Not Your Normal) Jeopardy!

Jeopardy might be one of the long standing review games that have stood the test of time in the classroom. When I first started teaching, I was opposed to playing Jeopardy in my classroom because it's what everyone does.  I'd seen it played in which teachers named the categories based on various topics of study (i.e. "Indians", "World War I", "Russian Revolution").   Their clues were questions such as "In what year did the U.S. enter WWI?" or "Who was the President that led the United States into WWI?"  I wanted to be different. I didn't want to use the same old review game with the same old test questions (just without the multiple choice answers).  But, I found out that while many students would probably have said, "Oh, but we just played Jeopardy in math," some of my students were asking me if we could play Jeopardy in history class too.

Here are questions I began to ask myself:
  • Should I play Jeopardy in my classroom because a handful of students have asked me (with full excitement) if we could?
  • How can I use Jeopardy in my classroom in a way that will engage all kids, even those that are tired of the same old review activity?
  • Is there a template that I can use?
  • How can I challenge my students?
  • How can I encourage kids to think creatively about the content, rather than spit out facts?
Here's what I came up with:

First, I decided that I would play Jeopardy. Second, I found a SmartNotebook template of Jeopardy, that while not perfect, is pretty good. Third, I decided to take my categories to the next level. My clues require students to use knowledge from other content areas, think outside the box, analyze images, and use what they've learned in my classroom in unique ways.

NOTE: Be sure to make it clear to the students what is expected from them in terms of their responses before you start the game.

Here are some examples of the categories that I have used, and some sample clues to go with it:

New Republic Math: Why not throw some math problems into the mix?

The correct response:  What is 7 (10-3)?

The correct response: What is 11 (2+9)? 

The correct response: What is 5 (2/1 +3)?

American Indians in Poetry: I use native poems that give hints about the particular tribe to get students to guess the author's native group. For the Pueblo, this is my clue:

Before and After: A traditional Jeopardy! category that requires a particular response.

The correct response would be: "What is King James Monroe?". 
The before is King James, and the after is James Monroe. 

The correct response here is "What is Alexander the Great Compromise?" 

 The correct response here is "What is John Adams Family" or "What is John Addams Family?"

 The correct response here is: "Who is Thomas Jefferson Davis?"

Rhyme Time: A traditional Jeopardy! category with a rhyming response.

 Correct response: "Who is a Tariff Sheriff?"

 Correct response: "What is an Improvement Movement?"

Correct response: "What are Harriet's Chariots?"

"SS" in Social Studies: All of the responses have a double "ss".

Correct Response: "Who is Ulysses S. Grant?"

Correct response: "What are Tennessee, Mississippi, and Missouri?"

Home is Where the Heart Is: Again, I've used this to have students find American Indian tribes, but it could be done for many different things! Students could guess the location, a group that lives in that location, or various other content related to specific locations. Here's what the clue looks like:

Eat this, Not that: For an American Indians unit, my students had to know the main source of food for various Indian tribes.  I used picture clues to get the students to guess which tribe I was talking about. (The main source of food for the Kwakiutl Indians is salmon and for the Lakota it's buffalo.)

Out of Place:  For these clues, I simply list 4 items and the students have to write down the one that doesn't belong with the others.

What'dya Order: For these clues, I list 3-4 items and the students have to write them down in chronological order.

Date me, Please: The answer to these clues are a particular year or date that students must know.

He said, she said: Challenging quotes actually said by famous people that the students study, but with only a simple hint as to who said it.
The hint here is "nurse". The correct response is "Who is Clara Barton?"

The hints here are "continues the attack" and "wins". 
The correct response is "Who is Ulysses S. Grant?"

"NEWS"worthy: All of the responses in this category contain at least one of the following directional words: north, east, west, or south.  The clues are intended to be headlines, and students must guess where they came from or where they are talking about. So for instance, the clue might be "Refuses to Secede with the Rest of the State; Staying in the Union". The correct response would be "What is West Virginia?"

While I don't play it often, I will play Jeopardy once or twice a semester. I like to play the theme song as students walk in the classroom so that they know what's coming. The kids love it.

What Jeopardy! categories do you use? I'd love to hear from you!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Moving Outside the Walls of My Classroom: An Archaeological Dig

Throughout the year, I am constantly looking for ways to get my students outside of the walls of my classroom. This week, I found a way to make that happen!

When teaching this lesson I asked myself the following questions:
  • Can I go outside of my classroom to teach this lesson?
  • Where would be the best place on campus to deliver this content? 
  • Can I plant key items outside for us to discover?
  • Can I give my students artifacts to touch and analyze?
  • How can I make this experience as "real" as possible?
  • Can I bring in a real archaeologist?
  • What will lead to the most student engagement and understanding in this lesson?
  • How can I consistently keep the students feeling involved?

 Here's what I did:

First, I decided that I would not be "Mr. Piedra" that day. Instead, I would take the role of Bob the Archaeologist, a substitute and friend of Mr. Piedra's who would take the kids on a "field trip." In order to make this feel a bit real and get some of the kids questioning it for at least a second, I dressed a bit differently. I wore a hat and tennis shoes, lost the tie and dress socks, and put on some eyeglasses and a substitute sticker name tag.  I also had to change my accent. I chose a southern, twangy country accent for this lesson. (It's hard to keep it going for an entire day).  When the kids come in, I show them this video:

I then take role like a substitute, pretending not to know the students' names and butchering many of them with my southern accent intentionally. After a few minutes of asking the students questions to see if they know what I, Bob the Archaeologist, do, I share a bit more about artifacts and Archaeology in general. Then, I tell the kids that I've been digging at an excavation site called Cactus Hill in southeastern Virginia on the Nottoway River. This is one of the Virginia standards they must know. I tell them that they will be joining me there today.

Little do they know, I've set up an area behind our school in the woods near a stream with a "Welcome to Cactus Hill" sign and postings for the Nottoway River. I also give a couple of students some shovels to carry down to the site. When we arrive at the site, we talk about American Indian views on land and land ownership. They notice some logs set up in a circle and I ask them what they think American Indians would be doing on the logs. They say things like "cooking meat over a fire" or "telling stories".  Their answers inform me of their prior knowledge and open the door for me to share more information about American Indians.

After exploring a little more, we come to a spot in which I had previously buried some artifact replicas. So as not to damage the replicas with the shovels, I decided to bury them in a treasure chest.  I give my students the freedom to dig in the area, taking turns. When the treasure chest is found, we open it up, discover a set of artifacts, and begin to analyze what they were used for.  I put them in groups of 2-3, assign an artifact, and ask them to consider and discuss what they think the item is and what it was used for. To my amazement, some of their responses are spot on. After passing around each of the artifacts to all of the groups, we debrief about their discoveries and head back to the classroom.

The best part of this lesson is that the next day, the kids welcome "Mr. Piedra" back, ask me how I am feeling, and tell me I look much better than the day before.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Dice Game: The Easiest Way to Turn a Worksheet into a Game

As much as we hate worksheets, and prefer to call them handouts, there are, on rare occasions, times when we may find it necessary for whatever reason to give students "worksheets."

Well, when you do, know that there is still a way to engage students in the process no matter what content you teach. I learned the following activity at the Ron Clark Academy from a social studies teacher there. It's very simple (particularly if you have even numbers).

Each student needs a partner.  Student desks should be cleared of everything except the "worksheet," which should be face down until the game has begun.  One student in the pair also needs a pencil. The other needs a die. The goal of the student with the pencil is to quickly and accurately fill out the "worksheet." The goal of the students with the dice is keep rolling until they roll a six. When they do, they should say, or yell, "Six!" At this time, the partners trade the pencil and the die and switch roles (no pun intended). Each individual should have their own handout to complete. There shouldn't need to be any talking except for when a six is rolled.

You can play until you have an individual winner who has completed the "worksheet," or you could end the game right when someone is about to win.

This game can be played with multiplication tables, maps, periodic table, study guides, recall questions, etc...I'm sure there are plenty of other ways to use this game in your classroom...

NOTE: If you have an odd number of students, you can form a group of three. Give two students pencils and one a dice.

My wife uses this game in her math class, but calls it Seis. Obviously, she has her students call out "seis" instead of "six" when they roll a six. I am much less creative in the game name department--so, it's called The Dice Game in my room.  In any case, it's a great way to keep kids engaged while avoiding the mundane "worksheet".  You will also find that the work gets done much more quickly than it would have otherwise.