Monday, December 15, 2014

A "Cookie Cutter" Lesson

For those that know me, you've probably guessed I'm totally against the typical "cookie cutter" lessons. That is, I hate the "cookie cutter" approach: I don't like when lessons are taken and used in the same way in multiple classrooms. Each teacher, each student, and thus, each class is different. No lesson should be used without enhancing it in ways that meet the needs in your own classroom. In other words, every lesson should have distinguishing characteristics that set it apart from the teacher down the hall. What works for my coworkers and their students might not work for mine, and what works for my students and I, might not work for them. So, teachers should constantly adapt and enhance lessons, not always re-inventing the wheel perhaps, but always keeping in mind the varying needs and interests of the students in their classroom.

So, I've taken the idea of a "cookie cutter" lesson to a different level this holiday season. On the day before Christmas break, I'm bringing in over a hundred cookie cutters (it's nice to have a wife that loves to bake) for my students to create scenes from history.

Whether it's the Boston Massacre with snowman Redcoats and candy cane guns or a gingerbread house that turns into Fort McHenry with a shooting star becoming a bomb bursting in air or a rocket's red glare, there is no shortage of creativity with this lesson.  How cool it is to see students creating scenes of gingerbread men Iroquois Indians in the Christmas tree-forested Eastern Woodlands hunting Rudolph, a teddy bear Sojourner Truth giving her "Ain't I A Woman" speech with a candy cane microphone, or re-creating John Gast's famous "American Progress" painting with an angeltoy trains, and countless other cookie cutters. 

The kids never cease to amaze me with their ingenuity, originality, and creativity. Hopefully later in the week, I'll have some images of their work to show you...I forgot to take pictures last year when I combined this activity with a carol-writing one.

If you are interested, 101 cookie cutters for $16 on Amazon: Wilton 2304-1104 101 Piece Cookie Cutter Set

Women's Suffrage protest

The Beating of Charles Sumner

Fort Sumter

Iroquois Indians

Harriet Tubman's Underground Railroad

Boston Tea Party

Steam Locomotive

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Origins of the 2-Party System: Delving Deeper Into the Content

My students aren't required to know much (according to the Virginia Standards of Learning) about the presidency of John Adams. In fact, they only have to know that a two-party system emerged when he was president. It's one of those blah facts that one could quickly mention, in order to race to more exciting things like the Louisiana Purchase and the War of 1812. But, in order for students to truly understand two-party politics, I feel that laying a strong foundation is important. So, we spent some time learning about the issues that divided the nation in the 1790s. And, what came about, was pretty awesome.

Learning the Material: 
To merely say that the two-party system emerged on John Adams' watch would ignore the early beginnings of Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian arguments during Washington's administration. Because of time constraints, we (my teammates and I) gave the students a 2-page single-spaced document on the origins of the two-party system, with a focus on Hamilton and Jefferson's viewpoints on various issues. After reading the document together, having students highlight their different viewpoints, elaborating on certain issues, and answering student questions, we had students work in small groups to complete the chart below.

(Alexander Hamilton, John
Adams, wealthy merchants, elite landowners, industrialists)

The issues
(Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, ‘the common man’, rural americans)

National Bank

Protective Tariffs

Paying off the Revolutionary War

Excise Tax on Whiskey

Foreign Policy

Strength of the Central Government

Alien and Sedition Acts

Rights of States to Nullify

Interpretation of the Constitution

As they were filling it out,  we could also highlight things that were so important in the lead up to the Civil War--such as the northern and southern views on tariffs, the strength of the national government, rights of the states, and the interpretations of the Constitution.

The sixth graders also quickly form their own opinions about taxing whiskey to control drinking habits and raise revenue. They grow angry at learning of the Alien and Sedition Acts only a week after we learned about the First Amendment. After completing this chart, it is my hope that students have a good grasp of the issues that faced the nation during the 1790s and in the election of 1800.

Forming Sides:
Following the completion of the chart, we divided students into two groups. One group, the Federalists, were asked to work together for John Adams' reelection bid in 1800. The second group, the Democratic-Republicans worked to get Thomas Jefferson elected in 1800. Students had been informed of the previous friendship of these two men--Jefferson and Adams--and now are aware of the stark differences that divided them.

Before class, I arranged the desks into two large groups, representing the two political parties. Within those groups, students work in groups of 3-4 to create different aspects of their campaign.

Running Campaigns:
We asked the two political parties to record a campaign commercial in support of their candidate, create campaign slogans and flyers, and also to write a campaign speech.

Of course, before we did this, we showed students some examples of commercials from previous presidential elections. There were lots to choose from at the Living Room Candidate website. We chose several ads to show students how they can look very different and still be powerful. We selected ads that included musical jingles, optimistic tones, and negative attacks.

Students created flyers that were hung throughout the school. "Vote for Johnny, not for Tommy" and "Jefferson, Man of the People" were a few of the slogans seen by the school community in the lead up to our election.

Creating these flyers, commercials, and speeches required students to really know the content. They needed to highlight the best of their candidates and downplay the worst. John Adams wasn't going to win by focusing on the Alien and Sedition Acts and Thomas Jefferson probably didn't want to talk about the bloodshed in the French Revolution (that he supported).

The Election of 1800:
Students were challenged to run effective campaigns. One student from each group represented the candidates and gave a speech in the auditorium to several classes, attempting to earn their votes. Next, we showed students their commercials. Then, the students voted using an online ballot (I even got a write-in vote from one student). After voting, each student received an "I voted" sticker that was generously donated to us for our lesson.

Kids were engaged. They were challenged. They were eating up the content. They were eager to ask questions about the issues. They were collaborating on campaigns. They were taking perspectives they didn't necessarily agree with and formulating strong arguments. They felt the frustrations of sharing some views with both parties, and therefore, disagreeing on some issues with each party, and having to choose one of them anyways. They were creative with their videos. They were laughing when we watched the ads. They worked hard.

And, yeah, we had a good time.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

No High Stakes Test, No Problem...

For the first time in my young teaching career, I get to teach a curriculum in which there is no high stakes test at the end of the term. For the last several years, I have had to give the U.S. History I SOL, but Virginia politicians decided to eliminate this test in an effort to reduce the overall number of standardized tests. While there are certainly some negative effects of this new law, overall, I'm excited about the change. Specifically, I rejoice in having the freedom to try to create assessments that work for all students.

In order to prepare kids for the 50-question multiple choice end-of-course assessment that my students had to take in recent years, we gave students seven 50-question multiple choice tests to matched the style of the "real deal".  Now that we don't have that pressure, we have changed our strategy. We actually are giving kids choice in their assessment. And, we've reduced the number of tests in our semester course from 7 to 3.

Our team has decided to create three different versions of each test that cover the same content. We are offering our kids a short answer/essay test, a project-based test, and a multiple choice test.

The Format:

1. Multiple Choice: A 50-question test with four or five answer choices. Several of the tests have multiple correct answers and students have to "select all that apply." The test includes high level questions, skills-based questions, and some basic recall questions. Students are asked to analyze pictures, maps, and excerpts from historical documents in order to answer some of the questions.

2. Short-Answer/Essay: This test version allows students to write what they know. I give students 8 open-ended questions, varying their difficulty level, content, and question words (evaluate, compare and contrast, explain, etc.). Students must answer any 5 of the questions they want. Responses must completely answer the question, but I put no limits on the length of the writing. Some questions require merely 3-4 sentences, while others may require 2-3 paragraphs (or more).

3. Project-Based: For this version of the test, students are able to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding in creative ways. Students are given two different projects, and must choose to complete one if they do the project-based test. Students could be asked to write/draw on maps, create brochures, write songs, make license plates, create invitations, write skits, and much more. In some cases, they are asked to take multiple perspectives, solve issues, or place events in chronological order.

We've done this once. The process was smooth.  I think students appreciated the choice. In fact, I know they did. Who doesn't like to choose their own path? Freedom is always preferred to control. I think they worked harder as they took ownership of their work and responsibility for their learning. I saw less frustration during the test. I saw students take risks and show creativity. I saw students determined to highlight what they know.  Typically anxious students showed greater confidence than they previously had. And, while some students underperformed, many excelled.

One student, who took advantage of the project, was so thrilled with the grade he earned that he couldn't contain his excitement--after an initial uncontrollable, yet joyous squeal, he danced.

That student never got above a C last year in history and ended the year with a D. I wish you could have seen his celebration after earning a 96% on a very challenging, yet rewarding, assessment.