Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Cactus Hill Grill: A Differentiated Menu

One of the most obvious ways to differentiate instruction is to provide students with an assignment that includes a "menu" of options for students to choose from. My Cactus Hill Grill lesson takes the menu idea a step further. It requires a lot of prep, but if you're willing to put forth the work, it's totally worth it. The Cactus Hill Grill activity is, in a sense, the reprisal of my initial archaeology lesson from early in the year. It is a review of archaeology and American Indians.

One of the things I decided early on was that simply giving a menu activity to students doesn't cut it. Sure, it provides lots of choices for students and allows students to work at their own pace, but what about teacher delivery? How can we have the students become more engaged in a menu lesson? How can we meet a child's need for fun? Are we doing all that we can to model creativity if all we do is hand students a menu? Sure, creating menus is a great start toward differentiating instruction, but does it lead to maximum enthusiasm and engagement?

Because I decided to give students a menu, it only made sense to make the classroom look a bit more like a restaurant. I created tables with 4 desks and covered them with butcher-paper "tablecloths". On these table settings, I placed center pieces that included "Did You Know?" statements with random American Indian trivia.
"Tablecloths" that I made and used in 2012-2013 before I added my "Appetizer".

"Tablecloths" that I made and used in 2014 with setting.

I used my dry-erase board to display a welcome sign and Today's Specials. I prepared a GrooveShark playlist of American Indian music that I have playing when students enter the room. As they come in, they notice that the "Do Now", or starter activity, on my SmartBoard, actually says, "Appetizer."

I meet the students at the door, with a passionate greeting: "Welcome to the Cactus Hill Grill...over 18,000 years of excellent customer service!" (They need to know that evidence that humans lived at Cactus Hill as early as 18,000 years ago makes it one of the oldest archaeological sites in North America.) As students come in, they see the tables and tablecloths. They take a seat and find a paper plate, a spoon, and a fork at their desk. On the back of the paper plate is the name of an American Indian group that we have studied. No tribes are repeated at the same table. Taped to the utensils are crayons for them to draw an image of their assigned American Indian group on the front of their plates. I usually give no more than 5 minutes for this appetizer. After completing the dish, I have students share their artwork and their knowledge of American Indian tribes with their tablemates--what's a restaurant without some conversation!

Usually I will embed some content in the form of customer reviews on one of the boards in my classroom. Some examples are:
"You'll have a whale of a time!" -Inuit customer
"You're going to dig this place!" -Bob, the Archaeologist

A good menu will offer a variety of assignments that take into consideration different readiness levels, learning styles, and interests of your students.  Here is a menu for my Cactus Hill Grill:

I usually have a "kids' menu" available for students who tend to struggle with the material and need something that's a bit more straightforward. Some students may also be unable to focus with a large variety of options. For these students, I offer a simple study guide for students to complete.

A good menu not only provides student choice, but it also creates opportunities for student independence. It gives students a chance to take an idea and run with it. So, while most of them are hard at work, I take the chance to work in small groups or one-on-one with kids who might need the extra help. In order to make this happen, though, kids need all the supplies readily available. You don't want students interrupting one-on-one sessions because they can't find something they need.

If you have other advice on how I could improve this lesson, I'd love to hear it...

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Lessons Learned...

I lost a mentor recently. The man I student taught with, Kris Kishore, passed away from a rare form of cancer. I haven't kept up with him as much as I would have liked to in recent years, but in the past month I was able to tell him how much he means to me.  He was so much more than just my clinical instructor. He was a role model and an inspiration, and he helped mold me in this profession in far more ways than I even realize.

In that semester of student teaching, I learned so much from this man that I began to admire for far more than his teaching abilities. Kris was brilliant--an intellectual, you might say--one of the smartest men I knew, and one who could have done anything in this world, and he chose to teach. He was an inspiring teacher, and his humility led to his greatness in the classroom. He was a good listener who was also bold enough to speak out when "what's best for students" didn't match the status quo or the decisions being made. Kris had a great sense of humor and laughed often.

I'll never forget what my Curry School professor said when I learned of my student teaching placement. She said, "Mr. Kishore is one of the best in the business. And, he will expect a lot from you." Both of those statements were so true. There is no doubt in my mind that Kris was one of the best teachers I've known to date. There's also little doubt that he indeed did expect a lot from me. It wasn't too much. But, the bar was high. And, he was there to support me every step of the way that semester. In the same way that we as teachers should set high expectations for our students and support them in their efforts to get where they ought to be, he did so for me. I want to share some of the lessons I learned in my semester of student teaching. (Please note that these are only a handful of the many things I took away from that semester.) Kris' quotes (in red) were from a log we kept during my student teaching experience.

1. Be prepared. One of the things I learned early on in the semester was that no teacher should ever leave school without being fully prepared for the next day. Every copy was made and laid neatly on the desk, every agenda item written on the board, the date was changed, the classroom was neat, the t's were crossed and the i's dotted. Kris was a careful planner and expected the same from me.

2. Laugh with your co-workers. Kris valued his relationships with his co-workers. He enjoyed eating lunch with his co-workers in the social studies office, where his sense of humor was on full display. He brought joy to those around him. I remember that Kris starred in a comical video with other teachers that was shown to students prior to Homecoming. He would send prank emails from other teachers' accounts if they failed to sign out before leaving the room.  He loved to laugh and showed up to work each day with a positive attitude and a smile on his face.

3. Let students develop their own ideas.  Kris Kishore was beyond brilliant when it came to formulating questions to get students to think about various topics. He was a master at setting up a debate that encouraged students to think deeply on issues. He loved using the structured academic controversy approach. He encouraged thoughtful discussions and explanations of historical events and created assignments that led students to think critically and form and express their own opinions. As indicated by the quote below, he encouraged me to do the same:
Good job of explaining key ideas...but could you have gotten the students to develop their own explanations to make it more real for them?
4. Use these pens.

5. And these dry-erase wipes.

6. On that note, Wash your dry erase board every day.  He meticulously wiped them clean at the end of every day, and as a result, his classroom had the whitest boards in the school.

7. Value your students. Kris did this so well. He made his room a safe environment for students. He consistently sought their feedback. Here are just a few of the things he mentioned to me:
Make sure you show them that you value their contributions, even when you tell them they’re wrong.
It's important to...make sure that no one is making other people uncomfortable or stopping them from participating.  
I always try to look at each student’s paper to see if they are on task; its helpful to move fast around them and say stuff like “good job,” or, “I like what you’re doing."
Ask [students] what they thought about the activity.

8. Communicate effectively with parents. Kris was a great communicator. He was thoughtful and intentional with his words no matter who he talked to. He was also a great listener. When it came to talking to parents, he was also proactive. I'll never forget this advice: say at least one positive thing about a child before sharing "areas where improvement is needed" with parents. He didn't hesitate to seek parental involvement and input when it came to behavior management strategies and academic concerns.

9. Don't be afraid to grow and improve.  He never took the easy route merely for the sake of doing so. He worked hard to do what was best for students and often this stretched him to come up with fresh ideas or expand his knowledge. He was a lifelong learner. He loved books. He offered great advice about seeking answers to student questions when I didn't know the correct response. He encouraged me to stretch my own thinking, expand my historical and teaching knowledge, and to become a more thoughtful individual in this profession.
...the bottom line is that we don’t have a good answer for their [students'] question about the social classes – I like the graphic (obviously) but I wish... to read more about it.
Learning to write also helps you learn to think – it never hurts to be a better thinker!
10. Do what is best for kids. He always made decisions in his classroom that he felt were right for kids. He cared deeply for the students and put them first. He challenged others to take the same course of action, that is, one that was best for kids.

11. Manage time wisely.  I will never forget one of my early mistakes in student teaching. As my lesson was winding down, I noticed we would still have about 4-5 minutes left in class. As a student teacher, I knew to always plan for way more than we could accomplish--I could never plan too much, I thought. Well, on this particular day, I had extra time. I was clueless about what to do. Luckily, Kris noticed my perplexed face and worry that I had nothing else, and he came and graciously rescued me with some general announcements for the class. Afterwards, we debriefed on many different ways I could have used that time more effectively. He is probably also the main reason for my success in transitioning quickly and smoothly as I struggled with this mightily early on.
Keep emphasizing how much we have to do and how every minute counts.
Key thing: watch your time.
We need to figure out how to improve transitions in the class.
The last quote above reveals his gentle manner in telling me that I'm not doing as well as I could in this area. This gentle push, and so many others like them, helped me grow so much that semester.

12. Don't talk over students.   One of my more evident flaws as a teacher early on was my struggles to get every students' attention when I needed it. Kris told me that every new teacher struggles with this, though I believe that was yet another kind and gentle way of telling me that I should work to improve in this segment of teaching. Initially, my solution was to try and talk over them. For obvious reasons, this didn't work.
One thing you should NOT do is try to talk over them – if what you’re saying is important for everyone to hear, make sure that everyone does hear you.
Kris was so good about getting me to think of possible solutions without just telling me what I should do. After all, there are many ways to go about handling these situations.

13. Be organized. Kris might have been the most organized teacher I know. In addition to his
digital collection of materials, he used a file cabinet method that I adopted. He used manila folders
and on the left side of the tab he wrote the unit of study (i.e. European Exploration) and on the right
side, he wrote the activity that is kept in the folder (i.e. "NASA hook" or "Mapping Routes"). Each
unit has its own color and items are placed in order of when they are taught. The unit materials are
pulled out of the file cabinet when in progress for easy access and then put away and replaced by the
next unit after each test. Much work is saved in the long run when these careful and systematic
procedures are followed. 

14. Be Confident. When Kris Kishore walked into the room, eyes were on him. When he
taught he was in command of the classroom. When he spoke, other teachers listened. There's no
doubt in my mind that he knew he was a great teacher, but he humbly shied away from sharing this
fact and simply did his job. And did it well.

15. Be enthusiastic. There was a time when I wasn't enthusiastic in the classroom. That's not
usually a problem anymore! But, at one point, it was. Kris shared some wisdom that helped me to
grow here as well.

What about your own personal enthusiasm? Could you have amped up the energy in class?
general comment – you do almost everything well: connecting to students, lesson planning, classroom management, assessing, contacting parents. The one thing I think you still need to work on is ENTHUSIASM. Is there a way to amp up your “show”/energy. One of the keys to effectively to get [students] hooked in and excited about the content. Its not easy to do, especially not all of the time, but it makes for effective history teaching at that level.
16. Always greet and respect the secretaries and custodial staff. Not that I ever intended to
disrespect them, but Kris made it very clear how important this truly was. To him, relationships
mattered. Kindness was important. He lived this out everyday.

This is Kris and I on Twin Day in the Fall of 2010.