Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Hit and Miss in the Classroom

One of the advantages of teaching four classes of US History to freshmen is the varying degrees of success I experience within any given day. Sometimes the best-laid plans need to simmer and stew within another setting before scraping them altogether, and today was no exception as my students are in their final days of assembling their History Day projects.

My objective was to have each class participate in a student feedback session when they would sit down with other groups and offer constructive input on each other's work. I reorganized the tables in my room so they represented a total of seven hexagons, placing name cards on specific sections to insure balance at the start of the exercise. Each group was given a graphic organizer on which they were instructed to place a simplified copy of their thesis and three supporting ideas. I even supplied some possible questions to trigger their thought process and upped the ante with the awarding of bonus points should a group choose to use some of the ideas offered up to them.

It would be a two-minute drill whereby one group would explain their project by their thesis and supporting data, then the other group would counter with possible ways to enhance and improve the presentation. The egg-timer icon on my computer would alert the groups when their two minutes were up, and the other side of the table would then take on this same routine. Once completed, one group would rotate on to the next table and the routine was in place. Ready-set-go....

My first hour class was somewhat dumbfounded by what was asked of them, and the two minutes would sometime feel like two hours. After the third exchange they warmed up to the idea and seemed to enjoy making their presentations to their fellow classmates. I roamed from table to table and witnessed some good conversations taking place, not to mention some outright silliness taking place. Sometimes you simply have to grin and bear it.....then wait for the next class to step foot in the room.

The second time around with a larger class, the exercise appeared to flow smoother...no doubt the result of a better chemistry of students in the mix. Again, the third class went better than expected, but it was my 6th Hour class that really got into it and benefited the most. From the very beginning each group's graphic organizer was filled with suggestions and I was pleasantly surprised by what I witnessed throughout the period. I wanted to make sure students weren't just telling me what I needed to hear, so their replies of "this really helped our project" was welcome news on all fronts.

There are days when lessons are well-received by some classes, and other times I simply feel the need to run for the hills with great frustration. Classroom chemistry can make or break a good lesson, and you never know what to expect until the day is complete. This makes it almost a 'yogism' of sorts....you know, the "it's never over 'till it's over" kind of feeling. It was a day that made me glad I stuck it out, rather than scraping the plan altogether after 1st Hour. Persistence is definitely a key ingredient to success in the classroom!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Pause and Take a Step Back

I confess that I have high standards for my students, but sometimes you simply have to pause and take a step back to let them experience success and failure along the way. As they continue to work on their National History Day projects, they now know what is expected of them in the way of the final product. In many ways this is like putting your new toy boat in the rapids, being aware that there are hazardous falls, rocks and boulders ahead. Some will crash and sink to the bottom, others making their way to safety by navigating around the aforementioned dangers.

With eleven days remaining in their deadline, some students are doing quite nicely. Their thesis is well thought out and the accompanying outlines are taking shape. Many have taken hold of their subjects and are exploring new knowledge in the way that we had hoped. This is when it's fun to be a teacher, to see them exploring new ways to present their ideas to interested readers. I will admit that some of it is pretty simple in nature, but this is the same starting point from which everyone once had their back foot sunk into. As one of my good friends always says, "do you remember how sloppy your first French kiss was?" Likewise this will be a memorable experience for every student in my class. They may well think back and remember how poorly conceived their projects were, but they will also recall the fun (and he headaches) they had putting it all together.

This is just another microcosm of life in the real world, and by falling down and picking yourself up off the floor, you realize your real mistake was not listening to the person who told you to keep both hands on the handle bars and avoid leaning more to one side over another. Yes, there are dangers ahead....but in the end a gentle fall with teach big lessons.

Sunday, February 10, 2013


For the past two weeks my students have been knee-deep in their work for National History Day projects, and since this is a new experience not only for them but for our entire high school, there is an air of mystery for what to expect. Anytime you ask your students to be "the first" to do something, there are feelings of uncertainty which ripple throughout the school building. It requires careful planning from staff in order to keep everyone on the same page, but it also allows some flexibility and creativeness in lesson planning. NHD is the only event I know of where students can choose their own topic, work as a team or alone as one, select one of four formats, and aspire to enter regional, state and national competition. There is but one simple requirement for which we insist on, and this mandate is that they complete a project dealing with a turning point in history.

For the most part this has been an enjoyable experience, watching students tap into their personal interests and then delving into quality research. Early on in the process we quickly identified why Google was NOT the best place to begin when looking for reliable research and valid information. So many students weren't aware of the demise of the endangered tree octopus until I demonstrated a search with Google as model was how to proceed. After all, the website has pictures and videos from people all over the world, in addition to ways which people can donate money to this viable cause. It's almost too hard to believe....until you suddenly realize that its all been a huge hoax.

This point was taken and clearly understood by most of my students until they became bored with "scholarly research" which we required through Badgerlink, a scholarly search engine. It was easy for them to sneak back to Google and type questions for which there are so many easy responses- at least they thought it was until we mandated the use of Badgerlink for their initial research. There were groans and moans from those who often like to stray from such directions, but by now they know we are serious about this project. I know that with three weeks remaining until the project due date there will be additional hurdles to jump. This week my classes will be working on thesis statements and bibliographies, and for a good segment of them this will be like going to the dentist after years of neglect. I am readying myself for the tsunami of whines, but in time I'm confident that everything will come together nicely.

Yesterday we took those students who were truly interested in world-class research to join us for a trip to the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison. Few people are aware that WHS is the world's 2nd largest library for North American history, outranked only by the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. The WHS staff did an outstanding job working with the kids, identifying books and articles which will they can use in their work. My highlight in the day came at 2:00 PM when none of the kids wanted to leave the library, choosing instead to sit at large tables with research papers surrounding their note cards.  Once these young people were focused and engaged in their work, it gave new meaning to the word "learning." It was an incredible sight to witness!