Learning from Elsa: (Trying to) Let It Go

Tuesday, April 16, 2019 2 comments

     I'm a Type A person.  I like to-do lists.  I have to have my planner at all times.  (I was at a conference and a water bottle exploded in my bag.  It pretty much drenched my planner and I started to hyperventilate.  I couldn’t feel my limbs.  I think that’s what a stroke must feel like.) The cabinets in my classroom are organized with smaller containers that have labels on everything.  My circle likes to joke about my Type A-ness, but the truth of it is that it helps me survive the chaos of middle school. I wouldn't be able to do half of the things I do without that personality trait.  My Type A, perfectionist attitude almost got the better of me this week, though.  Almost.  And I'm so glad it didn't.

     Our school is having its first-ever door decorating contest.  Why first-ever?  Well, until Christmas, we were an open-concept school.  If you haven't experienced the challenges of a school without doors or full walls, imagine over 950 middle schoolers in some sort of large rat maze.  That was what we dealt with on the daily.  Our construction project to close in classrooms is finally finished!  This is the first time in maybe four decades that every teacher has a door!

     Anyway, so to pump up kids for state testing, each team was asked to decorate their door/hallway.  Our team was down to superheroes or Star Wars for a theme.  Fortunately, my son has had two Star Wars birthday parties and since Type A lady here saves all party decor because you never know when you might need it again, we went with Star Wars.

     First step was to cover the door with a black tablecloth.  I backed away so the kids could do it.  What I saw made me want to peel the skin away from my face.  It was crooked, it had holes in it, and it had more wrinkles than an English bulldog’s face.  I almost tore it off to redo it myself, but I didn't.  In my head and using my best Elsa voice, I repeatedly started singing, "Let it go!  Let it go!"  That's much easier said than done for Type A me, but I did nothing.  I had a few kids that wanted to stay after school to finish it.  They asked for a new tablecloth to try it again and I obliged.

Their finished product!
     What I saw was better than anything I could have done or imagined.  They figured out how to wrap the door like a present, so the background looked much better.  They used green plates and construction paper to make a Yoda head.  They found yarn to put together a banner for each teacher on the team.  This morning, they raided my cabinet for bulletin board letters to make a Yoda-like testing phrase.  They figured out how to tape a foam lightsaber to the door to get it to stick.  The only thing they needed me to do was to figure out how to get the hooks to not tear away from the tablecloth when they hung the robe (It was heavy!). Oh, and roll tape to hang things.  Apparently, that is a teacher-ninja skill.

     I could have stayed late last night to fix it myself, but I didn't.  Doing it myself would have robbed them of the pride they felt when they finished.  Watching them work together to figure it out was absolutely priceless.  They are so proud of themselves and the work they did.

     And Type A me is pretty proud of them, too.

     Love and Sparkle,

Remembering 9/11: A Middle School ELA Approach for September 11th

Sunday, September 9, 2018 5 comments


     Everyone can tell you where they were on September 11, 2001.  I was sitting in my high school French class, on my way to a Jimmy Buffet concert in Indianapolis that evening.  The first plane hit while we were in study hall and because everyone thought it was an accident, we didn't turn on the tvs until the second plane hit.    Then it became very real that this wasn't an accident at all.  We sat in French class absolutely mesmerized at what was happening.
    Three years ago when talking about this day with a group of seventh graders I realized these events were just stories to my kids, like learning about anything "in the past."  They knew about the day only through stories they've heard and historical fiction novels they've read.
     I guess to some I wasn't directly affected by the events on 9/11, but in a way, we all were, though.  I was seventeen and it was the first time I realized there was a world much larger than the world I experienced everyday. Because someone invaded that world in such a tragic way, I sat glued to the tv, soaking in very piece of information I could, just trying to understand what had happened and why.  I guess I felt like learning as much as I could might help me be more empathetic to those who lost loved ones.
     I suppose that's why I feel so passionate about making sure that my students understand what exactly is being remembered and honored.  My goal as a Language Arts teacher is to make my students more empathetic towards others, from any event, situation, or story.  This why I carefully structure my class on September 11th each year.
    First, I have students complete activities in this Hyperdoc, created by Katherine Baker.  Students have to think about what they already know about the events from 9/11, choose a few videos to watch, do a little research, and post their findings and reflections to a Padlet.  Starting with this activity gives every student some background knowledge. (Be sure to make a copy of the Hyperdoc and update with your own Padlet link before sharing with students.)
Image result for saved by the boats
The illustrations in the book are gorgeous.
    Next, we read a short picture book called Saved by the Boats, which tells the story of the several boats that heroically helped the people on Manhattan island return home after all other forms of transportation had been shut down.  I love this because it brings in a perspective that most students haven't heard of until now.  While I'm reading, I ask students to write down at least 10 facts mentioned the story. (We use this story for other things throughout the year, so this quick read sets up other lessons in the year.)
    Then, I put a picture from the day on the board.  This particular one seems to generate a lot of discussion.  I ask students to pick someone from the photo and write a from their perspective.  We do a quick mini-lesson review on mood and tone so that students know what emotions to convey, and what tone they need to have as the author.  Their one requirement is to include at least 5 facts from the book in their writing piece.  After 15 minutes of writing, I ask students to share.  (This year I want to try Barry Lane's Human Tableau, where the students come up and mimic the picture.  Then, I call out a person and they read their character's story.  He did it at a workshop this summer with a picture from the Holocaust and it was absolutely breathtaking.)
Image result for september 11 people
My students always point out the man going
 in the other direction.  It leads to lots of discussion
 on those who went back to help others.
      Finally, we end class with a close reading of the poem "The Names" by Billy Collins.  It leads to a really good discussion on the different ways we remember people, and I let the kids create a memorial for something or someone special to them.
     I've had two-hour classes for the past two years, so doing all of this in one period was very much possible.  I am back to a more traditional schedule (59 minute periods), so I plan on doing the first two activities on September 11th, and then completing the last two activities on September 12th.  That breakdown just makes sense for me.  I can easily see where you could go into depth with one of these activities and it could last whole period.  If you like any of these ideas, feel free to use them any way you wish.  Hope this helps give you an idea on how to make September 11th relevant and thoughtful for your middle schoolers.

Love and Sparkle,

5 Tips for Argument Writing: Guest Post on 2 Peas and a Dog

Wednesday, April 25, 2018 No comments
Be sure to head on over to 2 Peas and a Dog to check out my guest post on 5 Trips for Argument Writing!  It has my best how-to advice setting up an argumentative writing unit with middle schoolers.  For stopping by, here's a FREE sample unit I created about reality tv!  You can make a copy of it and make any changes you need.  Be sure to leave feedback below.  Thanks!
Create and teach an effective and engaging argument writing unit with these 5 tips from 2 Peas and a Dog. #argumentwriting #englishlanguagearts #lessonplans #middleschool #2peasandadog

Love and Sparkle,

Breakout of Boring Routines: How to Find and Use Digital Breakouts

Wednesday, March 14, 2018 1 comment
     I was a skeptic.  There, I said it.  I was most definitely a skeptic when first introduced to Breakout games for the classroom.  We were in a summer leadership team meeting and our technology director brought the boxes for us to try.  I had so much fun, and I could see how they could be used to engage students in content or work on collaboration skills, but my mind went into teacher mode - my kids fight with each other like crazy or would lose or reset those locks!  So, another year went by before I started to think about them again.
     Then, I found a digital Breakout about plot structures.  (Actually, it might have been one of my teammates who found the digital breakout, but I'm not really sure.  My team and I spend a lot of time together - A LOT - to the point I'm not sure who had the original idea.  So, teammates, if you shared it, thanks for it and the blogpost idea! Love you!)  So anyway, I thought it might be a good review before our end-of-quarter assessment.  It ended up being a GREAT review!  The kids were extremely engaged and had the opportunity to review concepts.  It was a great alternative to our other review games. And before long, kids started asking if we could do Breakouts at other times.  Yes, you read that correctly - kids WANTED to work on content related material.  It was nothing short of a miracle.

Look at them working together!  They were so engaged.
 So, what are Breakout games?  They are escape-room type scenarios where kids have to work together and use content knowledge to solve challenges to solve an overall puzzle.  My favorite part is that if you don't want to use the boxes, you can use digital Breakout games, where the "locks" are on a Google Form.  Kids analyze clues to come up with the correct codes for the "locks" on the Form.  The locks can be words of any length, directional, number, colors - the sky is the limit!  (Read more about them here).
     Digital Breakouts are available in several places, as more teachers are becoming comfortable with making them.  We've purchased a couple from TeachersPayTeachers gathered some from our favorite blogs, and you can purchase a subscription to Breakout EDU for an unbelievable amount of games for only $60 for the year. (Get creative about getting this financed for you instead of spending that money from you own pocket.  For example, I wrote a grant to our education foundation, and they bought us a subscription for next school year.)  But the place we check first is always the Breakout EDU Digital Sandbox.   These FREE game are organized so that you can search by subject, content, or grade level which makes it very user-friendly.

     Breakouts are great, but just like anything else in our classrooms, success comes not from the resource, but the implementation.  Here are my tips:

1) Start with a lesson on cursors.  As weird as this sounds, trust me.  Learn from my mistake. I didn't this year, and the first couple of games we were rough kids didn't see how to some pictures and texts are hyperlinked to take you to a clue.  I know next year,I actually want to start with a mini-lesson on the different cursor types because that's really important in reading online texts and Breakouts.  The cursor will alert you to whether or not something can be highlighted, clicked on, typed in, etc.  Digital readers have to recognize this and what other way can I make that mini-lesson engaging than creating a fun, immediate need for that information?  Digital Breakout for the win! (This lesson from Smekens Education would be a perfect place to start.)

2) Start with a fun, easy Breakout.  I don't start with a content one because I don't want kids to miss out on learning or reviewing specific content as they are trying to master using Breakouts.  The Disney ones in the Sandbox are perfect for teaching how to use the different features of a digital Breakout.

3) Build persistence with consistence.  My advanced kids are used to things being easy for them most of the time.  They have never really struggled with school, so trying something over and over has never really been required of them until they did their first Breakout.  The first Breakout game we did, my kids started complaining around the 7-10 minute mark that this was too hard.  The second time, it was around the 15 minute mark, so I actually gave them $5 Raider Bucks (our school money) because they had beat their time.  The third game it was round the 20-22 minute mark, so I rewarded them again.  This last time we played, I gave them a super challenging one, and they still didn't say anything about it being too hard!  I was super impressed so everyone earned $15 Raider Bucks!  By doing about one Breakout a month, the kids are finally getting used to the challenge...and they enjoy it!

Their end-of-game poses are alway fun!  I laminated the signs so
we use them for every game.
4) Grouping is important.  Breakouts can be completed independently, but I want my kids to learn how to work together, so we do most of these in groups.  Think about how you want to group kids before you begin.  I like to keep the groups limited to 3-4 members.  (Our school blocked Google Sites.  They are wonderful about unblocking specific links for us, but I didn't know our game was blocked until kids started saying, "Ms. Moman, the website is blocked."  Ugh!  So, I had to log into 5 different computers so the kids would have the access they needed, which is why the groups in the pictures have 4-5 kids.)  Also, think about if you want heterogeneous or homogeneous ability groups. You might need to make the groups ahead of time.
5) Reward effort, not time.  The first time we played I made the mistake of only rewarding the first 
group. Guess what happened?  After the first group won, no other group wanted to finish so they lost out on valuable learning opportunities.  Now I reward every group that finishes.  We make a big deal of "breaking out" by taking their pictures with the signs and everyone earning $25-50 Raider Bucks. (Print end-of-game signs from here.)

    That's how we do it.  Once you do one digital Breakout, it actually gets much easier.  Let me know if you use Breakouts in your classroom and what you think.  Also, the links to your favorite digital Breakouts in the comments.

Love and Sparkle,