SPQR @ GWMS

I’m teaching Social Studies again this year. Grade 8 Social Studies. My curriculum is…world history. Pretty much none of it is off the table. As a fan of history, this is great.

I started the year by running a Classroom Story where students create and run their own city-states/islands. We learned about some of the terminology we’d use for the year and the students constructed their islands based on the general learning outcomes of the curriculum. Power and authority; the land, people and places; historical connections; economics and resources; identity, culture, and community; and global interdependence. The student-made city-states interacted, had truces, fought pirates, studied new technologies, and explored new lands.

I had been listening to Dan Carlin’s “Death Throes of the Republic” podcast series (for a second time) and was sure I could make some fun of Roman subject matter. So, I did a bunch of research. Lots of podcasts and books, particularly Isaac Asimov’s “Roman Republic” and the aforementioned Dan Carlin Podcast.  I decided that history need not be learned nor taught, linearly, so I jumped to straight to Rome *gasp*.  

Playing With Content

I started a new Classroom Story by assigning famous Roman figures to the students as roles. Marcus Crassus, Pompey, Cleopatra, Agripina, Octavian, and so on. Twenty-five different figures. The eagerly research this mysterious person they were assigned. We watched some videos about various Roman topics on BrainPop to frontload some more information.

Now that we had learned some terminology, people, places, and events, we were ready to play with the content. As a class we acted like the ruling class, the patricians and senators, and confronted some of the Roman Republic’s issues and historical events. With this power we defended Rome from Hannibal (even though the Romans weren’t nice to the Carthaginians either); we engaged in foreign campaigns of conquest to enrich ourselves; and we defended Rome from the northern invasion of the Cimbri and Teutons. All the while we monitored the balance of food, slaves, wealth, and happiness of the plebians.

Then came the civil wars, Sulla’s Civil War, and the class turned upon itself in a vicious game of political chess. Optimates vs Populares. We played our own version of the dinner game Werewolf to simulate the danger and suspicions that were prevalent during the time, but also to have fun and make some facts stick. Then, we finished things off by learning about Julius Caesar. We looked at his rise to power, investigated his death, and saw the transformation of Rome from a Republic to an Empire.

The Big Idea

Ever since I saw the documentary Most Likely to Succeed, which featured the amazing teacher and student work from High Tech High, I fell in love with the idea of publicly displaying student work. I don’t mean putting work on the bulletin board outside the room, I mean creating work that is intended to be seen by others. Since we are studying history, I figured that we could make our own mini-museum with exhibitions based on Ancient Rome. We would invite friends, family, and community members to come see our creations and what learned. When I presented the idea to students I saw them give me a bit of the look that said, “are you sure we can do this?” I told them that I was confident we could do it and assured them we would be fine if we made sure our exhibits had the same purpose: to be engaging AND informative. We set the date for December 19th, giving us about a month to complete our exhibits.

Process

Students got to work putting ideas onto paper and into action. Some ideas took off right away, some ideas were abandoned, and some ideas required careful developing and crafting.

Overall though, the classes (815 and 816) put together a healthy list of exhibits proposals. We had everything covered: traditional informative displays (which were done beautifully), an interactive Colisseum built in Minecraft, a Rome quiz made in Scratch, a Roman gods reality TV show, three escape rooms based on Roman content, digital sketched artwork, and much more. Topics covered things as general as an overview of the Republic and Empire. Other exhibits examined specific topics like women and children, Sulla’s Civil War, Roman beauty standards, mythology, and Julius Caesar and his death. Further, there was plenty of students at the ready to be hosts for the night. They were responsible for welcoming guests, ushering people to the different rooms, explaining the ideas behind the exhibits, and generally helping things run smoothly.

Throughout this, I was there to make suggestions, proofread, give feedback and ideas, hunt supplies, vet resources, circulate the classroom, conference with students, and encourage. The week leading up to the event we shared some previews on social media of what we were making. Students had already made sure friends and family had the date marked. We were set.

The Big Night

The exhibition was on a Wednesday. The Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday leading up were crazy with prepwork. The students were equally excited and scared. Admin was totally on board, supportive, and ready to help. The day of, they went out and bought a bunch of great food for us to serve to guests and it really helped the experience. Students stayed after school to help move furniture, setup escape rooms, decorate the halls, and put up the finishing touches. Of the 50-something students, only 5 were unable to attend the exhibition. And of those, most had prior commitments.

The students were ready to stand behind their work.

Instead of having you read more text, examine the following photos taken the day of by two students, Jelsie and Yesenia. The photos capture the final preparation for the exhibition and the event itself.

Reflection

The exhibition evening went amazing. The students really took the process seriously. Once all setup was done and we awaited the first guests, that’s when the students looked proud. That’s when they realized they did it.

The night of, students were great. They stood by their exhibits, educated guests, and delivered on our mission; make an engaging and informative evening. I could visibly see students either relishing in their success standing proudly beside their work as guests circulated, asked questions, and gave compliments. On the other side, not all students were proud of their work. Some students noticed their shortcomings.

Plenty of supportive parents, friends, and family came and had a huge amount of fun. They were amazed by the sheer amount, and quality, of content the students created.

I still feel like we missed out on the “public” aspect by not attracting more community members (but this could also be due to the fact it was days before Christmas in a cold Winnipeg December). If I were to do this again I would make a more concerted effort to reach local media outlets and Winnipeg celebrities.

As a teacher, it was awesome to see kids researching and asking questions. That was the process I wanted. For students to research, confer, and then form ideas. Because of this process, the final products were very solid in terms of overall presentation. Writing conventions and organization were on point. Visuals were crisp and well laid out. Art was done with care. During the event, the creations on computers were active and a source of a lot of laughs. It was validating to see so many “top performers”. This project had a high percentage of exceptional pieces of student work.

Overall 10/10.

Might do again.

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Involuntary Hiatus

From mid-2017 until recently, I feel like I developed a bad habit: I was proverbially throwing the baby out with the  bathwater. I rejected the good things within a larger body because I didn’t like some of the elements.

What did I throw away? My involvement online.

The news made me mad, social media seemed controlling, toxic and lonely, YouTube comments were still a cesspool, and Reddit lost it allure. I was so turned off. Everything online looked like garbage to me. It was a place I did not want to participate in.

It’s a dangerous thing to look for perfection within human systems. It causes us to become cynical and pessimistic. We can’t see the forest for the trees. Our actions continue to poke holes into things that are flawed instead of acting an agent of change. 

What did I do? I ghosted my social media networks. I stopped posting things.  I would still creep (but less so), but was not a participant. I only made one blog post; a short, spontaneous idea during the summer.

I’m happy to say that I think I’ve dropped that sentiment; I’ve struck a balance. Being online too much (regardless of platform) is unhealthy, but shirking away my presence was incongruent with how I want to share the thoughts, feelings, and actions of my students and I.

In 2019 my hope is to share more.  More reading good content, less scrolling through posts.

Check out what we do in our classes by checking my Instagram @schmidtsclass

Join me!

Doodle Battle: Fight for the Whiteboard

As with most things in our classroom, it started with a story.

In our Classroom Story, “Carta Marina”, we had a portion called Dungeon Dash where students’ characters were navigating a dungeon looking for monsters, loot, and keys. One group encountered a Slime, the most basic, weak, and ubiquitous of the Fantasy Role-Playing Game enemies/monsters.

Below is the first page of a comic about the events one group experienced…and the advent of JERRY the Slime.
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Then, one October day, Jerry found a spot on our whiteboard (he didn’t start with the Santa hat). I’ve always let students draw and doodle on a certain part of our whiteboard, but one day in December, Mr.Wichenko (teaching candidate), noticed the students started taking liberalities with the space given.  Their doodles were encroaching on our valuable whiteboard space so he asks, “when do I start erasing stuff and taking our spot back?”

I figured it was time to take it back to the students. What is the nemesis of slime?

SALT

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Salt throwers. Army of salt men. Puddles of slime. Saltinerator. THE DOODLE BATTLE WAS ON.

We had a couple rules though. 1. No erasing other peoples stuff. 2. Doodles had to somehow relate to the battle.

Here’s my quick-notes on why this experience was awesome.

  • students planning and working together
  • student and staff interaction
  • drawing!
  • students laughing
  • teachers laughing
  • making something
  • seeing all the little things appear on the whiteboard from class to class
  • seeing how the drawings would evolve and interact

Personally, my favourite part was when I drew a spy amongst the slimes. It was just a bunch of salt people in a suit.

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When the students eventually found it amongst the other doodles, they quickly acted.

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And then sent their own unit into deep cover.

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Over the course of a week the whiteboard became a living art installation in the room, constantly changing and expanding. We had our fun, and on the last day before Winter Break, the doodlers all got together and erased everything…except Jerry.

Oh, and here was our “finished product”.

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Drawing Once Again!

I used to draw. Then I was a recovering drawer. And after participating in Inktober, I realized I am a drawer once again.

Inktober was an initiative started by artist Jake Parker. The challenge is to do a pen and ink drawing every day for the month of October and is meant to “to improve inking skills and develop positive drawing habits”. It certainly did that for me. I don’t want this to be long, so here’s my notes:

  • roughly 30 minutes a day. some days much more, some days less, or none.
  • definitely felt like I got better. steadier hand, smoother lines, better understanding of composition, shadows, textures, perspectives, and more.
  • sometimes I would copy a picture, sometime I would make up an original.
  • some drawings felt very deliberate and others we more like doodles.
  • I learned about different pens and techniques.
  • brush pens are fun.
  • I will be visiting Artist’s Emporium soon to purchase more pens that I would like to add to my kit.

I will continue to draw, doodle, copy, and colour. It feels good to put stuff on paper and look back on it.  I love keeping notebooks, so drawing is just another cool thing I can add to them.

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A Schmidty Way to Assess Learning

This is an example of me being neurotic about a term: hacking.

Life-hacks, kitchen-hacks, education-hacks, etc. I understand the context it’s being used in.  It’s meant as a shortcut, or time-saving tip. The word hack originally means to cut something with rough or heavy blows. The term was more popularized with computer hacking; the exploiting of a weakness in a system.

Hacking sounds ungraceful. Exploitation is unfair.

I like how Reddit calls these so-called life hacks, Life Pro Tips (LPT). So let’s just say this is one of my Education Pro Tips (EPT). I think I’m going to start that hashtag. #educationprotips


Thus begins my take on how to assess and grade students in a way that I believe to be fair, consistent, and understandable.

I know I just wrote a post against grading.  That post was my about larger belief of how an education system that focuses on content acquisition and “teaching to the test” is sucking the meaning out of grades, and worse, the fun out of learning.

The presentation below is my rationale and method for making observations, gathering data, and reporting student learning based their skills, not scores. I am fortunate to teach in Manitoba, Canada, where there is not a focus of specific content. Rather, skills are the focus of the curriculum and reporting of English Language Arts.

This may not work for you given your circumstances, or maybe you have a good thing going. I just want to share it because I, and some others, have found it useful.

Grades Aren’t Helping Anyone, Anymore

Fun Prank

Work hard + good school grades = university degree = good job = good life

This long-held cultural belief is starting to unravel at the seams. Why? Countless Millenials have completed the first half of the equation, but the second half doesn’t compute. Many end up with a boatload of debt, living in their parent’s basements if they’re lucky. This generation no longer believes the system works in their favour. They don’t see a tangible reward for their toil, where once upon a time it was the promise of a good job and career. Grades are an inflated currency; you can get them, but they have lost their buying power.

The equation has changed. I think it looks more like this:

Find something to be passionate about + do it = Happiness

You can say what you want about Millenials and Generation Z (same old ‘kids these days’ stuff), but the pursuit of social status is not as high a priority as it once was. There’s no longer a magical “it” crowd that you have to make it into. If you’re happy living on $20,000 a year, doing what you love, that’s a win. Happiness is the new rich.

Despite (sub)consciously knowing all this, students still have to go to school, and with a growing feeling of disenfranchisement, most of them just want to get through it. The path of least resistance becomes so tempting… Choosing a project: what’s the easiest one? Choosing a book: which is shortest? Writing: is this enough? Drawing: do I have to colour it? Presentations: how long?

All these say: “how fast can I get it done?”

This is but a challenge. Teachers, secret agents of subversion, are fighting against the oppressive system of grades and standardized tests. Oh, we might be playing nice with the system, but we’ve still found a way to bring joy to students, care for them, and mentor them. We plan, observe, learn, and execute all sorts of lessons, activities, and projects. Teachers coach and operate special interest clubs. We work crazy hours in the interest of engaging our students, trying to get them to see the value in learning. We’re trying to break through that malaise that seems to be enveloping our students; wake them to their possibilities.

The students are not the problem. The system needs updating. We need to help guide kids to their passions. Make them excited to learn something they want to. Assigning numbers, checking off boxes, focusing on content “acquisition”, and working because of extrinsic motivators is a quick way to extinguish curiosity, drive, and joy.

I believe in assessment, evaluation, conferencing, and sharing work. I just don’t believe in the way we input numerical values for a student’s learning.

Want to see an excellent example of how all this stuff I’m talking about comes together? PLEASE watch the documentary Most Likely to Succeed

I know what I’m saying here is not original or new, but I want to add my voice and opinion to the conversation.

The world is rocketing towards automation. Robots and computers will take a vast amount of jobs, and we’ll be left with a population that doesn’t need “work” to justify wages (universal basic income). To prepare for this world, education in the 21st century needs to evolve to help develop well-rounded humans: socially, emotionally, intellectually, and physically. Grades aren’t helping anyone, anymore.


Bonus

Can we please stop comparing international test scores. Using test scores to compare education systems internationally is ludicrous.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Book Review: Syllabus

This book is a creative, funny, and beautiful notebook/memoir in which author and cartoonist Lynda Barry reflects on her time teaching college students to keep a composition notebook:

a place to practice a physical activity – in this case writing and drawing by hand – with a certain state of mind. This practice can result in what I’ve come to consider a wonderful side effect: a visual or written image we can call ‘a work of art’, although a work of art is not what I’m after…I’m after what Marilyn Frasca called “being present and seeing what’s there.”

I loved it. There’s the review. This is what it looks like. Go buy and read it.

Syllabus

Mini Take-aways

  • crayons teach patience
  • short-cuts are often a short-cut to Dragsville
  • we don’t need reasons to make art
  • doodles, lines, and colours are fine
  • copying and colouring are fine
  • we tell ourselves at a young age that we can’t draw
  • being overly concerned with expectation and objective can take the natural pace away from things

Medium Take-aways

  • composition books for collecting, doodling, writing
  • lots of cool “diary” formats
  • need more drawing, it’s a deep part of being human
  • writing needs to be shared. personal yet building community
  • get creative with lesson handouts and delivery!

Big Take-aways

  • Take notes. Notice things. Slow down more often.
  • Worrying about the worth of your writing or drawing and its value to others BEFORE it exists can keep us immobilized forever. We must write or draw it to demonstrate anything.
  • What is art for? Art is not for anything. Art is the ultimate goal. It saves our souls.

 

Here are some of the notes I took while reading.