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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Are You a Teacher? Then You Need a Teaching Philosophy

My simple definition of teaching is: organizing and fostering a learning environment. For a positive environment to function, it must have balance; making sure all parts work together in sync.

The environment a teacher creates and fosters is at the discretion of their unique combination of personality, beliefs, skills and knowledge.  It can be difficult for a teacher chose a distinct teaching style because there is always new research, trends, curricula, and teaching styles being flashed in front of us in the form of inservices, PD, research, articles, and opinions.

It is imperative that a teacher find a teaching philosophy or method that works for them. In order for a teacher to work effectively and earnestly, they must find a teaching philosophy to stand by and develop with confidence.

I feel I have found the teaching philosophy that is ideal for me. After much searching and trial by fire, I have recently initiated project-based learning (PBL) in my classroom after extensive preparation (see here). One challenge I encountered was learning how to reapply my teaching skills to suit a new framework. I had to sort out how all my ideas could be delivered while still being student-centred. At first, I was very focused on the student-centred part, asking the class a lot of guiding questions so students, getting them to ask questions in turn and voice how they think the unit should operate. I couldn’t just ask “what do you wanna do?” to a class full of kids and just make a project on the go. It needed the touch of a professional to bring it to life.

The Buck Institute for Education, gurus of PBL information and resources, define PBL as:

a systematic teaching method that engages students in learning essential knowledge and life-enhancing skills through an extended, student-influenced inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed products and tasks.

Teachers who want to implement PBL will need to do a considerable amount of planning and preparing. A structure needs to be established, and they need to be there to guide the students through it. It will be difficult at first, but as the project unfolds, it becomes more fluid. Teaching a unit, in the traditional sense, requires the teacher to prep lessons, deliver, assess, and repeat. PBL is different because you have to have a large process planned, what the students produce to demonstrate their understanding will vary.

I’ve learned that a teacher using PBL can’t just “go with the flow” and wing-it under the guise of “student choice” or “inquiry”. That’s lazy and the unit will end up be chaotic and rudimentary.  If anything, fostering student choice and inquiry takes a considerable amount of planning and forethought. A teacher needs be active in setting up structure and parameters in a project-based learning unit for students to work within successfully. Starting an unstructured PBL unit is like throwing students into the deep-end of a pool. Yes, some will benefit and do it successfully. But that misses the point.  When planned properly with structure and parameters, students will have freedom to work within a dynamic learning environment where they can inquire, learn, and collaborate.

I’m literally excited that I’ve found a teaching style that suits me. It’s a great teaching style for me because it’s diverse, goal-oriented, and collaborative. It can incorporate a multitude of essential learnings, assessments, and content delivery methods. It’s critical and creative. Inquiring and reflective. The main thing I’m getting at is that I’ve have found a teaching style that suits my attitude, beliefs, and skills. I’m invigorated by this method, and I think that transfers over to the students. Isn’t that the ultimate goal?

Are you a teacher with a philosophy? Don’t use that as an excuse not to incorporate new technology or pedagogy!

Are you a teacher without a philosophy? Then do some shopping and find one. You’re not doing yourself any favours by  being at the mercy of everything that PD, inservices, and research tells you. Assess who you are and how you learn. This will help determine how you can teach most effectively.

Are you a new teacher? Then you need a teaching philosophy!  I recommend you do some floating around to see what’s out there and what works for you, but make sure to have some foundation to build upon. I think the foundation of being a teacher is to have a solid set of beliefs to build your professional skills upon. It’s up to you to decide that.

Who am I to say all this? Just some teacher guy with a blog. Take it for whatever you think it’s worth.

Beginning Project-based Learning in the Classroom

What I Learned: PBL is about student choice, not the teacher’s.

I can hear it already: *lonely clap* “Yeah, that’s the point man!”

Now for me to elaborate on this groundbreaking material.

First off, I’ve done considerable “planning” for this unit. As in: I’ve invested much time into the thought and production of ideas and questions, gathered resources, researched methods, searched for ICT and online tools, written a lot of notes, then reflected, deleted and edited those notes, and repeated this whole process multiple times. In the end (or rather beginning) it lead me to create a handful of questions and a project idea. Yeah, lots of time, not much tangible planning. That’s it.

In our Social Studies class the goal is to make a book on Blurb.com about Ancient Greece and Rome.

I’m already excited and I think the kids are excited as well… well as excited as kids can be for school. The day went well and I feel like I learned more about PBL in one day than I did with all the planning I did previously. But I would not have learned that much from this one day unless I had done all that planning and research.

When I started today’s class I was at the front doing my regular thing. Trying to “present” and “tell” the information about what we’re doing and what the goal was. I looked around and saw all the yawns, bored faces, and other indicators of students who were not into it.  I had a mini-epiphany, “This doesn’t look or sound like PBL”. I gave my head a shake and thought, “What am I doing? This is the same old me talking.” The voice inside my head rebuked me, “Yeah… student voice, student centered, you’re the guide.”

I quickly sought to rectify my mistake.  I just started asking students how we might be able to accomplish this goal of making a book. How do we get to our desired result? How could we incorporate ICT and social media into the learning experience? How should we structure the groups/teams? How do we incorporate both Greece and Rome into the process? What do you students need from me to get going?  This is just a loose paraphrasing. I didn’t ask all these questions overtly, rather, I structured and prompted in a way that they came to an understanding of their own. This went much better than me just directing what to do.

I got to give the kids credit here too. They haven’t done this before. Yet, they were firing off ideas, criticisms, counterpoints, and telling me what they needed for next steps. It was only a start, but it got my blood flowing knowing that “yes, WE can do this.”

So yeah, going back to what I learned.

1. Overplan, then go with the flow.  2.Questions are much better than directions.