Tuesday, July 28, 2015

First week of school - What to do?

For many of us the first day of school is right around the corner. Many of you have been busy preparing for that "magical" day. You have your syllabus, you organized your classroom, you may have even written new lesson plans or tweaked some of your old ones. If you are like me, you are ready to start teaching your content. Let's not waste any time.

Although I would love to be able to start day one handing out green-sheets and getting right into the content, I know that my students need a couple of days to get settled into the classroom routines. They also need to get to know me and each other, as much as I need to get to know them. But, what to do? A quick Google search of "first day of school activities" brings out tons of different options.

Here are some of my favorites:

The Party 

or "Teaching students to recognize individual strengths of group members."

As the class enters they find small paper plates (cheap, unlaminated cake plates work best) on their desks. Once students are settled, set the scenario by stating ""You've all been invited to a party. It's like pot-luck, but instead of bringing food to share, you're bringing yourself and the strengths you believe you contribute to the class. For example, you may be a great with computers, a creative thinker, very organized, or able to keep others on task. On one of the paper plates, write down the strengths or talents that you bring to the party. After you have written your strengths, you may also decorate the plate, but do not write your name on it." I give students about 15 minutes to complete this. I also make my own!

Once they are done, collect all plates in the center of the room, and designate one person to pick up the first plate from the stack. That person reads what was written, and asks the author to stand up, share a little more, and then write his/her name on the plate and stick it/tape it on the wall. This person becomes the next to pick up a plate from the pile. We continue until all plates are up on the wall.

If time allows or the next day, we have a discussion about the activity, asking questions such as:
  • How can what you've learned from others be used to allow us to work in class?
  • How can you make the most of the strengths and talents of the class and still allow everyone a chance to try new things or use new talents?
  • Is the class missing any strengths? What are they and how can you build them? What if you can't? How can you overcome not having certain strengths or prevent the lack of them from becoming a class weakness?
The decorated plates from each of my classes not only make a cute Back to School mural, but also  become a reminder of everyone's strengths and can be used to guide students when trying to determine who is the best person for a team task.


or "The importance of clear communication and active listening in order to accurately express ideas and instructions or to receive messages from others."

Each student receives one piece of 8x11 paper, this may be white or colored. I tell the students to follow the directions they are about to be given, without asking any questions or looking at their neighbors for "correctness". Each student is working individually. I proceed by giving the following directions quickly, without demonstrating or clarifying in any way.
  1. Fold the paper in half and tear off a top corner. 
  2. Fold it in half again and tear off the top corner. 
  3. Fold it in half again and tear off the left corner. 
  4. Rotate the paper to the right three times and tear off the bottom corner. 
  5. Fold it in half again and tear off the middle piece.
I tell the students to unfold their papers and compare their snowflakes with those around them. Of course they find that most of their creations do not match each other. I follow up this activity with a class discussion asking questions such as:
  • Why is it that even though everyone received the same directions, not everyone's snowflake looks the same?
  • What would have changed if you could have asked questions? Why would asking clarifying questions in class be important?
  • Have you ever told someone one thing only to have the person hear and do something different? What happened, and how did you deal with it?
  • If you are the leader of a group, what steps can you take to make sure that others clearly understand what you're trying to tell them?
  • How can you improve your communication skills when it becomes obvious that others are seeing things differently than you intended?


Post-it Towers

or "Teamwork is a strategy to solve problems."

I divide the class into groups of four and hand out 15 Post-its to each group. I tell students, "Your team must build the tallest Post-it note tower. Your tower must stand alone (no leaning your structure against anything). No glue, tape, string, staples or any binding material that is not the sticky part of the post-it. You have 15 minutes." At the end of the 15 minutes, I ask students to measure their towers, compare the different structures and declare a "winner". 
I follow up this activity with a discussion centered around questions like:
  • Did you have a plan before you started building?
  • What were the skills that helped you or would have been helpful to succeed in this activity?
  • How effectively did your team communicate ideas during the activity?
  • If you could do it over again, what would you change/keep the same?
  • What are some important teamwork agreements we can implement the next time we do an activity?
During the discussion, I write down the "Teamwork Agreements" on chart paper, and finish off by having student sign their names. The Teamwork Agreements stay up as a reminder to students of how we have agreed to work together in the classroom.

What about you? What do you do that first week of school?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Avoiding death by presentation.

It is project presentation day! Your students are excited (and anxious) about presenting their work. They had lots of choices to demonstrate what they learned, each team has a different topic or solution to the problem. They have also used different tools to create amazing presentations. Slide decks using Powerpoint, Google presentations, Prezi, E-maze or even Piktochart abound. Everything is going swell, until students start presenting.

That is when you again realize that it does not matter that everyone is presenting something different or that the tool chosen has lots of bells and whistles. Students, and many adults, still rely on text heavy slide decks, and more often than not, they "present" by reading each slide out-loud. By the third presentation, and even though you have stated several times, "I can read your slide, turn around and tell us about your work", you are ready to pull your hair out. Out of the corner of your eye you see Juanita doodling and Johnny dozing off. The class is bored out of their minds. Something has to change!

Now you may already be thinking about authentic audiences, but the same thing happens when students are presenting to the community at large, and even in professional settings. And yes, I know that presentation skills need to be taught and students need to practice beforehand. We have had complete lessons on what makes a good presentation and critiqued posted presentations from around the web. But even then, the reliance on reading text-heavy slide decks is still an issue.

As I searched for an answer, I came across the idea of using an Ignite presentation format. The Ignite presentation is a 5 minutes long presentation with 20 slides where the slides advance automatically every 15 seconds. You can think of it as the presentation equivalent of a sonnet.

The idea is simple, but putting it into practice will require some prep and teaching on my part. This is the plan:

1. Introduce the idea of Ignite presentations. Share Scott Berkun's - "Why and How to Give an Ignite Talk".

2. Provide students with an Ignite presentation planner. This document becomes the presentation outline.

3. Based on the planner, students can create a slide index (on paper or a Google doc). This is basically a "what will go in each of the presentation slides". Students then practice with this slide index in hand to figure out what to say and what to include as visuals for that slide.

4. Have students choose a slide deck creator, and draft their visual presentation. Remind them of the "20/15" rule. 
  • Google slides: Create the 20 slide deck. Publish  to the web, and select auto-advance every 15 seconds. The link created is what they submit to be played on presentation day.
  • Prezi: Prezi does not offer the 15 second option in auto-play, so students will need to get a little more creative. For example it could be 15 slides every 20 seconds or 30 slides every 10 seconds. 
  • Emaze: Apply the 15 second stop duration in slides options to the complete 20 slides presentation.
The key idea in this step is that no matter what tool they use, they will be presenting using the automatic changing of slides. It should almost be a choreographed dance between the slide deck and the presenters. Practice is key!

This is what our first attempt looks like:

5. During presentation day, I will continue to use my peer-presentation rubric, which I have transformed into a Google form. Feel free to create your own copy from this presentation rubric response form  (If you are unsure of how, read my previous post Evaluating websites using Google forms).

So, that's it. What do you think?
What other ways have you come up with to avoid death by presentation? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Evaluating websites using Google Forms

Keyboard and phone image

We can probably all agree that the internet is a great source of information on all topics. From travel destinations or cute kitten videos to breaking news or the latest scientific discovery, everything is at our fingertips. Content is continuously added, often without any form of review for accuracy or reliability, so it is imperative to teach our students how to evaluate Web sites to determine if the information is reliable and credible.

There are many sites that offer lessons to teach students how to evaluate websites. One of the best tools I found for this is a rubric developed by the Ron E. Lewis Library - based on the CRAAP Test created by Meriam Library at California State University-Chico. Unfortunately, although the acronym is catchy, I cringed at the thought of having my middle-schoolers go home and tell their parents that I had used that specific word. Middle-schoolers are not known for providing context, plus if I know them at all, by the time they got home the CRAAP acronym would probably have changed to something even worse. So I took it upon myself to modify the rubric into something more middle-school appropriate, creating the CITE-IT rubric instead.

Over the last school year, we worked with a paper version of the CITE-IT rubric, and I required that any time that students were referencing sources they had to attach the CITE-IT scores and rubrics for the Web sites they used. This worked quite well, except for the fact that I had to keep a big stack of CITE-IT rubrics on hand. Also, although most students were able to manage this, but a few of them would invariably come towards the end of a project and fill in a bunch of the rubrics, just so they could comply with the requirement.

In a recent training, I learned about using Google forms to create rubrics, and thus be able to grade "on the fly". This means that basically you create a form with a field for student name and a series of multiple choice indicators for each of your criteria. In the end this gives you a spreadsheet where you have collected each student's score on the rubric, and which you can then sort any way you wish. As I mulled this idea as a great way to increase my productivity while grading presentations or essays, a spark of inspiration struck. "What about using that same idea and having students use it for the curation of websites with CITE-IT scores?"

So, this is what I came up with.

  • I created a Google form version of the rubric.
  • I modified the response sheet so that the last column on it would automatically add the correct columns. I also added a column that would advise the student on whether to use the site or not. This is based on the individual scores the student assigned - just like in the paper version.

The idea is that this will allow the students to have their own version of the CITE-IT form and response sheet, which they can then use as they are doing their research. By adding a text  field for comments, they will also be able to sort the sheet by project title (if that is what they add), share their evaluated sources with me and each other and perhaps, in my utopian dreams, even see trends in the URL addresses that come up as reliable most often.

If you would like to make a copy of the form for your students to use (or modify to suit your needs), it is as easy as navigating to this blank response spreadsheet, clicking on Make a Copy (make sure you are signed in to Google), and then click on View Form. This will maintain all formatting and formulas I used. Feel free to change anything that does not suit you, as this is now your own copy.

I hope you find this useful, and if you have an idea on how to make this better, please share.