Tag Archives: middle school

The Book + Summer Break

It’s been over a month since I have posted!  Madness!  The last month of the year can be a bit hectic, so I unfortunately did not get around to my regular posts.  However, I wanted to give you guys a heads up of a big project that we did to finish up the year.

So around the middle of the year, our curriculum assigned the students to complete interviews with an adult.  The instructions were a bit vague, and we thought that we could use that to our advantage.  I did some research and found a great project on PBLU.org, a great resource for project-based learning.  The project, entitled “Back In the Day”, laid out a unit in which students interviewed family members, turned the interviews into narratives, and published a book.  I took the framework and fitted it to our curriculum, tasking the students with writing about an immigration experience in their family history, as we were studying immigration in our Social Studies unit.

The process went really well.  The students had to determine what kinds of questions would be important to ask and how to properly use follow-up questions.  In addition, they had to figure out how they would record their information during the interview.  Many students were able to utilize new technology tools, which I am always pleased by.  Once they interviewed, the students had to create their introductions, narrow down the content, and check each other’s work to be sure that it met all the criteria we laid out.  We (the teachers) gave some feedback, as well, and after a few weeks, each student had a great interview that they then transformed into a biographical narrative.  Some students found the transition difficult, resulting in some near replicas of their interviews.  Some students, however, got very creative and were able to skillfully use flashbacks and dialogue to enhance the stories.  

Once the editing process was complete, we were ready to assemble our book.  This was my favorite part, as it was great to see the students really get into the project.  The students did almost everything.  They finalized the editing, assembled the order, picked fonts and layouts, designed the cover, and even picked out the website for publishing our book.  When a staff member in the office was placing the order on Lulu.com, we actually brought in one of the students to guide her through the process.  All in all, it was a fantastic process.

Two weeks after placing our order, fifty copies of a great looking 100 page book came to our classroom.  Each student was able to get 2 copies – one for themselves, and one for the person they interviewed.  The books cost about $100 with shipping, which we found to be fairly reasonable for the satisfaction that the students received of seeing their work come together.  

I plan to use the same plan next year, though I will probably work to ensure that each student is aware ahead of time how the interviews will be turned into stories.  Many were about extended periods of time, like several years, which kept them from successfully becoming narratives.  A few other minor tweaks will help the project go along more smoothly.

Well, it may be a while again before I post, as I quite enjoy my summers.  For my avid readers (all none of you), I hope you enjoy June and July, and I will be back on a regular basis in August.

Teaching Math: The Dilemma

In college, discovery instruction was the big talk during my educational math courses.  Instead of telling students algorithms and giving them lists of steps, we should allow students to discover ideas of their own.  I strongly believe that this is a good method of instruction, but does it work for every kid?

You see, when I look at textbooks, they’re either traditional or exploratory.  There never seems to be a mix of the two approaches.  The exploratory books never seem to have enough practice problems, while the traditional books always seem to blandly present the material in ways that can be difficult for students to understand.  I don’t know if I agree with that.  I think we all understand that people learn in different ways.  This is often considered with regards to visual vs. auditory vs. kinesthetic learners, but is the exploratory vs. traditional approach something that is considered?

I’m not trying to argue against anyone’s personal beliefs or research, I’m simply trying to start a discussion.  If you don’t see value in both of the approaches, then I don’t really think you’re thinking with a very open mind.  There are definite benefits on both sides… how can we “smoosh” these two approaches together to make a curriculum that appeals to a larger set of learners?

Right now, I’m blessed to have a co-teacher and a teaching assistant in my classroom most of the time in Math.  Thus, I am able to teach it my exploratory way, and then the students that didn’t quite understand it can take a more traditional approach of learning algorithms and steps.  Some may argue that their understanding may never be as deep as that of the other students.  My argument would be: Why can’t the students get to the depth afterwards?  Have a knowledge of how to work these problems, then come back to the more exploratory-based methods and see if the students are now  able to connect the dots.  

These are just my musings, and since my blogging foot traffic isn’t too incredibly high, I don’t know how many responses I will get to this post.  But I do know that there is research for both sides.  I know that there are teachers on both sides.  I know that the arguments can get a little intense.  But just like with any debate, the answer is probably somewhere in the middle.  Maybe some people have had some success and can share their  methods.  Maybe teaching classes have been changed in the 6-7 years I’ve been gone and there is more of a balance.  If you’ve got some ideas, I’d love to hear them.


Vending Machine: A Different Task for a Different Task

This week, my students began a chapter on functions in Pre-Algebra.  We began the chapter with a task from the Georgia DOE in which  the students developed a code for sending secret messages.  In doing so, they realized that each letter had to stand for only one other letter, or else the code was impossible to decode.  We then made connections to functions, and how in these equations, each x input must have only one y output.

We completed a few practice problems in which the students identified domains and ranges and created T-charts for their functions.  Afterwards, the students were given another scenario (again, sourced from the Georgia DOE) in which they had to determine if a vending machine was a relation machine or a function machine.  Students were asked to communicate their thoughts solely through writing.

Now in college, I did an entire presentation on the importance of writing in the mathematics classroom, so I have studied quite a bit on its usefulness.  However, over the course of a few years, I have forgotten to incorporate it as much as I like.  Giving the students was a great way to see how clearly they truly understood the concept.  Out of about 18 students, only about 3 could really describe a scenario with the vending machine that would model a relation and a scenario that would model a function.  All of the other students focused solely on the idea of repeated prices, making the connection to the fact that there are not supposed to be repeated numbers in a function.  I did not immediately explain to the students who arrived at incorrect answers how to solve the problem.  Instead, I required the students to rethink the situation, occasionally offering hints and pushing them to think about what the input and the output would be.  

The activity went very well.  Many students never arrived at the correct answer, which helped me to realize that they needed to have a quick mini-lesson on functions vs. relations.  I believe that as a result of this activity, the transition into the next lesson on graphing equations went well.  I will be sure to incorporate more writing inside of our math classroom before the end of the year, with the end goal being that our students not only have a better understanding of the Pre-Algebra concepts, but also on how to express their knowledge to others.

Project-Based Learning: Ellis Island

Wow!  It’s been super busy lately.  So much so that I haven’t been able to post in a few weeks.  Anyways, I’ll try to make it up with a super high quality post this week.

Last Friday, we finished up our Social Studies unit on Immigration with a simulation of Ellis Island.  Before I get started telling you what I did, I want to give credit where it is due.  The basis of my plan came from Bringing History Home, who developed this activity for second grade.  While I heavily modified it, I want to thank them for giving me the idea.

Now, this was not a simple “walk through, get a stamp, keep moving” simulation.  Our simulation was a three week long process that impacted how the students learned about Immigration in America.  At the beginning of the unit, we split the class up into two groups: immigrants and immigration officials.  During each activity, the students were asked to take the viewpoint of their role.  For instance, when we did some research on immigration from Cuba, the immigrants were told to consider the perspective of a Cuban refugee, while the officials were asked to take the role of someone already in America.  By having these opposing viewpoints, we were able to get differing perspectives on issues on which the students might normally agree.

So throughout the unit, the students worked together to collect information on what immigration would be like in 1910.  Immigrants collected data on what countries people came from, where people from certain countries moved to, what kind of jobs these people had, and more.  This data was compiled and shared among group members.  Officials, on the other hand, found facts about Ellis Island itself – its layout, its process, the forms that were used, and anything else they could find.  As the simulation drew closer, the students also began to create alter egos for themselves.  The immigrants had to create a fake background for themselves, covering all details from family, jobs, reasons for leaving, and where they would move to.  In addition, they had to create their own passport, as well as fill out a few “official” forms.  The officials began to create alter egos that would explain their behavior during the simulation, such as grudges against various people groups or reasons for being crooked.

During the simulation itself, the officials transformed the gym into Ellis Island.  They created a check-in station, a baggage area, an information desk, a medical area, passport checks, interview station, deportation area, and a ticket purchasing area.  All of these areas were staffed by students, who had to do research to determine what role they would play in these areas.  The immigrants brought along baggage from home, filled with clothes and “family heirlooms”.  They also had to determine how much cash they would bring along with them, based on the job they had and the country from which they came.  Some immigrants were first class passengers, getting specialty treatment due to their status.  

We had a few different tweaks added.  The immigrants had to roll dice about a week before our simulation, which told them what sort of disease they had.  The doctor then had to make sure that they spotted any diseases that should not be allowed into the country.  In addition, the officials created forms that were written in Latin, which simulated a form being in a language other than your own.  However, some people were immigrants from English-speaking countries that were given English forms, and they were allowed to help those who did not speak English.  We occasionally put in communication stipulations that kept some people from talking to each other, but in the hopes of eventually finishing the simulation, we were not very strict.

All in all, the simulation went very well.  There were a few officials that were a little to gung-ho about deporting people, as well as a few immigrants that were… difficult.  However, the point got across to the students of how hard it would be to be an immigrant coming in through Ellis Island.  A big discussion afterwards helped the students to realize how hard it was to get through, as well as how difficult it must be to manage that many people.

For execution, we needed more time.  We took a little under two hours from setup of Ellis Island with the officials and the “boat ride” for immigrants all the way until we had to stop.  Two to two and a half hours would have been great.  In addition, more clear expectations for the students would have been nice, making sure that the officials knew that they needed to do their job properly.  Finally, I would have liked to have the immigrants work a little harder on creating their plan for when they got to the States.  They “bought tickets”, but there was no real connection with this part.  

All in all, this was a great way to start an activity I hope to do for several years to come.  Here’s to next year and the improvements that will come.


Source of Lesson Plan:

“Ellis Island Simulation.” Bringing History Home. Bringing History Home, 2007. Web. 16 Nov. 2013.

The Busy Week

So with all this crazy weather going on, we’ve had a lot of projects all piling up lately.  Plus, this Thursday and Friday, we had parent-teacher conferences.  That being said, I ended up missing my entry last week.  For those of you that regularly follow me, who are you?  And also, sorry. 🙂

So what have we been doing?  Here are a few highlights.

Social Studies:  The students recently completed a “Shark Tank” simulation to learn about some basic concepts of capitalism.  After watching clips of the show, the students had to come up with a new product or service, then develop a business plan around it that they then presented to us.  The students did a great job, dressing formally for their presentations and giving us plenty of data.  They came up with several very creative ideas, including a robot lawn mower, plastic hats that go on top of your car, an app that determines whether or not you’re sick, and more.  To top it off, we talked with our counselor’s son at the University of Indiana, who just recently presented his own app to an investment group that works for Mark Cuban as part of his business class.  A great experience.

Language Arts:  Our students finished interviews of their family members a few weeks ago, and now, they are turning those interviews into biographical narratives.  This activity is not a naturally easy process for many of the students, so we have been providing lots of feedback on a daily basis.  In addition, they have been working with each other and referring to peer examples to get some ideas.  It’s been a great process, and some of the drafts we have read have been fantastic.  We are looking to collect these pieces later to create a book that the students will edit and produce together.

Math:  The students have been using SketchUp, a computer software program, to create 3-D models of various classrooms and outdoor parts of the school.  In the process, we have been making connections to our chapter on scale, realizing how the sizes of different objects in the recreation must match up.  The students have been very meticulous, and the few samples I have seen look great.

As you can see, we’re trying to incorporate a lot of project-based learning into our classroom, and I think it’s had great results.  The students love coming into school each day (at least, their parents said that during conferences).  It’s not hard to find an extension activity for the students when they get done with a lesson – they just go work on their project.  All in all, it has been a busy, hectic, but incredibly satisfying past few weeks.