Saturday, September 17, 2016

It's All In the Presentation-- Excellent Tips for Differentiation and Teaching Out of the Box in ELA/Science/SS

My last post for today focuses on a different gamut of teaching-- differentiation and teaching outside the box in Language Arts/Science/Social Studies. (Math may come in another post.) Many of these ideas are ones that you can use automatically while others may take planning and research.


  • I compiled charts that include: my students' Lexiles (and which students fall within a similar bracket), an analysis of placement test data from this year, and an analysis of historical data. Additionally, I analyzed my students' results from Laura Candler's Multiple Intelligences Survey to see which of my students preferred specific learning styles the most. If students scored at least a 12 in a specific category, I marked it "Extremely Strong", with a score of an 7-11 being "Somewhat Strong", and 6 or less not being a preference at all. 
  • I also wrote out a list of specific activities (such as writing songs about content they are learning about in class, making green screen videos, and making presentations (Prezi, PowerPoint, etc.) to help teach the class) and had my students rate their desire to complete that activity from a 1-5, with 5 being an immense desire. 
  • If you have access, utilize various Google Apps to help differentiate instruction. 
  • A few sensational websites I have come across for differentiated articles are: NewsELA, Smithsonian Tween Tribune, DOGONews, ThinkCERCA, and ReadWorks. If you need any other sites beyond these, the Illinois Reading Council offers numerous valuable suggestions. 
  • I also suggest subscribing to a Scholastic magazine if you have not done so already. I have subscribed to Scholastic Science World for the past three years, and perhaps combined with SuperScience, you can have differentiated magazine options for your students. 
  • If you teach upper elementary ELA, Erin Cobb of Lovin' Lit offers incredible resources that my students have done well with so far. Erin not only offers phenomenal interactive notebook resources, but she also offers three levels of differentiation for every skill in the realm of Literature, Informational Text, and Grammar. Her resources are created for grades 4-5, 6, and then 7-8, so they are extremely appropriate for my gifted 5th grade students who precisely read within this range! 
  • For your musical learners, students can analyze mood by listening to soundtracks from movies they know. The Disney soundtrack for The Lion King offers "This Land", "To Die For", and songs we know well like "Can You Feel the Love Tonight". On the other hand, The Lion King Broadway soundtrack offers tracks like "Rafiki Mourns", "They Live in You", and "King of Pride Rock/Circle of Life". Besides mood, students can perhaps compare two soundtracks from the same story but different depictions (Disney/Broadway) of a specific scene. 
  • Encourage your artistic learners to explore sketchnoting
  • Make sure you include excellent videos to enrich your visual learners, though in my opinion this enhances the instruction of everyone in the room. While teaching the scientific method, I show my students a number of videos from Steve Spangler's Sick Science to get them thinking about the nature of science, show them the powers of observation, and encourage them to make strong inferences as well as develop thick questions. 
  • Visual learners can utilize program coding to analyze cause and effect relationships. 
  • Visual/artistic learners can also utilize books like The Invention of Hugo Cabret (and others) by Brian Selznick to analyze mood, make inferences, determine character traits, and more. 
  • Analyze numerous aspects of a topic like space, and look at your students' Lexiles (as well as other data) to choose an article that is in their comfortable range. Here is an example of a list I recently developed for my reference because we are studying space in class right now: 

“Asteroid Attack!”—840L

“Partial Eclipse”—920L 

“A Hole in the Planet!”—980L 

“Ice Picks”—1000L 

“From the Earth to Outer Space”—1130L 

“Cold Faithful”—1170L 

“The Meteor”—1230L 

“Seven Minutes of Terror, Eight Years of Ingenuity”—1260L

“Climbing Space” (JFK)—1420L 

  • Think of how your students progress in learning a skill to differentiate. Here is an example I recently wrote for analyzing multiple choice questions: 

The answers have been chosen, but why? 
1. Your teacher has circled the answer to each of the multiple choice questions that accommodate the article. 
2. Describe why each of those answers are correct, using specific details from the article, and why other answers may be correct. 

Narrowing down the answers: 
1. Look at your questions. For each multiple choice question, choose an answer you KNOW is incorrect. Explain how you know it is incorrect. 
2. Choose the correct answers as well. 
3. Afterward, with details strengthening the explanation, explain what the main idea of the article is and how you know it is the main idea. 

Citing Paragraphs: 
1. Look at your multiple choice questions. Pinpoint the place in the article that helped you to locate your answer. 
2. Afterward, develop an ACE question people can respond to when reading the story or article you just read. 

Develop Your Own Multiple Choice Questions: 
1. Respond to the multiple choice questions that are in your article. Pinpoint the place in the article that helped you to locate your answer.
2. Afterward, develop two STRONG multiple choice questions that require readers to infer beyond “yes”, “no”, or other concrete/cut and dry answers. The catch is coming up with four multiple choice answers that cause the reader to think and not necessarily choose a specific answer right off the bat. 

Here is one more differentiated idea that focuses on settings, inferences, and the power of description: 

Students will take information they know about a place and write a vivid “mind movie” description with strong sensory language. My example revolves around Antarctica
  • Informational article about Antarctica:
  • Students will watch approximately 5 minutes of this video:
  • They will write down notable facts and phrases:  “The secret to Earth’s future lies buried in Antarctica’s past”, “secrets beneath the ice” “coldest, windiest, driest, most desolate”, “this frosty continent appears locked in a perpetual ice age”, “a colossal cloak of ice”, “the ice is so heavy it depresses the Earth’s crust at least a half a mile”, etc. 
  • They will think about figurative language that describes Antarctica. An example from the video is “Earth’s freezer”. 

Collaborative Structures: 
  • My co-worker Amy suggested the app Team Shake during our fifth grade PLC the other day. In the description on the Apple Store, it states, "The quick and easy selection of random (or balanced) teams eliminates fighting over who will be on each team. Innovative use of the iPhone shake gesture gives users the satisfying feeling of shaking a virtual hat without the trouble of carrying around an actual hat." Teachers can create between 1-64 teams that can be completely random or balanced. Students can be paired according to strengths as well. 
  • I cannot resist the awesomeness of Kahoot. My students gather together to play in Team Mode when reviewing for science unit tests and chapter tests in social studies. The instant feedback is a MASSIVE draw and plus for the kids. 
Varying Up Your Offerings in ELA: 
  • Choose Your Own Adventure stories correlate very well with cause and effect. Students can read books out there and analyze their choices as well as write stories of their own. When I attended ISTE this summer, there was even a workshop on how students can make Choose Your Own Adventure stories using Google Forms. 
  • Simulations are also wonderful for reviewing cause and effect, and they often seamlessly tie in Social Studies concepts.
  • Future Planning-- Have your students write to a professional in his or her field. This can help students to acquire a more advanced vocabulary within their desired career path or a topic they are passionate about. This activity also enhances using proper grammar, addresses writing to a more specific formal audience, encourages students to ask deep questions, and help them prepare for further independent study. 
  • Students also enjoy applying their knowledge to the real world. Analyzing recipes and science experiments as well as phenomena is exciting for cause and effect because students can analyze what caused something major to occur or where something went terribly wrong during experimentation/cooking. 
  • Often, tying in video game elements during a Language Arts discussion gets students thinking quickly. Students can analyze plot elements, cause and effect, and even problem and solution as they analyze cheats/weaponry they have utilized to defeat forces/enemies in the game. 
  • Another extremely enriching activity is a classroom breakout session, which taps into inferring, collaboration, the powers of observation, and (I don't doubt) much more. Check out Breakout EDU to see how teachers are utilizing escape room approaches in their classrooms. Also, if you have the opportunity, real escape rooms like Escapology offer wonderful field trips for students in upper elementary classrooms and older. 
  • In the same respect, I have thought about a concept called Choose Your Own Adventure rooms (I have not seen these mentioned anywhere else, so if you develop a scenario like this, you saw the idea here first and should credit me for sharing it.) I envision teachers setting up numerous artifacts and challenges around the classroom for students to visit in groups as they make choices in a simulation-like activity. The activity may have to be geared for small groups like in breakout sessions so numerous groups do not head to the same stations for choices at the same time. (Really, I guess it depends on how you organize the session.) 
  • Encourage your students to read books that delve into empathy. One excellent book for upper elementary is Wonder by RJ Palacio. Ms. Bixby's Last Day by John David Anderson is also phenomenal (though there may be a few bathroom-humor excerpts teachers may not desire to read out loud). For an amazing list that spans numerous reading levels and ages, click here
  • This brings me to analyzing quotes; 365 Days of Wonder: Mr. Browne's Book of Precepts gets students thinking about scenarios that apply to various profound quotes. 
  • Last, students can make inferences and develop mini-plots from image collections like these. I titled this Pinterest board "Mystical Novel Settings". 

I hope you can benefit from this list! Let me know if you have any other ideas to differentiate and enhance instruction in these three classes. 

We All Get That Feeling-- And We Conquer.

I don't think society realizes how arduous teaching in the twenty-first century is, although on the same token, it's an immensely rewarding career choice that has made me an incredibly strong woman.

As I pointed out a few days ago, when I walk past other classrooms, my mind tends to convince me those teachers' students are always focused and driven to succeed. I do not doubt in the least that other teachers have shared those feelings because we only see what is on the outside-- standards-based bulletin boards with all the right components, impeccable blog posts if the teacher contributes to the online education community, properly-formed respectful lines in the hallway, and general "withitness", a word I coined from Harry Wong's First Days of School.

Whenever even the littlest of things happen within my own walls, I think to myself, I am the only person on this Earth who is dealing with a situation like this right now. Has your mind ever convinced you that your "withitness" pales in comparison to those around you? Like when... 

  • Everyone has submitted the benchmark data to the team leader prior to you? 
  • Other teachers have been compiling specific reports for their students for quite some time-- and you haven't? 
  • You are chatting with a friend who knew about the ACE strategy like three years before you? 
  • Your table is cluttered with an array of papers and 97 of those have to be sent home ASAP? 
  • You glean "simple" and "efficient" organizational tips from Pinterest only to be self-sabotaged a mere three hours into the school day? 
  • You grin like Bruce in Finding Nemo when you scratch something off your to-do list, and then fifteen seconds later, that fiendish grin dissipates because you have to add three new things to your agenda? 
  • You realize you have those same fifteen seconds to set up for your first middle school Technology Club meeting of the year-- which is purely informational-- yet 40 extremely enthusiastic students are crowding outside your door, ready to burst through? 
Well, yeah, uh... that last one pertains to moi, but you know that feeling... 

...The feeling of having two minutes to make it to the restroom AND Houdini yourself over to the copy machine after shoving down lunch, responding to two e-mails, and gathering science experimentation supplies together from your closet like a cyborg octopus. 

Or the feeling where you are quickly inputting data for your team and a student asks you for a Band-Aid PRONTO (which you cannot keep out because you don't want your students to grab them for unnecessary reasons) while three other students are seeking your one-on-one assistance with multi-digit multiplication problems and the front office gets on the intercom asking you to call their extension? 

We call it the "just one more thing" feeling. 

- Just one more bit of data. 
- Just one more set of graded papers. 
- Just one more reminder that needs to be sent out to parents ASAP. 
- Just one more differentiated set of stations. 

While knee-deep in "that feeling", you wonder who else in the world could possibly be expected to perform tasks at a rate of .009 seconds each. 

And... you realize, you have not received more than six hours of sleep for the past five days, so your eyelids are heavy and at least eight hours of meaningful, uninterrupted sleep is calling your name. 

You may think while there, every other one of your co-workers is inherently more talented than you are... that you are covered in rust while they are made of titanium. 

The thing is, our minds lie to us from time to time, and nobody in any profession is perfect 100% of the time. 

Here's how to turn that feeling around. Affirm yourself. 

  • Express gratitude to yourself for the things you do right. While you were trying to Houdini yourself and were forced into the position of being a cyborg octopus, at least you accomplished everything on your list at that moment. 
  • You may not have graded that one stack of papers by the end of the day for your students as you promised, but they can still receive their scores as they walk in tomorrow morning. 
  • You were patient with your students today-- understanding, gentle, and encouraging. Your students walked out the door and told you to have a wonderful weekend. Two students told you that you are a fantastic teacher and perhaps one of the best they will ever have. Your patience carried you very, very far. 
  • Your students appreciate what you do to differentiate instruction. They appreciate your efforts in making them keep incredible journals. They respond well to your lesson plans, and...
  • ...Their test scores have been SENSATIONAL!
  • Ultimately, you have accomplished so much in the course of a week, and you really deserve some downtime for yourself. 
Even when your stress level is at a level 97 out of a possible 100, affirming yourself can help you to put things in perspective. You need to be grateful for your efforts.

Of course, I have had to take some deep breaths within the last few years or so and realize that absolutely nobody is made of titanium. 

Being able to complete 47 tasks at once with optimal patience, ease, and mindfulness is immensely impossible

We won't always be on fleek, but at least we gave each day our all. 

Encourage your colleagues and be genuine/considerate in times of need. You are doing the very best you can, and if you have not heard that from anyone over the course of the past few days, you seriously need to, even if it's coming from me and I have never met you. You change lives every day and inspire your students to achieve unbelievable things, even when you do not realize it. 

Here is a quote for you, a hard-working, dedicated, and tremendous professional: 

“Teachers, I believe, are the most responsible and important members of society because their professional efforts affect the fate of the earth.” ― Helen Caldicott

Thursday, September 15, 2016

From a teacher's perspective: Dear Grace...

I was not able to watch the America's Got Talent finale, although I caught up with everything on YouTube. I of course clicked on the video to see who represented the final two: Grace VanderWaal and The Clairvoyants. Grace deemed triumphant and won the $1,000,000 prize as well as the headline show in Vegas-- and as I scrolled down and read comments, I realized how critical of our youth some people are.

Those individuals should realize that not just any seventh grader can successfully step onto the stage of America's Got Talent. They should realize not just any 12-year-old can be a songwriter, let alone play the ukelele, and they should especially realize not just anyone has the charisma to captivate vast audiences. Grace overcame immense nerves and stepped out into the spotlight, which obviously presents challenges, but also demonstrates she is incredibly brave (and determined).

All of this led me to write her a letter-- she was the age of my students only two years ago, and I feel she needs to hear from someone who works with middle school students often. So here goes--

Dear Grace, 

Congratulations on winning America's Got Talent. I am a fifth grade teacher and middle school Technology Club advisor in Florida, so essentially, I surround myself with people who are your very age who possess a plethora of intriguing interests. I am inspired by you not only because of your songwriting talents and courage to audition for a show that reaches millions of viewers, but also because you can be a guiding light for other tweens/teens who desire to pursue their hopes and dreams as well. I often tell my students it is most certainly not too early for them to chase after what they desire in their lives. I encourage for them to make professional connections, conduct research, and write action plans, especially when they have an idea for a potentially world-changing innovation. Ultimately, I hope they understand they do not have to wait for life to begin. 

Most importantly, I want to teach them that being themselves is okay, to not let others change or discourage them. This world tends to be very jealous of creativity and uniqueness; I wish it weren't, though I lived through criticisms myself growing up. I know as the next few years unfold, more and more people will come to know who you are, and you will have to hold yourself back at times from internalizing peoples' opinions. You will learn to embrace the beautiful positivity that comes in your direction instead. You will have to be strong and graceful (no pun intended) as you face the stunning and mega-talented young woman you are becoming. You will have to hold your head high in a somewhat cynical world and realize there are many people out there who will embrace your talents. Your lyrics will encourage at least a few people as they endure a challenging time in their lives. Your presence in itself will be refreshing because people are seeking genuine, wholesome, and altruistic talents to make their way into mainstream music. There will be the people who purchase tickets very early to attend your concerts because they know they will hear lyrics that have been crafted from the heart, and you will hear so many stories from your fans over time, encouraging you to reach out to them in altruistic ways as well.

In light of what has just occurred, your life will very much never be the same. Yet as I reflected last night in my last blog entry, we are hybrids of our past and present selves. If we don't acknowledge our past, we may never realize who we have the potential of becoming. Never let go of the person who has gotten you this far, and never let anyone dull your sparkle.

Last, thank you for letting me know it's okay for even 34-year-old me to pursue some of my grandest passions-- that it's never too late to write the next chapter of our lives. Best of luck to you, and perhaps I will eventually see you in concert.


Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Past, Meet Present. Present, Meet Past.

For some time-- a couple months, perhaps-- I was thinking about how I would return to the "world" of blogging and social media. Exhaustion, lack of inspiration, and general apathy have kept me from returning in the "way" I have desired. I am an ambitious teacher who holds very high expectations for myself, and I tend to be highly critical because there seems to be 9,876 teachers online who seem to have "It"-- incredulous wisdom, innovative Pinterest-ready ideas, stunning classrooms, flawless classroom management. Over time, I have tended to view many of my peers in that light, and that has made me think, How can an article, reflection, or teaching idea from a 34-year old teacher in Florida truly reach others? Is what I write REALLY that important? 

And then I blink-- and think, Nope, not today. Your thoughts really aren't THAT inspiring or unique. The world of the Internet will live without your ideas for your website, or that Twitter post, or your new teaching resource. Maybe tomorrow. 

Next Saturday. 

Next month. Yeah, October sounds great. 

Well, I've outlived my tomorrows, I believe. In the world of my new domain, which is a fabulous work in progress that is due back out this fall, I've lived three years and three months worth of tomorrows. 

I should be more confident, more faithful in my writing abilities, more trusting in my audience because over the years, I have met so many people by putting myself "out there". 

I may meet a few new friends on this next leg of my journey. Friends who I will learn from and grow to admire very much for being phenomenal teachers in this vast world. 

So here I am, about to reflect on something that means quite a bit to me-- 

Past, Meet Present. Present, Meet Past. 

This has been on my mind a lot lately-- not forgetting who we were in the past and most certainly not being ashamed of that individual, either. 

I have been thinking about how this pertains to my classroom, my club, so many things lately.

I have been thinking about who I was in college, high school, and even middle and elementary school. I was extremely self-conscious, quiet, and admittedly awkward. Friendships did not come easily, although obviously, I had some friends. What bothers me now, sort of, is all the untapped potential I possessed. 

Writing very much intrigued me like it does now, and often, I worked on my book series, which I still work on from time to time. From the third grade, I had developed a series of characters who kept evolving as I matured. In high school, I got more serious about writing those characters' stories, and even in adulthood, I have worked on a young adult novel about the next generation who made their way through Northside High School. 

Art has a passion of mine since I was young, but I got immensely discouraged about it in seventh grade because I had a difficult time replicating a depiction of Garfield in art class. While I could have thrived farther and farther, I did not possess a growth mindset. I removed myself from the surroundings and from art class altogether. Furthermore, performing arts has always been something I have very much valued and admired, though it was apparent in high school that I was not the best actor, singer, or dancer. I felt like I embarrassed myself terribly in front of my peers when I tried out for Li'l Abner in my freshman year of high school, that my flat rendition of "You da-surrrvvvee a gal who's willlinnngggg..." made at least a few individuals' skin crawl. And of course my out-of-sync not-so-gallant "jerks" across the stage during the "Sadie Hawkins Day Ballet"... if at least one person did not cringe, then I was surrounded by immensely tolerant people because I well knew I was holding at least a few people back with my lack of coordination. 

I was the girl who was kind of awkward at the Homecoming Dance, the girl in the bleachers who was the onlooker. The girl who in seventh grade headed to the Halloween Dance wearing curlers and a robe to soon discover that it was immensely uncool to arrive in that manner in 1994. 

As the years passed, I became kind of ashamed of that girl who laughed at the wrong moments sometimes-- or not at the right moments. The girl who wasn't always masterful with the art of communication. The girl who was "different", I guess. The girl who was relentlessly bullied almost every day from the third until the eighth grade. 

The girl who learned to read two months after turning four, who well qualified IQ-wise for gifted classes but was never enrolled for a few reasons, the girl who read chapter books in kindergarten and was a pretty substantial behavior problem that year because of boredom. 

The girl who came up with inventions all the time, the girl who learned to code at age sixteen using a website called Lissa Explains It All, the girl who tried to hack a Commodore 64 computer in the sixth grade with a series of batch codes that went awry, the girl who wanted to perhaps become an architect because she sketched floor plans flawlessly from the age of seven. However, that dream dwindled as soon as I realized how much math it involved-- and math was my vice, so I pursued majoring in Education instead, hoping to become a high school Language Arts teacher. 

I also thought of being a fashion designer, as I sketched out numerous outfits from the time I was either four or five, in three-dimensional depictions, but I was turned off by the impossibility of succeeding in the fashion industry due to the competition and again, the math. 

College was an awkward time for me, too, though at least I knew what I wanted to pursue. Within a month of my freshman year in college, I decided I was going to be a fourth or a fifth grade teacher (which have been the only two grades I have "officially" taught outside of being a MS Technology Club advisor). However, there are still aspects of me I felt ashamed of-- the fact I wasn't as sophisticated as I could have been, the fact I had numerous self-conscious moments (one of the biggest of me covering my face when my friend Allyson filmed me with my video camera because of my acne), and not being a part of the Core Team of the group I belonged to for all four years of college. Although this is not personal, I felt like my story up until that point did not matter. 

The exact story I just told you, about being encouraged and discouraged, ambitious and talented, bullied and ashamed. 

Fast-forward 12 1/2 years later-- I am in my thirteenth year of teaching, and at times, I have been ashamed of who I was because I was most certainly not the portrait of "cool". There were times I avoided seeing friends as adults or even connecting with them because they didn't know me when I was an adult-- therefore, I'd always be that lofty, somewhat obscure middle or high school student in their eyes. Even on social media, I've blinked a few times and held back from posting photos of myself because many people looked put-together in their pictures. I know I have told myself: 

That picture doesn't make you look the thinnest. 
Your hair could have looked so much better. 
What in the WORLD was I wearing? 

On the contrary, people have celebrated my successes, and I have had far more than I ever could have imagined. I have traveled fairly extensively and have seen some pretty extraordinary individuals in my lifetime. I never thought I would have had the opportunity to go to Hollywood (I blinked and saw Jennifer Garner, Halle Berry, and Kristen Bell right before my eyes, although it was from a distance!) or meet someone as phenomenal as Ron Clark. I never thought I would create a website as successful as my last one that has taken three years and three months for me to "re-debut" with all kinds of incredible tweaks. I am amazed by the friends I have-- true, honest, genuine friends who believe in me and encourage me when I encounter challenging moments. 

I have just gone on this grand tangent because my story has lived on in our students-- manifested in so many different ways, but we have to encourage our students to face their past, present, AND future. 

My past self has taught me these lessons-- 
  • To enforce empathy in my classroom. 
  • To really be cognizant of signs of whether a student is being bullied. 
  • To encourage students to further their talents and not give up on them. 
  • To encourage students to be genuine individuals who are shaped by the stories of their past, but do not let any mistakes of their past define them. 
  • To let my students know that it is MORE THAN OKAY to be "nerdy"-- I do not mean that in an insulting manner, in the least, and they very well know that!
  • To let my students to be accepting of peoples' differences. 
My present self has let me know this about my past to bring into my present-- 
  • I should not have let myself get discouraged by art that easily. 
  • I also should have taken Graphic Arts because I am really good at it now. It's okay, though; I opened my heart to really loving it around 2001 or so. 
  • I am grateful I did not completely give up on developing my singing voice. Although I am not a grand soloist now, I can at least carry a tune. Also, I can learn to sing better at any time now. 
  • I didn't mention this earlier, but I didn't join the Cross Country team in high school because of my lack of success in Gym. However, I have participated in a few races as an adult and can keep going with practice. I know I am capable of being good. I now wish I had joined because the coach was an amazing (eleventh grade Language Arts) teacher of mine. 
  • I should not have let math intimidate me that much-- because in all honesty, math is not that bad. I learned that in my twenties, but at least... I didn't let it frighten me any longer. I think embracing math made me love science more, and that makes my heart soar. 
  • It's okay to put yourself out there as your present self to those who only recall your past self. 
  • DON'T EVER ABANDON YOUR PAST SELF... because I don't doubt... that person was really, really cool. Maybe "talk" to that "person" for a couple minutes. 
  • Don't ever let anyone silence your "voice" or dull your sparkle. Whomever in your past attempted to do so (envious classmates, teachers who didn't resonate with your passion, or even well-meaning family members) is not you, and you need to know the only person you really answer to in this world is yourself. 
  • So be unabashedly awesome, loving every chapter of your life story.
Well, I have been writing for quite a bit longer than I originally envisioned. I am also very grateful I wrote. This is bringing on a very special project I would like to start-- one that has stirred in my mind for months and will manifest in the near future because now it has a driving force behind it. 

Educators, I hope you find value and think of your own story that made you who you are today as well as your students' stories. Please let them know that every person they've ever been is a huge part of who they will be for life-- and every aspect of our lives can teach us incredulous lessons about who we are ultimately meant to be.