Building Literacy in Social Studies

One of the issues I kept coming back to during my student teaching was the place of social studies in standardized testing.  Obviously social studies is one of the core four subject areas, but holds the odd distinction of not being specifically assessed on standardized tests.  I had many a conversation about how we can be held accountable as social studies teachers and how we can work to improve student achievement on standardized testing, even though we are not tested specifically.

The most evident areas for social studies to work on student achievement is in reading and literacy.  I’m fairly certain I’m not breaking any new ground with that idea there.  But my question was always how can I work on those areas with my students.  Consequently, I had students do a lot of writing and worked with them to hone their writing skills.  Then I got to thinking about some of the activities in English and literacy classes and one that stuck out in my mind was a book report.

During my time as a student, I never once did a book report that was not for my “English” class.  So my thought is why not have some form of a book report for students that is social studies related.  There are studies that claim non-fiction reading is better for the development of a reader, and most of social studies is non-fiction.  My thought was to have students read the newspaper weekly and have them read an article from a news publication and do a report on the article.  This would not only allow them to work on reading and writing skills, but would give them access to current events outside of the classroom.  Students could even read some sort of historical book throughout the course of a semester or quarter as a side project to their social studies class.  Either way, the point is to get them reading more non-fiction and building literacy skills outside of their “English” classes.

This is not a groundbreaking idea by any means, but it was the first one that came to mind for building literacy skills in a social studies classroom.  So my question is, what are some other activity ideas for building literacy specifically in a social studies classroom?

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The World is Flat, Education is Not: 5 Ways to Use Technology in the Class

Hello again.  I recently finished reading the book “The World is Flat” by Thomas Friedman (I know, I’m late to the show) which is a brief history of the 21st Century.  In the book, Friedman talks about the evolution of technology and business, and how these forces, especially the Internet, new  business practices, etc. have caused the “flattening” of the world.  He argues that more people than ever in our world are on a level playing field due to new technologies which have forced new business practices and increased.

In reading this book, it got me thinking about how “flat” the education world is.  As I started thinking about this, it sure seemed to me that there are too many inequities in education, especially as it applies to technological resources in the classroom.  In my time student teaching, there were some difficulties with getting technology in the classroom due to lack of resources, and I was forced to use a lot of my own resources or the teacher’s own personal resources as a result of having none in the classroom.  Having said that, most schools I’m sure have a library with computers, so there is still a way to expose students to technology, which I think is so important.  Consequently, below are my five ways to efficiently and easily expose students to technology…

1) Email with them.  Most students will have an email already, and if they don’t, then help them set up and account.  They will need it later in life and this will only benefit them.  Allow them to correspond with you on assignments.  If they have questions, let them email you, or if they may be turning in a late assignment, allow them to email it to you.  The whole world functions on email and it is vital that our students are exposed to this technology.

When having a conversation with your students about email, emphasize some of the basics of email etiquette.  Encourage them to have appropriate email addresses (centered around their name) and show them how to properly construct an email.  Really, it should be not a whole lot different than writing a letter, but it is surprising how many people forget this.  Response time is also important to talk about.  Responding to someone’s email four days to a week after receipt is not a good thing.

2) Blog with your students.  It may be a great idea to start a “class” blog that you can share new ideas with students and news related to the class.  This is a great way to get students to do a little more investigative work into the class without having them do this in class.  Then the question begs itself, how does one get students to actively participate in the blog?  My suggestion is to have mandatory postings or comments a week.  If students just post one comment a week, that will be fine, but it is still acclimating them to this wonderful Web 2.0 feature that will probably have some sort of place for them later in life.  On top of that, it is just another great way to practice writing!

3) Social networking is another one of today’s most pervasive online features.  1 in 12 people on Planet Earth is on Facebook.  1.  In.  12.  That is astounding and the power of not just Facebook, but other social networks is evident.  Much of the world communicates through these social networks now, and for many people, it has become somewhat of a replacement for their email!

How can this be integrated in the class?  Create a “group” or a “fan page” for your class.  This would have similar functionality to creating a blog for one’s class, so it would be up to teacher preference which application to choose.  Students can make comments on the page, ask questions related to class assignments and projects, and yet again exposes them to more technology.

4) Google Docs is a free and great way to share documents and information with one’s class.  Many people use Gmail for the email accounts, and there are even some schools using Gmail as their platform for email correspondence instead of Microsoft Office.  Setting up an account is easy and FREE, and can be a great paperless way for students to do their homework and submit it to the teacher.  If resources are short at your school (i.e. no paper, or paper limits), then Google Docs is a great alternative.

5) Podcasts are another fantastic and free way to get information.  There is a plethora of podcasts available and they cover a wide range of topics and genres.  For myself as a Social Studies teacher, I would like to start incorporating some news podcasts into the classroom as just another way to expose my students to current events.  Students could then simply write a reaction to the podcast, or some brief takeaways they had from listening.  One could even then have the students write down at least one question that came to their mind from listening to the podcast and then have them research the question.  This is another great way to present the class with information and expose them to technology.

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Grade Disputes

Hello, I’m back.  I know it’s been a while, and I apologize.

There was recently an article in the Chicago Sun-Times discussing the problem with having a different grading scale from school to school within the same district, or community.  For instance, there was one school where a grade of 90 would get a student an A, and at another school in the same district, that same percentage would grab the student a B.  This is very controversial stuff, and the discussion on which method is correct has been going on for some time.

There are valid arguments to both sides.  The side that believes in a 10-point grading scale seems to believe that this allows for less chance of failure for students.  In other words, 40%  wrong or off will still get a student a passing grade.  On the flip side, objectors say that this 10-point scale does not adequately prepare students for life after school, specifically college.  The question is, in terms of student work, what does “A work” look like?

This is something that I tried to carefully analyze while student teaching.  Does “A work” look the same from school to school?  Does it look the same from class to class within a school?  Proponents of the more difficult grading scale, where a 90% is a B, argue that this really weeds out students who are not meant for elite schools, especially students from weaker school districts.

Something about that logic bothers me.  In my opinion, students in low income areas with schools that perform a little worse than normal schools may need all the confidence they can get in the classroom.  I realize this may be a naive take on it all, but my goal is to make school as positive an experience it can be for students, and the difference between a B or a C may make their experience.  The goal is to engage students, and then keep them engaged once they have tuned into my program.  A more rigorous grading scale is like a television commercial in my opinion then, giving them more reason and chance to tune out.

Some argue that students will do the bare minimum to pass a class.  That may be true, but I still think we can shoot for the stars with our curriculum to achieve student understanding without making certain letter grades unattainable.  Thoughts?

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Effective Assessment Review

Mid-term exams for my classes were just last week, and one of the things I was most concerned with was properly reviewing the material learned so far this year.  About a week and a half or two weeks before the mid-term, I gave the students a quiz, and after analyzing the data from the test results, I was not pleased.  So it was back to the drawing board.  I could not go over all the material covered in class thus far, but I had to go back and re-teach some important information.

As I was figuring out the best way to reteach, one of the things I kept telling myself is that I will need to take a new approach aesthetically to the way I reteach this material.  So I broke it up into two review days devoted to major themes and material covered to that point in the course.  The first day, we worked on major figures and terms from the time period by playing bingo.  I realize that playing bingo has probably been done before, but it served as a great infusion of energy into some of the material and the class.  The students really grasped on to the game and learning became the product of the fun we had.

The second review was a basic collaborative learning activity.  I assigned a question or theme to groups of students in the class.  They were to investigate their question or theme and create a colorful representation of that topic on a poster, with markers, and then present it to the class.  It was a great way to access multiple intelligences in the classroom, either through writing, art, or the presentation of their topic.  On top of that, it was a great way to have students review as I predetermined the groups with differentiated students.  Those students in the groups that were stronger were able to review by helping along the students in the group that were a little weaker on the material.

In the end, everyone won.  The scores on the mid-term exam were much better than on the previous quiz, and the students demonstrated an understanding of the material.  In planning the two review days, I was not quite sure how they would go over, but I think it was an overall success.  Students mentioned to me after the mid-term exam that the review was one of the things that really helped them on the exam.

I would not have put such an emphasis on the review though if I had not properly analyzed the data from the previous quiz and done a bell ringer that asked students some questions about their study habits.  In realizing that most of my students do not do much homework at home, let alone study, it was increasingly evident that I needed to use the class time more effectively.  Consequently, I realized the value of data analysis and having clear lines of communication with my students.  In the end, we all benefited.

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Consistency Wins Out

Routine, routine, routine.  This was something that I wanted to implement in my classroom during my student teaching experience as a way to set some classroom rules and expectations.  With my students, a couple of the big issues in our class and school is abiding by the uniform policy (jeans and a plain white t-shirt) and making it to class on time.  This has been a struggle since the beginning of the school year, and it was one of the things I expected to have to battle from day one.

Since day one though, we have set guidelines for students in our class, and have followed through with those guidelines.  In regards to the uniform, the policy is simple, you have to BE IN UNIFORM.  I know that can be a very difficult message to understand, but we have been very clear about it.  One way I have tried to work on the students is stand at the door during the passing period and tell them they need to have a uniform on before they enter the room.  Students will argue, and complain, but one thing we try to convey to them is their obligation to following the rules, and this obligation will be with them for the rest of their life.  Consequently, our consistency with students has started to pay off.

The same can be said about tardies.  Students find some of the most interesting excuses for being tardy, and I do try to be empathetic to some of the excuses, but the rule is simple.  If you are not in the class when the bell rings, you are TARDY.  No other way around it.  When students are tardy, we try to have a conversation with them about why they were tardy, and if it persists, then a call home is made.  If it still persists, then it could affect their grade.  Being consistent is the key though, and making sure the students recognize this consistency is imperative.  If they sense a hole in your plan, or a weakness, then they will attack it.

Consistency wins out with a lot of other strategies, but these were two of the main problems that I have seen day in and day out during my student teaching experience.  Setting the tone early in year is important to the success of the class further down the road.  Consistency also seems to help the students, establishing a set of expectations for them, which takes some of the “crazy” out of their already too crazy lives.

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Expanding the Network

Last week, our school had a teacher institute day, which I used as a time to assemble all of the student teachers in our building and have a “round desk” discussion.  This happened with the help of a colleague of mine, and the purpose of the discussion was to get to know each other a little better, listen to some stories of our respective student teaching experiences, and talk a little bit about the support that everyone is receiving.  The discussion was a very positive one and many of the student teachers were a little disappointed that we had not done it earlier in the year.  It was also a great way to expand our professional network a little bit.

As I mentioned above, one of the things that we talked about was the support that everyone was receiving from their cooperating teacher, supervisor, and even non-human support, such as access to computers, printers, etc.  One common theme seemed to be a frustration with lack of non-human support, especially printers.  Many of them mentioned that once their print quota is gone for the week, they had to find alternative ways of printing, including going to places such as Kinko’s or printing off at home.

Many of them however, had positive things to say about their relationships with their cooperating teacher, which can make or break one’s student teaching experience.  If the cooperating teacher is not there to help mold the student teacher, and draw out the essential skills to becoming a successful and engaging teacher, the affair will be an uphill battle.  But it was nice to hear about the various levels of support the student teachers were receiving, including multiple phone conversations, the sharing of resources not only from their cooperating teacher, but also from others in the department.  If the student teacher does not have a proper support network, there is a greater potential for failure in the classroom, not only with the student teacher, but unfortunately for the students as well.

One of the other items we discussed was a lack of solid communication between the cooperating teacher and student teacher.  Some were unsure of when exactly they would be taking over the class completely on their own, and some had not even reached that point yet in their experience.  This leads me to a point that I made in an article I wrote for the Mentoring Leadership and Resource Network, which addressed ways to prepare for one’s student teaching experience.  One of the things I mentioned was the importance of trying to contact your cooperating teacher before you start student teaching so as to familiarize yourself with them, and also to try and communicate the expectations of the experience and how to efficiently transition in the classroom from cooperating teacher to student teacher.  I think this can help alleviate many of the problems that student teachers have in their short time in the classroom.

So the meeting proved to be a great way for the bunch of us to get together, have a cup of coffee, and just discuss how experiences have gone thus far.  It was also helpful to talk about life after student teaching, because the reality is not a pretty picture with the current economic climate.  Therefore, having a support network can make the new job search that much easier, and potentially productive.  Never forget to keep expanding your network.

Until we meet again…

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How Can I Help You?

I am now beyond the midway point of my student teaching experience, and so far everything has been really good, very positive, and extremely helpful in my quest to become a teacher.  One of the things though that has been a consistent source of frustration or disappointment are a couple students that refuse to do any work in class, or outside of class.  I have had numerous interventions and conferences with them, called home, and the stock reply from the student is, “you’re wasting your time.”  My cooperating teacher and I have brainstormed multiple ways to try and “reach” this student, but so far to no avail.

One of the behavior intervention plans that I learned about was essentially giving the student options.  Since the student refuses to do any work at all, try and make some sort of differentiated curriculum that will be adjusted to his interests and needs, which will hopefully allow him to have some success in the class.  I would come up with the options for the student, and then they would pick three of the options given to them.  They would not be on the hook for the regular classroom assignments while they are working on their designated curriculum, but the hope is that we would be able to slowly get him back onto the curriculum for the classroom.

I am working on implementing this, but hope that I can see some positive results out of it.  The end goal is to get this student back on track to graduate.  As always, I am open to suggestions.  So if you have any, please leave a comment.

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Waiting For Superman

I was finally able to see the famed “Waiting for Superman” last night at my local theater.  Following the movie, we were also lucky enough to sit through a panel discussion about the movie that was moderated by Bill Kurtis, and included a Chicago Public Schools principal as well as a professor of education from the University of Illinois at Chicago.  However, I digress, the movie is what is important here.

If you have not heard yet,”Waiting for Superman” is the new documentary by producer/director Davis Guggenheim, who directed “An Inconvenient Truth”.  The movie sets out to discuss the problems with the American public education system and pinpoints a few areas that are in need of reform, such as teacher tenure, as well as highlighting the benefits of the charter school system.  WARNING:  This is a spoiler alert for anyone who reads further.

What bothers me about the movie is not his depiction of teacher tenure as a bad thing, or the fact that tenure is used as a tool to help keep bad teachers in schools.  What bothers me is what goes unsaid about low performing schools.  Mr. Guggenheim, in my opinion, seems to place most of the blame on the educators for low performing schools.  But any teacher out there will tell you this is not always the case.

During the movie, Guggenheim follows a handful of underprivileged students and their parents as they navigate their way through the early years of school.  While the movie tracks these parents, it fails to mention the low levels of parental support in a lot of school districts across America.  All we see in the film is highly engaged parents working day and night with their children to help them get a good education.  Without the help of parents, a teacher’s job becomes even more difficult, increasing the chance of student failure.

Guggenheim also talks at length about the charter school system in the United States.  In the film, charter schools get a glowing review, going on to say that 1 in 5 charter schools is at a high performing level.  He fails to mention what level the other 80% are at, which raises some questions in my mind.

There is no question in my mind that there are reforms needed to the American public education system.  What bothers me about the movie though is the facts that are not presented.  So when or if you decide to go see the movie, go in with an open mind, but one that will also think critically about what is being presented to you.  Too often we take the information we receive at face value, which can be a dangerous proposition.

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Intrinsic Motivation, or Lack Thereof

I’ve now completed my fourth week of student teaching, and one of the recurring themes I keep running into in educational cyberspace as well as in school is that of intrinsic motivation for students.  One of my previous posts discussed the use of incentives based classroom management strategies as a tool to create a positive learning environment.  There were some comments that I received decrying the use of these tools, describing them as mere gimmicks to get students to the classroom and that there should be pedagogical concepts applied to instill some sort of intrinsic motivation for students.

While this all sounds nice on paper, and I’m sure works very well in certain settings, I’ve found that it does not manifest itself as well in students from an urban setting.  Many times, students do not have that foundation of support from their family, friends, and others in their network.  If you’re eager to apply theory to the thought, then look at it from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  In order to move up the pyramid, one needs to accomplish the things on the bottom levels first.  The bottom level includes physiological needs like, breathing, food, water, etc.  The next level up is safety, which includes security, family, health, etc.  For many students in an urban environment, their progress up the pyramid stops there, which makes it difficult for them to even have a desire to be successful in the classroom, when so much is going wrong outside of school.

There are so many factors that are out of the control of the teacher, and make it difficult to produce this successful and dynamic product, your student.  As I have discussed with others before, students sometimes get treated like widgets on paper, and people forget that there are real people involved and a basic business model cannot always be applied to education, as so many would like to do.

Having said that, this is why I think its important to create that positive learning environment for students, and if that includes using such tools as incentives based class management tools, then so be it.  If that allows you, as an educator, to make a better connection with your students, then that is a good thing, and should not be glossed over so quickly.

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This week included me taking over classes as well as my first observation.  Having a formal observation can seem like a daunting thing for some, but I try to look at the positive side of it.  With someone in the classroom, able to see the interaction between teacher and students from a different vantage point, it allows for great discussions on new tips and best practices for the classroom.  In my case, it served as a nice reminder of some activities that I can use in the classroom to keep the students engaged.

I think its important though that we include some form of classroom observations from time to time as it is a great way to stay accountable for our strategies in the class.  Adapting to new students can be difficult, but communicating with other teachers about them is imperative in order to understand the various personalities.

So I’ve realized that observations are an essential way to keep the conversation open.  After doing the observations, it might be good to create some sort of document or list with best practices used by other educators in the building.  By doing this, teachers can possibly have some level of uniformity with their classrooms, which will help students out in the long run.  When students don’t have a clear set of expectations, then they start to go astray.  This makes an open line of communication among those in a school even more important.

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