An Epic First Day of School

Thursday was one of the best first days of school I’ve ever had. It was an event that hooked the kids in and hopefully left them excited for the school year. All day long I kept hearing “this is awesome” and “best class ever” and the occasional “Mr. Stock you’re weird.” Keep in mind this has been an accumulation of years of first days before I think I finally have the exact balance I want. Here’s how we roll out the school year in my class. It started before the kids ever entered the room. I transformed my door into an old-school vintage arcade machine with the title of my class game, The Novel Quest, written across the top. As the students gathered outside of my room I patiently waited and asked them if they had their quarters to play. They looked at me funny, that panicked, what-did-I-miss-on-the-supply-list look.
My door to my classroom.
I asked “how do you expect to play an arcade without quarters?” Then I pulled out a stack of paper quarters from my pocket and told them I would pay their quarter for them.
I gave out “quarters” to play class game. These will activity an item in the future.
Side note: the quarter will actually play a role later in the year. The quarter will activate one of the items in my game for anybody who saved it. Which item…I have no idea. I’ll figure that out later. It also has a few minor changes to the quarter that I’ll try to work in somewhere later. When the bell rang they took their quarters and entered my room. After a few quick introductions to the class and a few checks of the schedule to make sure they were in the correct room, I shared with them a video that I told them came from a buddy of mine named Special Agent A. This is the first of many of my “friends” that appear in my videos and look mysteriously like me. I assure them that it isn’t me.
https://youtu.be/nSU2r8aPX7c
A recruitment video from Special Agent A.
The video recruits them to an elite force of superheroes destined to come together and fight evil. They then spend the rest of the hour working through the steps of designing their own superhero logo. This superhero logo is a glyph that tells me a little bit about the student. For example the outline is a different color depending on how many siblings a student has, the student gives their superhero a secret identity based on what they want to be when they grow up, etc.
At two different points in the class we take a break. The first one is a dice battle. Each table group sends up one representative to roll the dice. Then I put them in order based on the number they roll. That becomes the order of supplies they get to choose from. I had colored pencils, markers, and crayons. Apparently nobody likes crayons, because that one was always the last one picked. The second break we took was a plank challenge. I had one member of each group come up and perform a plank to see who could last the longest. They had a blast cheering on their teammates. I always like including a physical challenge every once in awhile to give students who might struggle academically a chance to excel in my room.
This is my sample glyph I created to demonstrate. Happy Love Skull is his name, Special Effects Artist for Marvel is his secret identity career (also what I wanted to be when I was a kid), and Molly the Demon Dog is his arch enemy. 9:50 was the time the class had to leave me at the end of the hour, hence the sad face.
The superhero activity is meant to do more than just tell me what a student is thinking as they are creating their glyph. It is also telling me a TON about what type of student they might be. I look for students who aren’t sharing the supplies, ones who struggle to follow my directions or work too far ahead, and ones who have creative responses to my questions. I also look at which students lead their groups vs. the students who boss their groups around. It tells me a lot about how to group them later on in the year. But they don’t usually pick up on any of that. All they know is that their crazy Language Arts teacher may or may not have recorded a random video recruiting them to a superhero team and helped them design a cool superhero logo. They left my room smiling and excited for what the next day might have in store for them. I’m psyched for another great year!

Epic Reverse Quest

As the year was coming to a close a couple weeks ago, I was trying to think of some epic way to wrap everything up and recap the highlights from the entire year. I thought about doing a review Kahoot! or some sort of challenge activity. In years past I’ve had the scholars create board games reflecting on the year. Those would be fun, but then I had a better idea…an epic reverse quest!

My scholars spend the entire school year on a journey battling my evil twin, the dreaded Dr. Vonn Stock, my evil twin (he wears a pirate eye-patch so you know he’s evil). On their journey they face some of his minions like Cyther and Zak the yaks and try to rescue some of the other Agents helping them on their journey (the Special Agents also look mysteriously like me). Through this structure we travel to the different realms of the texts we read, from Mt. Everest in Peak by Roland Smith to a WWII battle in various WWII texts.

To wrap up the year we spent the last week of school going on a sped up reverse quest through the various novels and time periods we studied in class. Each unit was covered in some sort of challenge activity that the table guilds had to tackle. It was epic.

To start off we reviewed their WWII novels with a Grid Challenge. I can’t take credit it for this. It was one of the many great ideas to come out of the weekly #xplap Twitter chats. The guilds spent 10 minutes trying to complete a grid by filling in terms the started with the letter at the top and connected to the category on the left. For example: P- and Countries could include Poland because it was involved in WWII. They had some very creative answers and recalled a wide range of topics we had discussed during the most recent unit.

For more details check out a full explanation of the grid challenge here

The next day’s challenge was to write an entire reflection on the best poem from our Poetry Smackdown bracket. This one wasn’t as game based as I would have liked, but having a time limit (60 minutes) to brainstorm, outline, write and revise and entire essay was a great challenge. I’ve found this year that the students provide almost the same quality of work with limited time, than when I give them multiple days to complete a task. Before we began we had a socratic circle over the poems, and some of the discussions were amazingly heated.

Day 3 of the reverse quest took part in the Civil Rights movement. The students completed Civil Rights Movement dominoes. They spent another 15-20 minutes attempting to link a series of paper dominoes with terms and pictures on them. Some were directly from our studies of the Civil Rights Movement, others were random challenge words they had to try to find a way to connect..For example, some students connected “Civil Rights Movement” to “Turtles” because it was slow moving. Then they connected “turtles” to “Mother Pollard” because she probably walked slowly past the bus stops. I was impressed with their creativity.

For more details check out a full explanation of the Learning Dominoes activity here

We also battled the dreaded Zak the Yak. Their challenge was for each guild to write a story about defeating Zak using all of the prefixes and suffixes we’ve learned this year. Two teams earned a bonus for the next day, because they befriended Zak instead of destroying him. Those groups got help from Zak in the next days battle (this rule was made up when I heard their amazing stories and unique definition of “defeating” him).

Day 4 was the last day of our reverse quest so of course they had to face…Dr. Vonn Stock. But it couldn’t begin with any old battle. Instead I started the class in the usual manner. I had them read a book and then when everyone was settled I played the daily announcements video. A minute into the video the screen went to static, and I broke in with an announcement that I had been captured and the person in front of them was an imposter. It was super cheesy so of course the scholars loved it. While they were watching the video I pulled my eye patch out of my pocket and casually put it on. When the video was over I laughed and told them that it was true…Dr. Vonn Stock had taken over.

I explained that in order to defeat me they would have to complete a fierce Kahoot! Battle. Of course the questions had some evil twists. For example one question said to choose a box…only 3 of them were right. Another one asked them to describe Mr. Stock and since it was Dr. Vonn Stock’s Kahoot!, all of the answers about Mr. Stock having stinky feet and being a mean brother were the correct answers. The groups from the day before who found a peaceful way to defeat Zak the Yak were able to enlist his help on one question. This required every other team to wait at the front of the room for the first 5 seconds of a question. In one instance it was a game changer.

We all had a blast with this activity. While they were competing I would casually switch the eye patch to different eyes to see which groups would notice, or I would complain about how mean Mr. Stock was. Finally at the end to the hour the winning groups were awarded bonuses for their guilds. Dr. Vonn Stock also recruited some students to his evil mission.

All-in-all it was an epic way to wrap up their learning for the year.

Waiting for Permission

Today I boxed up 691 books to send off to elementary schools in our district. This is the 4th year in a row I’ve organized the Books for Backpacks program. The goal is to get books into the hands of kids who might not 

have access to getting a brand new book on their own. I love having a small part in providing these resources to kids. But nobody told me to start this program.

One day at church I was thinking about ways I could help improve students’ reading abilities. I was thinking about how much I love getting new books and how sad it was that some of my students probably never had 

the chance to get a brand new book of their own. But I wasn’t sure if this was true, so I asked them. Over half the students that year said they had never received a brand new book. They’d received used books and library books but not brand new ones.

I started thinking about how I could get good books into kids hands, so I collected books and wrote applications for grants to purchase new books. I found ways to buy books that would earn points to get more books for free.

Nobody said, “hey you should go start a book drive.” Nobody told me this was an important thing to do. Instead I saw a need and filled it.

There are a lot of people out there who talk about things that would be great like “Wouldn’t it be great if…” or “Can you imagine how great it would be if…” and yet they never take the next step to make it a reality. They worry so much about what might go wrong or reasons why their idea won’t work that it stays relegated to the great idea column.

Since that first year of collecting books, I’ve given away over 1500 brand new books to kids all over the district. I’ve also started collecting and giving away used books within my school and we’ve given away another 2500 used books. None of that would have been possible without taking a risk and trying something new.

If you have a great idea, try to make it work. Figure out what is one small step toward making it a possibility. You never know what might happen. You might be right. It might epically fail, and then you can try again. Or it might be a huge success and make a difference in people’s’ lives.

Why my #five4five is getting posted on day 10

Last week I heard about the #five4five challenge on the Well Played podcast and thought it sounded like a great idea. The challenge was to try something new each day over the course of five days. I decided to write a blog post each day. The plan started out great. I wrote my first blog post.

Check it out here: https://mrstockrocks.com/2018/04/24/choice-and-challenges-go-hand-in-hand/

The next day I tried to get a new article posted. I really did. But instead I only wrote half of it. The next day I was able to finish it along with writing another one. The day after that I wrote another one. And then it was Friday. I didn’t want to write. I wanted to spend time with family. Saturday I tried to write something, but nothing was clicking. Finally I posted my 4th post.

Today I am writing my 5th post in my #five4five challenge. Here’s what I’ve learned: I failed this challenge epically, and I’m OK with that. I tried something new. I pushed myself further than I had all year. I wrote 4 posts over the course of the week. Before that I’d written 4 posts since January.

I also learned that writing a blog post each day is crazy. There is no way for me to fit that in to my life right now. What I can fit into my life is 10 minutes of writing each night. We’ll see if it goes beyond that, but for now I’m excited to write more and get my ideas out there.

Post #2: https://mrstockrocks.com/2018/04/25/college-is-an-option-but-its-just-one-option/

Post #3: https://mrstockrocks.com/2018/04/27/more-than-just-a-data-point/

Post #4: https://mrstockrocks.com/2018/04/29/video-announcements-rock/

Video Announcements Rock

For the past two years I have started almost every class with video announcements. I talk about upcoming due dates, classroom reminders, birthday shout outs, the quote of the day and wrap-up with my catch phrase.

There are several reasons why I do this:

  1. It gives me the chance to do administrative tasks (take attendance, check in with students, etc.)
  2. It keeps me from having to repeat the same thing 4 times in a row.
  3. I don’t miss things as often.
  4. Most importantly, I can present the information in a new way. The hope is that hearing it in a video, seeing a due date on a paper and hearing it live will have a cumulative effect of reminding kids to get things done on time. It doesn’t always work.

I rarely devote more than 6 or 7 minutes at the beginning of the day to these videos. When I first started recording them, I would rerecord them 5 or 6 times to make them perfect. Now, I just keep recording, even if I mess up. Kids love the bloopers. They love seeing me do something silly or say the wrong word. It lets them know that everyone makes mistakes and life goes on. One of their favorite things to do is screenshot when I make weird faces and airdrop them to me.

Most of my videos are just me talking into the camera, but sometimes I do more interesting things with the videos. I’ve done stop motion videos, guest speakers, “guest” speakers (me in a Batman costume for example), anything to make it a little more interesting. These videos take a little more time, so I only do them every once in awhile.

It’s also a resource for parents. I post my videos on Youtube and parents can see exactly what we have coming up each day if they wanted to. It’s also a great reminder to myself if I need to look back at what we were doing this time last year.

Overall, it only takes a little prep work in the morning and saves me time throughout my day.

At the end of the videos I wrap up the same way…

Until next time, book it forward and be awesome!

More than Just a Data Point

Yesterday was the last day of MAP testing. I think I was more nervous than the students. I want the students to do well. I want their hardwork to pay off, and I want them to be able to see growth from the beginning of the year. As I looked over the final scores, I kept reminding myself that those students are not a data point.

Don’t get me wrong, I love data. I think it can be an effective tool when used correctly. I have spreadsheets of all types of measures on my students. I can tell you how much they’ve grown since August, since December, how that data compares to Reading Inventory data, and how that data can be used to track trends in general areas of study. I love trying to figure out the puzzles of the data. Why did a student score extremely high on one vocabulary test but had a low score on two others? Did they come across words they knew on one and not the other? It’s like solving a giant riddle.

One data point is NOT however the defining characteristic of a student, and only tells one fraction of one percent of what they know and are capable of. It’s like determining a baseball players value based on their performance in one game. Even if it’s a pretty big game, that’s still just one tiny data point. It tells a story, but it’s important to figure out what exactly that story could be.

Contrary to what people who have had a conversation about assessments with me might think, I’m not opposed to assessments. I don’t mind that we have a common measure that we look at for one piece of data…as long as we realized that that data point is one number from one day, that should be put in the mass scope of who this student is as a scholar.

I get tired of hearing people emphasize this singular value like the assessment is THE measure of a student’s success and projects all that the student can become in the future. If you ask what the value of the MAP assessment is, many will point to its correlation to the ACT, which then translates into success in college (maybe?). But what if a student doesn’t want to go to college? What if a student sees the value in technical training to become an HVAC technician? What does the MAP test correlate to technical training? It’s just one example, but there is such a limited scope in what we value as demonstrated by what we measure.

I’m all for data, the more the better. But we need to figure out what story we want the data to tell us.

Check out my post on my reflections about college: https://mrstockrocks.com/2018/04/25/college-is-an-option-but-its-just-one-option/

 

College is an option…but it’s just one option

I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about what I want my students to get out of my class. When they leave middle school and go to high school, what skills do I want them to posses? What kind of person do I hope they will be when they leave high school? What will the job market look like after high school, and how can I get them closer to being prepared for life after school?

It’s been a tough thing to think about. How do you prioritize what is the most important? Do I give them exposure to a wide range of experiences? Do I still teach novels in my Language Arts classes or mix in more non-fiction texts? Do I bother with formal essays, a style they will need in high school but not later in life?

I don’t have the answers, but here’s what I have figured out so far. Students leaving high school are faced with a wide range of options and presenting college as the best option for all students is leading many to enter their early 20’s in massive student loan debt with just as many job prospects as they had before they left high school.

To be clear, I think college is the best option for a lot of students. There are many fields that require a specific degree specializing in that field like teaching, medicine, and law. However there are also an increasing number of jobs that don’t care about your college degree. They want trained job applicants, entrepreneurs, employees who can find problems and solve them without being asked. There are a lot of jobs that a certification program will get your foot in the door easier than a four year degree. Then there are the countless ways people can forge their own path and create their own business

I’m a huge fan of the StartEd Up podcast and one of the biggest things the host Don Wettrick stresses throughout is the rise of a gig economy (Air BnB and Uber for example) and contract work. Several recent Forbes articles describe this switch and surmise that by 2020 over 40% of the workforce will be involved in some form of gig economy or contract work. That’s over 40% of the workforce needing to rely more on their ability to find work, interact with clients, negotiate deals, etc. than their college credentials.

(Check out the podcast here: http://www.startedupinnovation.com/podcast/)

That’s a HUGE transition. This is the reality we need to be preparing students for. Yes, they may want to pursue a 4 year degree and that’s great. But our scholars deserve to know that that is just one of many different options. We need to show them what’s available and help them find the path that will get them where they want to go.

For more information about the gig economy check out these articles from Forbes:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/larryalton/2018/01/24/why-the-gig-economy-is-the-best-and-worst-development-for-workers-under-30/2/#44a4d49b5b96

Choice and challenges go hand in hand

Last week my students wrapped up our investigation of World War II. They’ve been reading historical fiction about the time period and learning about the general timeline through class discussions. It was finally time to assess what they had gained from our study. I debated what I wanted them to do to demonstrate their knowledge and finally decided to give them some choice.

There is a lot of buzz around student choice in education right now, but choice isn’t always easy. Too many choices, and it can be overwhelming. Students can spend a whole class period spinning in circles trying to decide on what to do. Giving students limited choices can be stifling and lead to canned responses. I wanted my scholars to have options but still complete their task. To do this I added some challenges to the project, obstacles that would offer guiding limitations. The kids loved the idea of trying to beat the game.

First, I had each guild (table team) come up with an interesting word, any word. I wrote those on the board on a T-chart. The words ranged from flatulence to flabbergasted. It was quite the list. Then each guild came up with a word connected to WWII. They had a lot of the important names and topics we have been studying. I wrote those on the board on the other side of the T-chart.

Next, I explained their goal, the guilds had 45 minutes to create a project that creatively demonstrated their understanding of the the history of WWII. They could use any of the materials I had available in the supply cabinet or any technology resources on their iPads. The time limit forced them to make a choice and run with it. They couldn’t spend a lot of time overthinking their project. They also quickly discovered that they would need to delegate tasks if they wanted to finish on time.

Then I explained the twist. Each group would get two dice rolls. The first one would indicate how many words from the first list of interesting words they had to include in their project. The second roll would indicate how many words from the second lister were banned from their project. It was great.  The most challenging was a group that had to explain WWII without using the words Germany, Hitler, Nazis, and Soldiers.

As the scholars worked, I went around and checked in with each group. Sometimes I would give them suggestions or ask them questions about what they were including. I had to remind a few groups that the info on the project was the main point, i.e. a creative idea is great, but if it doesn’t explain anything about the war then it wasn’t meeting the project criteria.

When the time was up I had each guild share what their project was and why they chose that project type. We also talked about other projects they had worked on in the past. It was interesting because the projects I received were almost as good as projects they had previously spent multiple class periods working on. They had a lot of insight into why that was.

Some projects were better than others. There were a few that were typical posters. But overall I was extremely impressed in what they were able to come up with. They had a lot of choice but the challenges I paired with the choices gave them direction and helped them complete the task. There were posters with flip tabs, a newspaper page, a 3D model, a video news broadcast, a video skit, a comic book, and some other more common posters. 

Kids love choice. I encourage choice as much as I can, but too much choice is overwhelming. Challenges give the task just enough direction to create amazing work.

 

Roses and Thorns

Last week was rough. The students were having a hard time staying focused, assignments were coming in late, and I wasn’t feeling the greatest. Friday afternoon I asked some of my scholars to get out their planners. We’ve been working on keeping track of upcoming due dates, and I wanted to make sure they were filling them out completely. I asked several times and they didn’t get them out. They just kept talking.

After talking/yelling at them about how frustrated I was that I had to ask so many times before they would do anything we sat down and had a little bit of circle time. We shared what we call roses and thorns. Roses are great things that happened during the week, and thorns are struggles that happened. I shared that my thorn was my frustration that students weren’t following directions.

We went all the way around the circle, and the whole time I was processing our interactions before circle time. I was evaluating what I said, the tone I used and whether or not it was what the students needed to hear in the way they needed to hear it at that moment. I decided that I probably should have waited a little longer before I processed with them, but other than that I was ok with the discussion. But I also realized that they needed a reminder that no matter what I have their back, I’m there to support them, and that they are still important and valued in my classroom.

When the circle finally got back to me, the bell was ringing and I stopped them before they left for the weekend. The last thing I said to them before they left was “even though I was frustrated, you are still some of my favorite people.” That was it. Nothing fancy or formal. I didn’t even pull back on my frustration. If I had they would have called me out for being inauthentic. Instead it was just a quick reminder that no matter what happens they are still part of the room 502 family. They left with a high five to tackle their weekends.

I mess up…a lot. As a teacher we always second guess what we’re doing and question whether this is exactly what this student needs at this moment. I’m always wrestling through decisions, but if students know you love them and support them, you can work through any bumps in the road.

For more articles like this check out my article on Edutopia dedicated to new teachers: https://www.edutopia.org/blog/having-an-off-day-josh-stock

 

How do we redesign education?

Last summer my school applied for and was selected as one of 14 schools in the state of Kansas with the mission to redesign what school means in the 21st century. We were given permission to reflect on and change anything we felt would truly make the greatest impact on our students. After conversations with the state and the district we only had a couple of rules:

  1. We had to stick with our current beginning and ending times for the day (district)
  2. There would be no additional funds for this redesign (state)
  3. We had to stick within the current state standards (both)

For more information from the state check out: http://www.ksde.org/Agency/Fiscal-and-Administrative-Services/Communications-and-Recognition-Programs/Vision-Kansans-Can/School-Redesign

I am one part in this giant cog of change and redesign. It has been at times challenging, exhausting, frustrating and rewarding all at the  same time. And we aren’t even close to finished.

 

Personally, the biggest way this has impacted my teaching is it has forced me to reflect on everything I do. I’m constantly asking myself why I teach a lesson a certain way, use a certain novel, or even why I teach novels at all. It’s definitely a humbling and scary question to ask myself everyday: why? Why is this important for my students and how do I want this lesson to impact their lives after they leave my classroom?

Over the next few weeks I’ll share some of my current teaching questions I’m wrestling with. Please feel free to share, post, comment, and question. Part of the way I grapple with things is to talk about it with others, and chances are that your insights will either challenge me to rethink my philosophies or allow me to strengthen my beliefs on certain topics.

I always tell my students at the end of every video, and I think it’s fitting here:

Until next time…book it forward…and be awesome!