Another Trip Up Everest

Today was one of my favorite activities we do in my class all year. We took my 4th annual trek up Mt. Everest, and it was epic!

The Setup:

It all started with the setup yesterday. I had a few kids tell me it must take me a long time to set up, and I told them it did. Then I told them that they are worth it, and they definitely are worth every minute I spent cutting out paper mountains and yaks, shopping for tea supplies and reorganizing my room. But it is definitely a lot of work.

For the setup I drew a mountain scene on the chalkboard cabinets (which is one of my all-time favorite ways to relax). Then I created mountains out of construction paper and covered my windows with them. I also had to move all of the desks off to one side of the room and attempt to hide it with green and white paper representing more mountains (it didn’t work, so I just told the students the desks were a rock slide).

I also set up a tent in one corner of the room and made six other campsites. Two were round tables, one was my comfy chair section in the free reading corner, one consisted of the two wooden benches I made this summer, one was a set of floor chairs and one was just a spot on the floor. Then I set up the tea station. By the time I left the room was almost ready to go.

This morning I added a few finishing touches, created some rules signs and it was ready to roll.

The Climb:

I always start the climb the same way. I stop them at the door and ask if they have their climbing permits. Today I was wearing a heavy coat, gloves, a hat and sunglasses. I told a few students they were going to freeze to death because they had on shorts. Then I pass out their climbing permits and go over the rules for Mt. Everest. The rules are framed like climbing rules but they are reiterations of regular classroom rules. I emphasized that they shouldn’t pick up the snow (which I learned from prior experiences to tell them not to do).

Then I start letting groups go in to set up their campsites. I base the order they get to choose their campsites based on their current team rankings in my gamified class. First place got first pick which was always the tent. Then the rest of the groups filled in.

Once everyone was situated they designed banners for their camps. They had a blast coming up with new names for their teams that combined their current names with snow/mountain terms. It also gave them a chance to be social at the beginning which I knew would be important later on. After about 10 minutes we shared names and then I explained the plan for the rest of the day.

For about 30 minutes they read their novel, Peak by Roland Smith by following along on an EdPuzzle video of me reading the chapters with them. While they were reading I called groups up to get a cup of hot tea with honey. A lot of the kids said they had never tried tea before.

After about 30 minutes of reading and enjoying their tea we had an epic dice battle. Camps went head to head rolling the dice to see which team would come out victorious. The winning team earned 100 points for their team. The losing team had to wait until the end of the hour to find out their consequence. The dice battles were a great break in the block and then they read for the last 20 minutes of class.

At the end of the hour I broke the bad news to the class. I had every team that lost the dice battle raise their hand. I said, “bad news. Unfortunately you all got frostbite.” Then I rolled the dice. Whatever the dice landed on they lost that many fingers for the rest of the day. There was a huge wave of laughter and groans. I found out from students after school that most of them stuck with it. They told me stories about trying eat lunch with only one hand or trying to figure out how walk their bikes down the sidewalk with those “missing fingers.”

It was such a fun day, and here’s the reality. The bulk of my lesson plan today was reading comprehension. I got kids to read for almost an hour and covered all of the same things I would have normally covered. The climb up Everest and the game elements were just added layers on top of my existing content. And since it’s a block day I get to do it all tomorrow!

What stories do the numbers tell?

I love statistics. I love numbers. I love all of the interesting stories numbers can tell, and I love trying to interpret what causes peaks and values in any data set. I have spreadsheets full of student data that I’ve started analyzing for my new students, everything from previous reading scores and math scores to the correlations between birthdays and peak scoring. I love the challenge of figuring out what all of this could mean.

However, I know that this is an incomplete data set. It isn’t a complete representation of who these scholars are and who they can become. It isn’t even the most important piece of information. If I picked a point from one of the valleys on a students data line, I’m seeing the moment they may have struggled with the content, or the day their dog died, or the moment they got stuck with that one teacher who smelled funny and smacked their gum while they were trying to focus. Or what if that was the moment a student decided to try something different, or take a different approach to a challenge?

When I look at a data set I look at trends, but I also look at ranges of possibilities. I used to focus on an average accumulation of a student’s scores. I looked at the average of a given data set and used that as a baseline for what the student was capable of, but the more I think about it, the less sure I am that it’s the right way to look at it. I don’t want to look at averages, because I don’t want average kids. I want to look at the peaks of a students performance and celebrate those accomplishments, use that as the baseline for a student’s potential. I want to look at the valleys and have the students understand why their scores dipped. I want to celebrate risk taking that led to failure and recognize students who are challenging the mediocrity.

I love the story that numbers tell, and I want to sit side by side with my students and help them determine what the numbers mean to them and how they can use the numbers to exceed their own expectations.

Having a growth mindset when things don’t go according to plan

I’m an overplanner. When it comes to anything, I overresearch, overplan, cross reference and overall look way too deep into anything I do. Before I came to the ISTE conference this year I had a color coded spreadsheet with listings of the first and second choice of sessions I wanted to attend. I had a list of my favorite presenters and had scoped out all of the poster sessions and playground activities I wanted to explore. Then I got in line for my first session on Sunday…and it was full. Then I went to my second session choice…also full. By the 4th attempt I gave up and went back to the hotel to check in.

Today (Monday) was going to be a new day. I would go to some awesome sessions and learn some amazing things to bring back to my colleagues. My color coded spreadsheet would work like a charm…and then I saw the line for the shuttle. Then I got to the conference and the lines were also crazy long…everywhere. It was bad when the line was too long to get my coffee, but the last straw was a line for the men’s bathroom.

It was an overreaction. I was frustrated and undercaffeinated and knew I needed a break. I decided to walk away for a little bit, walk to Dunkin’ Donuts and get some coffee to get my day on the right track.

On my walk something came to me. Every day I encourage my students to have a growth mindset, to not let setbacks keep you from accomplishing great things. I tell them to find ways to overcome obstacles, and yet here I was faced with an obstacle and I was doing exactly what some of my students do. I was pouting about how annoying lines are and missing out on the bigger picture.

There are thousands of people around the country right now who would LOVE the opportunity to wait in line to see some great speakers. There is a conference center full of opportunities just waiting to happen. There are thousands of people to network with, vendors to learn from and awesomeness around every corner. Sometimes I get stuck on my plan that I forget that amazing things can happen in spite of all my planning.

After my walk to get coffee and a little reflection and perspective, I went to a series of poster sessions that were fantastic. I explored the Expo hall and found some amazing tools I want to bring back to my classroom. Ultimately, I explored some things that I would have missed out on if things had gone according to plan.

Sometimes we need to practice what we preach and be as adaptive as we ask our students to be.

Enjoy the rest of the conference if you’re at #ISTE18, and if you’re #NotatISTE18 I’ll try to share out some of the awesome things you should check out.

P.S. If you see me at ISTE stop by and say hi. You’ll recognize me, because I’ll be the one in the bow-tie for #bowtietuesday!

 

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.

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

 

Giving my students real-world application to their writing

This week I learned just how little I actually know about the political system and showcased my struggles with my students.
To begin, we spent most of the week reviewing the STOP writing strategy (suspend judgment, take a side, organize ideas, plan more as you write) and the DARE writing strategy (develop a claim, add supporting ideas, reject the other side, end with a conclusion). The goal was to give the students tools in their writing toolbox to formulate persuasive writing in a more cohesive manner.
This week’s topic was based on a Newsela article on the laws involving dogs riding in cars. The students read the article and then outlined whether or not dogs should be allowed to ride in cars. At the end of the week the goal was for them to write a persuasive essay.
Thursday night rolled around, and I started planning for the essay and realized something. In the 10 years since I left college I have never once written a persuasive essay in the real-world. I haven’t sat down to write a 5 paragraph essay about my views on year-round school or whether or not students should have cell-phones. It’s not a practical experience and won’t directly translate into something they might actually do after high school. I know there are some benefits of writing an essay like learning fundamental grammar rules and organizing ones thoughts in a coherent way, but I thought I might be able to cover those same topics in a more applicable way.
At that point I knew I wanted to take the lesson a step further, but I had no idea what I wanted the students to do. What could I have them do that they might actually do in the future? I decided someday they might feel strongly about something and want to notify someone influential that things needed to change.
I decided I wanted them to write to their legislature about the importance of creating a law (or not creating a law) banning dogs from riding in cars. The problem…I had no idea who they were supposed to write to. I started searching the internet for our local congress representatives and realized it was EXTREMELY difficult to find. I either found our national representatives or found a list of local representatives but no list of which district the school was in. After 7 or 8 different searches I finally figured it out. I found a great map of the districts in the area with a listing of each representative for that district.
When class started I told them about my struggles to find the information. I showed them the map and explained which representative represents their address (our school covers 3 different congressional districts). Then I had them write a letter to their representative. The next time I do this we’ll actually send the letters to the representative (I want more prep time before I feel comfortable doing this).
This was terrifying. I know embarrassingly little about the political system, but I used that as a teachable moment. The students watched me struggle through finding answers and the final product was something they might actually end up doing someday.
 

It’s time for some TweetUps!

In education it’s easy to get bogged down and let frustrations get the best of you. To counter that I’m constantly trying to find ways to build my students up. I tell my students why they’re awesome and try to encourage them anyway I can. Sometimes that isn’t enough. Sometimes my words don’t hold the same weight as their peers.
That is what spawned the idea of TweetUps. TweetUps are little slips of blue paper meant to look like a Tweet that students use to write positive messages to each other. They are a chance for students to put some positivity in the world, tell their classmates why they rock, and tell them they aren’t going unnoticed.
tweetup2
Here’s how it works:
There is a box on one of my shelves for students to put completed TweetUps in. Once a week I pull all of the TweetUps and read them in a special edition of my daily announcement videos. The students love hearing Tweetups about them, about their classmates and also sneaking in some inside jokes.
Here is my latest TweetUps video. A student created the theme song, and another student is currently working on a logo:


It helps create a great classroom culture of building others up. Students can take credit for writing a Tweet or they can keep it anonymous. The nice thing about anonymous tweets is I can share some TweetUps about great things kids are doing, and they don’t know it’s from me. Sometimes it’s better that it sounds like it came from one of their peers.
Usually part way through the year I ask if anyone would like a list of students who haven’t received a TweetUp yet. There are always a handful of students who take the challenge and make sure that every student in class gets recognized. I’m always cognizant of the need for tact on this. I don’t want students to feel embarrassed about not receiving a TweetUp yet and I also don’t want them to feel like their TweetUp is insignificant. So far everything has worked out perfectly.
Once the TweetUps have been read on video they are hung up on a bulletin board. When the bulletin board is full or there is a good transition time (during Winter Break for example) I take all of the TweetUps down and hand them out. It amazes me how many students keep the TweetUps in their binder for the rest of the year.
TweetUp1
I can’t take full credit for TweetUps. Below is the PDF of the TweetUp form that I use. My wife designed it for her 5th grade classroom.
tweet ups
TweetUps are a quick way to make a positive change in the classroom.