The Listicle – Edublogs Club Wk 7

Prompt: Write a listicle about any topic that interests you.



You asked for it Internet. Here is my personal ranking for the eight Star Wars movies.


#1 A New Hope – Episode 4

Can’t mess with the best. It’s the only movie in the series that can completely stand on it’s own. Obviously that is in large part because George Lucas didn’t have any reasonable expectation that he would be able to film a sequel at the time. But that doesn’t matter. This film changed film. It changed an industry. It is a near perfect telling of the hero’s journey. The lightsaber! I mean…gimme a break.

Best moment – I am a sucker for the twin sunsets on Tatooine. Visually stunning. The music swells. It is the last moment of naive innocence for our hero – when the new day dawns he unwittingly embarks on adventure.


#2 Empire Strikes Back – Episode 5

A lot of people rank this as the best of the series. I won’t argue with that, it’s certainly a very close second place finish for me. This film challenged expectations in so many ways. The big set piece battle was the beginning rather than the end…with some strong foreshadowing for the rest of the film as the Rebels were forced to flee for their lives. The great Jedi master was a weird monkey puppet who lived in a swamp. Darth Vader is merely a subordinate to a more powerful evil. The princess falls in love with the pirate. And so on.

The film just ends as a deliberate cliffhanger. I am not quite old enough to have seen this in the theater but I CANNOT imagine how crazy it must have been to wait three years for a resolution.

Best moment – The lightsaber duel on Cloud City. This is easily my favorite duel of the entire series. The set and lighting are amazing. The entire tone of the battle is so tense and perfectly acted. Luke is being an impetuous fool, as he was warned by both Obi-Wan and Yoda. He doesn’t even understand at first that Vader is toying with him…testing him. We are forced to watch our hero get slowly destroyed physically, mentally and emotionally while the bad guy doesn’t even break a sweat. And then of course…


#3 The Force Awakens – Episode 7

Yeah sure…it’s a heavy retread of the Orig Trig. I don’t care. This movie is what the franchise needed after the slow heat death of the prequels. It was fun without being campy (e.g., Phantom Menace). It had emotional weight without being too dark (e.g., Revenge of the Sith). I want to learn more about these new heroes. I don’t think I need to see any more Death Stars though…we can probably put that idea back on the shelf.

Best moment – I can’t pick one for this movie. Rey and Finn escaping in the Millennium Falcon was pretty awesome (said me and the rest of the Internet). The interrogation room face-off between Rey and Kylo Ren. The lightsaber duel between Rey and Kylo. Luke Skywalker’s reveal at the end. Great stuff.


#4 Return of the Jedi – Episode 6

Ah yes. Apart from the prequels, this is easily the biggest opinion breakpoint among Star Wars fans. The Ewok Line (as presented by Barry on How I Met Your Mother) is the best illustration of the demographic split. If you were under the age of 10 in 1983, then teddy bears were awesome and logical fighting companions. If you were a teenager or older, then Ewoks were dumb people-filled muppets ruining your beloved franchise. I was born in 1976…so yay Ewoks!


Otherwise, it’s a decent film. The editing elevates it a bit through skillful interweaving of three action sequence plot lines during the last half of the film. Once the ball starts to roll, it keeps going straight through until explody Death Star time. Also, this has significant nostalgia value for me as it was the only film from the original run that I was able to see in the theater.

Best moment – The lightsaber duel is fine. It hits all the right beats, and Vader’s redemption is classic. However, when I stopped to think about it, my favorite scene is perhaps the few moments that Vader and Luke have alone before meeting the Emperor. It’s only thing approaching a “normal” conversation these two ever have together in their lives. And there’s a lot going on. Both characters are vulnerable and trying to “save” the other. They both know that ultimately one of them will have to die, but neither one wants it to happen. Spoiler – one of them dies.


#5 Rogue One

There is a lot about this film that I liked, but the level of fanboy service is perilously close to jumping the shark. Too many cameos and winks to the audience. Yes it was cool to see a dark and gritty “real” movie – but that is also just a sign of our times. Remember how Star Wars was a light and fun alternative to the gritty (and depressing) films of the 1970’s? Anyway, it was cool, but we’ll see how it holds up. I know this is higher on several of my friends’ lists…some even have it as number 1. I could see it maybe bumping ROJ someday, but no higher. Here’s an interesting test…watch the film one time, and then see if you can actually remember the names of the new main characters other than Jyn Erso. Bet you can’t without looking it up. I can’t, and I’m the kind of guy that writes a blog post about Star Wars movies.

Best moment – K-2SO. Excellent comic relief which was crucially necessary to balance the tone of the film. I want to watch the movie again just for him.


#6 Revenge of the Sith – Episode 3

I guess this wins by default? No Jar Jar. The knowledge that it’s almost over. There wasn’t anything blatantly annoying like Episode 1 and it was less overblown and convoluted than Episode 2. It’s fine.

Best moment – Easy. Padme’s ruminations. No dialogue. Tense haunting score. Padme and Anakin separated literally and symbolically across the divide of the city. This scene is a perfect and deliberate bookend to the twin sunset in Episode 4.


#7 Phantom Menace – Episode 1

This one is very interesting. I don’t actually dislike it – the story is basically OK, if a bit dull. But upon re-watching it years later I realized that I just blocked out all of the Jar Jar parts like a repressed memory of trauma. Jar Jar Binks is the Ewok Line for the prequels. Kids love him. I was 23 in 1999… But JJB is far worse than the Ewoks. At least the Ewoks had a meaningful role in the story. Go on YouTube and without too much effort you can find numerous fan edits that completely remove JJB and make the movie noticeably better.

Best moment – Young Anakin. Haha…JK. The lightsaber duel between Darth Maul, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. It was cool, and the only decent one in the entire prequel trilogy. That super speed run the Jedi did at the beginning of the movie would have been incredibly useful for Obi-Wan to catch up to the other two and save Qui-Gon’s life, but whatever. Also, killing Darth Maul in his first fight scene was the biggest waste ever of an amazing bad guy.


#8 Attack of the Clones – Episode 2

I could be convinced to switch this out for Phantom Menace. There are some cool plot points for Episode 2, but they were largely overshadowed by the ham-fisted “love story” between Anakin and Padme. Also, it’s kind of gibberish anyway. Clones. Something about Clones. If you liked the Yoda lightsaber duel that’s cool, we can still be friends.

Best moment – When I realized that they put a gag order on Jar Jar Binks.






Thanks for reading – leave a comment!

What is YOUR rank order for the Star Wars movies? What is your best Star Wars related memory?

Challenging myself to get out of the way – Edublogs Club Wk 6

Prompt: Write a post about challenging situations.

  • Share your biggest teaching challenge and explain how you overcame it.


I love being a teacher. I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life. If I may be so bold, I am pretty good at my job.

But I didn’t spring forth fully formed.

Some teachers knew they wanted to become a teacher when they were in like…fifth grade. That’s cool, but that wasn’t my path. I was good at school. History and English were my favorite subjects. I liked stories and I liked to read. But teaching wasn’t for me. I even said at the time that I don’t know what to do with History or English other than become a teacher…and that’s crazy talk. Mostly it was about self-confidence, or lack of I suppose. Let’s just say that standing in front of a group of people to talk wasn’t in my skill set at the time.

Anyway, flash forward a bit and now I’m ready. Let’s do this. I shall teach.

Getting my teaching degree was fun. I liked to learn. I liked History. So far so good.

Student teaching was…an important professional development experience. It was fine. I learned from great and not-so-great mentoring teachers. The most important thing I discovered is that I am a Middle School teacher. It was a bit of a shock. Nobody sets a life goal to be a Middle School teacher. Other people look at you with a mixture of pity and grudging admiration when you tell them it’s what you do. But it’s true. I love teaching Middle School, and this is totally where I belong.

Anyway, I survived student teaching and in the Fall of 2006 I entered the exciting world of day subbing. Within a few months I was very privileged to get a contracted permanent substitute position in my home district. It was a great gig. I got to know the students and the other teachers. I didn’t have any lesson planning or grading. Easy street. I did that for about a year and a half. Along the way I got certified in Middle School Math. That proved to be extremely advantageous.

A brand new position opened up in my school – gifted coordinator (i.e., GIEP case manager). The only degree requirement was Middle School Math, so I threw my hat in the ring and got the job. Great! My responsibilities were to teach one section of Geometry, handle the administrative duties for the GIEP compliance, and most important of all, make sure we didn’t get sued. Once my principal saw that I was good to go running the GIEP meetings with parents, I was on my own. The paperwork was a pain, but not a big deal once I got familiar with the process. Teaching Geometry worked ONLY because I had a class of just four students the first year (later on I would expand to two full sections of Geometry and Algebra).

But I was also supposed to “do something” to enrich the lives of our best and brightest students, and this is where I hit the wall. When do I meet with them? What do I do when I have them? This isn’t graded so why do they care? In fact, I’m probably taking them out of a study hall where they would otherwise be doing “real” work so this is actually kind of annoying for them. Also, I don’t actually know what I’m doing. And they know it. They’re being polite and all…but I can see it in their eyes.

The absolute best thing that ever happened to me in my career is that my boss didn’t look over my shoulder too much that first year. I had room to breathe and make mistakes.

I experimented meeting in big groups and small groups. Maybe we should work on study skills? How about some sort of enrichment-y research project? (That one was the worst – it basically involved me getting a lot of books out of the library and then being completely caught off guard when the students did not express immediate interest in reading them). Games? Actually, games worked…sort of. At least they pretended to play the board games and stuff while actually just talking and hanging out. It was a start. But it was a charade and everyone knew it.

I wanted to do big things. These were all high-potential, and in many cases high-achieving students. I basically didn’t have to worry about discipline. I had some leeway with the schedule. Most importantly, I had almost complete latitude as to my curricular goals for the program. But I had to do something soon. I was benefiting from an attitude of benign neglect from my building principal, but sooner or later I would be called to account for exactly what I was doing with all of my unstructured time.

I started to get irritable and sarcastic with the students. Once or twice the situation got tense and stand-offish. Looking back, I can’t blame them. I was flailing about with no clear goals, or even worse, constantly shifting goals.

Then one day about mid-year “it” happened. It was at the end of the day. The students had just left. Whatever I had planned for the day hadn’t worked out at all. I was so stressed out and didn’t know what to do to change things. However, the one thing I knew for sure was that everything would be OK if I just sat under my desk for a bit. Even better, a colleague came in and found me like that. It was totally not the most humbling experience of my teaching career. True story.


A historical reenactment of me hiding from my own bad teaching.


That was probably the turning point emotionally. One of those times you have to just pick yourself up and go back to work the next day. But it didn’t solve the actual problem. I mean c’mon, all I did was hide under my desk for awhile.

It should be no great surprise that my inspiration and solution came from the students themselves.

One day, one my Geometry students (also on my GIEP caseload) told me about a coding project he was working on. Just for fun and because he was interested in computers.




Kids have diverse interests outside of the classroom.

Kids work hard on things they love without needing an extrinsic motivation.

Maybe I should do something with that?


Yeah… paradigm shifts always seem obvious when you are on the other side.


Anyway, that was the beginning of the beginning.

I began to learn how to get out of the way.

Over time I set up a pretty cool framework for project-based independent study with my GIEP students. Students had freedom to select their topics but had to develop a goal and plan. They did some great stuff: shooting and editing movies, building models, creative writing, self improvement plans. You name it.

I learned how to become a facilitator and teach supporting skills. Project planning. Time management. Tracking progress. Reflection. Repeat.

It isn’t always easy. I like to be in the way. I like to be the font of knowledge. Me me me.

Getting out of the way doesn’t mean that I don’t make critically important decisions in terms of content and instruction. It takes a LOT of planning in advance to get out of the way.

Getting out of the way is NOT about efficiency. Students need a lot of time in class to work on skills and process deep content. I need to be comfortable not knowing the answer to all of their questions. I need to be comfortable with situations that do not have one clear “right” answer. I need to be flexible and willing to make big adjustments on the fly. Sometimes I need to ask the students to bear with me as I think out loud through a new procedure.

Getting out of the way means that I need to ask for help (totally my favorite thing…). I need to let other teachers see me teach and tell me what worked and what didn’t work. I need to collaborate with, and be inspired by other great teachers like @historycomics  @CHitch94 @ziegeran @paulbogush @hiphughes @joetabhistory @TomRichey and many more.

. . .

I no longer have the freedom of those early years. I teach in a “regular” classroom now. But there are still plenty of opportunities to get out of the way. Here are some that have worked for me.

Give them a menu of options to complete a HW assignment. Ask them to do illustrations instead of writing a summary. Make a choose your own adventure activity. Include kinesthetic group activities. Facilitate quick focused small group “turn and talk” discussions on a near daily basis. Provide a choice of questions for the essay test. Play a game. Build empathy for a big problem. Have them create their own guiding questions for a unit of instruction. Ask them to reflect on their learning experiences. Ask them to give ME improvement feedback.


HW menu


Sample student illustrations


Choose your own adventure


Sample timeline activities


Essay choices


Board games




Fantasy league


It’s not just about engagement, although that is a HUGE piece. Commit to getting out of the way and you will see visible results. Over time, students become stronger and more confident learners. They get better at writing, and researching, and generating their own questions, and dealing with ambiguity. Asking students to make a LOT of small low-risk decisions helps them to do better with the BIG decisions. Teach a person to fish and such.


Best of all – it’s now been almost 10 years since the last time I felt compelled to hide from the world under my desk.



Thanks for reading – leave a comment!

Do you have a “sitting under a desk questioning your life decisions moment?” How do you get out of the way of your student’s learning? What’s your favorite lesson, activity or project to teach/facilitate? 

Google Forms for the win – Edublogs Club Wk 5


As a teacher, there are two distinct phases of my career: life before and life after Google Forms.

A little background – my graduate school work focused on using reflective practices in the classroom to promote critical thinking. Which is great…until you have to collect and process all of that reflective writing. It can pile up pretty quick. I cannot overstate how much Google Forms has made life easier for me to collect data (e.g., polls, exit slips, journals). You can administer quizzes with Google Forms. Heck, they can even make it easier to plan for the next field trip.

  • You can create a variety of response types including open-ended, multiple choice, scaled response (e.g., rating 1-5) and more. You can even insert pictures or videos.
  • Share the link via email or post to Moodle, Edmodo, etc.
  • Respondents do NOT need a gmail account.
  • The best part, all of the responses are automatically compiled in a Google sheet (i.e., Excel-type sheet) in your Google Drive. You have the form automatically collect student id’s with one click, and all answers are time-stamped. You can view the sheet to see each students’ response or you can create a summary response. I have found summary responses to be especially useful for journal type responses and survey polls.
  • Even better best part, the newest version of Google forms provides automatic data visualization (e.g., pie charts, graphs, etc.) of the responses.


Here are some examples from my class this year.


Collecting feedback at the end of a unit or project




Collecting lunch menu selections for a field trip



Take a quick poll for fun or to support class discussion



What should you do next?

Do it. Use Google Forms. Here are some resources to help you get started.


Google Learning Center: Getting started with Google Forms

Educational Tech and Mobile Learning: Google Forms for Teachers – A Must Read Guide

Tech Tips for Teachers: 4 Ways to Use Google Forms

Chalkup: How to Create Quizzes Using the New Google Forms






Thanks for stopping by – leave a comment!

Do you use Google Forms already? What is your favorite or most useful Google Form feature? Do you have questions about using Google Forms? 


Pick a Pic – Edublogs Club Wk 4

Prompt: Write a post that includes an image.



So I wrote this as a warm-up yesterday (more thoughts on warm-ups here).

I didn’t really have a conscious plan. I didn’t have homework to assign, and mostly wanted to write something compelling to see if the students would notice. I certainly wasn’t planning to write this, with the exception of the 47% part – that was deliberate at the end.

But hey, I knew it would at least get their attention so I let it ride.


Background context

We just finished our Middle East unit which was largely devoted to an examination of the Syrian refugee crisis. Heavy stuff under any circumstance – especially so given the recent changes under President Trump. To turn it up to 11, I teach in a community that has a large Syrian population. I have several students whose parents immigrated to the U.S. They have friends and family still in Syria. One girl told me that she had family members turned back at the airport when everything went down this past weekend.

So yeah…heavy stuff.

The Middle East unit is always challenging. There is never a lack of pressing and emotional topics to explore. Refugees from civil war. Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Treatment of women in Saudi Arabia and AfPak Taliban regions. Etc.

The students consistently report that they find it important and interesting to learn about these topics. But that doesn’t make it enjoyable to learn about them. It’s a drag man. The world can be a cruel. 8th graders are at a developmental level where they can and should begin to grapple with big messy scary issues. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t challenge them to view the world with open eyes. But still…after a few years of teaching this unit, I’ve come to recognize that slump in their shoulders and grim faces as they leave the class. It’s not that they don’t care. They care so much, and they don’t know what to do with it. Knowledge is power, and a burden.


Back to the picture

So it totally got their attention. Fun fact – it takes at least 20 minutes for most 8th grade students to realize that any part of it was meant to be humorous. It’s because I added the “counts as 47% of your total grade” at the end. Students do not find it funny when you joke about grades.

But it would have been cruelly cynical to just say, “Haha, never mind, you actually don’t have any homework at all. I just wrote that because I was bored.”

So what followed was an impromptu speech where I just laid it all on the line. The fact that I know they value learning about these issues but it is emotionally draining. The fact that it is hard for me too. The frustration of not being able to actually solve these problems – and knowing that real people suffer from them.

I talked about the importance of simply being knowledgeable about current events. We can’t solve problems if we don’t know about them. I encouraged them to keep learning about important issues even when it is a little painful or challenging to their worldview. I asked them to talk to peers and parents about these issues. They know more about the Syrian refugee issue than 90% of the rest of the country at this point. Students, particularly young students, rarely appreciate their own content mastery.

It’s not enough to be nice and polite. That’s what most of them assumed I really meant at first. Just be nice – hard to argue with that, right? But, I went on to say that it wasn’t enough to not be a bad person. We need to actively look for, and sometimes create, opportunities to do good things. Small things for the most part. But small things matter. And small things have impact, particularly if a lot of people are doing a lot of small things consistently.

So I implored them to look the small opportunities to do good. You don’t have to organize the donation drive, but you can easily participate in it. Action breeds confidence and motivation. The way to fight despair is to keep swimming. Do the next right thing. You feel productive because you are productive. It’s a start. A small but necessary start.

And so on.

I’m not ashamed to admit it. The Walp was on fire. I had a captive audience. I was doing it! I was making an impact! Looking back, my only regret was that I didn’t think to stand on my desk.


But there is a tiny postscript to my story – and it perfectly captures why I love working with in middle school.

At the end of the period, I had a very nice, but slightly nervous student ask me on the way out, “So, I’m confused…do we have any homework?”.

True story.


Thanks for stopping by, please comment with a link to your blog!

What is your inspired, impromptu standing on a desk teaching moment?

Leadership – Edublogs Club Wk 3

Ah ah ah ah staying alive staying alive. So this weekly blogging club actually expects you to blog every week, eh?

I’m going to cheat a bit and do a couple of posts at the same time to catch up.


Prompt: Write a post that discusses leadership, peer coaching, and/or effecting change.

I am grateful that the prompt also included sentence starters or I probably would have skipped this one.


Leaders don’t…

…change a system (rule, procedure, etc.) without understanding why it was put in place.

I am probably guilty of this quite a bit. I enjoy tinkering with systems and building new things. Whenever I am part of a new group I am the nerd that wants to write the bylaws. Seriously. In a lot of ways it is a strength to see and understand how different parts fit together. The main challenge when working with system in need of repair or update is to accept the system as it is and figure out how to achieve workable and sustainable change without just burning down the house and building a new one. Sometimes that is what is required, but usually not.




…assume that the organization chart represents the actual power centers and influence of an institution.

I still remember the first time I learned about the four frame model while in graduate school. #mindblow.

  1. Structural (Factory or machine) – rules, goals, policies
  2. Human resource (family) – needs, skills, relationships
  3. Political (jungle) – power, conflict
  4. Symbolic (cathedral) – culture, ceremony, heroes, sacred cows


Check this out for good PD reading:


Leaders always…

…ask questions and listen to responses.

…are willing to be wrong and admit to it.

…are willing to be right and criticized for it.

…communicates vision, goals and timelines.

…identify and build relationships with all stakeholders.

…know when to be democratic and when to dictate.

All of these attributes are incredibly important, but I think this last one is the “special sauce” that can really impact the effectiveness of a leader. Basically…being a good people manager. Most leaders that I have worked under are strong with one style but very weak with the other. It’s challenging because as individuals we are more naturally proficient and comfortable with one style – so switching gears takes practice and effort.

  • Too democratic (death by a thousand cuts) = s.l.o.w. decision making (e.g., focus groups, polls, ad hoc committees, etc.), everything gets bogged down in committee, multiple meetings about the same topic when no consensus decision is possible, can REALLY suffer when faced with a persistent vocal minority opinion
  • Too dictatorial (fast lane to resentment) = people feel like their voice, and their values, are not being heard and considered, decisions are made too quickly (no time to process the change)


Effecting change…

…is hard.

…takes time.

…starts small.

…is disruptive even if it is “good”.

…only happens if you get buy-in from your stakeholders.


To me, the disruptive element of change is perhaps the most under-appreciated aspect. Best case scenario – everyone is on board with the need for change, the vision for the future, the steps and timeline to enact the change, sufficient resources (including time) are available and provided as needed without any fight or fuss, and implementation proceeds smoothly without an unexpected problems. Even under those fantasyland conditions, change is still stressful and a lot of work. And of course, we live in the real world where some, many or all items on that list are missing or imperfectly addressed.

Basically, stress is stressful, no matter the cause.



Thanks for stopping by, please comment with a link to your blog!

What is your go-to or most influential leadership book, movie, quote, etc? What was one of  your leadership “aha” moments?

My Classroom – Edublogs Club Wk 2

Two weeks in a row of blogging – watch out world.

The physical space

I work in a small private school with a typical class size of 12-15. That means my current room is smaller than my “normal” sized classrooms when I taught in public school. However, I am suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuper spoiled in my current space. It has a lot of windows with a terrific view. Icing on the cake…I am about 10 steps from the computer lab in the student center. IT’S MINE…ALL MINE HAHAHAHA!

Ever since my first teaching gig, I have always preferred to arrange the desks into pods of 4-6 students rather than use rows and columns. It creates more space for me to roam, and allows easy facilitation of pair-and-share discussions. My desk is situated with a clear view of the door and hallway outside, but is also in the “back” of the classroom due to the set up of my projector screen and white board.

I have been at Moravian Academy since 2015, so I am getting very settled into my classroom space, but prior to that I had a run of three different teaching assignments at two different schools in the space of three years. As a result, I learned to travel light. I don’t keep a lot of materials (e.g., print outs, old projects, etc.) on file or in storage. Anything important I maintain as an electronic copy – I actually hate it when I only have a hard copy of a resource, I always lose it! I have a nice sized storage closet in my room (again, very spoiled) that I clean out a few times a year. No mess. Except my desk of course…that is a constant battle.



I have a very sophisticated design style. Maps. Flags. Done. I do have a little step in my game though, I rotate everything each unit so the whole room stays relevant to the topic at hand. I am particularly happy to have such a high ceiling to allow hanging a 3×5 flag with head clearance. As a side project, I am working on a classroom library of content-specific texts, particularly young adult, memoirs and graphic novels. It’s mostly window dressing at this time, basically just for enrichment. But I have had confirmed sightings of students actually grabbing something off the shelf and reading it.



Staying organized

At one of my previous gigs, I had to clear out 20 years of accumulated “stuff” from the previous teacher. It was sort of a pain. But it served a very concrete lesson for me. Everything in that room was kept with a purpose in mind. It made sense to someone at one point to keep four (mostly) complete sets of wildly outdated encyclopedias. It was perfectly logical to keep a small desktop film projector with a box full of old lectures and presentations. Dozens of work student work samples. And so on.  I mean it when I say it made sense…it did. A lot of the information in the encyclopedias is still “good” and more reliable than Wikipedia. If you were so inclined, you could go through those old filmstrips and transpose the lectures to PowerPoint. Everyone knows the best way to model for students is to use student work. Yadda yadda yadda. That way lies madness.

So anyway…I guess I saw a possible future for myself and I didn’t like it. I think most teachers have a hoarder instinct. I know that I am always on the look out for the next “thing” that I could probably use sometime. But it can turn on you. Sometimes you just need to be honest and say, “this may have value and relevance, but I don’t need it and/or won’t likely use it”. Even more difficult, “this was once a useful thing, but no longer”.

Having said all of that, I have little compunction or self control about filling up my email and Google Drive with interesting and useful stuff that I will surely use…some day…


Tips, tricks, or advice related to the above

Own your space – particularly your storage spaces. When is the last time you cleaned out that file cabinet? Do you really know what’s in there? It’s OK…just have one of those big recycle bins ready when you go in.


Thanks for stopping by, please comment with a link to your blog so I can see your classroom space!

My Blogging Story – Edublogs Club Wk 1

Hi all – glad to be part of the club. Looking forward to learning from fellow teachers and reading some great blog posts!

My experience blogging

My first blogging experience was part of my graduate school requirements. You can read my groundbreaking first post here. Since then, I have very infrequently maintained this blog primarily as a means to highlight lessons or projects from my classroom – basically a digital portfolio I suppose.

Do I read other blogs? What are my favorites? How do I keep up with them?

I have a number of blogs that I enjoy reading, but I don’t regularly do so (another goal for the new year…). I use feedly and Twitter lists to keep track of my favorites.

Here are some great bloggers that I recommend:


Kath Murdoch

I also love the resources at:



Cult of Pedagogy

What are your goals for the #EdublogsClub?

I would like to develop a habit of regular blogging. To do so I need to change my mental mindset about this blog. Historically, I have only posted a few times per year with classroom lessons or projects. I am hoping that the structure and support community of the #edublogsclub will help me to take it to the next level!


Thanks for stopping by, please comment with a link to your blog so I can return the favor!


China and CCS Videos Part 6: Student Responses

Read from the beginning: Setting the Stage

Here are the results! I administer a reflection at the end of each unit using Google forms.

Check out the all the responses here.


Did you enjoy learning about China?

My thoughts

I’ll take a 75% approval rating any day of the week and twice on Sunday.


Sample student responses

Did you like the China project? Why or why not?

It was fun working together as a group and completing each phase of project together (teamwork and cooperation).

I feel like it was a lot of fun to create pictures of what happened and China. It made it easier to grasp the concept of what we were learning.

I enjoyed the project because we got to be creative and take a break from homework everyday, but the downside of this was that we only got to learn about one topic.

It was fun and stressful at the same time.

It was ok I guess.

My thoughts

Most student responses indicated that they were happy to have a different kind of assessment and enjoyed being able to work with peers. However, a valid point is that by focusing on one topic, students basically do not get to explore other topics of interest. I try to mitigate this by screening all of the videos after the project. That way students can learn about the topic from their peers.

What was the most challenging part about completing the China video project?

Getting all the pictures in the right order and not messing up.

Condensing everyone’s facts to make a solid one and half page script and keep the video over two minutes and under three minutes.

Taking notes was difficult for me but I am glad that I did it because now I can use these note taking skills in other classes for different projects.

When doing the video I got a little nervous.

Making sure everyone has completed their goal so we would be ready for the next day.

My thoughts

Editing, especially collaborative editing is quite challenging. This is a bit by design within this project when I set the length restriction at 2-3 minutes. Only one or two groups have trouble meeting the minimum length. A lot of groups struggle to fit within 3 minutes. This is a noticeably more difficult process for high-achieving students. I try to make this a safer process for them in that everyone gets full credit for completing a script and video. They don’t have to worry about losing points for leaving something out. I also try to reassure them that it is in fact quite challenging to remove valid information for to make a cleaner argument. I have found that students feel  more confident about making tough decisions when they understand that it IS a tough decision. By that I mean that, I have found that when students encounter a challenging task that they think should be easy, their response is to think that they are doing it incorrectly (i.e., they are “dumb”) rather that it is difficult even though they are smart and capable.

What advice would you give to future students to help them do well on this project?

Make sure everyone is on task and understands what to do.

Manage your time well in class because even though it seems like a lot of time it isn’t.

I would tell them to be a good team member and do the work that needs to be done so that your group succeeds.

Get work done earlier if you can, because the more time you have to rehearse and get comfortable with your script makes the overall grade better.

Accept your topic and just do it.

My thoughts

Time management. Group cooperation and collaboration. No surprises. The last comment is instructive because no matter how much I try to take student preferences into account, I cannot create working groups for this project and also give everyone their first choice topic.


Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 1.28.32 PM


My thoughts

Strong time management and clear goals. I am happy with these results because those are my priorities while facilitating the project.

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 1.28.43 PM

My thoughts

Frankly, I view artistic direction as the least important job for me on the list…particularly since students are not scored on artistic merits of their video. Otherwise a mixed bag. The research component continues to be a work in progress. One skill I should address more directly for next year is how to evaluate a website for quality and reliability.

Final thoughts

I really like running this project, and generally get positive feedback from students as well. On a multi-year timeframe I can easily picture swapping this out to a different unit to keep it fresh for me, but otherwise it feels good to have a solid activity in the toolbox.


What did you think of the project? Have you done similar projects? What could I do differently next time? Tell me in a comment!

Teaching Toolkit: The Warm Up

Ah the warm up. It’s a simple but powerful concept. Have the students do something when they enter the room.

I don’t know why, but it took me years…literally several years of teaching…to “get” warm ups. Are they supposed to look at a picture? Review their homework? Talk about something? Is there a difference between a warm up a hook and a set? How do find time to include a warm up? Do I check them? If so, do they count for credit? Do I need to do one every day? Etc.

After much trial and error, this is what works for me. (Full disclosure: Getting back to using warm ups was one of my New Year teacher resolutions. I don’t know what happened…one day I just realized I wasn’t using them anymore. Back on the wagon.)

The goal of a warm up

For me, the primary goal of a warm up is simply to get kids settled in, thinking about the content, and ready to work. Or in another sense, I simply want to prevent the loss of instructional time at the beginning of class. That’s it. Everything else is optional.

  • It doesn’t need to be exciting or innovative. To me, this is the key difference between a “set” or “hook” and a warm up. A set gets the students interested in the next lesson or topic, usually by getting them excited, agitated, or confused. For example, an interesting picture, a riddle or brain teaser, a map, playing music, etc. These are great and necessary components of good unit planning, but I don’t think they are effective warm ups. They get students wound up instead of them settled and focused. I prefer to use a set after the warm up.
  • It doesn’t need to provide a seamless transition between topics. If this happens, great. If not, no problem. Again, the primary goal is to get students settled and focused.
  • It doesn’t need to happen everyday. However, it should happen most days. Students should come in expecting to do the warm up. If they don’t, it doesn’t matter if I have a big flashy sign that says “WARM UP!!!” on the board…they aren’t looking at the board…they’re talking to their friends or reading a book. (Trust me…I tried that). My experience is that everyone gets into a groove if I have formal warm ups three days a week on average.


The first rule of warm ups 

Discussion and/or reading warm ups don’t work.

At least they have never worked for me. Don’t misunderstand me, I love small group discussion. I use “turn and talk strategies” every single day. But it doesn’t work as a warm up. The students aren’t tuned in yet.

Discuss your homework? Nope.

Hey, check out this picture, what do you think? Nope.

Read this section in the textbook? Nope.

Chat with your partner, what did we do yesterday? Nope.

Sadly, I have to keep re-learning this every year. Whenever I forget it, I find myself spending 5 (or 10…) minutes circulating around the classroom putting out fires and trying to get kids to pretend more effectively that they are actually reading or talking about the warm up topic. I waste as much time, or even more, than I was trying to save by doing the warm up to begin with!

The second rule of warm ups

Discussion and/or reading warm ups don’t work.


The ingredients of an effective warm up

The students need to produce something.

They need to take notes, draw a picture, write a journal, or write down the answer to a question. Here’s the trick though, it should be something that takes a few minutes of actual concentration or reflection on their part. Remember, the goal is to get the students settled down and focused. So in my opinion, simple questions (e.g., yes/no, fill in the blank, etc.) aren’t effective as warm ups, unless used in a list.

Bonus points:

    • If using a writing prompt, it is important to give length guidelines. My experience is that a 3-5 sentence response is the perfect amount for a warm up. 
    • I also like to have a mix of fact and opinion prompts.

Examples from my most recent unit:

Describe Sharia Law in 3 sentences.

Describe an example of how Sharia law impacts women in Saudi Arabia in 3-5 sentences.

What do you think is the most restrictive rule women face in Saudi Arabia? Why do you think so? (3-5 sentences)


Students should have a set place where they keep their warm up responses for a unit. Just have them reserve space in a physical notebook, or create a dedicated electronic document. This saves time AND makes the warm up more valuable for the students because they can serve as review notes.

Time management

The warm up is only useful if it doesn’t become a time sink. Remember, that is one of the problems I am trying to solve. As the students arrive, I direct their attention to the warm up and ask them to get started. Once the bell rings (i.e., a concrete start point), I start a timer and tell them how much time they have. I usually allot 3 minutes for writing, and give them a countdown update every minute. This might not seem like enough time. It is…if…they actually get started right away. Sure, once in awhile I might fudge it a little bit if they really need a few more seconds, but my recommendation is to stick to the timer as a rule.


A short follow up discussion is the glue that holds it all together.  It reinforces the concepts through multiple modes of communication. It provides an opportunity for me to address questions for clarification. At the very least, students do the warm up because they don’t want to be unprepared when I call on them. However, I don’t check warm ups for points, and it is OK if the student doesn’t finish the warm up. The goal was to get them settled and focused.

Bonus points:

    • If the warm up is a writing prompt or reflection, I ask students to read what they have written OR ask a question for clarification.
    • If the warm up is copying notes, I ask students to restate the concepts in their own words OR ask a question for clarification.
    • This is the perfect time to use a random selection method to call on students. If anyone is a potential target, everyone does the warm up.
    • Watch out for scope creep if the warm up is a review question or reflection. It is very easy for the discussion to turn take up too much time. I pick three students, take one to three additional volunteers, and then move on. The entire warm up process can be done in less than ten minutes once you get comfortable with it.


But I don’t have time for warm ups!

Yes you do.

If you don’t have a warm up system, you are losing time every class period anyway…probably more time than you think.

If you don’t devote time to review of concepts, then you are fooling yourself if you think they actually remember what happened last class.

If you are really jammed up for today’s lesson, skip it. Warm ups don’t have to happen every day…just most days.


So what does it look like in practice?

First bell rings…students begin to trickle into the classroom.

The warm up is posted on the board. What is sharia law? (3 sentences)

Me: “The warm up is on the board. Make sure to put it in your “Middle East Warm Ups” document. You can use your notes if you don’t remember.”

Second bell rings to start the class. At this point, students should actually be writing or rereading their notes. (Side note: I used to think that the warm up should be completed by the bell to start class. However, under no circumstances has that ever worked for me. I have come to terms with the fact that students actually need a few minutes to transition from class to class, no matter how stressed I might personally feel about time.)

Me: “Ok, you have three minutes, then we’ll discuss. You can use your notes if you don’t remember.”

John calls out: “I have a question about the next test.” (It’s a trap! If I answer John’s question I am signaling that I don’t really care about this warm up nonsense. Rest assured, three more students will immediately call out with their own questions…then a few side conversations…then everybody is just hanging out and talking like it’s lunch or something.)

Me: “I’ll answer that after the warm up.”

Me: “Two minutes.”

During this time I am circulating the class, taking attendance, etc.

Me: “One minute.”

Me: “Thirty seconds.”

Once the time is elapsed, I give any administrative announcements for the day. I know that they can hear me because everyone is settled and focused. Some students are still writing, but that’s OK. The announcements are also a way to surreptitiously buy some time for them.

Me: “OK, chat with your partners about what you wrote.”

This is an important step because it gives students a chance to clarify their answers before sharing with the whole group. However, this should only go for a minute or so.

During this time I use my random selection method (e.g., I use numbered popsicle sticks in a big coffee can) to pre-select students for discussion. If it is a student that struggles a bit, I can let them know in advance that I will call on them.

Me: “Ok Ryan, what is sharia law?” If he isn’t done, or doesn’t feel confident in his answer, I just ask him to read what he has written so far.

Me: “Ok Helen, can you add to that or say it another way?”

Repeat this step for any pre-selected students. I usually restate what each student said so everyone can hear.

Me: “Anyone else…is there something important we missed?”

I take a few volunteers (i.e., one to three max) then move on to the topic of the day. No worries if there are no volunteers to continue discussion, the warm up has done it’s job.



Comments and feedback welcome!

What do warm ups look like in YOUR class?



Prompts for reading, speaking, and thinking

I have spent a lot of time over the past few years experimenting with different prompts to help aid discussion, writing and higher-level thinking. What I have found to be the most interesting/challenging aspect is the close relationship between those three modes.

  • Students need frequent dedicated time in the classroom to practice speaking and writing at the upper levels of Bloom’s taxonomy to help them develop a habit of insightful and reflective thinking.
  • Speaking and writing are strongly interrelated. The prompts below can easily be used for either mode of communication. However, students need dedicated time to practice both. Reflective writing does not automatically transfer to deep and meaningful conversation…and vice versa.
  • My experience has been that verbal discussion is the hardest of the three modes to facilitate, even when students are writing and thinking at a high level. It is particularly challenging to get students to truly listen and respond to each other, rather than just wait in line to share their own thoughts. Authentic student-centered discussion that does not bottleneck through me is the gold standard. I have only had it happen a few times in as many years…but it is wonderful when it does happen.


Learning Log Prompts – These prompts are intended for students to summarize the daily lesson as an exit ticket. My experience is that students need at least five minutes to answer two prompts, so I generally do not have time to do this activity every day. However, even two or three times a week can generate great results. I have students maintain their learning logs in a seperate journal that stays in the classroom. It is especially useful to give students time once a month or quarter to look back over their journals and reflect on what they’ve learned, or any patterns they see.

Learning Log Prompts


Pick a Strategy – This is my favorite way to introduce the idea of talking to the text. Students particularly like the opportunity to draw and share illustrations.

Pick a Strategy


Text Annotation Prompts – This past year I had my first attempt at close reading, and I wish that I would have had this list of prompts for that activity!

Text Annotation

Modified from: ‏@KyleneBeers When to annotate a text


Conversation Prompts – I have used similar prompts in the past to facilitate written dialogue on Edmodo, but I have not yet used them formally in verbal discussions. That is definitely a goal for next year though.

Conversation Stems

Modified from: ‏Teach Thought – 26 Sentence Stems for Higher-Level Conversation in the Classroom

Comments and feedback welcome!