We The People and Deep Practice

Public speaking is tough. Just ask Marco Rubio. 

Marco Rubio delivering the Republican response after the
2013 State of the Union address.

This week has been a challenging and exciting week in my classroom. I took a small group of US Government students to Jefferson City, MO to compete in We The People. This is a national civics and constitutional competition where teams have to speak from a prepared remark and answer questions, all from judges that they have never met. There is a big intimidation factor here. The teams are only 3 or 4
Center High School Team #1 at
MO We The People 2014
students. They have practiced their prepared remarks countless times to the point where a lot of them have the remarks close to memorized. Yet about 6 feet in front of them are three very professional looking adults whom they have never met. To add to the suspense, the students know that once they complete the comfort of the prepared remarks, they must venture into the unknown that is six minutes of questions and answers.

The question-and-answer part of the competition is really its bread and butter. This is where students are exposed to the harsh reality of their knowledge. The judges ask questions based off of the prepared remarks, but the specific wording and phrasing of the questions cannot be known until the moment the question is asked. The student have to listen to the question, process what is being asked, dig through what they know and give back a coherent answer. The students have all of about 2.5 seconds to complete all of these steps. All of this is doing with those judges wearing fancy suits still sitting 6 feet away.

President Obama at a rally in North Carolina
on Nov. 3rd, 2008.
President Obama gave the annual State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress last night. You can read the transcript here or watch the full speech here and the Republican response from Rep. Cathy McMorris Roberts here. That is interesting on its own for the political implications of the speech. I loved the sections of the speech about equal pay for equal work and raising minimum wage. I admit that I am not particularly comfortable with the number of times that Mr. Obama indicated that he would "act on his own" to get this or that done.* All of the politics aside, I love listening to Mr. Obama as an orator. I was in college as he made his run to the White House.The tears that ran down his cheek the day before Election Day 2008 while he spoke of the inspiration he gained from his grandmother provide an image that is forever seared into my mind. While I certainly lean towards democratic ideals, especially in the social sphere, I believe that Mr. Obama won the White House as much because he was and continues to be a great orator as for his political stances.

*Lo and behold, Mr. Obama came out on Wednesday with a series of Executive Orders. These are, overall, relatively limited in terms of action. Anything that he does via Executive Order can be undone January 20th, 2017 when the new President takes action. This is made perfectly clear in a fantastic NY Times article you can read here. Laws, on the other hand, are much more difficult to overturn once they have gone through the Legislative Branch. Much to the chagrin of those who would call Mr. Obama a tyrannical dictator, checks and balances does appear to still be in working order.

I like to use great speakers as models for my students as they learn the importance of quality public speaking. It's important to remind kids that, while many of them may never speak in front of thousands of people, being confident and projecting self-worth will be important for all of them. And I always remind them that one day I may just see one of them inspiring the masses with a great speech. Always dream big. But for most of us, we are resigned to speaking in front of families and friends, speaking at job interviews or speaking in front of a team of colleagues. If you are a teacher like me, every day is a practice in public speaking. Well-known orators like Dr. King and President Kennedy as well as lesser-known orators from websites like TED appear on my screen often to show what good oration looks, sounds and feels like.

We The People is a great competition and was a great experience for my students. You can show great oration and talk about oratory strategy until you are blue in the face, but a person cannot truly become a great orator until he or she has lots and lots of practice. A few weeks ago I wrote a post on Daniel Coyle's fantastic book, "The Talent Code". Motivation in the classroom is absolutely vital. This was one of the running themes in Coyle's book. The other running theme which was probably more prominent was deep practice, where the learner is intently focused on acquiring or increasing a skill by practicing just above the level of comfort.

By competing in front of judges inside the Missouri State Capitol while dressed in professional attire, students were pushed outside of their comfort zone. Some got nervous while others got excited. Most experienced a mix of those two emotions. All of the students were pushed beyond where they normally would practice, which is the key to developing deep practice. I can work for days and weeks in my classroom on Constitutional study, civics lessons and oratory practice with my students. I firmly believe that they grew more during this 30-hour trip than they did from a month in my classroom. This feeling is backed by data and examples in "The Talent Code". These trips and competitions, and others like them, are vitally important to student growth. I encourage you to look for a similar opportunity no matter the subject that you teach.*

I am very proud of my students and the work that they put into this competition. I look forward to competing again in 2015 with a new group of students. I hope that you enjoyed the video of their competition. What activities do you do that help put students into real-life, sometimes stressful situations that help them discover deep practice?

*I cannot write this post without thanking a number of groups and individuals that helped make this trip possible. First to the Missouri Bar Association who funds the competition and encourages many of its members to serve as judges - thank you. To Millie Aulber and the Center For Civic Education - continue your work helping young people find meaning and importance in our government. To Beth Heide, Principal and former US Government teacher at Center High School, for taking my class to We The People in 2004 and encouraging me to take my class now as a teacher. To all of those individuals who came to Center High School to listen to our students practice and provide wonderful feedback - Rick Chambers, Sally Newell, Beth Heide, Judge Lisa Hardwick and Joe Stokely - your patience and advice inspired the students more than you realize. Finally to Russ Sackreiter, who took our team under his wing, providing many hours of guidance and advice both to myself and to all of the students. This truly would not have been possible without your immense effort.
Center High School trophy from
We The People 2014
Comments or questions? Leave your thoughts below. 

Get in touch! 
E-mail: alectchambers@gmail.com                    Facebook                                 Twitter: @chambersalec

Reflections on Dr. King

Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is the only non-president individual to have an American holiday. One of my students found that little nugget of knowledge yesterday. My US Government class is mostly Juniors and Seniors. They have watched the 'I Have a Dream Speech' before.* They know the basics of Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement from American History class their sophomore year. So I tried something different. We had a short discussion before unlocking the iPads. I asked the kids to find three pieces of knowledge that they did not already know about Dr. King.

*And so should you. Click here for the video and here for the transcript.

The results were really cool. Some of the students discovered that Dr. King was a complex man with personal demons like any other human. Some learned that there were multiple assassination attempts on Dr. King and started to understand the chaos of the battle for Civil Rights in the 1960's. Some were inspired by the fact that he was the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner while I saw a hope in other students eyes when they discovered that he didn't have the greatest academic record in high school. 

I think that more than anything, the kids gained an appreciation for the complexity of both the man and the issue. Dr. King was not a solo fighter for civil rights nor was his vision of nonviolence universally accepted in the black community. Malcolm X and the Black Panthers represent a different fighter in the same fight and reminds us that what history leaves us with does not always portray the dysfunction and confusion of reality. A lot of lessons and videos about the Civil Rights movement leave the reader feeling like activists went home each night with a feeling of satisfaction knowing that they were a part of something great; the tantalizing fear that must have gripped these individuals as they went to sleep each night is often a bit too messy to be included comfortably. The jail time that was served by countless activists is glorified much in the same way that battle scenes are in war movies. The true horror of those wars and the jail cells of southern states is glossed over with nostalgia for a time when we fought for our morals. 

I have to remind myself that being appreciative of Dr. King and the thousands of nameless activists is not good enough. In this short but great article by Jose Vilson, we are encouraged to not just worship Dr. King. We must act. We must get involved. We must get in the trenches of action. We must first remember that there are, in fact, still trenches in which fighting is needed. We live in a complex time of racial justice. This 2007 RAND Corporation report on the NYPD shows that while blacks and Hispanics are stopped at much higher rates than they should be based on these groups percentage of the local population, these two groups are actually stopped less than would be predicted based on the descriptions that are given by those who have reported crimes. In a world where the video below (warning: language) can exist, the RAND report also flags only 0.5% of NYPD officers as being guilty of racial profiling. It is painfully obvious as a teacher of minority students that we are not to our goal. Yet there are, as is so often true of life, few clear answers.

I encouraged my students on Tuesday to intentionally try to make a friend who was another race. When you study history, you realize that nations throughout history have not tried to mix races. The social experiment that has spread throughout the world since the Declaration of Rights of Man and of Citizen was written in 1789 by the French National Assembly has in some parts come to fruition and in other parts failed miserably. We have to work to make it succeed. The momentum of history is against equal rights. This must never be forgotten. 

So that's my challenge to you today if you are reading this - make a friend who is of a different race. Get in the trenches. Call out your friend next time a racial slur is used in a joking way. Have a conversation. Every day, do you best to destroy racism. 

Thanks for reading. 

Leave your comments or get in touch by email (alectcchambers@gmail.com) or twitter (@chambersalec)

"The Talent Code" - Motivation Theory Explored

Let's start with a belief that guides a lot of what I do: I believe that most people want to do something good, useful and productive with their days. I believe that most individuals have an inherent desire to grow and learn. It is the outside, sometimes uncontrollable factors that get in the way. Those factors are what I want to look into today.

At our school, we are having a book club of sorts among the entire staff. Our principal gave us all a copy of "The Talent Code" by Daniel Coyle (@DanielCoyle). Read one of many book reviews here. Coyle makes an argument that myelin, a material in our brains that increases the speed and efficiency of neurological synapses, is produced more quickly when individuals take part in "deep practice". The 20 second theory is that focused, specific practice that is just beyond our range of comfort (and therefore continually increasing in difficulty as we grow and improve) in short bursts does way more good than extended periods of practice that could be described as going-through-the-motions. There is some data to back these claims. It is very clearly a theory that is in need of much more research in years to come, but it is also very clearly a promising and intriguing way of thinking about the process of learning.

One of the aspects of "The Talent Code" is that of motivation, which makes sense. A person does not spend time intensely practicing a skill if that person is not highly motivated to get really good at said skill. Coyle uses  the term ignition, which I love. It gives a sense of fire, of wanting to succeed with a deep passion. Any day that I feel that I have ignited my students towards any goal is a successful day.

Coyle tells many stories about groups of "talent hotbeds" that have experienced ignition through some event, but my favorite is the story of Andruw Jones*, who is from the tiny island of Curacao just north of Venezuela. Jones hit two famous World Series home runs against the Yankees in the first two World Series at-bats of his career in 1996. The following Spring, the youth baseball league in Curacao had 400 more kids sign up than the year before. 400! That's 40 more teams in the league! The homers from Andruw Jones ignited a passion and motivation in the kids of Curacao in October of 1996. Curacao has won 10 of the last 13 Caribbean Little League World series titles and they won the whole thing in 2004.

*Coyle also uses Brazilian soccer as an example of a talent hotbed. I had to sneak soccer in here somewhere! The story is less convincing than the Andruw Jones example, but man I love futsal! I played futsal as a kid. It is tremendously more difficult that regular soccer. Check out this highlight reel of Ronaldinho as a kid on a futsal court. Legen...wait for it...dary. 

So let's think about this in terms of a classroom. I want to motivate my kids. I want them to leave my class every day feeling like they have a fire of excitement and possibility light from within. I want to, over the course of my time with each student, teach them the value of intrinsic motivation so that they are independent thinkers rather than drones dependent on the next task being given to them. I want to propose a three-part motivational strategy that becomes all-encompassing. If students don't want to be here, that makes everything else I do much less meaningful.

Part 1: Discipline
An individual who has no discipline has no chance at achieving lasting motivation. I think back to my first year and a half of teaching and I literally, physically shudder. It was bad. The students didn't like me and I didn't like my students very much. While I thought that this group of students didn't care, I now realize that they felt no motivation whatsoever to put effort into my class, partly because of what I was doing. I had created an environment where students could turn work in whenever, get away with most anything short of cussing me out and where I took on most of the responsibility for getting students to turn work in correctly and on time. While I suppose you could say this was a noble try, I was completely lost and my students knew it. They did enough work to get their grade, probably learned very little and happily parted ways with me come the end of the year.

To be disciplined has many shades other than the traditional military style obedience. I now set up rules and policies that ping off of two questions. If the rule or procedure doesn't answer both of these questions with a 'yes', then I need to get rid of that rule.
Question 1 - Does this rule or procedure help the students learn better? 
Question 2 - Will this rule or procedure instill a habit that will help the student in 20 years?
I explain to my students that I don't want to babysit them any more than they want to be babysat by me. They want to do something authentic rather than monotonously copy stuff out of an old textbook and I want them to get ready to enter an ever-more-difficult workforce in a few short years. When I am at my best, I am constantly questioning whether my activities and lessons foster a disciplined classroom.

Part 2: Utility
I dabbled briefly in economics in college. What little I learned taught me that the fifth ice cream cone is less enjoyable (lower utility) than the first ice cream cone (higher utility). After I finished day-dreaming about a trip to Culver's, the idea made a lot of sense. Most anyone loves a good ice cream cone, but the fifth cone of the day leaves you with brain-freeze and an upset stomach. Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.* This holds true with assignments and activities. If I want to motivate my students each day, I need to foster the feeling of the first ice cream cone about each activity. The students need to see how it will happen, how it connects to yesterday and why it is important for them today. I wondered during one particularly bland activity this past fall if any of the students or myself would be upset if that activity just simply ceased to exist. I now wonder that often. If no one would be upset about the disappearance of something in my class, then I should work to get rid of that something. Every activity I do should be as close to the first ice cream cone as possible.

*Almost doesn't count.

Don't take your eye off the ball.

Winners never cheat and cheaters never win.

Thank you for riding the cliche express. We now return to our regularly scheduled blog post

Part 3: Trust
Here is the greatest part of teaching. I was talking to a couple of other teachers at our weekly meeting this week. One of them said that the kids kept her motivated. No matter how tough everything else was, from curriculum, to parents to just being tired all the time, she could get excited about seeing the kids the next day. I believe that kids feel the same way about the teachers that they trust.

If we look at The Expectancy Theory of Motivation (Porter & Lawler, 1968; Vroom, 1964), we may find a different way to look at motivation. Charles Schmidt of the University of Rhode Island Labor Research Center writes in this article that motivation is task-specific. This means that a student may not be inherently motivated or unmotivated. Rather - and I'm adapting this into my own thoughts now - motivation is based on three factors: 1.) Does the student believe their effort will improve their product? 2.) Does the student believe a good product will lead to positive rewards? 3.) Does the student think that the reward is important? 

This has the potential to change how a teacher views motivation and the role that trust plays in the equation. I have, for much of my teaching career, viewed trust as step one rather than step three. The expectancy section makes sense to me. A student needs to believe that working hard will improve performance. If a student comes to tutoring and puts in extra work but doesn't feel like they know anymore than when they started, we may have an expectancy issue. The second section, instrumentality, is where concrete rewards like grades come into the picture. A student has to know that the extra work and increased knowledge will lead to a better grade or the work is no longer worth it. The third section is valence and is where this theory slots in trust into the equation. If a teacher tells students that they should come to morning tutoring, there has to be a worthy end-goal. 

This is where teachers and students have a disconnect. From the perspective of the teacher, one or two tutoring sessions represent the beginnings of a good study habit and should not be rewarded with a greatly increased grade. The teacher believes that getting back on the right path is reward enough. We think that students feel the same way about catching up as we do about a really productive Saturday morning of work to get caught up from the week. The student on the other hand thinks that they have gone above and beyond their duty as a student and should be immediately rewarded with an increased grade or something else tangible.

This is where personal relationships are so vital. If from a consistency and fairness standpoint I cannot radically improve grades for the beginnings of good habit forming such as coming to tutoring, what can I find for each student that satisfies the third part of the theory? It's different for each individual in each situation. We as teachers have to take advantage of the personal relationships we build and use them to find the spark that will motivate the student. We have to become experts at predicting what will cause the ignition that Coyle discusses* and they we have to aggressively go about creating as many sparks as humanly possible. 

*I think this will be another post about motivation in different school settings. "The Talent Code" is full of examples of talent hotbeds with an important factor in common - they are all voluntary. Each hotbed that is outlined is not an activity or a skill that is mandated, and I think that this is a major hole in his theory. I reached out to Daniel Coyle and he responded with KIPP schools as an example. KIPP, though, is still a voluntary charter school.

Thanks for reading. I hope it made you think!

Should We All Be Teachers?

I am from Kansas City and I am a sports fan, but I tend to stay away from America's most popular sport of football. I grew up playing soccer; watching replays of games from Europe or South America and empty games at Arrowhead was the extent of my exposure to pro soccer. Sporting Kansas City have since filled that void. I have Kansas basketball flowing through my blood.* I can enjoy watching golf when it's good. I love watching the Olympics, especially curling. Needless to say, I'm irrationally excited for the 2014 version to get going next month in Sochi. All this gets us to the Chiefs v. Colts playoff game on Saturday which I watched with some of my family as was my duty as a Kansas Citian.

*I'm told that when I would cry as a baby, popping in a recorded KU basketball game is what would consistently get me to stop crying. I could write 5,000 words on my hatred of the new Jayhawk Television Network that has kept me from watching some of the games so far this year. That's a different post for a different blog.

Sometime in the third quarter before Andrew Luck decided to impersonate Peyton Manning and the Chiefs defense decided to impersonate themselves from last season, I came across A Warning to Young People: Don't Become a Teacher written by Randy Turner. You can click over and read for yourself but the gist of the article is that the teacher is the most important part of the learning process and that the political landscape in America is devaluing the experienced teacher through programs like Teach for America and votes on removing teacher tenure. This led the author to retire from teaching altogether.

I can get behind the premise of the argument, although I think that Mr. Turner makes the issues at hand too black and white for my liking. Maybe I'll write my thoughts on the arguments in the article itself, but that isn't what this post is about. I want to use the premise of the argument to look at flipping the classroom and whether the theory makes sense in the real world of the classroom.

Flipping the class means that a lot of what is traditionally accomplished inside the class, such as a lecture session with class notes, is moved outside of the class. Instead of students listening to the teacher lecture in class, the teacher may create a youtube video that the students can watch on their own time. Class time can then be used for experiments, discussions, simulations, projects and other such activities. These kind of project-based activities are all the rage in educational pedagogy. In theory, this should lead to the students taking greater control of their own learning. The teacher becomes a facilitator of learning. That's the theory.

I love the idea of the theory. It has played a role in my teaching the first three years. I make one set of videos for my students that is my voice over the powerpoint that I've created. I still lecture and discuss in class, but these videos allow students to go back and re-listen to what we have discussed. I also make videos that are more like tutorials for things like logging onto our class website, turning work in online or breaking down an essay question. You can look at an example in the youtube video below. These are simple screenshots and are pretty easy to make.

The way that I use these kinds of videos is not a true flip of the classroom because we still do everything in class. The author of the article I referenced at the start of this post observed that his best teachers certainly allowed him to be curious and explore, but they also explicitly taught him theories, ideas, skills and habits that he could not have discovered on his own. I am going to experiment with the balance between these two views of  flipping the classroom. Like most things in life, I'm sure that what I'll find works best is some kind of mixture of all of the theories and concepts that I acquire. Flipping the classroom is becoming more and more popular. The Flipped Learning Network (www.flippedclassrooms.org) had 16,695 members as of Jan. 5th, 2014. This article on the research behind flipping classrooms shows that there is little empirical data to support flipping the classroom, but that there is periphery data beginning to come out on specific aspects like student-teacher relationships and improved assessment scores. 

I think that teachers play two roles, one of which can be tested and one of which cannot.  The first role is that of teacher of content. I am responsible for teaching my students about the history of the western world from the time of the Renaissance through World War II. Do students need to know who the absolute monarch of France was before Napoleon? No.* Do students need to know what an absolute monarch is and how that idea of government lost traction over the course of modern history? Absolutely.

*It was Louis XVI in case you were wondering. What is his claim to fame? Being married to Marie Antoinette** who could have starred in the Real Housewives of Versailles.

**She never actually said "Let them eat cake." Sorry to burst your bubble Eddie Izzard

The second role is to be a teacher of skills. When teachers talk about planting seeds in the minds of students, this is the role they are fulfilling. This could be the comment that a teacher made in 7th grade that doesn't make sense until you are in college or the conference you had with a principal that became a model for how you raise a child. 

Flipping the classroom makes many teachers uncomfortable because it breaks the mold of how these roles traditional look and feel.

The first role is certainly important. The system of education would not be doing its job without the first role. The second role actually helps teachers with the first role. Students work for adults who they trust and who inspire them to be better. The two roles are always interacting in incredible and sometimes frustrating ways. 
The US is near the bottom in how much a teacher earns
compared to the GDP of the country.

When I reflect on what Mr. Turner is saying as he vents his frustration with education reform, I wonder if I will ever reach the point that he was at when he decided to be done with teaching or the night that he wrote that article. A lot of nights I come home really tired and still have work to do. I make good money compared to friends of mine who graduated at the same time, the difference being I will never make a whole lot more than I make today and many of my friends will. I have been frustrated by assignments that have been turned in by 10% of my students after I spent hours preparing the lesson. And yes, I wonder how strong my pension will be in 40 years when I'm ready to retire. I hate talking and thinking about money, and yet I cannot help but feel like my profession is way underpaid and the hours put in by teachers are way misunderstood. 
But it isn't all negative. I know that I am excited for this new semester to start. I started the 2013 school year hoping to keep a blog each week and I only posted 4 times. This post is step one in renewing that goal. I had a goal of implementing a system of unit organization called a LAP (Learning Activity Packet - shout out for the idea to Incarnate Word Academy alum and my wife, Angela) and so far have kept up with that goal. I have tried to make a concerted effort to build relationships with my kids more than I've done in years past, and I think I've done that. 

As of now there are no answers. I suspect that there never will be a perfect answer, and that is OK. So here is to new goals for the new year, a renewed sense of urgency for meeting those goals and good conversation trying to find answers to a world with a lot of problems. Most of all, here is to our students, parents and teachers, the majority of whom wake up every day and try to do their very best for a bright future. 

Coming up...

A couple of posts that are in the works. Leave suggestions for topics if you have any.

  • The changing role of the teacher 
  • Teacher tenure - the elephant in the room
  • The Learning Activity Packet (LAP
  • Why field trips are important
Look for a new post each Wednesday! Thanks for reading!

Checking In

I keep telling my students that writing in their own free time is a great idea. That putting thoughts to paper (or keyboard) is not only a really usable skill, but also helps you to think through issues and clarify things mentally. Reflection is where I am able to take a thought that is good and turn it into something better - something unique and special. I came into this school year hoping to have a greater focus on my own reflection through this blog and hoping to push my students to greater reflection through journals that were donated to my classroom. While my students have been using their journals (and many of them actually liking it!), I have not been so successful. 

I went to a (un)conference yesterday called EdCampKC. I discovered it initially on twitter via its hashtag, #EdCampKC and came to learn that it is unique. Educators, both administrators and teachers, come together for a day of conversation and learning. You show up in the morning, and where there usually is a schedule of sessions for you to pick from, you are confronted with a blank spreadsheet. It is up to the attendees of the conference to create sessions in the morning and write their session into one of the blank spots! Once the day begins, you get to choose which session to attend, sometimes with very little idea of what you about to attend. While this sounds a little scary to commit to 45 minutes of mystery, this is where the uniqueness (may I say brilliance?) of the conference avails itself. You are encourage to vote with your feet, a phrase which means that conference attendees are welcome to get up and leave a session if they do not find it useful or find it to be different from what they expected! How crazy is this?! But it works. 

I enjoyed all of the sessions that I attended, even the ones that I ended up leaving early. There was some frustration throughout the day because the Nelson Atkins did not have the bandwidth to handle all 300 participants being very active online, and this hurt some of the sessions that needed internet to function. But regardless, I found myself surrounded by teachers and administrators who get it. And more importantly, these people want to talk about what they do and share their secrets. I have found that the best educators are never shy about sharing their work. They know that it may be good or bad on a given day, but they understand their work to be a process that is ever-evolving. They accept and appreciate the struggles as a means to a very important end. 

This aspect of #EdCampKC is what makes it special and fulfilling. I came away of the conference with ideas that I want to use in class. I also came away feeling refreshed and recharged. I needed yesterday in the worst possible way. I have felt tired. I have felt annoyed. I have felt a little bit isolated at my school recently. Yesterday helped me to feel connected to others who are working down the same path. 

More thoughts to come on #EdCampKC soon. Thanks for reading.

Genius Hour #1 - The Renaissance

This is a post from August 27th, 2013.

As I've grown in the world of twitter - if you're an educator, get on twitter. Now. Like, stop reading this blog and go start a twitter account and follow me @chambersalec - I have come across so many good ideas. Twitter has opened up a world of like-minded teachers who care deeply about the learning of their students and are willing to push boundaries to achieve that learning. One of the great ideas is called "Genius Hour". Follow a really smart lady named Joy Kirr (@joykirr) to learn more about it from the source, but the basic idea goes like this:

Students are curious. One of the great travesties of education is to rob students of that curiosity by forcing set curriculum goals down their throats in search of ever-increasing test scores. The belief of Genius Hour is that students will naturally learn more and learn better when they are allowed - and encouraged - to be curious. Students create a question that they want to answer. It has to be related to the topic, so my students picked anything related to the Renaissance in Italy. For example, "Why is Miley Cyrus nuts?", while a legitimate question, is not a good question for this exercise! The student have their question, an iPad, and an hour to find the answer. The coolest part is that students can prove they have answered the question any way they want. A picture collage with narration? Great. A video explanation? Sounds good to me. A written paragraph? Not the most creative, but it'll work! A poem? Love it!

With my 9th grade class, I gave 20 questions related to the Italian Renaissance, varying from fashion to sports to the Medici family to religion. Eventually I will let the students pick their own question, but for starters, I wanted to give them a good starting list of questions that I knew were quality.

The results were fantastic! (More pictures of the products coming soon...) Many 9th grade students struggle to stay focused and active for 20 minutes at the beginning of the year.This is why teachers are encouraged to have a lot of transitions early in the year. My students took this activity and they were enthralled! There were a ton of probing questions. Not the kind that make a teacher pull hair out, but the kind that get us out of bed in the morning!

"Mr. Chambers, did you know that the Medici were bankers?"

"Wait...Leonardo Da Vinci invented the concept of the helicopter? Did he ever actually make one?"

"Mr. Chambers, why were people so interested in art? And why does the art look so different from art made today?"

These are the questions that allow me to ask an additional probing question. These questions show curiosity. These questions show students who are trying to find the answers, and that is what we're all looking for in education! 

I'll be back with photos of the results! Thanks for reading!

Release Your Inner Superhero

This is a post from August 13th, 2013. 
As I was walking through the streets of Asheville, NC (COOL CITY!), I came across a metal pole that was supporting a stoplight. On this old, beat-up metal pole was a sticker that looked like it had been there a while. I walked past it, but noticed a cool-looking penguin with - is that right what I'm seeing...? A cape? Yes, a cape! That penguin has a cape! The next thing I noticed was the words - release your inner superhero. I'm not sure that bumper stickers are meant to change lives or be revelations, but this one struck me deep. I work at some youth camps each summer and a recurring message that we hit hard is how we can find our true selves. The theme at camp in 2013 was, specifically, SUPERHEROES. It seemed like a message put there just for me. Release your inner superhero. Find out who you truly are. Find your best self.
This has become my theme for class this year. I teach Modern World History and US Government, but I know that I really teach students how to find themselves as a student and a person. When students are able to find their true selves - to release their inner superhero - it is a magical moment that I wish I could say I've felt more than I have the past 3 years of teaching. I asked students today what their favorite thing to do with their time was. A lot answered with different sports, acting, singing and other similar answers. I then asked if their answer is their true purpose in life; if that is the reason they are here. When I was their age, I knew that I was going to be a professional soccer player. That was my purpose. I now know that I am meant to help young people find their way in life. I am put on this Earth to help other release their inner superhero!
So how to go about doing this? A marshmallow tower challenge, of course! This ingenious design challenge (http://marshmallowchallenge.com/Welcome.html) gives students 20 sticks of uncooked spaghetti, 1 yard of scotch tape, 1 yard of string, 1 whole marshmallow and 18 minutes to create the tallest freestanding structure that they can build.
This picture shows one of the stronger structure built throughout the day.
The best percentage any class had was 50% of structures standing. (3 of 6 groups with standing structures) A great TED talk explains some surprising trends of this challenge. For example, one of the most successful groups in this challenge is kindergarten students! They have unique ideas. They aren't afraid to fail. And most importantly, they try many different attempts during their 18 minutes. As we get older, we seem to try to build the perfect tower, waiting until the last moment to put the marshmallow on top. For some, it works. For many, the tower fails and there is no time to fix it!


This is a great lesson for releasing your inner superhero. We are asked to improve all the time, and many of us try to find the perfect solution to whatever problem is in front of us. I remember in my first year of teaching, I spent so much type looking for the perfect method of organizing each of my units. Unfortunately, I didn't spend enough time actually planning the units! Of course I struggled when students came into contact with my under-planned lessons and activities! Like the kindergarten builders, I have learned to jump into my planning activities and worry less about the template with which I begin. The students in Modern World History class will have to do the same as they work through several projects and activities this year. If they spend all their time looking for the perfect solution, they'll succeed some of the time, but more often, they'll not have time to fix whatever errors are found right at the end. That moment when the marshmallow gets placed on top of the tower too often leads to stress, when it should just be another step in the process!

Next week we're going to have a revolution! It should be fun...

Day One

This is a post from August 7th, 2013.

Day 1.
....the day from which all other days begin! Teachers prepare for hours on end to make sure that this day goes perfectly. But what does the perfect Day 1 look like? Obviously, that depends on your teaching style, the kids that you have in your class, how many years you have been teaching and the theme put in place at your school. In 2010 when I began my journey teaching, I received the great book, The First Days of School by Harry and Rosemary Wong. Countless teachers have read through this book, and you should too!
The First Days of School by Harry and Rosemary WongConfession...I didn't read this until in between my 1st and 2nd years teaching. Don't feel bad or feel like it's too late to start a new tradition. The first day is crazy important. 
At my school, the first day of school presents a unique challenge. It's a short day! Our 9th graders go to class the first day without the pressure of upperclassmen being around while they find their way. The main purpose of the day is for the 9th graders to learn where all of their classes are located. This means that I only have each class for 15 minutes! My first instinct has been to give the "expectations" lecture. This year, however, I will have a presentation to help the students get to know me a little bit. This is going to be a short presentation - maybe 5 or 10 minutes. I'll then have the students talk to each other in groups of 3 for a few minutes. Once they talk, they'll get a notecard where they will write basic information such as name, favorite activity, hobbies, etc... about each other. In addition to being an ice breaker, these note cards will help me get to know my new students. 
So why flip it like this? Don't we need to establish expectations immediately?
Expectations are established through action more than word. How many students complain that their teacher says one thing but does another? You can be the teacher that says little about expectations, and whose actions match those words every second of every day. Do you want your kids to raise their hands before they answer a question? Practice raising hands for basic questions and be consistent. Do you want your kids to organize themselves at the end of each hour? Take the last 3 minutes and scaffold their organizational skills to where you want them to be.
My kids show up in 6 days! We'll see how it goes... 

Good luck and have a great year!