A Day at the Museum

I have a hard time explaining the nerves that I had the night before our recent field trip to the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial. It is by far the largest trip that I've taken with a group of students. And I organized it! What if everything falls apart?! I've been somewhat of an athlete since I have memory. I've played in my share of moderately important sporting events - well, at least they were moderately important to me. In the whole scheme of things, I suppose that none of them were particularly important. The last few sentences are either the most mature words I've ever put onto paper* or the saddest. Possibly a bit of both. Either way, I know something about pre-game nerves.

*I'm not sure this cliche translates to the computer. I wonder what other phrases don't translate due to some innovation. Fascinating. Welcome to my mind...
Students above the poppy field, waiting
to enter the museum

The night before we left, I was going over everything to make sure I had all my details ready to go much like I've practiced in the days leading up to a big game. The groups were split. Instructions had been emailed to all of the chaperones. The introductory powerpoint was ready to roll. The Flickr account was set up. The logistics were all solid. The plan was, as far as I could tell, in pretty good shape. I was talking to my wife Angela about everything and I realized that I was nervous. I knew that my principle, Beth Heide, had some nerves. This trip was, I would learn, be the first class trip (nearly all 9th graders in this case) in over 5 years!

Our group consisted of around 160 students, all in a Modern World History class at Center taught by myself or my colleague, Steve Parker. We received a wonderful grant from the National World War Museum at Liberty Memorial that made this trip affordable*. If you live in the Kansas City area, go visit. It's a fantastic museum.

*I'm finding that there is money for cool stuff like this everywhere if you look hard enough. Programs like this and the "We The People" competition funded by the Missouri Bar Association really are great things for educators to look for. Plus, you get to meet some great people who are passionate about providing opportunities for learning outside the classroom.

High school boy + big gun = happiness
We used a program called Flickr for the day's assignment. Flickr is a photo-sharing site that is a bit more organized than Instagram or Twitter. The fact that it has more organization, though, also makes it
a bit more difficult to access. Whereas students can get on Twitter and immediately start posting pictures with hashtags as an organizational tool, Flickr allowed us to create a group specifically for the field trip where students and teachers could upload photos that they took. In the coming weeks, we can go back to the pictures in class and categorize the photos in several different ways.

There were a few hiccups that occurred with Flickr and some other logistical things that are worth discussing.  I would love your thoughts on how we solved some of these issues.

- Splitting groups gave me a splitting headache! We had six groups and a color for each group. My plan was to have colored pieces of paper and give them to all of the students the morning of the trip. This quickly devolved into chaos and was not going well. The wonderful Donna Vennera, our schools solve-everything-er, printed out colored name tags. The name tags were passed out when each group headed to the bus. This alleviated a lot of the issues we had with my original plan.

- Flickr requires students to have a Yahoo account. This is a free account, but its another step and a relatively large one at that. This generation of students, though, is not intimidated by creating new accounts. I think that this issue could have been solved by having students create accounts prior to the trip. We'll try to do this after the trip this year.

- The group we created in Flickr ended up being difficult to find on cell phones. Through the help of my fantastic colleagues, I was able to play with the administrative settings until we got them right. You can view the group here. Students will be adding more pictures over the next week or so as we go over the trip in class.

- Uploading to Flickr takes data and time, two things that are often not available during field trips. If you go to our group, you'll notice that there are only 4 members in the group at the moment. I'm hoping to pick up student members and photos in class over the next week. Mr. Parker and I are both planning on giving some class time for this. A lot of students took photos but did not join the Flickr group and upload photos. I'm interested to see what their reasons for this were and if we can successfully compile their photos in the coming weeks. I'll keep you updated on this.

Cherie Kelly, Learning Coordinator at
the WWI Museum, introducing the
museum to the students
- At the beginning of our tour, the guide for my group saw the students pull out there phones. He made a pretty great joke about him being a boring tour guide and asked the students to please keep their phones away during the tour. The students looked confused! I jumped in and told the guide that the students needed to use their phones for their assignment and we all went on with the tour just fine. It was an interesting example of the mindset behind technology in the classroom.

The trip was, by every measure, a fantastic success. We took nearly 160 9th graders to a history museum and did not have a single discipline issue all day long. "Proud" does not really articulate how I feel about my kids after this trip. I hope that this is the first of many class field trips and other smaller field trips that I am able to take with my kiddos in the future. If current success breeds future opportunity, then we took a great first step this week. The next week or two will be the next step in the challenge. Can we keep the excitement from the trip rolling into the classroom? Can we make Flickr something that is collaborative and helps learning? Can we foster curiosity for learning through this particular trip and this particular topic?

A group of students listening to Charlie, one of
our fantastic tour guides at the WWI Museum
We'll see! Check back later for more updates on activities that we tried after the trip!


Love it? Hate it? Leave your thoughts below and let's talk about it!

Get in touch! 

E-mail: alectchambers@gmail.com            Facebook                        Twitter: @chambersalec

Poetry Slam

I gave tests on Friday in both Modern World History and US Government. For Modern World History, a 9th grade class, I gave a 10-question short answer exam which was taken via computer. It was my first attempt at giving a traditional assessment via computer or any other technology - the results are out, but I imagine I'll be building on this again.

For US Government, it was an unfortunate return to the scantron. They are working on a project right now as their form of authentic assessment. They have researched and learned about most every aspect of our legislative branch. Some practices and traditions - gerrymandering district lines, earmarks while the nation is insanely in debt, political favors* - are either too widely accepted as normal or not well-known enough to garner attention from the public, or much of the public has simply become too jaded to care. Either way, we've watched a whole bunch of Public Service Announcements and are in the process of scripting, filming and editing our own. It's been a lot of fun. I'm excited to share the finished product with you in a few weeks.

By the way, in the midst of my paper-grading binge, my wonderful wife and I have also gone on a 'House of Cards' Season 2 binge. It came out Friday, Valentine's day. Like any good husband, I delayed my desire to watch the new season in honor of the holiday and took my wonderful wife out to a fantastic steak dinner on The Plaza.**

**Just kidding. I really do have the best wife ever. We played indoor soccer, ate pizza and watched several episodes of 'House of Cards'. We finished Season 2 on Sunday. Follow @autismteacher13 on twitter. She's an awesome wife with a brand new blog of her own!

For this week, though, I have to grade. A lot. In honor of that grading, a picture to bring you peace and a short poem:
(Authentic assessment exams, of course)

An ode to grading tests...

It is with time and care that I look at thee,
Some with fear, some with glee.
The words are written down and down,
The ridiculous answers make me cry and frown,
The kids in class they play and clown
The grades they do go down and down

The time it takes me to grade at night,
To look, critique, to read and write.
The stacks of tests go high and high,
DOK 4 answers, how they make me fly,
And the kids, the effort, oh they try,
For many, the grades go high so high.

To my wife, I'm sorry that I may hole up,
The tests this week, they filleth my cup.
And so I sit here, page by page,
Some cause me joy, some cause me rage,
Test grading week gives me thoughts so sage,
As I grade these tests, page by page.


Love it? Hate it? Leave your thoughts below and let's talk about it!

Get in touch! 

E-mail: alectchambers@gmail.com            Facebook                        Twitter: @chambersalec

Authentic Assessment

Authentic assessment is a popular term in education. If by the end of this blog, you like what I'm talking about, you will also like project based learning. Check out the video below, which probably simplifies the concept too much but is good nonetheless. I think that it is often misunderstood by those in education based on what I have read online and in my textbooks. There seems to be a belief among some that having students write an essay qualifies as a authentic assessment* because, the thought goes, writing is a skill that most people will need in their future jobs/careers. I agree to an extent. But not entirely. Eduplace.com defines authentic assessment as 'tasks that resemble reading and writing in the real world.' You can read the whole article here

*I'm about 99% sure that I could find many examples similar to what was said by Eduplace.com, but that's not really my point here. I want to spend more time talking about why authentic assessments are great to have in class than I spend proving that some people misunderstand the term. On we go...

Written responses ranging from short answer writing prompts to full essays are an important tool as both formative (ongoing) assessment and summative (end-of-unit) assessment. I assign writing tasks quite often. Probably too often if you ask my students. Every project that I assign has some sort of writing task involved, ranging from a full-on essay to a series of prompts that require shorter written responses. 

The point of this is not to convince you that writing should be removed from your classroom. The point is that I don't think that it automatically qualifies as a 'authentic assessment'. I'm going to eventually come back to the We The People competition that my US Government class competed in a few weeks ago, but let's first get on the same page with what I mean by 'authentic assessment'.

What is a 'authentic assessment'?
As a teacher in general and a social studies teacher specifically, I subscribe to the thought that one of the more important goals of educators is to prepare young adults to be productive and responsible members of society. This thought is far too common to be contributed to a single source, but one I like in particular is a professor of Psychology at North Central College (what a great name for a college, by the way) named Jon Mueller. When comparing authentic assessment with traditional assessment (think of an ACT style multiple choice exam), Mueller says the following*:

In contrast {to traditional assessment}, authentic assessment springs from the following reason and practice:
1. A school's mission is to develop productive citizens
2. To be a productive citizen, an individual must be capable of performing meaningful tasks in the real world.
3. Therefore, schools must help student become proficient at performing the tasks that they will encounter when they graduate.
4. To determine if it is successful, the school must then ask students to perform meaningful tasks that replicate real world challenges to see if students are capable of doing so.

* If you have 10 or 15 minutes, read through his entire article on authentic assessment here. It will be well worth your time!

What can authentic assessment look like in the classroom?
So let's look at this point by point. I completely agree with number one. If you do not, then we fundamentally disagree about the purpose of education in society and the role the teacher should play. I hope you leave a comment because I love to talk about things like this. But we certainly disagree about some basic stuff. I think that number two is where essays creep in to the picture and slowly take over the whole thing like a cancerous growth. The important question is what is meant by a meaningful task. Are we talking about learning how to conduct a job interview? That's meaningful. Are we talking about filling out an inventory report? For many, this will become a central task in their careers. Are we talking about reading at grade level or improving one's reading level by {fill in the blank} points on the SRI scale? How many 'meaningful tasks become irrelevant if the student doesn't read at grade level?

Writing an essay becomes a task that is very easily proven as meaningful, in part because it is really, really meaningful. Again, I use writing a lot in my class and I hope that you do too! I also think that we as teachers need to get more creative with what we think of as meaningful assessments. We The People is a great example. Students have to write and source an essay, but they also had to work as a team to decide who would speak each portion of the essay. More on that later. I want to make my students go way beyond simply researching and writing a paper in their assessments. I talk to my kids a lot about owning what they do because I think that gets at the heart of making anything that we do authentic. How can I ever claim that something is authentic for me or a student if it is just another activity where we all go through the motions. The chart below does a great job of helping visualize the depth of traditional vs. authentic assessments.

One way to look at authentic vs traditional assessment

On to number three, where the important term is 'become proficient', which implies that students do not start the process proficient. I'm going to use my US Government class as an example again. They worked on individual presentations at the start of the year. I gave them very little in the way of guidelines. Their task was to make a presentation using any medium (powerpoint, video, etc...) that explained the purpose of government, which was one of the first topics that we studied in class. The presentations were, to put it kindly, not the best ever. But this was 4 weeks into the school year. I wanted to do two things; one for the kids and one for me. For me, I wanted to see where the kids were with their research and presentation skills. For the kids, I wanted to make it clear that they would need to do more than pass a test each month to succeed in my class. Four months later, both classes together gave 6 high-quality presentations and most did a proficient job of answering questions from judges as part of We The People. One of the classes traveled to Jefferson City, spent three hours on a Sunday night at a hotel practicing, and made me an incredibly proud teacher at the state-level competition. The students are not master presenters, but the growth that occurred over a 4-5 month period is what makes me proud and is how I judge the job that I am doing when I reflect. 

Number four then is where a competition like We The People becomes so important. (You can read my post about the competition here) To compete, the students had to spend time preparing to answer questions from judges when they did not know the questions in advance. They had to try to predict what would be asked and prepare as well as they could. They had to answer some portions of the questions with their personal views, which meant that they had to morph their research into their personal thoughts. For my Modern World History class, I am asking them to prepare presentations on a revolution that spawned from the French Revolution. They will present their information and answer questions from the class at the end of this project, as well as listen to the presentations of other students and provide feedback and discussion. This is a lower-level of thought than what I asked the US Government class to do with We The People, but will be an important step in helping teach students vital presentation and question-answer skills. 

US Government 6th hour class
in Jefferson City, MO
Let me say here that I do not think that an authentic assessment should replace a traditional assessment. I am of the belief that traditional assessments still play a role in the classroom and can be a great tool for the teacher to use. One of my colleagues in the social studies department and I talk a lot about the difference between teaching skills and content. Traditional assessments can do a really good job of assessing content knowledge if the assessment is quality. This colleague and I both believe that the more lasting lessons that we teach are the skills that extend beyond the social studies content. Presentations, answering questions, critiquing and working as a team all are skills that we hope to each in our classrooms. Traditional assessments fall short in assessing these skills. To have a full and complete class, the teacher needs to foster a balance between traditional and authentic assessment. 

It is that traditional assessments are unauthentic. It is simply that they play a single role in the educational process but they do not satisfy the entire spectrum of student needs. Authentic assessments fill in many of the holes in assessments that are left gaping by traditional multiple choice and short answer assessments. Students cannot really own a test. They could own We The People. I told the classes as they were preparing to compete that they were going to get as much out of the experience as they put into it. They could work their butts off and find that they product that they created was above their own expectations. With only a few exceptions, the students bought into this and went deeper into the content precisely because they were focused on mastering the skill. 


Love it? Hate it? Leave your thoughts below and let's talk about it!

Get in touch! 

E-mail: alectchambers@gmail.com            Facebook                        Twitter: @chambersalec

Learning Activity Packets

A quick post this Thursday. It's been a busy couple of snow days at the Chambers house. Teachers don't have a lot of time during business hours to do those random little chores that exist for adults, so days off provide precious time to take care of a lot of small things. On Wednesday night, as Angela and I were wrapping up our day of little chores, I started to fold the laundry. I got sick of jamming t-shirts into a drawer of shirts that I never wear, so I got the whole drawer out to decide what would stay and what would be sent off to Goodwill. Three hours later, we were done going through all of the clothing in our house. Goodwill, gird yourself for the drop off that is coming from the Chambers later today.

Part of my day yesterday was spent preparing the next LAP for my Modern World History class. Right now we are ending the French Revolution unit* by finishing a project where the students have to create a timeline and write a short-ish narrative essay. Next up is the Industrial Revolution and the growth of nationalism. During the Olympics. With field trip to the WWI Museum planned. This is going to be good.

*If the KC Snowpocalypse 2014 will ever end! However, I must point out that a friend of mine on Facebook pointed out that "Snowpocalypse" really isn't fair since we had a really similar storm last year. And the year before. And a worse storm a few years ago. And that awful ice storm back in '01 or '02. Fair enough.

This being my first year teaching social studies*, I was a little apprehensive about building my units before I started teaching the subject. It was difficult to know exactly how I wanted to teach history until I got into teaching history.

*My first three years of teaching were in a science class. This is year four total, but year one in social studies.

I have said to many of my friends and family that, at its essence, teaching is teaching. I do not have much content expertise when it comes to Physical Science, but I do have skills that lend themselves to teaching and learning. Because of those skills, I was able to be a proficient science teacher even though that is outside of my content expertise. So now I teach history and government. This is what I'm really knowledgeable in content-wise. However I still didn't know what strategies would translate from science to history and government. Science is very much a concrete, process-based area of study. History and government are ideas-based areas of study. Is there a process to the study of history? Sure. Are ideas important to science? Of course. But I think that at their core, these two subjects represent different ways of thinking.

One strategy that was suggested by Angela from her high school days was a Learning Activity Packet, called a LAP for short. The idea of the LAP is that you give the student everything at the start of the unit - assignments, unit outlines, study guides, projects, enrichment activities...all of it. The LAPs that I developed in science class last year were based on vocabulary acquisition and reading comprehension. By the time Angela had convinced me to listen to her wisdom* the year was almost done and I only had time to develop one LAP. My professional goal for this year was to be disciplined enough to develop a LAP for each unit of the year for both Modern World History and US Government. So far, I've done that for both of my classes.

*Something I should do much more often.

Here's a dirty little secret about us teachers - we usually do not have every moment of a unit planned out before the unit begins. Many of us have a general outline, but the specific day-to-day activities and lessons may not be ready to go on day one. I don't speak for all teachers here and certainly know a few master teachers at my school and in my PLN for whom this statement does not apply. The first three years of my career, I would often begin a unit unsure of what we would do throughout the unit. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it crashed and burned. I am attracted by the idea of the LAP because it forces me to think through the entirety of the unit before it starts. It's kind of like the unit outline you learned about in your education classes but much more polished.

I build my units around vocabulary acquisition, chapter outline strategies (focused on reading and summarizing...yay common core!) and I've added on a project to each of the units. You can view a .pdf of one of the units we did in Modern World History this year on Muslim Empires here. Going forward, the LAPs are going to be a central strategy in how I teach. I have had several students who have finished a LAP quickly and then asked for some kind of enrichment. That is where class can get really fun. I have one student researching TED talks in and potentially making a TED-ED talk himself sometime this semester. I have several other students who I am trying to get to start a blog because they love to write. Unfortunately, blogs aren't unlocked on our district network yet, but that's hopefully coming soon!


Love it? Hate it? Leave your thoughts below and let's talk about it!

Get in touch! 

E-mail: alectchambers@gmail.com            Facebook                        Twitter: @chambersalec

Coca Cola and my classroom...

Happy snow day to all and to all a good night!

Here in not-so-sunny Kansas City, we are getting ready to experience a few days without much movement. It has been snowing for around 5 hours and is supposed to snow for another 16 hours according to the Weather Channel forecast. My wife and I have walked around the neighborhood to pick up a cup of coffee, buy a new shovel to replace the one that broke yesterday when we were trying to get the ice off the driveway before the snow hit, and shoveled the driveway once over. There's already another inch on the driveway! C'mon snow gods!

What is the best part about this particular snow day, you ask? Getting to watch an unhealthy number of Super Bowl commercials on Youtube, of course! There were several very good commercials, though nothing like "The Force" by Volkswagen commercial from a few years back. Nonetheless, some very good commercials. There was one particular commercial from Coca Cola that has received the national spotlight for both positive and negative reasons. My history class is getting ready to start a unit on nationalism, which is extreme pride for one's own country. We'll be talking about the reaction to this video in the coming weeks. You can watch it below:

First, the not so pretty. The reaction to this video from some was nationalism in its most pure form. #ispeakamerican has become a hashtag that is used by literate people - that's scary. 

To all my friends from other countries, please don't hate me and my country. I understand that is difficult at times...

I know that there are individuals in every country that are bigots. I teach a lot of students who have been victims racism by the age of 15. I tell them over and over that learning about others is what makes history so beautiful! Many of them, scarred by an incident of racism from an other don't believe me. We are all others to someone, somewhere in the world. If everyone treated the other a bit better, we might just live in a better place. So we talk about bigots and bigotry and how to try to either ignore them or defeat the idea when it's encountered. So that random person in America that tweeted above is one thing. But then we have this...

Todd Starnes has a show on a national "news" channel. He has some responsibility here for creating a better world. Go online yourself and search for the commercial and you will find all kinds of vile things all over the internet. There is space for legitimate disagreement and debate over the issues that are at the core of all of this nastiness and I think that it is OK to demand that a national news channel contributor should help push forward that legitimate dialogue rather than feed the masses. 

Lest before we fall into a pit of despair, close the curtains and eat ice cream until Spring, it's important to remember that a great many people in our country and around the world thought that the commercial was brilliant. I personally think that it's a beautiful reflection of the diversity that exists in America. The message that is taken by using the song, "America the Beautiful" is one of peace, acceptance and love. The song begins in English, but moves onto several other languages without ever changing from the familiarity of the melody. We see many different walks of life,  including a woman in a headscarf who is presumably Muslim and two men getting all touchy-feely with each other. I loved it all. In fact, it's not the first Coca Cola commercial that has dipped into the pool of awesomeness. Check this one out from a few years back:

On this particular snow day, I wonder what my role as a teacher is in this debate.* There are three big-picture goals that I have for my students that really don't have much to do with my curriculum. If I am a successful teacher, then I will use my curriculum to help my kids achieve these goals. In 20 years, most of my students will have forgotten the role that the Tennis Court Oath had in pushing the French Revolution forward, but they may just remember these goals and help create a better world to live in.

*If we can still call it a "debate". It feels more like a shouting match at this point. 

Goal 1: Develop intrinsic motivation
This goal is why I love projects and why I want to find more ways to use projects in my class. Tomorrow's post is about a project my kids are doing right now on the French Revolution. Projects give students the freedom to explore a particular aspect of a topic that they find to be interesting or that has gotten under their skin. We studied the writing of Mary Wollstonecraft this unit and talked about how she used mild insult to motivate other women at the time to throw off the traditional role of women in the house and demand more equal rights. Motivation at its very best comes from within. If I can develop that motivation within a student and see that motivation translate outside of my class, then that student has found success.

Goal 2: Develop trust in the belief that if you work hard, good things will happen
This part is vital in motivation theory. This goal is not just about the traditional way that we think about working hard, but also about critically thinking. Students have lightbulb moments at different times in the year and they are sparked by different events. Whatever the spark and whatever the moment, I have to do my best to have developed a class environment where that moment can linger and develop into more lasting motivation. Students have to see that when they actually think - like truly, deeply think - that they will be able to unlock something within themselves that they may not have known existed before. I try to ask deep, probing questions on all of my tests and I sneak them into assignments and short answer prompts often so that whenever a student has their lightbulb moment, they have a venue waiting for them to tell me about it.

Goal 3: Learn to appreciate the other
We all have roots. I love to explore my roots through culture, food, dance, music and many other venues. I love to give students opportunities to explore their own roots as well. Some of the most beautiful conversations that I have occur when a student lingers after the others have left and tells me a story about where they have come from and what they have experienced. As you can imagine, there have been many stories of pain and suffering. Yet there have also been many stories of beauty and love - of a student who is finally starting to find themselves. We adults forget the feelings of middle school and high school. We forget that problems that seem so trivial to us today felt like the sky falling apart above us when we were at that age.

Learning about the other helps develop empathy in our hearts and in our minds. Whatever my experiences, I am reminded nearly every day that they are both unique and universal all at once. At one point in my life, I was embarrassed by the fact that I was a member of a traditional Greek dance troupe. I am now proud to show pictures of myself in my "Greek man-skirt" - it's called a foustanella, by the way! I am saddened by the vile reaction to the Coca Cola commercial while at the same time strengthened by the great things that occur every day at my school between members of different races and ethnicities. The other cultures that I see every day and study in my class show that we are all the same at our deepest roots. I love the moment when I show a mosque or a Muslim person on my board for the first time and hear a comment about "that terrorist" because that comment is where learning about the other begins. It is messy, difficult, frustrating - and the most important lesson I can teach all year long.

We are not born to hate. We learn to hate. But we can learn to love just as we can learn to hate. So here's to love for all, no matter your color, language, sexuality, wealth or any other means by which we are too often separated.


Love it? Hate it? Leave your thoughts below and let's talk about it!

Get in touch! 

E-mail: alectchambers@gmail.com            Facebook                        Twitter: @chambersalec