Building Up to a Finale

Teaching is a challenging business and as we approach the end of the school year, it is an amazing feeling to finally see the finish line in sight. “We’ve made it!” we’ll excitedly tell ourselves and each other. And we’re right. The year has probably been more of an obstacle course + marathon combination than a sprint. We have triumphed. We have perservered. We have overcome. Let’s celebrate!

There is however, an important BUT we must insert here if we’re being diligent: We are close to the end and we will have done all of these things but not until the school year has actually ended!
As we near the end of the 2014–15 school year, we can choose to either count down to the end or build up to a finale. Based on the number of favorites and retweets my message around this has received, it’s clear there are a lot of educators who value the latter option and it is for you that I offer 3 suggestions to help you get there.

1. Consider your legacy

I only have one memory of one of my high school teachers. I don’t recall anything we did or learned in his class. I don’t even remember if I liked the class. The only thing I remember is that he had a calendar on his bulletin board. Inside each box on the calendar, he had written in how many days were left in the year and at the end of each day he would put a big red ‘X’ through that date’s box. This teacher literally counted down to the end of the year. Each day with his students was one of about 180 items in a check list he needed to get through in order to get back to vacation.

My guess is that this teacher knew his content area, was passionate about kids and chose his career because he wanted to make a difference in the world. But with at least one of his students (me), this is not how he was remembered. His legacy is that he was counting down, not building up, and that legacy is a lasting one. When I entered the profession, one of the first goals I set for myself was to never share his fate. I wanted to be remembered for the teaching and learning that I inspired.

There are many factors that go into how and why we remember some things and not others. To this end, not all of your students will remember you and your class. For those who will, how you finish the year might not even be a contributing factor in forming their memories. But you can still take agency in trying. A few ideas:

Seek a way to make the final project a lasting artifact. I still have a story book I made (using Hypercard!) in middle school Spanish class. My Civics teacher had us write a U.S. Senator to advocate on an issue we cared about and somewhere in my parent’s basement is a memory box housing the signed (form) letter I received in response. Buried deep at the end of the Internet is the “About Me” web site I made in my college Computer Science class. These were great legacy assignments!
Ask students to consider how they might use learning from your class next year, in three years, and in ten and thirty years from now. Today, I would struggle to successfully solve a proof for Geometry class (the thought is making fingers shake and my palms sweat!) but the pragmatic thinking and problem solving skills are part of my daily life 20+ years later. That response I received from a U.S. Senator taught me about civic engagement and as a result my elected officials hear from (and sometimes see) me multiple times a year.
Start a conversation between students’ current and future selves. Sixteen years after graduating high school, a letter in familiar handwriting found its way to my current address. After reading the first sentence, I was transported back to my Senior English class and could picture the teacher’s crowded desk, the partitioned walls of the room and my precise seat in a row where I had written that letter. I remembered how rowdy my classmates and I were, how anxious we felt to graduate and get out of there and how dismissive we were of her insistence, “Take this seriously! You’ll be grateful for this letter one day if you are!” She was right and that is her legacy.
2. Be reflective in a meaningful way
Great educators constantly seek to improve. One powerful way to go about it is to ask our students for feedback. Surveys are popular but there are other tools as well. After reading this post — that describes surveys as a “the most dangerous research tool” — I asked around and learned about a different protocol that I have found to be effective and insightful:

Give each student a blank sheet of paper. Post this instruction: “Draw a picture that represents your ideal experience in [this] class.” Give them 3 minutes.
Put students in pairs and have Student A describe their picture to Student B for 90 seconds. Student B is to silently take notes as bullet points. Stress that Student B should not talk; sit and stare when Student A runs out of things to say. She will probably get uncomfortable and fill the silence with more details.
Give Student B one minute to read her bullet points back to Student A. Provide the suggested prompt, “I hear you saying that ____ is important and meaningful to you.” Student A should clarify any misunderstandings.
Have the two students switch roles and repeat the previous two steps.
In their pairs, have students go through the bullet points of what was important and meaningful to them and place a check mark next to those bullets for which their needs were met and stars next to those they needed more of.
Have each pair share a couple of their points with the whole class and collect their sheets and drawings at the end. Pay attention to the check marks so you know where you are doing well and are intentional about continuing those practices next year. Reflect on the stars and use them to make goals for improving in the future.
3. Remember the relationships
If you only build up to one thing for your end of the year finale, make it your relationships with students. Greet students at the door with a smile and handshake before class. Ask how they are doing. Ask about their families and their summer plans and whether they are planning to visit any colleges. Give them your business card and write your email on the board. Let them know that they can always contact you (and that you hope they will!). Encourage them to come back and visit you because you want to know about their futures.

Most importantly, tell students that you care.

How do you plan to *Build Up* to a finale this year? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Student-led Final Review

This post originally appeared on TeachPaperless blog 3 years ago. While some of the tools are now antiquated, I hope the ideas can help educators seeking to add creative, innovation, engagement and meaning to the final review process.

Others on this blog have been writing about student-produced/student-driven final exams. I’d like to add to the conversation the student-produced final review. This is the third semester that I have foregone handing out a big semester review before the final and instead left it up to my students to guide the review and I have not been disappointed. Just as there are a wide range of abilities in my classes, students produce an array of activities that go far beyond what I would have created, especially on the high and low ends of ability/readiness. I would be lying if I claimed that 100% of students subsequently took advantage of class review time to diligently study and prepare for the final exam but the vast majority do and, from my viewpoint, appear much more engaged in the whole process. I think that the student ownership creates buy-in and interest in what we are doing.

Note that while this is for high school Spanish students, most of the tools and resources here can be adapted to meet the needs of other subjects. This year, the most popular and beneficial study guides came in the form of the dice maker,, awards shows and Quizlet. Below is an abbreviated version of how I introduce this to classes (I post it to them on Edmodo — along with the *content* they can expect to see on the final exam — and those who create digital reviews share them with classmates on the group page):

One of the ways that you can demonstrate your own understanding of learning is to be able to show it or teach it to another student. To that end, you will help others study for the final exam (and they will help you) by creating a review activity or game. We will dedicate block day and Friday to preparing for the final exam by using YOUR review activities.

You must be able to explain the game to your peers. If you are unsure about your idea, run it by me before your create it. You may do more than one activity. If you have a bigger project to attempt, I am open to allowing you to work in pairs but clear it with me first. Same goes for any doubts you have…if you have questions, ask!

Some ideas:
1. Write stories that classmates can read. By reading them, they are studying and preparing for the test.

2. Record a listening practice. You can record a reading of one of our stories from class (They will be in your edmodo library) and have questions that classmates answer to demonstrate their listening comprehension.

3. Adjust one of these games to meet your needs:

4. This site is a gold mine of activities you can use: awards certificate maker to do your own awards show for classmates, dice games, board game generator to invent your own board game, crossword puzzles and more. A lot of you used this one last semester:

5. Create a story (usng target vocab!) in the form of a fake Facebook conversation:

6. Here’s another site with great resources, including a Jeopardy game maker:

7. Make your own online review game!

8. Make your own poster series (Hola meme addicts!). This site has some good resources:

9. Create a stack of digital flash cards. There are a ton of resources out there. Here’s one:

10. This is a step up from a dice game: Sentence Generator

This is but a partial list of what resources are out there. What would you add to the list? Have you had success (or struggle) with tasking students to take ownership of their own final review? Let us know how are hacking (or would hack!) the final review process in the comments!

This Post Does NOT Offer 225 Essential Tips For Education Bloggers

Why overwhelming, Spin Magazine-style lists aren’t very helpful.

I see a lot of blog posts for educators that aren’t very helpful to educators. You know the ones: 20 Best Productivity Tools for Teachers and Top 10 Photo Editing Apps for Education and 100 Apps Every Educator Must Know About.

These articles can inspire. They can provide some direction for the tech savvy educator who already knows what she wants. But in general, they lack the depth needed to make a difference because when it comes down to it, photo editing apps are like spouses: most people only need 1 (or 2 or 3…but 10 is excessive for just about everyone in modern society).

Consider how we respond when asked for a restaurant recommendation. (Spoiler: We certainly don’t direct people to a list of 20 Steak Houses in the Metro Area Where You Should Order Fried Chicken.) When we recommend a restaurant, we provide details about the type of food, quality of service, convenience of location, ambiance, cleanliness, pricing and value. Most importantly, we share our personal experiences, suggesting specific menu items and even ideal occasions.

This level of detail is crucial if the goal of recommending edtech tools is to help teachers. I don’t know any teachers who have time to check out a random list of Top 50 Chrome Apps From the First Half of 2015, especially if it is not differentiated by content area or grade level. What teachers DO value and WILL make time for is one really great and practical suggestion that is accompanied by specific ideas and examples from real classrooms. We’re talking about suggesting ideal lessons in which to incorporate the tech tools, offering links to download PDFs of rubrics and embedding videos exemplars of how implementation can look. At the very least, annotating the list with tidbits like: “I can see Middle School Science teachers using this in order to…” can be helpful. (Richard Byrne and Matt Gomez are great models at doing this.)

Connecting the dots for teachers will not hamper their creativity in taking the ideas and reappropriating them to meet the needs of their own students. Teachers are hungry for valuable EdTech resources and will appreciate the time-saving effort and authentic resources that actually help with implementing the right resources in meaningful ways.

Beating Back Boring Biographies

Hack a common assignment to make it more powerful and meaningful for learners.

I doubt that I’m alone in often being frustrated by the differences between my students’ ideas of a biography and my own. It seems that for many of our students, “writing” a biography simply entails searching for the person on wikipedia, highlighting all of the text, copying and pasting it into a document.

The plagiarism is a huge concern here but I’m honestly more bothered by how boring the students’ work turns out to be.

One of the solutions that I came up with is to ditch the biography and instead offer students the ability to be an Investigador Privado (Private Investigator). The role of a P.I. is different than that of a Biographer. For my class, students were tasked with addressing three questions:

  • Who hired you?
  • Why did they hire you?
  • How will you convince them that they got their money’s worth?

An Example

One student decided that she was investigating singer Enrique Iglesias on behalf of a private Catholic school that wanted to vet Enrique to make sure he would be a suitable speaker for their graduation ceremony. She took screen shots of his social media posts, copied song lyrics, provided pictures from tabloids and links to some of his more racy music videos. Ultimately, she suggested to the school that he would not be a wise choice for them.

Like with a traditional, boring biography, most of the content the student supplied was copied from the internet. But the commonality ended there as she then took on the higher level thinking tasks of processing what she had found.

She had to curate her information in a way that would suit her report for her client. She had to analyze and synthesize information. She was forced to engage with the texts and actually think about what it all meant. Despite doing a whole punch of copying and pasting from the internet, did she learn more about Enrique than she would have if she’d done a biography? You bet she did!

Most of all, she had fun. She was engaged. She even put a coffee stain on the manilla folder in which she submitted her report because, in her mind, the private investigator was of the noir variety and would be prone to doing that.

Can you see Investigador Privado being a positive alternative for you and your students? What awesome activities do you have to beat back the boring biographies?