#IMMOOC Week Two: Taking Risks

George Couros identified 8 characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset.  While I do embody each of these characteristics at different times, I believe that I am a Risk Taker.  I have often taken risks in my classroom, and I believe that many of these risks have paid off. Others may have not worked out, but hey! that’s part of the process, too.  One just needs to be resilient!  “Risk is necessary to ensure that we are meeting the needs of each unique student” (Couros 51).  Without risk, many new and innovative ideas would have never and will never come to fruition.  I tend to take risks and try new things without asking for permission; I can always ask for forgiveness later.

I would like to share two big risks that I have taken that I believe have been successful.  The first one is the course that I teach, Systems of Analysis.  About two and a half years ago, my principal approached me with an idea.  He asked me if I would be interested in moving from 9th grade to 11th grade and teaching a new course that would integrate Civics and Economics with English III and English IV.  Not only was I interested, I was excited!  I didn’t know anyone else who taught a course that integrated these two subjects, so I started from nothing and built a brand new course.  And, I think that it has been a huge success.  Integrating the two subjects together has greatly enhanced both subjects for myself and, more importantly, for my students.  I love the challenge of figuring out the best way to combine elements of English with the concepts in Civics.  And I think that the experience is much better for my students because they are able to see how these subjects relate to one another.  This risk has been well worth all of the rewards!

Additionally, I didn’t want to approach teaching this course in the “normal” way.  I had been doing a lot of research on gamification, and I decided that I wanted to gamify this new course.  I have been using 3DGameLab as my learning management system, and it has been a success!  The students understand the idea of earning XP (experience points) instead of grades.  (Granted, I do have to convert the XP to grades for their report cards.)  Instead of starting the quarter with a 100% and watching that grade rollercoaster up and down throughout the quarter, they benefit from starting at a 0% and working to earn the grade they want.  I have seen motivation and engagement increase because the students know exactly what they need to do in my classroom.  They benefit from feedback about their work and the chance to master concepts and redo assignments without penalty of losing points.  They get to spend more time engaged with the content instead of stressing out about how to bring their grade up.  They earn extra lives throughout the year, and these can be used to turn in work without penalty, which also reduces stress.  This is the type of atmosphere I set out to create.

Creating this new course and gamifying it has not been smooth sailing.  I definitely battled some waves (and maybe a hurricane) to get the course to where it is now.  This current quarter I tried a few new strategies in how I flip my classroom and in how the students interact with the content.  These new ideas did not work out so well.  To be honest, I was in a rut and feeling uninspired before I tried them, and I feel like I forced some new ideas without really thinking them through.  But, I have reflected on what has not gone well, and I have made some changes to help the students finish the school year on a positive note.  Thanks to a friendly pirate and an innovate mindset, I am feeling rejuvenated and ready to find the teacher I was when I took these risks in the first place!  “Innovation starts not by providing answers but by asking questions” (Couros 38).  Now that I have been asking questions about my course and my lessons, I am able to see things differently.  I am inspired!


Couros, George. The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity. Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc., 2015.

#IMMOOC Week 1: Creating My Own School

#IMMOOC Week 1 Prompt: If you started a school from scratch, what would you see as necessary, and what would you take out from what we currently do?

When I read this prompt, I immediately thought that I would take out standardized testing.  Instead, I would add more 1:1 meetings with students to provide them with feedback on their progress.  And I would have the students reflect on their own growth.

In a Spring 2013 report from Columbia University, 7 Pros and 9 Cons of standardized testing were identified.  Among the cons was, “Standardized testing evaluates a student’s performance on one particular day and does not take into account external factors. There are many people who simply do not perform well on tests. Many of these students are smart and understand the content, but it doesn’t show on the test. Many students also develop test anxiety which hinders performance. Finally, there are so many external factors that play into test performance. If a student has an argument with their parents the morning of the test, chances are their focus isn’t going to be where it should be” (1).  To me, this best sums up one of the main reasons why I would remove standardized testing from schools.  I like to think that I am an intelligent person.  I have always worked hard in school, and I have always maintained good grades.  I have 4 degrees, 2 of them at the Masters level, and I am certified to teach in six different areas.  Yet, I fail, I mean I completely bombed, standardized tests.  When I first took the PRAXIS to certify in English, I failed.  I majored in English in undergraduate school and was completing my Masters in secondary education, and I failed the PRAXIS exam.  Why?  Well, one reason was because I was nervous.  Another reason was because it was timed, which made me more nervous.  I got my facts mixed up, couldn’t remember my left from my right, and rushed through the test.  Later, I realized that I wrote the ending to the movie The Lord of Flies instead of the novel!  Needless to say, I had to take the test again.  Thankfully, I passed the second time!  But, was that test an accurate representation of my knowledge and my ability to teach?  Absolutely not!

I know I am not alone.  I have had to watch too many students tear up and cry because they got a low score on an end-of-grade or end-of-course test.  I sat in the hallway with one sweet, smart, shy 7th grader while she cried her eyes out because she didn’t get a perfect “4” on her EOG in reading.  I have watched high school students get upset because their final exam score bumped the A they worked so hard for down to a B.  Were these scores accurate representations of their knowledge and abilities?  Absolutely not!  As their teacher, I know that my students have learned and grown throughout the school year.  I know that they can think critically and hold in-depth conversations about the topics we have covered.  I have listened to them engage in discussions on various readings, and I have read their writing and reflections.  Yet, the multiple-choice test at the end of the year doesn’t reflect that.

Additionally, too many teachers fall into the trap of teaching to the test.  We get so wrapped up in scores and data that we forget that we are teaching human beings and not robots.  We feel pressured to “perform” and reach certain goals that we did not set, and we forget about all of the amazing things that our students can do and want to do.  And, to the question writers, I ask one thing: Who gets to decide that the theme of love is the best answer?

Engaging Readers with Trends, Part I

Goal: Engage readers in novels.

Strategy: Use current trends that students are into.

I was having a conversation with a colleague today, and we were discussing ways that we plan to engage readers.  Planning is the key to a great, engaging lesson!  One of the things I love most about teaching is planning new ways to engage my students.  I have realized that one of the best ways to engage my students is to keep up with current trends.  What are students interested in?  The best way to answer that question is to follow pop culture trends and popular television shows and movies.  Ask your students what their favorite television shows and movies are and then watch them (if you don’t already).  Ask them what books or comics they are reading and read them.  Ask them what video games they are playing and play them.

I was having a conversation with a colleague today, and we were discussing ways that we plan to engage readers.  Planning is the key to a great, engaging lesson!  One of the things I love most about teaching is planning new ways to engage my students.  I have realized that one of the best ways to engage my students is to keep up with current trends.  What are students interested in?  The best way to answer that question is to follow pop culture trends and popular television shows and movies.  Ask your students what their favorite television shows and movies are and then watch them (if you don’t already).  Ask them what books or comics they are reading and read them.  Ask them what video games they are playing and play them.

I remember when Harry Potter was a huge hit; it seemed like everyone was reading the books and watching the movies.  Magic became a huge trend!  I remember seeing children with magical wands and Quidditch outfits.  There were even apps created that allowed you to use a magical wand.  The Twilight Saga was a huge hit; my female (and even many male students) were reading it so much that I couldn’t keep the books on my classroom library shelves!  Team Edward and Team Jacob debates were common in the hallways, and in the classroom!  The Walking Dead promoted zombies and apocalypses; this television show is still popular among my students who binge-watch to catch up.  Fear the Walking Dead is a spin-off series that was created because this series is so popular.  The Hunger Games and Divergent reflected the dystopian trend.  The Handmaid’s Tale is a Hulu Original Series based on the Margaret Atwood novel; this series is set to air in April 2017, and I cannot wait!  Not only do I love these trends myself, I have taken full advantage of these trends in my classroom!

Systems of Analysis is a course that I created as a way to integrate Civics and Economics with English.  I wanted the integration to be seamless, so I was on the hunt for good novels that bridged the two subjects.  I realized that dystopian novels work perfectly with the founding of the American government.  After all, the colonists were tired of being ruled over by tyrannical King George, just as the citizens in many of the poorer districts, like District 12, of Panem were tired of being of kept down by President Snow and the greed of the citizens in the Capitol.  However, I didn’t want to choose a book that I knew most of my students had already seen the movie of, so I sought out a way to integrate less known dystopias into my curriculum.  First, I provided the students with a list of dystopian novels for summer reading.  I picked mostly young adult novels, as I knew these would appeal most to the students.  Then, I decided to pick a dystopian novel for us to read as a class.  The search was on!

My list of summer reading novels has changed over the last three years, but here is the current list of novels I have for summer reading choices:

Novels 1-9 are all young adult novels.  Technically, Red Rising is no a young adult novel, and some of my students don’t read young adult novels, so this book provided a choice for them as well.  Another trick I use for engaging readers is that I choose novels that are the first in a series.  Nine of these novels are the first of a trilogy or series.  If students want to know what happens next, they are likely to seek out the other novels in the series.  I have found that this happens often!  It is common for a student to come into my classroom on the first day of the school year and proudly announce that they have read the entire series because they liked the first book so much.

Once I had my summer reading novels selected, I searched for a dystopian novel that we could read as a class.  For the past three years, we have read 1984 by George Orwell.  Although I think this is a great literary classic, I am currently on the hunt for a new dystopian novel to read as a class.  I feel like the relevance of this book is outdated.  (If you know a great dystopian novel, please add suggestions!  I would love to have more books to choose from!)

Once I had my dystopian novels selected and connected to the founding of the American government, I started thinking about how I could fit the zombie apocalypse into my classroom.  World War Z was a huge hit in theaters, and there were more zombie movies and television shows than I could keep up with.  But, how to connect this to Civics?  This got me to thinking, well, apocalypses end government as we know it.  People are forced to create new government systems, formal and informal.  Didn’t Rick become the leader of his group of survivors?  Haven’t we seen other pockets of survivors that have created systems of government, both good and bad?  Well, what if my students had to create a government from the ashes of an apocalyptic event?  Perfect!  So, I was on the hunt for novels again!

At Craven Early College, where I teach, we have a week off in October.  I take full advantage of this week and have the students select a fall reading novel.  Here is my most current list:

Again, most of these novels are the first of a series. Earth Abides and Wool are not young adult novels, and Earth Abides is a great choice for students who prefer old-fashioned novels. Rot and Ruin is my favorite zombie series of all time; Jonathan Mayberry is fantastic! And, I think it’s important to note that not all of these novels are zombie apocalypses, so I hit on the interests of many students by providing a variety of apocalyptic events, from weather to weapons to technology to diseases to zombies.

In my search for an apocalyptic novel to read as a class, I came across Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank and loved it!  Even though the novel was written during the Cold War, many of the themes and events are still relevant today.  My students really connect to the characters and events in the novel, as the novel touches on racism, family, war, love, and fear.  We connect the fears that people felt during the Cold War to current fears that people have because of 9/11 and the War on Terror.

I can’t wait to discover novels that parallel the next big trends!  What will they be?

Engaging Readers by Creating Authors

Goal: Engage students as readers.

Strategy: Engage students as readers by having each student become an author.

This week, my Systems of Analysis students have been working on comics and cartoon animations that describe Landmark Cases from the Supreme Court.  Each student, or pair of students, chose a landmark case on which to focus.  These cases include Brown v Board of Education, Miranda v Arizona, and Korematsu v United States, among others.  Students were asked to focus on the background of the case, the Constitutional aspect of the case, the decision of the Justices, and how this case is important today.

1st period students working on their cartoons and comics

Today (Thursday), the students met with me to review their comics and cartoons in preparation for sharing them with their peers on Monday.  Meeting with students and providing feedback is a great way to engage students.  In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink discusses the benefits of feedback.  “If you don’t know how you’re doing, you won’t know what to improve” (158).  When students know how they are doing, they are able to improve in both performance and confident.  Students who are more confident are more likely to be engaged in their work.  Pink also states, “Parents and teachers should give kids useful information about their performance.  Instead of bathing them in generalities, tell them specifically what they’ve done that’s noteworthy” (190).  Additionally, he states that feedback should be private.  “Praise is feedback – not an award ceremony.  That’s why it’s often best to offer it one-on-one, in private” (190).  Before the students entered the classroom, I had chairs pulled up to my table, which helped the students feel important and invited to meeting with me.  As I reviewed each comment, I had specific criteria that I was looking for; these criteria was communicated to the students prior to meeting with me.  By having the information pulled up on my computer, I was able to focus the feedback and ensure that it was specific.  After meeting with me, students were given time to make any necessary changes in preparation for Monday.

3rd period working on their cartoons and comics

Because the students are given feedback and able to improve upon their work, they are more confident about sharing their work with their peers.  This helps to engage their inner reader because they are reading something fun (a comic or animated cartoon) that was created by their peers.  They are able to enjoy and engage in the task, which awakens the reader inside of them.  The more that students have the opportunity to enjoy reading, the more they will grow as readers!

5th period working on their cartoons and comics

On Monday, students will share their comics and cartoons with their peers during a gallery walk.  As they move from case to case, students will focus on the essential question, “How have Supreme Court decisions helped and/or continue to help shape the nation, as well as decisions dealing with current issues in American society?”  Through the gallery walk, students are able to get up and move around.  This turns the static activity of reading into a mobile activity.  Not only does the movement help engage students as readers, so does the fun of reading what their peers have written.  What could be more fun than reading the work of someone with whom you interact daily?!  Finally, the discussion that follows the gallery walk creates a social opportunity for the students, which further engages students as readers!

Hibernator's Library

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