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Inspiring Back-to-School Lesson Idea

Yesterday was the first day of school in our district, and I wanted to share a lesson I debuted that exceeded all expectations!  In fact, I’ve never been so excited or felt so connected to students AFTER JUST ONE DAY as I do right now.  That’s why I dropped everything to share it with you.

Our middle school asks teachers to develop social contracts with students.  If you aren’t familiar with the term, it’s basically a signed document listing the expectations that students and their teacher agree to have for one another.  The idea is that everyone takes time to consider the classroom environment they’d like to have and acknowledge their role in creating it.  There’s a standard list of questions (What would you like our class to look like?  What do you expect from the teacher?).  Generally, a student records responses for the class to discuss and eventually agree to endorse.

It’s a solid concept that does start the year off on the right path.  However, in a middle-school setting where students and teachers have 7 to 8 different classes, you can imagine how repetitive the process gets to be.  So, this year, we were given license to adapt the process to suit our individual classroom content and style.  And that’s what led me to try something new.  Here’s what we did.

Before students arrived, I arranged the desks into groups of four.  I greeted them at the door as they came in, introduced myself and invited them to sit in the group of their choice.  (If you have a student survey, collect student data on index cards—or any simple task that requires no more than a few lines of directions written on the board—this is an excellent way to keep everyone engaged while you greet those still arriving.)  Once the bell rang, I took care of the usual housekeeping items: personal introduction, attendance, name pronunciation, and need-to-know basics for entering or leaving the room… you know, the standard stuff. 

Next, I introduced the day’s activity with this presentation. (Just in case your perfectionism is as bad as mine, here’s a copy of the speaker’s notes I mapped out.  I updated them to reflect improvements made after delivering the lesson five times.)  After identifying the standard and Marzano-scale associated with it (yes, we do these for EVERY lesson, even on Day 1), I asked if anyone was familiar with TED Talks.  In most cases, I had to explain that TED Talks were speeches given by someone who was an expert on the topic, a speech that was filmed and loaded to the Internet so anyone could share the expert’s information.  I noted that we were going to watch a TED Talk called Everyday Leadership.  Next, I show the video (just 6-minutes) without interruption.

In the video Drew Dudley tells the story of a girl he met during her first day of college.  Unbeknownst to him, she was so full of fear and self-doubt that she’d made the decision to quit school, but through one humorous interaction between strangers, he put her at ease and in the process changed her life.  She didn’t tell him until four years later, and in revealing how his small act of kindness made him an important person in her life, she in turn helped him realize his own value in the world.

After we watched the video, I presented students with questions to discuss with their group and briefly reminded them of the collaborative discussion traits outlined in the lesson scale we went over (listening while others talk, adding comments and asking on-topic questions).  Then, I circulated as groups talked, prompting as needed.  I expected to do more redirection of off-topic conversations, but the subject and story-telling in this video was so engaging students stayed focused almost without exception.  After a few minutes of discussion, I asked each group to choose a spokesperson to share their answer with the class.  I let them know the role of spokesperson would be shared, so a different person would be speaking for the group on each question.  Incidentally, watching how each group selected their speaker–not to mention circulating during the discussion–helped me spot the natural leaders, the quiet-but-thoughtful ones, and those who struggle with comprehension or focus.

If your schools allows treats, while students discuss the second question you can pass out lollipops to everyone.  It breaks the ice, puts everyone in a positive frame of mind, and it’s a rare opportunity where enjoying sweets IS reinforcing the point of the lesson.

As students shared their thoughts, we learned a lot about one another’s values, experiences, and communication style and ability.  The greatest insights were revealed when students shared their “lollipop moments.”  Before asking them to discuss this, I acknowledged that this particular question required them to be brave.  Sharing an important moment in your life, especially in a group of people you don’t know well, means risking vulnerability.  At this point, we’d already seen the video and discussed how the girl felt scared and alone until Drew’s actions showed her the people around her were nervous too.  I shared my own “lollipop moment” to spark the conversation, and then I circulated, listening thoughtfully as students candidly shared moments where they’d been either the recipient or giver of a small act of kindness that had a big impact.

While I can’t reveal specific confidences, I can tell you that the real-life stories my students shared of poverty, fear, generosity, and hope reminded me of my own potential to impact these children and make a difference in our world.  Don’t you just love it when a lesson you design to inspire others, fuels your own passion in turn?  I can say with some degree of certainty that my students felt the same.  As they worked on the culminating activity – identifying one word that summed up the actions of either Drew or the girl (kindness, generosity, appreciation) and brainstorming other acts that demonstrate that trait—they were already modeling helpfulness and respect toward one another.  I could see that those values, and the idea that our classroom was a safe place in which we could trust one another, were already taking root.

Over the next few days we’ll formalize our social contract, spelling out these values that we now embrace.  More than ever before, though, this contract has spilled over the edges of the page and the ideals it represents are already embedded in our class culture.  Thanks, Drew!

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Cap Off the Year with Common Craft Video Project

Slide2No doubt you’ve seen a common craft style video—a one-take “How To” production that uses 2-D illustrations and hand gestures to explain a process. Here’s an example of a common craft video that explains how to create a common craft video. Incidentally, I use this very example to introduce the project to students. While Mr. Fogle states in the video that it takes about 15 minutes to complete the project, my classes work on it for two weeks. Equipment needs are minimal: a video camera (iPhone or iPad apps are ideal), a desktop or space on the floor as your “stage,” and a light source (I use a clip-on work light  purchased for less than $10).

The project basically entails six steps: 1) Form groups, 2) Choose a topic, 3) Write the script, 4) Design the props, 5) Rehearse the video, and 6) Record the video. I perform a seventh step, editing, which takes me about an hour using a video editing app on the iPhone we use to record student videos. A fun “premiere day” serves as the culminating activity – usually the last day of school – where we all eat popcorn and watch everyone’s finished projects.

Slide1Step 1: Form Groups
Students work in groups of four, and again, I like to let students choose their own groups. Before they do, though, I tell them what skills need to be represented in each group. First, they need a writer to write or type out the script. Next, they need an artist to design the props. Third, they need a fluent reader to narrate the video. Finally, they need a camera operator who will also direct the video. You can combine the roles in a pinch, but you will need at least three students per group to manage moving the props on and off camera.

Step 2: Choose a Topic
I challenge students to think back on the things they found intimidating about starting middle school: opening a locker, changing classes, reading class schedules, rewards system, and so on. I let them pick their topic, so I get instant buy-in. At the same time, I caution them that only the best video for each topic will be shown at next year’s 6th grade camp (a two-day orientation for incoming students), so they have an incentive to branch out and be creative when choosing topics. This has resulted in some very creative ideas over the years, including “How to Make Friends” and “How to Get on Your Teacher’s Good Side.”

sCRIPT Step 3: Write the Script
The script includes BOTH the narrator’s lines and a description of the props and hand gestures that will be used to illustrate each scene of the video. Script-writing requires them to break down their topic into management steps or components, and to come up with a way to depict each one. I give students this script template to guide them through the creative process. Once the script is written, they also have to time each scene to be sure they have content to fill at least two, but no more than three minutes of video.

ApropsStep 4: Design the Props
In most cases, props consist of simple line drawings, though a smattering of small objects (pencil, combination lock, etc.) can be used to add visual interest. Caution students against using more than two actual objects as it creates visual clutter. Illustrations MUST be 5”-7” tall and should include bold outlines (refer to Mr. Fogle’s How-To video). Black and white drawings work just fine, but most of my groups like to spend time coloring their artist’s creations—and I usually let them linger over this relaxing activity since this time of year they are often testing in at least one or two classes every day. Remind students to make a “Good” and “Bad” card prop to hold up at the end of the video to mark whether or not it is their final take.

AstageStep 5: Rehearse the Video
Show students how to use a desktop as a “stage.” Alternatively, you can use a piece of poster board or a length of bulletin board paper on a desk or on the floor. Use painters tape or draw lines (I sometimes draw lines on the desktop with marker–it scrubs off with a magic eraser) marking which areas will appear onscreen and which will not be seen in the video. One student (on the left) will push props onscreen at the appointed time, while another student (on the right) will pull props offscreen at the end of the scene. Have them practice this process while the narrator reads the script aloud. The director should time them and provide feedback about the speed of the narration and movements. I tell students that when they are happy with their performance, and have done it at least twice without error, they are ready to record.


Step 6: Record the Video
If you have a quiet place, like a small office or walk-in supply room, it’s best to use this as your “recording studio.” That way, other students can practice quietly in your classroom while each group is recording their video.  I use an old iPhone as a camera (shown above), but any digital video recording device works.  The camera should be positioned a few feet above the surface where the props will be displayed. If you have a tri-pod, that’s great. For years, though, I used a cardboard box with a small hole cut in the bottom for the camera lens to peek through. I positioned it above a sheet of black poster board lying on the floor.  This year I upgraded my equipment, using a tripod with an iPhone mount that came with a handy remote “record” button.

Set  up the camera first, then use painters tape (placed just offscreen) to mark the edges of the visible portion of the poster board. As each student group is ready to record, I show them how to operate the camera, turn on the shop light (bounce it off a wall or sheet of paper rather than aiming it directly at the props to avoid washout), and remind them to count silently to three at the end of their final take before displaying the “Good” card onscreen. Honestly, even though they’ve practiced, they usually get overly excited and flub their first or even second take… so plan on allowing about 6 or 7 minutes for each group to record their final video.

video appStep 7: Editing
If your students are tech savvy, you could have them complete this step. However, I generally handle editing myself simply for the sake of convenience.  Since these are one-take videos, I edit them right on the iPhone using the iPhone app.  (If you’re using a digital camera or laptop to record them, this software suite is a very user-friendly option, that lets you add titles, special effects, and more.)  Editing is where the “GOOD” and “BAD” cards are so important. (Thank you again, Mr. Fogle, for this brilliant idea.) All told, I’ll have roughly 100 video clips to review (2-3 per group X 36 groups). Anything less than 45 seconds long can be deleted without viewing since it’s obviously an aborted attempt. You don’t have to watch each video, just skip to the end and look for the good or bad card, and delete those ending with the bad. Once you’ve culled out the bad videos, trim the end to eliminate the frames displaying the good card. If you’re a perfectionist (and let’s face it, it’s a cross many teachers must bear), you can use the cropping tool to make sure the props are centered, and no edges show onscreen.

popcorn1As I mentioned early, I usually have a video premiere day the last day of school where students get to watch everyone’s videos. It’s a lot of fun, especially if your school will let you serve popcorn, and the kids enjoy their moment in the spotlight when they get to share their group’s creation with peers. I’m fortunate to work at a school that encourages the sharing of student-created resources as well. So, in addition to sharing their videos with my other classes, selected student-videos are also shown to next year’s incoming 6th graders during a summer camp orientation program, and teachers show them during the first weeks of school to introduce school procedures and culture. I’ve even been permitted to upload them onto a YouTube channel to facilitate distribution and sharing (which adds a whole new level of cachet and incentive to create the best of its kind each year).

This brings up an important point about privacy and security. One of the advantages to using a common craft style video is that it does not show any student’s face or features (a big no, no in our district). I also caution students NOT to include their names in either their video title or credits – for privacy reasons.

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All-Star ELA

Most teachers KNOW exactly what their kids need to reach the next level, which is why it is so frustrating when you don’t have the time needed to develop the lessons and materials you envision. Collaboration is the key; it just needs to take place on a larger scale than a single school community to be truly effective.

Here, I share ideas and resources I’ve tested in my own classroom. Every week, I’ll add something new — with lots of freebies and monthly giveaways.