Savvy Strategy: End of Year Student Awards {Generated and Presented by Students}

awardsWhile the Pinterest Princesses are glittering and gluing the final touches on student awards for their little herd, I simply lack the creativity, moreover the desire to spend time in that area.  Not because my crafting skills have remained stagnant since kindergarten, but because quite frankly, the awards mean nothing to our students.  Why not center it on your students?  After all, flipping your class is the must-do of the year.  When I was in college, a guest lecturer presented a workshop centered on connecting with kids.  In it, she focused on her experience with advisories.  Maybe it was just her delivery, she was one of those individuals who carried that, “I may be old, but damn was I good?” respect without coming off as arrogant or self-promoting.  Anyways, she spoke about a very meaningful activity that she conducted year after year.  She had students draw a name out of a hat and create an award for their selected student.  It took me several years to implement this strategy, and after using it several times, I have to say the process is more than worthwhile.

For starters, I modified the activity for slighter older students by asking them to write down the names of 3-5 students they would like to create an award.  Luckily, it has always worked out that every student gets matched using this technique.  Though, you may need to make adjustments based on your class.  Next, I look at the results and sit back and reflect on whether or not my judgments were correct regarding who is most-liked, most-feared, etc. I pair students and remind them to keep their selection a secret.

We spend a day brainstorming potential awards.  “Best shoe collection” does not count.  “Funniest” does not count.  We discuss the qualities that make for a good award.  I ask them to write down a list of things they would want to be recognized for.  This usually generates a deeper list, with recognition lines that stretch beyond, “best belt collection.”  We create a list of criteria for awards and then students get rolling.

Students submit their award writings to me and I revise or approve them.  Next, students begin the creative process of determining the best way to visually represent the award.  I’ve had students create popsicle stick structures, origami animals (to represent a quality in a student), and even dreamcatchers.  Students include the award blurb somewhere on the final product.

During the last week of school, students present the awards to one another.  They leave with a memory of the school year and without a doubt, feel accomplished because they received a nod from their peer.

On a smaller, more manageable scale, I’ve seen wordle used to complete this task (I would challenge students to complete this, rather than the teacher).


Savvy Strategy: Veteran’s Day Resource

Veteran's Day Database

My standard Veteran’s Day lesson consists of setting our own white table.  As we turn the pages of  Margot Theis Raven’s tribute to America’s soldiers, students approach the table and add each symbolic item until we have created our own classroom memorial.  I have supplemented this activity with other mindless activities that are quite frankly dishonorable to the sacrifices our soldiers make.

While these activities sufficed for my beginning years as a teacher, I can’t justify calling myself a teacher when I expose my students to superficial “Veteran’s Day” activities.  On the hunt for meaningful and authentic resources, I came across the Veteran’s HIstory Project courtesy of the Library of Congress.  Here, students can search a vast collection of letters, sound bits, images, and interview transcripts contributed by soldiers, their family members, historians, etc.  Visitors can limit their search by war era and/or military branch.

I plan to incorporate this resource by allowing students to pick a military branch and war era out of a hat.  Students will search five selections and pare down their selection to one resource that they will share via a Stir the Class* model.  Students will gather three quotes or important information to share. They will write them down on a paper.  Next, students will mingle around the class, sharing their selections and recording other students’ responses until they have accumulated 20 ideas.

When my district opted to have students in school on Veteran’s Day, they intended for meaningful lessons to be incorporated into the social studies classroom.  I hope this learning experience will serve as a valuable and honorable tribute for America’s soldiers.

*Stir the class is also a Kagan learning structure executed in small groups as described here.

Savvy Strategy: Who am I? Who are We?

Icebreakers.  Kids hate ’em.  You hate planning and facilitating ’em.  But, you continue to go back to the drawing board every year and pretend to half-smile your way through yet another year of class introductions, builders, and breakers.

I have one fool-proof exercise that seems to be appropriate for the wide spectrum of middle school monkeys of all stages of development and fails to tire itself.  I begin by drawing puzzle pieces onto a piece of posterboard.  I make sure to draw one piece for every student, one “title” piece, and one piece for myself.  I write “back” on the back of every piece so that students have a sense of direction and draw on the correct side.

Instructions are simple.  Decorate your piece with images, words, designs that represent who you are.  Things to consider:  your family, interests, hobbies, friends, strengths, etc.

IMG_20130906_182220_201Next, I have students share with a partner and then introduce to the class (if the number is manageable).  Then, students assemble and glue the pieces to a second piece of poster board.  I hang the puzzles on my wall and have quite a display from prior year’s classes.

Overall, idea achieves the purpose of class introductions without the cheesiness, forced nature that so many introduction activities have a tendency to do.  It also is a nice addition to the classroom on Back to School Night.

Savvy Strategy: Character Tissue Box

Acquiring tissue boxes is just as difficult as avoiding the cold that the tissues will be needed for.  After several years of purchasing boxes and boxes of tissues, I gave in by selecting a project that could be categorized as “arts and crafts”.  After reading a class novel, students were asked to design and create a character (tissue) box.  Here are the directions:

Side 1 – make a character claim: _____________________ [insert name of character] is ___________________ [insert adjective].

Side 2 – provide evidence:  list three quotes from the text that support claim sentence.

Side 2 – symbol:  create or print a symbol representing your character

Side 4 – literary terms:

_________________ [insert name of character] is a protagonist/antagonist because…

_________________ [insert name of character] is a major/minor character because…

_________________ [insert name of character] is a likable/unlikeable character because…

Students should cover, decorate, accentuate their boxes.  Remind students that tissue box should be FULL and the opening should be left uncovered.  I learned this the hard way.  No matter how many times I explain the purpose and draw attention to the need for tissues, I still find myself +2 boxes filled with air.

Savvy Strategy: Class Smoothies

Classroom Smoothies

Walk into an urban school…you’ll find Dunkin’ Donuts. Walk into a yuppie school….you’ll find Dunkin’ Donuts. In fact, I feel like I’m in a ball pen full of munchkins every other Friday. Sometimes, I cave and play along…carrying boxes of donuts into my homeroom just so I can compete with the soldiers in my hall. Struggling for a new idea, I thought about smoothies. Fun? Check. Easy? Check. Different? Check. Healthy? CHECK! CHECK! Here’s how it worked. Everyone contributed one ingredient, we set up our very own smoothie bar, and turned up the blender. Luau decor and Hawaiian music are a plus.

Savvy Strategy: Create a Museum Exhibit PROPOSAL

Please note:  capitalized PROPOSAL.  In a recent unit, my colleagues and I debated the pros and cons of a summative assessment based on the creation of a museum exhibit.  I challenged the idea because of the authenticity.  If someone creates a museum exhibit, certainly, the materials list extends beyond a trifold board.  After several nights of, what I call, “T-search” (t-(eacher re)search) [definition:  scouring every teacher website and resource link for anything resembling what I’m trying to create], I came to the realization that a proposal is a bit more authentic, manageable, and valuable.


Authenticity:  As I mentioned, limiting a museum exhibit to a trifold board, is a boxed up project that emphasizes the display, rather than the content.  A proposal is true to the professional field, leaving the creativity factor open-ended.

Manageable:  A proposal gave us greater leeway with completing the project in the confines of the computer lab, classroom, library, etc.  Students did not cart around their materials.  Students focused on the written paper.

Valuable:  I took this opportunity to emphasize the importance of presentation skills and making a pitch.  As a teacher, I don’t prepare proposals on a daily basis, but over half of my friends hone this skill in their marketing, consulting, or public relations field.  I want students to have this experience, because it focuses their presentation and provides them with an opportunity to hone their PITCH skills.

Students selected their topic; based on readiness, students researched their topics with varied amounts of scaffolding and support; students compiled seven sources they would include in their proposed museum exhibit; students wrote a paper explaining the background information, purpose for exhibit, explanation of each source, and finally, a description of the visitor experience at the exhibit; students created a simple PowerPoint featuring the sources; students presented their proposal to the “museum board”.

I would HANDS DOWN repeat this project and recommend it for any teacher {science, language arts, history, foreign language}.  Students amped up their Google Apps skills, expanded their knowledge on self-selected topics, and improved their presentation skills.  I will end with my favorite student quote…pulled from a student email the night before the assignment was due:

I’m so excited to present tomorrow…I wish I was actually proposing my exhibit to a real museum; I want to create this exhibit!

Savvy Strategy: DBQ Project

Why teach Document Based Questions?

I have had the privilege of attending some fantastic professional development sessions.  The DBQ project was by far the most relevant, practical, and advantageous series I have attended in seven years.  Relevant?  The topics are 100% aligned with my curriculum.   Practical?  The creators are teachers; they get it and have created templates that are teacher and user friendly and ready for implementation with zero turnaround time.  Advantageous?  My students are prepared to take on DBQs at the AP level when they reach high school, my credibility has increased when I share the series with colleagues, and administration/supervisors are pleased with the skill, rigor, and content alignment.

How they work:  Students are introduced to the topic through a “hook activity” which is a quick and effective.  Next, students read a background essay and answer questions that guarantee every student understands what the question is asking, and, shocker, build background knowledge.  Students then dissect the question and identify the key ideas.  Next, students take two paths.  Path 1:  analyze documents without prompting, or Path 2:  analyze documents with set questions.  I begin the year with the enhanced version, meaning students move through a series of questions to analyze each document.  Next, students “bucket” or organize their ideas to structure their essay.  This is when students take evidence from each document and sort them into categories or “paragraphs” to structure their essay.  We even go so far as writing the ideas on sticky notes or index cards and sticking the notes onto pictures of buckets on the whiteboard or placing the cards in an actual bucket.  Each DBQ comes with an essay skeleton.  I use various scaffolding depending on the class and students to reach the point where every student, then constructs an essay responding to the question.

Why they work:  The directions are clear for both the teacher and the student.  They are user-friendly.  This is the only curriculum I implement as is, no changes necessary.

When to use them:  I begin with a class example, modeling along the way.  As the year progresses, I use them as in class essays (which the students prepare for as a class, in pairs, or independently – depends on their readiness), as summative assessments for units  in which the students have a week to complete them.  The modeling varies based on the topic and use.  I am up to five per year (one in the beginning of the year as a model, and one per quarter).

How students respond:  This is by far one of the most effective and valuable experiences for my students.  The topics are challenging, yet accessible; engaging, yet content and skill-driven.  What more can you ask for?

mini-qbinderHow they are packaged:  The DBQ project consists of Mini DBQ binders (appropriate for middle school) and the DBQ binders (appropriate for high school).  The topics range from civics to US history to world history.   They are between $225-325 for a teacher resource kit.  Any department chair, supervisor, or administrator would be sold if you show them the video and the sample materials.