What next? My feedback journey

When I get overwhelmed I stop and ask myself, “What’s the next right thing?” I don’t make a gigantic to-do list, which has a tendency to make me either shut down completely or flit from item to item unable to settle and focus on any one task. When I just think about what I need to do next, I make slow but steady progress and then at some point I can think about the to-do list, which has gone from massive to manageable.

I am reading Visible Learning: Feedback by John Hattie and Shirley Clarke because I know how important effective feedback is for learning, and I know that I can do it better. While the book illustrates many research informed principles, there is one that keeps rattling around my brain. Feedback is meant to close the gap between where a student is and where a student needs to be. The best feedback tells a student where to go next to close that gap. I have often thought it was my duty to provide as much information as possible to the student so that they would know what they had to do. What I really should be telling each student is what to do next.

I have individual feedback sessions scheduled with my juniors once a cycle. I used to have a written assignment due at that appointment, which I would grade with the student there, providing comments for how they could revise for a higher grade. Not that many students took me up on it. In fact, the ones who did were the ones who needed the least help. I was helping some students, but mainly the ones who only needed to tweak a few things. This year, I have taken the approach of having a draft due at these meetings where I provide feedback but no grade. The students are then supposed to revise the work and submit it for a grade. I think this is a step in the right direction.

I have been trying to remind myself not to overwhelm, but instead to tell students what to do next. I want everyone to take steps to close their gap, not just those who are almost there anyway. I think I need to develop the concept of the feedback session further to make it more of a two way street where students can provide me with feedback on their learning in those meetings, too. For the next cycle, I am inviting students to use the time in any of a few different ways, depending on where they are on their journey. They can ask questions, discuss an article, or show me an outline or a draft of a summary.

A student with many revisions to make is likely overwhelmed. I should help that student by sharing with them the voice that visits me when I am drowning . “What’s the next right thing?”


Revolutions Personalized

This year, being my second running a PBL/Inquiry version of our Modern World History class, I am hoping to do more to leverage the freedom the course gives me to help students tailor the work to their own needs. I gave plenty of choice last year in terms of content, but I was not doing as much to help students personalize the work in terms of skills. This year, I am not only asking students to reflect on how they are doing in terms of skills such as analysis, research, etc. but I am also asking students to choose skills they want to target for improvement.

At the end of the third project, I asked students to do a self-evaluation, really more of a check-in, on the skills being developed in the course. Each student made a copy of this Individual Learning document and answered the prompts. Over Winter Break, I looked through them as I contemplated the next unit, Atlantic Revolutions.

I decided that students would do individual projects that would be designed to work on the skills they identified for improvement. I gave them a document that contained several essential questions. They need to select a Revolution to begin with, an essential question to address, and a skill to target. In my planning, I sought out help from experts in the building to serve as consultants/mentors/guides. I brought in the learning specialist to work with students on time management. Our librarian held a workshop on research. I asked each student to attend one of the two workshops, whatever their chosen skill to target. I want each student to have the experience of hearing an expert voice and realizing that many people have much to teach them. Research and time management are critical initial aspects of any history project.

Now we are at the point where students are getting down to work. I am going to create a tailored rubric for each student depending on their individual focus, although there are some elements that all students will need to fulfill, such as providing evidence that answers the essential question. We are in the early stages but students are talking about a variety of products, from journals, to presentations, infographs, and essays. One student is interested in creating a board game.

My challenge is working productively with each student to further their learning in ways they have targeted, while allowing them to find their path without me prescribing it too much. Come to think of it, that’s always the challenge.

Murder Mystery Exam

Last year I piloted an “escape room’ type exam with my PBL/Inquiry based Modern World History class. This year, I have two sections. One wanted an escape room, so I recreated that experience with pretty much the same format I used last year and blogged about before. The other section suggested a murder mystery. Because I am always up for a challenge, and think anything is possible if it’s far enough away, I said yes.

Then, I had to figure out how to create it so that the class could solve the mystery in the two hour exam slot. First decision – the content. I like to use experience based exams to move forward with content, rather than review what we have done. With the next unit being Atlantic Revolutions, I decided to set the murder mystery in colonial/revolutionary America. I knew that I needed something to work from, so I looked through my resources and found a book Patriots, Loyalists, and Revolution in New York City, 1775-1776. It’s part of the Reacting to the Past Series, a role-playing based curriculum. I loved the idea of the simulation outlined in the book, but I could never figure out how to compress what it meant to take several weeks in a college class to a short unit in a high school survey. For this activity, it was perfect. It gave me the history of New York at the time, as well as a set of characters who were real people. New York, like much of America, was divided into factions at that point so it was the perfect setting.

In terms of preparation for the students, I showed them clips from the PBS series Liberty and had them read some background materials on New York in the Revolutionary era in the two classes leading up to the exam. They did not need to study, just sleep well and come ready to think.

I had decided that the person murdered was going to be the governor of New York, William Tryon, who was not murdered in real life but did end up fleeing the city for the safety of a boat in the harbor due to the danger he faced. I wanted something plausible but not actual, so that I could have the flexibility in creating the scene and the suspects. So, going into the weekend before the exam I had the suspect list and the victim.

It felt rather ironic that I spent my weekend consumed with preparing for this exam, while my students were able to rest (and work on other exams, no doubt). I researched in journals, online, and in a book I had bought on Amazon. I put together information about Governor Tryon and the others so that students would be able to see who had relationships, who had grudges, who might have wanted him dead. The last piece of the puzzle was deciding who would be the murderer. I decided it would be one person who would try to frame another. I created a list of “physical clues” that were supposedly found at the scene which implicated the murderer, although one clue was meant to be the clue planted to frame someone else.

On the day of the exam, I welcomed each student with a name tag with their identity for the next two hours. I set the scene – they had been rounded up by the British Army on a tip that the murderer had fled to either a tavern or coffeehouse, which they had been in at the time. They were told they had two hours to figure out the killer or the Army would charge them all. I placed information sheets around the room that would help them begin to figure out who they were and who might have had a motive. They were allowed to use their chromebooks if they wanted to try to find any additional information. There was no way for them to cheat since the answer was in my head (and on a small scrap of paper in my wallet).

They came in wanting to solve it quickly, so I needed to slow them down and have them think it through. I withheld the information about the physical evidence that had been found at the scene until at least halfway through, so that they would have to create a short list before they could narrow further. After they had read the information around the room, they put the tables in a circle in the room, so they could talk it through. I was unable to stay the whole time because I was also monitoring my other section in the escape room next door.

In the end, they figured it out, with a little nudging from me; I believe I affirmed the idea of someone being framed for the crime and talked a bit about contradictory clues/red herrings. I also told them they were wrong when they came up with a guess that was wrong, albeit well-reasoned. When I debriefed with them today, they thought it was a good experience. They said it was harder than they expected, but that was good. We talked about how they had to use skills historians use in doing the detective work. They had to read, analyze, hypothesize, test out their theories. They had to take the background knowledge of the time period and place the specific circumstances in it. They also had to work together to reason through and make sense of the evidence. It was a ton of work for me, but I can say it was worth it. It was a true test of many of the skills we have been working on this semester. After two years of creating alternative, experience-based exams, I have come to really value them for testing the students’ ability to apply what they have learned.

What would Leonardo do with $.25 notebook from Staples?

So, I am trying something completely different with my Modern World PBL/Inquiry section. For the unit where the content is the Renaissance, Reformation, and Scientific Enlightenment, I decided to use Leonardo (da Vinci not di Caprio) as my inspiration.

After talking a bit about Leonardo’s notebooks including his rather ambitious “to do” list that can be found in one of them, I handed out journals that I had gotten when they were super cheap at Staples at the start of the school year. I had not found a way to use them – yet. They are to investigate history in the spirit of Leonardo da Vinci. Our essential question is more of a gentle reminder about process than anything to do about content – what would Leonardo do?

I have asked students to use the notebooks to document their learning with a combination of notes, reflections, images, and questions. They can start where they want and spend as much time as they want on a topic and then move wherever they want so long as they remain somewhere within the three main topics and the loose time frame of 1450-1750. They keep looking at me to see what the catch is, where the essay assignment or the test comes in. They want to know what I want them to learn; some are afraid to do it wrong. There is no catch. They just need to think and learn and document that thinking and learning. I was going to have them each do a presentation, but I am thinking I will make that optional. Students can either do the journal and the more formal sharing or just the journal and the informal sharing that we’ll do during discussion.

I see how much pressure they feel in general, and I think that impedes their learning. I am experimenting to see what will happen if I value their learning journey rather than the destination. In terms of content, this means that some kids will learn about Renaissance architecture while others will know more about Galileo. It’s a price I’m willing to pay because I think they will actually remember their experience positively and maybe even remember some of the content.

Some kids are having a little trouble letting go and not worrying. Others need a gentle push to document their learning. But already, on the second day I had kids who wanted to take their journals home even though I’m not asking to work outside of class right now. One student came into class and wanted to start right away, even before the bell. About halfway through yesteday’s class, I had the best conversation with a student who was learning more about Leonardo and was really inspired by him. They asked me how long we would be doing this. I told them I didn’t know; we have to see how it goes. My gut tells me we will know when it’s time to move on.

The foot is off the gas. I’m encouraging wandering and thinking. What’s the worst that can happen?

Helping or Enabling? Can more help be less helpful?

As we embark on the sometimes infamous junior year research paper in US history, I am wrestling with a perennial problem – how to help students enough but not too much. My goal is to help them learn to help themselves. Sometimes, students see my role as helping them, period. There is a pretty big difference, as I see it.
Sometimes I feel like it’s a game of chicken where they try to wait me out by looking as helpless and clueless as possible, hoping I will cave and tell them what to do, or even better do it for them.

I can give feedback on whether I think a research question is too narrow, too broad or too obscure, but I should not hand them a question. In fact, I probably should not suggest questions to them for them to pick from. This frustrates them. A little frustration is healthy, though, right?

Helping kids find sources is not the same as teaching kids tips and letting them find the sources themselves. Too often, I think, I am quick to jump in when a kid is frustrated and find them a source. I love research, especially that moment of striking gold. I really should let my students experience that, rather than simply feeling the comfort of knowing I have found them a source that has my approval. There are times when I simply know more about the topic and thus know more about what can be helpful, but I still need to find a way to share my experience without hijacking theirs.

The challenge is also one of time. They have a limited amount of time to complete the project, so sometimes I feel like I need to get them unstuck so they can keep moving forward in a timely fashion. When is the intervention necessary to save a kid from giving up and drowning?

When it comes time to draft the paper, there will be a number of students who will not have figured out their thesis. They will want me to give them their thesis. Sometimes, I can see in their analysis what they are arguing and they cannot see it. I don’t want to tell them their point; they should be able to figure it out. I do admit that sometimes I try to lead them to it. I get frustrated when I can see what they are arguing and they cannot, but my frustration is really not a good enough reason to do a student’s thinking for them.

I think I am getting worse about letting kids find their own way. More help is not necessarily more helpful. The best moments I can remember are ones where kids faces lit up as they found the elusive source or their thesis crystallized in their heads. Sadly, none of those moments are from the past few years.

Is it possible that in an attempt to be more supportive of students, I am being less helpful?

What Does It Mean to Master Content in a History Classroom?

A few years back I made an attempt to shift my history classroom to a standards based one. So as to not confuse the students and stress out the families, I still gave letter grades on individual assignments. I just kept a spreadsheet that tracked students in terms of their skills. I eventually abandoned it when it became clear that it was quite a bit more work for me and I wasn’t able to get the kids to focus on the spreadsheet as opposed to the graded assignment. I just didn’t have it in me to sustain it through to a successful conclusion.

This summer, I planned to revisit the idea of introducing spreadsheets and standards based grading into my class because ultimately I believe it provides better information than my comments and letter grades (which I eventually have to translate into a number which adds another layer of complexity). I am inspired by a colleague who started the standards based journey when I did but stayed the course and has been using standards spreadsheets for a few years now. In June and July, I could never quite get myself to sit down and think about this while the school year seemed far in the future but now that classes are a week away and I am thinking about the logistics of my gradebook, it seems like now or never.

I know I could write standards for research, writing, presenting, and even reading both primary and secondary sources – the skills part of the curriculum. The challenge I feel is in the content. Clearly the history matters in a history class, but what would mastery of content look like for a high school student? If I go by how well students use history to make arguments and answer questions, it might work. But I have this gut feeling that they use content, yet they don’t really master it. My students come closest with their research papers where they spend a lot of time working with a fairly narrow body of material. Even then, mastery seems like a tall order. If a student does well on an in-class writing assignment using appropriate detail to answer a question but then cannot respond to the same prompt a month later without preparation, how do I evaluate that on a standard? If students will forget the majority of the content over the summer, after they take the course, have they mastered content? How do I know what they have learned deeply as opposed to what they have retained for the short term? Does memory mean mastery? I’ve been teaching and studying history for decades now and I have to revisit my content on a regular basis – does that mean I have not mastered it?

All of this takes me back to my title question – one that I have to answer before I can really embrace standards based grading in my classroom, I think. What does mastery of content look like in the history classroom? Initially, I thought it meant learning the content but now I’m not even sure exactly what that means. Maybe mastery is about understanding and using the content appropriately. Thoughts?

Brown Bag to Brown Box: Modern World History Final Exam

I wanted to create a capstone experience for my Inquiry-Based/PBL section of Modern World History. I had great success with doing the mid year exam as an escape room type activity, but I wanted something that was more of a summation of the year for the final. I was also a little afraid of having the final be a lesser version of the mid term; I was not confident that I could top it with the same type of experience.

My first idea was to have the class create a time capsule – put their important learning in a box to be sealed and opened on the first day of classes by next year’s section. My working title was “Thinking Inside the Box.” I wanted this year’s class (the first Inquiry/PBL version of this required survey) to pass on a legacy to next year’s classes (there will be two sections next year). Still I felt like something was missing.

I did some exploring online and came across the idea of a a brown bag exam (http://www.adlit.org/unlocking_the_past/brown_bag_exams/). I liked the idea of having students think about the meaning of individual objects in the context of the course.

I ended up combining the two ideas. I created brown bags for each student to select randomly. Each one contained 3 images: one historical object, a historical person, and a map. There was also a random household item included. As a few people pointed out, they looked like the goody bags kids get at birthday parties. Each row in the chart below represents the contents of one bag.

Ming Banknote James Watt Ivory Trafficking spoon
Benin plaque John Locke Industrialization in Europe cotton ball
Miniature of Mughal Emperor Louis XVI Industrialization 1850 rubber band
Great Wave of Kanagawa Napoleon World in 1500 glasses
Mexico codex Vasco da Gama 1500-1800s light rail ticket
Jade Bi Toussaint L’Ouverture imperialism 1900 battery
Early Victorian Tea Set Galileo World Sugar Trade sillver earring
mechanical galleon George Washington WWI western front paintbursh
Refomation Centenary Broadsheet Karl Marx Africa – 1186 and 1914 pencil
Tughra of Suleiman Isaac Newton Columbian Exchange tea strainer
Durer’s Rhinoceros Hitler Rise & Fall Mughal Empire bouncy ball
Akan Drum Columbus WWI – military alliances post-it notes
Kakiemon Elephant Martin Luther Atlantic Revolutions/Possessions playing cards
Russian Revolution plate Gutenberg Ming Dynasty Trade routes elephant
Sudanese Slit Drum Copernicus Expansion Ottoman Empire ziploc bag
Pieces of Eight Machiavelli WWII – Axis & Allies gold earring

The task for students was to identify and describe each item and explain its significance to modern world history. They knew some directly from the course; others were things they had not encountered, although they were in good position to understand their significance. The two hour exam was structured as follows: 15 minutes for individual research and thinking; 15 minutes to collaborate and talk about their items in groups of three; 30 minutes to finish research and write note cards to accompany the images/items. This actually ended up taking a little over an hour – about 70 minutes with transitions. Then, students arranged the items and cards on desks and walked around to look at what everyone else had done. This took about 15 minutes, including the arrangement of the items. What I liked about this is that the students were talking about the significance of the different things as they were moving around, in fact getting a jump start on the conversation. After the gallery walk, we had a discussion of which items were important enough to include in the box for next year’s class. This was lively and thoughtful; my only regret was that I had to cut it short due to timing. I left about fifteen minutes at the end for students to finish or polish their note cards, since that is what they will be evaluated on individually.

If I do this again, I will take the advice of a colleague who observed it and have students do some of the prep work ahead of the exam so that we can allow for full discussion. She also suggested that students should not be allowed to advocate for their own items, as a twist. Both are great suggestions.

It’s possible that some students could feel like they might have learned more by having a traditional cram and dump exam, but I am betting that in the long run the experience of the research and discussion, requiring them to think back on what the course was really about, will last longer. I guess I’ll have to check with them next year.

Complexity and Time: Letting Go of the Grand Narrative

I just finished listening to a recorded talk by a former grad school professor who is close to publishing his magnum opus about the Soviet Union in WWII. In listening to it, I learned how his research deep into Soviet archives debunks commonly held and taught theories about the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the German invasion of the Soviet Union. It turns out that Stalin feared the British more, thought the Germans were the weaker power (at least until the fall of France), at one point sought to join the Axis, and had excellent intelligence about the impending invasion in 1941, but was unsure which intelligence to believe when they conflicted. Also, he did prepare for the invasion but tried to do so in a way that would not provoke one, if indeed the Germans were focusing on defeating Britain first, as both Stalin and the British believed. Much of the negative press about Stalin’s preparation came from his generals, after he had died, which itself is a reason to pause. Blaming a dead dictator for such a devastating war is awfully convenient.

I am rethinking how I will handle discussion of the Nazi-Soviet pact in class today. It will take longer to explain the complex reality than it would to stick to the old narrative, which I bought into until I saw this video. In speaking to a colleague about WWI, we were talking about how the conventional story of the harshness of the Versailles Treaty after WWI leading to the rise of Hitler and ultimately WWII is really too simplistic. The treaty was not really that harsh in context, and the road to Hitler and WWII cannot be explained without taking into account the Great Depression.

The simpler conventional narrative is easier and quicker. By diving into the more subtle complexity, we can help students see a more nuanced version of history. Ideally, they will question things that seems too simple. The cost here is in coverage. In order to teach complexity, we need to leave some things out. Whenever there is a gap in someone’s knowledge of world or US history who has been in my class, I feel a pang of guilt that I left something vitally important out. Of course, there is a lot that is important, and different things are important to different people.

At this point in the year, I feel the dilemma of breadth v. depth most acutely. There is not much time and so each choice I make seems that much more significant. I was taught a pretty straightforward narrative when I took history in school. I left thinking that knowing the narrative was understanding history. At some point early in my college career, I realized (after getting dinged on papers) that I had to learn to interpret and make sense of the history. Narrative was not enough because there wasn’t really a single narrative anyway, and the real purpose of history is to make sense of it. So I learned how to analyze.

In my classroom, I err on the side of complexity and analysis, rather than grand narrative. I hope I am making the right choice for my students. I always question myself in May.

Wikipedia isn’t the devil, is it?

Grandiose plans run up against real world time constraints. In planning the Cities project for US history, I envisioned this glorious accumulation and deepening of research skills, which would lead students to complex, subtle and extensive knowledge about the city they chose to research. They would do research into the whole of the history, learning about economic and demographic changes, able to trace the rise and fall of businesses and industries, the impact of different groups moving in or out, and how their city measures up to the national trends at any given point in time. After learning so much, they would distill something interesting and significant to share with the class in the form of a podcast or a TED talk.

Reality – with just a few weeks to go, most kids have only been able to commit a little bit of time outside of class and many only have used one source – Wikipedia. If the project were the only thing they were doing for my class, it would still probably be too much. But in addition to the city research, they are learning the economic history of the US as a whole. They have readings to do, blog posts and summaries to write.

Adjustment – I had to ask myself what I really care about the most with this project, and what I would do if I had their constraints. I mostly care about them uncovering the fascinating story, the important dynamic, the local history that captures the essence of their city and allows them to create an engaging presentation – either TED style or podcast. So – I am letting go of the multi-source, Digital Library driven background piece. I am actively encouraging them to use the Wikipedia page for the basic narrative, from which they can find some aspect of the city’s history into which they can dive deeper. I want them to spend the time investigating a particular episode or turning point through historical newspapers or primary source documents in the Digital Public Library of America.

In the interest of time, I want them to get the basic story and then zero in to focus on the podcast or TED talk. So – I am making my peace with Wikipedia, although feeling like I might get struck by lightning whenever I actually direct a student there, which is one step beyond simply looking the other way.

“Slow down, you move too fast…”

I have that Simon and Garfunkel tune stuck in my head. I’m feeling countercultural in my classroom these days. Not because I’m feelin’ groovy (Google the song.) Actually, the rest of lyrics don’t really work, but I digress.

My sophomores are pursuing answers to research questions they have crafted relating to the Industrial Revolution. My juniors are working their way through online Exhibitions from the Digital Public Library of America. In both cases, I find myself trying to prevent them from taking short cuts. I want them to start wide and then narrow. I expect them to think their way through the process of learning. Many students are impatient.

The sophomores are in an inquiry-based unit, where the goal and the end product are not identical. The end product will be a lesson plan of some sort that teaches others the answer to the research question. The goal is to learn what makes a good research question, how to find a variety of sources (including scholarly ones), when to modify or pivot the research in relation to the evidence or even a found passion, and then how to teach what you have learned to others. This takes time and a willingness to engage with the messiness of research. Not everything that you learn goes into the final product, but that does not mean the time was wasted.

The assignment my juniors are doing is different, but I find a similar dynamic. The final product will be to present a primary source from the exhibition and teach it to their peers. In order to do that well, they need to understand the context, not just the immediate but also the larger context. In other words, they need to read their way through the entire exhibition, not just the few paragraphs relating to the document. I told them that, and still found that their inclination was just to scroll through the documents so that they could pick one.

It has never been more apparent to me that I need to find ways to highlight and honor the process. If I can do more to hold my ground and insist on more thorough process, then the end products cannot help but be better. For the first time (I’m somewhat embarrassed to say) I’m deliberately working with students on the process of creating a strong presentation. So far, we have watched TED talks and listened to a podcast and then discussed what made them more or less effective. Then, students created one slide presentations. The next class, I had them write what they remembered from the presentations and think about why they remembered what they did. We discussed what stuck with people and the reasons. Students thought about themselves as both teachers and learners. It slows us down, but deepens the learning.

I guess I should be grateful that students want to get the work for my class done. The problem is that I don’t want them to sacrifice the best learning along the way.