Saturday, December 22, 2012

Take a break from test writing!

Merry Christmas Eve (early)!

I still remember the class, class period, and teacher I had who first introduced this lesson - it was my junior year in Mrs. Heinz’ Psychology class at Metro East Lutheran High School.  I enjoyed Psychology class and was doing reasonably well.  As we made it through another unit, I expected to have another chapter test to be approaching.  Though I didn’t necessarily mind the tests, sometimes they could get a bit… well… boring/tedius/dull/dreary/uninteresting/unfulfilling/monotonous/repetitive.  I was in for a surprise when I heard Mrs. Heinz say that we will not have a usual test.  That got my attention, as I pondered what we were going to do instead of a test.  Was it going to be a project?  Were we not going to have a test?  Was I sleepin… er… I mean, daydreaming?  She announced each of us students would be in charge of creating out own test with answers.  I got excited, not because I was thrilled with the opportunity to practice my wanna-be teacher skills, but because I thought it was going to be easy.  I was used to teachers handing out multiple page tests every couple weeks or so, so I asked myself the wonderful question… “how hard can it be?” (Top Gear UK fans will appreciate that line)

The following night, as I sat down in front of my parent’s desktop, I began to look through the book and my notes to figure out what I wanted to write about.   Long story short, four and a half hours later, I had a greater appreciation for what teachers do!  That coming from a young man whose parents are both teachers!  I especially remembered my dad, a community college math professor, spending hours writing tests. (this still boggles my mind: he wrote all new questions for every test of every class for his entire 40 year teaching career)  I had no idea how hard it actually was!  I remember struggling to set the phrasing, formatting, and quality of the questions.  About halfway through, I contemplated starting over just using pen and paper.  I was shocked how much perseverance it took to write the test.  Once I was done writing my “monster” 50 question “test” I realized that I actually learned quite a bit.

It was such a great exercise that I tried it out for my sophomores in World History my first year of teaching.  Oh the smile put on my face as students piled in the day the test was due, having the same complai… I mean comments I had when I was a student in Psychology.  I also had students share their top 10 questions out loud, which was very beneficial for the class, and it added another 10 easy points to their tests.  I enjoy letting students verbally show both the hard work they put in, and what they learned.  I made sure to have a descent rubric, outlining things like: format types expected, quantity of questions, quality of questions, quality of answers of questions, etc.  Though they weren’t necessarily the easiest to grade, I typed out some of the top questions, and shared them with students, letting them know what will be on their final.  Overall, I had several students tell me never to do that assignment again, and I had a few say they really enjoyed it!  I have decided to do this assignment once a year, and look forward to improving and tweaking it throughout my teaching career.
Try it out… and see what you can learn

Thanks, John Zilm

Monday, December 17, 2012

Topical Presentations

It is important for students to complete projects and presentations throughout the year to enhance both their learning and the learning of their classmates. Projects and presentations can take a lot of class time and can lose the interest of other students as well. To make it more exciting, enjoyable, and worthwhile, you can add more visuals. A topical presentation sounds exactly what it is. It is a topic that a student or students create a project on and present to the class. I usually have the students complete only two topical presentations all year so it doesn't get too repetitive. The key to a topical presentation is that each student has to have a visual aid when presenting. I do not count a Power Point or picture as a visual aid. I encourage students to be as creative as possible.

For example, I have had students hold a debate for an election and have their classmates vote. I have had students write their own lyrics to famous songs (which they sing to the music). Students have created their own songs and raps and performed in class with musical instruments. A visual can be a board game they use to get their classmates interacting in their presentation. Students have created a children's story that they read to the class. I had a group of boys dress like Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. They used pillows and wigs to complete the look. Lastly, I had students give their presentation in a canoe (their topic was Lewis and Clark).

The key is to see how creative your students can become while engaging their classmates. Everyone needs to learn the material and by having a variety of visual aids, it will hopefully help some learn a little easier.

Below is a video created by some of my students. Their topic was the Embargo Act of 1807.

See what you can learn...

Monday, December 10, 2012

Think - Pair - Share

Leading a high school class in group discussion can be challenging; and when it does not go as you intended it to, your lesson plan can quickly evaporate.  One technique that I have found to be effective is the “think-pair-share” method.  This strategy starts with the teacher posing a question for the students to silently answer.  The students can answer the question in their head or on a piece of paper.  As soon as they have had adequate time, have them pair up with someone else in the class and share their answers.  This gives each student a chance to answer for themselves and discuss why they answered the way that they did.  When everyone has had a chance to answer, transition to a large group discussion.  Chances are there are plenty of people who want to engage the class with their response.  Hopefully this improves discussion within your high school classroom.  If you want some more information, check out this video.  Think-pair-share: give it a try and see what you can learn!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Polling Your Students

Give your students a voice.

Try starting your class off with a texting poll from This is a free site that allows users to create questions that students can answer using a cell phone or any device connected to the internet.  The site is easy to use and doesn't take much to get going.  Here is a poll I spent two minutes creating (it took me longer to figure out how to embed it in this page).  You can vote by texting the code of your choice (see the chart below) to the number 37607.

The thing I love most about is the instant feedback the class receives from the chart that is generated. Students get the satisfaction of seeing their answers go up on the screen in real time.  This easy tool can be a great discussion starter and a way to give your "quiet" students a voice.  Watch the video tutorial below for more information, then give this a try and see what you can learn.