08 August 2016

Get Your Students Creating Content with the Adobe Spark Suite

Ah summertime!! Now is the time when I reflect on my past school year and look toward next year. I also evaluate the tech tools that I used in my class last year and see if I can find new ways to make social studies come to life for my students.

In comes the Adobe Spark Suite. I first came across Adobe Voice (now Adobe Spark Video) a few years ago. At the time, it was only available for iPad. It was quite an extraordinary app and you can see my post about it here.  The only drawbacks were that it was only available on iPads and it was difficult to share with others or upload to Youtube. At the time, I marveled at  how great of a tool it was but then they went ahead and made it way better! So, as many of you know, Adobe is best known for making the software that helps you read PDFs (they actually do way more than that but it's probably how most people interact with their products). Now it seems that they are branching out!

With the release of their new suite of tools, Adobe Spark Post, Adobe Spark Page and Adobe Spark Video, Adobe has really made a name for itself in the design world. Adobe has also made these three tools available on the iPhone AND through the web (for FREE I might add). Sharing your (or your student's) creation is now way easier than it was on Adobe Voice. The design quality is also stunning. This is the type of content creation tool that will allow students to make authentic content and share with others in the school, community and across the globe! Let's take a look at each one individually. For this blog, I have chosen to use the web version of each tool for the purposes of ease of screencasting but as mentioned before, all these tools are available as apps in the Apple App Store. The bonus of having the app is that students can use their devices to take photos and insert them directly into their product with the mobile versions of these apps. So if they draw a picture, they can take a photo of it and upload it to the app. Without further adieu, I give you the Adobe Spark Suite:

29 July 2016

5 Simple Ways to Expand your PLN

PLNs, or Professional Learning Networks, have gained a lot of traction in education over the past few years, and with good reason. PLNs make it easier for teachers to seek out new ways to develop their craft. Sound like something that can't fit on a teacher's plate already piled high with IEP reports and other bureaucratic minutiae? Think again. You actually already have a PLN. Think about it; you have your coworkers, department members, college classmates, college professors and staff/district teacher development specialists. If used correctly, each of these people could offer you a wealth of experience, strategies and methods. Many people assume (wrongly) that PLNs are only online. Well, as you can see, you already had a PLN before you even clicked your mouse.

I have given multiple sessions on PLNs over the years. Ever since I discovered these wonderful fountains of knowledge, I have been a strong proponent of them. In this day and age, it is easier than ever to connect with other teachers across the globe. Recently, I heard a podcast from Visions of Ed (which, if you haven't subscribed to yet, I would highly recommend doing), in which the hosts, Dan Krutka and Michael Milton interviewed PLN expert Torrey Trust, who stated that any teacher who is not connecting with other educators online is doing it by choice.

People I work with are always asking me where I get all my cool teacher toys from. My response is the same every time. I get them from my PLN! They are amazed at how easy it is. I'm not spending 10 hours a day searching the internet for the newest ed tech toys or social studies strategies. I simply aggregate all the information into a few tools that funnel all the information to me. Below are the five ways that I get my PLN to work for ME.

10 July 2016

Glenn Wiebe--Social Studies Superstar Spotlight

For this month's Social Studies Superstar Spotlight we have a very special guest interview. When I began my journey as a budding educator I began to research extensively so I could become the best possible teacher I could be. One name kept popping up during my research. That person was Glenn Wiebe. He seemed to be on the cutting edge of everything social studies related. He was always posting amazing ways to make history come alive and he also had a wealth of ed tech resources that he shared on his blog. His passion for the social studies has inspired me to begin blogging and sharing any resources that I came across. His practical tips for teaching social studies can be applied to rookies and veterans alike. Chances are, whether you know of Glenn or not, you have used a strategy or two (or ten) of his at some point in your career. Once again, the purpose of the Social Studies Superstar Spotlight (other than highlighting my incredible alliterative skills) is to share the strategies and teaching philosophy of master social studies teachers with others in the field. Enjoy!

The man, the myth, the legend
The Bio

After 15 years in middle school, high school and college classrooms, Glenn Wiebe now spends his time as an education and technology consultant excited about the learning process and the power teachers have in shaping that process. He enjoys facilitating conversations on the intersection of social studies historical thinking and technology integration.

Glenn began his teaching career at Derby Middle School, finding ways to help thirteen year olds enjoy American History. He earned a Master’s in American History in 1995 and continued developing innovative practices and sharing them with his students. That was followed by five years working in higher education, designing effective instruction and integrating video games into social science classrooms at Tabor College. He now travels across the country as an ESSDACK education specialist providing keynotes, presentations, and curriculum development.

Glenn's passion for social studies was kindled in elementary school when h fell in love with his first National Geographic map. Even at a young age, Glenn was beginning to understand what Robert Louis Stevenson meant when he described his treasure map as having the “power of infinite, eloquent suggestion.” Mr. Wiebe's passion for history and the social studies continued to grow and is now expressed in sharing that passion with others.

Today, Glenn writes almost daily at History Tech, a 2014 Edublog finalist, and maintains Social Studies Central, a repository of resources targeted at K-12 educators cited in national professional journals. You can find those at:

Starting in 2013, Glenn acted as co-chair for the Kansas State Department of Education social standards writing and assessment committee and is currently serving as president of the Kansas Council for the Social Studies. As director of two US Department of Education Teaching American History grants, Mr. Wiebe introduced the use of mobile learning technology to middle and high school teachers while supporting research-based instructional strategies. Glenn also travels frequently to assist schools as they integrate Apple and Google products.

The Interview

1. What made you decide to become a social studies educator?

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a history nerd. Growing up I would read old National Geographic magazines and collect the maps. I spent time writing national parks and asking them to send back materials. And have always read historical non-fiction books - with special memories of Shelby Foote.

But teaching social studies wasn’t my first choice. I started out hoping to be a print journalist and only later in my college career did I add a secondary ed major. There wasn’t any one event that changed my mind. But I had some phenomenal history and social studies teachers - Mrs. Kotter in 5th grade, Mr. Evans in middle school, and Mr. Tomayko in high school - and some that were . . . well, not as good. I begin to realize that I wanted to find ways to help others love history as much as I did.And the more I taught, the more I began realize how incredibly important that educated, competent, reasonable citizens are to a successful democracy. So I hung around.

2. In what ways have you used academic choice for students in the classroom?

I don’t think kids should have a choice about what skills they leave our classrooms with - they all need to be able to solve problems, to weigh evidence, be open minded and open to compromise, be able to communicate solutions, and work for change. But within reason, we should allow students the flexibility to study the content of their choice as they develop those skills. We can provide choice in how they demonstrate competency in those skills. And I think we should allow students to select the kinds of tools they use while collecting evidence, collaborating with others, and creating / communicating solutions.

3. What is your process for reflecting on a lesson as a teacher? 

Early in my teaching, I rarely if ever reflected intentionally on best practice. It was never something discussed during my pre-service training. Only later did Michael Ortmann, one of my early unofficial mentors, gently suggest that effective teachers - like any craftsman - must always be thinking about ways to hone their craft. A now forgotten article encouraged me to ask students to reflect on their projects after they were finished. This was a huge aha moment for me. Good for kids? Probably good for me.

So I began to be more intentional about asking questions that focused on lesson and unit design. I would ask students what they liked or didn’t like and why, through informal conversations and more formal evaluations. I asked other teachers to review my lesson plans. I set up a video camera and recorded lessons, looking for ways to improve. Even today, I ask others to watch what I do.
And with tools such as #sschat, Google Hangout, and the TPS Network, asking others to help us and to provide advice has never been more powerful.

4. In what ways do you get students to reflect on their work?

The biggest challenge is often convincing students that self-reflection is a good thing! We just need to make it something that we always ask kids to do, either formally or informally. But this should always include these sorts of basic questions:

  • What is the most important thing you learned?
  • What do you wish you'd spent more time doing?
  • What was your best work?
  • How could your teacher change this project to make it better next time?

I ran across a handy student reflection piece aligned with Bloom’s Taxonomy several years ago from Peter Pappas that I like and share with teachers. 

And the PBL movement is big on the integration of self-reflection so stuff like this from the Buck Institute is also really good:

5. What are some of the social studies specific skills that you want your students to have after taking your class?

This truly is the question we should be asking! I always start with my C4 Framework - Collect, Collaborate, Create, Communicate. I want teachers to train kids to be able to gather and organize information needed to solve a problem, work effectively with others, create a solution to the problem, and share that solution appropriately. 

More specifics?

Reading a variety of primary and secondary sources so that it is possible to:
  • find relationships and supporting details. 
  • evaluate an argument or claim citing evidence in support of, or against, the argument or claim.
  • analyze two or more texts on the same topic drawing conclusions about the similarities and differences. 
  • evaluate information from various formats.
Writing clearly:
  • to support a claim, or make an argument using evidence, logic, and reasoning. 
  • to inform or explain an event, relationship, position, or opinion. 
  • by applying the appropriate technologies for the purpose and audience. 
  • by gathering multiple sources of information and integrating them into short and long term projects. 
Communicating effectively by: 
  • collaborating with diverse partners. 
  • presenting information in textual and contextual formats. 
  • using multiple modes of communication and adjusting presentations to meet the requirements of the task or audience. 
6. What are some ways that you include primary sources in your lessons?

I’m excited that more teachers are integrating primary sources into their instructional designs. The more we have kids use all sorts of evidence as part of what they do, the better. This could be primary sources but might also be things such as secondary sources, textbooks, Wikipedia, fiction, maps, charts, graphs, or even video and board games. 

So I think the question can be altered just a bit: “What are ways to include the effective use of evidence in our lessons?” And there are so many ways that teachers do this. But if we focus just on primary sources, here is a list of a few ideas that have worked for lots of teachers:

Some specifics. Use primary sources:
Be sure to scaffold understanding by using graphic organizers:

7. Do you use PBL? If so, what types of projects do you assign your students?

Having kids solve problems or create projects / products is at the core of historical thinking skills. One example we’re going to try this fall is to create a 1/3 scale model of the CSA submarine Hunley. Groups of students in different schools will research and build different parts of the submarine and ship them to another school. This school will attempt to construct the final model live on Google Hangout using all of the pieces. Fingers crossed!

8. What were some strategies that you use to make social studies come alive in the classroom?

My new favorite tool is the idea of virtual reality. Using Google Cardboard or other VR tools can put kids right in the places they’re learning about and can be very effective in hooking kids in wanting to learn more.

9. What is the place of technology in the social studies classroom? What are some tools and programs “doing it right?”

Kids need to be using the types of tools and technology that people in the real world are using. And they need to be using those tools in context. Too often, I hear and see of computer science teachers who are drilling kids in how to create a Microsoft Word document. The STEAM movement has been great for helping schools and teachers use a variety of tech tools as part of the discipline specific learning.

Some of my favorites:

10. What are some strategies you use to reach struggling learners? What are some strategies you use to extend the learning of advanced learners?

Graphic organizers work for all types of learners. Visuals, such as graphic novels and infographics, are also effective tools. Scaffolding and incremental instruction can be powerful strategies. Timelines are great for showing cause and effect. 

A couple of things for advanced learners: Work to find opportunities outside the classroom and advanced learners need to the opportunity to work with other learners. These two ideas can often be combined.

But I was told once that what works for advanced learners works for all. A good strategy is a good strategy. 

11. What role to textbooks have, if any, in social studies education?

I think textbooks are one part of the evidence piece. Textbooks aren’t the most exciting thing to read but they can provide some basic, foundational knowledge. We should also be using Wikipedia as a basic info source BTW. But we shouldn't be using textbooks as our only, or our best, information source. It’s just one piece of the puzzle. 

12. How do you make your curriculum culturally responsive to diverse classrooms?

The first step for many educators is to realize that they, intentionally or otherwise, teach from positions of privilege. And then be willing to view their jobs different. Some good resources to help with both of those things:

Between the World and Me
by Ta-Nehisi Coates

by Christopher Emdin 

Teaching Tolerance
Southern Poverty Law Center

13. Where do you go for the best social studies methods, practices and lessons?

Library of Congress
National Archives
Stanford History Education Group
Teaching History

14. What final words of advice do you have for new and veteran social studies educators out there?

  1. I often talk about creating a sense of “academic discomfort” in the minds of students. Teachers should work to create questions and problems for students to solve that don’t have obvious or easy answers. 
  2. Be learners. Read history. Read fiction. Follow current events. Learn about the brain and how it works. Join a PLC. Ask about best practice.
  3. Great teachers work to filter out the negatives that don’t matter and project a passionate and positive attitude.
Well there you have it folks. I don't know about you but I know I discovered so many great resources and tips for being a master social studies teacher during the course of this interview. Glenn is certainly leaving his mark on the education world and my only hope is that the up and coming teachers such as myself, and many of you out there, live up to the incredibly legacy that Glenn is leaving in his wake.  That's all we have for this week. Until next month's Social Studies Superstar Spotlight, keep getting better!

01 July 2016

Standards-based Grading: Making the Switch

Standards-based Grading: Making the Switch

Who needs a summer break right? I have been spending the early part of my summer break researching new methods and strategies to use in the classroom next year before I start summer school next week. One of the major modifications that I am making to my teaching practice will be the transition to a Standards-based Grading model. Each learning assessment will be based on a standard (or mastery objective) for that period (usually a day but it could be longer). Standards-based Grading allows for more regular and detailed feedback. It also fits in perfectly with both the Understanding by Design and Universal Design for Learning models of having a clear master objective to aim for rather than just the completion of an assessment. SBG also allows for a much flexible assessment process. Students will be allowed, and expected, to fix mistakes on their work to improve their mastery of the standard or skill. Time in class will be devoted to having the students re-do assignments until they reach the proficient level while students already at the proficient level can extend learning.

I still have a lot of research to do over the summer before I'm ready to really introduce Standards-based Grading into my curriculum but I have already created a super neat SBG grading scale that I will be using (In case you were wondering why the scale doesn't go down to 0, it's because I work in a district that has a 50% rule). I'm so excited to learn more about Standards-based Grading over the summer and believe in the efficacy of this practice. This might just change the education paradigm from that of grades-based compliant students into standards-based, intrinsically motivated and curious learners. If you have any experience with Standards-based Grading, I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Standards-based Grading: Star Wars Style
If you haven't seen the video series by Rick Wormelli, I would HIGHLY recommend it for any teacher who is considering making the switch to Standards-based Grading. He explains SBG in an authentic, precise and easy to understand way. See the YouTube Playlist below for the videos.

28 June 2016

Google Forms Quizzes: Self-grading, Auto-feedback, Data-analyzing Quizzes

Google is back in the Formative Assessment Game

Happy days are here again. Google Apps for Education has released their yearly summer toys for teachers to play with and this year they have really delivered. The best of these new toys, in my humble opinion, is the increased functionality of Google Forms to include a quiz option.

I've gotta be honest; I started to use Google Forms last school year, coupled with the auto-grading add-on, Flubaroo but I went in another direction. While it was incredibly convenient, there were other products out there that did the same thing without nearly as much hassle. For example, WEO did everything that Google Forms/Flubaroo did in half the steps. And they even analyzed and sorted the data for you! (For more on WEO, see this blog post)

Perhaps Google heard the whispers in the classrooms because they really have done something special with the new functions of Google Forms. They added an auto-grading function to questions. They added the ability to make questions worth points. They added the ability to give feedback to students for both incorrect and correct answers. They allowed teachers to insert links as feedback. They collected the data from responses and analyzed it into easy to read charts. In short, they're back in the formative assessment game with this new roll out.

How to Get Started

So how does it work? See below for some tips and tricks:

1. Turning a normal Google Form into a Google Form Quiz: Simply click the settings (Cog) button in the top right corner and choose 'Quizzes.' Then choose to make the Google Form a quiz and customize your options based on your objective (will students be informed which questions they got wrong, will they be given the right answer, etc.)

2. Click the "Answer Key" button below the question.

3. Choose which answer is correct and how many points the question will be worth.

4. Add answer feedback for correct and incorrect answers.

5. Add links to help struggling learners catch up or extend the learning opportunity of advanced learners.

6. What a completed question looks like from a teacher's view:

7. What the Quiz looks like from the student's end:

8. What it looks like from the teacher's end:

Data is analyzed for teachers and even plugged into the easy to read bar graph. Any questions with below 50% correct will be listed below the Frequently missed questions.

Questions are broken down individually and analyzed. Great for seeing what needs to be re-taught and what is already understood.
You can also choose to review the student quizzes individually. 

Overall, I have to give Google props for really coming with their A game on this new roll out. The instant and customizable feedback really stands apart from other formative assessment tech tools. However, as a teacher, I rarely give multiple choice assessments. They are not a great indicator of learning. Because of this, I would most likely not use Google Forms Quizzes for graded assessments but rather as ways to introduce content to my students. I would most likely have the students read background info (or watch video) about the topic we will be learning about that day, quiz them on their knowledge, and then break the class into "got it" it and "not yet" sections to make sure every student is learning. I'm sure there are many other ways to use this new tool and I'm looking forward to hearing from other teachers about the cool ways that they will use it in the next few months.

If you want to see tutorial of what Google Forms Quizzes can do, see the video I put together below.

26 June 2016

How to Make Geography Meaningful and Interesting with Google My Maps

Google My Maps

Geography Education

Geography is one of the key components of social studies education, yet it is an often overlooked aspect of many a teacher's curriculum. I myself am guilty of cramming the Five Themes of Geography into a very hectic one or two class periods. For too long, geography has been an afterthought of the social studies, but who can really blame us? How could learning about human-environment interaction compare with the suspense of the Revolutionary War? How could absolute location hold a match to Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon? How could place-physical...well, you get the point. 

In truth, geography may just might be the most interesting aspect of social studies. One might even make the argument that geography has had a greater impact on human history than all the political, social and economic systems combined. At the very least, geography shapes these human systems. I try to spend at least a few days a unit studying the impact of the geography on the place/civilization/event that we are studying. I have created mental maps with my class in the past but found them to be much too tedious and time consuming. Then, the lightbulb went off over my head. We live in an age of GPS, with nearly every single inch of the world explored and mapped by satellites in the sky. There had to be a way to leverage all this technology at my fingertips into a worthwhile geography education. I began experimenting with Google Maps and saw the potential. Then I came across Google My Maps at the 2015 GAFE Summit in Baltimore, where I observed tech wiz James Sanders challenge our group to create a zombie apocalypse presentation. The presentation required us to upload examples of us using GAFE tools in creative ways. I was already familiar with most of the tools except for Google My Maps. 

The Breakthrough!

I had finally found it! My new way to teach geography. I was extremely excited to play around with this new toy. It was even more amazing than it sounded. Basically, Google My Maps, for the uninitiated, is similar to Google Maps, except much more customizable. You start off by inserting pins on various locations on the map (much like the red symbol below; I'm sure you've seen it before)

Google Map Pin

What is Google My Maps?

These pins can be changed to any number of other icons, but we'll get to that later. So what else can you do with Google My Maps? Well for starters, once you choose a location for your pin, you can attach photos, text, videos and links to that icon. Whenever someone clicks on that icon, they'll be able to see what you have added. Students aren't limited to simply adding icons to the map however. They can also draw lines (to represent rivers perhaps). Just like with the icons, you can choose what color the lines are. You can also adjust the line width and can even  draw a line around an entire area to indicate a location. You can use the icons, lines and shapes to showcase the Five Themes of Geography. Google even lets you customize your icons to represent the location with more detail. As you can see in the map below, the icons all represent a different part of Chinese geography.

Below is a map that a group from my World Studies 6 class created of China. They were each given the task of researching the climate, physical geography, human geography, natural resource and other important sites in a given region of China. The map came out spectacular. You can scroll in and out on the map, click on icons to see what they represent, see the images chosen for each icon and more. Some of the lines represent rivers and the red line represents the Great Wall of China. The larger shapes of the map are areas such as the Gobi Desert or the Himalaya Mountain Range.

Try clicking on some of the icons below to see what pops up.

Using Google My Maps gives students the opportunity to layer their own creation over a pre-existing map of the world. There are tons of other cool features of this product. To see a more in-depth tutorial, see the video below. I think the best part about this technology is that it goes above and beyond simple knowledge retention and requires the students to collaborate and create, which are higher level learning activities. The possibilities are endless. Google even lets you layer maps so you can show change across time. I can't wait to see how my students will surprise me the next time we use Google My Maps!

Google My Maps Demo

Sample Google My Map of NFL Stadiums

I created the map above and included the stadiums of all NFL teams. I inserted a picture and video into each icon. I also tried to match the icon colors with the team's color. It was a fun little project!!

Bonus Tip: Google's Smarty Pins

Think your a geography wiz? Want to test your trivia knowledge? Smarty Pins was created by Google to test your geography and trivia skills. The gist of the game is that they give you a geography related trivia question (ie. in which city were the 1992 Summer Olympics held?). You click and drag your pin to the location that you think is right (Barcelona btw). Here's the catch. You start off with 1000 miles in the bank. Every time you are off (say you place a pin in Washington D.C. instead of Baltimore and are off by 35 miles) you lose that many miles from your bank. Once your bank hits 0, you're done. If you can answer in 15 seconds or less, you win back some miles. See how many questions you can get before you run out of miles. This is a great warm up activity for students to practice their geography skills and it's darn fun too!

23 June 2016

Project-based Learning and 21st Century Skills: Perfect Together

Project-based Learning

I have always been a fan of Project-based Learning. As a student who sat through way too many lectures during my academic career, I decided that I would not be that type of teacher for my students. I can still remember the few times I was actually given academic choice and how great it felt. This is why I try to include at least one project per unit. However, Project-based Learning is much more than simply assigning a project. Above you can see the diagram that includes the vital aspects of a true PBL-designed project. Before I get to the vital components of PBL, I want to share the outline for my end of the year World Studies 6 project so you can get an idea of what I'm talking about.

Before I explain how my students got to their final product, I want to share their work with you. They collaborated, used technology, created an authentic display of their learning, utilized social studies skills and had fun doing it!

The Mayan Empire


This particular group went above and beyond my wildest expectations. They even embedded a Google Form quiz directly into their website to assess their audience. It looked visually appealing and included all the information I was looking for and more. I couldn't be more proud of these students.

So now that you have seen the final product. I'll walk you through how they got there. Firstly, the outline and directions the project:

 Steps for PBL 

Below you will see how I addressed each vital component of PBL in this particular project.

1. Driving Question: The driving question that each group had to answer as they researched and created their website was: How did the values, beliefs and traditions of this civilization influence the political, economic and social systems?

2. Need to Know: Students started the project by compiling question lists that would help them find the necessary information to address the driving question. I also allowed them to come up with their own curiosity questions that helped them understand the civilization better. These questions ranged from what kind of fashion did they have to what types of sports did they play.

3. Inquiry and Innovation: Students began researching info about their selected civilization and logging it in a graphic organizer. They also chose which website tool they would choose (weebly, wix, google sites, or another tool approved by me).

4. 21st Century Skills: Students were conducting online research, sourcing their info, building a website to share their research, working collaboratively asynchronously, and even coding their own widgets in some cases!

5. Student Voice and Choice: Students were given the choice of one of five millennial civilizations (the Maya, Heian Dynasty, Carolingians/Holy Roman Empire, Abbasid Caliphate and the Kingdom of Ghana). They were also given the opportunity to choose the method of delivery for their research.

6. Feedback and Reflection: These are soooo important for PBL work but are often overlooked. Each day, I had the groups fill out a reflection form on their effort and collaboration. See below:

Students reflected every day about their collaboration on the project.

7. Publicly Presented Project: Can't get much more public than a website! Students were excited that something that they created could actually be used by other students and classes across the globe.

Project Resources

I also scaffolded the research by providing the students with a list of informational sites and documents to get them started. See the list below broken down by civilization

Since this was the first year that I did a project like this, I took a few hours to create a model website of what I was looking for. I used weebly (my favorite) to complete a website about the United States.  This gave the students a starting point or model with which to base their designs off of. I let the students know that they could take this in any number of directions and that they are only limited by their imaginations.

Overall, the project went great. There are still some kinks to work out but I'm much more confident about assigning large projects such as this one in the future. The kids enjoyed the time spent on it, had an amazing product to showcase at the end and hopefully became more reflective learners and collaborators.

04 June 2016

Social Studies Superstar Spotlight

There are just so many wonderful and inspirational educators out there that I decided to start a new feature of this blog. It's called the "Social Studies Superstar Spotlight" (I know, very alliterative). Every month, I will be placing the spotlight on a teacher who has gone above and beyond in the pursuit of teaching excellence. These teachers will be chosen based on their use of best practices, technology and passion for kids. I will propose a list of 10-15 questions for the Social Studies Superstar to answer and then share the responses with all of you fine people. Too many teachers live on the isolated island that they call their classroom. The purpose of the Social Studies Superstar Spotlight is to give all the wonderful teachers out there a glimpse into the classroom of a fellow social studies teacher. I also have made it my goal to increase my peer observations in my building and search out the best practices of my profession so these interviews also help me to become the best possible teacher that I can be. So without further ado, here is our first Social Studies Superstar!!

Social Studies Superstar Spotlight

Benjamin Freeman

Short Bio
Mr. Freeman was born in Tennessee but grew up in the Piedmont region of South Carolina. He graduated with a bachelors degree in Secondary Education from Clemson University in 2002. After college, he moved to the northern Virginia (NoVA) region. After spending time as a substitute teacher he landed a job at Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn, VA. He then earned a Master's Degree in Educational Psychology from the University of Virginia. In 2015-16 he was a founding teacher at the brand new Riverside High School in Leesburg, Virginia. He is a big sports fan (Clemson/DC sports) and a gamer (currently in the wastes around Boston in Fallout 4). He was chosen for the Social Studies Superstar Spotlight in part because of his amazing and awesome website titled "Freeman-pedia."

25 May 2016

Election Year Social Studies Resources, Games, and Lessons

Election year is finally here and it is certainly one for the record books. One way or another, I have a feeling that this election year will be a pivotal moment in American history. While it is understandable that many history teachers may not want to get into political debates with their students or disclose their political leanings, it is still our responsibility to create upstanding citizens. One of the foundations of a representative democracy is voting. So here are some great tools to use to teach students about the civic virtue of voting in the upcoming election in November.

iCivics Election Resources: Key terms, lessons, and general information about elections.

Cast Your Vote (by iCivics): What issues do you want to ask candidates about? In Cast Your Vote, you choose the questions in a debate, rate their responses, and vote for the candidate of your choice.

26 April 2016

Project Aristotle: Or How Google Discovered the Most Important Quality of Teamwork

As I was driving in car recently, listening to NPR, I overheard an interview about a fascinating new research study about what makes a good team. This study, aptly titled Project Aristotle, delved into the many intricacies of what makes a good team tick. This research picked up traction after a NY Times article about it was written in February. The basic gist of the research is that the number one component of a good team is psychological safety. Psychological safety is when team members open up to one another and feel comfortable taking risks. The feeling that your thoughts and feelings are not being taken seriously is enough to make a person detach from the team dynamic.

I thought of ways to enable in increase in psychological safety in my classroom.

Psychological Safety in the Classroom:

  • Students given more input into how lessons are taught.
  • Be more flexible as a teacher to take a students' off topic comment and turn it into a learning tangent.
  • More opportunities in class to have students share information about their personal lives to build an environment of acceptance. 
  • The creation of group norms together to instill a feeling of ownership of the group.
  • More student talking and less teacher talking. (Project Aristotle found that one major characteristic of a successful group was the fact that all members spoke roughly the same proportion).
  • Giving students opportunities to improve their "social sensitivity" abilities. This means learning to read the social/emotional signals being sent by another teammate. This could be done by modeling and role playing. 
  • Learning how to set clear goals and follow through with the mission of the team. 
  • Setting up a safe environment in my class in which students feel safe enough to take intellectual risks.

Some of these goals are more attainable than others but I will set my sights high and try to work on one goal per week for the rest of the school year. One of my mentor teachers told me once that the last two months of the year are the perfect time to experiment with new strategies and methods. 

31 March 2016

Was the American Revolution a Mistake? Teaching History as Choice.

I bet that title got your attention, didn't it? Well, I'm sure that was Mr. Burton Weltman's intention when he came up with it. However, before you go assuming that this is some sort of revisionist history book, pump the brakes.

Mr. Weltman, an unabashed history nerd, takes aim at the downside of being a history nerd, which is the assumption that everyone must love history as much as us. This leads to a disconnect between many students and their historiophile teachers (yes, I just made that word up). To start, Mr. Weltman takes issue with the way that conventional history is taught: X leads to Y, which causes Z. It's not surprising that history has been taught this way; it allows students to make connections between events and analyze the causes and effects of historical movements. However, this strategy also places fetters on learners and may prevent critical thinking.

This is where Mr. Weltman's revolutionary (pun intended) method comes into play. Rather than learn history through a never ending chain of causes and effects, Weltman has unlocked the manacles of traditional historical learning through what he calls "studying history as choice." Weltman makes the argument that historical actors did not exist in a vacuum, and certainly did not have the luxury of hindsight that we have. Leaders and average citizens alike behaved and made decisions based on the cultural environment and information that was available to them at that time. Weltman scoffs at the idea that historical events were inevitable and always for the best. True critical thinking is always ready to challenge even the most cherished beliefs in order to develop a more well-rounded and insightful understanding of them.

As Plutarch once said, "The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled." For too long, history teachers have been filling their pupil's minds with facts; it's about time we began sparking their curiosity. For those that may question this teaching method, think about how much teenagers love to argue. They will literally argue about anything. Teaching history as choice gives them the agency to analyze the evidence and make a claim about what the best decision should have been at the time. Imagine the power, autonomy and buy-in that gives a student? (particularly one who has already "checked out")
Can a case really be made suggesting the American Revolution was a mistake? When you teach history as choice, you give your students the tools necessary to make up their own minds by analyzing multiple perspectives and finding evidence.

The book is organized into two parts. Part I covers the rationale for teaching history as choice. Part II provides the reader with 13 historical scenarios and essential questions to use Mr. Weltman's method. If you are interested in seeing a snippet of the book, use this link to see a Google Books preview.

Some of the essential questions and historical "what ifs" include:

30 March 2016

WEO: Analyze Formative Assessment Data in Real-time

The most simple formative assessment tool.
I came across WEO at the beginning of this school year and was blown away at just how user friendly and simple this product is. At the time, I was using Google Forms and Flubaroo to auto-grade multiple choice assessments. This strategy did what I wanted and it even let me grade the short answer/essay questions by hand. However, the Google Form responses still needed to be exported to a Google Sheet (which, as a person who has never been on friendly terms with spreadsheets, has never really been my cup of tea) and graded by opening the Flubaroo add-on. 

WEO does all the things Google Forms does, and more. Let me list out the cool things that WEO does.

27 March 2016

Stanford History Education Group: Making Primary Sources Fun!

(A new kind of history!)

The  Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) is revolutionizing the ways in which social studies teachers deliver content. This program gives every social studies educator the information they need to teach the subject the way they have always wanted to teach it. The program combines cutting edge educational research with myriad primary source documents. One of the most difficult and time consuming tasks for social studies instructors is creating worthy Document Based Questions (DBQs) and History Assessments of Thinking (HATs). For many educators, there is simply not enough hours in the day to find the necessary material to create these complex assessments. SHEG reduces assessment anxiety by consolidating primary sources into one easy to use website. These assessments were created by instructors (Sam Wineburg, social studies superstar) and students involved with the Stanford's History Education PhD program.

25 March 2016

Method of the Week: Teaching History as Choice

Social studies has never been a favorite subject for many students. Perhaps this can be attributed to the incredibly mundane way that it was taught in the past. As I'm sure many of you can attest, being lectured at for 45 minutes (or more) is not the most exciting way to learn. In recent years, social studies has seen an incredible boost in popularity. This can be accredited to the shift in pedagogy taking place within the social studies. When done correctly, teaching social studies today is less about lecture and more about engaging activities that allow students to participate in "doing history." Understandably, it is much easier to maximize student growth when you're teaching a student their favorite subject.

In this vein, Brown University's Choices Program  emphasizes teaching history as a choice rather than the inevitable slow crawl towards destiny. This method assumes that, when given the correct primary sources and activities, students will develop the necessary critical thinking skills to "get inside the heads" of the people making important decisions. This creates students who are active participants in education rather than passive recipients of historical content knowledge.

23 March 2016

App of the Week--Adobe Voice

Adobe has come out with a new way for students and teachers to create exciting and professional style videos. The app is called "Adobe Voice" and is one of the most easy to use apps on the market (it's free by the way!). Right now, it's only available on iPad but I'm hoping that they will expand to other platforms in the near future. Adobe Voice takes you step-by-step through the process, allowing the user to make professional quality videos in a snap. so what's so convenient about this new technology and why would I choose Adobe Voice of the myriad of other presentation tools out there? Let me count the ways...

21 March 2016

TouchCast...better than iMovie?

Today, I have the opportunity to share an extremely cool technology, called TouchCast.  I came across TouchCast a few years ago when they were still beta testing the program. What I saw blew me away. And they have gotten much better since then. TouchCast is a video recording app (now available for download on PCs) that, in many ways, blows iMovie out of the water.  Big words you say?  Well don't go deleting your iMovie just yet, as it is still the benchmark recording tool. However, TouchCast does bring many new options that might just tempt you away from iMovie.  For those teachers who have been living under a rock for the past few years, the new catch phrase of the moment is flipped teaching (or flipped learning, flipped lessons, or any other "flipped" phrase that you can think of).  Flipped teaching is thought of as complicated by some technophobe teachers, but it can be described as simply as "a method in which teachers record mini-lectures that students watch for homework." These lectures provide students with a foundation of content knowledge and ipso facto, allows teachers to spend more class time on activities and critical thinking.  That's basically flipped learning in a nutshell (and if you are an expert flipped teacher, try not to bite my head off for simplifying it too much!).

TouchCast allows the creator to film short video clips (I found out the hard way that the limit is 5 minutes). Simply set up your iPad or iPhone in a well lit area and film your lecture.  For those who are camera shy, you can also use a photo from your files and set it as a background throughout the video (or use one of the many stock backgrounds offered by TouchCast).

Firstly, some of the highlights of TouchCast:

17 March 2016

Class Messenger

I have always been a bit wary of the influx of corporate business funding into education. I'm not  anti-business by any means (and I know that in this climate, schools need all the financial assistance they can get) however I think education is served best by a separation of school and business. My classroom experience with Scholastic has been less than exemplary (selling programs to schools that might not fit the curriculum, but hey, they are a business, and the number one goal of businesses is to make money) so I was a bit tentative when I heard of a new web tool/app launched by Scholastic. The tool is titled "Class Messenger" and boy is it fun! Class Messenger was originally developed by Keith McSpurren, with the unfortunate title "WDWDT?" (What Did We Do Today).

Scholastic liked the app so much that they invested a cash influx into the company. What a wonderful investment! The app works as a reminder service for both students and parents. Teachers simply create a class tab for each class they teach. Once the classes are created, the teacher sends or prints a link for the students and parents. They then can either go to the Class Messenger website or download the incredibly useful app.  Teachers can send a number of varying messages through this tool.  They can choose to send a general reminder (below):

16 March 2016

Top 3 iTunes U Courses For Social Studies Teachers!!!

What can I say? I love learning; and there is no better way to improve my social studies content knowledge than through taking a course at an elite university. What's that you say? You can't afford the tuition? Don't worry about it. I have a way for you to get your history fix without spending big bucks. When I first received my iPad, I was extremely excited to try it out.  Of course, history nerd that I am, one of the first apps I discovered was iTunes U. For those who are unfamiliar with iTunes U, it's an Apple app that allows the user to download full (and free!) courses from the most prestigious universities in the world. Once you download a course you find interesting, simply tap on the course (listed in your iTunes U library, similar to iBooks) and let the learning begin. Depending on which course you download, you may have access to audio, videos, a suggested reading list (you must purchase the books yourself of course), presentations, PDFs, or other documents. You can even takes notes directly in this app that are saved to the lecture that you are watching at the time.

Some people enjoy music while they work out; I prefer to listen to an iTunes U lecture on my iPhone!!! Want to brush up on your U.S. history? iTunes has a list of courses for you. Teaching a new World History prep next year? iTunes has you covered. These aren't courses from East Nowhere University either; you can select courses from Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge, Stanford, UC Berkeley and a plethora of other top tier universities.

As promised, below you will find my personal recommendations for iTunes U courses to take over your summer break.

1. American Revolution--Joanne Freeman (Yale University)

A course offered by one of the preeminent scholars of early U.S. history. These lectures are available in video format so be careful if you have a limit on digital data, as videos tend to use a LOT of your data if you are not connected to a wifi network. Professor Freeman is a remarkable teacher. She is the antithesis of the dusty old college professor. Her lectures are engaging and interesting, while providing the viewer with a ton of content. Her personal anecdotes of researching are peppered into her lectures, breaking the monotony and drawing the viewer in. I would highly recommend this class to any teacher who teaches a U.S. I class. The depth in which Professor Freeman covers such a complex topic as the American Revolution is a testament to her years of research.

14 March 2016

Class Dojo

Class Dojo is an innovative technology that is radically altering the way teachers interact with both students and parents.  So what is it exactly?  Well, Class Dojo is an educational tool that allows teachers to provide real-time feedback for student behavior.  It is available on smartphones, tablets, and computers (although if you want the best experience, a tablet or smartphone is preferred to avoid running back to the computer every time you want to input data).  I suggest downloading the app for your device.  It's free, easy to use, and fun!

How does it work?  Class Dojo allows teachers to copy and paste their class rosters to create individual avatars for each student (the avatars are all cute monsters vis-a-vis Monsters Inc.). Students can even edit their avatar for a truly personalized experience. Once students are entered, you can keep track of their behaviors with the click of a button during class.  The app comes stock with 6 positive behavior options and 6 "needs work" options.  A student made a great point during a discussion? They get a "Participation" point. Student forgets homework? They are deducted a point under the "Missed Homework" button.  You can also customize the choices to include whatever behaviors you are looking for.  Teachers also have the option to give the entire class (or specific groups) points simultaneously.

07 March 2016


ThingLink is a web 2.0 tool that allows students to annotate visual images.  This tool (available over the web or through their app) can inspire students to “Be creative! Make your images come alive with music, video, text, images, shops and more!”  The educational applications are obvious.  21st century skills place an emphasis not only on the simple consumption of technology but on the active creation of a product through the use of new technologies.  Moreover, ThingLink allows students to receive practice in media literacy, critical thinking, and collaboration, all of which are important components of the Partnership for 21stCentury Skills (P21).

ThingLink is incredibly user friendly and intuitive.  Furthermore, this program allows you upload not only annotated text into visual but also videos and audio.  It’s as simple as tagging the part of the visual that you want to describe and voilĂ , a small icon appears (you can choose what the icon looks like and personalize it).  After tagging (just like Facebook) you have the option of adding descriptive text, links to videos, or audio. 


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