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."

The Interview

1.     How would you compare the student and teacher workload between AP, Honors, and on level classes?

I would argue that it’s the same amount of effort, applied in different ways.  AP classes require more research and mastery of the curriculum on the teaching side.  On-level classes require more classroom management and activities within the classroom.  Either way, it’s a serious workload.  A misconception I had in my early years was that the teachers of the Honors/AP classes were somehow super-star professors for teaching at that high level.  But, now that I’ve taught both for about a decade, I have just as much respect for those who can prepare an on-level history course that reaches the kids. A great AP lesson is a home run, but a great On-level class is a Grand Slam.

2.     What goes into the process of breaking down the history of the world into smaller content chunks?

I like to call the AP World course “Everything that’s ever happened… Ever.”  It’s a lot.  It really is.  It’s one of the warnings I give to parents at the beginning of the year.  We are going to cover it all.  It’s almost hard to wrap your head around the roughly 110 billion people who have ever lived and how their lives interweave the tapestry that is 2016.  The on-level course in Virginia starts at 1450 CE and runs through present day.  Either way, it’s a ton of history.  You almost have to break it down into acts.  I have a huge wall map (it’s massive).  I try to get the kids to realize any given topic is just us zooming in to that spot.  We will then zoom back out and get a larger perspective before focusing back in on another spot.  It may be the toughest thing for a high school student to see how the different units/chunks interplay off of one another.  More specifically, both the Virginia DOE (Department of Education) and the College Board pre-chunk the curriculum into Periods or Units.  I run my courses off of these delineations. 

3.     How do you balance practicing social studies specific skills (corroboration, contextualization, claim and evidence etc.) with content acquisition? 

This isn’t easy.  They need the content.  Without the content, they don’t have the tools to get the job done.  Hopefully, you can get them to use the Social Studies skills in the acquisition of this content. 

4.     Do  you include opportunities for students to reflect in class? How so?

This is always one of the more difficult facets to work into the classroom.  I have a pretty open classroom.  You would notice the informality of my style and the way the kids interact.  Within a few weeks, kids realize that I expect them to freely interact.  No hand raising, no asking for permission.  Tell me what you’re thinking.  Why is this not working? What aren’t you getting? No judgements.  This provides a kind of running reflection of what’s going on daily.  I’ve tried journaling in class, but the kids see it as a chore with a minimum word count and were often afraid to speak their minds.

5.     Do you give students academic choice on a daily, weekly, monthly basis? How so?

Unfortunately, choice is always hard.  When you have 30+ in each class and year end standards tests, you are really handcuffed as to what you can allow the kids to choose.  I try to have as many creative outlets for the kids during the course of a lesson.  Probably at least weekly the kids are doing something that requires creative thought/student choice.

6.     What different types of pre, formative, and summative assessments do you give regularly? What are your make up/ re-do policies?

a. Our district has officially done away with the ‘Diagnostic’ or pre-assessments.  I found these were often ways of proving to me that they didn’t know something.  As for formative assignments, I try to get in a few per unit.  At least one.  It’s nice to give the kids an assignment where they know if it won’t count for very much toward their grade, but they are still required to give it a shot.  Kids are often relieved to know this is a “Formative” assessment. 

b. Retakes are new to me.  This is the first year kids are being allowed to take retakes in our district.  This is a very controversial topic.  There is the side where you want kids to retake as many times as possible to get it correct.  However, there are those who will then use the test as a preview and not study for the first assessment.  From the teacher side, we, especially in Social Sciences, can only ask/assess so many ways.  Our department took an innovative way at retakes.  We give the original assessment.  That score stands.  It cannot be affected by the retake.  They earned that grade.  But, if you want to do the retake, you must complete some sort of remediation assignment. Then, you can take the retake. It will be worth half the original assessment, but gives you another opportunity to improve your score/show mastery.  We’ve found this has been a great way to force the kids to study for the original assessment and also allow them another way to show mastery.

7.     What types of homework assignments do you give regularly?

Usually some sort of preview/review assignment. For AP, homework is essential with the massive amount of information to cover.  For academic, it’s nice to have the kids looking at the material outside of the classroom.  They have more time to deal with the text, reading, video, etc.

8.     How frequently do you assign homework?

Nightly.  There are exceptions for nights before an assessment.  But, usually there is some sort of something going on every night.

9.     What interventions do you have for students who do not do homework?

It will kill their grade.  Many of these are formative and are meant to help both them and me see what they know.  It becomes an excellent tool for when kids complain about their grade or at the end of the quarter when kids beg for ways to improve their scores.  If kids aren’t doing their homework, they’re not doing their part. 

10.   What types of educational technology tools do you use in the classroom? (hardware, apps, or websites)

Well, besides the very lovely Freeman-pedia.com, there are many invaluable FREE tools that I use.  I love remind.com.  Message kids directly to that device that is glued to their hands.  Also, I used to use Edmodo.com, but our county bought our own communication tool (which is much worse) and they have us using that (it’s called Phoenix. It’s terrible).  YouTube is amazing.  Kids could easily not go to school and just learn everything they need from YouTube.  I use my site as the resource for the class.  Kids can get notes, links, and tons of videos we never get to in class to help them get the key concepts.  It really serves as a substitute teacher for me from 3:48pm to 8:59am when I’m not around.

11.   What is your opinion on the use of textbooks? How do you incorporate them into the class (or if not, why do you not include them?)

I hate textbooks.  At this point, the stigma they bring with them makes them not worth the trouble.  Kids hate to carry them, read them, or use them.  I like to use excerpts or more curriculum specific content I find online.  This way, there aren’t these tertiary topics/ideas that students don’t need.

12.   What program (i.e. Google Sites, Weebly) did you use to create your website? 

My site was originally on wikispaces.com.  I started it as a class project and it kinda morphed from there. I use Squarespace now.  It ports perfectly to mobile/phones/tablets.  Plus, they host the site and allow for financial transactions.  It is truly superior, but it also costs a small annual fee.

13.   What editing software do you use to edit the images, maps, and class notes PDFs on Freeman-pedia.com?

This often freaks people out, but I just use Microsoft Word.  I add images, text, notes, and edit all in word documents.  There is a TON of layering going on, but I just started using word and have just gotten really good at it.

14.   Do students regularly use the website to complete assignments or is it more to augment learning already taking place in class?

A little of both.  Most often, it is used as secondary source for them to find what they need (class info, historical info, etc.)  There is no running homework assignment where the kids need to go to the website every night. It is more of a resource.

15.   How long did it take to create the website?

This is year eight.  At first, it was a group project for kids after the AP Exam.  But, I then streamlined the whole thing and began formatting, improving, etc. Once I had the foundation, I’ve been going and building/amending/improving nearly all the time.  So, it’s a constant struggle/pleasure.  It’s become my weird hobby.  I work on it all summer.  Kids make fun of me whenever we are going over something I’ve created in class, I’ll point out some aspect of it and before I can even finish, they take the words right out of my mouth, “…these things don’t make themselves!”

16.   How do you squeeze all the information necessary for the AP exam into your class? Do you ever have to make sacrifices? What are some creative ways that you have found ways to squeeze content in to stay on track?

You don’t.  It’s impossible.  There are some teachers who claim to get through everything they need with weeks to review at the end of the year.  I find this hard to believe.  Or maybe I go into a bit too much detail.  So, there are always sacrifices.  Cramming content in can be difficult. 

17.   What tips or advice would you offer a middle school teacher making the jump to high school? What advice would you offer a teacher looking to start teaching AP classes?

Although I’ve never taught Middle School (or ever will, seems impossible!), my advice would be that they are slightly taller, voices slightly deeper; but, they are the same. They are kids. The things that get them excited about learning/topics/ideas, etc. don’t change. Kids are kids. You will adjust in no time.  AP… Hmmm… AP is a monster. AP is Smaug.  AP is Everest. Know going in that your first year will not go as planned.  You will look up and see that you have two weeks before the test and you are literally in the trenches of WWI.  The phrase I like to tell AP first year teachers is, “it get’s better.” Your best year of teaching AP World will be year two.  You basically stay a second year AP teacher the rest of your career. What worked last year; what bombed last year.  Keep the good, dump the bad. Repeat.  As for content, you’ll never get it all. It’s “everything that’s ever happened…ever”. Focus on getting the kids into history, introducing them to new ideas/people/cultures. The rest will fall into place. 

Well there you have it folks. It's clear that Mr. Freeman is a passionate and innovative educator. I'm sure that many students are fighting to take his class every year. The effort he has put into his website alone is enough to make him a superstar but his passion for education and ability to make history come alive is what really impresses me. Please stay tuned for the next installment of Social Studies Superstar Spotlight!

Mr. Freeman's Classroom


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