Primary Sources & Post-It Notes

This post is by Michael Lonie, a history teacher at Randolph High School


Recently, I have been exploring new ways of integrating primary source analysis and discussion in the social studies classroom. In my Advanced Placement European History course, we constantly read, annotate, and analyze primary source documents to help the students better understand the major trends and paradigm shifts in European thought. I noticed that things began to get a bit stale in our normal classroom discussions, and I wanted to attempt a lesson that would both reinvigorate the conversation, while continuing to assess all students on their comprehension of the material. My solution came in the form of a wonderful professional development offered by the instructional coaches at Randolph High School. At a recent workshop, the coaches introduced ways to use Post-It notes of all shapes and sizes in a variety of different classroom activities. This “Post-It Pandemonium” is entirely student-centered, and provides easy ways for teachers to assess progress and comprehension while keeping students engaged in the lesson.

In order to apply these Post-It activities in my AP European History course, I designed a discussion-based lesson centered on the European philosophers Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill. For the lesson, students were attempting to evaluate the differing opinions ofScreen Shot 2015-04-14 at 12.42.54 PM the two philosophers regarding individuality and community in nineteenth-century Europe. In preparation for this lesson, students needed to read and annotate a primary source packet with documents from both philosophers, as well as a variety of different critiques to their positions. Upon arriving to the class, students were divided into groups of three, and given a large Post-It note. Half of the groups were assigned to be experts on Marx, and the other half of the students focused on Mill’s theories of Utilitarianism. Students then had time to summarize their philosopher’s position regarding individuality on the Post-It note, incorporating evidence from the text. After placing these large Post-It notes on the board, a representative from each group chose a Post-It from the opposing philosopher, and, on a separate, smaller Post-It, had to write how their philosopher would respond to the ideas written on the original note. During this time, I circulated the room, and was extremely impressed with the high level of discussion occurring within each group. The students worked diligently to assume the role of their philosopher, and to justify their beliefs with textual evidence.

After placing their philosopher’s rebuttal on the board, I decided to add one last twist to the lesson. After briefly discussing the initial analysis with all students, I gave each group a Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 12.41.21 PMcritique of their original philosopher from a nineteenth-century intellectual (i.e. Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Pope Leo XIII). Students then had to read the primary source from their critic, and, on an even smaller Post-It note, write how this critic would respond to the writings of their original philosopher. When the students placed their final products on the board, they had a chain of Post-It notes analyzing their original philosopher’s beliefs, a response from either Marx or Mill, and a critique from nineteenth-century society. We ended class with a brief discussion, peppering in any material the students may have missed during their small-group discussion. Based on the exit tickets from the class, students were not only able to meet the lesson’s objectives, but they appeared to have a fun time along the way. As I circulated the room, I found myself engaged in the small-group discussions, and was able to interact with students individually. Overall, I found that incorporating Post-Its into my classroom discussion was a simple and engaging way of assessing student learning, and I would definitely plan these activities into future lessons in the social studies classroom.

Student Engagement

hands-raising-student-engagement-stakeholder-participationI’ve been thinking a lot about student engagement lately and how to get all students in a class excited to learn. A great lesson introduction, a passionate student-centered teacher, and a classroom environment that encourages risk-taking and freedom of expression are essential ingredients. What else needs to happen?

Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 9.07.11 PM
Robert Balfanz’s Report

In a 2007 report on why students drop out of school, Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins categorized all dropouts into four categories. One of these categories he called “fade outs,” a group of people he believed were inclined to drop out because school was not relevant for them. Fade outs are “students who have generally been promoted on time from grade to grade and may even have above grade level skills but at some point become frustrated or bored and stop seeing the reason for coming to school,” Balfanz writes in his report. “Once they reach the legal dropout age they leave, convinced that they can find their way without a high school diploma or that a GED will serve them just as well.” This lack of relevance between a student’s life and what is learned in the classroom can plague lessons and, at its worst, incite students to drop out.

Today our humanities teachers had the morning to discuss student engagement during a two-hour professional development session. We did an activity in which all teachers in our department wrote an answer to this question: What is engagement in the classroom? I loved the responses. “Engagement is getting every student actively induced in the learning process,” wrote one teacher. “Engagement in the classroom is students caring enough about your content to want to actually learn and learn more about it,” wrote another. I put all responses to the question from teachers in a word cloud to better visualize answers. A few words jump out at me. Making, sharing, connecting, participating, connected, actively, working, curiosity, and of course, relevant. For me, relevance is key. Relevance answers the age old question of why do I need to know this? Relevance is key for Robert Balfanz as well. Balfanz writes that “high schools have to actively structure their electives and the themes of the core course to stress the relevance of what is being learned to adult success” if they are to thwart the problem of fade outs. I think one of our teachers summed up the importance of relevancy better than I ever could. “Engagement is relevancy as perceived by the student,” they wrote. For educators, ensuring content is relevant to students’ lives is paramount to making the learning environment an engaging one. Using current events in class, tying content to students’ interests, and giving real-world scenerios for students to study can help bridge the gap between what is purely theoretical and what is relevant.

Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 9.57.17 AM
Click for larger image


Edtech Innovation Growing in the Garden State! #innovateNJ

innovateNJ logoImagine what can happen when the smartest, most motivated educators engage with the most creative edtech entrepreneurs. That’s the premise behind the newly announced Summit for School Innovation. Edsurge and the Office of School Innovation for New Jersey just announced a new conference on May 12. It’s a one-day “summit for school innovation” to be help in Atlantic City for innovative district leaders.

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 9.37.05 AM

Here’s what will happen at the event:

  • Workshops will be held to give education leaders the inside track on emerging tech and trends
  • Participants will be able to engage in small group sessions with leading edtech companies selected based on district priorities
  • Thoughtful conversations around critical issues such as data management, evaluating tech, and building partnerships
  • The ability to meet and share experiences with peers from other schools and districts

For more information and to register, click here.

For a summary of the event, click here.

On Cheating

In a recent interview by Serena Golden on Inside Higher Ed, James M. Lang, an English professor at Assumption College, answered questions via e-mail about academic integrity. Lang has a new book that was recently published from Harvard University Press, called Cheating Lessons: Learning From Academic Dishonesty. “Lang reviews research on both academic dishonesty and human learning to build a case that the most effective instructional strategies to minimize cheating are the same ones that will best help students to understand and retain the course material,” summarizes Golden. Here are some excerpts from Lang’s interview responses I found particularly compelling:

Cheating is an inappropriate response to a learning environment that’s not working for the student.

The fascinating discovery I made in my own research was that the features of a course that do tend to induce cheating were also ones that tend to reduce learning.

Too often we think about courses as “covering” material. As plenty of people have pointed out, though, just because you are covering something doesn’t mean that the students are learning it!

But I think every day we are preparing to step into a classroom, we have to ask ourselves this question, and be ready to answer it: Why should students care about this material?

And when we link our material to real and fascinating problems or questions — the types of problems or questions we tackle in our own research — then it becomes easier to help our students learn to care about our courses.

Some students cheat because they have poor metacognition — that is, they have an inaccurate picture of their own understanding of the course material.

Without question, the best means of improving student metacognition is with frequent, low-stakes assessments.

Whatever you are going to ask students to do on their graded assessments, give them the opportunity to try smaller, low-stakes versions in class or on homework assignments before they have to ramp up and try for the grade.

As much as possible, when it comes to academic dishonesty, we should keep our eyes focused on the design of the course and the assessment system.

The research clearly suggests that faculty inconsistently report instance of cheating in their courses, and the most frequent explanation they give for that is that they find administrators siding with students over faculty, or they find the bureaucratic procedures required to pursue a case of academic dishonesty incredibly time-consuming.

Don’t take it personally. Students cheat on assignments or exams; they don’t cheat on you.

What has Lang done to his own teaching after researching and writing about academic dishonesty? “So beginning this year,” he wrote, “I have reframed my courses around big questions that I hope will capture the interest of my students, and I have redesigned my assessments systems in order to give students more choices in how they demonstrate their learning to me.” Developing lessons around essential questions, transfer goals, and authentic problems can help motivate students to learn. Scaffolding assessments and giving choice to students when they are asked to demonstrate understanding can help eliminate academic dishonesty (hopefully).

The State of Reading

Frequent readers, defined as children who read books for fun 5–7 days a week, differ substantially in a number of ways from infrequent readers—those who read books for fun less than one day a week. For instance, 97% of frequent readers ages 6–17 say they are currently reading a book for fun or have just finished one, while 75% of infrequent readers say they haven’t read a book for fun in a while. (Scholastic’s Kids & Family Reading Report)

Scholastic recently released the results from a comprehensive survey of attitudes towards reading held by children and their parents. The report provides a snapshot of how much Americans read and how important the respondents felt reading to be. Over 2500 parents and children were surveyed and asked a variety of questions about their frequency of reading and why they were doing it. The report is chock full of information and is worthy of every teacher’s review (especially English teachers). The full report can be accessed here. I can summarize the report with two words: choice and frequency.

Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 7.59.05 PM
From Scholastic’s Kids & Family Reading Report

Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post has published a pretty comprehensive analysis of the report’s content. Included in Valerie’s analysis is a post from Lois Bridges, a former teacher and current Director of Educational Initiatives for Scholastic. She puts the report Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 7.50.50 PMinto perspective by offering practical tips for how educators and parents can help their children become lifelong readers. “The report adds to the abundant data we’ve had for years, demonstrating that in-school independent reading built around time to read books for fun creates kids who love to read,” writes Lois. She lists a host of ways teachers can help bring choice to their schools and increase how much their students read:

  • Provide access to books by building robust classroom and school libraries.
  • Invite choice by working with students (mostly younger) using the “Yours, Mine and Ours” strategy.
  • Build time to read and share during the school day and at home.
  • Guide students as they read by conferencing often, checking for understanding, and tracking progress.

Personally, I’ve seen the power a robust classroom library can have on students. A few years ago, my former co-teacher Sarah began bringing her books into our classroom and started stacking themScreen Shot 2015-03-09 at 8.16.50 PM everywhere. I mean everywhere. She stacked them on desks and in corners. They were literally all over the place. She’s the only person I know who would bring an empty suitcase to the annual NCTE convention just to fill it with books for her students. So, over time our classroom became a giant repository of books. The crazy thing is, kids started taking the books home. They grabbed the John Greens, the Harry Potters, and the Twilight and Divergent series. And then the students started talking about the books they were reading. It became contagious. They read during breaks and when they walked down the halls. I started reading their books so I could stay in the conversation. An Abundance of Katherines? Yup, I read that. Looking for Alaska? Yup, read that too. I’m a big John Green fan now. By surrounding kids (and adults) with high-interest texts we can encourage them to read. I’ve seen it work.

Here are some other ways to encourage reading:

  • Building small libraries. Classroom libraries can be powerful. However, I also want to build small “mini libraries” throughout a school wherever there is an open corner or unused space in a hallway. An armchair or two and a small bookcase packed with young adult literature can help encourage students to just grab a book and read.
  • Student and parent reading assignments. When I taught I would send students home with a newspaper and they had to choose any article they wanted to read but they had to read it with a parent/guardian and write a reflection on the process. I always loved the thought of a parent/guardian and student sitting down to read the paper together and discussing an article. In hindsight, I wish I did this more.
  • Informal book clubs. Don’t limit these to just students. Invite teachers to join the conversations as well. Doing so will help build a culture of reading in a school.

As teachers, we all know the benefits of getting kids to read. For me, it is one of the most important predictors of student success. Frequent readers are oftentimes more successful students. The Scholastic report makes a case for schools to talk about how we can get students to read more. “While both children and parents agree that reading skills are the most important skills kids can have,” the report notes, “children are reading somewhat less often than they did four years ago.” In an age where there is so much competition for a student’s attention, it’s vital we encourage our students and children to read as often as possible.

Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 7.49.53 PM

March #innovateNJ Twitter Chat Recap

innovateNJ logoOn the first Wednesday of every month, educators from all over get together with members of the #innovateNJ community to chat about innovation in schools. Have two minutes? Here’s a recap of the latest chat with some selected tweets. A full archive of the chat can be found here. More information about innovateNJ can be found here.

Topic: Professional Development’s Role in Innovation


And Some Love…

Thanks to everyone who participated!



On Creativity

The great ideas of the ages have come from people who weren’t paid to have great ideas, but were paid to be teachers or patent clerks or petty officials, or were not paid at all. The great ideas came as side issues.–Isaac Asimov

Late last year, MIT Technology Review published a recently discovered essay by famed science fiction writer and professor Isaac Asimov about the creative process. The essay was found in a file owned by one of Asimov’s friends and was written in 1959. In that year, Asimov had briefly joined a research team at MIT investigating new approaches for a ballistic missile defense system. Asimov decided to leave the group soon after joining, but wrote an essay about creativity as his one contribution. It languished in a file for over fifty years. “How do people get new ideas?” the legendary author wondered in his opening sentence. He then went on to describe the creative process and the kinds of environments that promote creativity. After reading Asimov’s essay, I can’t help but wonder how his ideas can inform how we teach and inspire our students.

My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it…The presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing. For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten thousand foolish ones, which you naturally do not care to display. –Isaac Asimov

Do we give students time to think and work out problems? For Asimov, he advocated working initially in isolation. In fact, history is rife with examples of the isolated genius–Alan Turing running, Darwin in his cabin on the Beagle–where someone alone thinks of something great. In an age where time is at a premium, do we allow students to take a deep breath and think?

No two people exactly duplicate each other’s mental stores of items. One person may know A and not B, another may know B and not A, and either knowing A and B, both may get the idea—though not necessarily at once or even soon…It seems to me then that the purpose of cerebration sessions is not to think up new ideas but to educate the participants in facts and fact-combinations, in theories and vagrant thoughts. –Isaac Asimov

For Asimov, the initial isolation phase was followed by what he called a “cerebration session,” what we would today call a brainstorming session, or group work. Asimov felt this was an integral part of the creative process but also one that can create problems. Group members need to have roles or run the risk of feeling marginalized by unhealthy competition. He advocated for what he called a “session-arbiter” to lead discussion. “In the same way, a session-arbiter will have to sit there, stirring up the animals, asking the shrewd question, making the necessary comment, bringing them gently back to the point,” Asimov writes. “Since the arbiter will not know which question is shrewd, which comment necessary, and what the point is, his will not be an easy job.” Asimov also advocated for group size to be about five individuals. When students are assigned to work in groups, do we create roles for students? Do we allow students to choose their own groups? Do we create stakes that are too high, creating an environment where inquiry is replaced by a focus only on task completion? For a group to function well, according to Asimov, “there must be ease, relaxation, and a general sense of permissiveness.”

Of course, no assignment we give students is ever perfect. Sometimes we’ll need to create groups for students and sometimes we’ll let them create groups. However, I think the lessons of Asimov are important if we want to encourage creative thinking in students. Independent thinking followed by group discussion can help the creative process. Perhaps having students think before they begin a task might help spur creativity. Establishing group roles and norms might help build equity between group members. And there is the issue of time. Students need time to think. A group of motivated students with time to explore can create the unthinkable.

A few years ago, with some teacher colleagues, I carved out time during the year for students to create and explore any topic they wanted during a genius hour freshman capstone project based on Google’s 20% time philosophy (you can read more about this project in NASSP). Student projects could be about anything; however, they had to deal on some level with biology, English, computer applications, and history. Every year, we started the project by giving students class time to think–alone. Then like-minded students got together and worked out their ideas. Students who wanted to work independently were permitted to do so. One small group decided to look at the comics of Rube Goldberg, famous for creating intricate contraptions to complete some of life’s easiest tasks. My freshman students got creative and decided to build their own Rube Goldberg machine. You can see the results below. They nailed creativity. I wish every project I had students complete turned out like this.