Student Choice

Lately, I have been researching student choice, differentiated learning, and hybrid learning. At the most basic levels they allow for students to claim some ownership over their learning by giving them a say in class tasks and assessments.

I have been expanding this concept in my classes, slowly but surely. My current goal is to build consistency into my classroom pedagogy, this will provide students with a comfort level necessary to adjust to the changes.

For this past assessment in my non-honors classes, we were prepping for an essay test, open notes, but essay. My students had posted some self-reflective answers in Edmodo and on paper, I was trying to gauge their comfort with the topic, “The Cold War” and the specifics cd that went with the general heading.

At first I received responses of: “I have all of my notes, I understand my notes, and I have no questions about the upcoming test.” Some students responded with, “How many questions on the test,” but all responses were fairly bland.

Students were given class time to form study groups and review and discuss their notes. I floated among the groups and pulled informal feedback by listening to their comments both on and off topic.

After reading their second reflections, I decided that it would not be fair to shift questions from period to period. Topics that were strengths for some students were weaknesses for others in the same class.; I wanted to avoid any appearance of favoritism or targeting students.

An option popped into my mind, make some questions mandatory and the rest offer students a choice to pull from. So the set up was as such: Fifteen total questions, two mandatory questions, all students had to answer, then a series of choices. There were seven ten point questions, from which students needed to answer two. Followed by four six point questions, students needed to answer one of these. And finally, two four point questions, one of which needed to be answered.

Students did not need to answer in order, they could break up their answers to give themselves a bit of a respite while working. Obviously, (channeling my inner Mike Tomlin here), the more points for the answer, the more details were needed.

One of the first comments I heard from my students, and actually ones who usually offer honest feedback even if it is critical of what I do was, “I really like this option.” They seemed to truly appreciate the ability to show what they understood from a menu of sorts. Through class discussions and reading their reflections I had an understanding of what most of them were comfortable with, so I was not worried about students only knowing one or two answers. I am certain there were some students who fit into this category, but the majority had an idea about the smorgasbord of topics, just not necessarily a strong sense of confidence in their knowledge.

This post is under construction from my iPhone.

Josh Gibson Reflection

Jackie WeaverCreative Commons License Thomas via Compfight

I created a sample project to model an assignment for my Honors classes this past week.  The topic for my project was Josh Gibson; the assignment was to research a person or event for Black History Month and then post the research on a web page.  Students are to follow up their project with a reflective blog post on what they learned from the project, what they liked about the project, and anything they would change about the project.  Here is my sample reflection…

I researched Josh Gibson, one of the best power hitters in the history of baseball, why do many people not know of him…he played in the Negro Leagues.  He has been called “The Black Babe Ruth” others have gone as far as as calling Babe Ruth, The White Josh Gibson,” that is how good he was.  He was finally voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972, the second of the Negro League Players to make it there.

I learned many things during this project, some were about Josh Gibson.  I admit I knew of him before the project, I am 51 years old, a history teacher, and love to focus on the Mon Valley, a place that is still dear to me.  I did come across an interesting fact about Josh Gibson and several other Pittsburgh Crawford players; I am not sure of the veracity of the story, but it was found on several sites that attest to varying degrees of truthfulness to the events.  They played one season in the Dominican Republic for Ciudad Trujillo, the team of Dominican Dictator Raphael Trujillo.  Players were followed by gunmen the entire season, including while in stadiums, with gunmen lining the field during play.  You can find my sample project by clicking here.

I also learned some new skills and tools, some out of necessity.  My preferred platform, Wikispaces, is closing, our district’s Google domain is a walled and locked garden, and time is the ultimate scarcity, so I had to adjust quickly and bounce ideas off of my PLN on which platform I should host my students’ projects.   By the way, PLN refers to Personal Learning Network or Professional Learning Network, your choice.  I ended up going with Google Sites, the old version, because it still allowed me to share the student sites with the world.

I liked a good number of things about this project, but most importantly for me, I liked that what I believed about my students was true, even my students who shy away from technology can grasp its use and run with it in a creative fashion WHEN THEY CHOOSE!  (Yes, I just dropped all caps, but they deserve that.)  They handled the uncertainty of trying something new, along with the malleable nature of the project due to conditions mentioned above and rose to the occasion.  With a bit of prodding I got a number of them to open up with their concerns and questions towards the project and we were able to adjust due dates

There are plenty of things I will adapt as I move forward with my class and this project.  My students, or at least some of them may not be happy with this section, but they were very influential to my thoughts.  I believed, incorrectly so, that giving the students a brief introduction to the project and turning them loose on research would not cause stress. Students were charged with researching a topic and when I returned from the conference we would work on building their websites on the chosen platform.  I explained that I wanted to test a few websites before declaring a definitive project landing space. I was leaning towards using as the home for the project and when I discovered the site was closing down I was thankful for my hesitation.  Over the next several days at a conference, PETE and C, I polled my PLN on possible replacements, attempted a weak and unsuccessful Twitter campaign to change Wikispaces mind.

When I returned from PETE and C, I discovered how wrong  I was about student stress.  It took a bit of time upon my return from a conference to calm the frayed nerves, but things settled down with the extra effort.  Eventually students opened up with their concerns and questions and we worked through the process to clear any confusion, or at least I think we did.

This showed that I still need to work on lines of communication. I try to encourage student feedback and input, the attempt is there for them to feel comfortable offering their opinions.  That being said, a number of students were not very willing to open up about their concerns.  Even after I witnessed a number of eye rolls, heard some huffs of frustration, it still took a bit of cajoling to get some to share their thoughts.  I have no issues with giving students a voice and ownership in class activities, it is a good practice for all involved.  It is just an ongoing process we all have to adjust to and this project showed that I still have a ways to go to keep a comfortable setting for open communication.

The projects have not been turned in for yet review, but watching the students work and talking with them as they turn their research into online presentations has made me confident that the projects will be successful.  Students are purposefully trying out new tools such as Smore and Voki to add depth to the content of their presentations.  they seem to understand the concept of adding technology or new tools just for superficial reasons will not benefit their work.



Pittsburgh’s Bomber Mystery

This image was originally posted to Flickr by anyjazz65 at

Dateline January 31, 1956

A B-25 Mitchell Bomber crash lands into the Monongahela River somewhere between the Homestead High Level Bridge and the Glenwood Bridge, these bridges are between Kennywood Park and Pittsburgh, PA for those not familiar with the Mon Valley Area.  There were a number of witnesses, thus many differing details to what happened that day.  There was no Internet at that time, social media as you know it did not exist, television was new, I do not believe we had helicopter breaking news stories, this limited access to first hand details for the populace.

The Backstory or How I Heard about the Event:

I have always been a History Buff, even as a child.  I love reading about history and I especially love hearing about history; add LOCAL HISTORY to the mix and I am hooked.  I first heard about this story as a kid in Leo Gigliotti’s barbershop in Duquesne, PA.  I knew him as “Mr. Leo” he was a great friend of my Grandpap.

I was in Mr. Leo’s shop getting a haircut around the anniversary of the bomber crash and several regulars were talking about it.  They mentioned one of their buddies who had assisted in the rescue efforts, he had just been driving by when he saw the bomber crash.  He helped pull crew members out of the river that day; when he showed up late to a family function his family accused him of being out at a bar, due to the peculiarity of his story.  The story hooked me immediately, I listened intently to the men discuss the actual crash details and how the crew was rescued.  Then the discussion turned to the conspiracy theories and my mind raced with images of the threads they weaved together.

I longed to find out more about this event, as I grew older I conducted research at the local library, but information was scarce.  From time to time information would be published in a newspaper, or there would be a brief but tantalizing segment on a local news station.

Stories such as this one piqued my interest with the conflicting details about the event and its aftermath.  I admit, I love to read these stories that are “off the beaten path” they give the mind a chance to wonder.  Due to meeting those gentlemen in Mr. Leo’s Barbershop all those years ago, I keep an open mind about the event.

The more traditional or “official” stories contain the same facts and some even mention the controversies surrounding the plane crash.  The most recent story published in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review can be found here.  The Heinz History Center has information posted on their History Blog, about the crash and the recovery efforts by Marion Hill Associates, a New Brighton based company.

Your assignment is to read the articles about the plane crash that are linked above, there are three articles.  After reading the articles, post a reply with your thoughts about the event, review the “Commenting Guidelines” that are posted on the Class Blog.  I will be posting a reply rubric here shortly.

You can check out the more information on Mr. Leo Gigliotti here.



Guided Focus Study Guide?

Teacher or researcher in library Library NaUKMA via Compfight

Let me start with this declarative statement, “I hate our US History Textbook.” Please don’t get me wrong, in its day it was very good, but it is outdated and set up in a fashion that does not suit my classes.  It breaks eras up so that they may be split over several chapters.  Students would read a chapter on the politics of an era, then then next chapter covers social culture, but we jump back 10 years to start the chapter.  This is rather cumbersome and extremely time consuming in my not so humble opinion.

Our department’s goal was to go without texts, replacing them with primary sources and other materials, sometimes we can achieve that goal.  My iPads are at the end of their useful life, my classes are not split evenly, some are overcrowded and some are sparse.  This combination makes it difficult to assist students when technology glitches in an overcrowded class, but that is for another post.

I have started using the textbooks again, but only sometimes; as an addition to other class information sources.  I have enough copies for a classroom set students can use on site.

Instead of having students complete questions at the end of the section after reading the text, I started giving them a “guided focus study guide.”  The goal is to bolster students’ notetaking ability while letting them pull information to suit their learning style.  I have noticed that when review questions are assigned students do not read the book, they search for answers.  They will skim over important information looking for key words searching for specific details to answer the few questions at the end of each section.  They overlook many important details they need to understand the issues we will be discussing.  

This tendency causes issues such as students not being able to explain why an event happened, in fact sometimes they will complain the topic was never covered in class, when it was in the book and discussed, but was not a section review question.  So…no more section review questions, I use…drumroll please… “Guided Focus Study Guides.”

I need a better name, I know, but it is what it is.  I read the section or the chapter, or whatever the resource is several times.  The first reading is to see if the resource is worth my classes’ time and effort, does it fulfill a purpose.  I also get a rough sketch in my head as to what I believe is necessary for the students to understand for class discussions and how the events affected society as we move forward.

The second reading becomes a bit more labor intensive, Google Docs and/or Evernote are open as I now take notes and ponder what these events led to in the world.  I begin typing out directions on which areas to focus on, and statements as to what to look for in each section of the resource.  I add the specific details I find in the resource to my notes, students will ask all sorts of questions, I need to answer them quickly, especially in my crowded classes.

I run through the resource one last time, adjusting the focus guide and my notes as needed.  I want to make sure the guide meshes with my goals for the resource:

  • is easy to understand for the students
  • do the focus areas guide students in the proper direction.
  • does it flow well with the order of information in the resource.

Students are allowed to fill in the guides however they choose, bullet points or full sentences, on paper, in their notebooks physical or digital, which is easy since the guide is shared through Google Docs and pushed out via Edmodo.

We review the guides after students have class time to work on them, this allows for students to make sure we are on the same page if you will.  I do not make the guides worth many assignment points, many students copy, will just write anything down for points, which is not the purpose.  The purpose is to allow the students to pull information from the resource to further their understanding of the topic.  I assess that through open note essay tests, but once again…that is a post for another day.



Cartoons Go To War 2017

Enlightening-The United States’ effort to explain and teach both citizens and soldiers how to handle the war effort was truly enlightening.

In the video “Cartoons Go To War”…five examples.

The article”When Dr. Seuss Went to War” states 3 supporting details.

One lingering question that has intrigued me during this lesson was Ted Geisel’s use of anti-Japanese imagery and how he adjusted after the war to become more inclusive and accepting of others.