Teachers have more instructional choices than ever before. Online lessons, classroom simulations, centers, discussion groups, videos to name a few. How do educators strike a balance meeting curriculum goals, state standards and keeping busy middle school students engaged? Mini lessons are key components to this goal. Every week they are built into science lessons and they help students connect topics and understand larger goals.
What is a mini lesson
A small 15-minute direct instruction lesson where the teacher introduces, reinforces or challenges students to learn a topic. For example, when my student engages in the Bouncing ball lab, a classic science lab where students graph the relationship between drop height and rebound height. Prior to the start of this activity, we do a brief discussion on data types and analysis of data. This sets them up perfectly understand why they are studying data in science lab. Mini lessons depart from a traditional classroom lecture in the length of time, rather than a 40 minute teacher led session, these are broken down into smaller segments more suited for middle level students.
What is a mini lesson made of?
Bell Ringer (3 to 5 minutes)
Students need to be engaged quickly at the start of class, bell ringers can be anything you can bend, twist or connect to the lesson. The other day I posted stats from students favorite NFL team and asked them if the stats indicated a win or a loss (drawing conclusions!). Or when doing a genetics problem to open class themed after sponge bob, while playing a Sponge Bob music track, kids loved it. On a side note, it was fun to watch 8th graders (who are too cool for about everything) sing Sponge Bob. Aside from getting kids on track at the start of class, these also serve as great classroom management tools (Busy hands are happy hands!)
Core Lesson Next 10 Minutes
This is the section where you get to talk, ask questions, probe and activate your learners on a subject. I specifically target these to our “objectives” which are classic learning goals. Speak with enthusiasm, teach like your hair is one fire. This is the most fun part of teaching. This is where kids connect to the person that is their teacher. Don’t be afraid to add kids to your discussion, I frequently throw kids into black holes (talking about scientific theories), push kids off the roofs (scientific laws) in these sessions. Kids laugh. The minute you speak a student’s name in this type of session you will be sure to get smiles. In addition, high quality visuals help connect students to the concepts being taught especially your visual learners.
During this session notetaking skills are taught. Students need to be able record thoughts, ideas and concepts to review and reflect upon later. I like the Cornell note method because of the Summary section you find at the bottom of the page. The summary is perfect for a next day bell ringer or end of class closure session. It is essential to have kids reflect on what they learned in a few sentences within 24 hours, this goes a long way developing long term learning. I generally provide some sort of incomplete notes for kids. This ensures I am meeting my students IEP requirements. I would rather err on giving everyone help, then ignore kids who need it.
Length of Mini Lessons
Mini lessons need to be adjusted based on grade levels. Sixth grade would be closer to 10 minutes while Eighth graders could be stretched to 20 minutes. Each grade level in unique and you will find that pacing and on task behavior linked. Eight graders preparing for high school can handle longer sustained sessions, with deeper questions and a faster pace than sixth graders.
What do I do afterwards?
This is where classic middle school activities come into play. Lab activities, cooperative learning groups, individual practice follow the mini lesson. This allows kids to get up and move, apply what they learned and explore different concepts. Mini lessons connect the dots between lesson activities and major course concepts. Middle school kids move from one place to the next, its important to give them opportunity to reflect and grow. Additionally face to face group teaching provides that personal connection that students crave.
After our first full year of Chromebook implementation in our classrooms, we have had sometime to reflect on its impact on our students and how we respond as educators to ensure they get a quality education. Additionally, our school is fed by an elementary school that is 1 to 1, so our incoming 6th graders provide some insights into the impact of this technology on our students. We have identified some winners and losers in this process and some suggestions to improve learning outcomes.
Ability to navigate multiple learning tools. Using Google Classroom, Canvas, Get More Math, Google Slides, Sheets, you name it, we use a wide variety of learning applications across our schools. Kids have a better understanding that computer apps are tools. Each tool has an optimal application and kids are starting to learn how to apply this. No different than physical tools, iPad, Chromebook and smart phones all have their niche.
Digital communication: Its easier than ever to contact a student, teacher or parent. Kids will ask me for missing work via digital communication. I can quickly get back to them, so in a sense, there are no excuses. Students are more than willing to check grades and, in many cases, will message me as soon as they see something they need to improve.
This is my biggest concern: The ability to write by hand. I still do it as an adult, but most of my writing is digital. I believe there is value in being able to write by hand. Brainstorming, drawing and creating sketch ups require fine motor skills. There is a debate going on whether this is a problem. This is a topic I would like to study in more detail as the research comes out. Some of the initial thoughts indicate that learning the fine motor skills of handwriting activate different area of the brain than typing does. The ultimate question, how important is this skill? Here’s an article to look at, I am sure there will be more research in the future to examine this issue http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20171108-the-uncertain-future-of-handwriting
Classroom management. On one hand, kids on computers get engrossed in their work. Classrooms are quieter than ever. On the other hand, there is a whole new world of pop up games, sites and workaround kids can use to avoid work. Our hardware deployment to our students moves much faster than our ability to manage their online behaviors. This requires the teacher to be vigilant and observe more closely during class. In tradition non one to one classrooms, it was obvious who was avoiding work, being off task or distracting others. In the digital era, these same behaviors are much more subdued. In most cases all students look like they are working, but the reality is that not all students are focused on the tasks at hand.
An interesting observation
In all my years teaching, kids always want to show me their test scores when they finish an online test. I never ask them too and this is never been part of the classroom expectation. I believe this is part of student’s basic human desire to connect with the adult in the room (good or bad). They want to show me how they did, even though the computer instantly tells them their score. This make me wonder what the limits to the one to one classroom will be. Is there a point that too much online interaction takes away from physical face to face connections we all seek out?
I am looking for balance. That means using a variety of teaching strategies, both high tech and low tech. Students will hear me lecture and discuss. Students will create unique products in our maker space and interact in social media spaces. They will write, they will read a book. I hope to challenge them in a changing classroom that helps them all learn in their own unique way. I believe this is the new challenge to teachers, we have every tool in the world, we just need to use them in the right way.
I enjoy getting my room ready for the new school year. As a science teacher, it involves bringing life to my class. Filling aquariums with new fish, adding posters illustrating concepts and setting out materials that are perfectly organized (Take a picture, it won’t stay that way for long). After a professional development session on autism I began to think about what I could do to help students with autism in my classroom. Current rates of autism by the CDC are about 1 and 59 in schools(Source). I remember over a decade ago when this began to be a conversation in the classroom. Since then, I have worked with many autistic students.
Autism spectrum disorder causes a wide range of learning disables that are unique to each child. As the saying goes, “If you have seen one autistic child, you have seen one child.” They are all uniquely different. Legally we are required to use adaptations through the IEP process and Section 504 plans. To better autistic students experience in my classroom and also meet my legal obligations, here’s a list of things we can do in our physical space to help out.
Create an organized classroom space: Autistic students prefer routines. That means materials in clearly marked spaces will reduce stress. Simply putting a notecard with the word “Paper” clearly marked above the space is helpful. This isn’t something I would normally do in a middle school classroom, but making my space easier to navigate will help everyone.
Weekly and Daily Agendas: Providing a schedule of class assignments and daily activities is very helpful. I currently have a section of dry erase board dedicated to our daily schedule. This could be done on poster paper or even included in a classroom PowerPoint. Some students may even prefer a printed schedule. Along with this idea, giving students a heads up when major assignments are due. This helps them regulate time so they are not surprised when a big project is coming.
Alternate Media: Kids on the spectrum can have difficulty with visual or auditory learning styles. Know yourself. If you love to tell stories as part of your lessons, look for visual materials to back up your work. Consider websites like screen castomatic to record lessons so kids can play them back.
Quiet Spaces: Autistic students can easily become overwhelmed by noise and stimulation from the modern classroom. Have plans in place for a quiet space. Even a trip to the conference room is helpful. In my case the filters and bubblers on my classroom aquariums make a lot of background noise. Giving students space to decompress will go a long way in reducing stress.
Reflecting on these small changes, you may notice that many are good for all students. The benefit to the educator is you are enhancing everyone’s experience while meeting your legal obligations to your students who are in most need.
With a new school year upon us, middle school teachers are often faced with the task of connecting to their advisory groups. Every year is different, from the kickball champions of the world to my Harry Potter groupies, advisory groups are as diverse as the personalities that make them up. With this understanding, here’s my favorite activity to get the year started right.
My Grandma has a grocery story: A name game. Every year there are kids that don’t know each other. So rather than saying “hey you” all year long, we play a fun game that helps everyone (including me) learn their names. It runs like a spelling bee.
All kids stand at their desk
Student 1 says, “My grandma has a grocery store and she sells Apples.” (the product can be anything that starts with the letter A.
Students 2 then repeats what student 1 says, however they have to address it as “Tim’s grandma has a grocery store and she sells apples.” Adding the previous students name and what their grandma sells. Then student 2 would say :My grandma has a grocery store and she sells bananas.” Or any product that starts with the letter B.
This pattern continues, having each student name all the previous students and what their grandmas sell. Its great fun. You can be lenient the first time around to make sure everyone learns the previous students’ names. Additionally, students with learning challenges may need some additional support. After the students make it around one time, I often allow them to pick other items not in alphabetical order, this increases the complexity. At this point if a student can’t remember a name or product they sit down like a spelling bee. Although this game sounds simple, I am hard pressed to get through a group of 20 kids in 30 minutes, so keep good notes, this could be a multiday activity.
Advisory Kickball Team Building
In this series I would like to reflect on the use of Chromebooks in a 1 to 1 setting for this past school year. Most references in this topic are from science class, but I believe they can be applied to any classroom.
As I look back, there are clearly some winners and losers in terms of education quality in my classroom. Overall the winners include
It was much easier to get materials out to students, less paper shuffling and a very efficient class set up. Watching video clips for instruction was a breeze. Simply plug in head phones and click a link and everyone was where you needed them. Possibly my favorite aspect was the ability to group and reteach struggling students. This was largely due to recording classroom instruction, posting all assignments in Google Classroom and having materials quickly available for students. This allowed me to accelerate those who mastered content by sending them to the next module. Reflecting on the low points there were also some losers. The two biggest I would suggest are. . .
Kids will be off task on a digital device, no matter how good they are. Adults will do the same. So one of the biggest issues I see is how easy it is to play a game, look up a YouTube video or generally not get your work done. In the pre-one to one days it was easy to visually monitor who was on and off task. You looked around the room and if a kid wasn’t working, your redirected them. But in a one to one classroom, its very difficult to notice. Every student is looking at a computer screen but not every student is working on task. There is a myriad of little pop up games that kids can use online, so its important to physically place students where you can easily monitor their work. The other major issue I see if the loss of physical writing skills. 1 to 1 classrooms make this too easy to gloss over. Everything is digital, kids frequently copy and paste and the ability to construct meaningful thoughts on paper is increasingly difficult. I don’t believe writing on a computer and composing on paper are the same skills, this would be a great education research topic.
As I look at the future and how I will manage my classroom this year, I will be creating structured time to write and think that don’t involve Chromebooks. This involves the use of simple exit tickets, that students write and reflect on their classroom experience. I will still maintain a physical notebook, I believe the idea to collect thoughts and create on paper is a fundamental skill that every student needs.
I would like to experiment with instructional delivery with a 2 to 1 model. Having two kids to one computer. With the idea that they are using the device to learn and create together, reducing the one on one off task time.
In closing, the idea that Chromebooks (laptops, iPad you name) are magical in an educational settings is not necessarily the case. They are an educational tool like anything else we use in the classroom. A thoughtful implementation is necessary. Additionally, kids need to understand that there are basic timelines and expectations to get work done. With this in mind I look forward to teaching these behaviors prior to the start of regular instruction. My lessons will look like this:
As we approach the end of the year, it gets increasingly harder to hold the attention of middle school students. Students, teachers and administrators get tired of the same behavior patterns that have been on display for the past 8 months. Today, I would like to talk about a website you can use to reengage your classes and make the last month a good time for all.
Classcraft is a gamification website that allows you to gamify your students experience. From the teacher side its easy to use and administer in class. On the student side it opens up a whole new world of game experience in the classroom. Here’s a video introduction to the site.
Using this system, there are several layers of points that students can earn, work with or spend. Here’s a basic summary.
In addition, I do a once a week “Boss Battle.” This is simple a quiz battle that allows the students to fight a fictitious character. If they defeat the boss they earn points, if they miss questions, they could fall in battle. If a students health points falls to 0, they fall in battle. The game will randomly assign a consequence. I customized mine so that are small task to last 4 to 5 minutes. For example, organize my tables, clean the desktops. Kids willing do their chores to get back into the game and after they complete their sentence, the game will play a heavenly sound as they come back to life.
Managing this is the classroom is a lot off fun. I run the game screen on the projector in the front of my room, then use the app on my phone to monitor individual students. For example, if a group gets a daily assignment done, I give them 100xp. If a student is unprepared for class, he loses health points. Any loss of points will prompt their group to decide if they want to protect him or her.
What do my kids like? They love customizing their game characters, getting a new look or purchasing a pet. They talk and want to show each other their characters. I enjoy this site because it can be used as a 1 to 1 interface with kids sitting in front of computers or with a teacher computer projector to the whole class. From a cost perspective, its free to start out. You can purchase a monthly or a yearly subscription. I choose the monthly subscription because I like to use it the last couple months of the year. The real advantage here is you can subscribe and cancel at anytime. Unlike most EdTech products who want a hundred dollar year subscription, they allow monthly billing. In addition, it integrates with Google Classroom, so you can quickly import your classes and set up.
What do you need to do? Decide what behaviors you want to emphasize. This can be accomplished through health points and rewards in either Gold points or XP points. Look at special powers that work in your room. For example, some students could earn a power that allows them help on a test. Or my students favorite, hunting power, which allows them to bring food. All these levels and activities can be customized to fit your specific needs.
Kids love this system, they want to come to class and they talk about it in the hallways. Classroom content and learning still occur, its just wrapped in a different blanket. One that kids love and have a great time in class. Especially as the weather gets nicer and summer vacation is knocking on the door.
May the fourth is coming, do you have any special plans for your students? Over the years we have had the pleasure of reading Star Wars books in school, participating in cross curricular activities and enjoying special “Stars Wars Days.” In this post I would like to explore some ideas for celebrating May the 4th.
Star Wars Themed Door Decorating: Kids love making themselves into mini Darth Vaders, Luke Sky Walkers and Princess Leia. We have students use Death Star Themes, JEDI and my favorite, the Yoda Door. All the kids to come with and idea and each student can customize their door Avatar.
Sith Versus Jedi Challenges: Split up your students into two groups. The Sith (bad guys) and the Jedi. Give your students simple academic challenges or play a game like kickball. Who ever wins will rule the universe.
Jedi Training: Jedi’s require skill and ability to use the force. Walking on balance beams, crossing swamps, there are a variety of opportunities here.
Interested in some more? Over the years I have incorporated many of these ideas into the following products.
In our previous post we talked about general tips for Working with Middle School Classes. In this post we are going to dig deeper into the concept of Bell Ringers.
Anticipatory Set, Bell Ringer, Warm up, there’s many different names but the concept is the same. Get the kids working as soon as they walk into class. The sooner you classes are engaged, they less behavioral problems you’ll face. In addition you communicate to kids that you have work for them to do. Establishing this routine early in the year or at the beginning of a new class paves the way to an effective learning environment.
Class transition time:
Be sure to greet students as they come into class by name. Especially those students who you know could be a problem. It’s important to establish positive communication. I generally will greet them and let them know what they will need (notebook, computer, book etc.). Additionally, this is a good time to ask about last nights band concert or todays Volleyball match. These few minutes are vitally important to establishing a positive climate. During this time, your bell ringer activity should be posted, either on the board, on paper or projector. A portion of the class will begin to read and think about the question or activity right away. This is an important point, if half the class is reading your bell ringer, that means there are less kids to redirect at the start of class time.
Bell Ringer Types
Content Review Questions: These are simply lesson objective questions from the previous day. Generally low order questions (we want a quick start with lots of success). The goal here is to engage lots of kids in yesterday’s work. For example, reviewing parts of Photosynthesis in a science lesson. I created an Ecology Bell Ringer Pack for this purpose.
Content Preview Questions: Sometimes we’re looking to see where a class is at. For example, does a class understand absolute value, providing a few sample problems.
News Events: I like these because they instantly engage student. For example, The Chinese Space Station Crash. Kids hear about these items and want to share and talk. I like to tie these into content areas to make class more meaningful.
Physical Challenge: Sometimes its fun to have kids just build something simple. I have some classes with very active students, so I use physical challenges that get them thinking hands on. Draw a box, build a cube, make a quick tower. I created a Science Stacker Series for this purpose.
Grading: I like to have students keep a section of notes dedicated to bell ringers that I can check at the end of a section or quarter. Additionally, if they are doing something that you want to engage them a little more, use a stamp to grade their work. This allows you to circulate the room, spot checking work with a stamp letting everyone know they completed the work.
The key to bell ringers is using them. Be sure to have something up everyday. The more teachers in your school that follow this procedure, the more productive your classes can become and the less behavioral headaches you’ll have to deal with.
A colleague of mine introduced me to the wonderful world of Arduino. These simple microcontrollers allow you to program, build and create simple inventions using inexpensive microcontrollers. There is a vast online community that offers sample code and ideas. From this humble introduction we currently have middle school students. . ..
Arduino starter kits cost around $35.00 via Amazon. You will need a computer to use Arduino IDE, the programming language. There are online versions and ones you can download to the computer. It seems that most of the online versions charge a small fee, while the downloadable versions ask for a donation (not required). I used Donorschoose.org to fund my latest project and it took about a week. There are many companies and individuals looking to support STEM based teaching ideas.
So instead of asking your students to make a model, or an imaginary invention. Take the next step and ask them to create the real thing using Arduino controllers! I will be writing more on the topic in upcoming articles. If you do get started, I would suggest trying the Blink program. It turns a light on and off on the control board and introduces you to the basics of coding.
Day 100 has passed, we’re well into the second half of the school year. We’re also getting to the point that difficult students are driving us crazy. So, what can you do as a classroom teacher? In this series of posts, I’m going to review a handful of tried and true strategies to get your classes back on track and maintain your sanity. Hopefully along the way we can return valuable instructional time.
The most important daily routine for middle level students is getting started as quickly as possible. The longer your students sit with nothing to do, the more likely there will be discipline issues. I set a mental note to always be teaching when the bell rings or class starts. This requires a few steps.
1. Always have a bell ringer or warm up exercise posted. Greet your students by name and direct them to this activity.
2. Start class with as positive attitude as possible, I’m not talking about playing unicorns and rainbows. But the incidents from yesterday are far away in students mind. This is a struggle for teachers because we don’t forget anything. I try to give the kids the benefit of the doubt each day.
3. Clip art does wonders to PowerPoints. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but kids will start talking if they see something that interests them.
4. Understand that 75% of kids will be ready when class starts, work on the 25% who aren’t.
5. Be ready to redirect off task requests. There are always a handful of students that their first act of class is to ask you to do something. Can I.. .
Go to my locker
Go to the bathroom
Go call my parents
Go to the library
You can respond to these request in two ways, “NO” or “We can talk after class gets started.”
I use both approaches, the ultimate goal is to get your students together and on track at the start of class. Many kids use this as avoidance behavior, which leads you to interruptions 3 minutes later when they return. Side note: if a kid is turning green I will tell them to go to the nurse or restroom. These are the rare exceptions where professional judgement tells you the kid is not feeling well.
6. Seating charts are a must. In classes that are difficult, we must provide structure. Removing the daily questions of who will I sit by reduces drama. Additionally, it’s one more variable you can manipulate to help improve students learning. We’ll talk about this on in later posts.
If you are looking to refocus and improve the start of your classes, remember, it’s your classroom. We have a lot more control of what happens in the room than we think. Start with the little details and they rest will fall into place.
Here’s an example of an activity I created for a particularly difficult group of students, Science Stackers. The goal was to get kids working on a hands on activity that engages lesson content.
Best luck with your teaching!
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Middle School Resources to Engage Kids
Love this one, simple but effective.
What if Jupiter was a star?