P-Day Reflection

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During the year we spend each Friday of a five day week working on our P-Day projects.  It is a day that kids get to research the history of their passion.  At the end of the year the kids give a background into their passion, and then share their passion with the class.  This year I did the presentations a bit different.  Usually they are done in my class, this year the team gave the ok to letting the kids take over the last two full days of the year.  The kids created a scheduled that would be two days, five periods each day, five sessions per period, one to three presentations per period.  All the presentations were on a google doc and kids were able to go to whichever sessions they picked.  For two days the kids ran everything that happened on our team.

There were lessons on how to play the Ukulele

Dance classes…and if you look in the background you will see the board that we used to create the schedule before it went up on the google doc.

Lots of presentations on sports.

An awesome sculpting session

A house renovation session which ended with the kids designing their own rooms.

One of the more unique topics ever–turtles!

There were a couple sessions on anime.

A baking demonstration-if you look on the board that is a doc cam being used to show what she is doing.

And a fashion session that ended with kids making tie-dye shirts.

What we do is very similar to the easily googleable Genius Hour or 20% time.  We do ours over the course of the year and present at the end but you can start small.  The very first time I did something like it it was the day before Thanksgiving break.  The kids researched any topic within the 19th Century and shared at the end of class.  The next year we called it 45/45.  The kids got 45 mins to research anything and 45 seconds to present, and the next year with block scheduling we called it 60/60.  For a few years we called it 20% time, and spent Fridays on it, and there were a couple years we had to stop it due to parent input–it was not going to get their kids ready for high school!  I think it was two or three years ago we started calling it P-Day.  It’s middle school, and it’s a catchy title 🙂

If your are going to give it a try I do have to share a pet peeve.  P-day, Genius Hour, 20% Time should not be time given to your kids to allow them “freedom.”  It should not be a time for kids to express their individuality or allow them to make things.  That should be your class…everyday. I have read way to many posts about teachers giving kids this time to allow kids to have this amazing block of time to offset the rest of the stuff they are “forced” to do in school.  You can do incredibly awesome things during the other 80% of the time.  As a matter of fact…if your class is going well you might even have kids asking you not to do P-Day or to spend their P-Day time working on what you are doing in class.  If you have to do a Genius Hour to get you to believe that kids are capable of doing awesome things on their own with little direction from you–go for it.  What occurs during the time will start leaking over to the rest of your classes.

Again, if you want to give this a shot, start small.  One period.  Take that day before vacation, don’t show a movie.  Give the kids 30 minutes to research. Feel like you are being watched?  Have it be something directly connected to your curriculum.  Research any current event from _______.  Research any topic about _______.  Especially if your kids are used to being led by you.  Wean them off slowly otherwise you will feel like a flop.  If you take a group of kids who are always being told what to do and give them time to do what they want, they might sit there for weeks.  Some of mine sit and tinker for 3-5 months before figuring out what to do!  If you are researching Genius Hour or 20% Time many of the classes and products will blow you away. Don’t get to hung up on the fact that when you give your kids time what they produce does not look the same.  What you get and how it goes will really depend on your kids and their  background.  When my kids start it they have nothing to do…half of each class can barely come up with anything to do.  I am finding that my kids are coming in with fewer interests and passions each year.  What they do list as their passions or interests are activities their parents have put them into.  I was cleaning my room yesterday and found a box with the topics from the very first P-Day ever.  There were topics like alternative fuels, are dreams real, does television rot your brain, and do anti-bullying programs really work.  This year there were things like dance, basketball, and soccer.  P-day is turning into “sharing an activity I do.”  After this year my big question is do I let it ride and see where this goes over the next couple of years, or try to re-direct it so that the topics and presentations become a little less superficial…or is that just my baggage speaking??  Thoughts?

***edit 7/1/14***

A few thoughts on the schedule that we created.  When we made it we thought we were being smart by making certain classes have a theme–sports, arts, etc. We also had a cap of 20 people per session if there were five going on at once, and 25 people if there were four.  This was set by the kids, they did not want too many people in a class watching, and some kids were bringing in supplies and running activities and needed to know a maximum number.  When we started, some sessions had more than 20/25 people and as long as it was ok with the presenter they stayed.  Here was the big problem…by having a certain theme in one room, the same kids that were in session one stayed in session two, which meant if 15 kids stayed, only 5 new kids could enter.  So that was quickly changed on the schedule and by the next day the schedule forced people to move rooms and that led to kids seeking out different choices than they would have normally made.  There might be a sports session in room #1, but the next sports session was in room #5.  Just having the kids get up and move made them reconsider just automatically going to another sports session.

The other thing we had to deal with was the question “What if no one shows up?”  I made final approvals of the schedule and made sure that in each session there was someone who would bring in an audience.  I also tried very hard to set-up time slots with multiple session to have presenters from different cliques so that the audience would be mixed cliques.

Then there was the problem of the sessions that everyone wanted to go to…I tried to put those sessions head-to-head.  So that the numbers in the rooms stayed even.  I also tried to have very different sessions in each time slot so that in any time slot there would be something for everyone.

The last thing we considered is that some kids required more set-up than others.  They were placed in the first sessions, or teh sessions after lunch.

This year I had my smallest team ever!  So we could not fill five sessions for five periods for two days.  If you look at day one, first time period, all kids reported to the room they were going to present in.  The purpose was to check teh set-up of the room, test the technology that they would be using in the room, and to talk with the person going before and after them about how they were going to set-up the room and what needed to be done in between sessions.

I have to say that I was SHOCKED at how few kids decided to present with partners or in groups.  The schedule does not show them, it only has one name from each group/pair.  This years class was done with working in groups by the time they had gotten to eighth grade  🙂  There were also probably 5-6 groups that within the two weeks leading up to the days decided to group together because their presentations were so similar, or they were doing things which could be easily added together into one longer presentation.

The schedule at the top of this post might seem so simple, but we put it together slowly over two weeks and takes into account all sorts of middle schoolers needs!

Why do you blog?

I just received an email with the following questions:

 I wonder if you could write me a line or two about why you write a blog? Why do you use it? 

When I started blogging almost seven years ago it was for a very simple reason — I never have my kids do something that I have not done. Seriously.  If it is something I have never done I either do it with them or beforehand.  Seven years ago I started blogging with my entire team for the entire year and not just for special projects.  Every kid had their own blog.  We might have been the first content class to do that!  I started mine in September right along with them.  After blogging with them I realized that it was not just blogging that I had never done before, it was also writing. This post was not just my first blog post, but it was the first thing I had every written in my life that was not for a grade.  I HATED writing.  I FEARED hitting publish on every post.  I finally had a clue what 90% of my kids were going through every time I asked them to write.  That first year experience changed everything.  I seriously think one of the biggest mistakes we make in hiring teachers is to only hire successful ex-students who love their content.  That first year of blogging put me in kids heads to places I had never been before.  I kept blogging because I asked them to not give up, I asked them to own their writing, I told them that everyone can write when they channel their passion.  I did not believe it.  I kept blogging through my first year to see if it was true. 

In my second-third year I became more brave and started to write about about what was on my mind.  I had thoughts in my head that I never knew were shared by others.  Blogging put me into a community of like minded individuals and allowed me to not feel so alone.

At the start of my third year I started to publish from my heart.  I started to let things rip and wrote some emotion ridden heavy posts for the next couple of years.  I felt that sometimes when I hit publish I was channeling what a lot of teachers were feeling and were afraid to say.  That went on for a couple of years.  I was unloading thoughts and feelings that I had held onto for years.  My blog was becoming more authentic with every post, but was becoming a bit too heavy for me.  Writing some of those posts and exposing myself again and again was difficult.  There are very few posts on this blog that I decided to write.  Most just come out when it is time.  It is why sometimes there are seven posts in a week, and some months there are none.  It was during this time that I started writing for an audience, and felt pressure to write on a schedule, write another post just as “good” as the last one.  I am not a very popular blogger, but I found I was starting to write to get those 5-10 re-tweets of my posts and after publishing I would watch twitter to see if people “liked” my post.  If I did not I felt pretty bad.  

It was during the fifth year that I took all the counters off of my blog.  That was the year I started writing for myself.  It was the year I started writing about common core and what I found is that no one cared except a few bloggers, and Tea Party folks who shared my stuff on their Facebook pages.  Glenn Beck took notice and invited me onto his show, I politely declined 🙂 I wrote some other posts that I was very proud of that received hardly any hits, no re-tweets, and no comments.  That was ok with me.  It took me five years of writing before I wrote for myself.

During the last year I started to do a lot more sharing of what we do in class.  I had shared in other years some projects we have done, but I tried to do a lot more this past year.  I realized that I had been building a collection of useful posts and started to be proud that some of my ideas were being used by other people.  The emails I have received about different posts describing what we do in the classroom has driven me to continue doing more posts about class activities.  The emails and twitter questions made me realize that what we do influences what is done in other classrooms. 



Tweets like the one above…I do not even know what to say.  I still can’t believe sometimes that what my kids do one day in Connecticut can influence what occurs in a town in Canada three months later.  I think emails and tweets like the one above are what is currently fueling my blogging.  That fact that I can make a difference…whoa.  That is really sobering.  I think I have settled into my little corner niche of the blogosphere where most posts are lucky to get 100 reads, and once-in-awhile one gets 10 or so re-tweets.  I no longer write for popularity, I still let the words pop out unplanned and usually unedited or proofed, I do just write now for myself…but somewhere in the back of my mind I am also writing for that one person who might read a post like this and decide that they should start blogging too.  I decided to write posts like this one to show people that I was once afraid too, I thought I really sucked, I thought bad writers could not make a difference.  School had convinced me that only those with proper grammar and sentence structure should be publishing their work to the world, they were the people who would one day make a difference.  

You know what?

They were wrong.  

I blog because I write lines like the one above and then sit back and stare at it for ten minutes because what you just read I did not know when I started this post.  I did not know where this post would go, or where it would end.  I didn’t know “They were wrong” until I wrote the line.  I should probably say it this way…I did not believe it until I wrote it. 

 I wonder if you could write me a line or two about why you write a blog? Why do you use it? 

I blog because it changes what I believe, what I do, and who I am. And if I am lucky, one day what I will write will change you too.


Green Screening

Last year my kids and I experimented with green screening.  The kids walked into an image of the Newsies and interacted with the scene.  It was pretty cool and I knew I had to keep experimenting.  When we entered a video into the Acer Classroom Makeover contest we decided to experiment more with our little green screen.

While we were doing green screening we really had no idea what we were doing or how to do it properly but just knew it was pretty cool, and incredibly motivating.  The one problem with green screening or using any of our equipment is the set-up.  There was no spontaneous use of it.  Over the years I have written and received several small grants and have had some equipment donated that allows us to do some serious audio recording.  Because it was all stored in locked drawers it was only used for special occasions when we could take the time to set everything up and leave it out for a few days.  My dream was to always have a place to set it up so that it could be used at any second.

There was an abandoned class on my floor that we received permission to renovate.  With a little additional funding from the school, we were able to buy 2 big green screens to have a 20’x20′ green screen, some lights, and a quality microphone.  Scraping together everything I had along with more donations from the parents we were able to build a “recording studio.”  It has been dubbed “3 Floors Up.”  We made a website for it here.   And of course a promo video:

It has been a soft opening for the room since it opened and was finished so close to the end of the year.  We have only used it for one project which did not require green screening, but the room provided us with a quiet place and a plain background. My class has a blower that is constantly going so it is never quiet and always is in the background of anything we do so it is nice to actually have something that is close to silence. In the video below the background was the green screen.

A Civil War Letter from Moran Mustangs on Vimeo.

Now that we have messed around with some green screening and I have done some research, there are some very simple tips.

  • Keep the students 6 feet away from the green screen when filming.
  • Light the green screen!  It will make the wrinkles disappear.
  • If you have those classic rows of school fluorescent light banks, set up your screen so that they are at a 90 degree angle to the green screen.  There are exceptions to the rule, but for the set-up at most schools it works.
  • Turn off your cameras auto-focus, set it to be focused on the talent, place a taped X on the ground and done.  With auto focus on the focus can bounce back and forth from talent to screen unless you know what you are doing or have an expensive camera
  • Google how to green screen and watch some videos, they will save you hours and years of frustrating results.

If you have examples or tips please leave them in the comments.  This was not meant to be an instructional post, just one to put some ideas in your head!

“…academic environments are artificial environments.”

Thought provoking interview with Laszlo Bock from Google in the New York Times. Interesting how Google is using “big data.”  Here is an excerpt:

Q. Other insights from the data you’ve gathered about Google employees?

A. One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless — no correlation at all except for brand-new college grads, where there’s a slight correlation. Google famously used to ask everyone for a transcript and G.P.A.’s and test scores, but we don’t anymore, unless you’re just a few years out of school. We found that they don’t predict anything.

What’s interesting is the proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time as well. So we have teams where you have 14 percent of the team made up of people who’ve never gone to college.

Q. Can you elaborate a bit more on the lack of correlation?

A. After two or three years, your ability to perform at Google is completely unrelated to how you performed when you were in school, because the skills you required in college are very different. You’re also fundamentally a different person. You learn and grow, you think about things differently.

Another reason is that I think academic environments are artificial environments. People who succeed there are sort of finely trained, they’re conditioned to succeed in that environment. One of my own frustrations when I was in college and grad school is that you knew the professor was looking for a specific answer. You could figure that out, but it’s much more interesting to solve problems where there isn’t an obvious answer. You want people who like figuring out stuff where there is no obvious answer.

Reflection on Edcampusa #2

I tried to write out my thoughts after attending Edcampusa but it became a giant multi-page unwieldy document.  So I figured i would throw out individual posts that draw on some of the things I reflected on after attending…the posts still might be somewhat random, but maybe a bit more manageable if you would like to wade through them…

In almost every “conversation” session I have been in at an edcampusa, any edcamp, or at a more progressive conference the outcome of the conversation is becoming more predictable unless you are new to alternatives to traditional schooling.  When you fill the room with people that you have attended conferences with before, or follow on twitter, or read their blog posts the conversation becomes even more predictable.  If you attend a session on “What does a great lesson look like?  I guarantee you can predict 90% of the bullet points.  The sessions are becoming more predictable at larger edcamps that attract the “popular folks.”  At edcampusa I probably recognized by face 75% of attendees.  Let’s face it, twitter is a lot like high school.  Kind of like meeting the quarterback of the football team ten years after graduation and saying hello Jimmy, and they say who are you??  There seemed to be cliques that travel together from session to session.  There are cool kid sessions, and sessions for others.  I was the only participant in one session, in another session at the same time there were none, so everyone else must have been concentrated somewhere. If there were about 75 people then 71 were split amongst three sessions being led by the more popular names.   I thought it was really interesting that I picked sessions by people I had not heard of before and they tended to be filled with participants that I had not heard of before, and by the end of the day a few people joked that we had been in all the same sessions together all day.  The above is NOT a knock…it is an observation.  I do not know what it means (maybe popular people present on popular topics), but I know that many people in the lower ranks of twitter have made the same observations…which means nothing, just trying to see if the pattern means something, or it is me trying to find something in a pattern that does not matter.  

I do think it is time for the folks who come and jump at the board at every edcamp to take a step back and let other people fill the void.  How do we build digital leaders?  The current ones do not hold sessions at every conference they attend.  They come to be participants.  And please don’t tell me that everyone has an equal opportunity to fill the board.  At two edcamps I attended the board was practically filled before the time that was listed to even start posting on the board.

There were 20 sessions held at Edcampusa.  By my unofficial count only one was led by a classroom teacher. A couple were held by librarians.  Unless I counted wrong, the rest were held by people outside of the classroom, and some by people outside the schools. Because you don’t teach or decided to work for a business does that make you less of a teacher?  Not necessarily. Some people led or co-led 2, 3, and four sessions.  It would have been nice to have had 20 sessions all being led by different people.  It would have been nice for people who always lead sessions to step back and let others in.  

At this conference like others,  there is always this talk about how great teachers are.  If teachers are doing such great things, then let’s see them. I would like to have seen sessions being lead by more teachers and with teachers sharing what they are currently doing inside of their classroom.  I believe it was Steve Anderson who tweeted that it is our moral obligation to share…let’s stop sharing about about what we should be doing or want to do, and let’s share examples of what is being done.  We were at the Department of Education and had the opportunity to show off what we do (I believe Steve also tweeted about how teachers should not be afraid of being accused of showing off when they share), instead we talked a lot about what we want to do.  We had the chance to show an alternative to test prep, an alternative to standardized testing, a chance to show that kids can do fantastic things when not placed in a standardized environment.  I think we blew it.  One staffer mentioned they need specifics, not ideas.  Why did we not have sessions focused on showing off what was going on in the classrooms?  Maybe because there weren’t many classroom teachers there??   I am not blind to the fact that almost everything I have written is my perception based on my baggage, my guess as to what each session was about based on the title, and attending only part or all of five sessions and hearing about several others.  I am positive what I have written was not true of all sessions, it wasn’t for one of mine, but it did seem like a pattern.

On twitter, in edcamp sessions, on blogs, we talk, and talk, and talk about what would be great to do or how to do great things.  I don’t hear from many people giving  concrete examples of what they are doing.  Let’s share, and share, and share awesome things we do with the kids.  How about a break from philosophical conversations.  It is time to ante up and show and tell, and to not be afraid of being called a show-off. Conferences should be full of teachers super excited to share the awesome things they are doing in their class that push corporate ed-reforms off the table.  If we cannot do that, than how can we possibly be qualified to talk about what we “should” be doing.  Stop telling me how great teachers are.  Stop telling me that teachers need respect.  Let me see what they deserve respect for.  Why do you think common core standards and all the testing has slid in so easily?  Because it is not much different from what was already being done.  Some parents still have no clue what has changed because you just can’t tell.

Yes, conversation at conferences energizes.  But so does coming back to school with amazing ideas to implement and a connection to someone who is already doing it. Amazing things being done in the classroom are catch on to the classrooms next door…philosophical conversations?   Not so catchy.  

Your next tweet, your next blog post, in your next session, in your next conversation…share something you do that is awesome.  

Blogging and being on twitter is not the answer, being connected is not the answer, having 5000 people in your PLN is not the answer, having educators come to the Department of Education is not the answer…being awesome is.  Next year I hope that the sessions revolve around not what we want, but what we do that is awesome.  #eduawesome was supposed to be one of the strands this year, I hope it makes a comeback. Being awesome is the number one defense teachers have against the corporate ed-reforms being pushed upon us. 

Awesome is catchy.

By the way….here is what woke me at 2am after Edcampusa:

Reflection on Edcampusa–Post #1

At Edcampusa on Saturday there was a lot of talk about creating environments to let kids flourish. I was hearing ideas to fix the consequences created by schools–ideas to fix problems that standardizing and warehousing education creates.  To reform schools we could talk about improving them by stating what we need to do to fix the consequences and problems created by our actions, or we can stop doing what is creating the problem. Think about how we flood animals with medication so that they can be warehoused together to be quickly market and table ready in the least amount of time. That makes them grow but does not fix what is causing the problem. Maybe we need to start thinking about it in terms of what are we doing that is getting in the way?  What should we remove? What should we stop doing…how can we get out of their way.



24 Assessments that don’t suck…

One year ago I posted “15 Assessments that don’t suck.”  I have added nine new ones that we did this year to the list.  Click on the titles for more information on each.

RSA Videos

RSA videos are a huge crowd pleaser.  The kids really enjoyed making them.  Post production can be teacher intensive depending on your tech tools available and tech expertise of your kids.

Note card Confessions

I am still tweaking this in my head for next year.  This year it got placed into a unit that was chopped up with half-days, snow days, and scheduling changes.  There is a lot of potential with this.

Full class music videos

What can I say…my favorite.  Not everyone has to sing.  Many different roles are involved for kids of all levels.  Here is one from this year.

Commoncraft Style Videos

I haven’t done Common Craft Style videos in a couple years, but it is a neat gateway project for teachers looking to do something different.

Reader’s theatre

Alright…I know this one seems so simple.  But it can be so powerful.  Take one story and split it into parts…split paragraphs, splits lines, to make it more powerful than if read straight through. The link is actually to one that we did with a primary source.  The students have done them in a variety of styles.  One that stick out is three kids who wrote letters home from the Oregon trail.  Each one read one sentence at a time, but when read it sounded like one single letter.  Again, simple idea, but they take time to play with the information and the processing produces some great learning.  Can be done with two kids, small group, or an entire class.


I am a fan of the assessment that doesn’t smell like an assessment.  We did PSA’s on current problems using the technique’s of 19th Century Progressives.  Each of the PSAs did not on the surface seem to connect to 19th Century United States History. But for example, the student who created the PSA in the link could make a historical connection for each part of her video.  They were all collected onto a Posterous site, but Posterous has since closed!  Here is a link with a little more info on what we did.  I almost deleted this after re-reading this post simply because it is hard to see how this is an assessment, and how it really does connect to our 19th century history unit.  You’ll have to just trust me.

1000 Words

Neat idea that I am refining.  This was the first year I tried it.  I think there is some potential to use it not only with images, but text as well.

Stop Action Animation

An idea that can be very complex, or very simple (the link is to a simple one).  Here is one from this year.

Lip Synch

Take a famous video clip, and have the kids synch what they leaned to it.  Seriously…these always feel like a train wreck when I have tried them.  I always say never again…but then one kid will convince me to try it again.  Not sure about the value, but I can say that it takes so many attempts and practice that they certainly remember the facts.

Reverse Poems

Ok…I have to admit I have not successfully completed these with a class.  They are SOOO hard.  The link brings you to the one that inspires us to keep trying, and here is one from last year and one from this year that was pretty good.  The idea is one perspective when read one way, and the opposite perspective when read the other.  While we have done a bunch on paper, putting them into video can be challenging.

Black-out Poems

These are really neat.  Nothing had the class so quiet and focused this year.  They really need a student to present and explain, don’t really do well standing alone in a blog post.  In person they are a hit.


I loved this assessment.  I really learned a lot from it and and it started a trend for me to start using less technology in class.

Lip synch, dances, and more

Just a bunch of random ideas in this link

Poetry Slam

Simply the one unit that kids talk about years after they graduate.  It is also the unit that is most dependent on the teacher.  I have watched another teacher do the same unit and it simply did not fly.  If you cannot motivate, energize and kick some butt….leave this one alone.

Fish Bowl Discussions + another

Neat way to have more of a conversation rather than a back and forth between teacher and students.


A fun activity that can be used with primary and secondary sources that automatically injects creativity and imagination into the final product.


I don’t often recommend a tool to use with all kids, but I will  recommend Powtoon.  Kids love it.

Personification of Primary Source Documents

I great idea for a lesson I wish I created, but I just ripped it off someone else!

Playing with Blocks

I have been trying to work more “play” into my lessons.  The type of play in which learning is the surprise ending.

Instagramification of History

This is one of those very quick witty assignments.

Making posters

I know, posters are boring, they are tech free, old fashion….but they still have a place in a classroom.


You might have heard of Genius Hour or 20% Time…this is our version.


I realized that because we use computers a lot, there was no physical evidence of our learning anywhere in the school.  From the front door to my door on the top floor, there was no evidence of what anyone in the school is learning about.  We had to change that.

“My Darling Wife…A Civil War Letter”

One of my favorite assessments this year.  It included no original words from the students, but a lot of digging around in primary sources.



“My darling wife…” A Civil War Letter

I have always loved videos that take the lines of many different people and compiled them into one story.

You might have 30 different voices in the video, but they all add up to one shared story.  I have been trying to figure out how to incorporate this idea into into one of my units for over a year.  During our Civil War unit I decided to give it a shot.

To research what life was like during the war for soldiers the students had to find their letters, look for patterns, and then settle on five that exemplified the pattern.  But that never happened.  What then ended up coming to the table with a couple days later were five letters that were simply pretty cool.  Letters that they thought gave them insight into a Civil War soldier’s life.

They came together in groups of 3-6 and looked for patterns.  In each group they had between 15-30 letters.  It was awesome listening to the conversations as they discovered the shared experiences and feelings that soldiers had.  I learned sooo much.  Normally I find letters to meet my lesson’s objective.  I read the letters with a pattern in mind and only look for with letters that fit my predetermined pattern.  Because they went in with no expectations, they found things that I never would have seen.  It really has altered how I will use other sources in the future.  I now realize that even when I wasn’t trying that my questions and the way I used them predetermined their perspective and what they would find.  

The one thing they found that I always missed, was the emotion buried into each of the letters.  They really “met” the soldiers writing the letters and saw the humanity behind them, whereas I had only previously seen the letters as a collection of facts.  I was taken aback, I am not sure how or why it happened.

The video below I picked simply because of the back story.  The group stumbled upon a site that had all the letters of a particular soldier.  Only one girl had come with a letter from the soldier, but at some point the group had all gone back to the site where the letter was found and started reading all of his letters in chronological order.  They fell right into his shoes.  Suddenly half way through the period there was a gasp by all group members.  Everyone’s heads got close to the computer screens as they shouted to re-read a letter because their interpretation must be wrong.  The last letter in the collection was not from the man who wrote love letters home to his wife with descriptions of his battle exploits, but from his commander writing his wife to tell her that her husband had passed.  The man who stopped in the middle of a battle to pick a flower for his love, was not coming home.

The groups compiled one letter made up of lines from all the letters that they found.  All the words they used to build their letter had to come from the primary sources they used. They used complete sentences and often started a sentence with one soldiers words, and ended it with another’s.  The end results were awesome and I saw something that I had never seen before.  Every single group was proud of what they had created.

A Civil War Letter from Moran Mustangs on Vimeo.

We filmed the video in our new room (check it out).  If you do a video like this here are some keys.  Make sure you film close-up.  If they could do it again I would have them go in even closer. Being close is also very important if you don;t have a good mic–fuzzy video is ok, fuzzy audio is never ok.  Use the rule of thirds and don’t put every single head in the middle of the frame.  Make people’s brains readjust and re-focus on each person.  If you only use auto focus (and this is an important one folks) have the kid stand in front of the camera, auto focus, and then place your camera on manual focus.  Place a mark on the ground and have every kid stand on the mark.  I do a line of tape and do “toes on the tape”  which is much better than “stand on the X.” When they are that close 6 inches closer or farther makes a difference.  When the student comes into the camera I clap, and then the student counts to three and talks.  When they are done talking they count to three and walk off after I clap.  That give space on the file to have it fade into the space on the next one.  The clapping creates a spike in your movie editing software that allows you to see when you have to cut the video–we did one continuous shot.  Easier than putting together and editing 50 individual files.  When each kid walks into the frame change the camera angle–one kid on left of frame, next kid on right, one in the middle, etc…easier than having kid stand in different spot.

Ok…next part will sound complicated but it is not 🙂  After video is edited and before music is added, we save it as an MP3–so only a sound file.  We take that sound file and use audacity’s noise removal tool to get rid of the constant air blower things that go non-stop in our rooms.  You find a space in between the words…ahhh  just follow this or youtube it.  Most of that background noise you can easily remove.  Now export the file from Audacity as a WAV file.  Download Levelator, if you don’t know what levelator is and you world with audio and kids be prepared to let me rock your world.  One of the biggest problems recording multiple kids with one mic is that they all speak at different levels.  Levelator will take your kids voices and level them out so that the volume of each is nearly equal.  It can’t work miracles, but it does a pretty great job.  Place the wav file back into the video, place some music in and you are all done 🙂

I let the kids pick there own groups, which in my grade usually end up being male and female.  It was so interesting to hear the final results from both groups.  The girls picked up on how the soldiers were always requesting things from home, missed their loved ones, and the sadness post battle.  The boys talked about battles, being wounded, and lack of supplies.

I do worry about doing this again because I didn’t do anything.  I think it just was given at the perfect time of year when they were ready to dive into something with no help, and it was the time of year when they just started seeing patterns on their own.  I also think because Civil War letters are so easy to find on the web, that every kid was able to find a letter that spoke to them.

“My darling wife…A Civil War Letter”  A neat little assignment that you should consider.

For the social studies teachers, yes there is a major mispronunciation of a city.
She knew it right after she did it. I like leaving stuff like that in there
It’s what happens when 12 year olds get nervous 🙂

One non-negotiable rule…

Five years into teaching I removed the rules from my board. It was school policy that we post them. What happens when a kid talks, how many strikes before getting a detention…

That was the year I realized that rules, policies, and strategies make no difference in student performance. It was the year I realized that classroom culture trumps all, and by removing my list of rules, I removed the unwritten message that told the kids that I will try to catch them when they were “bad” so that I can punish them to make them stop.

In place of the rule poster I put a quote. I don’t remember what it was…one of those touchy feely inspirational quotes. And then I hung another…and another. It made my room feel very different. It went from a room in which motivating and inspiring became more important than consequences and punishments. It took me five years to figure that out.

Soon after that I found that I had unwritten rules being slowly developed. There were rules in my class, but they were not written on the walls. They were subliminal messages sent by me with every interaction I had with a kid, with every assignment I handed out, and with every conversation I had with a kid after each problem.

I slowly started to realize that many of the “negative” behaviors were not caused by “bad” kids, but by kids who were afraid to be awesome. Kids who kept control of their dignity by purposely failing, messing around in class, or any number of other things because if they did not try to be awesome, then they could not fail. It was not about being afraid to “think outside-the-box,” It was bout remaining in control. Getting a kid to move outside of their comfort zone can be very uncomfortable because you have to first convince them that it is ok to lose control of the results. For that to happen you need a room where everyone feels safe, where everyone knows that they will fall, but when they look up, they will see a hand being held out to help them back up…not a set of rules ready to push them back down.

My non-negotiable rule in my room is not for the kids, it is for me.

When they fall, help them up.

It sounds too simple to make a difference, but it is the only rule that does.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine. We were born to make manifest the glory that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Above edited quote from Marianne Williamson

Did I sell my soul for Rock n’ Roll?

Back in January I wrote a post “Should I sell my soul for Rock n’ Roll?”  Well after months of dragging our feet…Phil n’ the Bubbles decided the day before the sbac (no I will not capitalize it) rally that we would do it.  We picked a song, changed the song, and thirty minutes of practice later had it down…kind of.  

Every person on the stage was there to make kids smile.  Every kid in the audience was there to smile. After talking about it with the kids, it was not a rally for standardized testing, it was celebrating getting out of class 🙂  and the opportunity to have unstandardized fun for ten minutes. I had a lot of fun playing the g-tar, and the kids talked about it all day.

It’s too bad the only way we can pull the entire school together to have fun is to throw a pseudo-celebration for the devil in disguise.

I kept the entire recording for historical purposes, the song starts at 1:50.


By any means necessary…

You can skip the post and vote right here(we’re the fourth school down): http://moourl.com/votemoran
(Voting ended May 9th, but maybe they forgot to close it so feel  free to click an attempt!)

I choose Stonehill College 28 years ago because their teaching program put you into the classroom first semester freshman year.  I was placed into an elementary classroom and my professor was Allan Leitman.  Our first job was to produce a video with the elementary class.  It was a big clunky video camera, and we used two Beta decks to record and edit.  If you are of a certain age you know what I am talking about…    I don’t know if all the videos we produced for Professor Leitman count as “digital story telling,” but I know when I first heard the term coined I thought to myself that I was glad I met Professor Leitman way back in 1987.

Digital story telling is powerful stuff.  Putting a video camera in a kids hands and giving them the opportunity to create a story, instead of consuming one, is powerful stuff.  Over the years I have spent lot of money buying cameras to use in my class.  It is difficult to do digital story telling with 1 camera and 100 kids.  It’s even harder to find a place to edit all those videos.  It is even scarier to watch middle school kids pass your camera around that is supposed to be recording your own kid’s concert later that night 🙂

This is yet another year in which our proposed school budget will get cut further.  There will be no video cameras and editing equipment in this budget, there hasn’t been any in the last 24 budgets that I have been a part of.  As I come to the twilight of my career I finally can smell the chance to put a video camera into the hand of each of my kids.  My class entered the ACER Classroom Makeover contest and we are one of the finalists.  If we win we get a set of class tablets.  Not only cameras, but an HD camera, editing station, and research center all-in-one tool.  I simply cannot imagine the freedom it will give a kid to be creative.  No longer will our digital story telling and other video work be confined to “special” projects only when I can bring in my camera.

My kids created a pretty cool video for the contest

It was a blast and we have finally figured out how to green screen and looking forward to being able to produce higher quality green screen videos in the future! 

One of the most influential books that I ever read was the Autobiography of Malcolm X.  I am going to try and get votes for my kids “By any means necessary.”  I have written my high school, my elementary school, wrote a post a month ago, have tweeted it out, every conference session my kids have led this month has ended with a “vote for us” advertisement, and here is yet one more post asking for your support.  

I hate having to ask for a vote, so instead I ask that you visit the site an vote for one class.  If you like our video above, we are the fourth class down on the Acer website which can be found here: http://moourl.com/votemoran  Voting ends May 9, 2014.

If you are worried that you will be putting it into the hands of a class that will just use it as an expensive notebook,  here are some examples of us singing songs, making complicated things simple, making simple videos about complicated things, making complicated videos about complicated things,  taking other’s ideas and adding our own twist,  just having fun with history, and we do audio only too!  For a deeper look into our class please watch our “classroom commercial.”  I think you will see that we will put the tablets to very good use.

Please consider voting for us.

Please consider passing along the link. (Here is a another!)

Thank you.

And yes, we will use the tablets for things other than digital story telling, but that is what I am most excited about!

No experience necessary…


I have three degrees.

I have taught for 23 years.

I have spent 10 years in the toughest urban school.

I have spent 13 years in the typical average suburban school.

I have taught with rules on the board and zero tolerance when broken.

I have taught in classrooms where no rules are needed.

I have given tests that last three days long as a behavior management technique (not proud of it).

I have taught in classrooms where there is total academic freedom.

I have spent years using the textbook everyday.

I have spent years never using a textbook.

I have taught without any money for anything.

I have taught where I can get a laptop cart whenever I wanted it (almost).

I have used construction paper and crayons for activities to decorate our walls.

I have used computers to connect with classroom and professional across the world.

I have done a lot.  

I have a lot of experience as a teacher.

I am and will always be amazed that my experience, and the experience of others like me is totally disregarded when making decisions impacting my kids.  I can talk with people making decisions about what I have to do in the classroom and describe in detail the negative impact it will have on student learning and I will be totally disregarded.  Somehow people who have just taught a few years know more than me. Somehow people who have NEVER taught know more than me.  

Is there any other field in which in order to be considered an expert no experience is needed?

Click–>Education Reform Is Destroying Childhood as We Know It <–click