Saturday, September 7, 2013

Evidence-Based Inquiry Lessons (Made Easy)

Social Studies classes have gotten a bad reputation.  They've become a place of notes, powerpoints, and textbook reading.  If you ask me, this is a result of less money/resources for the social studies classroom...And sometimes social studies classes are taught by a dedicated math, ELA, or science teacher who's been asked to teach some SS classes on the side.  Since teachers don't have many resources, they go to the old standby--notes, powerpoints, and textbooks.

I am guilty of this, but I only teach social studies.  I have no excuse!  Our county has recently started pushing the idea of evidence-based inquiry lessons.  Usually, the focus of these lessons is history (using primary documents).  However, I've found a quick and easy way to do this with any lesson.  Enough blabbing from me! Here is an evidence-based inquiry lesson made easy:

Step 1: Make your students really pumped about being "detectives"!!

A dramatic re-creation.

Step 2: Either give kids a graphic organizer (to write their "findings") or show them how to create one on their own paper.

Something like this.

Step 3: Give the class a higher level thinking question--the focus of the "investigation".

Pulled straight from the standard.

Step 4: Give them a couple of different resources.
Now this is a tough one because many of us don't have these ready-to-go.  We have to search the internet for them, print them out, purchase them, etc.  So what do I use?

Resource #1) CRCT practice book
It covers every standard with information and multiple choice questions.
The only standards-based textbook we have.

Resource #2) CIA World Factbook

Since I teach SS, the CIA World Factbook website really has everything I need to teach my class.  Ideally, all kids would have iPads and would be able to use the website or app when necessary. 

We do not have iPads or computers for each child.  Instead, I go to CIA World Factbook, pull the data & information I need, cite my source, and print out class sets of information pertinent to the lesson of the day.

Resource #3) Articles
My favorite articles come from Mental Floss,, & How Stuff Works.  Obviously, any article that fits your standard will work... But make sure you always preview the article before giving it to kids.  If the article is really long, cut out any information that strays from the main focus of you lesson.  Less is more.

Side-note story: I received an advertisement in the mail yesterday (somehow they knew I was a teacher) offering me "Loans for teachers who need to buy classroom supplies."  WHAT!??!  People actually think I would take out a loan and go into debt for my classroom supplies?!!!  This is so wrong!  Unfortunately many teachers are forced to do things like this to have supplies for their classroom.  This upsets me!  The leadership at my school would never expect me to take out a loan for my classroom.  They would thoroughly discourage it!  It is so frustrating to think there might be a teacher in such a tough spot that this is their only recourse.  :-/


Step 5: Walk-around the classroom like your hair is on fire (checking for understanding, questions, and on-task behavior).

A dramatic re-creation.

Step 6: When students ask you questions, try to answer the question without giving them the answer (by asking another question).


Step 7: At the end of class, ask students what their final decision is.  What is the outcome of their investigation?  The goal of the lesson is the investigation, so as long as their answer makes sense according to their information, then the answer isn't really the important part.

FINAL WORD: The first time you do this lesson, it might be a little rough.  Students are generally accustomed copying, low-level questions, and the absence of opinion.  Trust me when I say it will get better!  Every time you do an inquiry-based lesson, it will get easier and easier.  Just keep up the good fight and you will be pleased with the eventual outcome. 

That should be it!  Not too bad, right?  As always, feel free to leave your comments or ask questions.  You can contact me directly at

Let the investigations begin!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Long Term Memory

It's been a while since my last post (first month of school = constantly busy) so I wanted to write a quick post about the importance of long-term memory learning.

From the beginning of the year, I teach my students the difference between short-term and long-term memory.

Here's how I explain it to my students:

Short-term memory-You'll remember it for your test tomorrow, but a week from now, it might be gone.  It is almost certain it'll be gone a month from now.

Long-term memory-You've been talking/learning about it each day this week, you'll talk about it next week, then next month, and bring it up a few more times over the next few months.  By the end of the school year, you will most likely retain the information from the beginning of the year.

What do I do to help them create long-term memories of the content?
  • At the start of the school year, I go through the standards and pull out the most basic facts and details from each standard (including any enduring understandings).  I compile this into a list and create Unit 1.
  • I teach like my hair is on fire for the first 3-4 weeks of school.  I usually use powerpoints, graphic organizers, real-world connections and videos for these lessons.
  • I greatly encourage my students to study the concepts at least 20 minutes a night, along with sending home many emails (to parents) with back up info for home learning/questioning.
  • At some point, I give a pop quiz (with some warning that it may be coming) to check & see if kids are really studying.  They really sweat this one!!
  • I give the Unit 1 study guide a week in advance and spend a week solid reviewing. 
  • After we take the test, we loop the information for the rest of the year.  Students are exposed to the information again once per month until the end-of-year assessments.
Even if this kind of plan won't work for your subject, you can use looping throughout the year to reassess the concepts.  Put several questions from a previous test onto the next test in a "looping" section.  Or have a looping quiz once every few weeks.  Any way you do it, long-term memory is key for student achievement.

What study skill do you reinforce all year long?  Comment below to share!

Just keep swimming!!  :)

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Latitude & Longitude Lines

Each year, my students wrestle with the concept of map projections.  "Which direction is north?" I ask.  Inevitably, several students point toward the ceiling.  Face palm!

Our brains are trained to think of the world with England at the center, Antarctica at the bottom, and (seemingly) two Pacific Oceans separated by the Americas, Africa, Europe, Asia, & Australia.  From the first week, I try to break them of this habit.  I show a brief powerpoint of as many map projections as I can find.  I pull the globe off it's mount and flip it upside down. 

I've done something a little different this year.  With a roll of masking tape and a sharpie, I've given Obertopia our own Equator and Prime Meridian!

A simple idea, but it made a big impact during open house and the first days of school.  Just make sure to remove it if you're giving a map quiz!  :)

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Door Decor

About a week ago, I discovered an article on BuzzFeed titled This Classroom Is The Doorway To Adventure.  The article features a series of classroom doors that have been decorated in awesome ways!  Since my classroom is the magical land of Obertopia, and I am the Queen, I was inspired to create a castle door!

Step 1: Cover the door with your paper of choice.  My original choice was pink, but we didn't have pink.  Dark blue it is!

To find the castle I wanted, I did a google image search for "Cinderella Castle coloring page".  After I found my favorite, I created a transparency.  My ink-jet printer doesn't create very good transparencies, so I traced the coloring page onto the transparency sheet with a sharpie.

This reminds me of my middle school days in math class.
I projected the castle onto the door and moved it around until I was happy.  I also got the opinion of the other teachers on my team.  Thanks, Mr. Stanley and Mrs. Knauff!

My original idea was to create a castle around the door frame with the door being the actual door to the castle, but I didn't quite know how to do that with the scale I wanted.

I traced the castle onto the door with a silver sharpie (more specifically-2 silver sharpies).
I used green construction paper for the trees at the bottom.

I colored in more windows to add contrast.
I love how it turned out, but it still needed something...

An Obertopia banner, perhaps?

The finished product (for now).

So what are your thoughts?  Should I add something more?  Do you decorate your door?  Let us know about it in the comments below or by emailing us

Have a magical day!

Monday, July 29, 2013

Rural, Suburban, & Urban

In my social studies class, we are always coming across new words in articles and documents.  I usually move quickly over these words without much thought until a brave student pipes up, "What does that word mean?"  Whoops!  I forgot they didn't know everything I know!

One of my favorite parts of being a teacher is being able to create illustrations that help my students understand a concept beyond a basic definition.  Last year I came up with an illustration for the concepts of urban, rural, and suburban.  We have a standard in 6th grade which requires us to discuss population density and why people live where they live.

I always try to create things electronically first.  For this illustration, I used Microsoft Publisher.

Usually an urban area (city) is surrounded by a suburban area ('suburbs' such as lesser populated neighborhood areas).  Usually suburbs are spread out in area, hence the name suburban sprawl.  But even more spread out than the suburbs are rural areas.  Rural areas are least populated and are usually farthest away from cities.  Here you are likely to find farms and large undeveloped areas.

After creating it electronically, I project it onto my poster board and start tracing.  I get a lot of compliments because the posters look really nice, but the tracing makes it so easy!

Here is a picture of me, tracing.  :)

After tracing the circles in pencil, I decided to go straight for the Sharpie to save time.  Before you do this, make sure you are not at risk of bleeding through your paper/poster. 

Done!  Looks so good!  Now all that's left is laminating!

Laminated and on the wall!  So excited!

This poster took about 2 hours to create from start to finish.  Last year, when I originally came up with the idea for this illustration, I just drew it on the board with dry erase markers.  That worked just fine, but I prefer to have something permanent that stays on the wall throughout the year.  Whenever I get ready to teach this concept, I'll pull it down and explain it in detail... Then back on the wall it goes!  I can also use it to create a YouTube video for the Obertopian YouTube channel.  As always, the KEY with vocabulary is to make students use it during class so often that it stops being vocabulary and becomes part of their everyday language. 

What illustrations have you created to help teach concepts to your students?  Comment and let us know or share it via email:

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Super Easy Picket Fence Headboard

In our home we have a few extra bedrooms.  Even though we don't currently need them and they sit mostly unused, it drove me nuts that they weren't decorated.  However, I'm pretty frugal, so I wanted a cheap solution.  The room I wanted to finish had only a small nightstand and a twin box spring/mattress set.  While perusing the aisles at Home Depot one fine day, I found some awesome pickets!  You know... These things:
$1.42 a piece at Home Depot.  4 ft tall and 4 in wide.
I bought 6 of them, along with 2 cross pieces.  I white-washed (before assembly) the sides that were going to face the room.  The white wash was half-water, half-paint.  Side note: If you want a lighter white wash and would like more wood grain to show, then use more water than paint.  Once dry, I spaced the pickets out the width of the bed (a twin).  I measured and cut my cross pieces to fit the width.
I wanted both cross pieces to show, so I made sure to place them high enough to be visible over the mattress/box spring height.

As soon as I had the pickets right where I wanted them, I screwed the entire thing together.  Recommendation: Use your level!  If you screw the whole thing together and are ready to install, you'll be disappointed if it's crooked.  Screw all 12 joints for maximum stability. 

I picked my location and screwed the entire headboard into the studs using 4 screws.  If you do not hit a stud, you may want to use toggle bolts or anchors.
Sweet Dreams!

Next step: I need to paint that side-table!  Maybe next weekend...

Planning Lessons with a Year-Long Focus

I teach in Georgia.  The academic content of Georgia schools is guided by the GPS (Georgia Performance Standards).  There are some people who don't like the GPS, and some who feel they compel educators to teach to the test

I do not feel this way. 

If I taught only what the standards ask me to teach, and if I taught it in a way that had no relevant, worldly relate-ability, then YES, I would be teaching to the test... But no good teacher teaches that way.  And furthermore, it usually takes a few years for a teacher to create relevant & relate-able lessons.  Unfortunately, if teachers are constantly being shuffled from position-to-position each year, they will probably end up teaching to the test because they don't have time to become content experts. 

All that aside, you've now been asked to teach social studies and you need to start planning some lessons.  Let's get rolling.

A picture of me my first year teaching.  My arms and legs are a little bigger now.

What you'll need:
  • a paper calendar (preferably of the entire school year - be sure to include important dates like the end of terms, standardized tests, and student holidays)
  • your favorite writing utensil!! 
  • classroom white board with markers
  • a notebook or a bunch of paper (for random lesson ideas that will inevitably pop into your head while planning)
  • the standards you must teach for the year
  • a content resource of some kind (test prep book, text book, or even the internet)
This might be a little time consuming at first, but the more you do it, the more efficient you'll become. 

Step 1: Clean off the white board of everything.  Make a giant grid on the board, 5 rows by 36 columns.  There should be a box for every day of the school year (Our system has a 180-day calendar).  Put the dates (small) in the upper corners of the boxes. 

Step 2: Using your standards, county pacing guide (if you have one), white board, and paper calendar, give every day a standard.  I recommend going day-by-day, from start of school year to the end.  Write the standards on the days you will cover them.  Write when you will give your tests (or projects).  When will you give a quiz?  If a standard will take 2 days, give it 2 days.  Keep your 9-week terms in mind if you will need a certain number of grades within a 9-week period.  Keep writing until you have no more standards left.  My collaborative team and I can usually complete this in about 2-3 hours.  While I'm writing, the other teachers look up articles, find past tests, edit the tests (if necessary), and help me 'guesstimate' how long a standard might take us.

This is what the board looks like when we're done.  Not pictured: Unexplainable Relief
Some other things you might want to include:
  • 'Pass out study guide' dates (I try to have study guides in students' hands 3 days prior to a test)
  • 'Introduce the Unit' days (come up with something fun to get kids excited about what they're about to learn)
  • 'Catch-Up' dates (give yourself some wiggle-room!)
  • Movie dates (if you plan to show any content related movies)
  • Standardized test dates (those are your Superbowl, after all!)
  • Early-release days or short-schedule days (you will not be able to cover as much content on these days)

Step 3: Start planning.  The nice thing about getting the calendar done is that you can plan individual lessons on a weekly basis (or monthly if you're amazing like that!).  All of my lessons need 4 things:
  1. A content-resource (article, primary document(s), textbook, CRCT practice book, video, PPT or Prezi presentation (rare!), etc.) 
  2. A way for students to organize their information (graphic organizer, guided notes, poster, essay, "Clue-Organizer", "Learning-Team Pass-Around", etc.)
  3. A real-world connection (current events, famous movies/music/tv shows, personal stories, video games, smart phone apps, "When you grow up" advice, etc.)
  4. HUMOR!  Add it in as often as possible.  They'll listen more because they don't want to miss something!
Stick to your calendar.  Use learning teams as often as possible to avoid burn-out.  Use your content resources to answer the question "What do I need students to know about this standard before we move on?"  But be careful!  Sometimes you'll feel compelled to teach TOO much!  In college, I took a semester long class called "The History of Modern India".  If we wanted to, we could teach the entire year on only one topic - it just depends on how deep you go.  Which leads us to...

Step 4: Be realistic with what you should/shouldn't teach (in terms of time).  Google the word 'monarchy'.  Wait... I'll do it for you.

17,400,000 results!
I have to teach this concept each year, but I cannot teach everything there is to know about monarchies (nor do I want to)!  I teach based on the context of my other standards, the countries I cover, and the age of my students (6th grade - 10/11 years).  I keep it as simple as possible while still teaching with rigor.  What does the standard require me to teach?  "What is a constitutional monarchy?"  I could teach this in 5 minutes.  However, it wouldn't be very relevant or memorable.  So instead, I do something like this:
-teach the basic definition of constitutional monarchy
-discuss it (via student-led groups) in context of the countries where it can be found
-bring in an article about the royal family (Last year it was an article about the marriage of Will & Kate)
-compare constitutional monarchies to what we have in the USA

I really want to incorporate this picture into my lesson this year.  Amazing!

After a few months have passed, we bring it up again in the context of Canada (and then later again in the context of Australia).  Any students that didn't "get-it" the first time will hopefully hop on this time... And those students who "got-it" the 1st time are building long-term memory understanding.  WIN WIN!!

What do you do to make sure you cover all the material before time runs out?  I'd love to hear your hints, tips... whatever!  As always, if you have any questions, you can contact me at

Best of luck!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Positive (and FREE) Reinforcement for the Classroom

Motivating students.  Every teacher's goal, right?  But sometimes we get discouraged/frustrated/overwhelmed and we start counting down the days to summer vacation.. Not saying counting down the days is bad, but how can we learn to enjoy each day?

I've tried several different things over the years and have finally found my favorite... But before we get to that, let me tell you what hasn't worked for me.
  • My 1st year teaching, I would give out "G-Money" currency (my last name used to start with 'G') whenever someone did something great.  Students could then buy stuff with it at the end of the 9 weeks. 
    • The problem: I was constantly printing out g-money.  I was not consistent with giving out the g-money.  I had to purchase rewards, which got to be expensive (even though I bought cheap stuff from  Keeping up with the rewards was almost as much work as planning my lessons!
"What do you mean you don't want a transparent ruler bookmark thingy?!"

  • Yelling.
    • The problem: This never works.
"Do your work!"

  • Student of the Week/Month
    • The problem: I was not consistent.  I would get too busy and two/three months would pass.  I also did it BIG-I would take their picture, have them fill out a survey, make a poster, and give them a chicken biscuit coupon.  It was a lot of work and $$.  Also, sometimes there are too many good students to choose just one.
"As soon as I get through these files, I should finally have time to make that poster."
  • Party/Game Day for the students with an 85% or above average.
    • The problem: With standardized tests happening 6 weeks before school is out, that leaves us only 30 weeks to cover 36 weeks worth of content.  Each day is very important if we want to cover all material prior to test time.  Party days are fun, but (in my opinion) they are a waste of time.  If I'm doing my job right, most days in my class should be fun anyway.  Also, there are some kids who just struggle.  They are not lazy or bad, so I don't want to "punish" them by not letting them participate in game day.  Again, this is my opinion, but I feel strongly about it.
  • Candy prizes.  I'll admit... I do give candy out for special occasions such as Christmas or the Last Day of School.  But I used to think it was good to give kids candy as a motivator. 
    • The problem: I think it's ridiculous to use Pavlovian conditioning on my students.  Remember Ivan Pavlov?  The guy who conditioned dogs to salivate when they heard a bell?  When my students grow up and enter the real world (college, jobs, etc.), they will not always get an immediate reward for good work.  And candy can get expensive.  AND worst of all, I will eat the candy if it's in my room!  I do not need that temptation.

So after all that failure, why keep trying?  Because teaching doesn't pay enough to keep going when you hate your job!  And students deserve more than a curmudgeon teacher.

"I love my job... Really."

The answer: We must find some easy things that we can realistically keep doing throughout the year. 

Here is what has worked for me:

1. "The Unicorn Club"
If my students score a 100% on a summative assessment (such as a test, project, or essay), they get their name on a unicorn and they become part of the "Unicorn Club".  Some students have made multiple 100s, so they are in the club multiple times.

2. "Benchmark Champions" Wall
Similar to the Unicorn Club, the Benchmark Champions wall gives kids another chance to have their name up for all to see.  In our county, we have quarterly tests called "Benchmarks".  Kids are expected to do well on these tests based on the content pacing guide.  However, students don't know exactly what will be on the test.  They also are not given a study guide for these tests.  Our leadership looks at these scores.  So how can we make kids care about their benchmark grade?  Having their names on the wall as a Benchmark Champion is like a badge of honor.  
Each color signifies a different class period, and the owls are for students who made a perfect 100%.

3. Examples of Good and Bad work
This one is a pretty common thing for a lot of teachers.  Many school districts even require teachers to do this.  It's important for students to know your expectations.  Students should also be shown what a bad example looks like.  I always create the bad example because I don't want to embarrass anyone.  I sometimes create a bulletin board for this purpose, but I've also given a brief Powerpoint presentation describing "The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly."

4. Keeping them focused on "The Big Game".
I did not watch sports until I met my husband.  Of course, I would sometimes watch the Superbowl and I usually watched the Olympics...  But now, if our TV is on, there's a 60% chance it's sports related TV.  As much as this bores me (sorry, honey), it has given me a whole new way to connect with my students.

As a class, we have several "Big Games" we are preparing for.
  • The most obvious "big game" we prep for is the CRCT (our end-of-year standardized test). The CRCT is our Superbowl and the kids know that it is my job to Coach them.  If they follow my lead, they will succeed! (hey, that rhymed!)
  • We also prep for seventh & eighth grade, thru to high school and college.  I am constantly telling them how much easier social studies will be for them in the future if they give me everything they've got TODAY.  
  • Finally, we prepare for real life!  I love teaching a subject that so heavily involves current events.  I try to connect everything we learn to the real world.  Otherwise, why do they really need to know it??  Isn't everything google-able?!  We have to tell kids why it matters.  Don't you get frustrated when your boss tells you to do something but they don't tell you why?  Aren't you more likely to give it 110% if you agree with the purpose behind the task?  So will our students.

5. Find your "go-to" respectful phrase to get students on task.
It's inevitable.  You give an assignment and expect students to start working, but there are always a few who goof-off and waste time.  What I used to do is say something to those kids, usually louder than I should... "Get on task, please!"  But wait!  95% of the class was already on task!  What about them??  So here's what I've started saying:

"Thank you everyone that's already doing what I've asked."
"Thank you for being quiet."
"Thank you for working so well today!"
"I am so impressed with these on-task discussions." 

Now, I'm serious about this!  You might not notice a difference the first day, but eventually the students that are on task will be grateful for your compliments and they will be on your side.  And ideally, the "problem" kids will start to want the compliments, too.  If the misbehavior continues, follow through with your consequences (such as a discipline board). 
6. If you only do one thing, then create a genuine classroom community.
Every human being on Earth wants to feel like they are part of a respectful, caring community.  If we can give our students this in our classroom, we have achieved something great!  For more information on how I try to do this, please read my post titled "What is Obertopia?"