Building Classroom Climate

Welcome guest blogger,  Anita Pawlewicz! 


Classroom climate. What is it and how does it contribute to student learning?  These were the questions raised in a post-observation conversation between Melissa and myself.  Melissa commented on the engagement of my students and was curious about my feelings on developing a positive classroom environment.   This was one question I was prepared to answer~and oh boy am I unprepared for so many others.  With the growing demands on our profession, one thing I feel I have complete control over is my relationship with my students.  There isn’t a standard attached to this element of my classroom.  I don’t reference a rubric or use academic language to describe it.  Instead this is the human part of our profession. It  begins with a greeting at the door, eye contact and a handshake welcoming each child as they enter the room.  My partner, Sue Tavolacci taught me years ago the value of this ritual.  You can tell who didn’t get enough sleep, who might have had a tough ride on the bus, and who’s ready to take on the day.  My entire team gathers to welcome the children each morning-we banter with one another, laugh and start the day together.  The atmosphere in our hallway is one of unity and humor.  I am proud to be a member of a team that builds relationships with their students.  We regularly visit one another’s classrooms to tell a joke, say hello, or ask a question.  The students witness collegiality and genuine friendship.  We are modeling what it means to be a member of a community.  The other piece of this equation requires risk.  I let my students into my private life.  I share stories about my children~Emily’s quirky nature and Claire’s bold hold on her future.  Mr. P visits throughout the year spending time to get to know the children who are such an integral part of my life.  My dog Remington is blown up to heroic proportions.  Ask a child in my class who is the best dog in the world-they better answer Remi!!!

These little things build trust and relationship that goes beyond the teacher/student experience.  We become family.  Another simple thing I have done to build atmosphere is taking pictures of my students throughout the year.  I frame these photos and place them around the class, mimicking the way we put pictures of our children on walls throughout our home.  I also take a group photo of the parents in  attendance at curriculum night.  This photo is also framed and placed in a prominent area~a reminder that their parents have a place in our classroom.  We are a team.

As I close, I smile thinking of all the little “life-bits” my daughters brought home throughout their years in Marcellus.  Examples of my colleagues creating classrooms that went outside the four walls they taught in, beyond standards and assessments.  Mrs. Tonzi modeling a strong woman while not being afraid to recognize the importance of chivalry~teaching both male and female students life lessons on respectful relationships; Mr. Hunter sharing his passion for psychology and the human experience propelling Claire towards her career; Mrs. Dixie teaching me that the study of Uranus never ends well- “Mom, did you know Uranus is a swirling mass of gas?”    A mother has to wonder, “How could both daughters be given the same dreaded planet?”  Consider our power, our impact on children.  The climate of education sometimes places teachers on the offense.  I say, take the time to build relationships with your colleagues, with your students and with your community.  Share, let people in, and before you know it you’ve got an army behind you working for you and with you.


A place for wikis in social studies

I have spent this afternoon reflecting on how I use wikis in my middle school social studies class, and I was surprised at the number of examples I was able to come up with! At first I thought literally, what have I used WikiSpaces for? Mostly, I use the page to have my students collaborate on their work. They do a larger website project and this is a place for them to compile their research notes. In the end it looks like an annotated bibliography. Each student adds a few different resources. My students like to start things in school and complete for homework, and I’ve found that having an assignment web-based encourages completion. When they need to transport information back and forth I lose the students in the bottom third. This assignment is used to create a larger webpage, the product they “turn in.” They also peer critique each other on our WikiSpaces page. They review each others’ projects and comment on what should be improved before the due date. This project is spaced out over a month, while we are marching along with the district’s curriculum map. This enables me to give the students time to review each others’ work or to build their notes sheets gradually. Of course, it takes an ability to organize your time and work on multiple assignments. But, 8th grade seems an age-appropriate time for this responsibility, and most rise to the occasion.

Thinking about wikis in a general sense, I think any place where kids can work online to build content knowledge meets the same goal. Collaborative and constructive learning is ideal for middle school kids. If I think about it from this angle, I reflect on the use of VoiceThread, Wallwisher (now Padlet), and website building projects. Even further, I might consider a hybrid type of assignment that structures itself around a webquest like Glogster or Clarkson’s Museum Box. Students work together to discover information and build a report back to the teacher and their peers. I also like the Fakebook/Facebook project for this same reason. Students build a fake Facebook page and write on each others’ “walls” historically appropriate comments.

When students work together to build their knowledge we know that they adapt it to fit their schema. This constructivist approach that incorporates teamwork or collaborative learning helps students find an authentic audience and this encourages high quality results.

New Year…New Approach

As the Common Core has taken over our instruction, we need to think critically how we structure our classroom time.

The ELA shifts demand that we think about the primary sources we choose to use. I have focused on complex readings that have an element of surprise or alarm to them. I want me students to get the sense that reading complex texts is rewarding. That they will get to enjoy the “adult” elements that are usually denied them in the watered-down version of middle school. They know there is a bigger, ‘badder’ world out there, and they also know we are holding out on them. I want them, even if it is unconsciously, to realize that if they delve into the texts of history themselves they will get to hear the real story, the exciting and compelling version of the story.

Another key area of focus needs to be on academic vocabulary. I work in a fantastic community where parents have obviously read to their children from a young age. Most of our kids come to us with reasonably well-developed vocabularies. Those who do not have a firm grasp on age-appropriate terms stand out clearly. So for me it has been a striking a more purposeful balance between teaching content-specific vocabulary words (ie. militarism, imperialism) and those academic words that students need to know as functioning American adults (ie. hypothesis, infer, analyze). This is not an easy balance to find, and truthfully, it does not clearly come across in our curriculum maps. We are given lengthy, seemingly never-ending vocabulary lists to manage.  Many of the words are foreign to the typical adult; when is the last time you used scalawag in a sentence?! The question is what do we do with what we already teach? Who makes the decisions about what to cut out? The school year is not getting longer, that is for sure. This is the point when leadership becomes incredibly important.

To move forward with the implementation of the curricular shifts my colleagues and I have created a new reading activity for each of our units. We will spend the class period reading the piece aloud, sometimes twice. When challenging words arise within these readings we take the time to learn them and break them down to discuss their meaning. I think just this purposeful digesting  of vocabulary and difficult text helps kids understand how they should do it themselves when alone. It is a form of literacy education that manifests itself as modelling or coaching. The readings are all followed by comprehension questions and a writing activity. The writing activities allow the students time to express themselves for different purposes and in varying lengths. There are poems, newspaper articles, presidential speeches-a wide variety of primary source texts. They are adding a spice to my units that I had not anticipated. For example, we added a piece by Ida Tarbell. I have found countless excuses to reference it since we tackled it together in class. How much  more meaningful to learn about Muckrakers when you’ve spent time with their work, when you’ve understood and been their authentic audience.

In all it has been a rather smooth transition to the Common Core. I expected a rough haul, a lot of inter-departmental bickering, and some pushing by the ELA teachers. Not so. Instead, people are choosing which way to take it and how far to go with it. This may be a result of the lack of a summative assessment. Essentially, the state has left the implementation up to us. That is a scary notion!

If you are interested in copies, please ask!

A reflection on Applebee’s Curriculum as Conversation

Applebee’s discussion Curriculum as Conversation rang true to me on several levels. I do agree that memorizing a string of unrelated facts, as my course on modern American history can easily become, is boring, un-engaging, and useless for the students as they move into adulthood.  It is often structured chronologically or using Applebee’s terminology, sequentially, and lacks a cohesive organizing principle (73). This stringing effect has students whirling through the course, trying to memorize as much as they can as quickly and painlessly as possible. Some see it as something they must stomach and get past, sadly.  I think for many adults reflecting on their history classes they remember this overall picture. Teacher lectures, test, essay, and repeat. Not only is this boring, but the students cannot see how it will impact their adult life, and who can blame them?

I have thought a lot about the transfer of this knowledge and creating purpose for their learning, but I can’t say that I have achieved much. Applebee used the illustration of the career teacher who gradually restructured his class to meet his goals. In some ways I see myself doing the same thing. Initially, it was survival. Staying one step ahead of my students in the textbook, and making sure I had enough activities to get me through the week. Then, I worked on my organization, the quality of my materials, and the choices that I made when picking resources.  The next step for me was integration of vocabulary, a focus on reading nonfiction material at a higher level, and writing in a more meaningful way. Most recently it has been adding technology to meet these same goals in a way that engages the students. I have struggled for years with the lack of cohesiveness in my class, and I have considered the integration of social studies concepts as a way to bridge this gap. I can see the subtle difference Applebee makes when comparing an episodic and integrated curriculum (76). I am currently entrenched in an episodic model, hitting the big events in modern history, dealing with each topic as if it were on an island. The assessments measure students’ knowledge of facts, but I never quite get to how they all relate to one another. My idea of introducing the concepts (particularly citizenship, economy, and crimes against humanity) was to allow students to explore topics that fell under these umbrellas-past and present-and relate them back to the concepts. The relating has not really happened. Each did the study in small groups or independently, and those who struggle overall totally missed the boat. We are going to work on a portfolio of our learning at the end of the year, and this text has me thinking that this may play an important part. If I follow Applebee’s description of an integrated curriculum then each new topic they study should add to the conversation on each concept. Their new experiences (ie. looking at each others’ studies, discussions of historical events in class, etc.) would build these conversations. Their portfolio pieces would be a summary of their learning throughout the year and create evidence of their learning.

What I was missing in Applebee’s book was a clear description of the how. As I reflected when away from the book I kept thinking to myself, OK, I agree, but how do you do it?? I try to get my classes to “discuss” but it turns into me summarizing the various points of view. I appreciated Applebee’s comment, “the pressure for coverage is usually a villain…” creating a monologue where a dialogue should exist (56). With the state testing requirements, we are asked to cover too much too quickly. Teachers become gluttonous with our time, acting like taking any is the ultimate sin. My colleagues balk at the idea of guest speakers or changes in schedule for nearly any reason because it will take their instructional time. We want to waste it when we want to, not let others make this choice for us, because waste we certainly do.  The seventh and eighth grade social studies curriculum in New York is a mile wide and an inch deep. The students must memorize a ridiculous number of facts and names with little connection built in. I can totally agree with Applebee that this is villainous to conversation and dialogue, but in some ways it is a cop-out. The teacher can make choices to limit and edit, emphasize and de-emphasize creating time. I don’t want to use this heady pace as an excuse for me doing the Melissa Show in the front of the classroom.  I think I need to take a step back and give them time to think, process and share without me jumping in and giving the possible answers. Still, the how bothers me.

I think the point where I bought into what Applebee was saying was when he acknowledged that the motivation behind students contributions can be complex (102). Their interpersonal relationships in middle school are the stuff of legends, and we cannot downplay their importance. Further, what we as the instructors choose to elaborate on and ignore is also full of meaning. I think instantly to a child who offers personal and out of context information during class-constantly. I know that I shut her down, and I’m sure it’s hurtful, but it’s also extremely irritating! Her peers ostracize her. I struggle with my reaction to her, and how to guide her towards becoming more socially appropriate. I also really appreciated Applebee’s comments that teachers must be lifelong learners in the domain that they teach. So much of our professional development is focused on pedagogy with the assumption that our undergraduate degrees gave us all the content knowledge that we will ever need. It is extremely difficult to find night courses that satisfy these needs. Most are offered during the day to undergraduates. Professional courses are much easier to come by. Personally, I had a minor in history and never studied American history at all in college. Now I teach it. That’s frightening, and I’m sure not all that unusual. I have learned most of what I know about my content through videos and reading since I began my job. Applebee makes a good point, that without this continuous learning the current discourse on a subject will be unknown to us in the field.

I believe that Applebee means the doing of the domain is the conversation, not simply that a dialogue should happen on every topic every day. “Doing” history can mean so many different things. I can appreciate that a guiding authentic question can lead the way and structure the class for both a high standard of achievement but also an appropriate level of challenge (107). As I discussed, I have altered my teaching so that I include a vocabulary “word of the day” and I think along the same path, adding an authentic and probing question could move my class more towards an integrated curriculum from the episodic one it currently is. This question could be repeated, one we come back to for example, or it could be one that guides a mini unit or lesson.  I can see these questions tying into our concepts, somehow helping us to elaborate on their study and connect them to our daily topics. Overall, I much appreciated Applebee’s suggestion and can see it impacting the curriculum of my classroom.


Applebee, Arthur N. Curriculum as conversation: transforming traditions of teaching and learning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Print.

Community-centered classroom

JJ & Owen

Ewww animal pelts!

I’ve given a bit of thought to the idea of a community-centered classroom as we approach Manlius’ bicentennial year. This year Anne Mentor and I worked on a project that connected our students to Manlius. They were given a brief in-class overview of Manlius’ history, then had a lecture by Barbara Rivette, the town historian, and a “trunk” show by Donna Nortman, the town curator. Overall, the kids really found the presentations interesting and reflected how they were unaware of their town’s history before this. Probably most enjoyable was the trunk show where they were able to handle different objects from the museum. White gloved students passed pelts, dress hats from the military academy, and photographs. It was an interesting collection. The culminating activity was a four-person panel discussion. All 200 eighth graders were gathered in the LGI to ask long-time Manlius residents about their experiences here. It was interesting, and the kids asked some great questions. The panelists ranged in age from their early nineties to their mid-sixties. It was interesting to hear their varied experiences.

The hardest part for the kids was making sense of the historical timeline. They could process the early American history from the historian, and they appreciated the modern stories and anecdotes, but I could tell that putting it all together was a challenge.

Using Reflective Portfolios in Social Studies

There is an obvious use for portfolios in showing student growth. Adobe ProX really offers a workable solution to meet this instructional goal. It allows us to collect key materials in one simple location, and is a very creative format. Our students begin their portfolios in their seventh grade English classes. The question I’ve been reflecting on lately is, how can we use this already-in-place technology to support our social studies learning goals?

First, I reflected on the goals I currently have for my students. Immediately comes to mind reading for information (difficult to illustrate in a single document, so I’m thinking that’s out), writing to demonstrate analysis (a well-done, or perhaps revised DBQ?), and using technology tools for the creation of a historical presentation (maybe a Prezi?). I also have an extensive web building project in place, so I would like to include these pages, as well. So, what I arrive at is a DBQ (boring), their websites, and maybe a Prezi or PowerPoint. I obviously also want my students to know the content chosen by NYS, but I think that is achieved in our typical testing. A series of known facts doesn’t really belong in a portfolio, in my opinion.

 I’m not sure this is an essential or even meaningful activity, but it feels important to add to the depth of their portfolios. It is also is a departure from the typical demonstration of learning in the format of a multiple choice exam. Their grades say a lot, but a produced piece with depth seems to carry more weight. Further, I think it calls on the individual to show what they have created and reflect on their year-long journey through our class.

Thinking on how to strengthen the activity, we could have students write a series of reflective statements that connect these products to the job of an actual historian. I wouldn’t want to add another essay (repetitve of English class’s requirements and more than I can grade at the end of the year). The goal of these statements would be to have them think on the path of their learning, skills gained, content learned, etc. Conceptually, this would aid in their metacognition, something 8th graders really lack the maturity to do on their own, thus encouraging individual growth.

To put the activity in place, first I would need to encourage students to set up a Portfolio folder in their personal social studies folders on our server. This would serve as a collection space for them to store what they plan to use later. Second, I would create an expectations sheet to be distributed towards the beginning of the third quarter. This would help students start to collect their pieces, inform them on my plans and start the project in motion. Third, I would create a series of detailed instructions accompanied by a rubric. This would be distributed at the beginning of the fourth quarter. I would also need to plan on at least three lab periods to give students a chance to do the work of collecting, saving and reflecting.

Historical Fiction

In school I really didn’t dig social studies all that much, but I loved historical fiction. It was easy to imagine yourself as Queen Mary or even as a peasant in some far away place. Now, as a social studies teacher, I strive to capture that story for my students. They seem to still need it, children at heart! The past few years I have started introducing historical fiction in place of a project or essay for two units a year. Initially, it was a reaction to the tremendous collection of historical fiction we had at our school library. Now, its something I can see that the kids really enjoy. We are starting our first book tomorrow, and with new students I am always a little nervous to see how they will react to it.

We have just finished their unit on westward expansion, so this book has to be “wild west” related. I have the librarian pull as many as she can find and then I dig through our book closet to make sure we have enough to go around. Usually, its close to 125 choices. The best set up is to have the librarian give a “book talk”, sharing her opinions on each book then passing them along to the students. They grab up whichever sounds good to them. This gives them a chance to really think and choose for themselves. I usually give them the remainder of the period to read, then they do the rest on their own.

The culminating “project” has been a short book report-type packet where I ask them for characterization, story plot, summary, setting, etc. This year, the English teacher and I might incoporate it into their writers’ notebook. Always looking for ways to make sure they’ve read. It can be difficult with them all doing separate books. One of my favorite ways is to have them do five minute writes at the start of a period where they reflect on how it connects to the historical period we are studying.

Web-Building Project-A Yearlong Adventure Comes to a Great Conclusion!

This year I tried to expand my students’ exposure to new topics through a conceptual approach to American history. We began the year looking at topics of their choosing under the umbrella of citizenship. The second quarter was economy, and the third was crimes against humanity. These loosely marched along with our chronological study of modern American history. The last and final unit I chose civil rights/post war period. This approach really pushed us to look at a menu of topics we normally wouldn’t even touch.

I decided to approach this study by having the students build content websites as small groups. I chose the heterogeneous groups of 4-5 students, and they were encouraged to choose a group name and associated icon. I wanted to encourage classroom community, and I also realized that this type of activity was going to be new for most students so they would essentially be starting on equal footing. Next, the students divided up their tasks that I called “components”. They choose from the following: digital overview, short essay summary, encyclopedia articles, additional websites, literature/poetry, art/photography, virtual field trip, and movies/music. I hoped these areas would help them to explore each topic broadly. Each component was broken down with specific requirements. For example, the five required encyclopedia articles had to have their text included, have a link to the article, be correctly cited and be summarized in their own words.

To ensure that their work would be utilized and not just disappear into the oblivion of school projects, I required that each student “peer critique” a site created by their classmate a week before the due date. They made their comments on a Google docs page that was published in a floating box on the final page. This allowed me to see what improvements they chose to make. After their own project was complete, each student was required to visit four websites outside their own class set. They filled in paper “Visitor’s Guides” to reflect on the site and connect it through the concept to their own. This proved to be a real challenge to the students, especially those who are unwilling to think for themselves.  There probably is a better way to do this step, and I would love some suggestions!

A few immediate challenges: computer access, scheduling work time and deadlines within my curriculum, how to grade group work appropriately and fairly, resistance and hesitation from my colleagues and students, LMS or delivery method of dates and materials. As each module moved on we reflected, made changes, expanded, eliminated, and assessed the project. I frequently surveyed my students, and challenged them to try new applications and roles. For some classes I changed up the groups, for others I allowed them to vote and continue on with the same ones.

For the fourth and final module I had the students work independently. This was not well-received. Several students had requested independent work in the surveys, but I quickly found that these voices were not the loud ones typically heard in class! Regardless, I have been pleasantly surprised by the depth and breadth of their final products.   Not only have they learned the web lingo they will need in the future, but they have explored at least four topics they would other wise no knowledge of, and been exposed to countless others. Overall, very much worth the time and effort!

Please check out our finished products!

Video..In a Social Studies Classroom?

Well, obviously. I use video constantly. But I have to admit, my videos have been narrowly limited to the dusty collection we have in the department. I did some exploring on Discovery early on, saved the ones I liked, and uploaded them to my website. I also made sure to attach them to my Smart Notebook files so they were already included in my lessons.  Ahhh..done. Ok, maybe not. Actually, pathetically inadequate. I was left unaware until I had a student teacher last spring how outdated this was. YouTube is phenomenal!! Any song, movie, topic…anything! One of my favorites is actually MythBusters (yes the TV show) is perfect for my class! I can’t even imagine it in science.  Lately, I have been turned on to  My students use it frequently for projects because it is not blocked by the firewall. Check out this short clip on Emperor Hirohito.  The only drawback of this site is they do have advertisements in the beginnings. 
The only problem I see with video, there are just way too many of them!

“Facebook” and Instruction

I have long felt that we should embrace Facebookand its role in our society. It goes without saying that it is the social network of our time. Certainly most of our students either have a Facebook or at least no what it is. Facebook claims they have over 500 million active users; that is just phenomenal. How do we ignore numbers like those?

So the question is, how do we use this medium appropriately in the school context? There are concerns about privacy and safety that cannot be ignored. Further, are the students I see at the middle level mature enough to handle such an open-ended space online? Its obvious to me that when they are not being held responsible by authority (parents, administrators, teachers, etc.) their behavior is often less than desirable.  I wonder how a “group” would go. A place where students and teachers could meet without their profiles being open to all users. How would we use this space? Would it be a productive area? Or would it just be another “thing” of the moment.

In class we are using the Facebook template created last year for the 7th grade. I manipulated it slightly to make it work for World War II. I’m having the students choose a leader of the period, do some research, and then create a Facebook page for their individual. Then they will look at each others’, make comments on their walls, and see if we can make some connections. I really was impressed by the results last year, and I’m looking forward to this year’s crop. One hurdle I’m dealing with is how to share them. They can obviously open each others’ and look at them digitally, but it is a little tough to make them into a paper product that can be seen. Last year I tried to stack them on a bulletin board, but it was difficult to understand. Hmmm…still thinking about that one.

This project went really well this year. I did end up printing one of each character (Stalin, FDR, Truman, etc.) that I thought was really stellar, and posting them in a color-coded bulletin board. This way they could see who was Allies and Axis. I posted the three pages of the template stacked so the entire project could be seen. Its not perfect, but it works. I still think having them post on each other’s walls would be cool, but we did it rather informally this year.

Our tech person made the template. Basically, its screen capture of a blank facebook page with text boxes over the areas where they would normally see type.  Very simplistic. Theres a page for their “wall”, a page of their personal info, then a page for pictures/fans of/groups. It works out to be three pages in a word template.