Thursday, April 25, 2013

Anagrams and Formative Assessment

Every Sunday my husband and I sit with our daughter after breakfast in front of our woodstove and read or listen to the NPR Weekend Edition Sunday Puzzle with Will Shortz.  Most of the time we make fun of the program and award the person who yells out the most random and wrong answers to his questions.  But once in awhile, we get one right. Or we conquer the weekly puzzle and enter the drawing to be on the show. It is very exciting even though we have yet to win. I do worry about the influence this has had on our daughter since she now follows Rachel on Twitter and requested Will's puzzle books as Xmas gifts.  However, because of she obsession with radio voices and puzzles I have become enlightened once again in the field of education.

I'm in love with anagrams. Scramble letters that turn into memorable phrases or names of countries or words with a "q" sound like cupid, or cubical have helped stimulate my brain during car rides, dinner dishes or right before bedtime.  My daughter likes them too and it has helped us have meaningful conversations instead of spending time on our electronic devices.  It was so much fun at home that I brought some word puzzles into school to use during study hall for students who refuse to study.  I was impressed at how eager students were to try and solve a random puzzle.  I have been researching the importance of spelling practices in secondary education.  I do not intentionally teach spelling and often will encourage students to avoid focusing on spelling in order to gain their focus on lengthy writings with more evidence. I know that elementary teachers have many methods for teaching spelling and coaxing children into spelling bees or other games.
Spelling and caring about spelling increases students ability to improve reading comprehension.  I have made myself take time to explain word derivation and etymology.  This takes time to prep and takes time from other classroom activities yet it has proven to be fruitful.  Students are answering test questions with greater confidence and higher scores.  And after a few practices I have found a way to use it as a formative assessment.
During the time that students enter the room and I begin teaching many minutes can be wasted.  Students also try to end class early and stand by the door for the last few minutes, jostling to be the first one out.  I have curbed this waste of time by only allowing them to do so if they fill out a formative assessment.  The First Five- is one of three routines.  Reading a prepared slip of text on a current event, summarizing the event in their own words and attaching one of three stories presented in a group review, to a map of the world hanging in the room is the first routine.  The second routine is to read an excerpt and sketch what the excerpt is about.  That is fun to share.  The final routine is to make a graphic organizer from the vocabulary word of choice.  I give them a vocabulary word, break out and define the phonemes and they circle the word, draw lines away from the word and brainstorm synonyms or sketch ideas.
I don't have time to collect and grade the First Five.  But while they are busy, I take attendance, hand back papers and answer questions that they have, redirect miscues and develop a sense of what students remember from a previous day.  Every five days I add a First Five grade out of 5 points as an assignment. Tardy or absent students can make it up.  Students who refuse to work can be sent to our literacy room to make up the task during study hall.  Its a win win.  They like the easy "A" and I like the conversations and time to get to know my students while they are engaged.

Exit strategy.  I take a word like "infrastructure" and ask them to give me an example of an infrastructure that exists in the country that they were just studying.  Some students jot down "railroads" on a scrap of paper. Some write, "juice" or "bikes".  I immediately sense that they are misdirected or just being silly. Or that they are guilty of not being on task.  Sometimes I ask students for a text to self connection or a worst case scenario of a vocabulary word.  And now I hand them anagrams.  I give them one or three definitions and three scrambled words.  This reinforces their reading of a definition and trying to recall or understand what that definition means.  But more importantly it enforces spelling.  Students have to know how to unscramble and spell a word correctly. If they can't do this then they can't stand by the door which is a bigger incentive than bonus points. What I noticed this week was that students were congregating around tables with their phones. By typing the definition they hoped to have the correct word appear.  Interestingly this also increased spelling awareness and more students tackling more than one anagram.

As for a word like infrastructure, I have to say, that my first reaction to seeing juice as an example of a country's greatest strength was laughter.  Curious, I approached this students who gave me an honest answer, "its the backbone of society, everybody loves juice!"   I realized that requiring students to analyze economic conditions in a failed state as a unit study was going to mean stepping back and deliberately reviewing this one term.  I spent an evening finding the most amazing examples of infrastructure I could find online.  I made certain that some were costly, some cheap, some expansive and some that were simple.  the glass Grand Canyon skywalk, the Hangzhou bridge, a piano staircase from and Kansas City green infrastructures were my main picks.  I added six more hitting every continent on the globe.  The next morning, the first five was spent with students reading about one example using their iPads.  They each walked around the room presenting an image or video and a quick synopsis.  Then each student voted for the top three.  Not only did they learn what the term meant but they learned what the term could be. This is a term that can give students the realization that their most imaginative ideas could become reality. I think there is a great deal of power in that.  Although, I still think that it is hard for them to argue for juice as an infrastructure.  No matter what, the student who DOES argue this will at least know its definition.

Hangzhou bridge-  (Popular Mechanics)
Kansas City Green Infrastructure
piano staircase (
Grand Canyon Skywalk (National Geographic)

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Writing improvements

Cold War Studies- links to worksheets
My students just finished a unit on WWII and a subunit on the use of the atomic bomb. While my colleagues were able to rush forward into another large and content rich unit on Cold War I chose to slow down the pace and let students alleviate concerns developed about nuclear war, unfinished studies of Japan's role in Korea and interest about Korea resulting from recent inflammatory rhetoric in the news. North Korea seems on the verge of attack so knowledge of what we don't understand seems relevant.
Combined with a need to improve writing skills, vocabulary and reading, my hands are full. And I need to cater to the specific needs of these students. Their needs and interests are different from students I taught last year. When to find the time? Aha! April break. Many mumble that teachers have more breaks than other professions. But I concur that many waking hours, dreams and strolls on a beach are cut short by my mad scramble to write down ideas, read more content or catch up on all the afore mentioned tasks.

Students can write paragraphs, sentences and a thesis. But what they lack is style. I literally dusted off a binder of writing strategies from a Kansas University, Center for Research course.

I reread the binder until I had an idea for one goal based on assessment. Using the framework for writing a paragraph I narrowed a strategy to topic sentences. Three types, general, clueing or detail. And clincher.
Topic- introduces a main idea, usually the first sentences.
Clincher- last sentence, names the main idea and makes a reader think about the topic, or lists an order for thinking about the topic.
Clueing or detail- shows a relationship between the main topic and one specific fact. Contains a transition word. (Many, several, #, steps, components, features, causes, sources, functions, similar, assortment)

I found a clueing word chart to hang on my wall and to hand out to students. Next year I'll make binders, one for each desk with strategies and organizers in them instead of sending them home. Some students will keep them, some will not. This way, the binders are always ready. A math colleague does something similar with positive results. He attaches pens to his desk to encourage edits and class work.

Modeling and practice. I had to rewrite some lessons and take samples from my textbook.
The program offers modeling lessons. The first has students read five sample list sentences, students choose one as the topic sentence. This is a good way to have students read facts about the Cold War, gain familiarity without having to teach the content. Introduce the content without it being a tedious focus. Focus is in analysis. A second practice is to give students a topic, a list of details and then the assignment is to write a general or clincher or clueing sentence. I think this will be a warm up activity for my first five minutes of class the second days. It is also a good review, formative assessment. And I could assign it as an exit ticket, giving each student their own quick list. A third lesson would be to collect the sentences, rewrite or print them and have students edit the anonymous collection on a third or fourth day. A decoding activity.

Our Cold War studies begin again a day after a week long break. Before break I used class time on Friday to have students do push-ups as:

  1. a soviet (each contributing the most they can to share equally in a set profit)  
  2. a free market (each group or individual in competition with one another) 
  3. and tug of war/ Cold War. As a warm up first five, I want to understand what they remember about communism. I learned from Susan Lenski's research that it helps to create lessons that " build positive attitudes toward content material while communicating to students that I value their thoughts and opinions." (25)

Lenski's opinionaire/ questionaire is a format for individuals or pairs,  or as a class for a formative review. Students reuse this checklist later to write detailed topic sentences.
(I reread the textbook for definitions of any page that mentioned communism. I discovered that the textbook never gave a clear definition of communism and therefore never repeated that definition in regards to its changes and context in different regions of the world throughout time.)

This unit required me to embed rich content into spelling and vocab strategies. I typed up content notes in a cause/effect worksheet. Each content section required students to write one concluding clincher sentence. I also created a word jumble. Students will sort events, people, into either the category of Red Scare or Cold War.
Scavenger Hunts 
Our library has a plethora of resources that students seldom seek.  I worked with the library to create individual slips for students that sent them to use the tools in the database to then find books in various locations of the library and the dewey decimal system.  I then created a worksheet of scavenger hunt questions that were facts dug from the books.  Students only had to answer 5 of the questions relating to Cold War studies or could evaluate one book.  Several students did become engaged or drawn to picture books, intense studies and primary resources.  A biography of McCarthy was a big hit. Knowing where resources helped prep students for their culminating activty. They each were to create an informative short text to hang in the hallway for students. The text addressed one question they had about the Cold War or North Korea to be answered in narrow and broad terms, a skill required in the Common Core

In the end, students will have Cold War content. They will address and present answers to Short Answer questions as a Common Core skill and they will have several meaningful contacts with their vocabulary terms. We will see how it turns out!

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Poet Reminds Me

The month of April is a perfect time to to give attention to poetry. A middle school colleague and poet urged me to give some undivided attention to this often waylaid genre. My first email response was to do no more than to consider it but then I took a big breath and sent a second response pledging to commit to poetry prowess. Why am I so reluctant to present poetry to students? It is a deep seeded reluctance for which I blame on an intimidating high school English teacher.

I remember the long eye roll and eyebrow lift that indicated a wrong analysis of classic poetry. It was followed by lectures on how we were not advanced enough to see the historic meaning or imbedded references. T.S. Elliot's purposeful citation of Heart of Darkness or that poem in which a guitar is shaped like a beautiful woman had little relevance to my sixteen year old mind and stick figure body. Instead I gave up thinking that my opinion mattered on poetry. As a teacher I have continued to worry about misinterpretations and avoided utilizing any poets that I have not studied. Until now.

Our high school and middle school has made strides towards collaborative planning and unified common curriculum. This has given me the encouragement needed to embark into lessons in poetry because I know I am not alone. Our school librarian is hosting a second annual magnetic poetry board contest. Students or teachers can come in anytime, sift through stacks of letters and words and build a poem. A snapshot photo can be emailed as a contest entry. I believe the winners will be posted on a school webpage or a thru a Twitter feed. My husband, a social studies teacher and tech integrationists stepped in to help me plan some lessons. He had taught many of my students in middle school and was able to give me insight into what types of poems and structures they responded positively to. My brawniest boys were some of his best poets. For them, poetry was a release from grammatical structure of expository writing and an opportunity to practice spelling or word usage. It fostered motivation.

I have been experimenting with word walls. I really want to build a wall of tweets around a general concept such as borders. I saw this wall of continuous tweets projected onto a tree shape at a tech conference that I can not get out of my mind. Anytime someone responds to a posted question, the tweet appears like a metaphoric leaf on a tree. For now, I'm using colorful scraps of paper from the art department. Students write ideas or sentence endings on these cards and staple them to the wall. You know you are wealthy when... And idea worth fighting for.. If only for one day...

Students like poetry for its possibility. They enjoy finding their own voice which is why I think poetry appealed to students last week as a means of sharing visceral, emotional and provocative responses to a study of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What do poems convey that facts alone do not? Perspective.

There you stand
between the dream of two gazelles,
questioning the poem. Nathalie Handal's Epthratha

I heard Nathalie Handal speak about her experience as a literary figure with an international identity. She promotes an online social network, Words Without Borders. Founded in 2003, promotes contemporary international literature and cultural understanding. January's Writings from Haiti might become a resource for my next unit looking at the social needs involved in rebuilding a failed state. We have been focusing on economic factors that support the wealth of nations and students are quick to understand that GDP per capita alone can not determine resilience. Having a voice, a network, houses greater possibility for development.
A lesson found on the POV website has given me a framework for moving forward into the end of April. Students juxtapose journalistic and artistic interpretations of an event, comparing meanings. They assume the role of authoritarian and critic under my guidance. If I pose the right questions and model the right curiosity I hope to give students that confidence to decode, demystify and disseminate that which I once lacked the courage to do.

The Quality of Light (

Monday, April 1, 2013

What happens when you ask a scientist

These last two weeks have really been busy for me as a classroom teacher. Our department is pushing to get through a very content rich curriculum in US history. One goal is to have all students writing a persuasive essay that we can score together using the same rubric.

I decided to slow down and give students an opportunity to debate the necessity of the use of the atomic bomb before giving them a graded assessment in essay writing. We used a map from to practice persuasive argument before studying events leading up to and away from the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Students read articles, studied archival photo sets and watched videos. But they still had unanswered questions. I'm no expert on atomic or nuclear studies so our high school tech integrationist suggested contacting the Los Alamos lab or the Bradbury Science museum. He tried to set up a video chat but for security reasons this was not allowed. Instead we set up an email discussion with great success. Students had some very sincere questions and our contact responded before the end of the day. Here are the Q&As.

>What happened to the third bomb? (Not Fat Man or Little Boy)

I don't think it was ever totally assembled on Tinian Island, although I
might be wrong. I have been asked if it was dumped in the Pacific off San
Francisco (NO!). Operation Crossroads was a series of atomic bomb tests
conducted at Bikini Atoll in the South pacific starting in 1946, and any
weapons or weapons parts that existed at the end of WWII would have been
used there. (At the same time a clothing designer came out with a sexy new
two-piece swimsuit for women, guess where he got the name for it.

>Should we be worried about North Korea?

We need to be concerned about North Korea. We need to be aware of
activities in North Korea. I don't think we need to be worried about North
Korea. The North Korean government, in my personal opinion, is a nasty
piece of work. Their recent proclamations and actions sound threatening
and can mean any of several things. They might actually be planning
aggression against South Korea and/or the U.S. Out of some terrible
miscalculation. That depends on how insulated the leaders are from world
realities, and it is hard to imagine them being that out of touch.
Another, I hope and believe more likely, rationale for their behavior is
that they want attention and respect. They are acting like a bully perhaps
to cover their internal woes, and because they think if they poke us
enough, we will have to negotiate with them. I don't think they are
suicidal. I would not be at all surprised to see them repeat provocations
like attacking ships or shelling islands again as they did a few years
ago, but it is a stretch to imagine them trying to launch a nuclear war.

>Are we safe- can others get us with a nuclear bomb?

Others can reach us with nuclear weapons, but no one who can sees it being
in their interest. We are concerned about the weapons in Pakistan, North
Korea, and the work in Iran not for our own safety so much as for that of
our friends who are their neighbors. It is conceivable that Iran might
attack Israel, Pakistan India, or North Korea South Korea or Japan, but I
don't think it is likely. Starting a nuclear war, especially against a
nuclear armed enemy, would be extremely serious business.

>How safe are we?

This is a good question. I think we are pretty safe from nuclear weapons.
When I was a kid in the 1950's and 60's, we had air raid drills several
times a year. They were sometimes simple, everyone evacuates to the school
basement, sort of like your lockdown drills today. Others actually closed
and evacuated schools and sent us home on foot, no buses, to see how long
this took, or people pretended to be injured and medical workers practiced
for a disaster. (I never did the famous 'duck and cover.') Ask anyone my
age (I am 61) why their hometown was a 'primary target' and almost every
one can tell you some reason why the Soviet Union was aiming a missile
somewhere near where they were. Compared to that time, You are very, very
safe. (What might you want to be concerned about? Cyberwarfare, where an
enemy hacks into our information grids and disrupts systems that depend on
computers (everything including that tractor over there in that field.) In
a cyberwar, people don't get killed at the rate that they do in fighting
war, but economies might be destroyed, and industries crippled. It could
be bad. I hope some of you become great computer scientists and help
defend our country!)

>I'm scared, what can you tell me to make me less worried about Nuclear War?

A few weeks ago I was asked a question very much like this. Could I
imagine a situation where nuclear weapons would be used again? I said
currently, I can't imagine it. The atomic bomb was developed during the
worst, most horrible war of modern times. We built it, it was an ideal
secret weapon, we had the only ones in the world, and we were very very
angry with Japan. (We never had Japan in our sights during the bomb's
development. The scientist thought they were in a race with Germany to be
first.) We faced a grim prospect of having to invade the home islands of
Japan, and our experience with Saipan, Iwo Jima, and other islands
suggested this was going to be a horror show. So the bomb was arguably
appropriate for use in Japan. I admit this is controversial.

Today, a war would have to start with a nuclear exchange, as a surprise
attack, or spin so badly out of control that a country would feel it
necessary to bring out its nuclear weapons just to survive. Neither of
these scenarios has played out in the 60+ years since WWII, in spite of
the fact that none of the nuclear powers have experienced many years of
peace during that time. In the centuries before WWII, it was not uncommon
for major wars between powers to break out about every 20 years or so. It
is true we have had the Cold War, as well as proxy wars but we have not
pushed anyone anywhere hard enough that they chose the nuclear option.
Don't be scared, be informed and involved.

>How close was Germany to developing their bomb?

Not at all close. They tried, but they didn't have the enormous intact
infrastructure of the United States. After the war scientists who had been
loyal Nazis claimed to have dragged their feet on their project, but
really, they lacked the resources, they were being constantly bombed, they
were trying to work with slave labor, and none of it adds up to a hopeful

>Why didn't we use it on Germany?

Easy. Hitler killed himself on April 30, 1945 during the fall of Berlin,
the Gadget was tested at Trinity Site on July 16, 1945. Actually, it is
doubtful we would have used it in Europe as the Reich was already in deep
collapse, and nearly every German city was in ruins already.

Begin forwarded message:
Subject: Re: Questions from northern Vermont high school.

Whitney, it is good to be in this conversation with your students.

Were American POWs near either city when it was bombed?

It is very possible, but I have no idea where or in what numbers, nor do I know what affects the bombs may have had on them. I have read extensively on the bombings and have not come across such information, so it is also possible that POW camps were situated elsewhere.

Why can't we use our nuclear weapons in Iraq (or Afghanistan) or North Korea?

The political reason is one of perception. No one wants the negative image that would come about from the use of any weapon of mass destruction. The US is probably more circumspect in the Middle East, where we struggle with our image in Muslim countries. Militarily, in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the idea of a 'front line' is as much an abstraction as a reality, the enemy is so spread out across huge territories, that nuclear weapons are useless. Al Qaida officers in Pakistan have reportedly moved into cities under pressure from drone strikes. We certainly would not bomb a city to get at a relatively small number of enemies there.

North Korea is a different case. I doubt we would ever bomb cities there, because we view the population as victims of a repressive regime. (Hiroshima is often described as a civilian target, but during WWII, much of Japan's industry was operated at the cottage level, with individual artisans turning out weapons and equipment in home workshops.) Yet North Korea has an enormous army, and if they were to mobilize it and move aggressively against South Korea, especially in the heat of an attack, I can imagine the use of tactical or theater nuclear weapons for the defense of South Korea. I don't expect that to happen, in fact just this morning on the news, someone said that so far there is no evidence that North Korea has taken any actions at all to back up their bellicose words.

How close were the Japanese to building their own bomb?

I too, have seen this story, only on the (suspect) Internet. I think they had a nuclear weapons program, I think they were conducting preliminary research. I think they were far from developing a useful weapon. Japan had highly trained and competent physicists, and they were certainly aware of the possibility.

Who do I know that was personally involved in the Manhattan Project?

The most famous participant I knew was Harold "Doc" Edgerton. I was in High School in Massachusetts, he had just retired from teaching at MIT. My father had been one of his students, and I actually got to spend some time around him. At the time I had no idea Doc had helped build the electronics that triggered the Trinity device and Fat Man bomb. He passed away in 1990. You might know his work, he took famous strobe pictures of bullets passing through an apple or playing card, a football being kicked, or a drop of cream splashing into a cup of coffee. His other nickname was "Strobe," and there is still a hallway at MIT with wonderful stroboscopic devices that he built. (He always carried postcards of some of his photos in his jacket pocket to hand out to new acquaintances.)

Most Los Alamos MP workers were quite young. The average age here was something like 29, and in 1943, even a 23 year old was born in 1920 and would be 93 now. A few years ago we showed our Manhattan Project film, "The Town That Never Was" to a group of high school students, and when the lights came up we discovered an elderly couple sitting in the front row. We led a discussion with the students, and when questions dried up, I asked the couple if they had been here then. Indeed they had. Florence Osvath worked with health physics, keeping records of workers' exposures to radiation, and Frank Osvath built some of the ultra (for the time) high speed cameras used to film experiments and the Trinity test. They are both still alive as I write this.

You can find that movie on line at:

Thank you for asking stimulating questions!

Bradbury Science Museum
Los Alamos National Laboratory
Los Alamos, NM. USA 87545

I tried to push students to find answers in our own library collection and online before they ask the scientist. I think students like to ask questions that they know can be answered by a teacher. However, when the answer comes from some other source, it always impresses them. Most importantly students need to know that questions like this are important and appreciated.