Famous Last Words; “It should be super quick and easy”

I can’t believe how far my students have come in terms of their technological abilities.   We started the year with many students having difficulty learning to log into their accounts, navigating the Google platform, and typing quickly and easily.  The first weeks took what felt like the entire writing block to log in and type out a few sentences.  We have reached the point where login information is memorized and within a minute students are in our Google Classroom and working on various writing assignments, practicing math, and accessing multimedia resources.  Everything has been going smoothly, so of course, I started to get cocky…

My third graders are currently working on a biography project where they are researching, writing about, and then presenting information about a figure from the American Revolution.  The classroom teacher, ESL teacher and I found a great graphic organizer that students used to take notes on their famous American, and we wanted them to be able to type into it.  Of course it was a PDF, making that difficult, so I had what seemed like a genius idea… “Let’s create a google form, have the kids fill it out with their information, and then I can mail merge the data into text boxes on a Word document, and it will look like they typed into the organizer.” Then came the always famous last words “It should be super quick and easy”.

The students started typing, and then writing time was unexpectedly cut short for a special rehearsal.  The entire class logged off, as they always do, except with a Google Form, your work needs to be completed and submitted in one sitting.  ALL OF THEIR WORK WAS GONE!

That afternoon we learned a very important lesson about using technology: It doesn’t always do what you want it to do, and sometimes you have to start again.

To be honest, the class didn’t even seem to be upset that they had to start entering their information into the Google Form again.  They were also faster typing the second time around, hopefully because they had retained the information they were typing with additional reading and practice of it.  Everyone was very careful to hit submit, and they were very excited to watch me mail merge their information and watch it auto-populate into their graphic organizer.  Once the information was typed in again, it really was quick and easy!


Where to go next…

In a whirlwind first half of the school year, I have found myself doing exactly what I said I hoped to avoid in my first post: resort back to standard teaching methods and techniques. So far I believe I have a lot of room for improvement in terms of incorporating technology in a more meaningful way in my classroom. My students have worked on a project where they utilized ChatterPix, Explain Everything, and Padlet, but other than this example, technology use has been reserved for Kahoot review games and the online textbook. This is not what I had envisioned at the start of the year, but I am starting to figure out ways to engage the students with technology.

My goal/research question for the year is to investigate how technology can enhance student understanding of primary source documents. My approach at the beginning of the year was to introduce my standard pen and paper strategies for analyzing primary sources. This includes the SOAPS method (Speaker Occasions Audience Purpose Subject Bias) and annotation as a way of engaging with a source. As students have written essays for Document-Based Questions and have encountered more varied primary sources, I am beginning to investigate ways to analyze primary sources through the use of technology.

The first step in this next phase was to conduct surveys to gauge student comfort with technology and whether or not they would prefer to use technology to analyze primary sources. The results for my surveys conducted in my classes are below:

These results show me that most of my students are very noncommittal when it comes to primary sources, but they do feel as though they learn a lot about history through the use of primary sources. These results also show me that many students “agree” that they would benefit from using more technology and online resources in class. This was very telling for me and shows me that I need to be truly intentional with my methods and how I incorporate technology in the classroom. I know I need to avoid simply digitizing my current teaching practices and go beyond to better promote student engagement with and understanding of primary sources.

In this process I am currently gathering various tools and technological methods for students to analyze primary sources. One tool that has become of particular interest for me is the Read and Write tool from Google. We completed a professional development workshop utilizing this tool, and I believe that it would be very beneficial for my students as a method of analyzing sources in my classroom. One benefit that I love about this tool is how students can collaborate, annotate, and highlight on the same document.

My plan moving forward is to be intentional about researching and implementing these strategies over February vacation. I am looking forward to taking the time over the break to plan activities and lessons around this increased use of technology with the focus on how these strategies can be implemented in a meaningful way. As the year progresses, it will be vital for me to make sure to not lose track of my long-term goal of improving understanding of primary sources in my history classroom, and I know it starts with a lot of work on the front end in making sure the structures are in place for the students to be successful. I am up for the challenge!

Paperless Research Papers

It’s March… which means we have entered the “Heartbreak Hill” section of the teaching marathon. Not only this month mark the longest stretch of uninterrupted teaching all year, it also marks the point where I embark on the yearly task of teaching research papers.

The month of March consists of me teaching students: why we cite sources, how to research with scholarly sources from peer reviewed databases, how to write introductions, why Wikipedia is not an approved source. And of course, how to capitalize letters… Just kidding on the last one.

In all seriousness, writing research papers with high school students can be frustrating because so much of what humanities teachers do during the writing process is antiquated. Students simply don’t understand the purpose of writing research papers. I think most students believe we are simply trying to make them jump through hoops. “Cite that source!” “Double space that paper!” “Size 12 Times New Roman Font!” These are actual quotes from a nightmare I had a few nights ago!

This is a copy of an assignment I provide to my U.S. History II Honors students. It describes details of the assignment and the requirements of the paper.

As a history teacher at Waltham High, teaching research papers has always been the Wild West. The only requirement placed on teachers is that we have students write a research paper at some point during the year. The assignment itself depends on the teacher. I usually write a traditional research paper with my students.

This month’s blog post illustrates my attempts to utilize Google Classroom and Google Docs in an effort for students to complete research papers without actual paper. I attempted to rely solely on these online platforms for the writing, submission, and grading of papers. Not a radical idea by any means, but also one I had not yet tried.

A screenshot of the first page you see when you enter a Google Classroom. It displays the active classes you have. A screenshot of a few assignments I posted on Google Classroom.

Google Classroom is an application featured through the Google Suite and it is offered strictly to teachers. There is no surprise in the name, it offers an online classroom similar to online platforms like Edmodo. Since Waltham High School (WHS) provides all students with a google account students simply have to log in to their Google Account to access the Classroom application. Students must use their WHS account to access Google Classroom, they would be denied access if they attempted to log in with a home account.

Once students log in, they can join a teacher’s classroom by entering a password that is provided by the teacher. Once inside the

More Google Classroom assignments. classroom, an email is sent to students whenever a new assignment is created by their teacher or when their teacher has returned or graded one of their assignments.

For the teacher, Google Classroom serves as a place to post assignments. Assignments can be anything from a discussion question that asks students to post a response, to an essay that needs to have a document attached.

Over the course of this year, I have used Google Classroom for small formative assessments. This allowed me to familiarize my students with the application, so that we wouldn’t have logistical problems when we depended on it later in the year.  The early use of Google Classroom was building towards my larger goal for the month of March: to use Google Classroom as the sole platform for interacting with students’ work while they wrote traditional research projects.

A PDF attachment of a reading and questions posted on my Google Classroom.

Throughout the year, I have created many different types of assignments for my students to complete in our Google Classroom. The first week of school my students posted answers to discussion questions, and followed links to surveys about themselves. Later in the year, students completed extra credit readings and attached answers to questions. Students also were able to access links to Google Form quizzes (mentioned in an earlier post).

This year I told students that I was not accepting hard copies of their research paper. I know this may seem like a radical move, but I think going paperless makes complete sense. It cuts out excuses about printers and allows students to turn in assignments from any device. Therefore, students were to type their research papers in Google Docs and submit them through Google Classroom. Throughout the month of March, I posted assignments that asked students to attach segments of their research project as we progressed to the final copy. In the end, each student attached a draft of their paper as well as a final, edited copy.

Unsurprisingly, I have really enjoyed using Google Classroom. For one, it has allowed me to go almost completely paperless. Instead of having students flood me with paper, I have electronic copies that I can edit and grade online through Google Docs. Students can see the changes or suggestions I have made and decide whether to reject or accept them.

A paper I edited and made comments on in Google Docs.Another paper I edited and made comments on in Google Docs.

More importantly, I find myself grading electronic rough drafts and final copies much faster than paper copies. Therefore, I am saving precious time. Furthermore, I can post students grades as soon as I am done grading and send them an email notification letting them know that I have finished reviewing their paper.

Overall, I think using Google Classroom for project submission andA screenshot of the screen a teacher sees while grading on Google Classroom. Google Docs for essay writing is a no brainer. I think the only drawback to Google Classroom is that sometimes students are stumped by its interface. I have had a few students unsure of where to post on the Google Classroom, so they simply email me the paper. It is a small frustration, but one I can handle.

In sum, I recommend going paperless and using Google Classroom and Google Docs to write traditional research papers. I think it saves time, cuts out excuses about printer and computer problems, and prevents students from losing papers or forgetting to save their papers. And of course, the trees will thank you!


Classroom Questions

February really seemed to fly by. Preparing for tests and in-class essays coupled with February break didn’t really leave much time to try out a new approach to research in the classroom. So what I decided to shift gears to was focusing on how students’ questioning has developed. The purpose of my research is twofold: to have students be researching more in class in new ways, but also to see if that research enhances inquiry in all areas of learning. So I decided to have a questions-heavy plan for this month.

There were a few things that I was particularly excited about while I reflected on the types of questions my students were asking. First, I found that my students were asking more questions about topics than they seemed to be asking at the beginning of the year. When I began my Russian Revolution unit, my classes worked to create a KWL chart. They brainstormed anything they knew about Russia and/or the Russian Revolution, and asked wonderful questions centered around how to better understand the revolution. Then I had students read a very short “Big Picture” reading about the Russian Revolution, and they went back to the KWL chart to determine what they’d learned and ask even more questions. Below I included an example of a C1 class’s pre-reading and post-reading chart. I was excited to find that their second set of questions transitioned to open-ended “how” and “why” questions from the more fact-based questions of the first round.

WIN feb-1   WIN feb-2

I also noticed a greater independence in many of my students to ask questions and think critically about the material. After analyzing a political cartoon that criticized the social structure of pre-revolution Russia, one student who consistently struggles with this class asked me, “Do you think that if the artist was trying to show society in a positive light he would have shown everyone as equals?” I was thrilled to hear this student thinking beyond the information presented to her and asking questions to understand the topic better. Furthermore, she didn’t ask “How would an artist show society positively?” but she was able to infuse her hypothesis into the question.

Something I was most excited about with my students’ questioning dealt with their reflective questioning while independently learning about a topic. After studying the Armenian Genocide, I gave one of my classes and assignment to write about the role of traditional and social media regarding bringing awareness and action against genocide. These students also independently researched a current example of genocide (or potential genocide) to include in their writing. One student began her essay with the question “How can it be that I have access to so much information through the internet yet I have never heard of the awful events happening in the Central African Republic?” This question thrilled me because this is why people need to ask questions. It’s not just to understand information better, but to reflect on why things are the way they are, and taking that a step further questioning if and how that can change.

Overall, my students are definitely demonstrating progress in their willingness and ability to question information and also question their own role in the world.

Researching Battles

One part of history that I always struggled to get into was war battles, and so that followed me into my teaching. Any unit that is war-themed, which let’s be honest, there are quite a few, always make me a little anxious for how I’m going to try to make a creative and engaging lesson on the actual fighting-the-war part. I think I’ve tried a different approach each time I’ve reached that point in a unit, so again I faced this dilemma with World War I in my freshman class. I decided this would be a good opportunity to try working with a structured research assignment using the iPads in class.

I had small groups assigned to one of four significant battles in the war, and they had to do some research to determine why this battle mattered. I introduced these as some of the bloodiest battles in the war, which definitely hooked some students. And really just sent them off to find out why.  Each group had a “starter set” of information to read through to help focus their research. Something I’ve noticed from previous research assignments is that students often get intimidated by the amount of information out there. I figured that by finding sources to frame the basis of their knowledge of their battle, I could avoid some of that initial intimidation that can keep students from really knowing anything about their topic.

One other strategy I decided to implement in this project was for students to write out more detailed research questions as they read through each new source. After talking with our school librarian a few months ago, she highlighted how often our freshmen struggle crafting research questions in the first place. That is why I gave my students the overarching research question, but had them create their own sub-questions as they continued with the research process. Groups came up with some great ideas like:

  • How did they rebuild their city after the war?
  • How did reinforcements know to come help the French?
  • What is the benefit of the Turks being pushed out of the war?
  • Did the allies go back to fight in the Ottoman Empire ever again?
  • How did this battle affect or change the war overall?
  • How did the weather impact the battle?
  • Why are New Zealand and Australia in this battle?

Overall, there were still many clarification type questions listed, but I was still very excited to see these types of connections questions that groups were asking to inform their research.

Being able to use the iPads as a tool for this assignments was very powerful. Because there are always issues with the iPads ranging from it’s not working, it’s been left at home, or some students just don’t have one, I made sure that this wasn’t an iPad dependent assignment for all students. I made sure each group had at least one, and printed off paper copies of the articles in that “starter set” of information. Beyond that, groups had to use the library databases to find at least one more article on their iPad to answer those sub-questions that still lingered in their minds.

By the end of the assignment, I would say that most students had a pretty solid understanding of the basic idea of their battle and why it mattered in the war. I was pretty happy with this assignment in the end with how it was a good balance of scaffolded research skills and integrating the iPads in the class. I’m sure the assignment could be spiced up a bit in the future, but the basic outline of the assignment is one that I’ll continue working with.

I added a few images below of students working on the project and a newspaper article that one student wrote as part of his final product.


WIN image 02 WIN image 03 WIN image 01