Parks Online Resources for Students and Teachers, or PORTS, is a phenomenal and engaging program for K-12 students and their teachers. It’s offered through the California State parks, and is open to all classrooms! Yes, even y’all outside California!
Last year was my first opportunity to participate in PORTS. My classes talked with Ranger Jennifer at the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook, and learned more about weather and climate. Although her program was geared for grades 3-5, she was excited to speak with older students and have slightly different conversations.
This year, my 7th grade science students had the opportunity to video chat with Ranger Francesca from the Crystal Cove State Park in Laguna Beach, CA about habitat protection and restoration. Just like Ranger Jennifer, Ranger Francesca was delightful to work with! She was engaging, patient, and excited to share her park with our class. Students were attentive as she showed us around her park, displayed and annotated graphics, and answered their questions. At the end, we even had time to ask Ranger Francesca about her college experience and why she picked this career.
The video chat was done through Zoom, which was perfect because Ranger Francesca was able to show and annotate graphics during our presentation.
To prepare for our video chat, I modified some of the provided lessons in the unit, and adapted them for our needs. I also let the ranger know ahead of time what we had studied so far, to make our time more efficient. For example, for habitat protection and restoration, we were already ⅔ of the way through our ecology unit, and had studied ecosystems, food webs, and resource availability.
Although it isn’t required or suggested in the program, I also asked my students to write thank you letters to our guest speakers. Many have little experience writing thank you letters, so we brainstormed sentence frames and what to include together (“Thank you for talking to our class about… “ or “Thank you for taking time to talk to us…” or “My favorite part was…”). Many students also drew pictures showing what they learned.
Example thank you letter to Ranger Francesca
Example thank you letter to Ranger Francesca
I highly recommend PORTS to all K-12 teachers! It’s a ton of fun, and the kids love it! They’ve been talking about it non-stop for the last 2 weeks!
Many have asked about example Mastery Tasks, and what this looks like in my classroom. I’ll be entirely honest that this post is a little intimidating to write, knowing I’m not the only one who does Mastery-Based Grading, and I still have a lot to learn. But, you know what, that’s the best part! I model a growth mindset for my students in that I am always learning and finding ways to improve.
Day-to-day in the Classroom
Our day-to-day doesn’t look too much different than it did before. However, I am more focused on the end product as we do lessons, labs, and activities. In my first post, I detail the overall Mastery-Based workflow in classroom instruction.
Since I don’t grade anything other than Mastery Tasks, many have asked how I hold my students accountable for their classwork and homework. For homework, that’s easy–I don’t assign homework (except on the very rare “if you don’t finish it in class, it’s homework!”). For classwork, I do a mix of stamping and checking work before students can leave. Even the prospect of being dismissed 30 seconds after their friends is enough to motivate students to get work completed correctly before the bell. Additionally, after a while, most students realize that what we do in class is directly related to our Mastery Tasks, and therefore will benefit them.
If you’re thinking, “this will never work for my students/my school!” please stop for a moment to reconsider. My school is one of the lowest performing in our district, we have attendance and behavior challenges, and parent engagement is almost non-existent. But. My students work hard, because I believe in them and we have created a classroom community where they are safe and supported. I rarely have behavior challenges in class, simply because my students believe they can succeed.
Planning for Mastery Tasks
With my PLC, we start with our Next Generation Science Standards, and try to distill down exactly what my students need to know and do. The Crosscutting Concepts and Science and Engineering Practices guide us to the “how” of mastery. Since writing Claim-Evidence-Reasoning (CER) paragraphs is one of our essential skills in science, many of the Mastery Tasks have students write a CER based on a lab or activity. Other Mastery Tasks are videos, lab reports (usually using Google Slides), or digital/analog creations such as comic strips or mini posters.
The rest of my 7th grade science PLC has not implemented Mastery-Based Grading…yet! They are interested, and are hoping to introduce it next school year. The 8th grade science teachers are using it, so thankfully I’m not entirely alone.
That being said, many of my Mastery Tasks are still common assessments, even though they are graded slightly differently.
Example Mastery Task
Below is a screenshot of a Mastery Task on Google Classroom. Attached to the assignment are instructions, the Doc students will edit, and sentence frames to support struggling students (provided on the day of the lesson to specific students, then added to the assignment later to help students with revisions).
Students did a lab on the Law of Conservation of Mass, where they mix baking soda and vinegar in a flask with a balloon over the top. This lab was glued in students interactive notebooks, and students wrote the first draft of their CER in their notebooks.
Then, students traded notebooks with a partner, and used 3 colors to underline the claim, evidence, and reasoning. They also identified how their partner did based on the rubric. This was both an informal assessment of the partner’s CER and of the grading student’s ability to identify claim, evidence, and reasoning. When students received their notebooks back, they then went to Google Classroom and typed their CER into the Mastery Task Google Doc.
This Mastery Task came about a week after another CER on chemical reactions, where almost every student initially earned an In Progress grade. This led us to add in the additional draft, peer feedback, and finally their Mastery Task draft.
I love mixing in analog projects as well, such as One Pagers and 11×17 mini posters. While watching “The Lorax” movie, students analyzed it for how humans impact ecosystems and created a One Pager based on what they learned. You’ll notice there’s a spot in the corner for a stamp. This allows me to check the One Pager in class and stamp it. Then, students take a picture and submit it to the Mastery Task. If I see a stamp, I know it’s automatically Mastery. If there isn’t a stamp, then I know I need to check it (zoom in a bit, usually), and provide feedback either way.
Some Mastery Tasks are entirely skill-based. I have chosen to include notebook checks as Mastery Tasks because my students are working on their organization skills. They self-check their notebooks and answer a few reflection questions, then turn in pictures of both. I know some teachers may disagree with this, but it’s what works for me and my students.
Each 18 week semester comes down to about 20 Mastery Tasks. It’s not always one per week. Some weeks have none, while others have two.
Advice for getting started
Don’t be afraid to jump in and try! Use an assessment you already have, add a mastery rubric, ask students to complete the assignment, provide feedback, and allow them unlimited opportunities to revise and resubmit their work. Take it one step further by asking students for feedback on how to improve the assignment, and what lessons or activities were helpful in preparing them for the mastery task.
As I said in my first post, one of my next big steps is using One-Point Rubrics, simplifying the feedback process, and allowing me to give more targeted and individualized feedback. I love that I can grow as a teacher as my kids grow as students!
What was do you use to assess mastery in your classroom?
All that has led me to write a few follow-up posts. This one is more of the nitty-gritty how-to’s that have worked for me. I hope I can help some of you keep better track of your students’ grades for Mastery-Based Grading!
I use Google Classroom + Jupiter Grades (fairly traditional gradebook) + this spreadsheet to keep track of my students’ progress and grades. I know that’s a triplicate of each grade, but each place serves its purpose within the resources available at my school. So, I don’t mind a couple seconds of extra work if it benefits my students.
In this post, I’ll break down how each is used in my workflow.
All Mastery Tasks are posted in a Google Classroom that all 3 of my classes are enrolled in. It’s personal preference–for me, it makes it a bit faster to grade all my students at once, rather than separate classes. As I said in my original Mastery-Based Grading post, I also have separate Classroom for each class, where I post announcements and classwork (all ungraded).
Each assignment is assigned a topic based on unit, and I try to put in as much of the instructions into the assignment as possible–this helps absent students or students doing their revisions.
On this particular assignment, I also attached sentence frames (thanks for making them, Amy!) after the original assignment. During class, we passed out sentence frames to students who needed the writing scaffold. I attached them after the first submissions for students who earned an In Progress grade, and needed to revise and resubmit.
I change the point value on each assignment to be out of 1. I provide feedback on the assignment in private comments and/or within the assignment (if in Docs or Slides), then enter the corresponding numerical value. A 1 = Mastery (M), a 0 = In Progress (IP) — this is a binary on/off signal, not a point value.
After I’ve graded an assignment, I return it to the students. If they earn Mastery, they don’t need to do anything. If they earn In Progress, they need to read my comments, revise, and resubmit. Sometimes this takes many cycles of feedback before a student earns Mastery!
Jupiter Grades is an online gradebook that our district pays for, and all teachers at my school use. (This is a loaded sentence. We have Infinite Campus for grade reporting, but I find the gradebook difficult to navigate. I only use it to post progress & final grades. We also have Canvas as an LMS, which has its own gradebook. So many options…)
I post M and IP grades in Jupiter because this is where students and parents check their grades.
Here’s where my nerd shines through. I have a massive “Mastery Student Data” spreadsheet where I track my students Mastery and In Progress. Generally students don’t see this spreadsheet, unless I call them up to show them their row.
I love the quick visual of how a class is doing, who is missing multiple assignments, and the total number of masteries per class. All this gives me quick data on which students need more help and attention, and which students are ready to move on.
It’s super easy to customize data for what I need to know about my students. For example, I can create additional columns where I add student tags, such as EL or IEP or GATE. Then, I can use filters to check on how subgroups are doing. Or, I can create graphs for how a specific class is doing on an assignment, unit, or overall–then, I can copy & paste this into our daily Slides for some whole-class data analysis.
My Sheet also calculates students’ current grade based on how many Mastery (green) vs. In Progress (yellow) + missing (gray).
All it took was a little conditional formatting and a lot of formula-ing to make this magic happen.
As much as grading is a tedious and sometimes frustrating process (like those assignments when only 8/86 students earned Mastery…yeah, that has happened…last week!), looking at this nerdy spreadsheet brightens my day.
How do you keep track of mastery data in your classroom?
PS. Stay tuned! Next week’s blog post will talk about creating and implementing Mastery Tasks, and feature examples!
There are many grading methodologies out there, and I’m sharing what is working for myself and my group of students. Remember, we are all working to do what is best for our students!
A few years ago, I switched from a traditional points-based grading scale to standards-based grading. Our district had recently adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and a couple of us realized we needed to adapt our grading practices to better meet our students’ learning needs. Standards-based grading went just fine because students were accustomed to the 4-3-2-1 grading scale from elementary school. What was factored into their final grades was only standards-aligned assessments.
I wasn’t entirely comfortable with standards-based grading. Our online gradebook worked off a traditional platform, and I still needed to report a letter grade on progress reports and report cards.
An even greater issue was that my students would turn in anything in order to make their missing assignments disappear. They would turn in half-finished work just to get their parents and teachers off their backs for the red “missing” next to an assignment. (Honestly, the parents were conditioned to coerce their student to do anything to get rid of “missing assignments” too!)
With standards-based grading, I’d give my students thorough feedback, ask them to resubmit their work, and even provided time in class for revisions. But, hardly any students took advantage of this! They saw a grade, and stopped there.
I knew I had to make a change.
Trying out Mastery-Based Grading:
I got hooked on the idea of mastery-based grading after playing around with Badge List, and online badging platform that allows me to issue microcredentials for mastery of a subject or skill. I decided to try it out with my students last year. At first there was some confusion for how to submit work, but students quickly got over that, and learned to read through their feedback, then resubmit.
This year, I ultimately decided to switch to Google Classroom to stay consistent with other teachers at my school.
Benefits to my students:
Almost immediately, I noticed a fundamental shift in how my students approached both classwork and “Mastery Tasks.” When students didn’t earn a “Mastery” grade on a Mastery Task, they willingly went back to work to make revisions and resubmit their work.
They adopted a growth mindset without much external encouragement!
And, I saw some of my struggling students working even harder, knowing that it wasn’t too late to prove that they had mastered our science content. By the end of the semester, I saw my students believing in themselves and their academic abilities!
Additionally, I found it much easier to make accommodations for students. It was easy to hand a student some extra sentence frames or a cloze paragraph template or allow students to pick a different way to show mastery. Some of my students with IEPs rose to the top because finally they were being assessed against their current abilities, rather than one set standard for the whole class.
As for the students who would submit anything just to have that “missing” disappear. They quickly learned that an “In Progress” grade showed up in red too!
About 2/3 of the way through the spring 2017 semester, I received multiple emails from an angry parent wondering why her son was not passing science. “He turned in all his work!” she kept saying–it took both myself and our Community Relations Facilitator to show her that her son was turning in work far below his ability level, receiving detailed feedback (each time with the date of feedback), and making only minimal changes with each revision. Suddenly, her son began turning in work at his ability level, and I didn’t hear any more from her!
How Mastery-Based Grading is implemented in my classroom:
I use Google Classroom to push out Mastery Tasks to my students. They are all enrolled in the “Mastery Tasks” class and then each class period is in their own “Science 7” class. The only thing posted in the Mastery Tasks class is Mastery Tasks. The Science 7 class is used for announcements, period-specific assignments, and classwork.
Just as with standards-based grading, each Mastery Task addresses one standard. Some larger standards are separated into multiple assessments.
Classwork, including direct instruction, station work, activities, and labs.
Students work on and submit their Mastery Task in class. Mastery-Tasks can include CER paragraphs, videos, pictures of work in their interactive notebook, Socratic Seminar discussions, Slides presentations, etc.
I review students’ work and provide detailed feedback. On Google Classroom, a Mastery = 1 point, and an In Progress = 0 points. Please note, this is not a point value, but rather a binary on/off for mastery.
If students earn a “Mastery (M)” grade, they don’t need to do anything else.
If students earn an “In Progress (IP)” grade, they use the feedback to revise and resubmit their work. Sometimes this takes multiple cycles before they finally achieve mastery.
In the gradebook, I report M for Mastery, IP for In Progress, and / for Missing. These are set to “info only” rather than point values.
Students are able to calculate their current grade with the following formula: A = 0 In Progress or missing | B = 1 In Progress or missing | C = 2 In Progress or missing | F = 3+ In Progress or missing.
As the semester goes on and we end up with 18-20 Mastery Tasks, I expand the B and C ranges to be 2-3 and 4-5 respectively.
As a teacher, I’m always learning! My students recognize this, and respond back with loads of empathy as I try new things. They readily give me feedback to help us improve our class.
As I grow with Mastery-Based Grading, here are two of my goals:
Use more effective and regular student self-feedback and peer feedback before students turn in a Mastery Task. (Got an example? I’d love to see it!)
Try out Single-Point Rubrics. I’ve used 4-3-2-1 to be consistent with department and district rubrics, and switched over other assignments to a simple Mastery/In Progress rubric. Single-Point Rubrics seem to be everything I am trying to do. Thanks Ben Kovacs for the nudge!
How do your grading practices seek out the best in your students? I’d love to get some new ideas to push me further!
Love this post, here’s how I track data & create Mastery-Tasks (coming soon!).
Social media is a big part of many young people’s lives. Instead of fighting against social media in our classrooms and schools, we can come alongside our students and join them on social media! When we bring the learning into their court, we make school more engaging and relevant.
How I use social media in my classroom:
In my 7th grade science class, I use Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat to share what we are learning with my students and their parents. This is an optional and extracurricular activity for my students; in order to participate, a student’s parent must sign our classroom social media contract to give their student permission to participate.
At the beginning of the year, we discuss appropriate posting and interactions on social media, the purpose, and the benefits of using this in our classroom. My students generally love having their work and activities highlighted, especially on Snapchat and Instagram. When posting photos or videos, I am careful not to post individual student faces or names (unless I ask the student for permission first).
As we are doing labs, I will frequently bring my iPad to students to have them take a picture of their work, caption it, allow me to check it, then post the picture to Instagram. Other times, I’ll take a video of students working, then ask a student to write a caption for our Snapchat story. (Bonus: I’ll allow my students to pick a school-appropriate Bitmoji for the Snap, too!)
Sometimes when I travel for conferences or for fun, and I go to a museum or notable location, I will share a picture with my students. They enjoy learning about the world, just like I do!
Last year, we had the opportunity to interact with some experts on Twitter via the class account. After doing a whole-class read aloud of We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen (learn more about the read-aloud here), we tweeted to the author to ask her questions about the book and about her writing process.
Personally, I think Instagram is the easiest entry point if you are new with social media. Many students and parents use it;it is easy to keep a private account (users must “request” to follow you), and it’s user-friendly. You simply post and caption pictures.
Before you establish a class account, it is essential to check with an administrator to see what your school or district policies are on social media. Many schools and districts have their own accounts that you can connect with, too, if you’re looking for guidance.
You can also use my simple social media contract to alert parents, invite families to participate, and collect student’ usernames. Once students request to follow you, you can verify who they are and if they have permission before accepting their request.
Creating a positive “digital tattoo”:
When considering whether or not to integrate social media into your classroom, it is also important to consider digital citizenship. One of my favorite resources when it comes to digital citizenship is the Common Sense Media digital citizenship curriculum. I use the lessons in my class and at my school to help our student see that what they post online will follow them for the rest of their lives.
While many call this a digital footprint, I prefer to call it a digital tattoo because it is extremely hard to erase something once it goes online — you never know who took a screenshot or saved the image! However, not all tattoos are negative! A tattoo can tell a positive story and have an uplifting message.
As I use social media in my classroom, I reinforce the idea that we need to create positive digital tattoos for ourselves as we post online. My students’ future colleges and employers will Google their name and examine their digital tattoo as a routine part of the acceptance process.
Social media is one of the fun parts of my day! I highly recommend that you create a classroom account and share your classroom highlights!
Every year, I ask my students for informal and formal feedback on what they like about our class or a specific activity. Sometimes this is as simple as a warm-up question (read about my daily check-ins here!) or an exit ticket, and other times it’s a more involved survey with Google Forms.
My two years of teaching, I didn’t survey my students until the last week of school. I quickly realized that was silly because it didn’t benefit my current students, only the future students. The next year, I did a fall and spring course evaluation survey. In the next few years, I’d occasionally throw in a mid-semester survey too.
In addition to these surveys, I also have my students complete a reflection in their Interactive Notebook, and I include a question on their favorite and least favorite activity from that unit.
This semester, I decided to formally survey students at every grading period: two progress reports and at the end of the semester. The day after each major lab or activity, I included a question for feedback (Example: Did you like the ______ lab? Why or why not?) in their daily warm-up questions.
Additionally, I took on a student teacher at the end of August. She was willing and excited to be included in the Progress Report #2 and Final Course Evaluation surveys too. For these, we used “go to section based on response” so her class evaluated her in one section, and my classes evaluated me in a different section.
Progress Report #1 Survey
On the first Progress Report, I asked students to assign themselves a grade based on how many Mastery Tasks they’ve mastered (blog post later about my adventures with mastery-based grading). I quickly learned that I needed to explicitly teach them how to reflect, how to provide feedback, and how to support a claim with evidence (+1 for science skills!). Progress Report #1 (make a copy)
Progress Report #2 Survey
With the next progress report, I did a slightly better job scaffolding this reflective process for my students. I still had students who didn’t quite grasp how to support their claim (grade) with evidence (number of Mastery Tasks mastered). In both progress report surveys, students confused their justification with their satisfaction on their grade. Nonetheless, I found their insight valuable in how I communicate information with students. One of the questions is “Do you know how to see comments on Google Docs & Google Slides on your iPad?” because in the first 12 weeks of school, I was surprised that many students did not know how to view comments I left on both Docs/Slides and Google Classroom. Progress Report #2 (make a copy)
Final Course Evaluation
Student feedback on Fall 2017 Course Evaluation. I learned I need to dig
deeper to do a better job valuing students’ ideas and providing them
a safe space to be themselves.
On the final course evaluation, I used this less of a grade reflection and more as an evaluation of the whole class. On this one, I gave students the option to be anonymous. With this evaluation, I asked students to give feedback on what they like and don’t like in our class, changes we can make, and how I support them in our class. I take this feedback very seriously, and I will compile and share the overall trends with my students at the beginning of second semester. Additionally, I asked students for their feedback on Mastery-Based grading. The majority said they like it; those that said they didn’t like it at all talked about their unhappiness with their own grade on the “What improvements can we make to Mastery-Based Grading?” question. Final Course Evaluation (make a copy)
I really appreciate that my students are willing to tell me what they like and don’t like about our class. My classroom must reflect their needs and wants–sometimes it’s hard to put my expert ego aside, but I value their ideas and I know how to separate rude feedback (very rare! And, none so far this year) from constructive criticism.
I look forward to continuing these frequent reflections next semester!
This blog post was originally featured on Kids Discover on September 13, 2017. You know those days when the kids are getting a little squirrelly? The days where the side conversations get the best of the quietest kids and even the smallest distraction gets us all off track? It’s time to get the wiggles out while being productive.
It’s time for a Walk and Talk!
I teach in San Diego, California, and the weather is generally pleasant outside. We can easily go outside for this activity. This also works inside around the perimeter of the classroom (you might need to push the desks toward the center) or quietly up and down the hallway.
A Walk and Talk is a structured partner discussion where students are given question cards to answer with a partner while walking on a specified path. They walk toward a set location, such as a pole or tree, then turn and walk back. You can incorporate an instructional assistant or parent volunteer into your class activity by setting them as the turnaround point.
Start the class with a lab, activity, or guided reading assignment done in class. When I’m planning this activity ahead, I will create a list of questions or task cards, then pre-write them on index cards. The questions can be a combination of a review of what you’ve covered in class and how your students will prepare for the upcoming assessment or presentation.
When this activity happens on the fly because of extra time at the end of class or an energy surplus, I’ll ask students to write the questions on index cards themselves, based on what we’ve covered in class.
Before we go outside to our Walk and Talk location, I will randomly assign students a partner. Flippity Random Name Picker is my favorite randomizer tool. Then, we quickly review our class expectations for the Walk and Talk and for outside class work.
The Walk and Talk
We all walk outside and students line up next to their partner and I stand facing the head of the line. I hand a question card to each person in the first pair and wish them luck. The first person answers their question on the way to the turnaround point (about 20-30 steps), then they switch roles and the second person answers a question on the way back to the line. I wait about 10 steps between each pair, which helps prevent extra distractions.
Once the partners return from their walk, they get back into line. When they’re back to the front of the line, I switch their cards for new questions and we repeat the Walk and Talk. I quickly check in with each pair as they return and exchange cards, asking, “how did it go?”
Typically, we do three rounds before returning to class.
When we go back inside, students take some time to share something they learned from their partner or found interesting. This happens either out loud, or as a quick-write on paper or as a question on Google Classroom.
The Walk and Talk is an excellent preparation or reflection tool for larger research projects, essays, and Socratic Seminars. My students love the opportunity to go outside and work, discuss with a partner, and move around.
One of my hats at school is .2 (one class period) as a Blended Learning Specialist. I work with teachers to do purposeful integration of technology into our classroom. As I try to encourage my colleagues beyond simple substitution with our 1:1 iPads, I’ve found that we’re all sort of stuck in the swamp of so much to do, and not enough time to implement everything.
Virtual Vikings Newsletter
I had to really sit down and consider what will work best for my teachers. They don’t need more PD or expansion of Tech Tuesday lunches. I post resources and ideas on Google Classroom, initiate discussions, and try to be present in classrooms as much as possible. We attend local conferences, such as Edcamp619 and the San Diego CUE Tech Fair. However, they didn’t need more of any of that.
It took me the better part of a year analyzing this challenge, talking with colleagues and mentors, and observing how our teachers go about learning.
When I visited Google Boulder for the Innovator Academy in June 2016 and the Googleplex in Mountain View in August 2016, I noticed they had newsletters in all the restroom stalls. This made for some very interesting and technical reading. (Sorry, didn’t take any pictures. Google’s rules!) And, it reminded me of freshman year of college when our RAs would post the weekly newsletter in the bathrooms–it was impossible to ignore.
Text from my friend!
A lightbulb went off, and Virtual Vikings was born.
I used Google Slides to create the monthly newsletter template (see template & example here), then added in new content for each month. When I see cool tech tips, ideas, or lesson spotlights, I add them to a list on Google Keep. My featured sections include: Tech Tip, Classroom Highlight, Spotlight, Monthly Challenge, Viking Tech Crew, and Upcoming Events.
The hardest part is getting classroom spotlights, since I can’t be in every classroom every day. I’ve recruited my Viking Tech Crew (tech club) students to share what they’re learning, and take pictures of lessons and activities they’d like to share.
I’m thankful my dear friend Deb, guardian of the color printer, happily prints me 12 copies each month.
In each staff bathroom plus the copy room, I used 3M Command Strips to hang up plastic sheet protectors on the wall or back of the stall door. Each month, I do a Tour De Bathroom and slip a new newsletter into the sheet protector.
I’ve intentionally chosen not to also email out a copy. I want to preserve the magic and excitement of the physical newsletter. In the future, I’m not opposed to posting a digital archive of past newsletters.
Since starting this in March 2017, I have received extremely positive feedback on the Virtual Vikings newsletter! Each time a new one goes up, friends text me, email me, or stop me in the halls to share what they learned. They like that it’s short, colorful, visual, and convenient.
In fact, a few people love Virtual Vikings SO much that newsletters occasionally disappear from the sheet protectors!
I can’t wait to post our next Virtual Vikings newsletter when we go back to school in July!
As teachers, we’re constantly being told to implement 21st Century Skills and the 4Cs (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity). However, beyond that, we frequently aren’t sure where to begin.
To tackle each of the “Cs” in one class period, one of my favorite activities to do with my 7th grade science classes is a Socratic Seminar. Although Socratic Seminars take some preparation for both the teacher and the students, the outcome is well worth the effort! The goal is to get students to dive deep into what you’ve covered in class, and think critically about the topic at hand
A Socratic Seminar is a student-led discussion where part of the class is in an inner circle speaking, and the other part of the class is in an outer circle observing. In my classroom of 30 students, I put students in groups of 3, with one speaker and two “wing people” observing. These jobs rotate at set time during the discussion (more on this below).
My role as the facilitator is to silently watch the discussion from outside both circles. I make notes on who participates, who refers to the text and classroom activities as evidence, and I silently redirect students who get distracted. I also give instructions when we rotate jobs. During the discussions, as much as I want to, I don’t chime in!
To prepare for a Socratic Seminar, we read at least two articles in class on a topic. Our most recent Socratic Seminar was on human impact on ecosystems. Our preparation included:
Reading news articles about microtrash, pollution, and how human activities change ecosystems
Using Google Expeditions to go on a virtual field trip to Borneo to observe how humans have impacted the rainforests through deforestation, land encroachment, and agriculture
Watching The Lorax movie and talking about how that ecosystem was affected by the Onceler’s choices
Studying the California Condor rescue and re-population efforts
Having a wide variety of multimedia sources is essential for a successful Socratic Seminar.
Here’s how to set up a Socratic Seminar in your class:
To set up the Socratic Seminar, I provide students with a few open-ended questions ahead of time, and have them brainstorm their responses. Additionally, I ask students to write out a few of their own questions that they can ask the class.
The day before, I volunteer a few students to set up my classroom with 10 chairs in an inner circle, and 20 chairs with desks to form an outer circle.
When students walk in, I assign them into groups of three. Sometimes these groups are randomized, other times they are intentionally grouped based on personalities and strengths.
Person A sits in the inner circle, and the other two teammates, Persons B & C, sit in the 2 chairs directly behind Person A.
Each student receives a paper copy of the “Socratic Seminar Preparation & Student Handout” (make a copy here). (You’ll notice there is a blank page in the middle. This is intentional. When printing & copying back-to-back, this ensures that the two observation sheets are single-sided.)
Socratic Seminar jobs:
Speaker: The speaker participates in the discussion with the rest of the speakers, taking turns to share ideas. The speakers ask their own questions, and guides the discussion.
Body Language Observation: This wingperson is responsible for observing the body language of their speaker. They mark off different characteristics, such as “spoke in the discussion” or “looked at the person who was speaking.” They are silent during the discussion.
Content Observation: This wingperson observes what is said during the discussion. They write down notes on both what their speaker said, and summarize what the rest of the speakers say. They are silent during the discussion.
The Socratic Seminar runs in three rounds, so that each person has a chance to do each role. Since I teach on a block schedule with 100 minute periods, it is easy to have students complete the whole Socratic Seminar during class. It can be spread over two days if needed.
Each round breaks down to:
1.5 minutes – “Speaker, turn to your wingpeople and brainstorm questions and ideas you’d like to bring up in the conversation.”
15 minutes – “Speakers, turn back to the center. You may begin.” [This is all I say–it’s ok if it takes 30+ seconds before someone talks!]
2 minutes – “Speakers, stay silently facing the center. Wingpeople, you have 2 minutes to answer the ‘after discussion’ questions.”
1.5 minutes – “Speakers, turn to your wingpeople. Wingpeople, each of you share 1 thing your speaker did well, and 1 thing they can work on for next time.”
1 minute – “If you were speaker, move to content. If you were content, move to body language. If you were body language, move to speaker.”
Then, start back at the beginning for the next round.
Each round lasts 21 minutes, and with 10 minutes for initial instructions and set-up, and another 15 minutes for the final reflection, the whole process can be done in about 90 minutes.
At the end of the Socratic Seminar, students remove the two observation sheets from their packet and give them to the people they were observing. They receive the observations from when they were the speaker, and re-staple their packet. And finally, students complete the reflection on their participation.
My students also self-grade their participation in the Socratic Seminar based on this rubric:
Socratic Seminars are great ways to get students thinking deeply before a larger writing assignment. Many students benefit from talking through their ideas before they write. Even if you’re not doing an essay or a term paper, you can have students write a Claim-Evidence-Reasoning paragraph based on one of the questions discussed in the Socratic Seminar. Read more about how to scaffold a CER here.
Somehow by the luck of the draw, I ended up with the worst desks in our entire school when I joined this staff in 2013. Not only are the desk legs loose, and I’m constantly tightening them with a wrench, but also they are peeling and carved up. One even says “I hate this class” in big letters across the front. Let’s not even get into the gum artwork under the desks…
It finally came to a point where I was fed up. These desks have been through a lot, and they aren’t serving my kids’ needs. I can’t exactly go out and buy new desks. Solution: do some DIY and make whiteboard desks.
Rewind: A few years ago I went to the Home Depot down the street from my school, and really nicely asked the employees to cut up some panel board into 12” x 12” squares. Normally they charge for cuts; however, it wasn’t busy that afternoon and I made my case that I’m a local teacher, so they didn’t charge me! I had students use colored duct tape to cover the edges, and I had my own student white boards.
After the transformation. Thanks Eddie!
Fast forward to this year, I mentioned that I wanted whiteboard desks to a math teacher at my school, and he jumped right on it! We found that for every 4’ x 8’ panel board, we could make 2 tabletops for me, and 4 tabletops for his classroom. Eddie went to home depot, bought the panel boards, cut them, and we glued them to my desks. Yes, we glued them. No, it wasn’t an issue because it is a drastic improvement in desk quality.
To do my whole classroom in whiteboard tops, it cost just under $80.
With my new desks, not only is writing more pleasant, but also it has brightened up my classroom.
Students rotating and giving feedback after making claims
and finding evidence from an article.
Since we did this in January 2017, I’ve used them multiple times with students. They’ve brainstormed for projects and given peer feedback (in a different color), drawn diagrams of science concepts, and reflected on their work.
My favorite part of it is that students can quickly do a gallery walk to see their peers’ work, and add in comments and feedback in a different color marker. When they’re all done, they take a picture and we erase the desks.