Hamilton: An American Education

Context: I teach 7th grade science, and history is my least favorite subject. My background knowledge is lacking in both US and world history, unless it directly pertains to science. I had incredible history teachers in middle school, and sub-par history teachers in high school. In so many ways, the teacher makes the subject come alive!

Last week, I was chatting with one of our amazing US History teachers, Daniel Garcia. I asked him what they were teaching. Turns out, they were learning about Hamilton v Jefferson. Did you just say…Hamilton?! Ok, I’m interested. Why? Because Hamilton, duh.

Mr. Garcia going over the day’s objective.

They were analyzing primary and secondary source documents from both Jefferson and Hamilton, and discussing the merits and faults. I ended up in Mr. Garcia’s class for most of period 2 on Tuesday, and the end of period 4 and beginning of period 6 on Thursday. On Tuesday, they listened to the intro song, Alexander Hamilton, and analyzed Hamilton’s background (tangent conversation, what do you notice about the actors?). On Thursday, they listened to Cabinet Battle #1 and Cabinet Battle #2. If the kids weren’t interested in Hamilton after Tuesday, they were begging for more after these 2 songs!

At one point during 4th period, I usurped power from Mr. Garcia to ask the kids “How do you think the Jefferson v Hamilton battle would have been different if it were via social media? And what are their hashtags?” That got them exciting and talking!

Ok, so Hamilton is exciting and popular. Awesome. Wow. But so what?

I’ve seen many of our usually disengaged students perk up with Hamilton. They love the lyrics, the hip hop, the angst, and that this is something cool outside of school. I stood in line outside Mr. Garcia’s class (ok, so really, it started as a game of “how long can I blend in before he notices”) and had a great conversation about women’s rights and the 2016 election with some of my former students.

For other students, using music to learn instantly makes learning come alive. On Friday, I did a circle with my 0 period AVID 8th graders to discuss using music in class. I started the period with 3 warm-up questions, (1) Make a hashtag for Jefferson, (2) Make a hashtag for Hamilton, and (3) Were you in the room where it happened? #3 got them super confused and curious. Only one student in my class understood the reference, and was cracking up. Everyone else kept asking “Ms. V, what does #3 mean?” I asked them to get in their circle, and before I threw out the question, they were already in a heated debate about Hamilton v Jefferson. For 15 minutes, they continued an intense conversation about the two and their ideas, using evidence from what they learned in history. Mind you, this was 7:30am.

Cabinet Battle #1 with US History

Finally, the conversation died down, and we moved on to discuss how Hamilton and other music fuels their interest in a topic. Overall, they agreed that authentic music experiences help them learn (such as Hamilton, Flocabulary, etc.).

For me, music and musicals are an instant hook. Cats was my broadway musical gateway drug in 4th grade. My dad and I read Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats together when I was on a poetry kick, then watched the musical. I moved on to Les Mis, Hairspray, and Rent. For all of these, I took time to research the issues and people behind the musicals.

I love that my students have found something relevant to ignite their passion for learning!

Classroom Strategies, Technology

Engaging Parents with a Parent Tech Breakfast

Parent involvement is a huge mystery to me. Within the context of my school, I’ve learned that many of our students’ parents were once students at our school, and have not so positive memories of their time in middle school. That coupled with busy work schedules makes it difficult to get parents to come to school for events.

I’d like to take a moment to recognize that we do have some incredible parents who show up, volunteer, and are involved in our school. I’m so thankful for them. Every time I call parents, mostly positive phone calls with occasional behavior concerns, I reach friendly and caring parents. I know we have the support of our parents at home.

Parent Tech Breakfast

Last school year, I started hosting monthly Parent Tech Breakfasts. We’re 1:1 iPads, and we have lots of repeated questions from parents on how students use iPads at school, and how parents can more easily access technology for themselves.
The set-up is simple: we provide coffee and breakfast pastries, and we talk about technology for 30-45 minutes. Since we have many Spanish-speaking parents, I usually have a fluent Spanish-speaking techy teacher present to translate and/or run a parallel group. Each month, I invite content teachers to join us as well.

My Viking Tech Crew students have joined us a few times to show off tutorial videos and share projects they’ve created in their academic classes.

Discussion topics include:
– Classroom uses of iPads, including student work samples
– Accessing Jupiter Grades, our online gradebook
– Managing iPads at home
– Digital Citizenship, device contracts (shout out to Common Sense Media for amazing resources in English and Spanish!)
– Google Apps for Education — we had parents on my Chromebooks experiencing collaborative Docs for the first time!

Even though it’s a fairly simple event to plan, there is a lot that happens behind the scenes. I couldn’t do it without our Coordinator of Intervention Services, or as I call her, Facilitator of Awesome. Her job includes bridging the divide between home and school, and supporting students academically. She sends out reminder emails and phone calls to parents, shops for the goodies, and gets the room read for parents. We host the Parent Tech Breakfast in her room, which is a parent-center, office, and conference space.

I’m thankful that we’ve been able to reach parents and families through the Parent Tech Breakfast!
I’m always looking for new ways to connect with parents and families. How have you/your school successfully reached out to parents?


Teamwork and Problem Solving with Breakout EDU

Today I ran my first BreakoutEdu game. I’ve been wanting to try it for a while, and I finally got around to researching what the hype is all about. For those of you who don’t know, BreakoutEdu is based on breakout rooms where people are locked inside a room and must use teamwork and critical thinking skills to solve puzzles to break their way out. It’s taking education by storm; but instead of locking our kids in our classrooms, they are locked out of a mysterious box. You can read more about the overall set-up here.

I was so nervous to do this! There was so much set-up and so many interdependent parts. I was less concerned about things going wrong with students (mine are very flexible and work with me when I mess something up…which is frequently), and more anxious about forgetting a specific lock or making mistakes with the clues.

3 tables contained the locked breakout box
3 tables contained helpful materials

The Set-up
I’m not good at just taking things I find on the internet and implementing them–they never go as well as I’d like, and I never feel fully engaged. After taking a look at the BreakoutEdu Beta games available on the website, I started working on creating my own game. I designed my puzzles and challenges, then purchased all my locks and tool boxes on Amazon.

I teach 7th grade science, 30 students per class. As much as I would have loved the simplicity of setting up just one box, I knew it would lead to students sitting off to the side and/or goofing off. I decided to do almost identical 3 boxes with groups of 10.

We are studying ecology, so most of the puzzles related to basics of ecology.

Origami hearts to solve locked pencil box.

Here’s what I used and the puzzles to solve each:

Lock & key: Hid a key in an envelope in the supply area. Meant to be easy to build confidence.

Directional (speed dial): Picture of a food web with a story below about one of the animals visiting their friends in different locations (ex Sammy goes up to visit his friend Sandy). The directions corresponded to up-down-left-right on the lock.

Word lock: Crossword puzzle with 5 letters circled. Unscrambled to form a real word.

3 digit combo: I borrowed the RGB puzzle from Time Warp.

Working on the crossword

4 digit combo: Bumper sticker that says “Think global, act local.” Count up number of letters in each word to get combo (5636).

Hint card: Students also got one hint card in their original materials.

Locked pencil box: This was sort of a decoy. I printed instructions for folding origami hearts, and created flat originals for students to fold and discover a code once they put the papers together. Inside the box was a blacklight flashlight (I had a sign in my room with invisible ink that read “the key is to make a trade with Ms. V” so they could trade in their found keys for an extra hint), a 4-sided puzzle that contained a hint to the location of the key, and an extra hint card.


Love the teamwork!

I got to school at 6:30am this morning, school starts at 8:15. I had copies of puzzles to print, and most of the setup to complete. Luckily, I programmed all the locks earlier this week as they arrived from Amazon. I finished my setup at 8:11, just in time to take a few deep breaths before letting the fun begin. My classes quietly line up outside before class, and I usually like them to be inside and working on their warm-up before the bell rings; however, today I kept them outside until the bell. All I told them was “come in, your time starts now, good luck!” and let them figure everything else out for themselves.

Problem solving together

On their desks was an envelope that said “Open Me” which contained their instructions for combining table groups and the general rules and instructions. It was fun to listen to students react to the locked boxes on the tables and to get excited about the tasks. Most groups got right to work looking around the room for the hidden clues. Since I had three groups, I created a blue, green, and pink team, and all clues were color coded accordingly.

Working together as a team

After the timer went off at the end of 45 minutes (also borrowed Time Warp’s online timer with music in the background), we cleaned up and students helped me reset the classroom. We debriefed and discussed what went well, what didn’t go as well, and their favorite and most challenging parts. Since I had 3 classes participating today, we also talked about not spoiling the surprise for later classes. Unfortunately, one of my students overheard a few other students talking about the breakout box, and they already knew at least one of the combos. I told his group they had to show me the solution before I would allow them to unlock those specific locks.

Today’s breakout took

Through the course of the day, none of my groups successfully broke into the box. I had 3 groups down to the 3 digit combo lock (RGB puzzle), and one group got really close to solving it. Even though none were successful, all of my students were positive and excited about solving problems.

Things that went well
I had 100% engagement for the entire 45 minutes! All students were able to find puzzles that suited their strengths, and particular students emerged as leaders within their groups. I heard a lot of amazing discussions on leadership, delegating tasks, problem solving and encouraging each other, and a few references to growth mindset. It was amazing to watch my students problem solve together, and especially fun to not tell them anything! I recorded each Breakout session using Google Hangouts on Air and shared the recordings with our students’ parents. Already, I’ve gotten great feedback from parents!

I had a few students who were really persistent and
came in at lunch to try a puzzle they didn’t solve
in class!

Things that can be worked on
Next time I think I can tackled fitting in new content, rather than just reviewing what we already know. Additionally, set-up wont be nearly as tiring since I’ve done this now. As for students, some of the teams struggled with staying focused on efficiently finishing tasks, not jumping from one puzzle to another, or randomly trying combos. It was so hard for me not to jump in and redirect them! The only time I had to step in was a few instances when students were trying to pry open my boxes.

I’m excited to plan another Breakout, next time for my 7th grade AVID students. We were lucky to have our AVID tutors in to observe, and I could see how badly they wanted to jump in and work on the puzzles too. I’d love to do one that includes them. I’ll also plan another Breakout for my 7th grade science later this semester.

My kids are already bugging me asking when we can do this again! Success!!