Stephen Mather & The Good That You Have Done

After being off for a couple of weeks, I’m back from a great vacation in New England!  This was my first trip ever to Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, while my wife and I also spent time in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.  As always, we took in some pretty awesome historic sites, along with checking off a bucket list item, seeing the Red Sox at Fenway Park! There’s a lot of pretty amazing highlights of this trip that I could talk about for hours, but I’ll try to narrow it down to a top five before getting to the point of today’s post:

5. The Breakers Mansion, Newport, RI - A beautiful example of the Gilded Age, this enormous 70 room mansion reveals the incredible wealth of the Vanderbilt Family.  Parking is tough to find, and the admission price is a touch high at $26/person, but it is an amazing place to see. Listen to the children’s tour for a much more entertaining audio trip through the house.

4. Nantucket Whaling Museum, Nantucket Island - Really need to plan for a beach day and get out to the island early here.  My favorite history author, Nathaniel Philbrick lives on this island and I had wanted to see it since reading In the Heart of the Sea a few years ago.  Very much a tourist place now, with a bit of a steep price of $70 round trip for two to get to the island via 2-hour ferry, but the museum is a fascinating look at how the whaling industry shaped the community and the United States.

3. Mystic Seaport, Mystic, CT - A restored 19th Century seaport village, this museum is an immersive dive into the life of coastal communities.  In addition, the restored whaling ship Charles W. Morgan gives you a chance to step on board and get a sense of the life firsthand.  Very much a less commercial Colonial Williamsburg, it is well worth the day trip from Boston.

2. African-American Heritage Trail, Boston, MA - A great side trip from the Freedom Trail in Boston, this short walking trail takes you through the emergence of the abolition movement in Boston in the early to mid 19th Century.  The tour can begin or end at the Museum of African-American History, which I wish I’d had the time to visit, but some simple Googling of the homes (which are now private residences), can give you some insight into the significance of these homes on Beacon Hill.

1. The Beehive, Acadia National Park, Maine - A short, half-mile hike that involves some climbing up using iron rungs, and walks along narrow ledges was a real highlight.  As someone who hates ladders, this was scary, but worth the exhausting hike to see the view from the top! Definitely not for the faint of heart, but truly adventurous, just get going early!

So that brings us to the focus of this post.  One of my personal heroes is Stephen T. Mather.  Mather was the first director of the National Park Service, after making a fortune in advertising, marketing, and selling Borax.  He complained about the lack of concern in the early 20th Century for the National Parks, and wrote a letter complaining to the Secretary of the Interior, who told him that if he thought he could do better, then come down and do the job.  Sure enough, Mather showed up & took the job.

He hired a staff and set the policies and rules for the management of the parks, pushing for as many parks as possible.  His frenetic pace led to a series of nervous breakdowns, ultimately leaving his assistant, Horace Albright, in charge. His death in 1930 of a stroke, left the service in Albright’s hands.  In his honor, they named numerous locations after Mather, and placed bronze plaques in the parks stating:

“He laid the foundation of the National Park Service, defining and establishing the policies under which its areas shall be developed and conserved unimpaired for future generations. There will never come an end to the good that he has done."

While we know as teachers that it is extremely unlikely for any plaque to be erected in our honor, the statement on the Mather plaques (which I try to find in each park I visit), is one I keep close to my heart.  The final sentence I believe should be our striving goal as teachers: To have such an impact on young people that there will never come an end to the good that we have done.  

Each of you have done amazing things, and continue to do so, so share it all with the world! I’ll leave this post with a simple question: 

If there were to be a plaque for your work, what would you want it to say?


Summit Seeker(s) of the Week: This week I want to shoutout my wife Katie! She happily shares my adventures, being okay with visiting a bunch of historic sites each year for vacation, and putting up with my extreme nerdiness. This year we celebrated our 11th wedding anniversary on this trip, and I would not be the teacher or person I am without her. This site is also due in large part to her work, so I want to thank her for being my rock and support system whenever obstacles appear on my journey. Thank you for everything sweetheart!

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Can a Remix Have Value if the Original is Still as Popular as Ever?

Freshly returned from yet another amazing Summer Spark at University School Milwaukee!  As was the case last year, I’ll have a deeper reflection on the sessions I attended in a later post, but today is all about remixes.  No, we’re not talking about music remixes, but rather educational remixes.

After delivering my session on Summit Seeking at Summer Spark, I was exhausted!  It had been a nerve-wracking experience, and after watching the video of it, I felt even less happy with it.  It struck me as overly complex, hard to connect with, and even simply re-hashing ideas other speakers had said and implemented better.

The original purpose of this blog had been twofold.  First, provide a space for reflection for myself on my growth and journey as a teacher.  Second, to share out ideas and strategies I’ve used in the classroom and to highlight the awesome educators I’ve met through my professional learning network on Twitter and in my daily work.  By those measures, I’ve enjoyed this process, but I’ve started to think this could be more.

As I was attending & presenting at EDCampJOCOKS this year, I had a chance to meet Tara Martin and told her I was presenting at Summer Spark and she asked about my topic.  I told her, and she wondered if I had ever thought of writing a book. I replied, “Not really” but my mind was already turning. So she offered some great insights and suggestions about the process, and I that weekend I put a rough outline together and shared it with Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc. through their contact form.  I didn’t expect to hear anything for a long time, so I started writing the manuscript, figuring at least then I could flesh out the ideas for the Summer Spark presentation and clarify my points, even if for myself alone. That’s when the problems set in.

I decided I (selfishly) wanted a book with my name as the author and that amazing pirate logo on the spine.  I wanted to write something broad and profound that any teacher could use to improve themselves and their teaching, as well as their students’ love of learning.  I put together a spreadsheet of ideas, a more detailed outline, and even Googled how to format a book manuscript for publishers. As I wrote more and more, and prepped for my presentation, doubts crept in, and a few have stayed around.

I’ve come to realize that the vast majority (nearly all, in fact) of my ideas are simply remixes (or even straight up cover versions) of stuff I’ve read in the other DBC Inc. books.  There isn’t much original in Summit Seeking as a philosophy, either. All it amounts to is a set of questions I ask myself before I implement anything new in my class, questions I’m certain every teacher asks themselves every day.  What this meant to me was that I was merely standing on the shoulders of geniuses, producing nothing new, and trying to “sell” it as bright, shiny package of ideas that really belong to other people.

Hence the title of today’s post, my ideas are remixes, but the originals are still immensely popular. It begs the question: Is there any value in that?  People will tell you to tell your story and that it, to paraphrase Derek Sivers, may be obvious to you, but amazing to someone else.

But ultimately, does it need to be told in a book, or should remixes remain in the classrooms or schools where they were written, and let the originals go out to the world?


Summit Seeker(s) of the Week: This the shoutouts go to all the amazing DBC Inc. authors whose books I’ve read and ideas I’ve tried to cover or remix within my classroom. There are far too many to list here, so I’ll provide their Twitter handles in the Twitter thread for this post. Please know that every one of you has inspired me in some way to grow as a teacher and my students have benefited greatly from all of your awesome ideas and insights! THANK YOU to all of you!

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Three Thoughts on a Tuesday - Classroom Mantras

As the summer break has officially arrived, I’ve spent some of this time reflecting & relaxing.  Travel is a big part of my early summer schedule this year, with trips to Alabama, Milwaukee, & Boston & Acadia National Park already planned!  In addition, reading will be a HUGE part of my summer as well, having already finished In the Hurricane’s Eye and A Clash of Kings and have several education books on grading, school culture, gamification, and technology integration all part of my to-do list.

This post is all about having a set of mantras to fall back on as reminders for students when things get tough, or they seem to be struggling with anything, be it athletics/activities, schoolwork, or just life in general.  These are things I repeat often to students to illustrate the first three aspects of being a HIKER: Heart, Inspiration, and Knowledge. Let’s dive in!

Be Safe, Be Smart, Make Good Decisions

The first mantra is actually how I close each week with my students.  As we finish our activities on Fridays (or whatever the final student attendance day is), I complete the wrap up as the bell rings with this phrase: “Have a good weekend. Be Safe, Be Smart, Make Decisions.”  The goal here is to constantly remind students that I want to see them back in my class when we return, and that I want their time away from me to be filled with activities that are fun, but also that I care about them as people.  This is the essence of Starting with Heart. Notice that nothing is said about homework, projects, or anything academic. From the beginning, this mantra is all about Heart: Their safety is paramount and when that is achieved, I know they’ll be able to be back in our class for more adventurous learning!  The second part is all about using their time for what matters most to them. That may be my class, another class, or activities unrelated to school, but whatever it is, I want them to use that time in a smart way for their personal growth. Finally, we all know that our students are often faced with tough choices as teenagers, especially on the weekends or during long breaks.  My hope is that the last thing they hear from me for the day is a reminder that in those moments when they face tough choices, that they will make good decisions to avoid potential negative consequences that will affect their ability to achieve their dreams or return to class. No matter what, my students will leave my class each week knowing that I care about them as people first, and students second.

Be Epic and Legendary

The second mantra is often repeated whenever we start new units and projects.  I design my class to be as self-paced as possible, with students working on tasks, challenges, and Fortune & Glory quests throughout each day.  Therefore, each class is not truly a self-contained lesson, but more of an ongoing journey through our study of history, allowing students the freedom to explore our content and standards at a pace that suits them best.  When projects are introduced, we examine the basic structure of the task, review which standards are being assessed on the project and where resources and the rubric can be located, as well as the assignment in Google Classroom.  Following this, I remind students that how they choose to accomplish the task is entirely up to them, so long as they are epic and legendary in their creation. They are never assessed on their ability to use a specific app, but through my gamified class, I can reward that epic creativity with Experience Points, Items, Badges, or even our Wall of Fame.  So when students have great responses to our driving questions/standards, but ask “How do I put all this together?” I remind them of this mantra and then offer suggestions based on what I know about them. Yes, some still gravitate to apps they feel comfortable with, but when we reflect on the project, we look at other ways it could have been completed. Those that have chosen to embrace the opportunities to be epic and legendary have created amazing projects and most importantly, enjoyed the process along the way.

Be in Love with the Process of Learning.

The final mantra is repeated at the moment students start asking about points or grades.  While it is admirable to be concerned with your performance and what to do well on all tasks, I have found students to be under tremendous pressure to perform and when faced with feedback and a chance to revise, I am often asked about points and grading.  Early on, I provide some instruction on our class and repeat this mantra consistently, until students start to say it to each other, or have simply learned that the better question to ask is “How can I make this better?” This starts a conversation about learning and improvement, which is what makes deeper connections to content and skills, and shows again that I care more about who my students are as people than simply the content of my class.  During our reflections, I regularly ask about what my students learned most about themselves in addition to the content & skills of the project. The desire to improve and a focus on the learning process creates an environment where achievement can be applauded and celebrated, but also a place where the journey to that summit is just as valued as reaching it.

Feel free to use these in your own classroom, or better yet, design your own!

Keep Hiking!


Summit Seeker(s) of the Week: This week I’m shouting out the leader of the #sblbookclub study group: Kathryn Byars. Kathryn is a world history teacher from California who has an amazing wealth of knowledge on both Standards-Based Learning/Grading and history in general.  Her website, http://mrsbyars.blogspot.com/ provides amazing lesson plans & insights on powerful teaching to engage and inspire students.  I’ve learned so much from her & definitely become a better teacher in the process. I encourage you to follow Kathryn on Twitter @mrsbyarshistory

Onboarding with Game Manuals & Open-Source Inspirations

This week we dive back into the area of finding inspiration.  Last week my students finished the year strong with Clothespin Bumper Cars, the Egg Dash Challenge, and an epic final Boss Battle against Rene Belloq!  

As we wrapped up, my students completed their end of the year reflection on my class and game, and one of the big pieces of feedback was that my game needed clearer guidance on how items and badges could be earned and what they did.  While I provided some guidance on this, most students learned simply through playing the game, but others struggled to get into the game without some more in-depth guidance.

So, I did what I usually do.  I went on Twitter and discovered Jordan Loughlin, who had mentioned he was working on a game manual for his students to use, and I knew I had found what I needed.  I set to work designing it to be a quick overview, with a little better explanation of how the items and badges worked, along with an overview of some of the other elements & mechanics I use in my game.  I followed Alice Keeler’s advice about changing the size of a Google Slides presentation to be more like a book, and styled it after the old Nintendo Power magazines I read as a kid while trying to figure out how to beat various old NES 8-bit games.

I’m pretty pleased with the result, which you can see by clicking on this link for the web-version (which is also embedded below).  I wanted to take it one step further, however. John Meehan has made so much of his resources open for use by other teachers by allowing them to make copies and edit them, so I’m including a view-only link to the file.  If you are interested in doing something similar in your gamified class, feel free to make a copy and edit it to suit your needs!

That’s all for this week!  If you aren’t quite at summer, keep tapping into student energy these last days/weeks so you can really have some fun with the learning process.  If you are at summer, enjoy it! Relax, recover, and find some inspiration for the next year!

Keep Climbing!


Summit Seeker(s) of the Week: Shouting out the man who inspired this week’s post: Jordan Loughlin (AKA King Loughlin). Jordan is junior high social studies, religion, and health teacher in Canada (BTW: Our first international Summit Seeker! Congrats!).  Jordan has an amazing gamified experience in his class, combining digital and physical elements to create an immersive adventure. His map based battle boards have been impressive to see, and his idea for a game manual, combined with similar feedback from students encouraged me to write my own!  Thanks for being such an awesome educator & Summit Seeker! You can follow His Majesty, Jordan on Twitter @jloughlin23

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A Teacher’s Summer - Plans, Relaxation, & Bucket Lists

As we approach the end of the school year, I occasionally hear from people on social media or out in the real world who are not in the education world about teachers and their relaxing three-month vacation.  I thought this would be a good time to share out my summer plans and give some insight into what one teacher’s summer will look like:

Plans

Yes, I do plan on taking a break from my work life for a little bit at the start, but that isn’t to say I won’t be working on getting better as a teacher.  I’ve got several plans related to my profession that I’m going to tackle this summer, though I expect I might not get to all of them.

Reading

First, I joined a summer book club about Standards-Based Grading to help improve my practice and implementation, so reading is definitely a big part of my summer. I try to make sure I get at least one new education book read before I return to school so that my mind can be filled with new ideas to implement in the classroom and I can set out for some new summits.  Last year, I didn’t quite finish my education book, Be Real by Tara Martin, but I did finish it by October, and then managed to finish Make Learning Magical by Tisha Richmond last month. Below are the books I plan on trying to finish before school resumes in August:

Rethinking Grading by Cathy Vatterott

What We Know About Grading by Thomas R. Guskey & Susan M. Brookhart

Grading from the Inside Out by Tom Schimmer

Edrenaline Rush by John Meehan

I also want to be sure I take some time for reading pleasure and being a history & all around nerd, I’ve got two other books I’m in the middle of as we speak:

In the Hurricane’s Eye by Nathaniel Philbrick

A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

Coaching & Classroom Work

Second, I do still have a football camp to coach at the first week of June, so I won’t be gone from the building for long before I’m right back at it.  I also want to spend some time redecorating my classroom and making sure it’s in great shape when I get back to it in August, so I’ll likely be working on that early on this summer as well.

Educator Growth and Game Development

Finally, I’m headed back to Summer Spark to learn & grow even more as an educator.  I previously wrote about my experience this past summer, and I’m thrilled to get to return this year!  There are a TON of great sessions this year, so I’ve got my notebook & laptop ready to fill up with new sparkly ideas! (See what I did there?)  I also am working on game redesign for my class, with some elements from this past year going away, and others being retooled, along with creating a game manual to help my students better understand how the game works.

Relaxation

All that said, I do plan on taking some time to relax, because it’s always important to remember self-care.  Katie and I are headed to Boston & Acadia National Park for a nice 10 day vacation of history, whale-watching, and getting a bit lost in the woods.  We always try to visit a national park each summer to reconnect with the outdoors and hike a few trails. Thanks to the flight to Boston, I’ll have some time for some of that reading I mentioned earlier.

Education Bucket List

I can’t come up with a better term for this, so for now I’ll call it an EdBucketList.  Basically, I started making note of the various things I wanted to do as an educator beyond what I do in my classroom.  Some of them I’ve already accomplished, and I’ll likely keep adding more as I grow as an educator, but here’s my list so far:

  • Attend an EDcamp event (Check! Did that this past Spring at EDCampJOCO!)

  • Attend USM Summer Spark (Check! Did that last summer!)

  • Present at USM Summer Spark (SURPRISE! I get to do that this year, as I present about Summit Seeking!)

  • Meet my DBC & Education Author Heroes (Not complete yet, but I’ve got a good start!)

    • Quinn Rollins (Met at MCSS last Spring)

    • George Couros (Met at Turner Convocation a couple of years ago)

    • Michael Matera & Aaron Hogan (Met at USM Summer Spark last year)

    • Tara Martin (Met at EDCampJOCO this Spring)

    • Joy Kirr

    • Tisha Richmond

    • Paul Solarz

    • Wade & Hope King

    • Adam Welcome & Todd Nesloney

    • Dave & Shelley Burgess

    • Ron Clark

    • Rick Wormeli

  • Start a blog (Check!)

  • Write a book about Summit Seeking (SURPRISE! Working on this now!)

I’m sure more will be added as time goes by, but that’s a great start for now.  My challenge for you is to create your own EdBucketList.

Share out what your summer plans are and don’t worry if it involves A LOT of relaxation.  You’ve earned it, as this job is a full-body workout every day, so take time to recover and enjoy the time to recuperate.  We need to be back on as soon as the year starts up, so take of yourselves!


Summit Seeker(s) of the Week: Special Bonus this week as we shout out THREE(!) amazing educators I’ve learned from: Sharon Pedroja, Sharon Senger, and my mom, Micki Stephans. Sharon Pedroja was my 2nd grade teacher at Beech Elementary School in Wichita, and I absolutely loved her class!  Learning was fun everyday and I was always excited to be there! I remember lessons about recycling (always have to cut those plastic can rings so animals don’t get stuck!), and whales (we even adopted one as a class!).  Mostly I remember being valued in her class as a person and that I knew that I was going to learn something amazing every day. Sharon Senger has been like a second mom to me and my brother. Sharon is a retired elementary reading teacher whose passion for education is astounding! Her focus has always been on helping students not only read, but to enjoy reading for the sake of reading!  Her example as an educator is one I strive to emulate in my classroom, because I want my students to love learning for its own sake, not learn something simply because it is being tested! Lastly, my mom, who taught not only the kindergarten class at our church, but also made sure that our family vacations were filled with chances to experience not only the wonder of nature, but also to learn history, science, and countless other subjects through adventurous journeys across the country.  My love for history is a direct reflection of her influence, and I wouldn’t be the teacher I am without all three of these amazing educators! Thank you to all of you!

Growth Through Risk - Encouraging an Adventurous Spirit in the Classroom

This week we’re going to look closer at the “K” in HIKER: Knowledge.  Specifically, we’re going to look at knowing what your students need to find success in your classroom and in the world.

One of the biggest areas of focus in the education world lately has been on having a growth mindset.  Do a quick Google search and you will find hundreds of blog posts, academic journal articles, and tweets about the importance of this mindset when it comes to student achievement.  If you’re unfamiliar with it, the basics are that a fixed mindset believes that intelligence is born-in, and that it cannot be nurtured and developed, whereas a growth mindset focuses on awareness of a starting point, setting a goal, and laying out a plan to reach it (see graphic below for additional traits of this mindset).

Source: Dweck, Carol. “Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset.”  Rio School District , Rio School District, Oxnard California, rioschools.org/blog/fixed-mindset-vs-growth-mindset/.

Source: Dweck, Carol. “Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset.” Rio School District, Rio School District, Oxnard California, rioschools.org/blog/fixed-mindset-vs-growth-mindset/.

I love this belief system!  It takes the pressure off having to reach some lofty height, and instead focuses on the journey through small, incremental steps.  It’s a lot easier to focus on the step in front of you on the trail, than on reaching the highest peak. Goal setting is important, even when we want to focus on loving the process of learning, but we must remember that the greatest growth comes when we step outside of our comfort zones and challenge ourselves.  That’s where an adventurous spirit comes in. When you match an adventurous spirit with a growth mindset, the entire world opens for you, and you can envision all the possible summits you might seek.

Cultivating this spirit in the classroom is not easy.  Many of our students today have been inundated with standardized tests, strict objectivity in lessons and assignments, and a general lack of focus on creativity and challenge.  Our students often come to us with questions like:

“Is this the right answer?”

“Can I have a worksheet?”

“What app am I supposed to use for this?”

These questions are very much tied up with a fixed mindset.  Students are expecting an exact right answer for everything. There is little growth, creativity, or critical thinking in these questions, and though the task may be rigorous, it isn’t adventurous.  While rigor (I still hate this word) is important in our lessons, we need to also allow room for some risk-taking and open-endedness in design. There is so much value in taking on a challenge and growing through the risk and possible struggle.  We need students to be okay with academic discomfort and an understanding that the end result may not be what they expected, but that they still learned from the process and appreciate the chance to push themselves out of their comfort zones.

This brings us to a second concern.  Our obsession with letter grades, points, and whether or not we “have” to do something.  Our students are conditioned to think (or ask) if a task will be graded or not, which leads them to not seeing value in anything that does not have a number attached to it.  I’m greatly concerned about this mindset because it diminishes, possibly even eliminates, any love of learning for the sake of learning. I understand that we live in a world where students are under tremendous pressure to perform and succeed.  It’s built in to our standardized testing world, with students spending an enormous amount of energy trying to get straight A’s so that can get into prestigious high school programs and colleges. We need only look at the current college admissions scandal for the inevitable, logical conclusion such a mentality will produce.  This obsession with an end goal likely breeds unhappiness, frustration, and anxiety that truly harmful to our students’ mental health.

I would suggest that an adventurous spirit combined with a belief in improvement produces a happier, higher achieving student.  Taking risks and challenging yourself combined with clear feedback creates a chance to grow both as a person and student. To foster this spirit, in my class I repeatedly talk about “Being in love with learning.”  I offer dozens of opportunities for side quests to use the gamification verbiage, where students can challenge themselves to go beyond the curriculum and explore interesting historical stories that are often overlooked in our curriculum.  There is no extra credit, and it has no impact on their grade, but is instead a chance to enjoy learning and creating with content. Learning is the goal, not the accumulation of points.

As far as assessed tasks, I set clear targets for students to strive towards, and assess them on single-point rubrics, along with feedback about their work.  When we talk about our learning targets in kid-friendly ways (I CAN statements, for example), and provide consistent updates about where they are at in their journey toward that statement, the process becomes the focus, not the end goal.  The best part about all of this is that it is not a quest to arrive at “perfection” or “straight A’s”. Instead it is a quest they are on, and each step along the way becomes a memory and marker of their growth.

While I know I must live in the “real world” of letter grades, and the consequences and pressures students experience are real and palpable, I never want my classroom to be a place where the pressure to perform is so great as to cause anxiety and stress to the point where students become obsessed with the destination, and miss out on the fun of the adventure along the way.


Summit Seeker(s) of the Week: This week I’m shouting out two great educators: Rick Wormeli and Mindy Roberts.  Rick is a world-renowned educational consultant on just about anything related to middle school education.  I’ve not had the privilege of meeting him, but during the Hive Summit last summer, I was enthralled by his discussion of standards-based grading and why it is a more accurate, fair, and just flat out better model for assessment.  I’m still in the early stages of implementation, but I have been thrilled with the results so far, as it has provided me with the vocabulary and evidence needed to help my students see the value of learning and move past the obsession with letter grades.  I wouldn’t be the teacher I am without having learned about standards-based grading from Rick and I’m excited to learn more this summer at Summer Spark. You can follow Rick on Twitter @rickwormeli2  Mindy is an instructional coach I had the privilege of working with in my first year in Olathe.  Her help and advice through implementation of standards-based grading, to curriculum, to all the logistical aspects of being a teacher in a new district have been invaluable.  I’ve become a better teacher through our conversations and I’m very grateful for all her support this year. You can follow Mindy on Twitter @MRobertsIRT

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The 4th Quarter Plateau - Tapping into Student Energy to Keep Moving Down the Trail

This week we’re headed back into The Engagement Zone.  No, this is not a creepy rom-com Twilight Zone rip off.  This is point on your climb when you’ve built those relationships, you’ve found inspiration from your passions, and you know what your students need to be successful & what you are willing to do to achieve it.  Now it’s time to implement it and get them excited about learning!

The problem is that by the time 4th quarter rolls around, we’re often tired.  Let’s be honest: Teaching is an exhausting job. It’s a full-body workout day-in and day-out on the best days, and for those of us who teach middle school, it can often be a mental workout as well.  Whether you are an elementary school, middle school, or high school teacher, kids are demanding, energetic, and frustrating, but we also must remember that they are people (#StartWithHeart). This time of year, many of us are right in the heart of, or wrapping up, testing season, which adds another layer of frustration and exhaustion on our students.  They are often sitting for extensive periods of time, with limited opportunities to get that coiled spring of energy out. If you are a teacher who doesn’t administer standardized tests, you might notice students are either dragging through your class or have so much energy you’re struggling to get them to focus. Instead of trying to fight uphill against all of that, we need to tap into it.

4th Quarter can be viewed like a plateau after a long climb.  You’re close to the top, you’ve overcome boulders, downed trees, turned ankles, and steep ascents, and now you’re in this smooth, straight section, getting close to being able to see all of your progress.  It’s easy to get sucked into the “let’s just keep the kids busy with work and we’ll finish out the year nice and relaxed.” Unfortunately, our kids are humans with WAY more energy than most of us and there’s more of them!  My alternative: Use that energy they have and amp up your class at the end!

If you’ve gamified your year or final unit, this is a great chance to have some closing ceremonies and have students honor each other for their work, present the ultimate winners and high achievers with their awards, and celebrate everyone’s hard work and accomplishments.  It’s also a great time to bring out some fun games for review and challenges for your students. One of my favorites is a game called Superfight. This is a card game of, as the company calls it, “absurd arguments.” It is similar in style to a Cards Against Humanity (but WAY more school appropriate) or Apples to Apples (but funnier).  There are a lot of variations, but the basic game is as follows: Players are dealt 2 character cards (white cards), and 4 attribute cards (black cards). The first two players select one character card and one attribute card from their hand and set them face down on the table for all to see. I find it is best to have them lay them down on the count of 3 to avoid giving one player an advantage.  Both then must draw an additional attribute card from the top of the draw pile and play it face down. Each player then gets a limited amount of time (30 seconds to 1 minute is best) to make their best argument why their fighter would win. The remaining players listen and then vote for who they believe would win based on the arguments. The winner keeps playing (but with a new fighter & attributes) against the next player to the left.  The ultimate winner is the person who won the most fights. (Check out this video for a quick version of how this game is played)

The best part of this game is the way it teaches students how to make arguments on the fly given a limited set of evidence and information.  It forces quick thinking and interpretation of evidence; skills that we know students will need to develop and master. In my class, my students LOVE this game, and we often will play it for our Daily Warm Up using sticky notes on the white board.  For our final project, students are researching a person from the Gilded Age and will have to make several arguments in tournament-style (1 round robin day, 2 knockout days) why their person is the BEST example of what the Gilded Age was all about, so we’re using Superfight to help reinforce the argumentative skills.

There are lots of ways to tap into this energy students have right now, so I challenge you dig out your favorite games you’ve used in the past.  If you haven’t used games in the classroom, there are TONS of teachers on Twitter who share them out. Check out the hashtags: #XPLAP, #EDrenalineRush #games4ed for ideas.

I would also encourage you to try out ideas you were thinking about for next year.  Michael Matera has a great video about this, where he calls this time the “Incubator” of our ideas.  Right now your students are bought in to your style and class. Use that to test out those plans for next year and get immediate feedback as to how effective they are.  If you have students who’ve loved your class, ask them if you can record a quick testimonial or endorsement of them to show to next year’s class to hype it up.

Make this final push a magical and enjoyable time.  You’ve done the hard climbing, don’t ease back during this plateau.  Get a surge of energy from your students and get to the top of the summit, so you can soak in the maximum time reflecting from the top over all you’ve accomplished.


Summit Seeker(s) of the Week: This week I’m shouting out another amazing educator I’ve met on Twitter: Melissa Pilakowski. Melissa is a high school english teacher in Nebraska who might have one of the biggest collections of games for the classroom I have ever seen!  I had the chance to hear her speak at Summer Spark this past year and came away with a ton of ideas, including my idea for Superfight! She is clearly a passionate educator who knows how to tap into that student energy to get them excited about reading and learning.  She hosts #games4ed chat on Thursday nights on Twitter at 7 PM Central and is a regular on #XPLAP chat on Tuesday nights at 9 PM Central. Melissa is amazingly helpful in her advice on how to incorporate games into your classroom, so please follow her on Twitter @mpilakow.

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