My Love Affair With BrainPOP

Wednesday, February 27, 2013 1 comment

If you have spent anytime reading my blog you will know that I have a love affair with BrainPOP. I use it for everything in my classroom. I launch lessons with it, use it as a review, use the quizzes and graphic organizers and often assign the videos as out of class bonus activities. This year I have two students who, for reasons way beyond our control, can not attend classes. I have spent some time creating independent units of study for these kiddos and BrainPOP has become about a third of these assignments. My own fabulously amazing six year old got on iPad for Christmas and has absolutely fallen in love with the BrainPOP Junior app. In the past eight weeks he has learned about the solar system, the seasons, factor families and fractions, just to name a few of the topics. He just went back to kindergarten after his February vacation and came to home to tell me they had started to learn about money in class. "We're just learning about pennies, though. Tim and Moby taught me about all the coins."

Even though I would have been content with my one sided love affair (otherwise known as stalking) BrainPOP has actually reached out to me (read about that here.). Recently, they have asked me to do some beta testing of some top secret happenings:). So the other day when I went to my mailbox and got this...

I just assumed it had to do with my top secret and oh - so - important project. But no..... It was a present.

They gave me a tshirt, called me a POPStar and wrote me a lovely letter thanking me for being a loyal and faithful patron. They also told me my top secret directions were forthcoming and I could tell you about it but then I'd have to kill you. Subsequently, the bottom portion of the letter combusted minutes later:)

My son was VERY disappointed the shirt was for Mommy and not him, but Mommy was just impressed with this company that keeps improving their content, making their quizzes more thought provoking, and that has done a wonderful job at integrating gaming took their time to send a Tshirt to a fan....out of nowhere.... Just because they are a good company. I'll keep blogging about them because they are just good people:)



Explain Everything App, Primary Sources and YouTube.... A History Techie's Dream

Saturday, February 23, 2013 4 comments

Yeah....February vacation!!!! Although I am going to take it easy and just have fun with my baby girl (the boys had vacation this week.... How sad, right?) I have three school related tasks.

1. Enter professional development into the system.......Ugh! I'm up for renewal this year and in the last three years I have entered zero hours of development yet completed about 300. I also left that folder at school. Guess I'll be bringing the midget for a field trip!

2. Grade my Citizenship Project.... If you can find the time to blog about the project, I guess it's kind of pathetic that I haven't "found" the time to grade them. I tend to be pathetic so I'm okay with it but there is always time for change :)

3. Blog! My last post has received over 800 hits which is just ridiculous in such an awesome way. I had been keeping a list of blogging topics so I'm going to try to carve out the time to write at least two over break

As I have been documenting here, I have really been trying to wrap my head around the Common Core, their role in the middle school, and Social Studies' role in the standards. I tend to throw myself into things, sometimes forsaking others, to try to feel some semblance of mastery. I have continued to use the primary source lesson for Reading Like A Historian, a project of the Stanford History Education Group and continue to love them.

They have obviously seen the potential for major success because they have added content and reworked their web page. We had been learning about the formation of the first political parties with a focus on their founders, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. I had my kids use this great website that appears to be created by a fellow teacher ( and they created a really great foldable. We watched the BrainPop video that detailed their differences, played Grudgeball to review and took a quiz that the kids aced. They really understood how different these guys were from each other. After I felt we had established the textbook differences I introduced the Reading Like A Historian's lesson, which included letters of from each of these men to George Washington. Sometimes I feel like the sole thing holding kids back from truly understanding primary sources is just the fear that they won't understand them. I have found a good way to take away this fear using an app called Explain Everything.

Explain Everything is one of those iPad apps that acts as a whiteboard and allows you to screencast. It does cost $2.99 and although there are a lot of free ones out there, this one has the capability for you to screen cast your actual use of a website. I bought this when I needed to create a video tutorial of our online sign up for parent teacher conferences and many of the free ones didn't have the capability for recording my use of a web page. This one does that and a whole lot more. What I wanted to use it for, this time, was basically to create a screen cast of me reading the letters with the appropriate emotion, focus, etc.

1. I went to Google images and got myself a picture of Alexander Hamilton and saved it to my camera roll. (I borrowed the picture from

2. I brought the picture into the Explain Everything app, added the title from the primary source document and simply recorded myself reading.

3. When I was all done I simply exported the video directly to my educational YouTube account.

4. For the kiddos, I created a Google Presentation and embedded these two videos.

I had the kids read these to themselves when they were done with the quiz. When I played them, I gave them the choice of listening or reading along. The point of the lesson is that Hamilton and Jefferson weren't just different. Jefferson was bashing Hamilton all over town and as one of my students said, "Um, Jefferson's kind of a jerk, Mrs. Wilkins." As they were listening to the letters I saw their faces register with understanding. The videos allowed them the freedom to really pay attention to the letters and not stress over them. I had already done this for the Shays' Rebellion lesson as well, so this definitively allowed me to know that attacking primary sources this way was successful.

So....are you trying to integrate more primary source materials into your classroom? Do you have any tips for us early stage Common Corers?

Room with no view....

Thursday, February 21, 2013 No comments
I'm having fun getting out into the big wide world of edublogging and decided to join my first Linky Party. Life in Middle School is a fellow middle school blogger who I love to follow. She has challenged us to show the view from our classroom doors, since we spend so much time there. She posted a beautiful scene of a gorgeous outdoor quad in California. This is what I get to post....

It could be worse! I actually have a fabulous classroom in the new wing of our school (of course it hasn't been new in a decade but we're a staff that believes in longevity:) ). This view has been mine for twelve years and I wouldn't trade it for the world.
What's the view from your room?
Click below to see other views!

Grudgeball.. a Review Game Where Kids Attack!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013 324 comments

Join me on a journey to engagement!

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  I have long been a huge fan of using games in the classroom.  Much like sneaking broccoli into the pizza sauce, I have always felt that games were that perfect balance of teaching and engagement.  When I first started, my consummate go to was Jeaopardy but..... Holy work Batman! Setting that all up was extremely time consuming.  I wanted to find a way to have a quick go to game I could use with any set of questions.  I bought myself a Nerf hoop and did a straight game of answer the question, get it right, shoot the ball and earn points.  For a majority of the kids this was enough but for one of my classes, nothing could get them excited.  For them, this game was accompanied by the sound of crickets, followed by awkward silence, followed again by crickets.
I came up with the solution one night while watching Survivor.  The contestant competed in a challenge where they answered trivia questions about their teammates.  For every question they got correct they got to put a coconut in their opponents trough.  When the trough was filled, the opponent was out.  The last person left, whose trough hadn't been filled, was the winner.  I realized that what my game was missing was interaction.  My game simply had them winning points to beat each other.  What I needed to do was capitalize on the middle schoolers need to interact and torture each other.  Out of this revelation came the game that is now known by a decades worth of children called Grudgeball.  My kids love this game.  I have gotten emails from former students asking if I still play this.  One of my kiddos walked in first period today and said, "Oh, we're playing Grudgeball today?  You just made my day Mrs. Wilkins.  I have two oral presentations and this game is just going to let me have fun."  So, how do you play it?
1.  Each team gets 10 "X's". (I had a class, years ago that like to do 10 UFOs or 10 cactii but we needed to put an end to that:) )

(This was post game so not everyone had 10.)
2. Split your class into 5 or 6 teams, depending on how fast you want the game to go.
3.  Each group gets a question.  If they get it right they automatically get to erase two X's from the board.  They can take it from one team or split it.  They can not commit suicide (take X's from themselves).
4.  Before they take off these X's, though, they have a chance to increase their ability to get the other teams to hate them.  They get to shoot the Nerf ball.  I set up two lines with masking tape.  One is a two point line while the other is a three pointer.  

****Very worn out two and three point lines.

5.  If they shoot from the two point line and get it in, they can take four X's off the board.  If they go from the three point line, and make it in, they can take five off the board.  If they don't make it they still get to take the original two off the board.

Join me on a journey to engagement!

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I have solved some problems along the way.  When a team is knocked off I needed a way to keep them in the game.  These teams still take turns.  To get back on the board they need to get the question right and make the basket.  If they do this they can earn four or five X's back on the board (depending on from where they shoot).  This allows them to stay involved, take part in the review and not shut down. Kids will want to make alliances.  With really good natured classes I let this process naturally happen.  If I have an immature or meaner class, I try to stop this for fear of bullying.  Every year I inevitably get one kid that takes the "attacks" personally.  I just have to really reiterate that the object of the game is to knock everyone else off and people are going to get upset but that is okay ( hence the name GRUDGE ball).
This game is one of those things that has spanned my career but is still loved by alI.  I have had other teachers approach me and ask if they could use it and my response is always, the more the merrier.  I have even had teachers find out what days we are playing this and show up to take part!  I love the simplicity, the minimal supplies and the very minimal prep.  Its great for review but even good for a day before vacation with trivia or geography questions.  If you give it a try I promise your kids will looooove it.  Leave me a comment if you give this a try.  Sometimes it's nice to know I'm not yelling into the big black hole:)
Do you have any go to games the kids love?

Writer's Workshop... In Social Studies!!!!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013 2 comments

Being a social studies teacher (and former language arts teacher), I have always taught my share of writing but over the years the focus has changed. Right now, my department is really trying to implement the Common Core so we are no longer focusing on the five paragraph essay (thank the education gods!) and really moving towards writing frequently with a focus on summarizing and argument writing. We have been doing persuasive writing for quite some time but we are aligning the vocabulary to that of the CCSS (i.e. persuasive to argument, thesis to claim, etc.) and again, we have been working on quality as opposed to length. Many years ago we had adopted the John Collins Writing Program and we recently brought Mr. Collins back to our school to share his ideas on the CCSS. His biggest push was for us to help students learn to grapple with complex texts through completing an assignment called a 10% Summary (
This sheet really does a nice job of guiding them through the process of summarizing. The next thing I wanted to work on was writing an argument piece on a gun debate article from The New York Times Upfront Magazine. I have been using these articles for years and had created a pretty good graphic organizer to help the kiddos create their rough draft. I decided to switch it up a bit and instead turned the organizer into a notebook foldable.
I decided to truly launch these I wanted to run a writer's workshop. Of course, being a middle school social studies teacher I really didn't know what a writer's workshop was!!!! I spent my MLK weekend studying up online and on the almighty Pinterest and put this together......

I set up their work stations with scissors, glue and sticky notes and had the handouts on the back table. The first thing we did was the 10% Summary sheet. I broke the assignment into two parts and initially gave them 5 or so minutes to gather the information for the topic sentence (i.e. title, source, etc.). At the bottom of the paper the kids were to write three to four main ideas. In order to set up a climate of modeling, I had each kid in the group grab two sticky notes where they were to write two different ideas that they found to be integral to the understanding of the article. The kiddos then shared their stickies with each other and as a group chose the three best main ideas. The kids loooooved this and it worked brilliantly. It really helped the kids who were having difficulty to actually see well written main ideas. For the kids that understood the concept, it allowed them to hone their evaluation skills.

Next we did the argument article, which my kiddos had already done many times this year so I just had to teach them how to use the notebook foldable. They thought it was magic because once you have completed every tab of the foldable, your rough draft is all done!!!
To finish these all up we headed on down to the computer lab, typed these up on Google Drive and now I have some fabulous artifacts for their writing portfolios.
I really loved the idea of working on the writing collaboratively and got a lot of commendations from the students for making it so easy. As time goes on I will wean them off of the collaboration but I really do think it brings down the writing anxiety when we begin a new type of writing. Overall I consider this a success!
If you are interested in my Argument Writing Foldable, mosey on over to Teachers Pay Teachers to take a look!

Digital Unit: Citizenship... I Didn't Even Need to Be There

Saturday, February 2, 2013 1 comment
Last year I created this digital unit that the kids absolutely loved. I was totally jazzed to implement it again this year and I was a little disappointed my life took over and I actually had to be out of school for two of the five days of the project. The funny thing is, I had created a digital unit where they would not only create independently but also learn independently. Goal accomplished! They were able to continue on with everything without me even being there.
I needed to teach my kids the basic concepts on citizenship and I had always done a quick worksheet to quickly cover the standard but I always knew I wasn't doing it justice. After a little investigation I was able to create a fun learning experience that gave them room for creativity. Here is a quick look at the project:

1. The kiddos watched a BrainPop on Citizenship and took the quiz. Google and BrainPop have a wonderful relationship which allows children to submit their score to a Google spreadsheet in my account. It's wonderful because it creates a grade book in my Drive account where each quiz taken is a separate tab in a spreadsheet.

2. In order for students to learn who can become a U.S. citizen, I had them play Immigration Nation on iCivics.  In this game students learn the different reasons people can become a U.S. citizen and give students practice on identifying and classifying these reasons.  Students took notes as they played the game.

3. Next the kids had to play Responsibility Launcher at iCivics.  In this game students learned about the things that citizens have to do and the things they should do to make a better country.  Again, they took notes as the played the game.

4. Once they were done gathering information, the kids had to create a presentation that would help people understand the what it means to be a citizen of the United States of America.

In order to do this, kids were given the option of three different digital mediums:
     1. Google Presentation - This is Google's own version of PowerPoint and my kids are masters at it.  The
         benefit is they can share it with me.
     2. Prezi - Prezi is considered a "moving presenter".  I works along the same lines as PowerPoint but
         instead of having multiple slides, you have one work space and you zoom around the space.

     3. GoAnimate - OMG my kids loooooove this.  You type in your dialogue and it creates an animated movie for you.  There is a quick version which just requires you to type dialogue and a full video maker which gives a bit more freedom in design.

For two years now my students have really enjoyed this project and have learned so much.  The games really help the children work with the information and they really loved the creation part.

Check out what they made!!!

Citizen by musicdog on GoAnimate

Animated Presentations - Powered by GoAnimate.

My Flipped Upside Down Classroom... Thank You Google Drive!

So, the first five years I was a teacher I took approximately 1/2 of a sick day.  I prided myself on my New England Puritan work ethic and by the time I had my first midget I didn't even blink when I had to take maternity leave.  Fast forward six years and I had to take off three days in the past two weeks.  First, the midgets got the flu, then my husband got in a car accident, and finally the little ones got a fast and furious stomach bug.  My students had been working on an entirely digital unit and I had already abandoned them to a sub one day so I was feeling really guilty.  My school was able to get me tech savvy coverage so the kids were able to spend class in the computer lab and finish up their projects.
Because I was feeling guilty my head started racing with how I could help the kids.  We are a Google school and all of my kiddos needed to open their Google Drive accounts to read the "Do Now" directions.  As I thought about that my plan began to hatch.
1. I edited their "Do Now" to give them directions on how to independently finish their projects.  With Google Drive's real time editing my kids were able to see whatever I was writing from home.
2. I used my iPad to shoot a two minute video explaining the directions to the kids and telling them how proud I was of them.  I even showed them the sick kids in their PJ's and the very happy dog that was celebrating because he wasn't home alone.  I uploaded the video to my Drive account using my Google Drive app, shared it with my students and put the link in their Do Now.
3.  Google Drive allows you to chat with collaborators on any document.  Once these classes started, I typed into the Do Now that I was there and available for chat.  From here I was able to answer questions and help the kids with their technology issues.

The kids got the biggest kick out of it!  They looooved the video and they thought it was so cool that they could talk to me in real time.  My high flyer class mostly used the technology to say hi but my class that tends to struggle.... they had me working my butt off!  Seriously, I was troubleshooting and answering questions for the entire forty five minutes.
I know this couldn't always work. Usually I can't leave anything with technology because I can't be assured that a substitute can even figure out how to turn on a projector   A couple of weeks ago, I hooked up a DVD player to the projector, figuring everyone knew how to run a DVD player.  I left copious amounts of notes on how to turn on the projector and left sticky notes all over it labeling buttons.  Surprisingly, my substitute had no idea how to run a DVD player.  Using technology to teach from home just worked this time.  My students were working in the computer lab and happened to be using collaborative web tools.  Everything just fell together perfectly.  I love when little things happen by chance and they expand your horizons.