They Escaped!

A few weeks ago, I was scrolling through Instagram enjoying photos of babies, food, and Kaelin’s cat when I saw a momma friend post about an “escape the room” review lesson she had hatched for her history class. Immediately, I became obsessed with the idea! My ninth graders have been killing it this year raising the bar on their writing, content comprehension, debates, and analysis. Wouldn’t it be fun to approach the end of the Civil War unit in a playful way for them? This question led me deep.


Deep into a hole of puzzle making and code ciphering that had me babbling “sic semper tryannis” and buying Mexican Cipher Wheels from Amazon. What could the topic be for the escape? Would the escape the room help them better understand history or would it just be a distraction? I racked my brain through these questions and reached out to faculty across the building for help thinking through the objectives and meaning behind the escape. The topic came the easiest. The class would need to prevent the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. In the past, this topic was always covered by reading a textbook and doing a little discussion about the magnitude of the assassination before moving on to something else. But what if instead of this very small/insignificant approach, we jazzed it up and got the students to feel the rush of emotion to prevent the event and the confusion of following the manhunt? The scenario thus became:

“You are group of elite army special service officers. You have just witnessed the signing of the Articles of Agreement in which the Southern Confederate Army officially ended their hostilities against the Union. You have been tasked to deliver the formal documentation to the White House. While traveling from Appomattox Court House to President Abraham Lincoln, you are ambushed by a group of hooded riders who blindfold you and take you to an undisclosed location. Along the way there, you pick up bits of their discussion from the front of the wagon about plans to “Cut off the Head” of the Union so that the “South May Rise Again.” Left alone in the holding cell,  you need to uncover how to get out, where the surrender document is hidden, and what plans you need to stop in order to secure peace and protect the United States of America!”

And then I stopped blogging for two weeks because it was time to create 10 missions, clues, red herrings, objectives, ciphers, puzzles, and everything else in between. It felt like an incredible undertaking and I lost myself to the process all the while hoping that on the day of execution the students would be challenged, would gain deeper knowledge of the events leading to: the assassination, the timeline, the co-conspirators, the manhunt, the plot, the motivation, and all else in-between. And using technology would allow students to visit the locations with Virtual Reality. My framework then became for:

  • Students to work in collaboration with another to problem solve and work together towards a common goal
  • Students are able to review key concepts, themes, battles, and events leading up to, during, and immediately following the Civil War
  • Goal for students to be engaged in the content in a way that is respectful, motivating, and team-building
  • Have students understand the timeline of events leading up to the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, learn about the motivation, the assassin, visit the physical space of Ford’s Theater, and learn about the co-conspirators
  • Have students reflect on their approach, reflect on their default collaboration behaviors/mindsets, and discuss how they were challenged in the process

The process was maddening. I am thankful David is still married to me once I climbed out of the craziness. On the morning of, I arrived to school an hour in advance to set up the room, played Civil War themed music over the speakers, and welcomed in the students. It took them the full hour to work through the puzzles. They laughed, they struggled, but ultimately they escaped.

hr of code

Anybody can learn to code is the mantra of and it became ours on the morning of December 9, 2013. From 9:00AM-10:00AM teachers throughout the school led students through a variety of tutorials and activities that connected their specific course content to coding. Simultaneously, teachers throughout the United States and beyond worked in a similar fashion to highlight not only the significance of coding in today’s world but the practicality (and necessity) of it.


While December 9 represented a synchronized effort to coordinate the entire school’s coding experience, it was not the first time Beaver students and teachers implemented code into their classes. Visual Art teacher, David Ingenthron, worked with students in the first term of school on developing their student portfolios. When one student asked if he could incorporate designs he composed using, David not only said of course but asked the student to demonstrate his work to the class and help facilitate a lesson that inspired his peers to code and design alongside him. The final products were quite surprising. Here is one example Swirly Thing. Similarly, in Joe Christy’s math class students not only engaged in coding from a math perspective but also coded data that was not exclusive to a “calculus specific” course (i.e. Wiretapping). By allowing coding to live outside of its stereotypical comfort zones of math and science, students at Beaver are able to not only learn the mechanics of a coding language but create and imagine new possibilities for coding.


So what did teachers do on December 9 exactly? Many members of the faculty started at the very beginning for their students with questions such as: What is coding? What are some coding languages? Where do we see coding today? Why do people code? Why does Beaver code? These conversations set a context for the hour of code, generated ideas, and provided insights for the teacher on how exactly to implement and differentiate the coding activities that were about to follow. A number of teachers used the tutorials provided by the Khan Academy for the day of coding, including tutorial I and tutorial II for some members of the English Department. Josh Rilla, in the English Department, “Experimented with Codetry.” In Visual Arts, teachers used pencilcode to design line drawings and challenged the students to reflect on incorporating coding into their creative process. In performing arts, teachers used both activities from Khan Academy and In the Middle School, Yolanda Wilcox-Gonzalez, Michelle Wildes, and Lindsay Rich turned the hour of code into a day of coding for their combined 8th grade classes.


They started the day with introducing the kids to what coding was and had them use the tutorials provided by Khan Academy to begin.  During the next two classes, they provided two challenges, one that was History-English related, and the other related to science. For History/English, students had to code a program that allowed them to create an infographic showing statistical data of the migration of Puerto Ricans and Polish people to the United States from 1879 until 1970.  Students are currently reading West Side Story in English class and they thought giving students an idea about the migration of these two groups into the United States would provide some background knowledge of the experience for each group while also exposing them to practical and authentic coding. For Science, Michelle taught students about ocean organisms and students created codes for programs in which they drew and animated one of the ocean organisms they studied (fish, turtle, whale, shark, sea star, jelly, lobster).  Here are a few examples of student work: Ben – Fish, Ryan – Sea Urchin, Kalala – Immigration.


It was clear after my own hour of code that once the students overcame their initial hesitancy around “doing it right” and just dove in, they were willing to play with coding, make mistakes, and rework their understanding, initial goals, and outcomes. The students that started at the very beginning with a simple drawing of a square were proud of their accomplishments and eager to push further into coding and brainstormed excitedly about how they could use coding again. It was an excited morning as students from 6th through 12th grade grappled with coding, created something new, and challenged themselves and their teachers to think critically on how to make coding an authentic and consistent part of everyday.

professional development session 1

My school has been a fountain of professional development opportunities. Each year, I have been lucky to have the opportunity to attend one (but most often more than one conference). This summer, I will be attending three. My first session started this morning and it has been interesting. I signed up to learn more about the Flipped Classroom. I have played with this concept in my class and have found that it is a helpful tool for teachers though it is not a “silver bullet” in how every class should be run. It does add meaningful individualized learning opportunities when done well. Yet, when done poorly, it can come across as passive video watching. I like the idea of the flipped classroom because it creates an interesting way to break up the typical homework of reading in a history classroom and create an environment in which there can be more interaction and intention when student head home.

This session has been interesting although not groundbreaking. This was definitely an introduction level program and while it cemented my understanding of what the concept of a Flipped Classroom is, it did not share too many fresh insights, examples, or technologies. Nonetheless, I am pretty excited with a few new classroom technologies that I hope to play around with over the summer including:, hapyak, and padlet.

The really great part of PD though is being able to be a student again.  I forget sometimes what it is like to be a student.  How long have I been sitting here?  When is the next break?  How could I spice this up? Oh man, do I sound like that too? These are all just a few of the questions flooding in and out as I participate in this session. I learn so much as a student about the content that is being shared in the course but, more importantly, from how the instructor instructs and how the learning is learned. Observation is key in these moments and I am soaking up an array of divergent and interesting ideas to sharpen my own classroom skills and whether that is with the Flipped Classroom model or not is still under construction.

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elective final project

I have never done this before. Typically, final projects in my History class require extensive writing. For example, my freshman write a textbook at the end of their course. This time though, I wanted to try something different. These seniors had selected to take my elective on Genocide and War Crimes. As you can imagine this is a “heavy” course. Examining mass murder and violence is a complex and challenging program of study. All term the students read extensively, wrote prolifically, and questioned the events earnestly.  Now I wanted them to have to demonstrate their understanding through a project that required them to have a vision and a purpose.  Could they make a high degree of connection between project guidelines and their knowledge and perception of genocide in which they illustrate their craftsmanship and originality?  I took my previous projects on design thinking as inspiration as I sat and crafted the prompt (below): design thinking I & design thinking II.

The prompt:

Create: Please create a work of visual art (conceptual art?) that communicates your ideas about what you have learned about Genocide & War Crimes and how this knowledge can benefit the world.

Your visual art must meet these requirements:

  • There must be at least 3-5 teachings in your visual art.

  • No symbols

  • No words

  • No cliches

    • no peace, love,  dripping blood, etc

    • no sad kids, or famous images of perpetrators, or famous images of violence

Requirements for presentation:

  • 5-7 minutes

  • Your process:

    • Why did you choose to portray Genocide in this manner?

    • How does this piece of visual art teach others about Genocide?

    • Needless to say, each teaching must reflect sophistication and deep intellectual thought.

A few of the products I received:

Project 1: Photography by EW. Depiction of the Armenia genocide using a pomegranate (fruit of Armenia)

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Project 2:  Cambodian Genocide by NHS.

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Project 3: Darkness Descending by AF.

Screen Shot 2013-05-05 at 8.05.13 PMProject 4: Wood Sculpture by LL. Distressed wood forced and hammered into place.

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These projects and the presentation of their teachings on genocide really impressed me. If you are interested in the teachings that accompany each of the projects, please don’t hesitate to ask!

final assessments

As a school with trimesters, the first set of final exams is upon us.  Classes meet for two out of the three terms making the month of February totally quirky.  Classes end, finals are given, but the school year is not quite over yet, huh?

As part of the school winds down, other classes gear up to start their second term. Balancing between the two is challenging. When I walk into halls, I often hear the infamous sound of the circus: Circus Theme Song.  Students run in and out of classrooms, teachers frantically search for time to meet one-on-one with students and I can almost image paper swirling through the halls and down the stairwells. No mater how we plan to manage the stress, reduce the workload, and help the students prep and organize for the finals, the stress and pressure hovers over the school like a dark cloud.

Finals in the history department are not traditional. Students do not come into class for a two hour sit down exam.  They are not asked to memorize dates, names, and events and then throw them down gracelessly onto a piece of paper. Rather, students are given a project to collaborate on which ultimately asks them to revise their course materials, remix their content, and use their own juicy brains to create something uniquely theirs within the parameters of the project. The first year of this assignment the student balked. Whining for the traditional sit down, they were reluctant to work on the project, to collaborate, and could not imagine that the time frame was enough to complete the task at hand.  Now, this project is a staple of the ninth grade year. Students look forward to their topics, believe in the power of collaboration, and are excited to “out do” their predecessors. While it is still hectic in the halls of the school, I like to think that this project is an oasis during an otherwise crazed time of year.

When they turn in their assignments after a  week of working together, they are so proud of their textbooks and I am so proud of their culminating work. It is always sad to watch this collective group of dynamic young minds “graduate” from our ninth grade history experience.

Your Task
Step One:

  • Write a one-page essay for each perspective on the event/conflict assigned to your group: 2 essays per event/conflict
  • Provide evidence (examples) to validate your perspectives
  • For each analysis of the event/conflict, make a connection with current events
  • Each student is responsible for writing 4 of the one page essays. Put your name on the sections you wrote & title your document.
    • For the groups with 4 students in order to have each member of the team responsible for 4 of the one page essays you will include a 1 page Introduction to your textbook and a 1 page Conclusion to your textbook
    • Also, two of the perspectives will need to be 2 pages in length instead of 1 page
    • Then all students in the 4 person groups will be responsible for writing 4 pages of writing each
  • Read, edit, and help your group members so the textbook flows together

Step Two:

  • As a group decide upon a title for this collection of differing perspectives on major American events.

Step Three:

  • Create a, iMovie, Website,, etc.
  • The Presentations should be within 3-5 minutes in length. Every member of the group must speak.
  • Present the evidence, facts, and arguments to support your perspectives: articles, quotes, videos, maps, examples as you pitch this textbook to publishers.
  • Be prepared to answer students’ questions.

Essential Questions: (Help you get started on writing each section)

  • How would your individual/group interpret the events and moments of each unit?
  • Which events would be most meaningful to your individual/group? Why?
  • Why would other events be skipped over by your individual/group?
  • What is your argument about the historical events you highlight?  How will you interpret them?
  • How can you connect the different events we have studied to a theme?
  • How can you present the different historical events we have studied through your theme?

You will present your textbook to the class on Friday, March 1 at this time you will also hand in to me your 12 page textbook.

Prepare questions to ask to the other groups about their perspectives

Assigned Groups, Theme, and Perspective:
Group 1:

  • Unit 1: Empire & Colonization:
    • Motivations for Exploration: Spanish Conquistador, & English (Jamestown/Pilgrim)
    • The Louisiana Purchase: Napoleon & Jefferson
    • Scientific Management: Factory Owner & Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
  • Unit 2: Conflict
    • French & Indian War: Native Americans & Colonists
    • Causes of the Civil War: Abolitionist & Pro-Slaver
  • Unit 3: Government
    • Great Compromise: Virginia Plan & New Jersey Plan

Group 2:

  • Unit 1: Empire & Colonization
    • Mercantilism: England & New England
    • Manifest Destiny: The Donner Party &  James L. O’Sullivan
    • Immigration: Jacob Riis & Vanderbilt
  • Unit 2: Conflict
    • Boston Massacre: Redcoat & John Adams
    • Dred Scott Case: Dred Scott & Supreme Court
  • Unit 3: Government
    • Constitution: Federalists & Anti-Federalists

Group 3:

  • Unit 1: Empire & Colonization:
    • Strategies of Explorers: British Settler & Native America
    • The Gold Rush: Chinese Immigrants & Mexican Immigrants
    • Industrial Revolution: Rockefeller & Lowell Mill Girl
  • Unit 2: Conflict
    • Declaration of Independence: King George &  Continental Congress
    • Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln & Davis
  • Unit 3: Government
    • 3/5th compromise: North & South

Group 4: 

  • Unit 1: Empire & Colonization
    • Regional Differences: Middle Colonies & Southern Colonies
    • The Alamo: Santa Anna & Sam Houston
    • New Technologies: Eli Whitney & Slaves
  • Unit 2: Conflict
    • Battle of Fort McHenry: Francis Scott Key & British Soldier
    • Union Strategy: General Lee & General Grant
  • Unit 3: Government
    • Electoral College: Founding Fathers & Opposition Today

Group 5: 

  • Unit 1: Empire & Colonization
    • The Triangle Trade: Slave & New England Ship Captain
    • Trail of Tears: Cherokees & Jackson
    • Industrial Consequences of Civil War: North & South
  • Unit 2: Conflict
    • War of 1812: New England Interests & War Hawks
    • 54th Regiment: General Shaw & African-American
  • Unit 3: Government
    • Constitution: Strict Interpretation & Broad Interpretation

doing debates

Two teacher posts within days of each other!?  I know this is not usually my style but David and I are eating left-overs right now so blogging about that is a little lacking.  Skye is coming over tomorrow for a new dish and should it be a yummy one, you can expect to hear about it soon.  Now back to the teaching post….

The history department is notorious for hosting debates in class.  Eleventh graders are pretty adept at them. Needing little prompting, they research, read, script, argue, counter-argue, and question. Two days later they are prepared to engage in a lively, researched, and thorough undertaking. Do they get bogged down in one cycling argument?  Yes, from time to time, they need to be reminded to move along, advance the debate. Yet, debates are an interesting way for the students to demonstrate their understanding of a topic by having to demonstrate the mental flexibility debates necessitate.

Freshman debates look and feel completely different.  Yesterday, in the middle of the debate on who was justified in fighting the French and Indian War, a student interrupts and asks, “Wait, what are we discussing? What is this debate about?”  Ah….time to stop the debate immediately, back pedal, and start from zero.  This happens often in ninth grade.  Two steps forward and one step back.

Loving lists, this class decided to make one to help them organize, focus, and target their debate topic and materials.

Things to do for a debate (according to my freshmen):

  1. Research:  What is the debate question asking you in your own words? Check with your team that they agree.  Research your topic.  Find concrete evidence and examples that support your argument.
  2. Offense: The best offensive is a strong defensive.  Research the opposition’s points and craft counter-arguments and questions.
  3. Logic: Use logic to have your points build off of one another… establish a “flow” of ideas and talking points.
  4. Don’t get personal: Try to avoid “I statements” if the debate is not a personal one, i.e. if you are debating about different sides of the American Revolution try to remember to be an objective historian.
  5. Stay focused: Stick to the topic. Get your points out and if you notice the conversation looping around and around the same point prepare a transition, “That is a good point, but I would like to raise a new one….”
  6. Listen: When you are not talking, don’t interrupt, and listen to what the opposition is saying so you are able to address them directly, thoughtfully, and well.
  7. Debates are most often lost rather an won: Ahh…I love this point and often write this on the board prior to a debate.
  8. Be respectful to your teammates and the opposition: no eye rolling and watch the body language.
  9. Tweak your argument in the debate as your process through the materials and answer counter-arguments….don’t just totally switch arguments in the middle….rather finesse it!
  10. Have some fun, laugh a little, keep it light.  Debates should be enjoyable, refreshing, and an opportunity for you to showcase all of your pre-planning.

Using their homemade debate guide, I grade this one and look forward to the next debate…and to their debates in the eleventh grade most of all.