Monthly Archives: September 2012


Grapefruits and Maps

This gallery contains 13 photos.

My 7th grade is studying map projections, learning about how and why it is hard to make an accurate map and the influences on cartographers that affect the maps that they make. I read online at Education World about an … Continue reading

Primary Sources – Week 1

After reading a suggestion on the Library of Congress’ blog for teachers, I decided to use primary sources connected with myself to start my 8th grade US history course. The blog had suggested including a picture of yourself as a child. Thanks to the work of my daughter in scanning hundreds of family photographs, I had lots of images from which to chose. I started with a school picture of myself as a 4th grade student that seemed like it might be a fun one with which to start.


It occurred to me that it might be even more fun to use a larger collection of images of my family that I had gathered for the Playing with History corner of my room. All of the other images, of my great-grandparents, grandparents, mother and father, as well as pictures of my children and grandchildren would make the investigation that much richer and allow for lots more opportunities for asking questions and gathering information.

On the first day of classes, as a way of engaging the students from the first moment, I put a number, an index card and a picture on each desk. On the board, I wrote: “Arrange yourselves in alphabetical order by first name. Then the first girl in the line sits in the desk with the #1 on it.  Follow the numbers around the room. Using the primary source on the desk, what can you learn about the study of American history this year?” I use the initial activity to begin to see how the students work together. Were there natural leaders? Who hung back and let others take the initiative? It also has them moving around the room to start, rather than simply moving from sitting in one class to sitting in another.

Once the students were seated, I reviewed with them what a primary source was. A number of them remembered from last year, so we talked a bit about primary sources that they had used in the past and what they had learned from them. I told them that they were going to have 15 seconds with each primary source in the room, getting up and moving to the next desk at the end of the time. I told them to record anything that they noticed in the photograph that might help them understand either the photograph or the collection of images. When they looked confused, clearly a bit confused by an investigation with no Right Answer, I encouraged them to make their best guesses and to engage in the work of being an historian. I told them that this was not a “graded” activity; it was simply an initial investigation to discover something about their study of American history this year. More than a few of them shrugged their shoulders; “There goes crazy Mrs.Ferguson again” seemed to be the general consensus. That was fine with me. I just wanted them willing to go outside what they are used to and try on what it meant to be a student in my class.

We began the rotations. I asked them to be silent during this part of the activity, hoping to encourage each one to think for herself. Sometimes a girl began frantically start writing down details; other times, she held the photograph up to the light to see it more clearly. They often pointed between one and another, recognizing similarities. With each time they moved from one desk to the next, they all looked back at the photographs they had already seen and ahead to where they were going. They were clearly building a sense of the overall collection.

When they had moved around and seen every image, I asked them what they had learned about their upcoming study of American history. The answers and their curiosity were wonderful. They had no idea that it was my family, but many of them had begun to think that it might in fact be one family. They recognized that clothing was an important clue to the changing time periods, especially glasses. The ones worn by my grandfather were nothing like mine in the 70’s or today.  One student suggested making an exhibit of glasses around the tops of the whiteboards in my classroom, as a sign of the study of history through primary sources. Bobby socks worn by multiple generations caught their eye.

Another noticed that the background for the pictures was important. They made their best guesses as to what the function of the buildings were, making connection to the clothing and expressions of the people.

What was actually a house became a school or perhaps a modern church.

The best moment, however, and the one that gave me away, was when one student mentioned, holding up the original picture of me in 4th grade, that it looked like a school picture. She went on to say that it probably was back around the time when girls were first allowed to go to school, as it was clearly so old. I burst out laughing, but then I caught myself and realized that I didn’t want her thinking that I was laughing at her. I said I was laughing at myself. At that point, she held up the photograph and with a puzzled look, asked if it was me.

I allowed as how the solution to the investigation into what they could learn about American history from the photographs was that we would be using lots of primary sources and that it would be taught by me. It was a great hook! Thanks, Library of Congress for the idea!


First Sunday Morning

What an amazing week it has been, getting back into the school routine! No matter how much I try to prepare for the start of the school year, it always catches me by surprise just how much is required to do this job that I love. From every direction and in every direction, there is an onslaught of information and questions. I seem to walk for miles, up and down the hallways, finding what I need or more often than not, retrieving what I forgot. I managed to lock my keys in my closet three times this week. Clearly one of the skills that I put aside over the summer was effective multi-tasking.

So this morning, I decided to just sit quietly. I poured a cup of coffee and went into the living room, away from my computer and my papers, and simply sat. I looked out the window at the yard and thought about the hours spent in the vegetable garden this summer. I took quiet, slow breathes, focusing on nothing more than enjoying the moment. It made me realize that I need to create a new routine for early Sundays. I need to claim some quiet and calm where I simply relax and enjoy a moment of peacefulness.

Really, this is very challenging for me. Once the school year starts and I have students to plan for, my brain seems to always be engaged. I don’t think that I am unusual in this at all. Most teachers I know rarely have their classrooms and their students far from their minds. We are constantly tweaking what we did last year to make it serve the actual students that we teach this year. We are reading and investigating, trying to learn new ways of presenting our content to more fully engage our classes. When I am driving or walking the dog, ideas are constantly percolating. I always have my phone with me, so that I can record them. It is simply how my mind works from September until June.

While all of that is true and good for my practice in the classroom, there is real value in holding onto the calm of summer for some time each week. So early Sunday morning is going to become that time, to rest and to be still, to not think about curriculum or students or plans at all. A time to breathe slowly and deeply! A calm in the midst of the storm that I love! Fingers crossed that I can be disciplined and maintain it!

Brain Flashes

Somewhere in the middle of August, I always begin to worry. The beginning of the school year is coming and all I see are the dozens of balls that I have carefully let drop to the floor over the summer. I always work during the summer: attending conferences, reading new books, talking with fellow educators, teaching seminars. The difference is that it is all at my own pace. I can sleep in, which simply means past 6:00 AM, or I can go for a walk. I can market or curl up and read. I get to choose what happens and when it happens. That is the mark of summer for me.

It is with real anxiety that I travel through August. There are so many balls to get back in the air, so many jobs that I know will have to get done. So many students to think about and so much WORK to do. It feels overwhelming when viewed from the midst of summer. I know that I have done it before, so I cling to the thought that I will be able to do it again. However, it just feels impossible. My thoughts seem sluggish and uninspired. My energy feels low and in need of those wonderful Summer Afternoon Naps.

Then it starts! Last week was spent in meetings, talking about the students and the new challenges of the year. It was time to reconnect with colleagues and set up my classroom. There was planning for the first day and week of school to be done. New textbooks to unpack and bulletin boards to create! I started it with heavy feet. There was so much to do!

I didn’t even notice it starting, but the brain flashes began. With each new conversation or box unpacked, I couldn’t keep myself from starting to think about my students. New ideas and plans started to percolate up through the calm of my summer mind. I suddenly wanted to write a lesson or plan an introductory activity. My husband kept asking me, “Are you alright?” because it was clear that I was distracted. And I was! The energy was starting to flow. I kept thinking about that first day. What would make it better? How could I capture my students imagination and energy? What could I do to make them want to come back to the classroom?

I realized that some of my initial plans were flatter than I wanted. They didn’t have any hook for the students. Just thinking about it reconnected me with the educator inside of me. I felt the passion and the energy flowed. I am ready! Ready to give my best for the students in my room! Ready to dream as big as I can! Ready to take risks and do all that I can to make learning as engaging and powerful as it can be!

Welcome! Time to start the year!