Tag Archives: teaching

Distance Teaching

I’m starting my second week of distance teaching today. Not loving it thus far. Admittedly, there are some neat aspects to it. I thought I would dislike having to record all of my class meetings, but it’s actually pretty convenient. If I’m having a one-on-one discussion with a student during our “quiet study” period, I can share the video with them afterward so that they don’t have to worry about taking notes. Similarly, if a student misses a class meeting, the video of the class will be posted within about 15 minutes… so that can be useful.

But, and this is huge, the connections with students are so much weaker. I see all their tiny faces on my meeting grid, but I can’t really tell if they are with me or snoozing or confused. Normally I can walk around the room and read everyone’s body language. If the energy is sleepy, I rev things up or insert a quick oxygen break. If students seem confused, I slow down and go over things more carefully. All of this is much harder when mediated by a video conferencing app. Even doing a “whip share” where everybody shares something feels slower and less dynamic on the computer. I find myself losing focus before we make it around the circle (and when I’m zoning out, I know that most of the class is long gone!).

I’m confident that I’ll get better at this as I gain more experience. I hope to solicit plenty of feedback from my students, too, about what’s working for them. I haven’t been at it long enough to see how the quality of student work changes. I’m curious about that.

Below are two artifacts from my first week. First is the Welcome Back video that I sent to my eighth-grade social studies students before our first class. It took me forever to make and I have a million criticisms, but it’s safe to say that it was the best I could do in the time that I had. The second is a cartoon created by my good friend Nate. He’s a teacher on the east coast and used to draw illustrations of our high school D&D adventures.  In my classes so far, I’ve seen all of his archetypes except the skateboarder.

Widjiwagan 2020

For the first time since 2011, I was able to go to Camp Widjiwagan this year as a chaperone for the week-long seventh grade trip. It was glorious to be back up north in the heart of winter.

The overall experience was similar to my first trip (as described in this post). I still enjoy cross-country skiing, but haven’t improved much in nine years; I still have a hard time managing downhill slopes where I pick up too much speed, panic, and crash. The sauna-dip experience involved much less trepidation, since I remembered it fondly from the first trip. It was just as good this time. For bedtime readings, I warmed my cabin up on Monday evening with one of my favorite creepy stories, H.P. Lovecraft’s The Cats of Ulthar. The next night, the students requested more, so we dove into The Call of Cthulhu for the remaining nights, wrapping up on Thursday with a few brave students managing to stay awake for the ending.

A personal highlight, as mentioned in my previous post, was our Wednesday DFRPG game with Sam doing a masterful job in the GM’s chair. It was the closest my beloved character, Zafir Abrashi, has come to dying, being nearly digested by a giant carnivorous plant!

I didn’t take many pictures, but the selection below provides a sense of things. (All of the following are my photos except for the chaperone group which was taken by Molly McMahon.)

Update: My colleague, Cheryl Wilgren, shared some additional shots from the trip:

Dungeon Fantasy in the Classroom, Take 2

After the success of our venture with the Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game last spring, my colleague and I decided to offer the activity again this fall. We had enough student interest to justify buying two more boxed sets. The photo below shows all the material organized and laid out before students arrived.

DFRPG sets labeled and ready to go (plus sample characters and lots of colorful dice).

My Dubiously Relevant Subject

Every year I begin my eighth grade social studies class by asking students to answer this question on an index card:

Why is social studies the most important class you will take this year?

It’s an outrageous question, of course, and I learn a lot by seeing how each student tackles it. Most simply write out some reasons why social studies is important. Others add that other classes are equally important. A few argue that another subject trumps social studies altogether. Occasionally someone identifies it as a leading question and castigates me for pedagogic incompetence.

This year, however, I received an answer that had me laughing aloud at my desk after school:

I don’t know yet. Convince me.

Challenge accepted!

Review: The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education

The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic EducationThe Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education by Diana E. Hess
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a refreshing and valuable addition to current educational research—a must-read for 6-12 social studies and history teachers. The authors tackle important questions that all competent social studies teachers consider regularly: How do you select issues to open up for student discussion? Are some issues too “hot” or too divisive to be fruitfully discussed by students? How should a teacher balance the need to maintain a safe space for all students with the educational goal of fostering authentic political conversations about relevant controversies? Should a teacher ever share their own beliefs, or is that tantamount to proselytizing?

To answer these questions, the authors conducted years of empirical research at a wide range of schools around the country. Along the way they describe three case studies in detail, each of which is a fascinating look at how different teachers and departments grapple with these issues. The case studies alone are worth the price of the book, but the real gems here are in the final chapters where the authors analyze the data and attempt to answer the questions posed above. These chapters stand as a perfect example of how to use relevant theory and research to guide classroom practice.

Make no mistake: this is not a book aimed at a popular audience. It is written primarily for education schools rather than regular classroom teachers. With that said, however, I found plenty here of immediate, practical value. (I primarily teach 8th grade social studies.) The research cited in the book focuses on grades 9-12, but the issues raised are certainly relevant in middle school and possibly even in the younger grades.

View all my reviews

Ignoring the Speed Limit

My students are making movies. It’s one of my favorite projects of the year: inspired by StoryCorps, students record interviews with someone from an older generation, often grandparents or friends of their families, and then create short documentary videos based on material from the interview. Students narrate the video and include clips from the interview along with visual material to support their narrative. It’s challenging for students because it pushes them way outside of their comfort zones. Asking 8th graders to conduct extended, >30 minute, interviews with adults is a stretch to begin with. Then they have to identify a theme to focus on, write a script for the narration, find visuals (scanning photographs, finding internet materials, etc.), and master the technical tools to put it all together. Finally they share their movies with the class, often an excruciating moment for the neophyte auteurs.

All this exposition to provide context for the following conversation in class yesterday:

Mr. Roy: One of the roles of your introduction is to establish the mood and tone of your movie. Generally you want to be consistent, so if you’re telling a dark story, you don’t want to have a light, bubbly intro with goofy music.

<A student, let’s call him Joe, raises his hand, with a thoughtful expression.>

Mr. Roy: Yes, Joe?

Joe: What if you want to have contrast?

Mr. Roy: Say more about that.

Joe: I was thinking of trying to juxtapose my grandfather’s carefree childhood with the losses he faced later.

Mr. Roy: <silent> <mouth hanging open> Ummm, yes, that sounds … freaking awesome. If you can use “juxtapose” in a sentence, you can and should ignore everything I’m saying.

Keep in mind that Joe is a 13-year-old boy. I’m looking forward to his movie!

Student Reflections

Below is a collection of quotes from student reflections in my eighth grade social studies classes. There’s no real rhyme or reason to them; some are deep, others funny, others absurd. I added line breaks and corrected a few typos.


That’s what makes history so interesting,
the emotions that intertwine with the facts.

I am naturally good at
understanding stuff.

I love it when in group conversations there is a debate but the person with the best facts can show the other person how they are right, even if I was the one that was wrong.

Just like in science,
you can’t say something
without data.

I absolutely hate margin noting
more than I hate Activision
for making the same game
every year and brainwashing
people to buy that game.

In class, we learn about the history of our country, but notice, the class itself is not called “history,” but instead called social studies. This is because we are also learning about current and relevant events that affect us today. I can take the things we learn and connect them with things I see every day.

I have lots of opinions
and they are all
grounded in evidence.

I really want to work on speaking up more in class, and not being afraid of judgement when stating my opinion. I chose this skill because being able to talk in front of peers/people is very important, and one day I want to be a really good speaker. This class is the perfect opportunity to practice.

I know all the historical facts.

I am proud of how immersed
I am in the materials we study.

I have always been a crazy reader.

Remember that time where I corrected you on the start date of the revolutionary war? (No offense.) When I saw the incorrect date I thought back to my times in Assassin’s Creed III and remembered the date of the attack on Lexington and Concord (4/19/1775, my birthday) and my ego lightbulb went off and I thought “Aha!!! My video games have brought me a point of extra credit!!!”

Sometimes I am not the most thorough person.

I memorize facts by trying to use them
in outside-of-class situations instead
of just memorizing them for a test.

I am pretty good with speaking up in class,
though sometimes I do ask pretty dumb questions.

I think the trimester went pretty well,
though in the middle I kind of got lazy.

Sometimes I have trouble
paying attention to what
others are saying.

It is still a developing skill for me to take other perspectives, since I usually stay grounded in my own strong opinion and it is hard to get out.

It was really fun,
because when you know the facts,
you can ask a lot more question,
and you are able to debate the truth.

I think it’s hard to have an opinion without evidence, and that’s why I have a lot of screenshots of conversations in my phone.

One last thing.
I recently realized
how amazing my
NASA poster is.
I mean
just look at it.


Every November, as our first trimester draws to a close, I ask my students to write reflections on how the trimester went for them. I have some broad prompts like, “Describe your strengths in social studies,” and “Describe at least one specific skill you want to work on next trimester,” followed by a section where students rate themselves on various skills (reading, discussion, writing, using evidence, etc.). Finally, they give themselves a letter grade and explain why they think they’ve earned it. It’s the culminating assignment of the trimester, and I depend heavily on it while writing narrative reports and making decisions about borderline grades.

I love reading these reflections because most students take them very seriously and I learn a lot about them, their goals, and their perceptions of their strengths and weaknesses. This, in turn, provides me with a lens to consider how well I have communicated the goals and skills required for the class. I am most successful when my students’ self-evaluations are congruent with my own perceptions.