Sunday, December 13, 2015

Week 16: Character Counts and the Spaghetti Marshmallow Building Challenge (Week of 12/11/2015)

This week, we began by finishing what we started. Last week, we wrote a character traits paragraph on one of the characters in "The Outsiders" and created a group character poster that went with it. My students continued working for half of the period on Monday and then presented their paragraphs to the class in a quick and easy presentation. I have students present their writing to the class so everyone not only gets to hear a variety of writing styles and opinions but they also get to speak their paragraph out loud, which helps them figure out if it's in tip top shape. Everyone's paragraph sounded great. What I like most about "The Outsiders" is that every year I learn something new about the book or the characters by how my students view them. This year was no different!

We focussed a bit more into character traits this week and learned about direct versus indirect characterization. Direct characterization is the easy one; the narrator or character tells you exactly what they're like. Indirect characterization is a bit more tricky because it's not directly stated; we, the readers, have to take the information we're given and infer the character trait (what we called our assertion in our paragraphs). Using the STEAL model, students were able to more specifically state their assertions and back them up with fact. The STEAL model is where we look at what the character Says, what they Think, how they Effect others, how they Act, and what they Look like (clothing, facial expressions, body language, etc.)
Lastly, we revisited the "Speed Dating" style of reviewing with chapters one and two of "The Outsiders" and our neighbors. Students faced each other in two lines and answered both comprehension and higher-order-thinking questions based on what we've read in class so far. Students enjoy this fast paced game because they get to talk to many of their classmates while reviewing the story, sharing their answers and thoughts. I like it because it gets everyone talking and moving so it's a rather fun day in class.


Tutorials have been going really great lately in AVID! It's become mostly second-nature and students dive right into their work, helping each other to understand the concepts they're learning in class. In an effort to better support my students reading skills, in turn helping them understand what they're learning in all of their classes more fully, I've begun a unit on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven". The poem is rich in high vocabulary and descriptive words,  figurative language and mystery. What begins as an intense, tough-to-understand poem will become more clear over the coming weeks as we tackle the poem through multiple reads focussed on defining vocabulary, summarizing and rewriting stanzas, identifying rhyme scheme and figurative language (symbolism, alliteration), and learning about how Edgar Allan Poe's life affected his writing so deeply. I haven't been able to teach Poe in my English classes for the past couple of years so I thought pairing it with the WICOR (writing, inquiry, collaboration, organization, and reading) model in AVID was a natural fit. Plus, Poe's creepy and mysterious writing grabs the students' attention and they love reading him!

This week's fun Friday challenge was "The Spaghetti Marshmallow Building Challenge". Students got into groups to build the tallest structure using sticks of dry spaghetti and mini marshmallows. Communication was key as one false step could break a spaghetti stick, sending the structure crashing down. I saw massive structures that quickly outgrew stability, sinking into a heap of marshmallows and spaghetti. I also saw smaller, more compact structures that focussed on stability before height, ultimately negating the necessity for multiple rebuilds. In the end, it was team Chubby Bunnies (named for the popular campfire game) that came out on top, beating the other teams with a final height of 21.5 inches! Through these activities, students are not only having fun but they're learning valuable lessons in focus, collaboration, and communication.

Questions for the drive home and dinner table:
-How are you doing on your Independent Book Project?
-What are you learning from your Independent Book Project reading/research?
-What are the struggles the greasers are facing in "The Outsiders"? How are those struggles the same of different than those of the Socs (pronounced so-shiz)?
-If you could be a character in "The Outsiders", who would you be and why?
-How has making goals for your Independent Book Project and checking in with Mr. Laffin helped you this quarter?

Warmest wishes,
Kevin Laffin

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Week 15: Tracing Character Traits and the Ping Pong Challenge (Week of 12/04/2015)

This week started with a bang as Mrs. Anderson and Mrs. Healy, our amazing counselors, joined my class to hand out progress reports and have a quick check-in with all of my students. Mrs. Healy remarked after all progress reports were handed out that she noticed an abundance of incomplete and late assignments. When she questioned students, individually, as to why they were turning in assignments late/incomplete, especially considering the vast majority of my assignments are in-class assignments, they remarked that they "forgot to turn it in" or "didn't read the directions". I've noticed a lot of students flying through their assignments, reading part of the directions, and thusly turning in the assignment incomplete. Please help me in reminding your son/daughter to turn in assignments when they're due and to slow down and read through the directions fully and completely.
Speaking of rushing through assignments, I was sent a wonderful article on patience as it applies to the middle school student. "Relearning the Lost Skill of Patience" by Jessica Lahey is worth a read, especially in today's world where almost everything is available in an instant at our fingertips. The quote that really sticks out to me and supports what I'm doing in my classroom is:
When I hand my students novels and other projects that require close analysis, critical thinking, and patience, I challenge them to rise above the basic skills of word recognition and reading comprehension. I am asking them to wait. To keep reading, keep listening. To be patient and formulate their opinions based on all the evidence, and then comment on what they see and hear armed with more than a sound bite, a title, or a tweet. To spend the time and have the patience to do more than look at the world, but to see it. 

Lastly on "patience", there are times in my class where it feels like we've slowed to a crawl. "We have to go slow to go fast" is a mantra I've adopted this year. I've heard it from students many times, "why are we still talking about [insert topic here]?" My answer to the question is, I know it's frustrating to be spending longer amounts of time on certain topics, topics we may feel we've mastered or we're getting bored of. However, my class is not about grazing over topics and getting a basic understanding of these topics. To the best of my ability, I want my students to dive in and truly understand these different concepts in many different ways, discussing their thoughts both on paper and with their classmates as they gain a better, well-rounded understanding of the different concepts in the English classroom (theme, plot, characterization, symbolism, etc.). On that note, Mr. Colandro commented to me (after an observation of my class) that students are truly understanding the characters of "The Outsiders". He noted that they have a much deeper understanding than my classes last year and that they're not only understanding these characters better, but they're able to communicate their knowledge effectively. Quite a complement to my students! Kudos!!!

So, if it ever feels like we're spending too much time on certain topics, please understand that there's a method to the madness. Please contact me with concerns over the length of time we're spending on certain topics in class. While we're slowing things down to get a better understanding, I'm aware that the lessons/units have the possibility of being stretched past their effectiveness and would love some feedback.

This week in AVID ended with one of my favorite challenges, the Ping Pong Paper Challenge. After a week of Tutorials, Cornell notes, and class discussions on first generation college students, I told my students to get into groups of four or five and issued them a challenge. The challenge was to take twenty pieces of computer paper and two feet of tape and create a ramp/track that would keep the ping pong ball rolling the longest. Everyone had 45 minutes and their strictly limited supplies to do their best before the time trials started.

The four student groups quickly got started on their tracks, folding and shaping the paper to meet their needs. I saw many tests and retests take place, showing the students that their track either worked or didn't work. Some tracks underwent many tweaks while others built upon their original ideas. I saw four groups with four different ideas of how to keep their ball rolling. Communication and teamwork were key for this activity and my students did a great job as they learned (and used the scientific method without even realizing it).


CONGRATULATIONS TO TEAM WATERMELONDREAS for beating the competition with a time of 20 seconds!

Questions for the drive home and dinner table:
-Which character in "The Outsiders" is your favorite so far? What character traits can you connect with?
-With around one month left in the semester, what can you do to make sure you're on top of your Independent Book Project?
-Are there any assignments you're missing that can still be turned in?
-What extra credit is available to you each semester?
-What are the benefits to slowing down and taking time on your assignments?

Warmest wishes,
Kevin Laffin

Friday, November 20, 2015

Week 13: The Dawning of the Age of Aquarius (Week of 11/20/2015)


That's right, we time-traveled back to the 1960s this week as we began "The Outsiders", easily my favorite book ever! I'm so lucky that I get to teach it every year.

Instead of me droning on in an effort to introduce my students to the decade and the author, I gave them a mini research project on Monday. Each of their table groups got one facet of the 1960s, researched it Monday and part of Tuesday (turning their research into a Google Slides show as they worked), and then they presented the information back to their classmates who took notes. If you'd like to see their work, head over to my website and look for the Pop Culture Phenomenon (1960s) (click hyperlink to go directly there). There, you'll be able to see each period's work combined into one mega-slideshow. The kids were really into learning about this important decade in American history. Special shout out to Connor in period one who brought in a Diet Pepsi bottle from the 1960s! How interesting!!!

Not only did this research introduce us to the setting of the story, but it started to help us answer our essential question: how are people affected by their environments/settings? We'll be referring to this question a lot as we read the novel and use it to guide our study of characterization. This week, we started working on a character grid where students wrote down physical and character traits for each of the characters we meet. We'll be referring to this grid a lot over the next couple of weeks as we write character development paragraphs, ultimately showing us if the characters are static (don't emotionally change) or dynamic (go through an important emotional change).

We'll also be looking at the vocabulary of "The Outsiders". I've broken the book into six pieces (two-chapter chunks) and students will receive a list of ten words for those two chapters on Monday or Tuesday of that week. Day 1, I read the words to my classes and they repeat them back to me, I give them the part of speech (they write this down), and they listen to the definition and a sample "show-me-you-know" sentence. They then go through their list and rate their knowledge of the word before they've really worked with it. They also define the words. Day 2 is when students write their own "show-me-you-know" sentences and rate their knowledge of the word after they've studied their vocab more in depth. Thursdays are quiz review days, which means we're playing the ever-popular study game, Kahoot! My students are really enjoying this game and don't even realize that they're having fun while they're studying. It's a win-win! Friday's are quiz days. I'm trying a new way of giving quizzes where students match words with definitions and then to a sample sentence on Google Forms. Once they submit their quiz, an extension called "Flubaroo" grades it for them (and me) and emails students back their score with each question noted as correct or incorrect. This instant feedback gives students either a pat on the back for good work or reminds them to spend a little more time studying and asking questions.

I can't wait to continue with this amazing book after Thanksgiving break as we dive deeper into the world of "The Outsiders".

On Monday, we braved the cold outside as we shared our 6-word memoirs. I have 19 students, so I joined in on the fun and shared my own memoir. We did this "gallery walk" in concentric circles with the inner circle facing outward and the outer circle facing inward. Each partnership got two minutes to read their memoir, tell the story behind it, and then repeat with the other partner. The entire activity took 25 glorious, but freezing, minutes and we learned a lot about each other.

Tutorials this week were really great! I'm really loving the work and thought my students are putting into their work as they help their classmates find success. My in-class aide and I get the fun job of checking in on groups and helping when needed. When we're not needed, we join the groups and listen in or ask questions of our own. I learned a lot about what the math, science, and history classes are doing this week!

Questions for the drive home or the dinner table:
-What is your favorite fact about the 1960s that you learned this week?
-How do you think people in the 1960s (and the characters in "The Outsiders") were affected by what was going on in America at that time?
-What do you like about "The Outsiders" so far?
-What work for your Independent Book Project do you plan on doing over Thanksgiving break?

I hope you have a restful Thanksgiving filled with family, friends, and good cheer. We'll be taking a break from the blog next week but will be back in December with more updates. Happy Thanksgiving!
Kevin Laffin

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Week 12: The District Writing Assessment (Week of 11/13/2015)

The Anti-Bullying Projects were turned in a second time on Monday and I have been working to get them regraded and online. My goal is to finish with these projects by Sunday evening. Students who signed up for the regrade will receive a second rubric with their final grade on it. On PowerSchool, grades that have been changed will have a note stating so.

This week, we worked hard on the end-of-unit writing assessment for the nonfiction/bullying unit. On Monday, we worked together for one final day on our practice assessment. After reading the prompt, annotating the sources and our notes, and practicing the short answers, it was time to try our hand at the practice essay. I showed my students my thought process as we wrote the introductory paragraph and a body paragraph. All students went home Monday with the printed full version of the practice essay we wrote in class, which was annotated to show them each specific element of the essay.

Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday were spent diligently working on the writing assessment, this time on their own. I am impressed with the amount of thought my students put into their work. As I walked around the classroom to monitor progress, I saw many highlighters saving important facts and pens writing notes for the answers students would be writing later. Some of my students finished their work on Thursday but the bulk of them finishing on Friday. For students who didn't finish their tests, we'll be working on them before school, after school, and at lunch over the next week.

Finally, we're moving on to our next unit, "The Outsiders". We'll be looking at plot, theme, and characterization more in-depth as we follow the exploits of Ponyboy Curtis, Johnny Cade, and the rest of the greaser gang. Students will begin the unit by briefly researching a facet of the 1960s (as it pertains to "The Outsiders") to present to the class. As we read the novel, we'll watch the characters come to life before our eyes and trace their development as life throws everything it can at them. This unit's culminating writing assessment is historical fiction, which students really enjoyed last year. We'll be taking this writing assessment in January 2016.

All students will be provided with a copy of the book for in-class use. Students are not required to have their own, purchased copy but may want one for note-taking and rereading at home (a lot of students find that this is one of their favorite books). The copy that matches the version we're using in class can be purchased here.

In AVID, we had our first tutorial since returning to the drawing board last week. As I walked around the room, I heard my students' knowledge pouring out as they helped their classmates tackle the tough questions. Through our week revisiting Tutorial Request Forms, 30-second speeches, and AVID Questions (Costa's levels of questioning), the students were really able to make great use of their time and benefit from this process.

On Thursday and Friday, we switched gears and wrote 6-word memoirs. We started by reflecting on what makes us us and wrote freely on that topic. After a brief free writing period, I presented my students with the real work of the project: whittling down an entire story or feeling into six words. My AVID students truly impressed me with their ability to take what they'd written and pare it into six words, capturing both what makes them special as well as the emotion behind it. It's not an easy feat, but these brilliant students did a great job!

Friday was spent turning those six words into an eye-catching poster. After showing students some examples from my past classes (as well as my own, pictured below), I set them free to work. Friday was one of those days where creativity and freedom worked together to accomplish amazing products. As I walked around the classroom, students were working hard and talking very little, even though they had the freedom to talk, as they turned their not-so-simple task into art. On Monday, we'll be presenting our stories to each other in a gallery walk style presentation. I can't wait to hear all of these stories and see the finished products!

Conversation questions for the dinner table or the drive home:
1. What topic did you choose for your second quarter independent book project?
2. What resources have you found for your second quarter independent book project?
3. When is the second quarter independent book project due? What can you do to ensure you're using your time wisely?
4. How did you prepare for the district writing assessment (short answers and essay)?
5. What are you looking forward to over Thanksgiving break?

As always, questions, comments, and concerns are always welcome. Please feel free to contact me with anything.

Warmest regards,
Kevin Laffin

Friday, November 6, 2015

Week 11: Bringing out the Writer in all of US! (Week of 11/6/2015)

I hope everyone is enjoying their day off and has a restful three-day weekend.

As a reminder, ALL STUDENTS in my English classes are being offered a chance to have their Bullying Project products rescored (using the information on their returned rubrics to make the necessary changes). Students need to be signed up in class in order to let me know they'd like to be rescored. Students no on the list won't get their projects rescored. I will be rescoring on Monday, November 9, 2015.

English Milestones
This week was our first real week tackling writing. Sure, we've written quickwrites, note summaries, and Precis paragraphs a lot this year, but we have yet to tackle a longer piece of writing. Starting Monday, we looked at informational/expository writing (the terms are synonymous so I teach both). As part of our nonfiction/bullying unit, students are assessed on their knowledge of bullying through brief research. This research leads them into short answer questions and a longer essay. You may hear the term "district writing assessment" this weekend, and that's exactly what we've been practicing this week. Next week, my students will get the real thing and I know they're going to do very well.

On Monday, we learned briefly about informational/expository writing through PDP Cornell Notes. My students have a great knowledge of nonfiction and were able to apply it to this style of writing. Tuesday, we took a look at a sample assessment and began combing through it. This process, while long, gave students a chance to really look at the assessment style and to dissect the prompt to ensure they wrote everything they needed. As their guide, I walked them through the assessment and modeled my thought process as I "unpacked" the prompt (looked at exactly what it was asking for), took notes on the video component, and took notes on the provided articles.

On Thursday, we got a chance to put our knowledge to the test as we answered our two short answer questions together. My favorite part of the day was when students exclaimed, "This is easy! You were right, Mr. Laffin!!!" after working themselves into a frenzy earlier this week. The assessment looks and sounds like a lot, but it's really a simple process (read, annotate, and answer) that I know my students will do very well on. It wasn't until we walked through it, with my modeling and support, that the students realized that they were freaking out over nothing (a point I tried to make daily).

The assessment next week is timed. Students will have one day to annotate their sources (read their articles and watch the video) and answer the short-answer questions. The following two days will be dedicated to planning and writing their essays. It sounds like a lot, but if students paid attention to the process (which was slowed way down this week), they should have no trouble on the actual assessment.

AVID Milestones
In AVID this week, we really focussed on writing Tutorial Request Forms. I noticed last week during our Tutorials that things were starting to go awry. It didn't hit me until last Thursday's tutorial that we really needed to go back and really take a look at the process of filling out a Tutorial Request Form. Truthfully, this realization dawned on me as I showed one student the difference between a good TRF and a not-so-good TRF. My realization led me to create three sample TRFs to show the class. Together, we filled out a TRF for math, English, and science as I modeled my thought process (as a confused student). I feel like the students are starting to understand this difficult process a little better and I'm confident we'll be able to move on to bigger and better things. We also practiced turning our TRFs into 30-second speeches, which are integral to beginning each Tutorial. The 230-second speech is a speech where the "leader" presents their original question, process, and point of confusion to their group as a means of getting everyone on the same page. When everyone is one the same page, we're able to be better helpers and the Tutorial process flourishes.

This week was also sprinkled with our favorite game, "silent ball" and "extreme silent ball" (which isn't actually silent, as the name implies). Students have to pass a ball to another student in class and each student only gets to catch/throw the ball once. This is all done in complete silence. Every round is timed and students get quicker and quicker as we go. Rounds are over when someone talks or drops the ball. For "extreme" silent ball, everything is the same except for the fact that we get to talk. Actually, we have to talk. Before throwing the ball, one must say the student's name and one fact about them (I give them two minutes to talk to as many people in class as they can before the game starts). Overall, we had a great week and learned a lot

Conversation questions for the dinner table or the drive home:
1. What is informational/expository writing?
2. During the assessment, how can you assure you're making the best use of your time?
3. How does being aware of structure in your writing help make timed essays easier?
4. What is one thing you enjoyed about this week at Laguna?

If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please feel free to send them my way.

Warmest regards,
Kevin Laffin

Friday, October 30, 2015

Week 10- Wrapping up our Nonfiction Unit on Bullying (Week of 10/30/2015 )

It was a whirlwind week full of emotion and growth.

AVID Milestones
This week in AVID, we continued building our superhero posters in class to prepare for our gallery walk on Friday. Students collaborated to create characters and stories to symbolize their struggles and how they're going to conquer them. We also continued Tutorials and reflections this week to help us grow and succeed in middle school.

English Milestones
On Monday, I handed my students a printout of their final quarter grades with a reflection sheet for them to fill out. I asked my students to reflect honestly and candidly and they owned up to their mistakes, recognized where they need help and identified how to get it, and set a goal for the next quarter. I am really impressed with the thought my students put into this reflection. Yes, quarter grades haven't gone out yet. I gave my students an advanced copy to give them a jump-start on a tough conversation with you. I hope they took my advice and approached you to talk openly and honestly about their grade.

Also this week, we began our Bullying Project presentations. I'd like to apologize for putting two presentations back to back. I definitely don't put projects and presentations that close together and it wasn't my intention to at all. I would like to note that my students handled these projects and their presentations with finesse. I know that the end of the quarter got pretty stressful, but my students persevered and pushed through. Well done!

With the good must come the bad, namely the products turned in for the Bullying Project. The major issue here is that students did not use their project guidelines, formatting half-sheet, or rubrics when creating their projects (all available on my website as well as handed out and discussed in class). Please encourage your student to read and reread the directions and rubrics carefully, to listen to the directions carefully, and to ask questions when necessary.

As such, ALL STUDENTS have been afforded the opportunity to revisit this project on their own time and get it into tip-top shape. Students have until Monday, November 9, 2015 to have their projects shared on Google Drive in their shared English folder to get it rechecked. After November 9, I will no longer recheck projects. In order to be successful, students should use the following: their project guidelines packet (pink), their formatting half-sheet (blue), and their product rubric (pink). These are also available on my website.

Students who are taking advantage of this opportunity need to inform me in class that they will be turning in their project for a redo. If I don't hear from them, I am assuming that they do not wish to redo their project.

Our moment of zen for the week

As I noted last week, we're all works in progress. Failure helps us grown and learn, and that goes for me as their teacher as well. As long as we're working to our best ability and using the tools at our disposal, we'll continue to mature as people and that's far more important than a letter grade from a small snapshot of someone's life.

Some conversation starters for the dinner table or drive home:
1. What did you learn from your first presentation that you used in your second presentation?
2. How can you use a rubric to check your work before turning it in?
3. How is the rubric similar to the project guidelines?
4. What do you, the student, have control or when it comes to school? (projects, tests, homework, classwork)
5. What is something you're proud of for the first quarter?

Warmest regards,
Kevin Laffin

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Week 9- Goodbye Quarter 1!!! (Week of 10/23/2015 )

Well, ladies and gentlemen, that's all she wrote. Quarter 1 of the 2015-2016 school year is officially in the books! We did it! We survived!

English milestones
We completed our book project presentations this week and my list of books to read has grown exponentially! What natural public speakers I have in my class!!! The majority of my students spoke with poise and confidence, had great eye contact with their audience, and showed a true passion for the book they chose to present. The rubrics for both the written portion and the presentation portion of the project were sent home yesterday. Tonight's dinner table conversation topic: what went well with your book project? What didn't go so well? What do you have control over and can do your best to improve upon for next time? I am impressed with the presentations this week and am so proud of my students. I have never seen a group of students start off their year of presentations in my class so scholarly and professionally. Standing ovation to them!!!

Next week, we're moving on to presenting our Anti-Bullying Guide projects (nonfiction/research). The rubric for this assignment was also sent home yesterday. It is already online at my website on the main homework page (search "rubric" or "bullying" if you have trouble finding it). While having two projects at once is indeed stressful, my students have handled it with great finesse. They're using the time and resources provided to ensure their success in their work. This week, I hosted a "library lab takeover" from 3pm-4pm after school each day. I was available in the computer lab if students just needed a place to work or for one-on-one support. I am incredibly impressed that I had students in the lab every single day, especially Wednesday and Friday when I had 12 and 15 students, respectively. I am so proud that my students took full advantage of this tool provided to them and worked hard to present a professional, academic, and scholarly final product.

If you have a moment this weekend, please review the expectations (on the rubric) and double check to ensure that all is ready to go for Monday. My expectation for this project is that it's shared in their English folder on Google Drive. Truth be told, I've repeated the expectations for where and how to share projects multiple times throughout the course of this project. While I expect that most students will have successfully put their document in the correct place, some will have gotten confused and "shared" their doc with me, neglecting to place it in the shared folder. Projects NOT in the shared folder on the day of the student's presentation will be considered late and their presentation will be moved to the next day. Please ensure that projects aren't in their main Drive, but in their shared English folder.

Over on Mr. Townsend's blog, I read a quote that I thought summed up the end-of-semester anxiety and life lessons points beautifully (and he's used to me stealing from him haha): "Remind them [your students] that school is a learning process, not a terminal experience. We're all a work in progress. Encourage them to listen to the advice their teachers are giving them and focus on making themselves better people... the academics will happen along the way."  I can absolutely echo this point. Mr. T and I both want our students to be the absolute very best people they can be, not just amazing students.

While it's important to do well, working to one's best ability is far more important. Failure brings learning. I am a firm believer that students must fail in order to truly find success. As I tell my students, "Sure, it's nice to get everything right the first time, but you haven't learned anything more than how to do it right. Those of us who fail learn what works and what doesn't work. We learn the value in reading directions and trying new things. We learn that life takes work, and that's far more important than an A on a paper."

I care for my students a great deal and it truly pains me to put zeros in the gradebook or watch deadlines slip away with unfinished assignments  (see last week's blog), but I also know that I'm helping my students gain life skills. With me, they have a "hard" teacher who wants them to learn these lessons but also a "sensitive" teacher who'll teach it in a way that lessens the blow and helps them carry on as better people. As always, it's an honor to be their teacher.

AVID milestones
The week started as it normally would with Tutorial Request Forms and a Tutorial. Students also got a grade printout on Monday to make them aware of what work was missing and what wasn't. I am really impressed with the amount of work that came in this week from my students. While it was a lot of late work, the fact that my students had organized binders and could easily pull the missing assignments out to turn in was very impressive. What well-organized students I have!

We began a project this week on Thursday in lieu of our second Tutorial. On Thursday, students were asked to briefly reflect on what they did really well this quarter and what they didn't do so well this quarter. Then, I asked students to think about what helped them or got in the way of success. Lastly, I asked them to create a superhero that would help them be their best and ward off their villain. Once students completed their brief pre-writing, I let them get into groups of three or four to repeat the process, this time presenting their writing to the group and voting on one they wished to "bring to life" in poster form.

Students then got to work creating their hero and villain. With samples from my eighth-grade class two years ago to help spark creativity, students let their imaginations run wild as they created heroes to help them do their best work and villains that would stop them from being successful. Each group is responsible for creating a poster depicting the two as well as a brief story explaining both. So far, we have heroes that help with math and English, concentration, procrastination, and studying. We have villains that shove distractions, like phones and game consoles, into our students hands, minds that wander, and the laziness monster. This project has been really fun to watch as they take the directions and run with them! There's A LOT of freedom to create on this project, and that was done purposefully. With this freedom, I've seen some amazing projects in the past and am seeing some incredible work in AVID so far. I look forward to continuing this project next week.

Thank you for a great start to the year. I appreciate working on this team for your child together.

Don't forget to be awesome!
Kevin Laffin

Friday, October 16, 2015

Week 8: Life and Its Lessons (Week of 10/16/2015)

SPOILER ALERT!!! This blog is a long one. :)

It's been a whirlwind of a week! I'm certainly exhausted as I sit here typing this, but proud of my students and their hard work this week in class. Our first quarter ends in one week and it's a fight to the finish.

Today, students were dealt the first of many tough lessons they'll learn this year and throughout their academic life. Today, the written portion of their Independent Book Projects were due and students were visibly anxious and flustered; some had finished their projects and some had not. Mrs. Schwoerer reports that her library was packed to the gills before school and during break with students in a panic, fighting over computers to print their projects. It happens every time, every year, but we can dream of a world where the last minute isn't used for stress printing, right? Unfortunately, some students had projects that were (or will be) late and others were steamrolled by the deadline, projects unfinished or not started yet.

I'd like to share with you some knowledge I shared with my students today:

Now is a great time to talk about projects and Mr. Laffin's class. In my class, I want my students to be successful. In order to help my students find success, I provide them with an abundance of time to finish big projects. Those done in-class, like their Anti-Bullying Policy research projects, have adequate, monitored time and are completed mostly in class. Those done outside of class, like their Independent Book Projects, are assigned at the beginning of the quarter and due one week before the end of the quarter. Regardless of the time given, my students need me. My goal is to hit the state standards while at the same time teaching them life skills, like time management, goal setting, and working cooperatively with others. I like to watch my students work, guiding them, encouraging them, supporting them, and redirecting them.

With projects, I stress as much about the things I can't control as the things I can. In the picture above, I CAN control how much time I gave my students to complete the project, when their assignments and rubrics were handed out, and how much reading I assign for homework. What I CAN'T control is student reading. There's realistically no way to control how much a student reads and how quickly, or that they're reading at all. Reading logs, in my opinion, are an abysmal failure. Constantly checking in on a student's reading and requiring assignments takes the fun out of something that should be enjoyable. It's easily the toughest aspect of my job. I haven't discovered the happy medium between pleasure reading and making sure my students are reading at grade level yet.

Sadly, as happens every time I assign a project, some students still scramble to finish theirs at the last minute, citing lack of time, confusion on the directions, or homework-eating family pets. It's hard not to take these things personally, but I do. It's the absolute worst part of my job and it's my personal quirk to deal with, not the students' fault. Still, their failure is my failure. No matter how much time I give them in class or over the course of the quarter, no matter how much explanation I give, no matter how many times I ask them to tell their neighbors the directions and then have them repeat those directions to me, we still get some projects that are left incomplete or not done at all. Oh, the adolescent brain.

As a teacher, I'm constantly assessing and tweaking what I do in the classroom. Any and all constructive input is welcome. If I may, I'd like to ask you to bring up the importance of time management and following directions with your student this week, be it over dinner or in the car on the way to practice. We have our Independent Book Project presentations Monday-Thursday of next week with make-ups happening on Friday. The following Monday, we begin our Bullying Project presentations. Below is another bit of knowledge I shared with my students today:

For the week of October 19-23, students will be assigned no homework, with the exception of finishing their Bullying Projects. I will be hosting a Computer Lab Takeover in the G-2 computer lab Monday, October 19- Friday, October 23 from 3pm-4pm. If students need support on their projects, I'd love to help them in the lab. If they just need a quiet, cool place to work, I'm happy to provide that for them in the lab. Please make arrangements to take advantage of this opportunity.

I apologize for my long-windedness (that's a nice way of saying, "my inability to shut up"). The English major in me creeps out every week when I write these blogs. We're doing so much exciting stuff in class!!!

Thank you, as always, for being a part of your child's continuing education and for being part of an incredible team of support for your child.

Don't forget to be awesome!
Kevin Laffin

Friday, October 9, 2015

Week 7: Research Party! (Week of 10/9/2015)

It was back to Tutorials for the AVID class this week as we tried our hands at round 2. This week, we were able to break into three groups (as compared to the two we broke into last week). I heard a lot of great questioning during the tutorials as students took a scholarly approach to their problem solving. I think the three smaller groups helped us get into the groove, making it easier to hear the presenters and group questioning as well as affording more people the chance to present their own Point of Confusion. I'm looking forward to the future where we'll be breaking into four total groups and moving outside of the classroom to tackle these amazing tutorial experiences.

We also took a look at our GPAs, grade point averages, this week and did some goal setting. It's important to be aware of one's grades and GPA before the quarter/semester ends as a means of keeping ourselves on track. Goal setting works much the same way. With a goal in mind, it's much easier to know where we're going and keep ourselves on track. To set a goal, we looked at our GPAs and then decided which goal to set: to keep our GPA the same or to shoot for a higher GPA. From there, we reflected on how our semester has gone so far and what we can do from now until the end of the quarter to reach our goal. I really like goal setting in all of my classes and have found that it really puts us on track for success.

It's research city in my English classes this week. With short tutorials by Mrs. Schwoerer, we were able to search for scholarly and academic articles to use for our Bullying Prevention Projects. We also learned how to tailor our searches to get exactly what we want, how to correctly cite our sources and create bibliography, and use "fair use" pictures for our presentations. Tuesday and Wednesday, Mr. Townsend and Ms. Knuttila's classes took over the library for their AMAZING Rome presentations so we wrote a second Precis paragraph on our bullying article and turned our knowledge into a bullying wheel (a graphic organizer). Thursday and Friday were dedicated to research and note-taking for their projects. Next week, we'll be starting with "boot camps" on Monday to talk about how each project is completed as well as proper interviewing and surveying techniques.

Don't forget to be awesome!
Kevin Laffin

Friday, October 2, 2015

Week 6: Birthdays and Bullying (Week of 10/02/2015)

Mrs. Schwoerer welcomed us back into the library for a week of learning the basics of bullying. While our project doesn't start until Monday, we got to hang out in the library anyway. This week, we started with a Prezi called "Bullying 101: Understanding the Epidemic". Students took notes and discussed bullying with the following EQ's (essential questions): What are the effects of bullying? What are the four types of bullying? How are they different? How are they the same? We had many conversations in class to not only help the information stick but to really get an in-depth look at how bullying is a real issue that needs to be addressed.

We did A LOT of talking this week. Students were able to discuss bullying in their small groups and then report out in a "quick and easy" presentation of their discussion to the class. The insights my students have into bullying are astounding. They truly understand that it IS a problem and DOES have lasting effects, issues that can stick around well into adulthood.

I hope this week served to whet their appetites for research. I gave them just enough information to start having real questions, which should direct their research. Starting Monday, students will choose whether they're working alone or with a partner, what type of bullying they're presenting on, and which of the three Tiers (choices) they'll be choosing to present their findings. Each Tier is based on research, but the student commitment is stepped up on the technology side. This way, each student is able to work within their own comfort zone and shine as brightly as they can. We'll be working in class all of next week and the following week so students should be able to get the bulk of their work done or completely finish it all in the time given.

This week in AVID, we attacked our first Tutorial. Like all first tries, we got a little frustrated by the Tutorial Request Forms but absolutely rocked our first Tutorial. I explained to my students that some things in life are like a video game: sometimes we have to play a level a couple of times until we know what to do and what not to do. We can only understand Tutorials so much but talking about them. In order to truly understand how a Tutorial works, we needed to try one out to see what we knew and what we needed work on. My students did an amazing job! The remainder of the week was dedicated to debriefing the Tutorial and talking about how we're going to attack next week's Tutorial. I'm really impressed with the candor my students have had when discussing this process. They're absolutely scholarly when we talk about our shortcomings and truly want to excel. I couldn't be luckier to be their teacher!

This week has been a great week with all of my students. Today, we celebrated my birthday in class (it's tomorrow) by playing the Kahoot review game and working outside in AVID, spending the last ten minutes with Miss Ahearn's class playing Pictionary as part of our Fun Friday. I'm so lucky to have so many amazing students and families! Thank you for a great year!!!

Don't forget to be awesome!
Kevin Laffin

Friday, September 25, 2015

Week 5: Let the wild rumpus start! (Week of 9/25/2015)

Life in G-6 is heating up and we're buckling down into the nitty-gritty of the English and AVID curriculum.

My AVID class is getting ready for their first tutorial, slated for next Tuesday. This week, we learned about the Tutorial process and how to fill out a Tutorial Request Form (TRF) in preparation for the big day. We've talked our way through the notes we've taken, deepening our understanding of Tutorials and writing Tutorial Request Forms. Students also discussed the difference between good questions and not-so-good questions. This process is important so we're as successful as we can be for our first tutorial. Of course, it's our first go-round and we'll learn what else needs to be done for success, but taking that first step is important and we're all excited to be doing it.

In my English classes, we took our knowledge of nonfiction and continued to apply it to the Precis Paragraph (a means of summarizing non-fiction writing in a scholarly, concise way). We wrote our first paragraph together as a class and the students' final written piece sounded great! It's a long process at the beginning, but it'll help us to become better writers.

After we finished our Precis Paragraphs, we switched gears into studying plot and theme in preparation for our 1st Quarter Independent Book Project. We'll be returning to our study of nonfiction next week and looking at it through the lens of bullying (and how to solve the problem) but I figured we'd take a brain break to let the information solidify in our brains. When I teach plot in my classroom, we go over the plot diagram (what I'm calling "Plot Mountain") with definitions and then use a story to give concrete examples. I discovered a teacher online who teaches plot using the ever-so-popular Pixar Shorts and have followed suit. This week, we watched the hilarious "Presto" and identified the characters (and their changes), the various plot elements, and the turning point of the story where everything started to change. I like teaching plot with the Pixar shorts because they're short, entertaining, and easy to follow making for a fun and engaging lesson. Once we finished plot, we were free to move on to theme (lovingly referred to as "Theme Island").

Theme is a tough subject to master, but through an inventive way of teaching theme (that my mentor in Southern California came up with). Along with the Pixar shorts, I teach theme through picture books, like "The Three Little Pigs" and "The True Story of the Three Little Pigs". This week, we read Maurice Sendak's classic, "Where the Wild Things Are" and wrote our theme statements based on the book. Students worked with partners to turn the subjects of the book (what the story is about) into theme statements (what the book/author has to say about the subject). It's a tough concept to grasp, but my students are such deep thinkers this year that they rocked their first theme statements. I know we're going to go far this year!

Don't forget to be awesome!!!
Kevin Laffin

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Week 4: Living in a Nonfiction Paradise (Week of 9/18/2015)

This week, Mother Nature took pity on us and cooled Laguna down. The windows were open again, fresh breezes made learning enjoyable, and the sun kept us downright happy.

In English, we're nearing the end of learning about nonfiction and gearing up to use our knowledge in what I like to call our "life test". Basically, a "life test" is when students are asked to take the knowledge they learned in class and apply it to a project or activity. Pretty soon, we'll be embarking on our bullying unit culminating in a research project. Students will be reading lots of nonfiction dealing with the various types of bullying (physical, mental, emotional, and the new one, cyber), watching a documentary dealing with bullying, and completing a project (with a partner or alone) on one of the four types of bullying by creating a newspaper article, brochure, or Google Slides show. All students will then give a TED Talk-style presentation to their classmates. Last year's projects absolutely floored me. I was so impressed with the professionalism and academia my students enveloped as they presented on the topic of their choosing.

Students in my first period class race the clock and each other
to see who's "top Lancer" on the leaderboard.
What a fun way to review for a quiz!

This week, we've been revisiting the nonfiction quiz I gave two weeks ago. The results weren't quite where I'd like them to be, so we broke apart one quiz and used it as bellwork (leading to class discussion) and the other part, the labeling, was tweaked and made more user friendly to ensure student success. They've really been impressing me with their knowledge of what features make up nonfiction and how they know that a heading, for example, is indeed a heading. Thursday, we played Kahoot!, an interactive, game show style review game that has students not only racing the clock, but competing against each other to claim a spot on the "top 5" leaderboard. They really love reviewing when we play Kahoot! Of course, Murphy's Law reared its ugly head fifth period when the Chromebooks/WiFi that had been working perfectly fine all day decided to quit, leaving us with only five students able to log in and play. Mrs. Mooney joined us fifth period to see the game in action which turned into her helping us troubleshoot. What was supposed to be an individual game turned into five groups of students all competing against each other. It turns out that the tech failure led to a new way to play Kahoot! that I'll surely use in the future.
Here are some quotes I heard today:
"This game was so much fun!!!"
"I wish I would have studied, I would have beat you!"
"Why can't we play this in our other classes?" (spoiler alert: Mr. Townsend plays this and I actually stole the idea from him)
"Reviewing for our quiz is really fun!"
"Can we play this tomorrow?"

I look forward to seeing my students shine bright on their nonfiction quiz retakes tomorrow!!!

My AVID kids had another amazing week. This week was all about perfecting our Cornell Notes and learning about the Tutorial process, which starts next week. As a class, we finished our "Cookie article" Cornell notes and completed a Cornell Notes checklist, seeing how our notes stacked up against the rubric. We then moved into learning about Tutorials and taking more Cornell Notes, this time armed with the knowledge of successful note taking. Our class conversations continue to be so mature and scholarly! On Thursday, students took the notes they'd written so far and were challenged to share them with five other people in the class. Everyone had to keep talking and sharing until they'd reached their five and could then sit down. It was fun getting up and moving around while sharing our knowledge and understanding with each other. I'm excited to finish teaching about the Tutorial process so I can see my AVID Rockstars have an amazing first Tutorial on Tuesday!

Don't forget to be awesome!!!
Kevin Laffin

Friday, September 11, 2015

Week 3: Things are Heating up in the Classroom (Week of 9/11/2015)

Both figuratively and literally speaking, things have heated up in G-6. The weather turned the normally comfortable classroom into a sauna-like atmosphere. Thankfully the heat wave appears to be over... for now.

My English classes continued work with nonfiction. On Tuesday, we completed our nonfiction quizzes from last week using our amazing three-day weekend to study and then finished our Elements of Nonfiction notes (the structure of nonfiction this time). Tuesday, we put our knowledge to work and applied it to the "real world". Using an article about the Johns Hopkins ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, we read, annotated, summarized, and chunked the nonfiction piece. We used the "five steps to success" to get there: read once to understand (no note taking or highlighting), read a second time to discover important words, phrases, and statistics, read a third time with a partner, this time looking at the main idea of each paragraph.
After three readings, we jumped into "chunking" our article by main ideas. Students were able to see the structure of the piece once they identified main ideas. By chunking the piece, students have an easier time understanding the article because each chunk is summarized and responded to. Summarizing the article chunks gives students a deeper understanding of the whole piece, synthesizing the information and putting it in their own words. Responding to the article allows students to ask questions, make comments, or connect the article to their own lives to elicit discussion. On the whole, reading, chunking, summarizing, and responding to the article took two days and my students rocked it! The heat didn't make it easy, but they read and reread, and then read again with great energy and participated in "brain breaks" to give us, well, a brain break.

AVID's challenge this week was the handshaking and introduction challenge. Students were first taught about proper handshakes and introductions as well as the benefits and appropriate times for those handshakes. We did a "handshake train" to practice and helped each other to find success in introductions. At the same time, we read nonfiction articles on the history or ice cream and one woman's lifelong love of chocolate chip cookies and practiced our Cornell Note-taking strategies as well as the nonfiction strategies tackled in my English class.  As usual, the drive and energy of my AVID class is such a nice way to end my day. Even with the heat, we ended the day as a classroom community, laughing and learning. Ms. Ahearn invited us into her class on Thursday for an early "Fun Friday" activity dealing with speaking and listening.

Friday found me at the District Office with the entire middle school English team where we learned about writing and the Common Core. I've received a lot of great strategies from our presenter, Julie Adams, and my students will benefit immensely. With the guest teacher, my English classes took a look at "commonly confused words" and made posters to present to their classmates, helping everyone understand how to decide which word to use. My AVID class created posters to present as well, but their focus was the topics covered in AVID so far and the value of those topics.

Don't forget to be awesome!!!
Kevin Laffin

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Week 2: Better Late Than Never (Week of 9/4/2015)

Many apologies for the late blog post. Friday ended quickly and I moved this weekend so internet was nonexistent. But... we're back!!!

My AVID class was issued a challenge, to SLANT in each class (sit up/in front, lean forward, ask good questions, nod their head, talk to their teacher). They did an amazing job and helped each other reach their goal! We also started learning how to take Cornell Notes and are getting ready for our first binder check (organization is key). I've been really impressed with our conversations in class and am so proud of my amazing students!!!

In English, we began learning about the elements and structure of nonfiction. Through a Prezi (created by someone else and edited by me to fit the needs of my class), we learned that the parts of nonfiction can help us understand what we're reading before we even read the entire text. For example, we learned that titles and headings provide a brief, sometimes vague, synopsis or summary of the chapter. Pictures and captions can make math, history, and science come alive by providing examples. Footnotes and sidebars can help add information to the text when it wouldn't make sense inside the actual text. Admittedly, the week was a bit note heavy but we had some "brain breaks" built into our lessons to break up the monotony and give our hands a break. I really like getting my students talking about their information and going over it with classmates. The more they talk about what they learned, the more likely it is that they'll remember it for later. My English classes were troopers as we headed into our nonfiction quiz and I know that they rocked the quiz!

Don't forget to be awesome!!!
Kevin Laffin

Friday, August 28, 2015

Week 1: Here in an instant, gone in a flash!

WOW!!! What a great first week of school I had here at Laguna. I met so many amazing students and am excited for this school year. This year, I'm not only lucky enough to teach four seventh grade English classes, but I'm also lucky that I get to teach the AVID class for seventh grade as well.

My students started their first week as seventh graders with a tour of the campus, stopping at eight different locations to hear about Laguna Middle School in a nutshell. I really love the first-day tours because I know how the incoming seventh graders feel. Last year, I was just like them and new to the school. Touring the campus and hearing about the different aspects of middle school life with my homebase class really calmed my nerves and made me excited to be a Lancer. I hope that all of the new seventh graders felt the same way.

On Tuesday, my classes had their first informal presentation where they met one of their neighbors and then introduced each other to the class. I learned a lot of cool things about my students from sports and hobbies to travel and family. What a great way to get some talking in early!

Wednesday was our "Syllabus Speed Dating" day where I had the students get into "speed dating" rows to comb and decipher the syllabus. I mean, we could have listened to me drone on and on about the syllabus and class policies, but I think that, combined with the rising heat outside, would have put my classes straight to sleep. The students really enjoyed "Speed Dating" because they not only got to take control of their learning, but they also got to meet new people in class through formal and informal conversation. We only got halfway through the syllabus, so we'll be "speed dating" again on Monday.

Thursday and Friday were spent in the library with Mrs. Schwoerer; the English department each gets two days talking about the library and book check out (Thursday) as well as the wonderful world of technology. Mrs. Schwoerer generously donates her time and library to introduce our new students to how the Laguna library works and does an amazing job.  When the students were asked to check out books for KBAR, Mrs. Schwoerer brought up an amazing point: choosing a book is making an investment. If you choose a book you like, you've made a good investment and you'll enjoy reading (the whole point of KBAR). Make a bad or hasty investment, and the joy of reading disappears with wasted time. Wow!

Friday was spent back in the library, but this time in the air-conditioned computer lab. Talk about perfect timing!!! In the lab, students were introduced to the Google platform, which most teachers on campus will be utilizing this year. I love the Google platform and was impressed with how much background knowledge my students already had (shout out to our amazing elementary teachers). With this knowledge, we'll be blogging, building websites, collaborating online, and turning in our assignments digitally. I'm excited to teach my students this technology and to learn just as much from them.

This has been such a great week! I'm thrilled to be a part of my students middle school years and I hope they enjoy the year as much as I know I will. I am incredibly lucky to be a part of such an amazing community. I look forward to a great school year!!!

Don't forget to be awesome!!!
Kevin Laffin

Thursday, August 20, 2015

And so begins the 2015-2016 school year!

Hello Lancers! Welcome to Mr. Laffin's class, Laguna, and the 2015-16 school year!

One of my goals this year is to get my students blogging so I figured I'd give it a try and learn something in the process.

Stay tuned for updates!