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Summer Idea Notebook

It is a week into summer and my batteries are beginning to recharge. When that happens my mind starts to think of great things to do next year. In order to remember these brilliant ideas I keep a notebook handy and jot down these gems. Most of them do not make it to my classroom next year but some do. Those ideas are the creative sparkle that makes each year different and better than the last. In this blog I will give you a few gems from my past notebooks and maybe get you started with the same process so your brilliant ideas will not be lost in the summer sun.

Ten years ago I had a rather tough group of students. In that summer notebook I focused on classroom procedures that would make things run smooth. My best idea was the different kinds of bell work. I use quotes (I spoke of this in an earlier blog) that the kids copy down at the start of each period, science puzzlers and riddles where I gave a clue every day until someone solved the puzzle, I played recordings of famous science lectures, I posted a mystery photo of the day for students to journal guesses about where or what the photo shows, I had different students read “great scientific advice” each day to the class and I even tried science news of the day.
Several years later I needed to increase the rigor of my classes and I began brainstorming ideas about how to increase the level of thinking my class solicited from my students. One idea that worked well had the students fill out a form at the end of each unit detailing what they wished they had done better, what was too easy and what was really difficult. I also asked them to tell me what kinds of help they wish I had offered. Most of these answers asked for more visual representations of the more abstract ideas and more time to complete work.
The best rigor idea was to send some of my archived student work to other science teachers and ask them if the work I sent them was above or below that they expected of their students. This was a great idea as many of the teachers who saw my students’ work as below level sent me activities and ideas for pushing my students further. That year I began with a lab report from one of those teachers’ classes that I copied and handed out to every student. Then, we spent an entire period going over what was good about this work and what I would expect this year. We pulled out that work several times and reviewed expectations. I use this every year now.
I took out a stack of index cards, based on a summer notebook idea and wrote down every “big idea” I taught in my classes. I kept these handy and made notes about the lessons and the assessments that related to each idea. I sat down at the end of the year and over the summer and looked for big ideas that needed more beef and some that needed more or less time.  These cards helped me to not forget important insights throughout the year. Having the cards with me during the summer gave me a time to sit down and reflect on the year with some good data in hand while relaxing on my deck when my mind was not focused on next week’s lesson plans.
Of course ideas for activities and labs hit me at the most unusual times. With time to surf the web I have replaced activities that needed replacing, updated labs with more easy to manage procedures, changed activities to produce more complex thinking and organized my test questions into an item bank where I can search by concept and pull out questions that I know produce good thinking and clear results or understanding.
One of the best ideas actually came up at the end of a year. But, it fits for the summer idea book as I updated it and refined it over the summer. I am always looking for good extra credit activities that require the kids to do something that actually makes them think. For this I asked the students to take one unit in my course and write a letter to another student detailing how to be most successful in that unit. They were to explain which lessons, resources, web sites, print materials and procedures were the most and least effective. They are to, in effect, advise another student on how to understand the big ideas better than they had. Of course they had to explain the concepts in detail and give some sort of visual guide to the big ideas. Most did some sort of concept map but a few have produced some amazing graphic representations of connections between ideas. These I keep and pull them out to begin a unit. These are great for differentiation as the students who give the most direct advice are my special needs students who know where they struggled and what exactly helped them understand the unit. I ask the kids to write about a unit that they understood pretty well.
So, by all means make sure you take time to recharge. Every year is crunch in some way and we deserve to renew and refresh. When you have time pick up a little notebook and keep it handy. The ideas will come when you least expect it and you do not want to lose a single one. One may be just that spark that makes next year less crunchy.

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