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Setting Up the Middle Grades Classroom

Hey everyone! I figure since it's almost back to school season for some of you all, I wanted to update my BTS blog post I did a couple of years ago. I am going to share how I set up my classroom for the new school year. (I did change my room up after I wrote the original blog post, so some of the newer pics may look a little different. The original pics are at the bottom of the post because I wanted to offer as much inspiration as I could as you head back!)

Before I even begin decorating my room, I still write down every function I need my classroom to perform. I want to make sure I have a designated area for everything. AND that everything will actually fit. Nothing is more frustrating than decorating most of my room, and then realizing that all I wanted to include won't be possible because I have run out of space. 

A place for students to turn in (and store) their work 
Since I am teaching social studies, I know my students will be working on a lot of projects. These will most likely stay in my room, so not only do I need a place for students to turn in their work, I need space for them to store their work. Did I mention I teach 5 classes? So about 150 students...I need to have space for their work...ALL of them...during projects. 

Supply corner
My students will be coming to me with all the needed school supplies (pencils, pens, highlighters, markers, scissors, glue, etc.). However, there are always a handful who somehow forgets their supplies. Instead of wasting time having them go to their lockers to get their forgotten supplies, I want to have a corner of my room with everything they need, so they can quickly get a loaner (and I know most will go missing because loaners become theirs. That's why I have tubs of extras in my closet. And I have been known to ask students for a shoe when they borrow a pencil from me because they give it back every single time).

Storage for extra supplies
Since I will be needing to replenish my "I forgot my supplies" corner, I know I will need adequate space to keep all the extras that will eventually make their way to that corner...and I need storage for my own supplies.

Absent work
This is a biggie. One reason why I love middle school is because the responsibility of completing classwork, getting work missed, etc. falls on the STUDENT. Not me. The STUDENT. So when someone is absent, it is his/her responsibility to get missing work. We use an on-line platform, and I post what we are doing in class. However, if a student does not have access to a printer or a computer at home (which families can actually check out a laptop from our media center and get a broadband card for free so they do have the needed technology at home), or their Internet "broke" (which is an excuse I hear...a lot....) I need a place to neatly keep missing assignments so students can get it on their own without asking me.

Word Wall
Even though I teach middle school, I am going to have a word wall in my room. It's non-negotiable. This year my word wall will consist of social studies vocabulary because there is a LOT of content-specific words in the curriculum. I created my own word cards, and I  put a visual representation on each card to help students make connections as well as the definition. *You can check out this word wall by clicking {HERE}*

When I taught ELA, I had a Greek and Latin roots/affixes word wall. There are SO many students are responsible for learning, and I found that they were forgetting already learned ones. I created a word wall specifically for students to refer to all year long. I put this word wall on a bulletin board. During the year, students would write words that contained a specific root/affix on a notecard and then tack onto the board under the word wall card. Students were on the lookout for roots/affixes without me having to ask! You can also use this word wall during science because several vocabulary terms have these roots/affixes. My students were referring to my word wall to remember key science terms! You can see this word wall by clicking {HERE}.

Maps, maps, maps.....and more maps. I will be teaching Europe, Canada, Australia, Latin America, and islands in the Caribbean. We are literally all over the world. So I will be hanging up a lot of maps in my room. Good thing I love maps :)

A place to display student work 
Even middle schoolers like to have their work hanging on the wall! I don't have wall space outside my classroom (darn those lockers!), nor do I have wall space for 150 kiddos. I can, though, have a dedicated space on my wall and rotate out student work, so they know I appreciate and respect what they create. And, even though they may not admit it, they are proud when they know their work is important enough to display.

I love quotes. Wen I coached basketball years ago, there were 2 girls responsible for finding a quote to read to the team before our game. They had to explain the significance of the quote and how it pertained to our team and the upcoming game. It was amazing to hear the message my players heard from those quotes and the impact it made on them. So I knew I wanted a wall space for quotes for my middle schoolers. I also decided that since there are specific people I will be teaching, most of the quotes will be said by those people (yet another on-going project for myself this year!). Not only will these quotes hopefully give my students something to think about, but the quotes will also help my students remember the significance of each person.

Interactive notebook table of contents
I will be using an interactive notebook this year. There is SO much content I will be teaching, I have to make the material engaging for my students. I will do this through INB and projects. I need a place where I can display our INB table of contents so if students are absent or get behind, they can see what they missed and what they need to make up. This won't take up much space at all either...thank goodness!

Daily Schedule and Announcements
Our schedule changes every 3 weeks, so I have to post a daily schedule so students will know where they are going next and when. Our daily class times vary, too, because we have a homeroom period W-F. It gets confusing! However, the kids really do pick up quickly on I guess the posted schedule is more for me. I created 3 different schedules, and each one is two-sided to show the different times that we use during the week. I can easily put the schedule up on my board with magnets. I also write on the board important announcements the students need to know such as upcoming projects/tests/events, homework, class activities, focus for the day, etc.

Word Splash
I love word splashes. I consider a word splash to be a group of words associated with one term. Because we will be studying 5 different areas, I want to help my students recognize key terms associated with each area. I need a large enough area to display the current splash as well as previous splashes (and I really need to think of a cuter name). I am going to color code each region's splash because color can help some students with remembering word associations. 

Fun social media board
We are a Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) district. Our kids come to school with different types of devices. I know they use Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. I am going to bring those social media platforms to my classroom. I need a space where I can have an interactive bulletin board that they students will be responsible for updating. I have several ideas floating around in my head, but until the school year gets going, I am not sure which path I will take. As soon as I figure it out though, I will be blogging about it on my blog, so be sure to check in with me regularly!

This day in history...
I love trivia. And I love to know what happened today in history. This will be another interactive display my students will be responsible for updating. It won't need much room, but I do want a space where students can easily switch out events that happened in history, and I hope they find really obscure or interesting, little known facts! I just want them to become fascinated by history because I did NOT like social studies when I was in school. AT ALL. I am trying to think of things that would have helped pique my interest in hopes that it carries over to my students. I wrote a blog post dedicated to this project, and you can read about it {HERE}. Oh, and you can download (for free!) everything you need to do this project in your own classroom :)

Important displays/posters

I have class discussions often, so it's very important for students to understand ground rules for class discussion. I make I sure post anything that is very important like this in a prominent place in the room where it is easily seen by every student, no matter where they sit. In the photo below you will see a pic of 6 small posters, each with a ground rule for our class discussions. It's just to the left of our "This Day in History" display, so I can easily refer to it at the beginning of the year to help students learn how to discuss and debate in our class. If you are interested in learning more about how I set discussion norms in my classroom, I write a blog post {HERE} and you can also download those posters for free. Enjoy!

A place for students to sit
I guess this is important :) I do not like desks. Nope nope nope. These are the adjoined chair and desk, and they are so cumbersome! I like to have my students sit in groups, and those desks would move all over the room! They drove me crazy. I wasn't keen on the idea at the beginning of last year, but thought I would give them a try. I nixed that the 3rd week of school. So, over the span of several months, I replaced desks with tables. Now I have 6 rectangular tables and 1 circle table for my students. Not only do these tables not migrate, I have way more space than if I had 30+ desks. I want my students to get on the floor and spread out and easily do group work. Tables allow me to have extra space in the room.

Once I knew what all needed to be in my room, I could begin moving furniture and decorating! Did I mention I love how I teach just one subject? I don't remember how in the world I fit everything 5 needed for multiple subjects in one room! I am going to eventually need storage space for social studies games and centers that I will be making this year, and I made sure to leave some blank space in my room for my new creations and, more importantly, for student creations. Oh, and keep in mind how you might rearrange if you are going to do any class transformations! In the photo below you can see how I had to "cram" our Aztec temple in front of our wall of maps, and the temple was around for about 2 months (I actually left it up past our Aztec unit because it took FOREVER to make and I had to have other teachers help me so I finished it in time).

I noticed two years ago that when school started back, I started to get really bad headaches. This had never happened before, so I wasn't quite sure what was going on. On the weekends and during breaks, my daily headaches went away. I finally figured out that it was because of the overhead lights. Luckily, we are able to have lamps in our classrooms and patio lights that are outdoor grade (and if we need an extension cord, it has to be outdoor grade, too). I went straight away to Target and bought lamps and patio lights. I wanted enough so that I could not have my overhead lights on at all. We can't have the lamps and lights on for a long time period a day, so I kept an ear to the ground to know when our fire inspector was in our building :) My headaches went away, and my students would comment on how soothing and peaceful our room was. Anytime I had to be out, the sub would have the overhead lights on, and when I returned my students would complain about the bright lights they had to endure :)

You can join my email list by using the form below. I will send you an exclusive freebie for joining, and you will stay updated with the latest happenings at Brainy Apples :) ***THE PICS BELOW ARE FROM TWO YEARS AGO*** I decided to leave them because you can see how my classroom has evolved. Some parts are the same, some I have really changed. After living in my room for a year, I realized what did and did not work for me, but I did want to give you as many visuals and possibilities as I could!

Here's the fun part! Now, my room is not totally complete. I know there will be things I didn't think of that I need to add to my room. I learned in years past to NOT decorate every square inch of my room. Not only do ideas hit me out of nowhere, but I also want students to feel like it's THEIR room, too. It does make it look a little blah at the beginning of the year, but by the 3rd month (if not sooner), it becomes more colorful with the help of my students!

So, here we go with my classroom set up! I will address each item on my "Must Have" list:

A place for students to turn in (and store) their work 

Supply corner

Storage for extra supplies

Absent work
(the absent work display is behind my door)

A place to display student work, Interactive notebook table of contents, & This day in history...

Word Splash, Fun social media board, & Word Wall


I really hope you were able to get some inspiration from my classroom pics! And know it's totally OK to change up your room. I actually started to rearrange mine after almost half the year had passed. It's like your home away from home. Once you start spending a lot of time in it, you begin to see what does and does not work for you and your students. Just remember to not stress to much about your classroom set up and organization and just try to have as much fun as possible! And one thing I started to do was ask for student input on how our class is set up. Their voices also led me to making some changes, and they really appreciate it! It's their home away from home, too :)

I hope you have a wonderful back to school and an amazing school year!!!!!

You can join my email list by using the form below. I will send you an exclusive freebie for joining, and you will stay updated with the latest happenings at Brainy Apples :)

Spend Less Time Reteaching Using Daily Spiral Math

How many of your students forget learned math skills, and you find yourself having to reteach those skills before you can progress to the next big idea? This definitely happened to me, and I really wanted to find a solution so that I wasn't in a constant state of spending days reteaching skills my students had learned earlier in the year.

The math curriculum I used was a mastery-based curriculum, which I prefer over a spiral-based curriculum. Mastery-based focuses on teaching units of study, with students mastering the idea before moving onto the next unit. Spiral-based focuses on teaching small chunks of a variety of skills, and then cycling back through to teach those same skills but to a higher level (I guess it's also called laddering). I used a spiral-based curriculum years ago, and I could not stand it at all. It didn't work well for my struggling students because they needed more time to practice those skills, and jumping around just flat out confused them. 

So when my district adopted a mastery-curriculum, I was jumping for joy. I also knew, too, that I needed to have something in place so my kids would not forget math skills from units we completed.  I loved using Calendar Math on a daily basis because when we counted money every day, by the time the money unit came up, most of my kids had a solid understanding of each coin and were already counting change. Sure, a few of my students still didn't understand money even after counting coins for 103 days, but they did have more background knowledge than if we hadn't counted coins for 103 days. I decided to create a spiraling resource I could use with my students from day 1 that would serve this same purpose, but for all of our standards.

What are daily spiral math reviews?
The reviews I created served as a supplement to my existing math curriculum. Each day students are practicing one problem from each of the grade level's math domains. So when I taught 1st grade, students solved 4 problems a day. When I taught 4th grade, students solved 5 a day. These reviews take about 10-15 minutes a day to complete and go over. They are bite-sized chunks so that students are quickly reviewing and even previewing skills all year long.

What are the benefits of a daily spiral math review?
There are several reasons I used daily spiral math reviews in my class. The main reason, though, is I loved how my students were getting a quick review of skills they had already learned. I didn't realize how well my students were retaining skills, though, until it came to our end of year review sessions before the state standardized test. Previous years it took several days to review concepts I had taught earlier in the year and get it fresh in my students' minds again. The first year I used a daily spiral math review, though, I only spent a day reviewing. And, honestly, I wouldn't even call it a review because my students remembered the skills! I was ecstatic, and they were confident going into the EOY test because they hadn't crammed the info into their minds just for the test. They had truly mastered those skills. Another benefit of using a daily spiral math review is that it provides the perfect opportunity for informal assessments. You can get a snapshot of how each student is progressing, and you can also identify any weaknesses BEFORE you teach that unit. You can plan ahead for interventions so when you get to that unit, you can hit the ground running with those struggling students. You can also plan ahead acceleration activities for those students who have already mastered those standards. Daily spiral math reviews can help you differentiate your instruction for each unit, so you are meeting each student's individual needs.

How can you use daily spiral math reviews?
I used them in a variety of ways in my classroom. I used them as bell ringers because it helped my students get into the mathematical way of thinking. I also used them as morning work so that students had something meaningful to get their minds right for the school day. As the year progressed, I used them as a math center station (we had math centers before our math block), so that when our math block began the review was already finished and we could quickly go over them. At the end of the year they became homework because students had mastered all of the standards. The possibilities are numerous, and you will be able to find the best way to use them for your classroom.

What if students struggle?
I did not always make my struggling students complete all of the review. Sometimes I would circle the problems I wanted them to solve. Sometimes I would work with them on those skills we hadn't learned yet in a small group. It would only take a few minutes of our group work time. My students also learned that it was OK to not attempt a problem if they did not know how. However, my students also knew my expectation was if we had learned the skill in class, they HAD to work on solving the problem. I wanted them to learn perseverance and not just throw their hands up if it was difficult BUT reasonable for them to solve.

That first year my second grade students and I found great success using daily spiral math reviews. So much so, when I changed to first grade, I created a daily spiral math review for first grade. And then when I became a curriculum coach, I created daily spiral math reviews for the other elementary grade levels. I now have a year long daily spiral math review for grades K-5. It took time, but it was WELL worth it! I would love to offer you a free week to see if will work for you! Just click {HERE} or the image below to receive a free week for grades K-5 from the month of August.
Brainy Apples, math, math retention, daily review, spiral review, morning work, homework

Interested in learning more about why and how I use daily spiral math reviews, or even how to create your own? Check out my upcoming webinars to find a date that works for you! You can also join my email list below to stay informed.

This Day In History Yearlong Project

Brainy Apples, social studies, history
One difficulty I have faced teaching social studies is figuring out how to help my students connect with events from the past. I want my students to be able to go beyond just reading about historical events. I want them to be able to reflect and think about what it would have been like to have gone through an event, or what it would have been like to have been alive during a given time period. This year I decided to have my students work on a yearlong project, and just because it's "yearlong" doesn't mean it's super time consuming. This project has helped my students stop and think. There is something about realizing some historical event happened, on this very day, that helped my students connect with past events. Not only that, but this project also has helped my students with their research skills, standards we are learning about in class, and perseverance (because it isn't always easy to find an important event that happened on a specific day in a specific region).

Basically this project entails 4 students every day having an assignment due. Wait! It's not that bad! I promise! At the very beginning of the year, I sat down with all of my class rosters (I teach 5 classes). I focused on the following regions because these are the regions we study in the 6th grade: Latin America & the Caribbean, Europe, Canada, and Australia. {I put up "Other" because I knew I would have some students who would make a mistake and not find an event in their assigned region. I wanted to still be able to hang theirs up even if it was not completed correctly. You could also use "Other" if you used tickets or some other incentive in your classroom. A student could earn that incentive by going above and beyond what you ask of them by finding an event in another part of the world in addition to the region he/she was assigned.}

Brainy Apples, history, social studies

I could have also added in more regions, but this was the first year I tried this project, so I wanted to start out slowly (and I only have so much bulletin board space). Then I tallied up all the days that would be in the school year. I included weekends and days we weren't in school from mid-August (because I needed time to explain this project to my students and give them time to start researching) all the way to the next to last week of school. I don't have the exact number because I left it at school (Friday was early release for snow...I was a tad excited to get home!), but I took that total number of days and divided it by the number of students. That's the number of days each student would be responsible for finding events. Each of my students would be assigned about 10 dates each. I wanted each student to find an event for each region, and I wanted to make sure students had a couple weeks in between their assigned dates.

I only assigned dates for first semester, so I could tweak the process if needed for second semester. I made an Excel spreadsheet for each of my classes, with the kiddos down the left and the regions across the top. To assign the dates, I started with the first kid in my first class, and began writing down the dates under the Europe column. When I reached the end of the first class, I went on to the second class. And so forth until I had used all of the dates for first semester. Then I moved onto assigning the dates in first semester for Canada. I used the same process for each region. Here are two of my lists so you can get the idea:

I added a second set of regions because I had dates remaining after I went through all of my classes. Not all of my students have 5 dates. Some have 4. But those students with 4 had 5 dates first semester, and those with 5 only had 4. It works out over the entire year. Even though I wanted a couple of weeks between a student's dates, sometimes it didn't work out that way. But I do give them all of their dates at the beginning of the semester, so they know well in advance to plan. I let them know not to wait until the last minute to research their date. Some dates and regions can be tricky to find an event!

The benefit of having the dates and regions written out this way is that you can easily see who has what, and if students write down the wrong date, you have evidence of the correct date. The easiest way for me to keep track of who turns in their assignments on time is that I made every Friday a due date. So if their date is the following Sunday through Saturday, their date is due the Friday before (on the back of the directions page, I have a chart of all due dates - you can download this from the link at the bottom of this post- students go through and highlight all of their due dates using this chart). This lets me hang up the dates Monday morning before school starts. I like the dates to be up all week so students can read through them during the week. No, not all students turn in their assignments by the due date. So as I go through the submitted assignments, I highlight the date green. If the assignment is missing, I highlight it pink. That way if a student turns it in late, I have a record of it not being submitted on time (I teach advanced, so students missing due dates factor into their grades and placement in an advanced class the following year). It also easily lets me see who I need to speak with Monday regarding their missing assignment. Grading is easy, too, because I use a simple rubric. I have 28 to grade a week (7 days in the week x 4 regions), but I can get them all graded in about 20 minutes. I give a grade for this (according to the points on the directions page), so it's a really easy way for me to collect about 5 grades per semester just from this project. 

Once the students have their dates and regions, they research to find one important event that occurred on that date in that region. Some regions are harder than others. Some dates are harder than others. Students know that if they can't find a historical event, they can use birth dates and death dates, and they know they can look at sports, books, movies, etc. I have gotten some kiddos saying, "I can't find anything!" I do offer a little bit of help, but often times they can't find anything because they have spent 5 minutes looking and gave up. 

I'm not even going to pretend all of my students turn their assignments in on time, which is why the pictures in this post have empty spaces. By Tuesday I usually have all the dates because I remind them on Monday if they haven't already turned it in. 

This assignment has three parts: the event, a visual, and a paragraph. Students turn in the event (with the date) and visual to be hung up, and then they turn in the paragraph which isn't displayed. I wait until the week after I hang them up to grade them because I staple all three pieces to the rubric. I did display the paragraph at first, but then I realized I did not have enough room for them. I also was going to put a header for each day of the week at the top, but decided against it. I just start with the Sunday date and staple from left to right. 

Brainy Apples, history, social studies

So far my students and I are loving this project! It's so cool to hear a student say, "Wow. Today is the day when Germany invaded Poland to start WW2." Just to hear them stop. Just that they S.T.O.P. and reflect on an event. That they THINK about the event. That's what I wanted from all of this. 

If you are interested in giving it a try, you can download all the documents {HERE}. I have included the directions with an editable due date table, headers, and examples to show your students. I hope you give it a try!

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Setting Discussion Norms

Setting discussion norms is critical if you want your students leading your class discussions. Regardless of what subject you teach, having students take the lead will result in them taking ownership and responsibility more so than if you are dictating the conversations.

social studies, Brainy Apples, student-led discourse

This is something I start at the beginning of the year, so that as time passes, my students become more comfortable at contributing to our class discussions. You want to lay the foundation for the academic conversations that will take place throughout the year. Usually you will have students who are reluctant to participate, and you will also have students who like to be the center of the discussion and try to take control. It's important to establish norms so that your quieter students won't feel overpowered and your louder students give those quieter students ample opportunity to participate. Students need to learn how to have student-led discourse, where the teacher is an active listener and the students are the leaders.

It is also very important to teach students how to participate in an active discussion, especially when there is not one right answer. You have to deliberately teach students how to debate ideas in a positive manner where they respect and value each other's contributions to the discussion.

I discuss each norm with students and provide an example of each with selected students acting out each norm. I found that having students role play each norm with an acceptable action or response AND an unacceptable action or response helps students get a concrete idea of what is and is not appropriate. After we go over each norm, I post them in a prominent place so students can easily refer to them during the year. Students will use these reminders often, and you want to encourage them to refer to the norms if they aren't being followed.

 I found it's easier to help students learn these norms by introducing two a week. If you choose too many, then students aren't able to focus on each norm and really understand how to follow it. After about a month, you will have introduced all of the norms to students, and you can expect them to follow all of them. Remember to encourage students to review the norms any time they forget one of them.

If you would like the poster set in the photo below, you can click {HERE} or on the photo. It's free! I made a full color set and a black and white set. You can print the black and white set on color paper to save on color ink.
social studies, student-led discourse, Brainy Apples

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2 Easy Ways to Use Primary Sources In the Classroom

I wanted to share with you all something that I have made a goal for myself this year, and that is to incorporate primary sources into each unit I teach. I’m not sure about you, but I found myself shying away from using primary documents because a) I didn’t know where to find quality primary sources, b) I wasn’t sure how to use them in my classroom, and c) I just wasn’t sure if I had time to spend. In the past I did use primary documents, but not as often as I knew I should be.

social studies, Brainy Apples, primary document analysis

Before I get into how I use them and offer some ideas, I want to talk about why we all should be using primary sources in our classrooms. And it just isn’t for social studies teachers! ELA/reading teachers can absolutely use primary sources, too. It’s an easy way for ELA/reading teachers to integrate social studies into their content, and social studies teachers will be integrating ELA/reading as well. (If you are interested in learning more about how to integrate literacy across the curriculum, I have offered and will be offering a FREE webinar called “12 Steps to Implementing Close Reads in AnySubject, grades 1-6” soon. Click {HERE} to view the upcoming dates.)

So, why should we be using primary sources in the classroom?
I think a comment several of my students made sums it up best- “I can touch history!” History is something that can be elusive to our students. It can be abstract. History is events that occurred, and we can read about it and watch videos to help our students better understand. However, history is something that our students can’t touch or feel. We know students learn best when they can manipulate objects or ideas. History occurred in the past, and we can’t take our students there. If we live near a museum then we can certainly go on a field trip, but for those of us who aren’t close to museums or don’t have the funds available, how are we supposed to allow our students the opportunity to get up and close and personal with history? Primary sources are how!

Deepen Understanding
Like I said earlier, I made it a goal of mine this year to incorporate as many primary sources as possible this year because I knew it would help unlock the mysteries of history for my students. I am four months into the school year, and my students this year have a better understanding of the topics we have learned than my students last year because I bring in primary documents multiple times a week. My students are able to piece together what we have talked about in class and what they are analyzing from primary sources to construct new knowledge that they better understand than if we had just read about it and watched a video. They are able to view history from multiple perspectives and compare primary sources that sometimes contradict one another (propaganda) to better understand the complexities of history.

Develop Critical Thinking Skills
Not only do my students understand the topics I teach at a deeper level, they are also learning how to be critical thinkers and analyze sources like a historian would. Oftentimes primary sources lack all of the information needed to fully understand the message or point. Students have to use prior knowledge and analyze multiple sources to be able to fully understand them. Students must move from making observations about the primary sources (explicit facts) to making inferences (implicit facts). Not only this, but students must also be aware of the bias present in propaganda they look at and question the point of view and purpose of the author, especially when they are presented with contradictory primary sources. If you are going to be using Document Based Questioning (DBQ), then it’s REALLY important for students to learn how to analyze primary documents.

Student Engagement
This is probably my favorite reason for using primary sources. My students this year are at an all time high level of engagement, even during those topics that are typically considered boring. I have had several students comment that they used to be bored during social studies, but now they can’t wait for class to begin. I had several students comment that history has come alive for them because they can touch and feel the past. Using primary sources has helped my students make connections with the events of the past in meaningful ways. Many of my students have told me they have went home and continued researching what we discussed in class because they wanted to learn more. There is a difference between reading a second-hand account and a first-hand account, and even if students haven’t learned the technical differences between the two, they know that a first-hand account helps make events seem more real and personal evoking emotions. Primary documents help students feel what it was like to be alive during that particular time period, especially when you use not only paper documents but also music and art.

Where do you get primary sources?
I spent a lot of time this fall researching a variety of sites that offer primary sources, and some site are easier to navigate than others. Some sites seem to have more useful primary sources than others. I love the Library of Congress, DocsTeach, and the Digital Archives; but there are so many more…too many to list. I usually start with these sites, and then I also Google primary sources + the topic I am teaching. Yes, it can be time consuming because you have to weed through a lot of “junk”, but once you find those hidden gems, you can use them year after year. As I find a quality site, I bookmark it as a favorite site so I can easily navigate to it in the future. You can find tons of print documents online to use in the classroom.

If you want to truly bring history into your classroom, then I highly suggest traveling trunks. Sometimes there is a fee, but I have found trunks for free. I live in north Georgia, and Kennesaw State University offers traveling trunks free of charge. The only fee is the return shipping. However, they also offer free in-house programs, so I make sure we are finished with the trunks so the speaker can take the trunks back with him for free. They allow you to keep the trunks and traveling exhibits for three weeks, so I schedule the in-house program at the end of those three weeks. We are able to use multiple trunks, a traveling exhibit, and have an in-house program for free! It took a little bit of time to research, but it is well worth it! The trunk contents are actual items from that time period, so students are able to touch and feel history. The looks on their faces are priceless! We were able to create our own museum using the contents of the trunks and the traveling exhibit. Before we create our own museum, I use my no prep lesson about the Holocaust to provide students with background information they need, so when they do visit our museum and listen to guest speakers, they are able to make those connections.

social studies, Brainy Apples, document analysis

Also in one of the trunks was a CD with music from the time period of the Holocaust. The mood in my classroom while my students were listening was very somber. We know that music can evoke emotions that reading does not. My students were able to make an emotional connection that they had not made during our unit until they listened to the music.

Also, don’t count out other staff members in your school. One of my fellow teacher’s father served in the military during World War 2. He has several artifacts from his dad including his Purple Heart medal, the telegrams his parents received when he was thought to be missing/killed in action and then later found to be “slightly wounded in action”, money used in Nazi Germany, and even a Nazi soldier’s armband that he took off a dead Nazi soldier. A little gross, yes, but my students LOVED it!

social studies, Brainy Apples, document analysis

Another staff member visited Germany during the time of the Berlin Wall, and she was able to bring in an actual East German flag that flew in East Berlin (not quite sure how her mom was able to get it through Checkpoint Charlie) and a piece of the Berlin Wall. As my students were passing around these items, I could see the spark in their eyes and curiosity/interest growing.

In both of the above cases, I also gave my students print primary documents to examine. It was amazing the connections they were making and how engaged they were. I realized that print primary sources are important to use, but so are actual artifacts. Those artifacts are what help students make a connection with the past. Finding actual artifacts is not as easy because you can’t Google and print, but once you find museums that offer these types of services, it’s very easy to reserve for future years. I wrote a blog post about Holocaust resources and trainings that you can obtain for free. Many states have similar commissions/museums that provide very similar services (click {HERE} for Georgia's), and there is the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum that you should check out for your Holocaust and WW2 units. The Georgia Commission on the Holocaust will even help you schedule a Holocaust survivor to speak with your students. We did this last year and this year, and it is such an incredible opportunity for students to listen to a survivor's story. It's absolutely incredible.

How do you use primary sources?
Once I was able to locate primary sources, I needed to decide how I was going to use them in my classroom. I wanted to use them to enhance our units as well as provide my students with the opportunity to play detective and analyze these sources for new information and to deepen their understanding. I created a document analysis that I give to my students when they are using primary sources. I also created three posters that I hang in my classroom when using primary sources as a reference for my students.

The first document analysis poster walks students through the steps of what to do before reading, during reading, and after reading. My students use this often to keep them on track until they become proficient on their own. The second poster lists out the types of documents students might be given to analyze. It also helps students find their own primary sources when I give them a research project to complete. One of the requirements is that they have to include primary sources.  The third poster lists out unique characteristics of primary sources that students refer to when they are complete the document analysis sheet. Identifying unique characteristics helps students better identify the time period, purpose, bias, and other factors they must analyze.

The document analysis sheet helps students focus on the important aspects of the primary source, whether its print, video, or audio, and guides students to conclusions based on the primary source.

When I first started using primary sources, I knew I had to teach my students how to analyze. We worked through the gradual release model, moving from whole group with me modeling, to whole group with students modeling, to small group with students working together and sharing out, and finally to independently analyzing primary sources. Not all of my students are independent yet, though. Students who were ready to move on, I let move to independence. However, I still have several students who need to work in small groups and listen to other groups’ analysis. I model to my students how to use the steps on the poster I described above, and the poster matches the analysis sheet, so as we move step by step, students are able to complete the analysis sheet.

If you would like this FREE analysis sheet along with the three posters, click {HERE} or the image below (The posters are 8x10, but you can adjust your printer settings to print it out over multiple sheets to enlarge it).

social studies, Brainy Apples, primary source

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