Tag Archives: collaboration

Primary Sources & Post-It Notes

This post is by Michael Lonie, a history teacher at Randolph High School


Recently, I have been exploring new ways of integrating primary source analysis and discussion in the social studies classroom. In my Advanced Placement European History course, we constantly read, annotate, and analyze primary source documents to help the students better understand the major trends and paradigm shifts in European thought. I noticed that things began to get a bit stale in our normal classroom discussions, and I wanted to attempt a lesson that would both reinvigorate the conversation, while continuing to assess all students on their comprehension of the material. My solution came in the form of a wonderful professional development offered by the instructional coaches at Randolph High School. At a recent workshop, the coaches introduced ways to use Post-It notes of all shapes and sizes in a variety of different classroom activities. This “Post-It Pandemonium” is entirely student-centered, and provides easy ways for teachers to assess progress and comprehension while keeping students engaged in the lesson.

In order to apply these Post-It activities in my AP European History course, I designed a discussion-based lesson centered on the European philosophers Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill. For the lesson, students were attempting to evaluate the differing opinions ofScreen Shot 2015-04-14 at 12.42.54 PM the two philosophers regarding individuality and community in nineteenth-century Europe. In preparation for this lesson, students needed to read and annotate a primary source packet with documents from both philosophers, as well as a variety of different critiques to their positions. Upon arriving to the class, students were divided into groups of three, and given a large Post-It note. Half of the groups were assigned to be experts on Marx, and the other half of the students focused on Mill’s theories of Utilitarianism. Students then had time to summarize their philosopher’s position regarding individuality on the Post-It note, incorporating evidence from the text. After placing these large Post-It notes on the board, a representative from each group chose a Post-It from the opposing philosopher, and, on a separate, smaller Post-It, had to write how their philosopher would respond to the ideas written on the original note. During this time, I circulated the room, and was extremely impressed with the high level of discussion occurring within each group. The students worked diligently to assume the role of their philosopher, and to justify their beliefs with textual evidence.

After placing their philosopher’s rebuttal on the board, I decided to add one last twist to the lesson. After briefly discussing the initial analysis with all students, I gave each group a Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 12.41.21 PMcritique of their original philosopher from a nineteenth-century intellectual (i.e. Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Pope Leo XIII). Students then had to read the primary source from their critic, and, on an even smaller Post-It note, write how this critic would respond to the writings of their original philosopher. When the students placed their final products on the board, they had a chain of Post-It notes analyzing their original philosopher’s beliefs, a response from either Marx or Mill, and a critique from nineteenth-century society. We ended class with a brief discussion, peppering in any material the students may have missed during their small-group discussion. Based on the exit tickets from the class, students were not only able to meet the lesson’s objectives, but they appeared to have a fun time along the way. As I circulated the room, I found myself engaged in the small-group discussions, and was able to interact with students individually. Overall, I found that incorporating Post-Its into my classroom discussion was a simple and engaging way of assessing student learning, and I would definitely plan these activities into future lessons in the social studies classroom.


InnovateNJOur school district is fortunate to be part of a new, exciting organization created by the State of New Jersey’s Office of School Innovation. Called innovateNJ, the initial community consists of 10 like-minded school districts working together “in ways that produce replicable and adaptable innovative practices.” It’s exciting to be a part of a community of fellow educators willing to collaborate about next-generation instructional practices. Personally, my PLN has grown tremendously since joining the organization and I look forward to what the future holds.

At 8:00PM EST tomorrow, November 20th, the innovateNJ community will be hosting their first twitter chat about innovation in schools. Please join the chat using the hashtag #innovateNJ. During the chat we’ll also share information about how other New Jersey school districts can join our organization. The next round of applications will become available this week. At the least, please join our chat on 11/20–we’re talking innovation!

To view our Twitter chat invitation, click on the image.Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 7.41.09 AM


More Ideas from our Big Read–Making It Stick

An image from a Make It Stick PechaKucha presentation

Since school started in September, teachers and administrators at our high school have been making their way through the essential book, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. The book is our Big Read this year and over the past few weeks, we have tackled chapters two and three. (I wrote about chapter one here.) When planning our Big Read with Make It Stick, we decided to space out reading and discussion over a few months to reinforce one of the central concepts from the book, what the authors call “spaced practice.”

A rapt audience listening to Make It Stick PechaKucha
A rapt audience listening to Make It Stick PechaKucha

In spaced practice, learners space out practice over a long period of time in what is ultimately the antithesis of cramming–identified in the book as “massed practice.” The authors write that “embedding new learning in long-term memory requires a process of consolidation, in which memory traces are strengthened, given meaning, and connected to prior knowledge–a process that unfolds over hours and may take several days.” Spacing out our reading of Make It Stick ensures that a little forgetting has occurred in between reading and discussing. While forgetting is often viewed as a negative in education, the authors ensure us that forgetting information and retrieving it actually has a positive effect on the learning process. “The increased effort required to retrieve the learning after a little forgetting,” they write, “has the effect of retriggering consolidation, further strengthening memory.”

Do I sound like I know what I’m talking about? I hope so! But I really owe it all to Peter cover-300wBrown, Henry Roediger III, and Mark McDaniel, the authors of Make It Stick. However, I’m not the only one dropping terms like “spaced practice” into my routine. Many of us at the high school are becoming fluent in the ideas from the book. “Retrieval,” “varied practice,” “interleaving,” and “reflection” are being casually tossed around during discussions as we dissect the text and examine how the ideas in the book can help our teaching. If you are interested in assessment theory and cognitive development in learners, I highly recommend you pick up a copy and follow along with us. Here’s what we did with chapters two and three for our Big Read:

Chapter 2

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Our questions for chapter 2

For chapter two, we used the discussion questions above in small groups to help everyone come to a better understanding of the chapter. Then, we got together to discuss each small group’s answers. One trick when reporting out answers in a large group is to assign each group a number and use a random sequence generator (like this) to select speaking order and make each subsequent group identify something new that other groups did not address. This obviously gets difficult as more groups present, but it is a great way to encourage deeper insight as each group will try to think of something unique to share with the large group during their discussions.

Chapter 3

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Group topics for Chapter 3

For chapter three, we divided into eight groups and had about thirty minutes to create short visual presentations in the style of PechaKucha. PechaKucha is a relatively new presentation style that originated in Tokyo in 2003 and is designed to ensure people give short, visual presentations. The traditional PechaKucha model is 20×20–a presenter gives a 20-slide presentation and has 20 seconds for each slide. We modified the traditional model to a 5×1 where each group had to present 5 slides with about a minute for each slide. To make presentations go smoother, each group simply added their five slides to an already created presentation outline on Google Drive so we did not have to change files in between each presentation. This is a great tip for anyone who is looking to maximize class time and is sick of losing time to computer changes during group presentations. By having all groups add slides to a Google presentation, no changing of computers or files was needed. Another benefit of PechaKucha is that text is avoided in favor of images so presenters are more inclined to engage with the audience as they won’t be staring at a presentation slide. The PechaKucha from chapter three were fascinating, and since many of the topics have been addressed at various points throughout chapters one and two, they seem to be getting ingrained into our memories.

Throughout three chapters, Make It Stick has given us all a common language to discuss how we teach our students. As I visit classrooms, I see teachers encouraging students to write reflections about what they have learned in class and to predict what will happen next in a text or history –both are important lessons from the book. Our Big Read is already paying dividends. The best part? We still have five chapters to go!

An image from a Make It Stick PechaKucha. It’s based on one of our favorite studies from the book, but I won’t give away the conclusion here!

The Marshmallow Challenge


Today our Humanities Department participated in Tom Wujec’s “Marshmallow Challenge.” With 20 pieces of spaghetti, one yard of string, one yard of tape, and a single marshmallow, we attempted to see who could build the tallest freestanding tower. Taking only 18 minutes, the Marshmallow Challenge is a great way to bring people together with a shared task. Use the string, tape, and spaghetti to build a structure strong enough to hold a single marshmallow on top. The tallest freestanding tower holding a marshmallow wins. As Tom Wujec writes on his blog, “The Marshmallow Challenge is a remarkably fun and instructive design exercise that encourages teams to experience simple but profound lessons in collaboration, innovation and creativity.” We broke up into seven groups and got to work after a very brief introduction.

Teams start to build

It was exciting to see our teachers working together to win the competition. With Frank Sinatra playing in the background, teams worked to build the tallest structure. After 18 minutes, four teams successfully had a standing structure. One team was disqualified for a liberal interpretation of what “freestanding” meant. The winning team’s structure was 20 inches tall, beating the second place team by two inches.

What did we learn from the process? We learned that sometimes it helps to work alongside each other to solve a problem. It also helps to prototype. I’m sure if our teams had another chance at the challenge they would do better. As we begin to implement new initiatives into our daily school routines we’ll only get better the more we perform the tasks. “The marshmallow challenge provides teams with a shared felt experience, a common language and a solid stance to find the right prototypes to build their real projects successfully, to avoid the oh-oh moments and have real ta-dah moments,” writes Wujec. Sometimes it helps to understand that projects can have a marshmallow–something that looks easy to do but in the end can be a real problem.

The winning team! Congrats to Jeff, Rob, Jon, and Nicole.

Listen to Tom Wujec describe his process and the lessons he learned while designing his Marshmallow Challenge: