Using #ExplainAFilmPlotBadly in history

Sometimes inspiration comes from the most unlikely of places.

You know those times when you’re on social media, late at night, and you get sucked into the black hole that keeps fueling your desire to click here and there even though it’s 1:00 am on a school night and you know better? Yeah, that was me last night. However, some good did come out of it. I created a new lesson for my world history courses.

Somehow I came across the hashtag: #ExplainAFilmPlotBadly. I realize this is a few years old, but nonetheless I kept reading and found myself chuckling out loud at the creativity. Here’s the premise: You take a movie and use one sentence to twist the plot into a humorous tagline. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Grown man lures 5 children to his home with candy – Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
  • A family’s first Airbnb experience goes very wrong – The Shining
  • Drug addicted girl takes advantage of mentally challenged boy…for 3 decades – Forrest Gump
  • Older sister ruins younger sister’s chance to be on nationally televised game show – Hunger Games
  • A guy learns to love a girl without her Instagram filters – Shrek
  • A billionaire devotes his fortune to cosplay and beating up the mentally ill – The Dark Knight
  • Father reunites with long lost son, wants him to take over the family business – The Empire Strikes Back
  • Insubordinate employees purposely sabotage their company’s multi-million dollar strategic business plan – Major League*
  • A woman’s life in turmoil after her boyfriend fails to deliver a package – Cast Away*

* Only these are mine. The rest were taken from the internet.

I’m sure you get the idea. Well, I had an epiphany. Let’s take this exact idea but change it to historical events. I call it: #ExplainHistoryBadly. Students will use two hashtags. The first one identifies the event/person and the second is #ExplainHistoryBadly. Here are a few I created:

  • A man with commitment issues becomes a serial killer. #HenryVIII #ExplainHistoryBadly
  • Selfish rebels disrupt life in quaint community. #AmericanRevolution #ExplainHistoryBadly
  • An insubordinate worker dislikes the conditions of his contract and attempts to destroy his employer. #Reformation #ExplainHistoryBadly
  • American president refuses to enforce the values of the Declaration of Independence and the right for Southerners to have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. #CivilWar #ExplainHistoryBadly

This is a good review activity because after studying a unit students will have the knowledge necessary to understand historical events and then are required to display their understanding of the event by twisting it into a humorous synopsis. Got some of your own? Please share them in the comments.

Until next time…


Using cartograms to engage students with maps

“This is making my head hurt.”

A student made this comment to me in class on Friday because I was able to shift his view of the world by introducing cartograms. For those who are unaware, a cartogram is a special type of map that displays statistical data in a way that enlarges or reduces areas based on the frequency of a characteristic. For instance, take a look at this cartogram:

mountaineering cartogram

As you can see, this is a map of the U.S. which expands or contracts the area of a state based on the number of annual mountaineering accidents between 1951-2006. The Midwest is all pinched together because it as flat as a table. Alaska, California, Colorado, Washington, and Wyoming are swollen because that is where the most accidents occurred. Cartograms are useful because they immediately provide visual information about a variable.

For homework earlier this week students were to view my video lecture on the basics of maps. It served as a review and, since I recorded this lecture, I didn’t need to spend any class time on it. In class I explained about cartograms and displayed cartograms of the global population distribution of different world religions. In groups, students were asked to predict which religion was represented by each specific map. After checking their answers, we discussed why each specific map looked the way it did.

Try your hand at this activity by clicking on THIS LINK. Here are the religions represented by the eight maps (in random order):

  • Buddhism
  • Atheist
  • Christianity
  • Sunni Muslim
  • Shinto
  • Judaism
  • Shia Muslim
  • Hindu

Answers can be found on the second half of the same document.

And to that student who’s head was hurting: thanks for making my day. I’m elated that you were thinking in class and open to having your perceptions of the world challenged. There’s a lot more of that to come this year.

Until next time…

When Flipping Doesn’t Work – A case for the occasional traditional lesson

Sometimes you learn the hard way.

I found this out this past week as school started and I created an assignment that was perfect for flipping. The assignment wasn’t content related and was at the lowest of the lowest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. What was this assignment you ask? I wanted my high school students to enroll in three different websites that will be used as part of my flipping arsenal. From start to finish, if this took ten minutes to do, then that was probably three minutes too long.

I had this all planned out. Prior to the school year I went to websites I use regularly and created classes in which my students were to enroll. I then wrote an assignment sheet with all the directions necessary for each of the websites. I included a link to each site, what and where to click, how I wanted their names to appear, and the class code for each respective class period. To add a little pizazz to the assignment, I then created a QR code for student to scan which linked directly to the assignment sheet. This assignment was made for flipping. I thought, “This is pretty basic stuff. I can let them do this at home and that’ll leave me more class time for content.” Ah, the best laid plans…

As it turns out, the vast majority of students were able to enroll in each of the classes correctly. However, the three to six students in each class that didn’t do it right ended up costing me a large portion of the class periods fixing their mistakes. Whoops.

What did I learn from it? I learned that some lessons are best given in a traditional manner. I believe it would have been more effective (and lower my desire for some bourbon on ice at 10:35 am on a Thursday) if I had gone through each website’s enrollment process step-by-step with my students following along. Yes, it would have been banal, but there will be occasions where it’s important to sacrifice the now for the long-term benefits. I LOVE flipping my lessons. I am continually working on improving my craft and I know I’ll get better at it. However, that doesn’t mean it’s beneficial for EVERY lesson to be flipped. Sometimes, the traditional methods still work best.

Until next time…

Unknown Connections: Influencing Students Even If We Don’t Know It

Over the next few days, for many teachers school bells will be ringing and commotion will once again fill the hallways. As educators, the end of summer is always a bittersweet time. Of course we will miss our days off, but the start of a new school year brings promise and allows us to connect with young people.

When this time comes around, I always think back to a former student of mine. When school started, Sylvia* was outgoing and consistently participated in class discussions. As a freshman she was clearly excited about school and I enjoyed having her in class. Then, in late March of that year, I noticed that she didn’t raise her hand nearly as often as she used to do. I remember going up to her and asking if everything was alright because her participation was down, which was atypical of her behavior. A couple of weeks later she shared a deeply personal issue with me and we worked together to get her the professional help she needed. And while she struggled with this issue through out her high school career, she was able to arrive at a health place and is now doing quite well.

Sylvia had not shared that part of her life with any other adult before me. The point of the story is not to brag about some heroic action of mine, but that as teachers we don’t always know how we might connect with our students. A simple observation led to Sylvia getting help she needed and I am humbled that she felt comfortable enough to coming to me when she decided to reach out.

As the school year begins, teachers across the country will assign homework, go over class rules, and engage in creative lessons that challenge students to be their best. However, maybe the most important thing we do is help students mature and guide them on a path for them to be better versions of themselves. Unfortunately, the nature of our profession is that we may never experience the fruits of our labor.

(* name changed for privacy purposes)

Until next time…

Support the Bad Guy: A Lesson In Challenging Perspectives

“By its very nature, history is always a one-sided account,” Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code.

When teaching history, it’s very easy to get caught up in the events from the side of the triumphant. The moral messages that often accompany events are packaged from the perspective of the winners.

  • George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and the other founding fathers were right to declare independence.
  • While certainly devastating, President Truman was justified in authorizing the use of the atomic bomb and killing tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) people in order to end the war.

Unfortunately, teachers don’t look often enough at events from differing perspectives. Try to get your students investigating history from the side of the losers.

One assignment which I love, is having students write a “letter to the editor” that takes the position supporting the “bad guy.” I do this during my Industrial Revolution unit, where students write a letter supporting child labor. I like this assignment for several reasons. First off, it requires students to take a position that they (hopefully) wouldn’t support. This helps them develop a counter argument and challenge their own ideas about right and wrong. I will often encounter resistance when students tell me that they don’t support child labor. My response is to reaffirm this and then explain that the idea of the letter is to look at history from a different perspective. Secondly, as they write their letter, they need to consider their audience, which means that their initial ideas may not fly.

In my Industrial Revolution letter, I tell my students that they are to imagine they are a factory owner and the goal of the letter is to convince the public that child labor is a good thing. Now, it won’t be very convincing if they write that child labor is good because this is America and we’re a capitalist society that values making money; that would be greedy and not very empathetic. This gets them thinking on a deeper level because they now have to create ideas to justify their actions and yet package them in a way that garners support. This leads to responses such as:

  • child labor allows young people to help their parents financially support the family
  • crime is reduced because children aren’t roaming the streets and causing problems
  • children learn valuable skills that will last a lifetime

I implore you history teachers out there to challenge your students’ perspective. By doing so, they gain a greater understanding of the time period and more complete mindset of those that lived back then.

Until next time…

Video creation tips and tricks


So you’ve decided to create your own videos as a part of your flipped class. That is awesome! The feedback I’ve consistently received from my students is that they prefer videos that I create rather than when I use videos from other sources. Here are some tips and tricks to get you started.

KEEP IT SHORT – An effective video is a short video. Student attention can drift after a few minutes, so don’t have them watch one long video. If there’s a lot of information, break it up. Two seven minute videos are more effective than a fourteen minute video. For younger students, a good rule of thumb is one minute per grade level.

CONSIDER YOUR RECORDING ENVIRONMENT – Be aware of what’s around you when you record so students can keep their focus on your instruction. Are you wearing a “busy” shirt with funky patterns? Is the background plain? Is the lighting bright enough to see what you want to show but not too bright it washes out things? What types of background noises are there? You certainly don’t need to be in a recording studio (I make my videos in my dining room), but preparing for these issues help keep student focus where you want it.

HAVE QUALITY AUDIO – Make sure your audio can be heard. Check to see that the microphone on your computer or camera captures your voice clearly. If it doesn’t invest in an external microphone. Visuals are great, but if your students can’t understand you, then the lesson loses its effectiveness.

TRAIN YOUR STUDENTS – Don’t just create your first lesson and then assign it for homework. Give students that background knowledge on the software prior to assigning academic work. Create a welcome video explaining how students will use the videos and share your expectations. I created a video that teaches students how to navigate my class website. You can still create a practice quiz or other assessment for the introductory videos and count it as a participation grade, but this will help your students get comfortable with the technology prior to the academic work.

PERSONALIZE AND BE GENERIC – While this sounds like an oxymoron, it is something to keep in mind. Use the videos to exhibit your personality. Share personal stories about you if it fits in to the lesson. Students like seeing you and it allows you to connect with them. However, also be generic. If you want to use the videos in future years then make sure the videos stay relevant. For instance, don’t do a “shout out” to 5th period lab group D or share an amusing anecdote about Darryl from period 2 because then you’ve dated your videos. Next year’s students may not know or care about these things and that might lead to confusion or you recording the same lesson two years in a row.

QUALITY NOT PERFECTION – Recordings do have to be perfect. It’s ok to make minor errors, sneeze, or have your cat walk across the screen. As a colleague once said to me, “do you want it perfect or do you want it on Wednesday?”

DON’T LIMIT YOURSELF – Use videos for other things besides lecture. For instance, I record my sub plans. That way each student can view my sub plans and and I can be crystal clear as to my expectations in my absence. This helps the substitute with classroom management and students have fewer questions about what to do.

Any other tips and tricks? How else can you use recordings in your class? I’d love to know. Please leave some ideas in the comments below.

Until next time…

Deconstructing the process of flipping

Yesterday I kept a running diary about the process I went through in flipping an entire unit (you can read that blog entry here). That process took a couple of hours and I still have another couple of hours of work left to do before putting a bow on that puppy. I then got to thinking, “If I’m new to flipping and I read that post I might be overwhelmed at ALL the work that’s involved, which may discourage me to try to flip.” That’s something I want to avoid. This ties into a Voxer flipped learning group I’m a member of, because someone asked about the process of flipping and how to start. That leads me to this post – the process of flipping one lesson.

The first part of flipping a lesson is to choose a topic where you are willing to give up control over the direct instruction. What is something that you’re OK with allowing your students to learn the information from a source other than you standing in front of the class? That is the lesson you want to flip. For me, my first ever flipped lesson was on editorial cartoons (I teach high school social studies). I didn’t need to be the one that taught my students about the components of editorial cartoons.

Step two is the video. If you’re starting, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. You don’t have to make your own videos. There are many sources with good videos. Sites like YouTube, Kahn Academy, and Ted Talks all have great videos. Find a video that is appropriate in content and length. A good rule of thumb is that the length of the video should not exceed the student’s grade level (ex. 8th grade = max 8:00 video). For my editorial cartoon unit I used a YouTube video.

Once you’ve chosen the video I would suggest coming up with a way to ensure student accountability for watching the video. For my class I enjoy using Ed Puzzle which allows you to embed questions for students to answer directly into any video. However, there’s no need for it to be that fancy. Have a bell-ringer that asks a few questions about the video. Create a brief quiz. Have them write a brief summary to submit the following day. It doesn’t matter how students are held accountable, but some sort of formative assessment drastically increases the viewer rate.

At this point you plan for the class activity. What will your students be doing now that they are not receiving direct instruction? Coming back to my editorial cartoon unit, I had my students look at editorial cartoons and identify how the artist used different techniques to share a message. The class activity is where the in-depth learning occurs. The class activity is where you shine. The class activity is why you wanted to be a teacher. Use that time to be that rockstar in the classroom.

When you’re ready to put it all together, assign the video for Monday’s homework and then Tuesday during class you engage in the awesome activity you planned. I hope this is less overwhelming and makes sense for those that are interested in flipping but are nervous to try. The process of flipping doesn’t have to be complex and it’s certainly worth the time and effort you put into it.

Until next time…