When I go to an educational conference, I'm a sucker for sessions that deal with fast-and-dirty, nuts-and-bolts tricks and techniques that I can use in the classroom. Discussions of Educational Philosophy are obviously important and sessions that focus on policy and The Big Picture certainly have their place, but the sessions that I've gotten the most lasting impact from have usually been ones where some veteran teacher has shared a really cool trick that I can adapt and use right away.

This past Spring, at the NELMS Annual Conference, I sat in on a session given by that morning's keynote speaker. She seemed funny and approachable and really, really smart - in other words, a good teacher - so I decided to risk some depth and meaning.

As it turns out, she was really good and made a lot of really good points, but what really got my attention was an example she gave of a project that she and a Health teacher had come up with for a 6th grade class. They were studying the circulatory system and as they wrapped up the unit, they had the students make t-shirts with the circulatory system drawn on it. Then on a given day, all the students wore their t-shirts and any adult in the building could stop them, point to something on their shirt and say, "Hey - what does that do?"

As soon I heard about this, a lightbulb went off in my head.

[Just a quick language question - why do we say a lightbulb went off IN our heads, when we mean OVER them, like in a cartoon? And, for that matter, why do we say they went OFF, when we mean ON? But I digress...]

Our 8th graders are proud of the amount they learn in their New York City project and would like to be able to show it off. This t-shirt idea seemed like a fun way for them to do that.

As soon as the session was over, I cornered Mrs. Faber and asked if she could spare me a moment to give me advice about how best to rip off her idea.

She was incredibly gracious and within a minute or two came up with some fantastic guidelines:

  • Since Geography is a big focus of this unit, have each student draw a map of Manhattan on the back of his or her t-shirt showing where the topic of their New York City project is located.
[Why on the back? To prevent 8th grade boys from poking the girls in the chest, obstensively asking questions about the map. Wow. This lady is good.]

  • On the front of the shirt, put the title of their project and a Top Five list of interesting facts about it.
  • On a given day, have all the students wear their shirts around school. Any adult in the building can stop them and ask them about their projects. If a student gives a good answer, the adult gives them a ticket. The student with the most tickets at the end of the day wins an Impressive Parting Gift. In the case of a tie, we could have a sudden-death Fact-Off to determine who knows the most about their topic.
So I tried it.

So far, it's been awesome.

Here's how it worked:
For the t-shirts themselves, I picked up some pocket-less men's undershirts from Walmart. I got mostly Large, with a few Medium and a few more Extra Large undershirts. I tried to mostly grab the packages with a bonus t-shirt in it.

57 t-shirts ran me about $96.

[I considered having each student bring in $2 to pay for their own shirts, but I knew what an exercise in frustration that would be, so I asked around and was able to find enough money in an account at school to re-imburse me.]

Because these t-shirts are only going to be worn for one day, I didn't go out of my way to get thick, high quality, durable shirts. For that matter, we didn't use long-lasting, color-fast dyes or ink to write on them; we used magic markers.

One thing I did ask students to bring in was empty cereal boxes.

In my mind, I saw students writing on these thin, white t-shirts with black magic markers and the ink bleeding through to the other side of the shirt. By putting a thin piece of cardboard - like a cereal box - inside the shirt while they draw, students could keep their work neater.

As it turns out, the students who are usually the least enthusiastic about getting homework turned in are the most enthusiastic about getting a homework grade for bringing in a cereal box.


Another really cool use for an empty cereal box:

Tape it to the wall, use your projector to shine a map onto it, trace and cut out the map and you've got a really good stencil of Manhattan for the back of the shirt.


For four classes of up to twenty students, I cut out about a dozen stencils. This turned out to be just about right. I made sure to mark the stencils to indicate which side goes up. It would be a pity to have them show off all their knowledge of Manhattan with the map backwards.

Before any student was given a t-shirt they had to fill out a worksheet showing what they were going to put on it. This was to prevent the inevitable, "Mr. Fladd, I messed up; I need another t-shirt!"

Another bonus is that it let me pre-emptively check their spelling.

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The students were great at figuring out the best way to write on their t-shirts. Within a matter of minutes, they discovered that it was easier to write on the fabric if the t-shirt was stretched tight (with the cereal box inside). The best way to do this was by taping it to a table or the floor with masking tape.

Most of the students ended up working in pairs - at least for the mapping part of the job. It takes two hands to hold the stencil flat and firm against the t-shirt. They discovered that the best marker to use for this part of the project was a standard Sharpie. Short strokes made smoother lines than long ones, which tended to pull the fabric into wrinkles.


Some of the students felt more comfortable working on the floor.


Once students had gotten their basic information down, they were allowed to decorate their shirts however they wanted.

[This girl had researched the 19th Century Irish streetgang, the Dead Rabits.]


The end results were pretty satisfying. The students were engaged. They demonstrated authentic learning and they had fun.


Mind you - at this point, we haven't actually gone through the question-answering process. I'll update you on how that goes next week.

Update (several days later):

Well, we've been through the question-answering process and it seems promising. The students were very motivated for most of the day and were really eager to pigeonhole adults and share information about their projects. Things got a little bit rocky at the end of the day, but with a few tweaks, the process should go much smoother next year.

Glitch #1 - Not Enough Adults To Go Around

Tucked away in our own corner of the school, the 8th graders did not get a chance to really show off their knowledge to new adults unfamiliar with their work. Next year, we should have some sort of reception and invite adults to come look at their projects and do the t-shirt questioning process then, as well as throughout the day.

Glitch #2 - A Few Students Gaming the System

A few of our students got together and pooled their tickets in an explicit attempt to "keep the smart kids from winning". This took a bit of the air out of the second half of the day. We should have anticipated this, but somehow, it slipped under our radar. (To be fair, I had never said that they couldn't do this.) A few of the students gave up at that point, realizing that they couldn't accumalate enough tickets to compete with The Pool.

Next year, even though it will mean more work for the adults, when an adult awards a ticket, we'll have them write the kid's name on the back of it in ink and initial it. Also, we'll award the grand prize based on the number of tickets, but then put all the other tickets into a hat and draw two other winners to keep students motivated.

Glitch #3 - Spoiler

Somehow, one of our students found out what the grand prize was and made sure that all the other students knew within a matter of minutes. This made the end of the day extremely anticlimactic and many of the students came out of the project feeling very dejected. I guess the only way to prevent that next year is to use air-tight security.

Overall Assessment of the T-Shirt Project:

Almost every new project or activity has rough spots the first time through. I think that this t-shirt activity has a lot of promise. We'll try it again next year and see how it goes.

Project Idea Grade - A Minus

Project Execution Grade - B Minus



I'm driving myself crazy. And to understand why, you have to know something about how I go about home-improvement projects:

[Please bear with me - this really is going somewhere.]

Before and during any new home-improvement project - putting up a fence, tiling a floor, ect... - I get totally obsessed. I think constantly about the step-by-step process of prepping the walls, digging post holes or taping off trim with blue painter's tape. I'll wake up out of a sound sleep, sit bolt-upright in bed and say, "Drop cloths! I need more drop cloths!"

(At which point, my wife will mutter something about having to work in the morning and roll over in a huff. She really should have thought things through more carefully before marrying me.)

I think the problem comes from the fact that almost everything I try is a bit of a fiasco the first time around. That's one thing when I'm trying a new recipe, but when we're talking about making some permenant change to the house we live in, I'm hesitant to inflict a botched job on my family. (Not to mention our poor house itself - hasn't it been through enough already?)

Now, take that attitude and translate it to the classroom. (Did you just shudder a little? I did.)

This past month, I tried a new project with my students. Because it is the first time I've ever done this project, I did not expect perfection, but things have... well, they haven't quite turned out... um,...

Okay, it seems that there's no delicate, understated, British-sounding way to put this - this project has bitten the big, rotten radish of sucky-ness and spit it out into the trashcan of dispair.

A little background:

This year's 8th Grade class is a particularly challenging one. Individually, they are great kids, but collectively, they are an insanely frustrating group of students. They generally don't listen, follow directions, meet deadlines or do any challenging work. Faced with bad grades in the face of lack of effort, a lot of them will shrug and say, "Whatever, Dude... I'll take the zero."

[Let me reiterate: Each of these students is a really great kid. It's easy to forget that when talking about their frustrating group dynamic. Each of them deserves quality teaching from me, no matter what that takes.]

So I've been working really hard to think outside of the box and come up with projects and activities that frame material in a non-traditional way. I want to engage them and get them to invest themselves in what we're doing in class. This latest project is my most recent stab at that.

We just wrapped up a multi-disciplinary unit with the topic of Cars. The thought was that this was something that would engage them - particularly the boys - and would lend itself to an interdisciplinary approach. I would cover the history of cars in America, my Math colleague would teach them about calculating interest rates, our Science teacher would work with them on calculating their carbon footprint and in Literacy, they would learn a bit about media literacy and how to read a commercial.

So far, so good.

In addition, the theme of the unit was Responsibility. In each class, we'd touch on how responsible behavior is totally tied up in every aspect of car use and ownership.

Again, sounds good.

The actual lessons in the unit worked out awfully well. I came up with a good PowerPoint to kick off the unit, then spent a couple of days teaching them about the impact of horse manure on American cities and how by 1920 or so, buying a car was seen as an incredibly responsible act - both socially and ecologically. (Nobody ever imagined what it would be like once we had 300 million of them on the road.) I had a load of horse manure delivered to the back parking lot at school, which we went out and inspected in WAY more detail than the students really wanted to. I brought in a large animal veterinarian with parasites in jars to talk about horse poop in detail and what the daily life of urban draft horses would have been like. I presented a couple of lessons on Henry Ford and how he changed Labor in America. We discussed the ways that cars changed society and how each of those changes brought its own load of responsibility with it.

At this point, I was feeling pretty good; in retrospect, probably over-confident.

For their final project for this unit in Social Studies, I showed the students a PowerPoint with stories from the StoryCorps project. Their assignment was to record a StoryCorps-style interview with an adult about a lesson in responsibility they had learned from driving or being in a car. I told them that their interviewee had to be at least 35 years old and I gave them bonus points if he or she was older than 65. The students were supposed to record the interview, edit the soundfile to about two minutes, save it in their folder on the school server and put together a one-slide PowerPoint presentation about who the person they'd interview was and what they had learned about Responsibility from the interview. (The idea being that I would combine them into one large presentation afterward.) I let students sign out MP3 players to record the interview and I gave them two days of class time with computers to do the work. At the end of that time, a lot of students said they needed more time, so I extended the deadline for another three days and made myself and the computers available after school.

The students wrote the rubric for this project down in class. The instructions for saving and naming their work were posted on the board and I went over the directions verbally at the beginning and end of each class period.

Almost none of the students followed the directions.

Pretty much all of them went out and got the interview. I thought that would be the hard part, but they were very excited about that. The problem was that they saved their work in folders on individual computers or in different folders on the server. They did not name their files the way I had asked them to. When they saved their soundfiles in Audacity, they "saved" them, instead of exporting them. (A natural mistake, but again, we went over this EVERY class!) Some of them didn't make a slide at all and the ones who did, did not follow the rubric that they had written down.

As a result - if I were to grade them today - almost half of my students have failed this project. In one of my classes, only ONE student followed directions!

So this is where I'm at right now:

I'm very frustrated and angry with myself. I had really high hopes for this project and it's really heartbreaking to see it fizzle out like this. Given how badly this group of students follow directions and follow through with things generally, giving them another extension to finish this project feels like coddling them, enabling their work-ethic issues and setting them up for failure next year in high school. It's very tempting to blame them for what's happened.

On the other hand, numbers don't lie. If the majority of students failed to follow directions, there has to have been something wrong with the directions. The fault has to lie largely with me. That's very frustrating. These guys really need me to come through for them - more than most classes - and I seem to have let them down.

So what to do...

Looking back on it, I realize that I probably should have given them a checklist with the project requirements on it to check off as they got to each stage of the project. I made one up for next year's group while this was all fresh in my mind, so, I think I'll give this group a copy of that checklist next Monday. I'll explain the situation and give them an additional two days to change file names, rewrite slides and save things to the correct folders, checking themselves off on the list as they go, then I'll grade the work on Wednesday.

So, I guess the lesson to take away from all this is...


Well, I think my inabillity to identify the lesson here is one of the reasons I find myself in this position to begin with.

Teaching is not for the weak, is it?

If you've read this far, you are a very kind and patient person. Thank you. If you have any comments or suggestions, I'd love to hear them. If you can identify the lesson I should be picking up here, I'd be doubly grateful. If you can think of a way to motivate and connect with these students, I'll make you any PowerPoint of your choice  - maybe for life!