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Stack the Deck for Student Success: A Culture of Speed Stacking in the Classroom

The Origin Story

One day, a number of years ago, i discovered an individual set of Speed Stacks in my staffroom.  They had been delivered for promotional purposes, but, at the time, no one really knew what they were for or the potential they held.  They were a set of twelve cups and an instructional DVD that I began to play around with.  Speed Stacks are specialized cups that are stacked in particular sequences.  Participants learn the various formations and patterns and then strive to complete them as quickly as possible.

Quite fascinated by the cups, and how quickly I could master the steps, I took the set into my Grade 6/7 classroom and demonstrated Speed Stacking.  Students, particularly the boys, were eager to get their hands on the cups and to see who could stack the fastest.  I was able to introduce the sport with that single set, and generate a lot of interest.  Shortly thereafter, I discovered that class sets were available through our District Learning Resource Centre.   I quickly signed out the Sport Stacking set, used the instructional video to help students learn the various routines, and a whole new culture of daily physical activity was born.

Maximizing Daily Physical Activity

I was fortunate to have a principal that recognized the merits of Speed Stacking and was quick to approve the purchase of our own school set of Sport Stacks. The Sport Stacking Kit, containing 30 sets of cups, as well as some additional specialized cups, timer, and stacking mat, cost approximately $500.  You can even arrange to borrow a set to determine student interest and try out a Sport Stacking program before investing  in a kit.

Being in a large school with limited access to scheduled gym periods, Speed Stacking was an option to help integrate daily physical activity into my routine in a way that was engaging to students and offered enough challenge to maintain their attention.  You’d be surprised how much physical exertion can be expended with a simple set of 12 cups and a highly motivated mindset to achieve a personal best.   Once students were familiar with the stacking patterns, it was easy to insert a 15 minute stacking opportunity into virtually every day.  If I didn’t have stacking on the agenda, I’d often have students requesting the opportunity.  Some of my most difficult students, and many of the students with behaviour issues were the ones most adamant that we stack.  Stacking activities are very versatile, and can range from individual challenges, pair activities, and team relays.  The Instructors link on the website speedstacks.com will allow you to find resources with a variety of program options, activities and instructional videos.  You can even access a complimentary set for your classroom if you aren’t able to commit to a larger purchase.

Competition vs. Personal Best

Being in an elementary school environment, the word “competition” tends to have a negative connotation and I’ve certainly engaged in lengthy conversations about the value of competition (or lack thereof).  There are certainly situations where competition is unhealthy and destructive, but I would contend that the kind of competition that gets emphasized during Speed Stacking is more in the vein of achieving one’s Personal Best than it is about beating others.  Certainly, there is the thrill of being the individual who can stack the fastest, but you’d be surprised how often the “champion” has been one of the quieter, modest students who surprised everyone, and ended up earning the admiration of some of the more typical “cocky champions.”  It can be a very humbling experience for students, because it’s the focussed, determined student who practices regularly that is often triumphant.  Speed Stacking does require a level of commitment and focus to really successfully master it and end up with impressive times.

Guinness Book of World Records – Stack Up Day / Fostering Student Leadership

In the past several years we have participated in the Guinness Book of World Records – WSSA Stack Up Day.  It is a day, coordinated by the World Sport Stacking Association (WSSA) whereby participants around the world attempt to break the existing World Record for the “Most People Sport Stacking at Multiple Locations in One Day.”  It is an exciting and fun opportunity to practice and share Speed Stacking skills.  Typically, I have had my students become “experts” in a variety of skills, we close off the gym for a day, and they supervise 7 or 8 stations that other participating classes rotate through.  Participants simply have to commit to stacking for a 30 minute period.  

My students regularly buddy up with other classes within the school before the event and do some pre-teaching of the stacking skills.  Even classes who’ve never touched cups are able to participate in the event.  We deconstruct the process and talk about methods that make for good teaching or coaching.  It’s incredibly endearing to watch these Grade 6/7 students take pride in their skills and then to patiently teach younger students to stack.  I’ve watch some of the most challenging boys I’ve ever taught nurture their young buddies, even on occasion sitting behind them, and guiding their hands into the proper positions.  If you are reading this and are in a position to participate in the Stack Up day, I would encourage you to register.  If you are looking to host a similar format of a stations approach, feel free to get in touch and I can forward you with some additional suggestions about setting up and preparing for the day.

Stacks as a Management Strategy

On occasion, I’ve used the cups as a management strategy for students with challenging behaviours.  Ultimately, for students to have the ideal opportunity to participate in stacking and to have the most flexibility for stacking formations, they need to have 12 cups.  With fewer cups, there are still stacking options and they are still able to practice, but they are unable to complete what is referred to as “The Cycle,” a key sequence in Sport Stacking.

During class, students keep a stack of 12 cups on their desks.  When problems occur, they are asked to return a cup.  The key aspect of the management strategy though is that when students are meeting expectations and demonstrating cooperation, they can earn the cups back.  I even allow them to earn extra cups to create a buffer for their impulsive behaviour.  It becomes a very visual strategy to monitor behaviour with logical consequences if they “lose” all of their cups.  Under ideal circumstances, they earn back all the cups and can fully participate in an activity they tend to be motivated to engage in.  Fortunately, to date, I’ve never had a student have to surrender all of their cups, and be entirely unable to participate.

The rewards of bringing Speed Stacking into my classroom over the years have been numerous.  Hopefully, this post has been of some use to you, and has sparked an interest in exploring Speed Stacks with your students.

Have a productive year and happy stacking!

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Seeking Ideal Students for Year Long Positions: Start Immediately – Student Classified Ads / Job Postings

And so it begins…

Another year is under way.  It’ll be another week before classes are settled in our school, and so we engage in planning and activities to reconnect with former students and to learn a bit about new students.  Having students create a classified ad / job posting for the sort of teacher they would like to “hire” is a quick activity that can be done with little preparation and results in some rather humourous responses (and sometimes less than subtle student requests for their preferred teacher).

I typically engage students in a brainstorm, asking them to list 1) words that describe them, 2) things they like, and 3) things which are important to them.  Words that describe them can range from physical descriptions (height, hair colour, eye colour…) to words that describe aspects of their personality (responsible, athletic, opinionated…).  Things they like can include hobbies, activities, favourite foods, genres of books, and essentially anything they deem worthy of mentioning.  Things which are important to them can include traits they appreciate in others, preferences for how things are arranged, and strong opinions about topics that matter to them.

Once they have generated several examples in each dimension, I share with them the example of my posting for the type of students I would like to fill my class with – Seeking Ideal Students for Year Long Positions: Start Immediately.  We isolate some  examples of the aforementioned brainstorm categories, and students are provided with the instructions and the example to use as a model to create their own examples.  Completed examples make for a great beginning of year bulletin board and outstanding examples are fun to include in newsletters to the school community or on school websites.

The text is provided here for your reading pleasure as well as a word document at the end of this post, so you can edit and adjust for your scenario.  I’ve done this activity with positive results in classes with students from Grade 4 – 7.

Best wishes for a rewarding and productive school year.

Student Classified Ad / Job Posting

Draft a classified ad, advertising the kind of teacher you are seeking for this school year. You need to identify a number of things about yourself in order to make potential candidates willing to apply. Use the list of words that describe you, things you like, and things which are important to you to make your sentences.

  • Give lots of interesting details about yourself
  • What types of things do you do well?
  • Are there things you have difficulty with that applicants should be aware of?
  • Talk about the things you are willing to do to make this a successful year
  • Talk about the things you hope to accomplish or participate in this year
  • Describe precisely what kind of teacher will make this a rewarding year for you
  • What kinds of things could this teacher do to make your year memorable

Seeking Ideal Students for Year Long Positions: Start Immediately

Energetic, adventurous teacher with great sense of humour seeks ambitious, enthusiastic students with positive attitudes. I am entering the twenty-first year of my teaching career. I’m 5’10, have dark hair, and blue eyes. I have a variety of interests and try to keep physically active. I enjoy escaping to a local mountain for a day of snowboarding fun. I enjoy soccer, kayaking, cycling, swimming, and camping. One of my favourite things about camping is telling stories around the campfire. I like to laugh often and try to make other people laugh by sharing funny stories.

My favourite subjects are writing and P.E. I like to do jigsaw puzzles and love to colour, design, and create. I prefer action or suspense movies. I enjoy working with kids, traveling, and the company of my cats. I’m a vegetarian who is very selective about the foods I eat (and I don’t like different foods to touch each other on the plate).

I’m looking for a number of students who will treat each other (and me) with respect, who will strive to achieve great things, and who like to laugh. I’m willing to work hard and to make learning enjoyable for open-minded, playful students interested in learning new things, and in working cooperatively to solve problems. I don’t expect perfection, but I do expect the best effort you are capable of. I’m willing to coordinate memorable field trips and to plan exciting lessons about interesting topics.

I have plenty of energy and patience for students who ask for help. I hope to set a good example and I expect to learn as much from you as you learn from me in this coming year. I hope to inspire students to achieve and find success in the classroom and beyond. If you are the kind of student looking for a challenging, fun-filled year, who likes surprises, and can take a joke, please forward your application to Mr. Gidinski at Chaffey-Burke Elementary School. Deadline to apply: Thursday, Sept 10.

Student Classified Ad

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Self-Reflection for Reporting

As I take a break from drafting report cards, I’m relieved that I had students do this linked activity.  It has become a bit of a fascinating process whereby I continue to learn about how students see themselves in relation to reporting.

I did this with my class of Grade 6/7 students and in about 2/3 of the cases, I could use their self-reflective paragraphs, written in third person, as my final term report card comments.  In the remaining cases, it leaves me with pieces that inform my drafting of their reports.  This process has provided me with some relevant information about areas they might have experienced growth in that maybe I hadn’t had the chance to observe and with some descriptors of the types of students they view themselves as that I may not have considered.  It is allowing me to incorporate some of their own sense of achievement during the year (or in the final term) into their report cards, honouring their perceptions of their own growth.

Students were asked to be sincere, honest, and critical in the brainstorming responses and then write a genuinely accurate paragraph depicting what a report card paragraph would look like.  They were permitted to embellish and exaggerate for the “worst case scenario.”

The most fascinating response was a student who wrote a version of his report card paragraph that might be best described as “wishful thinking” or, in another way as “delusional.”  However, he wrote a very critical and precise “worst case scenario” in which he critically identified some of his shortcomings.

His paragraph he would “like to see on his report card”

“Simon” is a well-organized, and hardworking kid who takes precise notes to record all work done in class.  He is friendly and helpful to his classmates which helps build his leadership and communication skills.  He participates actively in class discussions which improves his confidence.  When he is part of group projects, others look to him for guidance.  He is patient when listening to everyone’s point of view.  He volunteers for a lot of school projects and extracurricular activities.  He is a genuine, warm-hearted kid who loves to help people wherever he can.  His work displays an effort to learn and improve.

I could easily refute most of these comments with direct quotes from anecdotal comments I’ve collected throughout the year.

His worst case scenario report:

While “Simon” is a hardworking kid, his grades fail to portray this fact.  I find that he doesn’t ask enough questions in class to clarify what needs to be done on his assignments which leads to him getting a poor grade.  I also find that “Simon” fails to think critically in his assignments and does not explain his points.  I cannot understand them accurately.  He also needs to improve his grammar skills.  His work often comprises of run on sentences.  If he wishes to achieve a better grade, he will have to improve on all of these things.

I had to laugh at the accuracy and candidness of this passage, which is a much truer depiction of the student behaviours and tendencies I have observed, some of which we have conferenced about.  Overall….fascinating sense of himself as a student.

Student Evaluation Reports Grade 7 2012

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The Synonym Continuum – A Vocabulary Building Activity

Looking for an activity to fill those last few hours of classroom time?  Perhaps you’re looking for something for the beginning of the year.  I like to use this as a vocabulary building strategy.  It’s an activity that I refer to as The Synonym Continuum.  It’s a list of synonyms for “big” and “small.”  Students are asked to sequence them in order from the “smallest of the small” to the “biggest of the big.”  It is intended to be an activity where they are actively looking up and confirming definitions for the words in order to compare their size, rather than just guessing at the order.

One of my biggest frustrations with students using a thesaurus is that they tend to substitute a word they find without necessarily being aware of the connotation of the word they select.  When I teach students to use a thesaurus, I typically teach them to use it simultaneously with a dictionary, so that they can be sure that they understand the word they are substituting and that it properly fits the context into which they are inserting it.

The answer key that is provided in intended to be a reasonable but not definitive answer key.  Definitions are included, but many of the words will have a range within which they fit, based on how their definitions are interpreted.  Some definitions help to clearly position some as smaller or larger than others, while some remain a bit vague.  Hopefully, your students will find this a relevant and meaningful activity and it will help them add some variety and sophistication to their descriptive writing.

The Synonym Continuum

The Synonym Continuum Answer Key

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Boys Will Be Boys: Slide show to accompany key note address, February 27, 2015, Fort Nelson

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If only I had something profound to say…

IMG_0295I’ve been putting off doing this for a while now.  There have been plenty of excuses, lots of distractions, and a fair bit of procrastination in the meantime.  There are a few things that have brought my attention back to this site, and particularly to the idea of blogging.  One is that I’ve been really enjoying some of the writing products that have come out of the classroom activities we’ve been doing lately.  (I teach a Grade 6/7 class this year – 18 boys, 10 girls).  Another is the excitement building as I collaborate with a group of colleagues over upcoming Family Literacy Day celebrations we’re planning.  And thirdly, I have a few speaking engagements on the horizon that I’m revising content for in anticipation of the conferences I will be attending in the next few months.

I wanted to start off the blog with some profound declarations that would change the way people thought about writing instruction and about teaching boys.  Every time I try to come up with something  profound, I draw a blank.  So I’ve abandoned that idea and decided that I’d just start the blog, see if there’s an audience for it, and follow where it leads me.  If you’ve read this far, I hope you will consider joining the adventure and contribute to the conversation.

I remember when I first started preparing to present my “Show! Don’t Tell” workshop, a workshop that has consistently gotten positive feedback and is really the foundation for all the writing workshops that I present.  I remember the nervousness as I tried to determine what to include and how to address my audience.  I worried that people would resent me for “telling them what to do.”  It was early in my career, and I figured that more experienced teachers would reject and criticize my “unseasoned” advice.  It wasn’t until I changed my thinking and decided that it wasn’t about giving advice, but rather about sharing the experiences I’d had and demonstrating the results that I had got with my students, that I could feel comfortable stepping into my role as a presenter.  I will attempt to follow that philosophy as I share things here in this space. The intention is that it will be a place to share experiences (some of the triumphant ones as well as the frustrations).  I’ll try to refer you to some of the resources that I have found influential (both in my curricular teaching and in meeting the needs of boys in today’s classrooms).  I’ll try to make this a forum where people can question, share stories, collaborate, and commiserate over the challenges and celebrations that go along with this multifaceted job of being an educator.

I provide the following for your consideration.  It stems from a community night that we hosted at our school.  We invited parents to come (with their students) and participate in what we referred to as a writing event.  In conjunction with our school goals, we thought it was helpful to provide parents with some context and additional understandings about the kind of writing we were asking students to do in classrooms throughout the school.  We felt it would be valuable in engaging parents as partners if we could establish some key understandings about writing.  The following is what we hoped would set the context for conversations about writing.

Setting the Stage for Conversations With Your Child About Writing

Engaging in conversations with your children about writing has the potential to profoundly influence their attitudes about writing and help them to develop their skills. Giving some specific and supportive feedback to a piece of writing can help them develop a willingness to revise and revisit what they have drafted and to participate meaningfully in the writing process.

Here are some things that we know about writing:

1) If you can talk about it, you can write it.

An important part of the writing process is the pre-writing process. Having your child talk about the topics they plan to write about helps to give them a foundation. If they have already thought about the topic, they are better able to transfer the ideas from “inside their heads” onto paper or into a computer. Asking specific questions can help them recall or invent details to make the writing more detailed and descriptive. Conversations, webs, or brainstorms can help a writer select a worthy topic to write about. Students who have difficulty writing can sketch pictures or storyboards of what they want to write about which can give them the foundation to then develop the description and action to enable them to write.

2) Writing is a very complex task.

Writing is probably one of the most complicated, multi-tasking activities we ask children to do. It requires a writer to invent, process and organize thoughts inside his or her head, to transfer ideas on to paper, to recognize and apply proper spelling rules, to use proper punctuation and grammatical structures, to draft, organize and sequence information in text, and to be aware of the purpose and audience of the piece of writing they are drafting. Having children focus on one particular aspect (or a small, manageable set of aspects) allows them to really develop that particular skill without the task feeling overwhelming. This allows them to experience success in increments and, as they master some of the skills, they are better able to perform the necessary steps to complete powerful, informative pieces of text.

 3) Writing is a process.

One of the scariest objects for a writer is the blank page. It is important for students to be aware that getting content down is the key to developing a meaningful piece of writing. It is important to get ideas down. They can be extended, elaborated, reorganized, re-sequenced, re-invented later. Though spelling and punctuation are important, the emphasis on proper spelling and grammar shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with the process of outputting material and creating a draft that can be revisited. Typically, authors spend more time on pre-writing strategies or activities (i.e. planning what they will write about or developing an outline), and re-writing activities (editing, revising, proof-reading, checking for clarity) than in the actual writing of a piece.

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Welcome

Just getting started can be a challenge….

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