Enter to Win a $10 Teachers Pay Teachers Gift Card

TPT is having a big sale this week, and I have a promotional $10 gift card to give away!  Just fill out the contact form in this post (which will add you to my e-mail list), and I’ll enter you in my drawing!  (Don’t worry, I won’t share or sell your e-mail.)  The TPT sale takes place on February 14th and 15th.  I’ll draw from the entries by 3:00 p.m. EST on the 15th and e-mail you the gift card code if you’ve won!  Good luck!  While you are at it, check out my TPT store to see what you could get with that gift card!


Great Discussion Starter About the Cold War

If you have ever watched anything on Discovery or TLC or History Channel, at some point you’ve probably heard the fabulous voice of Mike Rowe. Among other projects, Mike has an awesome podcast called The Way I Heard It. He takes events or people that are well-known and adds a unique storytelling element to them that creates quite a bit of suspense. Most episodes are only about six minutes long, but they pack a powerful punch.

I was listening to one episode the other day, and I heard an amazingly interesting story that will definitely pique your students’ interest. You need to listen to “Episode 3: Clean Up on Aisle Four.” I don’t want to give away what or who the story is about, but this episode would be a GREAT little tidbit to add to your discussions somewhere in your unit about the Cold War. (I don’t want to get too specific or it might ruin the effect of the story.  Sorry!) If you want to skip the intro stuff, you can jump to the 40-second mark. The total story only lasts about four minutes, but that four minutes is enough to make an impact.  (The episode should be embedded below.)

Classroom Uses

  • This would be a great bell-ringer or discussion-starter to begin class.
  • You could have students listen to this and complete a free-write.
  • Use this to help your students develop better listening skills.
  • Have students complete Window Notes on the podcast to encourage students to actively listen and then process the info.  (Here’s an example of Window Notes that I used in an earlier post.  Essentially you have them divide their paper into 4 sections.  Each section deals with a reading passage or listening exercise from different learning perspectives/styles.  Can be formal or informal.)  With Window Notes, you may want to listen to the podcast twice.

Isn’t it a great story?!  If I come across any more episodes that I think would work in class, I’ll post more later!

Photo used in accordance with licensing from Clipart.com.

Assignment Ideas for the Week Before Christmas Break

You know it’s coming. That dreaded “week before Christmas break.” It’s a time when it’s every teacher for himself, and most educators believe that just for a few days, entire schools should be crop-dusted with ADHD meds.

What do you do? Half of your class has checked-out mentally and the other half have checked-out physically. If you are on a block schedule, then odds are that you have a few days sandwiched between end-of-course tests and Christmas break. If you only have a day or two, by all means, give your kids a break and watch a movie. You all deserve it. But don’t check out and just show something with zero educational value like Elf. Make sure it is a movie with historical content, and write a few class discussion questions on the board while you’re at it.

Sidenote: I recently was somewhat horrified to hear that some teachers the local area had students watch movies for the last TWO WEEKS of the semester because testing was over. I know that it’s hard to keep kids focused after testing, but if you automatically show movies to kill time you are telling your students several things:

  • School is about testing, not learning
  • Learning for learning’s sake is not valuable
  • It’s ok to take the easy way out

Movies in the classroom are ok as an occasional reward (be careful with this one) or to reinforce content, but they should NEVER take the place of instruction just because you don’t feel like teaching. Rant over.

What if your administrators won’t allow movies or you have more than just a day or two to kill? What then? Well, the thing to keep in mind is that you want assignments that meet the following criteria:

  • Creative (Kids are burned out from test or distracted by the coming break.)
  • Adaptable (Kids will be sporadically absent. Do something that can work with any subject matter and any amount of students.)

So just what can you do when things are crazy? Here are my assignment ideas to help get you through the pre-Christmas craziness. (Keep in mind that these can be used at the end of the year in May/June as well.)

  • Have students design a commemorative Christmas ornament about a historical figure. I just posted a very detailed version of this assignment on Teachers Pay Teachers. It will be free for a limited time. Get it while you can, and if you like it, please leave me a good review!
  • Put students in groups and have them act out historical events for the class to guess. (Each group must provide 3 clues within their skit and must give you a hard copy of the clues before they perform.)
  • Have students create a song in which they replace traditional Christmas lyrics with those about a historical event. Click here to download my stellar creation about Valley Forge called Deck the Tents…sure to be a blockbuster hit! 😉 If your students choose this option, take a picture of the lyrics and project them on the board. Have the class sing it together! Get into it and make it fun and silly.
  • Have student write poetry, create raps, or make acrostic poems about historical figures.
  • Have students plan a very brief presentation answering one of the following questions: What historical figure (that we have studied) would you like to meet and why? What historical event (that we have studied) would you like to have witnessed and why? Students should give 3-5 solid reasons for their feelings. Require students to make a bulleted list that they must eventually turn in to you, which will help them solidify/organize their thoughts. (You could make them write an essay, but the whole point of these activities is that they are low-stress for students. If you think your kids can handle it, go for it.) Then have students get in small groups and share their presentations.

The common thing about all of these activities is that they can be adapted to almost any subject, they allow kids to get creative, and they require very little planning on your part!

Good luck! You’re almost there!

*Image copyrighted and used in accordance with license agreement at Canstockphoto.com

Eli Whitney Videos and Cotton Gin Craft

Eli Whitney.  You’ve all heard of him.  You know, he’s that guy that indirectly led to an increase in slavery and all of that horrible stuff.  He was just trying to help make life easier (and make a little cash in the process), but his ideas made a HUGE impact on America.

I taught a lesson on Eli Whitney this week.  In my opinion, you need to make sure your students know 2 things about Eli Whitney:

1- He invented the cotton gin

2- He came up with the idea of using interchangeable parts in manufacturing

It can be hard to visualize how the cotton gin works without seeing one (or at least a diagram of one).  I found the BEST video I have ever seen showing the operation of a cotton gin.  Now granted, this video is in black and white and is probably older than me, but there is no better video that I have found which has clear shots of the teeth in the wheels.  When you show this to your students, just let them know ahead of time that it is an older black and white video and that there is a cheesy guy in a wig pretending to be Eli Whitney.

(Side note:  I have often found that students tend to dismiss something they see as old or in black and white IF they haven’t been prepped for it.  Before I show an older video, I always explain that the video explains or illustrates something so much better than other videos that it still has relevance and is worth showing.  Once I acknowledge any obviously cheesy moments or outdated phrases or clothing, it takes away much of the novelty of it, and the students can move past it and just absorb what the video is showing.)


Another “decent” video (although NOT the History Channel’s best production) is this one.  You may want to use this in between your discussion of the cotton gin and interchangeable parts.

Now, here’s what I’m REALLY proud of!  I decided that I wanted to have my students make some kind of crafty-type thing to help them remember how the cotton gin worked.  So I enlarged and printed the picture below on cardstock (you could use regular paper too if you had to).

I then gave my students some glue, cotton balls, and unpopped popcorn kernels (to represent cotton seeds).  They had to glue the stuff on the diagram in such a way as to represent what the cotton gin did.  Use liquid glue if you do this.  None of this will stick if you use a glue stick.  Also, tell your students to tear apart the cotton balls into smaller chunks.  The balls will last longer, and it just looks better.


Now, this will seriously take less than 5 minutes, so why should you do it?  Because sometimes your students need to do something hands-on.  Because sometimes your students need to do something other than take notes.  Because sometimes you need to do something different.  And if you think this craft may be too “childish” for your kids, I think you underestimate how refreshing a change of pace is when you are sitting in class and listening to people talk all day long.  Did I mention that it would be GREAT reinforcement for tactile learners…or really anyone?

If this idea is too simple for your “high-minded classroom ways,” (haha) try this:  Divide your students into small groups and give them a poster board, cotton balls, popcorn, and glue and say…”Make me a diagram of a cotton gin.” or “Make a poster demonstrating how a cotton gin works.”

Before you get your students pasting and crafting, you need to reinforce the impact of the cotton gin.  It is pointless for your students to know how the cotton gin works if they don’t know the impact it had on the South (and really the world).  I used a table to show the students the difference the cotton gin made.  Have them cut out each box and put it in the correct spot in the chart.  (See link at the bottom of the article.)

One thing that you need to discuss when covering the effects of the cotton gin is the positive and negative effects of the invention.  Have a brief discussion about the good and bad that has resulted from various inventions (start off discussing the cell phone).  Have students do some deep thinking about consequences and cause and effect (maybe a short free-write).  Many people talk about the fact that the cotton gin led to an increase in slavery but often overlook the fact that the cotton gin also provided a way for poor farmers living in the South (who didn’t own slaves) to better support their family.  Also, cotton provided the raw materials necessary for textile mills to expand which provided more jobs.

Once you cover the cotton gin and move on to interchangeable parts, there’s more fun stuff to do.  After explaining interchangeable parts and their importance, may sure you show them that they are surrounded by hundreds of examples of them.  You can use your board markers as a handy example.  If you lose the top to one, you can replace it with another.

Have your students go on a scavenger hunt around the room for examples of interchangeable parts.  You can divide them into groups and have them race.  Whoever gets done first is the winner and gets candy or extra points on a quiz.  I would make them find about 30 different examples within the classroom.  Or, you could also set a timer and see which group can come up with the most examples of items with interchangeable parts in the time allotted.  Pretty much anything with a screw has interchangeable parts.  In fact, a screw is an interchangeable part!  Students are probably wearing examples of items with interchangeable parts as well:  watches, zippers, buttons, earrings, etc.

A word of warning, apparently there is a theory out there called the Mandela effect, where a group of people collectively remembers something wrong.  There’s a bunch of articles devoted to this.  Well, some crazy people claim that Eli Whitney was black and that he invented the cotton gin to reduce the work of slaves.  It’s a crazy Internet theory with no reliable evidence, but there’s always that ONE kid in class who’s read stuff like that and brings it up.  Haha!  The point is, the cotton gin changed the course of American history, regardless of the physical characteristics of the inventor!

Here’s a link to my cotton gin table.  It’s pretty simple.  You can add more stuff to it if you would like (specific statistics about cotton production and slavery).  The fonts may look weird if you don’t have them on your computer.


Featured image courtesy of Dsdugan – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58026846

Biography Book Cover Assignment

If a book was written about your life what would it look like? What picture would be on the cover? What tag line would be used? What would the summary on the back say?

While working on my lesson for Benjamin Franklin, I decided to have my students create a book cover for a biography about him. This would be a great idea to use with any historical figure that you wanted your students to know a lot about.


You could use this book cover idea to reinforce the importance of people such as:
  • Christopher Columbus
  • George Washington
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Andrew Jackson
  • Civil War generals
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Teddy Roosevelt
  • Franklin Roosevelt
  • Dwight Eisenhower
  • Martin Luther King, Jr.
My students have to include the following things:
  • A catchy title that reflects the life of the person
  • A picture that represents that person’s life
  • A tag line under the title that gives a little more information (A phrase or one-line summary of this person)
  • A paragraph on the back of the book that gives a summary of the book, which includes some details of this person’s life/interests/importance.  (You may want to give a specific number of details required if you think your students might skimp on the information.)
  • You could also include an optional book endorsement quote by someone who would have known the person. (If the book was about Ben Franklin, you could have something like this… “A great book about a great man.” – Thomas Jefferson)
I whipped up a quick book cover template that I thought I’d share with you.  It would be a good idea to also show your students several copies of real book covers, so they get an idea of what you want.  (Just run down to the media center before class and grab a few.)
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