Best Resources for Blended Learning!

Even old-school educators agree with the fact that technology has made immense contributions towards the evolution of our educational system. With the right tools and methods, students can achieve great success even in disciplines they used to struggle with. Blended learning can take many forms in the classroom, but one thing is certain: it helps students to study and deliver projects more efficiently.

The following online resources, listed in two categories, will help educators explore the opportunities of blended learning.

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Hidden Gems of ClassDojo — The SUPER-Dojo!

This is the first in a series of blog posts highlighting some of the hidden gems of ClassDojo that you may not have heard of.

Sometimes the brilliant behaviour that your students exhibit deserves something more than the 1-point-ping from ClassDojo. Sometimes the student is so good, you end up pressing that reward button several times. Sometimes you want to make a behaviour just a little bit more special and sometimes a 1 point reward just isn’t enough.

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Everyone wins when we are kind to substitutes! :)

I substituted for a year after I graduated from my teaching program, and it was the hardest thing I ever did. I was working in a district with 28 schools (my home district has 6) sprawled throughout eight cities. Everything was unpredictable. Most of the time, I had no idea where the school was, unless I had been there enough times to remember the side gate into the parking lot where I was not allowed to park. Sometimes, I got called to sub for the morning, then requested for an afternoon job at a school an hour away that started 45 minutes after the morning class ended, leaving me negative 15 minutes for lunch.

A sub’s life is frantic, so I implore teachers out there to be kind to subs, which basically means: Please leave instructions. Please. Subs want to be helpful (and sane). Having been in many classrooms where the kids had to teach me how to teach them, or I had to come up with my own lessons based on what the kids told me they were learning – here is, from a sub’s experience, how a teacher can get the most out of a substitute’s day’s work while keeping the sub sane:

1. Simplify. If there is something important or complex you were planning to teach on that day and you need to be out, don’t have us teach it, because the sub will not know what you want, and the kids will not get what you want out of it. There’s always the chance that you may get a fantastic master teacher who has taught this very lesson for 30 years (it could happen), but most likely not. Unless it’s absolutely necessary that the big lesson happens on that day, save it for when you can share it with the kids.

2. Bullet point. It’s much, much easier for a sub to read the lesson plan while teaching when it’s formatted vertically, versus giant paragraphs resembling a dissertation. We can easily check off what we’ve done and spot the next step.

3. Host. Have a conversation with the students the day before about expectations, being welcoming to a new person, and also appoint a few students who have shown responsibility during the week to be the sub’s helpers. This is also a good opportunity for students to try to earn this privilege, and it minimizes kids influencing each other to take advantage of the sub because there will always point people.

4. Routines. Tell the sub what the class’s routines and customs are, such as clapping 3 times to get their attention, or that everyone’s books need to be open to the right page before starting. This reduces chaos and gives the sub more authority in front of the kids.

5. Feedback. Leave a note at the end of the instructions asking the sub to write a few sentences of feedback about the day. I always did when I subbed anyway, pointing out the kids who showed exceptional effort and respect, and anything special that happened in the day. This way, you also get the sub’s name and can request him or her again if you feel it was a successful day. Good subs who know your class are hard to come by!

How to communicate more effectively with your students :)

Sometimes, students will resist because something is immoral or unethical. As a first year teacher, a student called me out for mocking a regional accent. I was defensive at first, but she was absolutely right.

But sometimes, students resist because that’s what they do.

In some cases (like class policies), as long as the policies are thoughtful, your best bet is to listen and then use some sort of formula like, “Unfortunately, a hall pass is not a choice. Please use it.”

In other cases, however, student resistance can undermine a learning goal: suddenly, you’re locked in a battle with a student about a concept that is not the point of a lesson.

Here are three classic examples of how to defuse student resistance. All three draw from a simple fable: a tree and a reed argue about their relative strength – but when the storm winds come, the stubborn, brittle tree is uprooted. The reed bends with the wind.

Pre-warning, affirming, joining – and redirecting:

The scenario: you are studying a story where a character exhibits behaviors, traits, or values the students will find objectionable, but it’s beyond the scope of that class to get distracted by those objections.

The solution: warn the students before they read that they will not like some of the things they see. Tell them that their objections are founded and justified. Join with them in agreeing that the behaviors are problematic.

Then, say, “However, we’re going to put those objections in the parking lot. We may get around to them. But we may not. Our goal is not going to be taking Character X to task for how he acts, which is pretty bad, we have to admit. But our goal in this particular class is to look at the circumstances that led him to those behaviors.”

If a student, mid-discussion objects to Character X’s behavior, reaffirm:

“Exactly, and that’s what I meant when I said that there were problematic things about that Character. I wish we had a whole class to dig into that, but I’m afraid it’s beyond the scope of this lesson. So, back we go to the historical circumstances.”

Set up the resistance as a straw-man and then “pretend” the best:

The scenario: a new policy in the school has raised student ire. You feel that students have complained enough about the unfairness of the new policy. You want them to reflect on the potential benefit of the new policy and not turn your allotted five minutes into more griping.

The solution: in your question or prompt, suggest exactly what the students are likely to have concluded, and then redirect:

“The new policy is either total hoo-hah, designed to put you into a prison for your minds, or perhaps it speaks to a conflict of two real values that we can probably agree are both important.  For the moment, let’s just pretend that the rule is not designed simply to take away your rights and make you miserable. What might have been the intent of the principle when she composed the new policy?”

Affirm frustration, relieve the student of needing to argue further, and offer a new option:

The scenario: a student has missed a deadline and has a lousy grade as a result. She has come to argue with you about the grade. You want her to stop fixating on the grade and think constructively about the future.

The solution: meet the student where she is, and paint the picture about what’s coming down the road.

You: Look, tell me if I’m not getting you. You felt like you put in a ton of work on this step of the project and the deadline ruined your grade, right?

Student: Right.

You: And it’s a bummer because why should the deadline affect the grade for the product, right?

Student: Right.

You: So look, on the one hand, I don’t expect you to agree with the late-policy of this class. That’s not your job as a student. You being upset about it makes total sense. If I were you, I’d probably be upset, too. But my job is to have policies that are fair and consistent. That’s what I’m expected to do as a teacher, and the policy can’t change. And we may not see eye to eye on that, and we’re going to need to be okay with that. But more importantly, my job is to help you move past this setback and plan for how the next phase of the project is going to well, and make sure it’s a huge success.

High-Expectations for 2015: Bring It.

I was at a frozen yogurt bar the other day, empty cup in hand, and I happened to see the sign “Teacher Appreciation Day: Free Yogurts of Any Size with ID Card.” Score! A free yogurt meant that I had nothing to lose if I didn’t order the usual. The possibilities swarmed me. I now had the opportunity to choose something I might not have otherwise bought. Which way was I going to go? Fruity? Chocolaty? No. BOTH. This was my chance–my opportunity to build something great. Unfortunately, with a line building up behind me, I rushed. I overdid it on the toppings, my layering was all wrong, and it wasn’t tasty. My expectations of a totally delicious fro-yo were soured by my lack of planning, the feeling of being rushed, and a little greed to want it all.

As teachers, we all have visions of high expectations for our students, but are we taking the time to think about what ingredients we should choose without overloading our students and ourselves with a sub-par flavor of success? Do we feel rushed by the new standards to make these students great? How can we take small, uncomplicated steps to create high-achieving students that surpass our expectations?

The answer isn’t all that simple, as any teacher might tell you, but here are some sure places to start setting and supporting high expectations.

1. Greet all students at the door with a handshake

Start this day one. You won’t know their names, and there may be a small build-up in the hallway, but don’t worry. Stand tall, smile, and shake every one of your students’ hands. Show them that this is the business of learning, and you’re serious about it. Once you start to know their names, include them in your daily greeting. Tell them they played a great game Friday night, you were impressed with their test score, they have cute shoes on. This is a time to set the tone as professional and welcoming, that it’s a safe place to push their thinking.

2. Use their time wisely, and tell them that’s what you’re doing.

Be as efficient as possible. How do you pass out papers? Create a system. How do you get into groups? Drill them and practice so its under 10 seconds (totally possible, with practice and a competitive vibe). How quickly do they start working? Put a warm-up, drill, or do-now on the board ,so they can begin as soon as they sit down. With all of these things, be sure to tell them that you’re not interested in wasting their time; you’ve got information that’s really important for them, and you won’t compromise that.

3. Pre-Assess before blindly teaching curriculum.

Pre-assessments allow me to see what to review and where to build. This is such a simple step of which many teachers don’t take advantage, and we can easily make the mistake of re-teaching information that students already learned. For example, I need to trust that the teachers before me taught the students how to use commas correctly, so I can build off of that knowledge. I don’t need to waste class time re-teaching commas usage unless my pre-assessment tells me it needs reviewing. Even then, it probably wouldn’t need to be a class-wide endeavour. A challenging curriculum shows the students you think they’re capable of it. When you repeat information, those that learned it have the chance to zone out.

4. Call on whomever you want whenever you want.

You are in charge of the class, and you need to check for understanding. The students need to know that they can be called on at any time. Some teachers use popsicle sticks with names written on them, some teachers just call, but the important thing is the element of surprise. They need to feel a little pressured to pay attention at all times. This may seem awkward at first, but the students will eventually get used to it.

Note- if you draw name sticks as a method, don’t put them in a discard pile. Put them back in with the rest. This avoids students being “off the hook” once they have answered, allowing them to get back to that doodle they started in health class.

5. Expect the right answer

Let’s say a student gives you an answer that’s perfectly wrong. My response used to be “Hm, Fiona, I see why you’re saying that, but you’re not quite there.” I didn’t want to hurt Fiona’s feelings. I have since learned, through using the above steps to create a safe place for my students to express their ideas, that wrong is wrong, and I don’t want to take the time to sugar-coat it. It’s not being mean; it’s saying “That’s incorrect. Can someone help Fiona?” Let someone help, and then have Fiona repeat the correct answer, so the last thing she remembers is being right (and hopefully the right answer!). This is faster than the other response and builds an atmosphere that it’s okay to be incorrect at first, but the student is eventually responsible for being right.

Take some time this summer to think about what steps you can take to make sure kids reach those high expectations you have for them. Then go reward yourself with a delicious frozen yogurt!

 

The Great Debate: Homework

Most parents will tell you that homework time is the most dreaded part of each day, and I think many students would agree. Although, there always seems to be one or two families who request more homework for their child. So how much homework is the right amount? The answer is not simple, and differs depending on what age range you are working with, but there is some pretty compelling research out there showing that homework may be a lot less necessary than we once thought.

The whole idea of ten minutes of work per grade level, meaning ten minutes of homework in kindergarten and fifty minutes in fifth grade, is such an arbitrary construct, it amazes me that schools still follow this model. I’ve also heard teachers claim that homework is necessary so that students can learn the study habits they will need for the higher grade levels and college. I kind of get this, but only if the homework is very purposeful and relevant. Giving kids an hour of tedious busy work will only make them hate school, and they probably won’t learn much. Lastly, the argument that skills taught in the classroom need to be reinforced outside of school always seems to come up when defending homework. Again, this makes some sense, but only if assignments are specifically targeted to a student’s specific needs.

So what is the best approach to homework? Well, it depends. Research states that homework does not have much of an impact on academic achievement until middle, or even high school, so teachers at these levels should be assigning something, but elementary teachers really don’t need to. The type of homework being assigned is critical. If you do not have the time to assign meaningful and relevant work, it’s better to not assign anything at all. Homework that is personalized based on a student’s specific needs, or interests can be a useful tool, but otherwise, I’d just say no to homework.

Time to mix it up: cross-collaborate with shared classes!

As a science teacher, I am always trying to find ways to cross-collaborate with other teachers  to make my curriculum more meaningful. During my physiology unit I tend to pair up with the P.E. teacher for a project. During physics I team up with the math teacher. Cross-collaboration allows students to see connections between subjects, making content richer and more relevant to their lives. However, it can be difficult to assess cross-collaborative projects when you don’t necessarily see how students are making use of their time in the other classes. The solution? ClassDojo Shared Classes!

Sharing classes on ClassDojo is very simple. On your home screen you will see each of your classes. In the top corner of each class you will want to click on a small triangle, which will open up a drop-down menu. Click “Share!” You’ve got it from there. Shared Classes allows multiple teachers to have access to one class, both contributing points to students and messaging with parents. You might implement shared classes year-round or if you are more hesitant, a cross-collaboration project is a great way to try it out for a shorter period of time.

When starting a project I like to make sure all points have been cleared, then I share the class with collaborating teacher. Customize feedback points depending on the type of project. I tend to give students points every day for “productivity” and “teamwork”, which are a certain percentage of their final project grade. Once the project comes to an end, points given in-class can be used as part of students’ final assessment. Sharing classes holds students accountable for their behavior and work ethic in all classes involved. Cross-collaborative projects are the perfect opportunity to take Shared Classes for a spin, and hopefully will lead to better teaching and learning!

Happy sharing! 🙂

Get the best out of your students with Literacy Task Lists!

Students working either independently or within a learning team have always been a large portion of my classroom environment. It frees me to work with small groups on skills or concepts that they may need a little more assistance in mastering. The majority of us call them ‘stations’ and have some type of management system to complete the stations. If managed efficiently, stations can be very valuable to the learning process.

During this past year, I changed from stations to a Literacy Tasks List. I felt I was limiting my students and myself with the structure of stations. In stations, students were moving from work area to work area every 10 or 15 minutes. I was always at a station in that procedure. Lastly, the idea of stations seemed very elementary. My students were one step away from middle school. Changes needed to be made.  I wanted to give my students a little more decision making ability, and I needed my groups to be flexible. I really didn’t need to work with ALL my students on something.

After a little research and planning, I created a Literacy Tasks List for students to use as a “To Do List”.  The tasks list included the weekly objectives, tasks that were required, and optional activities they could work on leisurely when they were done with all the required tasks. Each week or two, I would provide my students with a detailed overview of the tasks. Students would receive a copy of the Literacy Tasks List to check off the tasks as they completed them and use as a cover sheet for the required tasks.

With a few tweaks in the management, the Literacy Tasks List was the best change I made. My students loved the independence the list created for them. They had the ability to start on what they wanted. They also enjoyed being able to choose a partner or two, instead of being anchored to the students at their table.

With the tasks under way, I had the ability to call students to my table whenever I needed them. It could be just one or a small group of four. It enabled me to differentiate and really use the data I would receive from pretests to develop the use of the time I had. I found I could also take as much time as I needed with those groups.

My daily goal has always been to get the most and the best out of the time my students and I have in the hour we are together. If the management is in place, we have little to no distractions and we can get so much done. Changing to the Literacy Tasks List did just that. We were getting some really great discovery and growth. And that’s all a teacher can ask.

 

On the Right Track: A student engagement strategy!

A classroom where every student is hanging on your every word? Absolutely. Focused and learning every second? Without question. Even during whole group instruction? One hundred percent! Interested in what this level of student engagement looks and sounds like? Read on.

Students must be actively engaged for authentic learning to take place, and in a classroom where students track the teacher and each other, the level of student engagement is exceptionally high. What does tracking entail? Let’s explore.

Have you ever seen a primary student read using his or her finger to point at each word as it is read? We teach them to do that at a very young age – it’s called tracking. Tracking the teacher and one another in the classroom is much the same, except fingers are not pointed, eyes are following. Tracking others with our eyes and even our bodies shows focus, engagement, and respect for the speaker.

How do we track? When someone else is speaking, look at that person. Follow him or her with your eyes and your body. If he or she is walking across the room while speaking to you, turn your body to continue tracking him or her. Even lean in toward the speaker to show that you are paying attention and completely engaged.

Who should be tracked? Everyone in your classroom who speaks. Most importantly, students should be tracking the teacher. Any student, faculty member, or visitor in the classroom should also be tracked by teachers and students.

Who should be tracking? Everyone! Each person in your classroom should be tracking others when they speak. Teachers are most importantly the tracking role model! Students will take their cues from your tracking behavior, teachers, so track well if you expect your students to track others. Multi-tasking teachers, this means you! It is ok to multi-task and track at the same time, just make sure whatever you are doing with your hands can be done without looking if someone else is talking.

When should we track? All of the time! Students should be tracking the teacher from the first moment his or her mouth is opened. Students also need to be tracking each other when someone is speaking, whether it is their collaborative pair partner, a group member, or another student across the room during whole group instruction.

Why should we track? Tracking shows that we are aware of and focused on what is happening in the room. It demonstrates that we are listening and attentive to the speaker, and that we have respect for him or her. We track because it is an effective classroom technique that promotes and increases student engagement. We track because this level of focus and engagement inspires academic excellence.

Reward students for tracking appropriately. Give them candy, stickers, positive or reward points in your behavior management system. Rewarding students as a class encourages them to lead and prompt others in tracking, thus building community within your classroom environment.

Tracking is an excellent way for educators to increase student engagement and create a climate and culture that optimizes learning for all. Your students can be effortlessly engaged in instruction at all times when participating in this novel strategy. This ultimately leads to students who not only love coming to school and to your class, but also who are more successful, and perform better on multiple forms of assessments. What more could you ask for from a strategy that requires such little effort?

Encouraging Teamwork with Pooled Responses, Individual Assessments

Let’s say that you come up with a cool project for class.

Say: Design and build (using computer drafting programs or 3d craft and found materials) a monument to be placed in the Mall in Washington DC for something that has affected American society during your lifetime.

Let’s say you teach all the concepts of brainstorming and bouncing ideas around – planning, building, revising – getting feedback. The whole shebang.

Now what? You grade it with a rubric?

Sure. You can do that.

I have a better idea:

Have students link to their projects on a shared class document – either to a photo, a screenshot, or to whatever online link brings a visitor to the students’ work – along with a document providing a “tour” of their project, an explanation.

Next, assign an essay that requires students to explore a topic, where a component of the analysis requires them to review their classmates projects and, choosing 2-3:

A. Compare / contrast / critique various projects’ details, approach, and / or themes, statements

B. Riff off ideas begun by various projects

C. Suggest changes the artist could (hypothetically?) make to make a more effective piece – using the phrase: “If this was my project,” I would ______.

Additional Notes:

1. Students may analyze their own buildings; include a slightly adjusted set of prompts for this.

2. This allows even students who bomb the project to recover and learn from the unit.

3. Knowing that others students will see their work is an incentive to create a polished piece of work!