March 31

Pare Down Info Overload with 10×10

Aren’t we always looking for something new and fresh to inspire us and our students?  In today’s world of information overload, it might be easy to get lost at times.  While in a professional development session with a group of middle and high school teachers last week, we utilized Discovery Education,  netTrekker, and TEL  as search tools to gather resources as we planned future lessons.

I offer up a big shout-out to Kelly at Independence High School who was using netTrekker in her discovery and shared something new to me.  I liked it so much I want to share it here because I think 10×10 could be a wonderful resource for teachers in multiple disciplines.  It is described as “100 Words and Pictures that Define the Time” and truly it is.

Every hour 10×10 scans RSS feeds of news sources and stirs it up in a pot of weighted linguistic analysis to determine the hour’s most important words.  The top 100 words are chosen along with corresponding images and posted to the site.  At the end of each day, month, and year there is a look back to conclude the top 100 for the given time period.  So, a constantly evolving record of our world is formed.  Users can zoom images or click on headlines behind the chosen word.  The site also offers users a chance to move through adjacent hours or back into history.

There are no human editors and no regulations.  So, it is described as “open and free, raw and fresh, and consequently a unique way of following world events.”  It truly can be a snapshot of our world taken at any given hour.  It provides an interesting observation of the way we live by recording words and images that capture the moment and assembles a patchwork quilt without bias of any kind.

I think it would provide wonderful writing inspiration, relevant discussion focus for social studies, hot topics for developing hypotheses in science, and real-world math examples.  So, don’t get lost in information overload.  Allow 10×10 to guide you to a snapshot of what is happening at any given moment of time.

March 28

A Letter to Me

I recently worked with a teacher who was writing a lesson plan to teach students how to write and format a formal letter.  Is letter writing going to be one of those lost arts someday soon?  I can recall getting letters from my great aunt who lived in Mobile, AL.  We always looked forward to those letters showing up in our mailbox because it made us feel special to get something written just to us – a personal connection to the outside world.  I remember my mother teaching us to write letters back to that aunt and how mine would have multiple erasures and sometimes I just had to start all over because my penmanship was so poor.

After I entered the business of education many years later, I worked with students who were writing letters to prospective colleges or employers.  I was so thankful for word processors that made the daunting task of writing something impressive to such an important audience much easier for my students.  There was no more erasure marks or starting all over.  We could just cut and paste and type and delete and even run a spell-check.  Whew!  That alone made the job much easier.

A few years ago, I was the English/Language Arts/Reading teacher for seventh and eighth grade students.  Some of my assignments were to have students write letters of recommendation for their peers or letters to prospective employers or literature letters about their outside reading book.   The first assignment I would make on the first day of school was a letter writing assignment.  I asked students to write to me to tell me what I needed to know about them in order to be the best teacher for them.  I had some suggested topics to include in my instructions and sometimes students would utilize that like a checklist and I got loads of information and great introductions to my new students straight from their own written voice.  My favorite letter-writing assignment was at the end of the year when I had students write letters to next year’s students giving advice on how to succeed in my class.  Those certainly did provide insight to my teaching and classroom management!

On the way to my first school this morning I had the radio on in hopes of hearing the traffic report.  Following the information I needed, a song came on entitled Letter to Me sung and written by Brad Paisley.  (You can find the lyrics HERE.)  This song hit home to me because one of the teachers I work with at a local high school recently mentioned that she was digging out letters her senior students had written as freshmen to send back to them just before graduation this spring.  So, she had taken Paisley’s idea and put her own spin on it.

I recently ran across an article which could have Paisley’s song playing in the background as theme music with just a minute exception.  The letters were written by prisoners.  The article is entitled See What Advice Convicts Offer Their Younger Selves In A Striking Photo Series.  I think this article would be a wonderful piece to add to a text set along with a short story such as “The Bet” by Anton Chekov or with an author study of O. Henry or maybe even within a career planning unit.  The article is eye-opening and made this educator stop and think.  I know none of my students ever anticipated going to prison.  I doubt any student ever would.  Yet, these retrospective letters are truly “tales of cause and effect–that will really make you stop and think,” just as author, Joe Berkowitz, states.  The images which showcase the letters written by the prisoners are haunting and poignant while infusing a human element into their message.  These are guys who once were just like everybody else until ‘incremental decisions’ were made which changed their lives.

The author of the article and I think these images and letters are powerful and I believe they would certainly provoke thought for secondary students.  They will make readers stop and think and perhaps they might be impactful so that students will make better incremental decisions in the future.

Stop and think about it.  What might you write, if like Brad Paisley says, “If I could write a letter to me and send it back in time…”

March 27

Get Organized!

It’s that time of year – the time to get our act together and get organized!  Try using graphic organizers to help your students get a visual picture of their own learning.

A graphic organizer is a visual and graphic display that shows the relationship of two or more facts, terms, or ideas.  They can be a powerful visual picture of information.  This picture allows the audience to see relationships and undiscovered patterns.  We use them every day – a calendar, a clock face, a road sign, etc. all qualify as graphic organizers.

There are lots of different names to identify these concept maps/displays.  Some references include concept maps, story boards, advanced organizers, concept diagrams, etc.  No matter what you call them, research shows that graphic organizers have been shown as effective in supporting learning outcomes.  There is more research to support their use in reading and writing than any other content area.  However, there is also evidence that graphic organizers are effective in supporting science, social studies, English-Language-Arts, math, and related arts as well.

A more in-depth definition with descriptions of different types of graphic organizers can be found in an article posted by the National Center on Accessible Instructional Materials.  Until recently, we were bound by pencil and paper to create effective graphic organizers.  Software programs and online sites have been developed which provide us with an electronic option for easing designing and rearranging and eliminate the cumbersome nature.  Now, we can cut, clip, move, and paste information with great ease in an electronic platform.

Vermillion Parish, Louisiana has compiled a handy list of graphic organizers which includes both paper/pencil and electronic interactive options.  They also have suggestions and ideas on their 18 Literacy Strategies.  There are links to Interactive and Online Technology Tools as well.  Another resource with lots of ideas from which you can borrow is Graphic Org.

Get your students to gather, sift, sort, and share ideas.  After all, can you name any time of year when students (or any of us) don’t need to be organized?

March 26

PBL: Driving Questions

In a previous post called What Is Project Based Learning and Why Should We Embrace It?  we identified that the important aspects of PBL are:

  • Significant Content
  • 21st Century Competencies
  • In-Depth Inquiry
  • Driving Question
  • Need to Know
  • Voice and Choice
  • Revision and Reflection
  • Audience

Probably the single most important aspect of PBL is that it provides motivation for learning.  (A by-product is often that it infuses enthusiasm for teaching back into the classroom teacher.)

driving question

The key to promoting motivation is a strong driving question.  What are the characteristics of a strong Driving Question?  It is:

  • Open-Ended
  • Student-Centered
  • Authentic
  • Aligned with Learning Goals
  • Connects Students to Their Need to Know
  • Uncovers Content Standards (but doesn’t name them specifically)
  • Promotes In-Depth Inquiry
  • Not Googleable (questions with definite answers)

I recently participated in an ISTE Webinar which featured Michael Gorman as the speaker.  He suggested this as a good Driving Question:  When is water good to drink?

Students and their teacher brainstormed a list of questions applicable to finding the answer and this is what they came up with:

  • What is water?
  • Where does water come from?
  • What is the water cycle?
  • How much water do I use in a day?
  • How much water does our class use in a day?
  • What problems does the world have with its water supply?
  • What is water pollution?
  • How does water pollution affect me?
  • What is a water related ecosystem?
  • What bodies of water are near our school?
  • How much does water cost?

More Student Needs to Know Questions:

  • How much water should I drink in a day?
  • Where in the world do people not have enough water
  • What can I do to help conserve water?
  • How can we teach others about the importance of water conservation?
  • How can we teach others about the consequences of water pollution?
  • How does life depend on water?
  • Do I use too much water?
  • What is evaporation?
  • Will our world ever run out of clean water?

I could add:

  • How do you test the drink-ability of water?
  • What is condensation?
  • Will my community ever run out of clean water?
  • What is the closest place to me that has a water shortage?
  • What are some causes of nearby water shortages?

Gorman pulled the question out of National Georaphic Project in ePals.  The title, Water, Water Everywhere, or Is It?  Our World’s Fresh Water Supply is a lesson that incorporates Science and Math standards.  There are several projects students and teachers can select to join at the ePals Global Community site.

Can you see how a good Driving Question can promote curiosity, more questions, and further research?  For more information and suggestions about formulating a good Driving Question, visit BIE.

March 25

Using Assessment to Extend Learning

When teachers were in college learning to become a teacher, they were almost always taught to create the test before creating the lesson.  As any teacher who works with me to create a lesson plan knows, the first thing to identify is the standard on which the lesson will focus.  After all, isn’t this what those high-stakes-standardized tests are based upon?

The teachers who work with me will also tell you that the second question I ask after the learning standard is identified is, “How are we going to measure this?”  To me it seems evident that we have to know our destination before we can plan our route.  From there we plan the lesson which sets their students on the path to learning.  Who says the students only learn from ‘the lesson,’ though?  Why can’t students also learn during and even after the assessment?

In a recent Edutopia blog post, Judy Willis suggests that there are Five Assessment Forms that Promote Content Retention:

  1. Tests Where Notes or Textbooks are Permitted
  2. Take-Home Tests
  3. Student-Made Tests
  4. Projects Pre-Approved by the Teacher
  5. Revision and Retests

When we plan our learning opportunities, we take into consideration student strengths and weaknesses.  We think about different learning styles.  We consider student engagement as a factor for learning.  So, why don’t we also consider these things when we are assessing what students learned?  I agree that each of the five assessment forms suggested play an important role in student learning.  The question is, do we really utilize them all?

I see lots of open-note, take-home, or textbook supported assessments.  Teachers implement web quests, scavenger hunts, simple fill-in-the-blank worksheets or question forms for students to answer.  Most of these are considered formative but that sort of assessment also helps to direct where the teacher and students move toward next.  The question is, does this sort of assessment benefit content retention as much as others?

I see a good number of project-based-learning assignments with checklists and rubrics used as assessment measures.  These do promote content retention and generally provide for student choice and more authentic learning experiences where students are engaged and build knowledge through their strengths and interests.  Most of these are more long-term assignments where students are driving their own learning.  Most of them also provide that long-term memory and motivation for learning material that we strive for in teacching.

I see very few student-made tests.  I wonder why?  As a classroom teacher, I found these to be the most informative types of assessments.  Students generally would think of questions which were valid and more thorough and in-depth than I might have created.  They also would hit on the standard questions I might have asked.  This also provided me an opportunity to informally assess what my students knew.  My most effective use of this strategy seemed to be when I asked students to create questions just prior to the formal assessment.  Of course, a draft of my formal assessment had generally been created and was awaiting printing and copying (if it was a paper question/answer test) by the time I asked students to contribute questions.  I found that often they would have more intensive questions than I had created.  I wonder what sorts of questions I would have gotten if I had asked them to contribute prior to the lesson…  I’d be willing to bet that those questions would have been valuable windows into student thinking and learning.  Let me suggest you try that right now.

I also don’t see many teachers utilizing the revision strategy that often.  Yet, according to Willis, students benefit most when corrective feedback and opportunities to use the feedback are implemented.  The analysis of why students missed a question helps to construct accurate memories.  It also helps students to determine what types of mistakes they make when testing – Was it careless?  Was it confusion?  Was it misinformation?  Was it oversight?  Plus, the analysis also offers students an opportunity to consider and commit to writing what they will do to learn the material and try to avoid similar mistakes in the future.  So, the reflective piece might turn out to be the most valuable part of the learning process.

There is no doubt that different types of assessment are ultra important in the learning process.  Students need to be assessed in a multiplicity of ways.  They also need to be involved in creating and analyzing their own performance.  That introspection is what really makes the learning part of assessment personal.

March 24

March Madness

ncaa march madness


March Madness has taken over my household!  I have always enjoyed basketball but being married to a rabid Big Orange sports fan has certainly intensified my interest.  When I was a classroom teacher, I always tried to give a nod to the frenzy of March Madness.  After all, many of my students were athletes and some had dreams of playing basketball in college.  The resources I had were more limited than the ones available to teachers today, however.

In his March 16 blog post, Michael Gorman reflects upon an experience where students were taking part in the March of Madness.  I know that as educators we sometimes get caught up in the madness of test-prep.  After all, part of our evaluation and pay-base rests on these high stakes tests.  I do hope that the teachers with whom I work are much more focused on the students learning as described in the complicated worksheet engagement that was taking place before the bell than in the less complicated and less pertinent worksheet activity that took place after the ringing of the bell!

Here are some suggested ideas linked which focus on the March Madness that incorporate that orange orb’s magnetism:

Who Invented Basketball? by Wonderopolis

Why do some shots go in? A geometry and probability experiment on PBS Kids Dragonfly TV

Robot Basketball is a science lesson by Try Engineering where students learn about accuracy and precision offers games for students that reinforce learning about two-step equations, systems of equations, slope intercept, and evaluating algebraic equations and a lot more!

Penny Basketball is a lesson which has students collecting data, analyzing it, and discussing it with their classmates.

Science Kids has a lesson on energy transfer.

Math in Basketball lesson at Get the Math

In what ways are your students applying the core subject standards to March Madness?  (The basketball March Madness – not necessarily the test-prep-only march of madness)

March 20

What Is Project Based Learning and Why Should We Embrace It?

Project Based Learning is somewhat of a hot-topic for educators today.  Why is this something we are currently finding in vogue?  Students have been creating and completing projects for as long as there have been classrooms and perhaps even before.  So, why is this strategy for teaching and learning so popular all of a sudden?

There are a plethora of reasons to engage this approach for teaching and learning and recent developments propel these reasons even further.

  • With today’s standards-based assessments, sometimes teachers and students become so focused on test-prep and test-performance that engaged, inquiry learning can sometimes be set aside.  Yet, research shows that students who are engaged, inquiring, wondering, searching, experimenting, and taking risks to find out more are better prepared not only to perform in life outside the classroom, but will also perform to a higher level on standardized assessments.
  • Students become active – not passive learners.  Even Benjamin Franklin said, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”  Projects can engage students’ hearts and minds and provide real-world relevance for learning.
  • After completing a project, students tend to remember what they learned better.  So, they are better able to apply and can do what they know and learned in new situations.  The learning is literally more generalized and provides a resource for problem solving and decoding in other areas.
  • Students will understand content more deeply, confidence is built and students will take more responsibility to solve problems, work collaboratively, communicate ideas, and create.
  • Technology, something that is a natural part of students’ lives today, provides an opportunity for students to connect with experts, partners, and resources that might not be readily available in the classroom setting.  They can use tech tools to find resources and information, collaborate in real-time wherever they are, and create products.

We want to structure project-based-learning so that students are not ‘doing a project.’  Instead we want students to be involved in a project which incorporates learning in the process of creating a product and proving a theory.  Project Based Learning should be an experience where students are gaining skills and knowledge as they investigate a complex challenge, problem, or question.  The standards and key concepts are at the heart of the learning.  Competency in critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration and communication, and creativity and innovation are a part of the assessment.  Students are involved in the process of asking questions, accessing resources, and developing answers.  Work is focused on an open-ended question which frames student exploration and promotes intrigue.  Students can easily see the need to gain knowledge and understand concepts and their interest is piqued.  Students are encouraged to make choices about the products they create, how they work, and how they use their time.  There are opportunities for feedback and opportunities to make additions and changes for improvement which promotes the opportunity to think about what and how they are learning.  Finally, there is generally an authentic audience who will benefit or will appreciate and offer feedback as well.  Sometimes this audience extends beyond the classroom and makes the learning something that is a real-life application as well.

So, why should we embrace PBL?  Can you give me reasons why not?

March 18

Not Really Irish

Sorry to be a day late – had technical difficulties yesterday.  Thanks to Belinda M and Brian H and even AT&T for getting that cleared for me to be posting from home today since we are on spring break this week!

Even though most of us are not really Irish, come March 17, Saint Patrick’s Day, it seems we all become a bit Irish.  As I always tend to do, when it comes to celebrating a holiday that is more historical or cultural, I turn to historical information to learn more.  One great resource for this is History.  I love how their post for yesterday called folk like me Irish-at-heart.  I think that is what we do when there is something we want to embrace – become a part of the culture at-heart!

The History site shares several videos, a n information page, a link to some recipes, a fact link, an infographic link, and debunks some myths. This site could become a go-to resource for information due to its reliability, vast variety of topics, depth of videos and links to information, beautiful imagery, and just plain facts.  So, right there in one site is all you need to know to be Irish-at-heart…or not!

March 14

And the award goes to…

I don’t know if it is because of the recent Oscar presentations or if it is because we have embraced online videos so heavily or if it is just because so many of us have a readily available video recording camera clipped to our belt or slipped into our pocket but videos are becoming more and more prevalent in the classrooms I’m visiting.  This week alone I’ve had a couple of my social studies teacher friends share with me the ideas and lessons they have created integrating technology and their students were budding Spielbergs.  (Or, in some cases, budding Oscar-winning actors and actresses!)

My teacher friend, Elaine, borrowed the set of flip cams we have available for teachers to borrow from the district instructional technology department.  Students formed small collaborative groups.  The groups were assigned a country to study.  Students researched and gathered information to report about their country.  They had options for their productions which included filming a newsman on the street report or an news anchor-desk report or a talk-show format or a commercial.  Of course, the teacher created a checklist for students to use to insure they included all the material required before sharing with their peers.  Students created scripts and planned sets before filming.

I must say that I absolutely loved some of the videos I saw!  I think my favorites were focused on Rome.  One student (wearing a felt mustache) was standing in front of The Coliseum (which was being projected on the wall) for a weather report and describing how the current weather was a bit of a departure from their normal climate.  (This told me that climate reporting was a part of the student checklist.)  Another Roman video segment featured a talk-show format where a witness to Caesar’s murder was sobbing and expressing shock that even Caesar’s best friend had “plunged the knife into him.”  (This told me that inclusion of a major political event was a part of the student checklist.)

The students shared their videos with one another as a means of teaching each other about the various aspects of the country assigned.  Trust  me that Elaine’s students truly knew all the information required for the unit!  I have little doubt that they were prepared to score well on most any test available.  Plus, their research and learning was so authentic!  There was an urgency on the students’ part to be sure they covered the material so that their peers would be well informed.

I think the two most important aspects of this assignment are that it was really differentiated.  The second is that the assignment was so student directed.  Who says we have to open their heads and pour information inside?

March 13

Its all in how you word it…

One of my math teacher friends and I were working on a lesson this morning and I was the scribe while she outlined the lesson she had in mind.  Now, those of you who know me personally know that just sitting in a math classroom with equations and diagrams and math…stuff all around me was about like observing a fish climb a tree.  Well, maybe not that extreme.  But, really, I was a bit out of my element.

Oh, I listened to Carolyn as she recited the standard the lesson was focused upon and could input that information with great accuracy.  I had no problem identifying the ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) standard her students would also be engaging.  Then, when I started to write the brief summary of the lesson, I floundered a bit.  It went something like this…

I typed:  The students will choose a topic of interest.

Good so far!

I typed:  The students will pose a question… form a hypothesisdevelop a queryset up an investigationresearch a theoryexpress an opinionspeculatesuppose an outcomeanticipate a conclusion

Do you hear the special effect music that sounds something like, WAH, Wah, wah…

I don’t know if Cara was just being patient in hopes that I would finally land on the proper terminology or if she was shocked that this fifty-four-year-old, experienced, English/Language Arts teacher didn’t have a better command of the language or if she just needed another cup of coffee.  By the time I looked up at her and asked how I should word it, she just had a big old smile on her face and the look on her face was incredulous.  Quickly, however, she leaned toward me and said, “The students will make a conjecture.”

The thing is, everything I typed prior to her suggestion would have worked but since we were addressing an audience of math-minded folks, precise terminology made all the difference in the world.  Students certainly appreciate the need for a broad vocabulary when we offer them the opportunity to learn new words.  That doesn’t necessarily mean we need to spray conversations we have with students full of new words so they don’t understand anything we are saying.  It does mean we need to do a sprinkling of that, though.  It also means we need to introduce the vocabulary and encourage students to implement its use.

One suggestion for vocabulary development is to utilize Merriam Webster’s Trend Watch.  MWWords that are trending in news and popular culture are highlighted.  An explanation of why each word is trending, a definition for the word, and a picture that is representative of the word or perhaps a cause for the trend are included.

Vocab AheadVocab Ahead offers hundreds of videos designed to help students learn ACT and SAT vocabulary words.  The videos have a narrator who pronounces the word, reads the definition, and a sentence or so using the word.  An animated illustration is included to show the meaning of the word or sentence.

Intelli VocabIntelliVocab is free iPhone App for learning and studying vocabulary found on high stakes tests.  This app uses artificial intelligence based on research from MIT to learn about your vocabulary skills and habits to then present you with the word lists and exercises you need to focus on.


Words words wordsWords, Words, Words is a free vocabulary app for Android.  It can be used in a flashcard-like manner or as a quiz and it offers audio help to users for pronunciation.

Encourage students to expand their vocabulary because, after all, perception and understanding can be all in how you word something!