Thursday, June 9, 2011

Is this an activity or a strategy?

The difference between an activity and a strategy is an important concept for teachers to take away from their workshops. The question comes up when discussing the importance of teachers being able to transfer new ideas from the staff room to the classroom. Robin and I know that to get authentic transfer, it’s best to emphasize the strategies as much as it is to present the content.

Classroom teachers who are sacrificing valuable instructional time to attend a professional learning opportunity, become frustrated if they think their time is being wasted. They understand that they need to be there to learn the latest content vital to doing their job, yet, they know they have gotten a bonus when they leave the session with a good idea to take back to their classroom.

This good idea, or what we call the “take away”, is more likely to transfer authentically if the teacher sees it as a strategy rather than as an activity. An activity is something that is done once, or something done in a similar way every time, in the same content and in the same context.

For example, the activity called Signing Name Tags, is a great way to get movement, conversation and accountability. The presenter has everyone get up and move around the room and have at least three conversations with three different people about their goals for the day. After each conversation they sign each others name tags. The only criteria is that they can’t have a conversation if their name tags have been signed by the same person. This simple guideline ensures that there will be a comprehensive mix of people meeting and talking. There is accountability, movement, collegial conversations and a focus on the expected outcomes of the day.

A capable staff developer may encourage their participants to try, Signing Name Tags in their classroom and teachers may do just that. Yet, if teachers transfer Signing Name Tags to their classroom and use it at the beginning of each semester, and the students discuss goals every time, and they always sign name tags, then this teacher has conceptualized and transferred Signing Name Tags as an activity.

However, when teachers see, Signing Name Tags as a way to get movement, accountability, collegial conversations about specific content the participants are seeing Signing Name Tags, as a strategy that can be parlayed into varying strategies. In fact, teachers begin to see more dynamic ways to transfer not only the strategy Signing Name Tags, but specific components of the strategy. For example, they may have students walk and discuss their homework while signing each others papers.

Or a teacher may transfer only the movement aspect of Signing Name Tags, knowing how to get students to engage verbally but not considering having them move while they talk. Or another teacher highlight the accountability aspect of Signing Name Tags and uses this as part of the strategy with her poster projects, having students comment on their peer’s posters.

When teaching for transfer, special emphasis on the components of the strategies that are used, increases the frequency of authentic transfer of strategies from the staff room to the classroom. Teachers who are taught engaging strategies, explained what makes the strategies engaging and are encouraged to transfer the strategy into their content and context, are empowered with new learnings in enhanced and relevant ways.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Fractions, Decimals, and Percents: Kinesthetic Math Idea

You're teaching fractions, decimals, and percents inside the classroom. Outside, it's sunny and 75 degrees. Some kids are taking sideways glances toward the window. Others aren't even trying to hide it, they blatantly stare out the window. Heck, even you are looking out the window at the beautiful day. Why not have the best of both worlds?

You can. It's easy. Read on.

1 sport ball for each group  (soccer ball, four-square ball, spongy ball)
1 data sheet for each group
1 clipboard for each group
Pencils, calculators (optional)

What To Do
I tell the class that we are going to apply math into a real world situation. We are going to see who is going to represent the class in the "World Championship of Knee and Head Juggling". I tell them that we will determine who is going to represent the class by keeping track of their percentages for each activity: head juggling (consecutive bounces of the ball using their head) and knee juggling (consecutive bounces using their knees and feet).

This scenario helps create a need to learn how to find percentages so they can determine if they will represent the class.

I teach a quick mini-lesson on how to change a fraction into a decimal and a decimal into a percent. For further explaination I also show either a BrainPop video, or StudyJams video (see a post about StudyJams here).

I create small groups by pulling sticks. The students gather a clipboard, data sheet, calculator, and a sport ball. We head outside!

Once outside, I show the students how each challenge is accomplished. I explain the roles of the partners. They aren't picking daisies, they have to work too. For example, while one partner is doing the challenge, the other partners are either counting the number of consecutive juggles, or recording the results in the data chart.

For knee juggles I set the maximum of consecutive bounces to 12. So, if a student manages to bounce the ball 4 times it would be 4 out of 12 or 4/12.

For head juggles, I set the maximum to 10. Percentages of 10 are simpler than 12, and may lead to pattern discovery as they go.

Good Tip
Make a partner find another partner's percentage. More often than not, the student who actually did the activity will be looking over the shoulder of his/her partner making sure they are calculating it correctly (two students engaged instead of one).

Once everyone is finished, we head back to analyze the data to determine who will represent the class in the World Championship.  We also reflect upon any patterns they may have noticed, (e.g. finding the percent of a decimal is easy if you know that you move the decimal to the right two places). We also talk about some other areas we could use the math skills we learned.

It's a win-win for both you and your students. You get some educating and applicable learning done on a beautiful day. They get to have fun while learning--always a good thing.

I hope you get to use this idea in (or out of) your own classroom.

Classroom Time Saver Idea: Grade Entry & Hand Backs

This idea comes from my wife, who is an excellent educator, and master teacher (see some of her wonderful blog posts here, here, and here).  I love this idea because it is a great way to save myself precious time, and find out who hasn't handed back assignments.

After correcting the assignments, I place them in a pile by my computer. I usually hand back assignments either first thing in the morning, or at the end of the day. Sometimes I do it when I have five an extra minutes because a lesson wrapped up earlier than expected.  I open my gradebook, input the score, call out the student's name, and then repeat the process with the next student.

When I've recorded the last score, I quickly scan my gradebook to see who hasn't turned in their work. I call those students to the desk, and follow up with them. This is also a good way to find out who forgot to put their name on their paper (A post about never having no-name papers again is found here.)

This plan kills two birds with one stone. I record and hand back the papers in one fell swoop. What a handy time saver it is!

 I hope you can use this idea in your classroom tomorrow!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

No-Name Papers? Never Again

You're cruising through your students' assignments, and then you hit the dreaded no-name paper. One of the biggest pet-peeves I have. You really want to wad it up and throw it in the recycle bin, but that wouldn't help you or the student...even though it would feel really good to do so.

If this has ever happened to you, I have a tip that will make sure you never have a no-name paper again. Well, never say never...

It goes like this:

You hand out an assignment. You say, "Please put your name on the paper as soon as you get it." When everyone has the assignment, you add, "Now find an elbow partner (someone nearby) and check to make sure they have written their name on their assignment."

If it's an assignment done at home, ask the students to check their elbow partner's paper to make sure there is a name before they turn in the assignment.

It takes five seconds. Since I've been using this idea, I have never had a no-name paper come across my desk (knock on wood).

I hope this idea helps you keep your sanity.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Creative Writing Tool: Scholastic Story Generator

Maybe you've been here before. It's writing time in your classroom. You spot a student exhibiting these behaviors:

First sign: The deer in the headlights stare.
Second sign: The pencil doesn't move.
Third, fourth, and fifth signs: The sudden urgency to get a drink, use the bathroom, and then snap the lead of the pencil for the sole purpose of getting to leave the seat again to sharpen it. Then, the inevitable phrase...

Student: I don't know what to write.
You: You don't say?
Student: I don't have any good ideas.
You: You have nothing to fear. I've got just the tool you've been searching for. I couldn't help but notice you were looking in all the wrong places: the bathroom, the drinking fountain, and the pencil sharpener. You didn't find it there did you? No. Let me show you what you've been looking for, and where you can find it. It's called Scholastic Story Starters, it's right here on the computer, and it's been waiting for you.

I have a card stock flip book in my classroom that gives students writing ideas by providing a character, a situation, and an action. My students love to use it when they have full on "writer's block". It got me thinking that there had to be an online version of a story generator like the one we have in the room. Sure enough, there is, and it's called Scholastic Story Starters, and it's so much more than a story generator.

Story Starter is pretty straight-forward. You type in your name. You choose your grade level (which correspond to writing standards and offers suitable options for different age groups). The next step is where the fun begins, the story starter machine appears on the screen. There are four buttons that correspond with sections that are randomly generated by the machine. Here is a small list of the 4-6 grade options:
1. Writing Format: list of characteristics, T.V. commercial, a newspaper ad, myth, birthday card, etc.
2. Descriptor/Adjective: greedy, handsome, awkward, horrible, chivalrous, stubborn, etc.
3. Character: screenwriter, monkey, cantaloupe, Venus flytrap, rock star, etc.
4. Situation: talks in rhyme, discovers a secret city, wins the lottery, discovers a talking frog, etc.

You have some freedom at this point. You can pull the big SPIN handle to randomly select all four sections at once, or you can choose to change as many or as few options you wish by clicking each button separately. The first time I used it, Story Starter created a zany and wonderful writing idea. This is what I got: Write a list of characteristics about an awkward rock star who only talks in rhyme.

Scholastic Story Starter Machine
It didn't take long for me to begin a list in my notebook. When I was done, I had an amazingly interesting character who alone conjured up several story ideas.

Now, you can stop using Story Starter at this point and return to your writing journal, or you can move on to the next step, and choose a format like, newspaper article, letter, postcard, or notebook. Upon making your choice, you arrive at another page where you can type your story directly onto the page, draw a picture (optional), and then print it.

Oh, by the way, if you have an interactive whiteboard, Story Starter is compatible!

Scholastic has a great teacher's guide article about using Scholastic Story Starters in the classroom. It has wonderful ideas and some handy resources. I urge you to give it a look.

I hope you can use this tool in your classroom soon! I know you'll love it, and more importantly, so will your students!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Tale of Two Stories: Storyline Online and Storybird

This is the post I wrote as a guest on Free Technology for Teachers.

I'd like to share with you two free technology tools that I use, in tandem, to get my students working creatively and collaboratively, and liking it!

1. Listen to a story, get inspired
2. Brainstorm ideas
3. Create your story
4. Share your story with us

Those are the four directives I give my students before they embark on a writing activity I call the "Picture Book Challenge". The Picture Book Challenge culminates in students working together to make a well written digital picture book. When the challenge is over we embed the books on our class wiki. That way peers and family members can enjoy the fruits of their labors. I use two tools to help my students accomplish their goals. One tool is called Storyline Online, and the other is called Storybird.

Storyline Online is a free website where members of the Screen Actor's Guild read popular children's picture books. There are plenty of well loved selections: Stellaluna, A Bad Case of Stripes, Thank You, Mr. Falker, Enemy Pie, and To Be a Drum are just a few. For the purposes of the Picture Book Challenge I use Storyline Online as a way to inspire my students to come up with ideas for their own work. You could also use Storyline as a listening center to improve reading fluency. Also worth mentioning is the captioning function which can help struggling readers and students who are English Language Learners.

The second technology tool is an interactive and collaborative writing webtool called Storybird. Richard has blogged about Storybird before; which is how I first heard about this amazing tool. The user interface is simple by design so students can concentrate on the creative process (see the video below). Adding text couldn't be easier. You simply type the text and move it to where you want it go on the page. Images are added in much the same way, they are easily dragged and dropped on the page. The artwork available to students will not only inspire creative prose, but they are highly interesting and diverse enough to suit different tastes. Your students will be creating digital books in no time and enjoying themselves while they're at it.

Much to my students' chagrin, Storybird is lacking a print feature. They love their projects so much they want to actually hold on to it. Currently, the only way students can share digital picture books is by HTML code for embedding, or via a web link. Storybird developers are working on making printing available in the future, but it appears there will be a cost associated with printing books.

I love using Storyline Online and Storybird together. Storyline inspires my students to think about how to write their own wonderful pieces. While Storybird allows students to write, and create beautiful pieces with very few barriers. My students' reactions have been overwhelmingly positive. The best thing about these tools is that even my most reluctant writers are excited to write.

It could be for that reason alone to make these educational technology tools a part of your teaching toolbox.

Jason Kornoely is a fourth grade teacher at Forest Hills Public Schools located in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has his Master's degree in Educational Technology.  Jason's blog: InterGrade: Instant Teaching Ideas focuses on providing tips, tricks, and strategies that educators can use right away in their classrooms. You can also follow Jason on Twitter.

Storybird Quick Tour from Storybird on Vimeo.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Adjective Attack: Descriptive Language Idea

I'd like to share a 3-5 minute tactic that allows your students to describe something you've just read or looked at. This idea is wonderful for developing vocabulary and practicing descriptive language.  It's called Adjective Attack.  Here's how it works.

My class is currently reading James and Giant Peach by Roald Dahl.  We were looking at the pictures in the book together and wondering out loud what could be going on in this part of the book.  A picture walk through is a great pre-reading tactic to promote inferring, and as a way to activate schema (read this post for more information about schema). We came upon a picture of a tunnel that leads to the peach pit. The picture shows peach juice dripping and oozing through the inside of the tunnel.  I thought this picture would serve as a perfect place to have my students practice Adjective Attack. Roald Dahl is well known for his descriptive language, so I wanted my students to have a go at descriptive language too.

I asked my students to think about 2-3 adjectives that would best describe the tunnel. I gave them some think time, and then ask them to pair up with a neighbor. Once everyone has a partner, they share their ideas with each other. By the way, this pairing idea is called, "Think-Pair-Share".

I briskly walk around each group as they share, listening for great adjectives. Sometimes I don't hear adjectives, but other parts of speech. I don't correct that student on the spot, because I want to make sure I get to every pair before they finish sharing, but I will come back to address the miscue later.

Once every partnership is done sharing their adjectives with their partner, I pull sticks to have students share their ideas with the class (see this post for more on using craft sticks).  When the sharing is done,  I do the correcting of the mistaken part of speech that I heard minutes earlier. I don't point anybody out, I simply say, "As I was walking around I heard ___. That word was actually a noun, a great noun to be sure, but not an adjective."

This idea could be customized to fit any skill you wish your students to practice, just change the name. Here are just a few ideas:
  • Other parts of speech
  • Pronouns
  • Affixes
  • Transition words
  • Story beginnings (leads)
I hope you'll get to use this idea in your classroom soon!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Gradual Release of Responsibility Idea: Side by Side

If you have a student that is having a hard time with a new concept or skill, and needs that helping hand, you might want to try this idea. It seems like I've seen this idea before, but in case I haven't, I'll call it Side by Side until I hear otherwise.

Henry is puzzled
I recently used Side by Side with a student, let's call him Henry. Henry wasn't quite getting the multiplication of decimals. He is one of my students who doesn't feel confident about his math abilities either. To help Henry become a self sufficient mathematician, he needs to learn to do it on his own with out my help. This is where the Gradual Release of Responsibility (GRR) teaching theory comes in.

Basically, GRR boils down to the following steps, using math as an example:
  1. The teacher models how to multiply decimals as the students watch.
  2. The students try a problem with the teacher.
  3. The students do a problem on their own as the teacher observes their work and gives feedback and correction.
  4. The students work independently on the problems.
Sometimes a student can display independence, but then runs into some tougher problems that throw them for a loop, especially if they don't feel confident in their math abilities. As was the case with Henry.

We began with me showing him how to do a couple of problems on scratch paper. Then I divided another piece of scratch paper in fourths. To get a visual please see the image below. My writing is in purple and Henry's is in black pen. We do a problem together, step by step. Then I start to give him more and more responsibilities until he has taken full control with very few nudges from me.

Henry is feeling good
After a while, Henry was on his own and going strong. Judging from his smile I think he was feeling pretty good.

This idea could be used for just about any content area, not just math. Writing sentences with sparkling word choice, drawing diagrams of food webs, drawing a compass rose, or writing words with a certain spelling patterns, and much more are all fair game.

It's really an easy tactic. I hope you find it as useful as I did.

Monday, April 18, 2011

My Favorite Modern Educational Revolutionaries

A colleague and I often discuss how much simpler education should be. We talk about how music, fine arts, and creativity are (some, not all) school reformers' red-headed step child. How teachers (some, not all) should be teaching kids to be learners rather than filling them with facts and hoping they remember. Why teachers (some, not all) are still practicing under the belief that they are the only source of information their students have when we are so clearly not?

We also discuss how slowly real change will occur if policy makers continue to emphasize the importance of standardized testing.

How do we rank among the other developed nations of the world?--let's look at test scores.
Are students learning?--let's look at test scores.
Are teachers effective?--let's look at test scores. 
Are charter schools better than public schools?--let's look at test scores. 
Does a school deserve funding?--let's look at test scores.
(Notice a pattern here?)


Policy makers know best. Surely standardized test scores, and the subsequent, "teaching to the test" are the right paths we need to tread in order for our students to become globally competitive. Let's measure a teacher's effectiveness with standardized tests and then, if the tests scores are high enough, let's pay them more, even though we know full well that each classroom of students is vastly different. That will surely solve everything!

Not so fast.

Enter stage left, my top three modern-day educational revolutionaries: Sir Ken Robinson, Will Richardson, and Alfie Kohn. I appreciate these guys because I agree with them. They make sense to me. They push my thinking. It's because of them that I find myself in the midst of a complete teaching transformation--a renewal.

Sir Ken Robinson
Let me begin with Sir Ken. I was first introduced to Sir Ken through his TED Talk about how an antiquated educational system is teaching students out of their inherent creativity (see video below).

In his presentation I heard things that struck me to the core as an educator. It confirmed my suspicions that we are over-emphasizing "testable" areas of education and under-emphasizing areas that matter just as much as reading, writing, and arithmetic. When I was done listening to his words, I asked myself, "What am I doing?".

Alfie Kohn
Alfie Kohn is an educational researcher and author of several books on education policy. I first heard about Alfie while taking a class in my undergraduate studies. I was intrigued by his book, Punished By Rewards, which took a shot at the reasoning behind giving students grades. Alfie is known for attacking educational practices that aren't substantiated by research, yet passed off as if they were. He speaks against the misrepresentation of educators, a fierce defender of what is best for kids, and questions why current "school reform" isn't working. (Listen to this radio interview).

Several years later I got to hear Alfie speak in Kentwood, Michigan. He spoke about homework, rather the needlessness of homework, based on his book The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Are Getting Too Much of a Bad Thing. After his presentation, I asked myself, "What am I doing?". 

Will Richardson
Last, but certainly not least, is Will Richardson. Will is the author of the book, Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools, speaker, and expert blogger on how education can be changed for the better. He came to my school district to talk about leveraging technology in the classroom, and how to push students into becoming creators, not just consumers, of information.  Will was one of the first teachers to use blogging in the classroom. I was inspired by his passionate counseling of "You can do this. Why aren't you doing this?"

Will is a forward thinker who demands that education, as we know it, should change--needs to change.  He pushes against educational dogma. Why standardized tests? Why standardized standards? Are all students in all of the states alike? (watch this video). After listening to his talk at my school, and reading his blog posts on Weblogg-ed I ask myself, "What am I doing?".

What I truly appreciate about all three men is they are looking beyond standardized tests (rightly so) as the key to improving education.  What's more, they are fighting the good fight on our behalf. They ask: Why are the policy makers, in a vain attempt at measuring learning on a state, national, and global scale, mandating ideas that do not work? Why are the few (who aren't teachers by the way) driving the policies that many must follow with very little input from the people in the trenches?

Keep it simple. Let's teach the child. Let's hear from the teachers.

Noticing a pattern here? That's why I appreciate them.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Formative Assessment: "I Would Like..." Quick Write

Targeted Learning
I've written about formative assessment in earlier posts.  Here is another idea to help target what each of your students need. There isn't a snappy name for it, no acronym either, it's called I Would Like...

Students write a quick note to the instructor about which skills they wish to improve. I used this idea immediately after my students self-corrected a BrainPop! quiz about fractions. I asked them to write me a little note on their quiz paper about what they would like to practice more.  I gave them some guidelines to help them construct their responses.
  • Be specific on which area(s) you'd like to have more help.
  • If you feel comfortable with fractions already, how would you like to be challenged?
  • Be honest with yourself. Honesty will help you grow as a learner.
  • Keep your responses to 2-3 complete sentences please.
Keeping the responses to 2-3 sentences does two things. One, it keeps the activity efficient. It takes approximately five minutes, and provides quality insight into student needs. Second, the responses are succinct and will make for quick reading on my end.

I was pleased with the written feedback my students gave me. I've shared two examples of student responses below.

Student Response
After reading their quick writes, I made little piles of the responses that had similar areas of need. I used these piles to help me make small groups with which to work. There are three wonderful benefits to grouping students in this way. The groups are skill-based, not ability-based. The lessons are focused on what the student wants to learn, so there is student need already in place. The skills are targeted and focused, so we will make great use of classroom time by tackling what they're lacking, and/or demanding deeper understanding.

Student Response

I can't wait to see my students, get them in groups, and help them overcome their challenges. I'll feel satisfied, and more importantly they will feel satisfied.

I hope you use this quick and effective idea in your classroom soon.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Did You Hear That? Immediate Feedback

My students and I were working on episodes for our podcast on biography books recently when two wonderful things happened: Unsolicited student response to feedback and peer coaching.

From time to time I would play back what a student just recorded due to inadvertent background noises, line flubs, or speaking volume issues. A good number of students would blush or feel embarrased when they first heard their own voices. However, with almost every student, that bashfulness quickly subsided, and something wonderful and unexpected happened next.

They wanted a "do over". They wanted to do it again! Do you know how many times I wished my students would voluntarily do their assignment over just to get it right? Imagine my surprise when they said:

"Can I read that one again?"
"I think I can do better, if I had another try."
"I want to change something."
"I thought of a better sentence just now."
"I sound like a robot. I want to do it again."

The benefit of immediate feedback was evident. In almost every case (not all, because some of them did a super job the first time) students wanted to re-record their lines. Upon a second or third go, the improvements were remarkable.

The second added benefit was the peer coaching. My students worked in small groups on these podcasts, and they were helping each other with suggestions about delivery and emphasis, and their suggestions were on the money! It was fantastic!

This idea is good for any student, but especially great for students who need coaching with diction.

Myna from Aviary
Get Started!
A USB microphone is relatively inexpensive. You plug it into any open USB port, and you're good to go. I purchased my microphone at a big box electronics store for about $20.00. Once you buy your microphone go to this free web-based program for podcasting called Myna from Aviary. You can watch a demo of Myna below. Skip ahead to 2:05 to listen to the part about recording voice.

Monday, March 21, 2011

I'll Confess: I Teach My Kids the Wrong Way

It's true. I teach my kids the wrong way. In fact I was a bit surprised to learn that more good teachers weren't teaching students the wrong way. But, before you go jumping to conclusions, let me explain.

I was in a professional development session after school talking about the Daily 5. Several teachers had commented on one particular technique authors Gail Boushey, and Joan Mosey suggest. When teaching classroom procedures and expectations, a teacher should show students the wrong way as well as the right way to do something. Some of my colleagues said they would never have thought of showing their students the wrong way. It feels unnatural, and counter intuitive.  However bizarre it may seem, it truly does work.

The wrong way can be the right way.
During the first month of school my students and I discuss and practice our classroom procedures and expectations. It sets the tone for the rest of the year, and students seem to feel much more comfortable when they know what is expected of them. While practicing a procedure or expectation, we will do it the wrong way and the right way.

Here is an example:
Let's say we are talking about listening expectations. I'll ask a student to pretend to be the teacher, and I sit in his/her seat and pretend to be a student who isn't following the expectation. I'll start a conversation with a neighbor while the "teacher" is speaking. I'll get into my desk and rattle papers around. I'll tap my pencil. I'll get out of my seat to get a drink. You get the idea.

The students really get a kick out of seeing their teacher act up, and frankly, I think it's a lot of fun too.  Afterward, we have a good discussion about why it was the wrong behavior, what I should have done instead. We also talk about what implications my rude behavior might have on the classroom environment. After the discussion, I'll have several students demonstrate the correct behavior.

Not only is it a wonderful technique at the beginning of the year, it's useful throughout the year. I use this tactic to revisit expectations that need to be readdressed. I also use it anytime I need to introduce a new procedure mid-year.

Have you ever tried teaching your students the wrong way? Share your creative teaching techniques.

*There are plenty of other great tips and tricks found on the right-hand side of the blog page under the section titled, "More Instant Ideas".

Monday, March 14, 2011

How To Use All Of Your Great Literature

I love teaching! I especially love to share great literature with my students on a daily basis. Learning about reader and writer's workshops years ago has given me the framework to pass on those passions to my students. Unfortunately, after a few years my book collection got so big, I was forgetting which books were great for which mini-lessons.

So, I've created a list of the books in my collection and which writing mini-lessons I have used those books for in the past. This list allows me the chance to finish my weekly lesson plans that much quicker! No longer am I spending lots of time trying to remember the titles I used in the past.

I hope this list can be of help to you as well. Use it as a starting point, continuing to add books to the list and improving your craft.

Please follow this link for an extensive list of writing mini-lessons.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

LearnBoost: Too Good Not to Try Out

There are countless web-based tools for educators. I follow an outstanding blog called Free Technology for Teachers authored by Richard Byrne. It was in one of his posts that I discovered one of the most amazing web-tools I've ever used. It's called LearnBoost. LearnBoost is a free web-based gradebook, yet it is truly much more than that.

First a little disclosure. I am not paid by LearnBoost, but I am a "power user" and featured as a case study on their website. All that means is that I appreciate their product, and so will you.

LearnBoost just might be the best educator tool you've never heard of. It's a relatively new product that has earned a Top-Ten Web Start Up award for 2010 from ReadWriteWeb. If you're looking for an easy to use gradebook, lesson planner, grade reporting system, calendar, and/or attendance manager, it's all delivered by LearnBoost. To learn more about each feature take the LearnBoost Tour.

Here are some impressive highlights of LearnBoost:
  • Easy to use
  • Lesson plans can be linked with the national common core standards
  • The calendar feature is fully linked with Google Calendar
  • You can share student grades with your students and their parents
  • Customer service is top notch (see below)
  • Web-based, so LearnBoost works anywhere you have Internet access
  • Teacher-centered approach to product development
  • Free-free-free

One of the most amazing things I've experienced about the LearnBoost team is the customer service. They care about what teachers want. One example of their way of thinking is the feedback tab found on nearly every page of the LearnBoost website. The LearnBoost team uses teacher feedback as one of the main driving forces behind their product design.

The second example of customer support is how amazingly quick they are at answering any questions you have about their product. On a Sunday afternoon I asked a question about their newly released reporting feature. I didn't expect an answer until Monday because it was Sunday after all. To my surprise, the CEO of the company emailed me back in 5 minutes with a solution! On a Sunday afternoon!

The third example is their quick video tutorials that are easy to follow and informational--perfect for the busy teacher. Check out one of their videos below as a sampling of their dedication to making teachers' lives easier.

I really enjoy using LearnBoost. I'm proud to call myself a "Power User".  If you are searching for a web tool that will make your life easier give LearnBoost a look today.

Example of a LearnBoost Video Tutorial

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Study Jams: Free Math and Science Animated Videos

StudyJams from Scholastic is a wonderful educational website.  I first heard of this great website from Richard Byrne's blog Free Technology for Teachers. StudyJams has a library of over 200 videos and slide shows about various math and science topics.  Most of the videos include a quiz "Test Yourself", and a section about vocabulary. I know that the information is solid, the entertainment value is there for my students, and it's free!

I use StudyJams a few different ways. I use it as an introduction to a concept or skill, as a mid-lesson support, or I use it as a wrap up to the unit or lesson.

Using StudyJams as an Introduction
My students were studying heat energy a while ago. To start off the unit we did a K-W-L about heat. After a nice list was built, we watched StudyJams: Heat. I ended up pausing the video a couple of times because some of the ideas that were discussed in our K-W-L discussion was explained in the video.  When the video ended, we continued our discussion. The students had been armed with a little more schema, thank you StudyJams, and they wanted to know about more heat and it's applications in their world.

Using StudyJams as a Mid-Lesson Support
I was teaching the class fractions. I began with breaking a candy bar into equal pieces, and shared some with a few lucky students (see "Craft Sticks" post).  I then launched into explaining what the numerator and denominator represent in a fraction. I was talking too much at this point, and needed to change gears, so I played the StudyJams video on Fractions. The video totally supported what I had just talked about, helping me deliver the message twice with different mediums.

Using StudyJams as a Wrap Up
As I was previewing the Magnetism slide show, I couldn't believe how much the slide show reinforced the topics we explored during our magnetism unit. I decided to use the slide show as a nice tidy wrap up for the unit. A nice feature of a StudyJams slide show is it either plays on it's own, or gives you complete control over the slide show. I was able to pause the show, and then review what we discussed, and I was also able to quickly and easily flip around to other slides.

No matter how you end up using these videos, I urge you to give them a try in your classroom soon.

*Note: Don't forget to check the archived teaching tips found under "More Instant Ideas" for more great tips!

Monday, February 28, 2011

Create Small Groups in Seconds and So Much More

This is one of those "oldie but a goodie" ideas that I've been using since I began teaching seven years ago.

There is one other tool in my classroom that gets almost as much use as my document camera and projector--a cup of craft sticks. I have a cup of jumbo craft sticks (tongue depressors) with the names of my students written on them. I want to share with you a handful of...crafty uses for these sticks.

I use the sticks a lot when I need to make partnerships or small groups for a quick activity. I pull any number of sticks (depending on the size of the group I desire) to make grouping students happen in seconds. I also like the randomness of this method, because it ensures that my students get a chance to work with each person in the class at some point over the year.

Keeping my students awake and on their toes is another added benefit of the sticks. Instead of calling on the student with his/her hand raised I pose the question, allow for some thinking time, and then pull a stick. You should see them sit up a little straighter when I announce that I'm going to pull a stick to get an answer.

Here's another use for the sticks...I use them as a bias-free way of choosing which student gets to help out with those little tasks that mean a lot to them. Here's an example of what mean that happened just a few weeks ago: our music teacher needed a couple of students to help him set up for the recorder concert. Of course everyone of them wanted to help, but I used a few sticks to settle the debate quickly and fairly.

One more. We fill out a planner/calendar at the end of each day. I pull a stick and use that student's planner under my document camera as my model. I write the day's events as students copy it down.

There are a lot more creative uses out there, and I'd love to read what you do, or plan on doing with your own set of sticks. Stop by your local art supply or craft store and pick up a box of jumbo craft sticks, and give it a try tomorrow!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Teaser Tuesday!

Jason and I are both reading "The Book Whisperer" by Donalyn Miller. At the beginning of Chapter 4, Miller writes about using a 'teaser' to share books with students to get them excited to read. Basically, you read an excerpt from a book which, in Miller's words, "gives you a taste of the book without revealing the entire plot." The goal, of course, is to motivate your students to pick up the book and read it independently.

I thought a fun quick routine you could do with students is have 'Teaser Tuesday'. This would be a designated time each Tuesday to share a teaser from a different book. Something fun, quick, and, with the use of alliteration, at least one of my students would remind me about Teaser Tuesday...which I would inevitably forget once in while!

Need a book ideas to start? Donalyn Miller has a great list of recommendations across many genres!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Current Event Website

I just came across this "Teaching Kids the News" website and wanted to share it. It is an online newspaper written for students ranging from second to fifth grade. I was impressed because the articles were well composed and written at a level most elementary students kids could comprehend. This is a Canadian newspaper, so some of the current events may not connect as strongly with students in other countries, but there are articles for broad interests that it is worth checking out.

Friday, February 4, 2011

"Stickerize" Your Way to Grading-Free Evenings

I got this great idea from a veteran teacher. It's one of those great "work smarter, not harder" ideas.

Stickerization is a term my students have coined that describes a fun and smart way to formatively assess student work in real time. Dr. Robert Marzano and company urge teachers to give instructional feedback to students as soon as possible to help maximize student learning and achievement.

All you need is some cheap dollar store stickers (I use small little smiley face stickers) to get started. The best part is, when it's all said and done, you are correcting work during class instead of after school. If you think about it, it really doesn't make sense to correct work when the student isn't even there to get the feedback.

I use stickerization mostly in math class.  I teach fourth graders. I have them do a lot of group work and partner work. They are expected to work on the practice pages in their math journals first on their own, and then check it with their partner. Before they begin in their journals I tell them what problems or pages I want to check, or stickerize as they call it. I don't necessarily need to check the whole page of problems to get a good sense of their understanding. So, ahead of time I choose several problems that I feel will show their understanding of the skill I want them to learn.

When the partners come to me for checking, I look over the work. Students know that they got it right if I put a sticker over the problem number or page number (formative assessment). If I see some problems done incorrectly I don't issue a sticker, and then I take a minute to investigate with them where they might have gone wrong (immediate feedback driven by formative assessment). After a little coaching, they go back to work the problem again. When they think they've got it they come up and check back with me. And hey, kids are kids, and they love to get stickers.

When the work is handed in for the day, I have a pile of graded work ready for my gradebook. A 10-20 minute chore after school it's magically turned into a 2-3 minute chore all because of a little sticker.

Who doesn't want to save time and have a little bit of fun? Try it soon!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Two Stars and a Wish..Revisited

Have you ever done "Two Stars and a Wish" with your class when they were peer revising? This is a strategy where one student shares their writing piece and the other student(s) tells two things they enjoyed about the piece and one thing they wish was different about the piece. I love this strategy because it gives the students a concrete way to respond to student writing. However, many times I have not been impressed with outcome of the 'wish' part. Often I found the student comments to be shallow and too general. Also, even though the student would start with two compliments for their peer's writing, they were still uncomfortable giving the wish. Because, let's face it, no matter how we try to disguise it, we are asking the student to point out to their peer what is wrong with their piece.

After reading a chapter in Choice Words by Peter H. Johnson, I started to think about the language of "Two Stars and a Wish" and how we could make peer revision a more positive experience. One thing he discussed was when having a writing conference with a student (teacher to student) to try not to use the word 'but' when giving a suggestion and instead to use the word 'and'. For example:

Do: "You have a great piece here about your birthday party AND if you added dialogue in the introduction it would be stronger."

Don't: "You have a great piece here about your birthday party BUT if you added more dialogue in the introduction it would be stronger."

Can you hear the difference?

Now, back to "Two Stars and a Wish". What if instead of saying tell two good things and one to change, we taught kids to say two good things AND one thing that would make the writing even stronger. This would take out the negative connotation that something was wrong with the piece. Would students be more comfortable giving a suggestion? Would the writer be more willing to revise?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Reading on the Web

In this post I'd like to highlight four of my favorite reading websites (technically, the first two are web tools). I hope you find them as useful as I do.

The Lexile Framework for Reading website is very helpful for matching your student with an appropriately leveled book.  You can type in a book title and it will give you the Lexile level for that book (for more information on Lexile levels click here). If the book title isn't in their database, then you can type in a paragraph of text from the book, and it will give the general Lexile level of that text.  You can search by author, keyword, and ISBN number if you'd like. This website includes the same search tools for books written in Spanish. The Lexile Framework for Reading website is very user friendly and easy to navigate.

Google's search engine includes a reading level filter. Let's say your students are researching wolves of North America, and you want some appropriate articles for them to read. You can use Google's reading level filter to help. I have added hyperlinks to three web articles on gray wolves that Google considers to be at basic, intermediate, and advanced reading levels. is a fantastic website for young students to read reviews about books they might like. There are book reviews, interviews with authors, and trivia questions based on favorite books. The best part is students have an opportunity to have their review posted on the website. This is a great place for kids to get excited about good books.

Storyline Online is fantastic. If you haven't been there, go there. Members of the Screen Actor's Guild read aloud picture book favorites. Your students can read along with the narrators, or just sit back, relax, and enjoy. As a special feature, each book comes with lesson plans and activities.