Jun 13, 2014

10 Things a Teacher Learned This Year

This school year punched me in the face and walked off, laughing. I'm frustrated, cynical, and quite bitter. Unnecessary demands, flawed observations, and an obvious lack of direction has weighed me down and clogged my creativity. I hope this summer sucks the venom of poor attitude from my oozing mind wound. On the other hand, every year offers its lessons.

Students learn at different rates. Understanding this fact has allowed for patience, realistic expectations, and better instruction as I differentiate and spiral my lessons. Unfortunately, when standardized test scores are the primary focus of the school year and some students fail to master the tested objectives by the first week of April, one draws a bit of criticism and the sage observation, "What you're doing isn't working."

I just surpassed 25,000 Xbox Achievement Points. I earned those points satisfying challenges in a variety of games. Now, would you rather talk about the points or the games? In a conversation about games, we could talk about visuals, stories, challenges, and genres. That number is meaningless unless we talk about the games. Too often, test scores and grades are like my achievement points--without a discussion on strengths, weaknesses, and improvements, they're meaningless. Children aren't numbers. They aren't standardized test scores, graduation rates, report card averages, or assignment grades. They are children and we should develop their love of learning and discovery. When that happens, they will learn everything we put in front of them and much more.

Report card averages and standardized test scores are different. Standardized tests are word puzzles designed to sell tutoring materials because some students are guaranteed to fail. Report card grades are based on assignments wrapped in games and activities that reinforced specific skills that were taught by teachers who scaffold, encourage, and reteach. Throughout the school year, we were called to task over the margin between test scores and averages. Instead of focusing on the gaps and numbers, administrators should set guidelines about authentic, rigorous assignments and assessments. And, we should be honest with parents about the state tests.

From August to June, my students and I had a few guests. On Career Day, several folks visited and discussed their professions. The administrators made 3 or 4 visits throughout the year, but they didn't stay long. Try as I might, though, I can't remember one person staying to teach a lesson. How is it then that other people in the district receive bonuses for our standardized test scores?

In the classroom, it might be impossible to understand the Big Picture. Running an entire school district must overwhelm the small army of board members, administrators, coordinators, specialists, and assistants who make decisions for the rest of us. On the other hand, it's equally difficult for those same people to understand the Small Picture. A teacher. A class full of students. And hundreds of factors that determine whether a child's day is going to be good or not so good.

I understand why a district pushes it's teachers to research the data. When high test scores are a priority, teacher intuition and daily observations are inadequate. We can trust numbers. During data meetings, though, we don't speak of individual students and growth--we discuss small groups and weak objectives and moving the names up the chart. Teaching children is multifaceted and data is just one piece. While numbers help us categorize students and make lists of objectives, they don't improve instruction and relationships.

While teachers, as professionals, should expect autonomy in their classrooms, the school as a whole should have a vision. To provide that vision, a principal must be the instructional leader of the school. Without that, the school will deteriorate as teacher morale drops, parents experience confusion, and students focus on things other than learning.

For 176 school days, I prepared over 800 hours of instruction. A little over two hours of that was observed by an administrator. That's horribly inadequate. Principals need to spend more time in the classrooms, and, instead of electronic forms, conversations need to happen. More importantly, teachers need to observe one another and discuss lessons. Observations should lead to discussion, and discussions will lead to improvement.

When students fail an assignment, the reasons come from a long list of possibilities. A student may not complete all of the problems in the assignment, or he might have lost the assignment. On the other hand, the student may have completed all of the problems incorrectly but similarly, or he may have run out of time because of football practice, a shower, dinner, and bedtime. To pass judgment on the reason is pointless. The student failed the assignment, so he hasn't mastered a skill. What's the point of recording the score and moving on? We are in the profession to teach students how to read, write, and do arithmetic--not to write numbers in a gradebook. Okay, sure, record the grade, make your point, but you also need to reteach and give an alternate assessment. That's too many grades, they'll say. It inflates the averages, they'll say. It doesn't teach a valuable lesson, they'll say. Okay, then, eliminate all of the factors that prevent kids from doing their very best, including boring lessons, assignments that don't match the lessons, and giving an assessment before the student is ready. Because those grades might also reflect your teaching.

Teaching to the test is shameful. Boot camps are short-sighted and irresponsible. Sending practice sheets for homework is simply uncalled-for. Most parents don't want all of that for their children--they want them to enjoy school, gain confidence, and learn something.
Thank you so much for your passion, hard work and time you took to help students with Math! This is one subject that [my child] just cringed about and you changed that! I will not say she loves it but definitely enjoys it because of you! You made it so fun and I appreciate that.
And I'll end on that.

Dec 27, 2013

Lifelong Learners

In the last few months, I've become less interested in reading about education. There are so many good ideas and research out there--the American school system doesn't have to suck, but the decision-makers are disconnected and, frankly, self-serving. It is so frustrating that I'd rather not think about the entire system and just focus on my own classroom. With all of the trainings and workshops, I think we're complicating things. Let's simplify and focus on one issue. By and large, school is boring. If interest and engagement are the secrets to learning, why is school so boring? And why do we send boredom home with them? And why, as a parent, do I let boredom last so long in my home? Honestly, boredom is tradition and it's familiar and it's easy and we think it leads to college degrees and good jobs. As a result, we waste time talking about standardized tests and grades and individualized plans and campus goals and merit pay and other distractions. I wholeheartedly believe that my purpose as an elementary school teacher is not to prepare my students for college but to develop a lifelong love of learning in them. If I succeed, everything else will fall into place. And I can't do that with boring.

Aug 17, 2013

Flipping It - Tools I'm Using

When I started on the Wix webpages, I went a-lookin' for new tools. I knew I'd use Voki, Prezi, Pixton, and Sploder, but I needed more. Here are some finds.

Acapela: This is a short and silly video creator.

Fodry: It's a silly text generator.

Make Pixel Art: The name explains it all.

 Wideo: I had tons of fun with this animated movie creator.

ClassTools: "Create free games, quizzes, activities and diagrams in seconds!"

Dvolver: This is a simple movie maker.

Flipping It - Primes & Composites

Here's the Wix webpage for Primes and Composites.

Flipping It - Factors

Sometimes, you just have to trick them into learning. So, if I want my students to spend time at home previewing math topics, I can't just put out a video and expect them to care. Instead, I've decided to create a Wix webpage for each topic. Those are linked from my school webpage.

Here's the webpage for Factors.

Aug 4, 2013

My "Gamified" Classroom - Rewards

I don't want to give out pencils, erasers, stickers, treats, etc. again. I hate that kind of thing. I don't want a store with fake money or tickets. No more prizes. No more coupons. No more!

That stuff doesn't work. Oh, maybe for a week or two, but it fades fast. For sixteen years, I kept trying it because my class was boring and I was trying to bribe the students into being attentive. I just can't believe that a school like Quest to Learn gives snack cakes or pencils to the students when they are compliant.

Updating my classroom has forced me to consider something else. When playing Xbox360 or PS3, accomplishing tasks earns points and virtual achievements/trophies for the players. Now, whether or not, those prizes existed, players would still play--video games are fun.

So, I've decided to award points, badges, and avatars. Not as bribes. As perks. As part of the theme.

I created these badges using 
I will print the badges on magnet paper, 
so the students can display them on/in their lockers.

After every third level, the students will receive a chunk of a Pixel Person.
Again, I will print the pieces on magnet paper and the students will color them.
Thanks, Mojang and Minecraft!!

My "Gamified" Classroom - Level Up!

As I was designing the look of my classroom, I got to work on the leveling system. First, I made a list of those areas for which I wanted to give points: averages, conduct sheet, student attendance, benchmark scores, parent attendance at meetings, and extra chances. Next, I decided on frequency and points. Finally, I added up points for high achievers and acceptable achievers, and settled on a happy medium (with a lean toward the high end). Here are my Level Up! sheets.

My "Gamified" Classroom - Decor

This year, I want to flip a gamified classroom. And, though I've thought about it for months, I'm just now putting things in place. Oh, it's not procrastination--it's confusion and fear and slow ideas. To get everything rolling, I've already gone up to school and worked in my classroom. Here are some photos.

This was my very first idea.
I wanted my word wall to resemble Space Invaders or Breakout.

I wanted to redo my rules.
I searched online for video game decorations, but didn't have much luck.
Then it hit me: I could use video game characters from GameInformer magazine.

Not only could I cut out characters, I could use the GameInformer covers, too.
These are my most important reminders.

 Instead of a typical border, I cut strips from the GameInformer magazines.

 And, finally, having fallen in love with scrapbooking pages, 
I needed something for the other board.
Every year, I stress the need to learn multiplication facts.
I use FlashMasters and TimezAttack and speed drills, but I don't post them.
Until now. The multiples are mixed up but they make a nice reference, I think.
Plus, I used piq to create my own Space Invaders.

Edutopia: Katie Salen on the Power of Game-Based Learning

From Edutopia: [We] believe that kids can and do learn in different ways outside of school, often via access to digital media and access to kind of online community support. And that if we know that learning outside of school matters a great deal to kids' ability to learn well in school, we have to pay attention to that. So it's a school that from the ground up has been designed to leverage the kind of digital lives of kids, and it also looks at the notion of how games work as learning systems, and it's developed a pedagogical approach that delivers what we call game-like learning.

I can't tell you how exciting game-based learning is to me. Fun, engaging, exciting. I can see where this video might motivate teachers or deter them, though. The equipment at Quest to Learn is way beyond what I have. The challenge to overcome that deficit is just too delicious to pass up. Rather than focus on the technology, I need to remember Ms. Salen's explanation:
So the way that our curriculum is structured in mission and quest based, so it actually builds on that trope from online gaming. And the idea is that quests actually get harder as you move through them, because you're actually developing tools and developing knowledge and developing experiences. And the goal is that you actually can't move to a quest until you've completed one prior. They're proceeding through some kind of challenge and they're getting closer to some kind of end goal, and we have found that that's very motivating for kids, that they know where they're at, they know how far they've come and they know what they need to work on. 
So, what does that look like for my fifth grade math class? I don't know, yet, but I'll let you know.

Edudemic: 9 Wrong And 8 Right Ways Students Should Use Technology

From Edudemic: Technology is a tool. It’s not a learning outcome. Too often do we get distracted by all the activities and action we can perform with an iPad or some other device. We can post to Edmodo! Make a Prezi! Post to Facebook! All exciting things, to be sure. But these are not actually learning outcomes. You could have a 1:1 iPad classroom where your students create a bazillion (it’s a word, I swear) presentations all about how much they’re learning.

I get the point. I do. I'm not trying to be dense or confrontational. How many teachers write, Make Prezis, in their lesson plans, though? Not many, I reckon. At the same time, I doubt many of them are writing, Raise Awareness or Drive Change, either. 

I can't figure out this article/graphic. Is it aimed at noobs or experienced teachers? Is it self-reflection or a condescending observation? With all of the new technology and apps in the world, the author could just be bringing balance to the universe. Maybe?

I just can't believe that teachers are using technology as the learning outcome rather than a prescribed skill. At the same time, I definitely think it's a mistake to pull back on the technology reins. (I know that that isn't what this article is saying, but, for some, it might cause a bit of guilt.) Interest and engagement are just as important as stating a ground-breaking learning outcome.

I hate that title.

Jul 19, 2013

Game-Based Learning Is Probably Worth Looking Into

I love comics. Sure, like many, I'm into Batman, the Avengers, and the X-Men, but I've thoroughly enjoyed books like the Authority, Planetary, and DMZ. As a kid, my folks were good enough to buy me several subscriptions. An avid reader, I mowed through novels and comic books. In the fifth grade, it was comic books that had the more colorful language, and, to use modern lexicon, I was engaged. But, do you think my teachers would have used comic books in the classroom? Yeah, probably not.

Board games and card games have been around for a year or two. And teachers have used both in the classroom. They're tame and adaptable. But, have you ever played a board game made specifically for the classroom? Boring.

Video games have had a tough time of it, but some people are finally taking them seriously. Heck, in 1977, if a teacher had said, "We're going to use the Atari 2600 in our lesson today," I would have thought, "Well, yeah, why wouldn't you?" Kids love them and they're not going away. I love them. I love the worlds and missions and achievements and success. Fun!

Let me get to the point: I'm sold on game-based learning. Obviously, there a many factors to consider and plans will change, but it's something I have to try.

This article brings up the factor that gives me hives.
Timely feedback, relevant goals and carefully designed reward structures may help keep motivation high, while story elements, emotional engagement and permission to fail and repeat could help lock concepts into memory and provide mnemonics to assist with recall.
What to do about the "carefully designed reward structures"? While I spend this summer redesigning my room and approach, I keep coming back to this. I just don't know what that looks like. Fifth graders are a weird group, so I have to find something that motivates them for an extended period of time. If I have to keep changing it throughout the year, I'll go nuts.

Jul 3, 2013


From the site: The ultimate key is simplicity. All you need is to drag, drop and voilĂ ! informative yet stunning visuals can be created with just a few clicks. We at Piktochart strive to make this tool so easy for you that your infographics are created quicker than you can say "infographics"!


From the site: Vocaroo - The premier voice recording service.


From the site: Timetoast is a place to create and share timelines on the web. You can create historical timelines of important events, or build a timeline of your vacation. It's all up to you and your imagination.

Jun 27, 2013

Five Hallmarks of Good Homework

This is really good stuff from Cathy Vatterott--packed full of ideas. I'm going to steal a few paragraphs to demonstrate the potency of the information.
The best homework tasks exhibit five characteristics. First, the task has a clear academic purpose, such as practice, checking for understanding, or applying knowledge or skills. Second, the task efficiently demonstrates student learning. Third, the task promotes owner ship by offering choices and being personally relevant. Fourth, the task instills a sense of competence—the student can success fully complete it without help. Last, the task is aesthetically pleasing—it appears enjoyable and interesting (Vatterott, 2009).

Ideally, homework should provide feedback to teachers about student understanding, enabling teachers to adjust instruction and, when necessary, reteach concepts before assigning practice. Assigning practice prematurely can cause student frustration and confusion.

Projects that require nonacademic skills (such as cutting, gluing, or drawing) are often inefficient. Teachers assign projects like dioramas, models, and poster displays with all the best intentions—they see them as a fun, creative way for students to show what they have learned. But unless a rubric clearly spells out the content requirements, projects may reveal little about students' content knowledge and much more about their artistic talents (Bennett & Kalish, 2006). Even content-rich projects can be inefficient in terms of time spent. Teachers often don't realize how many hours these projects take and how tedious they may be for both student and parent.

If all students are to feel competent in completing homework, we must abandon a one-size-fits-all approach. Homework that students can't do without help is not good homework; students are discouraged when they are unable to complete homework on their own (Darling-Hammond & Ifill-Lynch, 2006; Stiggins, 2007). To ensure homework is doable, teachers must differentiate assignments so they are at the appropriate level of difficulty for individual students (Tomlinson, 2008).

If the homework assignment is to "Study for the test," does that mean memorize facts, review concepts, or learn new material not covered in class? And how do students know what it means? Although a study guide or take-home test that shows students exactly what they need to know is helpful, they don't necessarily have to write or complete anything to study. Teachers should encourage students to create their own best method of reviewing the information, suggesting possible options, such as organizing notes into an outline, writing test questions for themselves, putting important information on note cards, or studying with a partner.

Meaningful homework should be purposeful, efficient, personalized, doable, and inviting. Most important, students must be able to freely communicate with teachers when they struggle with homework, knowing they can admit that they don't understand a task—and can do so without penalty.
Flipped Classroom in Elementary School

Many of the articles that I've read on flipped classrooms focused on high school. So, I decided to search specifically for elementary school articles. Ms. Thompson has offered a few suggestions for flipping an elementary classroom.
  • Model your expectations in the classroom. Show a video and stop often to show students how to take notes. Then move to guided practice before assigning it for homework. 
  • Remember not all students have computer access at home so have a “back up plan” such as having students stay after school to use your computers or see if your technology teacher would let you borrow the computer lab. 
  • Think about what your goal is. Ask yourself exactly what do you want your students to master. 
  • Start small. Try one subject and see how it goes for your students. Make adjustments as necessary. 
  • Use videos that are already made from sites such as http://www.khanacademy.org, http://streaming.discoveryeducation.com or http://www.mathpickle.com/K-12/Videos.html to start you off. 
  • Try making your own videos once you get the hang of it. The kids love seeing and hearing you! 
  • Use it as a way to differentiate! 
  • Read up on it! There are lots of great articles out there and if you are on twitter follow #flipclass and see what educators are doing and saying all around the world.
What to do inside the ‘Flipped Class’

The idea behind the flipped classroom is easy to understand. This article gives some ideas about what to do in the classroom after the students have previewed the lesson. Here are some ideas from the article.
  • Set groups to produce visual, verbal or manual guidance for the material covered (Apps Explain Everything – Audioboo and iMovie) and have an ‘expert’ table run by the educator.
  • Give students a single stimulus to challenge their understanding of the theory and then produce their own extended writing task
  • Guess the learning objectives. Place the objectives in an envelope at the front of class. Complete tasks that allow for collaboration and discussion. Student/group guess the lesson objectives, closest wins prize. (Apps ICanAnimate – Animoto and Flipboard)
  • Ten sentence lesson. Educator is limited to ten sentences so students must chose their questions wisely. The fact that they already have content encourages collaboration and information filtering.
  • TV Quiz – Run by students based on ‘flipped’ video. (Apps Socrative and iMovie)

Jun 26, 2013

How To Create Powerful Student-Teacher Relationships

First of all, if you're not reading Edudemic, set a bookmark--for crying out loud.
Dr. Ruby K. Payne (2003) in A Framework for Understanding Poverty claims, “The key to achievement for students from poverty is in creating relationships with them.”
Students need to feel safe. When they don't feel safe, they become survivors, taking flight from their learning.
Structure and routine help alleviate fear: students know what to expect, know how the room will feel. That is, structure and routine around how we do things, not what we do. The brain needs stimulation to be healthy. Therefore, our lessons should contain variety; they should even create a bit of anxiety, which is healthy for learning. A looming deadline, a time limit, a set of demanding expectations can be very motivating (Nussbaum, 2012). The goal then becomes creating safety in structure but a push in the intellectual challenge.
Hand rubrics, exit slips, and pair sharing are tools that will lead to participation and positive relationships. Those are explained in the article.
The Flipped Classroom Infographic

Flipped Classroom
Created by Knewton and Column Five Media

Jun 25, 2013

The Quantile Framework for Mathematics

I'm trying to be proactive, so I'm using the Math Skills Database to get the prerequisites for every Math objective. That's where I'm starting when pretesting and planning.

From the site: Search this database for QTaxons using your state standards or any keywords. The database contains targeted, free resources appropriately matched to students by Quantile measure and math content.

Jun 24, 2013

Teach Like a Champion
by Doug Lemov

We use SLANT at my school. I didn't know where it came from until a teacher suggested this book. As the subtitle suggests, this book offers "49 techniques that put students on the path to college." Although I can appreciate some of these techniques, I won't use them to put my students on the path to college. I'll use them to bring structure, engagement, and fun to my classroom. It dawned on me this year--when teachers focus on college or even the next year, they forget about now. We tend to push too fast, focusing on time rather than the engagement and learning. We forget about the fun. Anyway...

As a math teacher, I found this bit quite interesting...
I often meet educators who take it as an article of faith that basic skills work in tension with higher-order thinking. That is, when you teach students to, say, memorize their multiplication tables, you are not only failing to foster more abstract and deeper knowledge but are interfering with it. This is illogical and, interestingly, one of the tenets of American education not shared by most of the educational systems in the world. Those nations are most likely to see that foundational skills like memorizing multiplication tables enable higher-order thinking and deeper insight because they free students from having to use up their cognitive processing capacity in more basic calculations. To have the insight to observe that a more abstract principle is at work in a problem or that there is another way to solve it, you cannot be concentrating on the computation. That part has to happen with automaticity so that as much of your processing capacity as possible can remain free to reflect on what you're doing. The more proficient you are at "lower-order" skills, the more proficient you can become at higher order skills.
For several years, I've waited after questions longer than usual. I did it because students stall and hope that teachers move along. However, there's more to it...
Minds work fast, and the amount of additional time necessary to improve the quality of answers may be small. Some research has shown that when students are given just three to five seconds of wait time after a question, several key things are likely to happen: The length and correctness of student responses are likely to increase. The number of failures to respond is likely to decrease. The number of students who volunteer to answer is likely to increase. The use of evidence in answers is likely to increase.
Over the last few years, I've given a lot of thought to management, rewards, and punishments. I've tried individual consequences, small-group consequences, and whole-class consequences. Long story short, I have no idea what I'm doing...
When schools or teachers over-rely on management, a death spiral ensures: students become desensitized to consequences and Machiavellian about rewards; more of each is required to achieve the same or lesser effect; students become increasingly insensitive to the larger doses, and the larger doses signal to students either the desperation of their teacher or that they are problem kids, not successful kids, and the currency is not only a positive part of an effective classroom culture.
Of all of the techniques, I will focus on a few for this school year...

To reinforce high expectations, I like No Opt Out.
When planning, I will Begin with the End.
I will Circulate as I teach.
Increasing engagement, I'll use Call and Response. If I can man up, I'll also use Vegas.
For a strong classroom culture, I can't wait to use Props.
In setting and maintaining high expectations, I will consider his ideas on No Warnings.
Positive Framing is a great way to build character and trust.
And I'll improve my pacing by remembering the age+2 rule.

Mr. Lemov has a website with ideas, videos, and a blog. Check it out.

Jun 18, 2013

Ohio Study Finds No Correlation Between Teacher Rating, Salary

I'm having a tough time with this one.

According to data collected from Ohio’s new value-added teacher ratings, there appears to be little correlation between how much value an instructor brings to each student and how much that instructor is paid.
This is the bit that had me throwing up my hands...
In some ways, these results are no surprise: The way Ohio schools determine teachers’ salaries has nothing to do with how well they teach. It has everything to do with how long they’ve been teaching and whether they have a master’s degree.
So, were they studying value/salary or value/quality? To me, it seems silly to expect variation when you know salary is simply based on years. I guess it's logical to think that experience leads to quality, but, come on, that's not necessarily true. A crap teacher this year is a crap year next year. And a fantastic teacher will probably improve from year to year, but that teacher also has to deal with a myriad of variables. 

My frustration over this article grew when I read...
The StateImpact/Plain Dealer analysis is based on the new assessment scheme that uses standardized test scores to determine how much teachers contribute to each individual student’s success. The approach seeks to give a more objective answer to the question “What makes a teacher good?”
Before my students took the Texas STAAR test this year, I told them that they weren't a number. A test or three tests do not define them. I guess we can't say the same thing about Ohio teachers. 

UPDATE: On Dr. Ravitch's blog, I found a related post, Ohio Teachers Subjected to Junk Science Ratings.

Jun 17, 2013

Documenting Learning in Mathematics (or any other subject) using Padlet

After taking photos with the iPads or creating a Thinglink photo, I've had the students post to Edmodo. But, that means I have to scroll through 60 posts to see all of them. Padlet would group all of the responses in one gallery. Next year, I'll have five classes, so I'll create five Padlets--organized and easy to assess.

Plus, I love QR codes, so I appreciate what Mr. G has done with that. Here is an example from the article.

Jun 16, 2013

8 Research Findings Supporting the Benefits of Gamification in Education

Oh, boy, it's always nice to see research support great ideas. While there are eight findings explained in the article, I'll list the first three.

1. Game playing can develop a positive attitude towards mathematics for children
2. Video games can lessen disruptive behaviors and enhance positive development in ADHD children
3. Children who construct their own video games experience increased cognitive and social growth
How One Teacher Turned Sixth Grade Into An MMO

This was an article about Ben Bertoli and his gamification project, ClassRealm. Again, I appreciate this type of article. At some point, I will craft a plan from the best ideas.
The system would have RPG elements and focus on various achievements. I made the achievements tiered so students would be able to earn the lower ones quickly and get a sense of how it felt to profit from their hard work and good deeds. The whole management process would be based on working hard, doing well on assignments and tests, and being kind to others.