Invent Anything

As someone who has spent a lifetime in education, I’m always on the lookout for free or cheap ways to do cool stuff in classrooms. Whenever a new idea comes out, I always try to find ways to lower costs or to get the latest fad for free. I obviously don’t mind spending money on quality products (hello, Apple and WordPress), but I have to be wowed before I can be convinced to splurge on something that costs money. I’m fearful of not spending wisely or spending money on something that could be irrelevant in a year or two. It seems that technology improves so fast that it can be difficult to commit to anything because you fear your purchase might be obsolete in a few months. As David Pogue wrote in Scientific American, “It’s human to fear new technology.” However, you can’t let fear of making a bad decision paralyze progress. You need to take chances and try your hardest to give students all the tools they will need to be competitive in an ever-evolving workplace.

In an edcamp raffle last week, I won a Little Bits Base Kit that comes with everything youbaseBoxAngled need to get started creating amazing inventions. Little Bits says their mission is to “democratize hardware” but I think they have done more than that. They have created a way to bring the spirit of innovation to students by introducing them to circuits, hardware, basic technology, and encouraging them to experiment. I set out to test Little Bits with my seven-year-old son and am blown away by the product. I think a series of Vines will tell our Little Bits story better than words, so here it is:

We opened the box and made a buzzer (you need sound):

We used the dimmer (you need sound):

We made a tickle machine (this is cool and it works):

We made a windmill (I’m most proud of this!):

Watch the founder of the company, Ayah Bdeir talk about why she wanted to democratize hardware. After watching her talk and playing with Little Bits, you’ll realize why they should probably be a cornerstone of every classroom makerspace.

What am I doing here?

It seems obvious that students might find it helpful to know what they are going to be learning, and yet, consistently sharing learning intensions with students is a relatively recent phenomenon in most classrooms. –Dylan Wiliam

After a post last week about articulating learning goals, a question was e-mailed to me by an educator who wanted to know if learning goals need to be written on the board for every lesson. Sometimes the objective of a lesson, the educator rightly asserted, is to have students discover answers on their own without direction from a teacher.  A classic example of this is a SOLE lesson, where student inquiry is guided by a single question and Za learning objective is not present. Students are encouraged to discover meaning during their pursuit of an answer. Whether or not teachers should make learning objectives present for students during a SOLE lesson or other inquiry-based activity is a great question as it addresses a fundamental principle of lesson design and classroom management. Namely, how much information do we need to give students so they can answer this question: What am I doing here? Luckily, Dylan Wiliam writes about this dilemma in his recent book, Embedded Formative Assessment, so we can turn to him for an answer. Wiliam and his book are amazing, by the way.

Wiliam calls the sometimes mandated approach of having teachers post a learning objective before each class “wallpaper objective.” Clearly, with a term like this, Wiliam is not in favor of this approach. Wiliam believes that “sometimes it’s not even a good idea to tell the students what the lesson is about” (56). A SOLE lesson is a classic example of this. The point of a SOLE lesson is for students to discover meaning behind a question by working together to make connections between relevant material. Therefore, for Wiliam, it is not necessary to post a learning objective during each class. “Sometimes we can be very specific, such as when we require laboratory reports to be structured in a particular way–diagrams are to be drawn in pencil and labeled, and so on,” explains Wiliam. “At other times, it may be that the best we can do is help the students develop what Guy Claxton calls a ‘nose for quality'” (58). Rubrics can play a part in this process as long as they are shared with students who are given time to think through, in discussion with others, what the rubrics mean.

Wiliam believes that sometimes it is appropriate for the teacher to present learning intentions and success criteria to students at the beginning of a lesson. He shares that teachers of younger students find the acronyms WALT (We are learning to) and WILF (What I’m looking for) to be helpful at informing students of a lesson’s intent. “Unfortunately,” Wiliam writes, “in many districts, the pendulum has swung too far the other way: a lesson is regarded as a bad lesson if the teacher fails to post a learning objective at the start” (69). Wiliam does include in his book some ways learning goals can be reinforced without resorting to “wallpaper.”

Wiliam’s Non-Wallpaper Techniques for Clarifying Goals

  1. Have students look and analyze samples of other students’ work
  2. Peer review where students discuss the quality of their work
  3. Have students design test items with correct answers about what they have been learning

I don’t think it’s necessarily bad if a teacher were to post an objective with every lesson. However, like Wiliam, I don’t think it’s essential for classroom success. If I saw a successful lesson, I would never find fault with a teacher for not writing a learning objective on the board–especially when the point of the lesson might be to have students find their own question-mark-452707_640connections. What makes a genuine difference in a classroom is when a teacher works to ensure that the questions they are asking students are of a high level, that all students get to participate in the learning process, that the problems students try and solve are written clearly and are relevant to learners, and norms have been established in a classroom so students can be given freedom to explore material while staying on task. Oftentimes lessons are not as successful as they can be because one or more of these things are missing. We should always strive to make our lessons and meetings as specific as possible for participants, and agendas, clearly defined learning objectives, and rubrics are a big part of this. “Like everything else in teaching,” Wiliam summarizes, “there are no simple rules, and it is up to the teacher to exercise professional judgement in how best to communicate learning intentions and success criteria to students” (69). It’s important to note that the less students have to wonder “what am I doing here?” the more time they will have to think about a task.

 

Articulating Effective Learning Goals

“When instructors do not clearly articulate their goals, it is difficult for students to know what (or how) to practice.” Susan Ambrose in How Learning Works

As teachers and students enter final exam or benchmark season it’s important to remember a key concept in assessment creation: articulating effective learning goals. These goals, also called objectives, help inform students about what they are supposed to do when they encounter a task. In the book How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, Susan Ambrose and her co-authors explain the importance of using learning objectives to help students have success in class. Objectives can appear in curriculum documents, with project instructions when handed out to students, or in a rubric that is given to students before they begin work on an assessment. “Learning objectives,” explain the authors, “articulate the knowledge and skills you want students to acquire by the end of the course or after completing a particular assignment.” There are numerous advantages to using clearly articulated learning objectives with students:

  1. Communicate intent to students
  2. Provide a framework for organizing course content
  3. Help guide decisions about appropriate teaching and learning activities

Numerous studies have shown that the use of objectives can positively impact student learning. One study from the 1970s found that students who were given specific goals when they were learning from a text paid more attention to passages that were relevant to their goals and hence learned those passages better as they read. Another study conducted a few years ago found that creating a rubric and sharing it with students before they work on an assignment led to better outcomes in terms of the quality of work produced and in the students’ knowledge of the qualities associated with good work (Ambrose et al. 128-130).

An old friend named Benjamin Bloom can help educators create learning objectives through the action verbs contained in his taxonomy. For example, a sample end-of-course learning objective for a dance class shared in How Learning Works could ask students to “execute different choreographic styles” or in an engineering class it could ask students to “analyze simple circuits that include resistors and capacitors.” Bloom’s taxonomy was created in the 1950s and represents six levels of intellectual behavior organized from low-level to high. Action verbs developed by Bloom can help educators create learning objectives that focus on concrete actions and behaviors. “Furthermore,” the authors in How Learning Works explain, “using action verbs reduces ambiguity in what it means to ‘understand.'”

Here is a chart of sample verbs from How Learning Works using Bloom’s Taxonomy:

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Another proponent of using clearly articulated learning goals with students was Grant Wiggins, who passed away a few days ago from a heart condition. In fact, identifying goals is the first step in Wiggins’s theory of curriculum development. I was shocked when I saw a tweet from his daughter sharing the sad news. Wiggins had such a profound impact on my life as an educator with the theory of backward planning he set forth in his book Understanding by Design. However, it was through his blog “Granted, and…” that I felt like I really got to know Wiggins and his philosophy. His blog was a must read for me. In fact, over the past couple of years, I considered his blog the most important resource for educators on the web. His clear prose and ability to publish thought-provoking blog posts every week was inspirational. He was an intellectual leader and champion for good teaching. He will obviously be missed. So, in honor of Wiggins, take a look at a recent assignment given to students. Were you clear in what you expected students to do? In other words, did your instructions to students contain clearly-articulated learning goals (and yes, a rubric really is just a collection of these) that explained what you wanted them to learn?

Some Thoughts on Student Engagement

The educator and founder of the Understanding By Design curriculum model, Grant Wiggins, recently relayed the results of a survey he administered in a fairly typical American high school. The roughly 1000 students Wiggins surveyed attended a suburban school in the midwest and earned respectable test scores. The survey Wiggins used asked students questions about how they liked their classroom experiences. About 2/3 of the students attending the school answered Wiggins’s survey. Of the students who responded, about 95% reported feeling bored at some point during their school day. About half of the students indicated that they were either bored each day in many classes or a little bored for brief periods each day in one or more classes. In the most startling statistic, only about 5% of the students polled indicated they were rarely bored during a typical day at school. One of the most cited reasons by students in the survey for their boredom was that “the teacher talks too much.”

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Source: https://grantwiggins.wordpress.com/2014/05/21/fixing-the-high-school/

After teaching for over a decade and observing hundreds of classes, I can attest to the dangers of too much “teacher talk.” However, is teacher talk, more commonly called “direct instruction,” always a bad thing? What causes student boredom? The fact is, no clear-cut reason has ever been established for what students mean when they say they are bored in schools.

In a 2003 review of the academic literature on boredom, Stephen Vodanovich concluded that there really is no agreed-upon definition of what boredom is (Vodanovich 570). One study Vodanovich found equated boredom with “monotonous or repetitive activities;” in another study it was equated with “a state of relatively low arousal and dissatisfaction which is attributed to an inadequately stimulating environment” (Vodanovich 570). These two definitions, while somewhat different, do present us with a starting point in trying to define what students mean when they say they are “bored” in school. Monotony, repetition, and inadequately stimulating environments are likely to cause student boredom. While this seems obvious when reading it here, the reality is it can happen in classrooms across the world (and in department meetings!). When planning, it is imperative to keep these causes in mind.

To find out definitively the reasons why students feel they are bored in school, a few years ago, a team of researchers began conducting what is perhaps the largest study on student boredom ever undertaken in American schools. Beginning in 2003, the group of scientists and educators from Indiana University set out to measure precisely what students meant when they said they were “bored” in class. The researchers’ intent was to isolate the factors inducing boredom and determine how they could use the student feedback to strengthen classroom engagement. What is now known as the High School Survey of Student Engagement Institute (HSSSE), these researchers administered a questionnaire to students across the country in hopes of figuring out just how engaged—or not engaged—high school students were. In 2009, HSSSE published a report on their findings. 103 schools from 27 states participated and 42,754 students answered survey questions about their classroom experiences. The data told the researchers at the institute a telling story about the state of student engagement in American classrooms.

The researchers at Indiana University defined boredom simply as a “temporary form of dis-engaging from school” (Yazzie-Mintz 6) then asked students two very specific questions about it in the survey. Students were asked the following: “Have you ever been bored in class in high school?” and “If you have been bored in class, why?” The scale of the HSSSE report makes their findings particularly valuable. Nearly half of all students reported being bored every day they were in school. 17% of students polled for the 2009 report indicated they were bored in every class they took. Only 2% of students reported never being bored in school (Yazzie-Mintz 6). This means that out of over 42,000 students, only about 850 reported that they were always interested in what was happening at school. These results mirror closely what Wiggins found in his single-school survey.

The researchers found the most oft-cited reason students were bored in school was lack of engagement during direct instruction, more commonly known as teacher talk. As the bar graph illustrates, when asked the degree of excitement or engagement students felt when a teacher used direct instruction, nearly 45% of all respondents said “not at all.” Of all the pedagogical models identified in the survey, teacher lecture was clearly the least liked activity. Only a little over 5% of students claimed they liked that model “very much.”

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Source: http://ceep.indiana.edu/hssse/images/HSSSE_2010_Report.pdf

For students, the most popular classroom activities in terms of engagement were discussion and debate, group projects, and projects and lessons involving technology. The 2009 HSSSE report made it clear to educators that students respond better to hands-on inquiry-based learning and not direct instruction (Yazzie-Mintz 11). So, if you are a teacher utilizing direct instruction frequently, the statistics indicate that between 1/3 and 2/3 (or more!) of your students will likely be disengaged and probably bored during your talk.

I learned this lesson the hard way. I can remember one lesson in particular that really stunk. At the time, I thought my idea was going to be a dynamic way to bring Greek history to life. I spent the better part of a weekend at the library researching the intricacies of the ancient Athenian political system. I created a PowerPoint presentation that touched on key facets of Athenian democracy from the Areopagus to the Boule. I felt my presentation was good—so good, in fact, I bet it could have been given to a class of graduate students. I was so excited that week to lecture about the Greeks! I had even found a flow chart describing how Athenians participated politically. What freshman in high school world history would not want to hear that explained? In what was my first year or two of teaching, I found nothing odd about the fact that during the presentation, I would be the only one doing the talking. This is what all my college professors did, I reasoned.

When I gave my presentation, I talked to my students about how Solon laid the foundation for Athenian democracy and how the reforms of Cleisthenes organized voters into demes to limit the power of the aristocracy. Throughout the course of about twenty-five slides, I broke down the nature of the Athenian political system as my students sat and listened during the 70 minutes of class. I did a great job of explaining the intricacies of Athenian politics; my graduate school professors would have been so proud. The only problem was my audience was about twenty-five fourteen-year-olds who after politely listening to me for a few minutes became more interested in what was for lunch than they were in my telling them about the history of ancient Greek politics. My excitement giving the lesson quickly dissipated as I realized the students did not care that much about ancient Greece—or at least my version of ancient Greece. I knew by looking into the eyes of my students as I talked about Solon that I had lost them.

As I progressed in my teaching career, I realized that the more I lectured, the more I bored many of my students. In fact, my Greek democracy presentation became legendary in its ability to induce boredom. I even used it to threaten students if they acted up. “Hey, if you guys don’t behave, I can always give my Greek democracy presentation,” I would say to nervous laughter. The reality was my students did not hate history. My students just preferred to be active in the discovery process instead of having me discover history for them.

I found that very few students wanted to sit for an entire class period and listen to me talk. Over the years, I found myself editing more and more out of my presentations in hopes of engaging students. In fact, I stopped giving the Greek democracy presentation all together. After a few years of teaching, I realized I was not as successful as I thought. I needed to listen to my students through surveys and daily feedback about what was and was not working for them. I needed to tailor my classroom activities around what they liked to do. In short, I realized a student-centered classroom was essential if I was going to engage, inspire, and get students to love history.

Sources:

Vodanovich, Stephen. “Psychometric Measures of Boredom: A Review of the Literature.” Journal of Psychology 137.6 (2003): 569-595. Web.

Wiggins, Grant. “Fixing the High School—Student Survey, Part 1.” Granted, and…~thoughts on education by Grant Wiggins.” N.p. 21 May 2014. Web.

Yazzie-Mintz, Ethan. “Charting the Path from Engagement to Achievement: A Report            on the 2009 High School Survey of Student Engagement.” Center for Evaluation & Education Policy. (2009): 1-26. Web.

Making the Classics Relevant

This post is by Bree Valvano, an English teacher at Randolph High School

While I believe reading classic literature is a valuable experience, helping students see how the themes and ideas in these works are relevant to their own lives can be a challenge. My Ancient_Greek_theatre_Segesta996English IV classes recently finished reading the play Antigone. While no one can argue the value of the play, I wanted to come up with a way for my students to demonstrate their understanding of the major themes while also showing them how the themes are still relevant and how they connect to their own interests. The Antigone Making the Movie Project helped me to achieve my objective.

Antigone

For this project, students were challenged to create a prospectus for a movie connected to one of the themes in the play. Students had to select the theme that was most interesting to them and create several documents including a rationale, a movie poster, a script for a major scene in their movie, and a movie trailer using iMovie. The results were outstanding. One group focused on civil rights and fighting against discrimination. One group focused on a female’s right to play football, a typically male sport. No matter what movie idea the students decided to focus on, they were required to make connections between the theme in Antigone and the theme in their movie. Below you will find two movie trailers my students created for the project. When you give students choices and the power to create something that is meaningful to them, you will be happy with the results.

 

Let’s Bring Back Dialogue

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In the April issue of Educational Leadership is an article called “The Art of Dialogue.” I think it’s an important read for both teachers and administrators. Oscar Graybill–director of Socratic Seminars International–and Lois Brown Easton discuss the benefits of dialogue in an organization over other forms of communication. “Genuine dialogue affects a school’s culture,” they write. The authors cite a former study that divides talking into four different categories:

  1. Conversation: talk about personal and social matters that is usually not directed or facilitated
  2. Discussion: talk that has a purpose and the purpose is often to make a decision
  3. Debate: talk that is an extreme form of discussion where people are forced to take sides
  4. Dialogue: talk that is more structured than conversation with the goal of engaging people in building their understanding of an issue

These four ways of talking all achieve different results. However, the authors contest that aimages focus on using dialogue during meetings can help people “dig deeper into ideas, become more thoughtful, listen well, recognize assumptions, and see connections.” For organizations, dialogue can help improve how people talk about ideas and can lead to more collaboration.

Learning and practicing dialogue take time. Schools that understand and value the benefits of a culture of shared understanding don’t just find the time—they make the time for teachers to practice both structured and open dialogue. –Oscar Graybill & Lois Brown Easton

I think it’s true that organizations do not make enough time for dialogue. The authors believe that if dialogue is implemented regularly the “resulting power shift breaks down traditional, hierarchical leadership.” I also think it’s true that organizations (and classrooms) need to find the time for genuine dialogue. A good place to start is with establishing norms for what successful dialogue looks like. The authors include a list of fifteen rules for guiding dialogue that I’ve included below. Let’s use them to bring back dialogue!

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Source

Graybill, Oscar, and Lois Brown Easton. “The Art of Dialogue.” Educational Leadership 72.7 (2015): n. pag. Web. 27 April 2015.

Primary Sources & Post-It Notes

This post is by Michael Lonie, a history teacher at Randolph High School

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Recently, I have been exploring new ways of integrating primary source analysis and discussion in the social studies classroom. In my Advanced Placement European History course, we constantly read, annotate, and analyze primary source documents to help the students better understand the major trends and paradigm shifts in European thought. I noticed that things began to get a bit stale in our normal classroom discussions, and I wanted to attempt a lesson that would both reinvigorate the conversation, while continuing to assess all students on their comprehension of the material. My solution came in the form of a wonderful professional development offered by the instructional coaches at Randolph High School. At a recent workshop, the coaches introduced ways to use Post-It notes of all shapes and sizes in a variety of different classroom activities. This “Post-It Pandemonium” is entirely student-centered, and provides easy ways for teachers to assess progress and comprehension while keeping students engaged in the lesson.

In order to apply these Post-It activities in my AP European History course, I designed a discussion-based lesson centered on the European philosophers Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill. For the lesson, students were attempting to evaluate the differing opinions ofScreen Shot 2015-04-14 at 12.42.54 PM the two philosophers regarding individuality and community in nineteenth-century Europe. In preparation for this lesson, students needed to read and annotate a primary source packet with documents from both philosophers, as well as a variety of different critiques to their positions. Upon arriving to the class, students were divided into groups of three, and given a large Post-It note. Half of the groups were assigned to be experts on Marx, and the other half of the students focused on Mill’s theories of Utilitarianism. Students then had time to summarize their philosopher’s position regarding individuality on the Post-It note, incorporating evidence from the text. After placing these large Post-It notes on the board, a representative from each group chose a Post-It from the opposing philosopher, and, on a separate, smaller Post-It, had to write how their philosopher would respond to the ideas written on the original note. During this time, I circulated the room, and was extremely impressed with the high level of discussion occurring within each group. The students worked diligently to assume the role of their philosopher, and to justify their beliefs with textual evidence.

After placing their philosopher’s rebuttal on the board, I decided to add one last twist to the lesson. After briefly discussing the initial analysis with all students, I gave each group a Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 12.41.21 PMcritique of their original philosopher from a nineteenth-century intellectual (i.e. Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Pope Leo XIII). Students then had to read the primary source from their critic, and, on an even smaller Post-It note, write how this critic would respond to the writings of their original philosopher. When the students placed their final products on the board, they had a chain of Post-It notes analyzing their original philosopher’s beliefs, a response from either Marx or Mill, and a critique from nineteenth-century society. We ended class with a brief discussion, peppering in any material the students may have missed during their small-group discussion. Based on the exit tickets from the class, students were not only able to meet the lesson’s objectives, but they appeared to have a fun time along the way. As I circulated the room, I found myself engaged in the small-group discussions, and was able to interact with students individually. Overall, I found that incorporating Post-Its into my classroom discussion was a simple and engaging way of assessing student learning, and I would definitely plan these activities into future lessons in the social studies classroom.