Category Archives: Inspiration

Doing What’s Never Been Done Before

Sometimes, we have to apply our knowledge and skills to something that has never been done before. Consider NASA’s Curiosity mission to Mars. The final descent to Mars is affectionately referred to as “Seven Minutes of Terror.” The video below demonstrates this point.

For NASA scientists, they were presented the problem of the unknown. In order to land Curiosity safely, they had to depend on their knowledge and training as applied in a theoretical context.

Think about the kind of tasks we ask our students to complete when applying knowledge. Do we ask them to attempt the unknown? Do we ever challenge them with tasks that are unsafe or untried? Or do we simply ask them to repeat back the content we’ve presented to them in lectures, readings, and research projects?

Rarely do we have problems in our real lives that resemble the problems we solved in school. So, why not design authentic tasks that challenge students to apply the content to new scenarios beyond their limited scope?

I am not suggesting the impossible. To engage students and really push their learning, sometimes we have to ask them to do something they have never tried, maybe even something no one has ever tried.

So, while you reflect on last year’s students and prep for next year’s group, consider the impossible and the never-been-done. Dream of ways in which your students can stretch their learning to new and unimaginable contexts. The results might be as exciting as   “Seven Minutes of Terror” or at least feature the kind of engagement and authentic learning we strive for in our students.

[H/T Boingboing]

Zac Early is an instructional specialist and blogger for the eMINTS National Center.

Challenging Perceptions in Education

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There are entire libraries and databases filled with research in education. However, educators often ignore research in favor of experience and a “feel” for teaching. We teachers have a sixth sense that we know what our students need even if it doesn’t jive with the research.

These perceptions are valid, though. After years of experience and tradition, many times how we facilitate learning doesn’t require researched methodology. We know our students and what they need. We know what to expect and how to respond in the classroom.

However, perceptions can be wrong.

Take same-sex classrooms. It’s a relatively popular trend in public education. Classrooms are populated by either boys or girls in order to eliminate deficiencies caused by gender constructs. Girls are more willing to take leadership roles and boys are more able feed off of the competition they generate among themselves, or so the thinking goes. Most of this thinking is based on psychology and a sense among educators that “this just makes sense.”

However, the research on classrooms segregated by gender suggests otherwise. Research is showing that single-sex segregation increases stereotyping and prejudice among students. Also, single-sex classrooms narrow students’ skill sets and interests.

Not only is the research calling single-sex classrooms ineffective and even detrimental, some are looking into whether this approach is even lawful. The American Civil Liberties Union is fighting single-sex classrooms all across the nation. It is the ACLU’s contention that single-sex education perpetuates stereotypes in much the same way that race-based segregated schools once did in this country.

Still, some educators just feel like this approach will work, ignoring the research.

Another example of how our perceptions of students and how they learn happens in the area of technological proficiency. It is perceived that the millennials (those born and raised around the turn of the century) are well-prepared for the technological requirements of the modern workforce. However, just because they are completely surrounded by technology does not mean that they are adept at using it productively.

These perceptions can be quite damaging. The assumption that students know how to best use productivity software and even code leads to a lack of instruction and guidance in these areas, failing to properly prepare them for college or the workforce. It’s akin to assuming every student can read at the same level when they enter a particular grade.

Although we as teachers have experience and instinct on our side, it just isn’t enough in every instance. Turning to data gleaned from formative assessments and academic research to make instructional decisions will only enhance our perception. Expertise can help us sort through this data and make the research work for us.

Take eMINTS for instance. The eMINTS Instructional Model and curriculum is not a collection of arbitrary methodology based on perception. We spend a lot of time researching tools, pedagogy, and methods to bring to teachers. The research on our program has shown mostly success. Even when implementation hasn’t been overwhelmingly successful, the eMINTS model has never been found to be a detriment to student achievement.

Our perception of eMINTS is based on fact, not just a feel.

As you reflect on your year and begin to plan for a new year, challenge your perceptions. Is there research that backs up your gut feeling? What does student data tell you about your classroom approach? Challenge long-held perceptions with research. In the end, your time will spent much more effectively and efficiently.

Zac Early is an instructional specialist and blogger for the eMINTS National Center.


If Something Bores You, Dig Deeper

I caught a bit of inspiration at the tail end of the following TEDEd video, “The Wacky History of Cell Theory.”

The video conclude with the following quote:

If something bores you, dig deeper. It’s probably got a really weird story behind it somewhere.

Of course, as professionals who have chosen to teach our favorite subject(s), little about these subjects bore us. However, that doesn’t often apply to our students. Many topics bore them. While the message in the video could apply to students taking some initiative to dig deeper for those “weird” stories behind “boring” content, the responsibility also lies with teachers to find and share these stories.

Storytelling is vastly overlooked in a standards-driven educational environment. However, just because standards and curriculum direct what we should teach it doesn’t mean that we can’t find new and interesting ways to deliver said content. Imagine how much more engaged students would be if there were stories like the one above for every content strand and state standard.

Maybe some of our work or even casual reading choices this summer could be re-purposed for digging up these stories. Let’s find ways to tell the stories behind the topics that bore our students most. Better yet, let’s have our students dig up these stories and tell each other.

The key is to remember that all the content we cover in school has an interesting story or collection of stories behind it. This is what connects this content to the real world. Knowing that an idea learned in school has a story involving real people with common obstacles makes that content even more authentic in its origins. Plus, a really engaging story can be something to which students can connect.

How have you used storytelling to further your students’ understanding of a topic? Which topics lend themselves best to storytelling? In what ways could you imagine storytelling helping your students understand various concepts?

Zac Early is an instructional specialist and blogger with the eMINTS National Center.

Looking Toward the Future


Last week, I read an interesting post on David Warlick’s 2¢ Worth blog. In “Becoming Future-Ready“, Warlick points out the trouble with predicting the future based on current knowledge through film interpretations of the future. Depictions of mobile computers space travel in 1984’s 2010 (sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey) were fairly inaccurate, almost laughable.

This happens often in film, literature, even in governmental and institutional policy-making. We make predictions based on what we already know. It is impossible to foresee every development or discovery that will change the direction of society and culture in the coming decades.

A good representation of the limitations of a particular time period looking toward future innovation comes in the satirical videos portraying current social media tools in the context of past decades. For example, here’s a look at Google had it been invented in the 1980’s:

Granted, this video is made with hindsight being as perfect as it is, but it is not beyond possibility that such predictions would have occurred 30 years ago. Based on the technology of that time period, it would have been nearly impossible for anyone to have predicted what Google (among many other websites) would look like or function in the future. These predictions would have been limited by the constraints of the times.

Still, as Warlick points out, we insist on predicting what this future will look like for our students. This persistence to predict what students will need after they graduate and enter the workforce is even “arrogant.” How can we accurately predict what students will need to know 10, 15, 20 years from now with only the knowledge we currently possess?

Warlick summarizes what needs to happen perfectly:

How our children learn is critical today, not so much as a point of pedagogy, but for the development of a distinct and most important skill – learning.

Basing what and how we teach on the past is limiting for our students. What needs to be fostered is a love of learning that goes beyond rote memorization. After all, we are preparing them for a future we cannot comprehend. So why not prepare them for something bigger than a standardized test? Why not prepare them for life?

What skills and/or knowledge do you see as necessary for our students’ future? What do you do to prepare students for a future we can’t predict?

Zac Early is an instructional specialist and blogger for the eMINTS National Center.

Forgotten Algebra

The above xkcd comic expresses a common sentiment. Adults sometimes look back at things they learned (and forgot) in school that they have never had to use since graduation. There’s almost a pride that goes along with forgetting everything one learned in school. I don’t know whether this is tied into anti-elitism or a sense of self-sufficiency, but we are proud that we forget how to do math (among other things) as adults.

Is it true that the knowledge taught in school has never been utilized since moving into the work force? Maybe. However, the difference might lie in how we use these skills or knowledge in school and how we may use them in the “real world.”

A comic like the one above should remind us just how important it is to make the work and learning students do in our classrooms as authentic as possible. We have to find ways in which to relate curricula so that students either won’t want to forget what is learned in class. Making content authentic does not guarantee better retention, but it will at least make the learning more meaningful and even more memorable than algebra was for the women in the xkcd comic.

Zac Early is an instructional specialist and blogger for the eMINTS National Center.

How well do your students communicate?

A recent survey found that communication skills are both the most sought after skills in new hires as well as the hardest to find. Of course, for some, this points to the importance of the liberal arts education over fields like business and finance. Still, for K-12 educators, the lesson learned here is that we have to find ways to facilitate better communication skills in our students, no matter the discipline.

Effective communicators get jobs. Period. The same skills also allow students to thrive in their lives after high school, particularly in higher education and not just in the workforce. Remember all those papers and presentations you had to complete while in college? A lot can be said for developing effective communication skills in regards to future success.

Now the trick is to identify when or where these skills can be developed. If one teaches reading and writing, communication skills are a natural fit, but other disciplines can be challenging to communicate. Consider the following times when communication can be developed:

  • Use cooperative learning strategies to engage all students in classroom discussion. Such strategies as Think-Pair-Share, Three-Step Interview, or Numbered Heads Together all work well for encouraging discussion. [Link]
  • Journals and blogs that collect student thinking before, during, and after projects not only help them put their ideas into writing, but peer and teacher comments along with revisiting said writing can promote crafting one’s ideas into coherent ideas.
  • Many teachers point to the importance of vocabulary in every subject area. However, we miss an opportunity to use a constructivist approach in teaching word meanings. Why not allow students to identify and define phenomena for themselves? Then teachers can simply give them the formal terminology to pair with their created meanings.
  • Reflection in the form of exit tickets allows students to not only compartmentalize all the new knowledge they’ve encountered, but it also allows the teacher to conduct some formative assessment.
  • Peer feedback can be a powerful communication practice. Students can often speak more eloquently about a peer’s work than they can their own. The resulting discussion can help both those providing feedback as well as those receiving it with developing how they talk about learning. Some helpful strategies can be found here.
  • Provide question stems to spur classroom discussion. Sometimes, students don’t ask good questions of each other because they just don’t know how to begin or what they do know is very limited. Why not provide them with some question stems to get them started? Start with this helpful list of stems organized in Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Still, even with these practices in place, it is important to remember that students need to be taught how to communicate. The above ideas only provide opportunities for practice and development. They only work if students know the best ways to communicate, avoiding bad habits along the way. A few ways in which we can teach students to better communicate follow:

  • Model not only how you would communicate your ideas but include your thinking. Sharing our metacognition with students helps to show them how and why we think the way we do.
  • Practice communicating their thoughts and ideas with them. Maybe start with rewording or inserting vocabulary into their explanations. Then move on to having them restate or even repeat ideas in a clearer format.
  • Tons of feedback should be given. Feedback is as simple as praising a student for expressing an idea clearly to suggesting how their message might be interpreted by others. When there isn’t time to respond to every idea communicated by your students, be sure to build in lots of peer feedback opportunities.
  • Practice. Practice. Practice. Have students explain everything either verbally or in written form. If this means they do half as many math problems, that’s okay. The benefits of reflecting and explaining their thinking at every step of the way helps make their work time more effective and focused on learning instead of memorizing.

If there’s one thing I can say for teachers, it’s that they are master communicators. They find all sorts of ways to deliver content to their students to help them understand and grow. The challenge now is to pass those gifts on to our students so that they can succeed when we’re not there to help them.

How important is communication in your classroom? What other ways can you help students develop communication skills? Which software features and online apps best help develop communication skills in students?

Zac Early is an instructional specialist and blogger for the eMINTS National Center.

You’re One of Today’s Lucky 10,000

I saw this xkcd comic today and it got me thinking. Consider that 10,000 adults hear something for the first time every day in the US. Imagine what those numbers would be like for students in grades K-12. It certainly puts what we do for our students into perspective.

I don’t mean to say that teachers tease students for not knowing what we think is basic knowledge. Far from it. What often happens is that we expect a lot of our students even when they demonstrate that they just don’t know. Maybe they’ve heard it before, but have they heard it in a way that they can remember? What do we do when students don’t meet these expectations?

Sometimes, we have to actually teach our students. Student-centered doesn’t mean that the teacher is no longer involved in the learning. Facilitating learning doesn’t mean that there is never a need for direct instruction. When students don’t know, we have to teach them.

This issue often arises when students are unable to complete basic research, collaboration, or production strategies. In these cases, it’s important that we teach students how we expect them to act and what processes we expect them employ.

When student knowledge of concepts is missing to complete a task, we have to find ways to teach this information as well. Have we facilitated a lesson that allows them to discover the content? Have we ever directly stated what it is that we want them to know? Have we made the necessary resources available for students to gain the knowledge they seek? No matter how rudimentary some content may be, sometimes students just need to be presented the material, even if it is for a second or third time.

The bottom line is that we are in this business to teach. The major objective for teaching is that students learn all they can in the short time we have them. I realize this is simplistic, but sometimes this idea gets lost when students are constantly being measured and asked to perform constantly with little time left for actual learning.

How does the comic address a teacher’s persona as a “lifelong learner”? How can the idea that there will be students hearing something for the first time every day affect your approach to teaching? What’s something you’ve learned for the first time as an adult?

Zac Early is an instructional specialist and blogger for the eMINTS National Center.

How We Make Meaning

How does this baby learn about his world? For the most part, this child is constructing his own meanings and ideas about how things work. While some of the parental guidance has been edited out of the video, there’s still four hours of footage (condensed into two minutes) of a baby simply exploring his world and making sense of it all.

Why can’t this be the same approach we take with students? Students can explore, inquire, and investigate the world around them in order to create their own meaning just as this baby is doing in the video. Of course, there are key elements that make this exploration possible.

The baby has some limitations. There is a limitation of space where the baby is learning. He is generally contained in this one room, not permitted to roam throughout the house. Part of this limitation is due to his lack of mobility, but it’s a limitation nonetheless. Similar limitations can be set for student inquiries. Identifying essential, guiding, and content questions can help with focusing the inquiry. Also, hooking them with engaging examples of the phenomena to be studies will provide parameters.

Another thing the baby has that encourages his inquiry is the ample supply and variety of resources. No matter where the baby turns or what he decides to do, there are toys (or sometimes other household objects) with which he can experiment. Providing resources can be challenge for cash-strapped schools, but the internet more than makes up for these shortcomings in the form of limitless literature, multimedia, and simulations.

Finally, the baby’s inquiry goes so well because there is a skilled, caring adult providing an opportunity to actively explore his world. Much of the child’s interaction with adults has been edited out, but one can tell by the way toys have been laid out and the simple fact that his entire play session has been recorded that this baby has adults who are looking out for his well-being. The same can be said for students with teachers who care enough about their learning that they sacrifice their time and financial gain in order to help their students grow intellectually.

With these support systems in place, students, like the baby in the video, will succeed in their efforts to inquire about the inner-workings of their world. Of course, this inquiry can’t take place in an environment that is too restrictive or encourages passivity. Structure, access to resources, and caring and thoughtful facilitation are musts for inquiry to succeed.

What lessons about learning do you glean from the above video? How might these lessons inform your teaching? What can you do better in providing opportunities of inquiry for your students?

Zac Early is an instructional specialist and blogger with the eMINTS National Center. A special hat tip is given to eMINTS staff members Carla Chaffin and Carmen Marty for pointing out this video in connection with inquiry.

Stop Motion Animation Made Easy – Part 3

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Welcome back to the third, and final, installment on stop-motion animation. When planning a stop motion animation project with students teachers need to be aware of the tools necessary, the steps for creating a project like this, some tips for success, and  additional resources to ensure students learn, have fun, and create quality products.
Basic materials/tools are all that is needed to get started:

  • Stop-Motion software (JellyCam or StoMo are just a couple available)
  • Digital camera (stand alone, iPad camera, phone camera, web cam)
  • Tripod or sturdy base for camera/computer/iPad
  • Lighting
  • MovieMaker or iMovie *adding audio and splicing with other media like video (optional)

How To:

  1. Plan the movie using a storyboard (visuals and audio/script)
  2. Design set, characters, and props
  3. Determine Frames Per Second (# of images needed to make a second = # of images needed to make the full length feature) Frames Per Second for video are normally 30 but programs can let you adjust that) – let your students do the calculations when planning their projects.
  4. Capture images using stop motion software (with onion screen option)
  5. Export as movie
  6. View movie
  7. *optional – Import Movie into MovieMaker or iMovie and add audio and/or other media, export as Movie, view

Tips for Success:

  • Plan carefully – Make a storyboard before you animate.
  • Keep it simple – Don’t try ambitious models or backgrounds
  • Small movements – A little goes a long way; use the onion-skinning option to see where the last frame was placed.
  • Assign roles – Modellers, clickers, spotters, movers; each student can be responsible for a task.


Leave a comment…..We’d love your thoughts and ideas about stop motion animation as authentic products in the classroom. Share links to your student’s stop-motion projects. Tell us about all of your experiences using stop motion animation including implementation ideas, tips, additional resources, etc.

Brooke Higgins is an instructional specialists for the eMINTS National Center and Allison Byford is the Instructional Technology Coordinator with the Springdale Public Schools in Arkansas and is an eMINTS PD4ETS graduate.

Stop Motion Animation Made Easy – Part 2

Recently, Allison Byford shared the basic tools and steps for helping students to create stop motion animation movies in her post Stop Motion Animation Made Easy – Part 1 . Today we’ll take that a step further and share more examples, tools needed, step-by-step how to instructions, and some tips for a successful implementation.

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Many of you have seen the OK GO video for their song “Here it Goes”,  but have you seen the LEGO “Here it Goes”. It’s an example of how a student with a creative mind and a camera recreated the video. If you are an eMINTS teacher you have surely seen some of the great Common Craft videos covering topics such as “GoogleDocs in Plain English” or  “Electing a US President in Plain English”. While common craft videos aren’t purely stop motion they include some content recorded in stop motion animation as well as video.

When thinking about how stop motion animation could be connected to curriculum teachers can use stop motion video to present new concepts, record what happens during an extended Science experiment, or to present learned content.

Stop motion animation can be used in creative writing lessons to tell story with or without words or retell stories.

Students can present their understandings of math concepts by creating videos that may be used to teach newly learned skills to others.

Students can represent historical concepts, create documentaries, or reenact historical events to show their understanding of the impact of history.

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Not only can curriculum content be covered but students can also focus in on using 21st Century Skills when creating stop motion animation projects. These kinds of projects can require students to Think and Work Creatively with Others, Communicate Clearly, Collaborate with Others, Adapt to Change, Be Flexible, Manage Goals, Time, and Projects, Produce Results, Create Media Products, and Apply Technology Effectively.

Tune in tomorrow to learn the steps for creating successful projects like these.

Brooke Higgins is an instructional specialists for the eMINTS National Center and Allison Byford is the Instructional Technology Coordinator with the Springdale Public Schools in Arkansas and is an eMINTS PD4ETS graduate.