Category Archives: Teaching Tips

It’s March. Bring on the Madness!

The NCAA tournament for men’s and women’s collegiate basketball is underway and the country is swept up in March Madness once again. For three weeks, basketball teams will battle it out on courts across the nation while fans follow the action fervently, keeping track of every result with their brackets.

Oh, those brackets…

Every fan, even those of the casual variety, know what the brackets represent. Not only are they useful for tracking the tournament, but they are often used in office pools where participants fill out the brackets with their predictions. This practice grips the nation every March (and part of April). Productivity comes to a near-standstill as workers sneak away to TV’s and computers showing games on Thursday and Friday afternoons. People obsess over which double-digit seed will make an improbable run or which top seed will cut down the nets.

The creation of brackets can be an exercise with educational purposes as well. There’s always the community building that can occur with students filling out tournament brackets for fun, but the bracket sheet can serve other purposes as well. Below is a list of possible ideas for brackets in your classrooms…

  • Have students create brackets of US Presidents (or any group of historical figures or even literary characters). Weighing accomplishments and failures would allow the students to evaluate the contributions of each President to the growth of the nation.
  • Create a bracket of all the elements. Students would match the elements, determine what could be created with each or just balance the benefits of each before sending one on to the next round.
  • There are plenty of opportunities to incorporate math into the brackets as is. Over the years, an incredible number of statistics have been generated from past tournaments as well as the obscene amount of statistics gathered just to determine this year’s field. Trends, odds, averages, differences, etc. can all be explored throughout the tournament.
  • Geographic comparisons can be made with all the communities represented by the universities in the field or they can be replaced with more exotic locales. Creating profiles of each location that include landscapes, economies, demographics, and other factors considered in geographic analysis could be part of the project.
  • Fill a bracket with plant life in order to breakdown and evaluate biological benefits to ecosystems. The same could be done for almost any living thing. Change the regions to ecosystems with a group of students responsible for putting together each pod.

The possibilities are endless for imagined tournament brackets. Plus, the excitement of the actual tournament can feed into student motivation for these more academic bracket activities. Imagine the excitement in front of a TV at the possibility of another 12-seed beating a 5-seed transferred to your classroom. This could be a lot of fun!

How have you used brackets in your classroom to spice up your curriculum? What other ideas do you have for using tournament brackets with your students? Besides evaluation, what other higher-order thinking skills could be developed through brackets in the classroom?

Zac Early is an instructional specialist and blogger with the eMINTS National Center. His picks for the Final Four are Kentucky, Michigan State, Syracuse, and Ohio State with his Buckeyes finishing on top.

What About Tumblr?

Of all the blogging services out there, Tumblr is maybe the one that’s least like a traditional blog. At times, it feels more like a glorified Twitter feed. Tumblr feeds off sharing links and media while also offering a quick way to get a written post published. It’s design is simple, but limited. This allows for immediate posting and reposting. Tumblr’s interface also encourages following fellow Tumblr users to follow and share each other’s work.

Tumblr’s emphasis on the social has made it less attractive to teachers hesitant to introduce social media to their classrooms, but this is exactly why Tumblr deserves a chance. Because of the immediate nature of this tool, teachable moments, classroom discussion, and all of the many great moments that happen in real-time can exist on Tumblr. Of course, one must consider how to best utilize this popular social media tool to support learning.

First, Tumblr should be embraced as a collaborative learning and community-building tool. Not only should students have their own Tumblr blogs for collecting thoughts and resources, but they should follow each other. Tumblr has a unique dashboard design where the blogs users follow are part of a feed they can read and repost. If a classmate shares resources, quotes, or media that help another student’s understanding, that post can be marked or shared again. The sharing of resources and ideas is effortless using Tumblr’s social nature.

Teachers should also keep close track of what their students are posting on Tumblr. This can be done by following students much in the same way I suggested above for students to follow each other. However, searching through a Tumblr feed can be a bit unwieldy. Since this is a blog, adding each student’s feed to an RSS reader such as Google Reader is an easy way to keep track of student activity on Tumblr.

One of the biggest benefits of using Tumblr over other blogging services is the ability to easily share media and other resources. The interface for composing posts allows for users to publish text, photos, quotes, links, chats, audio, and video. Additional text, media, and hyperlinks could be added to any post, but this design encourages quick collection of resources, advancing classroom discussions. Tumblr also offers a browser bookmarklet for instant posting whenever a great resource is discovered.

For additional tracking, it’s important to really promote tagging posts. Tagging allows posts to be organized in multiple categories. Tags make it easier to search for content where Tumblr’s enormity can seem overwhelming. Of course, if you’re familiar with tagging, you understand just how valuable this feature can be to organizing any blog’s content, particularly one that encourages more frequent posting.

What Tumblr encourages is discussion and sharing while not requiring so much writing that students grow burnt-out. It’s benefit lies in immediacy and community by simplifying its structure and interface. This makes for a fun, social tool for classroom engagement.

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

Making Time for Promotive Interaction Development

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A key component of cooperative learning involves promotive interaction. David Johnson and Robert Johnson of the University of Minnesota describe when promotive interaction happens:

Promotive interaction occurs when members share resources and help, support, encourage, and praise each other’s efforts to learn.

For cooperative learning to work, promotive interaction must be developed. Cooperative learning depends on students sharing information, helping each other with difficult tasks and content, as well as supporting each other as they work toward common goals. It’s imperative that skills in these interactions are developed and supported.

The reason many teachers don’t use cooperative learning strategies is that their students often don’t understand how to interact with one another positively. Like reading or math, students rarely have training in how to interact socially, especially when trying to complete a task collaboratively. Instead of helping students achieve more and take their learning to the next level, teachers are left putting out fires that have very little to do with the content trying to be conveyed.

Who has time for that? Who has time to develop promotive interactions with students?

With the myriad of state and district standards to meet, teachers must choose what to cut from their lesson plans. Unfortunately, things like team building and social skill development are the first to be cut. One can understand why there’s little room for character education as these are not part of state standards or will be addressed on standardized tests. So, it is hard for teachers to see value in teaching promotive interaction.

Consider the time spent in the average class period putting out those aforementioned fires. There are arguments among group members to sort out. Students continually turn to teachers for guidance instead of group members. The students are essentially working on their own as they feel little or no support from teammates. This sounds rather inefficient itself.

Consider all this wasted time and how it breaks the momentum of learning as interruption upon interruption disrupt the learning cycle. What would happen if we spent that time teaching to the interactive skills needed for students to successfully complete collaborative projects? Instead of all the time lost to corrective and reactionary measures for each student conflict, why not teach the skills students need to deal with these issues on their own?

Promotive interaction skills have to be taught and developed as much as any skills or content in order for students to be successful. This means that they should be prioritized in such a way that we are committing time to their development. It’s better to use the time helping students develop some positive behaviors instead of losing that same time (or more) to negative behaviors.

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

Fake It

I was reading yet another helpful list from Larry Ferlazzo today and was inspired to write a post. His latest update was for a list of tools that create fake “stuff” that students can manipulate to tell all kinds of interesting narratives. By “stuff”, I mean various forms of social media. For example, there are tools for creating fake iPhone texting conversations or a series of fake Tweets that would demonstrate a series of events.

These are great tools, but how can they be used in the classroom? Richard over at Free Technology for Teachers put together a post that suggests how students and teachers could use a fake Facebook profile. For my part, I’m going to make a suggestion for various core subjects as to how each of these tools could be used in the classroom.

FakeiPhoneText – One of the nicest features of the iPhone is that text conversations are recorded on a single, scrollable screen, making a timeline of sorts. The benefit to teachers and students would be to create or possibly recreate a conversation via text.

  • Math – Sometimes, it can be really difficult to get students to describe a process used to solve a problem. A fake text conversation might be one way to allow students to get creative with this kind of exercise. One texting participant could ask the questions while the other provides answers.
  • Language Arts – When working with dialogue – whether in one’s own writing or in a piece of literature – students can get confused as to who is speaking. Having them break down key conversations can help make comprehension clearer. A fun activity might be to have students replay an important piece of dialogue through texts.
  • Social Studies – Throughout the course of history, there have been important correspondences between key actors. Imagine if American colonists had texted their demands to the king back in England. What might that conversation look like?
  • Science – All sciences depend on actions and reactions to explain phenomena. Students could describe one action with a text and the resulting reaction in another text, possibly including scientific reasoning in their texts.

My Fake Wall or Fakebook – Either of these tools could be used for creating a fake Facebook wall. Conversations with acquaintances, pictures, links… all the things we post on Facebook walls could demonstrate an understanding that goes deeper than the surface.

  • Math -The easy thing to do would be to design a fake profile for a famous mathematician with other mathematicians commenting on his or her wall. However, a more imaginative project might feature designing Facebook walls for mathematic concepts. Geographic shapes could be one route. Maybe a circle could post a video of the pyramids on triangle’s wall. Maybe even specific numbers could interact on a fake wall the way people do. The key would be to define and apply definitions through these posts.
  • Language Arts -Imagine if Romeo and Juliet were Facebook friends. Then, imagine their entire saga playing out on Juliet’s (or Romeo’s) timeline. The literary possibilities are endless.
  • Social Studies -At this point in history, we can follow the Facebook wall of our president. However, this sort of access was not available or was too new for previous presidents. Have students play out important events for the great leaders of history on a Facebook page.
  • Science -Imagine a famous scientist and the kinds of images, links, and videos he or she might post on a Facebook page and that is how students could use this tool in their science classes.

Fake Tweet Builder and TwHistory – Twitter is a pretty popular record of current events. It’s one of the few places we can obtain first-person perspectives and real-time observations of events as they happen. These tools allow users to create fake Tweets and/or Twitter timelines in order to show imaginary Twitter threads.

  • Math -Again, math processes could be played out using this tool, much like the fake texting tool mentioned above. However, imagine a word problem involving money, dimensions, or time played out in a Twitter thread. Figuring out a problem that takes place while the subject travels over a certain time period could make such a problem seem more concrete.
  • Language Arts -A student could map out the major plot elements and events in literature through a series of Tweets. It may also be helpful to work out the same components in an original work.
  • Social Studies -Twitter has recently played a major role in protests and events of social change all around the world. Students could record the events of Pearl Harbor or the Boston Tea Party via Tweets.
  • Science -Taking observations of scientific phenomena can be boring at times. However, students might have fun recording each action and reaction through Tweets.

Of course, the above ideas are not the only ways to use these tools. Some of these ideas can work for various subject areas or any of the tools. The important thing to remember is that using these fake social media tools is a fantastic hook for student interest. These activities also give them an opportunity to apply what students have learned in a new and creative way.

How would you use these fake social media tools in your class? What aspects of these activities would be most beneficial to students’ understanding of concepts? In what ways would it be more beneficial to use actual social media tools in the projects described above?

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

4ALL: Taking Lessons to Task

Student project
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When planning a unit or lesson, maybe the most important decision we make is writing the task. Sure standards and learning outcomes must be met, but a well-conceived task is how students will achieve academic goals. Additionally, a task that is meaningful and interesting is what motivates students to do their best work.

Tasks should be authentic. Students want to learn, but they also want to learn skills and content that have real-world applications. We are long past the days of learning just for the sake of learning. A motivating factor for students is the authenticity of the task. A tasks “realness” encourages students to attend to the content even more than abstract exercises. Particularly in web-based learning activities, such as WebQuests, authenticity can be crucial to motivating students. Not only can an authentic task motivate students to learn, it also helps in showing them the relevance of academic work.

Creativity is another aspect of effective tasks. When we talk about creativity, we are not only talking about the aesthetics of a project or display. No, what we are talking about is the kind of creativity in the form of innovation. When students are given tasks that require them to creatively solve a problem or devise new meanings of their worlds, they are both motivated and highly engaged with the content. Creativity has a place in education despite traditional education’s tendency to squelch innovation among students.

So, where do we find tasks that are authentic and promote creativity? Well, there are actually several approaches that fit this bill.

Problem-based learning (PBL) is an approach that requires students to creatively solve real-world problems. Students might be charged with solving a pollution issue in their community’s streams or in designing a new library that fills a school’s needs. These tasks require collaboration, communication, computation, analysis, and an understanding of their world in order to come up with solutions that may work.

Inquiry is another pedagogical approach that requires authenticity and some creativity. Inquiry-based lessons allow the students’ questions about natural phenomena that lead to further investigations.  Students experiencing inquiry develop experimental and analytic skills while conducting investigations. Inquiries can begin with topics such as the current socio-economic environment in the US or around the world, the power of lessons to be learned from well-crafted literature, or the best computations in figuring out mapping the quickest route to the top of Mt. Everest.

A third tool that features authentic tasks that encourage creativity is the aforementioned WebQuest. The WebQuest prominently features a task as its core element. This is how all WebQuests are judged. In fact, Bernie Dodge’s “Taskonomy” lays out the various kinds of tasks that elicit the best results from a WebQuest. In short, a good WebQuest task pushes students to dig into content beyond rote comprehension in collaboratively creating something that demonstrates a deep understanding of the topic. For the best list of high-quality WebQuests, visit Quest Garden.

If you are looking for standards to justify authenticity and creativity in your task, there are plenty of standards and learning models that support these approaches. Look no further than ISTE’s standards for student learning. Also, if one were to look at a DOK chart, the kinds of tasks littered in levels three and four can easily be correlated with real-world and creative tasks. If your school subscribes to Bloom’s (revised) taxonomy, you’ll find that creativity is at the top and the real-world skills of evaluating, analyzing, and applying are just below.

What other ideas should we keep in-mind when designing student tasks? Which is more difficult to plan in a task: authenticity or creativity? What is the most challenging part of facilitating learning through authentic and creative tasks?

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

Thursday’s Tip: Open Source Software

Some people love their open source software. - Click for source.

One of the major problems with equipping schools with new technology is the cost of constantly updating and replacing software. Not only is software expensive, but the licenses for an entire school building or district really add to the overall cost. This obstacle means that schools will be stuck with outdated tools or, even worse, go without.

This is where open source software can save schools an incredible amount of money and resources. Open source software is software developers have created that are free to use and distribute. They share the coding for the software so that users may create their own applications and fixes for bugs that may arise. The process for improving and updating open source applications has improved so much that it’s become as efficient as those of for-profit software. The other great thing is that using the software is free. Most developers just ask for donations and/or participation in their edit and revision process.

Here’s a list of some popular open source applications ready for download today:

These are just a few of the more popular open source programs out there. There is plenty more open source software out there. Lists of open-source software can be found at Damicon, Wikipedia, and Ubuntu.

All of this software is free to download and distribute. Expensive updates and licensing are no longer necessary. Plus, many of these applications work well with existing for-profit software already present on most computers.

Which open source applications do you use on a regular basis? Which software do you wish had an open source equivalent? How might the use of open source allow more accessibility for our students?

Zac Early is an instructional specialist and blogger for the eMINTS National Center. He would also like for you to be aware that he publishes this blog using WordPress and facilitates his training sessions using MOODLE, both open source applications.

Thursday’s Tip: Find Your Own Professional Development

Audiences North East - summer professional development event, Alnwick Gardens (19) - The Poison Garden
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We’ve all been there. Your district or building sets aside days for professional development. Sometimes the topics are specific to your school’s needs, but often they are not. The sessions drag on and all you can think about is all the work you have to get done. And this is coming from someone who facilitates professional development for a living.

Sometimes, the best way to get the most out of professional development is to find your own. There are many ways in which educators can find professional development opportunities with minimal cost and without leaving their home or school.

Below are a few tips for finding your own professional development opportunities:

  • eLearning for Educators -A part of the eMINTS National Center houses eLearning for Educators, an online space for teacher professional development. Pricing is reasonable. Plus, the savings from not having to travel make it worth your time right away. Visit eLearning for Educators for more details.
  • FeedOn the Horizon: 20+ Free Professional Development Opportunities for 2012PostedTeacher Reboot Camp lists some great online PD opportunities that will only cost you to have decent internet access.
  • Read educational literature – Sometimes, the best learning we can do is accomplished by sitting down with a good book. Larry Ferlazzo polled his audience to see what they have been reading this past year and the results can be found at this post.
  • Cultivate your PLN – Personal Learning Networks (PLN) have been around for a while now, but I am still surprised at how many educators don’t utilize or even have one. Some good starting points for creating your own PLN are here and here.
  • Watch TED talks. – TED talks bring together the brightest and most successful thinkers of our time to discuss their unique projects and perspectives. These talks are then shared with the world via online videos. A theme of interest for educators might be How We Learn, but most TED talks can provide great insight and inspiration to us all.

What other ways are there to attain professional development with limited resources and budgets? How can some of these ideas be applied to the professional learning communities (PLC) currently appearing in schools everywhere? How can these practices enhance your current professional development?

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

Thursday’s Tip: Assess to Improve

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Despite the fact that I work for the University of Missouri, I am a lifelong Ohio State Buckeye fan and alumnus. It’s basketball season and I’ve been following the team’s progress carefully. The following quote popped out in a recent article following a Buckeye win:

“I told our guys that last year I think we learned a great lesson in the Kentucky game,” [Buckeye head coach Thad Matta] said, “but the season was over. Do we have an ability to learn a lesson here in the end of December and continue to move forward?”

They did last night.

The No.6 Buckeyes started their new year by getting back in the win column with a 71-40 rout of Nebraska in Value City Arena.

“That game the other night, I thought for the first 10 minutes we were playing as well as we’ve played all season,” Matta said.

“But the lesson you learn there is you’ve got to play through adversity, and we didn’t do a good enough job doing that.”

Last season, Ohio State lost only three games all year. The last was the aforementioned Kentucky game in the NCAA tournament. While there were many lessons to be learned from that defeat, it was all for nothing as it was the last game of the season. Now, the Buckeyes have an early season loss they can learn from and improve upon in order to get better.

This is something for which Thad Matta’s teams are known. After every game – win or lose, each player has to closely study the game film and identify mistakes such as fouls and turnovers so that they can correct them before the next game. It’s worked well as Matta’s teams have gone 217-60 with four conference championships in seven complete seasons and they’re favored to win another championship this year.

Where I draw the parallels with teaching and learning is in assessment. The final game a team loses in a year-ending tournament is a summative assessment. It’s the assessment taken at the end of a learning period (or season) that demonstrates all that is learned. The downside of this kind of assessment is that the learning basically ends and only demonstrates a snapshot of where a learner (or team) is at that moment in time. Coming into the Kentucky game, Ohio State was almost unanimously considered a shoe-in for the national championship based on their play to that point. However, all the great successes of the season were forgotten as the final buzzer sounded with the Buckeyes trailing. The season was over. The learning ceased.

Conversely, the lessons the current basketball team is learning and adjusting to are formative assessments. The team plays a game and evaluates the performance in order to improve for the next game. There are even little moments of assessment going on throughout each game as coaches give direct and specific feedback during timeouts, on the bench, or at halftime. This kind of assessment allows for learning that improves performance, not simply assessing for evaluative purposes.

Granted, every season and grading period has an ending and an assessment of that moment in time is needed. However, we sometimes don’t do enough formative assessment so that learning and performance can be improved along the way.

As a Buckeye fan, I hope Thad Matta’s work to use formative assessment leads to a national championship for Ohio State. As an eMINTS instructional specialist, I hope formative assessment can help you attain your own “national championship” in the classroom.

What are some ways you have used formative assessments to improve student learning? How might you use the metaphor of a basketball coach to inform your teaching? How do you plan to utilize formative assessment more often in your classroom?

Zac Early is an instructional specialist and blogger for the eMINTS National Center and thinks Ohio State has an excellent chance at a national championship this season.

Thursday’s Tip: Embedding

It is imperative these days for teachers to create and maintain a website and/or portal. Communication, interaction, information, collaboration, and many other -ation’s are now requirements for these sites now that there are so many other multimedia options out there, fighting for our students’ attention. If only teachers could compete without knowing advanced coding.

Well, luckily, the developers of all this multimedia want their tools to be fully accessible on your sights and blogs. The feature that makes this possible is embedding. Basically, copy the embed code of almost any online media and it will magically appear on your site or web page. Blogs make this easy as all you have to do is switch to the HTML view and paste the embed code in the editor*. The same process works the same in any free website service with editable HTML such as Google Sites and Weebly.

For those of you who are editing the HTML using a web editor like Dreamweaver or NVU, the process is a little trickier. I have found the best way to do this is to type something like “PUT CODE HERE” in the design view where you want the embedded item to reside. Then, switch to the code view and paste the embed code over “PUT CODE HERE”.

For specific embedding information, check the links below:

What are other valuable media you have been able to embed on your site? How can embedding on your site be preferable to simply linking to outside sites?

Zac Early is an instructional specialist with the eMINTS National Center and he embeds Google Presentations in his Moodle courses for teachers as an agenda alternative.

*This does not work consistently on WordPress blogs. For more information on embedding in WordPress, go here.