Sunday, July 26, 2015

S.O.S. for the Classroom

S.O.S: Spotlight on Strategies

Let's take a look at a simple strategy that can be easily implemented across any curricular area to increase student engagement in the classroom; Fan-N-Pick. One of the great things about this strategy, like many of the other Kagan Structures (strategies), is that all students must have an active role during the use of the strategy. Unlike traditional instruction where the teacher asks a question which is answered by only one or two students while the rest of the class sits passively, this strategy engages all learners. Students do not have the chance to “hide” in the crowd because each student has a role in the activity.

Retrieved from YouTube: What is Kagan?

This strategy also supports collaboration between students as they have to work in a group and each student must complete their role in the group. Additionally, the roles rotate so that all students have an opportunity to complete each part. Collaboration (team work) is an important soft skill for students to master in school as it is an essential skill they will need upon entering the working world. Students must learn how to work together to achieve an end goal through collaboration. They must also work together to problem solve and resolve group conflict or disagreements. As students work through the Fan-N-Pick activity, they are able to practice these skills.

Fan-N-Pick also involves a component of paraphrasing, restating, checking and offering praise in the final role. These are also skills that students often struggle with. Paraphrasing and restating are important skills because if someone is able to restate or put someone else’s ideas in their own words, it demonstrates they truly understand what was stated. This role also asks the student to “check” or make sure the student answered the question correctly. This gives another opportunity for students to not only demonstrate their own understanding, but also provide effective feedback and constructive criticism to their peers. This is a skill that should be implicitly taught, modeled and practiced in the classroom. Many students do not know how to correct others in a respectful and constructive way. This strategy allows students to practice this skill. It also helps students move beyond “Good job” or “nice work” to give valuable feedback.

Additional Kagan Strategies

Naccio, J. (2007). Structures at a glance. Retrieved on July 25, 2015 from 

Integrating digital media can make the use of this strategy even more valuable in the classroom. Following the Fan-N-Pick activity the students could create a blog post or discussion thread about a particular question or the activity as a whole to which other students could respond. This would give students a way to use the content again in a new method which will help them develop deeper understanding of the concepts. Students could also make a movie of the Fan-N-Pick process as documentation of their participation, or as a training video for other students that will be doing the activity. They could create a video demonstrating effective and ineffective feedback and constructive criticism for other students. Students could also create an online discussion board so they could see how other groups answered the questions or what discussions developed with other groups.

Using digital media and web tools to support this strategy will help students develop deeper understanding of the topic for the activity. Integrating digital media also gives the students the opportunity to be creative in how they demonstrate their understanding. Providing students with activities that foster creativity is an important role for the classroom teacher to transform our classrooms into places where students become active, engaged learners that assume responsibility for their own knowledge and understanding, rather than memorize and repeat random information from the teacher. By transforming our classrooms into spaces that truly foster learning, creativity and active student participation, we will be well on the road to helping our students prepare for success beyond their school careers.


Kagan, S. & Kagan, M. (2009) Kagan sooperative learning. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing.

Kagan, S. (2009). Description of strategies [PDF document}.  Retrieved from

Naccio, J. (2007). Structures at a glance [Power Point slides}. Retrieved from

Oberpeul, Hillary. The "soft skills" that will land you your dream job. Retrieved from

What is Kagan. (2014). Retrieved July, 25, 2015 from

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Speak Out, Students!

If we really took the time to ask students what they would change about school, every kid would have something to say. At the elementary level I am sure you would get a lot of responses about more recess time, better lunches, and more time to play. At the middle school level, kids want more freedom to choose classes and activities, more time with friends, and probably “recess”. High school students again want freedom of choice in classes that are available and when they are held, later start times, and opportunities to make decisions that will positively affect their futures and prepare them for “life”.

Here are some actual responses when teens were asked what they would change about high school from The Huffington Post Teens:

20 Teens Share What They Would Change About High School: The Huffington Post

However, when we ask students about their opinions on classroom instruction, specifically the role of creativity in the classroom, this is a much harder question for them to answer. Students have become so ingrained in traditional educational practices, especially by the time they are older (middle and high school) they have difficulty envisioning how education might look different, even in small ways. Kelly Christopherson presented this problem to his 12th grade Social class asking them how they might change the model of school. Their answers were surprising in that they offered ideas more for the environment of school rather than the structure. See the article here: Do Students Want to Transform School?

So what do students currently value about creativity in the classroom?  What would students change about how technology is used to support creativity in the classroom? I asked this question of a former student who is now in high school. She too, had difficulty answering this question. She feels that using digital tools to support creativity is helpful to students because when they can create something it is more interesting and therefore students put more effort into the activity. She also feels like she gets more out of those activities that just listening to the teacher talk while the class takes notes. As for what she would change, this posed a difficult question for her to answer because it was hard for her to see the possibilities of what could be different.
After some ideas, she thought that increasing the number of projects and activities that involve creating some type of product would be one suggestion she would make. She also thought becoming more familiar with available web tools that allowed students to complete assignments in new ways, rather than having traditional worksheets and writing papers would be helpful. She also suggested having more exploration learning (my term for her description) where students are given the resources to gather information but are responsible for the actual learning, rather than traditional “lecture-take notes” instruction. Finally, she advocated for the use of groups and partners in classroom instruction and activities so the students could work together and learn to build off of each other, rather than learn in isolation.

The suggestions made by this student are not radical or earth shattering. In fact, I would call them good teaching practices. However, many of these practices are still foreign to the teachers in charge of our classrooms today. I believe that things are slowly changing. As more and more of our teachers come into the classroom with the understanding of the role creativity plays in effective instruction and how digital media and technology can support creativity, we are seeing changes in the classroom. It is a slow change, to be sure. In fact, in her article “Why Kids Need Schools to Change” Tina Barseghian cites Madeline Levine who describes this change. “I’m astounded at the glacial pace of change in education. Like many academic areas, there’s a huge disconnect between what’s known and what’s in practice. It’s very slow moving” (Levine, 2012). We know the changes that need to be made, and so do our students. The issue seems to be getting the changes to happen. Our educational system needs to realize that we don’t need to explore what the changes need to be, but rather how to actually get these changes in the classroom.

Most teachers know our traditional methods of instruction are no longer sufficient for the students in our classrooms. There are some teachers that are resistant to the implementation of student-directed classrooms in favor of the traditional “sit and get” method, but I believe these teachers are in the minority. However, those teachers that want to change how they teach are limited by availability of resources, access to technology, understanding of how to use digital tools, or pressure to get students to perform on standardized tests. It is these barriers that must be addressed and overcome to truly change classroom instruction for the benefit of our students. Still, if we are to truly give our students the tools they need to be prepared beyond their school career, this is a job at which we must succeed.

Barseghian, Tina. (2012). Why kids need schools to change. Retrieved July 25, 2015 from .

Huffington Post. (2014) 20 Teens share what they would change about high school. Retrieved July 25, 2012 from .

Levine, Madeline. (2012). Teach your children well. New York, New York: Harper Collins Publishers. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Monsters Beware! We have you in our sights!

There is an evil monster lurking inside small children. Although you may never catch a glimpse of the beast, you will surely see signs of its presence. All you have to do to see the effects of this terror is watch a small group of children playing together for a short period of time. Blocks become an impenetrable castle. A swimming pool in the yard is suddenly filled with man eating sharks that can only be vanquished with nerf guns. The toy industry makes millions of dollars each year creating tools to help this monster infect our children. Even crayons contribute to this epidemic in allowing children to make visual representations of the world in skewed colors and inaccurate drawings. This monster’s name? Creativity.

Luckily, we have a powerful tool to defend our children against this nightmare. From a very young age, we send our children off to school, which works diligently to squash this creature, creativity. Children are taught to follow rules and fall in line with the group. They are taught to sit quietly, answer when asked, follow prompts with anticipated responses, and regurgitate information. Through time and the valiant efforts of dedicated professionals, slowly the creativity monster is contained and controlled.

It is important to note that this is neither a quick, nor easy process. Education professionals must proceed cautiously in order not to anger the beast who in turn may cause irreparable damage to the child. This is why when you walk into an early elementary classroom you will still see children drawing, coloring, even using their imagination during a discussion or during free-play. These classrooms many times have centers or stations that may even seem to promote creativity, although more and more classrooms are eliminating these centers in favor of the more sensible, structured instructional time with rote activities and mind-numbing worksheets. Fortunately, by upper elementary, most of the activities that provide shelter and nurturing for this creative monster have all but disappeared and by middle and high school, the beast has shrunk to barely more than a tiny speck buried deep inside an individual. Indeed, ask any high school student to use their imagination or create something and not only will they look at you with utter mis-understanding and confusion, they will likely have great difficulty in even recalling how to create something on their own. 
In order to assure the beast is under control, schools are mandated to administer standardized tests to measure how effectively students have “learned” material to overpower the creativity monster.

Still, we must be vigilant. There are some that would have us believe that creativity is a vital skill necessary to be successful and happy in life. Daniel Pink identifies creativity as one of
 his six essential aptitudes. He claims that in order to stay successful in our global world, people will need creativity in order to offer something that cannot be provided by a computer or cheaper by workers in another country (Pink, 2005). Howard Gardner identifies creativity as one of the five minds for the future in his book titled the same (Gardner, 2008). 

Still, Sir Ken Robinson may be one of the most renowned and outspoken supporters of the creativity beast. In his TED talk “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” he states “We are educating people out of their creative capacities” (Robinson, 2006) as if this is not an essential outcome of our schools. He also asserts “Kid will take a chance. They are not frightened of being wrong. If you are not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original. By the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They are afraid to be wrong” (Robinson, 2006). 

Ken Robinson: Do Schools Kill Creativity?

Luckily, most educational professionals know the worst thing someone can be, is wrong, and therefore work tirelessly to make sure students are armed with all the knowledge necessary to NEVER be wrong. Schools then test, practice, and test again to make sure their students are not wrong. If students are consistently wrong, we label them accordingly and give them extra help, spending massive amounts of money on programs and supplemental instruction, until they can rise to the level of all the other students, graduate, or drop out; whichever comes first. Sir Ken delivers his final blow to the traditional education system in a last ditch effort to save the creativity monster when he says “Many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think that they are not; because the thing they were good at in school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized” (Robinson, 2006). 
Robinson seems to believe that by crushing the destructive creativity monster, we have stifled the talent and brilliance that naturally occurs in individuals. How fortunate that our educational policy makers know better and continue to develop requirements of our educational systems to counter these radical ideas.

So how do you know when you walk into your child’s classroom if their teacher subscribes to the dangerous doctrines of such so-called “experts” as Gardner, Pink and Robinson? You look for signs that the teacher may be allowing, or even encouraging the students to practice and develop creativity. Some questions you might want to ask yourself as you observe the class: Are the children engaged in activities that make them think and come up with solutions to problems on their own? Are they working in groups with other children to develop original ideas and/or share thoughts? Are open discussions taking place? Are the students creating authentic representations of their learning? Are they using technology to represent their understandings? If so, you are probably looking at a teacher that is working to nurture and grow the creativity monster inside your child.

Free Technology for Teachers

One of the biggest allies of the creativity beast is technology. There are a multitude of websites, programs and apps that encourage students to create products that demonstrate their learning, rather than regurgitate information.

Many teachers, falsely believing experts like Gardner and Robinson, are using digital tools for innovative activities and projects such as digital storytelling, movie making programs and apps, gaming in the classroom (Minecraft! Ugh!), computer programming, (Scratch,, Alice), blogging (, Blogger, Weebly) and vlogging (Voice Thread, Podcasts), and mind mapping (Mindomo, Spicy Nodes, Lucid Chart) just to name a few. 
Students are beginning to create not only artifacts within their classrooms, but many of these are digital artifacts on the web, for all to see. Students are creating videos that demonstrate a synthesis of knowledge about a topic and putting them out there for the world to see. Teachers create online “boards” using tools like Padlet or Edmodo where the students can interact in the virtual world, as well as in the classroom, defeating one of the major goals of traditional education to squash independent thought and foster uniformity and conformity. Where will the madness end???

Education policy makers must be strong. The simple answer to this problem is placing more value and importance on standardized tests. Teachers must be made to answer for poor test scores. Schools must be punished if they fail to perform. Only by placing increased pressure on schools will these naysayers be forced to stop inspiring students through creative activities, projects, learning explorations and the implementation of digital tools and get back to the traditional and proven instructional styles that have served our students well for so long. We must stand firm. After all, it was good enough for us 10, 20, 50 years ago, why isn't it good enough for them?

Gardner, Howard. (2008). Five minds for the future. Boston: Harvard Business School      Press.

Pink, D. (2005). A Whole new mind: Why right-brainers will rule the future. New York, New  York: Riverhead Books.

Robinson, Ken. (2007).  Do schools kill creativity? - YouTube. Retrieved July 15, 2015,  from

Sunday, July 12, 2015

It's Your Job: A self-guided learning station

Media-infused presentations or activities are an untapped resource for classroom teachers today. This type of tool provides content and activities using resources that our students are familiar and comfortable with. By using technology to create this type of presentation, we are providing content that meet the instructional needs of our students, while also providing motivation by using something they are familiar and interested in. Students in our classrooms today are digital natives and have grown up never knowing a time without technology. When teachers are able to use technology, they are essentially “speaking the language” of their students. Students are more highly engaged and actively participate in these activities or presentations as it is a delivery they are familiar with.
      Media-infused presentations and activities can also help the development of what Gardner defines as the “disciplined” mind by allowing students to experience content differently than in the traditional “sit and get” delivery. Gardner clearly lays out a four-step plan for developing a disciplined mind. Media-infused presentations meet all four of these steps. Gardner’s first step is to “identify important topics or concepts” (Gardner, 2008) which is done in a multi-media presentation or activity both directly and indirectly. First, the topic is identified by the statement of purpose at the beginning of the activity, then, identified again in each component. This helps the learner clearly define what the content is, as well as the important supporting information. Gardner’s second step, “spend a significant amount of time on the topic” and his third step, “approach the topic in a number of ways” (Gardner, 2008) are both clearly supported in a multi-media presentation or project as the content is presented repeatedly using a variety of methods such as video, podcast, image or activity. This allows the student to experience the content in a variety of different ways as well as providing multiple opportunities to interact and experience the content. Additionally, these activities will take more time than in the traditional “lecture” or presentation style of instruction. Gardner’s final step, which he identifies as the most important “set up “performances of understanding” and give students ample opportunities to perform their understandings under a variety of conditions” (Gardner, 2008). These opportunities for “performances of understanding” can be set up as a part of the presentation or activity through interactive activities, polling, or projects utilizing digital tools that the students complete. Developing a disciplined mind can be clearly supported using this type of presentation or activity when they are well designed and implemented.
      The synthesizing mind can also be fostered through media-infused presentations and activities by providing opportunities and guidance in ordering, connecting and making sense of information from various sources and in a variety of methods. Students take this information and make sense of it, connect it to prior knowledge and other related concepts. They can be given the chance to synthesize the information from different sources and develop new understandings and knowledge. As the students move through the different components of the presentation or activity, they have the opportunity to put all of the pieces together into a complete picture. They can then share this picture with others through interactive activities or collaboration to further cement their understanding.
     Using multi-media infused presentations or activities can not only support our students in their learning style and preferred modalities, it can also help them develop their disciplined and synthesizing minds, as defined by Harold Gardener. This will help our learners develop deep understandings of the content in our classrooms, as well as help them become better thinkers and leaders in their futures.
Gardner, Howard. (2008). Five minds for the future. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

New Paperclips - Digital Style

As educators, we are all familiar with paperclips. In fact, office supply companies have even designed "special" paper clips using fancy shapes, colors and all sorts of tricks to appeal to the cute and crafty side teachers so often seem drawn to. But now, there is a digital alternative to those tiny metal wonders. Meet Educlipper. This site allows you to "clip" internet resources so they are easy to go back to when you need them. The "clips" are also searchable and sharable so that you can help out your fellow educator. You can also search for "clips" from other educators which you can then reclip to your own board or profile. This site is designed specifically for education and although I have only scratched the surface, it looks to be a promising tool for both teachers and students. Here is an example of a clip board I created by searching for classroom resources related to chemistry concepts that I created using this site:

Link: Educlipper Board: Matter and Chemistry

This is a board I will use during the unit I teach on matter and introduction to chemistry. This board contains links to online resources including videos that I will use as attention-grabbers and to develop interest in the subject. It also includes resources to use during the unit such as an interactive periodic table, a 3D app for iPads, and Chemistry Cat memes for fun! Although students are usually very engaged throughout the matter/chemistry unit, these resources will provide me with new tools and activities to share with my students, as well as ways to keep students interested and engaged in learning throughout the unit. 

Educlipper looks to be a great resource to use both in my classroom and with other teachers as we work to support each other in the integration of technology in the classroom.

Introductory Tweet

I am re-posting this introduction. The page it was on got deleted.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Create This!

Walk into any kindergarten or first grade classroom and the amount of creativity oozing out of those little pores is enough to fill a school, let alone the classroom. Purple alligators, pink trees, polka dotted airplanes, not to mention the games, rules, and words those little minds make up in an instant! Follow up with those same magically creative kids just a few short years later and creativity is hard to find, if not completely absent. What happens to those creative minds as kids progress through school? Some would say we "train" it out of them in the school system. Creativity is welcomed in art class, but beyond that, kids quickly learn they need to color trees brown with green leaves, alligators green or brown, and airplanes are grey with a name on them. Following social cues and adult directions, the "good" kids quickly fall in line and the ones that don't are labeled as "difficult" or "special". Sir Ken Robinson talks about how schools are designed to kill creativity and how that is detrimental to our future citizens. See his Ted talk here.

Both Daniel Pink in his book A Whole New Mind and Howard Gardner in his book Five Minds for the Future discuss the importance of creativity in education and for our future citizens. If this is such an essential skill, why is is being suffocated in our classrooms?

Schools must look at the way we approach instruction with our students today. We are not teaching the same students that sat in our classrooms 20 or 30 years ago. Our students today will not be entering a world with the same requirements, job opportunities or societies that their parents found upon completing school. Instead, they need to be prepared for a connected, global world in which they can find their place. Creativity is going to be an essential skill for our future citizens to find jobs that cannot be done more easily by a computer or more cheaply by outsourced workers in other countries. How can we keep, instead of kill the creativity in our students?

Digital media is one tool that schools can look to that can foster and grow creativity in students. Whether this is used as an introductory or support tool for the teacher to bring information and make connections in a new and interesting way, or a tool that teachers can deliver to students for their own use, these tools can open a whole new world to our students. The vast number of Web 2.0 tools that can be used in the classroom is staggering, and yes, overwhelming to many educators. I have found one that I want to make my new "go to" tool in my classroom. Big Huge Labs is a tool that is free to educators (with an account and a few simple steps to verify) that teachers can use as a part of instruction, or as a tool for students to use in the classroom. An example:

Image retrieved from:

BigHugeLabs: Do fun stuff with your photos

This is just one of the options available on Big Huge Labs. Some of the other options include magazine covers, trading cards, motivational posters, CD covers and many more. The options for how these can be used are almost endless. Teachers can use them to create discussion starters, introduce material, or reinforce concepts in a new and engaging way. Students could use an image to create material that demonstrates understanding of new concepts, reinforce learning, create discussion between classmates or reviews content. As a teacher of science, I start the year off with a science lab safety unit. We set fires, we dissolve chemicals, we even test out if certain material can be dissolved by saliva, all in the name of learning what to do, and what NOT to do in a science lab. As a culminating activity, the students pick one of our 10 lab safety rules and create a "commercial" for that rule stating the rule, giving an example and demonstrating what the rule looks like and what it doesn't look like. Students then plan, film and produce their commercial using iMovie on an iPad. This website gives me a great intro or supporting activity to go along with their commercial. By creating a movie poster to advertise their commercial, students will be able to demonstrate their understanding in a snapshot prior to making their commercial, or as a follow up after the commercial is done. Not only will this support the science curriculum, but it will allow students to dig deep for that creativity to develop a fun, yet educational project that will get them excited about class and what they can contribute as a valued member of our group. I am hoping this will be another avenue to draw my student in and show them that creativity is a great thing!