Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Practical Skills: What Should We Be Teaching Our Students Today?

Over the years, I have had many spirited discussions with a wide variety of professionals working in and around the field of education debating the purpose of the public education system. What are our ultimate goals of achievement for our students?

I believe the main objective of education is to help prepare students to survive and thrive in the world beyond academia. I support the integration of practical skills in secondary education over the continuation of solely academic pursuits.

Unfortunately, no matter how much we push, prod, and cajole, no matter how much we extol the virtues of seeking an education beyond high school,  approximately 7,000 students drop out of high school every day. Nationally, 75.5% do manage to graduate, but only about 68.3% of these students go on to enroll in college.

For those who see secondary education as a preparation period for students' continuing education, what exactly are we doing for the approximately 31.7% of our students who either do not graduate or do not go on to attend college, but enter the workforce instead?

In 2011, there were 15.9 million people, ages 16 to 24, who were not enrolled in school. They were out in the world working or looking for work.  Even those who attend college are going to have to seek employment. either during college (38.8% of full-time college students also work) or after.

The fact is that in our society today no one knows what the future is going to look like. As educators, we are currently trying to prepare our students for a world (and a job market) that does not yet exist. According to Meghan Casserly's article at Forbes, here are 10 jobs that didn't exist 10 years ago:

  • App Developer
  • Market Research Data Miner
  • Educational/Admissions Consultant
  • Millennial Generational Expert
  • Social Media Manager
  • Chief Listening Officer
  • Elder Care
  • Sustainability Expert
  • User Experience Design
  • Cloud Computing Services

According to the 2012 Job Outlook Report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, employers today are looking for:

  1. Ability to work in a team - 79.8%
  2. Leadership - 77.2%
  3. Communication skills (written) - 75.6%
  4. Problem-solving skill- 74.1%
  5. Strong work ethic - 73.1%
  6. Analytical/quantitative skills - 72.0%
  7. Communication skills (verbal) - 67.4%
  8. Initiative - 65.3%
  9. Technical skills - 61.1%
  10. Detail-oriented - 57.5%
  11. Flexibility/adaptability- 56.0%
  12. Computer skills - 55.4%
  13. Interpersonal skills (relates well to others) - 54.9%
  14. Organizational ability- 50.8%
  15. Strategic planning skill- 29.0%
  16. Friendly/outgoing personality - 29.0%
  17. Creativity - 22.3%
  18. Entrepreneurial skills/risk-taker - 21.8%
  19. Tactfulness - 21.2%
This is a lot of information to consider, but it seems to me that a systematic and concentrated integration of practical skills education would be the place to begin educational reform.



First, when looking at both the list of new jobs and the skills employers are looking for, technology obviously plays a huge role. From what I've seen in the majority of high school technology programs, they need to be improved. Kids today know all about playing with technology, often better than the teacher - my students have taught me many tricks. However, if all we are allowing them to do is play with it in school, then they really aren't learning much. Students need to be given practical assignments to show off their skills, learn new ones, and realize that technology can be far more than play.
Not to say that there are not exceptional teachers in the field of technology or those that integrate technology in practical ways, but as a whole, technology applications need to be made more practical. Additionally, I strongly believe that all schools should require compulsory technology training as part of their Professional Development Plans every year for all teachers.
How can we possibly teach kids about technology, if we do not have the skills ourselves? Also, an added benefit would be teachers who actually use the technology available to them in their classrooms. I cannot count the number of classrooms I have been in that are equipped with SMART boards that are NEVER used - what a waste of money and resources!

Practical Work Opportunities

The majority of students who drop out do so because either they see no life value in what the are receiving from their educations or they believe they would be better off working or they have to work to help support themselves and/or their families. Why not take advantage of the government monies available for training (it is out there) and involve the larger community by partnering up and offering students the opportunity to apply for paid internships with local businesses?   
Additionally, students in high school should all be required to take a personal finance/life skills class, and it should be as realistic as possible. Students should be taught to manage a budget and balance a checkbook using information from the real world such as average pay, rental prices, gas prices, etc. from they area in which they actually live. They should be taught how to write resumes and fill out job applications. They should be exposed to tax forms and learn how to read them. They should be exposed to paycheck stubs and learn how to interpret them. These are all practical skills that everyone is going to use eventually. When they are tailored to a specific area and to a particular student, they can be invaluable and, best of all, applicable to his/her life.

Team Building and Teamwork

Notice the top two attributes employers today are searching for: ability to work in a team and leadership. Team building and group work should be used on a regular basis across the curriculum. In real life situations, your students are not going to be working all by themselves exclusively. Dealing with group dynamics (both the good and the bad aspects) is a skill that must be learned. How to work effectively in groups is a skill that must be learned. Helping facilitate this learning is the responsibility of each and every educator.
Schools and teachers should also always be looking for opportunities to generate leadership roles and spread them out among the school population. Working in groups and teams can help provide these roles. I also support the use of community service projects and volunteerism to foster leadership skills, teamwork skills, and a number of other skills which I will discuss further at another time. Participation in sports, clubs, and organizations also offer the chance to work on leadership and teamwork. I believe teachers, sponsors, and coaches should use these opportunities to allow members to take on responsibility for and leadership of various tasks to help the greatest number of students.

Overall, I strongly believe the integration of practical skills education has the potential to both encourage and retain disenfranchised students, while also offering all our students (college-bound or not) authentic abilities applicable to their worlds beyond academia. So, if we are going to discuss educational reform, this seems like the most logical place to begin.


Friday, August 24, 2012

Spotlight on Sir Ken Robinson

Photo from Robinson's TED Profile

While I think most people in the United States today believe the public education system as it now stands is 'broken,' there is a great disparity in developing a comprehensible definition of the problem and even more inconsistency and confusion in cultivating a plan to ‘fix’ the problem.


Sir Ken Robinson is is an English author, speaker, and international advisor on education in the arts to government, non-profits, education, and arts bodies. His theories on educational reform revolve around placing more importance on the arts, promoting student creativity, and solidly acknowledging and supporting multiple intelligences in instruction and learning.


According to Robinson, the model of the educational system today is utterly out-of-date. Our students are being groomed to be compliant factory workers in a society that no longer supports these types of occupations. As students’ creative minds are educated out of them, we are turning out a stunted workforce of citizens who are unable to think creatively or critically.

This video, from RSA Animate, details Robinson's thoughts on what is wrong with education today.
Changing the paradigm of education today is the first step in meaningful reform.

Robinson is unquestionably a wonderful motivational speaker in the world of education. In this video, recorded at the TED conference in 2010, he discusses moving away from standardized education and developing a personalized curriculum that supports the creation of an environment where children's natural talents can grow and flourish. He advocates, not reform, not evolution, but rather revolution in the world of education.

Ultimately, I find Sir Ken Robinson to be highly motivational and inspirational. He has a way with words and tells some of the greatest anecdotes related to children's education and learning that I have ever heard.

After listening to his speeches and reading many articles he has authored, I am moved to be a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem. I really don't know how anyone in the world of education who considers themselves a progressive thinker could not be influenced by the message this man is sending out.

My only criticism is this - while Robinson is absolutely fantastic at the conveyance of 'big ideas' for educational reformation, or transformation, he doesn't really offer any feasible ideas for making these types of changes a reality. Listening to him provokes a response in those who listen to him, but now what do we do? The wheels of change turn slowly in education. What can we do now to make a difference? What little changes can we make in our classrooms to promote creativity and allow our students to develop their personal talents?

I would like to think I do my part for the cause. I believe stressing cross-curricular integration (especially music and the arts), regularly using kinesthetic activities, and stressing the equal importance of the creative and critical mind to academic success in the classroom are all immediate actions that can be taken to support Robinson's 'big ideas.'

Knowing change is needed and taking steps to facilitate change are two very separate things. Ideas without actions are not worth the air it takes to say them or the time it takes to write them. So, if you believe in the kind of change being called for by Robinson, how exactly do we make that happen?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Anatomy of a Unit Plan: William Golding's Lord of the Flies

I love writing new unit plans! Researching for hours. Pulling together resources from far and wide. Figuring out ways to challenge and engage my students in new and interesting ways. Thinking "outside the box," I regularly pull history, sociology, psychology, technology, current events, pop culture, art, and music into my literature lessons. 

As an educator and a lover of literature, I want my students to engage with the text. I want them to not just read the words on the page, but think about them as well. I want them to not just know what happened in the story, but also to consider why it happened. What motivated the author to craft the story? What are the characters' motivations? Why is the conflict occurring? What if the character/setting/actions were different? What would happen then? How can we relate our own story to the one we are reading?

When our students write, we are constantly telling them to show us, not tell us. I think when we teach literature we should take our own advice. I believe too many English teachers spend too much time telling students about literature, explaining the symbols and themes and motifs, and molding the way students think about the stories they are reading by imposing too many of the teacher's own beliefs about and interpretations of the text. We should be figuring out ways to engage our students in the texts, to allow them to experience the stories themselves rather than vicariously through our own knowledge and experience.

The wonderful thing about literature is a story you read at 13 is probably not going to have the same meaning to you if you read it again in your 20s, and it most definitely is not going to be the same if you read it in your 30s. Our students deserve the opportunity to experience literature in a way that allows for interpretations coloured by their own backgrounds, beliefs, and life experiences.


The Choice is Made

As I browsed through the approved list of novels for my courses' teacher-choice units, I was ecstatic to see Golding's Lord of the Flies. Now, this book was part of the classes' summer reading lists; however, after quick survey of my students, only about half of them had even attempted to read it. Approximately one quarter actually made it to the end (or almost to the end), and only a handful of those students liked the story. Most of those who read it were quite vocal about their dislike (or more often hatred) of the story.

When I pushed them for reasons why they didn't like it, the majority said the story didn't make any sense to them. People wouldn't really behave that way. And as one of my most outspoken students so succinctly put it - "it's just a bunch of boys runnin' around half naked and killing each other for no reason."

After about 10 minutes of discussion, I decided to accept the challenge!

With the accompaniment of many moans and groans, I announced that we would in fact be taking on Lord of the Flies for our next unit beginning the following week with the promise that I would show them the story was far more than a bunch of half-naked boys killing each other in the jungle for no reason.


Now What?

Obviously, we did vocabulary and comprehension exercises combined with questions involving inference and interpretation because my students have to understand the story being told. We did discuss characters and symbols. (You can find a comprehensive study guide with vocabulary and reflections here.) But I wanted to give my kids more. I wanted them to have an experience with this book. We concentrated on the themes - how they apply to us and then how we can apply them to the boys in the story.


The Beginning

I like to begin at the beginning, so we started with Golding himself. After giving my students a brief biography of Golding's role in world War II, we discussed the war. (As a happy accident, my classes were studying WWII at the same time.) We talked as a group about the events of the war and the changes in the 'war machine' that took place during this time and how these evolutions (or devolutions, if you'd rather) changed people's perceptions about man's inhumanity to man and what behavior could be justified by war. Moving on, we discussed right and wrong, good and evil, and the capacity of an individual to cross these lines. While my students did a good job identifying events and changes that took place during the war and seemed to have a handle on why these things changed public opinion, most of them were still very 'black and white' in their views regarding the broad concepts of right or wrong - good or evil. This is just what I was expecting and what I had planned for, but more on that later.

Switching gears from broad themes back to the story itself, I posited the question, "What is the main goal for these boys?" A resounding, "Survive," issued forth from my students, and a conversation about surviving in the wilderness ensued. I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised how many 15-16-year-olds watch Survivorman and know who Bear Grylls is. All in all, the majority of my kids felt pretty confident that they knew enough to survive. "It's not that big a deal," one boy answered, "it's all about common sense." OK! Let's put this to the test. Bring on the "Would You Survive?" Quiz!
(Regrettably, I can no longer find the link to the original quiz, so you can find it and the answer key with explanations here on my blog. If this is yours, please let me know and I will link the resource to you and remove it from my resources page.)

Lesson learned? Survival is not quite as easy as they thought it would be.

So, what's up next? If you are in a survival situation, how much would that change your beliefs or behavior? Would it be possible to justify decisions you probably wouldn't make in your everyday life? Here is the "Who Should Survive?" group activity to help you answer these very questions.

Splitting my students into 5 or 6 groups per class, they worked together through this activity. (Some of my more "delicate flowers" found this exercise mildly distressing, just so you are aware.) As the groups defended their choices about who to keep and who to leave behind, we also kept track of which characters were chosen and which were sacrificed on the board (overall there was a definite pattern which we also discussed).

Lesson learned? In a survival situation most of us are looking for people who we believe will benefit us the most. Although, some groups did exhibit a strong protective instinct for those smaller and weaker than themselves. Interesting.

Finally, we explored the difference between right and wrong beginning with a discussion and brainstorming session to figure out what behaviors we believe are fundamentally wrong either because of society or our own beliefs and phrased simply as 'do not.' Examples included: do not steal, do not kill people, do not lie, etc. I questioned my students extensively about the 'black and white' nature of these statements. All of them agreed that these are the rules we are supposed to live by, and the majority of them could not find exceptions that would persuade them these behaviors were not wrong. (Hahaha, my plan is coming together!)

Using an extended version of The Heinz Dilemma, we worked through the scenarios with the kids reading and responding to each vignette individually first, then discussing it as a group. As we systematically decided what was right or wrong (by majority vote), I marked through the list we had made on the board. In the end, the entire 'do not' list was toast.

Lesson learned? There is lots and lots of gray area between what is right and wrong. Sometimes what we can justify as appropriate behavior or response is completely dependent on the situation. Occasionally, we need to walk in someone else's shoes to understand their actions.

In the End

After completing these activities along the way, we finished up our novel by taking a deeper look at the three remaining main characters: Ralph, Jack, and Roger. First, as a group, we determined exactly what actions each boy had been responsible for on the island. Then, we discussed what crimes the boys could have been charged had they behaved this way in the real world.

The final writing assignment was this - choose a character, choose the charges you believe should be held against them, mount a defense for their actions (taking into account their decisions and actions were made in a survival situation; they did not believe they would be rescued; the oldest was only 12 years old; etc.), decide on an appropriate punishment (if any) and give reasons justifying your decision.

By the conclusion of this unit, my students not only understood that this story was more than they first believed, but I feel they also grew more socially and emotionally aware of themselves and one another as well as achieving academic success. Goals achieved!

**As a side-note, I am searching for an activity that I can use with Lord of the Flies that concretely demonstrates 'mob mentality' for the scene in the story where Simon is killed by the boys. If anyone has any ideas about this, I would be most grateful if you would share!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

15 Steps for Discouraging, Diffusing, and Preventing Bullying in Your School

As a new school year begins, my thoughts have turned to one of the most favored of educational catch-phrases - "to create a safe environment." This keystone for many a school mission statement and educational philosophy is thrown around quite often. I have no doubt that for the majority of those working in and around education, this goal is extremely important, but just how successful are we at creating and maintaining this "safe haven" for our students?

According to the CDCs 2010 data on Youth Violence regarding students in grades 9-12:

  •  5.0% of students did not go to school on one or more days in the 30 days preceding the survey because they felt unsafe at school or on their way to or from school.
  • 7.7% of students reported being threatened or injured with a weapon on school property one or more times in the 12 months preceding the survey.
  •  19.9% of students reported being bullied on school property in the 12 months preceding the survey; the prevalence was higher among females (21.2%) than males (18.7%).
  • 11.1% of students reported being in a physical fight on school property in the 12 months preceding the survey.

What is bullying?

If we are going to address the problem of bullying behaviors, it is important to have a clear definition of exactly what this means.

Bullying behavior is any physical, verbal, or psychological action that is done by one person or a group of people to systematically intimidate another. These behaviors include, but are not limited to:
  • Hitting, pushing, or slapping
  • Name-calling or teasing
  • Spreading rumors or social exclusion 
Back in the day, most of these behaviors were dismissed as "kids just being kids." Thankfully, this is no longer the case. Unfortunately, it has taken a great number of highly-publicized tragedies involving children who have been bullied to finally begin to dispel this dangerous axiom.

I have worked with kids in a wide variety of public educational environments - urban, suburban, and rural. The one thing I can guarantee you is this - it doesn't matter how well-behaved your student body is or how close-knit your school community tries to be, there are bullying behaviors going on right now in your halls, in your classrooms, and in your common areas. And it is up to you to stop it.

It is the responsibility of every adult working with children today to protect them. Principals, secretaries, counselors, teachers, librarians, custodians, cooks, and all other faculty and support staff are equally responsible for the prevention of bullying behaviors in schools.

Steps to Take

#1 DOCUMENT EVERYTHING. The number one rule for everything related to education is the number one rule for dealing with bullying as well. Take note of day, time, parties involved, behaviors observed, and any actions taken. This not only serves as a written record for your own and your administration's use, but when used properly can also be an invaluable tool for recognizing and tracking patterns in behavior over time and across environments for both the bullies and the bullied.

In Your Classroom

#2 SET CLEAR EXPECTATIONS FROM THE BEGINNING - Talk to your students about what it means to be respectful. Be firm about a zero-tolerance policy for bullying behaviors. Discuss what this means and talk about consequences. Whether the behavior is a single incident due to someone having a bad day or an ongoing issue between students, taking a resolute position from the first day and treating every disrespectful situation with consequences sets the behavior expectations in your room high and keeps them high.

#3 KNOW YOUR STUDENTS - Watch them in the hall, pay attention to who they hang out with or if they are mostly alone, get to know their personality and normal demeanor - you will be able to tell if something has changed or if something is wrong.

#4 PAY ATTENTION - Be aware of what is going on around you during passing times and when students are entering or leaving your room. Watch their posture and disposition and listen to what they are talking about. These are the best opportunities to identify any potential problems or issues with or between your students.

#5 KEEP YOUR CLASSROOM CLOSED TO THE GENERAL POPULATION - DO NOT allow students who are not in your class into your classroom during passing times or prior to class. Just set this as a general policy, even for students you may have during other periods. Require students to keep their visiting out in the hallway and make sure your students know when your class is open for everyone (before school, during planning periods or advisory, etc.).

This is one I had to learn the hard way after having a fight break out in my room between one of my students and the boyfriend of another student in my class during a passing period. Lesson learned! The only students allowed in my room during class times are the students getting ready for that class.

#6 DEAL WITH SITUATIONS IMMEDIATELY AND AS DISCRETELY AS POSSIBLE - You don't want to give the bully any more peer attention than is absolutely necessary, but you want to show the victim that you see what is happening. You want to send a direct message to everyone in the classroom - this behavior will NOT be tolerated.

#7 TAILOR YOUR IMMEDIATE RESPONSE TO THE SITUATION - As with everything in life, each situation is going to be different. One response does not fit all. It is dependent upon the kids involved, the nature of the behavior, and what is happening in the room at the time. Based on these factors, I have removed the bully, allowed the victim to leave the room momentarily, called on one or the other to help with a demonstration or run an errand, and even just used proximity control to stop the bullying behavior until I could get the entire class working independently. This is where #3 comes in handy again. It is much easier to decide on the least disruptive response when you know your students' personalities.

#8 FOLLOW-UP WITH THE STUDENT BEING BULLIED, ASAP AND OVER TIME - Meet with the student being bullied privately either directly after class, during his/her next free period, or after school. Talk to them about what happened and let them know that you are there to help in any way you can whether it is in your classroom or elsewhere.

Be sure to check-in with the student from time to time just to make sure everything is going okay.

#9 FOLLOW-UP WITH THE BULLIES PRIVATELY - For a single student, speak to them from time to time just as a reminder that you are keeping an eye on them and their behavior. If you are dealing with a group, speak to the members individually. I have personally found the best tactic in this situation to be starting with the followers and saving the leader for last. Leaders of groups that bully draw most of their power from the followers. If you can sever some of this support, then you can better diffuse further incidents of bullying.

#10 DEVISE A LONG-TERM PLAN, IF NECESSARY - There are times when unacceptable bullying behaviors are just a result of someone having a bad day. While these should be dealt with in the same fashion as on-going problems when they occur, most often a stern reminder of appropriate and respectful conduct will set the situation right. Other times, moving around seating and diligent observation may be in order. Of course, this is something each teacher has to determine for themselves. There are no quick or easy answers to this one. Sometimes you just have to play it by ear, and if your first plan doesn't work, then try another.

While you can make the greatest impact against bullying behaviors in your own classroom, you can influence the behavior of students in the general population as well.

In common areas, hallways, etc.

#11 LET YOUR REPUTATION PRECEDE YOU - Kids talk. If you are a teacher who is vocal about your intolerance for bullying behaviors AND you follow through by taking action against such conduct, students will respond to this when you are physically present in an area. Be a strong visual presence in the halls during passing times and when on lunch or bus duty. Make eye contact with students and speak to them as they pass you. Let them know that you are paying attention to what they are doing and how they are behaving.

#12 GET TO KNOW AS MANY STUDENTS AS YOU CAN - This can be extremely difficult in large schools, but it really serves the same purpose as getting to know the kids in your classroom. the more kids you know and the more who know you, the better.

#13 DIFFUSE A POTENTIALLY BAD SITUATION WHEN YOU SEE IT - Pull one of the students out of the altercation by engaging them in a conversation unrelated to the behavior. This is where knowing the students comes in handy - especially knowing what students are involved in teams, clubs or organizations in the school OR those who have gifts, talents, or interests in specific activities.

Don't think for a minute that they don't realize what you are doing. They do. But in environments involving large peer groups, this tactic will stop the behavior without calling anyone out or publicly embarrassing them. Kids are smart - most will get the unspoken message, "I see you, I'm watching, and I don't approve."

#14 INTERVENE FURTHER, IF NECESSARY - Your position requires you to be responsible for the kids in your care whether they are in your classes or not. If you witness any physical or extreme verbal abuse happening - STOP IT. Follow your particular school's procedures for handling the students. Get help from other faculty or staff if needed. Just DO NOT IGNORE what is happening (and yes, I've seen this happen).

#15 FOLLOW-UP WITH THE INCIDENT - If you have had to intervene in a bullying situation involving students other than those you see on a regular basis, don't just assume everything has been taken care of once the referrals are over. Follow-up with the administration, the counselors, and the students involved, if possible. This practice not only shows that you follow through on what you've started, but also helps build that reputation we discussed in #11.

While most of these steps may seem like common sense, I can assure you I have seen bullying behaviors left unchecked as a student, as a professional, and as a parent. If you believe that as a teacher, your only job is to teach, then I would respectfully suggest that you seriously consider changing careers ASAP lest you become a part of the problem rather than a part of the solution.

This should be every teacher's goal.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Are We Really Still Assigning Book Reports? 20 Ways to Encourage Students to Interact with Texts

Traditional book reports should be a thing of the past. I mean, do you really want to read 30-125 recaps of the same book? (YAWN!) Well, guess what, your students don't want to write them either. They are boring and tedious. And most importantly, they really don't measure the comprehension of a text or confirm that they have even read the text assigned. All these reports prove is that your students are capable of using SparkNotes or Wikipedia with a certain amount of expertise.

Don't just have your students report on what they are reading. Encourage them to interact with it instead.

Technology-Enhanced Book Interactions

With all the free technology available today, why not give students some interesting choices to use in their textual interpretation?

1. Create a book trailer - Just like a movie trailer, a book trailer tells the story in a way that touches on the highlights, but sells the audience on wanting to experience it. There are a number of great resources students can use, including Animoto for Education, PhotoPeach, and Go!Animate. Richard Byrne over at Free Technology for Teachers offer a Free Guide to Making Videos on the Web, in case you need some assistance. And if your looking for a professional example, here is the book trailer for Ransom Riggs' Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.

2. Create a podcast - This could take the form of a book review or a scripted interview with either the author of the book or one of the reader's favorite characters. Students could choose to use audio only or take it a step further through the use of video, props, and costumes. PodBean offers free podcast hosting. Free blogging sites like Blogger and WordPress also support podcasting. Additionally, I know a number of educators who use class YouTube channels to support videos created in their classrooms (of course, this would depend upon your school's specific regulations regarding YouTube.)

3. Create an interactive 3-D pop-up book - ZooBurst is a digital storytelling tool that lets anyone easily create his or her own 3D pop-up books. ZooBurst books “live” online and can be experienced on your desktop or laptop computer, or on your iPad via the free ZooBurst mobile app. Authors can arrange characters and props within a 3D world that can be customized using uploaded artwork or items found in a built-in database of over 10,000 free images and materials. This is a very cool FREE program!

4. Create a multi-media collage - Glogster is a FREE service that allows users to create one-page media-mash-ups using images, audio, video, text, and more. Glogster EDU is the same platform designed specifically for use in the classroom with stricter privacy measures in place - of course, that also makes it a pay site (Single Teacher License: up to 50 accounts for $29.95/year, up to 200 accounts for $99/year or $11.95/month. Multi-license for individual schools or entire districts: up to 2500 accounts for $2/account/year, from 2500 accounts for $1/account/year). View an example for Tolkien's The Hobbit here or one detailing the Freedom Riders, here.

5. Create an interactive timeline - Capzles is a FREE resource to create interactive timelines using images, video, audio, and text. Just to give you some ideas, view an example covering the historical timeline for To Kill A Mockingbird here or one detailing the Women of WWII, here. I think this tool could be used to make a very interesting small group or whole class project.

6. Create an animated or stop-motion video - Stop Motion Animator and Helium Frog are both FREE resources for creating stop-motion projects. Kevin Hodgson has an absolutely fantastic site, Making Stopmotion Movies, that will walk you through the entire process!

7. Create literature maps - Google Lit Trips founded by Jerome Burg and Terence Cavenaugh utilizes Google Earth to more deeply explore some of the greatest and most important literary road trips ever written. Lit trips explored in the 9-12 level include: the expedition taken by Christopher Johnson McCandless in Jon Krakaurer's Into the Wild; the Joad family's emotional relocation in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath; and Elie Wiesel's horrific journey through the Nazi concentration camps of WWII brought to light in his book Night. Using the site requires the Google Earth application, QuickTime player, an internet browser (Firefox, Safari, or at least Internet Explorer 7), and internet access. SMART board technology or an LCD projector are recommended. Additionally, the site features many student-generated lit trips and tutorials on using Google Earth to create virtual tours which could be adapted to class or group projects at any grade level.

8. Create a comic strip - Students can either choose to re-create a specific scene from the text or do a synopsis of the story as a whole. In either case, students should include important lines, quotes, and thoughts from the text. ReadWriteThink offers a cool interactive tool in their Comic Creator. Additionally, Pixton and Strip Generator use a basic drag-and-drop interface that is easy to use and requires no artistic ability whatsoever. (*This activity can also be done sans technology. See #10 below.)


Creative and Critical Thinking Book Interactions (No Tech Necessary)

What if your students just don't have enough access to technology to make assignments like these feasible? (It does happen in some communities, even in this day and age.) Well, there are still a multitude of ideas out there for helping your kids stretch their creative muscles and engage their critical thinking skills that involve no technology at all. (Of course, any of these ideas could also be combined with the tech-enhanced interactions above.)

1. What if? - Have students identify a turning point in the book's plot, then switch it up. What would have happened if the series of events didn't happen that way? What if Romeo had received the letter? What if Simon had not been killed before he could deliver his message about The Beast? ReadWriteThink offers an excellent lesson plan, Happily Ever After?, that is designed to be used with tragedies and offers both resources and student presentation ideas.

2. Create a character - A great exercise in creativity, characterization, setting, and voice. Students create a character that would fit into the world of their novel. They write up a character sketch and then construct a scene in which their new character interacts with one or more of the main characters of the story. The character and the interaction must remain true to the setting and voice of the original author. (I used this exercise with great success with a freshmen lit class working on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.)

3. Change the setting - Have students take a favorite scene or chapter from the text and re-write it in a different setting. How would Macbeth look and sound in a modern, urban setting? What about Great Expectations in the American Old West?

4. Create a new book cover or "movie" poster - Go 'old school' with the images, having students either draw them or use images from magazines, newspapers, etc. Students also choose important quotes, create taglines, and provide a brief synopsis to "sell" the story to the potential audience.

5. Write a character resume - Students choose a character, consider what type of job the character would be seeking, and write a resume for that job. This exercise gives students the opportunity to think about the text in a different way and also exposes them to an authentic life skill (resume writing). It also allows students the flexibility of creativity. Resumes may be funny or serious as long as it reflects the true nature of the character. Some examples could be: Count Dracula applying for a position as a phlebotomist or Doctor Frankenstein searching for a job as a Principal Investigator in the field of biomedical research.

6. Create a word collage (AKA an 'old school' word cloud) - Have students write the title of the book in the center of a sheet of paper, then search through magazines and newspapers to find words, phrases, and sentences that either represent the book or explain something about the book. Students should concentrate on theme, setting, plot, and characters during this exercise. Requirements: a minimum of 50 words, phrases, and sentences, paper should be fully covered and provide the viewer with a strong visual impact that reveals a great deal about the story.

7. Create a novel soundtrack - Students will choose a minimum of 10 songs that represent the characters, setting, themes, motifs, plotline, etc. of the novel being studied. Liner notes should be completed for each song detailing the song information (title, artist, album, year of release, etc.), who or what the song represents, an explanation of why the song was chosen and how it is representative of an element of the story. (*This exercise could also be modified to creating a soundtrack for the students' choice of a single character in the narrative.)

8. Create a childhood - If you are studying a text with adult characters, have students choose a character and think about what they would have been like as a child. Students will tell the story of the character's childhood concentrating on aspects or interactions that could explain why the character's words and actions in the novel are what they are.

9. Create a character scrapbook Students will consider the purpose of scrapbooking and what kinds of mementos they would place in their own scrapbooks. After choosing a character from the text, students will use magazines, newspapers, and their own imaginations to cut out and/or draw mementos that would be important to the character.

10. Create a comic strip - For the artistic students in your group, have them choose to re-create a scene in the book or a synopsis of the story as a whole using the popular graphic novel-style and using text bubbles to insert important lines, quotes, and thoughts from the text. ( *For a tech-enhanced version, see above.)

11. Be a costume designer/set designer - Have students consider what it would be like to stage a production of the story. Using magazines, newspapers, advertisements, etc., students create fashion boards to represent how they would dress the main characters and/or set boards to detail how they would set the stage including backdrops, lighting, props, etc. Write-ups should include why these visual choices were made and how they relate to the text using concrete examples.

12. Create a character diary - Students choose a character from the book and compose a diary or journal with a set number of entries discussing important events in the story from the character's point of view.

So, there you have it. Twenty ideas for moving beyond the standard 'ho-hum' book assignments and engaging your students' creative and critical minds in book interactions. Allow your students the chance to stretch their mental muscles. The results will most definitely be surprising, and quite often wonderful!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Just Say No to Textbooks: Alternatives to Feeding the Textbook Monopoly

I loathe textbooks. I detest and despise them. Textbooks are bland and boring, and they read like a set of stereo instructions. They suck the joy out of learning and teaching. When I look at a textbook, I can almost hear the monotone droning of a lecture that will without a doubt put me to sleep. Literature textbooks are the worst! Full of excerpts (blech!) and poetry/short stories that are either unknown or uninspiring or both. They are edited to within an inch of their existence. Quite frankly, they suck.

When I entered my first classroom and took inventory of the text choices I had inherited, I was less than enthusiastic. I found very few trade books (which I actually love), two sets of literature text books, and a set of grammar texts from the 1980’s. What could be worse, you might ask. Well, there were also not enough of any of these books for each student to have one. So even if I had wanted to use them, my students wouldn’t be able to reference them outside of the classroom because there was only one set to be shared between four classes.

The fact is, it is extremely difficult to build excitement in your students, if you are bored with and disengaged from your own class materials. So, I immediately made the decision to chuck the texts and create my own. Working in Word, I compiled materials, complete with illustrations, and put together my own texts. I also made enough copies that all my students had their own to use wherever and whenever they chose. 

Over the course of a few weeks, I worked at night and over weekends to put together a poetry anthology and a short story anthology for my sophomores and a series of mythology anthologies for my seniors, including Norse, Egyptian, Arthurian, and Modern Myth and Legend.

While the process is a little time-consuming, I assure you it is well worth the effort involved. The materials you create will be more interesting to both you and your students.

Although you can put these materials together with no more than MS Word and Internet access, there are lots of great options available that both teachers and students can use to create digital texts, if you know where to look. This is definitely a case of "I wish I knew then what I know now." So, please learn from my ignorance and check out some of these fantastic resources.


Resources for Creating, Curating, and Sharing Digital Textbooks

1. ePub in Classroom - The ePub format has become an industry standard for ebooks. You can easily create ePub books with your students or you can create units and entire textbooks for use with your courses. These resources will help you formulate your ePub format resources.

2. ck-12 - Books available through this site are customizable. You can rearrange the chapters or even add, remove and edit content. Add bite-sized lessons to FlexBooks or assign to students for independent learning. Videos and multimedia simulations bring learning to life. Enable students to track their progress with instant feedback. Get assessments, answer keys and ideas for differentiated instruction.

3. Project Gutenberg - Offers over 40,000 free ebooks: choose among free epub books, free kindle books, download them or read them online. Perfect resource for creating anthologies.

4. Apple iBook Author - Available free on the Mac App Store. Allows for the use of galleries, video, interactive diagrams, 3D objects, and more.

5. LiveBinders - Free service for collecting, organizing, and presenting all manner of resources, including web pages, pdf files, graphics, and videos. I wish I had known about this site when I built my units last year! If you are wondering just how you could use this tool, check out this example for an Edgar Allan Poe unit or this one for Web 2.0 for Secondary Teachers. You can discover a wealth of information looking through other's binders and then synthesize them into your own.

6.  Open Culture - 500 Free Online Courses from Top Universities, including some of the best free cultural and educational media available on the web.

7. Cybrary Man's Educational Websites - Created and curated by Jerry Blumengarten and including links for all grade levels and subject areas.

8. National Repository of Online Courses - Includes coursework for high school foundations, AP content, and college foundations.

9. moodle - Free web application that allows educators to create online learning sites, AKA Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs).

10. Pinterest - An excellent content sharing site in which members "pin" images and videos to boards they create themselves. This site is quickly becoming a very valuable collecting tool for educators. It also offers a quickly growing community of "pinners." Here are 16 Ways Educators Use Pinterest from Stephanie Buck, just to give you some ideas.

With all these great ideas, the wheels are definitely turning! I am currently working on two non-fiction anthologies, an American Folklore compilation, and two thematic short story collections. I believe these resources may be just the thing to update my previous collections and move my current projects to the next level.

So, if you are disenfranchised with the materials you have available, do yourself and your students a favor and check out some of these alternatives. I promise no one will be disappointed.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

To Know or Not to Know, That is the Question

Entering the world of education with a background of working with kids in the private sector my whole life, I have received many fantastic nuggets of wisdom about teaching from veterans in the field. I have found these tips on organization, ideas about classroom management, and tricks to ensure sanity invaluable. However, there is one piece of advice I actually received from several veterans that I have never been able to wrap my mind around – “don’t get too involved with the students; it makes it easier to discipline them.” What? What exactly does that mean?

Now, I suppose this could be a way to keep the line between teacher and student unmistakably defined. When I pushed my helpful advisors for a more finite explanation, I never received the clarity I sought. This statement just seems entirely too general in my eyes. I crave specificity.

Don’t gossip with your students – of course not, this is both unprofessional and juvenile. Don’t hang out with your students casually – yeah, I can understand that, after all we are not BFFs. Don’t go out and party with your students – ok, now I’m just being facetious, but I have heard of it happening, so I’ll throw it in here.

These statements are precise and could be helpful to people who have either never been around kids or who are young and lack life experience or who just have no common sense. But “don’t get too involved” – I didn’t understand it then, and I don’t understand it now.

When I decided to go into education, my main reason was because I wanted to be involved in the lives of children. I mean, what better way to help kids learn, grow, and succeed than teaching, right? And it seems to me that the better you know the kids, the better you can anticipate their needs, differentiate to overcome their personal issues, and catch potential behavior problems before discipline or intervention becomes necessary.

TMI – How much is too much?

As I have said before, I am new to the world of teaching. I have however worked with kids in the private sector my whole life. For my “work kids” and those I have tutored over the years, I have provided help with homework and assistance with college entrance exams. I have been there to help my kids and their families fill out FAFSA and college applications. I have given assistance with job applications and resumes.

I have acted as a confidant and offered advice on relationships, parents, school, jobs, drugs, alcohol, and even a couple of unplanned pregnancies. I have always refused to be caught up in their adolescent dramas and have never failed to quite bluntly call them out on drama for its own sake. I always approached them as the young adults they were and treated them with honesty and respect. They never failed to reciprocate.

I am still in touch with many of these kids and their families. And I still refer to them as kids, even though the oldest among them have recently said good-bye to their twenties and now have kids of their own. They are spread far and wide – going to school, working, and living lives of their own. The thing they have in common is this – when they come home, they look me up. They shoot me an email when they can and keep me apprised of the big events in their lives – graduations, marriages, births, new jobs, promotions. Their parents keep me informed of their progress in school and in life whenever I run into them at the grocery store. I have to say that the fact these kids still allow me to be a part of their lives long after I’ve outgrown my ‘usefulness’ in their day-to-day means the world to me.

Did I become too involved with these kids? Do I know too much about the parts of their lives that were not directly related to my professional association with them as a tutor or boss? I’m sure that everyone has an opinion on how much information is too much, but I believe the more important questions are these. Did I help these kids learn, grow, and succeed? Yes, I believe I did. Did I make lasting connections with these kids? Definitely.

So, who gets to decide how much is too much? Aside from gross misconduct or criminal behavior, I can say that I firmly believe the more information you know about the kids you work with, the better you can meet their needs.

In the Classroom

Being present enough to pay attention to what my students are talking about among themselves and taking the time to listen to them when they need someone to talk to has allowed me not only to understand what is happening in their day-to-day, but also to use that information to assist them in improving their performance and experience in my room.

Has this resulted in some TMI overload situations at times? Yes, of course it has, but without this involvement I would have never known:

·         That freshmen girl in your class who has suddenly developed a “diva from hell” attitude has just gotten her first ever boyfriend and is feeling extremely self-conscious and nervous about exactly what that means.

·         That student who has been skipping class and refusing to turn in work has parents who have recently split up; the mother left the state, and the father is out of the country on business.

·         That sophomore who went from falling asleep in class every day to bouncing off the walls and picking fights with everyone sitting around her has made the decision that she is old enough to determine whether or not she needs to take her ADHD medication, and she chose no.

·         That student who seems to have problems with social interactions and quickly becomes combative with his peers just had his little brother and sister taken out of the home by the state which left him all by himself because he has aged-out of the system. He hasn’t seen them in over two months.

·         That student everyone calls lazy is working two jobs to help his family keep a roof over their heads and food on their table.

Now, I’m interested to know exactly how not getting involved with my students serves their best interests or my own? Do these situations influence the way I deal with each of these students? Yes, it does. It doesn’t change my expectations for these kids. I expect the same from them as I do all my students. What it does change is my approach. And isn’t that what individualized education is at its core? Adapting instruction to meet the needs of all students?

If you are a veteran teacher, I have a sincere question for you. Have you ever given this type of advice to a new teacher? What exactly did you mean by it?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

5 Resources for Integrating Music Across the Curriculum

Why Should I Use Music in My Classroom?

"We know an age more vividly through its music than through its historians."
~ Rosanne Ambrose-Brown

I have never met anyone whose life has not been influenced by music in some way. Music sets the stage for our lives; it has the ability to trigger memories and manipulate moods. Music can stimulate our creativity and increase the connections in our neural network.

Those of us who grew up with School House Rock can attest to the power of music to infiltrate the memory whether you want it to or not. I dare you not to finish this: “Conjunction Junction . . .” How about this one: “I’m just a Bill. . .”

If for some reason you have never heard of School House Rock or if you just want to take a trip down memory lane, here is a video for your viewing pleasure.

The truth is, using music in the classroom can impact student learning in a number of ways. Music can be used to:

  • create a positive learning environment
  • establish the necessary mood or atmosphere
  • re-energize tedious learning activities (like review, vocabulary, and drills)
  • focus attention and improve memory retention
  • facilitate multi-sensory learning and address multiple intelligences
  • provide inspiration, motivation, and creative fuel for imagination
  •  build rapport between students and teachers and among the students themselves

When a child learns by experience that music forges direct links between self and world, self-expression becomes more fluent; the music helps interpret "who I am." - Growing up Complete, the report of the National Commision on Music Education, 1990



Five Resources for Music Integration

  1. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame - currently houses 52 lesson plans using rock and roll to teach History, English Language and Literature, Economics,Social Science, Psychology, and Government.
  2. Science in School - "Using music in the science classroom" by Caroline Molyneux - extremely interesting article from science teacher Caroline Molyneux outlining her strategy of using music in her classroom to begin class and to facilitate memory retention in her students. 
  3. Flocabulary - Educational Hip-Hop - subscription resource with videos covering English (both literature and vocabulary), math, science, social studies, and current events. Individual teacher rate is $5-7/month (depending on whether or not you want the current event videos each week) or $63/year (get 3 months free). They also offer free videos on their site and on YouTube as well, including this one for Macbeth that I used with my sophomores.

4.  "Interactive Music Strategies for the Academic Curriculum" by Michelle Lazar - Practical ideas for integrating music into the curriculum.

5. - "14 Ways to Use GarageBand in the Classroom" - Uses include ways to increase technology in music classes, as well as physical education and across the humanities.