Wednesday, May 30, 2012


This one is for all my website-makers and blog-posters...  The online service allows you to embed all sorts of documents, websites and file types into your sites and blogs. 

The Embedit service allows you to choose from any of your files, then change the appearance of the file through their customization window, shown below.

In this window, teachers can also write on the document, add call-outs and create settings for the functionality of the document.  You can allow or disallow downloading and printing of the file and make some privacy selections. 

Finally, you just copy some code and, voila!  The document is now embedded into the site with better visibility and functionality than old snipping and attaching techniques. 

I have embedded a quick sample below just to show how it works:

Math Rules (!) Flipbooks

Anytime there are lots of rules to remember for a particular math concept, flipbooks can be really helpful.  Flipbooks allow students to review the rules and use them while completing work.  They are also much more accessible to students with learning differences rather than flipping through pages of notes.

Every time we cover the rules for adding and subtracting integers, many of our students are confused and have trouble mentally organizing the steps and deciding which procedure to follow.  To help practice this process and get organized about which steps to follow, we created these rule flipbooks.  My templates are shown below.

(Note:  I made these on 11" x 17" paper, but it can work perfectly well on regular letter size paper.)

Students cut out each of the strips above, then glue them into a pre-made book.  To make the books, simply fold two sheets of paper in the same size in half lengthwise, then staple along the fold.  Once the strips are glued in, cut along the lines in between the boxes on each strip.  When the flipbook is complete, students can flip up each tab with a series of questions about the problem, thus guiding them through the steps for solving. 

Below are some pictures of the flipbook in use:

Flipbooks are great any time a student can answer a series of questions about some concept, particularly when managing complex multi-step processes.  Play around with flipbooks and please post your great ideas in the comments area for this post!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Word Clouds

A few months ago, I posted about Wordle and some of its uses in education.  Within a few days of creating that post, I walked down the hallways of my own school and saw Wordle-like word clouds in the shapes of flowers, hearts, even the USA.  I had to find out how to do that myself.

There are several word cloud generators out there, but lately I have been experimenting with Tagxedo.  This generator allows you to make word clouds of websites, news stories, Twitter feeds and even web searches, then choose a shape for the cloud from tons of templates. 

For created shaped clouds and using web sources, Tagxedo is much better than Wordle.  If you intend to copy and paste text, however, Wordle is the better choice.  Tagxedo currently does not have a field for entering text. 

The United States Constitution

There are functions in Tagxedo for respinning, fonts, colors, shapes and even omitting words.  Play with all of the functions and see what awesome images you can create.  It's fun!

Electronic Binders

Just a few years ago, if you had peered into my closets, you would have seen stacks and stacks of binders.  Back then, the most logical way to organize and maintain my materials was to keep paper copies marked with notes and comments.  I always had electronic copies, as well, but the sequence of the papers worked for me and made sense.

About two years ago, I started saving things electronically in my files only.  It relieved some of the clutter and I even found ways to leave myself notes and tips on the documents themselves.  I have recently started using Dropbox, as well. 

Dropbox is awesome for pure storage.  It allows you to access documents from any internet connected computer, which is a huge plus.  Just like saving to the school's server, however, it is difficult to sort the items with any particular order or to mix file types.

It seems, however, that the only way a binder can truly be replaced is with a LiveBinder.  LiveBinders is a free service website that allows you to create electronic binders with any sequence.  Your binders can also include websites and other types of material that would be incompatible with traditional files. 

There are tons of resources out there like Dropbox and LiveBinder that allow you to store and access files electronically.  So, go ahead!  This summer, clean out those closets and get rid of all that clutter!  And next year, save a tree by saving your documents online instead of all that printing!

Fun with QR Codes

QR codes are everywhere and chances are, your students have the means and the know-how to use them.  As I said in my BYOT post, technology is here and you can either embrace it in the classroom, or expend a lot of energy swimming against the current!  QR codes are a great way to cut out the confusion of finding and managing materials while also using students tablets and mobile devices in a useful, meaningful way.

For those who are new to QR codes, it is a scannable image that contains alphanumeric information.  Your mobile phone or tablet device reads the information and understands it as either a web URL, calendar event, plain text, address or link to media, then takes you directly to that site.  For students, it's a great way to guide them to a website or document without copying lengthy addresses from another source.

For example, this is a QR code for this blog.  If you scan it with a mobile device, it will take you directly to this blog with no typing or copying required.

There are countless sites on the web that generate the codes for free.  Once you have the code, you can insert it into documents, posters, business cards and websites.  For our purposes, we created poetry Glogs featuring our favorite poems.  Because Glogs are best viewed online, we showcased them to the school community online.  Each student received a QR coded link to their Glog and we made flyers and cards to share with others.  This way, parents and other students can see the Glogs without actually walking past a bulletin board display.

If you have used QR codes in your classroom, or if you have ideas for other ways to use them, please leave a comment below!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood...

After yesterday's analysis of Langston Hughes's Mother to Son and Edip Cansever's The Table, we read another all-time favorite and life metaphor - Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken.  The students immediately picked up on the metaphor for life's choices, so we began to reflect on the choices that others have made. 

Each student was given a diagram of two paths in the woods, then a prompt about a character from literature or history.  They described the two choices that this individual faced at some point, then analyzed the choice they ultimately made. 

For each character/figure, the students answered the following questions:

What were the two choices?  Choice #1?  Choice #2?

Which choice did they make?  (Draw an arrow on the path.)

Did he/she chose the "road less traveled?"

Would you make the same choice if you were in his/her position?

Later on, students drew a model of their lives as a path, featuring twists, turns, bumps and forks in the road.  I just love seeing them thinking about abstract concepts and metaphors!

You Just Got Pi'ed!

This activity is obviously related to circles, but it could also be a fun one for Pi Day celebrations.  It requires a little preparation, though. 

In the days leading up to the activity, ask students to bring in some kind of round treat, such as Oreos, doughnuts, bagel chips, cucumber slices, etc.  Make up a few plates of different-sized treats, then print out copies of the secret "pi'ed" poem, shown below.  

Throughout the day, students must stealthfully and anonymously place the treats into the classrooms of other teachers.  Depending on your school policies, you may want to preempt this with an email or a list of willing participants.  After each class finds the circumference of their treats, they are allowed to eat them as long as they promise to pay it forward! 

Textbooks of the Future

At our school, we are well on our way to making lessons and readings more tech savvy.  Each teacher maintains a website and all of our course documents are downloadable from these sites.  What remains, however, are the textbooks. 

We have some online subscriptions to some of our books, but the online versions are often just PDFs of the original text.  This helps with the problem of heavy backpacks, but does little to enhance the format of the text itself. 

More and more publication companies are embracing Kindles, Nooks and iPads as a means of reading their material.  Not only does this compile all of a student's texts onto one tiny reader/tablet, but it allows for functions that would be impossible for a paper textbook.  If you are not yet convinced, check out this demo of iBooks textbooks for iPad.

With these new formats, videos and demonstrations can be embedded into the text in place of still photos.  Many of the books also have applications for taking notes, making notecards and generating study quizzes. 

At the moment, we have a few iPads to share amongst the faculty and each student has a netbook.  We are not yet equipped for a full transition over to eTextbooks, but I am excited to see how this takes off in the future!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

No Crystal Stair

The best part about teaching poetry to my sixth grade reading group is sharing my favorite poems with them.  Long ago when we initially planned this unit, we felt that it was important to begin sharing famous and more meaningful poems now that our students have moved on to middle school.  One of the poems we chose to feature was Langston Hughes's Mother to Son.

In the famous poem, the mother narrator describes her life as a metaphorical staircase.  She describes "tacks" and "splinters" along the way, but she continues "a-climbin' on."  Given the emphasis on figurative language in fifth and sixth grade curricula, we decided to really take this metaphor and run with it. 

First, we have students reflect on their background knowledge pre-Civil Rights Movement United States.  I asked them to brainstorm some ideas about what those tacks and splinters might have been in the mother's life, as well as the victories and "turned corners."  Once they have brainstormed, they organize their thoughts onto a poster of a staircase. 

Finally, students will write about their own "stair" as a homework assignment. 

Earlier this week, we read another poem featuring a life metaphor, Edip Cansever's The Table.  After reading both poems, we also created a Venn diagram comparing the metaphors for life in both poems - a table and a staircase.  More than anything, comparing these two poems and their tone really got the students to start thinking metaphorically and to think critically about the abstract meaning of poetry.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Moreganize It!

If there is one thing I really love about the internet, it's free stuff.  I heard about the Moreganize site from a colleague and I can't wait to check it out.

With the advent of GoogleDocs and wikis, schools are heading more and more towards collaborative creation and online communication.  Moreganize allows you to set up a free account, then it offers several tools for communicating in a group.

Using Moreganize, you can conduct surveys, anonymous opinion polls, or create a shareable to do list or schedule that is open to others.  In my mind, the applications for this service are countless, but may be best suited for the students themselves. 

Given that ours is a private school, the population of students draws from all over the Philadelphia area.  It can be difficult for students to get together for group projects outside of school.  With Moreganize, groups could work together on a to do list or survey each other for ideas. 

Recently, all teachers at our school had to complete reflective essays based on feedback from student surveys.  We are even surveying students to create our groups for an upcoming amusement park field trip.  Maybe next year, we can generate this type of data electronically with a service like Moreganize!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

It's a Phone, It's a Mouse, It's Mobile Mouse Pro!

Imagine this scene for a moment.  You have a classroom equipped with a SMARTBoard and a tablet laptop.  You are trying to use as much technology as possible and as seamlessly as possible.  If you are like me, however, you move around while you speak to the kids and you are constantly circulating the room. 
If you want to control the whiteboard, you must either be standing next to it or the computer.  If you do all of your controlling with the SMARTBoard, you will spend half of the time with your back to the kids.  If you use the computer, you are stuck behind your desk (or wherever the AV hook-up is.)

Admittedly, this is a pretty minor problem and I am certainly happy to have all of this technology at all, but what if the solution was really simple and really affordable?

As I have mentioned before, my husband and I were lucky enough to acquire a free iPad recently and I have been experimenting with it quite a bit.  While reading an article about the best iPad and iPhone apps for education, my jaw dropped when I read about Mobile Mouse Pro.

The downloadable app for iPad, iPhone and Android devices allows you to control virtually any media device like a remote control.  Instead of running sprints back and forth between the SMARTBoard and the laptop, I immediately imagined walking around the room as I like to do, but with an iPad in hand that is quickly and easily operating the board. 

After watching the video above, I am definitely experimenting with this one over the summer!  If I can walk around the room and maintain contact and engagement with the students, it's definitely worth a $2.99 investment...

Big Museum, Big Ideas

The Smithsonian Institute consists of nineteen museums, 168 affiliates, two magazine publications, nine research centers and its own police force.  Needless to say, its a dream field trip for teachers everywhere, but its not accessible to everyone.

Thankfully, the Smithsonian runs a website with hundreds of resources on countless topics related to the sciences, nature, culture and history.  Each individual museum has its own website packed with videos, lessons and resources for teachers. 

If you are like me, it may have never occurred to you to check out the website of a museum that you have no intention of visiting.  The Smithsonian sites, however, can be incredibly helpful even without a trip to D.C.!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Cognition and "The Ball"

If you are planning to attend a dinner party and want an interesting conversation starter or if you are just looking for a good read, just tune into your local NPR station.  As you may have noticed, several posts and much inspiration has sprung from interesting stories I heard on Philadelphia's public radio station, WHYY.

Today's post and inspiration are no exception.  While listening to Marketplace on my way home from school, I heard an interview with John Fox, author of the new book The Ball: Discovering the Object of the Game.  Through historical narratives and personal anecdotes, Fox describes the cultural significance of play and games, as well as the cognitive importance of such physical activity.

According to recent research, even tuning into a ball game on TV excites particular neurons in the brain and may have positive effects on cognition.  Even better, these neurons are five times more stimulated when a person physically participates in sport.  There are also countless social and health benefits for developing minds in playing both organized and disorganized active games.

This generation of children are participating in these kinds of physical activities and pick-up ball games less and less and many studies show this may be to their detriment both in overall health and cognition.  Fox even discusses the seemingly innate nature in all mammals to play, particularly with the universal plaything for which the book is named - the ball. 

I haven't yet read this book, but it is downloading onto my Kindle as I type this.  It sounds like a great read, but I am particularly interested in the research about play and the social, emotional and cognitive development of children's minds.  Check it out!

SMART Exchange

One of the reasons that I started this blog was to be able to participate in the online community of teachers sharing great ideas.  In my first few years of teaching, I often found inspiration and resources on websites and blogs of other teachers.  I didn't want to just "take," so I decided last year to start sharing what worked for me in my classes.

This is precisely the idea behind SMART Technology's SMART Exchange.  All over the nation, classrooms are equipped with interactive whiteboards and related technologies and many teachers are intimidated by these devices.  I freely admit that in my first few years of student and career teaching, I had only seen a SMARTBoard one time in graduate school and I stared at it as if it were some kind of ghostly apparition.  I was dumbfounded, yet intrigued. 

When I began my current position, I was somewhat reluctant to embrace the SMARTBoard in my own classroom.  I quietly observed while our Metacognition teacher zipped around in the SMART Notebook software with text boxes, interactive questions and timers.  I experimented with some of these function on my own laptop and slowly built up my confidence.

As I walk through our building, however, it seems that many of us (myself included) are still using the SMARTBoard primarily as a way to project Word documents, webpages, videos and animations to the class, but little else.  During our school-wide professional development activities, teachers are consistently asking for more training on how to use them. 

Enter SMART Exchange.  SMART Technologies, makers of the SMARTBoard and the accompanying Notebook software and document cameras, maintain a site for teachers to share their own Notebook creations and interactive activities.  There are SMARTBoard-specific lessons using the Notebook software that are available for free download.  It is a free, one-time sign-up and the site automatically sends updates via email.

While it is convenient and helpful to find lessons on the site, I found that the sample lessons were actually better for teaching me how to use the software.  Go ahead and download one lesson like I did.  Explore the functions in the sample.  There are embedded timers, click-and-drag word banks for fill-in-the-blank questions, and jump-to tools for skipping slides. 

Here are some samples of just what you can do with Notebook:

Below is a slide from a presentation about Newton's first law of motion.  The "x" mark and the check can be clicked and dragged to the boxes next to each statement.  Once the students have finished responding, another button reveals the correct answers.

In this drag-and-drop activity, the words in the word bank can be moved and placed on the correct blank.  This slide also has a function for checking the answers, as well as an embedded timer.

The answers to the questions below have been typed in by the teacher, but they are covered with the paint tool.  When a student responds, he or she can use the erase function to clear the paint and reveal the correct response.

If you experiment with these templates and master the Notebook software, I think it also important to give back to online community that supported you.  The beauty of these lessons is that they are interactive, engaging, paperless and they can be saved and shared.  No matter where you are on your teaching journey, you have some unique and meaningful experience to share, so jump into the digital age and get your ideas out there!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Forces in Everyday Motions

Earlier this week, I asked the students to bring in an object so that they could act out some kind of everyday motion.  Students brought in tennis rackets, yo-yos, carts, dodgeballs, and even inhalers to act out motions. 

In the past, I printed simple clip-art images of people pushing carts, hitting baseballs and kicking soccer balls.  I gave them sheets of arrows labeled with the words "contact force," "gravity" and "friction," then allowed them to glue the arrows onto the image based on the direction of each force.  This year, I thought it would be more fun to have the students plan and act out their own motions instead of those clip-art images.

I pulled the students out into the hallway in small groups of 2-3, then had each student perform their motion.  I snapped a quick photo of each student, then sent them back to the classroom to work on a pre-planned activity.  Later on, I pasted the images onto a Word document and printed a picture for each student. 

The following day, students first cut out the contact force, friction and gravity arrows, shown above.  I handed out the printed photographs from the previous day and they placed the arrows onto the posters according to the direction of each force.  In this way, students could actually remember back to their experience with the activity and could recall exactly where they were providing force.  Once they were checked for accuracy, the students glued the arrows to the posters. 

This one is always a quick, but fun activity that shows the relationships between forces in a way that the students can actually feel and experience.

edX Revolution

Over the past few months, the internet community has been buzzing about the enormous potential of the new edX initiative launched by MIT and Harvard

edX allows individuals from anywhere in the world to take free or low-cost courses on the web.  The initiative was launched a few months ago by MIT and recently Harvard University has signed on to provide content.  Currently, MIT is offering an enormously popular course in circuitry and electronics for individuals with a strong base in physics.  They plan, however, to launch at least five more courses in the fall.

Even more promising, both institutions have allocated over $30 million to the initiative and it is likely that other higher learning institutions will sign on in the future.  You can read more about it here in a recent feature in Forbes magazine.

In this period of job shortages and increasingly competitive hiring, the edX program sounds particularly promising.  Many employers are requiring higher credentials than ever before despite the fact that students are graduating with enormous student loans and fewer employment opportunities.  If a student can show their drive and initiative in taking a free, yet demanding edX course and show a certificate from an institution such as MIT or Harvard, that could really increase their appeal to employers and build important workplace skills without piling on more student debt. 

Teachers in particular may be interested in the potential of this initiative, as well.  Teachers are required to maintain their certifications with Act 48 continuing education credits.  While schools often provide much of the credit through professional development activities, teachers frequently have to supplement these offerings with workshops and courses, often at their own expense.  Free, yet rigorous and useful courses through edX could be an exciting opportunity. 

Friday, May 11, 2012


I have written before about uses for the Inspiration software, but I recently came across a similar software that might be even more useful and user-friendly for our students.  Given that our students are well-versed in using Microsoft Word and other Office products with similar menus, the new software MindMaple may be a bit easier to use.  It is also a touch-based software compatible with iPad, which may also be a huge improvement for our students over the functionality and arrangement of Inspiration.

MindMaple also allows you to attach files to and insert photos into your bubbles and control the features with touch, mouse or keyboard.  Even as a seasoned user of Inspiration, I sometimes get stuck reformatting and re-dragging bubbles, and there is a definite learning curve for our students. 

MindMaple is a paid software, but there is a free version, called MindMaple Lite.  I look forward to downloading this to my own iPad and exploring it for next year!  I'm always looking for ways to use those new iPads!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Journal of Best Practices

"Laundry:  Better to fold and put away than to take only what you need from the dryer."

"Parties are supposed to be fun."

These are "best practices," a series of lessons, tips, and advice created by and for one person, David Finch.  At the age of 30 and three years into marriage, Finch's wife, Kristen, informally diagnosed him with Asperger's syndrome.  He was later formally evaluated, but this breakthrough moment and the rote memorization of his hundreds of "best practices" are described in his new book, The Journal of Best Practices

The book and the Finches were recently featured in a story on NPR's All Things Considered and my aunt happened to be tuning in.  She started reading the book and immediately recommended it to me.  Whether or not you have an academic or personal interest in Asperger's syndrome, the book is an incredibly enjoyable read, with moments of laugh-out-loud humor.

It goes without saying that the book could be incredibly informative for teachers and relatives of students with Asperger's and autism spectrum disorders.  These disorders are extremely difficult for neurotypical people to understand and the tell-tale behaviors can range from confusing to frustrating to infuriating.

Once I had finished the book, however, I found that it helped me better understand many of our students without ASD diagnoses.  Many of the people who chose to teach as a career do so because school was enjoyable and engaging for them.  I can't speak for all teachers, but I know that I became a teacher because I had a genuine love of learning and I was fascinated by school content, as well as the normal practices and routines of school.  All types of traditional instruction worked well for me and I found most parts of school interesting and eye-opening, but not particularly difficult. 

According to an informal evaluation by a friend, it is almost extraordinary just how neurotypical I am.  She was practicing simulations of dyslexia and studying various cognitive differences and was almost shocked by how unaffected I was.  This is certainly not to say that there is anything special about me other than the fact that I need to think consciously about learning differences because they are so far outside of my experience. 

What occurred to me after reading Finch's book was that we should dedicate time, attention and patience to the shaping and practicing of social skills just as we would for academic ones.  Not all of our students need this, but many do.  We as teachers would never just assume that a student intuitively understands how to solve an algebraic equation, but we routinely expect them to intuitively understand how to plan, communicate, manage conflict and practice good manners.

Some of our students naturally pick up literacy skills, artistic skills or physical aptitude and we consider these "gifts."  We do not punish those without a particular gift, but instead we tailor our lessons to reach them where they are.  On the other hand, even though social skills come naturally to some and not to others, we often do not differentiate and accommodate those who need more skill-building. 

This is not to say that we need to revamp our curriculum to include social skills group sessions instead of core subjects, but at least to keep the learning differences of academic and social skills in our minds as we instruct and plan.  Much of these social skill-building activities will happen outside of school with specialists in social disorders, but we as educators can at least extend the same patience and support as we would a student with a language-based or processing disorder. 

I found the following quote from The Journal of Best Practices to be the most telling about the entire issue:

"Most people intuitively know how to function and interact with people -- they don't need to learn it by rote.  I do."

If you read one book this summer, please consider giving this one a try.  Even if you have no reason to better understand Asperger's and ASDs, you will get a few chuckles out of this one for sure.

Time Trials, Version 2.0

I started this blog almost exactly a year ago, and one of my very first entries was about calculating speed with a time trials activity.  Today, I had the opportunity to repeat that lesson and, let me tell you, it ran much more smoothly than in the past!  Having had the opportunity to repeat the lesson multiple times and reflect on these lessons on this blog, I find that lessons really improve over time.

Before the time trials, we ran through the procedure with the lab sheet below and assigned different types of movement to each student.  We then moved out into the hallway and measured a ten-meter track, marking the starting line and finish line with masking tape.  Each student performed a time trial on the track with their assigned activity - everything from walking to log rolling.

This year, I adapted my lab sheet to make it much simpler and more streamlined for students.  I also printed a data chart on large 11" x 17" paper so that the students could see it easily, then added the speed calculations to the same chart later on.

All of the students lined up on the benches along the wall and each student took turns performing their movement.  I timed each student's trial on a stopwatch and kept track of the times on the poster, shown above.  Once each student had performed, we came back into the classroom and I hung the data poster in the front of the room.  Each student calculated their own speed using the formula, speed = distance / time.  In this case, everyone had the same distance - 10 meters.  As each student told me their time, I recorded them onto the poster.  Just like last year, we graphed the speeds. 

Earlier this week, I had a student's older teenage sister tell me that she had learned the same concepts in her physics class in 11th grade.  There is no doubt that studying physics includes many challenging concepts and math skills that can be discouraging to some students.  With activities like our time trials, however, many students remember the Motion and Forces Unit as one of their favorites!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Exploring Invictus

For the past few years, the entire sixth grade has read Beverley Naidoo's apartheid-era novel, Journey to Jo'burg.  The story itself is a simple one and it is accessible to readers of all levels in our grade.  What's more meaningful, however, are the lessons about injustice, oppression and freedom that arise from the plot.

A few years ago, back in 2009 to be precise, I went to the movies with my husband.  A preview for Clint Eastwood's film Invictus rolled before the movie and I immediately thought of taking the kids to see it.  It was difficult to really paint the picture in the kids' minds about how recent apartheid was and what it really looked like.  They had images in their minds of the American Civil Rights Movement, and as much as I wanted to draw parallels in class, apartheid really looked and felt quite different.  Right in the preview itself, there were the exact images of South Africa that I had been trying to explain. 

I was given the OK by administration to bring the kids to the movie once I had previewed it and kept notes on any objectionable material in the PG-13 film.  For those who are keeping track, there are three expletives (only one of the "big one") and a kissing scene.  Permission slips went out and in December of 2009 we took the students in a few school vans to a local theater to see the movie.  The general sense was that they loved it.  The movie was enjoyable and had moments of levity, but it also really showed them what I had so much trouble describing.  It was one of the highlights of that year.

Since then, we have watched the film every year in the classroom.  This year, the kids particularly enjoyed it and were devastated when the bell rang for dismissal and we had to pause it.  The focus of the reading course in May is not only on Jo'burg, but also poetry and symbolism.  It seems fitting, then, to explore the poem "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley that is a repeating theme in the movie.

In reading today, we pulled the poem apart into its four verses.  After reading and discussing its meaning and its importance to Nelson Mandela, each student was partnered up and tackled one verse from the poem.  The verse was printed and glued to posterboard, then the partners created a collage of images related to the poem's meaning and impact in Mandela's life and experience.  Below are some works in progress.  I allowed them to use images from Google as well as magazine pictures and words.

The kids had really interesting interpretations about the poem and many of their collages turned out really well.  I look forward to trying similar projects with other poems and passages.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Way More Than Just the "Funnies"

When I was growing up (which was not that long ago as I always remind my students), the only comics in my world were the ones in the Sunday paper that we called "the funnies."  Today, it is an entire form of literature.  Whether you call it a comic or a graphic novel, kids are consuming them like crazy, so you might as well explore the possibilities.

I'm a little late on this, but this past Saturday was Free Comic Book Day.  All over the nation, comic book stores were giving away comics to encourage readership.  You can check out the official site here.  I am pleased to report that our school had many students participate at their local comic store.

Graphic novels happen to be the preferred genre for many of our students.  New research about the effectiveness of graphic novels in improving literacy for struggling readers seems to come out each year.  Finally, some of the highest grossing movies and even some critically-celebrated films of the past few years have been based on comics and graphic novels. It seems like its time for educators to get with the times! 

Our library has an extensive collection of graphic novels, ranging from old fashioned comics to manga and reinterpretations of classics.  Local libraries are also jumping on board, so they should be readily available and inexpensive or free for students and teachers.   

As I have discussed in previous posts, it is often helpful to provide students with reading differences with some background information before reading.  There are countless graphic novels in print that tell famous stories ranging from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to Shakespeare.  Many graphic novels have enough substance to stand alone as the primary literature for a unit of study, but they could also be used as a learner-friendly supplement to another book. 

This year in the sixth grade, we purchased a series of graphic novels about ancient Greek and Roman mythology focusing on the stories of Zeus, Athena and Hera.  George O'Connor's series, Olympians, was hugely popular in our reading classes and students even begged to borrow the other titles in the series.  O'Connor also has a website packed with teacher resources, student activities and access to some online material and his blog. 

There are graphic novels out there for every age group and ability level and it is worth exploring the potential of this format.  Educators have long embraced any subject matter or format that engages student interest and it seems that these comics and graphic novels are the current wave.

Below is a list of recommended graphic novels:

American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang (M, H)
Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi (H)
Olympians Series, George O'Connor (E, M)
Nursery Rhyme Comics, Chris Duffy (E)
Coraline, Neil Gaiman and P. Craig Russell (M)
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Bo Hampton (M)
Thoreau at Walden, Henry David Thoreau and John Porcellino (M, H)
Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda, Jean-Phillippe Stassen (H)

E = Elementary Grades
M = Middle Grades
H = High School Grades

A more complete list can be found on the website of the Cooperative Children's Book Center out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

...and he sailed off through night and day...

At the end of the school day today, I heard that legendary children's author Maurice Sendak passed away at 83.  Along with his most famous book, Where the Wild Things Are, his books were far from traditional and included a balance of dark and light themes. 

His characters are headstrong and bold, his stories were sometimes scary and unsettling, but they are beloved by children of several generations.  Much has been written about how his stories can be used to teach story elements and literature to younger readers, but when I think of the life of Sendak, I hear nothing but possibilities for older students.

Sendak grew up always on the margins of society and remembered his childhood often through the lens of the public tragedy and terror that framed it.  He grew up in New York City and recalls World War II, the Holocaust, the Depression and the Lindbergh kidnapping and used these childhood fears and traumas to reach out artistically to younger readers. 

He was writing in a time when picture books were based largely on classic tales and took a heavily moralistic and sanitized view of storytelling.  Instead, he knew of the torments of youth and faced the fears head on instead of ignoring them completely.  It is largely believed that the image from Outside Over There of a baby stolen in the night by goblins on a ladder to his window was inspired by his childhood fixation on the Lindbergh kidnapping. 

About a year ago, I heard a story on my local NPR station about Sendak, his life and his recent exhibition of drawings at the Rosenbach Museum.  In hearing his life story, I did not think of young children listening to story time, but instead older students analyzing his art and his writing through the lens of what he saw and experienced.  I imagined fine arts students looking for meaning in his work and history students framing his stories in 20th century history.

I suppose what I would like this remembrance to express is that there is something deeper and more meaningful in all children's literature that older students and adults can enjoy, but this is particularly true about the work of Maurice Sendak.  I would hate to see him only remembered in the elementary grades over the coming weeks, but instead for students of all ages to take a moment to appreciate the many levels of his work.

Further Reading:

WHYY Video on the Rosenbach Museum Exhibition, Sendak on Sendak

Maurice Sendak Wikipedia Article

New York Times Obituary

Take Me Out to the Ballgame

We're just beginning our unit on Motion and Forces here in sixth grade and the timing couldn't have been better for me to come across Exploratorium's Science of Baseball website.

The site features several activities and lessons about forces and motion, as well as the history and culture of baseball.  Obviously, there are many ways to use the site in our science classes, particularly during the physics units. 

More interesting, however, was the activity on reaction speeds and how it could be used in our Metacognition courses.  In our school's metacognition class, students learn about the brain and its various learning styles.  Once students have a better understanding of their own brain, they also learn and adapt several study and time management strategies based on how their brain works best. 

Every year, the students participate in a series of silly and fun activities that show their strengths and challenges based on their own senses and perceptions.  One of these tests is about reaction speed.  I do not teach this course, so I have never studied the ins-and-outs of what reaction speed tells about a persons physical aptitude and processing speed, but I look forward to seeing how the Metacognition teachers can incorporate this activity into their lessons.  I have seen many ways in the past few years to assess response time, but maybe this one will engage them and their Phillies fever!

21st Century Student Planner

What is more likely to be by a student's side in the evenings - their student planner or their mobile device?  I think we all know that answer to that question...

Springing from my last post on BYOT, I have been thinking about how to use their technology resources to improve planning skills and time management in addition to (or instead of) the old fashioned planner.  In my searches, I found WeTxt, an online and mobile service that provides free group texting. 

I am definitely looking into this for next year!  You can set alerts and messages ahead of time online to be sent to students later in the day.  According to the homepage, the reply functions are free, as well.  There is also a mobile version with many of the same capabilities. 

I think this will work really well in middle school, but as the students get older, the possibilities are even more promising!  I can see this working beautifully for high school and college students, as well.  I can't wait to try it out!

Sunday, May 6, 2012


Earlier this evening, I came across this article on my MSN homepage.  It describes a recent initiative in several Georgia schools that not only allows, but encourages students to bring their electronic devices, such as mobile phones, iPads, and handheld gaming systems to school for instructional use.  I was immediately attracted to the article given our school's emphasis on technology.

We have recently acquired a few iPads and we are always looking at more ways to incorporate assistive technologies into our instruction.  Our school also provides laptops for each student above the sixth grade, so we use such technologies as text-to-speech software and visual simulations often.  I came across a blog post recently about sites that offer free group texting and I immediately started to wonder how students' phones could be used for instruction.  We already have policies on the books at my school that such devices are allowed in school if permitted by the classroom teacher for instructional purposes.  My point is, I am always looking for more ways to incorporate these skills which seem to grow exponentially in importance for each generation.  I want really good ideas on how to use them.

This article, however, does not really describe how the devices can be used, just that they are encouraged.  It also sounds like many of the students are simply bringing in their own laptops and netbooks to supplement the district's supply.  Several parents and district employees are quoted as loving the new initiative, but again, no ideas are given.

I did some searching to find more information, but even the PowerPoint slideshows and links from the Forsyth County Schools' BYOT Resource Site weren't being very specific.  Finally, I came across a video that at least got my brain moving in the right direction. The high school student uses the word "empower," and that got me thinking.

I have only recently joined the world of smart phones.  I wanted a smart phone, but was unwilling to pay the huge upfront investment, much less the monthly data plan fees.  I gave in around Christmastime and after the past few months, I finally get it.  The smart phone is the organizer of the 21st century.  It is almost unrealistic to train students to rely on a written student planner when I, almost 20 years older than the students, am using my phone to organize my tasks, schedule, lists, social calendar, and even my foods and workouts. 

There are countless apps out there that may or may not be helpful, but I think the point should be to empower the students.  Bad speller?  Sure, you can use your spelling app.  Visual learner?  Why not graph that figure in a graphing calculator app.  Forgetful?  I can send a free group text to all students at 7pm just to make sure that the homework is done.  Struggling reader?  You can listen to an mp3 recording of that text or even watch a SchoolTube video of a lesson. 

Maybe for our students, it won't be so much about what a phone can do that a laptop cannot, but more about where it can go and how much it is a part of the user's life.  According to the experts, handhelds and tablets are where we are headed, so why not make them part of the classroom.  Management is always a challenge, but it seems that the phones might even have a better place bringing instruction and assistive technology out of school.  It's definitely worth thinking about...

Friday, May 4, 2012

Some Flipped Classroom Data

This may seem like a bit of a tangent, but I think it is worth noting...

Last Friday during our most recent professional development day, we participated in six simulations to demonstrate the difficulty, frustration and unique perspective of a person with dyslexia.  The simulations showed the challenge of focusing with auditory processing disorder, as well as the anxiety and alienation of a struggling reader during class.  After each simulation, we conducted a reflective conversation about what each activity showed. 

During one particular simulation, we struggled to read unfamiliar symbols in a storybook.  Even after we were able to get through the passage, our comprehension was severely lacking despite our status as teachers and fluent readers.  We agreed that a useful strategy is always to provide some background knowledge to our readers to frame the reading and to provide context and support for comprehension.  In my flipped classroom, I realized that the most meaningful use of this strategy for many of my learners will be for just that - to provide some background context for what they will experience the next day in class. 

After the students had the long weekend to complete the flipped assignment, I passed around a survey about the experience in class.  I created circle graphs of the data below, but anecdotally, it seemed that this method was really effective for students who were stronger readers and listeners to begin with.  They found it empowering to control their own pacing and experienced less frustration and "wait time" during class.  These were also the students that often understand the content in the first or second pass without the exhaustive explanations and modeling we typically do in class.  Perhaps this was not the desired result, but it was definitely useful and will inform future practices. 

For struggling readers, however, the key to "flipping" might just be exposure.  If we will be reading a passage of nonfiction text in class the next day, it may benefit these readers to see a short video, either teacher-created or otherwise, to give them a leg-up on what's to come.  If a student already knows that we will be reading about American Indian cultures, for example, they have already overcome the initial hump of knowing what on Earth we are reading.  The class content will simply add to what they have already heard.

Our more fluent readers, however, really enjoyed the exercise, and this is useful to know, too.  Later in their education when classes are tracked or leveled, it may reduce frustration and intellectual boredom if these kids can tear through the more tedious work at home at their own pace, then participate in discussions, models, projects and labs in class.

As can be expected, the lesson we should take from this experiment is that, just like everything else, flipping works best when it is differentiated and tailored to the needs of the students.

Rock Resource Match-Up

I usually use this blog to share my own ideas and experiences, but this time, I'll shake it up a little and share something from someone else that is really working.  In this case, I'll share a quick activity that my students tried at our recent field trip to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, PA.

We are just wrapping up our units on minerals and rocks, so we decided to take the kids downtown to the ANS to check out the museum and to participate in their "Geology Rocks" Discovery Lesson.  This is a well-known fact to most seasoned teachers, but I will throw it out there any way - kids need some kind of task to do on a museum field trip.  Well, even trips to arboretums, gardens, exhibits, just about everything.  If they don't have anything to do and are not accountable for some product, they will wander around in wonderment for about 5-7 minutes, then the cell phones come out and the goofing around begins.  Trust me.

Our scheduled discovery lesson was only 45 minutes and it was scheduled for 10:15, a full 45 minutes after our arrival.  We decided to break our 33 students into two random groups and split them.  One group would explore the first floor while the other was on the second floor, then we would attend the lesson together, then switch floors.  Our kids were as good as gold with their scavenger hunts and manageable group sizes while the other school groups traveled in a boisterous chaotic mob.  I am certain that our kids got more from the experience than the other groups.  Again, trust me. 

OK, enough with logistics, back to the rocks.  During the lesson, the instructor reviewed some basic information about the three types of rock and the rock cycle, then the kids participated in a "Resource Match-Up."  The instructor divided the kids into two groups.  On one side of the room, the students were each given a rock sample with its name on a tag.  Each student in the other group was given an everyday product, such as toothpaste or table salt, also labeled with a clue hanging on the tag.

Once he gave them the directions and released them, they had to find the person whose rock matched their object.  In case the clues were not entirely clear, the tags were cut like puzzle pieces and the tags of the matching samples would fit together perfectly.  The idea was to show that many everyday products that the students use everyday come from natural rock and mineral resources.


Before the lesson, the instructor had asked everyone if they had "used a rock today."  Initially, only a few hands went up, but after participating in this match-up activity, he asked the question again and every hand in the room went up!

Below is a more complete list of the rock/mineral match-ups:

fluorite - toothpaste
bauxite - aluminum cans
halite - table salt
sulfur - matches
galena - fishing weights
pumice - abrasive hand soap
copper - electrical wiring/cell phone parts
quartz/sand - glass bottle
slate - chalkboard/shingle
marble - chewable antacid tablets (Tums, etc.)