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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Education: Against all Odds

Imagine if you got ALL of your nourishment, for your mind, body, and soul from one place.  This place is not in your home or kitchen, your computer, or in the palm of your hand.  It is not on your TV, radio, or other electronic device.  In fact, it is not near-by; you will have to walk miles to get there.  It is your school.
Looking out the school window

I had the opportunity to travel to Zambia this summer to see firsthand how education can drastically change lives. I have seen it many times in the US, we give kids opportunities and choice and expose them to all kinds of resources in the hope that they will solve the problems of the world.  In Zambia, education is their one hope to bring a large portion of their country out of poverty.
We visited and worked in some of the poorest schools in the country.  These cement-block schools (many were churches) were in the middle of a compound, surrounded by high walls, locked behind gates – no electricity, no lights, no resources…and yet, the benches were full of eager learners.  Why not?  This is Zambian TV, as good as it gets, literally food for their mind, body, and soul. 
I have made a living teaching kids how to think critically, how to solve problems, and how to see things from different perspectives.  “Seeing things from a different perspective” has a whole new meaning for me.  Cultural differences are real, concrete, and amazing to experience.  Even more amazing is the human factors that we all have in common. 

Child with imaginary truck

Kids are kids
The kids that we visited lived in a city, they have seen TV, video games, computers – they do not own them.  They play like our kids play- they use their imagination – a shoe is filled with rocks and becomes a truck, a plastic bag on a string becomes a kite, or two fingers are used as a loom to make a bracelet.  They laugh, sing, recite, respond, and participate just like our kids do.  We tried out some lessons before the trip with some kids from the Mt. Olive Middle School – we made balloon rockets and trading cards.  The kids in Zambia loved the activities (as did their counterparts).  They loved reading the American’s kids trading cards (and true to Middle school kids, the boys all wanted a girls card!) and took great care making the cards that we were bringing back with us.
Holding the trading cards sent to them by kids in the US

On the edge of their seats doing math factors

Well-used blackboards!

Teachers are teachers
Despite having just an old chalkboard, the teachers in Zambia all had objectives on the board (btw almost all schools had a mission statement painted on the outside of their walls), the lessons were rigorous and relevant.  Although English is the official language of Zambia, children are taught their tribe’s language – one of 72 different languages in the country, so essentially they all start out as ESL students.  Posters around the rooms are handmade.  Electricity is optional.  Despite the almost total lack of resources, these teachers take their jobs seriously (after all, the children have a National Exam to take!).  They are proud of their students, their accomplishments and what they can give to them. 

Just like the teachers in Zambia, we take our jobs seriously, and work with what we have (sometimes an embarrassment of riches) everyday to maximize the opportunities to nourish the mind, body and soul of the kids that we serve!  We recognize that for some of our kids, we are the soul source of stability and nurturing in their lives.

For more details on our trip to Zambia go to:
PS  I was approached by a teacher with three computers - little to no internet...looking for educational games to use with his kids...must be downloadable....ideas?

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Wrap up the School Year with Just in Time Learning!

So many great lessons, so little time….
Wrapping up the school year is never easy.  This time of year is filled with disruptions, testing, field trips, assemblies, yearbooks and general havoc.  It is hard for both students and teachers to carry lessons on from one day to the next.  
I have found that students are always willing to get into a good argument if there is something they might feel passionate about.  Kids are very interested in and passionate about, well, other kids.  Why not use this natural enthusiasm to get them thinking?
Teachable Moment
I think that this local news story on a senior prank gone wrong is a great teachable moment to get students thinking and writing!  Have students apply SCAN, the critical thinking strategy to determine the issues surrounding the prank and arrests, assess what is important and develop a plan on what the consequences should be. 

You could start showing the different perspectives using this news video:

If you have computer access, you could have students participate as individuals or in small groups in an online guided discussion using the SCAN tool at   The tool is free and the class discussion will be in a private URL (students will not be identified (except to the teacher) - no passwords, registration, or email addresses are necessary).  Teachers can register at www. and learn more about this tool by watching this short video.

If computers are not available, students can be put in groups with like roles, discuss the issue and then jigsaw into groups with 4 different perspectives.  They should use the SCAN critical thinking strategy as their guide for discussion.

There are lots of great discussions going on right now that your students could and should get in on:  NSA and privacy, year round school, hashtag activism (300 Girls go Missing), and more.  Take advantage of these discussions and keep the learning going!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Earth Day-Bringing it Home Everyday!

STEM?  The objective is to not teach separate subjects, but to teach those subjects within the context that they occur in the real world.  Earth Day reminds us that there are hundreds of environmental issues that need to be resolved many of which are right in your own backyard. 

Earth Day is an everyday opportunity!
Looking at environmental issues any day of the year is a great source of problems that need solving – ripe for an authentic Problem Based Learning Unit.  Many times environmental issues are full of different perspectives (global warming for example) that are perfect for helping students understand perspectives, read informational texts, find evidence to support claims and collaborate on solutions fitting perfectly with the Common Core.  It is easy to hit Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics principles (STEM) if you are collecting data, graphing, problem solving, engineering solutions and using technology to share results and campaign for solutions all within a local habitat.

So what is in your backyard? 
Have students check out the local paper to see if there are land use issues or other environmental issues going on around town:
Does your community have sound, noise, light, or air pollution?
Does your community have water issues, too much, too little, too polluted?
Does your community need sprucing up?  Is graffiti or litter a problem?
How about your school building?  Can you do a simple litter survey in the halls? What types of litter did you find?  Who is responsible for it?  How could it be stopped? 
How about the lunchroom?  How much garbage do you generate? Where does your garbage go?  Can it be reduced?  What can be re-used (we raised a pig at our school to eat all of the leftovers!)? Recycled?  How can plants help the environment inside or outside your school building? 
How about doing an energy audit of your building or your home? 

Act Local, Think Global
You can help your students learn about and improve the world around them with simple projects based on local problems. 
Want to go global?  Edutopia has some great Earth day projects with global sharing opportunities.
Want to teach your students about activism?  Check out this blog on Teaching and the Environmental Crisis, which features schools that have taken action to improve their environment and communities.
Looking for more great resources?  Check out Great Interactive Resources for Earth Day.

What is in your backyard? Have your students been involved in a community environmental issue?  Please share!

Friday, February 14, 2014

More Great Olympic Classroom Resources

In my research for great activities linking the Olympics to classroom content, I came across more great resources from the New York Times Learning Network, posted each day this week and divided by subject area.
I loved the suggestions that they had for the history, geography, and social studies lessons because they called for a debate on whether it is worth the expense to hold the Olympics in your country.  They developed lessons around the financial realities and asked students to select a city near their community and present a proposal.  They even supplied a link to great pictures of where the Winter Olympic events might be held in New York City!
That of course got me to thinking!  Who has bid on the 2022 Winter Olympics?  It turns out that there are some interesting options!  I set up a SCAN lesson (free online discussion tool found at and a livebinder with resources on the five countries that have put in bids to host the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Why not have your students select one of the countries, do a little research, look at the criteria to support their country’s bid and determine who should be selected?
Sounds like some critical thinking, that can be followed up with some great persuasive speech or writing!

Looking for more great ideas to tie the Olympics to your content?  Math, Engineering, Language Arts, and more can be found here.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Sochi Lessons for Every Classroom

Shoveling again!  Between our record breaking cold, 7 snow days and the winter Olympics approaching, tying your lessons to snow seems like a no-brainer, no matter where you are!

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) lessons of course are an excellent fit, but why not include art (STEAM) and Reading (STREAM) and Social Studies (STREAMS)…there are lots of resources and opportunities to take advantage of this global event in your classroom.

If you have snow in your backyard, there are lots of questions you can explore:  Why does it form crystals (flakes) sometimes and other times it is just ice?  How does salt help snow to melt?  Are there environmental consequences of salting the roads?  Can you design a better snow shovel?  Why does some snow make better snow balls than others?  How do ski areas make snow?  

If you don’t have snow in your backyard (hard for me to believe!), there is plenty of snow science going on in Sochi.  I recently learned from an NBC (Orlando) reporter, Stewart Moore, on his way to cover the Olympics, that Sochi was a “tropical resort” in Russia, with weather comparable to Atlanta (except for the nearby mountains!). Snow was actually saved from last year under blankets just in case they need it!  Imagine all of the logistics involved in pulling off an event like this (science, technology, engineering, math, anyone?)!

There are lots of great resources to get students engaged in relevant learning in your content area this month!

Science:    Check out these great videos on the Science and Engineering of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games including the “Science of Ice” “Science of Snow” and “Building Faster and Better Bobsleds” complete with in-depth lesson plans!  You can find more videos on the Science of the Olympic Games 2010 related to individual sports and gear.  Just for fun, check out this fascinating sound interactive which illustrates in sound the fractions of a second separating finishers in events at the Olympics.  This was found amongst the gems offered in TeachersFirst’s Resources for the Sochi Olympics.

Technology:  Yesterday, I witnessed a great Digital Day Winter Olympic Challenge going on between students in Indiana and Lousiana.  Hosted by William Krakower in NJ, students met in a Google Hangout and answered challenge questions based on the Olympics.  The questions included “How many miles from your school to Sochi?  How many kilometers? What is the time difference between your school and Sochi?” These students were totally engaged and motivated by the hot (cold?) topic of the Winter Olympics and the social capital built in.  You can easily replicate this with your own set of questions, set up game show style within your classroom, with a class across the hall, a class across town, or a class across the globe.  Kudos to those teachers who brought this cutting-edge activity to their students despite some technical difficulties and weather cancellations.

Reading: has some great articles that feature different perspectives, ask great questions and cover ethical issues that make for great reading and persuasive writing.  Some examples include “Sports Doctors:  Conflict of Interest?” or “Too Much Training?”  Find the articles by searching for Olympics or Science Meets Sports.  Discover more ideas for Olympic-related reading and writing activities at ReadWriteThink.

Engineering:  There are lots of opportunities for engineering research from the Olympic venue to the athlete’s gear.  Check out this simple student challenge from We are Teachers which has students build their own bobsled out of Popsicle sticks.  Or use the video on Engineering Faster and Safer Bobsleds and the accompanying guide for STEAM activities related to designing the bobsled.

Math:  Have you seen Yummy Math?  This site provides “mathematics relevant to our world today.” Their most recent post was on the lighting of the Olympic Torch and one on how Olympic ski jumping is scored, both great math lessons with authentic and timely connections.    Check out the Mathletes video and lesson for another activity on scoring in the Olympic Games.   There are some very simple ideas on what you can do with results (including fake result pages) that you can use for simple math activities involving reading and building tables. 

Social Studies:  Delve into the history of the Olympics, geography of Sochi or research an athlete to discover the culture and geography of their country.   There are lots of links for the History of the Games, Olympic Games and Politics, and Ancient Olympic Games on the TeacherVision site.

Looking for more STEM Activities?
Matt Davis provides some quality links and ideas incorporating STEM into Olympics in the student engagement blog on Edutopia.  Highlights include mapping the Olympic Torch Relay, math activities from Scholastic and great hands on activities from Science Buddies.

Looking for Debate topics?  Who should host the 2022 Winter Olympics? 

The Olympic Games are an excellent opportunity to connect the interdisciplinary dots in an engaging way!  How will you take advantage?

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

8 New Resolutions to Feed Student Motivation

There is no doubt that sometimes it takes a little bit of motivation to get back to work after a long holiday.  Even with goals and resolutions, it can be hard to get going.  It’s funny, the business of learning doesn’t seem like a chore at all to the very young.  They seem to be exploring every nook and cranny of their world, full of questions (sometimes many, many questions, sometimes questions that can really stump you).  So what happens?  Do we stifle those questions?  How do they go from curious and excited to bored and beleaguered? 
How do we keep that intrinsic motivation to learn alive?  What do we need to feed student motivation?
Why not resolve to:

1.        Develop curiosity.  How do you keep their curiosity going in the classroom?  Do you shut students down when they ask questions that are “off topic” or do you allow them to be curious and encourage them to find the answers and ask some more?   Don’t stress over every minute of precious instructional time that you won’t take time to smell their roses.
2.       Make connections to their lives and the world around them.  To some, this may seem like you are “getting off the track” but it actually is a great way to get kids thinking.  One minute you’re talking about prohibition, the next minute you’re talking about the recent legalization of marijuana in Colorado.  It is just that sort of “off the track” thinking that gets them juiced (could not resist the urban dictionary pun) and wakes up their thinking.  How do these two events relate to each other?
3.       Share your enthusiasm!  How do you sell your lesson or activity? As tough as outside forces make the teaching profession, there is just no time to be an Eeyore in your classroom! Start every day, every year, and every class, with boundless enthusiasm.  “You would not believe what we are going to do today!” “Wait until you see what this will lead to…” 
4.       Aim high—that is aim for higher order thinking skills.  Ask the right questions.  Huh?  (explain that) Really? (do you know this to be true?) and So (why does it matter?  So what?)” I always told parents at back to school night that their children were learning rigorous material,  and added “please don’t tell them!”   
5.       Infuse the magic of technology- Many of our students have infused the magic of technology in their everyday lives in a big way.  It should just be a matter of course in the classroom.  To quote George Courso in Inequity in BYOD “Technology should be at the point of instruction and be as accessible in learning as a pencil; it shouldn’t be an event.” 

6.       Provide opportunities for coopertition- I think the word coopertition was coined by someone involved in First Lego League.  Our students should be involved in activities where there is both competition (for some motivation on its own) and cooperation (which makes it more or less risky depending on the student)…either way, it is part of life and motivational.
7.       Mix it up- I know that classroom routines are a must, but that doesn't mean that your class is routine.  My classes were set up with a starter or a grabber (maybe a question, maybe a discrepant event, a short video, a word or two from our sponsor (yes, I do like to say a thing or two), and then a “cooperative exploration” – which was a fancy of way of saying “the day’s activities…could have been simple or complex, 10 minutes or 40, whatever. Structure was routine, class was not!
8.       Keep your sense of humor – I had a principal who started the year off with “if you’re not having fun, it’s time to get out” – of course there was a large percentage of the staff who thought that was a ridiculous statement, after all, education is a serious business.  But, what can I say? Middle school is fun!

Monday, December 16, 2013

'Twas 5 Days before Winter Break

With apologies to Clement Clarke Moore

'Twas 5 days before school break and all through the class
Not a brain cell was stirring, must think and think fast
The objectives were posted on the board with care
In hopes that good thinking, soon would be there.

The children were dressed in bright blue, green and reds
As visions of vacation days danced in their heads
And Marie in her Ugg boots and Jon in his cap
Had just settled their brains for a short in-class nap

When all of a sudden there arose such a clatter
They sprang from their chairs to see what was the matter.
Away to my laptop I flew like a flash
Turned on the projector and sent them to the hash (tag)

The look on the kid’s faces along the back row
Showed a bit of a stirring, a glimmer, a glow
When what to my wondering eyes did appear
But a live online chat and ideas to share

With hot topics the kids were so lively and quick
I knew in a moment that this was the trick.
More rapid than eagles their thinking it came
I whispered and smiled and called them by name

Now SCAN tool, Edmodo, Today’s Meet and Wiki
On laptops, on Ipads, on mobiles with twitter
To the top of Blooms Pyramid, to the top of the class
Now think away, think away, think and think fast

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle mount to the sky
Up to the tallest heights the ideas they flew
With creativity, critical thinking, and communication so new

And then, in a twinkling, I saw on the screen
The comments and thoughts of each one of those teens
As I stood there amazed my thoughts swirling around
In came the principal with some thoughts profound

She was dressed all professional from her head to her foot
And her tablet was open to observe something good
A bundle of energy we had in the class
She was so impressed she got in on the task

Their work, how it sparkled, the ideas so fresh
The comments were helpful, their words start to mesh
They supported their arguments with evidence and more
Their writing more confident than ever before.

I spoke not a word, let them go with their work
And watched as they collaborated as I just did lurk.
And after the bell rang, not one child rose
Too engaged to hear it, I had to suppose

I sprang to the door as the kids cried out loud
And assured them their work was saved to the cloud.
I heard them exclaim as they moved out the door

When can we come back and do this some more?