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Friday, December 21, 2012

Writing to Change People's Minds

Twas 2 days before Winter Break and all through the class……
Usually this time of year there are so many distractions that it is hard to believe that there is any meaningful teaching/learning going on.  This year it seems especially true, we have students who are wound up for the holidays, terrified that it is the end of the world and still reeling from the effects of the Newtown tragedy and Super Storm Sandy (no relation).
Is it any wonder that teachers would just love to plug in a movie or phone in a lesson?  In fact the opposite is true, now is the time that teachers reach into their bags of tricks and work to provide the most engaging lessons of the year.  I happened to be invited to just such a lesson yesterday in Joe Pizzo’s ILA class in the Black River Middle School in Chester, NJ were students were actively engaged and excited to learn.
Joe’s students were starting a new unit on persuasion (Imagine that!  Before a vacation!).  He invited advertising and media producer Mr. Rea, a parent, to come and show students how ads were created and how they are written to “change people’s minds.”  What a great lesson!  The students were all fascinated and had so many great insights regarding each of the commercials he showed.  We were all riveted as Mr. Rea explained the production of commercials for Volvo (seen in the Superbowl!) and Coppertone (filmed in Costa Rico!) and dissected the components used to appeal to their intended audience.   The students were highly engaged in the activity, peppering Mr. Rea with questions and observations.  He demonstrated how company’s ad campaigns range on the “rational” to “emotional” spectrum  and how the components of the commercial – images, music, script, etc all contribute.  Of course, Mr. Pizzo expertly tied in all of these aspects with the components necessary to write a good persuasive essay.  Students will begin their practice of these principles as they create their own 60 second commercial for their newly assigned free choice reading.  I could tell that they were inspired and their minds were reeling over the possibilities.  This “book report” was now building persuasive writing skills, integrating technology, connecting career opportunities and had captured student’s imaginations.  I cannot think of a more powerful, relevant and authentic way to teach students how to develop the “power of persuasion” than to tie in the everyday media whose job it is to “change people’s minds.”  Using a member of the community to teach it?  Priceless.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Teaching for Life-Readiness

Last Wednesday, I sat in an elementary classroom and thought, “it doesn’t get any better than this.”  I was sitting down to share my experience in this blog on Friday, when I heard “the news” – and I thought it couldn’t get any worse.  I did not have the heart to write about the joy, the smiles and the pride that the teachers and students demonstrated at PS 154 in NYC, when I knew that same joy, smiles and pride were obliterated for some 26 people.  I have participated in many a drill, sitting with kids in complete darkness and silence, trying to console some and make others realize the seriousness.  Even the drills were scary.  I cannot imagine the horror and fear those students and educators all must have experienced, and now the sorrow.   I know my colleagues are struggling with their emotions as they return to their classrooms with an acute awareness of the respect, responsibility, and compassion they feel for their colleagues, students and their families both here and in Newtown, CT.  
The kids at PS 154 were celebrating their learning with videos and action plans.  Given a framework, technology, and teacher guidance, they were given the ability to see other perspectives and problem solve.  Imagine 4th graders researching the issue of child labor and discovering that the children affected were their age and that child labor exists even in their own country.  They developed an action plan that included writing poetry, short stories and filming public service announcements.   They sang Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World – Make it a Better Place” with the passion of true believers.  Their presentations were touching, powerful and could not help but make you smile. 

These children demonstrated what is best about our children and the importance of school in their lives.  They were developing the capacity to think outside the box, demonstrate empathy for those less fortunate, and develop actions.  Through this simple activity, the teachers had given those students hope and confidence that they have the power to create change and overcome adversity.  This is truly what education is all about, “life-readiness.”

In the face of all this sorrow and despair, these children have given me a reason to smile.  What went on in PS 154 is happening all over this country.  Our children are our hope and it is an honor and a privilege to help prepare them to take on the world.

My thoughts and prayers go out to those families that have been shattered by a senseless act of violence.  Peace be with you all.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Simple Questions lead to Complex Learning

Watching the news this morning there was a story about a baby panda growing stronger in the zoo.  Isn't it ridiculously cute?  As usual, it got me to thinking about zoos and breeding programs and endangered species….and off I go!
With the new Common Core, teachers can turn their focus from “the test” to teaching students to think for themselves.  Sometimes it just takes a simple question.  That seems to be the basis of “Problem-Based Learning.”  Think about the question posed by the NYCDOE Nonfiction Reading and Opinion/ Argument writing task for 5th grade:  “Should zoos exist?” or for older students, Room for Debate’s “Does Captive Breeding Distract from Conservation?”  These simple questions can be the basis for some great informational reading and research-based writing and some great critical thinking.  

Check out these resources that provide different perspectives on the debate on zoos:

The same resources can be found here, all neatly arranged in this “live binder” – a digital binder that will allow you to share all of these resources with your students in one easy place.  Have your students do the research and use this great persuasion map from to get their writing started!

Jumpstart their thinking!
Having a discussion before students start writing can help them understand new perspectives and gain a deeper understanding of the issues.    The SCAN tool  at has a great new scenario “Should Zoos Exist?” (always free) complete with scenario, four perspectives, resource links and a private discussion format to get them started.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Changing Face of PD: Edcamps and The Art of Good Conversation

In just a few short days I will be attending my very first Edcamp!  I have been lucky to have had the opportunity to participate as a lifelong learner and presenter in some great professional development activities over the years ranging from one-on-one to global connections, face to face to webinars, real time to asychronous.  Free and cheap global conference rooms like Google hangouts, twitter and other social networks are changing the face of professional development, moving us from presentations to conversations.

Edcamps are part of that movement.  The role of presenter has changed to one of facilitator as you can see by two of these Edcamp 101 Guidelines shared by Damian Bariexca one of Edcampnj’s primary organizers.
  • You Are Not The Expert - And that's okay!  The point of this experience is not to be another "sit and git" PD experience.  It is an opportunity for educators to come together, discuss, ask questions, brainstorm, and problem solve.  Your role is not necessarily to have all the answers, but rather to facilitate discussion.  The idea is to draw upon the collective wisdom of the group as much as possible.
  • Talk About What You Know - As a facilitator, you may wish to bring in 2-3 central questions of overarching importance to your topic.  You may also wish to share personal success (and failure) stories with the group, and elicit similar stories from them.
The Questions are Key!
Just like in the classroom, in order to have a high quality conversation, you need to ask the right questions.  In the book Academic Conversations by Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford, there are lots of great ways to use classroom conversations to foster critical thinking.  As the authors state, “When two or more people converse, their ideas mix and interact to create new knowledge.”  Conversations help students (and here we are all students) to develop their own thoughts and create a synergy of learning.  

So what should those questions be?
According to the authors, there are 5 Core Skills of Academic Conversations:
·         Elaborate and clarify- What do you mean by…?  Can you tell me more about….?
I wonder if….?  How does that connect to….?
·         Support ideas with examples:  Can you give us an example from the classroom?  Example from the real world?  Example from your life?
·         Build on and/or challenge a person’s ideas – What might be other points of view?  Do you agree?
·         Paraphrase – What do we know so far?  What is your opinion on what has been said?     
·         Synthesize conversation points- What main points can we share?  What key idea can we take away?
Armed with these questions, I am all set to share my experiences of using online conversations to foster critical thinking.  Do you have other techniques, questions or suggestions to get the conversation started and keep it going?

Zwiers, J., and M. Crawford. 2011. Academic Conversations-Classroom Talk that Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings.  Maine:  Stenhouse Publishers.

Monday, November 19, 2012

CCSS lesson: Arguing the School Calendar

It’s easy to get kids writing an argument when they are passionate about a subject and who is not passionate about the school calendar?  Just open up the discussion on year round schools or what religious holidays will be observed can spark a debate.  Adjusting the school calendar for emergency days adds the complexity of previous plans and often emotions run high.  With the recent Hurricane on the East Coast, many schools have been closed to two full weeks.  Why not have your students do some critical thinking and problem solving around the topic of Emergency School Closings?
To get the argument started have students take on the role of parent, Board of Education, teacher and student and read the articles below:
Informational text Resources:
See the Issues
As an individual, have students list the issues they come across for their point of view as they are reading.  List all class issues.
Clarify the issues:
Ask students to clarify the issues that have been posted.  Students should refer back to the articles to see if there is an explanation as to why the issue is important. 
Ask what’s Important
As a class determine what issues are most important to consider when coming up with a solution.
No, what should be done? 
Work as a class to determine what should be done to adjust the school calendar keeping the most important issues in mind. 
Get them writing:  Ask students to describe and defend the new plan making sure they acknowledge other options and points of view.
Online SCAN Tool:
Increase student engagement and participation in this discussion using the SCAN tool at TregoED.  The private online discussion tool walks students through these steps, allows them to comment and collaborate on the solution.  “School Calendar and Emergency Days” is a free SCAN scenario this month featuring these points of view and including links to the articles. 
I guess if you live in a sunny spot with no weather issues you may never have to face the problem of emergency school closings…perhaps you may want to have your students look at the issues involved in the “Year Round School” Scenario. 
This same problem solving strategy can be used at the administrative level.  Check out “5 Steps to Help Your School with Post-Disaster Management” to see how this strategy can work for you.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Simple Tools for Argumentative Writing

Whew!  I'm back from 10 days with no power or heat and a road trip to Oregon.   I often hit the road to help teachers and students integrate technology in a way that makes sense.  Technology should not be layered on top of what teachers do, it should be used as a tool to make what we do better.  In the case of collaborative technology, we are increasing student engagement and participating in the lesson and giving them an authentic audience.  Being digital natives, students instinctively “figure it out” while many educators fear that “figuring it out” will take precious planning time.  The truth is that many simple tools take very little time for teachers to set up and even less time to get students started in them.  In fact, using these tools can make a teacher’s life easier as student engagement takes the place of student management and working online saves time at the copy machine! 

While at the recent AMLE conference, I got a lot of great information on what needs to be done in the classroom in order to meet the new Common Core State Standards.  What I heard emphasized was a shift from persuasive writing (emotion based) to argumentative writing where students need to be able to make a claim, recognize and acknowledge opposing claims, and use credible sources to support their claims.   In my own house, this would translate from “Mom, I need the new iPad because you have always been the coolest mom with the coolest stuff and I need to maintain that image for our family” to "Mom, I need the new iPad because I will be able to do the following:  access over 100 free educational apps, keep all my notes from school organized and in one place, and store over 100 books on it.”  The common core is moving students to argumentation because it relies on more “substantial reasoning” based on logic and evidence and therefore has increased rigor (not the dead kind).

Simple Tools for Complex Learning
 It seems to me that there are a number of simple online tools where students can practice these skills without increasing the physical amount of work (in pounds) or time that it takes to set up, implement and assess.  Catlin Tucker, an expert in the blended classroom and  integrating technology in the Language Arts classroom wrote a great blog “Common Core Standards and Argument Writing” which includes great ways to use Collaborize Classroom, YouTube, Google Docs, and  Ted Talks in the classroom to get this done. She includes great screen shots and easy to follow examples to help teachers see the value of using these simple tools.

The SCAN tool found at TregoED is another simple tool that requires minimal set up and implementation in the classroom.  Scan features a library full of scenarios that include four different points of view.  Students go to a private url to participate in a guided online discussion following the four steps of SCAN (Stop and think – what are the issues?, Clarify the issues, Ask what’s most important, and Now, what should be done).  Along the way, students are asked to support their claims, acknowledge other points of view, and collaborate to solve the problem.  This is precisely what the common core is asking us to teach our students.  SCAN offers free timely lessons for teachers in all content areas.  With a cheap subscription ($45/teacher/year – unlimited use) teachers can write their own lessons to address particular needs of their students or curriculum.  Better yet, they can have their students research different perspectives and evidence in a highly engaging topic (such as the death penalty) and post their own SCAN Lesson!  Students can then share their SCAN session with teachers all over the world.  Relevant argument writing with an engaging tool and an authentic audience – doesn’t get any better.

What tools are you using to reach the core?