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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?

Friday, December 6, 2013

Changing the World, One Twitter Chat at a Time

Okay, I admit it, I got caught up watching the Morning Show and the discussion that Matt Lauer had with the Dick Costolo, CEO of Twitter.  While Matt recognized that being able to use pseudonyms allowed for political speech where it is oppressed and therefore had the potential to change the world, he was concerned about nasty tweets and negativity (apparently he has had some hurtful ones).  Doesn’t that sound like the fear that teachers sometimes express regarding the use of technology, and particularly social media in the classroom?  I loved Dick Costolo’s answer “it is incumbent on us, as operators of the platform to make sure that everyone can come to Twitter feeling it is a clean, well-lit place.” That is exactly what we have to do as educators, in our regular and our digital classrooms. It is incumbent on us to teach our children civil discourse and digital citizenship.  It is no different than expecting them to be polite to each other face to face (except that students cannot twist the truth when confronted with comments that are in black and white).

 While Lauer and Costolo’s conversation veered off to the entertainment industry (“Who does Costolo wish would sign up?” “Melissa McCarthy, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler”),  my mind went in a different direction, to the other side of Twitter.  I have to admit, I do not follow anyone famous (I do follow James Taylor on Facebook, I enjoy seeing him pop up in my newsfeed between my teacher friends and my sister with pictures of him baking pies on thanksgiving, etc….after all, years ago, he sang “you got a friend” to me….of course there were a couple thousand people in the room, but I am pretty sure he was singing to me…but I digress).  The people I do follow share news, resources, ideas, and laughs.

Costolo admitted that the language of twitter (#, @, RT, etc) can turn some people off, but the content is powerful – the media, photos, and content that people share is what is important.  Recent twitter chats on critical thinking via the #njed group (headed up by @wkrakower) and #TXeduchat (led by @jennifermiller9) are an example of this great content-content that I think can change the world.  They were fast paced, fun, invigorating, stimulating, and validating conversations.  I have never seen a nasty tweet amongst my colleagues (granted, I don’t have as many followers as Matt Lauer, but he only has them because Justin Bieber asked his followers to follow Lauer), and as Costolo stated “there is a certain creativity that comes with being limited to 140 characters.”

Some examples:

So combine #greatminds, creativity and thought provoking questions (after all, the conversation was about critical thinking) and you have true learning, sharing of resources, practices and insights.  How can you lose?Although I love Amy, Melissa, and Tina, I am pretty sure that adding them to twitter will not change the world.  Get the right educators on there, and I think we have a shot.

Join the #njed chat on Tuesday nights, 8:30 ET 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Packet is Dead! (or at least it should be)

Remember the packet?  I mentioned “the packet” the other day in a workshop could see that everyone knew exactly what I was talking about.   The packet – a number of “worksheets” stapled together that students can work on independently -in theory, not so bad, in practice, not so good.  Not too long ago, there was a Youtube video, of a student ranting against the packet- (warning – “strong language”).  The video went viral, mostly because everyone understood what this student was talking about! 
However, not all packets are created equal.  Some very good project-, problem- and challenge-based learning activities start with something like a packet, but questions, challenges, and resources send students far beyond the packet.  The thing is, there are simple ways to get students to work independently, creatively, collaboratively, and thinking critically.  Why not avoid the packet all together?  You can present interactive problems with links, collaborative discussion areas, brainstorming centers and student workspaces using simple technology tools.   
Take a look of these sample projects and launch your project with the same creativity and learning objectives you expect from your students (and look like you are some kind of techno-geek in the process).  

These simple tools offer students (and parents) 24-7 access to the project that they can never lose:

Wiki – this wiki is a great example of how a problem can be presented, resources linked and places provided where students can work and share with other students.  This problem was presented to teams of teachers in the problem-based learning style. 
Livebinders- I am a great fan of Livebinders because they are so simple to use.  You can insert documents, provide links and resources all in one nice neat package (note I did not say packet!))  This one presents a challenge to students, provides links, resources, rubrics, and even a place for them to share their finished products.
Blendspace  provides a place for you to insert text to present the challenge and then places that you can link websites, photos, videos, etc. to give students different perspectives to study.  This is a great way to share informational text for common core standards. 
Ted-Ed provides a really simple interface where you can start students out with a challenge via video (or just provide a video to get them thinking) and you can then supply “The right questions” to get them thinking and learning.  You can provide links to information, and collaborative sites to enrich the lesson or project.  Here is my most recent critical thinking problem on graffiti presented Ted-ED style.
Google web site and docs – This is a great mock-up of a class web page made by the people at ITSCO for their AMLE work session.  They used a Google site with links to separate Google docs for the students to work on in small groups.  They provided a large group timeline for the entire group to work on and an exit quiz using Google forms for assessment.  What a great way to leverage all of these free Google tools to provide resources, a collaborative space and assessment.  The ITSCO people did a great job with all of their mini workshops at AMLE, you can check out their other workshops and resources  with this link.  Top quality work!
Web page I attended a PBL workshop last year, where Mr. Cooper was kind enough to share his website with us.  He shared some great examples of how a teacher might use a website to present students with a project, provide resources, etc. (Note:  he has a place where you can “print the packet” for those of you that ask “what if a child does not have access to technology at home?”) 
Want apps?  Check out apps for challenge based learning which provides suggestions for apps for launching and supporting a challenge based learning project from start to finish.

Setting up a SCAN scenario for discussion can be a great way to launch a problem-based learning experience with your students.  You can attach links customized to reading levels, and get them to see a problem from different perspectives before they get started.

Although, I might not express myself in the same way as Jeff Bliss has in his viral youtube video (although, I am pretty sure I might have in high school!) I agree that “if you want kids to come in here and get excited for this, you gotta make ‘em excited!”  PBL’s and technology are a great way to achieve that goal.  Ditch those packets, as Bliss says “you gotta take this job serious, it is the future of the nation!”

Monday, October 28, 2013

Witchful Thinking: Trick Them into Learning on Halloween

Lily Jones confesses to be a Halloween Grinch in her latest blog post, but there are plenty of creative teachers devising ways to mix the fun of the holiday in their witches’ cauldron.  The last #njed twitter discussion had my tweeps coming up with applications for every grade level and subject area. 

Ideas from the pumpkin patch
@principalarc had kids decorate pumpkins based on lit characters.  Here are some guidelines for that activity.
@mrnesi remembers predicting the volume of a pumpkin – other suggestions include counting ridges, seeds, graphing, averaging, and estimating with pumpkin seeds.

Or the candy store
Although some would rather not ruin their festivities with negative aspects of candy, you can do a lot of math with a bag of it:  count and graph, weigh for accuracy, look at nutritional information, calculate the calories in your trick or treat bag.

Or costumes from the old trunk upstairs
@wwpscience Theme it for the class. If reading a book with the class, costumes of characters. I gave credit for dressing up as scientists.
Dress as literary characters, scientists, historical figures, etc.
Or the science lab
Great experiements @dandanscience offers spooky science experiments
 @mrnesi – feely bags- record notes, make predictions.

Did I miss your subject area?
Of course, Jerry Blumengarten, better known as @Cybraryman1 has got you covered with his wonderful collection of links and resources for every aspect of Halloween. 
There are tons of potential writing prompts for Halloween, but what about the critical thinking component?  Are you hitting the common core?

Ratchet up their thinking
Let’s circle back to our self-proclaimed Grinch, what if your town was carefully considering cancelling Halloween?  This is the premise of the free SCAN lesson, “Should We Cancel Halloween?”  The scenario starts:
Due to some recent vandalism in your town, the town council is discussing canceling trick or treating this year.  You have been invited to the town meeting to decide what action should be taken.  After listening to the concerns of parents, students, police and council members you will help develop a plan of action for Halloween night.

Of course, using the SCAN tool, students would take on the roles of those in the meeting, visit web resources to gather evidence to support their point of view and discuss and clarify the issues online.  From this collaboration, they would decide what should be done.  Throw in a little civics with a discussion around whether the government has the right to cancel a holiday!   A little critical thinking, a little creativity and a little common core all swirled together in a witches brew!

To access this lesson and learn more about the SCAN online discussion tool, check out this short video.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Teachable Moment: 3 Things the Government Shutdown and Graffiti Have in Common

What does the government shutdown have to do with a graffiti artist in NYC?  First, both arise as teachable moments, an unplanned opportunity to connect social studies, language arts, and the arts to real world current events.  Second, resolution of the issues will take the ability to see other perspectives and compromise.  Third, they are both “complex situations” with plenty of different perspectives that can teach students to think critically about such questions as:
  • How do rules protect individual rights as well as meet the needs of society?
  • What are the responsibilities of a good citizen? 
  • What are the responsibilities of our leaders?
  • What are the lessons that can be learned from current events?
  • What role does social media or the media, in general, play in our perspective of events?

No time like the present
Many educators feel they might not have the time to talk about current events, but with increased expectations for critical thinking, evidence-based persuasive writing, and literacy skills in all subject areas, hot news stories can hook your students and encourage them to develop critical thinking around the issues. 

Embrace, deface or erase?
Look at the issues surrounding the famed (or infamous?) British graffiti artist, Banksy, who is taking up an “artist’s residency” this month in New York City.  Each day in October he is “installing” art in a New York City neighborhood.  The art, sometimes whimsical (he has painted “the musical” under some other NYC graffiti so that it read Playground Mob – the musical) or complex as the painting of horses at war with night vision goggles, or beautiful as this truck transformed into the ultimate diarama.  His graffiti/art is drawing crowds and creating quite a buzz in social media as people strive to discover and share it before it disappears.

Ask your students
Is this person an artist or a criminal?  Should his art be covered up or protected from other graffiti behind plexiglass?  Should we embrace or erase?  Are the people defacing his art any different? Being outside the law is part of his popularity, should he be stopped?

There is a great lesson in the SCAN library that can give your students a head start in their critical thinking.  The Graffiti:  Freedom of Expression or Vandalism? Scenario in the SCAN tool at provides 4 different perspectives, guiding critical thinking questions and a private discussion area for your class.  (The SCAN library holds over 100 other free scenarios that teachers can use with their classes.  For a short video about the tool or how to set up a lesson go to 
You can add these links to your lesson to provide background research to help students develop their perspective:

Video news clips:

News stories:

Don’t miss this opportunity to use this event as an opportunity to think critically about our laws and responsibilities as citizens as well as consider how compromise, civil discourse and different perspectives all come to play in the resolution of the problem.

Make another connection
Use these Best Resources on Compromise and Best Resources to help Understand the Federal Government Shutdown compiled by Larry Ferlazzo and posted on his blog “Websites of the Day” to take student thinking one step further.  How do those same essential questions apply to this situation?

NOTE:  The SCAN lesson library and discussion tool is 100% free to educators. This SCAN lesson was inspired by MaryAnne Molishus elementary class project

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Everybody's Doing It - Using Books to Create Communities

There is no doubt that people get interested in things when “everybody’s doing it” – that is the basis for going viral…everyone is watching OR those hard to come by toys that become a craze at the holidays (I am hearing that the rainbow loom bracelets are going to be hot this holiday…I feel driven to purchase them even though I have no one to give them too!).  Harry Potter is a great example of “viral” reading –all ages got in on the reading because we wanted to know what the hubbub was about.  That’s the idea of community book reads – get people talking, making connections, and reading! 
I have joined an adult book club, that is, a book club made up of adults, not reading adult books, well, we are, but not that kind, but, well, I digress.  Anyway, we are a diverse group (except that many of us have been in education in one form or another), different interests and experiences which makes our discussions very rich.  I can attest to the fact that having just one book in common, we have indeed become a community, we have a built-in connection, camaraderie, relationships, because we have something to talk about, something in common, something to connect with.  And we are forced to think outside the box (that is the TV box). 
Going beyond the Language Arts Classroom
Extending a common book choice beyond the classroom walls, to the entire school community and beyond can help students, teachers and other adults connect.  Whether they like the book or not is immaterial (some of our best book club discussions are the books that we do not all love!). Building a community is easy when you all start out with similar interests, ideals or experiences, and building a community is essential in the classrooms!
Going beyond the School Building
Extending a community book choice beyond the school to parents and community has great relationship-building potential.  The Black Rive Middle School in Chester, NJ has selected Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt as a community read.  They will be using it as one of the foundations for advisory discussions – a great way to connect kids to kids and kids to adults.  Parents, too can benefit from having read the same book as their child – gives them a topic beyond “what did you do in school today?”. 
So how do you get started?
Looking for a good book?  The Library of Congress has resources for the “One Book” program.  It lists books that have been used by state or community over the last years.  The lists go by state – apparently it is no longer active, but there are some great ideas and reads listed there.
Want to start a formal discussion?
Just type in the title of your book and “book club discussions” and you will get a set of standard questions to get you started.  I use little sticky note tabs to make places in the books that I am reading that catch my attention to share with the group.  In my book club, some question-types make you glaze over (more appropriate for that language arts classroom), however, everyone seems to like the questions that ask you to connect the book to your own life – making the book relevant works with all ages. is an excellent resource for questions, etc.
Need something to get kids interested?  
Get kids hooked by looking at the Banned books list. Here is a list of activities that you can get kids reading and thinking about around banned books:  Banned Books:  The Forbidden Fruit
Want to start a virtual discussion? Try these tools: is another great platform for discussions, check out this great facilitators guide to get you started.  
Google hangouts can be used for real time book discussions AND you can often get authors to “hang out” with you there!  Mary Beth Hertz suggests this and other ideas for Google hangouts in her blog on Edutopia.
Google groups can also be used to form a group for discussion outside the classroom. 
Connected Educators
Why not try out getting connected to other educators by joining a nationwide book discussion.  Sign up at to join us.  We will start a discussion on Dave Burgess’s book “Teach Like a Pirate” on October 15th.  We’ll even get Dave to join us!
What books would you recommend for community reads?  What tools would you use to facilitate them?

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

All Work, No Play, Makes a Teacher.....

Much is said about the fact that teachers (technically) have two months off!  Truth be told, most of us find some kind of summer job to keep a paycheck coming in.  Others take on the daunting task of full time parenthood.  As a mother of two active boys, I often tried to unionize the other mothers on the beach to fight for a 35 minute, duty-free lunch….but alas!

Hit the Refresh Button
Many of us do try to schedule a vacation “while we have the time”…and there is something to be said for traveling.  Getting away in a tent, motorhome, bed and breakfast or hotel, gives you time to refresh and sometime to build memories with your own children.  Often our destinations are selected to fuel our passions – for art, history, or the great out of doors

Teachers in the Real World
The fact is, you need life experiences to be a teacher.  How can you relate the reasons for learning something or offer authentic experiences if you don’t have any yourself?  Even going through a museum –the same museum you have been to many times with students- is a different experience when you are not spending the whole time counting heads!   Why, you can even read some of the signage!  There are so many opportunities that you use to connect your life experiences to the world to academics in the classroom.   

In addition, it is also good for your students to actually know you have a life.  How many times have you seen the look on a kids face when they “catch” you outside the building?  There is usually a look of shock, a whisper to their mom, “That’s Mrs. Wozniak,” followed by a big grin that they have somehow caught you in the act of living.   Of course, the encounter usually happens when you are buying toilet paper in Shoprite, having a beer at the bowling alleys or sunning yourself on the nude beach (just seeing if you are paying attention – I actually wear one of those 1920’s bathing suits with the pantaloons unless I have left the state, but I digress. )

The bottom line is that, teachers do have two months outside of the classroom, but it seems like we never stop thinking about it.  Once we have hit the refresh button, our minds go back to the many possibilities for connections in the classroom.  How does taking a break make YOU a better teacher?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Plan Now: Start Small, Think Big and Celebrate!

Well, I started my summer off  in the Mecca of PD- at the ISTE 2013 Conference.  There was sharing and problem solving, presentations and conversations, tweets and chats.  I am wondering if my PD Certificate will cover all that I learned:
on the bus
 in the elevator
in the cafes
in the ballroom with 5000 thumb wrestlers
in the open space classroom of the exhibit hall
                                                      in the frozen tundra of a classroom for 500
                                                      on the plane, in the van, and even in the classrooms.
Here is what I learned:
  1. Passion is catching…that’s right, you pirates out there, passion does not just get passed to the kids, but we can share it with each other!
  2. Giving teachers a voice and a choice is invigorating.  Again, this is something that we know works with kids.  Surprise!  Educators respond well to taking control of their own professional development, seeking out what they needed, finding what they were interested in and looking for answers for their kids and their districts.  What is good for the goose….
  3. There are tons of great ideas, activities, tools, collaborators and colleagues out there happy to share so that you do not have to reinvent the wheel!

So now what do you do with all your new found knowledge? How can this lead to change in your classroom, your teaching, and your students?  It can seem overwhelming.

Small Changes, Big Differences
In a July/August 2013 article “Small Changes, Big Differences” in Teaching Exceptional Children (Council for Exceptional Children), Barbara Ludlow states that change happens with many small improvements over time.  She points to the Japanese term, Kaizen, which is a combination of the characters for “change” and “good.”  She says that term expresses the belief that change comes from the efforts of workers rather than researchers or leaders.  Applying that philosophy to education the change would happen in the classroom with the workers being both teachers and students.  Barbara adds that not only does change come about with small continual improvements, but that those same small changes should be celebrated!

So how does that translate to us?
“Small improvements over time” means that you can take that huge pile of ideas, activities, and suggestions and start small.  Tweak a lesson, a unit, or a procedure with the things you have learned.  Make your classroom an endless cycle of continuous improvement and celebrate those improvements.  Change does not have to be overwhelming and in fact is happening on a regular basis at the hands of millions of practitioners in schools every day.
So, start your plans now, start small, think big…but don’t stop there – celebrate your successes and share!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Awards Assembly with a Twist

I have sat through a number of great and some mind numbing assemblies at the end of the year.  (You know the ones-where everyone gets a certificate and the few that don’t, don’t care?)  Don’t get me wrong, I think that students should be recognized for their successes. (Students loved being honored on my “wall of fame” bulletin board in my class…but I digress).   I recently attended an awards assembly with a twist at the the Black River Middle School in Chester, NJ. 

The Hall of Fame
This assembly had both staff and students proud and excited.  It was a “Hall of Fame Induction” honoring outstanding alumni of their middle school.   (Alas, I graduated from this same school system, but since there is no one alive that can attest to that, and there was no BRMS at the time, I am not eligibleJ).  What a great way to have students learn about their own potential, through the eyes of someone who had sat in their very same chairs not so long ago. 

Sharing Memories and Inspiration
The inductees represented a wide range of areas of success from politics, law and community volunteerism to business and athletics. Each honored guest gave a short speech with some anecdotes about their time at the school (some pointing out their teachers) and then pointing out that any one of the 7th graders in that audience could achieve their dreams if they just put their minds to it.  Joseph S. Pizzo, language arts teacher, created the Hall with his students “to honor exemplary former students and community members who provide real-life success stories for our students.”  That’s the key, not just real life, but connecting to their lives!

Project Based Learning

I cannot help but think of all of the potential learning opportunities that can come just from having students participate in all phases of the planning process- from collecting nominees, research, etc. to planning the actual event (writing, reading introductions, writing press releases, letters of invitation, etc).  The selection process itself, from setting criteria, weighing candidates and making the selection is a great lesson in decision analysis.  Sounds like a problem based learning activity waiting to happen- complete with critical thinking processes and multiple writing opportunities.

I want to thank Joe Pizzo for inviting me in and invite the rest of you to share any twists that you might add to your end of the year assemblies.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Get Kids Thinking: Security vs Privacy-Do we have to choose?

Middle school and high school students love both their cell phones and their privacy.  The recent news that the National Security Agency is tracking cell phone data is a great topic to get kids thinking critically.  This relevant lesson gives our students some understanding of perspectives, media literacy and the Fourth Amendment.  You can use this scenario with links and resources and the SCAN© critical thinking strategy to help students understand these complex issues:

Privacy or Security – Do we have to choose?
In a democracy, it is the job of each citizen to be educated and involved in the government so that abuses do not occur.
Recently, it has come to light that the National Security Agency has been keeping track of everyone’s cell phone data- not just the suspected terrorists, but everyone’s.  They are not listening in on conversations, but they are keeping track of who is talking to whom and how long.  This surveillance is said to be similar to the information on the outside of an envelope- you can see who the message is going to and coming from and when it was sent.  You cannot see the contents.  Some people feel very strongly that the agency is acting against the Constitution by collecting information from innocent people without cause.  Others think that anything that can help prevent or catch terrorists is worth the sacrifice.  At what point would you say it has gone too far?
Take part in the discussion of concerns and issues caused by the Patriot Act and decide what should be done.
Read this news story “What You Need to Know about the NSA Phone Tapping Program” or watch this video: Breaking News to get started.

US News & World Report has a section called The Debate club which provides different expert opinions on hot topics.  In this case the question is “Should Americans be worried about the National Security Agency’s Data Collection?  You can have your students go right to the site to see the four perspectives they provide.  They can even vote for the one they agree with most.

Here are the links to the separate perspectives.  Assign students different perspectives to represent and let the discussion begin!

Alberto Gonzales:   Former Attorney General
Gonzales believes that since our enemies use every available tool to hurt us, we should use all of our available tools and technology to keep us safe.  He believes that as long as there are rules to govern how the information is used, and we are keeping an eye on these activities, they are worth the loss of privacy.  He states that we have no expectation of privacy for records that are held by a third party – in this case the phone company.  

Shayana Kadidal:  Senior Managing Attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights

Kadidal is against the search of all American citizens’ phone records.  He believes that even though they are only collecting “metadata” – the connecting numbers and locations, you can figure out things about the content.  For example, if you have called a lawyer, people may think that you are guilty of something.  Who you call on your phone should be private.  He is afraid that the rules that allow collecting information from Verizon could easily be applied to peoples’ other records, such as bank statements, credit card information and internet search information.  These can provide detailed pictures of our private lives.  
Jonathan Turley:  Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University
Turley is alarmed that the National Security Agency has begun collecting information on millions of average citizens.  He feels that although our leaders at the moment may have our best interests in mind, future leaders may begin using the data for their own purposes of power and greed.  He quoted Benjamin Franklin’s warning that “those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”  He is afraid that this breach of privacy is just the beginning of living in a society where we are constantly under surveillance.
Jon Yoo:  Former Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Office of the Legal Counsel of the U.S. Department of Justice
Mr. Yoo believes that the collecting of cell phone metadata, phone numbers and locations, does not represent a threat to our rights.  Our Constitution protects the contents of all of our communications and this policy is within those rules.   Analyzing the data of all Americans and focusing on those that communicate with known terrorists can help us find terrorist cells and stop future attacks in the U.S.  This activity has been approved by Congress and is covered in the Patriot Act which was enacted after 9-11 to protect us from further attacks.

Some simple video perspectives:
Ron Paul speaks against the practice:

This lesson is available as a free scenario this month on the online SCAN discussion tool.  This engaging platform guides students through the SCAN steps in an engaging, interactive format. 
Ask the right questions and get your students thinking and writing.  How would you use this lesson?

Friday, May 24, 2013

Engaging Activities for the Home Stretch

For many, Memorial Day weekend signifies the home stretch.  Testing is over.  Field trips, concerts, art shows, field days, book inventories, etc.  all signal the gradual shut down of the schools and with it the minds of our students.  Add to that the heat that can come in June (along with schools that are not air conditioned) and you can run up against some cantankerous kids. 
Back in the day, we collected their books and kids did puzzles on paper.  They thought that was a treat, until they got their 7th one of the day.   When the VCR made it into the schools, we might even had showed a movie!  But alas, our students are more sophisticated than that now (and they have seen all the movies!).

How do you keep them going?

Thanks to my twitter PLN, I have come across a few great resources to help you get to the end of the year with your sanity intact:

1.   8 Digital Ways to Wrap up your School Year – includes some simple tools that can help you digitize your end of the year activities.
As the end of the year gets closer, sometimes technology becomes less available either because of high demand or disrepair, bringing low tech resources and activities to the forefront.
2.  “How to Rejuvenate Yourself and Your Students after Testiing” by Elena Aguilar has some great ideas on incorporating creativity with engaging activities.  I have to tell you that I personally am a big fan of crayons, markers and scissors.  I think you will find your students are too!

Kids bouncing off the walls?  Why not use some of that physical energy by incorporating movement into your lessons

3.   “Just Drop It,” has students examining the correlation between the height a ball is dropped from and the height that it bounces back to, the link gives you the complete procedure and all the science information you will need to make a great learning activity. 

Do you have your box ‘o fun from this blog “10 Simple Activities for Hands and Minds”? 

4.  Have students build a Rube Goldberg contraption.  Watch this video by Honda (it’s real, no trick photography) to give you a little inspiration! Start by telling your students to build a three step contraption that will get a marble in a cup.

Came across these great activities for ELL kids, but why should they have all the fun?  Check out some of these activities for building vocabulary.

5.  Wacky Story- a great game to help students reinforce the vocabulary that they have learned throughout the year.
6.  Word Links- Assign your students each a word and have them find a partner whose word is related).  They can search for opposites; one does something to the other, etc. Have them report out what their words are and how they are related.

There are lots of other great blogs and sites that have even more ideas.  Whenever you are looking for resources in education you can always turn to Cybraryman.   Check out Jerry Blumengarten’s (Cybraryman) resource page for more links.  Or you could even check out this previously posted  “Keep on Teaching:  Great End of the Year Activities.”

Experienced and connected teachers have all sorts of resources and activities up their sleeves for just these times.  Why not share yours?

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Can Cursive Writing Make you a Better Thinker?

The Great Handwriting Debate popped up again recently in the paper and I wondered what kids thought about it.  Then, I thought, what a great way to get kids thinking and writing.  Let them develop their own arguments for or against cursive writing.   How do they feel about writing?  Would they rather hold a pencil or tap a keyboard.  Do they need to learn cursive?  Do they use it? While the physical act of writing may or may not make you a better thinker, debating about it can.

A small survey sample
I had the opportunity to discuss this with a couple of students and found their perspectives to be very interesting and age dependent.  The two 7th graders that I talked to said that they NEVER (and yes they were shouting) use cursive.  In the beginning of their writing careers they were asked to hand in final copies in cursive, but now it is done on the computer.  Since they never use cursive, they never practice it and they don’t like their own handwriting.  On the other hand, I talked with a precocious 2nd grader who is right now being taught to write a different letter in cursive every day…..she was thrilled and uses cursive for everything!  I guess once you make it through the “write of passage” of learning script if no one values it, it becomes a useless skill.  (I so wanted my son to have better handwriting, after all it was bringing down his 2nd grade GPA, but alas, I am glad he did not waste his time! J)  Actually, I can remember when I started my handwriting was not great, but my friend Cynthia developed beautiful words with circles over her I’s and it was so cool I practiced so I could do the same.  Sure enough, I developed  nice handwriting…but fast forward to old age….I still have good handwriting…but I don’t have the stamina to write a full page and don’t often use it!  But I digress.

The writing is on the wall
So, do we need to take the time to teach kids how to write in cursive or could that time be better spent on other things?  Now that the common core does not address it…do we need to?  Will students be able to complete high stakes tests without cursive?   Is reading and writing in cursive an important skill that develops better literacy in students?  Do we need cursive to be able to read historical documents to understand our past?  Do second graders need the visible milestone?

Why not ask the kids? (to answer in writing)
Once again, Room for Debate, a NYT’s editorial page has asked four experts whether they think schools should require children to learn cursive.  Have your students visit the site for some interesting perspectives.
Hanover Research has also published a report “ The Importance of Teaching Handwriting in the 21st Century”  which give some research based facts.  (Note:  Published by Zane-Bloser – a company that publishes handwriting materials-do your students think that could influence the research?  Could this be a lesson in media literacy?)
 You can have your student’s read these resources to:

1. Determine what is opinion and what is fact

2.  Examine and appreciate the issues that are nvolved from different perspectives

3. Research and develop their own arguments for or against being taught cursive writing

Integrate some technology
Want them to develop their arguments in an online discussion that has them write arguments for one of four perspectives?  Check out the SCAN lesson “Should students still be taught cursive?”

Current and timely topic, relevant, and great exercise for critical thinking!  

Monday, May 6, 2013

Teaching: A Different Kind of Rich

Well, Teacher Appreciation Day has rolled around again.  I feel like sometimes it can be a bit of a disappointment…sort of like the hype for New Year’s Eve.   But we understand that teaching often feels like a thankless job.  I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to do it. Loving your job is a great perk. 

I am not Pollyanna though; there have been many times when I have felt used and abused.  It is very frustrating to put so much into your work and have people make you feel that it isn't enough.

Parents want more.  “Why didn't you tell me he failed a quiz?/was rude to others?/missed a homework assignment?”  Sometimes you have to first develop a relationship with the child.  I can remember being the president of the PTA in my child’s school; the other members were extremely disappointed that the teachers were not more active.  Why couldn't they give more…more time, more donations, just more?  I had to remind them that many of us did not work in the districts that we lived in and we did give more time, more donations and just more to the PTA…sometimes we just have to be the P.

Kids want more.  Can we have more action, more entertainment, more free time?  Lesson planning takes a lot of work.  Not every lesson is going to hit it out of the park for every child…but we keep trying, striving to orchestrate- to wave our baton and let the magic happen.  It is not every day that we hear “can we do that again?” but we know that kids look forward to learning and enjoy school…they just don’t always admit it!

Admins want more.  They need more of our time, higher scores, less ripples.  Without tooting your own horn, many teachers don’t get more than an “effective” checked in a box for feedback.   Administrators often have the as many staff members as we have students to care for, too often the squeaky wheel gets most of the oil.

We don't do this to get rich
Although true, it just feels so corny to write "we don’t do this to get rich."  We do it for the riches.  There is no job that requires more people skills than teaching.  You literally come in contact, more than contact, with hundreds of people a day.  And you know their names!  And it is your JOB to talk to them, make them comfortable, teach them something, support them, etc.  That is what makes your life rich- being a rock star to a kid in the dairy aisle of Shop Rite, the opportunity to know so many diverse human beings, to share your enthusiasm for learning with kids and colleagues.

A different kind of rich
Perhaps the most rewarding thing about teaching is being part of a community of people who by nature, care for each other.  A community that you can see and hear and feel in the flesh!  Life doesn't get any better (or richer) than that ….no need to thank me, for that I am thankful.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Technology Possibilities in the Outdoor Classroom

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far away, I was assigned to teach environmental education.  This was before “www” or ianything.    We forged an environmental trail outside, where students identified trees and other biological phenomena (wasps nests, fox holes, ground cover, lichens, bracket fungi, woodpecker damage, etc) .  We numbered these areas with wooden signs and created a booklet so that children from the younger grades could take a hike and learn all about the world outside their door.  We used wood burning tools, paint, hammers, nails, saws, guidebooks and a local forester.  We created a booklet and ran it off on the ditto machine (mmmm that smell) to share with students in our district.

Fast forward today.  Some people say that technology keeps our children inside.  That students are not looking at the real thing anymore, that they live in a virtual world.   My mind, however, boggles at the possibilities that technology has put in the hands of our students.   

Take that same environmental trail and imagine this:
Students leading other students from faraway lands (like TX or CA or even off country) right through our woods giving them a tour via skype!
The guidebook is now an ibook with pictures (from different seasons!) and links for more information that hikers can take on the trail with them.
Students can create podcasts for each one of the numbered stations in the woods.
Students can track growth and change (seasonal and otherwise) of one particular spot, in detail.
Well, I am sure that you get the idea and I hope that you have ideas to add.
We will be discussing using the outdoors this Tuesday night, 8:30 in the #NJED twitter chat…please join us or stay tuned and I will add ideas that were shared right here!   (and Happy Earth Day!)

Friday, April 12, 2013

Gun Control: Issues and Perspectives Lesson

If there is one issue that stirs passion in these days, it is gun control.  It seems like a simple problem to solve, but looking at different perspectives reveals that it is a complex issue full of emotion and passion.  Looking critically at the many perspectives, facts and cultural differences in gun control issues is a great way to get our students to look at the issues and determine what the best course of action is as history unfolds.  Opinions differ widely.  Some legislators are pushing for stricter gun control laws and bans on the sales of certain types of firearms and ammunition.  Others are pushing to loosen gun laws to that American citizens can step in and help deter crime themselves.  What do your students think should be done?
Just the Facts
I found a great site which gives statistics and facts, Gun Control- Just Facts regarding gun control with an unbiased point of view.   Students can use this site and the scenario below to develop their own opinions.  This is the newest free SCAN lesson from TregoED that guides students through the SCAN process:   See the issues, Clarify (and support) the issues, Ask what’s important, Now, what should be done?   You can register and log in to have your students discuss this lesson online using the SCAN tool at TregoEd and see the different points of view provided.  You can also use the scenario below as an argumentative writing prompt, lesson on statistics, civics discussion topic or current event.
Gun Control Scenario
Since the Newtown Connecticut school shootings of 20 kindergartners and 6 teachers, the call for stricter gun control laws has increased.  This is a very complicated and emotional issue with very strong opinions on both sides of the argument.  Many Americans who have been affected by violent crimes have taken up the fight for a ban on assault weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines.  They would like to see stricter background checks on all sales of guns.  Law enforcement officers agree and would like to see guns taken off the street to help decrease crime and make their jobs less dangerous.  The National Rifle Association (NRA) is a long standing and powerful organization that supports American’s rights to own guns for both sport and protection.   Many people think that criminals will get their hands on guns no matter what and stricter laws will only inconvenience law abiding citizens who want to protect themselves and their families.   You have been asked to join in the debate.  Choose and read your point of view (or that assigned by your teacher) and enter the issues that concern you.  You can use to find statistics and data to support your point of view.
Try it out and Share your Feedback
The lesson in the SCAN tool provides information on four different perspectives so students can discuss this from different points of view.  I would love any feedback that you or your students have on the issues or the activity.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Test Prep: Are we asking the right questions?

If you look though my blog posts around critical thinking, you will note that I have maintained that getting kids to think strategically is all about asking the right questions.  Even better, teaching them the right questions to help them develop their own arguments and justifications and learn to make inferences, apply and adapt. 
Run a mile to train for a 50 m race
I just watched an interesting video from Grant Wiggins on “Real Test Preparation:  Better Teaching not Worse” which validated my practices. The bottom line in improving student performance is to ask better questions.  Better questions are harder questions.  Comparing preparing for a rigorous test to preparing for a specific event in a track meet, Wiggins points out that practices are often more rigorous than the actual race you will run.  He suggests preparation for high stakes testing should be the same. Schools that traditionally do better on state testing, “simply don’t worry about them” because their students are regularly taking tests that are harder than the state tests.  He suggests removing the multiple choices, hints and reminders from our tests.  We need to prepare students so that they can make inferences and think strategically rather than prepare them for a specific test format.
Looking at the data
Looking at specific test items that have been scored and shared, it becomes obvious that our students, despite knowing the content, lack the ability to apply and adapt.  A clear example of this comes from a test item on the Pythagorean theory which a majority of students, despite having the content, were unable to answer correctly.  The problem did not mention the word triangle or right angle; it showed a ladder leaning on a house.  Students had to make inferences, apply and adapt in order to answer the question. The majority could not.
There were also many examples of students not being able to make inferences in their reading.  They were unable to get the main idea of a reading passage or make inferences about the mood or character.  One example found that a majority of students mistakenly eliminated the choice “c. Essay” as the type of writing on an essay about color blindness because it was not 5 paragraphs!  Yikes. 
So how do we improve our teaching?
 Can we improve our teaching by improving our assessments?  Does increasing the rigor of student work help them improve by giving students the opportunity to face rigor more often?  I just saw this tweet from Esther Wojcicki @EsterWojcicki “Life is a series of projects, not a series of multiple choice tests.  We should train students for life.”  Providing projects that require students to apply, adapt, argue and justify is a great start.  Wiggins recommends that we give students new reading passages frequently and have them practice strategic thinking.  What was the author’s purpose?  Point of view?  Ask questions that require an argument and justification. 
I know a number of teachers that use the SCAN tool at TregoED to help get students comfortable in reading and understanding complex situations.  The tool provides great reading passages on all sorts of relevant and authentic situations.  A great way to get students to practice strategic thinking, with the SCAN critical thinking strategy built right in.  Newspapers and magazines are also a great source of reading passages.  Do you have a great resource for complex reading passages that you can share?

Friday, March 29, 2013

Can All Kids Learn to Think Critically?

There is no doubt in my mind that there is a special place for all teachers who adapt class activities so that their students can achieve and learn about complex topics.  I am not talking about dumbing down the work, or giving them the answers so they can pass the test, but actually adapting content or delivery, not to lower the bar, but to raise the bar.
Raising the bar goes both ways
There was an interesting discussion on the AASA discussion group on linkedin….”We talk about raising the bar for kids, do you do the same for your staff?” linked to the TregoED leadership blog.   A lot of the points brought out in this blog on staff performance also apply to our students.  Are we creating an environment of support?  Are our expectations clear?  What feedback do we give them?  The blog stated that in the workplace “Only 15% of the time is the problem (poor performance) due to an individual not having the skills, knowledge or capacity to do the job.”  Could that percentage also be applied to the students in our classrooms?
All children can think critically
I do a lot of workshops for middle and high school teachers, there is always an elementary teacher who sneaks in and asks if I think that her kids can use SCAN (a critical thinking strategy embedded in an online tool at TregoED) or other internet tools.  I have to say, if there is a will there is a way!  Many of these teachers take the time to build an environment of support and do amazing critical thinking activities with their students by altering the content, delivery and assessments.  I have written about some of their work in past blogs – The students who did a SCAN session on graffiti in her 5th grade class, the NYC 4th and 5th graders who wrote PSA’s on child labor, or the special ED class in NC that did a full Situation Appraisal on bullying. 
Ask the right questions
Each of those groups tackled very complex topics by looking at the different perspectives that could be viewed on the topic and the particular issues that each point of view might be concerned with.  Being able to identify, explore and appreciate different perspectives is a great way to get kids thinking critically.  They can do it, you just have to ask them the right questions!
One size fits all
Douglass Green asked in the AASA discussion, if the bar was “one size fits all” – suggesting that it should not be for either staff or students (acknowledging of course that high stakes testing is in fact “one size fits all.”)  Does raising the bar mean everyone has to reach the same height? How do you ask your students to stretch their thinking?