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Friday, December 5, 2014

Ebola? Ferguson? Immigration? Too Hot to Handle or Great Learning Opportunities?

In light of recent events there seems to be no better time to teach children how to practice civil discourse and listen to and understand other perspectives.   However, it is often easy/wiser (and in fact sometimes even mandated) to avoid polarizing and emotional topics in the classroom.  So, how do we teach kids about them?  OR what do we teach kids about them?

It is difficult for any of us to get a clear understanding of what is going on through the filter and sound bites of the media.  One thing that has become clear (and is a lesson in itself) is that violence does nothing to solve problems and in the case of Ferguson, only clouds the issues or polarizes people even more.  The lesson that we want our children to understand can be taken right from the common core – to be able to develop arguments backed by facts and evidence.  We want to teach our kids how to think, not what to think.
Critical Thinking
Our children need to see that clear thinking is the only pathway to a solution to these complex problems and that there are ways to promote that clear thinking.  Once again, the simple critical thinking strategy SCAN (based on asking the right questions) can help you get kids to take apart complex issues, clarify them and create solutions.  A powerful way to get our children to practice civil discourse!

It doesn't matter whether you use the 4 step SCAN strategy to look at very tough emotional-ridden events like those in Ferguson (or desegregating schools from a historical perspective) or use it on simple situation like having cell phones in school (or should we be allowed to wear hats?) – The important thing is that we teach the kids (and adults for that matter) a way to deal with complex situations using a formula that helps them see different perspectives, weigh them and create solutions.

The SCAN tool (housed on the TregoED site) is an online discussion tool that has the SCAN strategy built in.  The advantage of using this tool, rather than just asking the questions in class are many:  kids find it engaging, roles and perspectives are built in, students use screen names, all students contribute, etc. Students read a scenario (write your own or use one from the library), select a point of view and discuss it guided by the questions that make up the four steps of SCAN.

Some typical SCAN lessons in our library:
Who owns Egyptian Artifacts?
Senior Pranks:  Crime or Tradition?
Cell Phones in School
Should there be zoos?
Should we all get trophies?
Who gets the Ebola Vaccine? (NEW!)- Have your students look at the perspectives of  ethicists, scientists, health care workers and vaccine makers and discuss how the Ebola Vaccine should be tested and distributed.

Write your own!
In addition, you can write your own lessons to meet the needs of your class.  Some hot topics in the media right now that are perfect for SCAN lessons:
Should kids be punished for parent’s behavior?  Parent’s brawl cancels children’s football championships. 
Should students have to do school at home on snow days?  Using technology at home can replace lessons in school.
Supreme Court tests the limits of free speech on social media.  Can you land in jail for something you said on Facebook?
Should we regulate E-cigarettes?  Should the same rules apply as regular cigarettes?
Who owns fashion?  Can you copy designs?

Bottom Line

The bottom line is that you may be able to avoid topics that you are uncomfortable with in the classroom, but you should never avoid the opportunity to demonstrate that clear thinking- seeing other perspectives, clarifying issues, evaluating importance and creating solutions- is a skill that can be learned and transferred to any problem.  

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Drive them to Think! My Favorite STEM Challenges

One of the key elements of a PBL is to provide a driving question.  That driving question provides the open-ended challenge or problem that we want our children to work on.  Bottom line, the question should be open-ended, require collaboration, critical thinking and teach students new skills.  These building blocks of inquiry are why STEM education goes with problem-based learning like macaroni goes with cheese! 

Driving Questions
Driving questions can, among other things, challenge students to solve a problem, design a better way to do something, build something useful or educate others.  Build, design, create and make are all verbs that bring the element of engineering into your classroom.  Adding constraints to a problem (things that students may or may not use, size/weight limitations, safety rules, etc.) not only adds to the challenge but reflects the reality of every day problem solving.

One of my all-time favorite examples of constraints in problem solving is the square peg in a round hole problem that was given to the Engineers at NASA to help Apollo 13 astronauts.  It has all the makings of a great problem:  It’s real and has real constraints. I use this great  video clip from the movie to have students practice defining a problem and listing the constraints

My Favorite STEM Challenges
Here are some of my favorite STEM challenges that I have used with kids to cover a variety of content:
1.       Build a better ________________.  Your students come across design flaws every day.  Ask them to listen to the complaints of their peers or parents about something that “just doesn’t work right” and develop a solution to the problem.  It could be a machine (like a mousetrap), law (like immigration), toy, or whatever.  They should gather information about the product, propose a solution, build a prototype, and present it to the class.  Example:  I recently had to use an airline travel toothbrush for a week – it collapsed into two pieces every time I brushed. Surely someone can come up with a better design!
2.       Rube Goldberg Contraptions.  The best engineering programs in the world participate in Rube Goldberg challenges.  Share a few Rube Goldberg cartoons, a couple of great YouTube videos and challenge your students to design and build a Rube Goldberg contraption that can do any or all of the following:
a.       Uses both a chemical change and a physical change.
b.      Uses 4 different simple machines.
c.       Uses both a mixture and a solution.
d.      Uses 4 different energy transfers.
e.      There is a whole lot of physics and chemistry that can be learned here.  Video tape their demonstrations and explanations to share with parents and post them to share with the rest of the world.
3.       Build a solar cooker with recyclable materials.  Food is a great motivator!  (and S’mores demonstrate both chemical and physical changes -burnt marshmallow, melted chocolate, broken graham crackers).  Have students research, design and build a cooker that will melt the chocolate for your s’more.  (Just saw that they now sell flat square marshmallows just for s’mores in the microwave-build a better marshmallow?)
4.       Build a SCALE Model of a large object (NASA’s latest MMS satellite, the solar system, the continents) or a small object (a life size lego man, cell, the Jolly Green Giant’s cell phone) using tape on the floor or string outside.  Lots of math involved!
5.       Make a model with moving parts using just paper (research paper engineering), Legos or recyclables of any science concept:  life, water or nutrient cycles, mitosis, meiosis, laws of thermodynamics, etc.  
Build, design, create, make, are all words that are key to putting engineering in your STEM lesson and developing problem solving, collaboration, creativity and communication.   Put the learning in their hands!

What are your favorite engaging STEM Challenges?

Monday, September 15, 2014

Wall of Fame and other Award-Winning Ideas

When I started back to school each year, one of my bulletin boards (not my forte) was a blank brick wall.  (Google: brick wallpaper).   I explained to my students (and parents at Back to School Night) that it was the Wall of Fame.  I had straight-forward-hard-to-attain-academic criteria which only a few students would reach in a marking period.  Once you had earned Wall of Fame status, you were allowed to design your own name to post on it (any font, size or colors.)  The kids loved earning that status (and designing their own names)!

My Wall of Fame was based on academic criteria, but that does not have to be the case, you could recognize all sorts of accomplishments.  You could even have students develop their own criteria.  Imagine if your students had to put together a portfolio to apply for the award? Just like using the Schools to Watch Rating Rubric as a great way to get your middle school to reflect on and evaluate their work, a student created Wall of Fame Rubric could be great way to get kids to reflect on their accomplishments in your class.  You could even accept peer- nominations for extraordinary leadership or citizenship.  Our school, like many, has a list of awards that we give out at graduation. Why not share those awards and criteria at the beginning of the school year and give them something to shoot for?

But wait, should all students get an award?  (I remember having to come up with a category for every child’s costume at a Halloween party so they could all get an award – my own child’s award should have been Best Working Mom’s Poor Attempt at Creativity, but I digress.)   What a great critical thinking/writing opportunity to get kids thinking and writing. Why not have students look at some of the issues from different points of view and determine what should be done?

Here are some points of view and articles that go with them:
Parent 1:  She wants her child to get a trophy for participating, the trophy is a reward for fulfilling a commitment on the team, it is both motivational and a memento for her participation.  My Loser Kid should Get a Trophy
Coach:  Not all players should receive trophies- trophies should earned.  You may earn a trophy for highest scorer, most improved, best sportsmanship, but it should be earned and not given to everyone.  Besides, the trophies cost a lot of money.  Participation Trophies:  Should Kids get Rewarded for just showing up?
Player:  If everyone has participated and worked hard, than everyone should be rewarded.  However, it is not fair to give an award to people who did not even show up for practice.  This award may be the only one some children will get.  Working hard regardless of results should be rewarded. Should everyone get a trophy?
Parent 2:If children know they will automatically get an award, what is the impetus for improvement? Why bother learning problem-solving skills, when there are never obstacles to begin with?” Giving everyone an award gives children a sense of entitlement.  Losing is Good for You
Other Resources:
Should Kids get Participation Trophies? presents different opinions.

What's your take on this issue?  What would YOU do?

Want to have your students discuss this situation online using TregoED’s free SCAN tool?  Just register at and set up the “Should we all get Trophies?”  lesson complete with different points of view and links to readings.

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!