Online Discussions: Frustrating and Ineffective?

Having pursued my bachelor’s degree in a face-to-face setting I was not aware of how commonly discussion threads were used in online education. I had online courses and hybrid courses during my undergraduate and MBA coursework, but none of these courses featured any discussion threads. Discussion threads were viewed as ineffective as discussions could occur within the class meetings. Additionally, other assessment measures were taken to “test” for student achievement. Assessments such as papers, tests, homework assignments, and presentations were common.

Then, I pursued two other graduate degrees online. I noticed a disturbing trend, the overuses of online discussion threads. These courses were asynchronous in nature [no set meeting time like a synchronous course would have]. At first the discussion threads seemed to replace the homework aspect of the grading scale. Then, it became clear that the online discussion threads were being used as a means to check whether or not students were completing the assigned literature. Readings were assigned over periods of the course; called modules, that were generally one to two weeks long.

This is where the problem came to exist. As educators we should strive to have all assessments associated with learning objectives and the course curriculum. Having assessments that have no direct or indirect correlation with objectives and the course are viewed as busy work. Busy work is viewed as an unnecessary request by students. I have seen first hand that undergraduate students struggle to understand what busy work actually is, but graduate students have a firm grasp.

Why are discussion threads busy work? They require a limited response related to a small piece of information. For example, you may have been assigned to read 100 pages in a given week and the discussion thread has to do with three of those pages. These three pages may have been viewed as irrelevant to you and their focus is not in line with the learning objectives of the course or the course curriculum, but the instructor thought it was something interesting.

Why are discussion threads frustrating and ineffective? The focus is on obscurity; rather than understanding. All discussion threads I have seen focus on an obscure fact or comment made within a module’s readings that needs to be addressed. These are often statements that have nothing to do with the course content or learning objectives, but were interesting to the instructor when they glossed over the readings. How to fix this? Online discussion threads need to focus on a broader outcome that can be tied to the learning objectives. For example, if the learning objective of Module 1 is to ensure students can identify a communication style in education, the question should be associated with that, not a question on a few pages out of the 100 pages a student read. Another issue is the setup and execution of the discussion thread itself. In my experience the discussion threads have required an initial post by a certain day of the week and then two responses by the end of the week. This hamstrings students who are go-getters and want to get their coursework done; as they are relying on their classmates who are likely to procrastinate until the due date. This limits the effectiveness of the discussion thread. The focus becomes more on responding just to fill the quota and complete by the deadline. How to fix this? Make the discussion threads more organic. Give overall parameters [or a rubric] of what is expected in the responses, but do not exercise a limit or strong deadlines. Discussions are more effective when they are done like they would be in person. For example, if someone sends me an email asking intriguing questions it may take me more than 24 hours to consider a response. I would not write a response simply to have it done, but would contemplate the questions, formulate an effective response, and respond when appropriate.

Online discussion threads can be much more effective than they currently are. Due to their current setup that are viewed as busy work that just needs to get done. Online instructors need to find an effective way to make their discussion threads appropriate in relation to the learning objectives and the course; as opposed to simply a manner to check a student read or as a manner of attendance.

 

Making Reading Real!

Avid readers realize how a great book can transport you to another world. Elementary age students can gain approximately 3,000 new words per year. Unfortunately struggling readers do not make those same gains and are faced with the ongoing struggle of catching up to their peers.

We have all asked the same question. What can I do as a teacher to make a difference? Research based strategies are the first step. Students must be exposed to daily interventions which include: word building, sight words, encoding, decoding and fluency. In addition, students should be afforded opportunities to read leveled books that are engaging, high-interest and on their independent reading level. I have found the following  to be helpful:

1. Listen to the experts. Making Sense of Phonics by Isabel Beck is a wonderful resource for all. The book offers insight as to the research behind reading and links teachers to prepared activities.

2. Build a leveled library. Pioneer Valley Books has many collections that include a variety of genres and themes.

3. Offer students activities they perceive as breaks, but are cleverly incorporating reading skills within the instructional time. A few rewards I have found to be purposeful are Education City, Starfall and ABC Mouse.

4. Be Consistent, Keep lessons structured and predictable. The routine helps students to focus their attention on the reading.

5. Don’t be afraid to challenge your struggling readers. Picture books are a favorite of most students because of the colorful pictures that support their reading. Emerging readers feel safe when presented with a picture book, but it is our job to strategically nudge students outside of their comfort zone. Novels allow students to dig deeper into their comprehension. With appropriate support, students can read grade level novels that challenge their abilities in a safe setting. These opportunities allow students to feel a sense of accomplishment and realize how much fun it is to be a part of a “book club”. 

6. Keep Parents Informed! Using technology such as Remind allows teachers to share messages with parents throughout the day or on a scheduled basis. Good news notices can be sent to congratulate a child on extra effort. A free and interesting site is Wonderopolis! http://wonderopolis.org/ Children can explore wonders and submit their wonders to the site to be answered too. 

7. Connect with the world. Through the use of Skype technology students can connect with other classrooms around the world. Renowned teacher, Pernille Ripp created the Global Read Aloud in 2010 and her 6 week project continues to be a motivation to teachers all over the world. Sign-up for the 2016 project at:  http://theglobalreadaloud.com/category/2016/

Maintaining effective practices for struggling readers is a necessary component, but motivation to read is also key in making a change. Make books readily accessible, high-interest and connect reading to the real-world when possible.

Is Homework Necessary In Elementary School?

Elementary school kids have a full plate these days. Between school and extracurricular activities, the last thing they want to do when they get home is hours of homework. But is homework even necessary at all? Does it help our students improve their academic performance?

If you look back at the history of homework, in the early 1900’s homework was nonexistent. This was because children often helped their families with important chores like tending to farms, animals, etc. Fast forward to the 1950’s when there was pressure for the United States to keep up with Russia in the Space Race and the thought was that students were falling behind the Russian students. Teachers began to assign homework to their students. In the 1980’s there is a feeling that American education is just mediocre and in the 1990’s the majority of educators and the general public are in favor of homework.

A study was done in 2006 by Duke researcher Harris Cooper concluded that homework does have a positive effect on student achievement with a much stronger correlation in for those in middle school rather than elementary school. But, too much homework can be counter-productive for students in all grades. Cooper said the research is consistent with the “10-minute rule” suggesting the optimum amount of homework that teachers ought to assign. The “10-minute rule,” Cooper said, is a commonly accepted practice in which teachers add 10 minutes of homework as students progress one grade. In other words, a fourth-grader would be assigned 40 minutes of homework a night, while a high school senior would be assigned about two hours. For upper high school students, after about two hours’ worth, more homework was not associated with higher achievement. The authors suggest many reasons for why older students benefit from homework than younger students. Elementary teachers may assign homework to establish study skills.
“Kids burn out,” Cooper said. “The bottom line really is all kids should be doing homework, but the amount and type should vary according to their developmental level and home circumstances. Homework for young students should be short, lead to success without much struggle, occasionally involve parents and, when possible, use out-of-school activities that kids enjoy, such as their sports teams or high-interest reading.”

There needs to be conversations in elementary schools about what kind, how much, and the importance of the homework teachers are assigning. Teachers need to collaborate, especially if there is a departmentalized model taking place throughout the grade levels, to ensure too much homework is not given.

Reference
Cooper, H. 2006. Homework Helps Students Succeed in School As Long As It’s Not Too Much. http://today.duke.edu/2006/03/homework.html


Preparing for the Inevitable: 10 things you should always have available for a substitute

I wrote in a previous post (Substitute Survival Guide) about my recent return to the classroom as a substitute teacher and I offered some advice for my colleagues who teach on an ad hoc basis. This post offers the flip side – what you can do as a classroom teacher to make life easy on your sub and your students.

There’s no one who can run your classroom as well as you. From the carefully organized bookshelf to the exact location of your favorite stapler upon your desk, everything has a place and purpose. You have the flow of the day calculated down to the minute, making sure everything is accomplished with enough time to fully explain the homework and wrap up the lesson. Even the climate and ambience of the classroom has been carefully cultivated. Perhaps it’s this personal attachment and investment with our classrooms that makes it so hard for teachers to allow someone to step in and take over – whether it’s for an afternoon dentist appointment or a 6-week parental leave. I hated calling off sick when I was a classroom teacher. Even more than the unplanned absences that come about from illness or emergencies, I would stress over writing down each detail for a upcoming day off for PD or an appointment. Sometimes, it feels like more work to prep for a sub than to just go to work!

Whether you leave your sub a well-detailed novel about what should happen in the course of a day, or you scribble, “Students should continue yesterday’s assignment – they know what to do” on a post-it (I’ve encountered a number of variations of both!), here’s a quick list of 10 things you can prepare ahead of time and have accessible for when a substitute comes to your classroom:

  1. Class rosters: Are all of these students supposed to be here? Who is missing?
  2. Schedule: When does that bell ring? What subject should you be teaching at that time? Most importantly, when is lunch!?!
  3. Homeroom Responsibilities: In addition to taking attendance, do you need to do anything else like collect lunch money or monitor the dress code?
  4. Supervisory Responsibilities: Do you have lunch, recess, hallway, or dismissal duty? If so, what does that entail?
  5. Lesson Plans: What are you supposed to be covering today?
  6. Emergency Procedures: What do you take with you for a fire drill? Where do you go?
  7. Behavioral Procedures: How do you handle misbehavior? Is there a system in place that you should follow?
  8. IEP / Special Education Information: Don’t violate FERPA, but who needs accommodations?
  9. Go-To People: What teacher nearby can help, or who do you approach in the office if you need help? Which students can you trust to give help?
  10. Support Staff: Is there anyone who pushes into the classroom for help? What is their role?

If you feel overwhelmed with the idea of creating a substitute resource file from scratch, there are a ton of planners, binder templates, and documents that you can download from the Internet to help you plan these items in an organized fashion. Here’s one that I created and offer for free download. Whatever you choose to use, make sure that this information is accessible – it’s really frustrating to wing it through the day, only to find the sub-binder on a shelf in the back of the room or the lesson plans on the floor under the desk where they were knocked off by the janitorial staff!

Once you have all of this work taken care of, don’t forget to take some vitamin C, eat a balanced diet, and exercise regularly so that you can use less sick days and just let that newly created sub-binder collect some dust!


Using Rubrics as a Grading Tool

Recently I have had an interaction with an individual employed in higher education who indicated that as long as a rubric is filled out no reasoning is necessary to define why sections of a rubric were selected. Most of us in academia would agree that, that is wrong, as it leaves ambiguity for our students. It leads me to this post where I intend to offer some key characteristics to using a rubric properly.

Create Your Own Rubric:
There are resources abound that will offer sample resources on nearly every assignment you may give. Most will actually offer sample rubrics for particular assignments. So why do I think it is a good idea to create your own? Creating your own rubric allows you to tightly wind what you are looking for in an assignment. Some assignments might only need to be defined as Average, Good or Very Good, while other assignments may need multiple designations as to what each section defines. For example, if you ask for 5 resources on a research paper and a student doesn’t meet this expectation you will need to define all possibilities from 0 resources to 5 resources to properly assess this criterion. You can use examples to gather ideas, but creating your own allows you to grade in a more efficient fashion, since you’ve defined everything in accordance to the way you grade.

Follow Your Rubric:
I have experienced situations where the same rubric was used on multiple assignments. On one assignment I would receive one grade and on another assignment I would receive a different grade even though the rubric was followed in both cases. Once you’ve defined your rubric structure you must follow it. If you use the rubric for multiple assignments you must be consistent. Failing to be consistent can impact student morale and cause fatigue.

Be Prepared to Explain Your Rubric:
Some of us think in different ways. To avoid any issues it is best to explain your rubric to your course for the best execution of your plan. Failing to explain your rubric can lead to ambiguity or even a complete lack of understanding that leads to no one following it.

Be Prepared to Execute Your Rubric:
If you’ve detailed 5 resources are necessary for an assignment and only 3 are provided be certain to select the section that notes 3 resources were provided. This helps define to a student where they missed points.

Be Prepared to Offer Commentary:
Simply receiving a rubric with sections checked off is unlikely to help any student understand their grade. You should provide your reasoning for selecting the rubric sections. This provides students with the opportunity to not only see where they need improvement, but use this information for the next assignment.

Be Prepared to Discuss:
Students may not necessarily agree with every point we take off for, so it is important to allow for dialogue. Be ready to confirm your commentary by using examples. Then offer ideas for improvement, such as proofreading, peer review, etc.

Modify Accordingly:
Nothing is ever perfect. Be willing to modify your rubric according to how it is working. You might find a rubric that fits one class nicely might not fit another class. You might find that a rubric might be too harsh or too vague once you have all grades computed. Fine tuning your rubric allows for greater opportunities that it can be used over and over in the future. Be sure to modify the rubric any time you modify the assignment as well.

Rubric Tools:
Rubistar
Annenberg Learner
Teachnology Rubric Maker
iRubric
Essay Tagger

Kathy Schrock’s Guide to Rubrics

You can also use Google and Google Docs to find more tools and samples to use.


Reaching 1 Million Kids with Augmented Reality ….

Reaching 1 Million Kids with Augmented Reality ….

Scan this image with the Blippar App

Augmented reality is a very powerful learning tool that transform the classroom like nothing else.  You can bring the world even the universe to your classroom.  My goal is to help teachers harness the power of augmented reality and help them use this powerful tool in their classroom.  I would love to reach at least 1 million kids.

All you have to do is try at least one Augmented Tool with your students and let me know how many students tried the tool.  There are several Augmented Tools you can try.  I have a Symbaloo Board full of tools you can choose from.  It is best to login to your Symbaloo and add this board to your list to view all of the tools.

After you have tried an Augmented tool please fill out this form.  This will help me keep track of how many kids we are reaching with augmented content. You can fill out the form for each time you try an Augmented tool with your students.  If you are using social media you can also share your experience with the Augmented tool by using the hashtag #AR4Kids.

I am working on creating lessons that are enriched with Augmented content.  Keep your eye in our AR Lesson section in the Augmented Reality for Education Google+ Group.  The next lesson I will be posting will be a unit over the book Charlotte’s Web along with a few Augmented STEM lessons.

AugThat is wanting to help reach 1 Million kids through Augmented Reality and will give teachers a sample of Augmented content to help with this cause.  To receive your augmented content please contact lisa@augthat.com and let her know you are helping us reach 1 Million kids please use the code #AR4Kids. She will set you up with an account and the give you access to their augmented triggers.

Blippar also has a Augmented building platform that is easy to use.  You will need to contact Stephen at Blippar and he will set you up with a free account so you can start creating your own AR content.  If you can drag, drop, copy & paste you can create simple Augmented content too.  You can also reach out to me and I would love to help you create AR projects.

Some of My Favorite AR Tools:

Together Let’s Reach 1 Million Kids with Augmented Reality!

Education around the world

Education is a very personal issue. The recipients could experience the repercussions of a solid or a poor education for the duration of their lives. Those who are professional educators experience it in a way that is often different from business professionals, because they carry the experiences and successes and defeats of the children they serve with them as they move forward in their careers. One educator I worked with from 1999-2002 recently told me that she still wonders if we did the right thing for a student in a particularly difficult situation. These are the trials and tribulations of the professional educator: Your decisions in the moment could have impact over the long haul.

The personal nature of it makes education an easy target to create an audience. It is an easy news item, and a simple way to roil people into thinking their community is in dire jeopardy because we are “not keeping up with our global competitors.” This is a false statement on its face, but it is fairly simple to use some juggling of numbers to make the statement appear to be true. (I intend to address this in upcoming articles.)

So, more than anything today, here and now, if you are an educator, a parent with a child who benefits from education, a teacher who hears all the rhetoric and wonders where the support is, a community member who wants great education for children but hears all the blather, an administrator who knows we have a great thing going here but becomes so disheartened hearing the media talking points, take heart. Our children are learning more than they ever have before. There is more content packed into the K-8 curriculum in most instances than there was at some high schools 50 years ago. There are more 8th graders taking Algebra 1 or higher than at any other time in the nation’s history. There are more and more early college programs available in school districts each year, affording students the opportunity to advance their learning AND earn college credit, often for free!

If you teach, if you work in a school, if you care about and participate in your child’s education, you are making a difference and an opportunity. There will be students and families who do not take advantage of the opportunity made available. There are only so many tweaks and changes you can make to that. Keep teaching, keep learning, and keep making us all better with your time, your energy and your knowledge.


The Art of Professional Development

Locally professional development is viewed as a utter mess. Often the local school districts will have a few in-service events each school year that are geared towards professional development. These are often exercises in futility. The primary reason is when they occur. For example, one district is having one on Columbus Day when every other district in the state is closed. The other is the focus. Most professional development exercises are focusing on some usage of educational technology. This results in two fragmented groups: those who already know how to use the technology and those who have no interest in using the technology. I recall the one year a district tried to force all teachers to create and use a Google Sites webpage. It didn’t work well.

So how can a school district provide better professional development? Realizing that one size fits all isn’t pragmatic. Have a few options available and make them known ahead of time or even have a signup sheet for each particular group. Addressing a wide range of problems is always a good idea too. Some teachers may be struggling with HIB policies and so the same old song and dance may not be useful to them.

We all know however that our school district isn’t going to provide us with all of our professional development needs. Luckily there are a number of professional development opportunities online that I’ve found enjoyable and will share.

SimpleK12:
I might be a little bias as an ambassador for SimpleK12, but I believe they provide a strong professional development presence online. They provide PD on a wide variety of topics from classroom management to ELL. Not only do they have a constantly updated list of active webinars [where you signup in advance for the scheduled view], but they have an extensive list of on-demand webinars. There are more than enough resources with the free model to advance your career, but you could always move onto the paid yearly model and access even more. Additionally there are countless other educators on SimpleK12 just waiting to collaborate and interact with you. It is essentially a new Personal Learning Network for you!

EdWeek:
EdWeek is likely well known for its articles about education, but they do offer professional development webinars through their website. While SimpleK12 probably has 20 live webinars scheduled at any time, EdWeek usually has 5. EdWeek also provides you access to their on-demand webinars with a PowerPoint associated with the presentation. EdWeek even provides a paid professional development toolkit in areas like classroom management and educational technology.

Simply Use Google:
You may navigate through various professional development websites and find what you’re looking for is missing. As is becoming a common phrase these days “just Google it.” Most professional development websites are looking to hit on a wide range of topics and your specific interest may not be broad enough for those involved to produce content. Googling your keyword with professional development will hopefully give you specific information helpful to your cause. For example, Adobe provides webinars on some of its products. That might be professional development to you if you are teaching a Multimedia course, but you may not know how to find this out. Google helps out here. You may even find that there are professional development websites devoted to your content area too.

There are even some local groups you can join as a school district and pay for individual teachers to attend professional development workshops, like is offered by the Southern Regional Institute and Educational Technology Training Center.

Remember some school districts will help you [including financially] in professional development pursuits, while others won’t. So understand you may be required to do the bulk of the work if you want to improve. It will be worth it!


SCRATCHJR: CODING AS AN INNOVATIVE APPROACH TO MULTIMODAL LITERACY

 

ScratchJr is an introductory programming language application designed for children ages 5-7 to create interactive stories and games. Both ScratchJr and its big brother, Scratch, designed for users ages 8 and up, were created by MIT Media Lab to teach coding to children. ScratchJr is a free app for both iPad and Android tablets.

In ScratchJr, users put programming character blocks together that are interactive and move, jump, dance, and sing. Users can edit voices and sounds, including adding their own voices, and they can even insert their own pictures to make the blocks come to life. The goal of ScratchJr is to make coding fun and a part of students’ literacy education.

According to the creators of ScratchJr, “Coding (or computer programming) is a new type of literacy. Just as writing helps you organize your thinking and express your ideas, the same is true for coding. In the past, coding was seen as too difficult for most people. But we think coding should be for everyone, just like writing.”

ScratchJr has an innovative approach to literacy as the goal of ScratchJr is to encourage children to create and express themselves via coding. Writing via code allows students to “write” interactive stories, games, animations, and simulations. They begin with planning, rough drafts, editing, and finally publishing as they share content they have coded. Not only do students move through the creative process, they are also given opportunities for problem solving skills, sequencing skills, and math and language skills. Students are constructing meaning through coding, and as ScratchJr states, “children aren’t just learning to code, they are coding to learn.” This multimodal approach to literacy and learning gives students the opportunity to take learning to the next level and create such things as animation, virtual tours, simulations, PSAs, multimedia projects, interactive tutorials and stories.

ScratchJr offers four projects students can work on. However, in addition to providing projects, the app also offers manipulatives, such as printable coding blocks, an animated genres curriculum, which has three modules: Collage, Story, and Game, a playground games curriculum in which students can recreate popular playground games, and activities that reinforce the Common Core standards, including upper and lower case letters and counting.

ScratchJr provides children an interactive, multimodal approach to learning coding as well as offering practice of highly transferrable literacy and learning skills.

Sources:

ScratchJr – Home. (n.d.). Retrieved September 9, 2015.

Shapiro, J. (2014, August 6). Your Five Year Old Can Learn To Code With An IPad App. Retrieved September 9, 2015.

Empathy with Students Goes a Long Way

Recently I read the story of Teddy who was struggling to find his footing in the classroom. According to the information posted he had been a great student with a number of friends, but the loss of a parent derailed his academic success to a degree. His teacher reviewed his previous teachers’ commentary on his classroom performance. Once she noticed the pattern she took a stronger interest in Teddy and the relationship continued to grow until after Teddy left her class, including Teddy returning to inform the teacher of all the important things going on in his life.

Most educators dream of these situations, where you have such an impact in a student’s life that their success is often your success, as they are so excited to inform you of the new chapters in their lives.

Your question might be “How do I show empathy for my students”?

Empathy can be shown in a number of ways with your students. The one aspect you need to understand is there can be a small line between students taking advantage of you and you showing empathy for their situations. For example, if you see provide an extension to a student once due to an incident they may expect you to do this every time. So be firm with your classroom policies.

Empathy can be a tool used to connect with your students as well. Some students, like Teddy, may require you to work harder than your normal interactions, but the pay off is well worth it. You are not friends with your students, but that doesn’t mean you can’t pull for them in the same manner that their friends do.

Some scenarios I have seen play out in the classroom include the following:

  • A student has a poor home life and does not like to go home:
  • A teacher can consider offering additional after school hours and if the student needs help with their work, use this time to help them navigate through their assignments.

  • A student may have a parent who is terminally ill:
  • A teacher may allow a student to periodically check their cell phone even if it goes against school policy or setup an alternative for reaching the student in case something happens.

  • A student has concerns that limit their concentration:
  • A teacher must not get frustrated with this type of student and instead work with the student individually to ensure they are comprehending all necessary materials. Usually if an IEP or 504 mentions such an issue there may be recommendations for the educator.

    Ultimately showing empathy for situations that come up may help you in connecting with your students and secure a stronger level of respect, as long as you establish that you aren’t a pushover, but aren’t unreasonable.