Tag Archives: authentic tasks

We LOVE Google Classroom…but is there anything to be wary about?

In the school I work, the teachers have embraced Google Classroom.  We see lots and lots of benefits:  student engagement, integrated technology, paperless environment and a huge cut in the photocopying budget, and many others.  But my job is to provoke critical thinking (my teachers love it when I do that) and so today I am reflecting upon all the positives I see but also ask some questions that may guide us as we move forward with integrated technology.

Here is a somewhat related example.  A number of years ago the smartboard was the tool to have.  And, smartboards can be very cool, interactive learning tools.  But, some of the research that arose from looking at classrooms with smartboards was that teachers  were moving away from small group instruction and collaboration and back to “sage on the stage” type learning because the smartboard lent itself to that style of teaching.

Here’s what I see happening in our classrooms that I love about google classroom:

  • Organization-yours and theirs. In the classrooms that are moving towards “paperless” kids don’t lose their notes and can access their work from any device. Teachers are able to see who has done what, in real time, and keep track of complete and incomplete work.
  • There is no doubt that our students are tech-savvy. They enjoy using the chromebooks to find assignments, interact with the internet, complete online dissections, access texts and materials.  It makes sense to them to use the technology.
  • Timely and immediate feedback. We are learning the value of being able to peek in on a student as they are working, or in the evenings and find out where they are. We can conference the next day, plan a minilesson or even chat back to the student online.
  • Differentiated Instruction. Within the google classroom teachers can upload a number of resources that may meet a variety of student needs. Those students who need the read and write feature can do so seamlessly.
  • Shy students may feel more comfortable. Students who may not enjoy speaking in groups often feel more comfortable participating in an online discussion. They may feel more comfortable submitting work to you for feedback online.

Here are some cautions that might be causes for concern… or not:

  • Would there be a temptation to return to the worksheet or booklet type of teaching because it is so easy to upload the instructions and the task?
  • Might we move away from the real time collaboration because our students are so engaged on line? Is there a need for both?  Do we get different results from different kinds of collaboration?
  • Are we creating too much work for ourselves in trying to give timely feedback to every student, every day? How do we organize it so that we are checking in but it is manageable?
  • Does google classroom lend itself to more individual work? How do we create that balance between collaboration and individual work?
  • While it is great to provide online feedback, is there still a need for face-to-face feedback and/or small group instruction? How do we decide when to do each?

If I invited you to our senior elementary school you would see students using technology in a seamless manner in every class.  We experiment with  iPads, chrome books and personal devices.  Technology is not an “event” but a part of how we do school.   Google classroom is successful in our school and we continue to find new ways every day for it to enhance student learning.  But embracing new ideas is about reflecting critically as well—as we go forward on this journey, are there other cautions?  Are my cautions needless worrying by a 20th century educator?  How will we refine our use of Google Classroom to provide the best educational experience for our 21st century learners?


Filed under collaboration, pedagogy, technology

Using Drama and Narrative to Teach Concepts

Here are just a few things that I have seen lately that use drama or movement to help kids understand tricky concepts.  Students like to be up and moving and working with their peers.  Plus, drama can give them a concrete visual that may not be apparent to them on paper.

  • Pat (and probably others but I ran into his class—literally as they were in the hall) had his students pick a pivotal scene from the novel to act out. When students do this they have to do a number of things: figure out the difference between dialogue and narrative; figure out the personalities of the characters; figure out which scenes are pivotal.  They also practice their lines so they end up doing a lot of repeated reading which we know is good for fluency.  Drama in language arts doesn’t have to be a full length play.  Think about how students can turn what they are already reading into drama.  Think about using some plays as reader’s theatre.  Think about assigning students different characters to play and having them have a quick conversation about an event in the story.  Think about having a student be the main character in the read aloud who sits beside you; every once in a while stop and ask the “character” how she or he is feeling.
  • Ruth took over the foyer and had her students being soldiers and superwomen in a growing pattern. Kids were predicting and noticing how the pattern grew. You could give kids a pattern like AABCC and ask them to act it out.  What about acting out x + 3?  Student who can transfer skills from one modality to another have a deeper understanding.  Asking students to act out a math problem before they start will increase their understanding of the problem.  Often students begin to solve a math problem before they really understand what is being asked.  Students may often be stumped by simple algorithms (5 – 0; 33/33; 27 x 1) but when you ask them to tell a story about that algorithm in cookies, then it all makes sense–or sometimes you have to translate the algorithm into a cookie story and then they get it.
  • Cam and Marina (and maybe others) have been working on telling the “narrative “of history. History is often a vague and confusing subject of Acts and Treaties and Wars. Students don’t really understand that all that happened because of real human events.  A simple dramatization of the event increases understanding immensely.  You don’t need props or a script, just place some students, give them a role and have them act out the story you tell.  Get audience participation by asking what the different groups might be thinking or feeling.  Cam has had success by breaking the narrative in to “chapters” so that each set of events is a chapter in the historical narrative.  Students can refer back to an event by looking at the synopsis of that chapter-who was involved and what happened.   I heard through the grapevine that Ken was doing the narrative of particle theory but I didn’t get a chance to see it.  Apparently the solids slow dance like grade 6s and the gas molecules run around like grade 3s playing soccer.

There is actual research that suggests that students learn best through narrative due to our human cultural interest in story.  When you have a confusing or difficult concept then tell a story.

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Filed under Authentic Tasks, pedagogy, Readers' Theatre

Student Engagement is More Than Having Fun

At a workshop last week, the speaker reminded us that “student engagement” is not the same thing as “having fun”.  Student engagement is one of the current catch phrases in education.  We know that engaged students are more likely to learn more.  But what is student engagement exactly and how is it different than having fun?

Vygotsky talks about engagement as a sense of “flow”.  That state when you are so engaged that time flies by.  It is described as an optimal challenge—not so difficult that anxiety kicks in but not so easy that boredom sets in.  When I think of “fun” activities, I don’t usually think of challenge as necessarily being part of the fun although I have often found challenges to be fun.  So what can teachers do to create situations in which there is high student engagement?

  1. Ensure sufficient background knowledge.  A grade 8 class will be starting literature circles in a few days.  The novels have themes that the teacher feels will be complex or foreign to the students.  He arranges for the students to do some background knowledge research on the topics before they start reading.  The students are surprised by some of the information they discover and now are keen to start their novels.  The teacher has ensured that the students will not get lost in the plot because he has provided the students with sufficient background knowledge.  Without the background knowledge many of these students would have ended up confused in their novels.  Confusion does not lead to engagement.
  2. Encourage curiosity. A 3 year old is curious about everything (Why? Why? Why?).  We see less of that as time goes by.  But I don’t think that people grow less curious. Perhaps the school system is too rigid to encourage curiosity and students quickly learn that school is about doing what the teacher wants, not asking questions.  Although, as the teacher, you need to follow the curriculum and can’t really go off in any direction at all, you can create conditions of wonder.  You can start the science unit with an experiment instead of the theory (I wonder why oil and water don’t mix but salt and water do); you can pose a question in geography (I wonder why people choose to live in cities instead of the country).  And your wonderings don’t have to be big questions.  You could bring in an odd object and have students figure it out (like a dragon fruit or an old rotary phone); you can ask a question (I wonder how ducks talk to their babies to warn them of danger) and have students use google to search possible answers.  Here is a great article about the power of curiosity and learning:  http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/feb13/vol70/num05/The-Case-for-Curiosity.aspx.
  3. Provide opportunities for social learning. When we are really interested in something, we like to talk about it.  We like to bounce our ideas off others and this helps us to refine our thinking.  Conversations which are the most engaging are those where there is a free exchange of ideas and no obvious answer.  Watch a group of kindergarten students trying to build the tallest tower with blocks.  They spend a lot of time talking about the problem.   When students work together to solve easy math problems, usually the faster student does the work.  But when students have a problem to grapple with and their collective math knowledge is required to solve the problem, they are very engaged.  When students engage in literature circles that mimic adult book clubs (I have never been handed a role card at book club; we never talk one at a time around a circle), they love their books and deepen their understanding.  One grade 7 class is so engrossed in their dystopian literature circles that the librarian has had to start a wait list for books that students want to read.  Not only are students talking about their books in their own literature circle but they are talking among circles about books.  In that class, reading is a social event (except when you walking in during reading time you can hear a pin drop).
  4. Tell stories: Everyone loves stories and when we can present content in story format, students tend to remember it longer.  We know that the narrative format helps to create visual imagery for students.  Use analogies; show movie clips or photos; tell them about your own experiences; think aloud as you are reading a novel.  Next time you listen to a good speaker at a workshop or on a Ted Talk, take notice of how he or she uses narrative to illustrate a point.  “Let me tell you a story…” is an engaging technique for everyone, even adolescents.
  5. Make it real. Kids know busy work when they see it.  They will do it because you told them to; they might enjoy it because who doesn’t like to do the occasional word search; but it isn’t the same as engaging.  Be careful that you aren’t just creating one “fun” or “cool” activity after another.  Engagement happens when students can connect their learning and know that they are developing their skills.  Not only do we want to create optimal challenges but we want students to feel successful.   Knowing that you are getting better at something that was challenging creates engagement and a willingness to persevere.  Sebastian, age 13, told me today that BEDMAS with integers was “easy schmeasy”.  I know that two weeks ago he did very poorly on the same assessment.  But his teacher continued to provide optimal challenges and returned to the concepts over and over.  Now he feels confident, successful and engaged in mathematics.

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Filed under Authentic Tasks, classroom environment, inquiry, pedagogy

Multiple Entry Points into Learning: there is no such thing as average

We know that in any given learning situation students arrive at different places.  When I first started my teaching career at the intermediate level, I was quite convinced that if only the previous teachers had taught them better, my students would know what I needed them to know before I started with my part of the curriculum.  Really, how is it that they could arrive in grade 7 without understanding fractions, or the capital of Canada, or how to use quotation marks???

And then, I had to teach grade one.  I had to teach them how to read!  And, worst of all, everyone would know if I didn’t because I’d have no previous teacher upon whom to place the blame.  But, what I discovered was that even in grade one my students were entering the school system with a wide variety of skill, knowledge, behavioural and interest levels.  Despite all my efforts, some of them just weren’t ready to read yet.

For a while now I haven’t liked the term “diagnostic assessment” because when I was assessing my students at the beginning of a learning cycle based on the end-of-the-cycle expectations, mostly I figured out what I already knew:  they didn’t know much.  Leveling student achievement at this point wasn’t that helpful to me.  What is helpful is figuring out their entry point:  what do my students already bring to the table that will help them access the skills and knowledge I want them to learn?

When I begin to design the early tasks and activities that students will do, I want everyone student engaged, curious and be able to add something.  Each student needs to feel s/he is successful at the beginning of learning if I am going to have any hope of convincing them to keep trying and learning.  Let’s look at some easy ways to do that:

In science, I eventually want the students to learn about density.  If I start with having the students read definitions for density and scientific explanations about density I risk losing a bunch of them right away.  But if I begin, like a science teacher I know, by posing the question, does the weight of an object influence whether it will float or sink, every student in my class can participate.  Every student can create an experiment and observe what happens.  Every student is now intrigued and curious about what happened.  I can move into the science now, in whole group and small group lessons, with everyone on board.  I may still need to differentiate by reading the textbook, providing more guided practice to some and so on, but I have a much better chance at succeeding now that everyone is on board.

In math, if I give out a fractions worksheet, the students who understand fractions are bored.  The students who don’t are stumped.  But, if I present an intriguing problem about fractions such as how could we fairly divide 4 chocolate bars among 8 people? Or 3 people? Or 7 people? And even offer students a choice about which problem to solve, then everyone is involved.  Everyone is learning about fractions.  I also have the added bonus of being able to figure out a lot about what my students CAN do with fractions, not just that they can or cannot do the worksheet.

In reading, I could have my students all read the same novel and do the same reading assessment tasks.  Except, my classes have always had students with a wide variety of reading and interest levels.  Even if it is my favourite book of all time, chances are there are some students who are just not interested in that text.  Are their assessments really a valid representation of how well they read if they hated the book so much that they didn’t finish, or didn’t attend?  And what if the book is too hard for them?  What if it is too easy, or they’ve seen the movie, or read it before?  If I give students some choice (not complete choice because it has to be manageable for me, too) I am much more likely to get a truer sense of my students as readers because there is a much better chance that they will actually be reading the book.

When we talk about multiple entry points to learning we are talking about two main ideas.  One, I need to recognize that my students come to the table with different background knowledge, interests and abilities.  If I don’t start where they are, I risk losing them all together.  Think about learning to ski.  If you had never skied before, and started on the black diamond hill, would you really learn?  Would you go back for lesson two?  And secondly, I need to create activities, tasks and problems that will allow all students to access the learning at the level they are starting at, not the level I wish they are at.  Open-ended tasks will work much better for that than closed.  Our goal is to get every student to the same end expectation, but if we don’t begin the journey at each student’s beginning, we risk not getting them to the end at all.

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Filed under assessment, Authentic Tasks, Differentiation, pedagogy, Uncategorized

Knowing Stuff: The balance between content knowledge, and the inquiry processes

Every year our board produces a video.    I got to watch it (twice) this week.    It is very good.

One of the messages is about how our board prepares students for a very complex future.  I started thinking about how education has changed (or not) in response to our global community where information and knowledge is at our fingertips 24/7.  Historically the teacher was the keeper of all knowledge.  If you didn’t go to school and listen to the teacher, you didn’t know stuff.  But, when was the last time you wondered about something and didn’t find the answer instantly by googling it?  Today, it is easy to find out stuff.  So what is the teacher’s role now?  And, what about the stuff—don’t kids still need to know stuff?

Kids do need to know stuff.  They need to know how to read and how to read critically because there is more information to sift through.  It is far more efficient to know your timestables and addition facts than to pull out your phone (I almost wrote calculator!).  But, I would pull out my phone to solve 3425/49, knowing though, whether the answer was reasonable or whether I’d mis-pushed the buttons.  It is helpful to have an understanding of the geography of Canada, our history and how the scientific elements are organized.  We can’t get along without knowing stuff.  When you know stuff, then learning other stuff makes more sense.  When you know stuff you can access more.  When you know stuff, you can talk to people.

But other things are also increasingly important to know how to do.  It is important to be able to solve problems creatively, especially since most of the jobs our students will do have yet to be invented.  It is important to be able to think critically.  It is important to know how to find the other stuff you want to learn and how to synthesize it with what you already know.  It is important to be able to work collaboratively.

In the days when the teacher was the holder of all knowledge, it took a long time to pass all the knowledge on and we sort of left the other stuff until later, maybe.  The idea of school was the transmission of the stuff.  Today we need to find a balance of learning the stuff and the process of learning.  That’s your challenge.  Sometimes we think that in the “new” way of doing things is only about the process and that we aren’t supposed to teach the stuff.  We think that we have to have kids doing inquiry, doing projects and collaborating all of the time and that means we don’t have to worry about the stuff.

We do need to worry about the stuff.  First of all, rich problems, rich inquiry and rich collaboration all work much better around a strong knowledge base.  And, the problems, the inquiry and collaboration are the processes for arriving at the stuff.  When we have students work in pairs or groups problem-solving in math, the ultimate goal is that each student will learn the stuff.  When student develop inquiry questions in the social sciences, they are learning the stuff as they answer their questions.  When students engage in the process of writing for a specific audience and purpose, they are learning the stuff of the writer’s craft.  In the past, we taught the stuff and then let them do the higher order thinking.  Now, we learn the stuff as we are doing the higher order thinking.

So, the teacher’s role is still about getting kids to know the stuff.  But the process by which students learn stuff has shifted.  Instead of telling kids the stuff and having them memorize and regurgitate, they learn the stuff through the processes of inquiry, collaboration and problem-solving.  As they are learning the stuff, they are also learning to think creatively and critically, to solve problems, to synthesize and evaluate information and to work with others.

As you begin your year, think about how you set up your students to know the stuff through processes which develop their creativity, flexibility, and curiosity.

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Filed under Authentic Tasks, classroom environment, inquiry, Uncategorized

Multiple Entry Points into Learning


Differentiation, multiple entry points, small group instruction, individualized instruction, IEP’d students—how do we incorporate all of this with a seemingly packed curriculum and many students to teach?  Some days, we long for the average student.  In fact, the notion of the average student would suggest that it would be ok to teach to the middle and then the students on either side would just cope.  They would be able to find something.  The problem is, they don’t.

We have a professional responsibility to teach to each student and we know that each student brings different skills to the task.  With the case of students on an IEP, we have specifically told parents that we would be teaching something other than the grade level curriculum.  While we have certain end goals in mind (for both IEP and non-IEP students), what we need to be thinking about is how we get there.  That is where the curriculum document does NOT constrain us.  We do have the professional freedom to design our classrooms and lessons so that multiple ways of attaining the end goal are possible:  we can change the pace, the quantity of work, the number of opportunities to practice, the delivery of the material and, many times, the choice of topic.

The more constrained we are in the design of our lesson/activity, the less likely we are able to meet the learning needs of all students.

  • A photocopied worksheet is very hard to differentiate—either you get it or you don’t.  If you really get it, it is too easy.  If you really don’t get it, it is too hard.  There is only one entry point for most worksheets.
  • Worksheets offer very little choice.  Worksheets that offer lots of choice might as well be blank pieces of paper and we save on the photocopying.
  • Assigning the same number of questions for all students to do is only good for some.  If the student is struggling, s/he is already discouraged.  If the student gets it, s/he is bored (and there is no research to say that over-practicing a concept makes you learn it better).
  • A workshop environment with the teaching in minilessons is engaging for students and lets students determine their own entry level.  Don’t forget, you are still the teacher, and can guide students up or down as required.
  • Inquiry learning allows students to ask the questions about which they are interested.  This provides a variety of entry points as students determine their own interests and questions.  Students of all levels are more likely to be engaged if they are interested in the topic.  Don’t forget you are still the teacher, and can veto questions or guide students in the direction that meets the curriculum expectations.
  • You can create learning situations/problems/provocations that have different levels of difficulty.  Rarely will students choose the inappropriate level.  Don’t forget, you are still the teacher, and can help guide students in their choices.
  • If most of our lessons are to the whole group, we are teaching to the middle.  Try rethinking how you deliver information so that you minimalize whole group times and increase small group time.  We say we don’t have time for small group instruction, and we don’t if we use it all on the whole group.  There are some students who need more of your time and some who need less.  Fair is not equal.
  • The more you, the teacher, is involved in setting all the work tasks, the more you are constraining the learning of your students.  The more open your tasks are, the more students will be able to enter into meaningful learning.

As you plan for term two, challenge yourself to try something new that you think might engage more students in learning.  You might feel a bit uncomfortable at first, but no one will die.  And, don’t forget, you are still the teacher and if it isn’t working you can always change your mind.

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Filed under Authentic Tasks, Differentiation, learning golas, small group instruction

Book Clubs and Non-fiction Text

I am guilty, as a female, of reading mostly fiction.  So when someone asks what I am reading, I invariably default to the novel in which I am engrossed despite the fact that at any given time, I am probably perusing at least 2-3 nonfiction texts as well,  the internet daily, and a few journals or periodicals. On a daily basis, I probably share more about my nonfiction reading with friends and colleagues than I do my novels.  We know as teachers that we need to engage our students in both fiction and non-fiction text.  We also know that many of the boys in our classrooms may gravitate towards nonfiction more readily than fiction.  A friend of mine was wondering about literature circles with nonfiction text and how those discussions might look.  And, as a teacher, how might one respond to reader’s notebook entries about nonfiction text.

As always, I began to think about how real readers (usually me) interact with nonfiction.  We need to treat our students like real readers and give them the same authentic experiences.  When we read nonfiction we are generally looking for information.  So when students discuss that information they might:

  • discuss the cool and interesting things they discovered
  • talk about how their new learning fits in with what they thought before
  • reread any confusing parts and try to make sense of new information or things they don’t understand (often we reread nonfiction many times as we grapple with new concepts)
  • talk about how the diagrams or pictures support their new learning
  • evaluate whether they think the author is reliable (and this is very important when doing research, reading websites, looking at primary sources)
  • think about other texts or places to gather information that they may now wish to know since their interest has been sparked

If part of your literature circles or readers’ workshop is to have students write letter to you about their reading, the above points could also be part of their letters.  As a teacher, it is important to write back as a reader.  When other readers tell me about their nonfiction reading, I usually relate it to things I already know about the topic, questions I might have about the information, and why the person is interested in the topic.  So if a student was reading about hurricanes and had written to me, I might respond back with some comments about the facts s/he had told me, some questions I may have about hurricanes, and maybe a confusion that I might have.  I could ask the student to tell how his/her interest in hurricanes had come about and what, if anything, they were planning to do with this new information.  I might relay some information I had about hurricanes and wonder if it were correct according to the student’s source.  We could even chat about whether depictions of hurricanes in film and literature were truthful according to the facts.

Don’t shy away from talking about nonfiction text with your students just because your comfort level is fiction.  Next time you are reading some nonfiction, think about yourself as a reader and how you are interacting with the text.  That is always the best way to guide how you can help students to learn to be a proficient reader as well.

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Filed under Authentic Tasks, Literature Circles