Thinking outside the Box (by having the student Break IN)

BreakoutBox

 

Sometimes it can be hard to change the game in math class. Grooves, patterns, predictability… they all have their place, but it can make math class seem stale.

This is where it can be nice to have a off-the-shelf product that completely changes the feel of class. Enter BreakoutEDU. To quote the interviewee from the video above (click the picture) “It bring the breakout room into the classroom.”

You know all of the wonderful patient problem-solving, reasoning, communication and teamwork it takes to bust out of a breakout room? Well, the same thing happens with BreakoutEDU. You hide clues, you lock the box (typically with 4 or 5 locks), you give the students some teammates and a timer and let them go.

I have seen this in classrooms a dozen times or so. Engagement is through the roof. Struggle is often productive and perseverance is challenged. Keep the hints handy. It can be tricky to get the difficulty level of the games right for the your students.

Let me know if you have questions! I’d love to help you get started!

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If you want them to read…

People (generally) like doing what they are good at. So they get better at it because they are practicing it more.

People (generally) don’t like doing things they aren’t good at. So they don’t get better.

Teachers have to figure out a way to strike the balance. We like to let kids do what they are good at (because they tend to engage more enthusiastically and produce more satisfying products). We also need to compel students to do the things they are not good at (because they need to get better at those things.)

So, adding tools to your tool box that can help students engage the things they are find interesting can take (sometimes) take the sting out of the fact that they are being asked to do something they aren’t very good at (like read… or solve math problems.)

One suggestion I had for the literacy side of this was The Literacy Shed. Here’s another. Check out Episode #14 of “Instructional Tech in Under 3 Minutes” on Wonderopolis. Wonderopolis is a site that allows the students to ask what they wonder. And what they’ll find is a diverse variety of articles developed around some of the most interesting “wonders” you can think of.

Check out Wonderopolis and consider what adding it to your EdTech toolbox could do for your students.

 

Facilitating the smart aleck

I5 Lite Bright

We talk about wanting classes full of critical thinkers. I think this is a great goal and I am generally very high on empowering students to authentically think through complex situation.

But it’s not all pros. Cons do exist. (Nothing… nothing… is all rainbows and unicorns.) Especially when you consider that critical thinking is a skill we are becoming more equipped to foster and practice, while discernment is a skill that is best taught by life experience and generally comes along much more slowly.

So, we need to make sure that we are embarking up the critical thinking mountain soberly. The fact is that “critical thinking” is an easily-transferable skill set — this is why it is so attractive to us. But what happens when the students decide that they want to turn that critical thinking on you as the teacher? When our undiscerning young learners want to practice critical thinking in an authentic setting?

Are you being fair? Are your instructional decisions reasonable? Did your grading of that test make sense? Your work becomes much more scrutinized when you have 25 sharp-minded critical thinkers on your journey with you. And with their lack of discernment that almost goes without saying (students don’t behave professionally), you are almost empowering smart alecks – on purpose.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. This came out of a third grade class.

The teacher is trying to talk about division. The book uses the example of someone who knits glove who makes the fingers of the gloves separately. The question was if the person created 25 fingers, how many gloves could they make. Seems like a pretty straight forward intro-to-division word problem. Except…

One of those kids was a critical thinker.

And she said, “Why would that person make 25 fingers? That’s five gloves. Wouldn’t she make 5 more fingers? Or quit at 20? Why would someone make 5 gloves?”

Interesting questions. Critical thinking questions. And for some teachers that would be a great question. For others, it would sound like the wonderings of an tangentially-on-task smart aleck.

In reality, it might be nothing more than the mental overflow of a student who is really exploring a context they way we taught her to. And the context didn’t immediately make sense, so she asked a clarifying question. That sounds like critical thinking. But, in the ears of some teachers, the word “critical” is in bold. And while, I suppose, it is possible that the student was intending to be disrespectful, I think it is exceedingly more likely that she wasn’t.

We wanted her to engage context. She did. We wanted her to think critically. She did. We wanted her to apply her answer to check for sense making. She did.

But it’s not going to stay in math or science or reading. This skill set transfers, remember. So, you may want to consider each of the following:

  • Making sure your grading policies are properly aligned to the messaging about teaching and learning in your classroom. (Critical thinkers can poke holes in inconsistencies.)
  • Making sure your student discipline policies are consistent with your messaging about teaching and learning and applied equitably. (Critical thinkers see patterns and draw conclusions from them.)
  • Making sure that each of your activities is meaningful and has value toward the learning goals you have for your students. (Critical thinkers tend to be more comfortable making their own decisions about what is and is not worth their time.)
  • Make sure you develop a habit of adjusting your planning based on their feedback (or at the very least, have a darn good reason why you won’t and be willing to be transparent. Critical thinkers ask questions and know the difference between useful information and useless information.)
  • Be prepared to sell your coursework and learning targets and spend some significant energy inspiring and compelling students to engage it. (“Because it’s going to be on the SAT” isn’t a natively meaningful sound byte for many of them. So, if this is the best you got, you are going to have to at least take this argument to the next level. They will if you don’t.)

In general, these are things you should be doing anyway. But, if you are properly fostering critical thinking in your students, you may find that some of the elements of you coursework that you felt were “good enough”, may not stand up to the scrutiny of 25 critical thinkers with still-under-development discernment and very little professionalism (as we understand it) looking to poke holes in it.

Embrace that. The smart aleck in your room might well be practicing the skills that we want him or her to have. The trick is to recognize what we are looking at. They might be trying to be critical thinkers and apply their new skills. Take their effort. Analyze it with them. Teach them how. Model respect.

Throughout geometry, we’d explore proof-writing (which is basically a formalized, mathematics version of persuasive writing.) I used to sell it to my students by saying “Stick with me and I will teach you how to win an argument with your parents.” And I’d refer to that all year. “Let’s look at the argument you are trying to make.”

And rule #0, is if the argument is going to work, the LISTENER needs to change his or her mind when you are done. That means keeping them with you the whole time. That means not doing or saying anything that will shut them off. So, if you are trying to convince your parents (or other adults) to change their minds, you have to present your case in way that won’t shut them down. Now we are talking respect, evidence, cool heads, eye-contact, word choice… That’s proof writing. That’s argumentation.

That’s taking the smart aleck’s skill set and turning into functional critical thinking.

Building the right assessment

Episode #13 of “Instructional Tech in Under 3 Minutes” is on the assessment tool Formative. Now, according to the Formative’s promo video, this is the perfect tool for you if you love Google Forms and Kahoot. (Which I do…)

So, here’s the deal… it combines the diverse flexibility of Google Forms with the ease of access of Kahoot, which is a nice combination. Real time feedback is a nice touch as well.

This is the third mostly-assessment tool that I’ve highlighted and I do that on purpose. Mostly because building the right assessment can be a little tricky. If you’ve got a well-chosen learning target paired with the appropriate instructional strategies, then it makes no sense to haphazardly build an assessment experience for the students. Kahoot, Google Forms, and Formative all have their unique features. So, with their powers combined, they become a system that can create mostly any kind of assessment questions you might need. Individual or group, performance or self-report, anonymous or named.

It can be tricky to build the right assessment. Have a number of tools in your toolbox is often the first step.

Why Google Forms? Because Legends Never Die

Google forms isn’t a new tool. Not even close. But that doesn’t matter.

A good tool is a good tool (particularly if your school has embraced Google). Particularly a tool that has an ease of use (both for students and teachers), is highly flexible, and can be used on any device.

But, the fact that this tool has been around a while doesn’t mean it’s the same tool it was back in 2010. File uploads and different kinds of gridded responses are among the latest updates.

Plus, adding Equatio to Chrome will make adding math notation much easier, too.

So, give Episode 10 of “Instructional Tech in Under 3 Minutes” a watch and remember Google Forms the next time you need to gather input from your students.

 

Forget your teaching for a minute – What are the STUDENTS doing?

For a moment, I want to reframe the conversation about instruction. Suppose you’ve got a bit of content the students need to learn. Often, teachers think, “How do I need to teach this?” This a fine question, but I’d like to suggest, perhaps, a better one.

What should the students be doing to learn this bit of content? (You see the difference?)

Episode #7 of “Instructional Tech in Under 3 Minutes” shares Nearpod, which is a tool that gives teachers options and puts them in a position to ask the question “What should my students be doing to learn this?” (Nearpod isn’t the only such tool. It’s just a nice choice that is free, device-agnostic and pretty easy to use.)

A while back, the National Institute of Health published a paper discussing some of the pros and cons of “Wired” Children –That is, children who have a lot of screen and device time.

This matters to education. Our classrooms are becoming increasingly wired. And while the conclusions in the article are definitely not conclusive, a few trends bubble to the top and one of them is simple:

With tech, thought energy is best spent focusing on what the young people are DOING with the tech rather than the form of the tech itself. Chromebooks vs. iPad, Google vs. Microsoft, Kahoot vs. Quizizz… these are the wrong questions. Rather, ask: What should the students be DOING with the tech to maximize learning?

It reminds me of some advice a dietician gave me once. She rhetorically asked me, “What’s the best diet?” And then, after a pause, she answered “The one you’ll stick with.”

This is a similar thought process to the explicit instruction vs. inquiry debate that I’ve discussed several times before. It’s the wrong approach to consider which of those teaching methods is “better.” What are the students doing?

If you’re inquiry exploration has the students spinning their wheels, you may need to explicitly instruct them. If your explicit instruction turns your students into a passive audience, then they need to explore some stuff. Some content is tough and they won’t be able to explore it very well without some instruction. But lectures are boring, so the students need to be active participants in the explicit instruction. (And no… taking notes doesn’t count.)

Nearpod is one tool that gives you options. It can add explicit instruction to inquiry explorations. OR, if you’d prefer, it adds explorations into direct instruction.

Either way, it is a tool that gives you a chance to answer the question: In order to maximize the learning in during this time, what should the students be doing?

“They’re just playing…”

I was recently listening to a conference session by Katie Sellstrom. During the talk, she made a statement that was so simple, it was brilliant. And needs to be repeated. It paraphrases like this: “Yeah, I mean, okay. Maybe you’re only taking this kind of data because the law requires you to. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t try to make the experience awesome for your students.”

Katie was speaking of in-class assessments and formative data and MTSS structures and stuff like that. The stuff that plays into what a lot of people are lamenting about the modern state of education. Education is currently a world of standards, learning targets, data goals, and accountability. I think those are good things. I think that schools should be expected to do a good job growing every single kid in their school. And if they are doing a good job for every kid, they shouldn’t be offended by being asked to prove it. And if they can’t prove it (either because they aren’t keeping track, or because they aren’t doing a good job growing each kid), we shouldn’t be okay with that.

But, we can’t lose sight of what drives change. The ultimate goal is for all students to achieve at a high level. Not simply to do their best, but to change their best and then do the brand new best. And in order to do that, it should be a foregone conclusion that we need the students to come to school. Everyday. All year. Every year. And not simply because the law makes them.

Side note: the data on the negative effects of dropping out are intense and not in dispute and yet, in light of that, many kids see it as a reasonable choice compared to coming to school. So, it should satisfy NO ONE that we have to require kids by law to come to our classrooms. Why aren’t they flocking to them by choice?

Well, for one thing, when the accountability systems started tightening the screws on everyone, many schools (particularly those who need the most growth) decided it was time to buckle down and get to work. #NoMoreFoolinAround Which is completely understandable, but…

… it seemed to often come with a corresponding reduction in the stuff that makes the classroom environment enjoyable. And the concern over that isn’t simply fluffy “kids-should-be-kids, shouldn’t children be happy?” stuff. Not at all. It’s economic. We need those young people to come to school. Enthusiastically, if possible, so that our systems can help them grow. If the learning environment is regularly uninspiring, then we are going to lose our target audience. And everyone loses if that happens.

So, what to do? Well, perhaps we could consider designing academically-meaningful tasks that were also enjoyable. Tools like Desmos, Formative and EdPuzzle (among others) help a lot in creating flexibility in lesson design that can bring a variety of potentially enjoyable elements into core activities. But beyond that, take a look at the two pictures above at the top of this post.

Here, I’ll show you one more.

JustPlaying3

I visted this school in the midst of their “Oral Language Groups.”

It was collaborative play time. (That doesn’t look as good on a master schedule). But it isn’t “just play time.” First things first, the students were all actively engaged. Secondly, about 90% of them were collaborating actively with a classmate. Third, they weren’t all doing the same thing. The students could pick which group they wanted to be at. And fourth, they all seemed to be really enjoying themselves. Behavior issues were low. Students wanting to brag about their work was high. So, can it be aligned to anything? (This is an important question. All activities should fit in with the broader goals.)

Common Core ELA: 

CCRA.SL.1 – Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasive; CCRA.SL.6 – Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks…

Common Core Math:

SMP3 – Construct viable argument and critique the reasoning of others, SMP5 – Use appropriate tools strategically, SMP6 – Attend to precision

Next Gen Science Practice Standards

Planning and Carrying out investigations, Analyzing and interpreting data, Using mathematical and computational thinking, Constructing explanations and designing solutions

Some of those are a bit of a stretch, but you get the idea. Strategic play time isn’t “just” play time. Just like maker space time isn’t “just” maker space time. These environments can be built to create academically supportive learning experiences.

Notice: “can be built”… it requires strategic design to make it valuable. So, here are some thoughts I have about how to take “just” play time and make it meaningful.

  1. Have a goal for your students during your play/maker time. What type of learning are you trying to get? Do you want the students to collaborate? Communicate? What do you expect that to look like in this type of setting? How do you intend to communicate those expectations to your students?
  2. Don’t let your goal be an excuse for reducing student autonomy. This isn’t a cookbook chemistry lab. This is play time. And many of the growth pieces that you are hoping for with your students are cut out when you start micromanaging the play. Skenazy and Haidt put it this way: “Gray’s main body of research is on the importance of free play, and he stresses that it has little in common with the “play” we give kids today. In organized activities—Little League, for example—adults run the show. It’s only when the grown-ups aren’t around that the kids get to take over. Play is training for adulthood. In free play, ideally with kids of mixed ages, the children decide what to do and how to do it. That’s teamwork, literally. The little kids desperately want to be like the bigger kids, so instead of bawling when they strike out during a sandlot baseball game, they work hard to hold themselves together. This is the foundation of maturity.”
  3. Take data during the play time. The students are playing. You are not. Your job is to figure out if this thing is working toward your goal. So, decide what data you are going to take. Take it. And monitor their progress. Remember, data isn’t always quantitative.
  4. Have the students reflect a bit. Having a bit off a “show-off something cool” time will give the groups a chance to describe to the class what they made, tell a story about it, and gather ideas for next time while listening to the others.
  5. Be reasonable about how much time you have to devote to play/maker time. It’s possible that given the “have-to’s” of your situation, you can only make this work out once per week. That’s okay. Do the best you can. But please, please… whatever you do… please. Don’t turn this into a reward for learning fast. Planning these in as a reward for behaving and passing assessments sends the exact wrong message and sends that message to the group of students most likely to benefit from the play/maker time. (The message: You struggle in school, so you don’t get to have fun. Stop struggling, then we’ll let you have fun.)

Rushton Hurley says “it isn’t our job to entertain the kids, but if we do our jobs in an entertaining way, then they are much more likely to come along for the ride.” I endorse that message, because them coming along for the ride is exactly what we need them to do. Remember, if we are going to grow them, we need them to be in school. Everyday. All year. Every year.

Let’s start thinking about creating the kinds of environments where a young person would voluntarily do that.