A Little Magic: Up-level Lessons in a Blink

UntitledOne of the challenges we may face when teaching high ability learners is that sometimes we underestimate how quickly they may complete and master a lesson.

In these situations, many teachers have an alternative bag of tricks to keep students engaged. However, these activities can require unnecessary planning, transition time, and may even reinforce a student’s perception that school lessons are “too easy” and not intended for him/her. Before moving on to other things, teachers should consider whether simply nudging the lesson up a notch might better serve students’ needs.

No illusions. Here’s a little magic I’ve seen to up-level common grade school lessons in a blink…

READING:

1). Spellbinding Spelling

  • Assignment: Put each of your spelling words in a sentence.
  • Challenge: Choose five of your spelling words and write each word in a sentence. Every word in your sentence must begin with the same letter as your spelling word. Your sentence must make sense.

2). Zen for the Venn Diagram

  • Assignment: Use a Venn Diagram to compare and contrast two subjects in your reading.
  • Challenge: Explain why this comparison is interesting or important.

3). Character Trait Transformation:

  • Assignment: Identify the character traits of the main character, using evidence from the text to support your answer.
  • Challenge: Your character is moving and packing a suitcase. If your character could only pack three things, what would they be? Draw/describe these items and explain why each would be chosen. Use evidence from the text.

4). Levitating Main Idea/Details

  • Assignment: Identify the main idea and key supporting details.
  • Challenge: Write an 8-line poem that expresses emotions or feelings about the main idea.

5). Conjuring Context Clues:

  • Assignment: Guess the definition of the underlined word using the context clues in the sentence . (Context clues are words in a sentence that help readers to infer the meaning of a word by providing a definition or explanation of the underlined word, a synonym, or an antonym. )
  • Challenge: Write a sentence using the underlined word that provides a context clue about its meaning. Identify your context clue and how it helps the reader to infer the word’s meaning. (Note: The teacher may assign a challenge vocabulary word from a student’s reading or a list.)

+++++++++++++++++

MATHEMATICS

1). Computation Capers

  • Assignment: Add/subtract all of the multi-digit numbers. Check your work using inverse operations.
  • Challenge: Choose one or two problems. Arrange the digits to create a new problem with the largest/smallest possible sum/difference. Solve that problem. Explain how you know that you have found the largest sum/difference.

2). Word Problems Presto-Chango

  • Assignment: Solve the word problem.
  • Challenge: Look at the word problem that you just solved. Create a new problem that (1) requires the solver to solve two more math problems in order to find the answer; or (2) contains different numbers, but has the same answer.

3).  Area/Perimeter Transformation

  • Assignment: Find the Area/Perimeter of all of the shapes on the worksheet.
  • Challenge: Find the total area/perimeter of all of the shapes on the worksheet. Create a drawing that has the total area/perimeter as the shapes on the page. (Your drawing does/does not have to be to scale.)

4). Fraction Flip

  • Assignment: Solve the problems that use fractions.
  • Challenge: Create a lesson that teaches a student how to solve one of the fraction problems in this assignment. Make sure that you explain why the student should do each step. Now “flip” roles—become the teacher and teach your lesson to a group of students.

5).  Astounding Rounding

  • Assignment: Round the numbers to the nearest _____.
  • Challenge: Choose three of the problems you solved. When would you need to round numbers like this in your everyday life? For three of the problems, create an example from real life when rounding the numbers in the problem may make things astoundingly easier!

…Abracadabra!

(They say a good magician never reveals his tricks. But sometimes differentiating for high ability learners requires just a nudge, and no magic at all.)

10 Vocabulary Enrichment Ideas for the “Classroom Wardrobe”

“Few activities are as delightful as learning new vocabulary.”
Tim Gunn: A Guide to Quality, Taste, and Style [1,2]

photo-on-3-5-17-at-12-11-pm

Gifted students have the ability to acquire extensive vocabulary, and they often delight in “trying on new words for size.”

Acquiring new vocabulary should feel like donning a new outfit and gliding down the runway. We should take words home, cut off the scratchy tags, and add them to ourselves. Yet in the classroom, vocabulary study is sometimes more akin to taking inventory — leaving behind a pile of charts, lists, and workbooks.

For the classroom wardrobe, here are ten “accessories” I’ve collected to enrich and enliven vocabulary instruction…

(Language Arts)

1). Vocabulary Skits: Students create and perform 2-3 minute skits that use and show the meaning of a vocabulary word.

2). Creative Writing: Students choose 6-10 interesting words from a text they read and use them to create an original poem, song, or comic strip.

3). Vocabulary Rainbow: Students discuss how colors can be associated with different emotions. (For example, they may associate “yellow” with joy or “green” with peace.) Then, students collect several descriptive words from a text and group the words according to what “color” they bring to mind. Create a rainbow depicting words in “color.” Make a key for the rainbow that explains what mood/emotion each color represents.

4). Anaphora: Students create a poem by repeating a vocabulary word several times and defining it in an original way. (For example, “Diligence is…Diligence is…Diligence is…”

5). Vacation (?) Brochure: Students list several words that describe the setting of a story or poem. Then, they create a “vacation brochure” that uses these words to advertise the setting as a favorite vacation spot . (They can also create a humorous brochure about a destination that is not so inviting…)

(Mathematics)

6). In Other Words: Rewrite a partner’s problem-solving strategy using “math words” (domain-specific language).

7). Heard in the Classroom: When students are discussing problems in small groups, challenge a few students to be detectives and listen/note the context in which math vocabulary is used. Student “detectives” can share their findings on a “Heard in the Classroom” poster.

8). Be the Teacher: Challenge students to teach a math word. Students can create games and word problems to teach/model the assigned word.

9). Create A Problem: The teacher gives students a list of 4-6 math vocabulary words. Students create a word problem and present the solution. The steps for the solution must use all of the math words on the list.

10). Build Something: Build a model/create a design that applies or represents 10 math vocabulary words. Create a key with the list of words and how they are used to accompany the project.

[1] Gunn, Tim, and Kate Moloney. A Guide to Quality, Taste & Style. New York: Abrams Image, 2007. Print.

[2] Tim Gunn is a fashion expert and author known by many for his role in the reality television series, Fashion Runway

Meeting the Needs of Gifted Learners in the Core Classroom? Try Sitting in Their Seats

IMG_1748

As we begin the year, how often do we educators see things through the eyes of the diverse, gifted learners in our classrooms?

Perhaps the best way to start is by putting ourselves in their chairs.

As summer days come to an end, a useful ritual is to check out the view from each student’s perspective by sitting in each of their places. How easily can each student see the projector screen? A talkative friend? A view of the playground?

Considering what students “see” can help teachers eliminate distractions and physical obstructions to learning; it can also help us find new ways to motivate high potential, gifted learners.

The National Association of Gifted Students defines “giftedness” as follows:

Gifted individuals are those who demonstrate outstanding levels of aptitude (defined as an exceptional ability to reason and learn) or competence (documented performance or achievement in top 10% or rarer) in one or more domains. Domains include any structured area of activity with its own symbol system (e.g., mathematics, music, language) and/or set of sensorimotor skills (e.g., painting, dance, sports). [1]

Regardless of what “definition,” most of us educators believe that gifted learners exist and expect to encounter them. So, when setting up a classroom, why not take a few moments to “take a seat” as a gifted child at the beginning of the new school year? Here are some focal points to consider:

(1). Role Models and Vision: Can I see a picture of an inspiring adult role model who shares my gender, culture, and/or race—a depiction that celebrates his or her contributions and achievements? What does that picture communicate to me about my future possibilities and potential?

(2). High Level Questions: Is there a provocative, deep question that captures my attention and curiosity? Is there a question that I find fascinating to discuss with my friends at school and my family at home?   How could the themes or topics we explore in the classroom this year be important or relevant to my life?[2]

(3). Rich Vocabulary: Is there a new, rich vocabulary word presented that would be fun to learn and use? How might it relate to math, science, or the world around me?

(4). Personal Interests: Is there any place in this classroom for my own “learning agenda?” Does this classroom have a place for me to explore and share what I love to learn? Do I see something that shows me that the teacher or any other students might want to  hear and talk about my interests and passions?

If answers to the above questions are difficult to spot, some simple changes to the classroom landscape could positively impact instruction to meet the needs of gifted students.

And once we consider the view from the students’ seats, our classrooms may provide a better vantage point to “see” more gifted students than we ever expected.

 

 

 

[1] National Association for Gifted Children website: http://www.nagc.org/resources-publications/resources/definitions-giftedness

 

[2] For question examples, see “Essential Questions.” Essential Questions. Authentic Education, 2013. Web. 24 July 2016. <http://essentialquestions.org/random_questions.lasso&gt;.

 

Teaching From A Bag Springs Training

Untitled

During my first year of teaching, I did not have a classroom space of my own.  Instead, as many teachers do, I put my materials in a bag that I carried from room to room. Although “covering the bases” in this way presented challenges, the experience provided some of the best teacher “spring training” ever.

This month in my Language Arts classes, the students have been studying and writing poetry.  I wrote a sonnet about “teaching from a bag” to add to our collection:

Spring Training

 

 

Spring Break Learning: A Nugget from The Grand Canyon

IMG_2209
Grand Canyon, AZ

What approach works best when helping learners to overcome academic challenges? As educators, it can be helpful to reflect on our own learning struggles. In fact, hiking in the Grand Canyon over this Spring Break, I experienced a memorable learning challenge at the edge of a magnificent precipice.

Though I wanted to continue down the path at the start of the Grandview Trail, I was uncertain about how to approach it, and my knees were shaking with apprehension. Before barely descending, I returned to the top, defeated. But a little later, with the help of our guide, I tried again and made it far enough to enjoy some incredible views of the canyon.

My journey on this historical mining trail uncovered some valuable nuggets for struggling students (like me):

  • Students are most likely to persist if the goal is personally relevant and meaningful to them. The reason I overcame the challenge is because I really wanted to explore the canyon.
  • Students must recognize that “trying again” is part of the learning process. When I first climbed back out of the canyon, I would have been finished with this trail had I not understood that “trying again” was a ready option.
  • Students must feel comfortable asking for help. As I hiker, I was thankful to have a knowledgeable, friendly guide who kindly helped me on this trail.
  • Sometimes a student’s difficulty may be based more upon self perceptions of ability, rather than actual ability. Teachers need to express their confidence in their student’s ability to meet challenges. Hearing that others were confident in my ability helped me immensely on this trail.
  • Sometimes students need the opportunity to work through challenges slowly. Accomplishing my goal at a speed that was manageable for me brought success.  I’m glad I wasn’t being timed on this one.
  • Laughter is key. When hiking in new terrain, a laugh and a little humor helped to make learning fun and to keep difficulties in perspective.  Laughter in the face of challenge is empowering.
  • It really works to break down challenging tasks, set individual student goals, and celebrate success. Catching up to the rest of the group was not going to happen for me on this hike. However, I left feeling that I accomplished a great deal. My guide helped me adjust my goal to meet my learning needs—even if this was just to navigate the first leg of the journey. When the other hikers returned from their longer journey, I still had my own accomplishment to celebrate. I left the canyon wanting more…
IMG_2197
Hardened Grand Canyon Hiker

Instant Grit? A Recipe for Teaching Perseverance

Photo on 2-24-16 at 10.29 PM

“Instant Grits.” I smile to myself when I see them on the store shelf, because as a Chicagoan, I always associate grits with vacation ease in a warmer climate. Grits are supposed to take time—you sit down and savor them with honey and biscuits.

As an alternative to instant grits, a “grit” I’ve encountered in professional development sessions has potential:

In the education arena, psychologist Angela Duckworth asserts “Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not jus for the week, not just for the month but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint”[1] According to Duckworth’s research, “grit” is an essential ingredient for success—even beyond I.Q.

So, as teachers we may ask, “Can grit be taught? If so, what is the recipe?…Can we just add water?”

For some, grit seems to be about prolonged attention span and perseverance even when activities are not immediately rewarding. This idea of “grit” sounds akin to pitting cherries, shelling peas, or husking bushels of corn. The world is full of mundane tasks for “teaching” grit in this way.

Yet, in the classroom, it does seem more palatable to teach students to develop grit by striving and persevering for their own goals, rather than chasing unfulfilling ones. In light of this, some educators suggest that “grit” can be naturally fostered by having children identify their own passions or engage in project based learning.

I do believe that passion projects bring joy to learning, and even students who otherwise lack “grit” may choose to stick with projects that are authentic and meaningful to them. But passion projects are unlikely to guarantee instant grit. Deciding what one’s passion is in the first place requires a respectable bit of perseverance for some students. Moreover, on the road to pursue passions, some students “fall out of love” with their projects when challenges arise. Perhaps in order to prepare students to achieve excellence in any subject, we need to make “developing grit” a more intentional part of our daily routine.

One suggestion I have heard during discussions about teaching “grit” is the idea that “children need to fail.” Rather than being coddled and protected from failure, children need to learn to scrape themselves off the ground and try again.

Although I will never know the complete recipe for “grit,” from what I have tasted, I find that the essential ingredient is not found in failure, but in student success.

Teaching grit means helping students to see the connection between individual effort and excellence, and this can apply to any subject. As teachers, the challenge is to teach “grit” everyday. Celebrating effort and realizing the results – even incremental results – again and again is what motivates students to develop the habit of striving.

Given this reality, the secret ingredient for teaching and learning “grit” may be time.

…time to develop and create thoughtful work products.

…time to revise work to achieve excellence.

…time to break tasks down and master each part of a skill

…time to practice each skill until it comes easily

…time to recognize progress

…time to celebrate success

…time to reflect on what could have been done differently

…time to change direction

…time to try again

…time to ask questions

…time to come up with new ideas

We may need to make time from scratch.  But there is one thing for certain —

There is no “Instant Grit.”

 

[1] “The Key to Success? Grit.” Angela Lee Duckworth:. TED Talks, April 2013 Web. 24 Feb. 2016. <https://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_the_key_to_success_grit?language=en&gt;.

 

Class Discussions: Laying the Groundwork

In the book, Discussion As a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms, Brookfield and Preskill[1] suggest that establishing expectations for classroom discussion can begin by having students reflect on their own experiences. So, I asked my sixth graders to identify characteristics of negative and positive discussions based upon conversations that they have experienced in the classroom, at home, or with friends. Here is the list they created:

Factors that negatively impact discussions:

  • Interrupting
  • Lack of flexibility
  • Lack of preparation
  • Difficult (sensitive)topics
  • Side conversations
  • Judgment of people
  • Facial expressions
  • Distractions
  • Attention Seeking

Factors that positively impact discussions

  • Engaging topic
  • Everyone talks
  • Feels natural
  • Everyone pays attention
  • Everyone’s opinion heard
  • Possible to change your mind
  • Many possible answers
  • Everyone treats others with respect

We discussed these lists and what we could do as a class to keep our discussions positive. Treat each other respectfully, give all students a chance to speak, and refrain from side conversations are examples of the norms that we established.

As I reflected upon this lesson, I realized that approaching discussion with a child-like honesty and a quest for the truth was not “starting small” in any sense.

Even at a young age, these children had already noticed, experienced, and/or internalized sometimes subtle inhibitors to meaningful discussions—facial expressions and judgment of others—that can silence meaningful dialogue. They understood that people may hesitate to discuss sensitive or difficult topics for fear of what others might think.

Yet, these sixth graders also embraced the idea that positive discussions are those that can potentially lead us to change our minds.

Classroom discussions belong to the students, and we continue to reflect on their quality and impact throughout the year.  Also, we refer back to this list as our discussions continue, deepen, or sometimes wander off course. Reflecting on personal experiences and understanding my students’ perspectives was essential groundwork for productive classroom discussion and continues to be well worth the class time.

 

 

[1] Brookfield, S.D. & Preskill, S. (2005). Discussion as a way of teaching: tools and techniques for democratic   classrooms. 2nd Ed. San Francisco, CA Jossey-Bass.

 

A New Year’s Resolution for the Classroom

New Year

For us teachers, “New Year’s Day” offers a second chance to look ahead at all of the possibilities and make new resolutions. In addition to the luxury of celebrating the new year with a fresh start to the school year in August, we observe the January 1st New Year along with the rest of the country. Teachers are experts at ringing in the New Year, and have twice as many opportunities to be creative with New Year’s resolutions.

As part of my personal “second New Year’s celebration,” I resolve to enjoy more meals with friends and family at home by pulling out a few of the “tried and true” recipes. By cooking up lasagna, bisque, or a pie, I need not worry about the basic recipes, but can add a special twist or two to the old favorites and focus on listening to and enjoying the guests.

It’s time for a similar resolution in the classroom…

Teachers have an endless smorgasbord of “new dishes” out there to digest and absorb into the classrooms—new Common Core standards, new changes in curriculum, new instruction, new technology.  Of course effective teachers need to continually sample and master new curricula, keep up with the latest technology, and learn new instructional strategies. However, to maintain excellence, teachers also need to fully digest, taste, savor, and add new spice to the instruction being served.   We need to nourish our students with some “tried and true” menu items that improve over the years with reflection, experimentation, and modification.

So what can we do to provide a balanced menu in the classroom? Very simply—let’s find some truly great recipes for learning and prepare them more than once.

To welcome 2015, here’s a simple New Year’s Resolution for the classroom– “Do something old.” Choose a lesson or a unit that was taught before, and find a way to improve it by approaching it from a different angle, presenting it in a more engaging way through technology, enriching it with questions to promote high level thinking, focusing on an applicable state standard, or adapting instruction to meet the unique needs of a student.   Have fun. Be fulfilled.

Let’s resolve to teach something old, but not just again—Let’s teach it better.

Instruction vs. Holiday Shopping: What’s the “Wrap”?

A leading researcher in education, Robert Marzano, asserts that “identifying similarities and differences” is an effective strategy for deepening understanding.¹   The Venn Diagram is a wonderful graphic for comparing similarities and differences.  It also brings to light the undeniable relationship between holiday shopping and instruction.  If you’ve been doing a lot of both lately, you may have already noticed that they often get a similar “wrap”…

Steinmeyer Theresa TB 1

 

¹Marzano, R. J., Brown, J. L., & Association for Supervision and Curriculum, D. (2009). A Handbook for the Art and Science of Teaching. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Improving Education: Let’s Not Lose the Conversation


With the new Common Core, teachers are unpacking standards, adjusting instruction, incorporating technology, and sifting through new piles of educational stuff. But whether these resources are “gifts” or “distractions” depends upon whether teachers use them to spark or inhibit meaningful conversations.  In essence, teaching means understanding and responding to the needs of learners in our classrooms. We do this when we talk with the students.

In the 1967 Musical Film, Dr. Dolittle, an adaptation of Hugh Lofting’s classic series, Rex Harrison portrayed the eccentric doctor who could talk to animals.   He declared:

…It’s a fairy tale worthy of Hans Anderson and Grimm

A man who walks with the animals, talks with the animals

…And they could squeak and squawk and speak and talk to me!

As human beings, teachers and students certainly do not need magic to communicate. But, as Dr. Dolittle found, talking can bring about amazing discovery.

In fact, one day I talked with my fourth grade math students, and the conversation went like this:

Me: “So, what units did we use to measure length on this quiz?”

Students: “Centimeters!”

Me:  “So why would you write ‘5 cubic centimeters’ on your quiz to measure a line segment? How did you picture yourself doing this problem in your mind?”

Student Response: “I pictured myself taking my unit cube [a plastic one-by-one centimeter block] and counting how many cubes would fit on the line segment.

I had assumed that these were careless errors! Yet, by asking and listening to the students, I discovered the “little cube in their minds” that they were using to measure length. So, rather than tell them to slow down and check their work, I gave them what they truly needed–more “hands-on” practice with appropriate measuring tools and with using units to show what they measured — length, volume, or area.

Another conversation happened in my fifth grade Reading class. In order to develop research skills and creativity, my students were starting a project we call “REAL” time–“Read, Explore, and Apply knowledge about a subject that you Love.” (“REAL” time is inspired by the “Genius Hour,” which is an education initiative to increase engagement, motivation, and learning by setting aside time for students to research and develop “passion projects” on subjects of their choice.)

As we brainstormed research topics, some students struggled with the open-ended question—“If you could learn about anything, what would it be? What would it really be?”

Finally, after lots of talking, asking, and listening, the REAL topics started flowing. Movies, Alternative Energy Sources, Vikings, Cars, Baseball…

In fact, one morning the students were so engrossed in learning about the subjects they loved that I had to remind them, ”Kids, class time ended ten minutes ago! You really need to leave!”

Although the results can seem magical, unlike in Dr. Dolittle, there is no “fairy tale” process required for talking with students.   It is simple, natural, and essential for learning.  Data, technology, and assessments  can’t get us there.  Let’s accept the truth: To truly improve education, we need to recognize, nurture, and enrich the conversation inside our classrooms.

“What are you picturing in your mind?…Is there another way to solve this problem?… If you had a choice, what would you love to learn?”

We need to talk with the students. And we need to listen.

Doing Our Homework About Homework

slateAlthough there is some debate about the value of homework in elementary school, thoughtfully designed homework can support learning for our younger students.

In order to help ensure that the advantages from elementary school homework assignments out-weigh the hassles, here are ten “homework” questions to help teachers “come to class prepared” before assigning homework to students:

1.  How does this assignment support student learning?

2.  Are teachers, students and parents aware of the approximate time it should take for the student to finish this assignment, and is this time period appropriate for the grade level?

3.   Are the directions clear?

4.   Is there homework that other teachers are assigning?

5.  Do the students have a workable plan for what they should do if they struggle with the homework or have questions?

6. Can all of the students be reasonably expected to have the support and tools available at home to complete the homework successfully?

7.  Is the assignment meaningful and engaging for students?

8.  Do the students have a system to record assignments, and a clear procedure for correcting assignments/turning them in to the teacher for feedback, and do any students need extra support with this system?

9.  Are there major extracurricular events are happening in the school or surrounding community that may impact homework time/student motivation?

10.  When assigning homework and determining class procedures for student accountability, have the daily realities and challenges of family life been considered?

-Patricia Steinmeyer