Archive for the ‘Instructional Strategies’ Category

Creative commons photo by Mark Knol on Flickr.

I’ve worked a lot with Google Docs in the past.  I’ve used it to collaborate with colleagues, formally taught educators how to use it, researched ways to incorporate it into teaching, and I’ve used it on a small scale with students.  This was my first term regularly using Google Docs on a large scale with all of my classes.  It was an interesting experience and I thought I would share some of the things that I’ve learned along the way.

I want to note that my university uses Google Apps, and all students have a Google account.

Purposes for incorporating Google Docs into my courses:

  • Help new freshman develop technology skills needed in future classes.
  • Provide students with effective collaboration tools.
  • Increase the quantity and quality of feedback I am able to give students.
  • Enhance my own organization and efficiency as I move between working in the classroom, my office, and my home.

As I went into this venture, I realized there were some other handy benefits.

  • Students who use the computer labs on campus have useful file storage right on hand.
  • Revision histories are very helpful for a variety of reasons.
  • Easily archive student examples.
  • I’ve become more efficient at grading, taking less time to provide a greater amount of feedback (I type WAY faster than I can write!).
  • My desk is cleaner, with less physical paper to shuffle.
  • My backpack is lighter, since I wasn’t carrying as many stacks of paper between school and home.

Whenever you try something new, there are some roadblocks.  Here are some of the issues I ran into:

  • Formatting problems both with GDocs itself and when uploading MS Word documents or PPT files.
  • Student complaints of “imploding” email in-boxes when I began giving feedback.  GDocs sends a separate email for each individual comment added to a paper.
  • My own email in-box imploding with GDocs notifications for every student assignment turned in.
  • Students constantly asking if I received their assignments either because they didn’t trust GDocs or their own skills with the technology.
  • Issues with students forgetting to share their assignments (one place where the revision history came in handy).
  • Not enough class time spent in the computer lab for initial instruction on how to use this and other important technology.

Here are some of the ways I approached the use of Google Docs.

Sharing – Instead of using the big blue Share button, each student created a course collection (or folder) of their class assignments that they shared with me.  I chose to use the collection route to help students better see the development of their work throughout the term.  One of my classes also includes a portfolio, and I hoped this would help make that process easier.  Using collection sharing was a problem at times, since the big Share button is so tempting to push.  When students would use the Share button instead of sharing documents into their collection, it caused organization issues.  Most of these were ironed out by the end of the term.  A handy tip for using student collections: Color code the collections for each class with a different color. Then you can quickly look through the GDocs home page to see the documents for each class.

Naming Conventions – To help both students and myself with organization, I instituted a system for naming files.  The search box in GDocs makes it very easy to type in part of the file name and get the list of student assignments that need feedback.  When students used their own file names, don’t use spaces, or abbreviate file names, it caused organization headaches for me.  Instead of quickly and easily using the search box to get assignments, I had to go through student collections or the long list of GDoc files and search for individual student assignments that were named incorrectly.  I hate being picky about such little things, but I think I need to really stress using correct file names for my own sanity.  I spent a LOT of time just searching for individual assignments at the beginning of the term.  Originally, I had students add their last name and first initial to the end of a file name.  I realized this was an unnecessary extra step since each document is already tagged with the owner’s name, so I stopped requiring students to do this.

Templates – I found in the previous term that students had issues including everything they needed in the handwritten reflections for class.  To help with this, I created a template for each reflection with a small grading/feedback chart.  The chart serves as a checklist for students, as well as a way for me to quickly organize and give more detailed feedback.  I use templates for other assignments in class as well.  I make these files so they can only be edited by me.  Students make a copy of the document and type their assignment into it.  This would sometimes cause me to receive panicked emails from students who told me GDocs wouldn’t let them type their assignments.  I just had to remind them to make a copy of the template and all was well.

To-Do List – I realized pretty quickly that I needed an easy way to handle incoming assignments.  The approach that I came up with worked pretty well for me.  I left documents “unviewed” on my Home page until I was able to provide feedback.  Once a document received feedback, I used the “Don’t Show in Home” option to move it off of my to-do list.  I could always click on “All Items” to see all of the documents I had access to.

GMail Filters – When I first started using GDocs on a large scale, I knew the deluge of email notifications had to go.  I set up a GMail filter to keep any GDoc notifications from ever hitting my inbox.  However, I chose not to set the filter up to delete them so I have a time-stamped record of submissions (I’ve been told students can tamper with submission times that show up on GDocs itself).

Some things I would like to work on in the future with Google Docs:

  • When I have an assignment that needs a more specific length requirement, I will be switching to a word count range rather than page numbers.  This will help with the formatting issues that students and I encountered this past term.
  • One of the main topics of my courses is time management.  I see potential in using the time stamps in the revision history.  Students could use this tool to be more reflective about how they use their time and they could also use it to evaluate their own writing process.
  • Use the comment feature to encourage more two-way dialogue with students.  Right now I get an occasional comment back from a student, and I see the potential of this feature as a two-way communication and revision tool.
  • I would like to use the computer lab more during class to help students learn the ins and outs of this technology.
What questions do you have about using Google Docs with students?  Do you already use GDocs and have some suggestions or thoughts you’d like to share?  Thank you!

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Creative Commons photo by Andreas Ebling on Flickr

Think about how you learn best.  What motivates you?  Excites you?  Encourages you to know more about a subject?  If you could learn using any instructional strategy you wanted, what would you choose?

Next, think about how you teach.  What is comfortable for you?  What strategies do you enjoy using most and are your “Go-to” instructional methods?  If you’re having a tough day and didn’t get the time you wanted to plan a stellar new lesson, what practices do you rely on? What methods do you struggle with, enjoy using the least, or possibly avoid?

Now, think about how your students learn.  What motivates them?  Excites them?  Encourages them to know more about a subject?  If they could direct how you teach, what would have you do?

For some students, how they learn and how I learn fit very well.  When I plan lessons and think about learning, I feel I can do pretty well by them.

For other students who learn differently than I do, it can be a struggle.  I have to consciously make an effort to include instructional strategies that I don’t like, because I don’t learn that way.

I am more of a visual and auditory learner.  It’s pretty easy for me to come up with teaching techniques that utilize these types of learning.  I am not a very good hands-on learner.  I have to work pretty hard to come up with something that engages my students who learn this way.  I have been lucky enough to work with some fantastic colleagues who are hands-on learners.  They have helped me to develop a better understanding of this learning style and how to better integrate it into my own teaching.

When I discuss with students what works for them and what they’d like to see more of in my classes, competition is almost always one of the responses.  I struggle with competition.  I am not a competitive person and I don’t understand this mindset very well.  It’s actually something that can set me on edge.  When I think about the students I have difficulty motivating or don’t connect with as well as I’d like, many of them have a competitive nature.

So I’m asking for your help.  I am looking for resources and instructional strategies on how to better reach my competitive students.  What works in your classroom?  Are you someone who enjoys competition?  How do you leverage that for your own learning or teaching?  What instructional strategies do you find comfortable or challenging?  Do you find yourself teaching how you learn?

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Not long ago, I watched this TED Talk by Conrad Wolfram, creator of WolframAlpha, on the teaching of mathematics.  In this video, Conrad discusses the use of computers in teaching math and how they can be utilized to shift the emphasis from computation to problem solving in the real world.

Shortly after that, I came across Mike Gwaltney’s blog post on Democratizing Knowledge titled “Math is Dead. Long Live Mathematics!” Don’t be shy, you should go there and read it.  But first, think about this…

Math History is Dead. Love Live Mathematics History!

Whenever you hear or see the word “computation” in the TED Talk or in Mike’s post, replace it in your mind with “fact memorization.” Whenever you see or hear “math” or “mathematics,” replace it with “history.” While every substitute doesn’t work perfectly, I think it is worth discussing the parallels.  In history, computers would not be used for computation, but rather to look up historical facts.

Please note that I’m not saying we should throw the memorization of historical facts completely out the window.  I believe there should be a balance between knowing certain facts and being able to do analysis.  After all, things like the Gettysburg Address and the Diary of Anne Frank (or The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) make less sense if you don’t understand the facts and the context surrounding them.  Rather, I would like to have a conversation on the idea of how much we should shift the approach to teaching history if, through technology, students have much easier access to the facts than in the past.

So what do you think?  Do you feel it is fair to substitute fact memorization for computation?  Do you feel there is a better substitute in the field of history?  Perhaps this idea parallels another substitution in a different discipline.  What are your thoughts?

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I’ve just completed my 8th week of teaching after returning from maternity leave.  It’s has been a very interesting experience, made more interesting by my return to the classroom from two years as an Instructional Facilitator.  I’ve been retooling my lesson plans, setting up my classroom, working to build community with my students, and trying to keep up with grading.  I’ve also been trying to balance work and family more effectively.  As many of your know, this can be a challenge.

I have been trying to come up with strategies that will allow me to be a good teacher without sacrificing my ability to be a good parent.  It is important to spend time with my daughter, and I realize that in the past my teaching style has required a lot of time spent planning outside of the school day.  There is also that seemingly endless stack of paperwork and administrative tasks that can eat up a lot of time.  I’ve been trying to figure out ways to use my planning block more efficiently while I am at school, but it hasn’t been enough.  This is where you come in.

I’m looking for ideas.  I’ve asked a few colleagues about how they balance work and family, and the response I’ve gotten from all of them is that they are also struggling and don’t have it figured out.  I’m not searching for answers that unlock the secrets of the universe (though I’d take those too!), but rather strategies and advice for things that help you be more efficient with work and allow you to spend quality time with family.  I would love to hear from you about small or complex strategies you have used to adapt to the role of a teaching parent.  I am also interested in time saving strategies in general, so please don’t feel like you have to be a parent to offer advice.

I love my job.  I love being a teacher and lesson planning is something I really enjoy.  It goes without saying that I love my daughter.  She deserves as much of my time as I can give her (and my wonderful husband!).  Please feel free to comment with ideas or even questions you have as a teaching parent or as a teacher trying to use your time more efficiently and effectively.  I would love to hear from all of you.

Come and play with me!


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Flickr photo by Wesley Fryer.

Today I had the opportunity to attend NBC’s Education Nation Teacher Town Hall online.  While I have my concerns about bias, I am glad there is a lot of attention being paid to education right now.  But rather than rehash my experience and opinion of the Town Hall, I have chosen to be inspired by Paula White, L. Lee and other colleagues on Twitter.  I am choosing to write about possible solutions and what I see working in education with the hope that these ideas will help others to find their own solutions.

Instructional Coaches/Facilitators

An alternative to traditional professional development, coaches are typically veteran or master teachers who collaborate with other teachers in small groups or individually to improve instruction and to raise student achievement.  What better way to improve teacher practice than to individualize and differentiate for our teachers, just as we like to do for our students?  Please keep in mind that coaches are not intended to be “teacher fixers” or traditional evaluators, but rather work with any teacher who choses continual improvement.  After all, we can all strive to be a better educator.  (Full Bias Disclosure: I worked as an Instructional Facilitator for 2 years.) You can read more about Instructional Coaches/Facilitators at the following links:

Collaboration Time

During the 2009-2010 school year, I had the opportunity to study Professional Learning Communities (or PLCs) for possible implementation in our school.  During that time I talked with people doing PLCs and visited schools currently using the PLC model.  While the PLC model is generally positive (there are negative aspects as well), what I took away was the value of built-in collaboration time for teachers.  The schools where this really seems to work have created time for teachers to collaborate within the school schedule and outside of regular planning time (because teachers have enough to do already, right?).   And by outside, I don’t mean before or after school.  It is built into the school day either on a frequent basis (an extra planning type period every other day) or less frequent on a monthly type basis.  I’ve also seen principals willing to provide subs for teachers who want to occasionally work together in this way.  Teachers seem very positive about this time to work with their colleagues and even “non-believers” have come to value this time once they have experienced it.  I often hear people say that teaching is an isolated profession.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  We can find ways to value and protect collaborative time with our colleagues.


A best practice I have seen many teachers employ is that of student choice.  When it comes to professional development, teachers also deserve that choice.  Whether it is choosing which PD session is most relevant to them, whether or not to work with an Instructional Coach and more, choice will yield better results in teacher improvement.

What have you seen work to help improve teaching and learning in our schools?  Please feel free to comment here or write your own blog post with the tag #educationnation.  Also, feel free to comment on or ask questions about the three options I’ve written about here.  Let’s focus on solutions and move forward!

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Transcript of Lady Bird Johnson’s audio diary from 11/22/63 (JFK's assassination), Page 1

I’d like to present my next step in the Standards Based Grading journey.  I find myself asking other people about the process they used to develop their standards for their classes, so here is my own process thus far.

In order to create standards for the reading component of my 10th Grade U.S. History course, I have looked over several sets of standards, pulled out the elements related to reading, looked for commonalities, considered my own professional knowledge of the subject, and then selected and set up what I would like my own reading standards to be for my course.  In the interest of sourcing, here is a list of the main standards I consulted in developing my own list:

If you’re familiar with the Strengths Finder from Gallup, I am definitely an Input person. (Yes, this is another multiple intelligence/personality/preference/etc. deal. My employer asked my team to take the strength evaluation this past year.  It made for some interesting discussions and better understandings about how to leverage our individual talents on a team.  But that’s a whole other discussion!)  Some people think I’m a bit crazy when I look at so many different resources, but this helps me to internalize what’s out there and synthesize all that information into something I find useful.  After looking over the primary skills I wanted to use, I developed two categories: primary and secondary sources.  While these categories are very similar, there are some differences that are important for students to grasp.  It also allows students to prevent putting the skills into one little box and thinking they can only be used for one type of document.  I am hoping this will help students translate these ideas into other content areas.  The skills are as follows:

Skills for Historical Analysis Through Critical Reading

Primary Sources

1. Determine and summarize the central/main ideas of the primary source.

2. Analyze the source

-SOAPStone Analysis Method

3. Create generalizations and inferences about the primary source and/or about the historical event based on implicit and explicit information.

-Accuracy, relevance & bias

-Determine credibility

4. Cite evidence from the primary source and your own historical knowledge to support your generalizations and inferences.

5. Compare and contrast this primary source with other points of view.

Secondary Sources

1. Determine and summarize the central/main ideas of the secondary source.

2. Analyze the source

-SOAPStone Analysis Method

-Historical Fact vs. Historical Interpretation

-Reliability of sources & evidence used to support the author’s claims

3. Create generalizations and inferences about the secondary source and/or about the historical event based on implicit and explicit information.

-Accuracy, relevance & bias

-Determine credibility

4. Cite evidence from the secondary source and your own historical knowledge to support your generalizations and inferences.

5. Compare and contrast this secondary source with other points of view.

This is the basic list I can use to create more specific resources (such as detailed descriptors and rubrics).  I would greatly appreciate any comments and feedback you have on these standards/skills.  Thank you!

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In my last post, I posed a question in regards to my Standards Based Grading study: What are the important “standards” and how do I equitably and accurately assess them? While I have thought a lot about the second half of this question, I realize I’ll be much better at designing appropriate assessments once I answer the first question and decide what it is I’m assessing.  Duh?

Since writing that post, I came across a post on Think, Thank, Thunk by Shawn Cornally that discussed the definition of “standard.”  While I didn’t think I’d just be plugging in my state standards, it was nice to get reinforcement on this issue and it helped to clarify my thinking.  Shawn puts forth that standards are “the ideas you love; the core concepts you know are important” and “Your standards are not the State’s standards, they are skills and ideas that every teacher sees as necessary to the true success of their students.” While history teachers continually disagree on certain aspects of what is important for student success, I feel more confident in pursuing the ideas, skills and concepts that I feel are critical for students.

I’ve also had some good conversations with educators that I trust and looked over different state, national, and organizational standards, my district’s Essential Curriculum, and relevant AP course descriptions while brainstorming.  At this point, I am not concerned so much with historical content standards (the what, when, where, etc. of history), those will be included as appropriate and aren’t overly difficult to design.  Rather, I am concerned with the historical skills higher up on the taxonomy.

For 10th grade U.S. History I intend to focus on reading comprehension skills, scaffolding towards critical analysis of historical reading.  Primary source analysis will fit well here and will be emphasized.  In 11th grade World History, my goal is to focus more on historical writing skills, with an emphasis on persuasive writing.  I am currently working on breaking down these big ideas into their smaller components.  I would appreciate any thoughts you have on this.

I will be honest and say that I know I’m not ready to completely revamp my grading system and dive into the SBG pool head first.  Rather, my goal for the coming semester is to get a better handle on teaching the skills I want to emphasize and to explore more effective ways to assess those skills.  I don’t feel comfortable completely rearranging my grading practices until I feel I’m doing these two things well.  Another consideration is that I will be starting in a new school after being out of the classroom for two years as an instructional facilitator/coach.  During this time, I have learned a LOT about being a better teacher and I have a lot I’m processing.  I know that if I try to change everything I want to about my teaching all at once, my head will explode.  To top that all off, I won’t actually step foot in my classroom until mid-fall due to maternity leave.  I don’t think I can convert to SBG while I have a long-term sub in my room (no matter how good they are).  I also feel that for me, SBG is a process of rethinking the way I teach rather than an event.  I will reassess at the end of the first semester and decide where to go from there.

I’d like to hear from others about their process of incorporating SBG into their classroom.  At what pace did you institute new practices?  What progression worked for you?  I’d also love to hear feedback on the 10th grade reading focus and the 11th grade writing focus.  Do these seem realistic and worthwhile to you?  I would be happy to expand on either if requested.  Thanks!

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For some time now, I’ve been a lurker in the standards based grading conversations (SBG & #sbar) that have been occurring on Twitter and in the blogosphere.  I was taking it in so when I returned to the classroom from being an Instructional Facilitator, I would hopefully have built some basic knowledge in order to figure out how I could apply these principals in my own practice.

I recently accepted a new position teaching 10th grade U.S. History and 11th grade World History, and I have found that these conversations have been a great way for me to analyze and focus on what really matters to me as I reenter the classroom.  This is not to say that I am going to go all gung-ho and become a SBG zealot and turn everything I’ve done upside down.  It does mean that I am going to use it to ask myself some questions that I may find hard to answer and continue to study how I can use SBG to benefit my students.  I want to take a critical look not only at my grading practices, but how I plan my lessons and my classes as a whole.

With this in mind, I’m using my blog to process some of my ideas and thoughts.  I would love to hear from those of you out there who have studied or used SBG, those of you who are history teachers, and those who are willing to ask questions and have conversation in order to help us all become better educators.

My Niggling Question

Most of what I have seen regarding SBG has been in the context of math classes (along with some science and a dash of world language).  While I am not a math teacher, I have done quite a bit of math tutoring using the concept of mastery learning.  I feel this has helped me to better understand the basic concepts of SBG.  While I have been looking for examples of SBG used in non-math courses, I haven’t found very much yet and none that I am aware of in social studies or history.  (Please let me know if you find any!)  I have been thinking about this a lot and I figured out one of the things that has been bothering me about using SBG in history.

When I think of standards, the first thing that comes to mind are my state standards.  Here is a comparison of 11th grade math and social studies benchmarks in my state.

Math Standard – Students identify and apply scale, rations, and proportions in solving measurement problems.

Social Studies Standard – Students explain how various cultural influences impact society.

One seems more concrete, while the other can be subjective.  Yes, I understand that there is not always one way to get the answer in math.  However, using SBG in math seems a bit more straight forward to me than in social studies (please feel free to dispute this).

Take the skill of primary document analysis in history.  We’ll use a very famous document as an example:

Amendment II of the U.S Constitution – A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

It’s pretty obvious what this means, right?  Not so fast.  The interpretation of these lines have been debated in judiciary circles for some time and there is a reason court cases keep popping up concerning gun control laws.  The interpretation is not agreed upon by everyone.  My concern is not whether students come up with the “right” answer or interpretation, it’s the analytical process they use to decide and support their answer. (Hmmm…this does sound a bit like math, doesn’t it?)

My state standards and benchmarks in social studies tend to be fairly broad.  I don’t believe they lend themselves well to specific SBG entries in a grade book.  I am left to decide on my own what I feel would be the best “standards” to grade.  So I guess my niggling question is what are the important “standards” and how do I equitably and accurately assess them?  There seems to be a lot of debate in my content area (at least in my state & district) on this question, so as strange as I feel asking it, I think it’s an important question.

I guess that’s what I really need to work on. I need to clearly delineate the knowledge and skills I want students to have when they leave my class.  Hey, I can tell this whole SBG thing is worthwhile already…

Questions I have:

  • How has SBG changed your students’ learning?
  • What is the process you have gone through/are going through in order to implement SBG into your classes? What advice do you have? Suggested resources?
  • Is anyone out there using SBG in Social Studies or another humanities style class? If so, what are the pros and cons?  How are you determining your standards?  If you’ve chosen not to use SBG, why?

Just some of the SBG Blogs I’ve been reading (I’d love other suggestions):

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“Music goes on forever.” -Bob Marley

Photo by Ian Hayhurst on Flickr, Creative Commons License

I carefully consider the music I bring into my classroom.  I have found it to be a great tool that aides me in my teaching.  It is a community builder, an atmosphere changer, a memory device, and soothing to some of my most agitated students.  Here are some of the musical tips I’ve picked up along the way.

Entrance Music – I like to be proactive in setting the mood for my classes.  Music is one way that I try to do this.  I select entrance music based on the day’s lesson, the time of day and corresponding energy level, or individual class or student preferences.  Sometimes I’ll find a music video on YouTube that uses the kind of music I’m looking for and images related to our content.  Examples:  While studying India I may select a video that incorporates Indian pop music with pictures of the Indian countryside.  While studying the U.S. in the 1980s, I may put on some early MTV music videos.

Classroom Playlist – At the start of the semester, one of the pieces of information I try to gather from my students are their musical preferences.  With these in hand, I have a better idea of what music I can use to motivate them and what kinds of music will drive them crazy (so I can try to avoid it).  When my personal resources allow, I will use my own collection and  iTunes to create a personalized classroom playlist.  I shoot for one song per student.  Some students will often have similar tastes so it doesn’t really involve buying a new song for each student. I often reuse a lot of what I already have.  If a student likes something I don’t have on hand, I have fun going through and discovering new things.  It helps to keep me more aware of their personal preferences.  I then incorporate the playlist into class as appropriate.

Changing State – Teaching teenagers before 8am can feel like a waste of time unless you can change their energy level.  First thing in the morning, I play very upbeat music and do my best to get them moving and awake.  I’ve had people ask why my 1st block isn’t a bunch of zombies.  It can be as simples as some oldies songs and getting my students up and out of their seats during a warm-up activity or class discussions.

The last block of the day is the other big challenge.  By then, kids can be bouncing off the walls.  Especially if it is a Friday or the day before vacation. Using music that has 60-80 beats per minute (or about the speed of a resting heartbeat) can help to alter that sometimes frenzied energy.  This is where people often mention baroque music.  While I do make use of classical music and certain instrumental movie soundtracks in class, my favorite is music for this purpose is that of Dr. Steven Halpern.  Among other things, Dr. Halpern has done research on the impact of his music on learning and ADHD students.  He has found that non-predictive music has the most positive impact on learning.  Non-predictive music allows the brain to stop anticipating what comes next in the song and focus on the task at hand.  This is another reason to use music without words.  As a result of Dr. Halpern’s research, he has been able to compose music designed to optimize concentration and focus.  Just a note on Dr. Halpern’s music: While he does produce music with positive subliminal messages, I choose music that does not contain these messages for use in the public school setting.

I stumbled across the effectiveness of this music one beautiful, sunny Friday afternoon.  It  that happened to be my seniors’ last Friday before graduating the next week.  It was a 90 minute block.  The class absolutely couldn’t concentrate.  So we went outside for about 5 minutes and played a quick game of triangle tag (a good outlet for excess energy).  When we came back in, I dimmed the lights and hit play on the Halpern.  I was amazed at how well the class was able to concentrate on individual work and even they remarked on how much they accomplished that day.

Photo by lucianvenutian on Flickr, Creative Commons License

Musical Choice - The type of music you use in your classroom can have a profound effect at times.  I’ve found that oldies are often a great choice and recieve the least amount of complaints from my students.  Other discoveries along the way is that Marvin Gaye can have a calming effect, while Irish jigs can really energize students.  I also try to make musical choices related to the historical content we are studying in class.

Anchor Songs – This is a concept I’ve just recently begun to think about.  An anchor song is a piece of music that you use as a signal for students.  Some routine activities you may use anchor songs for include getting into groups, time to clean up, journal writing, activity transitions, and more.  Use the same song each time to trigger the awareness in students that it is time to do something different.  This is an obvious cue that tells students what they should be doing and, once learned, will save you time in the classroom.

Signal – Similar to anchor songs, any music can be used as a quick and simple signal that it is time to transition.  At the beginning of class, during group discussions, or other activities, you can have music playing.  When it is time to move on to a different activity, simply turn the music off.  This is an automatic signal to students that something new is coming.

Timer – Do you have an activity that you only want students to spend a few minutes on?  Select a song that fits the appropriate mood and activity length.  When the song is over, time is up!

Memory Device – Music is a strong memory device.  How many things as a child did you memorize set to song?  ABCs, anyone?  My favorite song to use in my U.S. History classes is the Presidents Song by the Animaniacs.

Discussion Enabler – Have you been in one of those situations where you have asked your class to have group discussions and no one seems to be talking?  I have found that music is a useful tool to help promote discussion.  “With music playing in the background, it is as if permission has unconsciously been given for people to speak to each other.” (Allen 2002)  In a quiet room, it can be a risk to speak first.  With music to help mask your voice at least a little, people are more willing to strike up conversations.  I encourage you to experiment with this.

Photo by Balakov on Flickr, Creative Commons License

Personal music players (iPods, mp3 players, etc.) can be a contentious issue in the classroom.  Personally, I welcome students to use them in my classes as long as they are used appropriately.  I have found that personal music players with headphones can provide students with the ability to block out unwanted auditory stimuli.  This can be very beneficial when students are trying to concentrate on individual work.  I have found this to be especially true for my ADHD students.  I make sure to lay the ground rules for personal music players in my classroom and explicitly teach when it is appropriate to use them and what appropriate use looks and sounds like.

Resources Consulted:

Workshops that address the use of music in the classroom:

Edit: Updated links on 3/12/13

What other ways have you found to effectively use music in the classroom?

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During our kick-off week of professional development for the 2009-2010 school year, I did a presentation for our staff on being safe and savvy on the internet.  As of this year, we are drastically reducing the number of websites that we filter (yes, this includes Facebook and MySpace).  I was tasked with presenting this new direction to the staff, how to keep our students safe on the net, and how to help them be effective consumers of digital media.

I have been asked by several people to post my presentation on SlideShare.  I am choosing not to do this and write about it here on the blog for two reasons.  1) Most of the information in the Keynote is tailored to my building and my district and 2) I don’t put a great deal of information on my slides.  I use them primarily as an aid for visual learning and to keep myself on track (I’m a big fan of Presentation Zen).  So I hope you don’t mind that I don’t post the Keynote.  I believe writing about the ideas in the presentation here would be more helpful and easier to understand.

The following is an overview of the main topics included in the presentation.

Essential Question: How do we teach students to be safe and savvy on the internet?

  1. Explanation of new district internet filters
  2. Internet Safety
  3. Effective consumers of digital media
  4. Classroom management strategies

District Internet Filters

This year, our district has decided to minimize internet filters. A district email explaining this decision outlines the 3 main points for our new direction:

“…the reason for opening access is multifaceted: One, school should be a place where kids can stay engaged and network, both of which help creativity. Two, broader Internet access gives students the opportunities to learn responsibility, acceptable Internet behavior and time management. A third reason for increasing access is for staff to be able to better communicate with kids on their channels…”

We discussed the Child Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requirements on libraries and school computers.  A portion of this federal law states the requirements for libraries and schools with computers as follows:

An Internet safety policy must include technology protection measures to block or filter Internet access to pictures that are:
(a) obscene
(b) child pornography
(c) harmful to minors (for computers that are accessed by minors)

I spoke about the complexity of this process and how our IT people can’t just “flip a switch,” as it were, and make all the good sites appear and all the bad sites disappear.  It will be something we will have to work on as we go.  Also, in an effort to preserve bandwidth, we will be limiting sites with streaming capabilities.  Sites such as Facebook and MySpace will be “squeezed,” meaning they are only allowed to use a certain percentage of the bandwidth.  Teachers were asked to be aware that laptops are not the only devices that students will be using on our wireless network.  Student’s personal cellphones and iPod Touches will also be present and should be monitored for appropriate use.

Safety Tips

It is our responsibility to support parents and to help our students use the internet safely.  With this in mind, we discussed the idea of a digital footprint, along with its implications for teachers and students.  I asked teachers to check their own digital footprint by Googling themselves, including an image search.

A question that I had gotten from teachers earlier in the week involved whether or not it was appropriate to “friend” students on social networking sites.  Our district does not have an official policy on this issue, so I presented my own opinion with a large disclaimer that our district does not have an official policy on the issue at this time.  I’ve sent a request for a “district approved” response up the chain of command and it is in process of being considered.  I feel strongly about this issue and I am choosing not to elaborate on my perspective here at this time so I can stick to the point and make this a shorter read.  I may post more on this issue in the future.

I believe the most effective way to help students use safe internet practices is to involve and encourage their parents.  They are more involved than we are and understand things about their child that we never will.  Making sure that parents are educated and involved can make a huge difference.

The following is a list of more specific tips that were presented and discussed with reference to teen internet use:

  • Avoid posting identifying information.
  • When posting pictures, use the “Grandmother Rule” (would you want your grandmother to see this picture?)
  • Familiarize yourself with the privacy settings of the site you are using and select the appropriate choices.
  • Keep your passwords secret! (with the exception of providing them to your parents)
  • Download with caution.
  • Meeting online friends in person: Probably not the best idea for minors, but teens need to be educated on two things to help them stay safe in the future.  If you are going to meet an online friend in person you need to 1) Meet in a public place and 2) Bring at least one friend.
  • Be able to spot the signs of internet scams.

We discussed the issue of cyberbullying and I presented the following reaction steps to teach our students if they are being bullied.

  1. Do not respond.
  2. Take 5: Walk away from the computer for 5 minutes so you have a chance to calm down a bit.
  3. Keep a record of the incident.
  4. Inform a trusted adult.

I was asked to address another concern that unfortunately seems to crop up anytime you have laptops and cellphones in a high school: pornography.  We discussed the issue from our school’s perspective and I outlined the appropriate teacher response if they spot this type of material on a student laptop.

We encourage teachers to use internet sites that enhance instruction.  However, in doing so, the teachers need to ensure that students are safe and their privacy is protected.  With that in mind, we went over the following tips for using class sites on the web:

  • Never use a student’s full name.
  • No “real” pictures – Students are welcome to alter their photos so they are not recognizable with fun paint and warping tools.
  • Avoid any identifying information of students.
  • Teachers may identify themselves and their school (this is helpful for allowing collaboration and sharing of examples between educational colleagues and PLNs).

Effective Consumers of Digital Media

What has search overload done to our students? They are exposed to so much content, it is difficult for them to analyze what is useful and what is not.  I used the above clip to introduce the concept of “Filter Failure.” While our students need us to teach them how to find resources, I believe it is more important for us to guide them on how to find and analyze useful resources.

“The difference between good and poor learners is not the sheer quantity of what the good learner learns, but rather the good learner’s ability to organize and use information”
-Frank Smith, B. Keith Lenz Et al. Edge Enterprises

As educators, it is our duty to teach our students the critical thinking skills needed to analyze the different types of media they encounter.  We also need to teach them the skills necessary to “organize and use” their information.  Otherwise, they can be either overwhelmed by the vast amounts of information or they could just use the information that is the easiest to access (which is not always accurate information).

As an activity, teachers worked in groups to complete a website analysis using the instructions and the form listed below.  They had the chance to familiarize and re-familiarize themselves with internet domain names such as .gov .com .edu .net.  This knowledge is helpful when analyzing the usefulness and accuracy of web sources.  (Note: This assignment was adapted from the assignment found at the bottom of the page here.)

Website Evaluation Instructions

Website Evaluation Form

There are many aspects of a web source students can analyze, much like a primary document in history or English.  Aspects to consider when analyzing for accuracy and bias include:

  • Source and/or Sponsor
  • Publication Date
  • Audience
  • Ads
  • Purpose

“There is a good use for Wikipedia.” I’m not sure I have ever uttered those words in public before, but I did say them!  I explained a little about Wikipedia and focused on the references section found at the end of every entry.  This is where the controversial “research” site can be a useful tool.  If a student is having a hard time finding resources on a subject, they can check the references on the Wikipedia article and use them as a spring board to locate more appropriate sources.  As long as they are aware that these sources can be biased just like any other, it can be a good starting place.


209 References on Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor's Wikipedia article on the day of access.

Classroom Management Tips

The following is a list of classroom management tips for students using laptops.  These tips were sprinkled throughout the presentation and were modeled for and with the audience.

  1. Do students have a specific reason directly related to instruction for having their laptops out and open?  If not, please put them away.
  2. Will students be doing an activity on their computers? Have them wait until you have finished with your directions and answered any questions regarding the assignment before opening their laptops.
  3. Be present.  Whenever students are on their computers, move around the room. This helps you better monitor their learning and on-task behavior.  Bonus: Students tend to ask more questions if you are in close proximity.
  4. Consider your learning environment.  Can you easily see every students’ computer screen? If not, consider rearranging.
  5. For students on the Mac Side (We have dual platform laptops) – Use the Expose and Spaces options to easily see the windows a student has open.  You can also see which programs are open by the small dot under the icon on the dock.  For Windows – Observe which program windows are open in the task bar.  Remember that there are ways of hiding the Mac dock and the Windows task bar, but it is good to know some of the things you can look for.
  6. Be Aware.  Familiarize yourself with the websites your students regularly use.  Note: Recognize that you can’t know everything about technology, so it is ok to focus on a smaller number of sites that you know your students regularly use.

I realize that many of these strategies may seem like “gotcha” strategies.  I informed teachers of these ideas so they are aware of some different options for classroom management and can choose what will work best for them and their students.  Please feel free to add other ideas in the comments section.

I concluded the presentation with a quote that comes to mind whenever I think of bringing down the internet filters:

“With great power, comes great responsibility.”

-Stan Lee

As with everything, there are good and bad things about offering our students more access.  Overall, I feel that this is a great opportunity to teach and learn with our students.  We are now able to provide more guidance in order to better prepare them for the world beyond our school walls and the time when we can no longer protect them.  It is my hope that they remember the lessons we have taught them about critically analyzing sources.

This is an ongoing process in my district and far from a smooth road.  We are working our way through things for which there seems to be little precedent.  I would love to hear from people who have undergone a similar process in their district, along with the challenges and rewards of that process.  I may be posting here on the blog about our own experiences in the future.  Please feel free to leave comments, questions, suggestions, or anything else that you think would be helpful in furthering our collaborative understanding.

Works Consulted:

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