When is Technology Most Effective in the Classroom?

At the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference this summer, there was a great deal of discussion about how this year’s sessions addressed the use of technology. While there are still plenty of “60 apps in 60 minutes” sessions that always draw a crowd (and can help us find great resources), I was glad to see the focus begin to shift in 2015.

We’ve heard for a long time that technology should not be separate from instruction (C’mon kids, let’s all go to the computer lab, and “do” technology!), but should be integrated seamlessly. But for quite some time it seems, we’ve been going at it the wrong way.

EmPOWERed Kids by Consumers Energy, on Flickr

How many times have you been asked to take a lesson and find SOME way to integrate technology? This feels a bit backward to me, and it’s time to see technology integration become more organic. I was glad to hear an administrator say while leading a session, “I don’t walk into classrooms to see what technology the kids are using. I walk in to see what they are learning!”This may seem a bit obvious, but a key question arose during a session, and it helped me a great deal to think about the answer. The question? When is technology most effective? Whoa! Now we’re talking. If technology is just another tool, then we need to think about when it should be used.

You don’t pull a hammer out of your toolbox when you need a screwdriver, so why do we try to “force” technology into lessons where it is not the right tool for the job?


Technology is the right tool when…

1. It helps students visualize concepts. This was particularly true for me when teaching geometry to my middle school students. If you can see and manipulate transformations of shapes, it is much easier to understand them. Looking at animations of scientific processes or reactions is another way to help students truly see and interact with learning, as opposed to relying on still text and images.

2. It allows students to be creative, innovative & personalize their work. My 5th grade English students loved creating their research projects in Glogster, where they could design their own posters, link to related information, and embed images and videos to support their research. My 7th grade World Geography students had a blast creating narrated iMovie “infomercials” on the South American country they researched, choosing their own music and images.

3. It makes work easier for students (and often teachers). Does the tool help students keep work organized, or make work flow easier? My English students used web-based NoodleTools for their research papers, which allowed them to keep note cards and sources digitally, and easily link sources to information. All projects were shared with me, which made it easy to provide feedback or comments while they worked. This meant students could keep working during our snow days last year, and never had to worry about losing index cards or copies.

4. It promotes collaboration, provides students with a larger audience for their work, or connects them to peers or experts in a new way. Blogging is an excellent example. My students love reading the work of other kids and learn through practice how to provide constructive comments. They are thrilled to receive comments on their writing, and begin to think much more about their audience when writing. Skype is another example of how students can connect and learn from a more diverse, global audience, including experts.

5. It enables more students to participate, better engages them, and makes learning FUN. Surely we’re not so far removed to remember that these are kids, right? If technology gives a quiet child a voice, allows a child who needs more thinking time to participate, or just makes the process of learning more fun and engaging, we should provide these opportunities to our students whenever possible.

As the new school year begins, I encourage you to look at your curriculum with these five opportunities in mind. Then use technology to support your students in ways that take both teaching and learning to a new level. Your “new and improved” classroom will support creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication, and most importantly, will celebrate the gifts of every child.

Thoughts from My First Year “In the Middle”

Is the middle ever a good place to be? We hear about the woes of being a middle child, hate being stuck in the middle seat on an airplane, and dread the inevitable “middle age.”

And then there is middle school. Ugh. Jeff Kinney, author of the popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, writes, “I’ve never run into a person who yearns for their middle school days.” So true! Middle school brings back memories of struggling through the awkward years of puberty, cruel and judgmental classmates, and school pictures I would have paid my parents NOT to order.

Actress Zooey Deschanel said, “Nothing could be as hard as middle school.” Yet this year, after many years teaching elementary grades (3-4) and leading a high school youth group at church, I ventured bravely into the middle… the “Land of the Gland.”

Venturing into the Middle

In the months before I began this new adventure I met with our guidance counselor who had a slideshow to share with me, depicting a wonderfully hilarious look at what it meant to be a middle schooler.
Despite the lighthearted tone, the tug on my heartstrings was powerful as I was reminded of the struggles middle school kids face. I suddenly wanted desperately to make middle school better for my students – to give them a safe person to confide in – to help them love themselves and each other through these difficult years.

So how did it go? Yesterday was our last day of school, and I think it’s safe to say I survived and mostly prospered. It would be tough, though, to determine who grew more this year. Probably me.

Here are a few things I gleaned

If you’ve spent years as a middle school teacher, this likely won’t be new information – but a reminder is always a good thing. If you’re new to teaching or just new to teaching in the middle, you might find my new-found insights can help you along the way.

  1. PRAISE IS CRUCIAL. Middle schoolers have huge self-confidence issues – even if they cover them well. Compliments, both personal (notice the new shirt or the haircut) and academic (praising an assignment or test that helps bring up their average), go a LONG way. They crave the positive attention and the realization that you notice AND care.
  2. MAKE YOURSELF AVAILABLE. Offer to meet before school, during study hall, or after school for extra help, and open your room for students to “hang out” in the morning or during breaks. Give yourself this opportunity to get to know them. They will inevitably begin to trust you and share with you.
  3. SNIP THE SNARK. Although middle schoolers try to act “cool,” they are incredibly sensitive and will take your sarcastic or snarky comment to heart. They can dish it out, but can’t take it. They’ll laugh it off now… and then dwell on it for weeks. Weigh your words carefully.
  4. PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE. For reasons we cannot totally understand, middle school students are, by nature, inconsistent. They will ace one test and fail the next. Hormones are coursing through their systems, causing a wide range of issues regarding maturity, commitment, emotion, and ability to focus. They are painfully disorganized and distractible. This too, shall pass…
  5. LOVE THEM. Their parents are yelling about messy rooms and grades, their “friends” are judging their every move, and their bodies are changing faster than they can process. Don’t judge them. Encourage them. Smile. Laugh. Have fun with them. Be the oasis in the middle of these tumultuous years. The joy will be returned to you tenfold…

5th girls 580

Photo credit:
Drawings & feature image (State College Middle School)

A New Kind of “TACKIE” Day

This year our middle school guidance counselor started a new group called “Student Voices”. Students were invited to use their club time to meet and discuss ways they could improve middle school life. A wonderful group of 5th-8th graders was formed, and their efforts culminated in a special day at school.

When considering the issues students faced in middle school, the group came up with a list of qualities that students should strive for, and made a fun acronym (TACKIE) to help others remember. We’ve always reminded our students to follow the “kind, true, necessary” filter before speaking, but this took things up a notch.

TACKIE stands for Tolerant, Accepting, Considerate, Kind, Inspiring, and Extraordinary. I like how these words “pair up” to help drive the point home.

* Don’t just be tolerant, but be accepting of those different from yourself.

* Don’t just be considerate of others, but go out of your way to be kind.

The last two are my favorites, as they encourage students to be individuals.

Be Inspiring. Wow. This is HUGE! What does it mean to make your actions such that they will inspire others? What does that look like?

Be Extraordinary. Let your light shine! Celebrate individualism and those things that make each of us special…

We had a “TACKIE Tuesday” to celebrate these initiatives. The Student Voices group handed out “I’m TACKIE” stickers to everyone in homeroom, and students wore tacky clothes in a fun dress-down day.

I was so impressed with their efforts that I took their message and posted it on my white board – It remained there until the final day of the year as a reminder. We could all use to be a little TACKIE, don’t you think?

Never Stop Learning…

It all began in the fall of 2010, when I took part in the Powerful Learning Practice Connected Learner Experience. Not only was the experience a blast, but it transformed my way of teaching. I remembered seeing that graduate credit was offered for PLP, and thinking that it would be useful for my license renewal, I looked into it. I found out that I  could get credit for two courses at UWOSH, and learned about a Masters program focus entitled “Teaching 2.0” – Now THIS was right up my alley!! Combining a study of 21st century pedagogy with technology integration was the perfect focus for my MSEd in Curriculum and Instruction. I jumped in, taking two classes per term, and have been hard at it ever since.

I am excited and proud to say that I completed my studies this term – and graduated with a 4.0!!




Aside from the many benefits of an advanced degree, I believe it is very important for educators to put themselves in the position of the learner on a regular basis. Working with a group of other students with a wide variety of backgrounds and abilities reminded me of the importance of individualized instruction, and how “life” can get in the way of a plan to stay on top of assignments!!

It was the busiest time of my life, and balancing my many commitments was incredibly stressful. I’m grateful though, for the experience, and proud to have achieved this milestone!

If anyone is interested, the UWOSH online cohort program was fantastic, and I highly recommend it.

Rethinking Content in the Digital Age

I recently read a blog entitled “Back to School: A message to high school students who hate high school; Here is why you hate it.” The author of this post, Roger Schank, also penned an article entitled, “No, algebra isn’t necessary — and yes, STEM is overrated” for the Washington Post Answer Sheet.

No surprise that Schank has received a wide range of responses to his strong opinions. Personally, I’m grateful he has put them “out there” because it has forced me to really think about how I feel.

What we’re talking about here is content. With the huge changes the digital age has brought, I think it is more imperative than ever that we re-think content.

I’ve already made some small changes in my 4th grade classroom. For instance, when teaching states and regions in Social Studies, I no longer make my students memorize state capitals. I would rather my students know the location, landforms, climate, historical significance, and resources of the states in our country than spend their time memorizing capitals that they can look up any time they need them (do we ever need them?).

I’ve made the tough decision to stop requiring cursive, and instead have made time for keyboarding instruction/practice. We have 1:1 netbooks in my classroom, and the students do not have a computer resource class, so I spend time talking about Internet safety, digital citizenship, Internet research, validating sources, and copyright. These are all changes to content that I feel are appropriate and necessary for my students.

How do we discover our passions?

But Mr. Schank is talking about high school, so let’s think about that for a minute. In his post, Schank systematically explains why most of the subjects taught in high school are completely unnecessary. Does he suggest alternative content? Not so much. His advice? “Know what matters to you. Learn that. Nothing you learn in high school will matter in your future life.”

While he makes some valid points in his article, I have a few issues with his approach.

My first question is this – How “deep” into a subject such as Algebra, Biology, Chemistry, or Physics do we need to go for students to identify a passion for the subject? If we stopped teaching them all together, would we have as many doctors and engineers? At what point do we allow a student to say, “This is neither a strength nor a passion for me. I don’t care to pursue this subject further”?

Schank’s “throw it all out” position to me does more harm than good. I think we DO need to consider whether students should be required to take upper level Math and Science courses in high school, but I feel his post does not encourage conversation about curriculum reform and passion-based learning. It is extremist and calls what we do “ridiculous” and “beyond silly.” That confrontational language will not encourage the dialogue that is so desperately needed to bring about a truly student-centered, interest-driven education system.

What happens instead?

Second: If we change the content in our high schools – if we drop requirements for certain upper level courses or for foreign language – what will take the place of these courses? What could we be offering to meet the needs of students who find their passion in the arts? Music composition and theory? Audio engineering? Script writing? What about athletics? Sports training? Sports medicine? What if students are interested in pursuing a passion that involves technology? Graphic design? Computer programming? Web design?

Third: When we learn certain subjects, we are not only learning content, but we’re learning a certain process or way of thinking. Reading good literature helps us identify what makes good literature. What does the writer do that makes his writing engaging? How can we use this in our writing? The methodology used by scientists or mathematicians is more important than the specific “facts” we ask students to memorize. How can we reform our instruction in these subjects to focus on the things that are most important to take away?

What’s missing now?

Finally: What should we be offering? What is missing? I believe we need entire courses created around Internet research, verifying sources, copyright/licensing, digital citizenship/Internet etiquette, creating an online identity/presence, and branding ourselves so that when we are inevitably “Googled,” it is clear who we are and what we believe.

Our so-called “tech savvy” students (in 4th grade or in 12th grade) are typically NOT well informed in these areas, and we would be negligent if we continue to send them out into the world — to college or the workplace — without this knowledge and skill set.

Students don’t need the “ammunition” in Mr. Schank’s article. High school isn’t going away any time soon, and I don’t advocate that students simply get on the Internet and learn about what interests them in lieu of a formal education. Mr. Schank does, however, give us food for thought.

We do need to make changes to what we teach and how we teach it, both in public and independent schools. We need decision makers to consider important reforms to the content we teach that reach well beyond the traditional curriculum or “common core.”

Change is made by developing a consensus, and I’m hoping we’re moving closer toward that consensus every day.


Image 1:
Image 2:
Image 3:


Originally posted at Many thanks to my editor, John Norton for his brilliant editing and images!

Our Skype Adventures: Creating Connected Learners in a Global Classroom

students skype with IWB

This post was originally published at Powerful Learning Practice’s Voices From the Learning Revolution. Many thanks to my editor, John Norton for his genius that makes me look good! 


The familiar sound comes through our computer speakers, and instantly my 4th grade classroom comes alive.

“Is it him?”

“Can I talk first?”

“Can we turn off the lights?”

“Can I move so I can see?”

It’s a Skype call from a student in my class who moved to Hawaii at the end of April. The kids miss him dearly, and at 2:00 p.m. this afternoon (8:00 a.m. Hawaii time), Cody has just woken up and is Skyping the class to tell us all about his new home. The kids have questions galore about the time zone, the climate, the islands. We laugh, share what we’ve been up to, and enjoy a great visit with a good friend.

Skype became a new and exciting way to learn in my classroom this year. It began with Mystery Skype. Since our 4th grade Social Studies curriculum focuses on states and regions, I was excited to learn about this fun activity. Our class would receive a Skype call, but the caller’s location was a mystery. We took turns asking questions and sharing clues about geography, climate, history, attractions, and famous people before guessing the location of our mystery caller! With students on netbooks, asking questions, providing answers, writing information on the board, and manning the maps, all hands were on deck and engaged as we learned about states across the U.S.

I was hooked…

We continued to share and learn using Skype as we participated in the Global Read Aloud. Sharing a literature experience with thousands of students across the globe was exciting enough, but my students were on fire when it came time to Skype with another class and share our predictions about the story.

The students actually wrote their own comprehension questions to ask the other class, and then discussed their interpretations and feelings about the story. We found a class that wanted to Skype weekly to discuss the book, and started to build a relationship with them. It was magical.

When the opportunity arose to Skype with a celebrity for Anti-Bullying Month, I got on board! When other classes heard that we were going toSkype with Nickelodeon actors Nat and Alex Wolff from the Naked Brothers Band, my classroom filled with students from our lower school division. Nat and Alex were sharing music from their upcoming CD and talking to kids about bullying. Engaged? Totally.

Our further Skype adventures…

In February, I saw a tweet from Twitter friend Paula Naugle in Louisiana. Her students had completed research projects about Mardi Gras and were offering to share their presentations via Skype. Who better to learn about Mardi Gras from than students in New Orleans?! I purchased green, purple, and gold beads for my class, and we surprised Mrs. Naugle’s class by being beautifully adorned for Mardi Gras when they called! The students had also created glogs and embedded them on Edmodo. My students were able to backchannel with the students in her class using a “Skype Collaboration” group in Edmodo during the presentations, and view their glogs online.

Another Twitter friend, Jan Wells, “called” the other day. Her students had created “State in a Container” reports, and knowing that we were studying states and regions, she wondered if we would like to watch a presentation about Tennessee. How could I refuse?! My students learned a great deal about Tennessee as a creative and articulate fourth grader pulled items out of a guitar case. She explained that she chose a guitar case because of the strong musical associations in Tennessee — the Grand Ole Opry, and of course, Elvis! The kids enjoyed a great lesson, and I got a cool idea for a project next year!!

Skype is a magic window…

Skype enables students to connect, collaborate, and communicate with students across the globe. It creates an opportunity for students to learn from each other, to have authentic audiences for their work, and to meet musicians, authors, and others who can further their learning. Imagine reading a book and then Skyping with the author! Or inviting working parents into your classroom to talk about their careers, from their job sites. The possibilities are truly endless.

On May 16th, Skype announced that it is joining forces with Penguin Group, New York Philharmonic, Science Museum London, Peace One Day, and Save the Children with a view towards giving teachers educational content and access to expert speakers via video calling. This collaboration represents Skype’s latest attempt to reach its goal of connecting one million classrooms globally.

Skype in the classroom will now feature each organization’s content, projects, and available guest-speakers, with Penguin Young Readers Group connecting authors with students for discussions about books, reading, and writing. The New York Philharmonic will offer live interaction with musicians and educators. Save the Children and London’s Science Museum will have individual projects on Skype in the classroom by the end of the year. Skyping is no longer a novelty — a once-in-awhile special event. It’s becoming a routine part of being an effective 21st century teacher.

I look forward to finding more ways to create “connected learners” using Skype in the coming years. If you’ve had positive experiences or can share other ways to use Skype in the classroom, please share them in the comments here. If you want to give it a try, just let me know. Mrs. Grayson’s 4th graders are always eager to make new friends!

How We’re Using Our Own Private Classroom-Focused Social Network



Edmodo is a social networking tool for schools. It is especially designed to be a safe, Facebook-style community where students can communicate and share. Unlike Facebook, Edmodo is highly secure. A teacher can set up a class and obtain a group code for students to use to join the private class group.

I decided to try Edmodo last year, when I found out that I would be looping with my 3rd graders. I wanted to keep in touch with my students over the summer, and I thought it would be fun for us to have a special place to communicate. I set up our class and began by using some fun tools. Because Edmodo allows you to embed creations from other web 2.0 apps, I posted a WeeMee of myself to show them how to use an avatar instead of a personal photo for privacy on a blog or website. My first big post was a Google Mapof my upcoming summer vacation for my students. Later, I embedded this Glogster poster with pictures from my travels! Of course this wasn’t just “all about me” — it began to introduce them to the possibilities of an Edmodo community.

Instead of just posting a note, sometimes I used fun tools like this Ladybug Note Generator to tell my students that I’d added some fun games and sites to our class Diigo page for them to explore! (As you can see, we were already chatting away.)

I also posted the summer reading assignment (just in case any of them misplaced it), and used an Edmodo poll to find out which read-aloud book was their favorite from the year. Any time I found a fun tool or site, such as Wonderopolis, I could embed a preview and link in our Edmodo group and share it. The students could check it out and provide feedback, or talk about it amongst themselves. It kept all of us connected and gave the students an opportunity to share their summer activities and anticipations or ask questions about the coming year.

One of the great things our Edmodo space did over the summer was help introduce us to the new students that would be joining our class in the fall. The newbies were able to join the conversation and become part of our class family before the year began. It really helped them to make a smooth transition when they already “knew” the other kids!

Edmodo also helped us share experiences when we had an unexpected earthquake in August, here in Virginia. It was not severe, but for most Virginians, definitely a new experience! I immediately started a “What were you doing when…” thread, and it was great to hear that everyone was OK despite a few items breaking or falling off walls.

This year we began a 1:1 netbook program at our school. With their own netbook, it’s easy for students to use Edmodo as a regular part of their school day. For instance, as part of the Global Read Aloud, we joined the Tuck Everlasting group on Edmodo, and shared thoughts about the story with students from all over the world. Teachers could post comprehension or discussion questions for students, and students could respond to the reading and gain insight from others.

I also set up a sub-group within our class group for student book reviews. Here students can post mini reviews of the books they have read. If a student is looking for a good book to read, they can stop by and read some reviews, or ask a student about a book they have read. With their active daily involvement in Edmodo, students are learning to write thoughtful, grammatically correct posts, and to construct comments that promote online discussion.

Recently, we had a Skype visit with Paula Naugle’s 4th grade class in New Orleans. They taught us about Mardi Gras with student presentations. We joined the Skype Collaboration group in Edmodo and so we could “backchannel” and see the Glogster posters the students had created with the information from their research. Students were able to comment and provide feedback on the great work done by Mrs. Naugle’s class!

Forbes recently posted that Edmodo is now launching a third-party platform to publish education apps to Edmodo’s 6 million users and 70,000 schools. According to Forbes:

More than 35 companies are launching apps with the new platform. The basic apps will be free. Premium apps developed by publishers will require a purchase. Teachers also have the ability to connect the apps to existing Edmodo features such as badges, quizzes and assignments.

Examples of apps on the platform include an interactive graphing calculator that can send graphs to classmates, an interactive chemistry lab service, a print your own scantron application and social multiplayer math games. Applications include BrainNook, Schooltube, StudyEgg, Third World Farmer and GradeCam. In addition, textbook publishers have their learning apps on the new platform. They’re not textbooks, but “modular” pieces of content, Borg says, and not just text but also interactive content.

I look forward to exploring other ways my students can use Edmodo to support collaboration and instruction in the classroom. I’d like to hear of more ways to connect my students using this valuable tool. And I’d also love to hear from other teachers who may be using different platforms to create student virtual communities inside their own classrooms.

1st image: Salvatore Vuono

Originally posted at Many thanks to my editor, John Norton for his brilliant editing and images!

Creativity and Problem Solving – A 21st Century Marriage


Originally posted at Many thanks to my editor, John Norton for his brilliant editing and images!


It makes perfect sense when you think about it. Creativity is an invaluable tool in problem solving. In a digital age where innovation is highly valued, teaching creative problem solving is essential.

It seems everything I’ve been up to recently has been leading to a focus on creative problem solving. The convergence of these events has had quite an impact on my thinking and teaching.

In January, I went to EduCon . . .

I attended an EduCon session entitled Learning Environments: Rethinking K-12 Communication and Collaboration, led by David Bill, Director of Educational Technology at The Urban School of San Francisco. In this session, the goal of the conversation was to define the different needs and challenges facing communication and collaboration in a variety of learning environments and to identify solutions that could be implemented in our schools.

David facilitated our small group discussions by providing a problem-solving model for us to use. In this model, the groups worked to identify the specific problem of one of its members, brainstormed possible solutions, and then worked to identify and refine an idea that could be integrated at their school.  Good fortune was with me that day, and my problem was the one chosen to be solved by the group. But wait… It gets better. In my small group were none other than David Ginsburg, noted educational consultant and Ed Week’s Coach G, and the remarkable Holly Jobe, President of ISTE!

David Bill got us started by having me talk about my school and our issues with communication and collaboration. The group asked me questions and identified the main problem. From there, we began to brainstorm ideas. David encouraged us to get really crazy with these ideas – to go big. The kicker was that we could not discuss them. We could not judge them or break them down. This phase was for idea generation only. It took us a few minutes to warm up to this approach, but eventually we were building on

each other’s proposals, and we soon had plans to invite the entire school board to my classroom. Bruce Springsteen would be there via Skype and would perform a concert so they could see the benefits of connected learning and collaboration in the classroom. Pretty sweet, huh? J

In the next phase of the problem-solving model, we assessed our crazy over-the-top ideas, and began to narrow or refine them. We had to admit that the likelihood of getting Bruce to Skype my classroom might be a bit unrealistic. But was it possible to invite board members in to observe connected learning and collaboration in action? Absolutely. I was beginning to get excited. We talked about creative ways to extend the invitation and what board members would see. I had no idea that David’s session would not only help me think of ways to improve communication and collaboration at my school, but would also provide me with a very powerful problem-solving tool.

A week later . . .

My graduate classes for the spring term began. One of my classes? Creative Problem Solving. Kismet…

715 Current Trends in Curriculum & Instruction: Creativity & Problem Solving

In this course students will explore strategies to foster creativity and problem solving skills in the classroom. Students will gain an understanding of the habits of mind that lead to creative thought. Additionally, students will participate in authentic experiences as they learn a variety of problem solving approaches. Finally, students will identify opportunities within their curriculum to foster creativity and problem solving skills.

The text for this course, Creative Problem Solving: An Introduction, defines some of the methods that were now familiar to me, thanks to David’s session at EduCon. The text walks the student through “framing the challenge” (clearly identifying the problem) and then moves into the “generating ideas” phase. In this phase, you work to spin out “many, varied, and unusual” ideas. The rules are that “you must hold back judgment or evaluation of ideas during much of your work in this stage so you will be able to be as productive as possible. Do not react to them, judge them, debate their merits or demerits, or even discuss them.” The text provides some helpful generating tools such as SCAMPER and force-fitting.

As you may have guessed, what comes next is the “focusing” stage where these ideas get refined — and finally, “preparing for action,” where you complete specific plans for implementation. At this point, the value of teaching creative problem solving became so critical for me that I ordered this book for my students: CPS for Kids: A Resource Book for Teaching Creative Problem-Solving to Children.

Just when I thought the planets had aligned . . .

I read this blog post by my daughter, a Graphic Design major at Longwood University. In it, she talks about her process when presented with a new design project or job. I was astounded to see many of the same concepts. First, her rules for generating ideas – no stopping to judge or think!

I try to list words or images that I feel associate with the concepts I’m working with. Sometimes, while I’m making the lists, a few ideas will jump up. I try to jot them down and keep moving. If I stop to flesh out those ideas, I’ll likely get stuck with them and stop listing words.

She also uses what I learned as “force-fitting,” but she refers to it as “brute thinking.” She defines it this way:

Brute thinking is the act of forcing together two concepts or objects that aren’t normally associated. I always visualize it as two hands with a different word in each hand, crushing the two together like squishing a soda can. The actual process isn’t very different, honestly – you’re just crushing two concepts together and trying to make something from them. If the designer does a good job with this, they can often force the viewer to see the objects in a new light. Changing the way a viewer sees something is a powerful tool, because it makes the design memorable.

I am quite frankly amazed that I am just learning these concepts (although some of them are intuitive) at my “advanced age,” and am more convinced than ever that we can and must teach them to our students for them to be competitive in today’s world.

Do you teach creative problem solving? What tools or methods are the most useful? What projects can we use to develop these methods in our students? I’m looking to expand this practice in my elementary classroom. I know your ideas and suggestions can help. Let’s do some brute thinking together!

Dice image: jscreationzs /

Planets image: Dreamstime / licensed

Dig Deep with Project-Based Learning


Originally posted at: Many thanks to my editor, John Norton for his editing genius!

During my year with PLP, I heard Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach talk several times about student-driven, inquiry-based learning. I thought I knew what Sheryl was getting at, but it wasn’t until I took a graduate course this past term on Project Based Learning that I really began to understand all its implications.

PBL was never something I spent too much time pondering — just another way to assess learning, right? Instead of a traditional test, I allow my 4th graders to choose a project that demonstrates their learning. Choice is important – by differentiating, students can create something using an area of interest or strength. Incorporate technology? Even better! Got it. I couldn’t imagine what we would do for 14 weeks in this grad class. Simple as 1-2-3.

Well, I didn’t quite “get it.” Turns out PBL is not simply a culminating project at the end of a unit. It’s the learning experience that happens as students attempt to solve a problem or answer a question. For that reason, you will also hear the term “inquiry-based” learning.

If you want to see your K-12 students’ eyes light up with excitement and watch them approach learning with more enthusiasm than ever before, PBL/Inquiry-Based Learning is for you. I encourage you to read on…

PBL Online provides this excellent definition:

Project Based Learning is an instructional approach built upon authentic learning activities that engage student interest and motivation. These activities are designed to answer a question or solve a problem and generally reflect the types of learning and work people do in the everyday world outside the classroom. Project Based Learning is synonymous with learning in depth. A well-designed project provokes students to encounter (and struggle with) the central concepts and principles of a discipline.

Project Based Learning teaches students 21st century skills as well as content. These skills include communication and presentation skills, organization and time management skills, research and inquiry skills, self-assessment and reflection skills, and group participation and leadership skills.

Finally, Project Based Learning allows students to reflect upon their own ideas and opinions, exercise voice and choice, and make decisions that affect project outcomes and the learning process in general.

Combining these considerations, we define Project Based Learning as:

A systematic teaching method that engages students in learning essential knowledge and life-enhancing skills through an extended, student-influenced inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed products and tasks.

When you ponder all of this, PBL becomes a daunting task! I tore through a fantastic text entitledReinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age by Suzie Boss and Jane Krauss. The book is published by ISTE, the International Society for Technology in Education. I highly recommend Boss & Krauss if you’re considering making a commitment to PBL in your classroom.

In my graduate course, my culminating task was to create a PBL unit and implement it in my classroom. Suddenly 14 weeks seemed like nothing!

Fixin’ to Get Ready

A quick note here: Many teachers don’t like PBL because they feel their students don’t work well in groups. This is a significant issue in many classrooms, and is not something that will just “happen.”Students must be taught how to work together. From the beginning of the school year, exercises in active listening, role-playing of conflict resolution and teamwork can help students learn how to function as a group working toward a common goal. In today’s world we are not likely to work in isolation. These are critical skills to be developed and part of becoming a PBL classroom. There are websites that offer activities to help teach team buildingconstructive criticismactive listening,conflict resolution and to provide general information and activities to support cooperative learning.

The Planning (a Big Deal)

This heading might need to be in all caps, bold, and 72 point. Planning is the biggest part of a PBL unit. Creating one “on the fly” in the middle of the school year was hazardous to my health. My project was based on a 4thgrade Social Studies unit. The students were learning about representative government, and the roles of our three branches. Their mission? To create rules for the school’s common areas (playground, lunchroom, restrooms, etc.). They functioned as the legislative branch, meeting with constituents (students in other classes) and writing the proposed legislation. Our head of school was the executive branch, and had to sign the legislation into law. The teachers were the judicial branch, enforcing the laws once approved. I used a wiki to organize the project and was very happy with that format. Using the format recommended by Boss & Krauss, the project wiki is broken down into these elements:

  • The Project Framework. This includes the unit of study, learning objectives, 21st century skills, standards, NETS·S, and learning dispositions that will be covered in your project.
  • Evidence of Learning. This covers any projects, presentations, collaborative documents, or individual reflections that students will complete as part of the project.
  • Entrée to Project. Here is where you plan how to build student excitement/engagement by providing the relevance and importance of the project, and plan your kick-off event.
  • Project Sketch. This is a summary of the project, defining the stages, tasks, items produced by students, and a timeline for the project.

Time is necessary to ensure you have a project that is not too big or small, meets learning objectives, has the necessary rubrics to assess student projects/presentations/reflections, and is scheduled to be completed (preferably) in 3-6 weeks, depending on the size of the unit. If you’re planning to do some Google searches around PBL, a great website to start is the Buck Institute for Education. Their Project Based Learning for the 21st Century section offers information and a search tool to look for projects by subject and grade level.

The Payoff

Although my first real PBL project was far from perfect, I immediately saw the benefits in my classroom. From day one, my students were chomping at the bit. They would have been totally happy not to worry about any other subjects and just work on their projects all day. I was blown away. The key to this is a sense of importance and meaningful work. There was a real need for the rules they were creating, and they knew they would be implemented and utilized. Therefore they took their job seriously and were excited and motivated by the responsibility of creating something important for the school.

There were a few bumps along the way. I began by having each group visit every lower school classroom to meet with students and get ideas. This turned out to take a ridiculous amount of time. We modified on the fly and had each group visit three classes. I also had too many elements involved in my project. My decision to have them research rules in other schools, create a list of rules to post, present the rules for the school, establish a Google Doc where all the rules would be put together,and write reflective blog posts was simply too much for my 4th graders. There was no way the project could be completed in time. I definitely got carried away, and in my most recent efforts, I’m learning to limit the scope of my projects and manage my time more effectively.

Even though things can get a little stressful and chaotic in a PBL experience, what makes it all worthwhile is the learning. Students don’t remember the problems or pitfalls, they remember the excitement they felt as they solved a problem, and they remember the lessons (content) they learned while working. Why? It’s what Sheryl promised in those PLP webinars last year: Student-driven PBL projects push students to go deep into the content.

By “going deep” and taking an active role in their own learning, our students retain a great deal more than when we “stand and deliver” and they zone out — wondering how long it is until recess!

Image: Girl digging, Claire Bloomfield, Free Digital Photos

Feelin’ the Love in my PLC


Originally posted at: Many thanks to my editor John Norton for his brilliant editing and images!


Have you made the commitment to become a connected educator – a teacher or school leader who takes full advantage of digital tools and virtual networking to improve your practice and better prepare your kids for 21st century lives?

I’m choosing the word “commitment” carefully. It’s easy to find information about the importance of becoming connected — and the necessary “how-to” steps to get there. Need to set up a Personal Learning Network (PLN)? Google those three words and you’ll harvest a great heap of helpful hints.

What isn’t so easy is committing the time to learn how to use the necessary tools — to find the best folks to follow — to not only subscribe to blogs but actually reflect deeply on the understandings of other practitioners. Hardest of all: making the time to connect with education colleagues via Twitter, a Ning, Diigo, Skype, etc. and establish real communication.

Not there yet? For me, it took almost a year before I truly felt “connected” – but as you’ll see below, it’s been well worth the effort. First though, I’d encourage you to take two minutes to listen to an expert. Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, co-founder of Powerful Learning Practice, recently made this brief but persuasive video entitled, “Why be a connected educator?”

Thanks to the support of Sheryl and many others, I have learned a great deal. Last May, after writing a reflective post about my PLP experience with my own school team, I was contacted by PLP editor John Norton, who wanted to post my piece in a new group blog written by PLP participants and consultants: Voices From the Learning Revolution (VFLR). I was then invited to become a regular contributor to the blog, which you’re reading right now. You have only to browse a few posts to see that I joined an amazing group of educators who are totally committed to shifting classrooms and schools in ways that put students in charge of their own learning.

True learning communities encourage us to grow

This loose but well connected group within my professional network meets my personal definition of a true Professional Learning Community (PLC). I’ve come to know these Voices folks a bit better than others in my PLN, and we connect more frequently via Twitter or email. We often comment on each other’s posts and we’re making plans to begin a regular Twitter hashtag group where we’ll invite all educators to discuss topics growing out of what we’ve written. I feel a kinship with these VFLR writers, and enjoy learning with and from them. Recently, we found that five of us will be attending the EduConconference later this month – I’m determined to meet them face-to-face!

Several weeks ago, something very powerful happened to me, as part of this community. I had been through a rough couple of months, and hadn’t submitted anything for the Voices blog in some time. Finally, over the holiday break, I was able to relax and do some writing. I crafted a post entitled “SHIFT: A New Year’s Resolution for 2012”. It was published on January 3rd, and I was hopeful that it would provide some simple, first steps toward change in the new year. It was a brief piece, though, and I admit I was nervous, wondering if it would have any impact.

The day it was posted, I received a direct message via Twitter, from fellow VFLR blogger Marsha Ratzel. Marsha is a profound and creative thinker about teaching. Her VFLR posts (and her personal blog) provide useful, specific examples of the shifted practices within her classroom. Here was her message:

This was huge for me. A brief message, which didn’t take but a minute of Marsha’s time, had an enormous impact. This, I realized, is a critical element in Professional Learning Communities. The support and encouragement we provide to other members of the community makes a difference. As simply stated by Sheryl, “We need more of this.” Teaching is not a zero-sum game.

In an effective PLC, members share freely, learn from one another, push each other’s thinking, and celebrate success within the community. Marsha reminded me that while our personal growth is important, the steps we take together in bringing about change are what it’s all about.

What does all this have to do with making the commitment to become a connected educator? Commitment is hard. Giving up outdated but comfortable ways of doing our work is hard. We all need encouragement to stay on course.

After reading Marsha’s uplifting message, I was encouraged to do more to support others in my PLCs who are working to make a difference. Finding time to read, shift, and share can be difficult, but if we are really committed to transformational change on behalf of kids, we can sure take a moment and let someone know his or her efforts are worthwhile.

Technology opens the door, but it’s the support and encouragement we find in authentic learning communities that connects us.

Image: jscreationzs