Free (and impressive) SAT Practice


You are likely familiar with the Khan Academy and their free online videos that have helped revolutionize the concept of flipped learning since they first started to appear a few years ago. Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy has appeared in TED Talks, has been named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, and has garnered almost 3 million followers on his Academy’s YouTube account. Recently, the College Board and Khan Academy have created a series of free, personalized practice programs for students to help prepare them for the redesigned SAT.

In an interview with EdSurge, Sal Khan explained how the partnership came about: “So the College Board said, ‘When we launch the new SAT, we want it to come with test prep—but not like it’s usually conceptualized.’ Students should get familiar with the test, but we wanted to do it in a way so that students could learn skills that will make them more college-ready.” After signing up, students will have access to SAT practice tests, interactive practice questions, and they will also get a personalized practice program. As students take practice tests and questions they will get instant feedback about what they missed and how they can do better. If this sounds a lot like what a tutor will do, you’re right. But this is free.

Khan and the College Board’s initiative works by using a diagnostic exam or a student’s PSAT scores and then creates a personalized tutoring schedule complete with SAT-like questions designed to prepare students for the exam.

This resource is available at

College Board / Khan Academy Free SAT Practice

Pros: Free, Personalized, Interactive, Instant Feedback, Full-Length Practice Tests, Tutoring When You Need It, Strong Privacy Agreement, No Ads

Cons: Account Needed, Personal Information Will Be Collected (But Not Sold), No 1:1 Interaction 

Creating a Maker Culture

“The emergence of maker culture depends a great deal on our understanding that different people learn through different means. Some are auditory learners, and some are visual learners. Yet another group learns best by doing. These are the makers.” –William Craig in Forbes

Over the past few months I have written about our efforts to turn a room in our district’s high school into a makerspace. While the makerspace will always be evolving with the addition of new materials and technology, we can say for now that it is done and ready for use. The first order of business once the room was completed was to begin instilling in our students an idea that can best be summarized as the maker culture. As William Craig explained in Forbes magazine, the maker culture leans heavily on a constructivist approach to

Students work with littleBits to create a city.
Students work with littleBits to create a city.

education–that is the notion that learning is best done through doing. In a sense we all probably understand that one of the best ways to learn something is to do it yourself. Trial and error and intellectual risk taking are all part of this makerspace learning experience. American history is filled with stories of makers who tinkered around, explored how things work, and ultimately changed the world forever. From Edison to Wozniak, the maker culture has been an important part of the American experience. As educators, we need to ensure our students are familiar with this. The maker culture in schools is one that encourages students to explore new technology, to collaborate with others, to use materials in new ways, and to ultimately learn by doing. Maker culture is about breaking down barriers and making new technology and ideas accessible in a low-risk environment. Since our makerspace opened, we have been working hard to bring this maker culture mindset to all our students.

To open the makerspace we planned for a series of Saturday morning makerdays for students in our school district. We have invited elementary and middle school students to come into the high school’s space and make. With support from our board of education and education foundation, we have hosted two of these makerdays for students and can see a maker culture beginning to develop. For elementary students, we created a challenge where teams of students had to learn about circuits and the electricity grid, then build their own cities powered by littleBits. Our young makers had a blast and built some amazing cities as you can see in this gallery.

We also hosted a makerday for middle school students that featured three engineering design challenges using an old invention–the popsicle stick. Students were tasked with creating a catapult that can fire a marshmallow the farthest, building a bridge that can hold the most weight, and finding a way to protect an egg so it will not break when dropped from fifteen feet high. The pictures below show some of the amazing bridges students were able to build in forty minutes using only popsicle sticks, glue, and about two feet of string. The winning design spanned over fourteen inches and was able to hold about thirteen pounds of sand!

We will host additional makerdays this year with the goal of creating a district-wide vertically articulated makerspace culture. Like all makers, we have learned a ton in the process of putting these events together. Not everything has been perfect, and we will continue to refine our makerday approach. The one constant has been our talented students who are able to work collaboratively to make amazing inventions. They are beyond impressive. We hope they will be influenced by their time in the makerspace and continue to embody the maker culture by tinkering, exploring, and inventing.

Our Makerspace

A panoramic view of our makerspace.

I am proud to announce that our high school’s makerspace is now open for business. Called STEAMWORKS, this space is for students to build and explore new technology (and even take apart old technology). We have spent the last few months finding a space, funding, and materials to bring the maker movement to our students. We were inspired by many of the top schools in the country that have built makerspaces on their campuses. UC Berkeley, Case Western University, Cornell University, and MIT are a few that now have makerspaces for students to explore emerging tech. Overall, recent estimates put makerspaces in 60 colleges throughout the nation where students can do things like learn to print in 3-D or build a drone.

“The Maker Movement overlaps with the natural inclinations of children and the power of learning by doing.”

–Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary S. Stager in Ed Week Teacher

John Booske, a professor and chair of the electrical and computer engineering department at the University of Madison-Wisconsin had this to say about makerspaces in a recent article: “We’re going to see more and more adoption of makerspaces as institutions are able to. They are one model of a larger trend which is moving towards active learning.” For Booske, makerspaces are part of the trend in education “towards personalized and blended learning, the flipped classroom model and a more collaborative learning environment.” This trend can be easily seen in the student-run makerspace lab on the campus of MIT called “MakerWorks” that opened last year. This lab is a place where “students, faculty, and staff are allowed to work freely on any project they choose” and “consists of prediction, prototyping, and validation tools to support a wide variety of projects.” MakerWorks has become a popular place on MIT’s campus as students have embraced the open culture and accessibility of the technology it contains. It’s imperative that schools begin to offer places where students can direct their own learning while having access to resources not encountered during the traditional school day. Learning to work with classmates, teachers, and members of the community can help inspire students to take charge of their learning while also preparing them for the types of experiences they may encounter in the future.

Below are pictures of our new makerspace. We will offer our first makerspace camp this Saturday morning for elementary students in our school district (it “sold out” in a few hours).



What do you want to make?

Makerspace Makerdays


Thanks to the generous support of the Randolph Education Foundation, we are pleased to announce four free makerspace events at Randolph High School for middle and elementary school students. We are calling these special programs “Makerdays” and will be running them on Saturday mornings at the high school’s new STEAMWORKS makerspace. If interested, please click on the program images below for more information and to sign up. These programs are available for Randolph Township students only.

Program Update: Making With Circuits and Engineering Design for Elementary Students are SOLD OUT. If cancellations happen, tickets will become available again. Other sessions are filling up fast!

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Makerspace: A Work In Progress

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As I have chronicled on our blog, our district’s Makerspace (called STEAMWORKS) has been in development for about five months. We have surveyed hundreds of staff and almost 1,000 students to identify interests, visited a number of makerspaces throughout New Jersey, developed a master plan, worked with the district’s maintenance department to make the necessary room changes, and researched and ordered the material needed to turn a room next to our library into our district’s first makerspace. This February, we started the fun part–building the space.

Step 1: Building the Tables and Stools

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RHS Teacher Dave Thatcher builds one of our Makerspace tables.

I worked with our media specialist, Steve Cullis, to find the perfect tables. We spent hours looking at samples, taking measurements, and trying to find tables that were sturdy enough to be able to hold serious weight. The problems was, we could not find tables that were sturdy and high enough for students to stand and work. We really wanted students to be able to stand in the makerspace to bring some kinesthetic learning to the maker environment. Ultimately, we selected a number of components and built the tables ourselves. This is, after all, a makerspace. We ordered two-inch thick butcher block table tops along with steel adjustable legs so the tables can be raised higher than traditional table heights. We also ordered thirty stools to accommodate classes that might want to use the makerspace.

Even the stools need to be put together!
Even the stools needed to be put together!

Step 2: Design

Building this makerspace has been a true team effort. The support of Superintendent Jennifer Fano, RHS Principal Debbie Iosso, and RHS STEM supervisor Mike Cascione has been instrumental in getting this project from conceptualization to implementation. RHS industrial design teachers–Duncan Crannell, Sandy Feld, and Dave Thatcher–have also been a huge help since we started mapping out this plan back in September. The RHS maintenance staff has gone above and beyond to help make this a reality. Leading the design initiative has been RHS senior Madison Jorge. Madison has been working in our makerspace as part of her Option II program and has mapped out an ambitious plan to paint and decorate the makerspace. Our Media Specialist, Steve Cullis, has been involved in the process from day one and has done everything from selecting the tables to making them. Everyone listed here has played a pivotal role in helping design this space. With the design phase done, we now move to the final stage–getting ready to open the doors to students.

IMG_0490 2 IMG_0519 IMG_0530 IMG_0536  (Clockwise from top left: Madison works on design; trying to find places for all the stuff; makerspace tv is hooked up and running; Steve Cullis and RHS teacher Duncan Crannell build a lego wall)

Step 3: Putting It All Together

Admittedly, this step is still a work in progress. We have tons of stuff for students to play with: littleBits, Ozobots, robotic Legos, a 3-D printer, take-apart-technology and more! The next stage will be working to make the space as attractive and user-friendly as possible. Hopefully soon we will be able to announce some makerspace camps that are in development with the generous support of the Randolph Education Foundation. Over the next few weeks we will be busy painting and putting together stations for students. With luck, the next makerspace post on this blog will be titled “Opening Day”!

Our new 3-D printer.
Our new 3-D printer.

#Techspo16 Presentation Materials

Today a small team from our school district presented on blended learning at the 2016 Techspo conference in Atlantic City, NJ. Techspo is an annual conference devoted to educational technology. I presented with our Superintendent, Jennifer Fano, and our Director of Technology, Peter Emmel. The presentation was really a conversation with session attendees on blended learning and the future of schools. We decided to take a risk and forgo a formal lecture-style presentation in favor of a group conversation in hopes of learning as much from others in the room as we possibly could. Our style was a bit unusual for this conference, but we wanted to engage with the audience and felt a less formal  format would work to achieve this.

Our focus throughout the presentation is best explained through a famous research project conducted by Benjamin Bloom in the early 1980s. Bloom (yes, the Bloom’s Taxonomy Bloom) spent many years researching a problem he called the “2 sigma problem.” Bloom and his graduate students conducted a series of experiments that showed that students who receive one-to-one instruction via a tutor significantly outperform students who do not. In fact, students in Bloom’s study that received individual attention from a tutor outperformed those receiving traditional instruction by two standard deviations (sigmas). “Put in another way,” Bloom wrote in 1984, “the average tutored student outperformed 98 percent of the students in the control class.” Bloom then devoted many years of study to try and determine ways schools could close this gap between traditional instructional methods and one-to-one instruction, hence the 2 sigma problem.

However, the most striking of the findings is that under the best learning conditions we can devise–tutoring– the average student is 2 sigmas above the average control student taught under conventional group methods of instruction. –Benjamin Bloom

The reality in education is that it is inherently difficult to offer all students one-to-one instruction. Bloom, however, set out to find ways to accomplish this that were cost-effective for school districts. “An important task of research and instruction,” Bloom writes in explaining his work, “is to seek ways of accomplishing this under more practical and realistic conditions than one-to-one tutoring, which is too costly for most societies to bear on a large scale.” Bloom, of course, conducted his research before widespread adoption of computers in schools so we can only imagine the solutions he might have found if he had the Internet and computers at his disposal as we do today. Our presentation set forth a series of five questions to identify ways in which technology can be used to help solve the 2 sigma problem. Ultimately, we believe that a blended learning approach to instruction along with other student-centered practices can help free up instructional time normally devoted to lecture to allow for increased one-to-one interaction between teachers and students.

For more information on Bloom’s findings consider reading this 1984 article from ASCD: The Search for Methods of Group Instruction as Effective as One-to-One Tutoring or this more technical 1984 paper from Educational Researcher on the same topic: The 2 Sigma Problem.

Our presentation:

We would like to thank all the session attendees that stuck around on a Friday afternoon to join our presentation. We were thrilled to have about forty people attend and hope they thought it was worthwhile. And of course, we are grateful to our board of education and the entire Randolph community as they offer our students, teachers, and administrators tremendous support and encouragement.




Some Thoughts On Informational Text

Did that title get your attention? Just kidding! As school districts throughout the PARCC consortium, like us, pore over their test results, it will likely become clear that students didn’t perform as well as they could have on an assessment category called reading informational text. It will be important for school districts and parents to look to improve this area of assessment moving forward. The shift towards informational text becoming an important part of standardized assessment–in this case PARCC–became apparent when the Common Core standards were released a fewScreen Shot 2016-01-26 at 8.15.12 PM years ago. Controversial at the time (okay, still controversial to some), the Common Core called for a greater emphasis on the reading of informational text across the curriculum in schools. Ultimately, the Common Core recommends a split in what high school students read: 70% informational text and 30% literary works. For many teachers, this split was a drastic change from what was traditionally done in classrooms. This blog isn’t the place to debate the merits of this decision. All I will say is that I am in favor of students reading as much as possible regardless of its kind. I love both fiction and non-fiction and hope students feel the same. I also realize students will frequently encounter informational text when they enter college and join the work force; therefore, it is certainly important that we teach students how to read this genre. One way to improve students’ comprehension when reading informational text is through the website Newsela.

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An article from Newsela

I have become a huge fan of Newsela (pronounced NEWS-ELLA) because of its design, the selection of informational articles available for readers, and the assessments that come with each article. I had heard of Newsela over the past few years but was initially skeptical. I am decidedly old school when it comes to reading. For many years when I taught I got hard copies of the newspaper delivered every day for my students to read. Even so, I realized a few months ago that my second-grade son needed some help with his reading. My son loves to read, but I noticed he was reading way too fast and not really comprehending what he had read. I realized something was up when he claimed to have finished a book in about fifteen minutes. Before you think I am some sort of an “intense reading dad,” I’m not. My son can read whatever he wants from Captain Underpants to Diary of a Wimpy Kid. As long as he is reading, I am happy. But, my son still needs to understand HOW to read. So, I started using Newsela with him, and I think it is wonderful.

Newsela is a free site (subscription model available) that edits news articles from organizations like the Washington Post, Associated Press, and Scientific American into different levels of complexity using the Lexile framework. This enables readers of different levels to all be reasonably challenged. Classes with different levels of Unknownreaders can be differentiated as students are able to read the same article but at different Lexile levels. Each article comes with a few assessment questions that reinforce important content or vocabulary from a related article. Parents and teachers can track a child’s or student’s progress as they read, giving them insight into strengths and weaknesses. Newsela just released an app for Apple devices and it is most impressive. I think this app can be an important addition to a class set of iPads and any reading program. I honestly never thought I would like a site like Newsela. However, I think its ease of use, the quality of its informational text, and the fact that it gives real-time data on reading progress makes it something English and elementary teachers should consider using in their classes. Parents, like me, should also consider using it with their children. Overall, it is a great product and something I think will help students tremendously as they learn to read informational text.