Category Archives: Teaching & Learning

Free (and impressive) SAT Practice

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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 satpractice.org.

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 

Makerspace Makerdays

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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.

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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.

Blended

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Something was wrong this morning. I couldn’t get my tie right. On my first try, the knot was too small. One the second try the tie was too short. I just couldn’t get it right. I’ve never understood why they haven’t standardized ties. Some are too long while some are too skinny. So many things in our life are standardized. Why not ties? They should all be the same size.

The problem with my tie was that I couldn’t get the knot right. I’ve always tied my ties like my father showed me about thirty years ago. In tie parlance the knot he taught me is called “the four in hand” and is likely the most popular knot out there–slender and simple. However, this morning it just wasn’t cutting it. The problem with the four in hand is that the tie loosens and slips down throughout the day. I always have to adjust it. On my drive this morning, I decided that it was time to try something new. So, I got to school a little early and was determined to give a new knot–the Windsor–a try. Like most days when I want to learn something new, I checked out YouTube and found this video:

Since the video was shot from the point of view of the person tying the tie, it was easy to follow the video instructions. In less than three minutes I was sporting a new Windsor knot. The thing is, if I didn’t understand it, I could have replayed the video as many times as I needed to. I could learn at my own pace. Here’s what I can’t get over: I had always wanted to know how to tie a Windsor but never tried. For thirty years I’ve used the four in hand my father taught me. Not any more! Thanks to YouTube, I nailed the Windsor in only a few minutes. Best of all, my tie didn’t need to be adjusted the entire day.

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For anyone interested in blended learning, this book is the place to start.

So, what’s the point? As adults we learn using the Internet as it suits our needs. The same holds true for our students. They no longer learn only sitting in a classroom; the Internet has changed that. The model that marries the traditional with the virtual is called blended learning. Whether it’s a video on YouTube or Lynda.com, online tutorials and classes are part of how we learn now. Whenever I want to learn something new, I watch a video. If we are all learning online now, why are the classes we teach not?

I’ve become more focused on this dichotomy as I realize that we should be supporting traditional instruction with online instruction. A powerful learning management system like Blackboard, Canvas, or Schoology makes doing it rather simple. At the least, instructional videos can be posted to YouTube with ease. We just have to commit to move in the online direction. No more waiting. The book on the right is pretty much the gold standard in terms of laying out a philosophy about blended instruction. My copy was just delivered today. Over the next few weeks I’ll read and reflect here about blended learning. The term might be new to some but the concept is not. Personalizing learning by adopting an online component so students can learn at their own pace needs to happen. Why not start today?

 

Let’s Get Students Moving

The educator Eric Jensen has spent the majority of his professional life researching how students learn. His list of published works are impressive, advocating for the need to get students up out of seats during class as a way to stimulate learning. Jensen estimates thatScreen Shot 2015-09-07 at 7.53.53 PM for students in high school, the maximum amount of time most of them have to process new information via direct instruction is about fifteen minutes. For students in primary grades, that number is reduced to twelve minutes. “Most learners will tell you they’d rather be active than passive,” Jensen writes. “Unfortunately, many students have been conditioned to be passive for so many years that by the time they’re in secondary school or college, active learning can feel strange” (37, 54). The onus then is on the teacher to make active learning a reality for students.

There was a recent essay in ASCD’s August Education Update that got me thinking about Jensen and how we can create opportunities for teachers to get students moving in their classes. Called “Learning from the Feet Up,” it stressed the need to get students up out of their seats during a class period (subscription needed to view the article). I thought the Unknownarticle made many valid points about the importance of movement. “Because the brain responds to novelty and active learning,” writes the article’s author Kathy Checkley, “the brain can ‘stay connected’ for longer periods of time when instruction includes movement” (2). The reality is that many students struggle through a traditional class period because they are not equipped with the cognitive ability to pay attention for long stretches of time. By “traditional class period” I am referring to a class where students sit during the class while the teacher instructs them. With short attention spans, it is essential that students become active participants in the learning process through active learning.

There are many different strategies teachers can employ to get students moving in a classroom. One simple activity is to have students stand and find a partner to turn and talk, with each partner taking a turn summarizing recent learning objectives. An activity such as this not only improves memory but also has the added benefit of improving focus. For Jensen, “Physical movement such as standing, stretching, walking, or marching can increase brain amine levels, which can help improve attentional focus” (51). Jensen even goes so far as to encourage drowsy students to stand at the back of the room for up to two minutes and stretch. The simple act of crossing a right arm or leg to the left side and vice versa (cross-lateral movements) can help activate contralateral blood flow in both hemispheres of the brain (51). Oxygen is essential for brain function, so getting students out of their seats for even a brief moment can enhance blood flow that, in turn, increases the amount of oxygen transported to the brain (62).

Another quick way to get students active in a class is to throw a small beach ball around the room and whoever catches it has to ask another student a question. Teachers can even get creative by writing things on the beach ball like vocabulary words or concepts learned in class that students have to answer if their hands are touching the word or concept when they catch the ball. The act of standing and catching will increase oxygen to the brain. “Strong evidence supports the connection between movement and learning,” writes Jensen. “Evidence from imaging sources, anatomical studies, and clinical data shows that moderate exercise enhances cognitive processing” (67). The act of tossing a beach ball to standing students can meet this goal while also enhancing teacher-student interaction by helping to create a vibrant learning environment.

For Checkley and Jensen, simple classroom modifications like stretching or changing seats can be followed by more complex lessons like a gallery walk to help turn static lessons into more interactive experiences for students by compelling them to move. “Decades of studies have shown,” Checkley writes, “that moderate exercise can enhance learning–and that any kind of movement is beneficial” (2). The simple fact is that all learners–no matter the age–appreciate the chance to stretch their legs and talk to someone else when they tackle a problem or learn something new.

Sources

Jensen, Eric. Teaching with the Brain in Mind. 2nd ed. Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005.

Checkley, Kathy. “Learning from the Feet Up.” ASCD Education Update 57.8 (2015): 2-3, 6.

Infographics made using Piktochart