Monday, December 31, 2012

A Surprisingly Difficult Challenge

Right to Education: My Fair Trade soccer ball from Pakistan
One of my friends from college just emailed me the other day with a very interesting request.  She is leaving for Rwanda to volunteer as an English teacher for six months and she contacted me to give her some advice on teaching.  She has never taught before, but she wants to be as effective as possible while she is abroad.  She asked me for some best practice teaching strategies, in addition to resources that she should buy to bring over with her.  "Wow! Where do I start?" I thought to myself.  After reading her email I started to think about everything I had learned regarding education and the science of learning.  However, I couldn't possibly tell her everything that I had learned, so I had to decide on what might be most useful and valuable to her while she was teaching abroad.

Her email is below:

Hi Brad,

I know you're a teacher and want to ask you something. I am moving back to Rwanda for 5 months to teach English as a second language to teachers, community members and kids. I have never taught in my life, and I was wondering if you could recommend any good lesson-plan websites, ESL books to bring, people you can connect me with or teaching ideas or anything! Any help would be greatly appreciated.

This was a surprisingly difficult challenge for me because I know so much about education. How could I possibly explain this to her over an email? I really had to go back to the basics and fundamentals of best-practice teaching. She will more than likely have very little resources and she said she might have access to computers, but she's not sure. I knew this was going to be difficult, but I was up for the challenge.

I have included my response to her email below ...


Get your hands on the following books if you can:

It's Not About the Technology: My Volunteer Teaching Experience in Peru

If you have access to computers and the Internet, have your students visit these two websites:

Google Search Tools

These two websites will allow your students to search in a language that they understand, translate what they find into English, and narrow down their search when they are investigating and exploring content.

My Two Cents

The most important part of teaching is getting students curious, interested, and excited to learn.  That is the real art of teaching.  If you can “hook” your students for every lesson, every day, you will be a great teacher.  You can’t make students learn, you can only motivate, inspire, foster, facilitate, encourage, and assist them in the process.  This sounds weird, but the less YOU do and the more your STUDENTS do, the better. If you remember this quote, you will be successful:

“Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I learn.”

Don’t lecture. Don’t use worksheets if possible. Get students asking questions, researching, exploring, constructing their own meaning, sharing, and creating artifacts that demonstrate their learning and understanding.  Don’t always plan what the students will learn everyday.  Allow the students to go off on tangents.  Allow students to have “voice and choice” over what they learn.  This will help to keep them interested, and they will be more excited to learn.

When helping or assisting students construct their own meaning of information, use the following strategies.

Research-Based, Best Practice Teaching Strategies
  1. Examples vs. Nonexamples
  2. Analogies 
  3. Compare and Contrast: Venn Diagrams (similarities and differences)
  4. Graphic Organizers for classification or concept patterns (Teacher generated and/or student generated)
  5. Summarizing and Note-taking
  6. Reciprocal teaching (having students explain to other students and/or teacher)
  7. Reinforce student effort not finished products.  Students will do better if they know their effort is being rewarded, not their outcomes.
  8. Nonlinguistic Representations:  Have students …
    a. Draw pictures or other visuals
    b. Create graphs, charts, tables, etc.
    c. Act, create a skit, use gestures. etc. 
  9. Cooperative and Collaborative Learning: Have students work in groups to learn together. They can all be doing the same task, or they can be working on different tasks toward a common goal.
    a. Jigsaw Activity: students work with peers who study one facet of a topic.  Then they return to a “home-base” group for sharing what they have learned.  The home-base group is composed of a student specializing in each facet of the topic.  Students in the home-base group are responsible for reporting to the group on their specialty topic and for learning what other students report.
    b. Literature Circles: This allows for students to read on topics of interest and share readings with others who read the same material.  It allows teachers to break away comfortably from the sense that all students must read the same materials in order to have meaningful discussions. 
  10. Intelligence Preferences:  Allow for students to investigate and demonstrate their learning and understanding via their strengths and interests.  Here are some examples:
    a. music smart (musical, auditory)
    b. picture smart (visual-spacial)
    c. self smart (intrapersonal)
    d. body smart (bodily-kinesthetic)
    e. word smart (verbal-linguistic)
    f. logic smart (logical-mathematical)
    g. nature smart (naturalistic)
    h. people smart (interpersonal)

While I was in Peru, I often had students play the following games:
  • Pictionary
  • Charades
  • Catch-Phrase

What I did was use the basic principles of these games and use words that we were currently learning about. Students would either work in small groups, or have two teams competing against each other. These games are great to help students conceptualize information with as little words as possible (works especially well when learning a new language).

Find out what students are interested in. Find out what sports they like, games they play, music their into, etc. This was really helpful when trying to make connections and relationships with my students, and it also helped me to tailor my instruction to their interests, which made learning more fun and meaningful.

Also, remember that ALL students can learn, it just might take different approaches and a different amount of time for each. Figure out what your students’ strengths and interests are, and allow them to use their talents and interests when learning.

Lastly, tell your students that they are all unique and valuable to this world. Let them know that you believe in them. Because, “Students don’t care how much you know … until they know how much you care!”


This was a really fun activity for me. I am so glad she wrote me this email, because this provided me with an opportunity to synthesize all of my resources, experience and knowledge into an email that reflected what I value most as a teacher. You know, it's easy to get caught up in all of the technology that is out there, but true learning comes from great pedagogy and instruction.

For your consideration

I encourage all educators to take this surprisingly difficult challenge. What would you tell my friend who has never taught before, is entering a school in third world country, and has very limited access to resources?
  • What might you have added to this email? 
  • What strategies might you have told her? 
  • What tips, or reminders might you have mentioned?

All responses are welcome!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

How to "Remix" a Simple Assignment

Think of a new song on the radio that you absolutely love.  You start dancing in your car and singing the lyrics every time you hear it. Now, think about a few months later when you can't stand the song anymore because its so overplayed on the radio.  This is often what happens to great songs; they get overplayed. When this happens, music artists often collaborate with other artists to mix up the same song, or create remixes to make the song more interesting and engaging.  This process is called "remixing".  My new favorite "remix" is Lost+ by Coldplay featuring Jay-Z.

Application to Education

We've all written book reviews since we were kids.  It was the same thing, year, after year, after year.  Book reviews helped us to conceptualize the central themes and main ideas of the books we read, but they got boring after awhile. Book reviews became something tedious that we did over and over again.  It seemed like we were just "going through the motions" after awhile.  This is an example of a simple assignment that gets overused to the point where motivation and interest is lost by both students and teachers.

So, one teacher, Mrs. Benedick, decided to "remix" her typical book review assignment.  Instead of having students read a book and simply hand-write, or type-up their book review, she made it come to life!

The Assignment

Students were tasked with writing a historical fiction book review from a book of their choice.  However, they had to create and present an artifact that would represent a section of a newspaper that might have existed in the time period of their book.  Furthermore, they were challenged with creating a clever title for the newspaper that would reflect the setting of the story.  Students were encouraged to be creative by writing an article as it would have been written in an actual newspaper during that time.

Below are two different examples from students who completed this assignment.

What I love about this assignment is the fact that it encompasses both left-brain and right-brain skills.  Students must first activate their left-brain for their analytic, critical thinking, and writing skills in order to write the book review.  Then they must activate their right-brain for their creative, artistic, conceptual, and even emotional skills to create an artifact which is interesting, engaging, and appealing.  Incorporating these right-brain skills makes this assignment come to life, and makes it a more real-world experience. This teacher totally "remixed" this assignment so that her students might develop a deeper understanding of the content and create a more meaningful learning experience.

Tips for "Remixing" Assignments
  • Allow for student voice and choice
  • Invite inquiry and curiosity
  • Encourage students to be creative
  • Facilitate a hands-on learning experience
  • Incorporate empathy into the assignment
  • Provide opportunities for the students to reflect on the content and the process
  • Integrate the arts into the assignment
  • Publish student work so that they have an audience that is extended outside of the class
  • Turn an assignment into an artifact or product, rather than a worksheet.

My Reflection

I truly believe that anyone can exercise a lesson plan, read from a book, and follow a set of directions.  This, to me, is not teaching. Teaching is the "art" of inspiring students to learn, motivating them to succeed, and fostering their strengths and talents.  The fun part of teaching is creating investigations, assignments, and assessments that are both educational and meaningful to students.  Our challenge as teachers in the 21st century, is to figure out how to engage and challenge our students in meaningful ways to help them learn and grow as young people. 

Let's all challenge ourselves to "remix" our assignments to make both teaching and learning more exciting!

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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Digital Divide or Mindset Divide?

These two videos really made me think about whether or not a digital divide really exists.  A Digital Divide can be defined as an inequality between groups in terms of access to, use of, or knowledge of information and communication technologies.  Some people believe that there is a digital divide among age, whereas others believe that there is a digital divide between geographic areas.

After watching these videos, I have come to the conclusion that there really is no digital divide, rather there is only a mindset divide.

Medieval Helpdesk

One Laptop per Child

Explanation of the video

"Earlier this year, OLPC workers dropped off closed boxes containing the tablets, taped shut, with no instruction. 'I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android', Negroponte said. 'Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera, and they figured out the camera, and had hacked Android.'” [1]

My Reflection

The fact that kids in Africa, who live in a remote village, are illiterate, and have never even seen an electronic device, were able to use a tablet to learn how to read and write is astonishing. This example proves that just about anyone can learn how to operate a technology device given time, patience, persistence, and dedication. However, the key is the mindset of the individual. These kids were completely ignorant to technology, so they had no fear about breaking the tablet, losing data, or making a mistake. They were simply curious. And their curiosity motivated them to learn how to operate this machine that was so foreign to them. They were able to "troubleshoot" by simple trial and error techniques. If you think about it, isn't that how we all learn?  Failing until we succeed to the first step, then failing until we get to the second ... and so on!

Questions I still have

1.  If a growth mindset, coupled with time, patience and persistance is really all that is needed to learn just about anything (let alone a technology device) then why are we so quick to give up, or fear trying new things that are somewhat "foreign" to us?

2.  Is there really a digital divide regarding age? People often say that kids these days are "born" into technology so everything is so "intuitive" to them.  Is this the case, or are kids just more curious and have no fear when it comes to technology?  In contrast, people often say that "older people" did not grow up with technology so it is not as easy or "intuitive" for them.  What would Steve Jobs say about this?

3.  Why are some teachers so resistant to technology? What are these teachers so afraid of? Why do some teachers have the attitude that they "can't" learn technology or that they are "no good" with technology?  If kids in Africa who cannot read or write and have never experienced technology before can do it ... why do some teachers feel like they can't?

4.  How might we support these teachers to embrace technology, stimulate curiosity, promote self-advocacy and self-confidence, and encourage technology integration?

As always, your comments are welcome and encouraged!


1.  Technology Review: Given Tablets but No Teachers, Ethiopian Children Teach Themselves:

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Promoting Inquiry and Exploration with Primary Resources

After visiting the Library of Congress today, I have a new appreciation for learning and education. I became inspired by reading all of the educational quotes on the walls and seeing the many statues of historical figures that represent the eight categories of knowledge, each considered symbolic of civilized life and thought.

The mission of the Library of Congress is to collect and organize America's resources and make them universally accessible and useful.  One of the ways that the Library of Congress is reaching out to teachers is by providing them with a wealth of resources and tools to supplement curriculum, instruction and assessment in the classroom.  Moreover, the Library of Congress offers classroom materials and professional development to help teachers effectively use primary sources from the Library's vast digital collections in their teaching.

Teachers can find Library of Congress lesson plans and more that meet Common Core standards, state content standards, and the standards of national organizations.  When using these resources it is important to support the learning of students who need more scaffolding with sample questions as they respond to the primary source.  Encourage them to go back and forth between the different columns, there is no correct order.

Using Primary Sources
  1. Have students identify and note details
  2. Encourage students to generate and test hypotheses about the source
  3. Have students ask questions to lead to more observations and reflections
In order to help students with this process, use the following terminology
  1. Observe:  I see ...
  2. Reflect:  I think ...
  3. Question:  I wonder ...
Instructional/Assessment Strategies
  1. Encourage students to perform this process as a Think-Pair-Share Activity
  2. Encourage students to perform this process in groups with a JigSaw activity
  3. Encourage students to think of a creative title that would capture the major concepts or themes of the primary source
  4. Encourage students to create a short story or poem based on factual information from the primary source.
Further Investigation

The whole purpose of using primary sources in the classroom is to promote inquiry, exploration, and research for our students.  We need to empower our students to ask their own questions that are important to them to make their learning more meaningful.  Let's help our students to identify questions appropriate for further investigation, and to develop a research strategy for finding answers. 

Have students compare two related primary sources

Have students expand or alter textbook explanations of history based on primary sources they study.

Ask students to consider how a series of primary sources support or challenge information and understanding on a particular topic.  Have students refine or revise conclusions based on their study of each subsequent primary source. 

For Your Consideration

Try using Google Cultural Institute for additional resources and information as a cross-reference.  


Teacher Guide.pdf

Analysis Tool link

Analysis Tool.pdf

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  1. Library of Congress:
  2. Library of Congress (Teacher Resources):
  3. Edudemic Article on Library of Congress Resources: