Fisher and Frey on fostering collaborative conversations

Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey shared a wealth of knowledge with teachers, leaders, and curriculum developers at the ASCD Conference last weekend. In “Collaborative Conversations: Meeting Anchor Standard 1 in Speaking and Listening,” Fisher began by describing his experience as a student in a graduate-level neuroscience course. One of his main takeaways was that interacting with his classmates kept him motivated, clarified information, and extended his understanding of the brain. He realized he needed time to make sense of the material in his textbooks on neuroanatomy, and collaborative conversations provided access to this complex text.

The speaking and listening section in the Common Core Stand Standards notes the value of collaborative conversations in which students learn guidelines for conversations, use evidence in their arguments, and critically analyze a topic. See anchor standard 1:

Fisher and Frey both recognized the major shift this means for teachers. In the past, it was natural to think students should discuss simpler, easier topics when they didn’t have the support of the teacher. Now, it’s clear that students can have productive group conversations about complex ideas with the right supports. 

To engage in collaborative conversations, students need:

  • Enough background knowledge to have something to say. Supplement with videos and texts on the subject matter.
  • Language support to know how to say their ideas (e.g., sentence frames, vocabulary wall, or peer language broker).
  • An interesting and relevant topic to discuss.
  • Authentic reasons to interact.
  • To understand the expectations of and accountability for the interaction. Establish a culture where students are expected to talk to each other.
  • To feel part of a community of learners that encourages and supports each other.
  • To understand the task (e.g., what to do in a “jigsaw”).

These conversations are key to developing academic language and vocabulary, as well as an understanding of complex texts. Their district in San Diego has set a goal for student-to-student interactions: 50% of instructional minutes. Want to find out more? Check out Fisher and Frey’s website and YouTube Channel.

Technology in remote classrooms: Luxury or necessity?

Can technology become a “great equalizer” for schools? For those with access to the tools, tech opens doors to a mind-boggling amount of resources with just a click of a mouse or a swipe of a finger.

A recent article in Education Week reminded me just how technology can help level the playing field for students who live in the most remote areas of the country. Lower Kuskokwim School District in Alaska, which is home to 4,000 students, is inaccessible to visitors unless they take a plane or wait for the river to freeze. Yet, even in isolation, Lower Kuskokwim students are still receiving a quality education thanks to the power of technology.

Mr. Dan Walker, Assistant Superintendent of Lower Kuskokwim School District, has implemented “distance learning” classes, which use video conferencing tools to connect students with educators in other areas. The district, which is made up of 27 schools, has access to 60 cameras for video conference classes and some schools are now equipped with 1-to-1 laptop or tablet programs. Through video conferencing, students not only attend their core classes, but also have elective options such as digital photography, e-journalism and robotics.

Although many schools consider technology a luxury, for the community of Lower Kuskokwim School District, it’s a necessity. What do you think about classrooms in remote locations using technology to connect? Is it a luxury? A necessity? Something in between? We’d love to hear your thoughts!

Plenty of teaching resources for Women's History Month

We may have passed the Ides of March but there is still plenty of time to celebrate Women's History Month. If you are still looking for resources to help you in the classroom, here is a list for you.

  1. Edudemic highlights the incredible list of this year's honorees from the National Women's History Project under the theme of "Celebrating Women of Character, Courage and Commitment." No shortage of role models here.
  2. The Library of Congress is the host of many resources including ready-to-use lesson plans, primary sources, activities, guides and more.  
  3. Fellow blogger Suzanne has a nice round up of resources as well which includes activities and a text pairing.  
  4. Finally, features articles, unit and lesson plans, book lists and more.

Tell us what you are doing in the classroom this month to celebrate women's history.


How to foster student aspirations

At the ASCD Conference on Sunday, Russell Quaglia encouraged hundreds of teachers and administrators to listen to and learn from their students. In his presentation, Moving Forward with Our Greatest Resource: The Students, Quaglia emphasized the importance of helping learners develop aspiration—the ability to dream and set goals for the future while being inspired in the present to reach these dreams. To experience academic success, students must believe in their ability to be successful. Quaglia shared three guiding principles for helping students reach their full potential:

1.    Self-worth

Students need to feel valued, which begins with a notion of belonging—feeling as though they’re part of a community but still an individual. Be aware of “nothing/nowhere/fine” responses from students, and challenge yourself to wait for a response after asking a student, “How are you?"

2.    Engagement

Engagement, a delicate balance between interest and opportunities, is key to cultivating a desire to learn new things. Quaglia highlighted the importance of making learning fun by nurturing natural curiosity and creativity.

3.    Purpose

Students must develop a sense of purpose to take responsibility for who and what they want to become. Quaglia encouraged the audience to ask learners, “Who do you want to be when you grow up? What kind of person do you want to be?”   

Quaglia’s call to action for teachers is to listen to and learn from students. Student voice can be an instrument of change, and bring our hopes and dreams for them within reach. 

You think pi is cool? Try phi!

No offense meant to pi (especially on Pi Day!), but here's a number I think is way cooler: phi.

You might have heard of it by one of its aliases, like "the golden number" or "the golden ratio" or, simply, 1.618. It's got its own fanclub/website too. Like pi, phi is derived from a special geometry-based ratio. And it also has a relationship with the Fibonacci sequence (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, etc). Take any number in that sequence and divide it by the previous number and you get a value very close to phi -- and it gets closer and closer as the Fibonacci sequence gets longer.

What's really cool and incredible about phi is how it shows up in nature, music, architecture, art and in many other ways throughout the universe.

In architecture, it shows up in the triangular dimensions of the Egyptian pyramids, the rectangular dimensions of Greek buildings like the Parthenon, and in modern architecture as well.

You can see the ratio in nature -- in the spirals of sea shells and in the arrangements of plant branches and flower petals.

It also shows up in music -- from Beethoven and Mozart to Pink. (See video below about the golden ratio and music.)

I'm only scratching the surface here, so to find out more just fire up the Google machine and you'll stumble upon plenty of resources.

Math friends: What your favorite fact about phi?

Is recess the key to success?

Seeking to increase instructional time for students, many schools and school districts are considering lengthening the school day and year. In New Jersey, for example, Governor Chris Christie has asked for $5 million in an effort to do just that. 

Adding to the typical 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. school day and 180-day school year may not seem too unreasonable, but consider this: Finnish 1st-graders are at school only 4.5 hours per day.  And of those 4.5 hours, only three of them are spent in the classroom, leaving the remaining 1.5 hours for recess.  Yes, that’s right, recess.

According to the article, Finland’s Latest Export: A Novel Approach to Recess,” even with time for unstructured play Finnish students have continued to meet and surpass the required scores on assessments for math, reading and science.

The reasoning behind a shorter school day with generous recess time: “Kids are built to move. Having more time for unstructured outdoor play is like handing them a reset button.”

As we know, research shows that when kids exercise it improves their concentration and ability to absorb new information.  It is proven that exercise can actually increase student performance in the classroom.

As states across America continue to evaluate the school day, perhaps they will consider the benefits of unstructured play and make time for student to “reset” with recess.

Tips for independent reading

I recently spoke to a group of middle school teachers about independent reading, and there was quite a range of feelings about the topic. Some gushed about how independent reading empowers their students, while others confessed it was the most difficult and frustrating part of their day. They described a wide range of what independent reading can look like, from a station (while other students are in small group or at the computer) to an entire class reading independently at the same time. At one school I visited, they had instituted school-wide Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) at a designated time of day to reduce distractions and interruptions. 

No matter what independent reading looks like in your school, it can be a challenge to get students to focus on reading for a designated amount of time. Third grade teacher Kate Umstatter shared some advice in this post on teaching students to stay focused. Ms. Umstatter describes how her class worked up to almost one hour/day of independent reading. Below are the six strategies she’s found to be tried and true:

1. Teach what staying focused looks, sounds, and feels like by modeling what they should do with their eyes, hands, mouths, and feet during independent reading. 

2. Relate academic stamina to physical stamina to help students understand what it means to build endurance (in a marathon and with reading).

3. Teach how to refocus by giving guidance on what to do (e.g., breathe deeply) when they’re off track.

4. Use visuals to track reading progress and motivate students.

5. Differentiate by using a variety of strategies and accommodations to help all students increase endurance.

6. Encourage students to reflect regularly by thinking about what keeps them from focusing (sitting by a friend, worrying, hunger) and identifying ways to overcome any issues.

Do you have any strategies that help your students read independently? Share them below.

SATs and the 1,600 you deserved

If you took the SATs before that crazy 2,400 system, you probably should have gotten a 1,600. Congratulations if you actually did.

I know that I should have, except for the Math part, where the points they award for writing your name—is it 200?—would have sufficed.

I still resent that I had to get up early on an otherwise lovely Saturday to read byzantine passages and stare at recondite equations, all while fretting that my No. 2 pencil would swerve outside the bubbles as the seconds of the analog clock ticked.

Enter the new SAT, which may or may not create a more educated citizenry, end inequality, foster diversity and lead to layoffs at test prep factories. Did I forget anything? Oh, it would be nice if the tests could be given on a weekday afternoon.

I'm hoping that the new SAT will actually gauge how much a student knows and is capable of doing, rather than just telling him how much money his parents make (which, chances are, is not enough).

For now, it's impossible to say who will get a 1,600. The new test won't be ready until 2016. Until then, here's some background knowledge to help you ace it:

The Story Behind the SAT Overhaul.The New York Times tries to get inside the mind of David Coleman, president of the College Board, lead writer of the Common Core English Language Arts Standards, and the closest thing the education world has to a Wizard of Oz.

College Board Outlines SAT Redesign It Says Will Be More "Focused and Useful." Includes a chart that shows how the Common Core Standards match up with the proposed SAT changes

New SAT Revision: 5 Questions With Kathleen Porter-Magee. Will "transparency, free help and the rewarding of work that is worth doing every day" make a real difference?

College Board Tests Out Troubling SAT Revisions. A Minnesota Daily reporter fears that the new test's emphasis on America's founding documents will put international students at a disadvantage. I thought we had agreed that knowing our history is a plus.

New SAT Don't Care 'Bout No Fancy Words. Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker is vexed that the revamped SAT will exile obscure words. The shift, designed to diminish test prep mania, doesn't trouble me. I learned plenty of esoteric words after college. When I used one in a sentence recently, my high school nephew exclaimed, "That's an SAT word!" Unlike me, he aced the test.


Reading, writing and coding

There is no denying today’s students are learning in an age where information is available anytime and anywhere. From smartphones and iPads to Google Glass and social media platforms, this generation is one of the most tech savvy groups around.  

Thanks to technology many of the careers today’s students will hold don’t even exist yet. Common careers like app developers or social media managers weren’t even a thought 20 years ago. And jobs that were crucial 20 years ago are fading away, or have long been eliminated. 

As technology continues to advance, it is our job to prepare students to be successful in the world they live in. So it should come as no surprise that schools around the country are placing greater emphasis on computer science courses. 

According to the article “Computer Science: Not Just an Elective Anymore,” in Education Week, 17 states and the District of Columbia now have policies in place that allow computer science to count as a mathematics or science credit, rather than as an elective.

A computer science course involves more than just putting students in front of a computer. The courses often teach them the algorithm process involving hardware, software, and programming, and computer coding. According to, 60 percent of STEM-related jobs are currently in computing.

But don’t let curriculum scare you—as mentioned in the article, third graders from Flint, Michigan, are learning computer-coding techniques through the household game “Angry Birds.”

With any new curriculum there will be challenges. From finding qualified teachers to training current educators, instituting computer science courses in all schools across the country won’t happen overnight, but when it does happen it will be beneficial for every student.

An inspiring quote to go with your morning

Last week we had the pleasure of sharing that teachers overwhelmingly chose their career in order to make a difference in children's lives. This is part of the research conducted for Primary Sources: America's Teachers on Teaching in an Era of Change. Two-thirds of teachers also reported their love of being "part of those 'aha' moments" for students. This quote from a middle school teacher speaks to that and inspired us so much that we wanted to share with you as well. Good morning!


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