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!

Tips for teaching conventions and grammar in real writing contexts

Cheryl’s eyes bugged out a bit as she perused her students’ writing. “Why do their pieces look like this? Where are the capitals, the punctuation? I teach mechanics and grammar daily, but they don’t apply the lessons when they write.  And, when I ask them to edit, they seldom do.”

This is a common issue, one that is a source of frustration for many teachers.  Yes, we must help students produce loads of writing with joy and purpose every day.  But we also want our writers to master conventions and grammar.  (Refer to the Common Core Language Anchor Standards:  (1) Students will demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing and speaking; (2) Students will demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.)

Here are some practical tips that may work for you or the teachers you work with:

First consider, how are grammar and writing conventions taught?  Students are successful applying skills when they are taught in the actual context of writing.  One context I like to use is a “Morning Message.”  Each day (or class period), I write a message to my students in the form of a letter.  When they arrive, we read it together, discuss the content, then take just a few minutes to observe how the author (me) correctly used language conventions. Over the course of several messages, we’ll circle capitals, end marks, quotations, contractions, verbs, pronouns, homonyms, etc. and discuss their proper usage in the context.  It’s also effective to make intentional mistakes in the message, especially those that mirror errors you see in students’ writing (run-on sentences are a favorite).  Just be sure not to overload them with too many new issues before they’re showing real proof of understanding in their everyday writing of those already covered.  As we all know, it’s hard to make progress as learners when we’re overwhelmed.  Instead, focus on what’s most important, those errors that are most egregious in students’ writing, and address these first over time.

Now here’s a golden ticket.  After about six weeks of school have passed, as students complete drafts they’d like to (or are assigned to) publish in written form, ask them to go back and circle things they know, just like they do in the “Morning Message.”  This becomes a backdoor way into editing that truly works.  It’s motivating to writers to look for what they’ve done well rather than what they have done wrong.  Instead, students hum along, positively reinforcing themselves by circling what they did right and students often find mistakes and fix them.  Viola…editing without pain! 


Note how second grader C.J. crossed out the capital M in the middle of the third sentence, fixed it with a lower case m, and circled it.  Plus, notice how proficient he is in self-monitoring the many skills he’s used correctly!  True mastery has occurred when skills are shown automatically in everyday writing.

Nurture your writers even more by celebrating their findings on the document camera.  This is another golden ticket that doesn’t take much time and really pays off!  By sharing student writing on a document camera the child is able to briefly discuss his or her findings or problem solving (editing), while mechanics and usage are reviewed, once again in context, for all writers.  A sense of confidence and capability emerges in the classroom community, and students become helpful sources of support for one another.  But remember, we don’t want to wait and tack editing on at the end of formal writing.  It must be part of a routine focus for learning to really stick.  Students should be producing all kinds of writing informally across the curriculum throughout the day, along with all types of process writing, the majority of which won’t be taken through to formal publishing.  So, two or three times each week, cash in another golden ticket by asking students to grab any piece and spend three minutes “Circling Things We Know,” then two minutes sharing with a partner.   Celebrate one example with the class.  Such techniques keep conventions and grammar in proper focus.  The issues are grappled with routinely, within real contexts; but the majority of time is safe-guarded for composing and growing writers’ craft (these will be topics of future posts!).


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