Monday, July 20, 2015

nonfiction resources for science and math

There is so much talk about nonfiction lately, especially as a response to the Common Core State Standards. There are some misconceptions (like that English teachers can't teach fiction any more in order to meet the nonfiction percentage of text required by the CCSS), but as the linked article states, "The Common Core does not say to get rid of literature and only read non-fiction. It says that 50% of what elementary, 60% of what middle school and 70% of what secondary students read should be non-fiction. The key here is throughout the entire day." This means that all teachers should be include and teaching nonfiction texts throughout the school day across content areas.

For science and math teachers, finding high-quality resources can sometimes be a challenge. But the great news is that there are lots of organizations out there to help you find the best sources for your students.

The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) publishes a list every year of the outstanding science trade books published for K-12 students. I look forward to the list every year to use to add to my classroom library.

Nonfiction Detectives is an awesome blog reviewing new nonfiction books. Here's their "Best of" list from 2014, which includes a science section. The 2012 list includes some math books too.

Sometimes, though, books are more text than you're looking for. The Electronic Library for MN (ELM) is an amazing resource for teachers. Not only can you search for nonfiction articles to supplement your own learning about new topics, the databases have been culled to provide the best nonfiction resources for your students too. Check it out - it's free!

Where do you find the best nonfiction resources for science and math?

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

effective feedback

In my graduate course on assessment, teachers spend time observing other teachers teaching for their uses of praise and formative feedback during lessons. It is one of the activities that teachers in the course find most valuable. Not only do they learn new ideas for providing feedback to students (or, sometimes, what not to do), but the act of observing also encourages reflection on their own practices. The right kind of feedback is essential for effective teaching and learning, and several recent reviews of literature on feedback indicate that there is some good consensus on what works and what doesn't work when it comes to feedback.

It can be hard, if not impossible, to carve out time to observe colleagues during the school year, but the summer might provide a perfect opportunity to do this reflective work. You might not have access to summer school classrooms, but if you've got an internet connection, you can do this activity at home.

Review the chart of effective (and ineffective) feedback practices (McMillan, 2014). Then, find a teacher to observe. This can be in a summer school classroom or online. Teacher Tube and Annenburg Learner are great resources for finding videos of teaching. Observe the teaching, and make note of examples of the effective and effective practices you observe.

Use challenging yet attainable goals Use goals that are too high or too low
Emphasize mastery goal orientation Emphasize performance goal orientation
Ensure that feedback is clear, transparent, and easily understood Use feedback that is unclear and/or difficult to understand
Compare student performance to standards, criteria, cognitive strategies and precious performance Compare student performance to the performance of other students or emphasize the person rather than the task
Use a moderate amount of specific, individualized, and descriptive feedback Use general or vague feedback
Give feedback as soon as possible especially for simple cognitive tasks, tests , and other assignments Give delayed feedback, except for slightly delayed feedback for cognitively complex tasks, especially for high achievers
Use both verification and elaboration feedback Use only verification feedback
Match feedback to student ability Use the same feedback for all students
Focus on key errors and misunderstandings Ignore key errors
Emphasize effort attributions Emphasize external attributions
Give feedback as students learn Give feedback only after performance
Anticipate probable feedback messages Rely on unplanned or unanticipated feedback

If you're watching videos, you are highly encouraged to do this work on a porch, with a refreshing drink, while the sun is shining :)

After completing this activity, make sure to reflect on your own practices as they relate to praise and formative feedback. What are two things you could make a plan to do next year that will help your students move forward in their learning through your use of formative feedback and praise? Write them down in that notebook of great ideas you keep all summer (you have one of those right? to keep track of the brilliant brainstorms you have while you're on the boat, driving the kids to soccer, or standing over the grill but are sure to forget once back-to-school workshops start? yeah, that one!). Return to these ideas in the weeks leading up to school and throughout September to keep a focus on effective praise and feedback.

reference: McMillan, J. H. (2014). Classroom assessment: Principles and practice for effective standards-based instruction (6th ed,). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

end-of-year reflections

It's finally here - the end of the school year. You have been frantically trying to tie up loose ends, final projects, portfolios, exams, fieldtrips. The spring is always a whirlwind.

Before you lock your classroom door for a final time this year, take a few minutes (or more) to reflect on the year. While finding the time to do this might seem impossible, it is one of the best ways for you to think about all you've accomplished and set yourself up for even more successes in the next year.

I really like the list of questions found here:

In particular, the following questions from the middle of the list might be really helpful for you to consider in planning for 2015-2016:
  • What do you hope your students remember most about you as a teacher?
  • In what ways were you helpful to your colleagues this year?
  • What was the most valuable thing you learned this year?
  • What was the biggest mistake you made this year? How can you avoid making the same mistake in the future?
  • What is something you did this year that went better than you thought it would?
  • What part of the school day is your favorite? Why?
  • What were your biggest organizational challenges this year?
  • Who was your most challenging student? Why?
  • In what ways did you change the lives of your students this year?
Spending some time reflecting on these questions can be affirming as well as provide a roadmap for things to consider in planning for future teaching. 

What is your favorite way to reflect on the end of the year?

Monday, May 25, 2015

MOOCs for teachers

Have you tried a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course)? While they;ve been around since 2008, it's only been the last 2 or 3 years that they've really exploded and more and more people, including teachers, have started taking advantage of the opportunity.

The New Teacher Center has partnered with Coursera to offer some MOOCs especially designed for new teachers. Right now, their three main series revolve around the Common Core in Math, Common Core in ELA with the Literacy Design Collaborative, and the First Year Teaching series. 

There aren't any starting immediately, but their First Year Teaching series usually begins in July. So definitely make a note to check back towards the end of the school year to see when a start date for that course might become available. And check with your Teaching & Learning department - these hours for the course might contribute towards PD or course credits  for lane changes based on the completion certificate.

Additional MOOC offerings that might be worth looking into can be found here and here.

Monday, May 11, 2015

tired teaching?

Guest Blogger: Jay Rasmussen, Ph. D., Professor of Education at Bethel University


Tired Teaching?

While the title of this first blog post does not sound terribly exciting, it does describe how new teachers feel at times. “Tired teaching” is not just the result of countless hours put into planning, teaching, and grading. It is also a result of trying to function in a challenging work environment filled with “important” meetings and competing demands for time. The phenomenon I describe of tired teaching is known in the professional literature. Weimer (2010) characterizes it this way:

it lacks energy and is delivered without passion; it is easily offended by immature student behaviors; it favors the tried and true over innovation and change; it does the minimum, be that feedback to students, office hours, or the use of technology; it decries the value of professional development and manifests a kind of creeping cynicism about almost everything academic. (p. 174)

Now, no teacher sets out to become a passionless teaching machine. Waning instructional vitality sets in with time but it can be dealt with when recognized. It is important, however, to acknowledge that no one institution, leader, or colleague can do this for us. Staying alive and fresh as a teacher will only result from purposeful action that we take.

So, how do we avoid being that instructor who plods through the day counting the years until retirement? Weimer (2010) offers a few helpful suggestions:

     Contribute toward a healthy institutional environment. Without this type of environment “we get frustrated, then furious. We get depressed, then disillusioned. We get tired, then exhausted. We get skeptical, then cynical” (p. 181).
     Recognize that there is much to learn about teaching. One must consider if experience teaches everything one needs to know.  And, are the lessons learned through experience always the right ones” (p. 184)? “Most would agree that experience is a good teacher, but not when it’s the only teacher” (p. 186). “Without an infusion of ideas and information from outside, without openness to other pedagogical methods, without recognition that education is a phenomenon that can be studied systematically and learned about endlessly, teaching stays put; it runs in place” (p. 185).
     Consider how to marry methods and content. This takes a sophisticated knowledge to accomplish and it often begins with recognition that some forms of content are best understood when processed collaboratively, some by experience, some by example, etc.  “What is taught and how it is taught are inextricably linked” (p. 187). The most effective teachers are not necessarily those with the most sophisticated content knowledge; the best teachers are often those with a continually growing repertoire of instructional strategies that develop along with their content knowledge.
     Embrace the power of change. A regular amount of change “does for teaching exactly what exercise does to improve overall health” (p. 192). That change can be in the form of new courses, new texts, new delivery modes (e.g., online), new students, etc.
     Infuse new ideas. Instructional vitality thrives on new ideas. Most would concur that regular pedagogical reading should be a part of every teacher’s life but research has consistently shown that this does not happen. Fortunately, new ideas and fresh insights are readily available in the form of professional development activities, consultation with faculty development specialists, and conversations with colleagues.
     Explore different conceptions of teaching.  What teachers believe about teaching has an impact on how they actually teach. Akerlind (2003) found that teachers typically start as teacher transmission-focused which revolves around covering material. This category is often followed by being teacher-student relations focused which is characterized by developing good relations with students as a way of motivating them. The next category, student engagement-focused, brings attention to what students (vs. the teacher) are doing. The final category is student learning focused. Teaching in this category is focused on assisting students in developing critical and original thinking, questioning of existing knowledge, exploring new ideas, and becoming independent learners. It is important to note that growth in conceptions about teaching does not occur automatically as careers progress. Movement on this developmental continuum requires conscious effort.

Bertolt Brecht once said, “The world of knowledge takes a crazy turn when teachers themselves are taught to learn.” Learning, especially as a teacher, is effectively summed up by thinking about the two characters for the word “learn” in the Chinese language. One character represents “study” and the other represents “practice constantly.”

It is an honor to author this blog post. What are your thoughts/feelings, experiences, questions, and suggestions related to being a tired teacher as you move into your new career?

Let us learn together!

Jay Rasmussen, Ph. D.
Bethel University
Professor of Education
Faculty Development Coordinator
Program Director MA in Education


Akerlind, G.S. (2003). Growing and developing as a university teacher: Variation in meaning. Studies in Higher Education, 28(4), 375-390.

Weimer, M. (2010). Inspired college teaching: A career-long resource for professional growth. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Monday, April 27, 2015

students whose behavior challenges us

Teachers know that students challenge us in a variety of ways. Knowing how to work with students who are challenges for these varieties of reasons is one of the main ways teachers consider themselves either successful or not. And this is not to be taken lightly, as 13% of U.S. teachers leave the profession every year, and many of those cite job dissatisfaction, including the challenging behaviors of students, as their reason for leaving.

There are a number of strategies to work with students when behaviors are challenging in the classroom. In Rappaport & Minahan's Cracking the Behavior Code, the authors outline strategies for work with a variety of challenging student behaviors.

Oppositional - A student exhibit oppositional behaviors have frequent outbursts, argue with or question rules, blames others for their mistakes, and maybe has tantrums.

For oppositional students, some accommodations are to modify schedules so the student can alternate between subjects she likes and those she doesn't. Arrange a quiet, alternate activity if recess is a challenge. Give open-ended, flexible assignments and assessments. Offer hands-on experiences. When interacting with an child exhibiting oppositional behaviors, focus on their strengths, avoid power struggles, avoid yes-no questions or asking "ok?" if making a request, and make indirect demands when possible. In addition, set limits that are enforceable, reasonable, clear, and simple.

Withdrawn - A child who is withdrawn, either consistently or occasionally, exhibits low motivation and interest, can be irritable, and have low energy. A withdrawn child may be experiencing depression, which is often accompanied by headaches, muscle fatigue and soreness, or stomachaches. They may be clingy with the teacher or act bored.

When thinking about accommodating students exhibiting withdrawn behaviors, teachers can support these students by setting up the child with a buddy for recess or specialists, teach experiential lessons, use students' interests in planning instruction and assessment, and foster self-efficacy. Interaction strategies that have shown to be effective include giving positive, specific feedback, reframe students' negative self-perceptions including sharing evidence to dispute those negative self-perceptions, and avoid using sarcasm. Other response strategies are to avoid over-helping withdrawn students in order to foster self-reliance and self-efficacy.

Anxious - A child who is anxious is easily frustrated, upset, or startled.  These students might have difficulty finishing work, avoid work, and frequently worry (about school as well as other areas). 

For children who are anxious, it is important to build a safe environment for their work. Anxious children appreciate frequent breaks and untimed assignments and assessments - broken into smaller chunks so they are not overwhelmed.  Meditation or calming exercises are particularly helpful rituals that can support students who are anxious, as well as teaching self-regulation strategies for what to do when they are feeling anxious. It can be helpful to be concise with directions, use activities to build self-esteem and self-efficacy, and work on building relationships within the class. In addition, avoid employing responses that reinforce avoidance such as time-outs, provide specific, positive feedback when students are self-regulating, and be explicit with the student about their anxiety and when the student is showing anxious behaviors. 

While it is late in the year, there is still time to practice new strategies when interacting with students exhibiting challenging behaviors.  What are your most effective strategies for working with challenging student behaviors?

Monday, April 13, 2015

the right questions

At the New Teacher Center annual symposium in February (great conference, btw), I learned about The Right Question Institute and the Question Formulation Technique. Since learning about it, I have used this successfully in a number of my classes, and have coached teachers to use it with their K-12 students. This is a great strategy to use to activate prior knowledge, to encourage questioning techniques, and to develop critical thinking skills.

The technique begins with a focus statement or an image. Students read the statement or view the image in class. For example, students in an ELA class might respond to a statement about a character in a common text, math students might view a graph or science students might view a picture of an X-ray, and social studies students might view a painting of a historical event. It is important that the focus is not a question, but rather a provocative statement or image that might evoke many questions from students. 

Students in small groups (or whole class, dictated to the teacher in lower grades), produce questions that are raised for them in response to the focus image or statement. Before beginning, students should identify a note taker for the group. There are four rules for students when producing questions:
- Ask as many questions as you can
- Do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer the questions
- Write down every question exactly as it is stated
- Change any statement into a question
Additionally, students should write questions that remain relevant to the topic.

Give the students a specific amount of time to produce questions (3 min, 5 min, 8 min, etc.) and then have them reread the questions. 

The next phase of the process is designed to improve questions. Students should now review the questions and identify the questions as either open-ended or closed questions. Students will need some instruction on this before they will be able to identify questions accurately. Not all students will agree on whether a question is open or closed, and that's ok! The debate is part of the process, as students are analyzing each question. Mark open-ended questions with an "o" and closed questions with a "c." 

Next, students should discuss the value of the each type of question, both in general and for the specific questions for the focus. What knowledge would they gain by answering the closed questions? The open-ended questions?

Once students have identified and debated the types of questions, students should work to change one type of question to another. Students should alter an open-ended question to be closed and vice versa. Students can discuss what knowledge they might gain from this process with those particular questions.  

Next, students evaluate the questions they have written and prioritize their three most important questions. As they narrow, they should be thinking about why they select each of their most important questions. 

Finally, students should discuss next steps: how will you use these questions? How would you answer these questions?

This process is really about supporting students in asking questions, rather than the process of answering the questions. Teaching students to be inquisitive and curious through asking questions is an important skill, one that can be well-supported with this strategy.

Try it out, and then post back here how it went!