Sunday, December 1, 2013

Gamifying AdVENTURE

Following up on the leaderboards I created a few days ago, the gamification idea really started to take hold. I am not up to the challenge of gamifing my whole classroom yet, but I started thinking more and more about gamifying a unit of study. After all, we do not play a game forever, we play it until we achieve the goal, and move on to another game.

I went on Edmodo looking for inspiration (thank you Edmodo gamification group), and tinkered with the material I already had to create:

Building these was not hard, just very time consuming. Even though I already had most of the materials from previous PBL units, putting everything together in a way that flowed, and that allowed me to keep track of mastery, objectives and content was a tiring endeavor. Feedback from actual students, who will be playing these games starting next week, was crucial in creating engaging, visually appealing quests that followed gaming more or less true to form.

Will I be rewarded with more student engagement and particularly effort towards mastery? That is yet to be seen. However, I did get the all important question "Can we start playing those right now?"

Further reading:
  • Farber, Matthew. "Beyond Badges: Why Gamify?" Edutopia. N.p., 11 June 2013. Web. 01 Dec. 2013. <>.
  • Miller, Andrew. "Get Your Game On: How to Build Curriculum Units Using the Video Game Model." Edutopia. N.p., 17 Oct. 2011. Web. 01 Dec. 2013. <>.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Gamification, starting really small

One of the buzzes in education out there is gamification. A simple search of the term yields thousands of results. Gamifing your classroom can offer meaningful experiences to students, in the virtual worlds they already inhabit, but what does this actually mean for the teacher, and my big question, how can I create game-based learning opportunities?

Starting Small

I have one recurring assignment that some of my students put little effort in: the Weekly Blogs. Although I have provided many exemplars, sentence frames, and scaffolds, these students just do a "whatever" job, and, although I religiously post rubrics with pointed feedback, I had never received a  corrected paper, until ...

While reading some Edmodo posts on Gamification, another teacher posted "I am ready to use GoogleDocs for my class Leader Board." This got me thinking, what about just taking the plunge, and without anything fancy just go ahead and create a leader board for blog posts. This is what I came up with:

The Result

A couple of minutes after posting this to my class, I started fielding e-mails and response posts along the lines of,
  • "How do I get more points?" 
  • "If I go and correct my post of _____, will I get more XP?"
  • "I need ___ more points to level up. I just corrected last week's post and added ___ Please, please look at it again."
  • "Oh no, I forgot to post on Friday. Here is the link!"

Now, why did I not do this before?

See the full infographic below for more cool ways games can help in schools, plus a timeline of educational games since 1985.

Gamification Infographic

Created by Knewton and Column Five Media

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Why weekly blogs are important to my students

It is Friday evening again, and you are sitting in front of your computer. It is weekly blog time, and for the umpteenth time you are wondering why I decided to inflict this torture on my students. "Science is supposed to be about experiments, not about writing. No student in the history of the world ever had to do this!"

So, why do I do I ask you to write a weekly blog?

Writing is about communicating your ideas, and making your thought process clear to your audience. You write to tell a story, to describe an event, to inform people and often, to convince them that you are right. When you write about something, you have to clarify your thoughts and organize them. It often leads to questions you did not know you had, and ideas you might be unaware that you understood.

You already write much more than you think. Every time you text, tweet, blog, e-mail and post on social networking sites, you are writing. In fact, young people now are writing more than ever before.;However, developing good writing, in any form, takes time and practice. Much like with any human endeavor, you will not one day just magically wake up and be a good writer. The sooner you start developing good writing habits and skills, the better your future prospects.

How will writing weekly blogs help me in high school and college?

As a high school student you will be expected to plan, draft, and complete error-free essays of about 1,500 words. You will need to independently select the appropriate form of writing for various audiences and purposes, including narrative, expository, persuasive, descriptive, business, and literary forms. You should produce complex sentence structures, and use sophisticated vocabulary. A recent survey conducted by Pew Internet & American Life Project  reported that "More than half of the sample (58%) report having their students write short essays, short responses, or opinion pieces at least once a week. Four in ten (41%) have students journal on a weekly basis."

This continues to build as you move on to college. As an example, Nancy Sommers,  writing scholar and long-time Director of Harvard's expository writing programs, states: Harvard students write a lot -- an average of 13 papers freshman year, with one out of four students in the sample group writing between 16 and 22 papers. (Sommers defines a paper as five or more pages.) In addition, freshmen typically write about 14 "response papers," one- to three-page exercises designed to prepare students for longer writing assignments. Although the number of papers drops each year, the typical length of papers rises, from five to 10 pages freshmen year, to 10-15 sophomore year, 20-25 junior year, and at least twice that length senior year.

Writing weekly blogs is nothing compared to what you will be expected to do in a few short years. If you are deliberate about doing them, and put the effort into doing a better job each time, you will get to high school and college ready to tackle the more complex writing assignments. These weekly blogs will also tell the story of your journey as a writer, increasing your confidence in your skills, and providing you with writing samples on which to build.

How will writing weekly blogs help me in my career?

No matter where you go or what you do, you will need to write. In 2004, the National Commission on Writing conducted a study of 120 major American corporations employing nearly eight million people and concluded that “In most cases, writing ability could be your ticket in . . . or it could be your ticket out.”

Survey findings also included the following:

  • People who cannot write and communicate clearly will not be hired and tend to not last long enough to be considered for promotion. 
  • Eighty percent or more of the companies in the service, finance, insurance, and real estate sectors actually test writing during hiring.
  • Two-thirds of salaried employees in large American companies have some writing responsibility, either explicit or implicit, in their position descriptions.
  • Half of all companies take writing into account when making promotion decisions. One succinct comment: “You can’t move up without writing skills.”
When the question "Are writing skills necessary anymore?" was posed in 2011 to several executives, consultants and business leaders from various disciplines by Joyce Russell from the Washington Post, the response was "Professionals spend more time each day writing and are inundated with written communications (e-mails, reports, memos and such), so it is imperative that employees be able to write succinctly and write well."

It will not matter how bright or skilled you are at your prospective career, if you cannot express yourself clearly in writing, or if your writing is riddled with spelling and/or grammar mistakes, you will loose credibility and job opportunities. Given comparable education and skills, the person with better writing skills will most likely be hired.

Writing your weekly blogs develops the skills you will need in order to write things like:
  • College applications
  • Personal statements
  • Financial aid applications
  • College essays, theses, and dissertations
  • Internship applications
  • Job applications
  • Résumés and cover letters
  • Internal and external e-mails
  • Formal and technical reports
  • Memos and correspondence
  • Corporate blogs
  • Client proposals and sales letters
  • Business negotiations

And yes, there's always those pesky standards...

In the Common Core State Standards there is a whole section just for writing in the content areas, which is why you are doing things like Writing Across the Curriculum, even in P.E. Your weekly blogs help determine what areas of your writing need explicit instruction. They help you practice to "Write routinely over extended time frames (time for reflection and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences." 

Your CCSS tests from now on will have you writing short answers and essays. For example, in 8th grade, your test booklet will have questions that look like: 
"Write an essay in which you answer these questions: In “Checkers,” Nixon argues that men who are not rich should be able to run for public office. One claim he makes implicitly is that he has served his country for many years. Another claim he makes explicitly is that he has not earned a lot of money in this service. Nixon provides a lot of facts in his speech. How does Nixon convince you that men like him, who are not rich, should be able to run for office? How relevant is his evidence, and does he provide enough evidence to show that he is not rich and yet serves his country well?"
followed by:
"At one point in his speech, Nixon quotes Lincoln, who said, "God must have loved the common people -- he made so many of them." What do you think the reference to common people means in this context? Explain what you think it might mean, as well as any historical or symbolic meanings the phrase might have in this context."
 How well do you think you will do if you have not taken the opportunity to develop your writing skills?

For those of you that have been blogging routinely since the year started, I invite you to look at your first post, and compare it to your latest one. I am sure that, like me, you can see the growth in your craft. Kudos to you.

If you belong in the group of students that tend to forget about the blogs, and wish they would just go away, know that I will not give up. Your future careers depend on it.


  • Purcell, Kristen, Judy Buchanan, and Linda Friedrich. "The Impact of Digital Tools on Student Writing and How Writing Is Taught in Schools." Part II: How Much, and What, Do Today's Middle and High School Students Write? PEW INTERNET & AMERICAN LIFE PROJECT, 16 July 2013. Web. 17 Nov. 2013. <>
  • Sommers, Nancy, and Laura Saltz. "The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshman Year."College Composition and Communication 56.1 (2004): 124-49. Web. 17 Nov. 2013. <>.
  • NATIONAL COMMISSION ON WRITING FOR AMERIC A’S FAMILIES. Writing: A Ticket to Work or a Ticket out. Rep. College Entrance Examination Board, Sept. 2004. Web. 17 Nov. 2013. <>.
  • Russell, Joyce. "Career Coach: Are Writing Skills Necessary Anymore?" Washington Post. N.p., 22 May 2011. Web. 17 Nov. 2013. <>.
  • "English Language Arts Standards » Writing » Grade 6-8." Common Core State Standards Initiative. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2013. <>.

Monday, October 14, 2013

"Just reading words"

Several weeks ago, I was doing a close reading activity with my students. We read, highlighted, questioned, circled and all those other wonderful things that tell teachers that the students have interacted with a text, right... WRONG.

As I walked the room redirecting, and conversing with the students, I stumbled upon a student who had a wonderfully color-coded paper. I got excited  and started asking questions. When he could not answer any of them the following conversation ensued:
- Just tell me, what did you read?
     - Words
- What do you mean words?
     - Yeah, you told us to read, and I read the words.
- What did they say?
     - I don't know, they were just words.
- So why did you highlight this sentence?
      - Because I was looking for the vocabulary words, and this sentence had several of them.

No matter how I tried to coax him, as he very simply had put it, he had "just read words". This started me thinking on how many of our students "just read words", and don't actually do the close reading that they need to achieve true literacy, even when we have worked hard at giving them a purpose, developed maps of knowledge, and read across disciplines. The strategies and skills needed need to help us develop that which Grant Wiggins defines as close reading:
"what “close reading” really means in practice is disciplined re-reading of inherently complex and worthy texts."
So now what do I do? How do I encourage my students to do a reading task with actual disciplined re-reading?

I began by searching high and low for something other than the highlighters that just "pretty up the paper" and annotations that do not mean anything.


I had used it myself, and even wrote a post about it not too long ago. While this works for students that are already adept at annotating on paper, it did very little for my "just reading words" students.


Works for me as a teacher tool, and for my visual learners as they are able to annotate images and create mini concept lessons. The biggest con for me is that it does require a narration.


The hands down winner for now. On this site, you upload a text (document or the web), and create layers of questions to which you can add other media - plus you can align them to Common Core. Students cannot move on in the text unless they type a response to the question. Once they do, they can also see what other students have responded. Both you and them can add notes to their copies, and comment on the answers. Also, blessing in disguise, they cannot go back and edit their original answer so if they just typed -blah- to get to move on, they cannot revise that. What would make it absolutely awesome (hint to developers) would be the ability to input a series vocabulary words that should be in the answer. Yes, it is a forced interaction, but for me, well worth the time.

Have you run across any other tools?

Further reading on close reading: The Critical Thinking Community

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Choosing a topic for 20%

I had my students brainstorming ideas for their 20% projects. I used the Bad Idea Factory (Kevin Brookhouser  -, and created a Google docs form, which allowed us to collect all ideas in one central location. The mission was to come up with as many ideas as possible, and the table with the most ideas would get a TBD prize.

While going over some of the ideas posted, I ran across my first problem - I had not been as clear as I thought. About half of the class was submitting ideas that could best be described as Science fair projects. I don't know if this was partly due to the fact that they were trying to come up with more ideas, or simply because the idea of a "project that will allow you to explore your personal interests" was too vague or overwhelming. I asked several groups about this, and the response was mostly along the lines "I always wanted to do/find out _____, but never had the chance". I did not want to crimp the curiosity, but I worried about night before the pitch syndrome, when they realized that curiosity does not equal passion. One of the students in this group came up to me later and asked, "What if I did all the experiments I want to do, and publish them as a series of videos?" I replied with what has become my mantra as I work through this with them:

"Would you be caught working on this on Superbowl Sunday, while your family has having a party?" 

Once I got over that hurdle, I was also faced with the students that really were stuck on even finding a topic. For those students I devised a kind of systematic elimination:

- List three big ideas that you like.
- Under those, write down a couple of areas of particular interest.
- Now, write down one project that you could do for those. (If you cant think of any, eliminate that area)
- For the few that are left, tell me "Who will benefit most from you working on this?" (Eliminate any that include the word but in your answer)
- Finally answer the question "Would you work on this when no one is watching (AKA: Superbowl Sunday with a party in the next room)? (Eliminate any that do not receive a resounding "Yeah")

This appeared to work, I'll let you know after I read the introductory blogs.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Edmodo at AdVENTURE

What is Edmodo?

Edmodo is an educational website that takes the ideas of a social network and refines them and makes it appropriate for a classroom. Using Edmodo, students and teachers can reach out to one another and connect by sharing ideas, problems, and helpful tips. The teacher can assign and grade work on Edmodo; students can get help from the entire class, and participate in discussions 24/7. A student that is absent one day, can easily log on and review not only the content that was/is being presented, but interact with the class in real time. Students also have access to pretty much all class materials, documents, simulations, articles, etc. by logging on and perusing what is posted.

Is Edmodo safe?

Yes. There is no bullying or inappropriate content, because the teacher can see everything that is posted on Edmodo. Inappropriate behavior is easily corrected by setting the student to read only, which allows him/her to still interact with the teacher and assignments, while limiting postings to the group.

How do I use Edmodo in the classroom?

I use Edmodo in the classroom in a variety of ways:

  • Assignments: Almost all of our learning opportunities have been digitized in some way. Students will log on to Edmodo, and check for assignments. In their assignments, they will be given a link to their project details (including entry documents, due date(s), tasks, processes and rubrics). 

As they progress through the assignment, students are able to post interesting things they find, comments, struggles and victories, and myself and the class can provide feedback and guidance. Once the project is completed, the students can turn in the digital copy of their work to the assignment for grading. As the work is graded, the students receive a digital copy of the rubric, and, depending on the assignment, can access an annotated copy of the work for further development.

  • Quizzes: Edmodo allows me to create quizzes to share with the students. The student complete a quiz, and get their grades immediately (if it can be scored automatically), and I am able to provide personalized feedback. If the student is absent, he/she can take the quiz at home.

  • Communication: This is probably the most exciting feature. Edmodo allows me and the students to communicate with each other, and continue class conversations outside of class. Whenever I find additional curriculum related materials (videos, simulations, etc.) that I think may help the students understand the concepts better, I post links with a note on how it may help the student (particularly helpful if a student is absent). If a student finds something of interest to their project or for someone else's project, they can also post it as a note. All students can then interact with all materials without having to go on random searches on their own.

  • Digital Libraries: Students can create digital libraries (called backpacks) for housing the content they find online.

Can parents have Edmodo accounts?

Yes. Here is a link that gives details on Edmodo Parent accounts. It is worth noting that a student can and should have their own Edmodo account. Parent accounts are linked to their particular student(s), and parents cannot post to the classroom or even to their own students.

More Information: 


Thinking outside the box - from worst to best lesson ever!

Little bit of background

This past week, my 5th grade students and I have been working to gain understanding about levels of organization in organisms. We did several readings, watched a couple of videos, and when the formative assessments told me they were ready, we started to build an organ in the traditional activity from Beacon Learning Center, "just like in years past."

Cool, right!

What actually happened

Big bunch of nothing. Presented with the fsummative assessment, the students were unable to make the connection between the readings, the activity and the question. Never mind that they had shown me before that they understood and were ready (Who am I kidding, ready to regurgitate information. No thinking required)

Now I could blame everyone involved (the kids, myself, their previous teachers, their parents, etc.), but that would not help anyone. They needed something else to visualize; to tell the story in their brains or a hook on which to hang this knowledge.

Enter that box of trains

I started thinking in terms of analogies. Brick to wall to room to house. I even started thinking about having different types of tissue in a house (and that is a lesson for another day). But then inspiration struck, as always, while doing mindless chores. In this case picking up my son's trains. I started forming the idea. each piece of track is a cell, several together form a tissue, complete an oval for an organ (yeah, because this gives it a function), and finally, connect them together for an organ system. O joy!

Back in the classroom

The students enter to find tracks on their tables. Some immediately get to work connecting pieces of track, while others wait patiently. I say nothing. After a couple of minutes (taking role and the like), a student asks, "What are we doing today?".
         - "Building a railroad."

The students soon realized that they did not have enough individual pieces, so they asked me for more. I replied that they could join forces with other tables, and that they had to use every piece of track available. After a while, they had a complete layout, and I gave them some trains to play with. With 15 minutes left in the period, I posed the question "How is this railroad related to what we have been studying?" (You know that moment when the students' faces reflect that big Aha.) Most hands shoot up, and I hear, "May I correct my test?"

My reply... Of course you may.

And guess what, every single student passed :)

Saturday, August 24, 2013

e-Portfolios at AdVENTURE

I have been looking for a way for my students to understand what exactly it is to become a life-long learner.
How do I get students to "get" that the work we do can be so much more than just another assignment? That their effort goes beyond the classroom and can have an impact on their future lives.

As all students do, the learners that come into my classroom complete assignments, discuss their work and show what they have accomplished to myself and the class. Whenever possible we post things on the walls, on our website, and even create collections using QR codes. However, as we move towards a more paperless classroom, and with the availability of most of our work in digital formats, and often in the cloud, I am moving towards having our students create digital portfolios that they can continue to use beyond our four walls, to showcase what they have accomplished, not only to me and to the class, but to their parents, future teachers, and if they choose to the world.

How exciting it would be to have a collection of artifacts that they can use to demonstrate their growth. How incredible to have available work that they did in middle-school as a basis for their Master's thesis!

What is the purpose of the digital portfolio?

To demonstrate the student's achievement of the knowledge and skills they acquire throughout AdVENTURE. The e-Portfolio will show the growth and improvement of the student in all curricular areas, as they read, discuss and respond to the learning opportunities presented to them, becoming a thoughtfully arranged collection of multi-media-rich documents that the students compose, own, maintain and archive on the internet.

What are the components of the digital portfolio?
Tier 1: Portfolio as storage: 
As students respond to an assignment, they create digital artifacts using several tools such as Google docs, Glogster, Pixton, etc. These artifacts are organized and stored in the cloud. 

Tier 2: Portfolio as workspace:
Students use Blogger to capture background information on an assignment, and respond to prompts. Students use close reading strategies and collaborate in Diigo to annotate web-based articles and hyperlink their work to their blog in preparation for Tier 3.

Tier 3: Portfolio as reflective journal:
Students use Blogger to reflect on their learning as represented in the samples of their work. Students answer to prompts that require meta-cognitive abilities.

Tier 4: Portfolios as showcase:
Students organize a presentation portfolio around a set of learning outcomes, goals or standards, hyper-linking to the supporting documents. Students think back over the learning represented in the specific artifacts selected as evidence of learning, and present their rationale for why they believe these artifacts are clear evidence or their achievement of learning.

In addition to answering the "What?" and "So What?" questions, students address the "Now What?" question to include future learning goals in their presentation portfolios.

How will the portfolios be assessed?

Through all the different tiers of portfolio development, students will be given the option to update the work, based on the feedback and the rubric. The power of peer review comes into play, as students comment on and provide feedback. Parents and mentors can also become participants in the development of the student portfolio, providing opportunities to connect with student's opinions and ideas, and share intellectual curiosity.

Examples please!


Saturday, August 10, 2013

Diigo in Close Reading

The Common Core Reading Benchmarks call for an increase in the lexile difficulty of student text, as well as an increase in the reading of informational text at all grade levels. This has led to many PDs on close reading strategies, and for me, some anxiety in the whole highlighter, coding, copying of materials.
"Is yellow used for main ideas, do we circle AND highlight?"
"What if I do not have the right colors or codification scheme?"
"All this coding needs to work for me if I am to be able to teach it to my students!"
As I sat pondering the answers to these questions, and at the same time refusing to run over to the copy machine to once again create hundreds of copies of papers that will then end up at the bottom of a backpack, crumpled up, before finally making their way to the recycle bin, I remembered another PD from several years ago about Diigo. As I vaguely remembered the tools, you could bookmark, highlight and add comments, so I figured, what about using that with the students? So I went on over, and came up with this structure for my students:

1. Yellow highlight - New words or confusing phrases (add a sticky note that defines the word or clarifies the phrase)
2. Blue highlight: Phrases the lead you to ask questions (add a sticky note that states the question - so that it can be posed during our class discussion)
3. Green highlight: Main idea
4. Pink highlight: Phrases that provide evidence or examples (add a sticky note that explains how this is an example or how the author provided evidence)
5. Sticky note(s) that provide your response to the article.

Using this scheme, I made a little exercise for myself: Diigo 

and it did work :) After some stumbles, I was able to annotate and then re-open the annotated page. I will need some more practice, but I was pleased with the ease with which I was able to accomplish the task.

Now this was done on a personal account, but supposedly with an educator account (free), you are able to also have students share annotations, which should lead to some interesting class discussions.

Right now, my only complaint is that I do not know how to change the "1" into some other character. Would it not be powerful if it could be changed into some of the coding (?,!,*,ex) that I am supposed to be teaching?

In any case, now I need to make sure we can use Diigo behind my school's firewall, and that I set aside time to download the toolbar on all our devices. (Hopefully a student job!)

I also see this as a wonderful addition to the research portion of our 20% projects.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Stereotype threat in 20% projects, or just more "wall candy"

As I keep planning for our 20% project, some ideas of possible difficulties keep bouncing in my head. What about my students that do not see themselves as scientists or innovators? What about those that already believe that they cannot accomplish the goal? How can I counteract these fixed mindsets?

I just finished reading "Whistling Vivaldi: How stereotypes affect us and what we can do to" by Claude Steele, and came away with some big ideas that I wish to share:
"The identity contingencies that made the biggest difference in our functioning seemed to threaten or restrict us in some way... Remind test takers of identities that counter the relevant stereotype"
Steele's studies suggest that environmental cues could have a lasting effect on the performance of individuals under stereotype threat. In this case, "Would an environmental cue, like the one that follows, overcome the influence of the negative stereotype associated with minorities in Science, by reminding students that all ethnicities present in my classroom have accomplished greatness?", or will it just become one more piece of wall candy?

The hope is that this information will enable my students to create a more hopeful personal narrative, by allowing them to see themselves in the faces of the individuals.

The second big idea, critical feedback is well, critical. How can I ensure that my feedback is not seen as alienating, but rather as an opportunity for growth?
 "By changing the way you give critical feedback, you can dramatically improve minority students' motivation and receptiveness."
Steele suggests using what he dubbed "the Tom Ostrom strategy". Basically it boils down to the feedback giver explaining that  he/she used high standards in evaluating the work, and that he/she believed the student could meet those standards. This implies that any criticism is offered to help the student meet the standards, and not as a critique of the individual or a confirmation of a bad stereotype.

With this in mind, and Carol Dueck's research on growth mindset, I need to work towards fostering in my students the idea that the 20% project is an opportunity to practice, and train ourselves to become more intelligent than we were before. It is not a confirmation of intelligence reserved only to those bright enough, but rather a way to develop the passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even if things do not go well.

100% of my students will achieve greatness, now let's get started.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Brainstorming for 20%

One of the things that scares me the most is guiding students through the choice of projects. How do I ensure the value of the time, while avoiding project jumping?

Two of my students actually live with me, (yes, I have both of my children in my classroom) and as I have been thinking about this project, I have shared with them the ideas behind it, as well as the challenges I envision. As kids often do, they immediately started thinking of ideas of what to do during 20%, given my boring constraint of "It has to be related to STEM in some way" (after all, that I know of,  Google does not support starting a garage band as part of their 20% time). So my son comes up to me and states, I am going to become a "Call of Duty" Master; it is a video game so it is STEM related. Although we did have a discussion on how this is not a good investment of his time and the like, I started thinking about how many of my other students would try something like this.

Enter two articles that I ran across almost by chance:

First "We don't Like Projects" (, which gave me some questions to ask the students as they embark on this project (or any of our PBL units):

"Before granting resources to our students to begin working on their projects, we ask the following:
Is this something you'll be proud of in five years? Or will you at least be proud of the younger you for taking this on five years ago?
Does this combine two or more disciplines?
Will you work on this when no one is watching over you?
Who else cares about the results of your project?
What content do you think you'll learn? "

This first step gives me some guiding questions . I particularly like the third and fifth as a way to further put the learning at the fore-front of the students' minds as they tackle project selection.

Then, and almost magically "How to actually use Wikipedia in the Classroom" (, which I envision as a starting point for students that might be mired in the "Just tell me what to do". If they first read an entry or two about a topic that interests them, they can jump to a series of questions related to "What is missing from this Wikipedia article? What do you think should be added? How can you ensure its reliability? Can you Google the answers to your questions, and what other questions then arise?" or something along those lines.

Will it work? I am not sure, but it is definitely worth a try :)

Thursday, July 18, 2013

From motivation to volition

The topic of grit and motivation has been in my thoughts lately. My students do not necessarily lack motivation. They are motivated to succeed, they want the grades; they want the pride; they want the status. What is it then that is keeping them from achieving?

In search of an answer I have been reading Paul Tough's "How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character". While not actually a road-map, this book has brought to the forefront the idea of volition as actually more important than motivation, and the question "How to teach students to choose to achieve instead of just want to achieve?"

Don't get me wrong, wanting is great. Unfortunately wanting is not enough. For example: I want my students to succeed, and therefore, I spend hours souring for and developing lessons that will engage them and motivate them. I look at standards, set goals, develop rubrics, include interesting videos, games and simulations. This approach has worked for me and my students report loving my class. Together we have done some good things.

However, if instead I had "chosen that my students succeed", the framing of those good lessons would have been different. Tough states, "Choosing creates the bridge between the present and the future reality. It identifies obstacles and leads to the creation of specific implementation plans which allow you to overcome said obstacles." With this in mind, I would have delved more deeply into what they actually need to succeed,  identifying obstacles in the process, and leading me to develop not only the Science content that I teach, but also the related skills in ELA, Math and Social Studies. How great could my Human Body 2.0 project be, if I tie in social structures, ratios and public speaking? If this is true, I need to go back and move things from good to great.

In this context, then I also need to let the students experience the change. In the 20% time that I am planning, I need to explicitly model and have students move from the motivation of "I want to become ..." to "I choose to become ..." The Ted Talk pitch will need to reveal the choice, and the action plan will need to precisely identify obstacles and ways to overcome them. This is where I see the mentors as a key piece in the puzzle.

With this goal in mind, "I choose to become better at my craft." Now, I need to go develop my action plan!

Friday, July 5, 2013

Project Based Learning

Aside from the 20% project, I have also been updating my PBL units. When I started, these read like webquests, but as I have become more comfortable with giving students choice, and becoming more familiar with  PBL, some have become entry documents.You can take a look here: Project Binder.

I have run all of these projects in my class, some more successfully than others. Human Body 2.0 (geared towards 7th grade) for example, was one of the ones that ended up having mixed success. The students were definitely engaged and came up with wonderful ideas. However, they had trouble with the end products as they had a hard time conceptualizing that when you change one system, there are others that need to change too. How will I run it differently? I am still thinking about it, but I will definitely run it again.

On the flip side, Evolution, gave rise to great connections such as the cladogram created by one team that tied in the learning about evolution to the evolution of video games:

For more exemplary projects visit us at AdVENTURE.

Monday, July 1, 2013

From the beginning

A couple of months ago I stumbled upon the 20% project. I thought I was alone, and by the way brilliant, in thinking that I could adapt it for my classrooms. Never did I think that this is more or less old news and that brilliant teachers before me have already done such good things. In any case, I am planning to implement it starting this fall as a combination of Genius hour (first semester - student focused) and 20% project (second semester - human and/or product focused).

I teach at a Science to 4 groups of students (5-8th grade), and a Flash "elective" at a STEM program, therefore my class is a PBL learning environment where my students have created some wonderful things, However, all of these projects are mostly teacher driven. We study the standards, come up with the questions and develop projects/problems for the students to solve. Students then decide what they need to know, do some research to learn the content and set about solving the problem or creating the products to come up with solutions. What is oftentimes missing from this equation is the passion for learning new things. The quest to study outside of class and to bring in new materials to study, not for the sake of getting a grade, but because there is a real investment in the outcome. This is what brought me to the 20% project.

In the interest of paying it forward (and backward), and with the disclaimer that I have borrowed a lot of material from the amazing trailblazers behind


For over 20 years a trend in education has been gaining momentum that suggests the role of the teacher ought to shift away from an industrial model where the teacher stands in the front of the classroom to dispense knowledge through lectures, and the students sit to consume the information. Rather than being the “sage on the stage” as some pedagogical experts maintain, teachers increasingly ought to play the role of the “guide on the side.” In this role, the students play a much more active role in how the content and knowledge is acquired. In this model, teachers provide resources, ask questions, and allow students to develop projects  to explore the content. 

The goal of AdVENTURE's 20% project is to provide students with the space and time to explore their passions and take control of their own learning. Why? Watch the following videos that put it much more eloquently than I ever could.






Who started this?

3M started it in the 1950’s with their 15% project. The result? Post-its and masking tape! Google is credited for making the 20% project what it is today. They asked their employees to spend 20% of their time at work to work on a pet project…a project that their job description did not cover. As a result of the 20% project at Google, we now have Gmail, AdSense, and Google News. Innovative ideas and projects are allowed to flourish and/or fail without the bureaucracy of committees and budgets.

How does this tie into the standards?

Although the connections to CCSS are abundant, here are some of my favorite:

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.7 Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.10 Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

“Students also acquire the habits of reading independently and closely, which are essential to their future success.”

Research to Build and Present Knowledge
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.6-8.7 Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.6-8.8 Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.6-8.9 Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis reflection, and research.

Range of Writing
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.6-8.10 Write routinely over extended time frames (time for reflection and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.

Science and technical Subjects

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.2 Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; provide an accurate summary of the text distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.3 Follow precisely a multi-step procedure when carrying out experiments, taking measurements, or performing technical tasks.

Standards for Mathematical Practice
CCSS.Math.Practice.MP3 Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
CCSS.Math.Practice.MP4 Model with mathematics.

My Top 5 Reasons

1. Depth of Knowledge

By participating in the 20% project, students will become experts in their own topic. Along the way, they will learn the skills necessary to acquire, manipulate and communicate information effectively.

2. Passion

Passionate people are successful people. Students need time to find their passions. Oftentimes students struggle to communicate what their passions really are. They need time to explore their wonders (and often need some guidance with this, too) so that they can figure out what they love to do.

3. Inquiry based learning. 

Students will form their own inquiry questions to investigate. Being able to ask questions is a key competency that we need to develop.

4. Teaches resilience. 

Students will fail during 20% time. And they will problem solve and figure out another way to look at the problem. In real life failure happens, but we learn from our mistakes. Think Post-its, synthetic dyes, Teflon and penicillin.

5. Positive peer pressure

Students will get to share with the entire learning community what they are working on. Publicly announcing what they are trying to accomplish makes the goal real.