Friday, April 29, 2011

Meeting Parents Half Way

by Steven W. Anderson

If you have read any of my leadership posts in the past you know I am all about reflection. One of the most important things good leaders do is reflect. Time must be taken to think about the direction our organizations are going and if any adjustments, at any level, need to be made.

Many leaders, schools and districts have done a great job with reflection. They have looked at everything from the way kids get to school to what is done with them while they are there to teachers and the types of professional development offerings.


There is one place that maybe we don’t think about much. Or it might be an afterthought. Or in some cases ignored all together.


I will admit, when I was in a leadership position (School Improvement Team Chair) when I was at the school level I didn’t think about it. Our group worried about test scores, staff morale, bullying and other topics. But, like any leader should do I have since reflected on that time I spent in that position and realized we missed chance to really think about parents and what their perceptions of our building were.

Parents should be advocates on our side. But sometimes they are seen as the enemy rather than our ally. There are lots of terms out there. Absent parents. Helicopter Parents. Parents We Love To Hate. But they are still parents. We still want to believe they have the best interests of their child in mind, just like we should.

And it isn’t just schools. Individual classrooms are that way as well. When I was in the classroom I had a teammate that refused to call parents, sit in on conferences, just about have nothing to do with them. She said her job was to teach kids and didn’t get paid enough to “deal” with parents.

The whole point of this is we have to think differently about our parents. The best ally you can have in your classroom is your parents. Think about it. When you want to do something “outside the box” it is easy for your admin to shoot you down. It’s a lot tougher for them to shoot down a room of 30 parents. (Now don’t go doing anything against your admins wishes and said it was ok because I told you so. I will deny everything.)

There is a cliche about flies and honey and vinegar that fits in here...

One of the issues with parents and schools that comes up time and time again is that many parents are bitter towards schools because of their own experiences growing up. In the current reform movement the battle cry is that our schools have virtually remained the same for the past 100 years. So this argument makes sense.

I was talking to a teacher the other day about another teacher at his school. He was saying there is a teacher there that has been there for 34 years. Quite amazing and something to be proud of. Except every year the admin in this school has trouble putting kids in her class because many of the parents had her as students and remembered their experiences and don’t want their child to have the same.

I dunno about you but I don’t think I would want to be remembered that way.

There are a lot of issues at play here with parents. But I think there are some things schools can do to be more parent friendly. And this isn’t even a list of things you can necessarily do. Just some things to think about.

Look at your building from your parents point of view. When they get there do they know where to go? Who greets them? It all comes back to customer service. Silly I know but it’s true. Even if your school secretary (or teacher) has had a bad day, the parent walking through that door doesn’t know that or the circumstances around that. Each parent that walks through those doors is a guest. We have to remember that.

When was the last time we asked parents what they really though about the classroom, teacher, school or district? If we want to be better we have to understand our weaknesses. By asking the parents what we are good at and what we could be better at we can begin to change our school culture, for the better and perhaps change minds.

How many parents are involved in major school decisions? Sure there might be a PTSA. But I mean on your School Improvement Team or Leadership Team. Do they have membership there. In NC we are required to have a parent involved on our teams. Perspective is important. And they can sometimes see things we don’t when it comes to our buildings.

What do you think? What works well in your building or your classroom when it comes to parents? What could you be doing better? Leave some comments below.

You may also want to checkout the archive from this week’s #edchat. It was all about parents and there were some really great things said and ideas toss around. 

Image CC DoctorStrange

Question of the Day: Filtering? Meh.

Question of the Day:

While filtering software might be a necessary CYA for many schools, in reality how does the spread of and other ubiquitous and undetectable anti-filter and anti-censorship tools change the way school leaders need to think about blocking and monitoring access? And how do such tools fundamentally alter the kind of conversation we need to have about access?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Question of the Day: Best PD?

Today's question of the day:

What is the best professional development experience you have ever had as an educator? Why?

This could have been something f2f, something online, a mixture of the two, something handed to you by admins, something that came from the ground up, faculty-driven, student-driven, driven by a desire to have a mad good lunch buffet...

Let' share; comment away!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Movement Matters: A Kindergarten Memory

by John T. Spencer

I have a kindergarten memory that I carry around with me, reminding me why students sometimes wander - both physically and philosophically.

Station time begins and I'm lost in the chaos and the movement and the sense that everybody but me knows where to go. It's not that I wasn't listening. It's that I didn't find the directions important. I listened when she read the story. I paid close attention to the explanation of patterns. I thought I listened when she gave directions, but then, I don't know, they slipped away somehow.

I wander toward the window and stare at the hallway.

"What are you doing right now?" the teacher gently asks.

"I'm looking out the window," I tell her without the slightest bit of eye contact.

"What are you looking at?" she asks.

"I'm looking at the orange-haired boy . . ."

"Red-haired?" she asks.

"Nuh huh, it's orange. Take a look," I point.

"Why are you looking at him?" she asks.

"Because he has no idea what's going to happen to him. Soon he'll be in kindgergarten and then it's going to be forever when he finishes school and then right when he finishes it, he's going to have to go to college. Then some day he'll sit down at a desk and won't be allowed to leave that either.  It's like it never stops," I say.

"I thought you liked this class," she says with a pained expression on her face.

"I do. School is fun. But I wish I could run out there and tell him to enjoy the freedom. I'd tell him to get out of the stroller and run around, because pretty soon he'll be told where to sit. I would tell him to play while he has the chance," I say.

It's not as if I love learning and hate school. It's just that I recognize, in this moment, that school is a broken gift.

I sigh, turn around and find my way to my station with the low group. We're not supposed to know that we're the low group. After all, we're the tigers. But if we are the tigers, we're either defanged or in a zoo, yearning for a chance to be wild.

John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at  He recently finished two books, Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and Drawn Into Danger, a fictional memoir of a superhero (that you can download on Kindle for $1.00.  Seriously, a buck. That can't even buy you a decent cup of coffee)

If I were in charge of curriculum or edtech, I would...

by David Andrade,

Monday, Teach Paperless had a blog post asking readers to finish the statement, "If I were an administrator, I would...". 

I replied with "encourage teacher collaboration, support teachers in every way possible, encourage projects and team work, visit classrooms and talk to students, work WITH the faculty, parents and students to make the school the best it could be."

I wanted to expand on this idea and list what I would do if I were in charge of curriculum or educational technology for my district.

1. Implement Project Based Learning throughout the curriculum and in every grade. I would also want it to be interdisciplinary. 

2. Change the curriculum to be more in depth, and less breadth of topics (complaint of colleges). I would still have to make sure students are prepped for standardized testing (unfortunately), but I would look at better ways of having students learn and be able to do well on a test without resorting to teaching to the test.

3. Make sure the curriculum applies what students are learning to the real world. They won't remember a lot of facts and details, but if things apply to real life, it can make them better consumers and better citizens (by being knowledgeable). 

4. The curriculum should emphasize discovery, inquiry, teamwork, critical thinking, and problem solving, not remembering tons of facts. 

5. Ala Carte Professional Development for teachers - let them pick and decide what they need and want for training and support them throughout the year. 

6. Research, find, implement, and support new technologies that can improve teaching and learning. Find free (or cheaper) resources to replace paid or more expensive resources. (Ex. Google Apps for Education and Open Office instead of Microsoft).

7. Provide year-round support to teachers who are using and implementing technology resources. Make sure that they have both technical support and integration support. Ask teachers what they need or want for resources and help them find it. 

This is my short list of what I would want to do as an administrator. What would you do if you were in charge of curriculum or educational technology for your district? (and if you are in charge, what you do?)

Monday, April 25, 2011

Complete this Thought...

This one's for the teachers to answer:

If I were an administrator, I would...

Illuminated Letters - 21st Century Style

By Steve Katz
Cross posted on my blog.
We were studying the Middle Ages in my seventh grade social studies class. We learned about monks and monasteries and illuminated letters. When I have taught this unit in the past I always have my students draw an illuminated letter by hand. This year my class is paperless, so the students created the letters on their computers using various software. The software a majority of students chose to use is Paintbrush (Mac), a free download. I have posted a few letters below. You can see all of the illuminated letters here.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Culture vs. Control

by Mike Kaechele

This week I had the chance to visit Columbus Signature Academy in Indiana. It is part of the New Tech Network of schools which are problem based learning high schools. The first thing I noticed was the open spaces and architecture (I blogged about that here). It was designed for students to use the "hallways" as gathering/learning spaces.
CSA "common space"
The second and more lasting thing I noticed was the students. They were in hallways and classrooms. They were on laptops, listening to headphones, working independently, working in groups, and working on projects. Everyone seemed engrossed in whatever tasks they were involved in. Not everyone was doing the same thing. It was not quiet, but it also was not loud either. The one group of people I had a hard time locating were the teachers.

I got to spend two days at the school and talked to many of the students. We had official student guides and student panels, but my favorite part was just talking to random students in the building. Every student I talked to confidently explained to me what they were working on and honestly answered any questions. These students have "tours" of their school all of the time and are comfortable with public speaking.

I got the same message from all of them. They enjoyed being in the school and were genuinely proud of it. The school was only three years old and the junior class had helped start it. They helped create the handbook and the expectations for each space in the school. The school has no bells or hall passes. Students are treated as professionals and not micro-managed. The students had a true sense of ownership of their school.

The students talked about the importance of having a voice, working in groups, and how they preferred PBL to traditional learning. It is important to note that these were not "special" students in any way. They were chosen by lottery and represent the demographics of their district. But you can tell that every student feels special because they are part of a school that they care about. They are invested in their school and in their own learning.

I know this school works hard to establish and grow this culture among students. It all starts by assuming students are responsible and expecting them to act that way. Instead of trying to control students, they empower students to take responsibility. Then they give students choices in meaningful projects that are shared with experts in the community. Students hold themselves accountable to do quality work to represent themselves and their school.

Yes, this school is 1-1 with laptops, but what really makes it stand out is the learning climate of trust and responsibility. Are students working and on-task every second? Of course not, and neither am I.

Do you trust your students enough to let them learn by exploring interesting problems together? Or are you too busy trying to control them to make sure they get the appropriate standardized learning experience?


Yesterday I was organizing my mail folders in Gmail and I wanted to move two of the labels that I don’t use very often to the end of the list. It is easy to move something to the top of the alphabetical order by placing a symbol (~, $, *) or a space in front of the word. I was hoping that some of these symbols would fall at the end of the alphabet. I checked an ASCII table, figuring my answer was there. I was wrong. The symbols listed after Z didn't alphabetize to the end of the list as I had hoped. I decided to play with the Character Viewer (Mac), and after trying various symbols ✄ ✓ ✠ ✩ I found that the Greek alphabet comes after the letter Z. One cool thing about using the Greek alphabet was that the letters look the same as in English but send my labels to the bottom of the list. “ADE” in the image below actually starts with the Greek letter alpha, and “Korea Network” with kappa.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Happy Earth Day!

Wondering how many folks out there have managed to go paperless or nearly paperless since last April 22nd. And wondering about what kind of effects it is having on their teaching and the way they think about learning.

Leave a comment and tell us what you've been up to.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Paperless Classroom Presentation

By Steve Katz
Also posted on my blog.
Below is the presentation I gave to the wonderful educators from BIS Canada in Korea on Friday, April 15, 2011.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Between the Branded

by John T. Spencer

In the name of "digital citizenship," students are encouraged to engage in social networking and develop an online personna that will serve them well in life.

"Keep your comments nice," we warn them.

"Make sure to avoid profanity in your blog.  An employer might see it someday."

"Hey kid, you might want to be careful about getting shit-faced drunk and posting the picture to Facebook. That vapor trail lasts forever."

I get it.  We want students to behave appropriately.  We want to see acceptable use.  We don't want a juvenile mistake to screw a kid up for a lifetime.

And yet . . .

Sometimes I wonder if we're encouraging students to self-market rather than engage in meaningful interaction.  Sometimes it seems that students are encouraged to post only their best work, ask only the best questions, avoid anything remotely offensive on their Twitter and keep their Facebook squeeky clean.

We're asking them to hide.

We're asking them to create a brand of themselves that will then be used to self-market for the rest of their lives.  For all the talk of meaningful learning and authenticity, the system often reminds students that social media is a megaphone and therefore, we'd be best to avoid being insensitive or offensive.

I ask students to watch what they post online.  Filter it through the lens of "anybody can see this."  I ask students to develop portfolios and post their best work.  I hammer the concept of digital citizenship.  Sometimes, though, I wonder if it's all in preparation for building a brand, finding a niche and the perpetual self-marketing that plagues the adult world.

I get it.  I don't want students to be lost in the future.  I don't want them to pay permanently for a mistake made in the eighth grade.  

And yet . . . 

Adolescents need to experiment socially.  Ever worked with teenagers?  Their ups are way up and their downs are way down and they can be brutally honest in a way that adults often curb.  They are figuring out relationships.  They are engaged in friendships with training wheels.

Asking students to "be nice" might be great in managing liability, but it fails to reach them at their level and ultimately it fails in the purpose of education.  If I want students to become honest, ethical critical thinkers, I'm not sure the model needs to be Mr. Rogers.

I want students to be themselves, unfettered and unbranded.

John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at Education Rethink.  He recently finished two books, Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and Drawn Into Danger, a fictional memoir of a superhero. You can connect with him on Twitter @johntspencer

Monday, April 18, 2011

I Don't Want More Professional Development

by Shelly Blake-Plock

We don't need more "professional" development. We need social development. Or at least we need to recognize it and recognize that the ultimate outcomes we often desire from the best of professional development are actually an outcome of social development. We need a development of human capacity, not an adherence to the rules of our established profession. We need to build our relationships for the purpose of furthering our humanity, not furthering our careers.

And we know this instinctually. We know that Rosetta Stone can teach a foreign language as well if not better than a foreign language teacher, no matter how much "professional development" a teacher has; and yet through real relationships and social competence, that foreign language teacher can foster a love of language that trumps the didactic prowess of the program.

We know that the best thinkers will end up skipping over much of what we put in front of them to pursue their own interests despite whatever "professional development" we have; and we can either nail 'em for failing to read whatever arbitrary 19th century novel we put in front of them or we can celebrate their independence and the bloom of autodidactism that we have often recognized in ourselves -- not because an expert told us it was there, but because we've had our eyes open for a long time... that's part of the reason we are teachers to begin with, after all.

We know that our ability to follow the procedure of a learning strategy will never trump our ability to look into the eyes of a student and say, "trust me".

We are teachers and we are in the business of relationships, motivation, and the facilitation of dreams.

And so we develop ourselves. On blogs. On Twitter. Throughout the PLN. We have used the opportunity of the tools at our disposal to engage in an older and vastly more satisfying form of professional development than the mandatory in-service. We've developed a relationship with development. We are engaging with our growth and our communal experience in an open, social, and mutually beneficial way.

We are all teachers teaching teachers. We are all responsible for each other's development. We are responsible for our profession, yes; but more importantly, we are responsible for our kids' futures. And the future isn't built on "a way" of doing something. It's built on finding a way -- and the emphasis is on the finding.

And for all of our theories, all of our curriculum design, all of our talk of standards and guidelines -- nothing trumps the fact that the world is not a well-oiled machine.

There is no such thing as perfect grammar. There is no such thing as a right answer.

There are only relationships between things.

The world is not professional. The world -- at least our communal experience of it and of one another -- is social. So let's keep up this conversation. Let's help one another out. And let's keep our eye on the meandering path of the ever changing social development of that thing we call education and those we call educators.

Say It Here

"Educators should..."

Let's do a little out-of-compartment brainstorming together. Follow this link to the "Say It Here" GDoc and share thoughts, ideas, pics, snippets, free associations, and philosophical brain tweaks. No rules, just ideas.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Taking organizing and planning lessons from Ben Franklin - great tips for educators too

by David Andrade,

I recently saw Ben Franklin’s daily schedule and planner on Larry Ferlazzo’s website (which is an awesome resource for educators). I was a long time user of Franklin Quest (now Franklin Covey) paper planners and used their planning software and methods on my first PDA and had heard that they had gotten some of their ideas for planning from Ben Franklin, but had never seen Ben’s planner. It was very cool seeing it. 

Ben Franklin was a prolific inventor and scientist and believed in being organized and on task. Many of his quotes and ideas are still in use today.

If you look at Ben’s schedule, you’ll see that he has two questions he asks himself and then some things he does every day. He asks himself “What good shall I do this day?” and then “What good have I done today?”. These are great questions to ask oneself when planning your day and then reflecting on your day, especially as an educator. Review your lesson plans for the day and get prepared. At the end of the day, review how the lessons went. Was there anything that should be changed or addressed next time? I also like how he has standard things he does everyday, like “taking the resolution of the day” and “prosecute the present study”. I take these as looking at what my goals are for the day and getting ready to do them. At the end of the day, he puts things away, relaxes, and reflects on his day.

This is something we all should do every day. Get up and get ready for the day. Think about what are tasks and goals are for the day, prepare ourselves for these goals, and then go and attain them. At the end of the day, we need to make sure everything is in it’s place, relax and reflect on the day. Putting everything away each night (or at end of school day) helps us to stay organized and on task. We need to relax and refresh our brain with music, entertainment and conversation. And then we need to reflect on our day. How did it go? Did I accomplish everything I wanted to? Is there anything I should change or do better?

Today’s apps allow us to stay more organized - calendars, to-do lists, notes, and more. We can have these apps email or text us with reminders so we don’t forget. We carry our smartphones with us everywhere, so we always have access to our data and apps. Heck, there are even apps that can use the GPS chip in your phone to remind you of a task or appointment if you go anywhere near that location (including your shopping list).

There are hundreds of paper planners, software and apps, and systems out there to help you get organized and plan your day. But, you are the main ingredient in the planning and execution of your plan.

Here are some tips and resources for planning and organizing your day:

Basic ideas from Franklin Quest:
1. Connect to Mission - what is your mission today, this week, in life?
2. Review roles - teacher, spouse, parent
3. Identify goals - daily, weekly, monthly, year
4. Organize weekly - and plan daily
5. Exercise integrity - integrity and values matter
6. Evaluate - your tasks, goals, values, and progress

Use some kind of planner - purchased or made yourself, paper or electronic, to keep organized and on schedule.

Have a daily task list, prioritized. Work on high priority 1st.

Have a daily, weekly, and monthly schedule with appointments and obligations.

Keep a daily record of events - commitments exchanged, journal entry, thoughts and ideas, agendas, conversations, notes, tasks, etc.

Related Articles and Resources:

Getting Students and Teachers Organized - tips and resources

Great tips, ideas, resources, links (including to paper and electronic planners)

Evernote - get organized - free and on all platforms

Thoughtboxes - organize everything you do - great resource for education

Wunderlist - free and easy to use task manager

Toodledo - An easy to use, free, powerful, online to-do list.

Ten Paperless Math Assessment Strategies

by John T. Spencer

I recently wrote a post about the ridiculous nature of standardized testing. Somebody e-mailed me about why an authentic approach might work in some subjects, but not in a subject like math.  So, here are a few ideas of paperless math assessments. 
  1. Math Blog: This serves two purposes.  First, it's a personal journal where students write reflections on mathematical processes, ask critical thinking questions or describe methods used to solve problems.  However, it also becomes the student portfolio, where they choose items that represent their best work, most challenging works, goals for improvement and areas of growth.  Finally, blogs become a place where students share their processes and have a chance to compare and contrast with one another.  It becomes a peer-led method of formative assessment. 
  2. Concept Maps: I want to see how students connect concepts from various math standards, a concept map becomes a valuable tool.  I've watched students create their own color-coded and shape-based strategies to add layers of meaning to their mental process.  
  3. Debate / Discussion: I think it's sad that teachers tend to restrict debates and discussions to social studies or language arts.  I want to see students engaged in critical thinking discourse regarding the best ways to solve problems or present data.  Sometimes this looks like a half-circle discussion of graphing methods.  Other times I have  students move to places in the room that represent various strategies (where they then discuss the strategy).  The goal here is to assess student thinking process in a way that is verbal and interactive.
  4. Projects: Here students have a chance to go in-depth into the math using multimedia methods.  In the case of the budget process, it involved using spreadsheets, shared documents and adding a video or podcast component.  In the case of the eco-friendly houses, it involved hands-on construction models after using Google Sketch-up and doing online research.  A project can be formative, in terms of helping students find applications to what they are learning; but they are also summative, in terms of developing a final product that proves mastery of math skills.  
  5. Mental Math: When people hear "paperless," they often assume it means technology.  However, we do mental math each day as a chance to assess each students' mathematical process. Students share their processes with one another on simple scenarios like finding the tip at a restaurant or judging how long a road trip will take. 
  6. Multimedia Instructions / Tutorials: Here I start with a sample problem that contains multiple mistakes, though sometimes I start with a class brainstorm of potential mistakes.  From there, students create videos, podcasts or functional text descriptions on how to avoid the mistake and solve a problem correctly.  
  7. Scenario Response: Similar to Dan Meyer's "What can you do with it?" questions, the students have a multimedia clip and then develop their own problem based upon it.  The idea here is to assess inquiry and process.  So much of math revolves around, "Can I figure out what you don't know?" Here, I get to ask, "Can I figure out how much you actually know?" Students can use any tools they use to solve the problem, including manipulatives.
  8. Forms: Sometimes I want a quick assessment of student answers.  I want to know how many solved a specific problem correctly and how each student explained the process.  For that reason, I will use a Google Form and then share the overall class data with students, so we can identify potential mistakes or misunderstandings. 
  9. Self-Assessment of Skills: I start with a shared document with each skill, written as a student-friendly objective.  A Student will then modify his or her shared document as they learn new skills or concepts.  I have a space for teacher and student feedback, so it becomes a chance to combine objective scoring with customized feedback. 
  10. Create a Problem: Here the students find a scenario and develop an authentic problem based upon it.  For example, one group used linear inequalities to demonstrate which local taxi services are ideal for specific tasks (going to the airport, going across town, going to the supermarket).  It was relevant to our urban environment and it began with a concept that intrigued them.  Other times, I will ask students to salvage a really bad example of pseudocontext and create an alternative that uses the same skills. Either way, this becomes a chance to assess if they understand the application of a math concept in an authentic context. 
John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at Education Rethink.  He recently finished two books, Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and Drawn Into Danger, a fictional memoir of a superhero. You can connect with him on Twitter @johntspencer

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Observations on Student Tech Use

by Shelly Blake-Plock

Wandering around the cafe today during a lunch duty, I took mental notes on the tech usage by high school students.

Counted a half-dozen kids on Skype; one of them was sharing photos from a school event. A handful of kids were listening to stuff on iPods; at least two students were downloading songs from sites I'm not familiar with -- one looked to be some sort of message board (isn't that so 90's?).

One student was sitting at a table of gamers making a proxy to hack passed the school's firewall. About a half-dozen students were playing MMOGs. One student was playing a beta version of a first-person game called MineWars, or something of that sort.

One student was using Google Translate to read a Chinese newspaper. One student was watching a YouTube video of a ballet recital, another was showing her friends videos of cheerleading practice. One student was busy on his iPhone and a few others were texting.

Two students were on Facebook (despite the fact it's, um, "blocked"). And three students were on Twitter -- which is not blocked.

No one seemed to be doing any software-based stuff; everything was online. Oh, and from what I could tell, about 90% of the kids were using Google Chrome.

Talked to kids about IM'ing and everyone said they used Skype the most (as in, it was always on). Facebook came in second. No one -- as in not a single kid -- said they use Google Chat or Google Talk. They said passwords were a pain in the butt. And they don't like email.

By and large, according to the students, Twitter was something you might use for class. Very "business-like". Though one student loves it to follow ESPN writers. In fact, ESPN was mentioned several times.

One student was obsessed with Google News -- it's where he gets his news. Another uses four different gaming interfaces "daily". Just about every student said Facebook was the place to be outside of school (as though it were a "place" -- like the mall) -- and several mentioned that the thing they liked about FB was the "privacy". Huh.

I think it's a good idea now and then to pay attention to what the kids are doing -- to see what's trending and to see what's not. More than anything, I'm interested in seeing what develops as the "normal", the "standard", and the "go-to". Because the tools we use tell volumes about our needs and desires.

Friday, April 08, 2011

10 Ways to Help Students Ask Better Questions

by John T. Spencer

My students gather in a circle for article reviews. Each pair offers a short summary of the current event followed by a few discussion questions. On this particular day, we meander between talks of democracy, education, death and human suffering. The points students bring up are thought-provoking. However, I'm most impressed by the questions they ask one another. They clarify and ask follow-up questions. They make inferences. They ask connecting questions and critical thinking questions. It's a messy process, but it's beautiful messy. It's art.

However, the deeper questions didn't happen in a vacuum. Students have spent hours learning the art of questioning. Here are ten things I've done in class to encourage students to ask better questions:

  1. Question Everything: It's become a mantra in our class and it extends all the way to me. As long as a question is respectful, I want students to question their world. This applies to analyzing mathematical processes, thinking through social issues, making sense out of a text or analyzing the natural world for cause and effect. Pretty much every lesson we do includes students asking questions to me, to one another or to themselves - and the boldest of students will ask questions of the world.
  2. Reading: I require students to ask questions before, during and after reading. At first, the questions are basic. "What's this story going to be about?" or "Why is that character acting like that?" Over time, however, students think deeper about the text and start asking some profound questions. For example, yesterday a student asked a question about Flowers for Algernon: The main character seems to be happy but ignorant that people make fun of him. Is it better to be ignorant and happy or to know the truth, even when it will crush you?
  3. Inquiry Days: Three times a week, we do inquiry days, where students begin with their own question in either social studies or science and they research it, summarize it and then ask further questions. While my initial goal involved teaching bias, loaded language and summarization, I soon realized that students were growing the most in their ability to ask critical thinking questions.
  4. Feedback on questions: I highlight their questions in Google Docs and leave comments on their blogs with very specific feedback. It might sound harsh, but I will tell a student, "This question is shallow. You're a deeper thinker. Try asking a question that forces someone to question what they already believe" or "This question is deep, but it's worded in a way that elicits a short answer response. Can you change it so that you draw a longer response?"
  5. Model It: In the first week of school, I model the types of questions that require deeper thinking. This happens during read alouds, but also during class discussions. Sometimes I'll ask a really lame question and then say, "Someone tell my why that question sucked?" or I'll ask a deeper question and say, "Why was that a hard question to answer?" The goal is to get them to see deeper questions and to also think about why a question is deep or shallow.
  6. Practice It: We do mock interviews, fake press conferences and rotating discussion zones in the first week of school. Instead of spending time on ice breakers or excessive time on procedures, we spend time on learning to ask better questions.
  7. Scaffolding: Some students have a really hard time with questioning strategies. So, initially I give sentence stems. At first this was really hard for me. I thought that students would naturally ask questions and grow through accessing prior knowledge. I quickly realized that language acquisition had often been a barrier in asking better questions. So, sentence stems and sample questions became a way that ELL students could modify questions and access the language.
  8. Types of Questions: I teach students about inquiry, clarifying, critical thinking and inference questioning. Often the process is messy and there are moments of overlap, but it helps students when they can think, "What needs to be clarified?" or "How does this relate to life?" and from there they can develop better questions.
  9. Multiple Grouping Formats: Students sometimes ask me questions. Other times they ask partners or small group questions. Still other times they ask the questions to the whole class. Thus when they do an article summary, they start with individual questions but eventually move into leading a whole-class discussion.
  10. Technology: E-mail, Google Docs, instant message, Twitter and blog comments have all become asynchronous formats for asking and answering questions. Technology allows students to take their time in crafting a question while having access to the questions of their peers.
John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at  He recently finished two books, Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and Drawn Into Danger, a fictional memoir of a superhero. You can connect with him on Twitter @johntspencer

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Twitter: The IV-drip of Professional Development

Today's required reading:

Question of the Day: Is Quietube Too Quiet?

Following a link posted by @andyjb, I found myself looking at today and it got me thinking...

Is this a great idea that will help allay the fears of admins and parents and help bring YouTube content into filtered classrooms, or does Quietube actually turn YouTube into a virtual DVD player -- thus negating all of the social media content that makes YouTube so rich (even if at times risky) to begin with?

What's more important in the YouTube debate: bringing video into our classrooms or teaching students how to engage with dynamic and live social media spaces?

Parental Involvement is major factor in student success - how do we increase it?

By David Andrade, 

Parental and family involvement in school is a major factor in student success. Parents need to be involved in their children's education. They should be up-to-date on news at the school, what their child is doing in school, and how their child is doing in school. They should be talking about school with their children, helping them with their school and homework, encouraging their children to do their best in school, showing their children how important school is to their future, and creating a nurturing, supportive environment at home. 

Schools need to reach out to parents and get them involved in the school. Schools should also help parents with helping their children succeed. 

Parents and families can help increase student learning by creating a rich environment for learning at home. Schools can help parents and families do this.  Parents should give students a quite place and time to study, encourage the students to read (just for fun too), monitor their TV and internet use, talk to them about the world and their experiences, and take them to places to gain new experiences.

In order for children to succeed in school, and life, they need to be in school, have a supportive home environment and not have to worry about other major issues in their lives. In order for children to have this kind of environment, the community and schools must help parents create a positive learning environment at home, become involved with their children's education, and help parents when there are other issues that are affecting the home, such as childcare and finances. 

Parents have many responsibilities and obstacles to getting involved in school. Many work multiple jobs or work evenings or nights, preventing them from being able to attend meetings, conferences, and spend time with their children. Many have day care issues that make it hard for them to get away from home. Many also have language barriers or feel like they can’t help their children with school. Some contact teachers at off times via email, take time off from work, bring their younger children with them to meetings, and some use their children as interpreters. Some don’t over come these barriers and are not involved in their child’s education. Schools need to come up with ideas and ways to help parents overcome these obstacles. 

Schools can work to provide day care to help parents come to evening events. Provide parent classes on how to help their child with school. Provide resources, social events, and make parents feel welcome in the school. Provide workshops for parents. Help them help their children.

Technology can help with parental involvement. Email groups, voice messages, web sites, blogs and more can all be used to communicate with parents. Student information systems that parents can access to see their child's attendance, grades, missing assignments. A Parent Personal Learning Network can share resources with parents and connect them to other parents who can help them. School websites can have information, resources, and links for parents. 

We need to work together with parents, and the community, to increase student achievement and help all students succeed. Everyone, schools, parents, community, are responsible for educating our children. 

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Question of the Day: Paper Usage

Today's question: How many sheets of paper do you actually use for instructional purposes over the course of the average school day?

Comment away... interested to see some numbers.