27. October 2015 11:26
As the presidential candidates continue along the campaign trail, they are not only gaining (or losing) support, but also demonstrating one of the essential steps in the election process. With a presidential election a year away, now is a great time to teach students about the election process and how our government works.
Recent test results show that students in the U.S. are struggling with understanding civics. I mentioned that in a previous post, but I think it is worth reiterating because it is a serious problem. Our government creates and enforces our laws, protects us, and affects our everyday lives. As citizens, we are responsible for electing government officials who will represent our interests. Students will one day be able to do the same, and without understanding how the government works, it can be difficult to make informed decisions.
This problem has gained national attention over the past few years. Across social media and news sites, you will find quick civics quizzes, asking "Can you pass the citizenship test?" Many people pass them, but others fail. The first one is from The Washington Times. Here is another from BuzzFeed. But it isn't just these for-fun quizzes. Some states have introduced and even passed legislation to incorporate passing a civics test as a high school graduation requirement. Civics Education Initiative is one of the organizations working to expand this requirement across all 50 states, and they hope to do so by September 17, 2017, which is the 230th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution.
This seems to be a lofty goal. Only a handful of states have passed the legislation so far, and that date is less than two years away. But even if states don’t test on civics knowledge, it should still be taught. There is a tug of war between the many subjects that are taught in schools, and math, science, and English seem to be dragging civics and the arts along for the ride. We need to find a better balance, one that not only makes students competitive in their careers but also prepares them for the social aspects of life, including civic participation.
Join the conversation: Do you think states should require students to pass a civics test? How do you teach students about the importance of civic participation?
Are you looking for resources to improve students’ understanding? Check out our new flash card series about the U.S. government and U.S. history. Or try our other classroom resources.
17. September 2015 13:57
As you may have heard, a high school student was arrested in Irving, Texas, after bringing a homemade clock to school. Ahmed Mohamed was excited about his creation and wanted to share it with his teachers. When he did, the police were called and he was placed in handcuffs for a bomb hoax. Social media sites exploded with #IStandWithAhmed to show the young man support. President Obama even chimed in on Twitter.
While this is an unfortunate incident, it has brought national attention to the importance of two subjects: discrimination and inspiring kids.
The police have said that the situation would have been handled the same way even if the student had been white. Social media begs to differ. Either way, discrimination is a very real issue in society and the debate has grown stronger over the past few years as a variety of events have turned the spotlight to it. These current events are great teaching tools for showing students what discrimination is, how it affects groups and individuals, and why they shouldn’t judge people on their religion, skin color, gender, or any other similar characteristic.
One way to help alleviate discrimination is to make society informed about various cultures. From a young age, kids learn about the world and people around them not only through direct interactions, but also through conversations and portrayals of them in the media. When kids only hear negative opinions or terrible events connected with individuals from a cultural group, they begin to associate that group with emotions like anger and fear. Teaching kids (and adults) what the culture as a whole is like or associating positive events with them as well can help.
Discrimination may also affect the way students think about themselves. If they believe they won’t have equal social opportunities, they may not try certain things. Ahmed still plans to keep inventing, but being arrested for making a clock could easily turn students away from science and engineering. As President Obama said, “We should inspire more kids like [Ahmed] to like science.” They shouldn’t have to hide their creations in their rooms for fear of being arrested or distrusted.
The innovation and creativity needed in engineering and other scientific fields can also be encouraged through school activities. They don’t even have to be in science class! Team building exercises like building bridges and towers are a great place to start. They involve teamwork, problem solving, communication, and creativity. These are lifelong skills that students need and the basic foundation of many science fields, not to mention almost every other field as well. They also help students get to know each other and can create friendships.
Let’s learn from this event and encourage students to keep open minds about other people and to use their skills to do something they love.
Join the conversation: What are your thoughts on the situation? How do you prevent discrimination and encourage learning in your classroom or at home?
25. August 2015 09:07
Writing doesn’t come naturally to every student. Even many writers struggle from time to time with it (writer’s block, anyone?). So to help me with today’s blog post, I’ve employed the Four Square Writing Method, a tool to brainstorm and organize ideas.
Have you ever started reading students’ papers and realized that the ideas don’t stay on topic, important information is missing, and there are no transitions? Teaching them how to use planning tools can keep them on track.
Planning tools work because they begin with brainstorming. With ideas swirling around in students’ heads, competing with remembering details for the test next period or planning for after school, writing their ideas on paper ensures that they won’t be lost in the chaos. Everything will be laid out in front of them, and the topic of the paper will be at hand to remind them what to aim for. For example, if a student’s paper is about the importance of using digital devices in the classroom, but one idea was sending messages to friends, he/she can go back and scratch the idea out because it is likely just a distraction. The point is that the brainstorming session allows students to remove the extra details before they’ve gone into excruciating detail in the paper. It saves time and brain power!
Once everything is on paper and the best ideas have been selected, students can figure out what is missing. Seeing the ideas in one place can highlight where more information is needed, especially if 50% of the brainstormed ideas have been scribbled out for straying from the main point; it can happen. For visual learners especially, a list can show them where more supporting detail is needed. An idea with only one supporting detail probably needs a second and a third to have a strong impact on the reader. The list can also help them discover an overlooked point. The important information now has a better chance of making it into the paper.
Finally, when the ideas are displayed, the order can jump out at the students. Maybe chronological order works or perhaps ending on the most compelling idea will make a stronger impression. Either way, planning ahead of time instead of writing in a stream-of-consciousness style can lead to a more coherent paper. Not only have the tangents been eliminated, transitions can get to work, making the paper flow smoothly from one idea to the next. The paper won’t read like it is still bouncing around in a student’s head.
As you can see, the step-by-step method of planning tools makes writing easier. Students’ ideas will storm out of their brains and onto paper. They will stand strong if relevant, or face the slash of a pen. Students just need to polish their ideas and give them a little nudge to direct them where to go. If you teach them how to do this, you could even see an improvement on the next paper.
So, what do you think? What have the results of using planning tools been in your classroom?
Now that you have seen the Four Square method in action, check out our Four Square Writing Method books to learn how to teach it to students, alongside topics like transitions, details descriptions, and editing. You can even find a variety of applications from informational texts to narratives.
13. August 2015 14:37
It’s official. The back-to-school season is upon us. Supermarkets have displays of notebooks, binders, pencils, and pens that stretch across the seasonal aisles, waiting to be thrown into the backpacks that hang nearby before being whisked away to lockers and desks. School buses can be seen back on their routes, getting ready for the kids to climb aboard and take up the seats that have sat empty all summer long. And the kids are out in full force, trying to pack as much fun as humanly possible into the last few days of break.
Hidden from view is the teachers’ work. Extra pens and pencils for those “I forgot mine” moments and worksheets that will paper the desks are being snatched up across the country. Classroom decorations are being put on the walls, taken down, moved, and put back up to get the perfect balance of visual interest that encourages learning without being distracting. Lesson plans are being written and refined to ensure that students will learn what they need to and hopefully be excited about it.
Once the classroom is ready, the kids will start pouring in. Here are some tips for when that happens.
- 1. Introduce yourself, and let your students learn about you so they can relate you.
- 2. Learn more about your student than just their names. What are their likes and dislikes?
- 3. Do a few ice breakers with your students. These can be anything from having everyone introduce themselves to group projects that only take a few minutes.
- 4. Assign seats. A free-for-all seating arrangement means kids will need to figure out where they want to sit and who they want to sit next to. Give them one less thing to worry about.
- 5. Review only the most important rules and procedures on the first day. You can discuss others the next day or as they come up.
- 6. Jump right into learning with a lesson or worksheet on the first day.
- 7. Incorporate some fun into the day. If possible, do this every day.
- 8. Ask students for feedback on how they think the first week (and every week after) went, so you can keep them engaged. This could even be anonymous.
- 9. Send home a welcome letter that includes information about yourself, a summary of the rules and the topics that will be covered in class, and an invitation to bring up questions and concerns.
- 10. Don’t forget to take a deep breath and relax. You don’t want to burn out in the first week!
30. July 2015 09:43
À-la-carte options aren’t just for food anymore. Buying individual songs instead of whole albums or just your favorite channels instead of a whole cable package has become the norm. Now, it is spreading to the educational market.
As the demand for personalization in the classroom and less expensive materials increases, so too does the demand for bite-size pieces of content. The idea can be to ditch the back-breaking textbooks that cost over $100 and have more material than can be covered in a year, or it can simply be to incorporate additional materials that are smaller, more affordable, and focus on specific topics. But why are these smaller packets popular?
- 1. You can personalize your lesson plans based on what works for you and your students for each topic. Mix and match a textbook chapter on the concept of multiplication with a packet of a different style for the story problems, or use one packet style for the colonial era and another that works better for the Civil War.
- 2. If your students are struggling with a topic, you can select an extra packet on it. And many packets are downloadable, so you'll have them in time to be relevant.
- 3. Most schools can't afford to replace textbooks every year. When new information is found, you can incorporate it into your lessons using a packet. You no longer have to ignore what isn't in the book.
- 4. You can buy only what you need if you decide to drop the textbook all together. If chapters 1 and 2 were covered last year and you don't have time to reach chapter 15, the final one, 20% of the book is wasted. The smaller packets let you avoid this.
- 5. Your students (and possibly you) won't constantly need to carry a heavy textbook back and forth to school. Sure, some days it might go home, but other days, only the light-as-feather packet will accompany them.
If you are considering using packets, be sure to keep you and your students in mind. Are you or your students likely to lose packets that aren't held together in a larger book? Do your students work better when there is a consistent look and feel to the material, or can they focus better when they have variety? Do you have the time to find the packets and determine what order to use them in?
What are your thoughts on textbooks versus smaller packets? Add your voice in the comments below!
Are you looking for these a-la-carte options? Check out our downloadable ePackets and interactive white board minis!
21. July 2015 13:33
When you graduated, did you have a firm grasp on taxes, loans, investments, credit, savings and checking accounts, insurance, bills, interest, or budgets? If so, where did you learn it?
Math class helped me learn some basic information, like how to calculate interest or sales tax since they are percentages. But I wasn’t directly taught money management concepts, like how to apply for a loan or the importance of paying more than the minimum balance on a credit card. I was lucky enough to learn about some concepts at home, but many students don’t have that luxury.
Thankfully, personal finance is gaining more attention. According to the Council for Economic Education’s 2014 Survey of the States, academic standards in all 50 states now include economics and 17 states require personal finance coursework for graduation. Jump$tart’s map of State Financial Education Requirements shows that as many as 24 states require personal finance instruction. April has even been declared National Financial Literacy Month.
It might not be April, but personal finance is important every day, so here are a few ways to help students learn more about personal finance, even without specific finance courses.
- - Use math word problems to work through financial situations before students encounter them in real life. For younger kids, the problems could be about making change or saving an allowance to spend on a new bike. For older kids, start including ideas such as paying bills, earning a salary, or creating a budget.
- - Have students read articles about finance and summarize them. The articles could be about topics such as saving money, student loans, or tipping and minimum wage.
- - Speaking of minimum wage, you could set up a debate. Have some students argue for raising the minimum wage and others argue against it.
- - Incorporate financial terms into vocabulary lessons. After all, “insufficient” could be referring to insufficient funds in a bank account.
- - Ask students to research the features of two different savings accounts on a website. Then, have them compare and contrast the features.
Incorporating personal finance into other lessons, such as word problems or summarizing articles, has a few benefits:
- - The topics can be geared toward a variety of age and learning levels, letting even young students begin to gain financial literacy.
- - Personal finance becomes a more prevalent topic, spanning a variety of areas, rather than being kept to a specific class.
- - Students who aren’t required to take a personal finance course will still learn about it.
Don't forget to leave a comment below to let us know what you think about teaching personal finance in schools. And check out our 21st Century Learning Skills Flash Cards to learn more about how you can use our Personal Finance Flash Cards to get students started today because money matters!
29. June 2015 10:00
Independence Day is at the end of this week. Friends and families will grill out, festivals will draw crowds, and fireworks will boom as the nation celebrates and remembers the historic day that America's Founding Fathers declared independence.
But for many students, history was then and this is now. According to recent test results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), students in the U.S. are struggling when it comes to U.S. history and civics. Fewer than one-third of students scored proficient or better on these tests, and more than 20 percent scored below basic.
These numbers may seem surprising, but are they? Education has been focused on math, science, and language arts lately in order to prepare students for life in a technology-driven society. Debates rage on about math and language arts standards under the Common Core and state-specific standards, while social studies remains out of the spotlight. Social studies assessment tests are even held less often than math or language arts tests. Now I’m not suggesting that we need more social studies testing, but does the emphasis on other subjects suggest to students that social studies is less important and that their energy is better spent elsewhere?
A glimmer of hope for social studies takes the form of the 21st century learning skills, which are gaining attention. Two of the themes are global awareness and civic literacy. The political and cultural understanding needed to master these skills come from social studies, whether it is history, government, or geography. Past events, policy origins, and the development of governments and countries show how policies and practices came to be and why they are still around today (or perhaps why they didn't work and still won't). This knowledge also provides a basis for analyzing current events and issues to determine how to solve problems now. History may have happened in the past, but it isn't just left behind.
How can we get students excited about history?
Remembering names and dates can be tough, especially when it involves thousands of years. Try adding a new spin to the material to make it more memorable. Include basic information, such as "Benedict Arnold planned to give West Point to the British," but go beyond that and throw in some more interesting facts. For example, did you know that Benedict Arnold’s leg has its own monument, The Boot Monument? You can visit it at Saratoga National Historical Park. This fact shows that at one point, he was on the Patriot's side and was even important enough to have a statue made for him. But the statue doesn't actually include his name (he did become a traitor after all).
Another approach is take take a more casual tone. History-specific terms can bog students down as they focus on the vocabulary rather than the context. Instead of constantly using terms like "banished" and "excommunicated," substitute them from time to time with phrases like "kicked out."
You can also try gamification (applying game techniques to learning), which is growing rapidly in classrooms. I don't necessarily mean turning your whole class into a game (although you can do that), but adding new ways to interact with the material can keep students engaged. Think about days when you let students play a game, even one as simple as trivia. Are they more active and excited? Can you expand that interest to more of the lesson rather than keeping it as a special treat?
Finally, mix and match subjects and skills by adding a language arts or communication focus to history lessons. Debate which American Revolution general was the most important, or ask students to write a newspaper article about a battle from the Civil War. This approach increases interaction with the material and gives students some control over their own learning. They get to explore history and choose the generals and battles, instead of being told what to think or write.
Do you want to try these techniques, but don’t know where to start?
We are introducing a new series of flash cards to help: 50 Things You Should Know About U.S. History. Each deck contains 50 flash cards about people, places, events, and other features of a specific period in U.S. History.
The decks include basic information along with some lesser-known fascinating facts. Built-in questions on the front of each card can be used for a variety of group games or individual review. Each card also has a bonus Connect a Card question on the back, which can be answered with another topic in the deck. Kids will enjoy looking for the answer in the rest of the deck, while exploring connections between the figures and features of the time. The cards are even perfect starting points for discussions and writing activities. They are color-coded, so you can easily separate out all of the people, events, places, or other features depending on the focus of an activity. Use the decks individually, or mix them together for even more fun!
The Colonial Era, The America Revolution, The Civil War, and The Early 20th Century are already available. The others are coming soon, so keep an eye out for A New Nation, Westward Expansion, Mid 20th Century, The Civil Rights Movement, and The Modern Era.
What are your thoughts on history's importance? And how do you keep students engaged it?
22. June 2015 15:00
Summer is officially here! School is out and we have passed the longest day of the year (June 21), transitioning from spring to summer.
I talked a few weeks ago about ways to Stop Summer Learning Loss, but I wanted to touch on the subject again now that spring is behind us. As I mentioned before, students can lose two months of math and reading skills over the long break. It’s as if April and May are erased from their memories.
Many families and programs try to save reading skills by encouraging kids to read. Parents ask their kids to take a break from the television and video games to read. Libraries have reading challenges and book clubs. But not many programs, other than potentially-expensive math and technology camps, seem to be aimed at maintaining math skills.
Kids just don’t seem interested in math. Maybe it is because many of them think of math as only schoolwork. While reading lets kids learn about a topic that they like or dive into another world, math seems to be all about show-your-work problems on page. Part of keeping math skills intact is finding ways to make kids interested in it.
For kids who love hands-on activities, combine one of their interests with a project. This could mean figuring out what size boards are needed for a birdhouse or a toy chest and then building it with supervision. For the bakers out there, try adjusting measurements from tablespoons to teaspoons or cups to 1/4 cups. If sports are their hobby of choice, have them keep track of statistics like batting averages in baseball or goals against averages in soccer. This method makes math practice seem less like math practice.
Logic puzzles are excellent as well. They are on a page, but showing work isn’t required. There are the typical ones with four people, four items, and four places that have to be paired appropriately. Plenty of others exist beyond those as well. I grew up figuring out Sudoku puzzles and Kakuro puzzles (math crossword puzzles). Tangrams can keep the builders, designers, and artists entertained for hours. Each puzzle type keeps kids’ minds actively involved in math.
If your basement, attic, garage, or closets are full of toys,games, books, and clothes that your kids no longer use, hold a yard sale! Let your kids take the lead in pricing items, setting up the space, and even handling the money. They’ll add and multiply to find the total amount owed and subtract to find change. Plus, you will free up space.
Remember though, some kids don’t need extra motivation to practice math. They’ll gladly sit down and work out the problems on a page. For these kids, all you need is a simple workbook at the previous grade level to review what they learned last year or at the next grade level to get ahead. A page a day can help keep the summer slump monster away.
4. June 2015 10:45
Every year, thousands of schools tackle the challenge of musicals. Kids as young as three years old are performing songs, dancing across stage, and telling a story. Teachers are tasked with assigning parts, creating sets, preparing students for the performance, keeping them focused, making sure parents receive invitations, and much more. It makes you wonder if all of the effort for a single show is worth it.
Like many of you probably know, it is. This is especially true for preschools and elementary schools working with young children.
Musicals are still going strong because they provide a variety of benefits. Otherwise, scores and scripts would be put away on a shelf never to see the spotlight in the classroom again. Not convinced? Or do you need a reminder about why you are selecting a musical to perform next year?
8 Reasons You Should Use Musicals in Your Classroom
1. Musicals are…well…musical.
This is fairly obvious I know, but the benefits of music aren’t always prominent in everyone’s mind. As mentioned in a previous post, music is part of our everyday lives. It can create an emotional experience, establish relationships, and even initiate social change. And kids grasp onto the rhythm, rhymes, and repetition in songs, which make the material easy to remember. Think about it. You probably still know all of the words to songs you haven’t heard in years.
2. Musicals tell stories with important life lessons.
You can lecture to students, read them a story, and explain what is right and wrong, but putting them into the situation can be more compelling. By letting the kids experience a role in the story rather than just be told it, they can better understand how each character feels. The different tones and speeds of songs can even help them grasp the emotion behind the story.
3. Musicals teach teamwork.
Every student is part of the musical in some way. They are all important to its success, whether they are a character, a narrator, or a choir member. They need to work together with the whole class, not just a few people, and put aside their differences for the musical to succeed.
Bonus! By closely working together,students can build relationships, make friends, and create a community of peers.
4. Musicals emphasize practice and patience.
By taking part in musicals, students can learn these important life skills early. With songs, speeches, movements, and timing, practice is essential in musicals. As some students become experts in their roles, they still need to practice with the rest of the class. They need to be patient as others continue learning everything they need to know.
5. Musicals give students experience being in front of an audience.
When the only people students are used to being in front of are family,friends, and classmates, they may struggle with speaking in front of strangers.Musicals give kids a chance to practice being in front of new audiences. The extra benefit is they already know and have rehearsed what to say and sing,which can help shy students (and even outgoing students) feel more comfortable as they get used to this new situation.
6. Musicals energize students and can help them focus.
Musicals get students out of their seats and moving. This physical activity, even in small amounts, can help the learning process because it increases blood flow and the levels of oxygen in the brain.
7. Musicals are a great way to jump into project-based learning.
To kids, musicals may seem simple. They just have to learn the music and story. But as you know, there is a lot more to it than just the musical itself.When the curtain is raised, the project is ending, not beginning. Give students the opportunity to figure out what needs to be done, to find the solutions, and to follow through.
For example, they may need masks and sets. Ask them how they can make these,and let them create their own. Students could also be in charge of exploring the school or researching the town to find the perfect location, running rehearsals, creating posters to hang up, and sending invitations to parents. You may have to step in to guide them along the way or to make phone calls and purchases, but they will enjoy the control they have and learn responsibility and problem solving skills along the way.
8. Musicals can be the glue in a cross-curricular world.
Sometimes, music teachers are in charge of the musicals. Other times,general education teachers may take the lead. Either way, musicals can provide a focal point for a cohesive cross-curricular experience. If your students have different teachers for English, math, science, social studies, art, and music,work with each other to create the best plan of action. A few ideas are below.
a. Music:Practice the songs in the musical. Discuss the different beats and tones used.
Art:Make the sets, masks, and posters.
b. Math: Solve problems about the cost of the musical or the time each scene takes compared to the total time of the play.
c. English: Read not only the play, but also books similar to it. Discuss themes, characters, and setting.
d. Science: Discuss the levers and pulleys involved in raising the curtain. If there are animals in the musical, talk about their environments and habits.
e. Social Studies: Discuss emotional reactions,similar problems in real life, and the history of the musical or its time period.
Do you use musicals in your classroom? Why or why not?
22. May 2015 14:13
The end of the school year is just around the corner. In only a little over a week, you can flip the page on the calendar and watch the end approaching. Do you or your students have a countdown going yet?As the year fades and you wrap up loose ends, trying to make sure that your students know everything they should, take a look back at the year with them. Celebrate Throwback Thursday in the next few weeks, and show your students just how far they have come and how much they have achieved.In school, students learn, complete projects, take tests, and receive grades. They can see how well they are doing with certain concepts and subjects, but they may not realize the progress they have made. Let them know that even if they don’t get the best grade in the class, they are still learning a lot.Your students may be scratching stories down with ease now, but at the beginning of the year, they may have struggled to write complete sentences with the correct punctuation or to create paragraphs that made sense. Do they realize the accomplishments they have made?They may be solving division problems or finding x, but at the beginning of the year had no idea what either of those things meant. Now, they understand that division can help them find the best deal on video games when there is a sale or that finding x can show them how much lumber to get for the deck they want to help their parents build this summer.Keep students engaged and encouraged by showing them that their hard work has really paid off. If projects or papers from the beginning of the year are still around, pull them out and show them where they were then and where they are now. They—and even you—may be amazed.It’s been a great year, so don’t forget to celebrate!How will you and your students celebrate the progress everyone has made? Will you throw a party and pass out words of encouragement? Will you give out awards and bravos? Will you employ your own creative celebration methods?