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Let's Get Students Excited About U.S. History

by Julie 29. June 2015 10:00

Students in History ClassIndependence 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?

50 Things You Should Know About U.S. HistoryWe 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 EraThe 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?

Is the Cutting Edge Making Education Bleed?

by Jonathan 28. February 2012 13:11
At Bridging the Gaps in Education, we blog a lot about new and emerging technologies in the classroom. Needless to say, there is an abundance of such topics about which to write. It seems that at any time, there are several new technologies, devices, or ideas competing for the world's attention, all clamoring that they're the next big thing. A recent article on Education Week's website has me wondering, at last, if it isn't all too much.

The article deals with one technology in particular - interactive whiteboards. It wonders if the whiteboard's time has come and gone, and along with it, the innovation's opportunity to alter the educational landscape. The author cites emerging tablet technologies, Bring Your Own Device initiatives, and restricted budgets and funding as harbingers of this once next big thing's demise.

As I read the article, I couldn't help but ask myself: Is the field of educational technology shooting itself in the foot? And, more imperative: Are the ricochets boring holes in our students' learning experiences?

Think about it. Teachers: how many times have you been encouraged or tempted to look into a new device that purports a revolution for you and your students? Parents: How many changes have you witnessed to your child's learning environment in the last few years (let alone the last few decades), all for the better? Computers. Laptops. Online learning. Gaming. Cell phones. Smart phones. Whiteboards. Tablets. Even I, at 28, only experienced the dramatic educational impact of computers and the Internet. The sheer number of changes and enhancements being plugged in switched on now is, when considered at once, staggering.

Truth be told, it's overwhelming.

How can we keep up? It's clear we don't have enough money to do so. With so many options, school districts and administrators are forced to focus available funding on one technology or device, after which they must fervently hope they've chosen properly. Or, they can sit on their hands and wallets, waiting out the fierce melee, until a clear winner separates itself from the rest. What kind of a choice is that for the future of our students?

Look, I'm not questioning the value of technology in the classroom. Nor the importance of constant innovation and foresight. But it seems that technology is a double-edged sword when wielded on the field of education, and it's important to consider which side bears the keener edge. Are we cutting into the future? Or are we cutting off chances to truly change tomorrow's classroom for the better?

There are no easy answers to these questions. It's a difficult situation confronting us. Education Week describes a "fad factor" in technology. Our eyes are always forward, our hands grasping for the next game-changing device or iteration. When it comes to education, I'm beginning to fear that, while focusing on an ever-changing horizon, we're overlooking the only truly important thing - the best possible education for our students and children.

Steve Jobs: 1955-2011

by Jonathan 6. October 2011 10:38
Steve Jobs, co-founder and previous CEO of Apple, passed away yesterday at the age of 56. He leaves a legacy of innovation and creativity in the hands of millions of users, and his contributions to the modern landscape will never be forgotten. This is especially true for the world of education.

The app craze ushered in by Apple's iPhone has taken education by storm, allowing teachers, parents, and students easy and unlimited access to a wealth of unique and interactive educational content, much of it inexpensive or free. These apps are a big part of efforts around the country to introduce cellular phones as a part of the everyday classroom.

Perhaps even more resonant is the iPad, the digital tablet introduced by Jobs in 2010. In less than two years, this device has become the hot item for teachers and students. It's not difficult to envision a very near future in which the majority of classrooms are outfitted with iPads for interactive learning.

The world has lost one of its most creative and powerful minds, but we can be certain that Jobs will continue to effect the world in which we live through a generation of students lucky enough to learn with the help of his brilliant tools.

For Your Consideration: 6 Top iPad Apps

by Jonathan 28. July 2011 14:34

After attending the ISTE convention last month, we've been reminded time and again that this year's hot piece of educational tech is the iPad. Students want it. Parents love it. Teachers use it. I wish I had it...

Best of all, it works. The iPad offers a wealth of educational opportunities, most of them geared to be flashy, fun, and rewarding. We've compiled a short list of some of the most popular educational apps being downloaded and used right now. Each of the apps below appears on the July 27 edition of appannie's Top Charts for Educational iPad apps (check out the full chart here)


1. Era of Dino HD Lite

What student - or parent for that matter, don't lie - doesn't want to learn more about dinosaurs? This free app will introduce users to over 300 different dinos. Also covered are the specific eras in which these creatures lived. Slick, colorful graphics complement a wealth of interesting material. (Average rating: 4.5 stars)

2. NASA App HD

Take a tour of the galaxy - and beyond - with this fascinating app from NASA. Official video and imagery (some of which are live) enhance in-depth explorations of planets, stars, current missions, and more. Children and adults alike will lose hours in this virtual solar system. (Average rating: 4.5 stars)

3. ScreenChomp

This versatile teaching tool is like having a digital whiteboard at your fingertips. Create your own lessons with the intuitive interface. Math problems, Venn diagrams, brainstorming webs - this app can handle them all. Even cooler is the ability to record and upload your lessons to the app's website or Facebook. (Average rating: 5 stars)


1. Stack the States

Students can learn about each of the United States of America with this fun app. By the time they're finished, they'll be familiar with state capitals, shapes, and locations. Bonus games, full-color pictures, and tons of questions are included. (Average rating: 5 stars)

2. Math Bingo

This popular app will make math practice much more entertaining. A balance of fun gaming and rich educational content has landed Math Bingo on several top-app lists. It's simple - students must answer math problems correctly in order to complete rows on a Bingo chart. Addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division are included. (Average rating: 4.5 stars)

3. Alphabet Fun

Invaluable for early learners, Alphabet Fun teaches and reinforces letter and number recognition and formation. It also teaches users to recognize and identify colors. Pronunciations provide clarity and speaking practice. (Average rating: not available)

What do you think of the iPad? Are you using it with your children or students? Have you tried any of the apps above? Do you know any other must-haves? Start the discussion in the comments section below!

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Education | Technology

Calling All Classrooms

by Jonathan 13. July 2011 11:12

I bought my first cell phone at the age of 18, a few years behind most people my age. It took me a few weeks to familiarize myself with all the bells and whistles, which, compared to the model I use today, were next to nothing and unimpressive to boot. Nearly a decade after that first egg-shaped, no-color-screen model, I use my phone for just about everything: I send and receive e-mails, network with friends and coworkers, keep track of my budget; heck, I even place the occasional call or two. I'm not alone in having my mobile device practically bolted to my hand. Students, from elementary-level to college- and university-goers, use cell phones each and every day.

Sure, students use their cell phones to text, game, and Tweet. But the usage isn't limited to frivolous social communication and idle entertainment. Students are also using these devices to help them learn. They are using built-in calculators to help solve math problems, search engines to find sources for research papers, and teacher-recommended apps to train and challenge the mind. Some school districts are even using cell phones to help students perform well on standardized tests.

Yes, there are many negative possibilities when phone usage is permitted in a classroom. Distraction is perhaps the worst. Teachers have to either patrol the aisles like a hungry hawk or trust their students to stay away from Facebook and Angry Birds. Using technology moves away from more traditional, proven methods of education and encourages a turn-to-technology-for-everything environment. These are just a couple issues in an angry sea full of potential difficulties and complications.

It is a sea upon which we must set sail. The simple fact is that cell phones (and tablets like the iPad along with them) are too prevalent and potent to ignore. Thinking back to my archaic school days (the nineties), I wish I could open a rift in time and drop my phone into the youthful me's bulky backpack. Equipped with this space-age technology, younger me would have an entire new world of possibilities before him. He could schedule testing and project due dates. He could choose a list of books to check out from the library rather than scratching his head baffling over the Dewey Decimal System. He could download games that helped him practice in an effort to correct a persistent difficulty with math skills.

Oh, what might have been!

The students of today don't have to lament a lack of possibilities, nor wait until they're 18 years old to discover them. The world little me didn't have already surrounds them. The tools for a deeper and more effective education exist. Let's put them in the hands of our students and start soaring.

Plug In! Gaming in the Classroom

by Jonathan 1. June 2011 14:05

...Your students are on a quest. They are deep underground, beneath a massive snow-capped mountain. They are looking for an ancient relic, a relic that will save the universe from a terrible invading evil. But this relic is hidden by clever puzzles and protected by hostile guardians. The only way your students can get their hands on it is by working together to pool their intelligence and creativity. A plan is conceived, and your students voice battle cries as they charge into the epic challenge ahead...

That scenario might sound more like a Friday or Saturday night for your students; but can you imagine it taking place in your classroom? On a Monday or Tuesday morning? As an approved part of your lesson plan? Madness, you might say. There are others - a growing number of them, in fact - that want to change your mind and make such mythical classrooms possible.

Why? Education is due for a change, say those in support of gaming in the classroom. The current model is growing staler by the day, and its results are hardly encouraging. The dramatic advances in educational technology are quickly outpacing the capabilities of the standard teaching model. What better way to take full advantage of these wonderful gadgets and tools than by fashioning a new method that embraces them wholeheartedly?

Not only is the educational landscape ripe for this tactical shift; students are also in dire need of the skills provided by technology - especially those provided through gaming! The jobs of today and tomorrow demand technological know-how, a condition that will only become more concrete as time progresses. Games help students think more like machines. That might sound a bit scary on the surface, but consider the skills emphasized: problem-solving, logic, systems, cooperation - these are the skills of today and tomorrow.

So. The timing is right. The need is obvious. What more convincing do you need? How about this - your students will love it! It's no secret that certain classic aspects of teaching are boring, at least to some students - lecture, reinforcement, homework. Imagine the rejuvenation if these were connected to gaming. Might your students be a little more attentive during a lecture if they knew reinforcement would come in the form of an interactive and challenging game? Think they would do their homework before dinner if it involved a controller or tablet or cell phone? Gaming doesn't need to replace traditional methods - nor should it. There's no denying, however, that its inclusion would light a fire in classrooms around the world.

What about you? Are you ready to include gaming in your lesson plan? Or will you stand against the tech tide? Be heard in the comments section below!


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