Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Great Teacher Inspires

William Arthur Ward wrote, “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” As an educator, you want to do your best. You want to inspire your students, not just get them through the class period and send them on their way. As a person, it is not always possible to be inspirational every single day. We need all the help we can get!

Joann’s weekly picks this week are resources she hopes will encourage you, the educator, to do something new in your classroom. Don’t just read the story of Lon Po Po to your elementary kids and tell them about Chinese culture. Put on some music. Let your students create traditional Chinese costumes. Retell the story from the wolf’s point of view. Compare this story to the classic story of Little Red Riding Hood. Really get into the story to inspire your students. It’s not always as easy as reading a book and passing out worksheets, but you will be having more fun and covering more standards at the same time.

As a middle school teacher, you see that your students are getting antsy in your biology class. They are tired of being stuck in their seats! Why don’t you let them get up and run around to learn about predator and prey relationships? Joann found a game created by PBS where students simulate wolves and moose in Denali National Park. With other extension activities on the site, this activity can really hook the kids into how predators and prey interact in nature.

I feel very fortunate to be an educator in a time where we can all be involved in such an extensive network of internet-based resource sharing. We can easily find quality activities like the ones Joann found this week. When I create a resource that is especially good, I can share it. When I use a resource I find, I can let other Gateway members know how it worked for me and give suggestions. If I make improvements or modifications to a resource to make it work for different types of learners, I can leave a comment about that, too! If we can work together, we can get closer to being a teacher that inspires our students every day.

What would you like to discuss about using resources from the Gateway to 21st Century Skills? This discussion is for YOU. We want to help you benefit from these resources and from this community of educator-to-educator sharing. Please let us know so we can guide the topics of future columns to help you bring the best you can bring to your classroom every day.

~Peggy's Corner~

Running With The Wolves

According to The Farmer’s Almanac, Native Americans named January the month of the Full Wolf Moon. Historically, it was a time of increased prowling by wolf packs, looking for food as the winter deepened. Most students are fascinated by wolves. Wolves are big, hairy, and find humans to be tasty (at least in fairy tales). They’re also mysterious creatures that offer plenty of fodder for lessons in a host of subjects.

Lon Po Po, by Ed Young
Subjects: Literature, Chinese culture and Inventions
Grade: K-3

Wow, Grandma’s packing some pretty big teeth in this Chinese version of the classic fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood. Students delight in this engaging twist on a familiar tale, and this resource offers several enrichment activities for the classroom to further the experience. Published by TeacherVision (part of Pearson Education, Inc.), which offers a wide range of education materials, such as lesson plans and printables. While most resources require a subscription to the service, some free content is available. A
seven-day free trial is also offered.

What I like about this resource are the options that it presents.  Students use Venn diagrams to compare and contrast Lon Po Po with Little Red Riding Hood, but they can also take their analysis a bit deeper by discussing the story from the wolf’s point of view. Seeing events from a different perspective isn’t intuitive for kids this age, particularly when they’re asked to see things from a “bad” character’s viewpoint. It’s a good exercise for little noggins. The resource also provides links to Chinese symbols for students to reproduce, as well as a list of Internet resources and an Ed Young bibliography.

Wolves and Dogs: Fact and Fiction
Subjects: Endangered species, Wildlife, Biology
Grade: 3-8

I’ve logged a fair amount of time watching “The Dog Whisperer,” so I thought this quiz about dogs and wolves would be a snap. Oops. This old dog will obviously have to learn some new tricks, or at least dog facts. This online quiz posits ten questions about the differences between dogs and wolves. What’s nice about the format is that after clicking on either “true” or “false,” you immediately know whether you’re right or not – no waiting until the quiz is finished to see how you did. You’re given the correct answer, plus additional information about the particular topic addressed by the question. Immediate feedback is critical in learning, and as usual, PBS/NOVA, who offers this resource, has gotten it right. NOVA is an award-winning PBS TV science series, and their companion Web site offers a multitude of science-related lessons and activities. Sponsored by the WGBH Educational Foundation.

The Living Edens - Denali: The Wolf and the Moose
Subjects: Biology, Geography, Wildlife, Ecology
Grade: 6-8

Which would you rather be – prey or predator? Me too. In this lesson, students study the Denali Wilderness in Alaska and identify the predator/prey relationships of animals. They will role play moose and wolves to simulate the relationship between species found in Denali National Park, and write about how the balance of nature works.  Published by PBS TeacherSource, this lesson gets the kids up and moving in an outdoor physical activity. PBS TeacherSource provides PreK-12 educational resources and activities for educators tied to PBS programming and correlated to state and national standards.

~Joann's Picks~

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Using Themes in Teaching

It’s January and, for many of us, the weather outside is cold and dreary. Let’s keep that cold and dreary feeling out of your classroom, though! Why don’t you break the monotony this winter and try out some theme lessons or units to warm things up a little for your students? Take a look around you and try to think of things going on in the world that are interesting to your students.

You probably have a pretty good idea of what topics you need to cover for the next few weeks, months, or the rest of the year if you are really planning ahead! You know the standards you need to cover. You may even have lots of specific lessons and activities planned. Hopefully, you found some great resources on The Gateway to use this year.

It’s fun to be flexible with these plans and to adapt them to tie in with current events around the world, within your state or town, or even in your school. You can also tie lessons and units in with historical events and holidays. Lessons can even be matched up with other things that seem to capture your students’ attention, such as sporting events.

Your students might be more interested in talking about the football games going on during the week than learning about the important things you have to teach them. Maybe you can try to pique their interest by relating a week of your lessons and activities to an underlying theme in their lives (which during January might be football!) This can bring a new level of interest for you and your students.

I realize that I don’t know a whole lot about football. I definitely couldn’t teach the fundamentals of the sport! I do know that it’s a topic on many students’ minds right now, though. I can successfully use that to help my students be excited to learn what I am really trying to teach.

My search for the keyword “football” on The Gateway produced 41 results. If I am a math teacher, I can implement one of the activities that covers how to use and calculate football statistics. Your students would be using math skills they might even take home to teach their parents! If I am an English or Social Studies teacher, I can assign a positional papers or debate on a timely topic like football players’ inflating salaries. As a physics teacher, I can use football as a starting point for all kinds of lessons on projectiles, collisions, and more. I can even use a review activity that works a lot like a football game to review material for a big test in any subject. What a fun way to incorporate football into an ordinary day of school!

Look around in the news, on calendars, and around campus. There are ideas all around for themed lessons and units that will touch close to home for students. I like to use holidays (Especially some of the offbeat ones you hear on the radio!) My high school calculus teacher liked to celebrate Pi Day (3/14) with a big party. Everyone brought pies, and we learned about the significance of pi. I’ll always remember the poems and the fun that helped me remember that pi=3.14159…

January has a very important historical holiday, too. Martin Luther King Jr. Day can be a valuable topic to include in a history class or even an English class. Don’t be afraid to bring ideas from the civil rights movement into subjects that might not appear to be related at all. With a little creativity, you can relate the theme to a variety of seemingly unrelated subjects. You aren’t just teaching your class about an important part of history, you are using that event to help create lessons and units that are more cohesive and interesting.

The key here is that your time is precious, and your students’ learning time needs to be maximized. I am not suggesting that you spend an enormous amount of time creating original themed units for every season, holiday, and important current event. Use ideas from your colleagues, ideas you have come up with in the past, and ideas on The Gateway to 21st Century Skills.

Once you have a theme you want to try and you find resources you like, modify, modify, modify! There are some great ideas and resources here from trusted sources. You are the expert with your students, though…so make the lessons your own. When something works well, leave a comment so someone else can benefit. This is the kind of collaboration that will create change in our teaching!

It might make the content more fun for you to deliver, and definitely more fun and interesting for the students. After all, they won’t learn much if they are not interested enough to pay attention!

~Peggy's Corner~

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Bones of Contention

We all know the old adage “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” From now until the end of time, there will always be issues that are likely to cause disagreements between adults and kids. Proper nutrition, curfews, and studying are just a few examples of topics most likely to act as proverbial burrs under kids’ saddles. Here are some resources that can help students tackle those subjects that they are sometimes less-than enthusiastic about.

Granny Prix
Subjects: Addition
Grade: K- 6

On some days, my 7 year-old would prefer to poke her eye out with a hot stick rather than practice her math facts. On those days, I set her up with a math game such as Granny Prix. This hilarious online game features jaunty music and four grannies racing down a hallway in tricked-out wheelchairs. Granny Prix is a free product produced by Exuberant Games, a company founded by multimedia programmer and illustrator Natasha Oliver.

What’s not to like about Granny Prix? The game allows students to practice/review addition math facts 1-12 by looking at an equation, and then selecting the correct answer from five possible choices. The faster the student answers, the faster his/her granny goes. At game’s end, any missed equations are displayed in a “Problems You Missed” section, and the student’s overall time to answer all the questions is given. Students can customize their grannies (rainbow Mohawk, anyone?) and their wheelchairs for added fun. What’s that you say? Your Nana can beat my Nana? BRING IT ON! The game is also available for subtraction facts 1-12 as well.

Eat Five a Day
Subjects: Nutrition
Grade: K-2

I was standing behind a family in the grocery store line the other day, and overheard this conversation between two boys:

Boy 1: I hate lima beans
Boy 2: Why does she get them? Everyone HATES them.
Boy 1: They make me gag.
Boy 2: Yeah, they’re diabolical.
Boy 1: They’re green. Anything green is gross.
Boy 2: Food shouldn’t be green.

Sound familiar? Can you recall the last time your students didn’t groan when the daily vegetable from that day’s lunch menu was read aloud? This lesson discusses the importance of eating at least five servings of fruit and vegetables a day. The lesson is designed for students with moderate disabilities.

Teaching the food pyramid and the role of fruits and vegetables can be uninspiring, for both teachers and students. This lesson livens things up by including a field trip to a local grocery store to purchase fruit and vegetables that students select. Students get to sample more uncommon items (kiwi, perhaps, or mangoes), and create a newsletter with pictures about what they have learned. This lesson is produced by ALEX, the Alabama Learning Exchange and is aligned to Alabama Content Standards.

Teen Curfew
Subjects: Civics
Grade: 10-12

While teachers don’t really have to worry about their students’ curfews, it’s an important topic to teens and therefore good fodder for discussion. The subject of curfews can be worked into many areas of the curriculum, especially in lessons where personal responsibility or legal issues are emphasized. In this activity, students consider a proposed teen curfew law in a mock city council session.

One of the things that I like about this activity is that it examines citizens’ roles in policy debate. Teens can be ambivalent about politics, but the mock city council format offers them the chance to advocate for and against a topic they know intimately. The activity is offered by the American Bar Association (ABA), the largest voluntary legal professional association in the world. The ABA offers lesson plans and activities for all ages that focus on how our laws and the legal system protect individuals’ freedoms.

Studying More Productively
Subjects: Study skills, Family life
Grade: 7-12

The transition from elementary or intermediate school to middle school can be rocky for many students. Along with changing classes and sometimes even buildings, homework loads also usually increase substantially. Many students experience difficulty managing the volume of homework, and need to learn how to study. This resource provides tips for students on how to study more productively.

I like that this handy guide is comprehensive, yet brief enough to retain students’ interest. Topics include studying, test preparation, note-taking, and tips on taking tests. It’s very readable, and the sections are broken into chunks so that students can refer to just the sections that pertain to them at that time. The guide was written by the New Jersey Education Association, which sponsors events, lobbies for public education and offers publications and educational materials.

~Joann's Picks~

Friday, January 1, 2010

New Beginnings

A new year ushers in a sense of anticipation, with new expectations and new goals to strive for. This week’s picks focus on these elements in one way or another.

The Importance of Setting Goals
Subjects: Economics
Grade: 9-12

January usually brings about various resolutions: more exercise, fewer desserts, better money management. And our well-intentioned resolve usually drains away within a few weeks. Sound familiar? Well, this lesson may just help high school students stay on track financially by discussing the importance of goal-setting in money management. Topics covered in the lesson include long-term and short-term goals, savings, and investments.

I like money. I’m sure you like money. In fact, I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t like money. And therein lies the problem. It’s far easier (and more fun) to spend money than to save it. This lesson doesn’t just talk about the basics of saving and investing, but also discusses the concepts of goal-setting in a personal context to students. Students are asked to set personal financial goals for themselves, and then evaluate those goals. I think the self-evaluation component of this lesson is key to really getting kids to understand the feasibility of their planning processes – is this realistic? Am I disciplined enough to follow this savings/investment path? Does a particular savings goal look as good in real life as it does on paper? Time will tell, but lessons such as this make for a good start.

This lesson was produced by ALEX, a project of the Alabama Learning Exchange. ALEX is an award-winning education portal that provides lesson plans, education-related podcasts, best practices, and Alabama professional development activities. Lessons are aligned to Alabama Content Standards.

From ’00 to ’10: Defining the Decade
Subjects: Writing, Current events, History
Grade: 6-12

The end of a decade always brings reviews of notable events that have occurred during that time, but the years 2000-2009 are of additional note because they were also the start of a new millennium. In this lesson, students research and review their choices of the most important events and developments of the decade. This lesson was published by The New York Times Learning Network, which offers free lesson plans and other educational materials based on content that appears in the renowned newspaper. The lesson is aligned to McREL standards.

I like this lesson for several reasons. Students are required to research, reflect upon, and select developments and occurrences from the past 10 years that they deem important. Depending on the age of the student, the decade may well represent the bulk of their lives to date. While some events may be ubiquitous (such as 9/11, for example), others may be surprising in that they may have a very specific, personal significance for a student. This type of personal context in view of larger events is always a good reality check for educators, I think, and helps them to keep the pulse of what influences and affects their students. I also like the creative options offered by the lesson, where the kids can create videos or trading cards in which to present their top picks in addition to the more traditional essays and timelines.

Intriguing Beginnings
Subjects: Writing
Grade: 3-5

One of my favorite opening lines ever is from Samuel Beckett’s Murphy: “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” It never fails to provoke a snort of laughter, but maybe that’s just me. Anyway, opening lines in novels have the power to instantly captivate readers – remember “Where’s Pa going with that ax?” from Charlotte’s Web? What kid doesn’t want to keep reading to find out – yes – just where is Pa going with an ax? This lesson has students review examples of good writing, and the essence of a beginning that “grabs the reader by the shoulders, shakes them up, and throws them back in the chair.”

Opening lines can make or break a novel. Not literally, of course, but many kids (and adults I know) make book selections on whether the first few lines seem interesting. Opening lines that grip a reader can instantly transport that reader into the author’s world and vision. That’s a true gift. This lesson allows elementary students to see the design and planning in the writing process, and that good writing doesn’t just happen. Published authors have to work at their writing, just as kids do, and I think that’s an important lesson for students to learn. The lesson is sure to keep students engaged: In addition to researching and reviewing memorable opening lines from some of their favorite books, the kids craft their own catchy opening lines, and videotape skits presenting their favorite opening lines. This lesson was published by Beacon Learning Center, an online educational resource and professional development center that offers standards-based resources and professional development activities. “Intriguing Beginnings” is aligned to Florida's Sunshine State Standards.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Me: Identifying With a Hero
Subjects: Language Arts, US History
Grade: K-2
In addition to ushering in the new year, the month of January also brings us Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Talking about Dr. King with young students is a great way to explore the concepts of bravery, equality, and heroism. It can be difficult, however, for kids to identify with someone who lived and died long before they were born. This lesson, published by ReadWriteThink, provides a plethora of activities that are all built around students exploring the connections between themselves and Dr. King.

One of the things that I like about this lesson is that it offers lots of ideas for teachers to fully engage their students in the material. At this young age (kindergarten through second grade), past events are often difficult for kids to identify with. Also, many kids at this age still associate heroes with caped crusaders with superhuman abilities. Here, students compare and contrast their lives with that of Dr. King, thereby helping them to build connections, and view historical figures as real people like themselves. Heroism, then, is something we can all aspire to. Masks and capes are optional.

ReadWriteThink presents free resources in reading and language arts instruction. Each lesson is reviewed prior to publication by at least two teachers, as well as by members of the International Reading Association (IRA) and the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). So yeah, they’re that good. Lessons are aligned to NCTE/IRA Content Standards.

~Joann's Picks 1/1/2010~

Let's Collaborate: Using The Gateway

Although the calendar has flipped to a new year, teachers and students are just halfway through this journey we call the school year. Maybe you had a great fall semester, and you just want to continue to bring all the best you can to your students. Maybe the beginning of the school year was challenging and you are looking to improve during the new year. Either way, you have come to the right place to find a huge collection of lesson plans, instructional units and other educational materials that you can use in your classroom!

Like many teachers, I start the school year with every intention to provide exciting and meaningful activities for my students every day. In a perfect world, I would have time to create fantastic units with lesson plans and materials that tie everything together and encompass all the state standards I need to cover every year. In the real world, I feel like I am scrambling to be sure to touch on the basics of all the standards and it is pretty hard to come up with great activities and lessons every day.

Luckily, I have been fortunate enough to work with teachers who have shared wonderful plans and materials with me over the years. I have used their ideas and added some of my own, and those units and activities have been some of the most valuable teaching time of every year. Collaboration with other educators has been the key to creating the best learning environment for my students as I possibly can.

Collaboration with colleagues within a school or a district is great. Collaboration on the level you can attain by using the lesson plans, units, and materials from the Gateway is drastically better. If you can spend less time worrying about what activities you can come up with completely by yourself, you will have a lot more time to successfully implement great activities into your curriculum.

You may be having a hard time getting a certain concept across to your students in a fun and engaging way. Maybe you taught a unit on the food chain last year and it felt uninspired. This year, why don’t you try looking up resources on food chain on the Gateway site? My search for “food chain” revealed ten different activities to spice up your food chain lesson this year. There are activities that are online, activities that are inquiry-based, and activities that connect the abstract idea of a food chain to students’ lives, making the concept more meaningful.

You know your students, so you will be able to determine the best fit for them. The search results include what you need to know, what you need to get, and how much time is involved. You can spend your time modifying the activities with your expertise so that they work for you and your students. This will allow you to provide an engaging lesson that is tailored to your students’ individual needs, instead of just providing a lesson that covers a specific topic. When you are done implementing an activity, leave a comment on how it worked out for you, and the collaboration will begin!

You won’t always work with someone who has an exciting lesson plan on diagramming sentences for a class whose eyes glaze over if you start to lecture to them as you write on a chalkboard. You have a much better chance of finding a successful peer-reviewed activity on the Gateway site.

If your students think that studying World War II is boring, maybe you could put them in the shoes of a child during that time. There is a lesson plan to do just that on the Gateway, and it might be your key to appealing to some of your students who would otherwise tune out this important era of our history.

That’s enough about why should use the Gateway site. Let’s talk about how to start using it effectively to improve your teaching. The Gateway to 21st Century Skills website is a portal of a variety of educational resource types from activities and lesson plans to online projects to assessment items which are all found on various federal, state, university, non-profit and commercial Internet sites. To search these resources, you can browse by topic or enter a keyword for a google-like search.

If the search for your keyword comes up with too many results, you can click on the various facets listed on the page to narrow down your search. You can narrow it down by what resource type you want and the grade level you teach, among other facets.

When you find resources that seem like they will work for you, you can send them to a calendar application like Outlook to keep yourself very organized. You can also share things you like from the site with your friends and colleagues on many social networking sites like facebook and Twitter. If you prefer paper copies to digital information, you can also print the resources so you can include them in a traditional lesson plan book.

You can subscribe to the RSS feed. This will let you know when resources matching your interests are added to the Gateway. If you are a seventh grade English teacher, you can opt to receive emails when any lessons described as seventh grade English are added to the Gateway. If you know you are looking for anything to help you teach about how volcanoes work, you can subscribe to an RSS feed for any resources involving volcanoes.

I will go more into depth about the other features of the Gateway site in future columns. What you need to know now is to make a New Year’s resolution to explore and use the Gateway to 21st Century Skills to your advantage! Make your life easier and make the lessons you provide to your students more meaningful and rewarding. Your time is precious. Your students’ time is precious. Let’s collaborate and make the most of it!