Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Movies on my Mind

Movie day!  Students love to be entertained, and teachers love the chance to sit back and breathe a sigh of relief (or tackle that giant pile of grading).  No lectures to take notes on, just a passive viewing of a movie in a nice, dark, cool classroom, right?  I hope not.  I hope we can find simple ways to use movies in class as more than just entertainment.  Instead, movies can engage students and inspire thoughtful, critical thinking about current classroom topics.

Teachers have used movies and filmstrips in the classroom for many years.  At the most basic level, movies can serve as tools to support and reinforce concepts taught in class.  Science classes can watch science films, history classes can watch historical documentaries, and English classes can watch the film versions of books they read in class.  Movies can also serve as the backbone for emergency sub plans in place in case of unforeseen absences.  Some teachers stretch the use of movies even further by watching popular movies that share some link to the material they have taught in class.  For example, a biology class might watch Outbreak or Osmosis Jones, or a history class might watch Shindler’s List following units on related topics. 

In some classrooms, movies are used as a special treat for students, with no apparent link to the curriculum at all.  In this way, movies become more of a babysitter than an educational tool.  My daughter’s first grade class watches a movie every Friday while teachers scramble to catch up with their grading and planning.  I know this is a much needed work time for teachers, but I can’t help but feel that some important learning time is being sacrificed. 

No matter what kind of movie you are showing in class, most students find movie days to be a nice change of pace from the daily grind.  Joann’s Picks this week bring a fun twist to using movies in the classroom by introducing ways to use the movies kids WANT to watch to strengthen their understanding of topics they are learning in class.  As teachers, we can come up with creative ways to link popular kids’ movies to the important topics we are teaching.  With some planning, we can promote active participation and creative thinking on movie days, and we can feel good that our students are getting the most out of their school day. 

If you have a popular movie in mind, contemplate the math, science, English, and history concepts you can tie to it.  Create your own connections and assignments, or search the Gateway to see if someone has already begun the process for you!  I searched for examples of creative uses for movies in the classroom.  I hope this short list can help you find ways to incorporate popular films in your classes.  If you have ideas you have used in the past, please share on our blog, Facebook, or Twitter pages.

Movie possibilities are abundant for history teachers.  The History in Film series of lesson plans takes a traditional approach to using movies in the classroom.  Each film on the site includes an outline, timeline of events, and homework questions related to the movie.

ReadWriteThink has lots of activities that connect popular movies to concepts in the language arts classroom.  Decoding The Matrix: Exploring Dystopian Characteristics through Film uses The Matrix to help high school students compare and contrast different types of societies.  Exploring Satire with Shrek is a fun way to use the children’s film to study satire.  Cover to Cover: Comparing Books to Movies is a great tool for language arts students to analyze and compare books and he movies that are based on them. 

The movie Contact can help start conversations about how technology interacts with scientific knowledge.  This lesson plan shows how you can use this movie in your classroom. 

P.E. Central has created a set of activities that can be used along with popular movies to encourage physical activity.  These are some original ways to use movies in the P.E. classroom.

One very creative connection between Hollywood and the classroom comes from the University of Southern Mississippi.  In Macroplex Cinema: Polymers Go Hollywood, students learn about the science of polymers and do simple experiments demonstrating how polymers are used in special effects.

This list shows the variety of resources available to help you include movies in your classroom.  We look forward to learning about ways you have used movies with your students.

~Peggy's Corner - 6/24/2011~

Hooray for Hollywood

Recently, my third grader was required to watch installments of the 2006 film Cars in school over the course of three days. The students were required to jot notes in their journals during the film, in order to learn about characterization and to trace the characters’ emotional development throughout the film. Normally a big fan of Pixar films, she had never warmed to Cars, and was less than enthusiastic about the assignment. At the end of the week, however, she acknowledged that the assignment had been beneficial, and that she had a much better grasp of how characters could evolve in both film and books.

Using films in the classroom is nothing new. Popular feature films and especially documentaries have been used as teaching tools for decades. The practice has sometimes been frowned upon by some educators and parents, who have viewed it as a babysitting tool and nothing more. Yet the use of films in the classroom can reap substantial gains for students if used properly.

Watching films in class doesn’t have to be – and shouldn’t be – a passive activity. Through interactive discourse and exercises, students can discuss films they’ve viewed in class and thus learn to be active and thoughtful viewers. Some concepts are also more effectively illustrated through a visual medium rather than a printed one, such as historical trade routes and military battle plans. Using films and documentaries can be used in all classes, but are most prevalent in English, history, social studies, and ELL/EFL classes. Here they are often used to illustrate themes in social justice and media literacy, historical events and cultural practices, and elements of plot, setting, characterization, style, and point of view. Films can help to reinforce salient course concepts, and to introduce students to new ideas and topics that they otherwise might not have explored.

This week, I’ve selected three resources that all use popular Hollywood films in educational ways. Throughout the week I’ll also be featuring many more film-based lessons and activities on our Facebook and Twitter pages, so be sure to give them a look.

Will the Real Pocahontas Please Stand Up
Subjects: English Language Arts, History
Grade: 3-5
Students participating in this activity will learn about Pocahontas, the Powhatan Indians, and the many stories about Pocahontas.  They will gain experience in assessing the relative merits of presentations of Pocahontas's life, and try to decide who the "real" Pocahontas was. This resource is a product of the National First Ladies Library, a national archive that educates the world about the American First Ladies and other notable women in history.

Historic Route 66: Lesson Plans for Pixar’s Cars
Subjects: Geography, U.S. history, English Language Arts
Grade: 4-12
The setting for the film “Cars” is Route 66, the historic highway that changed America. The national highway linked Chicago, IL with Los Angeles, CA. This lesson has students research and report on various locations on Route 66 and their historical significance. This lesson was produced by ClassBrain, a site that offers specially designed resources for K-12 students, teachers, and parents.

Exploring Satire with Shrek
Subjects: English
Grade: 9-12
The movie “Shrek”, which satirizes fairy tale traditions, serves as an introduction to the satirical techniques of exaggeration, incongruity, reversal, and parody. Students brainstorm fairy tale characteristics, identify the satirical techniques used to present them in the movie, then create their own satirical versions of fairy tales. This lesson is a product of ReadWriteThink, which presents free peer-reviewed resources in reading and language arts instruction. This lesson is aligned to NCTE/IRA content standards.

~Joann's Picks - 6/24/2011~

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Learning All Summer Long

“I’m booooooored!”  It’s the sound of the gains made by this year’s students slowly slipping away as they veg out in front of one kind of a screen or another.  Movies and video games will keep our kids entertained and…quiet, but there is no mental challenge to maintain the learning from the school year.  We all need a break, and summer vacation is the perfect time to enjoy some much-deserved relaxation.  A good goal for teachers as summer approaches is to help students and parents find intriguing, fun, and memorable ways to work out their brains all summer long.  Summer should be relaxing, fun, and engaging…not boring at all.

Summer learning does not have to depend on expensive summer schools or camps.  Growing up, I did a summer project at home every year.  It was a neat thing our family did each summer, and it took very little prep time from my parents.  Some years involved the study of different animals (zoo trips!), and another year was the circus (hey…it’s research).  One year we were traveling in California, and we stopped to check out the windmills to help us learn about alternate energy sources.  I decided to study classical composers once and family history another time.  I got to sew myself costumes and learn to play classical songs on the piano.  I also learned the important lesson that if you are going to try to make your long hair stick to your face to look like a beard, tape is a much better option than sticky tac.  (Trust me on that one!)

I looked forward to these self-directed projects because I could pick any topic I was interested in, I often got to do fun things in the name of “research,” and I got to be creative with how I presented my learning.  My final projects were videos, dioramas, posters, scrapbooks, travel logs, and more.  I loved being in charge of my own learning!  (And not stressing about turning it in for a grade was nice, too.)

This was authentic learning at its’ best, learning for the sake of learning.  I had the chance to discover the answers to things I was curious about in the world.  It is unfortunate that all of our students aren’t getting some kind of enrichment like this over the summer.  As teachers, we can be very influential by putting the seeds of ideas like this into parents’ minds.  Coming up with ideas can often be the hardest part of keeping kids engaged, so arming your kids and their parents with lots of ideas is very helpful.  Turning on the TV is easy…coming up with fun summer ideas should be easy, too.

How can we plant these ideas for parents?  Joann suggested introducing resources to parents through a newsletter you send home at the end of the school year.  If you are connected to your students and parents in other ways like a class website or wiki, email list, Facebook group, or class Twitter account, you will have the advantage of staying connected to your students and parents throughout the summer so you can continue to introduce project ideas and feedback.  Either way you distribute the information, you will be providing a useful toolbox for students and parents to plug that “brain drain” and help them make the summer a fun time for authentic exploration and learning.

Summer boredom buster lists can be found in just about every parenting magazine on newsstands right now.  There are also some valuable resources online that will help you find quality educational activities to present to your students.  You know the areas your students need to work on this summer.  Search the Gateway for activities and online games that will help make it fun. This year, Reading Rockets put together a nice list of ideas for parents and teachers.  You can check out their ideas here.  If your students like to use technology, you might want to check out this list from a professor at Iowa State University.  I found a fun tool called Google Lit Trips.  Even if a family can’t afford to travel this summer, they can use Google Lit Trips with Google Earth to take a virtual trip into the settings of the books they read.   Another fun, quick idea is Project NEED’s Great American Energy Scavenger Hunt, where students can send in pictures of energy that they find during the summer.

Kids like to undertake projects they choose themselves.  If they are given options and they can think of a topic that truly interests them, the learning will be fun.  If they want to build a fort, help them research the best tools and designs.  If they want to see Justin Bieber in concert, maybe they can study the history of young pop stars or they can study music and composition.   If you are taking a trip, kids can do all kinds of mileage calculations and they can be learning geography and history along the way. 

It doesn’t have to be complicated.  Sometimes the easiest thing to do is to allow students to research a topic and let them think of a fun, special way to present what they learned.  Music buffs might compose a song on the topic.  Kids who are into technology might want to find a web tool to make an interactive presentation of some kind.  A student studying a social issue may want to hold a bake sale to raise funds for a cause.  The possibilities are endless, and a child’s sense of accomplishment can be huge.

Hopefully my ramblings made sense and you were able to put together some ideas for your students and their parents.  As always, we would love to hear about what you are doing in your classroom and how you are busting summer boredom for your students and keeping their minds engaged.  On a final note, if you think some of these ideas would be too hard for your students, check out this report created by a super cute and sweet four-year-old who loves camels.  She researched the information with an adult, typed up her findings one slow keystroke at a time, searched for pictures in Google, and dragged all of her own clips into Windows Movie Maker.  I think it’s better than I could have done!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Summer Slide

Summer is fast approaching, and your students are probably giddy with the thoughts of sun-kissed days and freedom from the classroom. Of course they – and their teachers – deserve a little downtime from the rigors of the academic year. But is an entire summer of downtime too much of a good thing?

Research has shown that students lose ground in their academic dexterity over the summer, particularly in reading, math, and verbal skills. Without the daily routine of the classroom and the repetition of concepts, students lose an average of one to two months’ learning over the summer. Teachers and education experts refer to this as “summer brain drain,” and find themselves spending a good chunk of time reviewing or re-teaching material to their students once school starts up again in September. To help stem the flow of information loss, it’s important that kids keep thinking, reading, and writing throughout the summer.

While summer learning loss is prevalent in most students, studies have found that lower-income students are hit the hardest by summers off from school. More affluent families often enroll their kids in expensive summer camps and enrichment programs to give them a competitive edge when they return to school, and such students can actually make wide academic gains over the summer. For many lower-income students, however, comparable programs either don’t exist, or are financially out of reach for their families. Studies have shown that low-income students lose the most ground in reading skills, which can take months to remedy once they are back in school.

Fortunately, some good options exist for all students, regardless of income. Many public libraries run summer reading programs for preschool kids through teens; this year’s theme is “One World, Many Stories.” There are also lots of free, high-quality online games and activities that are geared towards getting kids to use analytical and reasoning skills. This week, I’ve selected three Gateway resources that I hope you’ll include in a newsletter home to your students’ parents, encouraging them to set aside some time each week for student learning. These are free online activities that will challenge students in a fun and creative way. Please be sure to check our href=””>Facebook and Twitter pages throughout the week as well, as we’ll be featuring many more free resources to help prevent summer brain drain in your students.

Shape Poems
Subjects: Language Arts
Grade: K-5
Using this interactive tool, students create shape poems, which are poems that describe an object and are written in the shape of that object. Students may choose shapes from four different themes – nature, school, sports, or celebrations. By selecting a shape, students learn how to focus their writing on a particular topic. Additionally, students are prompted to brainstorm, write, and revise their poems, thus reinforcing elements of the writing process. Students can also print their finished shape poems. This resource is a product of
ReadWriteThink, which presents free, peer-reviewed resources in reading and language arts instruction.

Lure of the Labyrinth
Subjects: Math
Grade: 7-8
Lure of the Labyrinth is an interactive online math game for middle school pre-algebra students. Here, students embark on a mission into a shadowy factory populated by monsters to save a lost pet. Students assume the guise of "undercover monsters" as they work through math problems. In the process, students work with proportions, fractions, ratios, variables, equations, numbers, and operations. Lure of the Labyrinth is a product of the Learning to Go project (LG2G), which concentrates on creating essential resources for teachers, pre-algebra students, and their families.

Play a Virtual Market
Subjects: Economics
Grade: 6-12
After finding an old coin worth $100,000, it’s time for you to make some investments. In this online activity and simulation, students learn how to play the stock market. Players can trade in traditional stocks, and also use call options. This activity was created by Rob Meyer, a production assistant at NOVA Online. NOVA is the award-winning PBS science series, which offers a plethora of science-related lesson plans and activities for K-12 students.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

DARE to Deal with Drugs

A major part of a student’s life from upper elementary through college is maintaining the delicate balance between fitting in with their peers and being true to themselves. Teachers and parents share the responsibility of ensuring that these young people are armed with the right information and skills to make good decisions when the need arises.  For the past two decades, school districts across the nations have been tackling issues of drug use and peer pressure by implementing drug use prevention programs like Project DARE.  In this program, specially trained police officers present a curriculum beginning in the upper elementary grades.   This curriculum aims to educate students to make smart choices if they are pressured to use drugs.  Whether or not your school has this type of program in place, it is important for you to be able to include drug resistance education of your own if the need arises. 

Students today are exposed to drugs, both legal and illegal, through the media and their peers. Kids might do things they might not really want to do just to look “cool.”  Preparing students to deal with peer pressure is an important part of character education.  There are some nice resources from Education World to help build these skills. Ten Activities to Improve Students' Self-Concepts and Students Teach Students: Using Student Essays To Build Coping Skills and Self-Esteem are both resources to keep in mind when you need to help your students recognize and deal with peer pressure. 

Along with peer pressure, students are also persuaded by the many sources of media surrounding them.  The use of drugs and alcohol is often glamourized in the media, which can be transferred into students’ own lives.  One lesson from P.E. Central is a good example of allowing students to discover the impact of media for themselves.  The activity, Assessing Media’s Influence Project requires students to find media clips involving particular drugs and assess the target of this influence.  There are many more resources in media literacy on the Gateway that can help your students think more critically about what they are learning through the media.

Programs like project DARE present pictures or actual examples of different drugs and teach students what those drugs do to their bodies.  Whether or not your students have participated in something like this, having questions answered honestly by a trusted teacher can have a huge effect on at-risk students.  For a good overview and introduction to drugs, look at Deadly Highs: Substance Abuse, a well-planned middle school unit from Discovery Education.  I like how the unit requires students to use their creativity to create a band, song, and album cover as an anti-drug campaign for a particular drug.  Since the abuse of over the counter and prescription drugs is on the rise, it is also important to consider primary source resources such as Latest trend in drug abuse: Youths risk death for cough-remedy high, a special reprint edition from USA Today with discussion questions and activities.

Teachers are an important influence on students’ lives and decisions.  The way we deal with topics like drugs in the classroom can have a huge impact on our students’ ability to make decisions that will be good for their future.  I hope the steroid resources Joann featured this week and these drug resources will help you effectively teach about drug use and abuse.  

~Peggy's Corner - 6/10/2011~


Students who follow the news regularly or tune into sports channels such as ESPN are likely familiar with steroid use among some elite athletes. While the rumors of steroid use continue to dog some athletes who deny using such drugs, other athletes have confessed to using anabolic steroids to enhance athletic performance and give them an edge over their competitors. Former California governor and ex-bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger, NY Yankee Alex Rodriguez, track star Marion Jones, cyclist Tyler Hamilton, and linebacker Shawne Merriman are a few examples of notable athletes who have all admitted to using steroids. The prevalent use of performance-enhancing drugs among famous athletes is particularly troubling in light of the high esteem bestowed upon them by their adolescent and teen fans.

Unfortunately, steroid use isn’t restricted to elite athletes. Increasing numbers of teens who are dissatisfied with their body image turn to steroids as a way to shed excess fat, build muscle mass, and increase muscle strength quickly. Currently, the fastest growing user group is girls aged 12-15, and the median age for both genders to initially try steroids is 15 years of age. A 2006 study conducted by the University of Michigan found that 1.6% of 8th graders surveyed had used steroids at least once, and that 0.9% of them had used steroids in the past year.

Steroids are synthetic substances similar to the male sex hormone testosterone. While anabolic steroids have some legitimate medical uses, teens who use steroids typically do so without the supervision of qualified medical personnel. Hormone balance is extremely important in teens, and those who use steroids face serious side effects and possibly death. Some signs of steroid use in your students may include:
  • persistent body odor
  • rapid weight gain with larger muscle mass
  • acne
  • shaking/trembling
  • jaundice
  • increased aggressiveness, anger, and/or violent behavior
  • red or purple spots on the body
  • gynecomatasia (pronounced breast development in males)
The best way to deter students from taking steroids or other drugs is to educate them on the risks. While lessons on steroid use are most common found in physical education, health, and science classrooms, the subject can easily be breached in other subject areas as well. This week I’ve selected two lessons on steroids for high elementary through high school grades, and one lesson on harmful substances for younger students. Throughout the week, we’ll be featuring many more lessons, activities, and other resources on steroids on our Facebook and Twitter pages, so please be sure to check those pages regularly.

How To Identify a Harmful Medicine
Subject: Health, Language Arts
Grade: 1

This lesson demonstrates how to identify a harmful medicine or substance and how to respond when offered or discovering one of these substances. While this lesson does not directly address steroid use, it does introduce younger students to the idea that not all medicines are “good,” particularly when not prescribed by a doctor or administered by a parent. This lesson was produced by Healthy Schools, a project of the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

Tendon Damage from Steroids
Subject: Health
Grade: 6-12

The purpose of this activity is to help students understand how using steroids can create problems for tendons in the body. This lesson is a product of PE Central, a Web site devoted to providing the latest information about developmentally appropriate physical education programs for children and youth.

Steroids: Are They Worth It?
Subject: Health
Grade: 9-12

Athletes acknowledge there is pressure to take steroids to compete. However, doctors caution that side effects from steroid use can include kidney failure, heart disease, brain tumors and impotency as well as behavioral changes. This resource looks at cases from professional, Olympic, and high school sports and what steroids can do to your body. This resource was produced by USA Today, an American newspaper that covers both national and international news and topics.

~Joann's Picks - 6/10/2011~

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Rocket to the Moon

In spite of the unusual weather in many parts of the world, summer really is around the corner. Some of you have already started your summer vacation while others of us are in school for most of June (and searching for fun, educational activities to keep our students from checking out early!). Whether you are looking for lessons to round out this year, ideas to use later, or even activities to do with your own kids at home, Joann’s space shuttle picks could give you a nice variety.

Launching a vessel into space is an intriguing idea for kids and adults alike, and a concept that lends itself well to fun classroom activities. Kids build imaginary rockets and pretend to be on their own space adventures for fun. Space shuttles, rockets, stars, and planets adorn the walls of children’s bedrooms around the world. It’s a logical step to take this fun concept and use it in your teaching. English, math, science, and history lessons can take on an interesting twist when you connect them to the study of space shuttles. Even as the shuttle program officially ends, learning about space shuttles, the space program, and space science can continue to grow in the classroom.

Students have gotten the chance to witness history as they have watched space shuttle launches on TV since the eighties. I will never forget the day we watched the live coverage of the Challenger lifting off in my elementary school classroom. That tragedy presented unique challenges for teachers and a very memorable teachable moment in history. Activities like 5,4,3,2,1 Blast Off! combine a study of this recent history with science and rocket design.

I particularly liked some activities on the Gateway this week that are hands on explorations of the topic. Thirteen Ed Online has a wonderful resource that features a space shuttle simulation. This resource includes multiple activities, allowing students to be part of a simulated shuttle crew that conducts experiments, maps routes, and holds multimedia press releases. For a quick and fun activity, you can have your students design paper rockets attached to film canisters (if you can still find any!). To launch, fill the canister ¾ full of water, drop in ½ of an Alka-Selzer tablet, put on the lid, and POP! You have a homemade rocket to study.

~Peggy's Corner - 6/3/2011~

To Infinity and Beyond!

This summer marks the end of an era.

Mission STS-135 will be the final mission for NASA’s space shuttle program, an innovative project that made its first official launch in 1981. The idea for a reusable spacecraft was tossed around back in the 1960s, and in 1972, President Richard Nixon announced that NASA would begin work on the space shuttle program. To date, there have been 134 missions, with one left to go. Of those missions, two ended in disaster. The losses of the Challenger and Columbia shuttles, with their entire crews, are tragedies that are still etched in the memories of many people worldwide. The Challenger mission, with teacher Christa McAuliffe aboard, was particularly difficult for many students to emotionally process. According to NASA, the shuttle missions have resulted in a 2% death rate per astronaut per flight – a very low rate of risk. Despite the relative frequency and familiarity of shuttle launches, however, space missions are still journeys into the relative unknown, still explorations into the heart of darkness.

The value of space exploration has long been a controversial topic, with opponents citing fiscal waste and proponents championing valuable knowledge gained about our universe and our origins. For many students, space exploration is a compelling topic, and one that they eagerly embrace. There’s a certain romance to exploration in general: tales of polar expeditions, journeys west across the American frontier, and plumbing the depths of the sea have long been classroom favorites. The courage and daring demonstrated by explorers (including astronauts) aptly illustrates the human need to know, to understand the world around us and to keep striving for sometimes unknown heights. We look, we wonder, we explore – it’s the human condition. This eternal curiosity and the quest for knowledge also characterizes the very essence of education, and the ability to make connections, generate new ideas, and to simply understand. Space is the birthplace of our planet, and someday, space will reclaim it. To probe the heavens and to study space and its contents is to help understand our place in the universe, how life on our planet came to be, and perhaps what our future holds. It’s one of the few mysterious environments left for us to explore, and it’s a vast one.

My featured resources this week focus on space exploration and some of the skills necessary to work or maneuver in this unfamiliar environment. I’ll be featuring many more resources on this topic for all ages on our Facebook and Twitter pages throughout the week, so please be sure to check those pages regularly.

Training to Work in Space
Grade: 3-5
Astronauts are trained to work in space in stressful conditions. Jobs that must be completed in space are practiced many times on Earth so that astronauts will be able to complete them in a more stressful space environment. Students will experience some training as they practice assembling a support for a solar array. They will discover that using strategies and repeat practice allows them to complete the job with more skill and less time. This lesson was produced by Challenger Center for Space Science Education, which offers a broad array of mission-based space science activities. Challenger Center takes over 400,000 kids annually through simulated space missions, and also offers a host of educational materials for teachers.

Navigating a Spacecraft
Subjects: Space sciences, Math
Grade: 5-8
In this activity students work in pairs to plot the paths (trajectories) of a spacecraft traveling between Earth and Mars in the year 2018 and returning in 2020. These paths use the minimum amount of fuel, and take about six months to travel from one planet to the other. This lesson was produced by Challenger Center for Space Science Education, which aims to create a scientifically literate population that can thrive in the 21st century and beyond. A network of Challenger Learning Centers in the U.S., U.K., Canada, and South Korea offers diverse classroom programming and community outreach programs for kids.

Space Exploration Using Photo Story
Subjects: US History, Space Science, English
Grade: 11
Students research the American space exploration program in the context of the Cold War, and use Photo Story to create a presentation using photos of space program, key figures, and documents in order to present their findings to their classmates. This lesson is a product of HotChalk Learning, a portal that provides an online learning management system and lesson plans.

~Joann's Picks - 6/3/2011~