Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Student Skills for Successful Blended Learning

I’ve been using a blended learning model in my classroom for a while now. I’ve found that using this model is extremely effective in providing personalized learning for my students. Moreover, allowing students to learn online for part of our instructional day enables me to teach small groups of students, often forgoing whole-group instruction. I’ve essentially created my own digital co-teacher because my students who are working independently learn online with lessons that I’ve created for them. 

My experiences last year helped me to realize that students need to be taught how to learn online. When beginning this school year, I had an outline of skills that I wanted to teach my students before they began learning online independently.

Media Interaction

Watching a video to learn something at school is a whole lot different than watching Netflix at home. Watching at home is a passive activity with the purpose of entertainment. In fact, many people “watch” TV while also playing on a tablet or phone, dividing their attention. These are not behaviors that will aid learning. For this reason, I take time to model appropriate ways to interact with learning media. We practice these skills as a whole class anytime we use a video, infographic, or image for our whole group learning. 

I encourage my students to pause videos to think and replay parts when needed. I also teach my students to take notes, draw diagrams, write questions, and solve problems while learning online. 

Digital Citizenship

A few of the most important digital citizenship lessons that I teach focus on creating a positive online community. Taking time to reinforce these skills early in the year goes a long way!
When learning online, my students have the opportunity to publish their work online, provide comments for their peers, participate in discussion boards, post video reflections, and topic discussions, and work collaboratively through the G suite.

To make the most of these experiences, I explicitly teach my students how to create valuable comments and how to receive suggestions from their peers. I have found that using student blogs is a great way to teach and reinforce these skills throughout the year. My students use their blogs to publish class work, reflect on their learning, and communicate with their peers. Last year I used a series of hyperdocs to create a blogging network for my class, and this year we are trying Google Sites. So far, I’m happy with blogs being authentic websites because my students have the added opportunity this year to work on designing their website.

Self Monitoring

Learning online takes quite a bit of self-monitoring. It’s one thing to work through an online lesson and complete all the required tasks. What’s better though, is teaching students to reflect on their learning and make choices based on their needs. If students realize they need more help with a skill they have a few options: redo the online lesson, ask a neighbor for help, or request a meeting with me to practice the skill together.

As much as possible, I want my students making decisions based on their learning needs. Of course, I still make most of the intervention decisions for my fourth graders, but they are capable of taking part too.


It’s very important to me that my students troubleshoot technical issues with as little of my support as possible. I simply cannot teach a small group of students if I’m continually refreshing websites, helping students log in, and reminding them to read the directions.

At the beginning of the year, I take a considerable amount of time waiting for students to troubleshoot their issues rather than rushing in and “fixing it” for them. To encourage student confidence, I make time for students to explore new apps before I model using them. I also ask students to demonstrate using apps for the class so that their peers know who to ask for help with certain apps if they are stuck.

My students this year seem to be a bit impatient when they run into issues. I still have students approach me with their Chromebooks during my small group instruction. For this reason, I created this quick chart to remind students of different ways to problem solve. I usually just point to the chart when I see a student coming my way so that I can avoid disruptions. 

Finally, I also designate a few reliable students as “tech support.” These students are my last line of defense before my intervention is needed. If a student has tried multiple strategies to solve their problem and a tech support peer can’t help them, then they can ask for my help.

Eventually, some of my students slip back into bad habits. When that happens, I usually buddy them up with another student for a few online lessons to reinforce positive online learning behaviors. Pre-teaching these skills is great, but I still make time throughout the year to reteach and further develop these skills.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Maker Movement: More than Cardboard and Duct Tape

I remember overhearing a teacher at a conference say, “What’s the deal with all the cardboard and duct tape? Are we really wanting to prepare students to make low-budget items? Where is the learning?” 

Sometimes, as teachers, it’s easy to hear “makerspace” and “STEM” and simply associate those terms with bins of materials. We see the projects students make and wonder how on earth a teacher has connected a cardboard prototype with the everyday math and reading standards outlined in our curriculum maps.

Consider this idea presented by Richard Riley, Former Secretary of Education, “The top 10 in-demand jobs in the future don’t exist today. We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.”

How can we possibly prepare students for a future like this? 

More than Making a Product

As educators, we must teach students more than content- we must teach them how to think and design. Between attending conferences and tackling my reading list, I’ve come to a better understanding of design thinking and the benefits it can afford our students.

From my learning, the maker movement isn’t so much about the end product that students create, although that’s what we typically think of. Instead, it is about the thinking process they are applying. Students are learning how to be critical thinkers and problem solvers. They have meaningful tasks to collaborate on, and they practice the skills to become effective communicators. They also realize they have what it takes to solve real-world problems.

Children are Makers

Cardboard creations and rainy-day forts are part of so many of our childhood memories, and children today have the same natural drive to create in this way. Expressing creativity through building and making is such a great way for our students to learn by doing.

Have you heard about Caine’s Arcade? Take a few minutes to watch his story and consider all the different thinking processes and content areas he used while making his creation. If you were his teacher, how could you have used his arcade with your content standards?

Where to Begin

I didn’t begin with a designated STEM curriculum, a fancy makerspace, pre-made lessons purchased online, or even a weekly time set aside for these activities. Instead, I began by looking for units in my district curriculum map that would lend themselves to this type of thinking.

For example, each year we investigate the forces related to flight by creating a glider. This year, we created and flew gliders from a provided template. Then used what we learned to design our own gliders. We began with researching other aircraft, followed by a few rounds of rapid prototyping. Finally, we created our own models, tested them, and made revisions. Rather than just using a pre-made design, we critiqued it and tried to improve upon it. My students became the creators, not just procedure-followers. Isn't that what we want our students to be able to do in the workforce?

This semester, my class is beginning to use the Launch Cycle to investigate issues they are passionate about. John Spencer and A.J. Juliani’s book, LAUNCH outlines a student-friendly approach to design thinking. In this process, students learn about a topic or process, ask questions, research to understand and navigate ideas, create a product, revise, and share with the world. Our first project focused on the topic of homelessness. After that, we studied animal cruelty, how deployment affects families, making video games, and how to build a house. 

Curriculum Connection

Rather than thinking, “How can this connect to the curriculum?” I want to challenge you with this thought: STEM, Makerspace and design thinking are just a structure and approach for teaching- not the actual curriculum.

Here is a practical example of teaching content standards while designing and creating:

To begin, my students were able to choose the topic they researched while participating in the design thinking process. Through this process, I also taught my students critical reading skills including summarizing, drawing conclusions, and synthesizing information across tests. My reading lessons followed the gradual-release of responsibility model just like they have in years past, but our learning took on greater meaning. Final projects ranged from presentations and websites to video games and physical prototypes. My students worked with me to determine how they would demonstrate the reading skills they applied throughout their research.

My Next Steps

In the near future, I don't have plans to create a designated Makerspace or accumulate bins of stem materials (although I really like the potential for using Bloxels as it can connect to our gamified classroom). I like the way my students and I are making projects directly related to our coursework. My next step is simply continuing to integrate design thinking opportunities throughout our curriculum. After this school year, I will have a better grasp of designing and making as it relates to our fourth-grade curriculum.

I'd love to hear about your take on Makerspace and STEM. Tell me about what it looks like in your classroom.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Tips for Managing Passion Projects

Before beginning passion projects with my students, I had so many concerns about management. I loved the idea of student interest driving our learning, but I had so many questions:

  • How do I manage students working on so many different topics?
  • How much time should be dedicated to passion projects?
  • What does a schedule look like for supporting each group? 
  • Can I ensure rigor and application of skills?
  • Where is the balance between student-centered learning and chaos?
I can’t give a definite answer to a lot of those questions because passion project management depends a lot on the learners and the nature of their projects. I made a lot of in-the-moment decisions throughout the process. Here are a few tips I can offer from my experience.

The Process

I like organization, so the ambiguity of passion projects was daunting. I really liked the idea of using a design thinking process as guiding steps for our projects. I read about a design thinking process called the LAUNCH Cycle, and I thought it was student friendly and just right for our needs. The process follows these steps:

  • L Look, listen, learn
  • A Ask a ton of questions
  • U Understand the topic
  • N Navigate the ideas
  • C Create a prototype
  • H Highlight and fix
  • LAUNCH the product to your audience

Beginning Together

We voted as a class and decided on our first topic that we would investigate together. Working on the same topic allowed me plenty of opportunity to model thinking and reading strategies- tying our work closely to reading standards. It also helped me to realize the amount of planning involved in supporting student groups during the research and creation phases of our process. Moreover, I was able to monitor student understanding and gradually release responsibility to students.

Working together gave us a positive shared experience that we could refer back to. Students enjoyed our first project so much that they anticipated their next passion project with enthusiasm.

Goal Setting

Managing various groups of students researching different topics was a challenge during our second passion project cycle. I quickly realized the power of setting specific goals for each day of work. These goals gave my students direction and helped them to remain more focused when I wasn’t directly working with their group. For teams that struggled with remaining on task, it also helped to give each student a specific job for the day. Knowing that I would check the progress of their work was the accountability they needed to remain focused.


I also shared a Google Doc with students so that each group could communicate with me daily regarding their needs. I set up a simple table with a row for each team. Student groups typed me a few sentences letting me know what they needed from me to move forward the next day. When I noticed trends, I met with multiple groups all at once. Other times, I was able to have students who had mastered certain skills support other groups.

Blended Learning Saves the Day

You know I love blended learning. Creating online lessons and resources essentially allows me to create my own digital co-teacher. When I had student groups wanting to create digital projects including websites, blogs, presentations, and video games, I knew just how to support them.

I created short screencast videos on topics like finding images labeled for reuse, embedding videos, and designing projects that are easy for an audience to understand. I also provided links to tutorials for using Scratch, Google Sites, and Google Slides. Teaching these basic skills in a blended environment freed me up to support students as they created the content for their projects.

Prioritize Skills

I also learned how important it is to continually find relevant resources for students. As each group began researching their topic, they refined the focus of their project and they needed specific information to move forward. For our first two passion projects, I curated credible resources for my students. We will learn how to evaluate sources later in the year and I simply didn’t have time to pre-teach and monitor the progress of that skill yet. I had to continually help students find new resources as they moved through their research.

Ask for Help

Managing so many groups was made easier because I have a wonderful co-teacher. I also wasn’t shy asking for additional help. Our director of virtual and blended learning stopped by from time to time to see our progress and lend a hand, and our instructional coach popped in while we were working on our projects. Two former students chose to help out in my classroom as part of their reward for awesome behavior, and they provided excellent peer support for my students.

Take the Risk!

I learned that allowing students the freedom to direct their learning and own the process is messy. It’s not clear cut and I couldn’t plan far in advance. Those conditions are really about me, though. If I’m trying to create a student-centered classroom, then I need to let go of some of my planning preferences. In the end, I took the risk of trying and it was worth it!