After completing the California Choice Project, my students moved to their next Problem-Based Learning unit, the Community Resource Project. Focusing on earthquakes, landslides, and other land changes, this science unit was introduced by the following problem statement:

“You work for the government of a city that has seen many changes to the land over the years. You have lived in this city your whole life. Many people have been moving to your city lately, and they have never seen these types of changes before. Understandably, they are nervous about living in such an unfamiliar environment. You will create a resource that teaches new residents about these different types of land changes. Your resource must include the definition and pictures of landslides, earthquakes, creep, chemical weathering, mechanical weathering, dunes, volcanoes, runoff, erosion, and deposition. Also, your resource must include some type of rating or description of how dangerous each of these things usually are.”  

There are three major differences between this unit and the previous one. First, as I mentioned in last week's post, the kids had complete “choice of team.” Those who wanted to work alone were allowed to do so, while everyone else chose the members of their team. Many children decided to work with the same people as last time, and others formed brand new groups.

Second, whereas the kids were charged with creating a presentation in the California Choice Project, they were now being asked to make a resource. This change enabled the kids to engage in a different type of creative thinking and call upon different strengths and talents. Most groups chose to produce full-color books that we had printed and bound. A few groups, who saw some of their classmates create slide shows last time around, decided to go this route this time around. One ambitious pair, whose members have an interest in programming, decided to make a website.

Finally, the Community Resource Project was the first time we used the valuable information that we gained from, a free website for teachers and parents that’s designed to help children discover their interests and passions, personalize the learning process, and maximize their amazing potential. The process of using Thrively begins when the kids take an engaging, online strength assessment. After completing the strength profile, the children each receive a detailed write-up that’s 100% positive and motivating. As a teacher who’s dedicated to developing the whole child, I appreciate Thrively’s inclusion of not only academic strengths and interests, but also social skills, personality traits, and critical “real-life” attitudes and aptitudes.    
Though the strength profiles are created for individual students, I discovered two ways to use this information to help the kids work more effectively in their groups. I will share these strategies as this blog series rolls on.

(Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I wanted to let you know that I have begun collaborating with and its founder in recent months because of our mutual interest in teaching the whole child.)
In my previous post in this blog series, I shared the problem statement of the "California Choice Project" and described how my students had an opportunity to identify what they already knew about the project and determine what they still needed to learn before they could begin. The next step was to form groups. Because this project occurred early in the school year, the PBL process was brand new to everyone, and the students were new to one another. So, I organized everyone into pairs that I thought would work well together.

This would be the last time, though, that I would make the grouping decisions. Since then, the kids have had the choice of 1) whether they wanted to work alone or with others and 2) who would be in their group. I strongly believe that to maximize motivation, investment in the project, and work quality, children need to own their "choice of team." I accomplish this task by first seeing who wants to work alone and then honoring that choice. Next, I ask the remaining children to take a few minutes to walk around and find one or two partners with whom they'd like to join forces. My only caveats at this point are that they need to be sure that nobody's feelings get hurt and that they need to be sure to form groups that will be able to focus on the task at hand and avoid distractions. The first time we did this, I was shocked at how quickly and smoothly everyone found a group. I was prepared to step in and make any necessary adjustments, but that didn't happen this time around. I know that this method of "group forming" may not always work so smoothly, but I think it's important to give children this type of responsibility and see how they handle it. If it didn't go well, I could also do it differently next time.

Once the children were in their groups, their first task involved creating an action plan containing all the steps they would need to complete from the beginning of the project to the end. While each action plan differed somewhat, most started out with a research phase in which the children would use our social studies text, as well as other print and online resources, to find out the names of California's four regions; learn about each region's climate, geography, natural resources, and recreational activities; and identify pros and cons of living in each one. After the research was complete, the groups then turned their attention to choosing the region that would be the best fit for their company and creating the presentation (including visual aids) that they would make to their employees as part of the unit's culmination.

Every time a group finished a step of its action plan, the members would bring their work to me so I could check it. If everything looked good, I would initial that part of the action plan and send them off to the next step. If not, I would ask them to go back to fill in any gaps I noticed. This type of step-by-step accountability is absolutely critical in ensuring that everyone is learning the key objectives of the unit, an outcome that can only happen when these objectives are written in the original problem statement and, thus, need to be included in the action plan.

Completing the steps of the action plans took several class periods, and watching my students during this time was a joy. I was amazed by how focused, cooperative, and motivated they all were. I had never seen anything quite like it. Many of them asked if they could work on the project during our lunch period, and many others would ask me each morning at the door if we were going to be working on our projects that day. I realized what was possible when children were given the opportunity to execute a plan that they themselves created and that allowed them to organize, use, and present information in a way that made sense to them and excited them. In fact, engagement was so high, I honestly believe that there were many times during our PBL periods when I could have stepped outside the classroom for 30 minutes, and everything would have been fine. 

On the day of our big presentations in the cafeteria, the kids were eager to present their "California Choice" to their classmates, families, and other guests. Some groups created slide shows using our google chrome books, others made booklets and posters, and one pair created a four-part display, resembling a diorama, that included written information and visuals about each region of California.

Next time, I will describe our follow-up project and introduce an important tool we used to improve each group's functioning.     
Saturday, 06 February 2016 01:04

A Super Bowl-Themed Tip (Teaching Tip #127)

Before the kickoff to today's big game, you are likely to hear the announcers discuss each team's "Keys to Victory." For example, Phil Simms of CBS may describe how the Broncos need to run the ball effectively, protect Peyton Manning so he has time to pass, and play tough defense against Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.

In the classroom, children have their own keys to victory. Over the past couple years, I've discussed this idea with my students before important assessments. Before an end-of-unit math assessment, for example, I ask everyone to identify the single most important thing they need to do to earn a high score. For some kids, it's paying close attention to detail. For others, it's reading the directions carefully, making sure they show all their work, or checking their work carefully at the end.

Once the kids have each identified their individual key to victory, I encourage them to write or sketch that idea at the top of their papers before they begin working. That visual reminder has made a significant difference for many students, providing a quick, simple form of motivation and inspiration and serving as another way to personalize the learning process. Plus, this process helps children understand themselves better as learners and promotes reflective thinking. Many kids like to sketch the "D-fence" sign shown in the accompanying image. In last year's Super-Bowl themed teaching tip, I described how this sign has become an important symbol in our class and represents our team's commitment to paying attention to detail.


In this post I begin to describe “The California Choice Project,” a Problem-Based Learning unit my students completed in the fall as part of our social studies curriculum. Below you will find the problem statement I introduced to the kids on the first day of the unit. In this statement my goals were to 1) create an interesting context that would engage my students, 2) establish a clear final project that would drive everyone’s efforts throughout the unit and allow for meaningful student choice, and 3) include essential content about our topic, the four regions of California.

“You are the founder and president of a new technology startup company in North Dakota. Ten people work for your company, and many of them have young children. To grow your business, you have decided to move your company to California and take your employees and their families with you. You need to decide which of California’s four regions to choose for your new headquarters. On Thursday, October 8th, your company will have its most important meeting ever. At that meeting, you will make a presentation to your employees that describes the pros and cons of living and working in each region. This presentation must include high quality information about each region and professional-looking visual aids. Your employees have told you that they want to know about each region’s climate, geography, resources, and recreational activities. At the end of your presentation, you will announce which region you have chosen and why you chose that region.”

At this stage of a new project, it’s natural for teachers to want to “talk through” the problem statement with the kids and explain everything to them. With Problem-Based Learning, though, the emphasis is on student initiative, with the children doing more and the teachers doing less. So, rather than explain the statement to the kids, I provided an opportunity for them to generate their own understanding of it.

Specifically, they responded to two prompts that were printed under the problem statement in two columns. On the left side, it said: “What I Know About the Project,” and on the right, it said: “What I Need to Learn Before I Can Start.” I gave everyone about ten minutes to reread and highlight the problem statement and then write bullet points in each column. Next, each child teamed up with a partner, and each pair shared their responses and added more ideas. Having the kids work individually at the outset gave everyone a chance to invest time and thought to make sense of what they were being asked to do. Following this up with partner work enabled kids to fill in any gaps that might exist in their understanding. Finally, we came together as a class to establish the most important things that we already knew about the project and determine what we, as a class, needed to learn in order to meet the objectives of the project.

Next time, I will share how the children formed groups, created action plans to guide their learning, and worked collaboratively during the rest of the unit.

I was initially drawn to the Problem-Based Learning approach because of its child-centered philosophy and its emphasis on student initiative, choice, collaboration, and other critical “21st Century Skills” that I mentioned in last week’s post. As a teacher who focuses on educating the whole child, I was excited to discover that PBL offers an ideal way for my students to learn not only academic content but also strong work habits and valuable interpersonal skills.

One of the most appealing features of Problem-Based Learning is that children become the primary driving forces in their learning. In this role students make meaningful decisions about how they will learn, organize their work, and present that work to a larger audience. As teachers, our focus shifts to one of coaching, facilitating, and guiding.

A typical PBL unit begins with either a question, challenge, or problem statement. Often, this introduction presents an interesting context or situation, puts the children in a specific role, and calls for them to solve a problem by inventing something. The key to writing an effective problem statement is ensuring that the engaging context or situation we create addresses the essential skills and standards that we want the kids to learn during the unit. Unfortunately, during some project-based approaches, the emphasis is on making something attractive, cool, and attention-getting, and the content-area learning can take a back seat.

When the problem statement is presented to the class on the first day of a unit, the kids are tasked with making sense of the challenge at hand, organizing themselves into groups, creating action plans, and following through with those plans until the project is complete. This process usually takes a few weeks.

In my next post, you will see a sample problem statement, and I will describe how my students proceeded step-by-step from the beginning of this project to the end.  

After a few years of reading about and tinkering with Problem-Based Learning, I fully implemented this instructional approach in my classroom this fall, and PBL has been an absolute game changer. As educators teaching in the Common Core era, we hear quite a bit about the need to help children develop “21st Century Skills" focusing on such areas as communication, collaboration, technology, and problem solving, and I have found that nothing comes close to PBL in this regard.

Plus, the level of enthusiasm and engagement students display while working on their projects is simply incredible. During a PBL session, the hardest part of my job sometimes is getting everyone to stop at the end of the period. On many occasions, the kids were so invested in what they were doing that I actually began to worry a little about my safety as I headed to the front of the room to signal that our time had run out.

In this blog series I will be describing my experiences with Problem-Based Learning, explaining its benefits, and sharing tips and lessons I have learned along the way about implementation, grouping, assessment, and exhibiting student work. Children at every elementary age can gain mightily from this approach, and I look forward to relaying my experiences and hearing your feedback.

One of the most difficult challenges teachers face involves motivating students who haven't yet committed themselves fully to academic pursuits, who may never before have had positive experiences in school, and who may not yet demonstrate the drive and work ethic required to be successful. Throughout my career I have incorporated "Quote of the Day" discussions into our morning routine and used storytelling to help motivate children, and these efforts have had a powerful impact on how students perform in the classroom. With some children, though, we need to take additional action.

This year, for the first time, I started creating personalized, inspirational visuals for some of my students. When I made the first one for a child who was having an extremely difficult start to the year, I knew that his favorite football player was Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch. Normally tough to tackle, Lynch frequently takes his game to the next level and gets into what's known as "Beast Mode," where he's nearly impossible to bring down. I thought "Beast Mode" would be a perfect new nickname for this child, as it exemplifies the active, determined, unstoppable mindset I was trying to help him adopt as a student.

Creating the visual was a lot of fun and didn't take that long. After finding images of the Seahawks logo, Lynch, and our team name (THQ) on google, I located a photo of my student (at his best) working at his desk. (Note: In the display image, for privacy reasons, I substituted a made-up child's name and an image I found on google for the name and image that appear on the actual visual.)

I was eager to present the visual to him the next morning in class. I didn't know how he would react when seeing it for the first time. He's usually very quiet and tends not to show any emotion. Right away, I noticed two things. Anytime he worked in a different part of the classroom, he brought the visual with him and put it on the table next to his work. That has continued to this day. Second, at the end of each class period and each day, the visual is always on the top, middle section of his desk. Typically, with this child, to put it kindly, neatness isn't his highest priority. Papers are often lost or seen falling out of his desk and backpack. But the visual was always respected and cared for.

Now, whenever he does a great job focusing on his work and using his time well, he's in his version of "Beast Mode." I love capturing these moments by calling him by his new nickname and recognizing his fine effort. Will the visual and nickname, by themselves, lead to dramatic changes and make his difficulties disappear? Of course not. But, might having something positive to look at each day that shows him at his best and on equal footing with his favorite athlete begin to make a difference for him and help him start to view school and himself more favorably? That is my sincere hope.

Saturday, 19 September 2015 01:07

7 NEW Teaching Visuals on Pinterest

During my teaching career I have noticed that there are a small number of “high-leverage” behaviors that all kids can learn and all teachers and parents can nurture and develop. With time, effort, and consistent attention paid to these areas, every child can become a highly successful student and experience the greater confidence, higher self-esteem, and greater learning gains that result from this success. I describe the quest to help children develop these behaviors as “The Drive for 5.”

Recently, I posted 7 new visuals on Pinterest to help teachers and parents share these traits with children. The first visual provides an introduction to "The Drive for 5," the second displays the acronym featured in this post, and the other five focus on the individual traits that comprise "The Drive for 5." I hope you find these visuals useful.

Click here to see these visuals on Pinterest.

It takes a team effort for children to be highly successful in school. Parents, teachers, and the students themselves all have a critical role to play. The teacher’s role is carried out primarily at school, while parents’ real impact happens mostly at home. This article focuses on what research has shown to be the most important actions parents can take to help their children maximize their amazing potential.

Emphasize that education is a serious quest. For children to be successful in school, they must “buy in” to the purposes of education. They need to be dedicated to their daily learning and embrace the importance of rigor. Children need to know that school is where they are expected to learn complex material and develop higher-level thinking skills so they can thrive in the world.

See yourself as a coach. Take a hands-on approach throughout your child’s elementary years. Read to or with your child frequently. Quiz them on their multiplication tables during dinner. Work with them on difficult concepts. Encourage them to try harder and do better. Try to speed the learning at home. Give them autonomy for methods; hold them accountable for results. This develops driven, self-sufficient kids who know how to adapt.

Foster an intellectual culture at home. Parents who discuss movies, books, news, the events of the day, and current affairs have teenagers who perform better in reading. Engaging kids in conversation about things larger than themselves helps them become strong thinkers. Ask kids about their days. Take genuine interest in what they are learning. Discuss what they like about school.

Develop the habits that matter most. Two of the best predictors of academic performance are self-discipline and conscientiousness. Children can develop self-discipline by doing household chores and by taking as much responsibility as possible for their own learning. Children are resilient. They are smarter and tougher than many adults often assume. Their psyches aren’t fragile. Rigorous work frequently involves failure, and kids need to experience failure when they are young to develop self-discipline, endurance, and grit. These experiences matter as much as or more than academic skills. Let your child make mistakes and then get back to work. The goal is to create a mindset of high expectations and success.

Aim to be warm, responsive, and strict. Recognize your child’s progress, but don’t praise excessively. When given, praise needs to be specific, authentic, and focused on effort, not intelligence. Kids need clear, bright limits; they need to know that there are rules you don’t negotiate. Being consistent will gain your child’s trust and respect.

Reinforce the importance of reading. Read for pleasure at home. Children are more likely to enjoy and value reading when they see their parents reading. Set aside time with your child to discuss what you’re reading and what your child is reading. Even if you haven’t read your child’s book, you can ask questions that encourage kids to think for themselves. Being a reading role model sends a strong message to your child that you value reading and value learning about all kinds of new things. As adults, what we do is always more powerful than what we say.

Make math a top priority. Math has a way of predicting kids’ futures. Teenagers who master higher-level math classes are far more likely to graduate from college and earn more money after college. This is partially due to the fact that more and more jobs require familiarity with probability, statistics, and geometry. In addition, math is not just math. It is a language of logic. It’s a disciplined, organized way of thinking. There are right answers and rules that must be followed. Math is the essence of rigor. It builds perseverance and grit. Mastering the language of logic helps to develop higher-order habits: the ability to reason, to detect patterns, to make informed guesses. These kinds of skills have rising value in a world where information is so accessible.

This year, focus on the following math-related goals:

1) Help your child master his/her basic facts (if (s)he has reached the middle grades). When kids are automatic with their facts, their brains are freed up to do the harder work.

2) Present a favorable view of math. A child should never hear a parent say, “I can’t do math” or “I’m not a math person” or “Math was never my thing.” Parents who hold a positive view of math and its importance are more likely to have children who enjoy and value math.

3) Reinforce the message that math is about effort. Many kids think that math is something that people either “get” or “don’t get.” Dispel this notion by encouraging consistent effort during moments of difficulty. Math can be mastered with time, hard work, and persistence.

Saturday, 25 July 2015 01:18

9 Ways to Build Kids' Confidence

At the beginning of this past school year, I was conferring with a student about her newly published Writing Workshop project. On the rubrics we used for self-evaluation purposes, she gave herself consistently low scores. When I asked her about this, she told me that she always got low scores in school and naturally thought her scores on this project would be low, too. At this moment, I realized that even though our conference was supposed to be about writing, discussing specific skills, strategies, and techniques wasn’t the right approach to take. Instead, we needed to have a conversation about something larger—namely, her overall outlook on school and how she viewed her own capabilities. Until her perspective changed, it was unlikely that she would make significant academic progress. I needed to help her build her confidence and expect more from herself. This article features a set of tips that we, as parents and teachers, can use anytime we face this situation.

See the big picture. Children need to know that just because they may be going through a difficult period now, it doesn’t mean things will always be this way. Progress may not happen right away, but it will happen if we focus our attention in the right places. We need to adopt a long-term view. This leads into the next two tips.

Focus on consistent effort. Children tend to view less than satisfactory school performance as a reflection of their intelligence and may think they’re simply not smart enough to do well academically. We must dispel this belief as strongly as possibly. Effort, not intelligence, is the key to success, and we must encourage kids to work hard and persevere on a daily basis.

Set higher personal standards. As human beings, we typically perform at the level we expect from ourselves. At the gym, for example, I am more likely to complete twenty pushups if I expect myself to do that many. I am unlikely to do twenty if I expect to do five. Children will perform better in school and be more confident when they begin to expect more from themselves.

Be patient. Part of adopting a long-term view involves understanding that improvement, at least at first, will likely be incremental. Children who usually score in the 70’s on math assessments probably aren’t going to start earning scores in the 90’s right away. Small steps will ultimately add up to large leaps.

Celebrate the positive. Call attention the first time your child or student makes noticeable progress on an assessment or piece of schoolwork. Recognizing children’s effort will boost their confidence and increase their motivation to keep working hard. One success will lead to another. Keep recognizing progress as the child’s performance continues to improve. As the old saying goes, nothing motivates like success.

Provide unconditional support and encouragement. In any improvement process there will likely be ups and downs. No matter how well children may do on any given piece of work, it’s important to reinforce the message, unwaveringly, that they are incredibly capable and can accomplish anything to which they set their minds. This type of encouragement will help build resilience, as well as confidence.

Understand the limits of talk. While encouraging children and providing unconditional support are crucial, talk, by itself, will only take us so far. Confidence is an earned commodity and can’t be transmitted or given to children via talking. Confidence will only grow when children see themselves earning higher scores and feel an increasing sense of mastery with their schoolwork.  

Share stories of others who have made significant progress. When we find ourselves going through a difficult time, it’s easy to think that we’re the only ones who have ever experienced this type of struggle. Sharing stories with children about yourself, family members, and well-known people can help them understand that they’re not alone and that others have met challenges and overcome obstacles similar to the ones they may be facing now. The main reason I wrote 2-Minute Biographies for Kids was to help children draw inspiration from others whose life stories may resonate with their life stories.

Consider involving peers. In my experience, I have noticed that many children work harder and perform far better on a piece of work or project when they are paired with high-achieving students. Working with a super capable peer brings out the best in these children and can have a lasting effect. If you believe this strategy may benefit your child, consider scheduling a homework “play date” after school one day with a high-achieving classmate.