Every morning before work, I stop by Yahoo with the intention of checking my email—and only checking my mail. Without exception, this is what happens: In the half second it takes me to move my cursor over the email icon and click, it’s all over. Suddenly, I find myself halfway into an article entitled “Nike pulls poorly timed t-shirts from stores.” “How did I get here?” I think to myself as I polish off the last paragraph of an article about Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez. Of course I never want to read these articles, but the power of an enigmatic, well-written headline can get me to read just about anything.
So what can teachers learn from the power of a well-written headline and how can they harness it for engaging students? Here are a few ideas we gleaned from one of our favorite authors and educators, Dr. Richard Curwin. We highly recommend checking out his blogs here.
Headlines always use teasers. Teachers should too.
Regardless of what you teach, try beginning each lesson with some sort of provocative statement—something that will make your students go, “huh?”
Which of these two questions do you think would work best for engaging students?
- “Please take out Kevin Jennings’ essay, “The American Dream.”
- “I have a question: What does Kevin Jennings have in common with Jay-Z.”
You went with the second one, yes? How about these two questions:
We bet you went with the second question both times. Why? Because Jay-Z and Keyboard Cat are interesting. At first glance, they also seem completely unrelated to the essays you asked your students to read. This will not only capture their curiosity, it’ll force students to think critically to make a connection. Here’s another tip for engaging students that comes courtesy of Dr. Curwin.
Use Compelling Questions
Have you ever forgotten the name of a song, a book title or even someone's name and spent the whole day trying to remember it? It was under your skin, so to speak, and the need to remember was compelling to the extreme. The same is true when you begin a class with a question that creates a compelling need for students to know the answer. This strategy is based on the principle that questions should come before answers. Typically, teachers give information and then ask questions about it. Hearing the question first, especially a great one, radically increases the need to learn the information just to find the answer. Great questions have these things in common:
- They are related to the subject you're teaching.
- They amplify the students' natural sense of wonder.
- They challenge the students' belief of the way things are.
Here is a sampling of compelling questions that teachers from various content areas have shared with me:
- Middle school math: What does Martin Luther King have in common with Algebra? Answer: they both are concerned with equality.
- First grade science (studying particles): What is the smallest thing you ever held in your hand?
- Upper elementary history (studying the Pilgrims): Is there anything your parents could ever do to you that would make you run away from home?
- Elementary art: If humans had to be a color other than any color they already are, what color would you choose? Why? Draw some people of this color.
- High school English: If Hamlet were a television sitcom, what would be a better name for it?
- High school social studies: If Napoleon spread nationalism, how did nationalism bring him down?
- Middle school English: Why don't "good" and "food" rhyme?
Questions like these begin your class with energy, excitement and most importantly, a desire to learn.
Photo credit: Adam Sundana at http://www.flickr.com/photos/cukuskumir/
We’ve all had to struggle through books we didn’t like—maybe even books we deplored. When it comes to our students, we don’t worry too much about the strong readers. Sure, the text may not resonate with them; they may even use that forbidden “B-word” (boring, of course) to describe it. Nonetheless, they’ll still muster up the strength to press on. Struggling readers are another story: They tend to become discouraged and often give up before they’ve truly even started a book.
We’re always looking for reading strategies for struggling readers, so we were happy to come across a video made by author Jim Trelease called How to Read a Book You Don’t Want to Read.
Trelease’s video was inspired by, of all things, watching tree surgeons cut down a leaning, 80-foot pine tree that threatened his house. The process used by the tree “surgeons,” in a strange way, reminded him of having to read books we don’t want to read. The end result was not only one less leaning pine tree, but also a nine-minute video that may help your reluctant readers. Check it out and let us know what you think.
Strategies for Struggling Readers: Conquering a book you don’t like
Last week we read an article in the Huffington Post suggesting that 93 percent of employers agree that "a candidate's demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major." This wasn’t particularly surprising to us, but it did inspire us to share an activity that will help your students hone their critical thinking, communication and problem-solving skills; it’s called the “Dear Elvis Advice Column” and it comes from our friend, Nothy Lane.
Dear Elvis, How Do I Teach Critical Thinking?
Here’s how the activity works: The class is presented with a question from a hypothetical advice seeker named Elvis (Nothy’s basset hound); the problem is that this canine is too busy to answer all of the letters he receives—that’s where Nothy’s students come in.
After she writes the question on the board, students work in groups to read and generate realistic responses to the anonymous advice solicitors.
Here is on example of a letter to Elvis that her students answer:
My kids wanted a dog, but I thought they were too irresponsible to take care of one. They insisted they would feed and walk the dog if I got them one. Now we have Spot and I am the one who does all the work. How do I get my kids to live up to their word?"
In addition to being engaging and fun, this activity supports persuasive writing, creativity, and critical thinking (because students get to work in groups and give advice rather than listen to it). Nothy has also found that this activity is a fun way to “teach them - and let them teach me…to examine an issue from different sides. Is someone right or wrong? Is this just an unfortunate event? Should the advice seeker get help or work things out himself?”
When they finish, students take turns reading their answers aloud. Following this, the entire class discusses which answers they like and why. You may be surprised at how purposeful and considerate their answers are.
We’re nearly halfway through the month and we just realized that April is National Poetry Month! (Did we just hear your students let out a groan or was that you?) Why do so many students distrust poetry? Perhaps it is because so many poetry lessons are rife with intimidating words like “iambic” and “pentameter,” or because they’ve spent more time identifying rhyme schemes and stressed and unstressed syllables than they have simply enjoying an impeccable turn of phrase. Robert Frost once said that free verse poetry is “like playing tennis with the nets down.” Mr. Frost may not approve, but we want to help you take down the nets this month and give your students two less conventional poetry lessons.
No More Poetry-Induced Groans: 2 Unconventional Poetry Lessons
Let Them Try the Cut-Up Technique
Cut-up was a literary technique used by Dadaists, but it’s most commonly associated with beat writer William S. Burroughs. Unlike traditional methods of composition, cut-up is aleatory, which means that the creative process is left to chance. Here’s how Dadaist writer Tristan Tzara used to create his cut up poems:
- Take a newspaper and scissors
- Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem
- Cut out the article
- Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag
- Shake gently
- Next take out each cutting, one after the other
- Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag
- The poem will resemble you (we’re not sure what he means by this, exactly)
- And there you are – an infinitely original author of charming sensibility
If you’d like see how William S. Burroughs created his own cut-up poems, check out the video below:
Try Using Paragraph Scrambler
Paragraph Scrambler gives you the ability to plug in text, scramble and randomize it to your heart’s content. Here’s a screenshot of what Paragraph Scrambler did to the well-known Robert Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken”:
Pretty crazy, huh? Our students have used paragraph scrambler to “remix” well-known poems and you can place as many or as few rules on this activity as you like. We’ve taken what seem to be incoherent lines, written them on the board, and collaborated with our students to delete words, add and move lines around so that we could make meaning of the “remixed” poem. If you decide to let your students try out these two unconventional poetry lessons, please let us know how it goes!
We’ve mentioned it before, but when we were kids, we devoured Choose Your Own Adventure books—especially those released by Bantam Books. Bantam ended the series in the late 90s and we’re not embarrassed to admit that we shed a few tears over it.
Thankfully, Choice of Games has picked up where Bantam left off and thrown in a few perks: First, all of their titles (or what they are calling “text-based games”) are free on the web. They’ve also produced mobile versions that can be played on iPhones, Android phones, and other smartphones.
But there’s more.
Choice of Games has developed a simple scripting language for writing text-based games, ChoiceScript, which they make available for others to use. Readers are encouraged to use this technology to write their own text-based game; the company will then host submissions on their website.
Currently they have 12 text-based games, but there are also 18 other user-created books to choose from.
We want to help you and your students celebrate Earth Day in ways that are not only engaging
, but also thematic
Our guide offers two student-friendly activities that will:
- Help students visualize and understand how oil spills impact our planet
- Give students the opportunity to use two methods currently used to clean up oil spills
In addition to these two activities, we refer teachers to one of our favorite resources, If It Were My Home. Using this website, students will be able to visualize the impact of the 2010 oil spill by seeing it physically overlaid onto a customizable map.
The last two sections are devoted to our favorite resources: five documentaries and five books that all relate to oil and our environment.
We hope that you and your students enjoy these activities.
Happy Earth Day!
It’s unfortunate, but every year we encounter struggling readers who have been lost in the shuffle or flown under the “reading radar” for years. So you can imagine how pleased we were to come across Spark it, a free reading assessment tool that not only evaluates readers’ skill level, but also offers recommendations for improvement and activities to develop their skills.
What impressed us about Spark It was its “user-friendliness.” As parents facilitate the four parts of the assessment, they’re guided by pop-up icons that tell them exactly what to do, when to do it and what they should say. Should parents experience any issues during the assessment, they can refer to the “tips” icon.
SparkIt assesses students’ proficiency in four areas:
- Vocabulary (Picture Identification): Looking at pictures of objects and correctly naming the objects
- Fluency (Rapid Naming): Quickly naming a string of familiar items—a series of numbers, letters or colors
- Phonemic Awareness: Understanding how individual letter sounds combine to make a word and saying them
- Letter and Word Calling: Pronouncing letters and words correctly, either by sight (just knowing it) or by sounding them out
Once the reading assessment is finished, you’ll receive instant results (see above picture) along with a personalized plan to help the reader improve his or her skills.
It’s still a little brisk here in Detroit, but we’re enjoying the spring sunshine April has brought us. Before we get too far into the month though, we thought we’d look back on five of the most popular blogs from March. Enjoy.
Reading Strategies that Transcend the Classroom
If the classroom is truly the training ground for life, it only makes sense that we would use reading strategies that mimic the way we read outside of the classroom, doesn’t it? In this blog, we share five of Rachel McCormack’s and Susan Lee Pasquarelli’s strategies that will help you make reading transcend the classroom.
Come on now, help a substitute teacher out
We thought we might have exhausted all things “classroom management,” but then we came across a simple classroom management strategy—one to help out the substitute teachers who cover for us when we can’t be there!
Are you providing effective feedback? Or are students ignoring you?
Have you ever wondered why you bothered to spend an hour responding to one of your student’s essays only to have them turn in a “revision” that was essentially the same essay you saw the first time around? Why does this happen? And more importantly, how can teachers prevent this from happening?
PlagTracker: a free plagiarism detector
Students plagiarize for a variety of reasons (many of them innocuous, many not). To help deter plagiarism, you might check out a new website we came across called PlagTracker. We suggest sharing it with your students.
Do your students have “the moves” to write a strong thesis statement?
We came across another cool website called Thesis Builder. Essentially it allows users to plug in a topic, an opinion on the topic, two supporting arguments and a counter argument. From this, Thesis Builder will generate a sketchy, but nonetheless discussion-worthy thesis statement. We think this would be a useful teaching tool.
Regardless of the kind of weather April has delivered to you thus far, springtime is here—and our students can feel it in their bones. If you’re looking for a simple classroom management strategy, one to reenergize your students (and their parents) and carry them into the home stretch of the school year, we may have just the thing for you: “brag” phone calls. This is an idea we gleaned from Donna Kelley, a teacher from Westminster, Colorado.
Brag Phone Calls, a classroom management strategy to take you into June
Most teachers have a classroom telephone, but even if you don’t, a cell phone will do just as well. The idea is to use the telephone as an incentive for high scores, excellent behavior or a job well done.
Here’s what Kelley has done with the activity: “At the beginning of the semester, I discuss what high quality, standard, and substandard work looks like in each subject area," she explains. "I establish with my class what level and quality of work earns a brag call. I explain to them that when work is exceptional and exceeds the standard, I'd like them to share with their parents their excitement about a job well done.”
Kelley has made it common practice to return excellent assignments with “brag call!” written on them. Then, at an appointed time during the day, she gives the student time to use the phone and report the good news to his or her parents. The rewards of brag calls are huge, especially when you consider how little it takes to make them happen. They’re also great for connecting you with parents. Instead of having the student make the phone call, you might first speak to the parent to let them know that their son or daughter has a special announcement!
We all know that parental involvement positively impacts our students’ academic achievement. We also know that making this happen is often easier said than done. Brag phone calls are a simple way to strengthen the parent-teacher-student triad, reinvent your classroom management strategy, and create effective lines of communication between home and school.
We know that coming up with ways to motivate students and keep them focused in class is no easy task; that's precisely why we put together our guide, Classroom Management Tips for Elementary Teachers, a quick refresher for teachers to inject a little energy into their day. Also, be sure to stop by our resource library where you'll find free downloadables, podcasts and webinars on-demand.
In school, we depend on language to convey ideas. The teacher walks up to the board, writes words, uses words to ask and answer questions; the students receive books with words and are assessed with tests using—you got it—words. Even when it comes to assessing math literacy, we depend on words. This dependence on language is precisely what TED Talks speaker Matthew Peterson—Chief Technical Officer and Senior Scientist at the MIND Research Institute—addresses in his eight-minute lecture, Teaching Without Words. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?
Words, words, words…do we need them to teach math literacy?
Interrogating our dependence on language starts to make sense, however, when we consider states like California where 25 percent of students are English language learners, 15 percent have language learning difficulties and 20 percent fail language comprehension tests. Is Peterson suggesting that reading proficiency is not a priority? Not at all. He is simply suggesting that it may be necessary to find new ways to teach students for whom language is still a barrier. He’s also suggesting that we may not need language to teach math literacy.
In addition to watching his brief lecture (which you’ll find below), we recommend stopping by MIND Research Institute’s website to learn more about Peterson’s spatial-temporal approach to teaching K-5 mathematics. The software he and his team have designed to teach math literacy does not use language, numbers or symbols; instead, it teaches students to visualize and focus on interactive problem solving.