Themed Lesson Plans

When I think about my K-12 education, I get a little sad. Although I had several amazing teachers, I worry that the content and structure of my overall education was selected somewhat arbitrarily. My grade school and junior high school both adhered to a philosophy of broad domain curriculum design, but lessons tended to lack context.

As an educator, I always begin each unit by giving students an extremely broad overview that provides context for all upcoming lessons. I also work in themes: if we’re studying the civil war in “social studies,” we learn about science and literature from the 1860s. I often use a single book or story as the theme that extends to each domain of my teaching.

Recently, I’ve been inspired by a certain excellent student to create a unit focused on Sherlock Holmes. In addition to practicing literary analysis and creative writing, we will learn about Tesla, Edison, and Pasteur. We’re already discussing the effects of compulsory education in England, as well as the global impact of the Second Anglo-Afghan War. My older students can relate that war to contemporary Western military action in Afghanistan. My oldest students can even relate Victorian indecency laws to the current debate regarding “gay marriage!”

Because Dr. Watson doesn’t favor a particularly pithy style of writing, we’re using this charming book to familiarize ourselves with three of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories:

Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes (A Stepping Stone Book)

I’ll be sharing some of my lesson plans as we continue to explore the world of Sherlock Holmes.

20130403-121522.jpg

Who Cares if Kids Know that the Earth Revolves around the Sun?

I like Sherlock Holmes.  I really like Sherlock Holmes.  I read the original stories as a kid and immediately identified with Sherlock.  As an adult, I’m a little embarrassed to know silly Sherlock details like the names of tertiary characters, but I still have a lot of affection for the world’s only consulting detective (yes, I think the BBC show is adorable).

This is my door. I really like Sherlock Holmes.

I have an older student who also likes Sherlock Holmes.  He really likes Sherlock Holmes.  I know who Victor Trevor is; this student has read essays analyzing Trevor’s importance in canon and non-canon Holmes stories.  I know what happened at Reichenbach Falls; this kid knows the date that it happened because he’s got a timeline of everything Sherlock Holmes ever did.  If I bring up Holmes during a lesson, my student becomes very excited and has a lot of difficulty getting back on task.  His behavior is familiar to me as both a gifted student and an educator of gifted students.

Gifted and twice-exceptional students can be prone to obsessions.  When a gifted student becomes interested in a subject, she often immerses herself completely, unintentionally memorizing trivial facts, drawing diagrams, and sharing her newfound knowledge with everyone in the world.  There’s a giddiness to finding something new to learn.  Self-directed learning is extremely pleasurable.   I spent a month in high school learning medical abbreviations and another month on forensic lingo.  Why?  I don’t know.  Because it was new.  In elementary school, I collected books about fae and could talk at length about the “fair folk.”   We’ve all met children (mostly boys, it seems, but I’m sure there are tons of exceptions) who can list thousands of dinosaurs and their traits.

In A Study in Scarlet, Dr. John Watson, the narrator of the original Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, shares his surprise that the brilliant Sherlock Holmes is “ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System.”   Apparently Holmes has decided that it’s unnecessary for him to know that the Earth revolves around the sun.  He can’t spare the neurons, it seems.  This passage will likely resonate with many parents and teachers of gifted students.  One of my brightest students, for example, could never seem to remember the order of months in the year.  He breezed through math two grade levels above his own, though, and could comprehend incredibly complex stories.  Of course, I can’t allow my student to not know what comes after March, can I?  Isn’t it my obligation as an educator to ensure that my students are fluent in “common knowledge”?  Public schools insist (philosophically, at least) that students master the basics before studying advanced material. Certainly the personalized curricula I create for my students are always based on a broad foundation of general education.  However, Sherlock Holmes makes me wonder if every kid really should be expected to know all the basics.  Although I don’t intend to abandon or even deemphasize my commitment to a broad foundation of learning, the issue is worth researching and debating, I think.

Parents, do you encourage your children to pursue their “obsessions”? Do you allow your children to neglect the basics in favor of more specific interests?  I’m especially interested in how homeschooling families address this issue.

Teachers, do you think a broad general education is appropriate for all students?  Should students ever be allowed to just skip material they don’t like?

Is the act of learning more important than the content?

PRESSED: Education Week: Commission Calls for Radically Different Tests

PRESSED:

Commission Calls for Radically Different Tests

Panel offers a 10-year plan

By Sarah D. Sparks

Emerging technology and research on learning have the potential to dramatically improve assessments, if educators and policymakers take a more balanced approach to using them.Thats the conclusion of two years of analysis by the Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment in Education, a panel of top education research and policy experts that was launched in 2011 with initial funding from the Educational Testing Service.In a report that was set for release this week, the commission lays out a 10-year plan for states to develop systems of assessment that go beyond identifying student achievement for accountability purposes and toward improving classroom instruction and giving greater insight into how children learn.Joanne Weiss, the chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan but not part of the commission, said the report “shines a needed spotlight on the future of assessment, pushing us to make the next stages of this vital work coherent, coordinated, and sustainable.””When we get assessment right, it helps families, teachers, schools, and systems tailor learning to students needs and make wise decisions,” Ms. Weiss said in a statement. “Today, we stand on the cusp of the biggest advances in assessment in a generation, with assessments that are more useful and less intrusive, thanks in part to advances in education technology.”At a time when student performance on state tests is used to judge everything from teacher effectiveness to school improvement to a high school seniors right to a diploma, many in the education world have been pushing hard for better assessments.Interest in the so-called “next generation” assessments being developed for the Common Core State Standards is so high that last summer visitors crashed the Internet servers of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, one of the consortia developing the tests, when it posted sample test items.

Read the rest at Education Week: Commission Calls for Radically Different Tests.

The Problem with Tests

Memorizing is not the same as learning. We know that. We have studies and experts and books and websites to tell us that memorization is not the same as learning. Those of us who teach, have children, or attend school know first hand: vocabulary words memorized for a test are forgotten in under a month. To learn, students must interact with relevant, contextualized material. Tests that require the memorization of discrete facts clearly incentivize memorization over genuine learning, so why do we still rely on these tests to measure learning, progress, ability, or knowledge?

The obvious answer is that testing is the easiest way to, you know, test. Increasing focus on teacher accountability results in increasing reliance on standardized tests that focus on minutia rather than the learning process. Punishing schools and teachers whose students perform poorly on such tests has lead to an academic crisis called “teaching to the test,” wherein teachers neglect holistic, meaningful curricula in favor of lessons designed to improve student scores on standardized tests. Everyone knows that this is a problem. Furthermore, the content of many standardized tests is frequently considered unfairly biased against students of color. Parents, teachers, administrators, politicians, and even students understand that the accountability system is broken, but progress is slow because the issue is complex and humans often resist change.

Because I work independently with students, I rarely have to interact with standardized testing. Although my students do sometimes have to complete standardized tests, I never teach to the test because, unlike traditional school teachers, my income and resources do not depend on my students’ test scores. However, most children do not have the luxury of individual education, so most children in our country are victims of a completely broken educational system. Frankly, that sickens me. I’m an educator because I believe that education is the most important tool for personal, societal, and global wellness. I’m a homeschool teacher because I believe that our education system hinders real education!

The last standardized test I took was the SAT. I believe that my SAT scores accurately reflected my abilities at the time because I didn’t study at all. However, nearly every student in my socio-economic group prepares in some way for the SAT, making many SAT results indicative a student’s dedication to study and ability to memorize, not the general knowledge and subject fluency of that student. I have several problems with this system. First, test preparation is expensive, so affluent students are at an advantage. Second, I don’t believe that tests should require specific preparation.

Yes, I’m saying that students should (almost) never be asked to study.

When students study for a test, their goal shifts from learning to achieving. I’m not just talking about standardized tests; students typically prepare for a vocabulary test by memorizing textbook definitions of each word, not by interacting with the words in a natural, inquisitive way. Thus they gain only an academic understanding of the word, and they forget even that within a few weeks. Although teachers know this, they worry that a student who isn’t going to be tested won’t pay attention to the material at all.

So what?

Before I began writing this post, I asked a friend to answer a few questions. This friend is a graduate student studying psychology. She earned “good” grades in school. I asked her five questions about junior high level geometry, and she said “Psh, I don’t remember” to four of them. I know she took myriad tests on basic geometry. I know she did worksheets. Junior high geometry lessons are supposed to accomplish two goals: First, they’re meant to help students understand how the world works. The formulas for area, perimeter, etc. are part of spacial logic. Second, basic geometry is meant to serve as a foundation for advanced mathematics. My friend didn’t pursue advanced math, but she should still be able to use spacial logic to determine the answer to questions like “how do you find the volume of a rectangular solid?” The reason she can’t remember how to solve such a problem is that she was taught to memorize the formula rather than to understand what the formula meant. Her math teachers taught to the test. What if, instead of incentivizing memorization, educators simply introduced concepts in context, encouraged students to explore concepts in a variety of ways during class, and assigned minimal homework designed to encourage retention? What if teachers never asked their students to memorize equations at all?

I do think students gain one major skill from studying: the ability to study. Certain professions require memorization. Litigators, politicians, surgeons and emergency personel, and newscasters who perform on live TV or radio all definitely need to know how to study! Even if we created an educational system that was, for example, free of the SAT, there would still be some merit in learning how to study. However, in such a world, studying could be one of many skills taught and utilized in schools. Today, every test is a test on studying.

What would happen if we abolished (“closed-book”) testing completely? I want to hear from you!

Teachers: do you feel that classroom tests help you measure learning? Do you worry that tests encourage memorization and discourage exploration?

Parents: how do you help your children prepare for school tests? If your child earns an A on a test, do you feel that your child has learned that material? How do you react when your child performs poorly on a classroom or standardized test?

Homeschool families: has testing affected your decision to homeschool? Do you rely on testing of any kind?

 

PRESSED: Why You Need To Manage Student Stress And 20 Ways To Do It

The following post is PRESSED and not written by Kiri Van Santen or Fearless Learning. I highly recommend that all teachers read it! -KV

Via http://newsroom.opencolleges.edu.au/ | By Julie DeNeen | Published February 11 2013

Back in October, I wrote an article about the importance of holistic teaching. When students are stressed, their capacity for learning is drastically reduced.

In psychology, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs explains in part why anxious and depressed students are much more likely to fail. Even if the situation is not catastrophic, a student’s mind and body “feel” that the situation is very serious. All their brainpower is fixated on dealing with the fight or flight response in the body, plus the repetitive thought patterns that affect daily activities like eating, sleeping, and relationships.

In this cycle, learning takes a backseat to the perceived “disaster” in front of them. For them, it’s about survival, not creativity or self-actualization. If you notice students in your class are stressed, it is vital that you work into your teaching ways to help them cope and reduce their anxiety.

The following 20 tips will give you some tools to create a relaxing learning environment and relationship.

1. Keep Communication Open

Communication is the single most important thing you can do for your students. Create open channels for them to come to you for support, advice, counsel, etc. In both group and individual settings, you can offer your wisdom and experience in dealing with daily stress in your own life. This mentorship approach will build safety in the classroom and help the students to feel like you are on their side.

2. Flexible Assignments

Instead of assigning homework every night, assign a packet of homework and let them decide when to complete the work. With extracurricular activities like sports and music, some nights it might be impossible to do homework without it impacting their sleep. This way they can catch up on the weekends or on a night with less to do.

3. Teach Time Management

If you follow the above advice, it is important to go over with your students how to manage their time. Some kids will be overwhelmed with trying to divide and conquer a big project so practice setting goals in the classroom so it’s more manageable for them at night.

4. Grade Effort As Well As Product

Effort is often the redheaded stepchild of product, but it shouldn’t be. Some kids will work diligently for hours and only be able to produce an average grade. Other students will work ¼ of the time and produce an A+ grade. This can be demoralizing for those students who are putting forth so much effort. Even if you work in a school where grades must reflect a certain level of aptitude (thus limiting your ability to assign an “effort” score), you can offer other awards for those who’ve worked hard.

Check out our article on Should It Matter How Long a Student Takes To Learn?

5. Offer Five-Minute Meditation

At the beginning and end of the day, set aside five minutes for students to do a private meditation or imagery. Teach deep breathing exercises and give them time to relax their bodies and minds.

6. Help Them To See The Bigger Picture

It’s so easy to get pulled into the present so intensely that you forget the bigger picture. Kids who get stressed out easily forget that the assignment they are pulling their hair out about is really quite small in the grand scheme of things. Offer a lighthearted tale about your failures as a student and help them to see the bigger picture.

7. Take The Past Into Account

If a student flunks an exam or forgets an assignment but is normally quite reliable, take that into account. Everyone needs a “Get out of jail” free card once in a while. This may be tricky to execute fairly (especially if you have other students that consistently forget work) but you can create a system of passes. For example, every time a homework assignment is turned in on time, award the student a point. For every student that has banked 10+ points, they are given a free pass if they miss an assignment or do poorly on an exam.

8. Keep Your Students Moving

Sitting in a chair listening to one person’s voice is boring. Let’s face it; the mind can wander in this setting. Worries and fears easily creep in when the atmosphere isn’t requiring all of their attention. Keep the class moving through assignments, stations, and activities.

9. Let Them Chew Gum During Hard Exams

Chewing gum and doodling on notepads are two ways to relieve stress. You might find that students who are very nervous about an exam will do better if they have something like a piece of gum to chew on. Don’t discourage doodling during lectures. It is a way to relieve pent up energy and in some cases, can help with concentration.

10. Set Time In The Day For Organization of Their Desks

Once a week (perhaps on Fridays), create a block of time for students to clean out their desks and backpacks. Disorganized environments cause unnecessary stress. Have one person sharpen everyone’s pencils, clean out markers that don’t work, restock supplies, and refresh old notebooks. This can also be a great time to make lists of upcoming activities, assignments, and projects.

11. Offer Incentives For Bringing Healthy Food To Class

Healthy food plays a big role in student stress. You cannot control what your students eat for breakfast and lunch, but you can offer incentives for healthy eating. In your classroom, award points for those who bring in vegetables, fruits, or healthy proteins like lean meat and eggs. When a student gets to a certain point level, offer a reward like a free homework pass.

12. Have Music Playing During Class Time

Classical music is an excellent way to calm nerves. There should be time without music too, but during exams, meditation, or silent reading, turn on Bach!

13. Model How To Cope With Disappointment

Disappointment is inevitable. One of the most crucial moments in a student’s career is what they do after they’ve failed an exam. Failure is the world’s greatest teacher. It is like an open doorway to future success. Don’t just hand out a failing grade and move on. Use the opportunity to teach what went wrong, how to face disappointment head on, and most importantly, how to not let it cripple your future work.

14. Don’t Nitpick

You’ve probably had a teacher who did this. You had to use a blue pen, not black. You couldn’t sit a certain way, eat during class, use the bathroom, or wear a hooded sweatshirt. Obviously rules are important, but first try to examine if any of your rules are actually just pet peeves in disguise. Kids who are prone to stress will feel the effects of this type of environment and it will negatively affect their work.

15. Balanced Exams

As much as possible, offer exams that have multiple parts. Can one part be verbal? Open book? Creative? Students learn differently. If every test is a large sheet of essay questions or multiple choice, it doesn’t give students who have auditory or kinesthetic learning styles a chance to flourish. It’s more work for you yes, but it will make a big difference in your classroom.

16. Be Mindful of Ergonomics

Kids are not as prone to back and neck aches, but it doesn’t mean our classrooms should be devoid of comfortable seating and lighting. How much natural sunlight does your room get? Is there opportunity for a quick walk in the sunshine after lunch? Do you have students who suffer from ADD and would benefit from an exercise ball as a seat? In some classrooms, students have the option of using an exercise ball, which not only strengthens muscles, but also gives the “fidgety” students a chance to bounce while they work.

17. Stay In Touch With Parents

Keep communication channels open with parents of stressed out kids. Try to find out if there are other issues besides classwork that are affecting him/her. If the parents are struggling too, a guidance counselor or social worker might be able to help the student cope with difficult life circumstances. Be your student’s advocate whenever possible.

18. Help Students To Enjoy The Learning Process

A stressed out student forgets about the process of learning. They are so fixated on the end result and the grade, they don’t know how to enjoy HOW to learn. Take moments in the day to point out the beauty in discovery, in problem solving, and yes- even in failure. Remind your students that it isn’t all about the grades. It’s about the journey.

19. Give Continual Feedback

If you are able to give “mini” grades each day, it lessens the anxiety about the end-of-term grade. At that point, there is nothing a student can do about it! Students should never be surprised at their grade. Offer constant feedback so they have time to get on track while there is still time to make a difference.

20. Keep Yourself Relaxed!

A relaxed teacher makes for a relaxed classroom. You need to do what you can to alleviate your own stress – be it through meditation, organization, or time of silent reading. We all need to recharge and you as the teacher set the whole tone of the classroom. If you aren’t stressed about tests or final scores, your students will pick up on that vibe too.

About

Julie DeNeen has her bachelor’s degree in Clinical Psychology from the University of New Haven. She spent several years working for a local Connecticut school at the district level, implementing new technologies to help students and teachers in the classroom. She also taught workshops to teachers about the importance of digital student management software, designed to keep students, parents, and teachers connected to the learning process.

You can find out more about her @jdeneen4 and Google+.

via Why You Need To Manage Student Stress And 20 Ways To Do It.

PRESSED: “Children of the P[*]rn” from IPLEDGEAFALLEGIANCE

Embarrassingly, I just learned how to use WordPress.com’s “Press This” feature, which allows bloggers to easily add external content. The first thing I’d like to “press” is an article by “gpicone,” author of a WordPress.com blog called IPLEDGEAFALLEGIANCE. Although the title of the article may be a bit troubling, Children of the Porn is an insightful post about the struggle to engage today’s students. Teachers, this article is definitely worth a read.

IPLEDGEAFALLEGIANCE is a blog about US American public schools as well as other societal and political issues. The views expressed by gpicone do not necessarily reflect those of Fearless Learning.

Class Participation Part 4: Can We Fix Class Discussion?

Welcome to what I expect will be the final installment of my series on forced participation in class discussion!

One More Example of How Class Discussions Fail

Class discussions can be used to achieve a variety of objectives, and there are several “teaching methods” that rely of class discussion. One simple method used for class discussion is concept attainment, “the search for and listing of attributes that can be used to distinguish exemplars from nonexemplars of various categories” (Bruner, Goodnow, and Austin, 1967). Here is a very simple example of a lesson using the concept attainment teaching method:

Mr. A writes a word on the board: Hat. “What are some things you notice about this word?” he asks.

“It starts with an H,” says a student.

“It has three letters!” shouts another.

“Good,” says Mr. A. “Okay, what about this word?” He writes Home on the board.

At this point, most of the students have guessed that Mr. A is listing words that start with H. Some of the class begins to lose interest.

“Have you guessed what the words have in common?” asks Mr. A

“Yes,” replies much of the class. One student explains, “They both start with H.”

“Hmm, that’s true,” says Mr.A, “but let’s keep looking at the list.” Mr. A writes another word on the board and asks more students to guess what the words have in common. He then begins listing words that don’t belong on the list. He encourages his class to offer any ideas they have about the lists, and he allows students to politely challenge each other’s theories. Eventually, Mr. A’s whiteboard looks something like this:

YES
Hat
Home
Drum
Student

NO
Hairy
Red
Run
Sing
Quick
Quickly

I’m bored just describing this scenario.

The theory behind this activity is that Mr. A’s students will more thoroughly understand the concept of nouns and will retain their knowledge longer than if they’d simply been provided with a definition and list of examples. That may be true. However, to many students, slow generation of knowledge is excruciatingly boring. Mr. A encourages all his students to participate in the discussion, so the weaker members of the class struggle to make guesses and are often explicitly wrong. Mr. A is a nice man and a good teacher, so he works with these weaker students and avoids saying “No, that’s incorrect.” Thus, other students become confused, and the discussion takes most of class. Worse, Mr. A requires each student to offer at least one guess during the discussion, and he gives additional points to students who are especially engaged, so the extroverted students babble on and the introverts lose points. Anyone who doesn’t have a guess is forced to make one up. Several students, included those who are introverted, shy or anxious, gifted, or suffering from ADD/ADHD completely lose interest early in the discussion and miss any relevant information.

Here’s the strangest thing about this kind of discussion: giving the correct answer ruins the exercise! Imagine that Jahruba, a gifted student, immediately understands the list once Mr. A explains that “hairy” does not belong on it. He raises his hand and says, “All the words on the list are nouns.” It’s been five minutes, and Mr. A scheduled half an hour for this activity. He wanted his students to explore possible answers and slowly come to understand the lesson. Jahruba just ruined the whole exercise, so Mr. A can’t help but act a little angry as he stutters, “Well….yes…uh…but I wanted you to think about it longer.” Jahruba understands that he has done something wrong, so he stops raising his hand as often, and Mr. A worries that Jahruba will ruin future activities, so he avoids calling on him when he does raise his hand.

How Can We Fix The Exercise?

Having lived through public school, I’ve seen the above scenario play out a thousand times. Here are some tips for teachers who want to engage students in discussion without torturing them.

1. Ask a question and let students privately answer.
If the purpose of your discussion is to guide students toward a correct answer, give students a chance to write the answer down and hand it to you. If the student is right, let her opt out of the discussion.

2. Keep student responses focused.
If a student is so off track she’s prolonging the discussion and confusing her peers, cut her off. You can be polite about it, but be sure to be firm!

3. It’s okay to say “that’s wrong”!
Praising every guess confuses students and discourages active thinking. Thank every student for his participation, but be clear when an answer is wrong

4. Encourage peer support, but point out even subtle errors.
It’s great to allow students to answer each other’s questions, but watch out for subtle errors in each answer. If you find an error, praise the student for the rest of her answer and then explicitly correct her mistake.

5. Ask specific questions.
Kids who don’t speak up during discussion may simply not have anything to say. Asking a specific question can help. Instead of saying, “What do you think about the US Civil War, Jenny?” try asking Jenny whether she believes that the war was primarily about slavery. If she says, “I don’t know,” give her a little guidance and then ask a related question.

I Want to Hear from You!

Teachers: do you “force” students to participate in class discussions? Why or why not? How do you keep your students focused and interested?

Parents: do your children complain about class discussion? What are your thoughts?

Homeschool parents: did you consider class participation when choosing to homeschool?

Post a comment or tweet at me. I’ll RT or respond!