Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Best of I Want to Teach Forever: September 2009

The month of September is an exciting, frustrating, difficult and awesome time of the school year. You probably missed out on a lot of things as you buried yourself in your work, including things like keeping up with the feverish pace I've set here at I Want to Teach Forever. With that in mind, here is my best work this month:
If you like this site, there are many easy ways to support it:
  1. Pick up a copy of my revised and updated book, Ten Cheap Lessons: Second Edition ($14 spiral-bound paperback, $5 digital).
  2. Contribute to 52 Teachers, 52 Lessons.
  3. Subscribe to my RSS feed or become a Follower (click Follow on the sidebar).
  4. Send in a guest post.
  5. Click the Share button below to add posts you like to StumbleUpon, Technorati and other social bookmarking sites (or share links on your own blog).
  6. Email me your ideas, questions and suggestions!
Thank you, as always, for participating! If you've only recently discovered the site, here's the most recent "best of" compilations:

Best of August 2009
Best of July 2009
Best of June 2009
Best of April/May 2009

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Very Exact Science of Guessing

When I picked up the book Guesstimation: Solving the World's Problems on the Back of a Cocktail Napkin by Lawrence Weinstein and John A. Adam, I expected a boring, academic tome that would be irrelevant for teachers, let alone students.

This would be about the time my mother would chime in gleefully, "Wrong again!"

Guesstimation is an excellent reference book for teachers looking to guide their students towards legitimate problem solving skills. A lot of the secret, as you might guess from the book's title, is in the oft-forgotten art of estimation.

The key chapter is the first one: "How to Solve Problems," which explains in simple language a two-step process:

Step 1: "Write down the answer," or in other words: Just take a guess! The authors stress that as long as you're within a factor of ten, you probably have a workable answer. Most every day problem fit into this: How long will it take to drive somewhere? How much might something you want to buy cost (or alternately, what can you afford)? At this point you might already have a good answer, the authors concede, but if that doesn't work, proceed to Step 2.

Step 2: Break the problem into smaller pieces and estimate each one. If you're wondering (as I was) how to teach this particular skill, I think the problems that populate the rest of this book would be excellent tools to do so. It's worth pointing out that authors prefer the geometric mean (something I think is rarely focused on in school unless you're taking statistics) for guesstimating the type of problems in the book.

In these first couple of chapters, the book also includes the best explanation and examples of both scientific notation and significant figures I've ever read in print. They're straightforward enough to use pretty much as-is, and it's worth at least borrowing the book from the library just for that section.

The rest of the book, the vast majority of its pages, are problems and solutions that require Guesstimation methods to solve. A couple of my favorite examples:
  • What is the surface area of a typical human being?
  • How much CO2 does one car emit into the atmosphere each year? All US cars?
  • If all the pickles sold in the U.S. last year were placed end-to-end, what distance would they cover?
The topics covered in the remaining questions cover area, volume, speed, energy, algebra, geometry, physics, chemistry and more. Almost every problem requires some unit conversions, so this great practice for that skill as well.

How could I use this in class?

You should start by giving some of the problems and their included solutions to the students as a guide an introduction. You could also provide the lists of useful formulas and items to compare things to from the appendices. Then, you have two fairly easy routes to choose from:
  1. Give students one of the "unanswered questions" included in the back of the book.
  2. Have students create create their own (and solve them).
Students should absolutely work collaboratively on these kinds of problems. Give them chart paper or a similar large canvas on which to illustrate and explain their solutions (AVID teachers will love this!). Be sure to have groups present to each other. It would be interesting to have an entire class working on the same problem or two with the explicit idea that answers will be quite different and often very unique.

In general, Guesstimation provides a great, easy-to-follow guide on introducing skills that are sorely lacking in school: problem solving and critical thinking. These are the kinds of skills that will help students do better on standardized tests (if you're into that sort of thing). I recommend this book for any high school (or Honors/Pre-AP middle school) math or science classroom.

Have you read this as well? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Monday, September 28, 2009

52 Teachers, 52 Lessons #31: Distance Yourself From Negativity

This week's entry comes from Jessica, who teaches 8th grade math in Ohio.

Distance yourself from negativity.

During the course of the year, some things are guaranteed: you'll be asked or required to complete a task you'd rather avoid, parents/guardians/advocates will contact you with concerns or complaints, and at least one colleague will say or do something irritating. These lead to frustration and other negative feelings and leave you with two options. You can deal with the feelings and move on for the sake of yourself and your students, or you can let them fester until you become one of those teachers we've all seen who is constantly complaining and angry.

To help yourself avoid this emotional burnout, surround yourself with friends and colleagues who'll lend a supportive ear and help you deal with feeling overwhelmed, and avoid the places in your building where negativity breeds. You'll feel more grounded and productive, and best of all, your upbeat personality will transfer to your classroom and students. It's truly a win-win situation.

Read more about this project here, then email your entries to teachforever AT gmail DOT com. Week 32 will be posted next Monday, October 5th.

As promised, the PDF version of Ten Cheap Lessons: Second Edition will be available for free all day today! Thank you to Jessica for making this possible! The book is available here.

Download Ten Cheap Lessons: Second Edition for FREE Today Only!

As promised, thanks to today's 52 Teachers, 52 Lessons entry, the revised and updated version of my book is available to download for FREE today 9/28.

Download it here!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Borders Educator Appreciation Week Starts Tuesday 9/29

Borders Educator Appreciation Week starts this Tuesday, September 29th. Here's the info:
Hello -- Mary Davis here from Borders. Wanted to make you aware of a few things we’re doing here at Borders for teachers:
  1. Special 30% teacher discount on virtually everything in store: Teachers receive a 30% discount off the list price of books, music, movies, teacher materials, educational toys and games, paper and stationery products during Educator Appreciation Week, Sept. 29 through Oct. 7 in Borders stores and Waldenbooks stores nationwide. Discount good on purchases for personal enjoyment as well as classroom use.
  2. Everyday classroom discount. Everyday classroom discount of 25% off the list prices of books and music CDs and 10% off the list price of DVDs for professional use. Teachers need only show proof of educator status to get the discount.
  3. Just announced – The “Stock Your Library Challenge” Sweepstakes. Teachers have the opportunity help their schools win a $400 Borders gift card. To enter the sweepstakes, attend the “Teacher Town Hall Meeting,” Sept. 29 at 7 p.m. in Borders stores nationwide and submit your entry on behalf of your school. Schools with the most entries will be entered into a drawing for the gift cards. Ten cards will be awarded nationally.
  4. Great events for educators and their whole families – During Educator Appreciation Week, teachers can enjoy networking opportunities, giveaways, raffles and more in stores nationwide.
We’re doing lots to honor teachers and other education professionals during Educator Appreciation Week…more information is available here:

Hope you’ll enjoy Educator Appreciation Week – and help us spread the word!

Mary Davis
Take advantage of the savings, contests and events, and share this with all the teachers you know!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Friday, September 25, 2009

Five for Friday

  1. The Teacher Salary Project - Very interesting documentary project based on the Dave Eggers book Teachers Have It Easy. They're collecting stories submitted by teachers themselves, so you could be in pictures!! Check it out.
  2. 100 Free and Useful Websites for AP Students and Teachers
  3. The Unofficial Toolkit for Teachers [@Whiteboard Witch] - Following up on the standard and secret toolkits I shared recently, the good Witch shares an equally useful list!
  4. "I want to say a word about hope here." [@Math Be Brave] - Awesome inspirational post you should bookmark and maybe print out and hang on the wall by Jesse, a teacher in Brooklyn, NY. If you're feeling beaten down after a month or so in the classroom, this might be exactly what you need to keep going.
  5. There goes another 35 minutes... [@A Few Degrees Short of a Right Angle] - This teacher's school has a sort-of advisory/homeroom that only meets every 2 weeks or so (during her planning time, no less). She views it as wasted time, but I think you can turn that situation into something positive. Go read the post and leave a comment there with your suggestions!
By the way, if you're an RSS addict like me, you should definitely subscribe to the blogs in the last 3 links.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Fantasy Sports and Math News Update

Just received this news update from Dan, creator of Fantasy Sports and Math:
Two years ago the University of Mississippi surveyed 144 teachers who were using fantasy sports in their classrooms. The results were shocking and are listed on my home page. The results indicated fantasy sports were playing a major role in increasing enthusiasm and academic achievement.

Last fall the University of Mississippi went straight to the students, as they surveyed nearly 350 students and 10 teachers who were using fantasy sports in math class. Ole Miss is still going through the data, but for now one result stands out: 40% of the female students (compared to 34% for the male students) reported that their math grades were higher compared to the previous year when they were not playing fantasy sports. What does this mean? I am not sure, because no one knows how many students are actually using fantasy sports to learn math. Thus, we do not know if 350 students is a representative sample. Simply put, the greater the number of teachers and students who participate in the survey, the more accurate the data . Teachers ask me all the time if they can do anything to help. Well, I would really appreciate it if teachers could fill out the survey by clicking on the button at the bottom left of the home page. To all those teachers who have already participated, thank you.

In other news, the NFL stats sheet is up and running. The sheet lists all of the stats you need, so students do not have to spend time reading boxscores. This saves a considerable amount of time. I did have an issue today where a player (Darren Sproles) was not listed on the sheet. That has been rectified. If you notice other players who are not showing up on the sheet ( who have played and scored or gained yardage), please let me know. A couple of teachers asked why interceptions and fumbles for defenses are not showing up. It is because defenses do not earn points from interceptions or fumbles recovered. I purposely designed the scoring systems that way, because it would just make everything more complicated for the students and would require more time. I also had a couple questions about the default scoring system. In hindsight, for several reasons I should have made the default scoring system based on a common denominator of 24. Total points equation number 10 on page 16 is probably more appropriate for most students.

Good luck this fantasy season. My top fantasy pick is DeAngelo Williams, who averaged more fantasy points per-start last season than any other non-quarterback. Contrary to popular opinion, I think he is the best back in the game, and I believe he will have more fantasy points at the end of the season than Adrian Peterson, who will probably have difficulty staying healthy.

Have fun,

Read more about my experiences using fantasy sports in my classes here.

Monday, September 21, 2009

52 Teachers, 52 Lessons #30: Best Practices for Teaching Vocab

This week's entry comes from Kelly Lichoff, who teaches Algebra, Geometry and Japanese (talk about well-rounded!) in Memphis, TN.

I think some of the most useful things to hear/read as a teacher are best practices that can be implemented in one's classroom immediately. Here are two ideas both my students and I love to use:

VOCABULARY (math, foreign language, science, etc.)...
  1. Distribute copies of blank BINGO cards (5x5 grid printed on front and back of printer paper).
  2. Have students write the 25 teacher-selected vocabulary words in the boxes in a random order on the front of their BINGO cards.
  3. On the back of the BINGO card, in the same box where they wrote the word on the front, students can draw a pictorial representation, write a definition, etc. (basically whatever is it that you want them to be able to match to the word).
  4. Play a few rounds of BINGO alternating between using the front and back of the BINGO cards.
  5. When you're done playing BINGO, have the students cut out the individual squares and voila! instant flashcards.
SEQUENTIAL VOCABULARY (math, foreign language, English, etc.)
  1. Find something that can be easily tossed around the room. (I use a large koosh ball.)
  2. Tell the students what sequential vocabulary they will be using. (math- prime numbers, multiples of 3, perfect squares, etc.; foreign language- alphabet, counting, time, months, etc.; English- prepositions, linking verbs, etc.)
  3. Toss the object to the first student, that student will say the first word and toss the object to another student who will say the second word in the sequence. This will continue until the sequence is complete.
  4. You can time this activity to make it more competitive.
Read more about this project here, then email your entries to teachforever AT gmail DOT com. Week 31 is scheduled for next Monday, September 28th, but as of this writing that spot was still open.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Submit For Next Math Teachers At Play, Hosted Here!

The October 2nd Math Teachers At Play blog carnival will be hosted here!

You have until Wednesday, September 30th to submit, but there's no time like the present to start thinking about what you might share. Remember that you don't have to share stuff for the classroom--there's a reason it's not called Math Teachers At Work. Personally, I'm always interested in logic puzzles and discrete math conundrums, and questioning the way statistics and other numbers are manipulated (especially in the news).

First, read the September 18th MTaP, hosted at the Math 2.0 Interest Group.

Then, submit your article for the next MTaP here.

Also, you might want to check out MTaP #6, which was hosted here back in May.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Take Some Time This Weekend For 52 Teachers, 52 Lessons

I've been posting it on every blog carnival I can think of and even guest posts I've written, but there still haven't been any new submissions for the 52 Teachers, 52 Lessons community project in a couple of weeks.

Some people have mentioned they'll be writing later in the year, and I'm extremely grateful and looking forward to that. In the meantime, your submission will be very much appreciated!

Read more about the project and how to participate.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Five for Friday

  1. Carnival of Homeschooling #194 [@Dewey's Treehouse] - I hope that public school teachers don't automatically discount resources I share from homeschooling websites. I don't know that this is happening, but I know that there are people out there who don't think it relates to what they're doing. There's a lot of good stuff in this carnival (and any homeschooling-focused websites I link to) for any teacher!
  2. School Replaces Entire Library With Technology [via Slashdot & DetentionSlip] - Have you heard about this? I have no problem with them embracing technology to expand students' access to books, but I don't understand why they had to get rid of the books they already had! It seems they had 20,000 and wanted to make space, but I'm sure the collection could have been pared down and still had plenty of space (just look at the pictures in the story)!
  3. Free Classroom Fitness Program For Teachers - Short exercise routines for teachers and students, especially those who don't get much due to budget cuts.
  4. Playing Tetris May Build Up Your Brain - I already knew that Tetris can help you feel better when you've been through something traumatic. I also think it's a vital tool for teaching spatial reasoning. This is just icing on the cake.
  5. Are Your Kids Shut-Down Learners? - Wired's GeekDad blog reviews an interesting book on dealing with children who are disconnected from and frustrated with school to the extreme.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Ten Cheap Lessons: Second Edition Now Available!

There's a new, updated version of my book Ten Cheap Lessons now available exclusively at!

Ten Cheap Lessons: Second Edition contains new supplemental material, updated versions of lessons, and is presented in a spiral-bound format for easy copying. It's something I've been meaning to do for a while, and I'm happy to report that it's ready to go. Be sure to check it out, if only for the snazzy new cover!

Just to avoid any confusion, this is not a sequel full of ten new lessons. It's an updated, better version of the original. In the future, I'd like to put out another book of lesson ideas like this, but it will probably have a different format and theme. I can tell you that I'm working on a different type of book that should be out by the end of the month (keep those fingers crossed).

As I said, the new edition is available only a You can't get this version at Amazon, B&N or anywhere else.

The spiral-bound paperback is $13.99 and the new ebook is only $5! If you never got the chance to pick up the original, now you have no excuse: it's better than the original.

Order Ten Cheap Lessons: Second Edition today.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

How To Work Around Paper and Copy Limits at School

I've written a guest post that's posted at The Lesson Machine:

How to Work Around Paper and Copy Limits

It's a bit of teacher "hacking" that I think most everyone will find useful. The Lesson Machine focuses on helping teachers save money, time, and sanity. You should definitely explore the rest of the site after you read my post!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Avoiding an Ulcer and Other Health Problems

As some of you reach your second or third week of school, and many others get ready for the first day of school after Labor Day, there's an issues we need to talk about before it's too late, and that is your mental and physical health.

This issue often gets ignored in the rush to worry about lesson plans, classroom management and actually teaching your students, and understandably so: many of us are hard-wired to be dedicated far beyond what we're asked to do. That is, of course, a good thing, but if you neglect your mental and physical health too much, it's going to have a negative effect on your classroom.

I speak from experience: in the spring of my first year, I developed a stomach ulcer. I missed several days of school and had to deal with the side effects of the medication I was taking even after I got back to the classroom. The day that my vision went blurry and I didn't have enough energy to stand up was a nightmare. Even after the ulcer was gone, I had a related battle with severe acid reflux for several years after that.

These were caused by the same things that many new (and yes, even veteran) teachers do when they're throwing themselves into their work: poor diet, lack of exercise, lack of sleep, and not taking steps to reduce stress.

Preventing your health from taking a downward turn is not that difficult, however. Just a few simple rules can keep you on top of your game:
  1. Don't skip breakfast. Research has proven time and time again that breakfast really is the most important meal of the day. It gives you energy, and prevents stomach acid from building up (which had lead to some of my problems). You'll also eat less and healthier the rest of the day. It's difficult to find the time, but even an on-the-go food like a low-fat, high-fiber breakfast bar is better than nothing.
  2. Stop to eat lunch. I've known many great teachers who saw lunch time as free work time. It's okay to get work done, or meet with students, but you have to eat! You also can take at least a few minutes to take a deep breath--you do need some kind of break to keep your stress level down. If you eat a good breakfast and light lunch, you won't go home and gorge yourself on an unhealthy dinner either.
  3. Don't take too much work home. Stop hauling that box of papers to grade, curriculum guides to read, and lesson plan paperwork back and forth from your house sooner rather than later. We both know that most (or all) of the time, that stuff is just getting a ride with you, remaining untouched except for transport. There's more effective ways to get your work done.
  4. Exercise. You don't have to join a gym, unless you can afford it and that is what it will take to keep you motivated. 30-60 minutes a day of any activity that works up a sweat (walking, running, swimming, gardening, serious house cleaning) will reduce your stress in the short turn and have innumerable effects in the long term. Don't make it complicated, just do something!
  5. Avoid fast food and too much eating out in general. Here in Texas, there's nothing better than a delicious Whataburger. Yet a diet primarily of fast food because I was unwilling to cook even microwave foods at home after a long day contributed to the medical problem I wrote about above. It's also cheaper to eat at home, which should lead to a little less stress over money.
  6. Take a day off when you need it. If you're sick, especially in these days of swine flu hysteria, stay home and get better. I give you permission to do so. If you don't take care of yourself, you'll end up missing more days when your illness turns into something more serious. There's also no shame in taking a mental health day.
  7. Get more high-quality sleep. Your body needs sleep more for your brain than anything else. Since that's the most important tool in your teaching arsenal, don't you want to keep it in the best condition possible?
  8. Don't drink too much. Stress relief doesn't come from a bottle. I'm the last person to tell you to stop doing this, but making it a frequent or daily habit will only lead to more problems, not less. Some of us, especially those coming right out of college, immediately seek refuge from stress in this way. If you need a concrete reason, I can tell you that in addition to poor diet, daily drinking was certainly another contributor to my ulcer and acid reflux problems. As Homer Simpson once said, alcohol is "the cause of—and solution to—all life's problems."
Related Articles:
Posts tagged with stress relief
Tips To Keep Your Kids Healthy At School [guest post]
The Teacher Health Paradox

Monday, September 14, 2009

There's Still Time To Submit for Today's 52 Teachers, 52 Lessons

Remember, there's no minimum length requirement. If anything, the idea is to keep your advice as concise as possible.

Read more about the project here.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

20 Sites to Create Online Quizzes, Polls, and Surveys

Teachers who are looking for different ways to test their students inside and outside of class can find a wide range of helpful tools online. There are sites that can be used to create quizzes, apps that can create polls, and web tools that build online surveys. Here are 20 sites to try today:


ClassMarker - ClassMarker is a free online quiz service that can be used to create online quizzes for individuals or entire groups. After the quiz is taken, ClassMarker will calculate results automatically.

Quizlet - Quizlet is a unique site that quizzes through flashcards. Teachers can make their own cards or use cards that have been created by other people.

Discovery Education Quiz Center - This online tool from Discovery Education allows teachers to create, administer, and grade quizzes online. The tool includes a full tutorial as well as other features that can't be found anywhere else.

ProProfs Quiz School - ProProfs offers this free quiz maker for classroom teachers who want to create quizzes with color and images. Quizzes can be printed, emailed, or posted online.

QuizBox - QuizBox is a free online quiz builder that can be used to make quizzes for blogs and websites. The builder allows users to choose the number of questions as well as the number of multiple choice answers.

MyQuizCreator - This free quiz tool quickly creates quizzes for blogs, websites, and MySpace profiles.

EasyTestMaker - This easy-to-use test generator builds multiple choice tests, true and false tests, fill-in-the-blank tests, and other types of quizzes.


ProProfs Polls - This free online tool is perfect for teachers who want to create professional looking polls for use in the classroom. ProProfs Polls can also be used on blogs and websites.

MyPollCreator - MyPollCreator offers a free 3-minute poll maker that can be used to create polls for blogs, websites, and MySpace profiles.

LearnMyself Poll Maker - The free Poll Maker from makes it easy to create fast and free polls for the web. Poll Maker generates code so that it can be copied and pasted into a content management system.

99polls - This site can be used to create flash polls and customizable surveys for the web. Polls and surveys can be added to blogs, websites, MySpace, pages, and Friendster accounts.

Poll Everywhere - With Poll Everywhere, users can create live audience polls and receive answers via text message, Twitter, or the web.

PollDaddy - This free polling service works well for Twitter users who want to poll their followers. Questions can be up to 110 characters long and can include up to 20 answer options.

StatPac - StatPac provides a free instant poll generator that creates polls for websites. Users simply fill out a form and the StatPac tool generates the HTML.


Zoomerang - The basic version of this free survey software creates fast, easy surveys with up to 30 questions. One hundred responses are allowed per survey.

Questionform - This free web application can be used to create and publish free, online surveys. Questionform's survey editor features a simple drag and drop method and offers the ability to track survey results in real-time and analyze responses afterward.

SurveyMonkey - The basic version of SurveyMonkey creates professional surveys in any language. Ten questions are allowed per survey; there are 15 types of questions to choose from in all. - This free site can be used to create free website and email surveys in less than 10 minutes. There is no software to download and results are collected automatically.

KwikSurveys - More than 100,000 people use this site to create free web and email surveys. There is no limit to the number of questions a KwikSurvey can include and no limit to the number of people who can respond.

Survey Builder - This free Survey Builder from the Center for History and New Media was designed for Internet-based oral history reports, course evaluations, and other education projects.

Guest post from education writer Karen Schweitzer. Karen also writes for

Friday, September 11, 2009

Five for Friday

  1. 100 Useful Resources for Teachers and Students of Open Source - This is where most software is headed, people, so you might as well get on board now.
  2. 15 Famous People Who Used To Teach [@mental_floss Blog] - I thought I wouldn't be surprised at all, but it turns out I didn't know about most of the people on the list!
  3. Teacher Wishes She Could Inspire One Of The More Popular Students [@The Onion] - Don't we all?
  4. Games lessons [via Freakonomics] - How did I not hear about this sooner? A new school opening soon in New York City will be built entirely around video games. The world is changing, my friends!
  5. Math Teachers at Play #16 [@Homeschool Math Blog]
Have you submitted your entry for 52 Teachers, 52 Lessons yet?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Chivalry May Be Dead, But Literacy Ain't

In addition to trying to make geeks cool, this month's Wired magazine also revealed some fascinating research on student literacy in the digital age.

Stanford professor Andrea Lunsford studied five years worth of student writing in and out of the classroom (just about anything written in any medium you could imagine). What she found among the tweets, texts, academic essays and assignments is staggering:
"I think we're in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven't seen since Greek civilization," she says. For Lunsford, technology isn't killing our ability to write. It's reviving it—and pushing our literacy in bold new directions.
This generation (and I'd like to be so bold as to include myself) is writing more than ever, mostly in text (by the very nature of blogs, social media, etc) and doing more of it outside of school for perhaps the first time in history.

The greatest skill that we've developed is called kairos, which essentially means we're able to adapt our writing style for different audiences. While it may be hard to get a particular student to write a five paragraph essay, that same student might go home and write everything from "sprawling TV-show recaps to 15,000-word videogame walkthroughs." It's nothing short of a revolution.

Thus it is the best argument for incorporating not only new technology, but the many new forms of writing and art that the digital age has inspired into your classroom. There's many simple ways to do this, across the curriculum:
  1. Incorporate student blogging.
  2. Use Internet memes as creative writing prompts. Take your typical Facebook-style meme: "Answer these 25 questions about yourself, then send it to your friends." You could actually have students pass them around instead of just having them turn it in immediately. That sounds like a fun first day activity to me!
  3. Display student work publicly, but let them know at the beginning. Take advantage of their skill at writing for particular audiences and have them write for them. A project that will be displayed by the main entrance at school should elicit a different response than something you'd put on the classroom wall. Imagine what would happen if you could get a local art gallery, museum or library to host student work!
  4. Borrow the Internet's best ideas. Maybe your students could create a PostSecret project, recap whatever popular TV show about vampires is on this week, or explain the ins-and-outs the Nintendo Wii. You don't necessarily need the technology to tap into the power of these ideas.
I'm interested in your reactions and ideas based on this research. I'll be looking for them in the comments.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Making Learning "Cool" is Easier Said Than Done

In this month's Wired magazine, Daniel Roth wrote an article entitled "Making Geeks Cool Could Reform Education", in which BetterLesson founder Alex Grodd takes center stage.

A venture capital firm in New York recently hosted an education conference (why is not explained) that started out with discussion of tech innovations, but took on a different tone when Grodd explained why most of their ideas wouldn't work:
"The driving force in the life of a child, starting much earlier than it used to be, is to be cool, to fit in," Grodd told the group. "And pretty universally, it's cool to rebel."
... "The best schools," Grodd told me later, "are able to make learning cool, so the cool kids are the ones who get As. That's an art."
The author goes on to give examples of this idea at work in successful charter schools across the country. Of course, therein lies the problem: nowhere is it discussed how we would even approach such a fundamental change in a traditional public school setting.

It's not that this is an inherently bad ideal to work towards, but the realization of what Grodd and the author proposes is nearly impossible for two reasons: the system isn't set up to accommodate it, and charter schools are not like traditional public schools.

Traditional public schools are too busy trying to meet minimum standards to encourage the level of creativity, academic focus and recognition that would be required. Those of us that have taught honors, gifted & talented, Pre-AP or AP classes know that those students are pretty much left to their own devices; schools assume they'll pass all their standardized testing. We give lip service to challenging them and raising standards, but are content to raise the lowest students to the middle while letting the best drift downward to about the same place.

Thus shifting school culture would first require the complete realignment of our country's educational standards and goals from the White House down to every schoolhouse. That's no easy task, obviously, but even if we were to free our schools from this "race to the bottom," it would still be incredibly difficult to pull off what the charter schools mentioned in the article have accomplished.

Everything they're able to do stems from the freedom to build charter schools have by nature. If they have the culture, curriculum and staff to make this focus work, it's because it's written into their charter, and every incoming student has to buy in or find a different school. I'm not begrudging what charter schools can do; I hope they continue to do it. I'm just pointing out what should be obvious: traditional public schools can't do what charters do.

There is, however, one possible way to make this work: on the micro level, in individual classrooms. Making learning cool is entirely possible in a classroom where a great teacher has built a positive culture. The aura of coolness will likely fade away quickly when your students leave class and head back into the soul-crushing reality of growing up. It sounds hopeless, but the academic focus and recognition they receive from you can make all the difference in their lives in the long term.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

What Teachers Can Learn From Billy Mays

Of all the celebrity deaths over the past few months, the one that hit me the hardest was TV pitchman extraordinaire Billy Mays. Mays was the one who I always thought had the most to teach us, because when you break our profession down to its core, we are all salespeople. The only difference is that instead of selling OxiClean, Kaboom, or Mighty Putty, we're selling linear equations, Shakespeare and the Civil War.

There's a reason that Mays quickly outgrew his infomercial roots and became a celebrity, and that's because there was an equal mix of sincerity, enthusiasm, and volume behind every product he was given. Mays believes in these products, I thought, and he just reaches out and grabs you through your TV. I thought I might be crazy until my suspicions were confirmed by watching him on his tragically short -lived reality series, Pitchmen. The lessons for those of us in the classroom were crystal clear:

You have to believe in what you're selling.

You have to use it, know it, understand why it's important and worthy of someone's attention.

You have to be willing to do crazy things to prove what you say is true.

You have to present it to them with a high level of enthusiasm.

You have to be willing to poke fun at yourself.

And finally, you have to project everything clearly in your teacher voice!

Thank you, Billy!

Monday, September 7, 2009

52 Teachers, 52 Lessons #29: Behavior Communicates a Need

This week's entry comes from Karren Colbert, who has a decade of experience in and out of the classroom. She's been a fourth grade teacher, reading specialist, instructional coach, and most recently started an educational consulting company. She also blogs at The Write Brained Teacher.

Behavior communicates a need. Although it may seem like some students come to school every day to make your life difficult, look beyond the behavior to uncover the unspoken message a student is trying to communicate. Linda Albert identifies three basic needs of students in her book Cooperative Discipline: students need to feel capable of succeeding, connected to the community or classroom, and they must believe that they have something to contribute. What is it that a challenging student is trying to tell you?

To this day, one of my most challenging students was Caleb. He came to me, as a fourth grader, unable to read. Most days he didn’t come at all. At first, that was fine with me because I was a brand new teacher and my job was noticeably easier when he was absent. But when I began to look beyond his behavior, I saw a boy who didn’t feel very capable, connected, or contributing.

I enlisted the help of our school custodian, Mr. Ted. Among the fourth grade, it was a coveted job to help Mr. Ted at the end of the lunch period. Caleb began helping him sweep the gym floor and wipe down the tables every day. Not because he earned it, or even deserved it, but because he needed it. When he was absent, Mr. Ted reminded Caleb that he was missed. It wasn’t long before his attendance improved and so did his ability to read. I haven’t seen Caleb personally since I left the classroom, but you can be that I get regular updates from Mr. Ted.

Read more about this project here, then when you're ready, email your entries to teachforever AT gmail DOT com. Week 30 is scheduled for next Monday, September 14th, but as of this writing that spot was still open.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Lesson Ideas Using “Practical Money Skills for Life”

As summer approached near the end of the last school year, I found a great new financial education website called Practical Money Skills for Life. Credit card behemoth Visa, along with consumer, educational and governmental organizations, created lesson plans and a comprehensive website to teach these skills at all grade levels. I used their site to build a four-day Algebra I unit that would review many skills we had studied while also focusing on real-life skills.

There are PowerPoint presentations you can show your students that provide answers to many of the questions in the handouts, but there's just too much content here and a lot of it just won't work with most students. I skipped some sections altogether and scavenged other parts to only the most important stuff. If you have more time, you should certainly use more of these materials. You'll see that the 14 lessons from the “Teens” section have been pared down to just a few relevant activities.

If you spend some time discussing the reasons behind the activity, asking thought-provoking questions and such, you'll really get them into it (as with any good lesson).

You can download all of the materials together, including the teacher's guides and presentation notes, but you will need to create a free account at the site. I think most of you will be able to create pretty good lessons around the activities I'm linking to directly:

Day 1: Budgeting & Rental/Lease Agreements
Do Now question: Do you have a job? If so, where do you work? If not, how do you get money to pay for things?Day 2: Bank and Credit Card Balances and Statements
Do Now question: Do you have a checking account or other bank account? If yes, how well do you keep track of your money? If not, how do you keep track of your money?
  • Reading a bank statement: Activity 6, pgs 5-8
  • Reading a credit card statement: Activity 8, pgs 4-5
  • Balancing a checkbook: Activity 6, pgs 3-4
Day 3: Staying Out of Financial Trouble
Do Now question: Imagine you are living on your own. Make a list of all the bills you would be responsible for.
Day 4: Online Project
[You'll need internet access for these activities.]
Do Now question: What are some advantages and disadvantages of using credit cards?
Back in June, I posted the homework assignment I gave students when we were doing this unit. This "Erasing Debt" activity focuses on the kind of credit loan offers you get in the mail.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

52 Teachers, 52 Lessons Returns on Monday! But...

...there are still many unfilled weeks left after that. You might have missed my offer of a Bill Clinton-themed cookbook recently. The offer still stands!

Find out how to get involved in this project here.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Five for Friday: Carnivals and Lists

  1. Back to School slideshow [@The Onion] - Each photo has a link to a full story.
  2. All Things Eco Blog Carnival #65 - My post about recycling used transparencies appears in a section of this environmentally-focused carnival.
  3. Carnival of Mathematics #56 [@Reasonable Deviations]
  4. Math Teachers at Play #14 [@Math Mama Writes...]

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A Dangerous Book for Your Classroom Library

I finally checked out a book from the library I've been looking forward to for a long time: The Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn and Hal Iggulden.

I was excited about it because the book promised to teach some of the lost art of being a kid. There's been a weird confluence of overly protective parenting, NCLB-era schooling, new technology, and increasing urbanization that makes a lot of things I learned and experienced as a boy less common and possible as time goes on.

I was lucky enough to grow up in a rural area, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. My friends and I would disappear into the woods that surrounded our homes for hours on end and play a lot of outdoor games. I liked to learn about all of the traditional "boy stuff," like dinosaurs, ancient history, the moon, the stars, nature and animals. I'm pretty sure we tried our share of dangerous stunts (although I'm having a hard time remembering any in particular).

When I heard about the book, I knew that if it did what it claimed to do, it would be an excellent addition to any classroom (or home) library. It absolutely fulfills its promise, although I can tell you that the only thing really dangerous in this book are crazy ideas like:
  • Learning about literature, science, math and history can be fun.
  • You can actually build and make stuff for yourself instead of buying it.
  • There's more to life than technology.
  • Paper airplanes will always be cool.
You don't have to worry about anything being blown up--this isn't the Anarchist's Cookbook. Instead, it's a sincere attempt to preserve some of the simple joys of being a kid that are being lost to the march of progress.

I have little doubt that if a student picked this up and began to thumb through it, they would find something (or many things) of interesting and be hooked. The book is filled with beautiful hand-drawn illustrations, artwork and photographs to bring each short chapter to life. There's a fairly even split between chapters that share wisdom on essential topics (famous battles, grammar, U.S. geography, girls) and those that show them how to do stuff (make a go-cart, coin tricks, how to play chess, build an electromagnet). In short, there's more than enough here to keep just about any boy engaged, not to mention the nostalgic adult.

The best thing about it is that it's a book of analog ideas in a digital world. The novelty of that idea alone should be enough to want to add it to your classroom library.

If thinking about this book has you reminiscing about your youth, you might want to read 100 Things Your Kids May Never Know About from Wired's GeekDad blog.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Creating Skits to Teach Math and Science

During History Week, I shared examples of skits that were very effective in my U.S. history classes. You could use the same method with just about any subject or grade level. Here's how:

In general, your skits should be:
  1. Brief
  2. Humorous
  3. Written in a conversational tone
The purpose is to replace traditional direct instruction like notes or lecturing with a more engaging version of the same content. It's easy to see this at work in humanities classes, but it can be applied just as well to math, science and other subjects as well. Take this example from an English/Language Arts class:

Couldn't you do the same sort of thing for any vocabulary? Here's an example I wrote for math:
You Gotta Know Slope

[Scene: Four characters stand in front of the room. Their nametags read POSITIVE, NEGATIVE, ZERO and UNDEFINED.]

POSITIVE: I am a line with positive slope, and I always go like this!

[POSITIVE leans their body and stretches out to point up to their left (the right for the audience)].

NEGATIVE: I am a line with negative slope. I am the opposite of the positive slope, so I always go like this!

[NEGATIVE leans their body and points up and to the right (the left for the audience) and gives POSITIVE a nasty look.]

ZERO: I am a line with zero slope, and I always go like this!

[ZERO lies down on the ground with the audience at their side.]

UNDEFINED: I am a line with undefined slope, and I always go like this!

[UNDEFINED points their hands straight up into the air and makes their body as straight and vertical as possible.]

[End scene]
Now wouldn't that be better than a lecture? It brings to mind the kind of stuff we ask young children to do in school all the time, moments of spirited silliness that we always remember but often ignore when students reach high school.

Your skit doesn't have to have dialogue either. In fact it probably becomes more easily applicable when you just need students to act something out. Your script could merely describe exactly what you want them to do.

I'm imagining a student in a biology class acting out the water cycle, starting as water, then evaporating into the air, becoming a rain cloud (condensation) and so on. I start to laugh a little when I visualize it as a kind of absurd performance art.

This is absolutely worth trying in your classroom. Even if you don't have many kids willing to come up in front of the class at first, once they see how much fun it is, I can guarantee you that number will go up. This is also a great way to engage students who like being the center of attention and end up distracting others. They'll be the first ones in line to be in your skit. All you have to do is invest the minimal time in effort in writing (or finding) the right skit.

What About Having Students Writing Skits?

Obviously the flip side of writing a skit to teach your students is having your students write skits to teach their fellow students (and help themselves). You can pull this off in the math and science classroom by employing the same strategies used by your humanities colleagues.

The key is to give them the tools and inspiration necessary to apply their knowledge in a way they probably haven't been asked to do before. Give them lots of examples of what a skit might look like, whether it's one you wrote as described above or videos you find online. This will help them with the structure of the skit.

Give them a graphic organizer to plan out characters, dialogue and action. If you're trying to teach and have them remember vocabulary, give them what they would need to create their own definition, whether it be from notes, the textbook or elsewhere. The idea is to give them the content knowledge and confidence to apply it to this particular format.

Here's an example written and performed by AP Biology students:

In the end, I think having students create their own skits is a good option to give them. Not all students will want to participate in that kind of activity, but it would be a good way to differentiate a big project to wrap up a unit


If you have created a skit for your non-humanities classroom, please share a link in the comments or email me a copy to share.

If you haven't tried this yet, think of the next few topics you're going to cover in class. Create a short skit that could replace or supplement your direct instruction. Then share it!

I'm very excited to see what people have and will come up with!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

How to Make Feature-Length Films Fit into a Class Period

During History Week, I wrote about using part of the film 1776 to help teach about the Declaration of Independence. I realized that teachers might benefit from a guide to cutting down any feature-length film for classroom use.

Let's assume you already have a film in mind that illustrates main ideas you desperately want your students to learn. How do you go about making it fit comfortably into one class period, since that is the most likely time frame you'll have to work with?

First, get the DVD version of the film. VHS won't work because you'll spend too much time trying to skip around to the right parts.

Now, onto the film itself. Figure out an initial running time by subtracting the beginning and end credits from the total running time (which you'll usually find on the DVD case). You won't work backwards from this number, but it's a benchmark you need to consider.

Using the DVD's chapters as a guide, pick the minimum number of scenes that address your main ideas most directly. For now, leave out scenes that provide too much background (like introducing characters), explore subplots or cover minor details. Remember, you should teach as much background information as possible before you show any video. You might have most or all of your 45 minutes filled up from these alone, but either way we want to cut out unnecessary minutes. If you want to skip to the middle of a long scene, write down the exact time you want to go to, and figure out how to go there on your particular DVD player/software. Skipping the latter part of a scene is easier, just make sure to note the actual minutes you would be playing.

If you still have time left, look for scenes that support your main ones and that address minor but important details you want to highlight.

At this point you should have a rough outline of what you'd like to show and how many minutes it will take. Go back and watch your cut down version from beginning to end. Double check how long it takes, remembering that you might have to take a minute to explain why you skipped something or point out something before a scene begins.

Hopefully you'll have 45 minutes or less, or will have identified some more minutes to shave off when you watched your edited version.

In general, keep these things in mind when trying to decide what to use or not use from a film:
  1. Is it appropriate for school use?
  2. Will your students find it engaging? If you're unsure, get some feedback from your children, young relatives, or adults who aren't teachers on how interesting they think it is.
  3. If it seems like something isn't working in your "edited" version, whether in terms of timing or clarity, go back to the original film. There might be a different scene that illustrates the same idea in a better way.
  4. Do you have a lesson that can teach a particular point just as good or better than something in the film?
  5. Finally, how do your students respond to videos in general? Are they always excited, sleeping and talking through them, or somewhere in the middle? In this case, less is more (even if less means no video at all).
Finally, don't let technical issues derail your plans and ruin all of your hard work!

Before you show anything in class, make sure you have the right equipment and that everything works properly. None of your planning will matter if you spend 30 minutes trying to get your film to play at all! Set up and test everything before class starts, asking yourself these questions:
  • Is the DVD playable?
  • Does your DVD player or laptop software work?
  • Does the TV or LCD projector work?
  • Are the speakers loud enough for your students to hear clearly?
Also, some DVD players (especially on the software side) allow you to "bookmark" exact points to play later. This would certainly make your planning and actual playback in class go much more quickly and smoothly.