Queen Bee Tower Build: an alternative to The Marshmallow Challenge

7 Dec

The secret to success in The Marshmallow Challenge is testing ideas early and often. Teams that fail forward quickly and iterate ideas do better than those that stick to one strategy (usually pushed forward by the most dominant personality in the group). I love the challenge and have been on the hunt for more activities like it. The Queen Bee Tower Build is my favorite alternative I have used so far.

I originally found this idea in Innovation Challenges published by St. Louis University’s Parks College of Engineering, Aviation, and Technology, but I have updated the original activity to better suit my needs, so my version goes beyond the one I found. Hey, I practice what I preach: iterative thinking.

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Effective Homework: Distilled Learning

27 May

A group of colleagues and I spent a year researching how to make homework more effective in our school. This slide show is a distillation of our learning:

You can print these slides as posters or adapt them by following this link. In Google Slides, just go to FILE and MAKE A COPY.

No Small Fixes: Design Thinking vs. Broken Tape Dispensers

19 Nov

20171114_1252331.jpgMy biggest challenge–and the greatest source of excitement–for this school year is a pilot elective I am leading: Design for Change Studio. For a few years now, a group of us at FIS have been asking how we can incorporate more design thinking and project-based learning into the wider curriculum. Of course, iterations of this work are already happening in Design/Technology, Visual Arts, and Performing Arts, and now Design Thinking initiatives are taking shape in all kinds of forms, all over our campus. Presently, my own efforts are fully focused on this one course.

To take the young designers through a quick design cycle, I asked them to solve a small, everyday frustration I have: broken tape dispensers. The new model of tape dispensers in the supply closet break too easily. When knocked to the floor, the flywheels snap and as there are no replacement spools at hand, the entire device ends up in the recycling bin. Also, I was wondering if there was a way to keep the dispensers from falling in the first place, without permanently adhering them to one spot.

This was not the most world-shifting problem I could think of, but I thought it would be a straightforward challenge for student design teams to tackle within a two-week time frame. The solutions they devised took much longer. But over a month and half, we learned so much that is informing the way we tackle future design challenges.20171016_144701

The students have done a really interesting job explaining what they learned from trying to fix broken tape dispensers. I include some of their posts here, and I hope you will be much more interested in reading their thoughts than my own. After the links, I share a few of my takeaways, too:

Student Blog Posts:







Broken Tape Dispenser Blog Post Assignment Description

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The Power of Feedback: Part Three

12 Jan

thepoweroffeedbackpart-1In parts one and two of my posts of John Hattie’s and Helen Timperley’s The Power of Feedback, I gave a summary of the meta-analysis. I still feel reading the entire document is worth your time, but if you want shorter synopses, go to those posts. Now, I just want to share some final takeaways from the white paper and begin to make some connections to other sources I have been exploring to improve my feedback to students.

wiggins feedback.png

ifstudentscannotimmediately-4TAKEAWAY #3 from “The Power of Feedback”: If students cannot immediately do something with the feedback, research shows you are wasting your time giving it.

This one is common sense really, but the research supports it as well. When students can immediately apply the feedback to improve their work, the feedback is more effective. When it is given for “next time,” little effect is measured.

Due to a variety of factors–the finite time we have to cover a unit, the way we were taught, our own innate ability to connect knowledge and skills–we often give feedback and expect students to apply this feedback the next time. We say things like, “This should help you in future essays” or “You have to learn to stop repeating the same mistakes.” These statements are NOT wrong. Such connection making is critical to a student’s success. On a practical level as well, we need to move on to new material…and so we do.

Research argues, however, that if we want to engage in effective practice with maximum impact, we must stop moving on. We should stop; go back; and re-teach if we are interested in improving mastery. Cover less. Teach more. Certainly, students who can make connections from one essay to the next do improve, but if we are interested in helping as many students as possible achieve, we are more successful when we create situations where students are responsible and accountable for immediately processing and applying the feedback.

Excerpt from “The Power of Feedback.”

“There has been much research on the timing of feedback, particularly contrasting immediate and delayed feedback. Most of this research has been accomplished without recognition of the various feedback levels. For example, immediate error correction during task acquisition (Feedback on Task-FT) can result in faster rates of acquisition, whereas immediate error correction during fluency building can detract from the learning of automaticity and the associated strategies of learning (Feedback on Process-FP). Similarly, in their meta-analysis of 53 studies, Kulik and Kulik (1988) reported that at the task level (i.e., testing situations), some delay is beneficial (0.36), but at the process level (i.e., engaging in processing classroom activities), immediate feedback is beneficial (0.28) (see also Bangert-Drowns, Kulik, Kulik, & Morgan, 1991; Brackbill, Blobitt, Davlin, & Wagner, 1963; Schroth & Lund, 1993; Sturges, 1972, 1978; Swindell & Walls, 1993).” (qtd. in Hattie and Timperley 98)

Now, if you read that excerpt and understood it perfectly, stop reading this post. Just go directly to The Power of Feedback. If you struggled with this excerpt, let me offer my interpretation.

As I am first learning new German vocabulary, immediate correction of mistakes seems to help me learn faster. (Thank you, Duolingo!) Yet, as I try to build this new vocabulary into my natural speech patterns, instant corrections on my mistakes will slow me down and cause angst. (Stop correcting every one of my mistakes, please, my well-intentioned German co-workers.) I spend too much time second guessing my article endings, and my fluency suffers. Yet, after I have achieved a higher level of mastery with this vocabulary and attempt to use it as I write a reflection on my own work, immediate feedback would give me greater benefits.

If I applied this trend to a student learning comma rules, I might give them online quizzes which instantly score themselves as the student learns the rule, but as the student writes a first draft, I could ignore the errors (or just circle some and let the student hunt for the rest when she revises the piece). Yet, after she has displayed sufficient mastery of the rules, I might have her teach another student, while I listened in. While doing so, I could correct any misconceptions in the moment, as the students work, and such immediate corrections would benefit all the students.

Of course, I won’t be able to give such perfectly timed feedback to every student every time. Yet, knowing that, in general, instant feedback seems to help a student at the beginning and “end” of learning will significantly improve the chances of me (or fellow students) giving “just for me information, just when I need it.”

classroom-that-values-failureTAKEAWAY #4 from “The Power of Feedback”: A classroom culture that values failure and encourages revision will make feedback more effective.

I despise this cynical cliche, especially when coming from the mouths of teachers, “Well, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Rick Wormelli has a great response to this old saw, “As teachers, it’s our job to hand out salt licks!” The research shows us we can (and should) take direct actions that make learning more effective for everyone.

Excerpt from “The Power of Feedback.”

“The climate of the classroom is critical, particularly if disconfirmation and corrective feedback at any level is to be welcomed and used by the students (and teachers). Errors and disconfirmation are most powerful in climates in which they are seen as leading to future learning, particularly relating to processing and regulation” (Hattie and Temperley 100).

In other words, if we want to tell students they are doing something wrong–and we want those same students to reply, “Oh great! I chance for me to improve!”–we have to work to display and nurture a growth mindset in our classrooms. We have to create places where excellent mistakes are celebrated.

Again, common sense and big data show us that students typically only give answers when they are relatively sure of the correct answer. Fostering a climate where failing is welcomed and celebrated can improve the likelihood that corrective feedback is received and used.

As a writing teacher, the area in which I am currently struggling to apply this research is how revision is incorporated into classroom work. This graphic from elireview.com is a touchstone for me. I am working to move toward the “Better” image. I have the “Typical” image down cold and need to unlearn it.

writing pie chart.png

I will dedicate a future blog post to the specific work I have been doing to move toward the better allotment of class time. In this pursuit I find myself pulled back to the methods I learned during my student teaching in a classroom that was modeled around Nancie Atwell’s workshop approach.

What is probably our best tool to create an environment which celebrates mistakes and risks is our individual relationships with students. I am paraphrasing a sentiment I have encountered in many different ways throughout my career, and it is one that always rings true in my heart: a student will not learn from a teacher who does not show him or her love.

Dylan William puts this thought another way:

“… the thing that really matters in feedback is the relationship between the student and the teacher. Every teacher knows that the same feedback given to two similar students can make one try harder and the second give up. When teachers know their students well, they know when to push and when to back off. Moreover, if students don’t believe their teachers know what they’re talking about or don’t have the students’ best interests at heart, they won’t invest the time to process and put to work the feedback teachers give them.

‘Ultimately, when you know your students and your students trust you, you can ignore all the “rules” of feedback. Without that relationship, all the research in the world won’t matter.”

Of course, we don’t need to read reams of research to understand that if students truly believe we care about their success, they will respond to our feedback more effectively. Yet, as I grind away at the time-intensive chore that is providing meaningful feedback on student writing, it’s uplifting to realize that big data supports my best practice. I am also motivated to stop wasting my students’ time (and my own) with ineffective feedback. I’ll continue to read and research and explore this topic…and share my findings with all of you. Please share your best practice ideas in regard to feedback, too. I’m sure we all want to learn as much as we can.

Integrating Quotations with Style

26 Feb

Whiskey_Chocolate_CakeImagine one day I walk into class and say, “Happy Birthday! I brought you a chocolate cake.” Then, I take out a bag of flour, a bottle of milk, a cup of sugar, a few eggs, and a few bars of chocolate…handing all of them to you separately. You would be unimpressed. I wouldn’t have made much effort to present you with a nice gift.

I should have taken the time to combine all the ingredients together in an effective, appealing way. Well, your readers can feel the same way when you just DUMP a direct quotation from the text into the middle of your writing without any set-up.

To add sophistication and style to your writing, you should work to integrate (or blend) direct quotations from a text into your own sentence structure. In this post I hope to give you some tools that will help you combine other people’s words with your own in a grammatically correct and appealing manner. The only real way to master this skill is to practice in your own writing, but these resources are a good place to begin developing your understanding of this ability.

Integrating Quotations with Style Handout

Blending Quotations (with a self-quiz)


More Video Explanations of how to BLEND quotations successfully (pick a few to view):

Blending Quotations and Avoiding Quote Dumps @PressEnglish

Mr. Cowan Explains Blending Quotations

Blending Quotations by Colin Welch

Choosing and Using Quotations by Schmoop

Using Quotes Effectively by Schmoop

Blending Quotations @MrBruff (advanced explanation)

Embedding Quotes like a boss (advanced explanation)

Fragments, Run-ons, and Sentences: Resources for Students

9 Feb

FragmentsandRun-onsKnowing how to identify and correct run-on sentences is one of the best skills any young writer can develop and this ability allows apprentice scribes to write more clearly and writing more clearly will raise any ordinary Joe or Jane to rock-star status, leading to wealth, celebrity, and fame. I know. I am hilarious. I just made a grammar joke. If you didn’t get it, read on.

Google defines a run-on sentence as: A grammatically faulty sentence in which two or more main or independent clauses are joined without a word to connect them or a punctuation mark to separate them: “The fog was thick he could not find his way home.”

Do you understand that definition? If so, you probably don’t need me. Go and teach yourself how to avoid this all-too-common sentence construction error. There’s this handy thing known as Google that will come in handy.

But, you’re here, so you’re probably interested in some help. Allow me.

Now that you’ve watched the video, you will understand this simpler definition of a run-on sentence: two or more sentences incorrectly joined together.

In English, you may never join more than two sentences together. The opening sentence of this post, then, is a run-on sentence because it tries (and fails) to join three sentences together:

Knowing how to identify and correct run-on sentences is one of the best skills any young writer can develop.

This ability allows novice scribes to write more clearly.

Writing more clearly will raise any ordinary Joe or Jane to rock-star status, leading to wealth, celebrity, and fame.

That joke was not very good at all. I know that, yet I also know the following resources are good. They will no doubt help you master this concept:

More Explanations of Fragments & Run-ons:

Run-on Sentences Explained @ Study.com

Fixing Run-on Sentences @ HowCast

How to Avoid Run-on Sentences @HowCast

Run-on Sentences Explained @ Schmoop.com

Sentence Fragments @grammardoctor

Sentence Fragments @smrtenglish

Run-on Sentences @ smrtenglish

What are run-ons? (Grammar Girl)

Run-on Sentences Video @BrainPop…at home you need to log on. Check Haiku for details.)

Run-on Sentences Explained (Again…with a quick quiz at the end)

The Most Common Comma Error in the World (Mr. Neal explains)



Online Quizzes

Check your own understanding of fragments, run-ons, and sentences by taking some of these online quizzes:

Run-ons and Fragments Explained (with quizzes)

Fragments and Run-ons Self Quiz #1

Fragments and Run-ons Self Quiz #2 (answers at the bottom of the page)

Fragments and Run-ons Self Quiz #3

Identifying Run-on Sentences: The OWL

Identifying Run-on Sentences: University of Bristol

Fixing Run-on Sentences

Repairing Run-on Sentences

Parts of Speech Tutorials: Sheppard Software

Simple Classroom Hacks XL: ELMLE 2016 Barcelona

28 Jan

To open the slide deck, click on the link below…or just let the embedded slides advance. Remember, all the links to everything in my presentation are contained in the slide deck. I hope you enjoy! Simple Classroom Hacks XL: ELMLE 2016 Barcelona

The Power of Feedback: Part Two

14 Jun

ThePowerofFeedbackpartAs I promised in part 1 I am continuing to provide summaries and reactions to John Hattie’s and Helen Timperley’s “The Power of Feedback.” Some of my English colleagues and I have been focused on improving our feedback on student writing, and reading this meta-analysis (published in 2007) was our starting point this year. Of course, the more I read the more I wanted to know, so this reading led to more reading…and more reading, which I will summarize through these blog posts.

Since writing my first post, I had the chance to go to London and hear John Hattie speak at a Visible Learning conference. Hattie and team use a “Barometer of Influence” to explain research results to the masses. His main argument is this:

Almost ANYTHING teachers do helps students achieve. There is actually very little we do in the classroom that decreases achievement.

The key to truly effective learning, then, is to focus on WHAT WORKS BEST. If we want to be effective educators, Hattie tells us to focus on the actions that fall in the blue category (anything offering over 0.4 influence), and, very importantly, to carefully measure our actions, gauging whether or not they are actually helping students reach greater achievement.

barometer_of_influenceFeedback, by the way, has a 0.75 influence and falls within the blue range. In other words, it is very much worth our time to get better at providing it.

Hattie’s argument makes perfect sense to me, and it is edifying to realize that teachers’ gut instincts (e.g. better feedback helps students write better) are actually supported by big data. John Hattie and the Visible Learning team are basing their results on over 1,000 meta-analyses involving 240,000,000,000 students.

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“The Power of Feedback” Summary: Part One

24 Apr

ThePowerofFeedback-1I worry my middle name might be Sisyphus. Despite my best efforts, the inevitable piles of essays that are a part of my working life too often feel like boulders to move from here to there. I desperately want to see each essay as another rich opportunity, a chance to help a budding writer find her voice. At my best, I find this state of mind. Yet, the amount of time required to respond to student work always leaves me with one nagging question: “Is all of this really working?” Thankfully, my tendency to question (*cough: despair about) the effectiveness of my feedback can lead to fruitful reflection.

Lately I have explored how to ensure my time (and my students’ time) is spent most effectively. For the past two years, my fellow English teachers and I set a departmental goal of improving the efficacy of our feedback. This year a few of us tackled John Hattie’s and Helen Timperley’s “The Power of Feedback,” a very extensive review of educational research on what really works in regard to teacher feedback on student work. This 2007 white paper deals with big data, reviewing hundreds of studies sampling thousands (maybe millions?) of students. The paper is dense and technical and big…but it is also illuminating and practical and useful. If you have the time, the study is worth a read. Of course, you probably don’t and just want somebody to give a summary…so keep reading.

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#ELMLE2015 Sketchnoting

14 Mar

Workbook-400It’s been a month since I have posted something new. Know that I have been working away…but I have had plenty of shade tree time, too. It has been a busy but fulfilling winter in Germany.

In the past ten years, I’ve endured my share of light-starved, snowy Februaries. In both Boston and Frankfurt, winter days can feel as if we’re all just sitting inside of some enormous, frozen broom closet waiting for somebody to turn on the lights. A colleague of mine talks about the “ping pong ball sky,” as if we’re all just sitting inside of a ball trying to look out. It’s an apt image.

I fill these grey-white times by learning to do something creative. When I lived in Boston I took all kinds of continuing ed classes: boxing, rock-climbing, acting, singing, writing. This winter, my ambitions are much smaller, but I’ve been experimenting with sketchnoting. My wife bought me two books for Christmas, and we’ve both been practicing in the evenings while vegging out in front of Netflix. At this year’s ELMLE conference in Warsaw, I put my nascent skills to use.

I am not good at this by any means, but my teaching always improves when I embrace the rich learning that comes from doing something at which I truly suck. I am surprised by how much I enjoy taking notes in this format. I listen much more attentively, and the big ideas from each session become stickier. Not every session lent itself to this format, but here are my notes from the conference with a breakdown of the key points from relevant sessions:

My apologies to the presenters. None of you really look like any of my sketches…just chalk up your Quasimodolike effigies to my not-so-budding artistic skills.

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