Monthly Archives: August 2016

6 Keys to #CommonCore / #CCSS Standardized Test Success

In my last post, I shared the surprisingly good test results achieved with our group of underprivileged, at-risk 6th grade students.

Since the things below are what actually drive me to make the choices I do in education, and to teach the way I do (and, while there were some differences in the pedagogy between the three 6th grade teachers on our team, many of these things were shared in common), I figured I would share them in the hopes that others can find the same successes we have:

1. Cognitive Science

After attending a “Learning and the Brain” cognitive science conference in San Francisco a little over a year ago, I was reaffirmed that many of my teaching strategies and beliefs are sound, and are backed by years of science research. I also came away with new understandings, and ideas for how to incorporate the scientific research into sound pedagogy that works to build long-term memory (long-term memory is what it’s all about; if you merely focus on short-term or “working” memory, you cannot recall that information in the future when you may need it… and it’s also a big reason why students fail on tests at the end of the year, after some time has passed since they were taught a skill or concept.)

I took copious notes and collected a variety of presentations and research articles from this conference, which I then synthesized into a simple presentation, but I will sum up a few of the 14 big takeaways here:

  • Repetition is crucial. Repetition is a key factor in transferring information from short-term/working memory into long-term storage. However, it can’t just be a sudden “drill and kill” span of repeating the same type of problem/information over and over in a short time span. It needs to be (a) varied, and (b) spaced out over time. The ideas of “spiral review” or “mixed review” apply here. (This is also why homework, at least in some areas, is so beneficial.)
  • Exercise and sleep are super important. There may not be a whole lot a teacher can control in this department… but there are ways you can get a little exercise and get the blood flowing. (As for sleep — it literally saves and repairs brain cells, and flushes toxic metabolites from your brain. It’s like an oil-change for the gears in your head.)
  • Brain breaks are useful. Similar to the above, and even more applicable to the classroom, it can be useful to take breaks from “focused” thinking and switch over to a more “diffuse” thinking state. Whereas focused cognition allows following and strengthening existing pathways of thought, diffuse thinking and brain breaks allow the brain to form new, more tenuous connections.
  • “Testing” can be even more effective than “teaching”! A lot of people are so “anti-testing” that they will find this concept onerous or even contemptible… but the science is convincing. The idea is not merely “high-stakes” or even “summative” testing, but rather that, when you are being “quizzed” in some way, your brain goes into a more focused mode that does a better job of organizing and storing information. Therefore, even if it’s just quick checks or formative “testing” built into a lesson, the learning gets vastly improved over a “lecture” model of direct instruction.
  • Music and noise are bad. A note to all you teachers who think it’s cool to let the students listen to pop music while they work: it’s not. Study after study have shown that listening to music while reading, studying, testing, or learning hinders comprehension, cognition,  and the formation of both short-term and long-term memories.  Likewise, talking/chatter are bad for learning. Now, let’s be clear, the cognitive science says that on-task talking can actually be a great thing: both peer discussions (such as Think-Pair-Share) and peer teaching. But, when it comes to off-task talking… that’s never a good thing.
    In short: unless there is a reason for productive discussion, silence has been shown to be the best condition for learning.
  • Time limits are good. “If you give yourself a month to get something done, it will take a month. If you give yourself a week, it will take a week.” (Sandra Bond Chapman, Ph.D.)  Unfortunately, there is a big push to give kids “as much time as they need” and not hold them accountable for time limits, especially when it comes to testing. The thinking behind this is that it induces anxiety; the reality is that, in the real world, everything has a time limit, so it’s something students need to get used to.

2. Homework

As I outlined in a previous blog post, homework is valuable. How valuable? Well, homework could end up earning a student an extra $1 million over the course his/her lifetime. Bottom line: without (some) homework, our students simply wouldn’t have had the success that they did. I wish I had access to the individual CAASPP scores… once I am able to access those, I will be able to crunch the numbers and accurately show you that there is nearly a 100% correlation between test scores and the amount of effort / work (such as homework) each student did.

I do believe — as the research shows — that there is such a thing as too much homework. However, the fact of the matter is that, at some point, this has to happen: independent practice of skills that are in the process of being learned. It’s one of the prerequisites for moving information from short-term memory into long-term memory (ie. true learning; see the cognitive science studies above.)

Every year that I have been teaching 6th grade, I have been slowly whittling away and whittling away at the homework — cutting it back more and more so that we can get by with just the bare minimum of the practice that is required. But, make no mistake, some practice is required, and our regular 7-hour school day simply doesn’t give enough time for that practice to occur in class, in addition to the instruction and lessons that are already happening. Hence, the necessity for homework.

Last year, we narrowed it down to just nightly math homework (30-40 min) and attempts to get students to read books (20-30 minutes per night); of these two, the math homework was a lot easier to manage and ensure, so it may prove to be the more valuable of the two.  Social studies and science work was reserved for classroom time, and the only reason it would ever become “homework” was if students were not working on it or managing their time well enough to complete the work in class.

Having said all of this, we have to keep in mind that not all homework is created equal. There is a real difference between the following: assessment of knowledge (probably best saved for in class); busywork (useless); and true homework (ie. independent practice.)  We must also recognize that homework is not what it used to be.  So, when I say homework, if “worksheet” is what immediately comes to mind… then you are living in the past, and don’t yet understand what homework can — and should — look like. (this is not to say that worksheets are always necessarily a bad thing… but they can be. See Technology section below for more details…)

3. Data-Driven Teaching

What is “Data-Driven Teaching”? Any reference to “data-driven decision-making” basically means that you take the time to collect and analyze data in order to help guide the choices you make. Teaching is no different, and most teachers have been doing some form of “data-driven teaching” for a long time now… every time you do a “quick check” for understanding — whether it’s a thumbs-up, a show of hands, a whiteboard, or walking around the room checking answers on a paper — that’s data-driven decision-making (as long as you actually use the feedback/data to guide your next course of action!)

And using such formative data to guide teaching decisions is absolutely critical. As the cognitive science studies have shown (see above), you can’t just “Teach, Test, and Move On.” This has been a standard model for many years, both because we feel a time crunch to fit in all of the standards and topics, but also because it is easy to simply “pass the buck” when learning doesn’t happen, and say “Well, I did my part, I taught the lesson.”

If learning didn’t occur, it’s true that this may be the fault of the learner — perhaps they didn’t pay attention, or put in zero effort. Or perhaps they simply need more practice. Or they need things explained a different way. This is where data comes in — it can tell us exactly how effective our teaching has been, and it can do so immediately, while we still have time to modify or reteach the material…

The flexibility and ability to adjust instruction “on the fly” can be greatly improved through the use of modern technology tools…

4. Sensible, Purposeful Technology Integration

So, here comes the crux of my list. So… why did I save it until 4th place? Because technology is not a solution, in and of itself. Technology is a tool. In the same way that you cannot just hand somebody a hammer and say “now you’re a carpenter!”, you cannot hand a teacher (or students) a computer device and say “now learning will happen!”

Having said that, modern technology tools can facilitate and improve the efficiency of just about every single thing I have listed above. It’s just that the technology tools have to be used (a) sensibly, and (b) purposefully. What do I mean by this?

  • Sensible: you don’t use technology just because it is there. Or just because it is new / novelty. And you don’t use it for everything because, like most tools, it’s not the best tool for every job. (See my previous post: 100% paperless != 100% digital) Examples: even though I am mostly paperless, and even though our math curriculum is 100% digital, I have students write down their homework on plain lined notebook paper. Why? Because (a) students do not have active digitizer stylus tablets at home, and (b) 6th grade math mostly requires “working out” problems to solve them — bye bye mental math, hello work. It would be irresponsible for me to allow them to “guess and check” on the digital homework, or to try to find solutions without writing down work for things like: order of operations; solving one-step equations; factor trees; surface area; etc.Similarly, there are tasks that are simply better if you can do them hands-on. Science experiments, for one (virtual labs are great; real labs are better); we have students mummify chickens. No virtual lab or textbook is going to be as cool or meaningful as that!
  • Purposeful: There has to be planning and a purpose behind how and why you are integrating technology. It can’t just be haphazard. It can’t be lazy. It can’t be something you force the technology to do just because you have it. And it can’t be the digital equivalent of busywork.

So, in which purposeful ways do we use technology? Basically, to address all of the above cognitive and pedagogical needs!  Here are some of the many ways that we have implemented technology tools, not as a gimmick or on a whim, but very purposefully to meet goals that were more difficult without the tech:

  1. Homework / Independent Practice and Repetition:
    1. Using technology tools allows students to get immediate checking/feedback/grading, useful for…
      1. Metacognition / reflection about what they are doing (and why it may not be resulting in success.)
      2. Immediate correction of those behaviors, instead of repetition of incorrect work that will only reinforce erroneous methods.
    2. Built-in supports to give instruction, reminders, or hints: whereas “old-school” homework without assistance just leads to frustration or giving up, technology supports can sometimes work as well as (or possibly even better than) having a human helper (parent or tutor) to provide assistance. Examples:
      1. Videos students can watch in Khan Academy to learn (or remind, or reteach) a skill.
      2. Audio narration for e-books/e-texts to help struggling readers.
    3. Mixed Review / Spiral Review — Students need repetition of skills over time; “teach, test, and move on” doesn’t work well.  Fortunately, we have Mixed Review components built into our Digits math curriculum, but even without a curriculum like this, you can use tools like Khan Academy to assign practice and review of subjects you have covered previously in the year.
  2. Data Collection and Analysis. Because the computer can instantly check/correct/grade many types of work, this can have a powerful effect:
    1. Less class time spent on checking/reviewing homework = more time learning. With our pencil-and-paper math curriculum, we would spent up to 20 minutes per day checking and reviewing the homework. Those 20 minutes per day can now be spent on teaching new skills, reteaching areas of confusion, extra practice, or fun and exciting enrichment activities
    2. Instant item analysis allows for immediate reteaching opportunities! For example, whenever we finish a topic in our Pearson Digits math curriculum, I assign the test as a practice test first (the technology makes this easily feasible — I can give the same test multiple times, because the numbers and details of the problems are randomly generated, and thus vary each time, and from student to student.)  By doing this, it (a) gives the students a chance to see what they know without it being a high-stakes scenario; (b) lowers test anxiety when we do the “real test”; and (c) provides formative feedback for the teacher so I can see, at the click of a button, which skills I need to reteach and have them practice before the real test!
    3. No more “taking home papers”, or worrying about losing them, or where to store them, or how to keep a record while making sure students and parents also get the paper back! Using digital work tools like Google Classroom, the cumbersome days of paper are gone. You can access the work from anywhere, on any device (as long as you have an internet connection); you can provide feedback right on the work, and return that work to the student — while still having a copy for yourself for future reference, and never have to worry about using a copying machine or filing cabinet!
  3. Behavior Management, Brain Breaks, and Exercise: These 3 things have been clumped together, because they are somewhat related; when students don’t get enough chances to give their brains a rest and/or to move their bodies, it affects both cognitive ability and behaviors.  Likewise, teachers have long used tools to track behaviors, report them to parents, have reward systems, etc. Technology tools make both of the above more efficient:
    1. GoNoodle provides an assortment of free “whole group” brain break and exercise (often dance routine) videos to get the students relaxing, or get them moving.
    2. ClassDojo is a free behavior management app that allows you to log positive behaviors and “needs work” behaviors as soon as they happen, as simple as touching a button on your phone (or computer.) Parents can get reports about student behaviors, and can also use the app to communicate with the teacher via messages. (There are also other behavior management tech tools, such as ClassCraft, which attempts to gamify the behavior-management experience)
  4. Increased Interaction and Engagement:  Lessons can be made simply more interesting — and knowledge more accessible — through multimedia tools like:
    1. Educational videos, animations, and songs (Discovery Education, YouTube, BrainPop, Flocabulary, etc.)
    2. Educational Games — too many to list! But some favorites for math in my class are SumDog and Prodigy; they also enjoy practicing vocab words using Quizlet
    3. Virtual science labs and field trips (not as good as the real thing… but the next best thing!)
    4. “Just right” practice that levels, individualizes, and sometimes gives student choice in the equation, such as reading practice using kid-friendly news articles at Newsela
  5. Authentic 21st Century STEM & PBL Tasks: students are entering a globally-competitive world in which problem-solving and product creation are more valuable tools than ever. Technology makes even the following cutting-edge skills accessible to even the youngest of learners!
    1. Computer-Aided Design (3d modeling) and 3D printing
    2. Coding, programming, robotics, and electronics
    3. The “Maker Movement” of creating homegrown inventions and solutions when you have a problem!
    4. For more resources and information about the above, you can visit my Maker Tools for Schools website.

5. Test Preparation

I would be remiss if I did not admit that one activity which almost certainly guarantees higher test success is test preparation. What do I mean by this? Although we teach to the standards throughout the year, and this should be enough for success on the CCSS test, it is important that students get exposed to the actual format and layout, interaction, and expectations of the CAASPP test (or whichever test you are using.)

It would be a real shame if students actually knew how to answer the questions or solve the tasks being demanded by the test, yet failed due to a lack of understanding of what was being asked, or how they should enter the information.  We discovered this was actually happening, when we observed students while they were taking the CAASPP the first year it was administered.


  • Knowing that there are often MULTIPLE checkboxes for correct answers (not a single multiple-choice answer, as students may expect), and that the test sometimes explicitly tells you how many to mark.
  • What level of depth/detail do “short response” written answers require?
  • What is expected during a “performance task”? What does a sufficient response look like? (especially for writing tasks)

So, periodically throughout the year — and especially right before the official testing window — I have students practice the above skills using tools like the CAASPP Interim assessments (these are formative assessments that can be used without “counting” for an actual score) and the CAASPP Practice Test.  Last year we were unable to actually see scoring for Interim assessments, so it was hard to use data from those; meanwhile, the Practice test does not record or grade student responses at all. However, we did these activities as “guided practice”, wherein students would answer each question (projected on the front screen in the classroom), and then I would tell them the correct answers and they would grade their own work (using a “digital/virtual whiteboard” approach; I simply made one cell per question on the test, and each student would fill their cell with green if they got it correct, yellow if partially correct, and red if incorrect. They enjoyed this task a lot more than I expected!)

Does this mean we are “teaching to the test”? Yes and no… we are teaching what the test is, what it looks like, what is expected, user interface and input, and other ways to be prepared for it, but it is not the be-all, end-all of all of our lessons and activities. It is a little extra thing we do in addition to (not instead of) our regular classroom lessons and activities…

6. Reasonable Class Sizes

It has to be said: CLASS SIZE MATTERS. In this past year that we attained the highest CAASPP (CCSS/SBAC) scores to date for our district, there were 20 students per class.

Teachers don’t really have much of a say over their class sizes, so I don’t want this final item to make readers feel like the other ones above are invalidated, or that they can’t reach success if they don’t have reasonable class sizes. After all, studies have shown teacher quality/effectiveness to be the number one determinant of student success — it can (somewhat) overcome demographic challenges and “at-risk” factors, and it can (somewhat) overcome large class sizes. However, all else being equal, smaller classes have been shown to be beneficial. (So, for those who do have the ability to control this — administrators, districts, and states — it is important to consider, and to devote the resources to give those highly-effective teachers the best conditions in which to excel…)

I have taught classes from Kindergarten to high school, with sizes ranging anywhere from 15 students to 35 students. In some ways, the impact of size depends on a variety of factors, such as the age/grade of the students, their demographic or home life, etc. I would argue that the following groups of students really benefit from smaller classes:

  • primary grades (especially K-1);
  • middle school grades (6-8; for some reason, nobody seems to think these grade levels need class size caps like the primary grades do, and then everybody seems to shrug their shoulders and wonder why problems such as behavior issues — and, thus, distractions that impact learning — arise);
  • English language learners (they simply need a lot more one-on-one guidance, reteaching, verbal support, and more in-depth feedback for tasks like writing.)

In other ways, there are universal benefits to all students from smaller classes… perhaps some of these benefits contributed to the relative success seen in the test scores above?

  1. More time for personal interactions and assistance during class. It’s very simple: some percentage of students will need extra help and assistance grasping concepts or understanding a lesson. Even if that percentage stays consistent (let’s say 25% are gifted and need no assistance most of the time; 50% are average and need help here and there; and 25% need extra support), the actual number of students in each of those three categories increases. Meanwhile, the minutes allotted in an instructional period or day do not. The result? Students either have to have their personal assistance time cut short, or some students end up not getting helped at all (or, in a worst-case scenario, both things occur.)
  2. Better, more valuable feedback on assignments. This is a no-brainer: I have limited time to be able to grade and provide feedback on assignments. As it is, my school district gives us one hour of prep time during the week, during which I can grade assignments (or plan lessons, or both.) As any teacher knows, this is insufficient; even if I were to grade a single writing assignment, this means for a class of 20 students, I would only have 3 minutes to read, mark, and respond to each student’s written work.  Impossible when we’re talking about 6th-grade level writing (multi-paragraph essays.)
    So, like most teachers, I work extra hours outside of my contracted time. Having said this, there is still a limit on what can be done. If I take 10 minutes per paper to read, make corrections, and provide constructive feedback for each student, then this means a single assignment takes 200 minutes for a class of 20 kids. When that class size is raised to 26, grading that assignment requires an extra hour of time.  Something’s gotta give…
  3. Fewer distractions / behavioral issues in class.  Cognitive science (see above) shows us that feeling safe, feeling comfortable, and working in a low-noise environment all promote learning. However, these basic needs are impeded when even the best of behavior managers find it more challenging to run a classroom when proven management techniques are made more difficult:
    1. proximity (an simple but effective management technique) becomes more difficult when a larger class means farther to walk to reach students, and more students who are left unattended when you do;
    2. even small sounds and noises get amplified much more quickly when there are more people in the room;
    3. sometimes students need to be separated from each other, or moved to a different seating location to be successful. The more students there are in the room, the less likely you will be able to find a successful, trouble-free location for all of them.

#Paperless Classroom Success is not a Fluke!

It has been two years since the state of California has been releasing data from the standardized end-of year CCSS assessment, CAASPP (California’s version of the SBAC test: the California Assessment of Student Performance & Progress)

Last year, I posted the data from the first publicized CAASPP results, and they showed very promising results for our (almost completely) paperless 6th grade team!

However, I have to admit that I was anxious to see this following year’s results, partly because there were some questions raised about whether the first year’s results could have been merely due to having an especially-proficient group of students (it is true that, coincidentally, our 2014-2015 cohort of students had a lower number of English Learners and higher number of GATE students than average for our school.) Since we had no standardized data of performance from previous years, there was no way of knowing (for certain) whether the success levels we saw were due to our pedagogy (and skillful technology integration), or due merely to the confounding variable of simply getting “a good class.”

Well, the newest test scores have been reported, and the results are pretty astounding: our “low performing”, “high EL” group of students had even higher percentages of students who “met or exceeded standard” than the previous year’s “strong” students!

Even though I was awaiting the test scores because I just knew we would be more successful than people had imagined, I was still fairly blown away when I saw just how successful we were:

2016 ELA Highlighted2016 Math HighlightedNot only did our tech-based grade level have the highest levels of proficiency in the district, but we can also conclusively say that the results were not because it was a group of innately-superior group of kids. In fact, this cohort of students made huge gains in proficiency compared to the previous year:

ELA (English Language Arts) Success

In 5th grade, 39% met or exceeded standard; in paperless 6th grade, that number jumped to 63% of students. That’s nearly a 60% year-over-year increase in the number of proficient students!






math Success

In 5th grade, 31% of these students met or exceeded standard. After joining our all-digital 6th grade math curriculum, 55% of students met or exceeded standard! (That is a WHOPPING 77% INCREASE in the number of proficient students!)

5thGradeMath 6thGradeMath






The Keys to Success

Considering the circumstances and the data, it seems we are doing something right! And that’s a great feeling, because sometimes it’s hard to tell, and it’s easy to feel lost or unsuccessful at times…

So, if it’s not the demographic that is the cause of success — and, with about 80% free-and-reduced lunches, 80% EL students, and an even higher percentage of Hispanic students… it’s certainly not a privileged group of students; this is actually an “at-risk” demographic we are talking about — what, then, is leading to these fairly successful numbers?

I have a few sound theories, but it’s going to take a whole other post to delve into what, exactly, makes our technology-integrated classrooms so successful (and the technology itself is only one piece of that puzzle.)

In an upcoming post, I will outline 6 key things our 6th grade team is doing to try to ensure academic success year after year.

“But what about access?” – 5 Ways to Defeat the Digital Divide

“Today high speed broadband is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.”
– President Obama, January 14, 2015

A lot of people have read this blog, or my posts elsewhere, or attended my conference presentations (at CUE or EdTechTeam conferences) and, inevitably, this question comes up:

“Well, paperless sounds great and all… and these are wonderful digital resources, but… how can we do this if the kids don’t have access to computer devices or the internet?” 

It’s a completely important question and, around here, an extremely relevant one. The fact of the matter is that there is still, even with how ubiquitous technology has become, a “digital divide” and, unfortunately, it poses challenges for education (but I don’t believe they are insurmountable!)

What is “The digital Divide?”

dig·it·al di·vide
noun: digital divide; plural noun: digital divides
  1. the gulf between those who have ready access to computers and the Internet, and those who do not.
    a worrying “digital divide” based on race, gender, educational attainment, and income

In short, the “Digital Divide” is a term to describe the fact that, even though computer and internet usage/adoption has grown significantly over the past several years, it has not grown equitably among all social groups, and there still exists a big difference between the percentage of affluent, White, and/or Asian users in the United States, and the percentage of Black, Hispanic, Native American, and/or low-income members of society (White House Council of Economic Advisors). The digital divide can be seen along racial lines, along socioeconomic lines, and along geographical boundaries (for example, students in rural locations report lower levels of accessibility than those in urban locations.)

The Digital Divide is a real problem for many reasons. It has been cited as a major factor not only for education, but ultimately for economic equality, social mobility, democracy, and economic (business) growth. (Internet World Stats)  In short, being at a disadvantage when it comes to access to — and knowledge/interest in using — technology simply puts you at a disadvantage in life. Having, knowing, and using computers is no longer an optional luxury, it is absolutely imperative to survival.

Considering all of the research and data I have cited in previous posts on this blog (including the last one about the advantages of digital practice/homework), the following facts can pose a real obstacle to seeing the benefits of technology-enhanced education (and many schools are experiencing this):

  • Whereas ~87% of Asian and 77% of White households have internet access, those numbers drop to 67%, 61%, and 58% for Hispanic, Black, and Native American households. (White House Council of Economic Advisors)
  • Level of education for the head of household is an even more stark contrast: college-educated households (bachelor’s or higher) have 90% access, which tapers off significantly as the level of attained education decreases; where the head of household did not graduate from high school, less than 44% have access. (White House Council of Economic Advisors)
  • Likewise, income plays a factor: only 62% of households making less than $56k per year have access, compared to 86% of those making >$85k/year. (White House Council of Economic Advisors)
  • In a Pew survey of teachers, teachers of low income students tended to report more obstacles to using educational technology effectively than their peers in more affluent schools. (
  • Among teachers in the highest income areas, 70% said their school gave them good support for incorporating technology into their teaching. Among teachers in the lowest income areas, that number was just 50%. (
  • Fifty-six percent of teachers in low income schools say that their students’ inadequate access to technology is a “major challenge” for using technology as a teaching aid. (
  • Rural communities are also at a disadvantage. While high-speed (25mbps) internet bandwidth is accessible to 88% of people in urban environments, only 41% of those in rural environments have access. (White House Broadband Report)

5 Ways to Defeat the Digital Divide

While this problem is a real one, the solution is not to simply give up, nor to provide a sub-par education lacking technology and lacking 21st-century skills simply due to these constraints! To do so will only ensure that the digital divide — and the wealth/success gap — will continue.

I can tell you that it IS possible to overcome these obstacles because the student population I work with is about 80% Hispanic, 80% socioeconomically disadvantaged, and located in a rural/agricultural community!  Yet, slowly but surely, we are making 1:1 (and sometimes even paperless) edtech work! (Note: My school is in a Basic Aid / Excess Funding district, so is not as budget-crunched as some… but, as you will see, many solutions are cost-effective.)

  1. E-Rate. The government (FCC) created this program starting in the 1990s to make it easier and more affordable for schools to improve their infrastructure so that they can provide sufficient computer and internet access for students. If internet access or school network are the bottleneck, these discounts need to be used to ensure a sufficient infrastructure. Projects to upgrade local networks and high-speed broadband access are discounted at 20-90 percent off, or even better for disadvantaged schools.
  2. 1:1 devices provided by school budgets… or grant funding. Multiple studies have shown that sharing devices, such as at “workstations” or in a computer lab, is not nearly as beneficial and effective as having 1:1 computing (one device — tablet or computer, not smartphone — per student.)  A lot of schools and districts cite budget constraints for being unable to do so. Some might try to push for a “BYOD” (Bring Your Own Device”) model, which inherently has many problems (one of which is outlined above: disadvantaged students may not have a device at all!)  If schools avoid trying to buy the more expensive devices (such as Macbooks or iPads), it is possible to obtain more devices and increase the rate of becoming truly 1:1.  For example, low-cost, easy-to-manage Chromebook laptops can be obtained for less than $170 each. If you are really looking to save money (or prefer tablet usage), inexpensive Amazon Kindle Fire tablets cost <$50.  If even these relatively paltry prices are somehow too much for the school to swing, there are funding possibilities via grants, such as, or the $500 Gasser Grant  (this would buy 10 Kindle Fire tablets!)   NOTE: I would advocate that, if these devices are to be used in the classroom, they should remain at school instead of being sent home with the students. This prevents loss and damage.  However, a possibility for increasing home access could be to sell or give away the old models when it is time to upgrade and replace them with new ones. (Our school sold phased-out Chromebooks and iPads to students and families for about $20 each!)
  3. Computer lab access.  If providing 1:1 devices is not possible — especially for home/after-school use — why not make a computer lab available? A computer lab is something most schools have had — often for decades now. As long as it is located somewhere easy to monitor/manage (such as a media center), teachers or other supervisors could supervise the room and devices that can be made open even after school hours to enable online practice, research, and homework.  We do this at our school, providing a “Power Hour” of homework time (in the computer lab) that teachers take turns supervising (this is done via Boys & Girls Club and, although the teachers get paid for that hour of work, it costs less than our normal hourly rate of pay, and is funded through Boys & Girls Club instead of the school district budget.)
  4. Public libraries. Public libraries, too, generally have computers available for public use. The hours may be limited — and there may be a time limit — but anybody who has the transportation to get to the nearest library can generally have free computer/internet access.
  5. Discounted low-income broadband Internet services. Many families are hesitant to get Internet service at home because it is perceived as expensive and not a priority. Except for some truly remote locations where broadband simply isn’t available, this can be fixed! Parents and families need to be taught the educational and economic values of having an Internet connection, and there are various heavily-discounted broadband services that are available for low-income families!
    1. Click here to learn about Lifeline, the FCC subsidy for phone and internet access for low-income households
    2. Click here for another list of low-income broadband services that cost less than $10 per month (including AT&T, Cox, and other providers)

Based on my experiences, technology is so valuable for education that, personally, I would actually buy devices with money out of my own pocket (since they can be used for multiple years, a class set of Chromebooks comes out to a cost of about $1000 per year — less than the cost of a field trip! A class set of Kindle Fire tablets would cost about $250 per year… a one-night stay at most of the hotels in nearby San Francisco will cost you about this much!), sooner than allow students to go without any access at all.  That’s how crucial I have seen the role of educational technology to be.


The Million-Dollar Question: “Is Homework Worth It?”

“is homework worth it?”

That’s the million-dollar question (quite literally, as I will outline below)… but to answer it, we first have to define “worth what?” What does one have to “pay” or give up in order to do homework?

Well, lately I’ve seen a lot of buzz about parents, schools, even teachers simply “calling it quits” on homework. Why? Here are some of the given reasons (aside from the more egregiously ridiculous ones), along with responses outlining how these stated challenges do not necessarily need to be problems:

  • “Kids don’t get enough time for play, and they need up to 10 hours of sleep per night.”  School is about 7 hours long. Even if a student gets 60 minutes of homework, this leaves 16 hours of the day remaining. If you advocate for 10 hours of sleep for a growing student, this still leaves them a whole 6 hours for meals, exercise, relaxation, hobbies, and fun. That’s a lot of time! (and, on weekends, it becomes 34 hours of free time, even if the kids are assigned homework on Friday and sleep for 10 hours each night)
  • “Homework is frustrating/stressful for students and/or parents.”  This can sometimes be true, so we have to address the source of frustrations, and then homework will no longer be stressful for students nor their families. Homework is generally meant to serve one of a couple of purposes:
    • (a) Independent practice. Cognitive science studies show us that repetition (ie. practice) transfer short-term/working memory into long-term memory, ie. true learning. The stressor (and real problem) here is that successful independent practice isn’t possible if a student doesn’t know the material well enough and doesn’t have support/guidance to help or check along the process. In this scenario, a student will, at best, complete all work — but do most of it wrong, thus reinforcing erroneous skills or behaviors (this is the opposite of what we want homework to do!) At worst, they will simply give up and not finish the homework at all.
      The solution, for a long time, has been to ensure that the student has a mentor/helper — such as a parent, older sibling, tutor, etc. But this is where the “stress/frustration” comes in for them, too. They not only have to give up their own time to help with the process, but also may not even be capable or comfortable enough with the material to provide sufficient assistance. All of these used to be very valid concerns… but they can be alleviated (or removed altogether) if we use 21st century tools! (see below)
    • (b) Sufficient time to work on larger projects (products such as research reports, models, etc. could take more time than is necessarily available during the school day.) The main cause of stress here usually has to do with time management or constraints — ie. getting the work done in time. If the teacher sufficiently “chunks” the work into smaller checkpoints or benchmarks that are due within shorter timespans, this can be alleviated.
  • “There’s no telling if the student is the one responsible for the work turned in. It could have been copied from a friend, done by a parent/sibling, or had their hand held through the whole process.”  This is (or, at least, has been) true, and it has been one of my major gripes about homework (especially paper-based, worksheet-style), for a long time. However, this is an “old school” way of thinking about homework, assuming it is all “pencil and paper” work. With modern technology, some of these problems can be alleviated (however, keep in mind: you can never really monitor who is completing the work. It is for that reason that I firmly believe homework should be used solely as independent practice — not as a summative assessment tool — and that it should, accordingly, make up a small portion of a student’s grade.)

the value of homework:
$1 million
($422 per hour!)

Despite the complaints and frustrations that some people feel, the overwhelming body of research-based evidence shows that homework is beneficial!

Why would teachers go through all of the effort to assign, grade, and otherwise deal with homework (especially given all of the challenges above), if there weren’t research-based proof that it was good for students?  Here are some of the facts:

  • “It turns out that parents are right to nag: To succeed in school, kids should do their homework.

    Duke University researchers have reviewed more than 60 research studies on homework between 1987 and 2003 and concluded that homework does have a positive effect on student achievement

    ‘With only rare exception, the relationship between the amount of homework students do and their achievement outcomes was found to be positive and statistically significant,’ the researchers report in a paper that appears in the spring 2006 edition of ‘Review of Educational Research.'” (Duke University)

  • Homework helps your child do better in school when the assignments are meaningful, are completed successfully and are returned to her with constructive comments from the teacher. An assignment should have a specific purpose, come with clear instructions, be fairly well matched to a child’s abilities and help to develop a child’s knowledge and skills.In the early grades, homework can help children to develop the good study habits and positive attitudes described earlier. From third through sixth grades, small amounts of homework, gradually increased each year, may support improved school achievement. In seventh grade and beyond, students who complete more homework score better on standardized tests and earn better grades, on the average, than do students who do less homework. The difference in test scores and grades between students who do more homework and those who do less increases as students move up through the grades.” (US Dept. of Education)
  • The National PTA recommendations fall in line with general guidelines suggested by researcher Harris Cooper: 10-20 minutes per night in the first grade, and an additional 10 minutes per grade level thereafter (e.g., 20 minutes for second grade, 120 minutes for twelfth). High school students may sometimes do more, depending on what classes they take (see Review of Educational Research, 2006).” (
  • College graduates earn $1 million dollars more over their lifetime than high school graduates. This gap is widened even further if you consider that STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) majors earn $3.4 million more than the lowest-paying majors. (Georgetown University, reported via Marketwatch)

What does this mean?  It means, in short, that doing homework is worth it, because doing homework increases the chances for better grades and higher test scores, which in turn increases the chances for college admissions, which increases your lifetime income by an average of $1 million.

Since my main subject of focus this year is math, I will use some math to show you exactly how much it is worth, using this formula:

$1,000,000 /
[180 days of homework per year — assuming homework every school night!)
* (the recommended homework minutes per grade level: 10 in K up to 120 in 12th)
/ 60 minutes per hour ]
= earnings per hour of homework

1,000,000/[180*(10+10+20+30+40+50+60+70+80+90+100+110+120)/60] =
$421.94 per hour

That’s how much homework is worth. Still think it’s “not worth it” to spend maybe 20 minutes, maybe an hour, maybe even 2 hours (in high school), doing some reading, writing, and arithmetic each night for a few years?

How going digital can help

Maybe not all, but many of the “problems” people have attributed to homework can simply be attributed to using the inefficient, outdated homework methods of the past!

Pencil-and-paper worksheets to practice and show what you know have many, many drawbacks:

  1. Students get no feedback about whether they are doing things correctly or not! Thus they could be practicing a skill incorrectly over and over again. Cognitive and behavioral psychology tells us that this will only reinforce the wrong way of doing things!
  2. There is very little (often zero) built-in guidance/scaffolding/support to provide help if you do need it. So, if you do need assistance, it all comes down to: (a) how well the textbook explains things (if you have access to one); (b) notes you have taken in class or have been given to you; (c) support/help you can get from someone like a parent or tutor.
  3. Students can simply copy the answers from each other. Most of the time, the same worksheet is given to each student. Because of this, students can simply copy the answers if they want to…

But this is a centuries-old way of doing homework that doesn’t take advantage of modern tools and technology! There are many, many educational technology tools that will provide the following benefits:

  1. Instantaneous feedback to students. Students will instantly know if they are doing things correctly or not, and can immediately correct their practice instead of reinforcing bad habits.
  2. Built-in support / help tools. Many programs include built-in supports to provide instruction or guidance (via tutorials, videos, etc.) when students need help. Thus, there is no longer the need for an additional person to provide tutoring and assistance…
  3. Students work independently. In many programs, such as our digital math curriculum (Pearson Digits), the problems given to students are dynamically generated. In other words, they change from student to student — the concept/skill may be the same, for example, but the numbers or details change. This provides an opportunity to practice the same problem again if they get it wrong, as well as preventing the ability to copy answers from another student.
  4. Studies show that the above factors do provide benefits over traditional pencil-and-paper work! “…given the large effect size, it may be worth the cost and effort to give Web-based homework when students have access to the needed equipment, such as in schools that have implemented one-to-one computing programs.” (studies like this one can be found at

There are many digital tools that allow for the above, and many of them are free. Some of the ones I use are: Newsela, Quizlet,, Khan Academy, Prodigy, SumDog, iXL, and there are many more…

Some people might say “That’s all well and good, but what if my students don’t have access to technology and internet to make the digital tools possible?” The answer is: in many cases, access can be made possible! Schools can provide inexpensive devices (and there are grant/donation systems such as Gasser Grants and DonorsChoose that can help pay for these), internet service, or even just an open computer lab after school, or a homework help club/session that provides the 1:1 technology. Public libraries offer computer access, and broadband providers currently offer discounted internet service for low income families, which range in cost from $0-$15 per month. (I will write more details about accessibility and closing the digital divide in my next post!)

When I give your child homework, I am literally giving them the opportunity to obtain a million dollars!

As you can see, there are ways to give independent practice/homework and have it be a successful, low-stress experience. Considering the very real long-term and financial benefits, why would any parent, teacher, or administrator in their right mind want to do away with that?

[NOTE: When I refer to “homework” herein, what I am actually referring to is “independent practice” — it’s not work that has to be done at home, but it generally requires additional time on top of the regular instructional schedule. This work time could be at home, could be in an after-school homework club or tutoring session, or could be minutes that schools decide to add onto the end of the existing school day.]



PokéMath – The Adventure Begins! … and PokéMath Duels!

MrGAshThe first day of school was Thursday, and we officially started PokéMath on Friday (for which I dressed all day in the costume shown here: Ash Ketchum!)

I have decorated the room with Pokémon decals, and have printed the PokéMath sticker awards for every student (see my previous PokéMath introduction and setup post to learn more about getting started and set up), and I have created a Pokémon-themed class website.  The students were introduced to how the PokéMath “game” will work in class, and it succeeded in generating a lot of excitement! About 40% of the students said they play Pokémon Go, so they were obviously excited… but several others also seemed interested in the idea of collecting monsters as they master math skills!

Some students asked “Can we work on these Khan Academy skills and try to catch them at home or on the weekends?” (YES!)

One student said “I didn’t think I was going to like math this year, but this changes everything!” (YES!)

Another student was so into it, he started brainstorming ways to improve it and make it more fun (and improve his chances to “Catch ’em all”): “Could you make it so the one for Band can also be caught if you spend, like, a lot of points?” (apparently, he is not in band, but still wants to have a chance to get them all. I don’t want to exclude anybody from that opportunity, so I’m changing it, due to his suggestion! Band participation or 500 ClassDojo points…)

He also asked “Is there a way we could challenge our friends?” (to a duel, like in the actual game)
“No, not right now…” I replied. “I know that would be fun, but I haven’t thought of a good way to do it yet. For now, it will just be collecting them, but if we come up with a good way to play with them, that could be fun…”
“Maybe students could, like, answer questions, and then get bonuses based on the type of Pokémon” (hey, that’s not a bad idea, I thought)
“Yeah, we’ll keep brainstorming, and if I can figure out a way to make it work, we’ll do it.”

Well, based on that kid’s insightful proposals, I may have figured out a good system for “battles” to take the interactivity, gamification (and motivation) to the next level!

Introducing… PokéMath Duels!

This is something I plan to try at some point… maybe once a week (on Fridays, for example), or just one question/duel each day.  Students will be able to actually use the monsters in their pokédex to win “battles” or challenges vs their table partners!

These duels will be a simplified version of how the game actually works:

  1. Each student in the pair will (secretly) choose a monster in his/her pokédex to use for the duel. They will write the monster name on their whiteboard.
  2. A question/problem will be shown on the projector for students to answer. Each student will write their answer on the whiteboard within a certain time limit (depending on the problem.)
  3.  If the student gets the answer right, their chosen pokémon scores a hit! The hit will have a strength that is modified by: (a) rarity (power) of the pokémon, and (b) the opponent’s pokémon type (each type has strengths and weaknesses against other types.)
  4. If both pokémon score a hit (both students get correct answer), the one with the stronger hit wins the duel!  The winning student is rewarded with ClassDojo points (in my class, I have a “Superstar” behavior that is worth 3 points.)

Updated resources including the Duel Instructions and Modifier Table as well as desk labels for Gyms/Teams will be found in the PokéMath Google Drive folder!

Class Bank – Google Sheets Add-On to Bank, Spend, or Raffle with ClassDojo!

ClassDojo Class Bank


I have been a big fan of behavior-management app ClassDojo for several years now… basically, ever since its inception. I started by using it in my computer classes with students in grades K-6, and it allowed me to easily send behavior reports to their homeroom teachers.

Often, those teachers would have a system of rewards based on performance. I, too, have used ClassDojo for this purpose in my class (and this year I plan to use it as a currency system integrated with my PokéMath classroom game!) Unfortunately, the app lacks built-in tools to help facilitate any sort of rewards or currency system in the classroom. Some teachers like to use the points as currency that can be spent, in a classroom store or auction. Some teachers like to use points as “raffle tickets” to win prizes.  Doing any of the above has been a fairly difficult process to manage… until now!

I programmed Class Bank & Raffle to help streamline and facilitate the process of doing any or all of the above in your classroom!  It still takes a few steps, but is much simpler than manually managing the processes… so let’s get started!

class bank setup / import

  1. To set up Class Bank, create any blank Google Spreadsheet that you would like to use. You can name this file anything you want, and store it in any folder.
  2. Next, install the Class Bank & Raffle add-on. This can be done under Add-Ons–>Get add-ons…
  3. Upon install, your Add-Ons menu will now have a Class Bank sub-menu. This is where you will go to: Update or Reset your students’ points in the bank; Spend student points; or do a Raffle drawing.
  4. To get set up — and every time you want to update the balances in the bank to reflect current totals in ClassDojo — you will need to download a ClassDojo Report csv file and make sure it goes into Google Drive (as a Google Sheet).  Here’s how to do this:

a) Log into ClassDojo and open your class. Click on the “View Reports” button:
ClassDojo ViewReports

b) Click on “View Spreadsheet” to download the CSV file:
ClassDojo View Spreadsheet

c) Upload the CSV file into a location of your choice in Google Drive. You may want to make a special folder for these. You may also want to either delete them after each use, or rename them to make it easier to find the correct one you are looking for. Note: The file doesn’t automatically get uploaded as a Google Sheet unless you first go into the Settings (gear icon) of Google Drive and make sure the “Convert Uploads” checkbox is checked.

Once you have a ClassDojo file ready to use as a Sheet in Google Drive, Class Bank will work! First, you just need to Import Points  (from the Add-Ons–>Class Bank menu.)  The first time you do this, be sure to select the “Reset” option, which imports all points and resets all “Spent Points” back to zero! Note: The Import Points feature defaults to “Add to existing points” because, if you prefer Total Points, it is easy to re-do the import with the correct setting… but if you chose Total and you really wanted to Add to existing points, you can not later recover your old point balance! (You could always use the Google Sheet’s File/Changes history to recover an older version, though)


spend points

Class Bank will automatically keep track of how many points your students have spent and keep a running balance for easy reference.  If a student tries to spend points, you don’t need to worry about manually checking whether they have enough to spend in their balance — Class Bank will check to see if they have enough points and, if there are insufficient funds in the Balance, it will not deduct the points and it will let you know which students had insufficient funds!

To spend points, simply enter a specified point value in the box, and check the boxes of all students who will be spending that many points.. This amount of points will be deducted from all selected students (as long as they have enough!)



The raffle drawing can be run at any time and does not alter the points in any way — it simply chooses “winners” based on how many points they have! Each point a student has is one entry/ticket in the raffle.

First, you must specify whether you want to use Total Points or the points in the Balance (this works well if you want to use both currency and raffles in your classroom.)   You can also set how many drawings to do in a row, and whether to limit to one prize per student — using this feature means students with more points will still have a better chance of winning a “top prize” or first pick, but will not be selected more than once.


privacy / coppa / FERPA compliance

Class Bank is a Google Sheets add-on that does not collect nor share any of the information contained within your files with any third parties. The only people who can see or access your spreadsheets (including data downloaded from ClassDojo) are those who have permissions set for the file/folder in your Google Drive.  Be sure to follow your school’s policies/guidelines regarding ClassDojo and Google Drive & Google Apps for Education, and the best practice is to keep the Class Bank file and ClassDojo reports in a folder that is visible only to yourself.

bug reports & suggestions

If you have any suggestions or need to report any bugs, please contact me at: