Category Archives: philosophy

Putting an Educational Spin on Fidget Spinners

"fidget spinner"

If you haven’t seen one of these lately, you are:

  1. Not a parent
  2. Not a teacher
  3. Probably living under a rock, and even from there you can probably hear the whirring siren’s song of these Weapons of Mass Distraction

The above device is called a “fidget spinner” — a bit of a misnomer, if you ask me, because these toys are marketed as tools for reducing anxiety and improving attention — ie. as helpful devices to combat challenges imposed by ADHD, autism, and more, due to the fact that there is some research showing that fidgeting (and sensory stimuli) can be beneficial for some people. (In fact, I myself fidget, and had to learn productive ways to do so, starting in middle school when my teachers would say “Can you stop tapping the pen on the table?” Since then, my go-to is silently bouncing my knee/leg under the table. It gets the blood flowing — in fact, I do it more when I am either thinking hard or under a little bit of duress — and I think it helps! I have actually taught this method to my students as an effective “non-disruptive” form of fidgeting!)

But the reality is… there is no proof that “fidget spinners” actually meet the above need. They are a toy. “Some experts do believe that so-called ‘fidgets’ — silent, unimposing toys like squeezey balls or textured items like puddy — can provide some children with an outlet for brain stimulation to counteract hyperactivity in the classroom. But, says Anderson, ‘the distinction between those interventions and [fidget spinners] is that those interventions allow the child to move, but this particular intervention isn’t necessarily letting the child get their wiggles out, but rather play with a toy.'”

So, long story short: fidget spinners aren’t eliminating distractions and increasing focus on learning — they are doing the opposite.  When my students say to me “You know what tricks I can do with a spinner?” my response is “My trick beats all of those… I can make it disappear!”

A Positive Spin…

Middle School Fads of 2016-2017However, I know a good craze when I see one (and nowhere are trends more pervasive and addictive than they are during the adolescent / middle-school years!  This year started with Pokémon, progressed to “bottle-flipping,” transmogrified into DIY “slime” being brought into the classroom, and has now spun out of control in a new direction…), and I know that it’s wiser to redirect excitement than to quell it entirely!

As such, I came up with a plan (above and beyond simply confiscating spinners in my classroom — which I also do): I was already going to make my end-of-year classes fun, PBL-style projects involving learning CAD modeling and 3D printing; why not inform the kids that one of the things they would be able to print would be a “fidget spinner”??

Now, that got their attention!  Of course, there were a few caveats (the key is to make something that you really want them to do anyway seem like it’s a special privilege or reward — which, of course, is what gaining knowledge really is, but it’s not always viewed that way by students…):

  • In order to participate in our 3D modeling/printing activity, they would have to have all of their math homework done for the end of the year.
  • They would have to provide some of their own parts/money (in particular, the key component of spinners — ball bearings, such as those used in skateboards and in-line skates — can add up in price. Especially if you have 75+ students like I do.)

Especially fitting was when one of my many “spun” students asked “Can we really design and print our own spinners?” and I replied “Yes… but you’ll probably need to provide your own bearings… not sure I can afford them for everybody, or purchase them in time.”  His response? “That’s okay… they’re cheap. Only $5.”
“For how many?” I asked.
His response: “Does it matter?”

Uh oh. Time for a math review!  (Unit price is a 6th grade CCSS standard!)

Ways to give Spinners an Educational Spin!

Spinner Design in TinkerCAD

Here are some creative ideas I came up with to bring spinners into the classroom and incorporate the excitement, rather than crush it:

  • Perform an experiment to see how long spinners stay spinning on a single flick. (Science and math, including hypothesis, scientific method, dependent and independent variables, mean and median.)
  • Create your own DIY spinners: CAD modeling/3D printing, or even out of other materials (For ours, we will be creating CAD designs with TinkerCAD, and then 3D printing the models — you can learn more about 3D printers on my Maker Tools For Schools website)
  • Spinner science:
    • What makes the spinner spin?
    • Does it matter if all of the sides or “spokes” are balanced?
    • Why are they weighted?
    • What happens if you move the weights further out from the center?
    • Does the type of bearing in the middle matter?
    • What about the bearings on the outer edges?
  • Spinner math:
    • How much will materials cost to make one?
    • How can we find the best deal on parts? (Example: I will be having students compare unit price of different offerings for bearings on
    • Performance Task: Determine the “best” components to purchase to create a fidget spinner (hint: this is not a single, simple answer! It involves unit price, as well as evaluating and weighing user reviews, as well as recognition that the purpose of center bearings and outside bearings are not the same…)

Happy spinning!


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!

PokéMath – Gotta Solve ‘Em All!

Ash and Pikachu celebrate 20 years together...Introducing… PokéMath! “Gotta solve ’em all!”

I decided I wanted to do something thematic in my classroom this year, and was originally considering a Minecraft theme, because I know that there are a lot of Minecraft-fanatics in my incoming class of students… (and it lends itself well to things we study: geology, various math concepts including area and volume, etc)

HOWEVER, with this sudden Pokémon Go tidal wave, I changed my mind. I just know that many students are going to show up to school Pokémon-obsessed, so why not ride the wave of enthusiasm instead of fighting it?? [To be honest, I had thought of doing PokéMath for several years now, but there had never been such a fervent Pokémon interest in recent years, until now]

How does PokéMath work?

In essence, PokéMath is just a thematic rebranding of a sticker/badge rewards system. In this case, students are awarded badges (pokémon) for each specific skill they master in Khan Academy! The pokémon are based on the wildly popular new Pokémon Go game (151 slated pokémon at this date, though not all are readily available), and the goal — of course — is to “catch ’em all!”

Students “catch” a pokémon by reaching mastery level of a specific skill in Khan Academy, as listed in the table below. At the end of each week (ie. usually on Friday), I will collect the student math folders (a plastic pocket folder with metal tabs for holding notebook paper.) After school (Friday evening or over the weekend), I will check the Student Progress and/or Skills Progress section of the Khan Academy coach dashboard to see which skills have been mastered. For any skills that have been mastered, I will locate the corresponding monster sticker on that student’s sheet, and will affix it to their folder!

In this way, students can maintain a “pokédex” of their collection as trophies to be proud of, to show off to their friends, and to remind them (every time they take it out for homework) that they probably still have many more to catch!

Materials & resources


As the teacher, I have set up my PokéMath table of creatures based on the following procedure:

  1. Set up a class in Khan Academy for your grade level (mine is 6th grade, so I assigned “6th Grade Mission”)
  2. In the Khan Academy Coach Report, go to “Skill Progress” to see the required strands/skills. Copy & paste the name of each individual skill within the strands. For each skill, right-click (CTRL-click on Mac) on the “Open skill in a new tab” link and and choose to copy the address (URL).I then pasted one skill per pokémon, based on the following algorithm:
    1. I put related concepts together in a pokémon “family”
    2. The more evolved the pokémon, the more challenging/advanced the concept I assigned (the last level is often “word problems”)
    3. I generally structured it in chronological order synced to our actual math curriculum (Pearson Digits — it is a different order/sequence than Khan Academy, but I use Khan in addition to it)… the more “rare” the pokémon, the later in the year we will learn the concept.


Students will obtain pokémon by mastering the requisite skill. The dashboard for Coaches in Khan Academy shows the level of mastery for each subject. There are various levels:

  • Struggling
  • Needs Practice
  • Practiced
  • Level One
  • Level Two
  • Mastered

When students go directly to the chosen skill and “pass” the practice activities for the first time, it counts as “Practiced”… in order to master the skills, they must then be passed in the Khan Academy mastery challenges.

Evolution & Spending Points

Pokémon are arranged into “families” — ie. there is a “base” pokémon, as well as later “evolutions” or iterations based upon that original base. To obtain the evolutions, students must start by obtaining the base by mastering the required task. However, after obtaining the base pokémon, there are two routes to evolution:

  1. Master the required skill listed for that evolution
  2. or Spend a certain amount of points (listed in table) to achieve the evolution

In this way, students have an alternate route to obtain evolved pokémon if some of the more advanced math tasks prove too challenging.

Where do these points come from?

That is up to you. In my class, they will be ClassDojo points.  Every day, when students come to class, they will have multiple opportunities to earn points simply by paying attention, putting in effort, being well-behaved, and exhibiting Growth Mindset. If they do these things, they earn ClassDojo points, which can be spent (in lieu of mastering the math skill) to evolve a pokémon!

Notes on Evolution:

  • Evolutions cannot be skipped. To get to the third level (2nd evolution), you must evolve twice. (ie. master two skills or spend the points for the first evolution, plus the points for the second evolution. Or a combination of the above.)
  • When students obtain an evolution, they still get to keep the lower-level pokémon of the same family. They simply add the new one in addition to the others.


Not a lot is required to do this!

  1. Set up a table — like the one below — and assign within it the skills you want mastered for each pokémon.
  2. Determine how/when you will check mastery. I will be checking every Monday, and it will be student responsibility to let me know they have obtained one (or more) for the week, which they will do by lining up at my desk and waiting for me to confirm in the Khan Academy records. To help facilitate this, the full PokéMath Pokédex (the table below) will be distributed to all students in Google Classroom, with an additional column labeled “Caught?” Students can monitor their progress in Khan Academy and, as soon as they reach mastery for a skill, should place an “X” in the caught column.
  3. Hand the student a sticker of the pokémon! I will be custom-printing them (templates in Google Drive folder linked below) on 3/4″ round labels, which will then be stuck onto the student math folder as a badge of progress.

More fun stuff: thematic groupings

I decided I wanted to go all out with the Pokémon theme this year (just for fun — I’m even going to show up to school dressed as Ash Ketchum!), so I thought about ways I could incorporate that into the classroom (other than thematic decorations and features, such as Pokémon wall decals and miniature Pokémon figurines.)

I use friendly competition a lot in my classes (middle schoolers love it!); in addition to the individual aspects, students are assigned to small groups (ideally 4 students), both for competition purposes but also for group-based activities. In the past, these groups would often have very uninspired names (A, B, C, D, etc), but sometimes I would make it a little more interesting by bringing an education theme into it. For example, when we did our Ancient Greek unit, each team became a city-state, and we had “Olympic games” competitions during PE (sometimes actual games, like teaching them how to throw a discus; sometimes more silly stuff, like “chariot races” aka wheel-barrow race.)

This year, the small groups could be organized as Gyms! To keep it simple and easy to remember, I will just use the old-school Kanto gyms from the original Pokémon games: Pewter City, Cerulean City, Vermilion City, Celadon City, Fuchsia City, Saffron City, Cinnabar Island, and Viridian City (easy to do, they are basically just colors. You can click here to find the colors.)

Sometimes I need to separate the class into larger groups… for example, when we do Jeopardy-style quiz-show review games. In the past, I would simply split the class in half down the middle… but perhaps this year I should split them into three Teams: Valor, Mystic, and Instinct?  (the numbers this year mean I will have 6 Gyms per class, so it would amount to 2 gyms for each Team)

In the past, I would just tally points on the whiteboard (this year I was even considering buying some printable magnetic sheets to slap up on the magnetic whiteboard, showing the team colors or insignia), but with 3 different classes coming to me for math this year, that could be a challenge.

Instead, I will probably just log all group points in ClassDojo (they have had a Groups feature for about a year now)… only one set of groups can be created, but they can be named such that the larger Team is indicated, such as “Pewter (Valor)”

Note: This still poses challenges for one-on-one competitions. Those will either have to be round-robin turn-taking events, where one team spectates while the other two compete… or the Teams will have to be “broken” into two equal number of groups.

Retool Middle School – Replace Testing with PBL and Apprenticeship

Anybody who has taught middle grades (generally speaking, 6th through 8th grades…. ages 11 through 14) know that it’s, well… a different beat altogether.

There are so many interesting and wonderful things that happen during this time of development in the students’ lives. There are also many (many) challenges.

This time period of early adolescence and  the onset of puberty is marked by growing independence (and, with it, exploration of boundaries); a quest for both personal identity and social acceptance; and a lot of physical growth, emotions, and chaos that can accompany the sudden hormonal changes in the body.

It is a special — but not altogether easy — time.

After successfully surviving middle school (and swearing I never wanted to revisit that period of my life again), I have now spent the last 14 years of my life teaching this age of students (as well as high school, and all the way down to kindergarten — so I have a good scope of experiences for comparison!) It isn’t easy, but it does have its rewards:

  • Students are generally independent — you don’t have to explicitly hold their hands through mundane tasks like opening a book, tying their shoes, or operating a pair of scissors.
  • They want to be independent. With their bodies transitioning to adulthood, they are on a sudden quest to learn how to become adults as quickly as possible (this can be both a good and a bad thing!)
  • They appreciate jokes and sarcasm that would be completely lost on younger kids.
  • They (sometimes) have unbridled energy (again, this can be a good and a bad thing!)

All of the above makes early adolescence essentially a collective ball of chaotic energy. Like most types of energy, it can be dangerous if not harnessed correctly. Generally, the process of doing so looks something like this:

If all goes well, and you are an “expert cat herder” (not sure how you reach that echelon — after 14 years, I still feel like there’s always something to learn. Such is the nature of pure chaos, I suppose), then everybody survives to the end of the year relatively unscathed. Hopefully, the negativity and bullying have been kept to a minimum, the self-esteems have been kept mostly intact and (if you’re lucky) some semblance of learning occurred somewhere along the way.

Lost in the Middle

The problem is… “learning” is the least of a students’ concerns during middle school years. Hormones, self-awareness, a quest for acceptance, and insecurities all come bubbling to the forefront, and these things will turn even the most bookish of children into an educational train wreck in short order.

I know, because I was one of them. I was someone who, while fairly (okay, very) introverted, had managed to make friends and socialize okay in elementary school. I never really had any enemies. School was a pretty okay place (although I was a gifted student, and not always challenged enough… the teachers didn’t always know what to do with me.)

Then came middle school. I stopped reading books as much… I still liked to read, because reading had been instilled as a joyous activity from a very young age. But suddenly I didn’t want to pick up a book quite as often.

I did, however, care an awful lot about what brand of clothes I was wearing (Just to date myself and show my age: Guess jeans were out of the question — too expensive; so were Air Jordans and most of the cooler shoes. Eventually I was able to have my own Starter jacket, though), and what other people thought of me, and whether I was going to get bullied that day, and whether that girl I had a huge crush on knew it, because I wanted her to, but was too shy and too scared of rejection to actually do anything but freeze in fear (and, eventually, put worms in her hair at a bus stop as a weird, awkward way to get her attention. Note to young men everywhere: this is not a good way to express affection to the ladies.)

I also became obsessed with video games. I mean, obsessed, to the point where parents had to put time-limits on game time, and stories (all true) about “Nintendo thumb” were going around.

Now, don’t get me wrong — I have been a computer nerd practically since birth, and I’ve loved video games since I discovered the Atari 2600 at about the age of 4 or 5. As a first grader, I would spend some of my free time designing some of my own video games (sketching out levels and characters on paper) for fun. When I turned 8, I started learning BASIC programming on our DOS computer to start making games for real.

But something about adolescence turned video gaming from an interest into an obsession. To the point that I would go out of my way to check books out of the library and teach myself how to program the computer!

Meanwhile… my grades were slipping in school. I wasn’t doing the homework. I probably wasn’t doing half of the classwork (it’s all kind of a blur.)  I simply didn’t want to learn what they were teaching, nor via the way they were teaching it. And I had always been a good student!

The reason for telling this personal anecdote is not to give one example of a middle school student. It’s to illustrate that, even though I was gifted, and even though we are all unique… my aversion to the type of work that I was fine with in elementary school (and would be fine with again later on, in high school and college) does not seem to be unique.

There is a lot of documented data and evidence of “middle school malaise” or “middle school slump” that sets in during this time period.  Many students don’t complete as much homework, don’t care as much about classwork, aren’t as motivated to come to school, and — lo and behold — also score poorly on tests (such as the high-stakes standardized state tests.)

Rethinking Testing The Middle

The fact that I started struggling in (and hating) school once I got to middle school doesn’t mean I was lazy or didn’t want to learn!  I asked for chemistry sets, microscopes, dissection kits, and art supplies every Christmas. I didn’t want to “learn” — I wanted to DO, to EXPLORE, to CREATE!  I wanted to be an inventor, an artist, a Renaissance man… and school simply was holding me back from that!

When I’ve asked my students what their favorite activities and subjects at school have been, a few topics generally tip the scales: Art (always #1), Computers/Technology, PE/sports, and Science (but, when required to read a science textbook or think about science, to answer questions or take quizzes or do the “traditional schoolwork” stuff, it’s outright rebellion. “I just like the FUN science! Like exploding volcanoes and electricity and stuff!”)

Notice anything about the above list? None of them require a lot of “sitting still and thinking” work.  It’s not just about internalizing (such as reading a book)… it’s about hands-on… about kinetic activity and about creating things.

And yet…  what does school traditionally expect students to do? A lot of “sit still and think” work: Read a book. Write on a paper. This is not kinetic, it’s not creative.  It’s not good for middle school.

I run into these frustrations with my own students, year after year. Of course, I keep them at bay by supplementing our curriculum with more exciting and appropriate, 21st-century activities like PBL (project-based learning) and coding (programming) and CAD design / 3D printing, and, more recently “Breakout” games (another post coming about that soon!)

The problem is this: none of the above successfully meet the needs of passing state-mandated standardized tests. The above tasks are amazing, rigorous, real-world relevant tasks that meet the 4 C’s of 21st century education (communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity)… but on their own I have found them to be very insufficient for getting all of the “standards” knowledge needed to pass the CAASPP (California’s end-of-year SBAC test.)

So, I get frustrated that we have to do more mundane “traditional” learning tasks, which the kids hate (and, frankly, aren’t as fun for me to teach, either), and then I think back and realize: I, too, loved the same things these kids love when I was that age! The only things I remember learning from  middle school are: art, music (I was never much into music as a kid, but then loved playing with and getting to hands-on explore the electronic synthesizer in that class!), cooking/home-economics, and industrial arts/woodshop… plus memories of a few cool labs/experiments in science (an astrolabe comes to mind.) In other words, the only things I even remember from middle school were the hands-on activities!

This is not the norm for me. I did great with just plain reading and writing and arithmetic all the way up until 5th grade. I did great with them in high school and college — I read a lot, and even joined the Writer’s Club and Literary Magazine. But such activities were dead to me when I was in middle school!

So the sticky wicket preventing excitement and success in middle school seems to be this: Perhaps we should stop doing standardized testing during middle school.

There, I said it. There are a lot of people (mostly teachers, students, and parents) who would laud that statement because they are vehemently anti-standardized-testing, in general. Well, I’m not one of them. I actually think that, by and large, standardized tests are a pretty good thing.  Without standardized testing, every school (perhaps every teacher) can just make up its own criteria for what students “should know” — this leads to discrepancies in knowledge (a problem when heading into college and workplace) as well as grade inflation, unfair competitive advantages, and — worst of all — incompetence.

However, it seems to make very little sense that we avoid testing primary students (a time period during which it is critical to ensure students are getting a good foundation in key skills like reading) — and many grades of high school (CAASPP only tests 11th grade; why not 9th and 10th, when those are time periods when the hormones tend to settle down and students return to “normalcy” and ability to better process and handle academics?), while we insist on placing so much testing weight during one of the most chaotic, tumultuous, and, well, “unique” times of a person’s development.

A Modest Proposal

It seems like it would make a lot more sense to do standardized testing in grades one through five — a time span in which, in my experience, students are pretty content to be at school, and reading books, and doing the traditional “school work” and, therefore, a more apropos time to be testing those traditional skills.

Then… when a natural “hiatus” (onset of puberty/adolescence) occurs in students’ developmental growth, perhaps it makes sense to take a “hiatus” academically, as well, and shift the focus.

Adolescents are energy — pure, untapped, potential energy!  When I have strayed from the curriculum and done “grown up” skills with them — teaching them the actual, professional tools and techniques to make business documents and spreadsheets, create 3D CAD models, program computers, build robots, design airplane wings (air foils), conduct experiments, produce movies and animations and plays, and create works of art — they plug right in! The motivation and the results can be astounding!

Rather than fight the current of resentment and rebellion and quest for independence, why not go with the flow of what the kids already want to do: they want to feel they are productive and doing authentic, grown-up things!  

Let’s give them the opportunity to make that happen!

Instead of doing the traditional book (or ebook) and pencil-and-paper (or finger-to-keyboard) work, perhaps a shift should be to what I will call “New Vocational Education.”  The reason I call it this is because we want kids to learn future-ready, real-world relevant skills. Not just basket-weaving and fingerpainting. However, this could include a lot of different things, from modern construction techniques (including old-school woodworking), to mechanics, to more high-tech engineering: biotech, circuitry/electronics, industrial design (CAD, 3D printing, etc.), cooking, coding, and more.

Project-Based Learning is a fairly good fit for this, but is also fairly ambiguous. Often, the projects are not authentic — they don’t actually serve a purpose or solve a problem in the real world. Middle school students can see right through that, and often call it out for the “waste of time” that it is.

Perhaps a better idea is “Apprenticeship.”  What would be wrong with plugging middle school students into authentic work to be done in 21st century jobs?

(In fact, I also wouldn’t be opposed to having a hybrid system in which much of the learning is done “independently” such as an online-school model.  If you paired this with a group-based apprenticeship/PBL program, it could cut down on the bullying and social anxieties, while also boosting the motivation through hands-on activity!  But this whole “Let’s quarantine middle schoolers” idea might be best to explore in another post…)


Just a bunch of food for thought, but I’m pretty sure of this: something’s got to change.

Teacher Appreciation? Treat Teachers like Doctors

In the United States — as in many cultures around the world — doctors hold a highly esteemed position. It is a career that is not only well-paid, but also well-respected by society as a whole.

All of this is well-deserved!  Doctors are very important people: staying healthy and alive are… well… essential for survival. Obviously, it is very important to have people who are knowledgable and well-versed in examination, analysis, identification, and treatment of an ailment. Without them, we would not survive nearly as well.

You know what else is essential for survival? Education. This has been a fact for humans (and even other animals, who often learn survival skills from their parents) since the dawn of time. As we encountered problems, we had to learn the most effective ways to solve them — from banging rocks together to make them sharper, to discovering beneficial vs. dangerous plants, to eventually finding ways to share this information and pass it down via language and writing (because even early civilizations knew how important education is.)

And here’s some fun food for thought: without education, there would not be doctors!

So… why aren’t teachers regarded the same way by society as doctors are? Why are they frowned upon as a “second class” citizen — somewhere above fry-cook but below lawyers, doctors, engineers, businesspeople, and a slew of other jobs.  And that’s at best, when they aren’t being outright vilified as the root of (or, at least, an ineffectual cure for) our society’s problems.  As a teacher, I generally feel like I am “looked down upon” — looked down upon by my wealthier friends who make a higher salary than I do, because my income must make me a “less valuable person”; looked down upon by people who think I must be an “incompetent” person because “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”; and looked down upon even by people who “admire” (or pity) me… some family members have even referred to me as a “philanthropist.” (That sounds like a positive comment; it wasn’t.)

I was never regarded in these ways when my primary occupation was a software engineer. I was considered “intelligent” and “successful” — someone to be respected.  Yet I was the same person, doing a job that was no more important — nor any more difficult — than teaching.

I believe the problem lies partly in a false rhetoric that has been created: that education and learning are as simple as “just identify the problem and fix it.”  In other words, a resounding school of thought is that, basically, teachers are mechanics. If we’re professionals, we should just be able to figure out what “part” is missing from a child’s knowledge, and add it, right?  Simple as swapping a carburetor…

Only… people are not machines. They are human beings — perhaps the most complex “machines” in existence. And knowledge of fixing them doesn’t boil down to knowing the ins-and-outs of several different makes and models.  Essentially, every person is a different make/model.  Imagine how difficult it would be for a mechanic if every single car they worked on was different and unique!

Still want to blame teachers when education is broken and learning doesn’t happen? Then let’s consider some more facts…

Unlike fixing a car, “fixing” a person’s knowledge is also not a “one-way system.” For auto mechanics (and computer programmers, and a slew of other professions), all power for success is in the hands of one party: the mechanic/programmer/engineer/etc.  The mechanic does not order a muffler, hand it to the car, and say “fix yourself.”

But in education, that’s exactly what has to happen.  Learning requires two parties: the deliverer (teacher), and the recipient (student.) Both of these parties are responsible for fulfilling their roles to make learning happen. The teacher has to (a) manage a classroom, creating an environment and controlling behaviors of a group of people to an extent that learning can occur; (b) analyze and identify where gaps in knowledge exist; (c) prescribe a solution (instructions, lessons, activities, practice) that will fill that gap in knowledge.  The student, however, also has to (a) follow the “prescription” of tasks assigned by the teacher, and (b) nope, that’s about it.  But it does mean that the student has to do something — it’s not all up to the teacher.

In other words, if being a teacher were the same as being a mechanic… the car would have to do its part to help “fix itself.”  What if the mechanic successfully pinpoints a problem, orders the right part… but then Herbie the Love Bug refuses to use it?  This is what educators face every day, if they identify a gap in student knowledge, prescribe a task or activity that will solve that gap and cause learning to occur, and then students choose not to obey that instruction or put in an effort. [Teaching may be the only profession I can think of where you are a Manager of a group of workers, yet have no choice in who was hired, and have no way to fire them if they do no work.]

And yet… teachers are the ones held accountable, as if they are the sole party with the power to “make learning happen.”

But teachers are not mechanics. They are doctors. They are doctors of the mind. Teaching is — quite literally — a branch of psychology (the psychology of learning, and really more than that; it’s a combination of cognitive and behavioral sciences, with some sociology thrown in, because it’s about both behavioral and group management — like business psychology — as well as learning.)

Like doctors, teachers identify a problem, and then prescribe a remedy. So… what if a doctor correctly diagnoses an illness, and prescribes an appropriate remedy accordingly? Do we hold a doctor liable if her patients refuse to take the prescribed medication, and end up dying? Do we hold a doctor liable if he tells his patient to stop drinking alcohol, and the patient refuses and ends up with cirrhosis? No?

Then why are teachers held accountable for:

  • poor home life conditions or lack of good parenting;
  • students not getting enough sleep or eating nutritious food (both of which affect thinking ability and behaviors);
  • or students simply not even trying, and not doing the work that is “prescribed” for them to learn

Why, when test scores are low, is it automatically “the teacher’s fault”? Do doctors get blamed if their patients don’t take the medicine? Do they get offered “merit pay” if their patients do? Nope, because it is patently absurd.

Why aren’t teachers treated like doctors?

I’m not asking for teachers to get paid the same as doctors.  All I’m asking is for a little respect, some understanding of what education actually entails, and a recognition that teaching is a challenging — and very important — job.

Happy Earth Day – Time to go Paperless!

Happy Earth Day from the paperless classroom!

I recently started presenting some presentations about going #paperless at conferences, so figured I would share the information here:

Did you know…

  • American schools use nearly 100,000,000,000 pieces of paper per year!
  • If you stacked up all of the paper used by U.S. schools in one year, it would extend into outer space, 6000 miles past the International Space Station
  • Going 1-to-1 with technology devices actually saves money (!) versus using old-school, traditional materials.