Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Fairytale Mail

Fairytale Mail is a resource I developed as part of my language arts curriculum. In the primary grades I did an entire comprehensive unit on fairytales that infused readers' theatre (for oral language development), fractured fairytales (to teach storytelling and sequencing), and imaginative writing.

Sometimes it can be a challenge to motivate students to write. I have found that this activity provides enough scaffolding and support to enable even my students who struggled with writing to produce a strong final product. Also, following a staged writing process has been shown to be a successful method for supporting students through the writing process (Spandel, 2009). As such, this activity is structured into stages to help organize the students as they progress through their writing.

Description of Activity

Fairytale mail provides a fun, engaging way for students to learn how to craft formal correspondence. I would normally begin this lesson by reading my students the story The Jolly Postman to help familiarize them with letter writing and a variety of fairytale characters. Then the students will pick a character that they would like to be and craft a letter to another fairytale character.

Materials Needed
Decorative stationery
Lined paper

Read The Jolly Postman to the class. As a class, discuss letter writing and the reasons why people would send a letter.

Teacher Modelling
Model how to write a letter and highlight the areas that each letter needs to have (e.g. to whom it is addressed, the content, a sign off and a signature). This would also be the time to teach your preferred writing and editing procedures if you haven’t done so already.

Have students brainstorm the two characters they will use for this activity. I often have my students use a chart to organize their thoughts, so they can write down their two characters and a list of ideas that these characters would discuss. They are then able to pick one idea before moving on to the draft.

Allow the students time to write their draft on lined paper.

I always did a two staged editing process where the student self-edits first, and then either has a peer or myself edit a second time. The student then makes the appropriate corrections to their work to make it ready to “publish”.

Now the student can write their good copy on the Fairytale Mail handout. As part of the publishing processing, I also gave my students envelopes for them to address since learning how to address a letter so that a postman is able to deliver their correspondence is important. They would make up their own street names and addresses, and I always encouraged creativity.

For students who finish early I often would allow them to color their letter, create their own stamp for their mail or add embellishments to the envelopes that they feel would represent their character.

How this activity aligns with Common Core Standards:

Write informative/explanatory texts in which they name a topic, supply some facts about the topic, and provide some sense of closure.

Write routinely over …. shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.

Spandel, V. (2009). Creating writers through 6-trait writing assessment and instruction (5th ed.). New Jersey: Pearson.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Wunderlist: An App to Keep You Organized

Numerous apps exist for helping organize your busy life, but a standout among them is Wunderlist . Its ease of use and sharing capabilities make Wunderlist an invaluable resource for parents and young adults.

Wunderlist is a simple, powerful way to organize lists. Users can create separate lists and organize items within each list by due date. For example, a practical, daily to-do list might remind you to book a plane ticket for a friend's wedding tonight and to make a dentist appointment tomorrow when the office opens. But Wunderlist will also manage lists that aren't time sensitive, like the things you need from the grocery store and all the movies you've been wanting to watch. Users can access Wunderlist on tablets or phones via an app, or by logging onto the website. Changes to a list made from any device will sync automatically so you can rest assured that your lists are always up to date.

But the best reason to use Wunderlist is its collaboration capabilities. Users can invite others to create accounts, then make group lists and assign tasks to different members of the group. The app will send reminder emails, and the organizer of the group can easily see which delegated tasks have been completed. Parents of teenagers could assign tasks to their kids in advance (pick up milk on the way home, remember to talk to their math teacher after school, etc.) and program the app to send reminder emails. This would provide the nudge many kids need without parents having to nag.

Wunderlist is great for college students as well. It's easy to attach files to tasks, making the app an excellent tool for coordinating group projects. One innovative idea we came across involves creating a list of tasks for each day of the week. This is a great way for college students, who sometimes struggle to manage their time in a the structured environment found in higher education, to prevent procrastination.

Best of all, this highly recommended app is free! We hope you find it as useful as we do.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Quadrilateral Find Five: A Geometry Game

Quadrilateral Find Five
Quadrilateral Find Five is a game I developed for my geometry unit as part of my math curriculum. Identifying shapes and being able to connect the terminology with the visual representation are important skills that students must master. Furthermore, using games to teach math has long been a standard teaching strategy. Mathematical game play has been shown to support learners who struggle with motivation, promote positive attitudes toward math, and improve overall learning of mathematical concepts (Davies, 1995).

Description of Game

Quadrilateral Find Five provides a fun, engaging way for students to practice geometric naming and identification. Furthermore, providing students with opportunities to learn and hone their game play skills is also important to their overall development. Therefore, having students engage in a game-like activity will also reinforce the social learning of turn taking, sportsmanship, strategic play and peer collaboration.

In my own classroom, I have used Quadrilateral Find Five as an independent, stand-alone lesson, as an "early finisher" activity, and as one option in a math game day lesson. I found that my students really enjoyed this activity. As such, I wanted to have permanent game boards available to my students, as well as to be able to eliminate the time spent cutting out the game pieces from subsequent lessons. Therefore, after the first time I played this activity in a new class I would hand out one large zip top freezer bag, and two small sandwich size zip top bags to each pair. I would then ask each player to put their shape word pieces into one of the small bags and place the game board and the bag of shape word pieces in the large bag. This allowed me to easily store the activity for next time.

Materials Needed
  • One playing board per every two students
  • One set of word pieces for each student. These should be printed on different colored paper or in different ink colors to differentiate each player's word pieces 
  • Scissors 
  • Pair students with a partner and distribute materials. 
  • Have the students cut out their own word pieces and have each student place their word cards in their own pile directly in front of them. 
  • Explain the rules of the game and highlight the text at the top of the game board where the students can refer to the rules in case they forget. 
  • Each partner will take a turn pick up a word card from their own pile 
  • They will read their shape word, and locate a shape on the game board the corresponds with their word and place their game piece on it 
  • If a student inaccurately identifies a shape, they have to pick up their incorrectly placed word card and miss their turn 
  • The first student to find five consecutive shapes wins 
  • Allow the students’ time to play the game. If time is left, have the students find a new partner and play again. 
How this game aligns with Common Core Standards: 
  • CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.2.G.A.1 Recognize and draw shapes having specified attributes, such as a given number of angles or a given number of equal faces.1 Identify triangles, quadrilaterals, pentagons, hexagons, and cubes. 
  • CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.3.G.A.1 Understand that shapes in different categories (e.g., rhombuses, rectangles, and others) may share attributes (e.g., having four sides), and that the shared attributes can define a larger category (e.g., quadrilaterals). Recognize rhombuses, rectangles, and squares as examples of quadrilaterals, and draw examples of quadrilaterals that do not belong to any of these subcategories. 

Davies, B. (1995). "The role of games in mathematics" Square One. Vol.5. No. 2

Game Board
You will need one board for each set of two players

Download a copy here: http://www.filedropper.com/findfivemathgame

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Numbers Game: Standardized Testing and Student Ability

Unless you happen to be particularly interested in educational policy in the state of Texas, it's likely that you missed news of a legislative hearing that took place in Austin in June 2012. The Texas House Public Education Committee had met to interview experts about the relationship between learning and standardized testing. Although Texas had injected new rigor into its state-wide tests, student achievement wasn't improving and the committee wanted to know why.

Dr. Walter Stroup, a tenured professor at the University of Texas, was one of those experts. When his turn came, he spoke about what standardized tests do and what they don't do. His research, he said, indicated that tests don't measure what the test-taker has learned. They measure how good the test-taker is at taking tests.

This was a controversial statement (particularly to an organization that had invested tens of millions of dollars on the tests in question), and Stroup's testimony launched a complicated series of events. A recent, lengthy article in the Texas Observer provides detailed information about the fallout, which is ongoing. But regardless of how things continue to play out in Texas, Stroup's perspective on testing reflects, in many ways, our perspective on assessment at the Yellin Center.

Assessments are the cornerstone of our work, and assessments include numbers. But, as each of the students and families with whom we work has no doubt heard Dr. Yellin say, "We're not big numbers people." This perspective is evident in our reports. We don't put the tables of scores front and center; instead, they appear in the back of the report. This format is deliberate. We don't present scores first because our reports are written to capture our authentic, three-dimensional impressions of a student and her mind, and numbers often fail to tell the whole story.

In fact, sometimes numbers tell a story that can be misleading. This can happen for myriad reasons, but here is one example: If a student has an expressive language disability, she'll have difficulty expressing her ideas. She is unlikely to be able to communicate the complexity of her thoughts and cognitive processes using language. But if she is given a full-scale IQ measure, she'll have to use words and sentences to respond to much of the test content. Her overall score is likely to be low because even if she is able to think of the right answers, she may not be able to articulate them. Her oral and written output will not reflect the intricacy of her mind. Simply reporting a low IQ score obtained with such measures for this student without putting this score in the context of her expressive language difficulties would do her an injustice.

We see this kind of scenario frequently at the Yellin Center. Parents will bring us their student and explain that the standardized test scores they've seen just don't fit the child they know. And so, we set to work. It's true that many of the measures a student completes during an assessment at the Yellin Center are standardized. But our clinicians are equally, if not more, interested in the qualitative information that can be gleaned than in the scores the measure yields. We analyze errors to find patterns, and we ask questions that many assessors may not, so that we can figure out how students attained the right answers and which aspects of tasks gave them difficulty. This approach allows us to view scores as just one piece of the puzzle as we work to determine an accurate, actionable cognitive profile for each student.

As Dr. Stroup suggests, standardized tests serve a purpose, but they shouldn't be used as standalone measures. It's pretty nice when a renowned expert affirms something you've been saying all along.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Best Evidence Encyclopedia

The phrase "research-based" is thrown around a lot, these days, but what does it really mean? And how can one be sure that educational programs and policies are soundly based on reliable research? Those without easy access to professional journals will find the Best Evidence Encyclopedia  to be an excellent resource for answering all manner of education questions.

You may be familiar with other resources for evaluating educational programs and policies. Our blog has featured posts about the What Works Clearinghouse, operated by the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education and Usable Knowledge, a new initiative from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The BEE is designed to be an especially accessible resource of this kind.

The Best Evidence Encyclopedia, or BEE, is a free site created and maintained by the Johns Hopkins University School of Education's Center for Data-Driven Reform in Education (CDDRE). The goal of the site is to provide teachers, principals, policy makers, and researchers with balanced, authentic information that will help them choose curricula and tools that are most likely to work in K-12 classrooms. The BEE, which is organized by both academic discipline and grade level, is easy to navigate. Users can also search for a specific term, or browse the sections on early childhood education and comprehensive school reform.

In addition to being valid, the information shared by the BEE is refreshingly easy to understand. CDDRE staff members write summaries of the studies that meet the BEE's strict criteria, then send them to the studies' authors for approval before they are posted on the site. Not only can users read the summaries for free, but they may also access the full texts of each article.

A strong background in upper-level statistics is not needed to make sense of the BEE's conclusions. Their program rating scale is simple and straightforward; programs and curricula are rated based on the overall strength of the evidence supporting their effects on student achievement. For example, programs with sufficiently large treatment groups and significant effect sizes are described as having "strong evidence of effectiveness." Programs rated as having "limited evidence of effectiveness" are ones for which no convincing studies demonstrating their merit have been published. It should be noted that this doesn't mean the programs are poor, only that no substantial research has yet shown that they work.

Want to stay in the know? Sign up for the BEE's bi-weekly electronic newsletter. The Best Evidence in Brief offers a quick round-up for current news in education research. It's an excellent resource for those who want to look behind the headlines to learn practical information about what works in schools.

Educators and others who are interested in sound teaching practices couldn't ask for a sounder, or more useful, resource.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Reading Website Review: Tumblebook

About TumbleBook
TumbleBook is a suite of online, multi-functional reading applications designed for use in schools or in public libraries. Although this is a Canadian technology, all of the materials are adapted to U.S. educational standards and aligned with the Common Core. 

Grade Level: All
There are various Tumblebook collections, each designed for a different age group. They include:
  • TumbleBook Library: Elementary Grades
  • TumbleBook Cloud Junior: Grades three to six
  • TumbleBook Cloud: Middle School through High School 
  • AudioBook Cloud: All levels (including adult)
Content Areas: Reading (with additional math skill practice if desired)

Price: Varies depending on product and subscription level

Our Take:
The TumbleBook Library is a collection of over a thousand online, animated talking picture books designed for elementary aged students. In addition to the collection of books, the TumbleBook Library infuses games, videos and other activities to help increase student enjoyment in learning. Popular children’s books by authors such as Robert Munch and Melanie Watt are available.

TumbleBook Cloud and TumbleBook Cloud Junior are online collections of ebooks and chapter books, non-fiction books, graphic novels, educational videos, and audio books. Both versions offer full narration capabilities, and sentence-by-sentence highlighting so kids can follow along. Word highlighting is thought to improve student vocabulary and decoding abilities.

AudioBook Cloud is an online collection of over fourteen hundred audiobooks. The genres of audiobooks offered span from literature to science fiction to best sellers. Audiobooks are an alternate format for readers to engage in texts, and can be especially beneficial for students who struggle with reading decoding.

Advantages for Teachers or Librarians:

TumbleBook Library

  • Includes lesson plans, quizzes, educational games and puzzles related to both math and language skills for your students.
  • Has a common core portal that aligns content with common core standards
  • Has ESL and Special Education adaptations to help all types of learners engage with the content
  • Remote access is available so your students can have access to the resources at home, thus making TumbleBooks an alternative in your home reading program. 
  • Books are available in French and Spanish as well as English

TumbleBook Cloud and TumbleBook Cloud Junior
  • Includes lesson plans, quizzes, educational games and puzzles related to both math and language skills for your students.
  • Has a common core portal that aligns content with common core standards 
  • Includes features for ESL and Special Education students in order to help all types of learners engage with the content. For example: 
    • Text highlighting
    • Adjustable text size
    • Adjustable spacing and line size
    • Adjustable font
    • Ajustable background color
    • Optional narration
  • Both applications offer the ability for your students to attach notes while they are reading, thus improving their comprehension of the material.
  • Remote access is available so your students can have access to the resources at home. 
  • Students are able to bookmark their spot so they don’t lose their place.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Exciting Resources for Teaching Current Events

National News Engagement Day was October 7th, but just because we missed it this year doesn't mean it's too late to get young people thinking about current events. Devoting just one day to something as important as global news is silly, anyway; in our opinion, engagement with news should be ongoing. The New York Times has compiled a thoughtful list of fifty excellent ideas for teaching with current events. Many can be tweaked to suit students of different ages, and parents can use many of the ideas at home to help kids discuss and understand the news they see, hear, and read.

The list is divided into the following categories: Reading and Writing; Speaking and Listening; Games and Quizzes; Photographs, Illustrations, Videos, and Infographics; Design and Creativity; Making Connections; and Building Skills. Some ideas, like an assignment to write an editorial about a newsworthy issue, would be excellent to implement as a regular classroom routine. Others, like creating a news-inspired theatrical performance, would be fun one-time projects.

Of course, the ideas on this list can be used to support kids in exploring any news source, not only The New York Times. One of our favorite resources for non-fiction texts is NewsELA. The site allows teachers to adjust the readability of news articles to fit their students' reading levels; this means that students in the class can read differently leveled articles about the same topic and discuss it together, even if they have widely differing reading skills.

A recent Times experiment may also be of interest to educators. A new feature allows young people to pick the Times articles that interest them most and either tweet about them using the hashtag #NYTLNreads or post about them in the articles' comment sections. In a sentence or two, readers should explain why they think their peers would enjoy reading the article, too. Check out the page where, once a week, The Times features a compilation of articles selected by students in individual classrooms around the country.This feature is in its beta stage, but educators should investigate it and encourage their students to participate. Young people can also submit their choices independently.