The importance of evolving in education

This week my parents introduced me to a new show on Netflix called Ugly Delicious, which stars five-star chef David Chang as he travels the world and introduces the audience to various culture’s foods while simultaneously exploring how those foods can help to connect and bring people together. I’ve only watched two episodes, but from what I’ve seen it’s fantastic.  One of the episodes in particular, “BBQ”, contained a quote from a Tennessee pitmaster that really resonated with me, especially in regards to teaching:

“If you want to be one of the best, then you need to be evolving and understand that you don’t know everything.”

What an incredibly insightful piece of advice that could actually be applied to basically any endeavor. As far as education goes, however, it’s critical that teachers are constantly evolving and honing their craft through trial and error because our students are so dynamic from year to year.  We cannot become complacent and continue to teach in the ways that we always have because that’s what works best for us.  Remember, it’s not about us; it’s about those twenty-something kids sitting in front of you each and every day.

The end of the year is an excellent time for reflection. While we have a breather, it’s important to think about our classes this year and revisit some of our pedagogical decisions. Like many of my colleagues, I am constantly scouring social media for inventive ways to engage students and present new material.  In the spirit of reflection, below are four new strategies that I used this year in the classroom on a semi-regular basis that I thought were the greatest additions to my repertoire:

  1. EdPuzzle

If your students have easy access to computers, or better yet your classroom is 1:1 with technology, then you’ve got to try using EdPuzzle to introduce new information to students. In a nutshell, you can take any video on youtube, load it into Edpuzzle and imbed questions throughout it so that as students are not just watching the video, but they are interacting with it as well. Edpuzzle already has tons of videos that teachers have created on any number of subjects that are currently available for use.  If you have your classes loaded up in Google Classroom, you can push these videos out as assignments and add them in as quick participation grades. The icing on the cake: all of this is free! I primarily used EdPuzzle this year before we began learning new concepts; essentially, I “flipped” my classroom, which really enhanced our discussions during the mini-lessons when we would cover these topics in greater detail because my students were able to bring some background knowledge to the discourse.

2. Co-constructive writing

Co-constructive writing is when the entire class creates a piece of writing together, with the students offering up ideas and the teacher serving simultaneously as both facilitator and typer.  My classes co-constructed argument essays after reading an informational text, and we also rewrote the ending of the Tell-Tale Heart from the perspective of one of the officers. I kept myself out of the writing process completely, and merely typed, revised and retyped what my students were saying, per their direction.  The kids really benefited from hearing their classmates’ thinking during the writing process, and they took full ownership over the task as they told me what to keep and what to get rid of from the writing.  As my students got more comfortable with this method of writing, I allowed them to co-construct pieces of writing in smaller groups.

3. One-minute book talks

While this strategy is incredibly simple, it’s highly effective. Students have one-minute to talk with a partner about a topic.  There are only three rules: 1) students must talk for at least 10 seconds, 2) students cannot talk over a minute, and 3) the partner cannot speak at all during this time.  I generally used this task at the end of our independent reading chunks as a way to help my students internalize what they had just read from their choice reading books, but it could easily be used with any content area. Obviously, it’s always good to give our students opportunities to talk in class, especially on-task talking (especially, especially when they are 7th graders).  But what I really love about this strategy is that it teaches students how to be good listeners, which is a skill that practically everyone needs to work on from time to time.

4. Vocabulary taboo

Vocabulary taboo might have been my favorite 15 minutes of class each week.  I usually used it on a Thursday as a review game since my students typically took vocabulary quizzes on Fridays.  Basically, you take notecards and write the vocabulary words on them in the middle in large print, preferably with a sharpie. Then, using a pencil, write two to three synonyms to that word on the same side of the card.  Explain to the kids that  their goal is to get their classmates to say the word on the card without using ANY of the words on the card.  If they did say one of those words, then their team loses a point. The goal is to get your team to say as many of the words as possible in a minute (I apologize for the redundancy to anyone who has played the game Taboo before).  As the year progressed, I would just keep adding the new word cards to this same stack until we had an impressive collection of words that we could review at any time. Taboo forces students to think outside the box with a sense of urgency.  Not only is this an amazing way to review and refresh academic vocabulary with students, it’s hilarious to observe.

I’ll be using these aforementioned strategies next year as well, but as the BBQ pitmaster from Tennessee indicated, I must continue to evolve, so I’ll have to find some new ways in which to engage my students with content.

What about everyone else? What were some innovative methods that you incorporated into your lessons this year for the first time?


Use Edpuzzle to enhance student engagement

I use Youtube a lot in my classroom, especially when I’m introducing new concepts.  It’s a great way to differentiate how I present content to students.  I’m a realist. I understand that a Youtube video at times is more interesting to my students than the sound of my voice.  Especially when we are examining some of the less exciting 7th grade state standards: sentence types, coordinate adjectives and misplaced and dangling modifiers.  A lecture on any of those aforementioned topics is not going garner the attention of my students for an incredibly long period of time.

Shmoop makes A LOT of highly-engaging educational videos.  Shmoop’s content is witty, fast-paced and full of attractive graphics.  I’ve used a number of Shmoop videos over the years to pique my students interest into a mini lesson focused on grammar, which is probably your average 7th grader’s least favorite segment of English Language Arts.

However, I’ve noticed this year that while my students appear to be watching the videos that I show them in class, I’m not sure that they are learning from them. Our students today go to the internet for the majority of their entertainment needs. They use Youtube to watch television shows, movies, sports highlights and recorded video game sessions.  While learning from a Youtube video may seem like a novel idea to a Generation Xer like myself, I’m starting to wonder if these videos are starting become white noise to some of my students.  If that is the case, that’s a problem.

Fortunately, there is a solution. Enter Edpuzzle, a free educational technology company that allows teachers to customize videos and tailor them towards their students.  I feel it’s important at this point to mention that I currently work in a district that is one-to-one with technology, meaning that every student that I teach is issued a laptop computer from the district that they can use for the school year.  If I worked in a district where computers were harder to come by, then Edpuzzle may not be practical.  However, if it’s not difficult for you to get computers into the hands of your students, then you must give this website a try the next time you want to show a video that introduces content in your class.

Edpuzzle allows teachers to create assignments for their students using videos from sites like Youtube.  Once a teacher decides upon a video that they want to use in class, they can upload it to Edpuzzle, and then embed multiple choice questions, short response questions or a combination of both inside the video.  These questions make the instructional videos highly interactive for students.  My kids have to pay attention to the content because they are being asked questions as they watch, and they know that I will be grading their responses (actually, Edpuzzle grades them for you if they are multiple choice).

Not only does using Edpuzzle put more of the responsibility of learning on the students, but it also serves to enhance retention.  Rather than just consuming a video, students using Edpuzzle must process the information.  If I watch a 4 to 5 minute video covering a new concept, I’m most likely not going to remember much more than a few details.  However, if I’m forced to respond to questions throughout, some of which require me to type out my thoughts, I’m definitely going to recall more of what was shown to me.  Anecdotally speaking, I’ve seen a uptick in classroom participation after my students have viewed an Edpuzzle video.  Last week, I had kids in each of my classes that never raise their hands telling their classmates the differences between independent and dependent clauses.  Had I simply just shown that same video to my students on the overhead, I’m positive that those students would not have participated in those discussions.

This week I’m using some of my mini lessons to cover coordinate adjectives. I know, I know, thrilling stuff. However, we are just two weeks away from the end of the year assessments, and I like to save the last few weeks before them to cover some of the more mundane standards, so that I can use the rest of the school year to read books, talk about books and write about books.

Anyhow, here’s the video I’ll be using.  Feel free to check it out. I did not create the video; I simply pulled it into Edpuzzle and put some questions into it.  I’m hopeful that it will serve as a helpful introduction into this topic for my students on Monday.