Socratic Seminars

Last week we had a Culminating Activity for our Immigrants, Refugees, and Enrique’s Journey unit. We prepared by completing our unit ePortfolios, which included journey maps, metacognitive logs, symbolism essays, character analyses, etc.) and doing additional research via a Document-Based Question. Students had to answer and give evidence for questions like, “Should parents leave their children behind to emigrate to a new country?” and “Should children attempt the immigration journey unaccompanied by an adult?” We have been studying the issues and the novel since October. Although our study centered on Latin American/US immigration issues, we also looked at other diasporas. The students got to vote on whether to have a Fishbowl, Horseshoe, Harkness/Spider, or Pinwheel format. Harkness won the day with an overwhelming majority.

This was our first time using microphone amplification for Talking Sticks in a whole-class discussion. I was very pleased with how it seem to help the students take their contributions more seriously and, aside from the initial novelty and excitement, wait patiently for their turn to have one of the two mics. I hope to do this again. The only drawback was that when a couple of classes were split into two smaller groups (they had more than one discussion question), it was counter-productive to use amplification. My main goal was to use the mics with one particular class anyway, because that groups has a few students with voice and deaf-hard of hearing issues.

Kudos again to this inspiring group of 7th Graders who are so passionate about world issues and social change!

Are Audiobooks Authentic Reading?

As we prepare to launch into our first novel of the year in my classes, another area of research which was prompted by metacognition about my own reading:

Clearly, audiobooks can be as good as paper books in many situations with a few caveats, especially for kids who wouldn't read otherwise. I"ll gladly provide links if you wish.

The best situation of all for comprehension and retention seems to be simultaneous listening with visual reading, a la WhisperSync. If there is no paper copy, students should make frequent use of the rewind button as soon as they realize their mind has wandered. If using an eBook reader, they should make liberal use of the Highlight and Notes functions.

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Here are some infographics to ponder on the topic of audiobooks curated by Ebook Friendly:

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why audiobooks work.jpg
audiobooks raise scores.jpg

Flexible Learning Spaces - Hype or Hope?

If you know me, you know I’ve been interested in flexible learning spaces for quite some time, ever since I had the opportunity to recommend designs to my school for our learning lab remodel. (Here’s my Pinterest board about flexible learning spaces.) I never got to see that remodel (a mixture of my design and others) yet I didn’t lose interest in the idea of alternative seating, grouping, freedom from built-ins, etc. Now that I’ve returned to the content classroom for a little renewal of my experience in ELA and Social Studies, I have played with various ideas in my own room. We don’t have anything fancy, like a few of the redesigned spaces in my school, but I think I am happy with the balance I’ve found between traditional seating and opportunities for different learners to work in different ways. We have:

  • An alcove/small hallway which provides a quieter place to read audiobooks, watch assigned videos, or make a video response.

  • We have Kindles and mobile devices to check out, along with chargers and headphones, just like any other library book.

  • A reading center with about 100 YA used and new books I’ve gathered. (There were zero when I walked into the room the first time.) The center has a rug, many pillows, a forest theme, and a big window.

  • Yoga balls, lawn chairs, fidgets, jiggle boards, storage cubes, wooden step stools, foam pads, 1 bar stool, and 4 standing desks.

  • We have 26 traditional desks which regularly configure into different groupings and for different purposes, like Model U.N. simulations, Socratic Seminars, learning stations, and small-group presentations.

  • We have whiteboard paint now in the “back” of the room so we can use multiple spaces for writing, brainstorming, projecting, and collecting data.

My own personal research and experience has shown me that the flexible spaces have as much potential for solid learning as for distraction, but classroom management seems to be the key. Things can go from organized and productive to chaotic and distracted in a really short time. Teachers need to be visible, moving, conferencing, checking, and gently redirecting at all times. I admit this is very hard to do 100% of the time but we can be aware and try for that ideal.

Here’s a taste of some research by some folks in the United Kingdom, published on Edutopia as part of their series on flexible classrooms. This quote summarizes best for me what flexible seating successfully is all about:

"The big insight? Optimizing all of these physical characteristics of primary classrooms improved academic performance in reading, writing, and mathematics by 16 percent. The personalization of classrooms—including flexibility, which Barrett defined as “student choice within the space”—accounted for a full quarter of that improvement.

Another way to look at it: Classroom flexibility, isolated from other measured factors, appears to be roughly as important as air quality, light, or temperature in boosting academic outcomes."

Because of the research, I will continue to offer varied and mixed styles of tables, desks, chairs, and movement for my students.

Are Your Kids Addicted to Computer Games?

Consider: Take away the computer after school. Change the wifi password. Take away the power cord. Put the iPhone in a lockbox. Controlling variables outside the house is difficult but there are some alternatives in your own home. Perhaps it's hard to get things back under control; don't be afraid to enlist the help of a professional.

Here are two articles by Dr. Brent Conrad with more information: Children Addicted to Computer Games - Top Ten Tips for Parents and Child Video Game Addiction - Facts & Solutions.'

"Teachers need social-emotional support too." 

We have finally reached an era where we can speak openly about providing students who need it some extra social and emotional supports. In some ways teachers have always quietly tried to do so in their classrooms and beyond. But what about those teachers who give support. . .work hard. . .give more . . .work harder and give yet again over and over, year after year? How can schools and teachers address SES needs to stay relatively happy and continually growing as professionals?

Every teacher struggles with overwhelm sometimes. Every year we are asked to implement new strategies that may or may not be of our own choosing. Many of us in international teaching are already trying to adapt to new schools, cities, languages, grade levels, curricula, clubs, and teammates along with our normal responsibilities.

Every teacher thinks all summer about the new units and strategies we want to try, yet by October our motivation can wane from the marathon nature of our daily grind. And of course, challenges occur outside of work, too. In 24 years of this I’ve helped teacher friends live through cancers, deaths, divorces, mental illness, abuse, and more. I’m not implying people in other fields don’t have similar stressors; just that we have a particular situation. We must prop ourselves up 100 times a day to be there for our students, a scenario in which we are always the providers of Social-Emotional Supports instead of the recipients.

These ponderings were jump-started by a podcast episode, “Managing Overwhelming Expectations,” from Teachers’ Aid, with Jon Harper and Mandy Froehlich in the Flipped Learning 3.0 Magazine. The discussion was in the context of teachers adopting blended learning strategies. The hosts Jon, Mandy and their guest, The Zen Teacher, Dan Tricarico, make some excellent points in their discussion about how challenging it can be to help anyone innovate, learn, change, or step outside their comfort zones when they are already working past capacity. We see this in students but why don’t we honor it in educators?

This following section of the article really resonated with me because of some other reading I’ve been doing about brain research and observing my own habits and thoughts. Not surprisingly monitoring our work habits and our self-talk seems to be a big part of what giving ourselves SES could be all about:

I think one really important thing that I’ve learned, and it’s going to sound like crazy talk to teachers, is the idea of single-tasking. You know, we all like to think we’re super smart, and we’re multi-taskers, and we can do all these things at once, and sometimes we have to. But what I’ve learned is if you stop and just concentrate on one thing and get it done, you feel this great sense of accomplishment, and then you can move on to the next thing and get it done, and then you get to look back on all these things that you’ve done well.  You feel like you’ve accomplished things, and you don’t feel like you’re not getting it all done, and maybe you can work a little bit less.

The other part of that is something that’s called context switching. And when you’re working on a project or something, and you switch off to look at Facebook or Twitter or email or talk to the kids or pet the dog, science says that it takes many, many minutes — I think last I heard, it was about 20 minutes — to get back into the groove of the project you were working on originally. But if you had just kind of blocked off that time and tackled it and gotten it done, you would have accomplished that thing, and then you actually get more done.” (Tricarico).

Going further, the hosts discuss how to get ourselves to start single-tasking in spite of our 100% normal fear that the important things won’t get done that way. The talk touches on some of the most popular time- and task-management systems of the day, then turns to one of my favorite topics: bullet journaling! (I even run a Bullet Journal Club at my school, but I don’t pretend to be an expert in any way.) I grew very curious when I heard this next segment because I’m always trying to tweak my systems—to figure out what to track, what to leave out, which lists are useful, and which to throw out. Here’s Dan:

I’ve started working with a new system, and it sounds very much like what you’re talking about. I have something called a Bullet Journal, and you know, people can Google it, I won’t take up time explaining it. But I do just what you said. I call them MITs — Most Important Tasks. And I got that from somewhere, I don’t remember where, but I’ll write down my whole to-do list in the journal, but then I’ll write MITs, and I’ll pick three. And those are the big things; those are the big rocks I have to get done. Anything other than that is gravy. And then if I get to more of them, awesome. And then I migrate those to the next day, and then from that list, then other things will pop up, but then I pick the three MITs again. Sometimes it’s four; sometimes it’s five. And sometimes I don’t get to all of them. But, you know, if you pick those three most important tasks, that’s a good start I think (Tricarino).

He goes on to say how true 50/50 work-life balance is impossible; that we will be dividing our time and energies differently every day, every week, every year. Finally, Dan tells us how he makes peace within himself in this ninety-to-nothing, tech-frenzied world we live in:

Because even if things are crazy, if I know I’m making decisions that are based on where I wanna go and are in alignment with who I am, I feel better, because the guilt, resentment, and stress come from doing things that we just don’t want to do (emphasis added.) You know, we begrudge the committee we were on because we don’t have a passion for it or it’s not who we are. And that disconnect and discrepancy is where the stress rises.

Speaking of doing only those things we choose to do and those we carry a passion for, I wish I could agree with him 100%. However, so much of what teachers are required to do is definitely NOT our choice and passion, like high-stakes testing, constant meetings, clunky learning management systems, classroom discipline issues, and so on. Are all the initiatives that your job chooses the same ones you would choose for yourself? Is the curriculum or method your school demands always a good match with your beliefs about best practices? What’s the task-management system for that dissonance?

I am not being critical of Dan, Jon, or Mandy; they gave some great advice. I think their advice for getting unstuck and shedding teacher perfection guilt is spot on. However, I’m thinking of just how much deeper this runs.

Personally, I am lucky to be in a place where I mostly choose to be, within an organization that often coincide with my values and morals. It’s a pretty good match and I have some options should it stop being a good match. I am teaching internationally, which was a goal I waited 18 years to pursue. There were some really bad matches in my teaching career but as a single mom in a shrinking district, I had no choice but to make it work. My son is now grown and I am single, so I have more freedom than most to let that guilt burden go. (Now I have a new sort of pressure: can’t you stay longer, do more, sacrifice much—since you don’t have anyone at home? But that’s another blog post.)

In all seriousness, I feel deeply for the thousands of teachers who are not in a good place. My heart goes out to the thousands of public school teachers going through so much back in my home country — lack of respect, pay cuts, hurricanes, strikes, and school shootings. Their SES needs go so very, very far beyond the positive self talk, single-tasking and Getting Things Done systems.

Ultimately, the responsibility lies with each of us to set goals and build frameworks that bring us to our happy places. Yes. We cannot blame the world if we stay too long in situations that don’t nourish us. But if they are to stay in the profession and find fulfilment there, teachers DO need socio-emotional help and support. They do need to hear respect and affirmation. They do need all the Employee Assistance Programs, paid sick leave, friends, loved ones, safe daycare, and appropriate prescription medications they can get. They need to take the occasional mental health day without getting shamed or having to fake physical illnesses. And they need to be able to actually take that day of rest without using it for marking, lesson plans, and curriculum mapping.

  • Perhaps you might share your personal solutions for self-care, emotional balance, physical health, mental stamina, and professional agility.

  • Maybe you might share what supports, if any, your own schools offer?

  • How do you think educational organizations can best provide SES for their teachers?

    “Managing Overwhelming Expectations.” Teachers Aid from The Bam! Radion Network, 17 Sept. 2018,

Open House 2018-19

If you were unable to attend Open House, we are sorry we missed you.  Please feel free to take a look at the presentation, including a video message from our Director, Dr. Adams, and information about my English, Social Studies, Advisory and Access classes.


If You Use Standards- or Mastery-Based Grading, What If Students Don't Complete or Turn In Work?

While thinking and researching about how to best handle formative practices (homework and in-class assignments) which go undone or missing under SBG, I came across some articles which might also interest some of you.  Of course what role deadlines should play is also a part of our discussion at my school so I researched that as well.  What I've found so far will serve as food for thought during the summer for me.  

I am not campaigning for any particular approach; I am just trying to educate myself on how others solve this challenge.  I still hope to have ongoing discussions and hear your thoughts about all this.  Feel free to email me directly or comment if you wish.  We are all still learners!  As always, take what you like and leave the rest!

[Let's agree up-front that it's a given our formative practice/homework is ideally meaningful, engaging, and not overly burdensome.  The practice also should be directly related to helping students meet the standards upon which they will be assessed summatively.]

1.  The Weighted Average Approach?  As most of you know, Marzano suggests, "To avoid inaccurate summative scores, teachers can give more weight to (formative) scores at the end of the unit, which generally best reflect students’ level of mastery (p. 28)."  from  
This feels unnaturally cumbersome and confusing to me, although I'm willing to do it if ASFM chooses that route. However, I was looking for better alternatives.
2.  How to Handle Missing (Practice/Formative) Work in a Mastery (SBG) Based Grading System  from JumpRope, the SBG System
My stance is that this grading revolution does not need to be backed up or hedged with attempts to make it fit within the framework of a traditional grading system.  Entering zeros for missing work is just such a balk: it is an attempt to make sure that students are penalized for not completing work, and it sacrifices the quality of the data you have on what students know.  Ask yourself this: if a student doesn't turn in a piece of work, what could it mean?  Here are a few explanations off of the top of my head, along with the reasons why giving them a zero may be a counter-agent to this grading revolution (please forgive my generalizations):
    • The student was lazy.  By giving them a zero, you're doing what every other teacher EVER has done in the past (which has clearly not fixed the issue, as evidenced by the fact that they didn't turn in the assignment to you either).  Seriously, though, this student knows full well how their lack of work effects their "grade," which they've clearly stopped caring about - or perhaps they know how to "game" the system so that they just barely pass.  If you were to similarly REFUSE COURSE CREDIT until the student demonstrates level 2 (minimum) mastery on at least 2/3 of learning targets for your class, the student must suddenly think about which standards need to be mastered, seek out resources, and have to figure out a whole new system to "game" (during which time he might actually learn something).  More work for you?  Certainly.  But there's no way around that in any world, if you want them to learn.  By leaving the scores blank, you're bucking the system that hasn't worked on him for years.
    • The student was sick, out for family reasons, or otherwise legitimately excused.  Students in such cases often come back to see piles of work to catch up on.  What if, instead of "doing all the work," the goal was to "learn all of the material"?  Is that such a bad thing?
Furthermore, these reasons (and most others that I can think of) for missing work are more accurately described as "character" than as "academics," so why not be explicit about it?  Our grading system supports multiple learning target types (explained more here) which are designed to separately track different types of learning goals (each of which can ultimately impact final grades).
For these reasons, our official "opinion" on this matter is the following:
  1. For any significant assessment that has a due date, align the assessment to a character standard (consider "I can complete work on time.") in addition to all relevant academic standards.
  2. Then, work with your school to tweak the "weight" of the character standards so that it has an appropriate impact on their final grades as described in the article linked above.
  3. When entering scores for a student that has not turned in the assessment, leave all academic targets blank (or use the missing assessment code for your school, which is usually an A, M, or U) and happily give the student a 0 on the character target.  
3.   Accurate Grading with a Standards-Based Mindset   from a webinar transcript by Tom Schimmer at in the context of discussing (Practice/Formative)  work:
“…but it only counts for a small percentage of a student’s final grade,” some might argue, “so it doesn’t really matter.” I suppose on one level that might be true, however, ... my point is that if learning (and the accurate reporting of a student’s achievement) is our priority, then emphasizing points clearly misses the mark. It’s not how much the inclusion of homework impacts the student’s final grade; it’s that it does in the first-place.
Still, others may proclaim (and wholeheartedly believe) that, “…if I don’t grade it, they won’t do it.”Again, while that might be the paradigm in a classroom, we have to ask ourselves who is responsible for creating that paradigm. We must recognize that students don’t enter school in Kindergarten with a point accumulation mindset; the K student never asks her teacher if the painting is for points! So where do they learn that? Somewhere in their experience points (and grades) become a priority for the adults…so they become a priority for students. Parents and students also contribute to this mindset, but we have to acknowledge our role as well. Also, if the only thing motivating students to complete any assignment is the promise of points then we really have to consider whether the assignment is truly worth completing in the first place. Again, is homework a means or an end?
4.  Deadlines Matter: Debunking the Myth That Standards-Based Grading Means No Deadlines
 from   Competency Works at
Wormeli (2006) argues, “a grade represents a clear and accurate indicator of what a student knows and is able to do—mastery.”  Deadlines are important, but if we factor in the behavior of turning an assignment in on time or not into an overall assignment grade, then we are watering down our whole grading system.
Competency-based schools report out on the level of mastery students achieve for each and every course competency, as well as their mastery of key academic behaviors.
The problem my school has had to face, like many schools who move to this model, is how to make sure that the academic behaviors like meeting deadlines stay relevant and meaningful for students. There is a big myth in education that if you move your school to a competency-based model then students won’t see the importance of deadlines and you will hence have a higher-than-normal rate of students not completing work on time. I am here to tell you from experience that this myth can be true or false and it depends on two important factors:
1.Teachers need to be effective at changing their instructional practices and their approach to working with students on the behavior of meeting deadlines.
I have compiled the following summary of instructional practices from conversations with teachers in my school who have had the highest success rate over the past three years in getting their students to regularly adhere to deadlines:
    • They often adopt a take no prisoners approach at the beginning of the school year when it comes to working with students who miss a deadline. They instill a belief in students that no one is going to let them out of doing the work, and they can avoid harassment by adults if they simply turn things in on time.
    • They build in multiple opportunities to check in with students on their progress on major summative assignments. If they aren’t making the progress they should be making to meet a deadline, they take steps to resolve it right away.
    • They start parent communication as soon as a student misses a deadline. Many have told me that a simple phone call home often results in getting the work the very next day.
    • They assign the student mandatory time with them to work on the assignment outside of the classroom – either in a study hall, flex period, or before or after school. This practice is supported by O’Connor (2009).
    • They let students know that if they do not turn in an assignment on the due date, then the student may be held to a different rubric with higher expectations. Wormeli (2006) endorses this practice, encouraging teachers to “reserve the right to change the format for all redone work and assignments”. It stands to reason that as time passes during a school year students acquire more course-specific skills and knowledge and therefore can be held to a higher standard in all of their work for that course.
2. The school needs to have an effective system in place to monitor and communicate academic behaviors (aside from learning mastery scores), thus holding students accountable for their behavior.
In our school-wide system, meeting a deadline is a behavior expectation just like any other school rule. Following the suggestions of Guskey (2009), our school does not punish academic student misbehavior with low grades, but rather motivates students by considering their work as incomplete and then requiring additional effort. As a school, we address this student academic misbehavior through a tiered approach that operates like this:
    • First the teacher will try to address the misbehavior at the classroom level with the student.
    • If that doesn’t work, the teacher may involve other adults from the school that know the student (counselors, case managers, or a team leader) in the conversation with the student.
    • If that doesn’t work, the teacher will involve the parent or guardian in the conversation.
    • Finally, if all else fails, the teacher will make a behavior referral to an administrator for additional support. The administrator will then work through a series of actions in an effort to address the misbehavior.
    • The student grade will be marked as IWS, which stands for insufficient work shown, while the issue is addressed. IWS grades that are not resolved by the end of a course result in a course failure and no credit for the course.
Is the system in place at my school designed to address misbehavior perfectly? It is far from it....The key to this approach is that we have identified academic behaviors as a school-wide issue with common expectations for student behavior and developed responses—as a school—when they don’t meet those expectations.
The argument that deadlines become lost in a competency-based grading and reporting system is, in my opinion, a moot point. I argue that this perspective needs to be turned around and educators need to ask this question: “When my school moves to a competency-based model, what will I do to ensure that students meet all the expectations, both academic and behavioral, that I set for them?” Hold your students accountable for high standards and don’t let them off the hook for missing too many deadlines. They will thank you later in life.
.  From Matt Townsley,  
Here is my biggest bit of advice: In traditional grading, when a student does not turn in an assignment, we give them a zero, but do not talk with them about it. We assume they’re going to “learn” from the zero. Instead, I tried something different in my later years as a high school teacher.  It went something like this…"
Class, the purpose of homework in this class is practice.  Although homework is not worth any points, it is still very important.  The purpose of homework is practice!  Just like you practice for a small group speech contest, vocal music solo or volleyball game, practicing is important in math class.  Turn to your neighbor and share with them two reasons you believe practicing in math class is important and one reason why you might be tempted to not complete homework in this class….Okay, who can share with me a summary of their partner discussion?  How many of you talked about the importance of practice in doing well on tests?…."
Then, when a student (inevitably) decides to not turn in an assignment a few days later, have a good ole fashioned one-on-one, sit down conversation with him/her.
Why did you decide not to do this assignment?
How well do you think you’ll do on the next assessment?
I’ve found this to be a relationship building exercise and gives me a better idea how I can help the student. Sometimes students are going through tough times at home. Other times, they’re lost conceptually and don’t want to admit it.
This is not a cure-all type of solution, but one that I and other educators using standards-based grading practices have found to be helpful.

[Personally I almost always take issue with the whole "if teachers had better relationships all kids would pass with flying colors, do all their work, never be tardy, etc." mindset.  Of course we know relationships are essential or we probably wouldn't be teachers! However, we all know that even with good rapport, our students will be only partially mature humans -- they are still developing responsibility and ethics.  My relationship with them can only guide, not change, them.]

That's plenty of material to ponder for today.  I hope something in this post was clarifying for you.  

A Lot Has Changed!

For the past year and a half I have been working at a new post in a new school,  in a new country, learning a new language, driving a new car and living in a new house.  I think that tells you where I've been busiest lately.  In addition, this year I am teaching an additional grade level.  Soon I will add another content area.  These have been great changes, and although I miss living in Abu Dhabi, my students at AISA, and being a technology coach, thankfully I can say I am pretty happy in my new digs.  To know more about my teaching this year, see below.   I hope to spend more time with you here soon.

I teach Grade 7 and 8 English Language Arts now.  It's like visiting a dear old friend and building new friendships at the same time.     My lesson material is presently housed in a Haiku Learning LMS.  My Class Content Can Be Viewed HERE and HERE.

Professionally I'm focusing on best practices in teaching reading, writing, listening and speaking, standards-based grading,  flipped learning, and differentiation.  It's wonderful to teach on the block system again and being a participant in a large cross-curricular team which does several cross-curricular projects each year.

In my personal life I am taking Spanish classes and hoping to become fluent someday. My  little home has a roof deck and a tiled patio.  Heaven! Especially after my last dark little cave with no outside spaces.  I was unable to do the cat fostering work I did in Abu Dhabi, so I have adopted 2 little street felines.  My travels have been curtailed in the wake of car, dental, and relocation expenses but next on my bucket list are: Mexico City, Ireland, Spain, and Poland.


Research, Copyright, and Information Literacy Games

  1. Three Videos about Phishing Scams
  2. Goblin Threat Plagiarism Game  
  3. For some international students, ‘plagiarism’ is a foreign word 
  4. Paraphrasing Video
  5. Advertising Decoder Game
  6. Gaming Against Plagiarism
  7. Leprechaun's Internet Safety Game
  8. Search Challenges - How Good Are You At Finding Information on the Web?
  9. March Internet Scavenger Hunts by Education World

Scavenger Hunt: Where in the World?  In which part of the world do some animals live? Look at the list of animals below. Some will be familiar to you, and others will not. Use the Internet to find where these animals live. To help you, we've provided you with the URL address for a Web site where you will find the information you need. You might need to wander around the Web site a bit to find the page that has information about each animal's natural habitat. Write the name of the country or continent where you can find each animal.

© 2010 by Education  World®. Permission is granted to teachers to reproduce this skill page for classroom use.


Introduction to Google Cardboard 3D Glasses

I have purchased 5 of these to make a Virtual Reality station in my classroom.  We can't wait to get started! I only wish I could afford 22 of them.  The students will bring their own smartphone or iPod Touches.  All you really need is the ability to get onto the wifi--no cell service is necessary.  If you don't know what Google Cardboard is all about, here's a  slideshow to explain what it is, what you need to get started, what apps are recommended, and much more.

ISTE NETS-S 3 / Research Units

Grade 5 Research/Web Evaluation (Agendas 22, 23, etc.)

Grade 4 Research/Web Evaluation (Agendas 22, 23, etc.)

Grade 3 Research/Web Evaluation (Agendas 22, 23, etc.)

Grade 2 Research Unit(Agendas 22, 23, etc.)

Grade 1 Research  Unit (Agendas 22, 23, etc.)

Photo Credit: