Academies: Interest-Based Student Learning

Creativity and Innovation are more important than ever in today’s classroom.  Our world is changing on a large scale and at an increasingly rapid rate. 

Sir Ken Robinson
Ken Robinson

Yet creativity is often at odds with the traditional classroom.  With standardized measures for achievement and highly structured schedules, teachers often feel like we do not have the time to be creative. 

But what happens if we don’t MAKE time to be creative.  According to George Couros, “school can easily become a checklist for our students” (Couros, 2015).   Daily reading passages, multiple choice tests, and homework can make school feel like a predictable routine or list to check off as opposed to an exciting opportunity to explore, learn, experiment, and grow.

So, how do we make school a place where students feel inspired and empowered by their learning, where learning is relevant and fun, where students have the opportunity to explore areas of personal interest and passion, and where we can recognize and develop a diverse array of talents? 

George Couros
George Couros - The Innovator's Mindset

I am constantly amazed and inspired by the innovative methods I see educators use in my school and across the globe. This post is about one way I attempt to bring creativity and innovation to the classroom.

Interest based student learning

What Is An Academy?
An Academy is a small group elective that students sign up for based on their interests.  Academies are designed to feel like mini-college seminars where students can explore areas of passion outside the scope of the traditional curriculum.  Academies take place during the school day and are hosted by a parent or community volunteer who has a passion, talent, or expertise in a certain area.  I offer Academies to students in grades 3-5.  Groups meet once a week for 45 minutes and each session lasts anywhere from 4-8 weeks.  Past Academies have included:
  • Film Making
  • Civics
  • Video Game Design
  • Shakespeare
  • Leadership
  • Yoga
  • French
  • Ocean Ecology
  • Coding

Why Offer Academies?  
Why would a rational human being introduce one more thing into an already jam-packed school day?  It seems nearly impossible, right?  However this 45 minutes a week is one of the best investments I have ever made in my students. Here's why I did it:

1. Expand the Scope of the Curriculum:  
In his book Out of Our MindsKen Robinson explores the "hierarchy of subjects" in education.  Across the globe, he explains, schools focus primarily on reading and math, with some time devoted to science and social studies, and minimal attention to the arts. For students who are not interested or do not excel in one of these areas, school can be frustrating, discouraging, and seemingly irrelevant.   

Sir Ken Robinson
                       Click here to watch his popular (and brilliant) TED talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity?

My goal was to provide students with learning opportunities not typically offered during the traditional school day. Learning is a life time adventure and I wanted my students to see and be inspired by the diversity of learning opportunities that exist outside the walls of a classroom.    

2.  Identify and Develop Diverse Talents:
Academies are an opportunity to identify a variety of talent. Through the expanded content, a greater diversity of talent can emerge and be identified. Academies are also an opportunity to nurture and validate talents not typically addressed during the school day.  By doing the Academies during the school day, we send the message to students that this type of thinking and learning is valued and valuable. 

Learning is fun right?  Academies are designed to:  
  • spark student interest and motivation
  • excite students about learning
  • improve student attitudes towards school
In their book The Schoolwide Enrichment Model, Joseph Renzulli and Sally Reis discuss the power of the "Three E's" - enjoyment, enthusiasm, and engagement.  Their research shows that "when the Three E's are working well, students not only like school better, they also show improvements in school achievement" (Renzulli & Reis, 2003).  Renzulli and Reis go on to say that the Three Es "produce higher achievement than test prep" (Renzulli & Reis, 2003). Word.

Reis and Renzulli

So, what does an Academy look like?  Below are examples of just a few of the Academies I've hosted over the past few years.

1. Design Your Own Video Game:
This academy was hosted by one of my former students. While taking an online course in middle school, he learned how to create video games using a free program from M.I.T. called Scratch.  My former student taught participants how to use the program to design video games, share them online, and play each others.

My students loved learning from a fellow student.  It was incredibly inspiring and empowering.  They also loved that when I missed one Academy class because I was out sick, I could no longer understand or keep up with what they were doing in class!  Also very empowering.
Design Your Own Video Game
2. Yoga:
This academy was hosted by a parent who is a yoga instructor.  The academy was simple, yet magical!  Students came in the clothes they wore to school and we laid out towels in the media center.  While students were initially excited by the opportunity to move, they ended up appreciating so much more!  Through the expert guidance of our host, students learned how to use their breath and mindfulness to manage stress, build confidence, and increase confidence.  It was also a wonderful opportunity for my students to be a part of a healthy, non-competitive, nurturing group.  As I said earlier - Magical. Truly magical.
Yoga Academy - Interest Based Student Learning
3. Film Academy
The presenter of this Academy, a parent and cinematographer, introduced the students to a film making technique called "Shot Reverse Shot."  In this technique, one character is shown looking at another character; then the other character is shown looking back at the first.  Each shot shows the unique point of view of that character.  Our presenter used this technique to work with students on point of view and perspective.  They then created a short film about the importance of seeing and appreciating the point of view of another.  You can watch the the short video here.  (One of our students also created a blooper reel, which you can find here.)
This is a BRIEF glimpse into my classroom Academies.  What questions do you have?  How do you encourage creativity and innovation at your school?  Please share your ideas!  I'd love to learn from you!

(Interested in learning more about how to implement Academies?  A "How-to Guide" will be up on the blog by mid-October. Stay tuned!)


Hook Your Students! The Consensus Placemat

Consensus Placemat: How I use the consensus placemat to motivate and prepare my students for learning

Welcome to post #2 in the series: Hook Your Students! How to capture (and keep!) their attention.  To read post #1 about Anticipation-Reaction Guides, click here.

This week I will share how I use the Consensus Placemat to motivate and prepare my students for learning.  The Consensus Placemat is a cooperative learning tool designed to increase student engagement and individual accountability.  

To complete the placemat, the teacher poses a question about an important idea, concept, or skill.  Each student then takes time to think independently about the question and write their response in their own space on the edge of the placemat.  

When every member of the group is finished writing, the team shares ideas.  I like to use Round Robin to be sure that each student has an opportunity to share their ideas and hear the reasoning of their peers.

Once every idea has been shared, the team works together to create one answer with which every member agrees.  The team then writes this consensus statement or summary in the center of the placemat.

Consensus Placemat - How I use it to motivate and prepare my students for learning

Why Use a Consensus Placemat?
The consensus placemat is an easy, low-prep tool that offers many benefits.
  • It is a great way to activate students' prior knowledge and to see what students already know.
  • It encourages participation from every student.  Students who may be reluctant to raise their hand or share ideas are able to actively contribute to the discussion in a relaxed setting.
  • Because each member must construct their own response first, it increases equitable participation and individual student accountability.
  • Students must think critically to support their ideas and evaluate the reasoning of others.
I typically use the consensus placemat as an opening hook to build student interest and readiness. Students are excited to learn from their peers and they are eager to verify their individual ideas and team summary.  I have also used it  as a closing exercise to reinforce key concepts and check for understanding.

Are you ready to give it a go?  Here is a blank template and some prompts to get you started:
  • Is a rectangle a square? How do you know?
  • What are the steps of the water cycle? Show what you know using words or pictures.
  • What is alliteration? Provide an example.
  • Describe our rules for recess.
  • Are all odd numbers prime?  Explain how you know.
I hope this tool is of value to you and your students. What questions do you have?  How do you use the consensus placemat with your class?  Let me know; I'd love to learn with you!


Hook Your Students! Anticipation Guides

This post is the first in the series of Hook Your Students!  How to capture (and keep!) their attention.  Before I share one of my favorite teaching "hooks," let's briefly discuss what a "hook" is. 

What is a “hook?
A hook is a short instructional activity used at the beginning of the lesson to capture students’ attention and to build interest and motivation for learning.  Hooks are also known as anticipatory sets, set induction, and advance organizers.  I like to use the term “hook” because that is what these activities do – they “hook” students and actively draw them into learning.

Why Use a Hook?
A hook is not only fun and engaging, but it prepares and motivates students for learning.  Using a hook helps to:
   Focus student attention on the lesson
   Set a purpose for learning
   Activate prior knowledge
   Check for student understanding
   Build curiosity, anticipation, and interest

Let’s look at an example: 

An Anticipation-Reaction Guide (AR Guide) contains a series of short statements about the topic or concept you plan to teach.  Some of the statements are true and some are false.  Before interacting with the content, students read the statements and decide if they agree or disagree with the statement.  Students record their prediction, an “A” for agree or “D” for disagree, in the left hand column. Students can answer the statements on their own or collaborate in pairs or small groups.  Oftentimes, discussion can help students to activate prior knowledge and make connections with past experiences.

Once predictions have been made, it is time to present the content. This can be the text you are about to read, a video, a series of photographs – whatever tool you plan to use for instruction.  Once students have had an opportunity to engage with the content, they revisit the anticipation-reaction guide to verify their predictions.  Students record their final answers in the right column.

The focus is not about whether the student’s prediction is right or wrong.  The goal is to revisit the statements with a critical eye to build understanding of the concept or skill.  The discussion surrounding why statements are true or false helps to reinforce key concepts and build lasting comprehension.

Here is an example from my classroom.  (You can download this, and the other printables shown in this post, for free here.)  In 3rd grade, our first ELA unit is about Fables.  In order to develop a solid understanding of what a fable is, I present my students with the anticipation-reaction guide shown below.  I encourage students to work in pairs to discuss the statements and use their prior knowledge to make predictions.
Hook your students: how to capture and keep their attention

I then show students a short video, such as The Tortoise and the Hare or The Dog and His Reflection.  Once the video is complete, students revisit the A-R guide to verify their original ideas and we pause for discussion.  What did we learn about the characteristics of a fable?  What statements do we still need to answer?  If needed, we can watch another short video to explore unanswered questions.  We can also record remaining questions on an anchor chart and search for the answers as we read throughout the unit.

Using the AR guide, students are actively engaged in learning.  Instead of passively receiving information, students are empowered to build meaningful, long-term understanding. 

While the Anticipation-Reaction Guide is traditionally used in ELA, I’ve found that it can be easily used and adapted to other content areas as well.  Here is an example from my 4th grade math class.  When we began our exploration into polygons, I began with the AR guide below.

Hook your students: how to capture and keep their attention

 After completing the left hand column, I introduced the content, using examples and non-examples.  I've included a copy of the activity for your reference.
Hook your students: how to capture and keep their attention

With the AR statements in mind, we explored the examples and non-examples.  Students were so excited to use the images to confirm, clarify, and update their first predictions.  We revisited the AR guide throughout the lesson as we gained new insights and information.  Again, the emphasis was not on whether we were right or wrong, but the content and quality of our discussion.  Students had to think critically to justify their ideas, support them with evidence, communicate their reasoning to peers, and critique the rationale of others.  

Using the AR guide and the visual examples, students were able to craft a clear and accurate definition: “A polygon is a plane shape that has 3 or more straight sides and angles.”  The definition was much more meaningful and had a longer-lasting impact because my students were invested in creating it themselves.

Are you ready to create your own Anticipation Guide?  Let's Do It! Here is a blank, editable template to help you get started:

1.    Identify the key concepts or skills you want students to learn.  What do students really need to know in order to understand this concept or skill?
2.   Write 4-6 declarative statements about the concept, making some statements true and others false

Hook your students: how to capture and keep their attention

Options for Differentiation:

   Present it orally.  Read the statements out loud. This can be a great option for younger students and less proficient readers.
   Add a "WHY" column to the chart.  Students can use this area to justify their conclusions.
   In lieu of 4-6 statements, offer one open-ended question.  (ex: what is a polygon?)  This strategy will help to activate prior knowledge and provide you with insight into what the students already know.

What else do you need to make Anticipation Guides work well for you and your students?  What other "hooks" would you like to learn more about?  Let me know; I'd love to help!


Hundred Board Number Puzzles

Fun Enrichment Activities for math!

Hi Friends! I am dropping in quickly to share some freebies with you from one of my FAVORITE enrichment activities!  I hope it is of help to you and your little geniuses! 

I use Hundred Board Enrichment Puzzles to challenge my 2nd and 3rd grade students.  I am in love with these puzzles because they are both FUN and MEANINGFUL.   Each puzzle offers an interesting, non-routine way to develop important math concepts and critical thinking skills.

So, how do they work?  Each Hundred Board puzzle provides a series of 4-6 mathematical clues. Students use the clues to determine the value of the mystery number. While the focus of each activity is numeracy, each puzzle includes a variety of upper elementary math skills, concepts, and vocabulary.

Here's an example from the 2nd grade pack:

Puzzle #8:

• It is greater than the number of years in a decade.
• It does not contain the digit that equals the number of sides on a rhombus.
• It is not between the value of 4 nickels and 4 dimes.
• The digit in the ones place = the number of inches in ½ a foot.
• The sum of the digits is < 11.

As you can see, the focus is on numbers and operations, yet students also need to apply geometry, measurement, time, and academic math vocabulary in order to solve this puzzle.

Here's an example from the 3rd grade version:

Puzzle #5:
• The number is greater than the number of sides on a trapezoid.
• The mystery number is less than the perimeter of a 6 by 6 array.
• None of the digits are even.
• The sum of the digits equals 8.

Again, the focus is on numbers and operations, but students also need to apply geometry, measurement, and perimeter in order to solve this puzzle. Fun, right!

There are 20 puzzles in each pack and the level of complexity increases as the puzzle number gets higher.

The puzzles come in color and black and white, so I can use them in a variety of ways.  Some of my favorite uses include:
  • math centers and stations
  • a printable packet for early finishers
  • anchor activities
  • learning contracts
  • choice board activities
You can download both of the activities shown above for free by clicking on the link below the image.  hope you are your students enjoy them as much as mine!


Let's Interact - Halloween Style!

halloween october bulletin board

I am super excited about my latest Interactive Bulletin Board!  Check out my October-themed board  and grab a few freebies below.

interactive bulletin board activities

First up on the board is "Brainstorming 4-Ever!"  This was originally a printable activity I used as an anchor activity with my little Einsteins.  This year, I decided to make the activity larger than life to "hook" and motivate my students in a new way.  

Using the word "Jack-o-lantern" as inspiration, this Halloween-themed activity challenges students to think of as many different 4-syllable words as they can. Avocado, comprehension, impossible, articulate . . . the possibilities are endless, but it is delightfully difficult! 

To add a level of difficulty, eliminate proper nouns.  OR, make it a game!  After brainstorming a list of words, students compare answers with other players.  Students earn one point for each unique response that no other player has.  The player with the most points wins.  This can be timed or un-timed.

When students arrive to class early, finish assignments early, are in need of enrichment, or just want to be inspired, they grab a brainstorming sheet from the envelope. I've included a printable copy of the activity below in case you'd like to try it out with your kiddos. :-)  
creative thinking - brainstorming
You can find the whole pack of activities here.

Next up, is Halloween math:

bulletin board ideas for october

This too was a printable activity that I enlarged for a new twist. Each Halloween symbol represents a number.  Students can "Guess and Check" or use algebra to reach the correct answer.  There is something about a larger than life math problem that kids love!  I'm not sure if it's the novelty of the presentation or the seasonal images, but they are in love.  You can find the printable version of this activity (along with the answer :-) here.

And last, but not least, is 24 - an all-time student favorite.

interactive bulletin board

In the game of 24, students use the four numbers given once and only once along with a combination of operations to reach 24.  Students record their answer on the recording sheet below.  You can find a free copy here. (It's nothing fancy, but it's one less thing to make :-) 
interactive bulletin board for halloween

24 is so easy to prep and offers meaningful, fun, differentiated math practice.  If you'd like to learn more, you can check out my earlier post here.

Thanks for checking in!  If you have any thoughts or questions, let me know; I'd love to hear from you!