Brain Building

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working on a brainMany people have probably heard someone say they were “right brained” or “left brained.” While it is true that some portions of the brain are more active during some processes, advances in medical imaging have shown that the entire brain is engaged at some level in all processing. Such a finding, coupled with the knowledge that the brain has a high degree of plasticity, strengthens the idea that teachers can truly build the brains of their students.

In her book Engage the Brain: How to Design for Learning That Taps Into the Power of Emotion, author Allison Posey shares that neural networks grow and are strengthened through hard work, experience, practice, and quality feedback. Posey suggests the following strategies for creating a brain growing classroom environment (p. 66):

  1. Establish clear learning goals. Be specific. Make the goal easily understood by students.
  2. Create multiple opportunities and pathways for skill development. Scaffold as needed.
  3. Offer frequent feedback that is clearly related to the learning goal. Be specific!
  4. Make the learning process visible. Create displays of work in progress.
  5. Emphasize multiple pathways to the goal. Highlight how others are working toward the goal. Allow for variety.
  6. Create opportunities for students to share their processes with others.

As you plan for next week, think of ways that you can employ some of these strategies more fully in order to create a growth environment for your students. You and your students will benefit greatly!

Assessing Individual and Group Learning in Projects

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student teamworkStudents, teachers, and parents commonly question how individual students will be assessed during project based teaching. In her book Project Based Teaching: How to Create Rigorous and Engaging Learning Experiences, author Suzie Boss shares the following suggestions related to assessing individuals and groups throughout the project period (pp. 116-118):

  1. Clarify which components are assessed at the individual level and which components are assessed at the group level. Make these determinations as you plan your projects, and communicate with students. Give individual assignments greater weight that group tasks.
  2. Reinforce peer accountability. Use team contracts to identify roles and responsibilities, and use those contracts to empower student-to-student accountability. Provide opportunities for students to assess everyone’s contributions to the team. Make sure students know from the very beginning of the project that they will be asked to assess the work of every team member.
  3. Encourage reflection about teamwork. Throughout the project, ask students to journal or share about how things are going. This will allow you to “see” inside the team and make adjustments as needed.

As you prepare for upcoming projects, plan for assessment of individual student learning and group work. Share your thoughts with students even as you plan and ask them for feedback. Your overall assessment system will be richer, and your students will benefit greatly!

Take a Walk through the Gallery

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student gallery walkTwo summers ago my family and I had the pleasure of visiting the MIT Museum in Boston ( The museum displays technology developed by students and faculty, machines, and artwork. As we moved throughout the displays, we talked about the things we saw, pointing out items of interest and questioning things that didn’t quite make sense. We learned much from our exploration and dialogue.

In the book Project Based Teaching: How to Create Rigorous and Engaging Learning Experiences, author Suzie Boss shares a “gallery walk” protocol for reviewing student works in progress, so that students receive quality formative feedback from a number of peer perspectives. Boss shares the following guidelines for a gallery walk (pp. 28-29):

  1. Post work to be reviewed on classroom walls or in digital stations. Make sure the artifacts are clearly visible.
  2. Provide students with sticky notes or a feedback guide to be used during the gallery walk.
  3. Explain the criteria for providing feedback. Use the project rubric as a checklist, and provide sentence starters for completion.
  4. Instruct students to move around the room silently to give feedback.
  5. After the gallery walk, have each student who received feedback share it with the class. Have the student reflect on the feedback and plan steps for improving the project.

Students may need to briefly present their project to reviewers during the gallery walk. Allow it. Students may want to provide specific prompts for feedback regarding their project. Allow it. The goal is for students to get their projects reviewed while in progress, so they can make adjustments along the way.

As you plan for next week, think about the things your students are working on. Do any of your classes have projects that would benefit from a gallery walk? If so, plan for about 20 to 30 minutes for such a session. Your students and their projects will benefit greatly.

Sustainable Grading Practices

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red pencils for gradingAccording to Glen Pearsall in a recent article published in Educational Leadership, teachers work on average teachers work 14 more hours per week than they are paid for due to issues related to preparation, planning, and grading. Many teachers reported they often stay late at work or take mounds of student work home to be graded. While such dedication is noble, it is not sustainable.

Pearsall recommends the following strategies for managing grading and marking student work:

  1. Minimalist Marking. Practice error flagging (place a dot or dash at the line where errors appear and then have your students correct the mistake), error counting (divide the work into subsections and give a subtotal for each section, then students have to find their errors and correct them), student-generated comments (you identify errors and have students write general comments summing up the advice), and model correcting (select a portion of the work to mark-up and then have students complete the remaining sections).
  2. Alternative Grades. Rather than use traditional letter grades, employ a system that has a mark for equal to prior work, better standard than prior work, or lower standard than prior work.
  3. Annotating Feedback. Provide students with oral feedback regarding their work and have them summarize the feedback in writing.
  4. Identifying Patterns of Error. Teachers provide students feedback by creating a table of common errors and train students to recognize those errors themselves. Over time, students will start to recognized their common patterns and work to correct them independently.

Pearsall’s article provides more detail about these types of strategies and may be accessed here: Keep these strategies in mind as you plan for student assessment next week. You may be able to reduce the amount of material you collect and take home for grading, and your students may be more engaged in their own assessment.

Six Step Communication Process for Moments of Crisis

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communicationStudents who have experienced trauma need a safe and caring adult to help intervene when they respond to some emotional trigger in the classroom. In their book Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom, authors Kristin Souers and Pete Hall detail six communication steps that are helpful when addressing student in crisis (pp. 79-82):

  1. Listen.  While it may be difficult to not immediately interject in a heated moment, it is best to listen carefully to what a student in crises is telling you. Often the student is conveying an important message about what triggered the response, whether it is exhaustion, prior bad experiences, a belief system, preconceived notions, or fear.
  2. Reassure.  A student in crisis needs to know that his/her perspective is important.
  3. Validate.  A validation is an acknowledgement that you hear the student. A validation is not an acceptance or approval of the student behavior.
  4. Respond.  Respond by explaining your observation of the incident. A response is not a time to defend your position, but it is a time to share your perception of the situation.
  5. Repair.  A repair could be simply expressing that you are sorry the student is having the experience at this time. If you believe you somehow caused a trigger response, a heartfelt apology may be in order.
  6. Resolve.  A resolution is an opportunity to work with the student to develop a new way of behaving in the classroom so another trigger response is not exhibited. This may require behavioral changes on the part of the student, the teacher, or both.

As you plan for your week ahead, think about how you can partner with students to create a safe, caring environment that will allow for positive and productive classroom outcomes. You and your students will benefit greatly!

The Shy, The Superstar, and the SPIDER WEB

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shy superstar image

While many students will find a SPIDER WEB discussion to be an enjoyable break from the traditional classroom structure, some students may have trouble navigating the new paradigm. In her book The Best Class You Never Taught: How SPIDER WEB Discussion Can Turn Students Into Learning Leaders, Alexis Wiggins identifies two types of students who may have difficulty adjusting to the new classroom dynamic: students how are shy and students who are superstars. Shy students, while they may have great insight to share, are often more comfortable with their thoughts and will avoid participating in discussion. Superstars often have the urge to share every thought and do their best to dominate discussion. So how do classroom teachers help students who are shy and students who are superstars become part of the larger, collaborative discussion? Wiggins suggests the following (pp. 70-91):

  1. Openly address the issue of the difficulties faced by both the shy and superstar students. Keep reminding everyone of the goal: to have a deep, interesting discussion as a team.
  2. Give all students a few minutes to quietly reflect on the topic and write things down prior to discussion. This will help all students, whether shy or superstar, focus their thinking and provide them with some discussion points.
  3. Provide quality feedback based upon the rubric. The rubric is there to help students learn what is important in a collaborative team. Let all students know how they are doing and provide ways to improve.
  4. Keep trying. Patience, persistence, and self-assessment will help develop student skills and yield a balanced discussion.

As you implement SPIDER WEB discussion in your classroom, be aware of those students who might find the non-traditional structure to be uncomfortable and provide supports necessary to improve participation. Your students will appreciate your efforts, and you will all learn much about one another in the process!