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As a teacher of students with special needs, I have found the creative arts central to my teaching practice. The benefit of integrating the arts into the curriculum for reluctant learners has been well documented. As explained in Critical Evidence: How the Arts Benefit Student Achievement , arts instruction can develop cognitive and social skills, increase motivation, and help form a positive school environment when integrated into the classroom curriculum. Students score higher on standardized tests, engage in healthier behaviors at home, increase their community involvement, and report more engagement in the classroom. For students at risk of dropping out of school, the arts can be the major motivator to show up to school.

I have seen similar benefits in populations of students with neurological differences (autism spectrum, ADHD, Tourette’s). While each student has a specific diagnosis, many need increased motivation, increased engagement and empowerment, and explicit scaffolding for social skills and executive functioning. The creative arts provide a multitude of opportunities to incorporate such scaffolding through collaboration and project-based learning.

Students on Set

Last year, Brave Little Company, with funding from Young Audiences of Houston, a theater troupe, brought puppets into my high school classroom. Brave Little Company provided artists and filmmaking support, while the school provided academic structure and a makerspace for producing props and puppets. The students incorporated their science-fiction unit in English with a hands-on creative building process and a foray into digital filmmaking. The end product, a 15-minute video written, filmed, and edited by students, was shown during the annual academic showcase to the entire school.

We began with teacher-artist planning. As the classroom teacher, I came up with a list of objectives based on each student’s individual education plan, and translated those objectives into measurable actions in the classroom (e.g., student X participates in collaborative writing, student Y engages in the editing process). The artist designed each session’s narrative flow, while I covered academic objectives, visuals, and support.

We (the artist, students, and teacher) collaborated through the first three stages: set design, character design, and the writing process.

We chose a dystopian, polluted setting—think something like WALL-E’s home—which could be explored in the students’ English, environmental science, and maker classes. It also immediately sparked student interest and engagement, which increases student learning and is especially essential for students with neurological differences.

Next, we began designing characters. We researched various characters from popular culture and fiction, researched puppets, and brainstormed with materials in the school’s makerspace. We introduced a character-design sheet which used role-playing game tropes to help the students move from their ideas to fully realized fictional characters.

The Advantage of Working With Puppets

Working with puppets physically reminded the students to think about things from new perspectives, and provided context for social interactions and collaborations. Students improvised different scenes (such as “your character finds food”) and emotions (“your character is angry”) by themselves to become more and more familiar with their particular character. Eventually, they wrote and performed short, one-person scenes. Each scene was filmed, and the artist provided feedback.

Finally, the students engaged in an improv-esque collaborative writing process. They practiced improvisational conversation and techniques, especially the “yes, and . . .” concept, which helps the student practice engaging in conversation with another person on non-preferred topics through the safer point of view of their character. We had each student speak as their character and practiced accepting other actors’ choices. Only then did they write duet scenes with a peer.

The investment in practice meant our students had proficiency in the specific writing skills they would employ, which lowered anxiety and increased creativity. This steady increase encouraged larger group writing sessions, as students suggested title credits, ending scenes, and soundtracks. Eventually, the students themselves led large-group writing collaborations, which ended up becoming the opening and closing scenes.

Lastly, we began filming. The artist collaborated with students to frame individual shots and backgrounds for their work. The students constructed their own green screen and commandeered a conference room to be their puppet studio. In each previous stage, our focus on student engagement, interest, and ownership manifested itself in a “director’s cut” of the project. Our artist was to utilize his professional contacts to edit the final footage, but our students beat him to the punch.

The collaboration was a resounding success. In academics, we saw students engage in the complete writing process, especially in revising their work and incorporating their peers’ feedback. Students increased their stamina, practiced collaboration, and published their work in both written and visual forms. Students strengthened their executive functioning skills by working toward a deadline, setting their own goals, and completing their work. The students’ successes were a direct result of teacher/artist collaboration, student empowerment, and scaffolded instruction.

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5 Ways To Use Ai Tools To Meet Students’ Needs

Artificial intelligence (AI) is quickly shaking up the world of education. With the popularity of mainstream tools like ChatGPT, beta tools like Google’s Bard, and other educational resources developing their own versions of this software, AI is at the front of many educators’ minds. 

AI-generated responses can act as a starting point for teachers, but it’s important to build on these ideas to make them your own. With the following five strategies, teachers can leverage AI to inspire new ideas to support the diverse learning needs of their students. 

1. Creating Differentiated Materials

Differentiation adjusts the information the student needs to learn, the instructional process, or the culminating project or activity to match student interest and readiness. A common obstacle with differentiation for teachers is trying to create various resources, whether it’s a choice board or tiered activity.

AI can be used as a source of inspiration for teachers. A prompt could be inserted: “What are three different approaches to teaching the central idea of a text?” In this example, ChatGPT suggested a few broad approaches to instruction, including graphic organizers, visual representations, guided reading, and close reading, as well as a description of those strategies. These suggestions are research-supported starting points for an educator. Now, with these recommendations, they can start fully generating lessons and activities for students. 

It’s important to remember that sometimes, tools like ChatGPT might pull from existing teacher lessons online. Consider using a more general prompt, like the previous example, to get broader pedagogical suggestions as opposed to an existing lesson plan or activity online. 

2. Creating Multiple Means of Representation

Within the Universal Design for Learning framework, multiple means of representation require content to be presented in various ways for students. In a classroom, this strategy might look like an opportunity for students to explore different mediums on the same topic and enhance their understanding. For example, you might provide a video, infographic, or notes on a singular topic. 

For teachers, curating various resources on the content they want to teach could be challenging and time-consuming. However, this process can be streamlined using AI. A teacher could enter the following prompt into AI software: “Can you give me multiple resources to introduce chemical reactions? The resources include videos, websites, simulations, games, or infographics.”

This type of prompt will generate a list of resources, websites, and links related to the requested topic. As with any other link, these resources need to be vetted by the teacher before providing them to students. However, AI can help make the search process for finding suitable and appropriate resources quicker than a traditional search engine query. 

3. Brainstorming Alternative and Authentic Assessments

Alternative and authentic assessments can support different learning needs by avoiding traditional test strategies and encouraging students to apply the content they learned directly. Instead of a standardized quiz, students may engage in projects connecting the topic to real-life situations and ideas. 

When planning alternative assessments, AI can help teachers make connections between a skill or topic and real-life applications. These suggestions can be used to inspire ideas for alternative assessments for students. For example, a teacher could use the prompt, “What are real-life applications of ratios?” This prompt offers suggestions between the math concept and baking, maps, sports statistics and performance, photography, scale models, and financial planning.  

The suggestions list can be turned into a list that the teacher uses to think about project-based, more authentic assessments. When drawing on this list as inspiration, new projects can be created for the course. These activities can support students by increasing their understanding of the skill and giving them increased flexibility in demonstrating their understanding. 

4. Breaking Down Complex and Abstract Skills

A challenging strategy for a teacher is to break down abstract skills for students. Offering a concrete approach can help students understand a concept in a new way. However, it’s sometimes difficult to determine just how to break up a standard. One example prompt would be, “How can you break down the concept of ‘theme’ to sixth-grade students? How can this idea be broken into manageable chunks?” 

This prompt offers general recommendations for pedagogical approaches that break down the skill, including distinguishing between theme and plot, identifying key messages, and analyzing character motivations. While this query doesn’t yield full lesson plans or already created activities, it does serve as a springboard for teachers to break down the skill for students who may be struggling. 

5. Providing Different Approaches to Teaching Concepts

One strategy that works for supporting students in understanding a new skill is making a connection to their personal experiences and interests, such as their background or hobbies. Sometimes, this task can be challenging if the teacher has no experience with a student’s area of interest, so it’s important to talk with students and get to know them on a deeper level in order to meet their particular needs.

AI could form a bridge between a skill and the student’s interests. For example, a teacher could use the prompt, “How would you teach a middle school student who loves football about connotation and denotation?” With this prompt, AI could generate a list of strategies for helping students make a connection between this language arts vocabulary skill and sports. These suggestions can be helpful for a teacher who may notice a student struggling with grasping a concept. By using the AI-generated recommendations, they may be able to help the student make a connection to understand the material through their interests better.

Students Learn Better With Star Trek

Observe the criticisms of nearly any major public education system in the world, and a few of the many complaints are more or less universal. Technology moves faster than the education system. Teachers must teach at the pace of the slowest student rather than the fastest. And–particularly in the United States–grade school children as a group don’t care much for, or excel at, mathematics. So it’s heartening to learn that a new kind of “classroom of the future” shows promise at mitigating some of these problems, starting with that fundamental piece of classroom furniture: the desk.

A UK study involving roughly 400 students, mostly aged 8-10 years, and a new generation of multi-touch, multi-user, computerized desktop surfaces is showing that over the last three years the technology has appreciably boosted students’ math skills compared to peers learning the same material via the conventional paper-and-pencil method. How? Through collaboration, mostly, as well as by giving teachers better tools by which to micromanage individual students who need some extra instruction while allowing the rest of the class to continue moving forward.

Traditional instruction still shows respectable efficacy at increasing students fluency in mathematics, essentially through memorization and practice–dull, repetitive practice. But the researchers have concluded that these new touchscreen desks boost both fluency and flexibility–the critical thinking skills that allow students to solve complex problems not simply through knowing formulas and devices, but by being able to figure out what the real problem is and the most effective means of stripping it down and solving it.

One reason for this, the researchers say, is the multi-touch aspect of the technology. Students working in the next-gen classroom can work together at the same tabletop, each of them contributing and engaging with the problem as part of a group. Known as SynergyNet, the software uses computer vision systems that see in the infrared spectrum to distinguish between different touches on different parts of the surface, allowing students to access and use tools on the screen, move objects and visual aids around on their desktops, and otherwise physically interact with the numbers and information on their screens. By using these screens collaboratively, the researchers say, the students are to some extent teaching themselves as those with a stronger grasp on difficult concepts pull other students forward along with them.

Moreover, the teacher can simultaneously monitor what’s happening on various desktops via a master screen, allowing he or she to intervene quickly if one student or group of students begins to derail over a particular concept or problem. From the master desktop, the instructor can beam different problem sets to different groups around the classroom, or move one group’s set of solutions over to another desk for a second group to check or build upon. This enhances the collaborative aspect and keeps the entire class moving forward together at a steady pace, without any one student or group of students getting way ahead or falling woefully behind.

At least, that’s what the study published in the most recent journal Learning and Instruction suggests. This kind of stuff can be really hard to quantify, though testing showed that 45 percent of the students who used the technology for instruction were able to increase the number of “unique mathematical expressions” they were able to produce, compared to just 16 percent of those students taught via traditional paper-based exercises. (Just a note here: neither of those numbers inspires an overflow of confidence.)

It’s going to take a lot more time, research, and money (especially money) to prove this out, though we’d venture to guess that even if the “classroom of the future” isn’t necessarily boosting student performance it’s likely not hurting it either. After all, the future is increasingly multi-screen and multi-touch, wireless and paperless. Shouldn’t elementary education reflect that?

The Benefits Of Cocreating A Course With Students

There are many reasons why we see low student engagement in the classroom. Maybe we’re nearing summer break, or grappling with enduring impacts of pandemic disruptions to learning, or working with students traditionally undersupported in academic environments, or navigating a nebulous curriculum. 

I’ve wrestled with all of the above scenarios throughout my career, and in the face of them, I’ve returned to this truism: Innovation is born of need and thrives in chaos. While I was trying to get my head around planning and preparation, I realized I had a rare opportunity: students who desperately needed a more motivating approach and the freedom to transform my instruction. 

Through experimentation, I found that the more I shifted responsibility and freedom to my students, the more energized and engaged they were. Paolo Freire said, “Teaching is not just transferring knowledge. It is creating possibilities for the construction and production of knowledge.” In that vein, I discovered the power of cocreating courses with students using participative teaching practices—a replicable approach outlined below.

Planning a CoCreated Course

But the rest of the course remained mostly unplanned, true to participative pedagogy—the collaborative design of teaching and learning environments by facilitators and learners through organic inquiry. When most of the course is open-ended, students have genuine possibilities to produce their own knowledge and skills. 

Of course, it also means taking a risk. 

At the start of the course, I found it difficult to engage in participative practices with students conditioned to traditional teaching methods rooted in compliance and control. It took time to break down old habits and unlearn teacher-centric practices with my students. 

However, two strategies helped us gain momentum: first, centering relationships to build mutual trust over time; and second, using gentle prompting and offering ideas and choices about what students might learn and do to achieve stated objectives. These strategies established safety and structure that allowed students freedom to share their ideas. 

Implementing and Iterating

My experience taught me that there are three key elements of a successful cocreated course: creating a genuine space for student contribution, empowering students’ engagement with technology, and sharing monitoring and assessment. 

I involved students directly in decision-making regarding content, projects, deadlines, and physical classroom setup. This gave them personal accountability, motivation, and drive, as we had shared ownership of the course and were all stakeholders in its success. 

For many students, this course facilitated their first use of technology for an educational purpose—and giving them space and time to explore relevant programs boosted engagement and equipped them with transferable skills, like finding accurate and reliable information from internet sources. 

We used tools like project management and productivity trackers, social media, communication platforms, and collaborative boards. And students used content creation software and our learning management system to host their digital portfolios. 

Examples from the Classroom

Perhaps the most magical part of the course was making collective decisions regarding tests, quizzes, and projects. Students created products and engaged in peer review and group discussions to establish criteria that I used to build the mark schemes. 

For example, students needed to create a public service announcement video on an issue of their choice, like drink-spiking or mask-wearing. They observed exemplars from the previous cohort as well as from well-known campaigns, like the Ad Council’s “Love Has No Labels,” and came up with some criteria, like “Must show a call to action.” 

Of course, this approach requires scaffolding: I found it helpful to set clear expectations and guidelines with students around deadlines and communication; provide ongoing, personalized, actionable feedback and support through frequent check-in meetings; and share purposeful, flexible objectives while remaining open to creative means of achieving them.

Thoughts for the Future

Inspired by my experience with participative teaching and students’ requisite engagement, I now have the goal of applying a collaborative structure to some of my more traditional, content-heavy courses. 

Inviting students to cocreate the curriculum shifts ownership and accountability to learners and fosters democratic teaching practices, without sacrificing the objectives and goals that align learning experiences. 

Adaptability is part of what makes a cocreated course agile and exciting. My students have shown me that it is possible, that deep and enduring learning can occur when we take a risk by reversing traditional classroom roles, and that there are many ways to engage with knowledge individually and together.

Do You Check For Understanding Often Enough With Students?

Blogger Elena Aguilar reminds us why formative assessments are important and offers strategies to use during a lesson or topic of study.

A few months ago, I wrote for chúng tôi about the power of focusing on a few, high-priority standards as a strategy to improve student learning. Many other elements also need to be in play in a classroom in order to produce the results that we all want to see for our students.

To name just a few: The learning environment needs to be one in which students feel respected and safe to take risks; kids need to feel that their learning has a purpose and that the curriculum is relevant to their lives; and students need feedback on their progress — they need to know what they’re trying to accomplish, where they are in relation to the goal, and what they need to do in order to get there.

It is the teacher’s role to make sure this happens.

The Multi-Tasking Teacher

Although to be an effective teacher it often feels like you need to be one of those Hindu gods with a dozen arms, I believe that educators do need to hold standards and objectives in one hand and formative assessments in the other. We then need to juggle them back and forth. It’s essential to break down a high-priority standard into bite size learning objectives that are measurable and then it’s absolutely critical to have a way to check, every single day, on how well students mastered that objective.

Having a well-written learning objective, in student-friendly language, is not enough.

This isn’t easy. In fact, there’s nothing easy about teaching. But it is essential that every time students leave our classroom, we ask a number of questions:

How do I know that they learned what I wanted them to learn?

How well did they learn the objective?

Who mastered it and who didn’t?

Which parts of the objective did students struggle with? What misconceptions did they have?

If we don’t answer these questions, all of our careful planning and breaking down of standards and creating a positive learning environment and making curriculum relevant is useless.

As educators, we are responsible for learning, not teaching.

So how do we do assess every day how well students mastered the objectives?

The Key: Formative Assessment

A lot has been written about on-going, formative assessments, but my favorite resource is Checking for Understanding by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey This book is a quick and easy read, very accessible and full of dozens of ways to thoughtfully and systematically monitor student learning.

Fisher and Frey define a formative assessment as one that serves to improve instruction and provide student feedback and which is administered throughout instruction. Students use the results to monitor their own learning; teachers use the results to check for understanding and then to plan their next instructional moves.

In contrast, a summative assessment is administered at the end of a course or unit, and is used to measure student competency. Teachers use these results for grades.

If formative assessments are used consistently, and used well, neither a teacher nor a student should ever be surprised by his/her final grade, and I would argue that the great majority of students should be successful.

A Few Examples

Formative assessments can be:

Questioning strategies that are used with the whole group or individuals

Think-pair-share, during which the teacher circulates and listens to students sharing

Individual mini-white boards for ongoing assessment during a lesson

An “exit ticket,” which is a quarter or half sheet of paper where students write about their learning for the day, or answer a brief question or two

Hand signals, as a quick and easy way to check for understanding

I imagine that most teachers are familiar with these strategies and many others.

Recently I observed a fantastic first grade Sheltered English teacher who used a variety of formative assessment techniques to ensure that students mastered their objective (to analyze characters and identify the setting in a picture book).

As the teacher read the story, she instructed students to use specific hand gestures when they heard repetitive phrases and to repeat those phrases out loud. This engaged students, assured that they were following the language patterns, and allowed the teacher to check that all students heard and understood a repeating phrase (important oral language development for English Language Learners).

Then she had students talk to each other about the characters and share their ideas with the whole group. Finally, she distributed three response cards to the children: one card said “who,” another said “when,” and the last said “where.”

The teacher named a character or aspect of the setting, such as “sheep,” and students had to hold up the card that identified the literary element. In this way, the teacher was able to immediately see who was struggling with the concepts and to provide corrective feedback.

Planning is a Must

When I write lesson plans, I have a column in which I write the activity that students will do or where I detail my instructional moves. Next to that is another column where I identify the formative assessment strategies that I will use during those activities.

In order for my checking for understanding to be as useful as possible, I need to carefully plan and consider which strategy will be most effective with the planned activity. If I don’t plan, I tend to use a few strategies over and over, or I don’t get the most accurate data. This doesn’t mean that I don’t throw in a spontaneous strategy now and then, but it assures me that I’ll get the student data I need by the end of that lesson.

What have you learned about formative assessments from using them? Do you have a strategy to check for understanding that you find effective? Please share your ideas and expertise with us!

8 Ways To Explore Seasons And Weather With Elementary Students

A science lesson is one of the most exciting times to observe an elementary school classroom. During science, you can see that students are engaged with each other, standing on their feet solving problems, testing theories, sharing what they learned, and making plans to learn more. 

Research suggests that students have large knowledge gaps in science and that these gaps persist throughout elementary school into middle school. For example, students entering third grade are expected to know the names of the seasons and basic season characteristics so that they can begin focusing on the Earth’s orbit, weather, and climates.

assessing prior knowledge

Can you name the four seasons?

What is your favorite season?

In what season were you born? 

Why do seasons change?

What do you know about the seasons and the hemispheres? 

What words would you use to describe the weather?

Do you know the names of the continents and where they are on the globe? 

weather and seasons activities

1. The Seasons Walk: I created a seasonal walk plan and calendar. To create a plan like this, schedule at least two walks each season to observe the seasons’ changes. The first walk should occur on the first day of the season. Consider a rubric that promotes observations and encourages feedback from the students. The walk can include a scavenger hunt or weather check. This can also be an art project where they gather seasonal artifacts or a math lesson where they analyze data. You can invite parents or other members of the school to volunteer to help manage the walk.

2. Students’ Seasons Birthday Calendar: For this activity, the class creates a large classroom seasonal birthday wall calendar. Each student makes their own birthday plaque to reflect their personality and interest. They place the plaque on the wall calendar under the correct season. This visual personalizes the seasons. It can also turn into a math lesson where students average the number of birthdays across the season. Encourage students to create their own family birthday season calendar.

3. Classroom Seasons Word Wall: Students learn seasonal vocabulary as part of reading, writing, science, and creating a word or sentence wall or mural of usual and unusual words for each of the seasons. Throughout the school years, the word wall or mural can be used to depict the seasons through art projects.

4. Hemisphere Seasons Hunt: For this activity, students use a globe and a model of the sun to learn about the hemispheres and how seasons differ in each hemisphere. For example, when it is summer in the United States, it is winter in Australia. Make a game by creating two sets of game cards. One set of cards is the seasons, and the other has two locations on it, and students guess the season for each place and its hemisphere location.

6. Community Seasons: Consider reaching out to a classroom teacher friend or family member from another part of the state or another state to become a “seasons” pen pal for your classroom. Provide your students with a calendar, and have them chart the seasons for your community and their pen pal‘s community. Students chart temperatures, types of clothing worn, activities engaged in, etc. This can be integrated into ELA and geography.

7. Seasonal Weather: The weather offers so many opportunities for teaching students about the seasons through charting, analysis, and reflections. Students can chart the weather for the first week of each month and then analyze how it changes each month and within the season. (This was always a morning hit with my second and third graders. They loved being able to look at their community from a different perspective and always found something new to question.) Why did the weather change so quickly at the beginning of winter?

8. Climate vs. Weather: In this activity, students learn the difference between weather and climate and incorporate the two into models and murals that explore climate change. Students travel around the globe by creating different climate types (tropical, dry, temperate, continental, and polar) in the classroom. Exploring books and documentaries helps them think critically and draw their own conclusions. They read books about climate change written by youth and form their own opinions about climate change.

As I set out to make sure that students understood the science behind seasons, my goal was to ensure that they knew that seasons were more than leaves in autumn, snow in winter, heat in summer, and flowers in spring. I hoped they would learn that seasons represent a variety of weather conditions, changes in human behaviors and the environment, and seasonal activities. As students explored the science of the seasons through language arts, geography, history, and math, collecting data and exploring different parts of the world, they built the confidence necessary to transition into their grade-level schoolwork.

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