4 Ways I Use Chalk/White Boards

I love chalk boards. I never have to worry about whether the lines are dark enough or if any given piece of chalk will be dried out. Chalk just works. Unfortunately, whiteboards replaced chalkboards in most classrooms long ago and all too often smart boards are replacing whiteboards. I don’t think the old school chalk and white boards get enough credit. So, here are four ways I think old-fashioned boards are still really useful for teaching and learning. 

1) Documenting student ideas. When we ask better questions we should expect students to provide multiple answers. Yet, keeping track of the diversity of student answers requires a lot of mental effort. I try to offload some of this mental effort by writing the students’ thinking on the board. When I do write the ideas on the board, I try really hard to write exactly what they say. Some students are long-winded, so I sometimes ask, “How can we simplify what you said to write it on the board?” I’d argue that this act of having to simplify their own thinking is a useful process all by itself, but it also saves me a lot of writing! I also try really hard to write all of the students’ ideas – even if they are not accurate. When we are brainstorming, I am simply documenting ideas and I can come back to the ideas later so don’t have to address misconceptions immediately.  This gives me some time to think about how to help students move away from their misconceptions. 

2) Comparing ideas. Once we have the student ideas documented, I can draw attention to two (or more) ideas and ask them to compare. For example, I might ask, “How are this idea (point) and this idea (point) different?” This might be when I help students become dissatisfied with certain ideas as well. While we don’t want to reject students’ ideas, we don’t want them to walk around thinking their misconceptions are correct. However, if I ask students to rethink an idea 5 after we’ve generated a 10-idea list, most of the students have forgotten who said what so we can discuss the idea divorced from the person who held the idea. 

3) Drawing pictures. I am not a talented artist, but I am a careful drawer of diagrams. I’ve honed this craft over may years of trying to convey accurate thinking through pictures. While I could simply show students a pre-made diagram from a text book, I believe their is value in drawing the picture with them. When we watch someone draw, we get insight into their thinking and we can use the process as a teaching moment.  For example, after drawing a certain feature I might ask the class, “Why do you think I drew that part the way I did?”

4) Modeling problem-solving. Similar to drawing pictures to demonstrate thinking, I think the board can be used to model problem-solving in a purposefully less efficient way. Rather than having a worked example ready to go, I might ask the students to propose a situation related to some content we just learned (e.g. A new situation in which to draw force diagrams or a new set of numbers to try a mathematical approach). In these situations I might ask the students to tackle the new situation/problem on their own or in groups first, but when we come together as a whole class, the board is a useful tool. I might draw the situation/problem and then ask the students what I should do next. The board becomes our common vantage point, but I have to encourage students to think about what we are doing. Rather than simply working the problem or completing the scenario, I ask them what to do next or why what we did seemed to work.

Clearly, we don’t often think of the board as cutting-edge educational technology. However, because boards are so versatile we can use them to react to changing conditions in the classroom in some ways better than digital technologies. However, just like all technologies, boards have pros and cons and how we use them matters. 

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Taking Things Personally

So, this post was spurred by a somewhat random thought and came out very stream of consciousness, but ended up in kind of an interesting place. Enjoy!

Early in my teaching career (ok, even now), I let student misbehavior or pushback really get to me. I would hang on to their disrespect or disdain for days and even weeks. I wanted students to like me, and I was really bothered when they didn’t. Over time, I have been able to shift away from taking things personally and am able to let go of student perceptions and not see their misbehavior as a direct attack on my character. 

I think I see some of my early thinking play out in many new teachers’ unwillingness to intervene when students are causing a distraction. Unfortunately, the distraction takes mental energy and the rest of the lesson suffers. I suspect that at least in some cases, we as teachers are holding onto a very common desire to be liked. Rocking the boat is scary. I wish I could remember the first time I asked a student to stick around after class to discuss their distracting actions, but I don’t. I do know that my approach has evolved over the years. Instead of telling the students what is wrong, I try really hard to ask questions – something like, “I noticed you were having trouble paying attention today, what can I do to help?” While I am drawing the students’ attention to the fact that I noticed, I’m also trying to help, not give an ultimatum. Ultimatums might work with some kids, but those are probably the kids that aren’t all that distracting in the first place. Maybe I’ve been able to take things less personally because I’m taking things more personally. Rather than creating an adversarial relationship, I can now see how we are in it together. Instead of projecting my own sense of inadequacy, I’m accepting my own responsibility for helping them learn.

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3 Ways to Increase Student Engagement…tomorrow!

Recently, I watched a few teachers teach back-to-back. All of the teachers were asking good questions and responding to students appropriately, but there was something different about the last teacher I watched that day. They seemed to be doing something different that held the students’ attention. I don’t believe they were asking better questions and didn’t seem to have a magical lesson planned in comparison to the others. Then, it hit me like a ton of bricks (one that I had been hit with before, but sometimes we need multiple tons to remind us of the painfully obvious). 

So, here are three things that last teacher was doing to get her kids engaged.

1) Move around the room. This teacher was rarely stationary. It is really easy to get stuck at the front of the room. Science classes often have that stupid demo table that gets in the way and lecture halls make it clear where the teachers is “supposed” to be. However, when we move, we play into the evolutionary adaptation that our eyes pay attention to movement. When we use a lot of wait time (as we should), moving out among the students seems to encourage them to consider a response.

2) Move away from the student that is talking. When one student started talking, the teacher seemed to back away from the speaker. They maintained eye contact, but put more distance (and more students) between the teacher and the student speaking. I noticed the rest of the students kept their eyes on the student speaker and the speaker seemed to be talking to the class rather than the teacher. By moving away from the speaker, the teacher seemed to bring the rest of the class into the conversation. This is not normal, but wow did it work. Our gut instinct is to move toward a speaker, but shifting this may get more kids involved.

3) Smile. This teacher really liked working with her students. I could literally see it on her face. She was smiling with her eyebrows raised and an open posture (hands out, leaning toward students). Students could tell she wanted to hear their ideas. This one seems obvious, but it’s really easy to forget. Sometimes I get bored by some topics I teach. However, this was a good reminder that my expressed enthusiasm (or lack thereof) directly impacts student engagement.

Sometimes we try to trick students into being engaged and they usually see through that really quickly. Technological approaches often result in entertainment rather than engagement or short-lived engagement. While I’ll continue to ask good questions and create interesting activities in the name of student engagement, sometimes it’s nice to see some of the simple strategies we have to encourage student engagement work so well. 

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Changing the world. 

Looking ahead is hard. I think most of us recognize that our teaching can always be better, but figuring out how to build that future for ourselves and our students is daunting. First, change requires us to be critical of what we are currently doing and that can be emotionally draining. Then, we have to figure out what to do first. Unfortunately, knowing what to do first is not always clear and what works for one person doesn’t always work for others.  We’ve got an uphill battle on our hands.

I was reminded of how difficult changing our teaching can be during a conversation I had with a colleague who currently teaches in the K-12 system. We were lamenting the constraints placed on teachers and he was explaining how he can’t just change everything all at once. I agreed that trying to change everything simultaneously was likely not going work and that when trying to change too much, we often fall flat on our face and the net gain is zero. So, we brainstormed one thing he could do differently – just one thing to make 5 minutes of his teaching more aligned to the future he envisions for his classroom. 

If we can change one thing enough times, we’ll change the world.

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Throwback Thursday: my first post 

Below is the very first post on this blog from November 30th, 2008. Reading it reminds me of listening to the very first recordings my band in high school made. They were terrible, but they were a start. 

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I am a teacher of 8th grade students in the midwest. The subject I am charged with teaching is science, specifically Earth Science. However, I use my classroom to teach students about critical thinking, cooperation, and many other life skills. I use technology pervasively in my classroom in an effort to both enhance my instruction as well as help students develop so-called “21st century skills”. Because of my high interest in technology and my use of technology in my classroom, as well as my extensive work in education I hope readers will gain new insight into common ideas and problems. I want to especially make clear the need to critically question the use of technology as a “magic-bullet” to fix all of our problems, both societal and educational. I will use my own classroom as a jumping-off-point to critique and further consider the use of technology in education. I also hope to draw from outside resources and maybe even gain reader contributions. Here goes nothing in the hopes of creating something!

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Face-to-Face vs. Online

I’ve been skeptical of online education for quite some time. First, putting courses online is often pursued for economic gain. Unfortunately, the infrastructue costs and low class sizes needed to make online courses effective mean the margin for profit is the same or worse than face-to-face education. This often results in less-than-effective courses being designed so that a lot of students can take them at once. Second, when studies do compare face-t0-face instruction with online instruction, the “experiment” (because it’s never randomly assigned) is done by comparing traditional lecture-based approaches that we already know are ineffective to the online treatment condition. In these studies, the two are typically found to be equivalent and then the technophilic authors spend most of the paper proclaiming the primacy of online condition because the students “liked it”. 

Yet, my interest in technology has me consistently wondering how online education might be done better. Part of me really wants to put online and face-to-face instruction to a real test. To do this, I’m envisioning a study with four conditions, all taught by the same teacher: 1) Face-to-face lecture-based, 2)  Online lecture-based, 3) Face-to-face research-based, and 4) Online research-based. I don’t know that conditions 1 and 2 are necessary, but they’d provide an interesting ability to make comparisons. One difficulty will be randomly assigning students, so we’d probably end up with a quasi-experiemental design. Then, there is the issue of outcomes to be measured. The best teaching, in my view, develops so much more than content knowledge, but content knowledge is an obvious measure. However, measuring content knowledge can be done via recall, explanation, or application. Then, how would interest, problem-solving ability, mindsets, epistemological beliefs, etc. be affected. Decisions, decisions.

I definitely know my thoughts on how this study might turn out. I doubt I’ll ever do the full study, but maybe a smaller version someday. My curiousity might just be enough to make me create an online course to compare to the face-t0-face version.

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Technology does not make me a better teacher.

I have always been curious about technology in education. Despite what I would call a fairly useless technology class in my preservice education, I tried incorporating technology whenever I could in my teaching. One of my first uses of online technology was to have a class message board. I also remember early efforts to record readings onto iPods for students to listen as they read. Later on in my K-12 career I introduced my 8th graders to Twitter. This was 2008, so they hadn’t yet heard of it. It was interesting to see them start to use their accounts years later when the platform became more pervasive. 

As time went on I became known as a “techy” teacher. In the time before 1:1 initiatives, the laptop cart resided in my room and the IT folks were always bringing me new gadgets to try. I was proud of my use of technology. Then, I heard someone say, “That’s Mr. Kruse, he’s a great teacher because he’s using technology all the time with kids.”  

Ugh.

I’m honored that the person thought I was a good teacher, but that “because” really bothered me. We all know of ways to use technology in ways that are not effective. Instead, I’d like to think I use technology effectively because I am an effective teacher. This switch in order is significant. When we understand how to teach well, we can better integrate technology into our teaching. Adding technology doesn’t magically make a bad teacher better. 

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