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Listen to my interview with Rupa Chandra Gupta (transcript):

Sponsored by Peergrade and Microsoft Hacking STEM

In schools, we use more tech tools every year. We also have very little time to vet them for quality. Do the math and you have a formula for some tech choices that may not be serving our students as well, or as equitably, as they should be.

It’s easy to dismiss this as no big deal. So what if we occasionally adopt something that isn’t the very best choice? The answer to that depends on a couple of factors: Are we spending a lot of money on the tool? Is it going to replace other learning experiences? Will it be time-consuming to adopt? Are we expecting it to close gaps and provide remediation? If the answer to any of these is yes, then it would definitely be a big deal if our chosen tool didn’t actually do what we thought it did. It would be an even bigger deal if that tool ended up widening the very gaps we were trying to close.

This is not to say that schools are just going about their tech decisions all willy-nilly. Surely everyone is acting in good faith. But when all the tools seem ideal, when they all promise to solve some of our most persistent problems, it’s pretty hard to figure out which one to pick. What we need is a framework for making these decisions, a set of practices that can help us determine which tool is really going to deliver on its promises.

Rupa Chandra Gupta, founder and CEO of Sown to Grow, is hoping to contribute something to that framework. As a former school administrator and the head of an ed tech company, Gupta has been both a consumer and a producer; this has raised her awareness of the interplay between equity and technology. Now she wants to hold herself and her peers to a higher standard when it comes to designing tools that meet the needs of more students.

Rupa Chandra Gupta, CEO at Sown to Grow

Although Gupta is a believer in technology’s potential to boost learning, she has learned that it can also accelerate our mistakes. “Technology amplifies whatever is happening,” she says. “If we’re widening a gap, it can be amplified by technology, and it happens faster, and it happens sometimes under the radar, because teachers and students might not be having every interaction in person anymore.”

When Tech Falls Short

The earliest seeds of this idea were planted when Gupta was working for a middle school that was undergoing a lot of significant change. As part of their transformation, the school adopted a comprehensive, personalized learning platform. “We invested a ton of time, weeks of professional development over the summers. We changed fundamentally the core of our instructional model—everybody rewrote their curriculum.”

At first, things seemed to be going fine, with students improving on benchmark assessments from fall to winter. “When we first pulled the numbers, if you looked at the average scores, we saw pretty significant growth of students overall. Great, right? Everyone’s excited.”

But a closer look at the numbers uncovered a different story. “I disaggregated the data,” Gupta explains, “and what we found was our students who were entering sixth grade on or above grade level were soaring. They were doing incredibly well in that self-directed learning environment. But our students who were coming in behind grade level were actually falling further behind. Not just moving forward at a slower pace or even staying flat; they were falling further behind.”

Despite their investment of time and money into the platform, Gupta and her colleagues decided to stop using it. “There might have been some room to tweak and kind of modify,” Gupta says, “but the disparity was so wide that it was clear that we had to just stop.”

Obviously, this decision was inconvenient, and it left Gupta with the feeling that there had to be a better way, a more deliberate, systematic approach to evaluating tech before diving in. The following six strategies are what she suggests.

6 Strategies for Deeply Assessing Tech

Whether you’re considering a new tool or wondering whether one that’s currently in use is really effective, these six strategies can help you make more informed decisions.

1. Use it Like a Student

Sign in as a student and go through all the core elements of a tool. Put yourself in the shoes of one of your higher performing students and one of your lower performing students. How does the tool respond when students make mistakes? Where are the challenges? How can you solve them?

2. Launch a Pilot Group

Although using a tool “as” a student can uncover problems, nothing works better than putting it in the hands of real students. Instead of launching a platform school-wide, take the time to pilot it first with students. Gather a diverse group for this—both high achievers and students who are likely to struggle, native English speakers and English learners, and students who come from varied cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds—then pay attention to differences in how they are using, enjoying, and experiencing a product. Do they understand how to navigate inside the platform? Is the language used by the tool accessible to them? These kinds of questions should be considered before any kind of school-wide implementation.

3. Look Closely at Data

Although a tool might be giving you good results on the surface, your numbers could look different from another angle, so be sure to look closely. “If you do get data from any tools that you’re using yourself or from other benchmark assessments,” Gupta says, “break down the results by different student populations. Look for unintentional widening of equity gaps.”

This scrutiny should also be applied to tools that might not be purely academic, like apps meant to increase parent involvement. “I’ve seen digital portfolio apps that are beautiful and easy for kids to take pictures of their work and send home to parents and all of that,” Gupta says. “But I wonder: Is this a way for parents who are already engaged to get more engaged? Or is it really speaking to parents who we’ve been trying to bring into the fold? If parents don’t have smartphones and computers at home, can they access this stuff? If there is a subset of folks who aren’t able to engage or access, it’s probably folks who we want to make sure we’re not leaving behind, right?”

4. Think About Why

Ask yourself critical questions about how and why something works to improve student learning. “How is this tool fundamentally changing something about teaching and learning?” Gupta says. “What is it about this that’s innovative or different? I think when you ask yourself those questions, you can think about how that’ll play out for different groups of students. Is this tool truly changing learning experiences, or is it just a worksheet in an online format?”

5. Ask About Impact

If you spend a few minutes on an ed tech company’s website, you’re likely to find statistics about the tool’s effectiveness. Gupta has noticed that these numbers are rarely disaggregated by different levels of learners. “There’s not nearly enough transparent information about this,” she says. “So I would put the burden on people like me who are building tools. Ask them about evidence of impact in working with different types of learners. Like, ‘tell me what the difference is between these different types of students I serve.’ And if you don’t know, how are you going to find out?”

6. Follow Your Gut

“Experienced educators have such an amazing sense for what’s going to work well for their students in their context,” Gupta says. “So trust your gut.” Listening to your gut can prompt you to take a closer look and follow through with the other steps listed above.

Does this mean you have to stop using a favorite tool? Not necessarily. “None of this is intended to suggest that teachers stop using things they like,” Gupta says. “It’s more like OK, this is making me nervous about X, Y, and Z. What scaffolds am I going to put into place? It’s meant to make sure that this thinking is a part of the protocol when you are testing new tools and ideas. Because if we can elevate it in the conversation, then I think it’s more likely that the whole system will adjust to make sure it’s elevated in importance, right?” 

You can find Rupa Chandra Gupta on Twitter at @rupa_c_g. Learn more about how Sown to Grow measures its own impact at sowntogrow.com/impact.

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Listen to my interview with Hasan Kwame Jeffries (transcript):

Sponsored by Peergrade and Microsoft Inclusive Classroom

Every couple of weeks, I hear someone repeat some version of this sentiment: “Slavery ended in 1865. Get over it.”

And although I know this claim is riddled with problems, my ability to adequately refute it is limited. That’s because my education on American slavery, its causes, and its aftermath, consisted of answering end-of-chapter textbook questions in grades 5, 8, and 11. We “covered” the topic, took a test where we matched Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln, and Dred Scott to their one-line descriptions, then moved on. It was treated as a period of bad behavior in our country’s history, behavior that the “good guys” ultimately put a stop to, and since then, things have been much better. The end.

In the years that followed, I built a kind of patchwork understanding of slavery through books, college classes, and films. While every new piece has refined and expanded my understanding of the massive role slavery has played in our history and our contemporary life, the pieces still feel discrete, never stitched together into a cohesive whole. I feel like I’m still lacking a lot of information and insight. Still, if I’d never taken that initiative on my own, if I’d stopped learning at graduation, my knowledge of slavery might very well be limited to “Slavery ended in 1865.”

And that’s where a lot of people are.

Earlier this year, the Southern Poverty Law Center published a report about how the topic of slavery is being taught in the United States. The report reveals that most students have significant knowledge gaps when it comes to some of the most basic facts about slavery, and in many states, social studies standards related to slavery are incredibly limited in their scope. While teachers feel that slavery is an important topic to teach, many of them don’t feel that they are adequately prepared or supported to do a thorough job.

To address these problems, the Southern Poverty Law Center, through its website, Teaching Tolerance, has put together a comprehensive Framework for Teaching American Slavery, an outstanding collection of resources and guidelines for history teachers. The framework provides a list of 10 key concepts and 21 summary objectives to help you and your students give American slavery a thorough, thoughtful examination. It also includes over 100 primary source texts and a set of sample Inquiry Design Models—teaching plans that actually show you how to walk students through an inquiry of slavery with guiding questions, analysis of primary sources, and performance tasks to synthesize what they’ve learned.

Another piece of the framework is the Teaching Hard History Podcast, which is produced for teachers. Every episode looks at the teaching of slavery from a slightly different angle, with topics like Slavery in the Supreme Court, Slavery and the Northern Economy, and Slave Resistance, with each topic explored by one prominent history scholar. If you teach history, you need to make time to listen to this incredible podcast—not only will it deepen your understanding of American Slavery, it will give you so many insights on how to teach difficult topics.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries

The podcast is hosted by Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Associate Professor of History at The Ohio State University and chair of the Teaching Hard History Advisory Board. I recently talked with Dr. Jeffries about the Teaching Hard History framework. You can listen to our whole conversation in the player above or read a full transcript, also linked above.

“Why do we call it ‘hard history’?” Jeffries asked. “There are a number of phenomena in the American experience that are difficult for Americans to talk about, to teach about, to think about, and almost all of them certainly revolve around race and racism, and slavery is really foremost among those. So the ‘hard history’ is slavery itself, because it really is something that we have found, as Americans, is hard to talk about in our everyday lives, hard to think about, and certainly hard to teach in the classroom setting.”

The curriculum not only points out what we’ve been getting wrong—things like not focusing enough on the inhumanity of the system of slavery, or limiting its scope to the American South—it also describes what we should be doing to get it right. In particular, the podcast does a wonderful job of going in-depth about teaching practices.

At this time in history, when racism and social divisions have risen so sharply onto our daily landscapes, high-quality education on these issues is more important than ever. Jeffries points to just one example of the gaps in our understanding: “How do you wind up with a Charlottesville of the last year and people talking about Confederate monuments and white supremacy and this, that, and the other, without understanding its roots in American slavery, and the birth of white supremacy in American ideology to justify slavery and then to justify Jim Crow, and the emergence of these Confederate monuments not in 1865 but in 1915 and 1960 as African Americans were fighting against white supremacy and Jim Crow? This is hard because it’s so relevant to today.”

Anyone who teaches history—even indirectly through literature—will be far better equipped to teach about slavery after exploring these materials. If more schools use them, and more students are exposed to the complex relationship our country has always had with slavery, we might get to a place where we have more elevated conversations about race, and people stop saying “Get over it.” 

Click this image to learn more about the Teaching Hard History Framework.

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When something amazing happens in your classroom but only you see it, did it really happen? Sometimes I feel that way. There’s a moment: a quiet, kind interaction between two students who often bicker, or a new game that students manage to play well without a hitch, or when you suddenly remember a long-forgotten idea which is perfect for helping the student in front of you. These things happen and may even catch us by surprise. But then what do we do with those moments?

In the rush of day-to-day teaching, I’m afraid that many of those moments may get lost. Or perhaps more likely, they get buried. So much happens in a school day, there are literally thousands of discrete interactions and decisions made, the majority of which are in connection with other people. And our brains are wired to hold onto negative information to prevent mistakes in the future. So when good or even great things happen in our classrooms or during the school day, they may not be top of mind once class is over. They are more likely somewhere in the middle, sandwiched  between the heated parent e-mail in the morning and the unanticipated extra recess duty in the afternoon. For those of us who teach in environments where good news may not be met with enthusiasm, mentioning and retaining those bright spots becomes another challenge. Lacking an outlet or container for these episodes can also make it difficult for us to connect them with other positive moments we’ve had.

As educators we’re aware of the benefits of positive reinforcement and the need for confidence-building in our pedagogy for students. But that’s often where it stops. When it comes to our own learning and day-to-day practice, how regularly do we apply a similar reasoning? How actively do we acknowledge our wins as fully as our setbacks? In this post I want to advocate for seeking out the good in our own gardens and cultivating our best with what we have right now, even as we are bombarded with stories of greener grass everywhere we look.

Working on What Works

These ideas have not emerged out of the ether. My thinking about this approach stems from a program for the classroom, based on Solution-focused Brief Therapy, called Working on What Works (WOWW) developed by Insoo Kim Berg and Lee Shilts. In a nutshell, the program calls on students and teachers to notice and articulate specific actions that contribute to the success of an intervention. Students learn to observe, name and compliment the behaviors that have been identified as positive and nurturing.

Two factors come together in this approach which turn out to be especially effective in building classroom confidence and community: First is a focus on strengths—in individual student behaviors, in the class group, in the observable results. The second piece is an emphasis on student input and feedback on their own progress individually and as a group. Taken together, while Working on What Works, students and teachers learn to keep their eyes and ears open for the good stuff: compliments, celebrations, breakthroughs, perseverance and how to share that news with each other. This video provides an example of the program in practice.

Noticing the Good for Ourselves

I think there are lots of avenues we can travel in locating our very distinct examples of teaching/learning goodness. The suggestions here serve as a sort of starter pack for collecting your own shining moments and to train your eyes to see more of the bright spots. Some of these can be done on your own, yet many might be fun and enlightening to try with a friend or colleague.

Observing and listening:
  • Describe a winning moment/event you observed in someone else’s classroom.
  • Describe a winning moment/event in your own classroom.
  • Be on the lookout for bright spots in your learning community. Consider documenting them in a journal or through other means.
  • When dealing with a student behavior you find difficult, later consider asking: What have you seen the student do well? When is the student most likely to set the difficult behaviors aside?
  • When something makes you laugh out loud when you are with students, write it down afterwards. What was it? What was the source of the humor?
  • When a student gives you a compliment, listen carefully. Which compliments do you hear from students most often? What do your students love about you?
  • When parents express gratitude, listen carefully. What are parents grateful for? How have you served them and their children?
  • When colleagues ask for your advice or input, think about what allows them to trust and value your contribution.
Reading and writing ideas:
  • When you examine student work, notice evidence of growth. List all the things, large and small, that you accomplished, helped along, kept in check, turned around, made happen in the process. Capture those reflections in a journal entry, blog post, on the back of an envelope or share with a teammate.
  • Write a thank-you note to yourself. (No really, hear me out.) This may sound goofy and feel very awkward but please try it. Sit down and scratch out a few sentences telling yourself what you’ve accomplished, improved, learned. Don’t edit, just write, read and put it in a place where you can stumble upon it later.
  • If you enjoy engaging on social media, try finding a few fellow educators who blog about their classroom experiences where student strengths feature prominently. Leave comments to show appreciation or connect it to your own practice. Two edubloggers I find who do this especially well are Julia Torres and Jennifer Orr.
  • Particularly if you are looking for a community of teacher bloggers to share wins and practice various modes of writing at the same time, you might consider joining the Slice of Life Community, sponsored by the Two Writing Teachers. Teachers on post Tuesdays and commit to commenting on at least 3 blogs per week. I have enjoyed this new outlet for sharing brief reflections and receiving encouragement along the way.
Making it stick

Highlighting and keeping track of the wins in our own intimate teaching spaces and inside our filled-to-the-brim heads should not become a new chore. Instead, find a method of collecting and/or sharing these moments that feels right for you and the way you work. Here are a few suggestions:

To do on your own:
  • Where do you keep your lesson plans or planning notes? Create a dedicated space or use sticky notes. Try recording one good thing per day for a number of days in a row 10, 15, 30—whatever feels manageable. At the end of each week, review them and see if any patterns emerge.
  • In any parent correspondence such as newsletters, portfolio updates or class blog, note specific evidence of teaching and learning successes. Reflect on progress made and take a moment to acknowledge what you did or are doing to enable those instances of growth in your classroom.
  • Keep a micro journal on your desk to jot down 1-2 bright spots per class (or perhaps create a electronic file to do the same).
To do with colleagues:
  • Create a shout-out board where teachers can leave notes describing winning moments observed among staff.
  • Tweet, blog, pin or post a winning moment on your social media outlet of choice. Consider starting a hashtag to encourage others to join you. #Eduwins, perhaps. Or #WoWWmoment.
  • Find a group of colleagues and agree on a time to have lunch or other break time together. Dedicate the first few minutes to sharing success stories with each other. This could also be applied at any regular meeting fixture.

While I have not yet been in a position to pursue the full WoWW program, the thinking behind it remains a central part of my teaching practice: emphasizing and bolstering strengths. That’s why I feel it is doubly important that we practice these ideas on ourselves first before showering our students with so much new-found wisdom. Whenever we take an opportunity to reflect on and document our wins in the classroom, it adds to our self-efficacy and builds our confidence as teachers. We fertilize our own growth as educators and cultivate gardens of learning and community with our students. 

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Join our mailing list and get weekly tips, tools, and inspiration that will make your teaching more effective and fun. You’ll get access to our members-only library of free downloads, including 20 Ways to Cut Your Grading Time in Half, the e-booklet that has helped thousands of teachers save time on grading. Over 50,000 teachers have already joined—come on in!
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Listen to my interview with John Spencer (transcript):

Sponsored by Peergrade and Microsoft Class Notebook

This post contains Amazon Affiliate links. When you make a purchase through these links, Cult of Pedagogy gets a small percentage of the sale at no extra cost to you.

For as long as I’ve been aware of makerspaces, I haven’t quite understood them. I have seen plenty of photos on social media, with the towers made of marshmallows and toothpicks. I’ve walked through exhibit halls at conferences where the coding and robotics displays cause me to stop, stare, and try to look like I have some idea of what I’m looking at. I even stumbled into a Twitter chat one night where a group of school librarians was throwing around some pretty great ideas about building makerspaces in their libraries.

And yet, I still feel like I don’t get it. I have this picture in my mind of kids kind of messing around with Legos instead of, I don’t know, reading primary source materials that would shed light on some period in history. Or taping together some cardboard strips to make them into a car. Or attaching some kind of wire to a banana. I don’t know…the more traditional, stodgy, control-freak part of me says it looks like a bunch of hooey.

But some of the smartest people I know are pretty into makerspaces, and the part of me that’s not a stodgy control freak, the part that knows there’s a lot about tradition we need to question, that part of me wants to find out once and for all what’s so great about makerspaces.

So I asked one of those smart people, my friend John Spencer, who was a classroom teacher for a number of years and currently teaches at the university level. He’s also the co-author, with A.J. Juliani, of the books Launch: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student, and Empower: What Happens When Students Own their Learning.

John Spencer

Spencer teaches online courses about Project-Based Learning, Design Thinking, and Makerspaces, and I really trust his thinking, so I knew he would be a great person to help me demystify the makerspace: What it is, why we would want one, and how to get started.

What Is a Makerspace?

Spencer’s definition of a makerspace is much broader than my mental image of Legos and cardboard.

“I see a makerspace as simply a space designed and dedicated to hands-on creativity,” he explains, “and the key thing there is they’re actually making something. Creativity is sometimes idea generation, it’s sometimes problem-solving. But (in) a makerspace, you’re actually going to create some kind of product. Now it could be a digital product. It could be a physical product. But there is an actual product, so you’re not going to, say, design an event or a service project. That’s not what a makerspace is for, so it’s a space devoted to and differentiated and set up for making.”

That space would look different in different classrooms, and even within one classroom, the materials might look different throughout the year, depending on the type of learning that’s happening at the time. Sometimes it might include things like cardboard and duct tape, and other times it might consist of items like laptops, microphones, and green screens. A makerspace can take the form of a mobile cart that can be shared between classrooms, a set of stations that students rotate between, or a variety of materials and equipment that live in various parts of the classroom, accessible to students when the need arises.

Why Would Teachers Want a Makerspace in Their Classrooms?

Once we understand that a makerspace isn’t limited to certain materials, it gets easier to see how a makerspace could be incorporated into any classroom. Spencer explains that the value isn’t subject-specific; it’s more about engagement and mindset.

“We know that students learn at a deeper level and they retain more when they’re engaged in creative thinking connecte to the subject, right?” he says. “So to begin with, just within the content area, (making is) going to allow for deeper learning.”

And more making in the classroom leads to a maker mindset, which Spencer believes is essential to living a full and successful life in the 21st century.

“There was a time when you could follow the formula: Work hard at school, go to college, and climb a corporate ladder. But because of the complex global economy, because of the creative economy, the information economy, our students are going to have to navigate a maze. The ladder is now a maze. And because it’s a maze, what do they need in order to navigate that? They need to be able to engage in iterative thinking, creative thinking, critical thinking, they need to know how to pivot, how to change, how to revise, how to persevere. They need to solve complex problems. They need to think divergently. All of those are involved in that maker mindset. And so if you can embed that maker mindset inside of the curriculum, and you tap into the standards that you’re teaching, then they’re able to develop that maker mindset. The space is just the platform that facilitates it.”

A Few Maker Project Examples

To fully understand what making can look like in action, let’s look at some sample maker projects and how each one can align with academic standards.

Documentary Film
To get a deeper understanding of a particular time period or event, and to gain an appreciation for the challenges faced by historians, students could create their own documentary films. This would incorporate social studies and English language arts standards, as students would need to write a script for the documentary.

Design the Ultimate Roller Coaster
Using a marble, duct tape, cardboard, and popsicle sticks, students must design a working roller coaster. This gets them working with the science concepts of force and motion. Taken one step further, students could also create a website for their roller coaster that requires them to write ad copy and combine text and images to attract visitors, which would draw on English language arts standards.

The Tiny House Project
In this project, students design a tiny house, which gives them practice with the math concepts of volume, surface area, and proportional reasoning. More importantly, it also helps them understand math in a real-world context.

Maker Challenge: Design the Ultimate Tiny House - YouTube

To see more examples, visit Spencer’s maker challenge playlist on his YouTube channel.

Managing a Makerspace

Teaching with a makerspace presents some management issues: Popsicle sticks and styrofoam can make a mess, projects are more likely to take place over several days, and the active work has the potential to be noisy.

Before sharing his management tips, Spencer is quick to point out that classroom management can actually be easier when teachers add more making to their instruction. “(When a task is) meaningful to students, and they’re engaged in creative thinking, and they’re solving problems, and it’s hands-on, then in those moments, there’s not an incentive to rebel and act crazy.”

To prevent some of the problems that can come with active making in the classroom, Spencer offers these suggestions:

  • Talk with students ahead of time about the expectations for the task or the makerspace. Rather than wait for problems to happen, establish procedures and guidelines ahead of time. “I need a certain level of calmness and quiet built into where I am, otherwise I personally get anxious,” Spencer says. “It feels unsafe to me, even if it’s not unsafe. If that’s true of me, that’s probably true of certain students. So for that reason, I always have some rules and procedures.”
  • Co-construct guidelines and procedures with students. If you can get student input about how to handle breakable materials, for example, or what to do when class time is almost over but you’re not finished with your work, you’ll end up with a set of rules that everyone is invested in.
  • Build in moments of silence. To keep his own classroom focused, Spencer would provide opportunities for quiet reflection right in the middle of class. “I would have some times where I would say, ‘Hey guys, we’re moving into silent mode for two minutes so that you can process and think about what you’re working on,’ or ‘I’m going to give you a prompt. You don’t have to write it down, but I just want you to think through this question about what you’re learning,’ and that would allow them to kind of recenter. It was just two minutes of silence; enough to kind of restore certain students who were getting tired of the noise, and then they could come back in.”
Starting Your Own Makerspace

Instead of trying to set up a whole makerspace, Spencer recommends that teachers who are new to making should begin with a single maker project, then gather the materials necessary for that project.

“Decide what you’re going to have kids create that’s hands-on. You might do multiple maker projects in different locations, or you might have the entire class do one thing. Either option works.”

Once you’ve done a few projects, you’ll start to get a better idea of what kinds of materials work well in your classroom, keeping in mind that a true makerspace is constantly evolving.

If you want something more general to get started, Spencer offers these ideas for a first-time makerspace: “I would have some kind of physical prototyping items, like duct tape, cardboard, packing tape, that type of stuff. I would have circuitry, because it’s so inexpensive and easy to do…like one or two Snap Circuits. I would have a couple computers devoted specifically to using something like Hour of Code or Scratch, and then I would probably have a podcasting area and a green screen area.”

The Makerspace Master Course

Teachers who are ready to get serious about adding a makerspace to their classroom should check out Spencer’s Makerspace Master Course. This online course covers everything from the pedagogical foundations of makerspaces to how to set up and manage a makerspace in your classroom.

I am an affiliate of this course, which means I receive a commission on enrollments through my links.

If you’re not quite ready for the full course, but want to learn more from John Spencer, check out this free, on-demand webinar:

You can find John Spencer on his website at spencerauthor.com, on Twitter at @spencerideas, or on his YouTube channel at spencervideos.com.

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When people talk about teachers having summers off, most teachers laugh. You know that although summer gives you more unscheduled time to travel, rest, and spend time with family, you also use a big chunk of that time preparing for the next school year. That includes learning new methods, improving your tech skills, attending conferences and other professional development events, and lots and lots of reading.

But what should you read? And what are the best ways to get the reading done? I’ve pulled together some great titles to consider, along with some advice for how to choose the one that’s right for you. If you’re doing this with a group, I also have suggestions for making that work well.

Start with Your Goals

This list is organized by goals—specific teaching-related interests you may have, problems you might want to solve, or stuff you’ve always wanted to get better at. I’m organizing them this way because there are so many education books out there—choosing books can be overwhelming. It’s easier to narrow it down and prioritize if you start by thinking about what your goals are. Try my Gut-Level Teacher Reflection exercise to pinpoint your most pressing needs, or just browse the goals below.

Suggestions for Book Club Success

If you just want to get together, drink wine, eat mini-quiches, and laugh about why you didn’t actually read the book, that’s fine. I’ve been in plenty of book clubs like that, and made some life-long friends as a result. But if you’re committed to actually improving your teaching with this book study, here are a couple of strategies that will help you get more out of it.

  • Divide and Conquer: For many of the goals listed below, I am suggesting more than one book. You may not be able to read them all, so try this: Choose one book that the whole group will read together. Then, with the remaining books, have smaller groups form to read those and report their key take-aways to the group. If you only want to add one extra book, assign different chapters to different people. This way everyone has a central text to anchor their thinking and establish a common vocabulary, but the whole group can benefit from the wisdom in other texts.
  • Set a Schedule: To keep everyone on track, set deadlines when chapters or sections will be read, and when you’ll talk about them. Even if people end up not sticking to the schedule, just having one should prompt more people to actually read.
  • Summarize/Question/Apply: Consider structuring your meetings around three main parts: (1) Invite someone to summarize the reading in their own words. This will get everyone on the same page and will help those who aren’t caught up on the reading to get familiar with the big ideas. (2) Move into a discussion phase, which can be built on questions contributed by group members. (3) Finally, get every group member to talk about how they can apply the ideas to their own practice.
  • Use Voxer: Getting together in person is important, but if it’s not possible or you can’t meet as often as you’d like, try starting a discussion group on the Voxer app. It allows you to talk in a group through voice messages and is fantastic for keeping up a long conversation that everyone can participate in whenever they have time. If you want to see how it works, watch me demonstrate it in this video.
The Books

I have read and reviewed many of these books on this site—if a review or author interview exists for any of these book on Cult of Pedagogy, I will indicate that under the book cover. Others on this list I have not read personally, but they come highly recommended by others.

Clicking on the book cover will take you to its page on Amazon. Links are set to open in the same window; to open in a new window, just right-click on the link, or use command-click on a Mac.

Goal: Get Better at Differentiation

Blog posts to pair with this book:
Self-Paced Learning: How one Teacher Does It
Using Playlists to Differentiate Instruction
A Starter Kit for Differentiated Instruction
4 Ways Microsoft is Making Learning More Accessible

Goal: Start Using Restorative Practices

Blog post to pair with these books:
Restorative Justice in School: An Overview

Goal: Feel Stronger and Happier as a Teacher

Goal: Build Your Cultural Competence

Blog Posts to Pair with These Books:
Four Ways Teachers Can Support Students of Color
How We Pronounce Student Names, and Why it Matters
12 Ways to Support English Learners in the Mainstream Classroom

Goal: Improve the Way You Communicate with Students

Goal: Teach Students to Love Reading

Blog Post to Pair with These Books:
How to Stop Killing the Love of Reading

Goal: Revamp those Yucky PowerPoints (or Google Slides) Goal: A Kinder, More Compassionate School

Goal: Give Your Math Instruction an Upgrade

Goal: Make Your Teaching More Creative

What do you recommend?

I’m sure I have missed a lot of great books here, so let’s keep this going. In the comments, let me know what books you would recommend for a teacher book study.

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Listen to my interview with Elena Aguilar (transcript):

Sponsored by mysimpleshow and Screencast-O-Matic

This post contains Amazon Affiliate links. When you make a purchase through these links, Cult of Pedagogy gets a small percentage of the sale at no extra cost to you.

When talking about a profession that loses 50 percent of its workforce in the first five years of their careers, it would be an understatement to say teaching is challenging. It traps us in small rooms with an unpredictable assortment of personalities, energies, and needs. It forces us to make hundreds of small, exhausting decisions every day. And over and over again, it puts us in predicaments that test our confidence, wear out our patience, and break our hearts. You can learn all the techniques, plan outstanding lessons, and set up a water-tight classroom management system, but to do this work and stick with it long enough to get good at it, you need a level of emotional resilience most other jobs will never require.

And at this particular moment in history, teaching may be harder than ever. Systems have been put in place that make the work seem almost impossible, and the powers that be seem to be rooting against our success. A lot can be done to change that, to make the challenges of teaching more satisfying and less…soul-sucking, but on most days it can seem like those changes are pretty far outside of our sphere of influence. Finding the courage and energy to push for change despite how hard it is? That requires resilience, too.

And our teacher training never prepares us, never teaches us exactly how to develop that resilience. In fact, in my own training, the topic of my emotional state as a teacher never came up once.

The good news is that we now have a resource that focuses entirely on the topic of teacher resilience. In her book, Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Teachers, instructional coach Elena Aguilar walks us through twelve habits that teachers can develop to strengthen their emotional resilience. The book and its companion workbook are organized around a year-long calendar; Aguilar recommends that teachers work through the book slowly.

“The workbook has over 365 exercises, many of which you’ll probably want to repeat more than once,” she says. “Ideally people will be engaging in this learning with friends and colleagues so that they can have the kinds of conversations that will make this learning really sink in and stick.”

Let’s take a peek at the 12 habits now. My hope is that in getting a better understanding of the factors that contribute to emotional resilience, you’ll see areas that you can improve for yourself, and this in turn will allow you to not only stick with this incredibly important work, but find new ways to effect change, inspire others, and thrive.

12 Habits that Build Resilience

In the book, Aguilar explains how developing each of these habits contributes to resilience. She recommends focusing on a different habit each month, taking the whole month to learn about, reflect on, and develop practices that strengthen that habit. Below each habit is the month Aguilar suggests as an ideal time to focus on it: This is based on a typical American school calendar, where the school year starts around August/September and ends around May/June. If your calendar is different, you may want to make adjustments accordingly.

1. Know Yourself Suggested month: June

Taking the time to reflect on and get clear about your values, your preferences, your skills and aptitudes, and your sociopolitical identity can help you develop a strong sense of purpose. This makes you more likely to respond to difficult situations in ways that are consistent with that purpose. “Being really anchored in your purpose,” Aguilar explains, “being really clear about what you want to be doing in life, helps you deal with challenges and setbacks.”

2. Understand Emotions Suggested month: July

Emotions “can be tremendous resources and sources of energy,” Aguilar says. They key is figuring out “how to have healthier relationships with them, how to understand them, name them, accept them, and then work with them.” During this month, Aguilar has teachers examine the way emotions influence our thinking (and vice-versa) and how to work with them, instead of against them.

She’s especially interested in how we deal with anger. “There have been times when I’ve acted from anger, and it hasn’t been productive,” she says. “And there are other times when I figured out how to use my anger as a fuel and as energy, how to act from a place of kindness and compassion, but not suppress my anger.”

3. Tell Empowering Stories Suggested month: August

“The space where we can have the greatest impact on our resilience is between a thing that happens and how we interpret and make sense of that thing,” Aguilar says. That interpretation takes the form of a story we tell ourselves.

“So for example, a student rolls her eyes at you. That’s the thing that happens,” she says. “How you make sense of and interpret that event is precisely the point where either your resilience can be drained or filled, because you could interpret her eye rolling as This student doesn’t respect me, or you can interpret that event as, This is very typical behavior from 12-year-olds, and I’m going to move on to the next part of the lesson. In that moment, if we can hone our ability to expand that space between what happens and how we respond and how we interpret it, we have so much more power then to cultivate our resilience.”

Elena Aguilar

4. Build Community Suggested month: September

If we develop habits that nurture relationships with our colleagues, students, parents, and administrators, we strengthen our resilience. “There’s actually medical research saying that isolation is more dangerous to your physical health than smoking,” Aguilar says. “Teaching can be such a lonely experience, and I think anything that we can do to begin cementing those connections will just help us so much when things get rough.” The beginning of a school year is an ideal time to start, and by putting relationship-building habits in place early, that community can be a source of strength all year long.

5. Be Here Now Suggested month: October

“Learning how to be in the present moment without judging it can help us to experience acceptance. It helps us to have clear-headedness so that we can make choices in our responses.” Developing habits of mindfulness, where we focus on what is happening right now without judgment, can help us to circumvent a “triggered” reaction to daily challenges and instead respond calmly and thoughtfully. Daily meditation or even brief moments of focusing on our breath can help us hit that “pause button” and bring ourselves to that place of calm.

6. Take Care of Yourself Suggested month: November

“It’s really hard to build community or to cultivate compassion or be a learner—some of the other habits—when you’re just sick, when you’re worn out,” Aguilar says. So this month, she recommends focusing on the habits of physical self-care, digging into the reasons why teachers so often fall short in this area. “I think people know what to do,” she says. “We know we should be eating more leafy greens and exercising more and so on, but why is it so hard?” Uncovering those reasons can help with developing habits that work.

7. Focus on the Bright Spots Suggested month: December

During this month, Aguilar guides teachers to practice giving more attention to what is working, rather than what’s not. “Our brains have a negativity bias,” she explains, “so everything that is challenging, that is potentially a threat, appears really vividly and clearly to us, because of the way our brains are wired, and so one of the skills that we need to hone is the ability to see all the things that are going well or even just okay.”

In the classroom, for example, we can prompt ourselves to regularly notice students who are paying attention and on-task, rather than giving all our attention to the few students who aren’t. By developing this habit, we increase our sense of empowerment, which in turn builds greater resilience.

8. Cultivate Compassion Suggested month: January

When we practice compassionate thinking for others and ourselves, we become better equipped to handle difficult situations. “Cultivating compassion, broadening our perspective on how we see a situation, helps us to empathize with others, to see the long view, to take ourselves out of the drama of the moment,” Aguilar says. So when students misbehave, a colleague is short with us, or a parent challenges one of our decisions, being in the habit of viewing these situations through the lens of compassion can help you not take that behavior personally, which leads to smarter, less reactive decision-making.

9. Be a Learner Suggested month: February

“Resilient people are curious,” Aguilar says. “Resilient people experience a challenge and turn around and say, Wow. That was really hard. That pushed me to my limits. What can I learn from that? Just that question alone immediately propels you into a place of being able to build your resilience.” So this month, teachers are encouraged to reflect on who they are as learners, to better understand the stages of the learning process, and to practice seeing challenges as invitations to curiosity.

10. Play and Create Suggested month: March

One tool for building resilience that is easy to overlook is the habit of play. “I think it’s a human right to be creative, to create, enjoy, and appreciate art,” Aguilar says. “Playing and creating can unlock inner resources for dealing with stress, for solving problems…it can help us see different things and find different approaches to tackle challenges.” This month—which may hit right around spring break—teachers are encouraged to build regular periods of play and creation into their daily lives.

11. Ride the Waves of Change Suggested month: April

The end of the school year inevitably brings all kinds of changes; some of these can completely throw us off track if we’re not prepared for them. Aguilar recommends teachers spend this month looking at “how we can harness our energies to manage those changes and also direct our energy to the places that we can make the biggest difference.” This practice includes slowing down, facing and dealing with fear, and mindfully evaluating situations to determine which responses will have the most impact.

12. Celebrate and Appreciate Suggested month: May

As the school year winds down, we have lots of opportunities to celebrate our own accomplishments and those of our students and colleagues. This month, teachers are encouraged to develop daily habits of gratitude and to carry those habits throughout the year. “Even in the hardest moments,” she says, “if we can shift into a stance of appreciation, we can build our resilience.”

Build the Habits Over a Year

The best way to make all 12 of these habits stick is to work through them slowly, over the course of a year. Even better, do it with a group of committed colleagues.

To support you in that journey, Elena Aguilar is offering several resources:

  • The Onward Workbook is the companion to the book and contains 365 daily exercises aligned with the monthly habits.
  • The Onward website at onwardthebook.com offers downloadable mediations, printables, a self-assessment and related blog posts and videos.
  • The Onward Facebook page will offer private groups for each of the 12 habits, so you can study and practice that habit within a larger community.
Come back for more.
Join my mailing list and get weekly tips, tools, and inspiration that will make your teaching more effective and fun. You’ll get access to our members-only library of free downloads, including 20 Ways to Cut Your Grading Time in Half, the e-booklet that has helped thousands of teachers save time on grading. Over 50,000 teachers have already joined—come on in!
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Sponsored by Screencast-O-Matic and Microsoft Inclusive Classroom

My daughter was recently given an assignment to create a model of a volcano. It was a group project, meant to be done entirely at home, and the main criteria was that it had to look like a volcano, with extra points if it could actually erupt.

And so it began: My daughter and I planned when her two friends would come over to work on it. I texted their moms and we set a date. We also figured out what supplies she’d need from the craft store and when I would drive her there to get it all. We ended up spending about $40 on modeling clay, spray paint, fake palm trees, and tiny dinosaurs. And that’s after I said no to about $40 worth of other stuff she wanted to get.

The three girls met at our house one afternoon. One of the other parents brought over the materials they used to make the volcano erupt. I insisted that they do the project in the dining room, where we could make sure they stayed on task, instead of my daughter’s bedroom, where I knew they wouldn’t. My husband helped them hunt through the basement for an old lampshade to give the model some height, helped them figure out how to make the clay stick to the lampshade, then did a few trial runs of the “eruption” with them, so they knew it would work in class. A few days later, I drove my daughter to school and helped her walk the model safely into class.

So much had to happen to get this assignment done, and very little of that was actually done by the three students whose names went on the project. I’m not saying my daughter and her friends didn’t build the volcano, but they got a lot of support along the way, and if any of that support had been missing—time, transportation, money, space, suggestions, supervision—the project would have been less successful.

When I ask my daughter about the other student projects that were turned in that day, she confirms my suspicions that they ranged in quality: Some, she says, were “huge and detailed,” while others consisted of little more than a painted water bottle.

Though I never confirmed it, I suspect that each of those projects got vastly different grades.

What Are We Measuring?

Although a movement is growing to eliminate grades, they are still a reality for most of us, and they impact everything from college admissions to whether students get to go on certain field trips. So it’s important that we do whatever we can to make sure they measure what matters.

And in too many cases, that’s not happening. Take the volcano project: The grade students received on that ultimately reflected the resources each group happened to have at home—not what they learned or even the effort each student personally put into the task. Those with the “huge and detailed” ones probably got the best grades, and those with the painted water bottles probably got the lowest.

Or consider these other scenarios:

  • The student whose essay gets a D, because even though he organized it pretty well, made some strong, well-supported arguments, and used rich vocabulary, his teacher’s rubric allotted 40 percent of the grade to neatness and correctness, and he had a lot of mistakes. The teacher lets him revise for a higher score, but only gives half credit for the points earned the second time around.
  • The student who raises his grade by earning extra credit for donating tissues and hand sanitizer to the class.
  • The student who gets a C on an assignment that requires her to compose an original song to explain a constitutional amendment. Despite her solid understanding of the constitution, she doesn’t happen to have a knack for writing lyrics and music.
  • The student whose project is turned in a day late and gets only half credit according to her teacher’s “no excuses” late policy.

In all of these cases, the grade is not an accurate representation of what a student has learned. This is a problem of design: When constructing assignments, assessments, and grading policies, every teacher makes dozens of small decisions that determine how much a grade reflects a student’s academic work and how much it reflects a mishmash of other factors. Those quantities are different for every teacher and every assignment. Despite that, we tend to treat grades as if they mean the same thing all the time.

Some Questions to Ask While Planning

So what’s to be done about this? If you or your colleagues aren’t ready to completely overhaul your grading system (again, see how others are doing that here), or you haven’t moved to standards-based grading, you can still improve the integrity of traditional grades by considering some important questions while planning for instruction.

1. What learning does this task measure?

The grade on an assignment should match the learning students are supposed to be doing in your class. This sounds simple, but it amazes me how often I see assignments that seem to have no real connection to what the curriculum says students are learning.

If your standards require students to “be able to explain how geography impacts culture,” then assignments should ask them to do some variation of that: explain how geography impacts culture. If, instead, they are making a relief map that shows geographic features, and their grade is based largely on how accurately they represent those features, then they are being graded on map-making skills, not on the standard.

This is especially problematic when qualities like “creativity” are part of your criteria. For one thing, this term means completely different things to different people, so students will have to guess how to perform well on this metric. More importantly, grading for “creativity” on an assignment that is supposed to measure something else will distort the results, making it much harder to tell who actually mastered the skill.

2. Are you going to teach everything you will measure?

We often assign points for skills and qualities that students happen to bring with them, but are never taught in our class.

Suppose you assign a group project, and part of each student’s grade will be based on how well he or she worked with the group. Collaborative skills are important, absolutely, but if you’re grading for them, shouldn’t you also be teaching them?

Similarly, if you’re going to ask students to do an essay-type question to demonstrate their learning, and part of their grade will be based on how effectively they write, then ideally, some of your teaching prior to that assessment should give students practice in the kinds of writing skills you want to see on that task.

If our lessons don’t prepare students to do well on graded assignments and assessments, then those grades aren’t a fair measurement of learning in our class.

3. What will quality work look like on this task?

When creating assignments, we often have a general idea of what a good end-product will look like, but we don’t always know for sure until the work gets turned in. At that point, it’s too late for students to rise to our expectations, and if we haven’t clearly defined them ahead of time, it’s easy for personal bias to cloud our judgment.

We’ll get better work from students and judge it more fairly if we identify and communicate the criteria for success ahead of time. Many teachers accomplish this with a rubric given to students before they start. These come in different formats: A growing number of teachers are finding that students appreciate the single-point rubric for its clarity and ease of use.

I would also strongly recommend you do the assignment yourself as if you were a student—a process we call dogfooding. This will help you get much clearer on how you define excellence for this assignment.

4. How much of the grade depends on outside resources?

If an assignment is going to be completed partly or entirely at home, take a good look at how much the available resources outside of school could influence the grade. Things like transportation, money for supplies, access to technology, or help from an adult can all contribute to an end product that looks impressive, but may not directly reflect that student’s academic skill or effort.

If your assignment is designed so that the focus stays on content and skills, and if you set things up so that the majority of the work happens in class, the assignments you get back should be a more accurate representation of what each student can do.

5. Can all students do well on this task, regardless of how they learn best?

If an assignment is delivered with only one type of learner in mind—with instructions only given verbally, for example—some students will be behind before they even start. Ideally, every task will be designed in a way that all students can access.

Universal Design for Learning is a framework that can help teachers design materials so that all learners have equal access to them. To learn more, watch this overview video or explore the UDL Guidelines developed by CAST. As you work to make your assignments more universally accessible, take a look at some of the great accessibility tools Microsoft offers teachers for free.

Similarly, if the task favors students who happen to have a specific type of artistic skill—the way the constitutional song assignment did for students with musical talent—others who might have preferred to demonstrate their learning through an essay, a poster, or a video are less likely to shine.

Instead of limiting student products to a single, narrow option, consider whether you can give them choices in how they demonstrate learning. If the volcano project had been designed for students to create a model for how a real volcano works, that model could have been done with a paper diagram, in a video, with a student-produced skit, or with a physical model. Not only would this give students an opportunity to put their unique gifts to use, it would also provide options that cost a lot less money to bring to fruition.

6. Could this assignment be called “practice” instead?

Too often, teachers give grades to all classroom activity; they are convinced that kids won’t do something unless it’s going to get a grade. And that means tasks that are really meant to give students practice in a skill or early exposure to content are ultimately included in final grade calculations.

They shouldn’t. Instead of making everything graded, have students do some class work as practice, in preparation for a task that will be graded. So if students have to take a test on long division, require them to do enough self-graded practice pages until they get 80 percent or better. These problems won’t be part of their final grade calculation, which also means you don’t have to grade them, but students can’t take the test until they can demonstrate proficiency on the practice, and their grade on the test will count. This way, their grade will reflect their mastery of long division without penalizing them for how long it took to master the skill.

Other Factors to Consider Late Work

Some policies on late work can have a significant impact on student grades, so that a student who turns work in late can have very low grades, even if they have mastered the content. In classes where late work is penalized, a grade is a reflection of the student’s time management, or of stress, or perfectionism, or dozens of other possible factors. What it isn’t is a reflection of learning.

Despite this, many teachers feel that taking points is their only option for responding to late work. This piece by Starr Sackstein explores this dilemma and considers some ways teachers can address the problem without docking points. Spoiler alert: It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, because students turn work in late for a variety of reasons. “At the root of every challenge we face with students of all ages is a story,” she writes. “Our job as teachers to figure out what the story is. Some students will be an open book and others we will need to be detectives to figure stuff out. Don’t give up on the kids. Giving a zero is giving up and almost expecting them to do the same.”

Extra Credit

Giving points for anything that doesn’t directly reflect learning can have an incredibly distorting effect on grades. In some cases, it elevates grades, giving the impression of mastery without the actual mastery. In other cases, it masks problems: If a student misses a few test items, but erases them with bonus points, that student could fly under the teacher’s radar and miss opportunities for reteaching.

Students who are doing so well on the regular class work that they finish early don’t need extra credit, they need differentiated assignments and more challenge. Students who do poorly on assignments don’t need extra credit to make up the missing points; they need opportunities to re-do and improve on the work.

This piece by Joy Kirr does an excellent job of showing how a variety of typical extra credit assignments are rife with all kinds of problems.

Grade Averaging

If you calculate your grades by simply averaging them—dividing the points earned by the total possible points—your final course grade could be doing a poor job of representing what your students actually learned in your class. In this piece on the pitfalls of grade averaging, Rick Wormelli uses specific examples to illustrate this problem.

Having graded this way myself, I always liked the simplicity and convenience of grade averaging, so I know that the thought of trying some other system will likely be daunting. But if it means our grades will have more integrity, it’s worth it.

One alternative to consider is something called a decaying average, which puts more weight on assignments done later in a learning cycle. In theory, this recognizes that skills should improve over time. Although this approach seems to work better in skill-based classes, it shows us one way to rethink the way we calculate grades so they are better aligned with who our students are as learners.

Grades are inherently imperfect. To truly assess our students’ learning, we need to get to know them, observe them, and study a wide sampling of their work over time. When we reduce all that to a single measurement for the sake of efficiency, we lose that bigger picture. But as long as grades remain a reality in our system, let’s be thoughtful and deliberate when we calculate them. 

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Join my mailing list and get weekly tips, tools, and inspiration that will make your teaching more effective and fun. You’ll get access to our members-only library of free downloads, including 20 Ways to Cut Your Grading Time in Half, the e-booklet that has helped thousands of teachers save time on grading. Over 50,000 teachers have already joined—come on in.
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This is a sponsored post. All opinions are my own.

I have been using Microsoft products for decades, and honestly, I really didn’t think they could surprise me anymore.

I was wrong.

Over the last couple of years, Microsoft has been quietly adding some incredible capabilities to their products, new layers that make the software we already use more powerful and accessible for people with reading difficulties, those with visual or hearing impairments, English learners, or people who simply want to customize the way they take in information and communicate their ideas.

This shift toward greater inclusivity has occurred under the leadership of Satya Nadella, who became CEO in 2014 and whose first child was born with special needs. Looking at the innovations that have come from Microsoft in the last few years, it’s obvious that the company is committed to using technology to improve access for everyone.

And that’s good news for teachers, because quality differentiation is a constant challenge for all of us. If you want to give your students richer, more personalized learning experiences, take a few minutes now to learn about these four fantastic ways Microsoft tools can make that happen.

1. Learning Tools

Learning Tools is the name for a set of free tools that help users improve their reading and writing experience in Microsoft OneNote, Word, Outlook, and the Edge browser. Although the original intent of these tools was to help students with reading difficulties or dyslexia, they enable us to design our instruction more universally, so that all students can access materials in whatever way works best for them.

In most places, the tools appear under the name Immersive Reader, which allows users to switch to a distraction-free reading environment, change font size and spacing, break words into syllables, highlight parts of speech, narrow the line display so only a few lines show at once, listen to the text read out loud, and use the new Picture Dictionary which allows users to hover over single words and see a picture of the word or hear it read out loud.

You can try Immersive Reader yourself by going to this page, or watch how it works in OneNote:

Microsoft's Immersive Reader - YouTube

So far, research on the effectiveness of Learning Tools has been promising. An independent study published in 2017 showed that students who used Learning Tools showed greater rates of growth in reading comprehension compared to previous cohorts that didn’t use the tools.

Ideas for Classroom Use:
  • Upload any PDF into OneNote (or use OneNote Class Notebook to share handouts or notes with the whole class). Once the text is in OneNote, students can use the Immersive Reader to dial in the precise reading conditions that work best for them.
  • Have students compose their own writing pieces in Microsoft Word or OneNote, then use the Read Aloud feature to listen to what they wrote. In the 2017 study, students who used this feature demonstrated noticeable improvements in their writing: With the ability to hear their writing read aloud at any stage of the writing process, students showed more motivation to revise and edit their writing than in previous years.
  • If you use the Microsoft Edge browser, you can send students to any web page and they can have the text read aloud to them or switch to distraction-free reading view, where they can enlarge the font for easier reading, highlight the text, and even take notes that can be saved for later. Edge can also be used to read any PDF or ePub file: When you right-click on these files in Windows 10, just scroll down to “Open with” and choose Edge.
2. Dictate

This simple add-in for Word, PowerPoint, and Outlook allows users to dictate what they want to write. The dictation tool is excellent at accurately recognizing speech, makes pretty good guesses on punctuation and capitalization, and supports more than 20 languages.

Dictate, a Microsoft Garage project - YouTube

Soon you won’t even need to grab the add-in: Over the next few weeks, dictation is going to come built-in to most Office tools, and it’s ready to go on all Windows 10 computers—just press the Windows key + H and try it!

Ideas for Classroom Use:
  • Help struggling writers get their ideas on paper through dictation. Once they have drafted something through dictation, they can then move on to editing the written work.
  • Offer dictation as a writing option for students with dysgraphia.
  • Engage English learners by having them dictate some responses in their own language, then work to translate those into English. This will allow them to put their ideas together with more sophisticated language constructions without being hampered by limited English.
3. Editor

You may not have noticed it, but the “Check Spelling” feature in Word and PowerPoint has gotten a huge upgrade. Now, when you check spelling, you get a whole lot more than just a list of suggested words: Each suggested word is defined with a few synonyms to help the writer determine which spelling matches the meaning they’re going for. It also allows users to hear the word read aloud, which can also help in choosing the right one.

If you teach students how to use this tool well, it can help all learners work more independently and take more ownership of their writing. It can also provide outstanding support for English learners and students with dyslexia, who may struggle to match letters with the sounds of words they want to use.

4. Translator

As the population of English learners in our schools grows larger and more diverse, teachers are struggling to meet their needs. For these teachers, Microsoft Translator will be a real game-changer. Using artificial intelligence, Translator transcribes and translates teachers’ PowerPoint presentations into other languages in real time; in other words, the transcription is built while the teacher is presenting. Using an app on their phones, students read the transcript in whatever language they choose, and they can type or speak into the app to contribute their own comments or questions; these will automatically be translated back to the language of the presenter.

Watch it in action here:

Microsoft Translator in the Classroom - YouTube
Ideas for Classroom Use:
  • Give non-English speakers the ability to understand direct instruction and participate in class discussions, even if no one in the room speaks their language. Teachers can even use PowerPoints to accomplish regular “housekeeping” tasks like discussing upcoming field trips, so that Translator can keep non-English speakers in the loop.
  • Help emerging English learners better understand spoken language by using Translator to provide English subtitles during presentations.
  • Engage non-English speaking parents and family members by using Translator for parent-teacher conferences, open house, or during any school events where family participation is encouraged.
  • Give students who are deaf or hard of hearing better access to classroom discussions.

Microsoft’s new mission statement is “to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.” By taking the tools most of us have been using for years and giving them more muscle, they are definitely fulfilling that mission. As someone who has been knee-deep in Google products for the last few years, I’ll admit I haven’t been paying much attention to what Microsoft was up to. If you’ve been in the same boat, I urge you to take a closer look: I bet you’ll be surprised, too. 

To learn more about all the ways Microsoft is making learning more accessible, visit microsoft.com/accessibility.

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Sponsored by Screencast-O-Matic and Microsoft Hacking STEM

I saw a video a few months ago that I haven’t been able to get out of my head. In the video, a high school student named  Jeff Bliss stood up in the middle of class and basically expressed his frustration to the teacher in the room:

Jeff Bliss a student from Duncanville owns his teacher [Original] - YouTube

Okay, now let’s get something out of the way: Yes, this student was disrupting class and his behavior is disrespectful. I will acknowledge that. On the other hand, we don’t know exactly what happened before the camera was turned on. Based on what he says in the video, my guess is that Bliss had just voiced some kind of concern, the teacher told him to quit complaining, and at that point, I guess he’d had enough.

What I have gleaned about Jeff Bliss from the internet is that at the time of the video, he was an 18-year-old sophomore. So apparently, at some point, he had not been successful in school. For some people, this takes away his credibility. For me, it makes him an even better source of information about why school isn’t working for some students.

Disruptive behavior aside, the content of Bliss’s outburst tells me that his teacher’s primary mode of instruction is through packets. This was what got me. This is what made me watch this video six, seven, eight times over. Because I just believe him.

I believe him because I’ve seen it. I’ve seen classrooms where teachers deliver instruction overwhelmingly through worksheets, or packets of worksheets. I have seen my own kids’ schoolwork come home, and I have asked friends, other parents with school-age kids, and colleagues who consult in lots of schools, and nearly all of them tell me that a lot of our students’ instructional time is being spent hunched over some kind of worksheet.

That’s a problem.

I want to spend some time looking at this problem from all sides: What distinguishes a “busywork” worksheet from something that delivers real value, why teaching with worksheets is usually not the best choice for learning, the reasons teachers default to worksheet teaching, and what other learning experiences would be better for our students.

Not all Worksheets are Created Equal

Let’s start by agreeing on some terms.

First we need to define what we mean by “worksheet.” Technically, a worksheet is anything printed on copier paper and given to students to write on. And since you can print just about anything on a piece of paper, we really can’t say that worksheets per se are good or bad. That would be like saying “books” or “movies” are good or bad. It’s a medium. A delivery system.

And there are plenty of instructionally rich things you can do with a worksheet: A graphic organizer is a wonderful tool for research, pre-writing, and notetaking. An excerpt from a primary source can be printed on a worksheet for close study and annotation. Worksheets can be used for analyzing data (like this collection from Maria Andersen), as scaffolds for notetaking, as tools for reflection, or as formative assessments. They can also be used as recording tools alongside more active experiences: data sheets for labs, planning sheets for group projects, and so on.

In my experience, when people criticize worksheets, they are referring to a specific type of worksheet, what I will call a busysheet, the kind where students are either doing work that’s fairly low-level recall stuff–filling in blanks with words, choosing from multiple-choice questions, labeling things–or work that has no educational value at all, like word searches, word scrambles, or coloring stuff in cases where coloring adds no extra layer of understanding.

Sometimes the difference between a busysheet and a quality learning tool is obvious, and other times it’s a judgment call. After talking to lots of educators about how they use worksheets in their classrooms, I think it’s most accurate to say that every worksheet falls somewhere on a continuum: Some worksheets are clearly nothing but busysheets, while others, like note-taking sheets or data collection tools, directly support student learning; I’ll call these powersheets. I think a lot of worksheets fall somewhere between the two. Because there is such a range, the only person who can really make the call is you.

Packets, to be clear, are simply a bunch of worksheets stapled together. They could contain a lot of powersheets, but when a student refers to them as frickin’ packets, it’s highly likely that they are mostly made up of busysheets.

Possible Busysheets in Disguise

Some formats have come along recently that have the potential to deliver the same kind of work we find in busysheets, only they don’t always look like it. While each of these certainly could offer instructional value, they could also be just another way to keep kids still:

  • Computer programs or apps that have students performing the exact same activities we see on busysheets.
  • Interactive notebooks: These vary widely in quality, with some offering true interactivity and others just offering the same value of a worksheet, just colored, cut, and pasted into a notebook.
  • HyperDocs: If these are thoughtfully designed, they have the potential to offer wonderful variety, exploration, and differentiation, but they could also just be a new way to organize busywork.
The Problem with “Busysheet Teaching”

“Busysheet teaching” is when we use busysheets in place of other, better forms of instruction. This type of teaching might take the form of bell-ringers, homework, early finisher work, classroom centers, or even the main learning activity during regular class time.

So what’s wrong with teaching this way?

It’s disconnected from anything meaningful.
Busysheets isolate skills so much that students have trouble connecting them to real life. When a student sees little value in an activity, he is not truly engaged. Take this reading worksheet, which has students read a short passage about Maya Angelou, then answer four fill-in-the-blank questions about the passage.

This type of busysheet would most likely be used to teach reading comprehension or serve as a Black History Month activity.

Let’s unpack these one by one.

  • Reading comprehension: Having students answer low-level recall questions about a passage of writing that offers no meaningful context doesn’t do a lot to make them better readers. If the questions were more challenging, if they asked students to choose which textual evidence supports some particular idea, for example, that might move it up the continuum a bit more toward the power end, but is this the best way to give students reading practice? If students do this kind of work day after day, with passages instead of real books, they won’t be reading enough.  So much of what we call “reading instruction” is far inferior to having students read real books.
  • Black History Month: Giving students a packet of these types of busysheets–where the work and contributions of significant African Americans are reduced to one-page blurbs followed by some cute activity–is inadequate in so many ways. This article from Teaching Tolerance lists much more comprehensive and authentic ways to honor Black history in your classroom all year round.

It often misses the standards.
Even if they are labeled as addressing certain standards, the kind of work we see on busysheets often misses the mark. Take, for example, this typical grammar worksheet:

This type of worksheet, where students are asked to label or identify various grammatical constructions, has thrived for decades, and in the days before worksheets, it existed in the form of exercises from grammar books.

Apart from the well-established fact that teaching grammar outside the context of meaningful writing does nothing to help students become better writers, and in many cases makes them worse, the skills being practiced in this kind of worksheet don’t actually teach or reinforce the goals set by our academic standards.

Here’s what I mean: For convenience, I’ll use the Common Core Standards as a reference. There is no mention anywhere in the standards of students being able to identify or label these verb tenses. Nothing. It does, however, require students to use them correctly in their writing. So it would make a lot more sense to show students these different constructions, then have them find places in their writing where they are using them. If they aren’t using them anywhere, have them try it. They never ever have to actually know the names of the verb tenses or a whole lot of other grammatical constructions. Despite this, tens of thousands of students are required to complete busysheets like this every day. And I bet they get tested on the same kind of information, too. Meanwhile, little to no time is being spent giving them opportunities to use these constructions in their real writing.

It often has no instructional value.
By definition, a busysheet’s goal is to keep students busy, not necessarily teach them anything. The most egregious types of busysheets are word searches, word scrambles, and and crossword puzzles, which might as well be a list of definitions with blanks next to them.

I have watched my own children do word searches for homework and stress out about not finding every single word because they would lose points. If there is any pedagogical justification for that, I certainly haven’t found it.

It requires lots and lots of sitting still.
The more teachers use busysheets, the more students will sit and sit and sit. Yes, it’s possible that there are teachers who use a lot of busysheets but have great alternative seating options in their classrooms, but my guess is that in most of the classrooms where busysheets are abundant, students are basically sitting in desks. This is far from ideal. In 2014, teacher Alexis Wiggins spent two days shadowing her students and was shocked to discover just how much time they spent sitting, and how exhausting that was. And we hear all the time about the studies that are confirming how dangerous it can be to sit for extended periods of time. So planning for extended periods of sitting, all day long, just isn’t good for our kids.

It requires a ton of copying.
Anyone who has ever had to wait in line for a copy machine or found themselves staring desperately at a cryptic error message on the copier knows that relying heavily on worksheets wastes a lot of time and paper.

It gives you more stuff to grade.
Many teachers who use a lot of worksheets also grade them, calculating those points as part of a student’s overall grade in a course. This approach creates two problems. One, it erases the value of formative assessment: If worksheets are meant to be used to teach students something or give them practice on skills they are learning, then why would students be penalized for making mistakes on them? I can see why teachers might give points for completion, but going through and marking wrong answers, then taking off points for something students are still actively learning is really missing the point: That’s what summative assessments are for. The other problem is that this system creates a ridiculous amount of grading for the teacher. If you are going home with piles and piles of papers to grade, you’re assigning too many things to be graded. If you can shift some of these activities from graded to “practice,” you’ll be giving students the practice they need without creating a lot of extra paperwork for yourself.

Why We Do It, and What to Do Instead

Teachers have a lot of reasons for leaning heavily on busysheets, and some of these may seem unavoidable. Let’s look at the most common reasons, along with some ideas for what we can do instead.

1. No Textbooks, No Tech

If your school is short on materials and technology, it may be necessary to use printables to build your curriculum. Much of what we learn comes from reading things, so if you don’t have good science textbooks, for example, worksheets and handouts can serve the same purpose. What’s important is that we do this thoughtfully.

  • Even if you download a whole unit or curriculum, only use the parts that are going to provide value to your students, rather than just marching students through the whole thing.
  • Beware of cute: Some materials are so beautifully designed, they may make it hard to notice if they’re thin on quality learning. If you can get both at once, awesome, but always scrutinize for the learning first.
  • Not all students need the same materials: Consider making some handouts and worksheets available to students as resources, rather than giving everyone the same stuff. Show them how to select the materials they need and where to store them for future reference.
2. Skills Practice

Many teachers use worksheets to give students practice in required skills. This seems to be most common in math (or, in the later grades, with things like chemistry equations). While this method obviously gives teachers some of the results they’re hoping for, if you take a few things into consideration, you can probably refine the practice.  Here are some questions to consider when heading to the copy machine:

  • How much practice is really needed? Does every student need the same amount of practice? Can they stop when they’ve had enough?
  • Would other activities be just as beneficial–or more beneficial–than practice problems? In this youcubed article, professor Jo Boaler describes four other ways to develop number facts and number sense. She also shared a strategy in a recent tweet where a problem is placed in the center of a paper and students use the corners of the page to show four different ways of solving the problem. These kinds of activities get kids to actually think and talk about the math they’re doing, rather than just completing problem after problem.
  • I’m going to bring this up again: If you’re recording a grade on practice work, especially if that grade is based on accuracy, it’s not practice!! Keep this in mind when deciding how many problems are really necessary to give students the practice they need.
3. Differentiation

Teachers often find that creating leveled packets of work is a simple way to personalize learning for each student. But again, does that have to mean each child gets one of three large, comprehensive packets? Let’s look again at the suggestion I made earlier, where handouts (containing information) and worksheets (offering practice) are offered as resources, and students decide which they need. To see this idea fully developed, check out Natalie McCutchen’s self-paced math classroom: Students work through units on their own, and they decide how much practice they need before taking the assessments, so some students do a lot, while others do very little.

4. Grade-level Alignment

In some schools, teachers are required to teach the same thing as their grade-level counterparts, on the same day, and document the whole process in detailed, standards-aligned lesson plans. When I talk to teachers about why they’re burned out, it’s policies like these that they often cite as completely draining them. This type of requirement also causes many of them to resort to teaching entirely with packets: Find a workbook that says it’s standards-aligned, then everyone use the same set of pages every week. Done.

This makes for incredibly dry, uninspired learning, and unfortunately, I don’t have a good solution for it. My best advice is to share this post with your administrator so they can see the impact that this type of policy is having. I would also urge you to question the integrity of the standards label: Is the packet really getting kids to do what the standard says, or is it a “lighter” version of that? These packets may act as a stopgap for now, but if your team has been using the same set for several years, now may be the time to look more closely at them to see if some pages could be removed and replaced with other activities.

5. Sub Work

When we have substitute teachers, sometimes packets seem to be the only option. This is another tricky one.  If you really have no other option, at least do everything you can to make sure the worksheets lean more toward the “powersheet” end of the continuum. Another option that can work if you know you’re going to be out ahead of time is to train a few students to lead the class in an actual lesson, then let the sub know that the plan is to let these students teach. This would obviously require a lot of work up front, and you need to have built a classroom culture where students want to behave while you’re gone, but I do think it can be done.

6. Crowd Control

In overcrowded classrooms it seems impossible to do anything hands-on, any kind of group work, anything interactive. Worksheets keep everyone in their seat and under control. This, again, is more of a systemic issue that could only truly be solved at the policy level. With that said, I still don’t believe worksheets are the only option. Sure, you might not be able to do big, sweeping hands-on stuff, but you can do paired work, set up tasks around the room in stations, or even split the class in half so that only some are doing the “active” work while others are seated and calm, then switch. More than anything, just don’t throw in the towel on this.

7. Bell-Ringers & Morning Work

In order to maximize instructional time, we are advised to make sure students have meaningful work to do from the moment they walk into class; hence the birth of the bell-ringer. I have definitely seen the value of a good bell-ringer, and saw a huge difference between the year that I didn’t use these and the years that I did. But if that work isn’t really meaningful or isn’t helping most kids learn, it’s a waste. Here are some other options:

  • Have students do self-selected reading for the first 10 minutes of class.
  • Give students a great anticipatory set to introduce the day’s learning. There are so many options for these, like the thought-provoking images that Christina DeCarbo-Wagners now uses instead of morning work, or the “appetizers” recommended by math teachers Matt Vaudrey and John Stevens in their..
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Listen to my interview with Bob Dillon (transcript):

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A couple of years ago, I saw a picture on Facebook that stopped me in my tracks: It was the classroom of Michigan high school English teacher Rebecca Malmquist. It looked like a living room. Like a place you’d go to curl up and read a book, take a nap, or have a really good conversation. And yet it was a classroom.

Now this classroom was just one particular type, a kind of shabby chic, funky, yard-sale mix, but it represented something bigger, a tear in the fabric of how we’ve always done things. It was one example of the way flexible seating and more student-centered classroom design have taken off everywhere, with more teachers breaking away from traditional classroom layouts and finding new ways to make their rooms more conducive to 21st-century learning, where collaboration, personalization, and project-based instruction are becoming the norm.

When I shared it on my website, most people went nuts, but some were discouraged: They loved the room, but there was no way they’d ever be able to recreate it in their school, with small spaces, big class rosters, limited budgets, and strict fire codes. They believed that to create these incredible learning environments, they would need tons of money and big, modern spaces to work with.

The good news is that the principles of learning-friendly design can still be applied without those things. There are plenty of changes you can make to your classroom—without a lot of money or space—to make it a much better place for students to learn.

Bob Dillon

To get some expert help on this topic, I talked to Bob Dillon, a former middle school principal who now works as a director of innovation for a St. Louis-area school district. He’s done a lot of work on transforming learning spaces, and most recently he co-authored a book on this topic with designer and educator Rebecca Hare. The book is called The Space: A Guide for Educators.

The Space: A Guide for Educators (2016)
Rebecca Hare and Robert Dillon

In our interview, Bob and I talk about some of the design problems he sees most often in classrooms today, the things teachers can do to make their rooms more learner-friendly, and how to overcome some common hurdles teachers often experience when redesigning classrooms. Our conversation is condensed here into 12 specific things you can do to make your classroom a better space for learners.

1. Ask your Students

Students are the best source of information about what needs to change in our classrooms. Dillon advises us to ask them two questions. First, What’s new in the room? and second, What in this room supports your learning, and what gets in the way of it? Having students audit the room this way will help us see it differently.

“Students are going to start naming things that have been up in the classroom since the beginning of the year,” Dillon says. “When that happens, there’s a problem. All of that stuff just becomes visual noise, and it doesn’t do anything to aid the learning.”

And this shouldn’t happen just once: Dillon advises teachers to ask this question frequently, all year long. “Every two weeks,” he says, “I put it on my Google Calendar: Ask my students how the classroom is serving them.”

2. Subtract

One of the simplest changes we can make to our classrooms is to take things out. “I haven’t been in a classroom in the country that couldn’t remove 10 or 15 things,” Dillon says. “Every time a human being comes into a space, they visually process the entire room.” In many of these rooms, he says, “by the time we actually ask (students) to intellectually engage, they’re visually exhausted.”

Dillon advises teachers to take things out on a trial basis. “I tell teachers, take a trunk full of stuff—whatever size the trunk of your car is—take those things out of your classroom for a couple of weeks, then you can really make a decision on whether you need them or not.”

In almost every case, the stuff never makes it back to the room. “I have teachers over and over go, ‘As soon as I was able to actually free my classroom of some space, I was able to see what was possible.’ I think sometimes until you breathe the classroom, give it some air, you can’t even see what the next iteration is.”

Less visual clutter creates a space where students can focus.
Photo courtesy of Robert Dillon.

3. Mix up Your Seating Options

Flexible seating doesn’t have to mean new furniture, hokki stools, and bean bags. Using the furniture you have right now, you can still create different seating options and give students choice.

Dillon explains how this can work: “You have 30 desks. No one’s going to take them. No one’s going to put them anywhere else. Why don’t you make one row of six, then two clusters of six, and then a long kind of what I call a ‘boardroom style’ where you have 12 desks face-to-face to each other, and then give kids choice on where to be in that classroom. Giving kids choice and agency around where they are goes a long way to saying you trust them and they own the classroom.”

One great example of repurposing what you have is Kelly Almer’s 5th grade classroom. One of her first steps toward giving students more seating options was to remove the legs from a few classroom desks to make them coffee-table height.

Rearranging existing furniture can go a long way toward giving your classroom more seating choices.
Photo courtesy of Robert Dillon.

4. Consider the Perimeter

“When we think about learning space design,” Dillon notes, “we go directly to furniture, we go directly to the floor plan of the room. But we never think about the perimeter. How are the walls, and every inch of your walls, either supporting or distracting from learning? Do we really need that poster? How do we make everything really accessible? The walls of the room are another piece of the puzzle that usually don’t take money to add to.”

5. Reduce Your Teacher Footprint

One way to free up more space is to minimize or eliminate our teacher workspace. In fact, many teachers are getting rid of their desks altogether.

“Whatever we can do to reduce our own footprint in a classroom,” Dillon says, “whether that’s pushing our desk up against the wall, whether that is letting kids know that they have access to all the square footage in the room, all of those things begin to really transform what classroom can be.”

Want to get rid of your teacher desk? This collection of resources will show you how others have done it.

6. Create Spaces for Collaboration

Desks in rows are fine if all we want to do is feed information to students and have them spit it back out. But a 21st century education demands more from us. We understand now that students need more than facts: Among other things, they need to be able to communicate well and work together to solve problems. Our classrooms need to reflect that. So when rethinking your classroom design, look for ways to make more of these collaborative spaces possible.

Collaborative spaces can be made by pushing desks or chairs together and clearing off counters or bookshelves.
Photo courtesy of Robert Dillon.

7. Create Spaces for Creation

Classrooms where project-based learning and design thinking are taking the place of rote memorization need spaces where students can sketch, build, make, and prototype. That kind of work requires clear surfaces and centers where students can access all kinds of materials—not just typical school supplies.

“We’ve oftentimes had markers and glue and scissors,” Dillon says. “I advocate deeply for adding just a chunk of cardboard to lo-fi prototype, to be able to go to a kid and say, Hey, we just finished chapter three. I want you to go get three pieces of cardboard and summarize chapter three for me.”

Another consideration is where to store work in progress. “When you create things, you’re not going to finish them in 30 minutes,” Dillon reminds us. “You have to have a place to store them or put them away.”

8. Create Writable Spaces

One specific type of space for creation and collaboration is what Dillon and Hare call a “writable space.” In many of the classrooms Dillon visits, “Teachers own a lot of the writable space. There are teacher words up, there are teacher posters up, there are things on that writable space. I would give more writable space back to kids for them to process and sketchnote and get all their things up on the board.”

Handing over more of your existing boards is a great start, but you can add more writable spaces by purchasing inexpensive personal dry-erase boards, a free-standing dry-erase easel, or by making your own whiteboard tables or adding an extra DIY whiteboard for very little money.

Making large writable spaces available to students tells them the classroom belongs to everyone.
Photo courtesy of Robert Dillon.

9. Create Spaces for Quiet

“We have a lot of kids that come to our schools that are stressed out, that are impacted by poverty on a daily basis, that need a quiet moment in their life,” Dillon says, “and we want to make sure classrooms can be safe, caring, and trauma-informed in the work they’re doing. I think that really good learning space design, first and foremost, cares for kids and takes care of their needs so that then learning can really happen. A lot of classrooms certainly have a place where they send kids to reframe and rethink. But for us, we want to make sure all classrooms have a space to validate introverts, reflection, and decompression.”

When we don’t have these spaces, our kids find ways to get the quiet they need: “Here’s what’s going to happen: They’re going to raise their hand and say, Hey, can I go to the bathroom? Right now, our bathrooms are our spaces for quiet for kids,” Dillon points out. Half-joking, he adds: “Fifty percent of middle-school kids that need to go to the bathroom just need to move; they just need a moment.”

Setting aside quiet space in a crowded classroom can be a huge challenge, but Dillon says doing this successfully is more about classroom norms than space. “(It can be) a portable whiteboard that gets pulled over into that space that kind of blocks somebody off, a comfortable bean bag on a floor that’s behind a bookcase, a desk where if someone goes over there, the norm is that you just leave them alone. If we are just open, honest and transparent about why, kids respond to that really well. Spaces for quiet don’t have to look fancy. They are just the norm in that space.”

Thoughtful classroom design includes places where students can take a moment alone.
Photo courtesy of Robert Dillon.

10. Create Spaces to Showcase Learning

Both Dillon and Hare happened to send their children to schools that used the Reggio Emilia approach, which emphasizes documenting and displaying the learning process, not just finished products. So they apply that philosophy to the spaces they help design, and they advise teachers to keep looking for ways to display student learning in their classrooms.

What does that look like? “Sometimes that can be an ongoing list of ideas surrounding a central question,” Dillon explains. “That can look like pictures of kids working in a classroom that are up where folks are putting sticky notes on those, either praising what’s going on or asking questions. But all of it showcases that learning is messy. We’re in a process, we’re in a growth process.”

(P.S.: I am now completely in love with Reggio-inspired classroom design. Look at this classroom, and this one, and this one. I know: Fire codes. But still!!! Drool.)

11. Narrow Your Color Palette

Designing a learning space isn’t the same thing as decorating it. When our spaces are put together without an understanding of what works best for learning, Dillon says, “You have classrooms that look like a bag of Skittles.”

Rather than fill your classroom with lots of colors, try to narrow your color palette to three main colors: One neutral, “a kind of base color, whether that’s some sort of tan or some sort of gray,” and two accent colors, “colors that can really kind of pop.” Doing this will reduce visual noise and allow students to focus better. “Kids notice,” Dillon says. “There is a coherence, there is a calming, it feels comfortable.”

Making this kind of change doesn’t happen overnight. Start by figuring out if your classroom already has the beginnings of a palette. The key is to figure out what that is, then start to eliminate some of the things that take away from the coherence of that palette in your room. “There are a ton of programs out there, like Canva,” Dillon says, “where if you take a picture of your classroom and it will tell you the color palette of your room.” See if you can identify the three main colors you’d like to work with, then start moving closer to it with wall color, storage containers, and other accessories.

“When I buy new things,” Dillon says, “when I take things away, I want to get closer and closer to these three colors. That can’t happen in a year, for most places. But it can be a journey that you’re on to get closer and closer to a color palette that’s coherent.”

Warm, muted shades of red and blue serve as the accent colors in this room.
Photo courtesy of Robert Dillon.

12. Utilize the Hallway

“A third of all the square feet in schools is hallway,” Dillon says, “and we don’t use that for learning like we could.” So when rethinking your classroom space, remember that you can extend learning beyond the walls of your classroom. One teacher Dillon worked with would roll two small tables out into her hallway every morning and invite kids to use those surfaces for certain activities. 

Never Finished

If the thought of completely redesigning your classroom is overwhelming, remember that this is an ongoing process. “Learning space design isn’t like a, ‘I did learning space’ checkmark for teachers,” Dillon says. So rather than trying to overhaul everything at once, start with small changes, include students in the process, and iterate as you go. “It’s a journey, and it’s always about tinkering.”

Learn More

In addition to The Space, Dillon recommends these books for digging deeper into classroom design.

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