Teaching Tip # 13 – Group Roles

Assigning group roles in class.

Quality Collaboration Strategies


Designing group work that allows for quality collaboration is a challenging task. Many teachers rely on how they were taught, where each student has a specific role such as time-keeper, or note-taker. The book Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom by Elizabeth G. Cohen explores group roles, how these roles can engage all students, and many other aspects of group work.

When considering group roles, the book discusses that the traditional method of assigning a different role to each student isn’t the most effective way for groups to run. As a traditional example, one student might be tasked with keeping track of time, and another student might be tasked with keeping notes. However, aren’t these skills (note-taking and time-keeping) important for all students? Shouldn’t all students have the opportunity to practice these skills?

Instead of assigning each student a different role, all students should be responsible for participating in all roles. One student can be tasked as the “time-reminder”, reminding students to keep track of time. Another student can be tasked as the “note-checker”, to check that all students are taking their notes throughout the activity. These types of roles are better suited so that not only are all students practicing all relevant skills, but they also are being reminded by their peers about staying on task.

If you are looking to improve how you run group work in your classroom, I highly suggest reading Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom. They not only offer ideas on many other areas of group work, but the author also provides many activities that work to directly strengthen the collaboration skills of students in class.

Subconscious Bias: A Basic Understanding

How Subconscious Bias can affect education.

The idea of bias, specifically subconscious bias, is an extremely difficult yet important concept to understand. Subconscious bias impacts the decisions we make daily. As teachers, it is imperative that we understand the basics of subconscious bias, and how to work against some of the more harmful effects it can bring.

What is Bias

The definition of bias is generally the inclination to show favor or prejudice towards or against someone or something. For the purposes of this article, I will assume that you the reader are not outwardly biased or prejudice. However, you do have subconscious bias. This type of bias is much more challenging to deal with.

The difference between prejudice and subconscious bias is extremely important to note. Being prejudiced is a reflective choice that one makes, fully understanding the implications and impact of their actions. On the contrary, subconscious bias is not always recognized. Subconscious bias does not equal prejudice.

Subconscious bias is the result of thousands and thousands of years of humans categorizing basically everything in their lives. This has been extremely helpful in humans surviving weather, finding what food is good to eat, and avoiding deadly animals (“red touch yellow, you’re a dead fellow”). Humans have become so good at categorizing things in their lives that the process has become automatic.

Unfortunately, this method of categorization can become problematic. Small little details that might escape your conscious mind are stored away, only later to be brought back without you realizing it. This process is not really your fault – after all, it is the way we have evolved. However, it can still be harmful to others.

Imagine you are on a hiring committee for a teacher. Most of the teachers at your school are young, and most of the teachers you had growing up were young. The hiring committee has narrowed the search down to two candidates. The first is a young teacher who has been teaching only a few years. The second is an older teacher who has been teaching for decades.

If most of your experience in education has been with younger teachers, you may be subconsciously biased towards hiring the younger teacher, even if the older teacher is a better fit for the position. The challenging part of subconscious bias is that you might not even recognize it!

So Do I Have a Subconscious Bias

Yes, most certainly. Here is a (tragic) riddle that can be used as a test.

A man and his son get into a horrible car crash. The man dies within minutes, but the boy is able to survive long enough for an ambulance to arrive. They rush the boy to the hospital. The boy is in bad condition, and when they arrive at the hospital they rush the boy to emergency surgery. The surgeon arrives, takes one look at the boy and says, “I can’t operate on this boy, he is my son.” How is this possible?

The obvious answer (often in retrospect) is that the surgeon is the boy’s mother. While this riddle somewhat tricks us (with the continued use of the word “boy”), it does outline a subconscious bias that many of us have – that doctors are men.

Here is another test.

Imagine a lawyer. Imagine a doctor. Imagine an engineer. Imagine a firefighter. Imagine the winner of a lottery. Now, do any of these people share common traits? Are they men or women? Tall or short? Old, Middle-Aged, Young? Do they have lighter skin or darker skin? What language do they speak?

More than likely, many of the people you imagined were very similar. If you were like me when I first took this test, you imagined tall males who were middle-aged with lighter skin who spoke English. Why is this?

The reason for this is how our brain collects information. I grew up with network television in a small town in Wisconsin. Many of my experiences were very homogeneous (especially when it comes to skin tone), and that subconsciously shaped a part of my view of the world.

We walk around every day seeing ads, TV shows, books, and having personal interactions in our lives. Our brains collect this data so that later  when you read an article asking you to imagine a lawyer, it can spit out an image that is consistent with the data that has collected so far in your life.

What Are The Implications as an Educator

The implications here can be quite scary. We are educating hundreds of students a year, and potentially thousands or more in our lifetime. Yet we have this subconscious bias that is affecting our decisions, actions, and mannerisms based on potentially inaccurate data.

There are any number of ways this can go wrong. You may be subconsciously biased as you accept different students into your class after only seeing their names. You may be subconsciously biased in behavior management based on height, gender, or skin tone of the student. You may be subconsciously biased when calling home based on the language or dialect used by the parent on the other end of the line.

With the number of interactions teachers have every day, and the potential impact of these interactions on the lives of students, a realization dawns – there could be a problem here.

So What Can I Do

That was my first question after learning of subconscious bias. Unfortunately, there isn’t a great answer (yet) that solves this problem. However, there are two things that can help.

1-Recognize it. Try to be aware of your own subconscious bias. Check yourself as you react in different social situations, with or without students. Don’t let your first thought be your last. Think, reflect, then act. All of these statements have been used as suggestions to help fight against potentially harmful subconscious bias. You can also try to educate yourself more by tests like these, to help identify what types of negative subconscious bias you may have.

2-Experience more. Once you recognize a negative subconscious bias, go out and experience more that works against your bias. If you find you have a negative subconscious bias against elderly folks, go out and volunteer at an old folk’s home, or research one professional above the age of 60 every day. Often times subconscious bias arises because of faulty or small amounts of data. The more experience you have in that area means the more data your mind is collecting, which can work against harmful subconscious bias.

The more educators are able to learn about their own subconscious bias, the more they will be able to better serve the diverse population of students and families they teach.

I Want to Learn More

If you are interested at all in learning more about subconscious bias, I highly suggest reading Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Banaji and Greenwald. The majority of this post came from the wisdom and knowledge within. This book is able to approach this (often) sensitive topic with candor and clarity. I cannot recommend this book enough, for further reading on this topic.

Dr. Sharroky Hollie’s CLR resources also approach this topic very well, and from a slightly different place than Blindspot. He approaches the topic purely from a cultural sense (age, orientation, ethnic, etc.). Much of this post was also from the knowledge gained from his book and training.

Teaching Tip # 12 – Management with Proximity

Management with the use of proximity.

Redirection Without Vocalization


One of the simplest forms of management is the use of proximity – using the distance between you and your students to remind or redirect behavior in the classroom.

Proximity can be very effective when managing simple mistakes students make in the classroom. For example, if a student is talking during a short period of direct instruction, walking near the student or placing a hand on the student’s desk may be all the reminder that is necessary for that student to refocus.

It is important to note that some students have the experience or culture necessary for this strategy to work. However, other students may not. Because of this, it is important to teach (and often times reteach) your intentions with this strategy. Teaching students your expectations when using this strategy will go a long way in avoiding cultural misunderstandings.

Proximity management is an effective and positive way to redirect or remind for appropriate behavior. Often, it can be used in such a way that the only student who realizes they are being redirected, is the student needing redirection. It is simple, quick, and doesn’t take any time away from the learning of other students in the class.

Too User Friendly: How Apps Are Stifling Learning

STEM Education Shouldn't Rely On Devices

STEM Needs More Than Devices


Many schools are quickly adopting to the ease and portability of devices in their classroom. While devices do offer learning opportunities, they can also be problematic. But there is one issue that seems to continually be overlooked specifically in STEM classrooms – apps are stifling learning.

Devices are too user friendly for STEM educators, and this is a problem.. While being user friendly may look positive (who wants technology problems when trying to run a tech-heavy lesson), a very important part of learning is lost with this ease. Students no longer need to troubleshoot technology.

Devices today are designed so that anyone, and everyone, can pick one up. This includes the 4 year old wanting to watch a movie, and the 70 year old who has never owned a smartphone before. From the user interface to the obsessive updates, apps don’t have many user issues.

It is completely possible that a student today can go through their lives at home, and at school, and never touch a laptop or desktop computer. Yet many places of work, especially STEM jobs, heavily rely on computers over devices. These same jobs also value troubleshooting as an extremely valuable skill.

Unfortunately, students going through school today are missing out on the experiences they need to troubleshoot technology. They are learning and problem solving, but they are not experiencing the  gritty frustration that comes with computers.

Schools that offer STEM courses need to recognize that troubleshooting is not only a positive, but a necessary skill students will need to survive in STEM jobs outside public education. Districts need to pause when considering a full device overhaul, and recognize that devices may not offer the best learning opportunities for all students. Otherwise our students are being sent forth into a complex world of technology, without one of the necessary skills to excel.

Teaching Tip # 11 – Attention Getters

Strategies for gaining your students attention.

Gathering the Attention of Your Students


How do you get your student’s attention? Using attention getters can allow you to refocus your student’s attention quickly, without wasting learning time in the classroom.

Attention getters are simple, often repeatable, communication techniques used to gather your student’s attention. They should be quick, and different than the regular procedures and noises of the classroom. Below is a short list of attention getter ideas.

  • Simple Countdown (Eyes up in 3, voices off in 2, tracking in 1, 0)
  • Sensory Reminders (Lights on and off, music on and off, etc.)
  • Call and Response (When I say “bring it”, you say “back”)
  • Quick Movement (3 jumping jacks and eyes on me)

Dr. Sharrocky Hollie, a leader in Culturally Responsive Teaching, discusses the importance of adding rhythm, chants, and music to the classroom. This can help validate student’s family, youth, and ethnic culture in the classroom. Attention getters are a great place to begin practicing these strategies (another is props and love).

There are two important aspects to remember while implementing attention getters in your classroom. First, be consistent with how you utilize the strategy. Students need to know what to expect when you begin the attention getter. Second, be sure to explicitly teach students your expectations with the attention getters. Just like most skills in school, students need to be taught what to expect when you begin an attention getter.

Finally, be creative! Put a little bit of yourself into your attention getters. Make them unique, fun, and different than those around you!

Teaching Tip # 10 – Bellringers

Giving students bellringers to start class is an effective learning strategy.

Learning Starts Before the Bell


Students begin walking into your room. What is the first thing they do? The answer might be a bellringer.

Bellringers go by many other names, such as openers, journals, or daily work. They are small assignments that students work on as they enter the classroom. This strategy is very effective for many reasons.

According to Harry Wong, use of a bellringer is an extremely effective practice. It teaches students that class is a place of learning, and that learning occurs as soon as the students enter the classroom. However, bellringers offer many more benefits than this.

Bellringers can prevent instructional time from being wasted if you, the teacher, are unable to be in class immediately upon starting. They offer flexibility among content, giving you an opportunity to pretest what is coming up or review what was learned yesterday. Additionally, bellringers can be built into the procedure so students can be learning while other teacher duties are being taken care of (such as attendance). Most excitingly, they can offer practice when needed, challenges when necessary, and can even be used to ‘spice things up’.

Below are a few examples of how bellringers can be used in your classroom.

Bellringers are an effective instructional practice that offer students the opportunity to learn immediately upon entering the classroom, and can be used as flexible tool for instruction, review, or any other number of strategies within your pedagogy.

Teaching Tip #9 – Props and Love

How giving props and love can improve student responses.

Giving Props and Love To Your Students


A student takes a risk, shares an answer, or volunteers for a task. How do you respond to create an environment of positive support and opportunity? The answer, is props and love.

Many different teaching programs support the idea of props and love. Teach Like a Champion encourages teachers to give their students “props” when the students take risks in the classroom and join discussion. Culturally Responsive Teaching encourages the same, but for a simpler reason – some students just need outrageous love.

Props and love can be shown in many different ways. Instead of just moving on after a student shares, give positive reinforcement in the form of claps, rhymes, or other movement. Some examples are given below.

– Ask the class to give the sharing student a big “Woot Woot!”

– “Three clasp for ________________!”

– “Let’s give ___________________ some finger snaps!”

– “One big star jump for ______________________!”

– Mime pulling out a hammer and hammering in a nail, saying, “Nailed it!”

There are many different examples of props and love, and you can be creative and find ones that fit your own style. There are certainly other ways to respond to students responding to question, but introducing props and love to your classroom allow your students to be motivated to seize opportunities, and continue sharing and taking risks in your classroom.

STEM Is No Longer Enough

Why STEM Communication Needs to be Taught

The Need to Teach Digital Communication


Offering STEM to students is becoming more and more popular in schools across the nation, as the STEM job market has exploded in the last two decades. It has gotten so popular that some schools have been marketing themselves with a complete STEM framework. However, with the increased offering of STEM courses to students, comes an increased need in STEM teachers.

For the most part, schools are turning to the traditional fields of math and science to find teachers for STEM courses. That seems to make sense – after all, science and math both make up part of the STEM acronym. However, focusing solely on the fields of science and math show a fundamental misunderstanding of what is needed to offer comprehensive coverage for students in STEM.

STEM needs language teachers.

There are two extremely important reasons for this. The first, is programming. One of the largest components of the STEM field is learning to code. What better way to learn a literal new language (with grammar, syntax, etc.) than have it taught by a teacher trained in languages? While a programming language and a conversational language (like English or Spanish) serve different uses, the same underlying structures are used. By not hiring language teachers, districts are selling themselves, and their students short.

But more importantly, digital communication needs to be taught. Too many students (and too many adults) do not know how to communicate effectively online.

Scroll through Youtube comments. Take a look at facebook, reddit, twitter. Look at the impact of fake news and biased journalism. Read about any number of cyberbullying stories in the news, and their tragic end. These are real, relevant issues that are impacting our world in a major way, and yet our STEM courses are focusing on robotics.

We need teachers that can not only engage in the communication issues we see throughout our social media platforms, but also teachers that can educate our students on how to best navigate the generally unsupervised depths of the internet.

Too many students learn from their peers about online communication. Too many students learn from Youtube, from Snapchat and from their own Instagram feed about how to respond to others. Too many students are unable to recognize how digital actions have real life consequences. Too many students unquestioningly believe what they read online.

You can replace “student” with “people”, and the above paragraph reads just as true.

So what can we do?

We need to refocus STEM. STEM has many components, from programming to designing to engineering. The arts have been added to create STEAM. While a new acronym is not necessary, we need to add a communication component. It is not enough to ask media specialists to do one lesson a week on digital citizenship. It is not enough to ask homeroom teachers to talk about online bullying, or to have a school-wide hashtag.

STEM programs need to commit to one of the largest needs in our student population today. STEM programs need to hire language teachers, and explicitly teach digital communication to our students. Otherwise, we are sending our students into an increasingly digital world without the skills they need to navigate it.

Teaching Tip # 8.5 – Engaging in Learning

Engaging in Learning

Six strategies to help engage your students in learning – Part 2


What can you do to improve students engaging in learning? Below is a list – continued from yesterday’s article – of the six strategies from Chip and Dan Heath’s free resource, Teaching that Sticks. The final three strategies they present are continued in this teaching tip.

  • Simple
  • Unexpected
  • Concrete
  • Credible
  • Emotional
  • Story

Credible – This strategy can be restated to something we’ve all heard – you have to see it, to believe it. When students are presented with claims or statistics, allow them an opportunity to experience what they will be learning. This grounds their experience with the data, and allows them to connect to the learning much easier.

Emotional – Connect learning to the heart, or gut. This can be used with great impact when students ask, “Why do we need to learn this?” Make the learning personal to the students and their lives. In their resource, the Heath brothers discuss a lesson on the Civil War, and having two students attempt to use a bone saw to cut through the femur of a cow. This elicited an extremely emotional response from the students, as the teacher connected that idea to the one of battlefield amputations. While appropriateness should always be considered, there is no doubt that this strategy can be used with great impact on making sure the learning sticks.

Story – Stories have been used to pass information down from generation to generation for thousands of years. Make use of this tool in your classroom. Build your lessons into stories, so students can remember the path easier. Bring stories into your classrooms from diaries, interviews, and testimonials. Real people inhabit the world we learn about, so make the learning real for your students, by bringing in their stories.

These six activities can help increase the engagement your students have within your lessons, and connect them to the learning. They can also, to an extent, create hooks to draw in your students to the lesson easier.

If you are looking for more reading, I would suggest checking out Chip Heath and Dan Heath’s book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

Teaching Tip #8 – Engaging in Learning

Engaging in Learning

Six strategies to help engage your students in learning – Part 1


You’ve designed a great lesson full of great strategies that lead your students in their learning. You begin the lesson, but within the first few minutes, the students have checked out. Something didn’t engage your students through the lesson. What did you do wrong? How can you get your students to engage in learning?

While there are many strategies that can be used to keep your students engaged, six effective strategies have been outlined in Chip and Dan Heath’s free resource Teaching that Sticks. The six strategies presented in the resource are:

  • Simple
  • Unexpected
  • Concrete
  • Credible
  • Emotional
  • Story

Simple – Another way to describe this strategy, is to make connections using simple analogies. Teaching fractions? Connect it to eight pieces of pizza. Teaching variables? Connect it to cups of information. Simple ideas are able to connect something students know, to something they don’t know. They are the starting block that leads to deeper learning later on.

Unexpected – Begin your lesson with a completely unexpected idea. Draw your students in by delivering a gap of knowledge that is, well, unexpected. The easiest way to do this is to deliver an unexpected question. Why do some people go bald, and others don’t? How did gamers unlock the mystery structure of a protein in 3 weeks, that had previously stumped scientists for over a decade? Starting your lesson by showing your students what they need to learn, in an unexpected way, can keep them engaged throughout.

Concrete – When teaching abstract concepts (mathematical functions, honesty, prejudice), connect them to something in real life. Role play situations that allow students to experience the importance of honesty, or the pain of prejudice. Run an experiment that outlines the data within a mathematical function. Giving your students real life experience in abstract concepts allow sensory connection to the learning.

The second half of this article will be published here tomorrow, showing all 6 strategies that Chip and Dan Heath outline in their excellent resource, Teaching That Sticks.