Category Archives: Teaching

You Can’t Make Everyone Happy, But You Can Try

We try to make all of our students happy, even if they all want different things. Photo Credit: Espen Faugstad via Compfight cc

My COETAIL Course 5 project proceeds apace, as I use the course principles to reorganize the process of my classes, if not the product.

To recap my initiative: I decided to incorporate some elements of the flipped classroom, with goals of 1) making history more vivid for the students, and 2) bringing in more critical thinking and processing activities into the course, especially the in-class time. However, I tempered the model of flipping by retaining about 20 minutes of direct instruction in my 85-minute blocks to highlight critical concepts and interesting stories, and to make connection that my documentaries didn’t. The homework I’ve assigned has been 15-30 minutes’ worth of videos and documentaries, often times incorporating the Crash Course World History series. To ensure accountability, these videos are paired with Moodle forum discussions where students are expected to respond to an open-ended question that I’ve posted, respond to another student’s comments, or pose a question of their own. Previously, students were expected to use Google Docs to complete collaborative study notes inspired by the “lit circle” model in English.

My observations serve to illustrate the human, democratic character of modern education. Some students have taken the opportunity to explore the topics in a way that just isn’t possible in a class, or even a small group, discussion. Take the threads below:

The first one shows a student posing her own evaluative question. The second one shows a student conducting outside research to support her points, making modern connections to historical concepts. The third is an evaluative, analytical discussion that cites evidence to back up the participants’ claims – it illustrates the core skills we want to develop in history class. Furthermore, I’ve had students bring in examples from the videos during our class discussions and direct instruction time. These all point to how the new format fulfills the rationale for the flipped classroom: leading to more time for meaningful, student-driven learning and teacher feedback.

At the same time, I’ve had students complain that I’m moving away from my former, very traditional homework assignments. These don’t really require much thinking, but they’re an example of the very concrete assignments and activities that many of the students find helpful (along with direct instruction, which is why I haven’t completely abandoned it in my current integration initiative). So with at least two competing blocs in my classes, it begs the question:

How do we as teachers find the right balance?

This is one of the qualities that make a master teacher, and why I call education a human endeavor. Reading the mix of personalities and balancing your pedagogy is really the hard part – not learning how to do discussion activity X or design technology assignment Y. So I learned that the flipped classroom can work for some students, but frankly, that realization isn’t very useful, because it doesn’t tell me whether I’ve maximized my students’ learning. I think I need to accept that I’m just not going to make everyone happy all of the time, but wouldn’t it be nice if I could?

Maybe just a half-flip

As I prepare to start my experiment in flipping my classroom next week, I’m still grappling with the suitability of my model for the history classroom.

Here’s why I’m excited about flipping:

  • It is more engaging. I’m always looking for ways to make history more vivid, and showing videos at home will allow me to do this without sacrificing instructional time. I already do a lot of critical thinking and application in class, and students should be able to apply facts from the video to my existing activities.
  • It may be more useful than my existing homework assignments. Why? The homework I give right now isn’t terribly exciting, but it is valuable as a study tool and reinforcing mechanism. However, the students do a fairly middling job on it, and the threat of point deductions isn’t an incentive to complete it. So if I assess the students more on in-class assignments while having them absorb content at home, it may help them overall.
  • It’s something different. I do think that good teaching always has a bit of a “wow” factor – whether it’s a passionate lecturer or a nurturing facilitator, your classes need to stand out. This will accomplish that.

And here are my concerns:

  • Can videos really stand alone as direct instruction? I know my kids, and I think they will need reinforcement in the classroom; asking them to go directly into application and synthesis won’t work.
  • How do I ensure accountability? My kids are great, but they can also be lazy. If they aren’t willing to complete the homework I’m assigning now and grading, how will I verify that they’ve watched the videos? And how will I accommodate (do I need to accommodate) the kids who don’t watch the videos and thus aren’t able to participate effectively?
  • How do I maintain alignment when I’m supposed to be aligned with the other world history teacher? I can’t find videos that match exactly our existing pacing, and I need to use the same major assessments as him. This means that I’m going to have the supplement the videos I find with the content from our existing curriculum.

I’ve come to modify my plan to be a kind of “half-flip.” This means that I still assign videos for homework, but I’ll supplement them with direct instruction, which will be modeled after Presentation Zen principles. I’ll reserve most of the class for the higher-level thinking and feedback-heavy activities that reverse instruction demands, while adapting the model for my particular student body.

I’ll bring you more as this story develops.

The future is choice.

The only bet I’ll place is that in the future, students (and their parents) will have a lot more choices about how they learn. Image Some rights reserved by Stuck in Customs
I was going to write a post about a theoretical future in which education was completely decentralized and students worked at their own pace towards a common goal. They would have a series of externally assessed checkpoints but could choose the order in which they completed the checkpoints and the medium through which they demonstrated their knowledge. In this fanciful version of education, students would be like characters questing through the educational manifestation of a role-playing game like Diablo.

But grand prognoses such as that miss the larger truth that no one learns in exactly the same way. Some people thrive in a collaborative environment; others excel individually. Some students love to talk with others; others prefer to receive knowledge and make meaning of it through an internal dialogue. That’s why there’s always going to be a place for stale, direct instruction – but that’s also why there’s always going to be room for disruptive forces. 

The future is choice.

The future, then, is CHOICE. That’s it. That’s what we’re seeing today – not the wholesale replacement of the old order, but an adjustment of the equilibrium. We used to have a choice between parochial and public schools. Secular private schools sprung up, and now we’ve got magnet and charter schools competing as well. Some parents decided to keep their kids close by and homeschool them. Montessori came up with his method of early education, and now parents have another alternative. Community colleges offer advanced classes to high school students. Universities offer summer programs for credit. At the tertiary level, Massively Open Online Courses are now giving students a third option beyond the traditional 2 year and 4 year degrees. And so maybe in the future we’ll have schools that function more as student incubators, giving them a playground to experiment and learn at their own pace, interacting with virtual peers sharing the same interests. Education will be distributed in the sense that if one educational setting doesn’t work for a student, he/she can easily switch to another.

The future still needs structure.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Children will still be children. They’re not going to grow up any faster. The pace of maturity is slowing down – as society becomes more affluent, kids don’t NEED to enter the working world as early as they did 200 years ago. There’s also been a commensurate increase in the barriers to entry in the working world; a BA/BS is the new high school diploma, and in many careers (teaching, anyone?) a Master’s is preferred. As creative as you may be, a diploma is often proof that you have the perseverance and work ethic needed to get the job done.

So however decentralized and distributed education may become, teachers will still be needed to provide structure, feedback, and most importantly, holistic support. In a MOOC setting, students may have an online persona, but their virtual peers won’t be privy to the day-to-day vicissitudes that comprise the experience of growing up. The most valuable role that we teachers play is not in teaching method Y of essay writing. It is in providing counsel to the students whose parents insist that he must go on a mission after graduating instead of going to college; it is in encouraging a talented yet unmotivated swimmer to overcome her fear of failure; it is in comforting and counseling a child who has been the target of bullying.

We teachers have always done that. Education has always been about developing students as people, not just as skilled workers. And I think it will always be so.

The Flipped Classroom: New Look, Same Great Taste!

Why not try things upside down, backwards, and inside out?

My first reaction to reading about the flipped classroom was:

How is this new, exactly?

After all, the definition of the flipped classroom appears to be as follows:

  1. Teacher finds video.
  2. Students watch video at home.
  3. Teacher and students analyze, synthesize, evaluate…problem solve in class.

This is the opposite of what many appear to see as the ‘traditional’ model of lecturing in class and assigning problems to reinforce the concepts (a method recommended by the ASCD).

And, like, wow. It’s not like teacher have ever, like, assigned students a chapter to read, and then, like, asked them to be ready to talk about it the next class.

But whether it’s a new phenomenon is beside the point. The fact is that teachers should continuously question how they could use their students’ time more effectively, and flipped instruction is a way – not the only way, but certainly a valid one – to do that.

So let’s get some things straight. The Flipped Learning Blog tells us it’s a myth that flipped learning is all about the videos. Certainly, “kids can get the lectures, can get the content delivery and skill modeling as well (or often better) by computer lecture than in person.” But this is not the exclusive province of videos. While videos can be more engaging, this doesn’t mean that a reading assignment wouldn’t be just as – or more – effective, especially in a highly literate student population.

Furthermore, in-class lecture has its advantages, like engaging with the audience: allowing students to ask questions to a living, breathing person. They’re simply more interactive than videos.

In any event, as the Flipped Learning Blog reminds us, it’s not all about the videos. Rather, once “you’ve freed up class time, you need to use it productively” (Reverse Instruction). It’s all about what you do with your class time to challenge your students to move up Bloom’s Taxonomy. This is what the flipped classroom doesn’t specifically address, because it’s an ideology, not a teaching strategy. The freed up class time is where your university pedagogy classes come in.

Flipped Classroom: New Look, Same Great Taste.

This is a good thing! No, it’s not novel. Nothing is original. It’s a repackaging of the same principles that we’ve always known comprise good teaching, with a bit of 90s tech thrown in. It’s a philosophical mashup/remix. It’s marketing. But it’s still a good reminder for us as teachers to focus on the intellectual habits that we need to be teaching our kids. If the flipped classroom does that, then it’s alright by me.

And by the way, I think you could easily do this in the humanities, at least in social studies. History documentaries and a few movie clips? Solid gold. The only strong objection I have is: WHAT DO YOU DO IF THE STUDENTS HAVEN’T DONE THE WORK? Sure, you can hold them accountable, but I teach a population where 10-20% of the kids aren’t motivated by adverse academic consequences. It’s really more an issue of motivation and management rather than the flipped classroom ideology, but it’s still something to think about.

New != Good

I’ll cut to the chase: my integration of technology is fairly middle-of-the-road, but just because my teaching isn’t revolutionary doesn’t mean it isn’t good.

I started by brainstorming a list of all the technology integration examples I could think of from my ancient & modern world history classes:

Most of these are described on my Showcase page.

Not trying to do everything at once

I hit a fairly broad range of the SAMR components, and as Jeff says, not every example of technology use needs to be a reimagination or completely new way of doing things. Edutopia tells us that tech integration needs to foster “active engagement, participation in groups, frequent interaction and feedback, and connection to real-world experts,” and most of my activities hit the first three criteria. However, connection to real-world experts is not something I’ve managed to integrate. What would this look like in the real world? It should go beyond just research expert resources – that would fall in the “Substitution” component. My understanding is that kids need to interact with expert in order to move up to the Redifinition component. I don’t imagine too many history professors and think-tank members are going to want to interact with all six of my history classes. But what about armchair experts? Having kids add to Wikipedia entries or comment about current events on a site like the New York Times would expose them to authentic, content-related conversation.

What I could change now

One example of a way I could improve my use of technology now is in my implementation of iClickers (a student response system). I currently use them for multiple choice practice – I project a question and the kids discuss what the correct answer is and why. If I wanted to redefine the way I do lecture, though, I could use iClickers to give the kids some processing time, ala Jeff Utecht, and ask them to answer one or two multiple choice questions every 5 or 10 minutes. This would give them time to reflect, discuss, and practice an essential test-taking skill.

What I could change in a perfect world

My technology integration examples have been cobbled on to my teaching over the past two years as I’ve progressively been given access to a document camera, iClicker system, Starboard, and just this year, reliable internet! As such, the tech skills my kids use aren’t scaffolding very neatly. It would be great to start from scratch, but I’m hesitant to do this since the curriculum at our school isn’t vertically aligned between grades or horizontally aligned between subjects. Like I said – in a more perfect world.

…and something to think about

SAMR and TIM share the unwritten assumption that new = good. This is necessary to get teachers and students to push the envelope, to dare, to dream, to challenge the status quo. I recognize it’s important to battle inertia in education. But we should recognize that these framework do not offer a way to evaluate the efficacy of these new tasks – for that, we’re still going to fall back on traditional criteria for evaluating learning. Making a video, for example, is awesome and can let more creative, less academic types demonstrate their learning. But for others, a video might “take an inordinate amount of time to complete but yield little “bang for the buck.”” (ASCD, Five Hallmarks of Good Homework). When I made my workout video, I spent about two hours planning and thinking about content and five just assembling the nuts and bolts. It was fun, but it spent 70% of the time working on skills and only 30% on the content. This is not absolutely BAD – it’s just something to be aware of when we’re deciding what assessments to use.

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Showcase: History Circles

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My History Circles burst with understanding!
At our last faculty meeting we read an article on how to give meaningful homework. It recommended that homework should check for understanding, provide opportunities for practice, and let students take ownership while avoiding “busywork” tasks.

This year I’ve incorporated these principles and leveraged technology to make collaborative homework a regular feature of my classes. For each new topic or chapter of the textbook my students complete an assignment that I’ve creatively named “History Circles.” They’re based off of Lit Circles done in many English classes, and are a way of giving students the opportunity to practice different skills through the content. The nice thing about History Circles is that they distribute responsibility, enable simultaneous workflows, and maintain accountability while reinforcing content and a diverse skillset.
Continue reading Showcase: History Circles

Digital Historytelling

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History is, of course, the story of human civilization. The core skill of explaining change over time – which brings in elements of context, causality, and chronology, whether you’re in AP World, DP History, or regular ole history – requires that you paint a story in broad strokes. The problem that I run into is that we cover so much history in a short time that we can rarely stop and smell the flowers. There are so many powerful stories in history that we don’t need to learn in order to understand the big picture. Digital storytelling could bring these to students’ attention, increase their engagement while harnessing their creative talent, appealing to their individual learning styles, and developing valuable technology and communication skills (The Educational Uses of Digital Storytelling).


Topic Selection

How would this work? First would be the selection of compelling stories that fit with the content. I’d leave it to the teacher to provide a short menu to the students, with a short (140 character?) teaser for each. For example:

  • Emperor Romanos IV’s crushing defeat at Manzikert
  • Genghis Khan’s terrifying response to the insults of the Khwarizmid empire
  • Emperor Constantine’s stunning revelation at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge
  • The Fall of Constantinople
  • The Storming of the Bastille
Collaboration and Sharing

Students could work alone or in pairs (our readings emphasize how digital storytelling can be a very personal affair) to create a digital story about their chosen event, and then present it to the class. We could take this a step further and have students post their projects online, then have other students give feedback and reactions. At my school we use Moodle for our courseware, so I would have students upload their videos to Youtube, embed them in a Moodle forum thread, and have the feedback be given in replies inside that thread. The advantage over using Youtube’s comments is that only registered students in the course would be able to give feedback, and students wouldn’t have to sign up for a Gmail/Youtube account to give feedback.


One approach to assessing this would be to use a rubric based on the Seven Elements of Storytelling. UH gives an even more complex rubric. Seven dimensions seems unnecessarily complex: good for planning, but poor for assessment purposes. I’d assess on fewer components:

  • Content: the relevance, significance, and accuracy of the information
  • Professionalism: the quality of the editing and presentation
  • Creativity: the appropriateness of the music and visuals

This would be more appropriate for my 9th and 10th grade students, who need instructions and expectations broken down into smaller steps when tackling big projects.

Prezi Zen for Open House Harmony

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The only thing I love more than Japanese food and standup comedy is a good presentation, so you can imagine my delight at Course 3’s videos on Presentation Zen and Death by Powerpoint. Actually, I may have just now overstated my preference for the aforementioned foods and performances. Nonetheless, I’ve always been a Harvard Outline Notes kind of guy. They’re neat, sequential, and got me through six years of undergrad and graduate school at Northwestern. As a teacher, I constructed my Powerpoints from Harvard Outline Notes, pasting a few bullets (only two or three, honest!) onto a slide. My only homage to design was a plain black background and single image per slide, both inspired by Steve Jobs’ product announcement Keynotes. Thanks to Matt Helmke and Garr Reynolds, though, I’m now a Powerpoint ex-con – someone no longer dealing death by Powerpoint.

I took several of Reynold’s Presentation Zen principles to make a Prezi for last week’s Open House, in an effort that has set the tone for all of my future lectures and workshops.

  1. Planning unplugged: I work out a lot – powerlifting, swimming, and rowing – and I used that time to organize my thoughts and come up with a layout.
  2. Focusing on relevance: I came up with topics that I felt were important to teachers, like the behaviors and skills that students need to succeed in my class and the specific, everyday indicators that would demonstrate that success.
  3. Sticky ideas: my ideas were very concrete, especially my examples of how we would know that students were being successful in history class.
  4. Noise reduction: I didn’t include number, figures, or specific evidence that parents could find in the syllabus. Instead, I expanded on those cold prescriptions and made a relatable document.
  5. Simplification: I’m a kludgy, inelegant writer, so it’s a minor miracle my ratio of images to text

Take a look at the Prezis – embedded after the break.
Continue reading Prezi Zen for Open House Harmony

The Hook

The Воины Апокалипсиса (Four Horsemen of Apocalypse) by Viktor Vasnetsov (1887)
Here’s a delightful image I use to introduce my lesson on the Black Death and 100 Years’ War in my Ancient World History class. I display it, without explanatory text, at the beginning of the class as a bellwork activity. The students try to guess what the painting depicts and who the figures are. With my predominantly Arab student population, most of them aren’t familiar with the idea of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, but the kids display insight and creativity in coming up with responses. Through class discussion, the students are eventually able to identify the spectres of war, death, famine, and plague as issues that medieval Europe faced.

This is just one example of how my bellwork activities hook kids and introduce my lessons. Using an image or video is oftentimes more useful than a text: reading a text takes longer and appeals to a narrower segment. The barriers to entry of visual analysis are much lower, so even lower-level students are engaged. Furthermore, the kids do a surprisingly thorough job of teasing out the details and making inferences, although I sometimes have to guide them.

Some other examples of visuals as a hook for a lesson:

Thich Quang Duc for a lesson on the French Revolution

North Korean army parade for a lesson on Spartan militarism

Be a Scythe

The Before
Week 1’s readings gave me ideas about how to organize and distill my writing and standardize my blog’s appearance to make it more reader-friendly. With recruiting season beginning along with swim tryouts beginning on Wednesday, I’ll work especially hard to apply those prinicples in this first COETAIL Course 3 response.


  1. Writing style: chop, bullet, chop
  2. Since readers need to be hooked immediately, I need to continue writing in the “inverted pyramid” (or inductive) style: a few lines of introduction followed by a succint conclusion. Evidence should comprise the remaining body of my posts, and I should use bullet points to highlight key ideas.

  3. Content: Just the facts, ma’am.
  4. Readers are looking for original thinking, devoid of “marketese,” that gives them useful and relevant information. The point of my blog is to showcase my teaching and share my experiences integrating technology in an international classroom, so I should use anecdotes and conclusions from my day-to-day life rather than make broad proclamations and philosophical observations. I also need to give background and context to reach readers with less technology experience than myself.

  5. Blog Appearance: Bigger, smaller, more vibrant.
  6. The After
    The reading on visual hierarchy discussed how size and color could be used to indicate a hierarchy of ideas: main ideas larger/in one color, subtopics smaller/in another. My blog has some size issues: the social media sharing buttons are large enough that they immediately draw the eye, whereas they should be something that readers reach after scanning the title and introductory text. I need to make these buttons smaller. I should also choose a color scheme to harmonize the Twitter feed and Disqus comment sidebar panes to indicate that these have like importance. Finally, for consistency, I should standardize the width of images on blog posts since my post content is all at the same level of importance.
    It would also be nice if the post background were offset in a different color from the page background. I’ll look into editing the page template (update: the issue was due to my omission of CSS code when modifying the theme; fixed it though), or I may look into a different theme. My rationale for choose the current one was that it didn’t have a huge header image that obstructed the main post content, but Week 2 and 3’s readings are making me rethink the purpose of my site images.


  7. Powerpoint Principles: Imagify
  8. I’ve realized that the Week 2 and 3 readings address Powerpoint principles further, but the visual hierarchy reading has given me a foundation of how to make my powerpoints more user friendly. Instead of my current style of Harvard outline notes accompanied by a relevant image, I can use a mind map/graphic organizer style Powerpoint or Starboard canvas, using size hierachy to indicate main ideas and replacing most of the text with images. I could assign a color to each RECIPES component and even use that color as frame for each image. More on this later.