October 30, 2013

Tips for Grading Cooperative Learning Lessons

Almost every job or career involves working with others, and cooperative learning lessons are perfect for helping kids develop necessary social skills. However, evaluating the products of those activities can pose a challenge for teachers.

When it is appropriate to grade cooperative learning lessons, and how can we grade them fairly? In my experience, the answer to that question depends on the type of lesson as well as its purpose. When it comes to grading, cooperative learning lessons seem to fall into two different categories: cooperative learning activities for practice, and team projects that result in a product. Let's look at grading options for both types of lessons.

Cooperative Learning for Practice 
Most of the cooperative learning activities I used on a daily basis were simple partner or team strategies for practicing skills or stimulating higher level thinking. In general, I don't believe in grading the products of these types of lessons. When students take turns completing a worksheet or teams work together to solve a problem, there's really no way of knowing how much help each student received on the assignment. Working together, they may score 100% correct on the activity page, but do they all fully understand the concept? There's only one way to know for sure - you have to follow up with an individual test or quiz.

Other cooperative learning activities such as this electricity investigation allow students to explore concepts in an open-ended manner. I personally don't see a need to grade these types of activities, although students can expect some sort of assessment of skills learned later in the lesson.

Cooperative Learning Projects with Products
Team projects are completely different. Many of them are complex and are designed to result in a product, whether it be a team poster, a Prezi presentation, a team skit, or a spreadsheet of data obtained during an experiment. Team projects are not generally assigned for the purpose of practicing a skill that will be tested later, so some type of grading method seems appropriate for these products.

But grading team projects fairly presents a challenge for teachers. How we graded these projects fairly when their products reflect different amounts of participation and skill on the part of each team member? We want to hold students accountable for their contributions, but we don't want to unfairly penalize them for others' poor quality work.

Many teachers address this issue by assigning roles when students work on projects and simply grading each student's part in the project. That strategy is effective when the tasks can be divided into clearly defined roles, but some projects are too complex to be broken into separate "grade-able" parts.

Using the Team Project Evaluation
After struggling with this dilemma for a few years, I created the Team Project Evaluation Form shown below as a way of evaluating the participation of individual team members in group projects. The completed form was attached to a photo or copy of the team project, and the grade I assigned each team member was based on a combination of his or her participation and the quality of the final product. You can download this form for free from my Cooperative Learning page on Teaching Resources.

Here's how I used the Team Project Evaluation in my classroom:
  1. After a team project was completed, I gave each person a copy of the form. They completed the top part independently by describing their contributions to the project. I asked them to list materials they brought from home and tasks they completed while working with their team.
  2. The next step was the kicker. Everyone had to pass their papers around the team and get all team members to sign the form to show their agreement. If the team member did not agree or felt they left something out, the two would quietly confer to resolve the situation.
  3. After they received their papers back with the signatures, students responded to the last two questions independently. These questions are reflective, asking students to think about how they might improve and how their team might work more productively in the future.
  4. Next, students turned in their forms altogether attached to the team project or perhaps to a photo or other representation of the project such as a rubric. For example, if they did a skit together, I would have evaluated the skit separately using a rubric to keep my grade for the product as objective as possible. Or if they completed a lab report together, I would grade the lab report objectively based on the content and responses. 
  5. After reviewing each students' evaluation form, I added my own comments and assigned the final grade. The final grade for each student was different, and it was based on their completed evaluation form as well as the more objective assessment of the actual product. 
Feel free to adapt the Team Evaluation Form to your own needs. It worked will when I taught both 4th and 5th grade, and I suspect it would work well with older kids too. I don't have it in Word form, so you'll have to create your own version if you want to change it.

Cooperative learning lessons are terrific for teaching kids to work together, but we do need to be sensitive to the fairness issues involved in grading work that was completed together. It's important to think about the purpose of the lesson so you can decide whether to grade the product or perhaps provide an individual skill assessment later. If you have any other ideas for grading cooperative learning lessons, please share them!

October 24, 2013

Exploring the Scientific Method with Toy Cars

Guest blog post by Ari Huddleston

Looking for some major student engagement? Teaching students about forces is a lot of fun because you can use toys! You can use playground equipment, pull-back cars, toy cars, marbles, balloon rockets, yo-yos, and spinning tops. During our study of force, my 5th grade classes completed a 2 day experiment using the scientific method to determine if mass affects the distance a toy car will travel down a ramp.  I wanted to focus specifically on science process skills with this activity.

My classes are still not ready to go through the scientific method independently, so we do parts together.  I will release them over time as they show they are ready for independence.  Students record everything in their science notebooks.

Day 1
  1. I gave students the question. 
  2. They wrote their own hypothesis in the format I prefer.  "If _______, then ________ because _______. 
  3. We shared hypotheses. 
  4. In groups, they discussed how the experiment should be set up.  I loved hearing many of my students insist on performing multiple trials. 
  5. We came back together to write the procedures. 
  6. They wrote the materials list by going through the procedures and seeing what is needed. 
  7. We discussed and identified the independent variable and dependent variable.  Some students are improving at this, but some still need help. 
  8. We discussed how data should be recorded. 
Day 2
  1. We reviewed students' lab team roles. {Download free lab team role cards here.}
  2. Students got to work conducting their experiment. There was 100% active engagement in all groups.
  3. Students worked on the bar graph of their data in groups.
  4. Students individually wrote their analysis of what they notice by looking at the data.  We always use a sentence stem of "I notice _______."
  5. Using a sentence stem, students wrote their conclusions.
  6. Students completed a reflection by drawing labeled diagrams of the experiment.

Was their data perfect? No. Did they get the same results? No. Were they scientists? Absolutely! This was a great opportunity for students to THINK and use their science process skills. Remember that science is not just about learning content, it's about experiencing the content!

Frequently Asked Questions

What were the procedures your students used?
  1. Set up a ramp.
  2. Tape a 1g gram cube to the back of the car.
  3. Roll it down the ramp and measure the distance from the bottom of the ramp to the back of the car.  Record your data.
  4. Repeat Step 3 two more times.
  5. Tape a 20g gram cube to the back of the car.
  6. Roll it down the ramp and measure the distance from the bottom of the ramp to the back of the car.  Record your data.
  7. Repeat Step 6 two more times.
What materials are needed for each group?
  • ramp, toy car (preferably a truck), measuring tape, tape, 1g cube, 20g cube
What results did your students get?
  • Well, they varied a bit. It was clear that the different masses affected the distance the toy car traveled. I had to work hard when I first started teaching to become comfortable with the idea that students will not always experience the exact thing we want them to experience, especially in science labs.  Make sure you have explanations for it and have tried the experiment yourself so you know what issues might arise. 
  • Any time an experiment does not go just the way it should is the perfect opportunity to discuss variables outside of their control, things students may have done to get inaccurate data, and how the experiment could be improved.
Thank you to Laura Candler for allowing my to do a guest post on her blog! I'm Ari from The Science Penguin.  I live in Austin, Texas and teach 3 classes of 5th grade science.

October 17, 2013

Teaching Children Not to Be Rude!

Guest Blog Post by Julia Cook

As a school counselor, I would often have kids come into my office and expect me to wave my magic counseling wand and solve their problems for them.  A good counselor, a good teacher, a good parent gives the wand to the child and teaches her how to wave it herself!

Rudeness is a learned behavior. Infants are born adorable, innocent, and teachable, but they are also selfish since all they know is their own tiny world. Without adults guiding them, they will never grow out of this self-centered perspective and will grow into rude children. It takes a village to help a child realize that the world is full of other people, and other people have feelings.  Having good social skills is necessary for school success. Good social skills affect how the child will do on the playground, in the classroom, in the future work place, and in life in general.

What causes people to be rude?
Before we can help students overcome rudeness and learn to be more caring, it’s helpful to understand why people are rude. According to The Civility Solution – What to Do When People are Rude, by P.M. Farni,  there are 11 causes of rudeness:
  • Individualism and a lack of restraint – I’ll do it my way and I don’t care about what you think!
  • Inflated self-worth – People who are self-absorbed don’t value others except as a means to fill needs and desires.
  • Low self-worth – Being hostile and defensive is often a sign of insecurity
  • Materialism – The quest for money and possessions is more important than showing kindness
  • Injustice –An injustice may create feelings of envy, demoralization, depression, or outrage.
  • Stress – People who are overworked or overwhelmed may be indifferent to those around them.
  • Anonymity – If I don’t know you, it doesn’t matter how I treat you.
  • Not needing others – We are becoming content with electronic isolation
  • Mental health problems
  • Anger
  • Fear
How do we teach children not to be rude?
We fail to guide and protect our children when we don’t teach them manners and respect for other people. One of the most valuable tools that we can give kids is the ability to connect with and relate to others. Rudeness damages others by creating stress, eroding self-worth, creating relationship problems, and making life difficult.  When we are treated rudely by others, we often become vulnerable and self-doubting.  Teaching children to be polite is not an all or none, but a continuum. Teaching a child just one single strategy toward politeness will better that child!
  • Start by setting a zero tolerance for rudeness in your classroom. Explain to your students that it is your job to help them grow to become the best that they can be. Let students know that rudeness is a damaging learned behavior, and you can and will teach them to unlearn it!
  • When you see a child acting rudely, go back to the list above and try to figure out why they are choosing to act that way. If you can figure out the cause, it is much easier to develop the most effective solution. Use incidences of rudeness as teaching opportunities to better your students.
  • Model politeness in every way possible – you are their coping instructor! If you are ever rude, recognize your behavior publically to your class and apologize.
  • Show and feel empathy – based on the cards that child was dealt in life, he may be playing the best hand that he can to win the game of life. Teach children from where they are in the world, not from where you expect them to be.
  • Read stories to your class that model positive behavior that counteracts rudeness. Have students point out how the characters acted rudely and discuss why they may have chosen to act that way, if they knew they were being rude, and what they did to overcome their rudeness.) Often times, if a child in a story book has a problem and learns to solve the problem, the reader can identify with the strategies used in the book and apply them in real life.

Your Thoughts are Private, but Behavior is Public
I often tell kids that “Your thoughts are private, but behavior is public.”  You can think whatever you want to think, but the minute you let your thoughts out of your head through your words or your actions, they become public information. A great visual to explain this is the Toothpaste Squirt.

Toothpaste Squirt Lesson

Materials Needed:
  • Small tube of toothpaste
  • Small plate
  1. Choose one student to come forward and squirt all of the toothpaste onto the plate.
  2. Ask the student if he/she can then put all of the toothpaste back into the tube.
  3. Explain that once the toothpaste comes out of the tube, you cannot get it all back in.  This is much like a put-down or rude comment.  Once a put-down comes out of my mouth and goes into your ears, I cannot take it back.
  4. Go onto explain that for each put-down a human hears, they must hear 10 pull-ups (or sincere compliments) to get back to where they were emotionally prior to the put down.  (i.e. if a child gets 3 put downs in one day, he must get 30 compliments to get back to where he was…30!)
  5. Reiterate that thoughts are private, but behavior is public and the next time you think about giving a put down, think again and screw your lid to your toothpaste tube on tight!
The most important skill that we can teach children to help them succeed in life is the ability to get along with others in society. To do that, it takes a village. If we fail, the rest of the world will let us know, and our kids will be subjected to a life of ridicule, isolation, and despair. As a teacher…you are your students’ coping instructor! Model politeness, say NO to rudeness and keep making a positive difference!

Julia is nationally recognized as an award-winning children’s book author and parenting expert. She holds a Master's Degree in Elementary School Counseling, and while serving as a guidance counselor, she often used children’s books to enhance her classroom lessons. Julia has written dozens of books that teach students to become life-long problem solvers. Many of her books can be used to teach kids not to be rude, including Cell Phoney, My Mouth is a Volcano, Teamwork Isn’t My Thing and I Don’t Like to Share, and I Want to Do it My Way! She enjoys visiting schools and talking with kids; in fact, she's done over 800 school visits! You can learn more at her website, www.juliacookonline.com. Julia will also be presenting two sessions at the Elementary School Conference next week. 

October 4, 2013

7 Reasons to Incorporate Movement, Songs, and Stories into Your Teaching

Guest blog post by Steve Reifman

Several years ago I started reading about the results of recent brain research and its implications for student learning. The more books I read, the more my interest in this topic grew. Before long I came across a wide variety of recommended teaching practices, and I eagerly incorporated them into my classroom instruction. Without fail, three types of effective, brain-friendly strategies consistently stood out as unusually engaging and powerful - those involving movement, songs, and stories.

Children simply reacted differently to lessons and activities that included elements of movement, songs, and stories. In fact, the entire classroom environment became transformed and the learning gains immediately evident. Because of my belief in the promise of movement, songs, and stories as learning catalysts, I began a quest to find, adapt, and create as many activities as possible that incorporated these elements. In this post I describe seven reasons why these types of activities have such a strong impact on both student learning and the classroom environment.

I want you to have access to the activities I describe below, so I'm offering a free sampler of my new book that includes these lessons mentioned below. You may want to download the Rock It! Transform Classroom Learning with Movement, Songs, and Stories Sampler and refer to it as you read about the strategies.

  1. Forges an Emotional Connection
    Educator Jeff Haebig explains that emotions drive attention and attention drives learning. Activities that include movement, songs, and stories resonate with children on an emotional level, engage them deeply, and enable them to make a personal connection with academic content. As a result, they pay closer attention and remember more. One of my favorite examples is “The Story of Peri Meter” because kids love hearing about this unique individual whose personality helps them understand the concept of perimeter.  
  2. Builds Self-Esteem
    Students who tend to experience difficulty with more traditional forms of learning usually find greater success with activities that incorporate movement, songs, and stories. For example, I have found that participating in “The Synonym-Antonym Sidestep” and “The Jumping Game” (see sampler) will do more to help children learn synonyms and antonyms than several days’ worth of paper-and-pencil instruction on the same topic. With this greater success comes greater confidence and improved self-esteem. We, as teachers, can capitalize on these moments of success to create a carryover effect to other parts of the school day.
  3. Improves Team Bonding
    Many kids are fortunate enough to experience the happiness and satisfaction that come from being a valued member of a successful team - playing Little League baseball, performing in a youth orchestra, or acting in a school play. Our classrooms can provide the same kind of bonding experience with the addition of activities that incorporate movement, songs, and stories. Students feel a greater sense of “connectedness” to the class and to one another. I have noticed this to be especially true when we sing “The Book Parts Song,” and our other learning tunes.
  4. Adds Novelty
    As adults, we appreciate a clever turn of phrase on a billboard or a unique combination of ingredients on a restaurant menu. The same holds true with children and their classroom learning. Activities that include movement, songs, and stories score high on novelty value, and kids love it when their teachers present information in a way that is a bit out of the ordinary or off the wall. For example, my student love it when I wear a Hawaiian shirt and play Hawaiian music as I describe the “Multiplication Hula” strategy for correctly placing the decimal point when doing multiplication problems involving money.
  5. Involves Multiple Learning Modalities
    Typical paper-and-pencil schoolwork addresses only two of the “intelligences” popularized by Howard Gardner, the linguistic and logical-mathematical. Movement, songs, and stories also address these intelligences and bring into play the bodily-kinesthetic, musical, and spatial, among others. The more modalities we reach, the more successful students will be. We hit the “Teaching Grand Slam” when children participate in activities, such as “Place Value Jumping Jacks,” in which they see, say, hear, and move through the content at the same time.
  6. Creates Memorable Experiences
    Educator Dave Burgess says, “Lessons are quickly forgotten; experiences are remembered forever.” Infusing classroom activities with movement, songs, and stories turns potentially dry academic lessons into engaging, multi-modal experiences that kids will remember and talk about with their family and friends. For example, my students’ ability to locate ordered pairs on a coordinate grid increased dramatically when I stopped providing mere explanations and started taking the class on a “virtual field trip” to the local farmer’s market where they could walk through an actual grid and select fruits and vegetables of their own.
  7. Increases Enthusiasm for Learning
    In addition to all the other academic and social-emotional benefits I have described, these activities are an absolute blast. Playing active games, singing songs, and sharing stories puts smiles on children’s faces, enriches their days with excitement and joy, and helps make school a happy place for them.   
Teaching is a difficult, demanding job, and we need to find pleasure in our work to be at our best in the classroom. Movement, songs, and stories can really help our students learn, and what’s even better, we can all have fun along the way. These activities create situations where children are completely focused and well-behaved, work with purpose, and learn enthusiastically. I’m not sure how we can beat that.

Steve Reifman is a National Board Certified elementary school teacher, author, and speaker with almost 20 years of classroom experience. He has a Master’s degree in education from UCLA, and has traveled to Japan as a Fulbright Memorial Fund Scholar. Steve has written several books, including an award-winning middle-grades mystery novel, Chase Against Time. His newest book for educators, Rock It! Transform Classroom Learning through Music, Songs, and Stories has just been published by Brigantine Media. Check out Steve's website at www.stevereifman.com