‘Blurry Eyes’ – Hotel Garuda (feat. Runn)

If students have been fully engaged in class, they’ve probably put in a solid 6+ hours of hard work.

So consider homework for a moment: Is it worth something?

I will go ahead and lay out the argument for homework, because it’s a popular and worthwhile opinion: “Students need to practice what they have learned in class in order to maintain their skill and review concepts that have been taught in class.” I actually fully agree with this statement. However, again, if students have been engaged in class for the majority of the day, and the teacher has been present supporting them with clarified, sound instruction, questioning at high levels of DOK, and providing opportunities for students to communicate and apply their knowledge, when kids go home–they need to be kids.

I imagine if a teacher is one of those individuals with a cake classroom where engagement doesn’t matter, yeah–those kids need to go home and hit the books. But, for someone reading this blog, who has a passionate interest in first-rate classroom engagement, their students slay it in the classroom on a daily basis. When they get home, they deserve to be rewarded with rest and relaxation. I absolutely think that providing them with a little bit of practice to stimulate them outside of school is appropriate, but it is important that in assigning this practice, the view and the volume need to be assessed.

The View

In assigning homework, it is important to ask, just like Runn croons, “Is it worth something?” At the end of a lesson, many teachers think, providing evening work for the skill learned earlier in the day will reinforce the information that was presented. They say reinforce, I say rattle. Surely, we’d like to think that all of our students were able to grasp what we delivered, but how often does every kid make an 80 or higher their first attempt at taking an assessment? It’s not best practice to give kids evening homework on the skills they learned during the day. If they didn’t learn it correctly that day in class, they’re not going to practice it correctly that night at home. Thinking that they may figure it out if they practice it independently is like saying, “Alright, teenager; you ran that stop sign and took out a few mailboxes while we were practicing driving together earlier today–this evening, once it gets dark, hop in the car on your own and try your luck.”

Teachers who feel like it’s just not right to send a child home without something to do, should think about sending home true remedial assignments that serve more as spiral reviews than extended independent practice. This will provide a chance for students to enhance fluency, extend thinking, and refresh their knowledge in order to continue building on it in the classroom.

Another option is the flipped classroom model, where instruction actually happens at home via a pre-recorded lesson from the teacher. With this model, the time at home is spent listening to the teacher and watching concepts as they are skillfully modeled (with the gift of infinite rewinding and re-watching), and the time at school is spent doing guided practice with the aid of the expert–the teacher.

Thinking about the purpose of homework also allows teachers to take into consideration the fact that not all students go home to a place where knowledgeable adult help is handy.

The Volume

If a teacher has assessed the purpose of homework, the amount should surely be brought into question as well. I’ve heard at many different schools in many different places that the rule of thumb is 10 minutes of homework multiplied by the grade the child is in. I am so sorry, but I have the hardest time understanding this: DOES EVERY SINGLE FOURTH GRADER TAKE 40 MINUTES TO DO THE SAME HOMEWORK? Does it take every first grader 10 minutes to complete the same homework? If so, who determines what that homework is, and how are they able to assign homework “in minutes”?

The amount of homework should probably match the concept or skill being reviewed, plain and simple. Those fourth graders receiving 40 minutes of homework should probably get no more than 5 or 6 long division problems (the view of this homework should be practicing the proper use of the standard algorithm or another previously taught strategy for correctness). Those first graders may only need to draw a picture and write one sentence about the principal, police officer, and mayor they were introduced to earlier in the week in order to show that they have retained their knowledge of people in authority. I am not privy to the ability levels of all first graders, so I’m not sure how long this will take. If I were their teacher, however, I’d make sure they understood my policy about their kids and homework: “It’s meant to be practice–if it gets to a point where frustration is reached, get to a stopping point, send in a quick note, and I’ll take it from there.”

Homework is not all bad, however, there are certain educators who when asked, “Is it worth something?” they ultimately think no. With purpose in mind and while being cognizant of the amount, homework is definitely worth the quick, intentional spiral review opportunities it can provide.

‘Tell Me’ – Marshmello

“Tell me” is basically what each teacher is pleading from his or her students on a daily basis: Tell me how to subtract across zeros with regrouping; tell me the definition of photosynthesis; tell me why European monarchs sent explorers to settle in new lands.

This is all well and good, but at the end of the day, is what we are asking students to tell us really evidence of true comprehension?

Just about every teacher is familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy, and if they aren’t, I’ve provided a handy link for reference. Basically, in 1956, Mr. Benjamin Bloom provided us with a tool that assists educators in developing questions that get kids to tell us things–more specifically, tell us what they are learning from our lessons. This tool is divided into six categories: Remember, Understand, Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, Create.

Fast Forward to 1997, when Norman Webb took a shot at aligning standards and standardized assessments–he succinctly whittled Bloom’s six categories into four: Recall and Reproduction, Skills and Concepts, Short-term Strategic Thinking, and Extended Thinking. This is actually known as Webb’s Depth of Knowledge or DOK.


Before I go any further, I’d like to make a suggestion: This handy wheel needs to go in lesson plan books, and maybe even on classroom walls. In order to be intentional in facilitating higher-level thinking in lessons, teachers need to keep this nearby as well as make sure that students are aware that they will be responsible for demonstrating their knowledge in these ways.

Each level requires greater cognition in order to produce an answer. For example, it’s simple for a student to tell (Level 1) what photosynthesis is, but it is much more rigorous  (and engaging) to have that student create a visual representation of the process of photosynthesis with Legos.

While using higher levels of DOK is suggested in order to increase rigor and truly get students doing more than just telling, it isn’t easy to just crank out questions like, “What conclusion can you draw about the importance of the sun in the process of photosynthesis?” The most well-intentioned teachers often only achieve questions in level 1 of DOK during classroom instruction; not to mention, the higher the level of questioning, the more time students are probably going to need in order to answer the question. This is where planning for higher-level questioning serves as a benefit. Again, if our intent is to maximize student learning and have students do  more than just tell us information, we need to be providing them with thoughtful questions that require deliberate responses.

Lastly, if increasing student achievement is our ultimate goal, a conscious look at our levels of questioning is extremely important. The first word of most academic standards is usually a verb found in the wheel above. Few are in Level 1. If our questioning doesn’t get much further than requiring students to tell us things, we are not helping our students get to a higher level of thinking, thus holding them back from greater levels of achievement.

‘All Four Walls’ (feat. Vaults) – Gorgon City

I just returned from the Innovative Ideas Institute put on by the South Carolina Association of School Administrators (SCASA). It was fulfilling and inspiring, as it always is. I was able to network and connect with influential school administrators from all over the state, and hear about the initiatives and programs they are utilizing in their schools to serve students and bring forth outstanding levels of achievement.

This conference takes place yearly at Kingston Plantation in Myrtle Beach, SC. Kingston Plantation is a huge resort with an Embassy Suites hotel at the center, and little “communities” around it. There are a few other oceanfront buildings, but the majority of the areas are inland and made up of condominium or villa-style buildings. This year, I stayed in a place called Arrowhead Court.

Now I know that not all the units in Arrowhead Court are just like the one I stayed in–I believe these units are privately owned, like timeshares. No two units are decorated the same. In fact, when I stayed in the Richmond Park area last year, the villa had the exact same floor plan as my colleague’s did in another area on the site, but everything from the flooring to kitchen sink fixtures was completely different.

I hope, for the sake of all who arrive at Kingston Plantation and are given a key to an Arrowhead Court unit, that there is not another that looks the way mine did: bare, stark, white walls, no pictures, nothing fancy, no chachkis of any sort. It was incredibly underwhelming.

It really got me thinking about how important classroom environment is. I once was told that the walls of a classroom are a teacher’s real estate, and if that teacher wants students and parents to “buy” what’s up for sale, it’s got to have some definite “curb appeal”.

I’m not talking about cute, fluffy, meaningless things; I’m talking about content-enhancing, interactive, useful tools and resources that support the learning in the classroom. In fact, I believe that every student in the class should be able to explain the significance of each displayed instructional tool in the room. If it is important enough to be up on the wall, the students should be able to articulate its purpose.

I had a huge map of the world on my classroom wall back when I taught 5th grade. I taught my two sections of social studies, so many of the instructional aides in my walls were social studies themed. In 5th grade, we discussed the relationship between the US and the rest of the world from Reconstruction to present day. So this map I had was used a lot when we started talking about imperialism and the World Wars.

On a classroom observation, an administrator came in and told me that my map was superfluous and didn’t seem to serve any purpose–that it just took up a lot of space and didn’t seem to support any learning. I argued that it did, and while anyone coming into the room for 15 minutes may not see it in use, the kids could tell anyone what the map was for. Well, the next day, I made sure that my statement was true because I knew that administrator would be back to test out my claim. I told my students that I didn’t just put stuff up on the walls for my health, or because they looked good. I informed them that everything had a purpose, and part of their responsibility as students was to know the purpose for everything on all four walls. I quizzed them on unit and lesson essential questions posted on a wall, along with content vocabulary and the student-created pictures that accompanied them; I made sure they knew the connection to math that our calendar provided us; and I made certain that they all knew why the map on the wall was such a big deal. Ironically, they asked me why we had a word wall with such “baby words”. I explained to them that the word wall (along with the selection of words) was something required by the district. A variety of students admitted that they never paid attention to the word wall, and that the words there weren’t ones that they often misspelled. From that point on, I didn’t take the word wall down, but I started adding words that were frequently misspelled for my students, not just the “commonly” misspelled ones.

Fast forward to about two weeks later: the same administrator was back, and when she walked in the door, my kids knew it was game time. She walked around, checking things on her little clipboard, and noticing some of my classroom real estate has not changed since her last visit. She peered over the shoulder of one of my students, Tae-Young. As she leaned to Tae-Young’s ear, Tae-Young had this unforgettable look of dread come over her face–like she was going to have to speak for all mankind. The administrator pointed up to the map and asked Tae-Young a question about it, and without any hesitation, Tae unabashedly preached the gospel of the world map, complete with providing answers to the administrator’s follow-up questions. The look on her face after she had stood up for the truth of our massive instructional tool was one of pride and relief.

That administrator later affirmed the benefits of the giant world map.

I carried this mindset with me as an instructional coach. I used to visit classrooms and give students 30 seconds to explain the purpose of one classroom instructional tool while I recorded them with my phone. They would explain to me stories behind their classroom data stations, anchor charts, student work, graphic organizers, and editor’s checklists. The amazing thing is that when the kids knew the purpose of the things on the walls, they were more prone to use them as resources and glean important information from them.

So what’s on all four walls is important. Not only should it be there in order to create an engaging atmosphere for learning, but students should know its purpose in order to get the ultimate benefit from its presence.

‘Work it Out’ – Karizma

I love this song.

This is the essence of electronic dance music: being able to take music that sometimes already exists, and then building on it with exaggerated electronic elements and technology to create something that evokes a different perspective than it originally did.

In a way, isn’t that hat we want our kids to do with the knowledge we impart to them and through classroom discussions? How better to create academic synergy than with collaborative learning.

Take this track, for example–the original track that is sampled throughout is ‘Jesus Can Work it Out’, a live recording of Dr. Charles Hayes and the Cosmopolitan Church of Prayer from 1980. DJ/Producer Karizma boldly took this track and blasted it into the mainstream dance charts 37 years later with the use of some drum beats and scratching, and now Google has used it to sell thousands of Chromebooks. Now if that isn’t some next level collaboration, I don’t know what is!

This is the same thing kids should be doing in classrooms regularly. Students should be sharing thoughts and making connections with and from each other to expound on their knowledge. Below are three reasons why this is so important and effective:

  1. Collaboration develops higher thinking skills. When kids are tasked with communicating, they are required to articulate their thoughts in multiple ways in order to make statements and validate their suggestions. They often meet opposing viewpoints that make them think differently or rethink an idea they have.
  2. Collaboration develops diversity awareness. Much like the genres of ‘Jesus Can Work it Out’ and ‘Work it Out’, no two students are the same. When they are tasked to communicate together, varying viewpoints are shared which opens up dialogue and understanding about different lifestyles, backgrounds, and cultures. This is most important in this era of 21st century learning, as educational institutions are being charged with promoting and acknowledging diversity amongst learners. Furthermore, this type of learning develops the whole child, not just students’ academic knowledge.
  3. Collaboration engages all students. It’s difficult to collaborate alone. And that’s how many students view themselves within our classrooms: singled out, their only advocate, just a number. When we provide opportunities for them to learn with peers, they don’t have to be afraid of talking in front of the whole class, and they are empowered to speak up. Similarly, those same students who don’t contribute much can’t slink away as easily in a smaller working group. The dynamics of collaborative learning require all group members to pull their own weight to glean the benefits of the discussion.

These are just a few of many reasons why students should be “working it out” collaboratively. From students’ first day of kindergarten, to their eventual retirement day as adults, the world is going to expect them to be contributing collaborators. It is only right that we assist our students in mastering this important life skill in our classrooms where they can reap the academic benefits as well.

‘Places’ – Catnip Cloud (feat. Tiril Hognestad

I’m about to be terribly honest.

Children are not interested in anything the standards say.

I am not so idealistic to think that most 4th graders enter our school with desires to “analyze and provide evidence of how the author’s choice of point of view, perspective, and purpose shape content, meaning, and style.” Obviously, they’d much rather be watching YouTube videos of kids overseas playing with Squishies (that’s a thing–YouTube it).

Even when presenting this important reading skill to students, the mere breadth of this standard gets in the way of bringing students to a place where they can find any interest in it. So the question is, how do we get students to “deeper places” in their learning?

If we take a look a the aforementioned YouTube, we have to acknowledge a few things about it: it has a variety of videos, and is sure to offer something to pique anyone’s interest, it can sustain entertainment for long periods of time, and there is an option for viewers to leave feedback. In a nutshell, YouTube offers voice to the viewer. This is exactly what we need to be providing students in our classrooms: student voice.

If we were to look at the 4th grade South Carolina College and Career ELA standard presented earlier (Language, Craft, and Structure, Standard 11), there are actually a few ways, using the gifts possessed by YouTube, to engage student voice in teaching this:

  • Variety: Allow students to study a text that interests them. This doesn’t have to be a book. It could be a poem, article, how-to guide, song lyric, or even a journal entry or blog post. Kids are going to be way more interested in something they have selected than a book you’ve pulled off a curriculum guide.
  • Sustainability: This type of learning can’t be limited to 45 or 50 minutes (try pulling a 10-year old away from their device after 50 minutes). Giving students the chance to explore in this matter requires a few class sessions at minimum, providing kids the chance to go off into directions that truly do deepen their understanding. Say for example, a student is analyzing an opinion article regarding the influence of the WNBA on women’s sports–this may send that student down a wormhole about the history of the WNBA, influential players, even information about Title IX. While setting flexible boundaries for our students, we have to give them the freedom and time to explore.
  • Feedback: Very little engages children like the opportunity to give their two cents on a topic. How often do we really allow them to be heard? When given the chance to be vocal about their learning, they are forced to think critically about their statements. This Edutopia article highlights two particular strategies for getting kids to think critically about their reading and sharing their own views on it.

Teaching in this manner allows students truly to engage deeper in their learning. However, it requires teachers to loosen the reigns, which is not as easy as finding entertainment on YouTube. Pardon the overuse of the word, but diving “deeply” into allowing student voice right away is not prescribed. Part of our role as educators is providing students with the tools to manage this type of learning more independently. We must lay the foundation first, guiding them with how to research and think critically, and how to respectfully share feedback supported with evidence.

Student voice.

“Such powerful exchange of human energy.”

‘Clarity’ – Zedd (feat. Foxes)

What is in an essential question? What is in an objective? What is in a learning target?

More than the acronym “TSW”, I can tell you that.

I pose this question seriously, however, because beginning with the end in mind is paramount in affecting student achievement. Furthermore, it helps set the stage for students’ engagement also.

Teacher clarity is a a research-based tool used to focus a lesson, and guides a teacher to the most succinct elements necessary to deliver specific and detailed instruction for the most pertinent parts of what students are meant to learn. Think of it as, what one of my good friends tells me, “Keeping the main thing the main thing.”

Doing this requires taking a laser-like look at individual learning standards to determine and identify what students should be able to know and do, and what success looks like. Once precisely defined, the teacher can then develop learning progressions for the intended learning. This is done for all the standards within a unit of study. Teachers then are able to support students by creating an image for success. Students are then empowered to learn and with explore with a better understanding of the objective and improved engagement.

How much more successful could our students be if we truly were their clarity? Sometimes in the haphazardly scribbled EQs on whiteboards, we fail to accurately show kids what the end outcome of their learning is supposed to be. My district is actually moving to learning targets this year, which I am excited about–it takes the guessing away from the students when they are trying to articulate the answers to the very broad questions they are sometimes presented with at the beginning of the day. With explicitly identified intentions for learning, our kids are set up for achievement before the leaning even begins!

State standard support documents are helpful in creating teacher clarity, but it is far from enough. This careful analysis of learning expectations requires collaboration amongst grade level team members and subject-specific teams; there would be great power, especially, in looking at these expectations vertically.

This, teacher clarity, could truly be the “remedy” our students need in order to fully engage in the tasks we present to them.

Read about how teacher clarity is included as one of Edutopia’s 5 Highly Effective Teaching Strategies. Also, check out Corwin Publishing‘s professional support on teacher clarity.

‘All Night’ – Steve Aoki and Lauren Jauregui

“You’ve got me paralyzed.”

What a vivid metaphor for engagement.

How many times a year are kids actually “paralyzed” by the content they are receiving? Where they can say, “And I think I like it”?

Well, in order to like something, one has to be interested in it. I feel this is one of the key areas why we aren’t connecting with our students. What 9 or 10 year old has a heartfelt interest in algebraic thinking or text-dependent analysis?

I’ll wait…

Yeah, I thought so.

These kids are walking into a building knowing that they are going to be faced with 45 minutes to an hour of content that is of no actual interest to them. I can’t fault them for feeling that way. It’s kind of like when I have to sit in professional development for something anathema to my position, or even worse, something on which I’ve already received training (but that’s another blog topic altogether).

Ultimately, it is up to us as educators to take the state-mandated content handed down to us and spice it up with some robust flavor. How do we do that? We’ve got to get to know our students!

This is as simple as doing an interest inventory at the beginning of the year and throughout the year, conversing with kids at lunch and recess, allowing them to journal and freewrite about their favorite things, and actually becoming interested in our kids as HUMAN BEINGS before acknowledging them as little learners.

One teacher in my school last year paired reading strategies with dance moves from the popular Fortnite game. GENIUS. Back in the day, I used an iCarly episode to teach economics. The worse thing that came out of that was a class-wide obsession with penny tees, but I can guarantee you those 5th graders understood monopolies, supply and demand, and workers unions. We’re these kids paralyzed? Ever watched a 10 year old glued to the television?

You know what? I think they liked it.

For more ways to get to know your students, check out this blog post from Cult of Pedagogy.

‘Is This Love’ (Eddy de Datsu Remix) – Alex Gaudino (feat. Jordin Sparks)

Have you ever been to a concert? Not just any concert, though–like a bass-deafening, lights all over the place, fog machine cranking, wall-to-wall dancing bodies concert. Some might even use the term “rave”, but don’t get confused: I am literally talking about the amazingly produced experience that is created from the chemistry of lights, the music, and the crowd. It’s completely euphoric sensory overload. While it’s not for the faint at heart, I can guarantee you that just about anyone attending would be sure to have an incredibly memorable experience there.

Now think of a 4th grade class.

If the lights went dark and the music came to a screeching halt, you are reading exactly what you need to at just the right time.

Too many classrooms lack the type of excitement previously mentioned. There is little involved to excite our students and provide them an indelible experience, much less activate multiple senses. But it doesn’t have to be that way!

Engagement does matter. 

My goal is to prove this with the help of my favorite thing in the world–dance music. I mean, I love dance music so much that my last year teaching 5th grade, every Friday in my class was Dance Party Friday. Every single day, my kids would bebop along to music while they did their independent work. It really made our room a relaxed place where kids could comfortably work and enjoy a little bit of moderate entertainment at the same time. No matter how difficult the tasks we were completing or what was going on outside our room or in our personal lives, we had music to pleasantly carry us through our daily academic tasks. But oh, Friday! On Fridays, we took a break from the calmer, more whimsical tunes that accompanied our learning throughout the week and cranked up the remixes! I introduced my kids to house, dubstep, bitpop, and techno (it’s not all techno, contrary to popular belief). It was a way to celebrate the successes of the week and finish strong, as we often had at least a couple assessments on Fridays. My kids, now new high school graduates of the class of 2018, probably can’t recall what those assessments were on, but I can guarantee that they remember dance party Fridays along with the other uber-engaging activities we did in 5th grade that year.

So back to EDM. My goal is to discuss the most important element in instructional delivery with educators through my beloved electronic dance music (this is the mainstream term associated with EDM). Take for example the song I am featuring with this inaugural blog post: ‘Is This Love’ by Alex Gaudino (2013). In this song, a few particular lyrics come to mind when thinking about student engagement. Vocalist, Jordin Sparks asks repeatedly, “Is this what I should be feeling?” I wonder how many kids actually ask that question in their classrooms in the midst of their lessons. Are they feeling excited? Are they feeling bored to tears? Are they feeling anything?! What sort of response are you getting from your students? This isn’t something that requires painstaking documentation or tireless progress monitoring–this is something that can be determined from tuning in with kiddos in the midst of the lesson. While a teacher is moving about, interacting and communicating with students while they learn, what are the conversations that are taking place? Are there connections being made to real life? Is anything sparked that makes the kids want to take their learning further? What, actually, are they feeling? Have we ever asked them? Do we care?

Also in the song, Jordin croons, “Is this love what I’ve been waiting for?” As a coach and administrator, I have been in so many classrooms that boast a rich learning target, objective, or essential question, only to leave learners waiting for true application and deep understanding of the knowledge presented. Teachers, often, can only delve so far into content without rich student engagement. Take for example the concept of Henry Ford and his assembly lines: What child is going to understand exactly how beneficial this was to industry and economy from reading about it out of a textbook or viewing a PowerPoint about it? Why not provide kids with the opportunity to make cars individually at first, and then in groups with an assembly line second? These kids would then be able to first hand explain the difference in the automobile making process: it takes less time to make cars, it creates more jobs, it drives down the cost of automobiles, it puts more cars on the road, which in turn makes more money. Then, students could think of other everyday tasks that could be made more efficient through new or refined methods. This simple objective about understanding the importance of Henry Ford’s assembly line has now been elevated to the level of analyzing current daily procedures and creating ideas to improve them. What a change to this learning that not only addresses the content, but truly gives the students something worth waiting for.

So, hopefully, my mission is clear. I want to bring about reflection on student engagement through one of the most engaging musical genres filling concert arenas and earbuds alike. Our students deserve to come to school and get that same type of sensory overload one would experience at an EDM concert. Like DJs and producers work tirelessly to entertain dancing concertgoers, we as educators are required to put in the same effort for the sake of our “fans”–our students.