Monthly Archives: September 2016

How to Using Graphic Organizers Correctly

What is a graphic organizer? A graphic organizer is a visual display or chart that shows the relationship between ideas, facts, and information.

It can allow a third-grade student, for example, to chart out chronologically a summer vacation by writing specific information in each box in a connected series. Another graphic organizer might have three columns and require a seventh-grade student in a world history class to list the causes of WWII. Those causes are listed in the far left column, then, the middle column asks for effects, while the far right column requires the student to write in evidence or a source to accompany each cause and related effect.

A piece of paper that says "Chronological Structure" at the top. Below that are two, connected rows of three-sided squares, like opened boxes. Below that are three columns with rows of lines to write notes.

A Pre-Writing Tool
Teachers carefully select a graphic organizer after deciding what type of writing they want their students to engage in – narrative, argumentative, or informational. They then select specific skills for development in that type of writing. In a narrative writing assignment, does the teacher wish the child to develop sequential writing, or perhaps the focus will be on description and details? Determining this will help a teacher select the appropriate graphic organizer.

The ultimate purpose of utilizing a graphic organizer as a tool is to prepare students for writing. Simply put, a graphic organizer assists a student with thinking and is a pre-writing tool — not the end product. Some young writers may need this thinking tool more than others. That said, a writer in your classroom might want to skip using a graphic organizer and be ready to dive into the writing. Let her.

Teachers need to remember they are not developing charters of information, but they are developing writers. The only way to build fluency in writing is to write.

Improve Writing by Writing
As I’ve seen in my many classroom observations, we teachers can get caught up with treating the graphic organizer as The Assignment, especially with struggling students. At some point, with learners who are struggling, we need to stop encouraging them to finish filling in those boxes or columns on the graphic organizer and move into what matters: the writing.

It’s much more important for a student to practice writing – the only way to build writing fluency – and stumble through stringing thoughts together this way than to fill in a graphic organizer completely or perfectly.

Lastly, grade only the writing and not the graphic organizer. This will help keep the focus where it really matters: on our students as writers.

More Informations About The Science of Effective Learning Spaces

If you’ve ever attempted to clear your head by taking a walk outside or zoning out by a window as the clouds roll by, you’ve intuitively hit on something that scientists have been researching for years: Our natural and built environments seem to affect how we think and feel. Researchers have recently focused on determining how environmental factors can affect kids’ ability to learn. Studies show that a well-designed learning environment supplements evidence-based pedagogy and curriculum design. Let’s examine four environmental factors that can enhance or hinder learning.

Daytime Light Exposure Can Boost Learning
Light does more than just allow us to see the world around us. When light enters our eyes, it also engages a non-visual system that affects the timing of our sleep-wake cycles and our cognitive performance. In fact, parts of our eyes connect directly to a part of our brain that secretes hormones influencing our levels of sleep (melatonin) or alertness (cortisol).

Even more importantly, all light is not the same. While the presence of any light can influence hormonal secretion via this non-visual system, blue light has the most powerful effect. People are more alert and less sleepy when exposed to blue light versus other wavelengths. Sunlight, full-spectrum LEDs, and most digital screens are rich in blue light.

One study of 21,000 U.S. elementary students showed that, over one school year, kids who were exposed to more sunlight during their school day displayed 26 percent higher reading outcomes and 20 percent higher math outcomes than kids in less sunny classrooms. However, even if your classroom has less natural light than you’d like, other studies have shown that replacing your artificial lighting with blue-enriched bulbs can improve students’ cognitive performance.

Daytime blue-light exposure may have a powerful effect on adolescents in particular. Biological changes during puberty delay the sleep-wake cycle by shifting melatonin secretion to later in the evening (making it harder for teens to fall asleep early) and later in the morning (making it harder for teens to wake up early). This means that teens often accumulate sleep debt during the week, which has negative effects on academic performance. First, it leaves them less alert and able to pay attention during the school day, and therefore less able to learn. Second, the quality and quantity of sleep are affected, interfering with the brain’s ability to store the day’s learning. Later school start times can help reduce these challenges, but blue-light exposure throughout the school day may also help. Light resets the body’s circadian rhythm, so exposing teens to light can increase their alertness and improve academic outcomes.

Nighttime Light Exposure Can Hinder Learning
Given that American teens spend an average of nine hours per day using digital media (not including media time for school or homework), there are growing concerns about the blue-light exposure from all of this screen time. If such exposure happens as kids are preparing for sleep, the blue light may be compounding the sleep disruptions caused by asynchrony between school start times and their delayed sleep-wake cycles.

By disrupting kids’ sleep patterns, blue-light exposure before bed also interferes with learning by leaving them sleepier and less able to learn the next day, as well as by disrupting the storage process of the day’s learning that occurs during sleep. In fact, one of the easiest ways to boost learning is to improve the quality and quantity of sleep (and by putting some sleep between studying and testing). Reducing pre-bed screen time can effectively maximize sleep’s benefit on learning.

Interaction With the Natural Environment Is Good for Learning
Think your student is spacing out when she’s gazing out the window during class? She may be instinctively seeking a cognitive reset that will improve her ability to focus. Many studies have demonstrated the power of the natural environment – whether real or simulated in video games – on kids’ learning and well-being.

One study of over 10,000 fifth-grade students showed that kids in schools with unrestricted views of nature tested higher in reading, math, and language arts than students in schools with urban views (or no views at all). Other studies have shown that interaction with nature can be particularly helpful for kids with ADD and ADHD, and that the greener the child’s play spaces, the more reduced his or her attention deficit symptoms.

Again, don’t worry if your classroom or child’s bedroom lacks views of nature. In a 2009 study, researchers introduced leafy plants into the classroom and found a positive impact on students’ well-being and behavior, with fewer hours of sick leave and disciplinary events.

Classroom Design May Distract From Learning
The many factors that make up classroom design have been studied for their influence on learning. Factors that can interfere the most with learning are noise, temperature, and (surprisingly) seating arrangement.

1. Noise: The interfering effects of noise during learning – particularly noise that includes voices (language) – is quite profound in young children. The likely reason is that the brain systems which allow us to filter out distractions and focus on the task at hand (executive functioning) are still developing in children. Thus, children are particularly vulnerable to the acoustics of noise. Because noisy interference makes it difficult for kids to stay on task, it has widespread effects on learning. Noise has been shown to profoundly impact reading, writing, and comprehension skill learning, as well as overall academic performance.

2. Temperature: If the temperature of a classroom or home studying environment is outside of a comfortable range, it can be a source of distraction that interferes with learning. A review of studies investigating the relationship of temperature and learning outcomes revealed ideal thermal ranges for optimal learning: between 68 and 74 degrees Fahrenheit, with about 50 percent humidity.

3. Seating arrangement: Another source of distraction can be a classroom’s arrangement of desks and chairs. In a classic study, researchers tested three seating models with different levels of independent versus interactive arrangements. They showed that elementary school students were least on task when desks were arranged in rows, better on task when arranged in clusters, and best on task when in a semicircle. Another study, however, suggests that the best arrangement should be determined by matching it with the task at hand: More interactive tasks benefit more from interactive arrangements (semicircle and clusters), and independent tasks from independent (rows) arrangements.

In sum, there are many things about the built and natural environments that can impact student learning, with some researchers suggesting that 10 to 15 percent of variance in academic outcomes is influenced by the environment.

The Best Strategies to Fire Up Hesitant Writers

Haven’t we all heard similar lines in our classrooms? We see hesitant writers sit with pencils in their hands and paper on their desks, almost as if they’ve been handicapped by the task we have set for them.

How is it that some students have so much to say when talking, but when a pencil is put into their hand they suddenly hesitate, struggle, and have nothing to say? How can we help these hesitant writers eliminate the barrier that suddenly appears when they’re asked to write?

The answer is to have them produce ideas without writing at all. That’s right, the way to get hesitant writers to produce as much writing as they do talking is to have them do exactly that – talk.

Strategies That Work
1. Student Talks, Teacher Writes

Have your student stand up while you sit at the desk.
Pick up the student’s pencil and say, “You talk, I’ll write.”
This usually catches students off-guard – it takes them a moment to realize this is a real option.

2. Audio Record It & Then Transcribe It

Identify a way your students can record themselves speaking their essay rather than writing it. This could be a tape recorder, a digital audio recorder, a computer with a microphone, or an audio recording feature on a phone.
Hand the recording device to your student and say, “Step out in the hall and recite your essay using this.”
They can then play the recording back and write down their words.

3. Audio Transcribe It

Pick an app or tool that transcribes speaking as text. Some options: PaperPort Notes, Dragon NaturallySpeaking, Dictation Pro, VoiceTranslator, or the text-to-speech tools that are built into many smartphones. Try one of these on your phone, tablet, or computer.
Tell your students, “Go ahead — speak your paper.”
After speaking, the students can email themselves the transcribed text and work on the draft from there.
Communication Before Craft
The sooner students (and teachers) see that writing has nothing to do with a pencil, a piece of paper, or a keyboard, and is simply communicating, the sooner they will start making incredible progress. Barriers will come down. The hesitation of putting the pencil on the paper to write will go away. In my view, writing is simply communicating through pencil marks rather than through speech.

Our concern is not whether a student communicates through a pencil and pen, keyboard, chalkboard, audio transcription device, or other means. Our real hope and goal is for individuals to capture their high-quality thoughts and convey them effectively to others. The strategies here break down the barriers between a student’s mind and their audience. These strategies free up thinkers to express their thoughts without the hesitation that makes some students’ minds go blank as they pick up that pen or pencil.

Some Tips for Supercharging Your Learning Stations

Early in my career, my go-to method for introducing a new novel was to create a PowerPoint on the author’s biography and some context for the book. For example, before I taught To Kill a Mockingbird, my students sat placidly and took notes as I prattled on about Harper Lee’s life and Jim Crow laws. I felt that there was always a lot of information to share prior to reading, and that meant a lot of me talking and them sitting and listening.


For all of my carefully selected pictures and the delightful parallel structure of the bullet points on my slides, all this direct instruction drastically limited student engagement. I reduced my students to vessels into which I attempted to pour information. I was the performer, and they were merely the audience; my instruction centered on me rather than on them. Thankfully, I finally discovered the power of learning stations for fostering student engagement and making students into active rather than passive learners.

Imagine a classroom where clusters of students work in separate stations. One group reads and analyzes a sonnet while another watches a video on the importance of Shakespeare. A third group gathers around the Smart Board playing a game that tests their knowledge of Shakespearean drama. Elsewhere, students work together as they sift through a short text on Shakespeare’s life and times to find key terms around which to write a meaningful summary. After a specified amount of time, students switch tasks, cycling through all learning activities.

Strong, meaningful stations are challenging to create, but the benefits in student learning make that hard work worthwhile. Here are six tips for designing meaningful learning stations:

1: Choose content wisely and hold students accountable for learning it. Something that’s fun, like cutting out paper dolls of different characters, may not help students learn anything. Choose your objectives and decide what students need to be able to demonstrate to reach them. To ensure that students are active learners, I require them to fill out a worksheet on which they complete an activity at each station. After receiving a grade, students can use their worksheets as study guides.

2: Switch it up. One of the reasons students enjoy stations is that they have diverse tasks; they’re never doing the same thing for an extended time. Shifting the learning focus from station to station keeps students fresh and engaged. To introduce the Harlem Renaissance, if I have students interpreting symbolism in poetry at one station, I may have them listening to and describing snippets of Harlem Renaissance jazz music at the next. While both stations allow students to flex their critical-thinking muscles and explore important concepts, the tasks are nonrepetitive.

3: Incorporate technology. Have a group use a Smart Board to play an educational game (design your own or find one online) aimed at helping them uncover content. Or have them watch a short video and answer higher-level questions. Implementing technology opens a world of possibilities. I make sure students can complete something on their stations activity worksheet so that they take away concrete evidence of their learning.

4: Provide opportunities for both individual and group tasks. Let students collaborate while still holding everyone accountable for their own learning. While students will complete their own worksheets so no one simply coasts along, interaction unlocks potential and adds to engagement. At some stations, my instructions will include discussing the content with the group before recording answers. Grouping students on your own or randomly with a grouping app (such as PickMe) can help with classroom management and task completion.

5: Coordinate timing. If you’re not careful, one station might take five minutes while another takes 15. You don’t want one group sitting idly, waiting for the teacher to signal that they can move on, while another group feels frustrated at trying to cram too much into a limited time. Completing each task yourself can indicate where you may need to cut corners at a station, or even divide a large task into two separate stations if the content can’t be sacrificed.

6: Help students bring it all together. Students need reminders of why they’re doing these activities. After they complete each station, I require them to synthesize the information; I want them to put all the pieces together to help them reflect on what they’ve learned. For example, after learning about Elie Wiesel’s life, Jewish culture, various groups persecuted by the Nazis, life in the concentration camps, and the geographical regions affected by the camps, I had students write a short summary reflecting on what they learned about the Holocaust and how it affected people.

With learning stations, students don’t just sit back and take notes. They become active rather than passive learners and unlock information for themselves, and you become a facilitator rather than a performer.