Thinking Teaching Creating

Thoughts, Tips, Ideas, and Projects from a Creative Teacher Mama

I Dislike ClassDojo – And What I Do Instead

I’ve gotten a lot of responses to my earlier post about how I Dislike ClassDojo.  Some have been explanation of how a teacher uses this tool in an effective way.  Others have wondered why I have singled out this tool and defended their use of it.  Still others have asked what I do instead.  Do I use reinforcement and consequences for behaviors?  How do I use them?

What I do is loosely based off of Love and Logic.  Here’s a poster of Love and Logic rules I found posted at TeachThought.com

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As far as reinforcements, I give positive verbal feedback all the time, but I don’t have a prize box or give special treats or parties or anything like that.  I’m of the opinion that there are certain things that are necessary and expected in polite and productive society, and you do them because it’s the right thing to do, not because you’re getting something special for it.  Think about it, as an adult, there aren’t many situations in which you get something extra just for doing what you were supposed to do, are there?

What about consequences?  Well, before I talk about consequences, I want to talk a moment about the intention behind the behaviors.  From what I’ve noticed, there are a few reasons why kids tend to do things that we’d rather they didn’t do:

  • They didn’t know it was a problem.
  • There was a misunderstanding.
  • Something else in their life has caused stress, anger, or sadness that makes dealing with difficult situations appropriately much harder then normal.
  • It was an impulsive response.
  • They’re testing their boundaries.
  • It was done maliciously.

Now, how I do things isn’t perfect, but my first step is to talk with the student and try to get a sense of the motivation behind their behavior.

  • If they didn’t know it was a problem or there was a misunderstanding, we talk through it, and that’s typically the end of it.  Some misunderstandings require a little more problem solving.  (One time last year a student asked if he could lick another child’s candy, and the candy owner misheard him.  He thought the kid asked to look at his candy.  Now, I don’t know who would want to let someone lick their candy, but I’m not six years old either.  The candy licking student replaced the candy with something from his Halloween stash the next day, and he had to throw away the candy he licked lest he think that was an acceptable way to get someone else’s snack.)
  • If it was impulsive (sometimes exasperated by other life events), we talk about ways to take a moment and consider your actions before actually doing or saying something.  Depending upon what they did, some sort or retribution may be in order.
  • For boundary testing and maliciousness, I give logical consequences to set the tone that such behavior will not be tolerated.

I also keep lots of records.  I have a notebook tabbed with student names, and make a quick note whenever we have one of these little talks about their choices.  If there is a consequence of any kind, I also record that.  I keep careful documentation for several reasons.  One reason is that I don’t want a student trying to pull the wool over my eyes.  I’ve overhead kindergarteners talking about how they work their teacher’s behavior system (a clip chart) so that they always end the day on a good note; they just do something good at the end of the day and it reverses any bad choices from the morning.  The “I didn’t know that was a problem” reason only works ONCE for a behavior.  If we talked about it in January and you do it again in February, well, you actually DID know it was a problem.  While I know everyone forgets, I think it’s less likely for a child to forget when we’ve had a one-on-one conversation about why that particular behavior is not acceptable than if we talk about it as a class.

I also keep documentation to see if something seems to be a bad habit or recurring issue.  If a behavior is repeated after we have had logical consequences because it was seemingly to test boundaries or to be malicious, I’ll often pull out a book with a similar problem and that student and I will talk about how things played out in the book, and how their problem was similar.  Sometimes this slightly removed perspective can be helpful in seeing their problem the way others see it.  If it’s an impulse control issue that seems to be a bad habit, we work out a way to help the student to notice the warning signs, and reduce or stop the behavior over time.  The plan we come up with would be dependent upon the problem and the student.

There are non-negotiable behaviors at every school, typically the types of things that would be illegal if an adult did them, that can’t be handled in this manner, but I’ve had success with handling most situations in this manner.

As far as notifying parents goes, I don’t tell them about every single tiny thing.  My rule of thumb is if we didn’t need to do anything more than talk about it, we handled it in the classroom and it wasn’t a big enough deal to write home about.  Any issue that resulted in some sort of consequence is something parents should be informed of, and I typically include the number of times that type of problem has occurred when I write about it so parents can make informed decisions about how they talk with their child at home.  I tell parents this at the beginning of the year, and have yet to have a parent who wants to know about every time I speak to their child.

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Ready to Ditch the Reading Logs

I’ve been teaching for 10 years, and I’ve used reading logs at least to some extent every year.  I tend to slack off about it around February every year, and no one gets upset when it happens.  I’ve been told by parents that their child used to read for hours until they were asked to use a reading log.  Once they had to log their reading, they read much less often, and even began choosing their books by the length of the title.  If the title was long, it didn’t make the cut because they would have to write the title.  These comments from parents were a big red flag for me, but everyone I knew used reading logs in their classroom, so it must not be a bad practice, right?

Then there are the times that kids have written down titles saying that they read a book, and later that day that same child talked about how they didn’t have time to do anything that night because they went straight from school to afterschool activities, ate dinner in the car, and got home just in time to go to sleep.  I’m not stupid; I know that there are probably plenty of times over the last decade that kids lied about having read something on their reading log.  So, whether there is some sort of negative consequence or a mark off their homework participation, does a reading log just penalize the honest children, rather than actually holding them accountable for doing some reading outside of school?

This summer, I participated in my library’s summer reading program.  You log your reading (just the title[s]) and how long you read [in 20 minute intervals]).  I participated myself, and also had logins for my three boys.  They’re all 5 and under, so let’s be honest, I did all the reading AND all the logging.  The older two helped choose books to read, but Mr. 4 months old mostly drooled and pinched my arm.  It was obnoxious!  By mid-July I gave up logging our reading.  It took easily 3 books to fill 20 minutes with Mr. 2-year old pushing me to turn pages before I’d finished reading half the text, so if we only had the attention span for one book, I wasn’t sure whether to log it and pretend it took 20 minutes, or whether it didn’t count.  Then I had to log in onto the  other two kids’ accounts and put the same information so everyone got credit for the reading.

I’m done.  I’m ditching the reading logs this year.  I’ll find other ways to know whether my students are reading.  We’ll talk about books we’ve enjoyed (or abandoned), I’ll ask them to write book reviews when they love or hate a book (hello opinion writing!)  Maybe I’ll make an Edmodo group for my class for book reviews.  I’ll find something that can’t be faked, and isn’t a nightly chore so they can just love to read again.

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Don’t Forget Your Gifted Students; They Need Their Teacher Too

Sometimes, it’s difficult to remember that your gifted students need your attention too.  I’ve been guilty of it myself.

In a classroom of 20+ students where nearly half are either below grade level or just making it by the skin of their teeth, it’s easy to put all of your time into helping those children while your gifted (and high achieving) students get put on the back burner.  I’ve been there.  It’s hard.  You’re expected to get as many students as possible to meet a certain standard, and there are 2 students who have already met next year’s standard by October.

I was in a meeting where a literacy facilitator at a school where I worked said to my grade level team these exact words, “Your high fliers don’t need any help.  They’re fine already, let’s focus on these kids that are below grade level.”

That was the catalyst for me to look for another job, because the open opinions of people who are in charge or provide the training set the culture of the school.  I couldn’t be at a school where the attitude was that gifted and high achieving students didn’t need instruction.

Things To Keep In Mind

  • Every child deserves to learn and grow, every day.
  • Another page of practice problems on a skill that has already been proven to be mastered is not helpful.
  • This method of curriculum planning is amazing.  For each skill or concept, determine what kids absolutely need to know, what they probably should know, and what it would be nice if they knew.  I’ve been doing it for years, but never thought of it with this type of visual before.  Thank you Geoff at Emergent Math for putting it into such an elegant visual explanation.  It’s a lovely way to plan ahead for the kids who either catch on very quickly or already know the basics when you start a concept rather than scrambling when you realize that one kid already mastered this skill last year, while also setting a minimum standard for your lower performing students.
  • Remember that the standards are minimum expectations; going deeper or wider pushes your gifted and high achieving students.  These student often start thinking very early on their school career that school is supposed to be easy, and are in danger of not knowing how to persevere, learn from mistakes, or pick themselves up to try again after failing.  These are important skills to be successful in life!  Guide them through those skills early and often.  I’ve had first graders cry because it was the first time they didn’t know the right answer immediately, and they didn’t know how to handle it.  Thank goodness they experienced that in first grade, not their freshman year of college.
  • If there is a student who didn’t learn anything in your classroom because he already knew it all, that’s just as bad as having a below grade level student who didn’t learn anything because you didn’t meet him where he was.
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Trying To Avoid Being Over-scheduled, But Wanting To Do Everything!

So far, I’ve decided to have my class participate in: Quadblogging (Sept.-Dec.), the Global Read Aloud (Sept. 30-Nov. 8) NaNoWriMo (Nov. 1-30), and Genius Hour (no specified dates).  I also talked with some teachers in #4thchat on Twitter about the possibility of science Skype sessions, and I’d like to set up some Skype times with other classes in my state since our social studies topic is our state’s history, people, and culture.

Here’s the thing though: I’m trying to avoid putting too much on my plate, especially since I’m going to be in a new school and a new grade.  As a result, I’m thinking of postponing Genius Hour and Science/Social Studies Skype in my room until after winter break.  We may manage to schedule a few Skype sessions here and there in the first half of the school year, but I probably won’t schedule them with any regularity until the second half of the year.  Yes, we’ll still blog, have read alouds, and write after all these events end for the year, but there will be less urgency to stick to a set schedule for them, and so I think our schedule will be a little looser.  I plan to put the idea of Genius Hour out there to my students sometime in December, so they have winter break to let ideas percolate, and come back in January ready to start pretty early in the month.

On a more personal note as far as goals go, I plan to take this year to get my feet under me after so much change, and hopefully begin working towards National Boards Certification the following school year, or the year after that at the latest.  Bottom line is I want to finish my third year in this new district with a completed portfolio submitted for National Board Certification, if not sooner.  It’s something I’ve been interested in doing for years, but I’ve spent the last six years at a charter school where a) I wasn’t eligible for any pay increase for being a NBCT, and b) I think that also made me ineligible for the state loan to cover the costs.  With that being the case, I put the idea aside for awhile.  Now that I’m rejoining the regular school districts, I’m looking to work on them as soon as I feel confident enough in my new school and grade level.

I’d love to hear what exciting things you have brewing in your classrooms for the coming year!

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I Dislike ClassDojo

Look around Twitter, teacher’s blogs, and technology conferences and everyone is aflutter about how wonderful ClassDojo is.

Here’s the thing though; ClassDojo is just a high-tech behavior chart.

It has the ability to add points for behaviors you want to reinforce, and take away points for behaviors you want to stop, and gives you percentage graphs of “good” and “bad” behaviors.  It’a flashy behavior chart that does some math with the data you plug in.

I’m not a huge fan of giving rewards or punishments.  Both are their own brand of bribery, and students should do what is expected of them because it’s the right thing to do.  Not because they earn a sticker if they do, and they lose some of their recess if they don’t.

If you’re wondering how to get your class to behave, here are some better solutions than a behavior chart like ClassDojo:

  • Build relationships with your students.  If they know you care and really want to help, you will have earned their respect and they’ll be that much more willing to do what you ask or expect of them.
  • Be crystal clear about your expectations (even better if you gave valid reasons behind them), and stick to them.  Enforce your expectations, every time, by repeating the procedure until it is done correctly.  Expect it to take a lot of extra time upfront, but it will save tons of time all year once your class knows you will not accept less than their best.
  • Talk to your students about their choices when their behavior is unacceptable.  Try to get a sense of their motivation behind the behavior.  Was it just that they didn’t realize they were doing something they shouldn’t?  Were they testing boundaries?  Was it an impulsive response?  Was it malicious? (It happens, but in my experience, most kids don’t do many things maliciously.)  Use their motivation to guide you on how to handle the issue.  Talking about why something is unacceptable may be all a student needs.  For an impulsive response, helping to show a student how to take a moment and consider actions before doing something they may regret can be helpful.  Some situations may require some kind of consequence, and when that happens I prefer logical consequences (read my post about how classroom management has evolved for me over the years here.)
  • Remember that you are teaching human beings.  No one is perfect, and kids have had much less time to figure out what to do to be successful than you have.

You don’t have to take my word for it though, here are some other teachers who have blogged about firing their behavior chart and how it’s gone for them:

Miss Night at Miss Night’s Marbles

Matt Gomez wrote about his Reward Free Year

Edited To Add: I’ve gotten a lot of feedback on Twitter for this post.  Some has been in agreement, some has been other educators telling me about how they use ClassDojo for tracking all kinds of things without using it as a behavior plan.  I agree that with a little creativity, this tool can be used effectively for other things.  My issue with it is the intended purpose and how it seems that the majority of teachers use this tool: as a digital behavior chart.  If you have a different use for it, I’d love to hear about it!

Read my follow-up post: I Dislike ClassDojo – And What I Do Instead

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The Leveled Classroom Library – Friend or Foe?

Now, as you read this post, keep in mind that I’ve spent the last 9 years teaching 1st and 2nd grade.  These are grades that tend to have a huge span between the most and least capable readers in your class, and even more so if you teach gifted kids.  The past few years, I’ve taught first grade, and my class tended to start the year ranging from a DRA level 6 all the way through a DRA level 38.  As a result, my classroom library needed to have books that were appropriate for the kids reading at an end of kindergarten/beginning of first grade level all the way up through those who would be reading at a fourth grade level by the end of the year.

Let’s take a minute, and put yourself into the shoes of a student who is told they may only take books that are certain levels, or even that they may only read the books their teacher actually hands them to read.  Imagine you’ve gotten onto your computer to look through Pinterest.  You see beautiful photos of recipes you want to try, crafts you want to make, and clothes you wish filled your closet.  Every time you want to find out more about one, you click on it.  Sometimes clicking the photo sends you to the site to find out how to make it or where to buy it.  Other times, you get messages like, “That’s too hard for you!” or “That craft is too easy, you did that last year.” Or, the most discouraging of all, “You’ll never afford that dress on a teacher’s salary, hit up your local Goodwill instead!”  That would pretty much suck, wouldn’t it?  That’s exactly what we’re doing to our students when we put interesting books in front of them, but tell them they can only choose from a certain level range preventing books from being too easy or too hard.

Many of my books do have stickers on the spine indicating the approximate level (I have a poster that shows the colors to mean easy, easy-medium, medium, medium-hard, and hard), and I do tell students the color that they are likely to read with the most success.  However, I almost never tell students that they are only allowed to choose books with certain color stickers.  The exception to that are students who consistently choose books that are way too hard for them, and then become frustrated because they can’t read them.  These kids typically end up spending more time switching books than they do actually reading them.  For those few students, I talk to them about how their choices of books only seem to be frustrating them, and that it’s resulting in their reading time not being spent reading.  So, they end up with a limit of how difficult the books they choose can be, but I only set that limit for a week or two before I watch to see if they’re able to make better choices on their own again.

Think about that really cool book you have on dinosaurs that’s written at a 4th grade reading level.  It has lots of pictures, doesn’t it?  Wouldn’t it be awful to deprive the kid reading at a first grade level who is obsessed with dinosaurs the opportunity to look through that book because it’s too hard?  No, he won’t be able to read all the words, or even most of them.  But, if a student is motivated to read, they’ll try that much harder.  The little girl who reads at a second grade level but grabbed the fattest Harry Potter book on the shelf because it’s what her big sister is reading won’t understand most of what she’s reading, but she’s motivated to read.  I’ve had students whose parents shared with me that their child really disliked reading, and typically those are the same children who would be at the bottom of the class if they were ranked by reading level.  Have you read the books that are DRA 6-10?  They are BORING and repetitive!  There’s very little to the stories, and I wouldn’t like reading if that’s all I were allowed to read either!  But, reading appropriately leveled books for instruction and being allowed to explore the wide world of books that have more substance to their stories on their own is often enough motivation to make a student become a reader.

The standards say my job is to teach students to read to at least a certain reading level and to make them capable of answering certain types of questions and thinking about books in certain ways.  Ultimately though, my job is to teach children how to love stories and learn from what they read.  Leveled readers, especially at the lower levels, do not do a great job of creating a love of reading.

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Calling All 4th Grade Teachers!

The other day I asked #4thchat on Twitter for suggestions for read alouds for my class this year, and I got a great list started, but I know it’s just the beginning.  When another teacher requested that I share the list, it occurred to me that we can make it even better by collaborating on a Google Doc.  I’ve created one and put the list from the other day in it.  I’ve included fields for title, author, synopsis, theme, and CCSS ELA standards, but at the moment it’s mostly just titles.  I put the CCSS field in case there are standards that are really easy to tie in when you’re reading the story.  If you have books you use for book clubs rather than read alouds, feel free to add those as well.

If you have a great book to share, don’t feel as though you need to fill in every field.  That’s information I thought would be helpful, but whatever you add is great!  Thanks to everyone who has already contributed and everyone who adds more to this resource along the way!

#4thchat Read Aloud/Book Club Recommendations

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Being A Mom (of BOYS) Has Made Me A Better Teacher

Now, before you get offended if you aren’t a parent, I don’t think that only parents can be good teachers, nor do I think that mothers of girls are inferior in any way.  Also, many of these can absolutely be true with girls too, I’m just seeing them through the eyes of a mom of boys who is also a teacher.  Being the mother of three (yes, three) boys has certainly been an education in just what boys are like.

I used to get really annoyed when my students couldn’t sit still, constantly fidgeted with everything they could get their hands on, and more.  And honestly, I noticed that it was most frequently boys who fit this description.  As my oldest son ages, I have become much more tolerant and understanding of these behaviors.  Boys are different, and that’s ok.  I always knew that, but I feel like I have a much better understanding of that now, and that will only improve as my little guys grow.  This isn’t about giving boys a pass to do whatever they wish, but giving the largely female world of educators some information about boys.

Here are some things I have learned about boys from my sons (they are all 5 years old and younger at the time of writing this):

  • Boys need far more movement and action than I ever guessed!
  • ANYTHING can be transformed into a toy gun with a little imagination.
  • Boys (mine at least), want to be heroes.  Playing where someone is the hero means someone needs to be the bad guy, and there will be battles.  As a teacher, I don’t mind non-touching battles.  The moment there’s touching, that game is over for the day.
  • Given the right story (or non-fiction topic), boys can be mesmerized by a book too.
  • Sometimes boys need to cry too.
  • The words “diaper” and “fart” are hilarious. Use at your own risk.
  • Beware of loopholes in your rules and instructions.  (Don’t hit your brother in the face can be misunderstood as meaning it’s ok to hit other parts of his body since not hitting his face was specifically mentioned.)
  • The words “don’t” or “stop” preceding what you want them to quit doing only make them want to do whatever it was even more.  Instead of, “Don’t throw things!” try, “We put things down gently when we’re finished with them.”
  • The answer to the question, “Why did you _______?” is typically answered with either, “I don’t know,” or “Because.”  Often the real reason is either that it was an impulsive response that they didn’t think through, or it was just to see if they could do it.  If it was impulsive, he probably feels really badly about it, and he might be able to tell you where he went wrong and why he shouldn’t have done it, but (despite his promises to never do it again) he’s probably going to do it again…soon.
  • Automatic, impulsive responses are going to happen…a lot (especially with younger boys).
  • The reason to destroy something is either a) to see what’s inside,  b) to see if you can put it back together afterwards, or c) both.
  • Boys do things rather than talk about them.  That’s not to say boys won’t talk your ear off, but expect action to occur before any discussion about little things like getting permission for something.
  • If he knows you care about him and are trying to help him, a boy will move mountains for you.

I am certainly not saying that if a boy is being disruptive or disrespectful that you should say, “Boys will be boys,” and call it a day.  I’m merely sharing some of the things I’ve noticed happen with my sons to give you a little bit more insight on what many boys are naturally like.  Knowing where they’re coming from can help to give a little extra patience and help you to determine the best way to help him to do what he needs to, whether that’s getting his work accomplished, paying attention to the lesson, or treating his classmates appropriately.

My oldest son will start kindergarten next month, and I really hope his teacher is understanding of the fact that he is ALL boy!

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Worksheets – A Necessary Evil?

First of all, I think I need to define the term “worksheet” for the purposes of this discussion.  A worksheet is not necessarily every paper that has been copied for your students to complete.  In my mind, the term worksheet specifically means a paper or set of papers, regardless of the size of the paper in question, that asks students to do work to which there is only one correct answer, and typically does not utilize higher level thinking skills.  Many task cards are really just repackaged worksheets.  The Everyday Math Journals my school bought for years are nothing more than books of worksheets, at least for the books I used.  (They may have improved since then.)

Worksheet has become an ugly term in education, and I can understand why.  They’re often boring, and a fair amount of time, they don’t give much information to the teacher about what a child is capable of.  In a time where school funding is cut significantly each year, administration begs teachers to use fewer copies, so task cards were invented.  Instead of running off 25 copies of a worksheet, teachers are breaking their worksheets into one or two tasks and laminating them to use as task cards.

That being said, I’m guilty of using both worksheets and task cards.  However, I’m starting to think that perhaps there is a place for them, or at least certain types of them, where they can be valuable practice for students and helpful for teachers.  I need a new word for the papers that are copied for students, but aren’t mind-numbing tasks that don’t really help anyone.  The problem is, once a word for them has been coined, everyone will begin to use that word to describe every paper they ever copy for their class to justify its educational value.  I’m not interested in just rebranding worksheets, but rather I want to differentiate between a traditional worksheet and a page that has more valuable information about how a student thinks and what s/he understands.

I don’t really consider a paper a worksheet if it features some of the following criteria:

  • It uses higher level thinking skills, and is more of a guide for students to not forget to include certain things.
  • Anything that requires students to explain their thinking, especially if there aren’t a large number of low-level questions preceding the explanation.
  • Thinking maps/graphic organizers
  • Skills are used naturally, rather than forcing them

That being said, in order for a student to get to the point where they can do higher level thinking on a topic or skill, they do need to have a basic handle of the skill or concept, don’t they?  If you can’t actually add 24 + 93, how can I expect you to explain your strategy?  I would venture to say that perhaps traditional worksheets can be helpful, at least when introducing a new topic to students and a limited number of low-level thinking questions are asked to ensure basic understanding prior to moving on.  I think that a lot of teachers who don’t use worksheets still do this, but they do it in other ways.  Some examples of performing the task of making sure all of your students have gotten the basic concept are: students answering questions with clickers/polling apps, each student solves a problem on a dry erase board and shows it, exit slips, and I’m sure there are more.  These are all things that can replace worksheets, but the same concept of giving students a few low-level questions to answer on new material is there, and that is a good teaching practice.

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I Want To Learn More About…

Standards Based Grading

Genius Hour

Interactive Student Notebooks

Standards Based Grading intrigues me, especially because I do a lot of differentiation.  It would make more sense to have a standard in the gradebook, and mark the level of proficiency each student has achieved thus far, rather than having 3-5 different assignments side by side and only mark scores for the students assigned each task.  I’m curious about whether most teachers who use this system average out how a student performs on a standard throughout the marking period to create an overall score for that standard, or whether the most recent score, or perhaps the best score is the only one utilized.

Genius Hour sounds a lot like self-directed learning projects.  While I’ve done some self-directed projects with students in the past, it was always only with those who finished early or were already proficient in what the rest of the class was doing.  I have a few questions though.  For instance, what if a student is not completing their assigned classwork?  Do they get to participate in Genius Hour, or is it a privilege reserved for students who are completing their classwork as expected?  How long should a project take?  Does everyone need to finish and present at around the same time, or just let kids present as they are ready?  For elements that would be present in any project align with your standards, do you include those aspects of Genius Hour projects in students’ grades?  (I’m thinking things like research skills, writing/spelling/grammar, etc.)

Interactive Student Notebooks appear to have two main parts.  First there is the teacher side of each set of pages.  From what I’ve gleaned, students copy, draw, or glue teacher created notes into their notebook.  Often the notes are made to look interesting in some way, and may require the student to use lower level thinking skills to complete a brief assignment on the new information.  The student side seems to be a bit more elusive.  This is the place where students are supposed to interact with their new knowledge to revisit the new ideas and put everything together with their prior knowledge.  I’ve seen lists of types of assignments, but still feel a little fuzzy on things like whether tasks are typically assigned, or whether there is usually student choice on how they synthesize information.  Obviously, at least at the beginning of using ISNs, students would need to be taught to use a variety of assignments so you don’t just tell them to show their learning and get met with blank stares.

If you use any of these strategies and have advice or information, I’d love to hear from you!

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