5 tips for better makerspaces

Challenge-based learning projects in the makerspace have many benefits for students, and can engage and get them excited about new projects.

In “Challenge-Based Learning in the School Library Makerspace,” Diana Rendina, media specialist and writer for Tampa Preparatory School, Tampa, FL, presented tips for design challenges and shared experiences from working in the makerspace during her time at Stewart Middle Magnet School in Tampa, FL.

When Rendina first started her position at Stewart Middle Magnet School, a public STEM magnet school, there was almost nothing in the library for hands-on STEM learning. Diana worked with the students to form a makerspace planning committee, and eventually raised money to transform a corner of the library into a dedicated makerspace.

Students worked on projects through open exploration, consisting of mainly free time in the makerspace; workshops, in which students work in groups to learn new skills; and design challenges, in which a group of students focuses on a specific challenge directed by a prompt.

Design Challenges for Better Makerspaces

Design challenges are one of the most effective ways to get students engaged in the makerspace.

1. Start with a Design Prompt

Rendina noted that it is helpful for the students to start with a design prompt to define clear guidelines and the purpose of the challenge.

Some of the challenges Rendina did with her students include the Rubber Band Launcher Challenge, where the students must build a device that could launch something and must include a rubber band in their design; the Cardboard Challenge, an open-ended challenge where the students must create something using at least 75 percent cardboard; and the Phone/Tablet Holder, where students build a device that can hold a phone steady to take picture or video.

(Next page: More musts for a better makerspace)


Preventing bullying through…fiction? It works!

When you read, you become another person, if only for a short while. You see how that person lives and how they think. You experience their hopes and fears, and you see how they’ve come to be who they are. If you read five different books, you have a window into the lives of five different people. That’s what empathy is: to feel for that other person, and it opens you up to different experiences you may never have otherwise been able to share.

There have been numerous studies showing that people who read fiction have increased empathy. This is why fiction is one of the most powerful tools we have to combat bullying and intolerance.

When you see the world through another person’s eyes, you realize how similar you are to them, even if that person might seem very different from you.

If the hero of a story is poor, or bullied, or nerdy, or a refugee, you imagine what it’s like to be that kind of person, and you remember that next time you meet a person like that in real life. If there’s a kid in your class who wears shabby clothes, you may remember how Harry Potter had to sleep underneath the stairs, so maybe this kid is like that too. And just like Harry, there’s probably more to him than his outward appearance.

Fiction and Bullying

A lot of bullying comes from fear, and much of that fear comes from ignorance. This is why it’s so important that the fiction we give kids reflects the kind of diversity they will encounter in real life. We can even do this for early readers by giving them picture books that are inclusive of characters of varying races, backgrounds, and abilities.

For example, kids in 1st grade often read about community helpers (such as doctors, police officers, and firefighters), so we must make sure we’re giving them books that show our helpers in their true-life variety rather than a generalized or stereotypical view. Think about if kids only had access to books that showed white male police officers, and what a disservice that limited access does on every level. What we read becomes part of how we think. Fictional models that adhere to dreary-at-best, harmful-at-worst stereotypes rob kids of opportunities to grow, discover, and explore.

In a way, reading is practice for real life. If you encounter people who are different from you in books, you’ll be less surprised when you encounter them in real life. There’s safety in reading. Kids self-censor when reading a scary book: They know they can close it at any time. Through reading, they can control their exposure to things (or people) that make them uncomfortable, while still being exposed to them. If a child is afraid of going to the doctor or standing up to a bully, they can see how people in books have dealt with those situations. The ability to explore and rehearse in fiction gives kids the courage to explore in real life.

(Next page: Boy versus girl fiction; embracing diversity)


These 3 game-based components can increase student achievement-here’s how

Remember the days of Oregon Trail? How about Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? While learning games have been around for decades, technological advancements are creating an entirely more modern gaming experience—one where quality mirrors the digital literacy expectations of today’s student, one that entices the student to play and play again, and one that aligns a game’s outcomes with the goals of the course.

Every game teaches the player something, from the very basics of how to play the game to achieving the game’s objectives, whether it be killing zombies or winning races. As Eli Neiburger points out in the paper “The Deeper Game of Pokémon, or, How the World’s Biggest RPG Inadvertently Teaches 21st Century Kids Everything They Need to Know,” entertainment games are proven to teach very complex skills and knowledge.

Unfortunately, in today’s world, knowing how to kill a zombie or effectively battle Pokémon doesn’t necessarily translate to a useful skill. Below are three key components to successful game-based learning:

1. Mastery: What Level is Acceptable?

Mastery is a key component of measuring what a student has, in fact, learned. What do students receive if they achieve 90 percent mastery? In most situations, they receive an A, yet 10 percent of knowledge has been left on the table. And what about students who receive a B or C?

Consider what happens if students leave knowledge on the table year after year, from elementary school to college. While they may be earning A’s, there is a significant compounding knowledge gap.

Think about this: how would you feel if you knew the pilot who is flying your plane achieved 90 percent mastery? My guess is uncomfortable at best. Now imagine if I told you that the pilot achieved the 90 percent mastery by watching someone else, reading about it, and hearing lectures about it. Are you going to get on that plane? I know I wouldn’t. Yet this passive learning approach is exactly what we are offering students today, and then we wonder why they are not competent in the skills and knowledge they need to succeed.

Thankfully, this is not what is happening in the aviation industry. All pilots undergo rigorous hands-on training before they are allowed to fly. The same holds true for engineers, doctors, firefighters, police, and numerous other professionals who participate in experiential learning and on-the-job training before they are considered competent in their fields.

Now, take an experiential learning game. Students simply can’t progress to the next level until they achieve 100 percent mastery of the current level.

(Next page: 2 more components to successful game-based learning)


AR for ELL: ‘I had students screaming and jumping up and down’

Almost 10 percent of students in US public schools are English language learners (ELLs), and that percentage is growing every year. One of the biggest challenges today’s teachers face is helping ELLs develop the literacy skills they need to keep pace with their peers. An essential first step in that process is getting their attention in class.

Here, two educators discuss how they use the engaging powers of the emerging 3D technology, augmented reality (AR), to do just that.

Hugo E. Gomez: Using AR to Engage Kindergarteners

Currently half of my students at De Escandon Elementary in Edinburg, Texas, are ELLs. That’s usually the case each year, since the Rio Grande Valley is predominantly Hispanic (as am I). When I started as a new teacher three years ago, I was looking for ways to capture the students’ attention and keep them engaged.

One tech tool that I have found effective with my students, including ELLs, is OSMO. It’s an augmented reality accessory for the iPad or iPhone that allows students to combine digital and physical play at the same time. I’ve found that it helps students develop their English and problem-solving skills. It is one of the centers that they look forward to the most, because they know they are going to be having fun while learning.

But once I introduced Letters alive, a full supplemental curriculum that uses augmented reality for student engagement, I had them! The kit includes alphabet cards, sight-word cards, and word-family cards. When the teacher places a card under a document camera, 3D zoo animals pop out.

When they witnessed it for the first time, I had students screaming and jumping up and down. To many teachers that is a nightmare, but the fact is I was getting a positive reaction. The kids couldn’t get enough of it. They were surprised that this was possible, and never imagined that an alligator or bear would be joining us for a lesson in the classroom. It was nice showing them videos of these animals, too; it was like they had their own personal zoo there in the room, and it made learning much more exciting for them. They couldn’t wait to see which animal would pop up each week.

I usually use Letters alive when introducing the letter of the week. It is how I hook the kids into the lesson and keep them wanting more. Seeing the students enjoying the lesson makes teaching much more fun.

Most importantly, though, seeing and hearing the sounds that each letter represents helps students recognize their letters and sounds, which translates to them reading. It makes it easier for them to understand. I found that after introducing augmented reality into the classroom, my ELL students increased their recognition of letters and sounds. I was so happy to see that my students were excited about learning.

(Next page: Closing achievement gaps with AR)


App of the Week: Digital planning board

Ed. noteApp of the Week picks are now being curated by the editors of Common Sense Education, which helps educators find the best ed-tech tools, learn best practices for teaching with tech, and equip students with the skills they need to use technology safely and responsibly. Click here to read the full app review.

What’s It Like? 

Planboard is an organizational tool (website and app) for lesson planning and tracking standards coverage. Start by creating a free account with Chalk.com. Next, create color-coded subjects–which can be further organized into sections if the subject is taught to more than one group, or class, of students. Then, add subjects to a schedule using a built-in calendar. Creating and organizing lessons is the final step; templates are available and editing tools allow users to embed videos, attach documents, include links to Google documents, and more.

Price: Free, Paid

Grades: K-12

Rating: 4/5

Pros: It’s easy to keep track of classroom schedules, as well as add standards, attach PDFs, and add videos to lessons.

Cons: Setting up lessons and personalizing a schedule takes quite a bit of time up front.

Bottom line: Although it requires a lot of setup time, this snappy tool centralizes the essential components of lesson planning.


How one teacher combats bullying by “Standing up for Pink”

Bullying has, unfortunately, become a common term in today’s education world. All students get into the occasional squabble or call another student a name—but bullying is different.

Bullying is defined by negative actions, which are intentional, repeated, negative, and show an imbalance of power between the students. We’ve come a long way in the past few decades in acknowledging bullying and confronting it as a real problem in our schools. At some point, we decided this wasn’t just a normal part of school; it was something that was deeply hurting the development of our students, and we didn’t have to accept it.

As a teacher, it is my responsibility to teach my students compassion, empathy, and respect at a young age. These things become fundamental values to them as adults.

Standing Up for Pink

This is my fourth year teaching, and I have yet to have a serious issue with bullying in any of my classrooms, but that doesn’t mean I am not on the lookout for any behavior that could develop into bullying later. For example, one time there were a couple of boys in my kindergarten class who repeatedly made fun of any student for liking the color pink.

I took this very seriously, since if this behavior continued, it could turn into gender-based bullying in adolescence, which can be a huge problem. I created a PowerPoint called Stand Up for Pink. In it, I defined bullying and included images of cool-looking men (dads, football players, musicians, etc.) wearing pink. After I presented the PowerPoint, I handed out a pledge that everyone signed to agree to end making fun of the color pink.

Many of the students were happy I addressed this. During our class discussion, I had a kindergarten boy share that he loved pink and it was his favorite color. Many of the girls shared that when the boys made fun of pink because it was a “girl” color, they were in turn making fun of girls.

After this day, I never heard another student make fun of pink for the rest of the year. I even noted that some of the boys who initially made fun of the color were using it in their drawings.

(Next page: Combating bullying through reflection, inclusion)


This is how we used technology to improve our school’s reading scores

As teachers and administrators, our goal is compliance. However, what we really should be striving to develop are self-sufficient classrooms where students are driving the learning. Ideally, by surpassing compliance goals and student-driven learning, we can get to an even more important goal — critical thinking.

But achieving that goal isn’t easy. According to one of our Grade 6 teachers, Shannon Diven, her students could read but could not pull out details from the text to expand answers, explain answers, or to develop a piece of writing around the text (basically, reading comprehension).

To solve this and other reading-related issues, the district turned to technology to support our teachers in the classroom. Using Apple TVs, projectors, document cameras, interactive whiteboards and an array of tablets, desktops, and laptops that would ultimately serve as the technological cornerstone for our entire district.

Today, all of the K–12 teachers in our district have access to iPads and a host of technology tools for learning. Students in grades 6–9 are now 1:1 with iPads as part of our district-wide Project Connect program. With these resources in hand, Diven wanted to try a new digital ELA program.

Authentic Reading Experiences Wanted

When looking for the new ELA program for our sixth-graders, we wanted authentic literature and real-life reading experiences that students could use in the classroom and in their everyday lives. The primary goal was to find a digital ELA program that met or exceeded our state ELA standards but also engaged students.

Two of the four elementary schools in our district have a higher percentage of economically disadvantaged students. Often it is a challenge to provide a balanced, digital curriculum to all four schools in a consistent manner especially when some students do not have reliable Internet access at home.

To solve this problem, we selected the StudySync ELA and literature instruction platform that’s designed for grades 6–12. We rolled it out to the sixth-grade students at West View Elementary, and our students loved the program immediately.

The platform provides high-quality literature while helping students connect to the story—a connection that keeps the students engaged in the classroom. The kids think the stories are fun and enjoyable, not “required” or “boring.”

With StudySync, we handle all of our grading online, a place where the teacher grades assignments and where feedback is immediately available to the student. The instructor can leave comments for students (i.e., to come in for help the next day), and pupils are excited to improve their work after receiving the feedback in their binders.

The students really like the comments and interaction through technology with the teacher as well as other students. The platform also allows the teacher to see patterns in student work, and can easily identify where the students are struggling and how to help them improve next time.

(Next page: Impressive reading and literacy improvements)


Text, tweet, email, call—what do parents want in school communications?

When it comes to school communications, parents today want more information from their children’s teachers and schools, but they also want that information to be timely, targeted, and personalized to their children or their interest areas.

The latest data from Speak Up Research Project gives insights on school-to-home communications. In “Text, Twitter, Email, Call—What Do Parents Say About School Communications?” Dr. Julie Evans, chief executive officer of Project Tomorrow, shared these insights from parents, educators, and administrators, and discussed takeaways from the research.

Currently: How Most Parents Receive Information

Schools and districts have many external audiences for communications, their primary audience being parents of school-age children. However, those thinking ahead for their children, as well as other guardians of children, want to know important information, too. Parents of children too young to attend school now and grandparents are also top audiences. Regarding how that information is obtained, about 1/3 of parents surveyed say word of mouth is the primary way they get information about their child’s school, which may not be the most effective way to ensure accurate information in conveyed.

What: Types of Information Parents Would Like to Know More About

Parents want more information about their child’s education. They had four top areas which they wanted to know more about:

  • Recommendations about apps to use at home to support learning
  • Types of technology or workplace skills their child is learning
  • What type of technology they should have at home to support learning
  • How to work with teachers to improve learning opportunities.

68 percent of district communication officers were already providing information about the last point. Two of the top priorities for school or district communications professionals were increasing stakeholder engagement and increasing parental knowledge about school and district programs and policies.

(Next page: How parents would like to receive school communications; is social media worth it?)


Math Teacher: These are “My Tech Essentials” for formative assessments

Part of preparing students for the real world is teaching them to collaborate and problem-solve while working with others in small groups.

My classroom model includes a lot of group work where students complete tasks with a partner or in groups of four to six. It can sometimes be challenging for educators to gauge student understanding through formative assessments while in this small-group setting.

After 17 years in the classroom, I’ve found a few tricks of the trade that allow me to assess student understanding in the moment and adjust my lessons on the fly. Here are my tech essentials for formatively assessing students while in small groups:

1) Lightspeed Activate System: This classroom audio system provides a clear picture of what students know and understand. Designed to monitor students during small-group discussions, the two-way pods are the size of a glasses case and double as hand-held microphones, making it easy for students to pick them up and take them wherever they may be working. By “dropping in” on students’ learning conversations, I am able to listen to them collaborate and share their ideas in an authentic and natural setting.

When students do not actively answer or participate in a whole-group setting, it can seem as if they don’t have a strong conceptual understanding of what they are learning. By capturing students’ learning in a small-group setting and without the teacher at their side, I am able to hear my students think aloud and readily verbalize what they know.

2) Kahoot!: Using this game-based online learning platform, students can work individually or with a small group on any device to respond to questions related to our class content.

Kahoot! is an excellent way to increase student engagement and promote excitement for learning, because students are highly motivated by the game-based component. They receive instant feedback after each question, and as the teacher, I am able to see the number of students who answer each problem correctly. This allows me to address misconceptions right away, and gives me valuable feedback about students’ understanding of concepts.

It also promotes student learning conversations and reflection after each question. I can then download students’ results at the end of each game and then use the results as feedback for future planning as well as alternative assessment.

3) Mini dry-erase boards: These may not be high-tech, but my students use mini dry-erase boards on a daily basis to practice, share ideas, and show what they know. The boards are a quick way to gather formative assessment data and get a large-group snapshot of individual and whole-class understanding.

By taking a quick visual assessment of students’ work and responses, I am able to adapt instruction in the moment to best serve students’ needs, understanding, and misconceptions. I am able to easily and subtly check on students all over the room from any vantage point.

Mini dry-erase boards, the Activate system, and Kahoot! games are all valuable forms of feedback that provide me a clear picture of my students’ in-the-moment understanding, helping to guide my instruction.


6 tips for making the most of your Chromebooks

Before my second year of teaching, my principal suggested that I pilot a class set of 35 Chromebooks in my ninth- and 11th-grade English classes. In exchange for exclusive use of this Chromebook cart, I agreed to provide professional development on the Google for Education platform to the rest of our small staff and to simply use the devices in my classroom every day.

I was ecstatic about the possibility of transforming my classroom into a nearly paperless learning environment. I knew the potential for creativity, differentiation, and student-directed learning that one-to-one Chromebooks would offer my teaching, and I was lucky to have an administration that supported experimentation and innovation.

However, with more than 80 percent of my students qualifying for free and reduced lunch and a majority lacking access to computers at home, I worried about the feasibility of training them to use technology effectively. I didn’t want the introduction of technology to derail the respect and order I had worked hard to establish in my diverse and sometimes difficult classroom.

With no other teachers on campus using either Chromebooks or the Google for Education platform, I found myself a paperless pioneer. Over the course of that first year of going paperless, I learned the following lessons about how to restructure my teaching to integrate technology and meet my students where they were.

1. Begin with low-stakes activities.

“Technology hates me and I hate it,” one 11th-grader, Nick, immediately blurted out when I introduced the Chromebooks to my class for the first time. “Why do you feel that way?” I asked him. “Because I can never figure it out and then it makes things harder for me and then I usually fail,” he explained. I knew I needed to combat this mindset of fear often associated with using technology for academic purposes. I decided to create a few low-stakes, content-light activities designed to get students used to the routines of the Google for Education platform.

I began with a paper-pencil scavenger hunt, which required students to navigate through my teacher website, the school website, and my Google Classroom, in order to find and record various information. Students gained experience with functions like posting comments, accessing online resources, and checking their grades without having to worry about digesting difficult content. Moreover, the fact that the actual assignment was still completed on paper and turned into the bin on my desk at the end of the period allowed reluctant students a smoother transition into the paperless world.

The end of the scavenger hunt brought my students to a Google form posted in my Classroom stream. This form asked students to rate their ability to use different technological applications and gave them a space to share their opinions about the prospect of a paperless classroom. Through this activity, Nick was able to voice his fears about technology in a Google form and yet complete the assignment using technology successfully.

students politics change


2. Teach to no more than four students at a time.

When it came time for the first big project using technology — a group Google slideshow on an assigned literary movement — I wrestled with how to teach every student in my classes the skills needed to effectively create and collaborate in Google. I knew from experience that direct teaching even simple tech skill to the whole class could quickly become disorganized when students got behind or misunderstood directions. I decided that rather than teach to the whole class at once, I would teach the basic Google skills to small groups of three or four students over three separate class periods.

I set up all students with traditional paper-pencil textbook work on their assigned literary movement. I knew my students could all do this activity without my help and with few questions, and that it would also provide important content for their slideshows. Meanwhile, I led a few students at a time through the specific tech skills I needed them to know for their project on their Chromebooks. By teaching tech skills to no more than four students at a time, I was able to keep my class organized and occupied while giving explicit instruction and personalized attention to small groups of students.

3. Seek help from three resources before me.

Even once Nick became accustomed to using Chromebooks in my classroom, he still raised his hand every few minutes with a question for me about how to insert a video link or how to find a document that had gotten “lost” in his Google Drive. His constant questions made me realize the value of allowing students to work together when using technology. Using the “three before me” rule, which asked students to consult three other resources at their fingertips before turning to the teacher for help, I shifted my class culture to an environment focused away from me and toward each other, books, and the internet. Students were always allowed to collaborate with one another and were encouraged to search for their own answers using both online resources and their peers, rather than relying on my answers.

(Next page: 3 more tips for Google Chromebooks)