Why I use student-driven ideas in my curriculum

You might think that teaching a high school programming course in which students are asked to code simple games and interactive websites would be motivating and exciting, but there are unforeseen elements of dealing with the teenage brain and the influences on their lives that seem to creep into the most well-designed plans. Students come to class with various types of anxiety, fears, and coping issues from daily stresses. They are also distracted with social media and the availability of instant information at their fingertips. As teachers, how do we keep them engaged and focused on their learning with the overwhelming amount of social and emotional distractions in their lives?

Student-driven ideas: the key to keeping students engaged

Keeping students on task is a constant challenge, so when I observed some students playing an online game when they were supposed to be working on an assignment, my first reaction was to ask them to close the program. Then I began to wonder why they were so fixated on playing this particular game. I wasn’t dealing with the typical Fortnite addiction; this was an escape-room game. (If you are not familiar with an escape-room game, Wikipedia defines it as a “physical adventure game in which players solve a series of puzzles and riddles using clues, hints, and strategies to complete the objectives at hand.” I asked these students why they liked this game and they eagerly gave me their reasons, which revolved around conquering a personal challenge.

I realized that students didn’t seem thrilled about the work I asked them to do. Instead, they decided to switch to something different that caught their attention and motivated them to challenge themselves. My lesson had some important elements of coding included so I didn’t want to toss it out completely, but I wondered if I could use the “escape room” idea to spark a new level of interest in my plans. Should I let my student’s interest and/or distraction drive my curriculum?

Why this lesson worked

I created a new project in Google Classroom that included escape-room concepts asked students to work collaboratively to design and code their own game using HTML and JavaScript. Initially, students seemed enthused and shared ideas, but I sensed that there was still little effort by some to actually begin. The majority of students were working on the task, creating flowcharts and following the rubric, while others couldn’t seem to get past the idea stage.


Creating a mindful classroom with 6 helpful apps

[Editor’s Note: This article was first published on the TCEA TechNotes blog.]

Mindfulness, meaning mental presence and reflection, is a popular practice across the U.S., incorporating tools to help people think clearly and critically, calm their minds, and be more productive.

Many teachers also believe mindfulness can help students feel more relaxed and focused, not to mention make them less likely to engage in disruptive behavior than those who don’t meditate or undertake other mindfulness practices. Research shows that mindfulness practices can have a generally positive effect on students, though it’s not yet clear whether those outcomes are caused by specific practices or simply giving students the chance to take a breath during a busy school day.

In one study, students said they spent one-third of their study time feeling worried, stressed, or stuck. A variety of factors could cause those feelings, but the decision to make your classroom a more mindful one could help students learn valuable stress management skills. Here are six mindfulness apps that might help your students be more present, relaxed, and productive.

6 mindfulness apps to try in your classroom

Stop, Breathe & Think

One of the advantages of Stop, Breathe & Think is that it gives customized meditations based on how you’re feeling at that moment. First, users go through a brief survey about their current state, then receive meditations to match the results. Students can take part in the activity even if they only have about five minutes.

Depending on the age of your students, there is a kids’ version of the app intended for young people from 5-10 years old. Also, the app creators offer educators a free lifetime membership that provides access to hundreds of activities, plus both the kids and all-ages version of the app.


Hundreds of schools use the Headspace app to introduce kids to mindfulness practices. Users get the Basics course for free, allowing them to determine if meditation is something they want to continue. If it is, subscriptions provide access to mindfulness exercises of various lengths and topics. Moreover, the content gets delivered in an extremely accessible manner. So, if you’re not yet familiar with mindfulness, but want to learn along with the students, check out Headspace.


5 of the coolest edtech tools since sliced bread

It seems like new edtech tools are developed each day, and while many of them serve practical purposes without too much fanfare, there are some edtech tools that sound super exciting.

When a tool excites teachers and students, the ingredients are all there for increased learning engagement–and we all know how challenging it can sometimes be to keep students engaged in and take ownership of their own learning.

If you want language immersion or new resources for visually impaired students, or if you’re searching for AI and VR tools to thrill students, keep reading–this list of edtech tools has something for everyone.

1. ReadyAI’s AI-in-a-Box is an AI learning toolkit designed for users with different experience levels and abilities. Inside each box is curriculum, hardware, and software to get started. The curriculum in AI-in-a-Box teaches six key concepts of AI, including visual recognition, facial recognition, object manipulation, landmark-based navigation, speech generation, and speech recognition. One AI box can be used by up to 15 students at a single time.

The technology and toolkit are in use in schools and community centers across the country. “Over the past six months, ReadyAI has given the children at Western Pennsylvania Boys and Girls Club the opportunity to learn and understand the technologies that they experience in their everyday lives,” says Christine Nguyen, director of the STEM Boys and Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania. “Exposing them to these incredible programming and creative experiences today will encourage them to become the scientists that create tomorrow.” ReadyAI also is offering an AI summer camp to help students of all ages become more familiar with the technology.


Fun facts from Britannica: Do cats cause schizophrenia?

For 250 years, Encyclopaedia Britannica has provided the world with researched, verified information. A global leader in education whose flagship products serve the needs of students and consumers on multiple platforms and devices, Britannica has been a pioneer in digital learning since the 1980s.

eSchool News has partnered with Britannica to bring you a fun fact each month, along with advice on how to teach today’s students how to cut through the misinformation on the internet.

Do cats cause schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia affects only 1 percent of the population. Although many people are predisposed to it, most folks are never exposed to enough stress to exhibit any of its symptoms. But could there be a correlation between this serious and complicated mental disorder and our feline friends? Amazingly, yes!

How to differentiate fact from fake

At a time when fake news spreads faster than the truth, checking your facts is essential. As a gatherer of information for 250 years, we are providing five fact-checking tips over the next five months that can be worked into a lesson activity to help students learn how to navigate the truth.

Fact-checking tip #1:

Choose your sources wisely. Some types of sources are better than others. Trust those that thoroughly review information before publishing. Try to track down the primary or authoritative voices like scholarly journals or government data rather than second-hand reports. Ask your students to search for information on a specific project such as Brexit, World War II, or President Putin. Have a discussion about the variety of information provided. Work with your students to encourage them to find the source of the site and research the author.


6 tips to help your students collaborate on awesome podcasts

OK, I’m listening

A 2019 Edison Research survey reported that 51% of Americans above the age of 12 have listened to a podcast. Interest in podcasts has increased 122% since 2014, with the majority of that increase coming from ages 12-24. Monthly listeners are growing up to 24% a year. That’s four times the number that go to the movies every week.

I’m the technology integration specialist at Lewis Central Community School District, a 3,000-student district in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Teachers come to me with content and standards, and I come back to them with the right creative tool. Separately, I’m an avid podcaster and have co-hosted the Dads In Ed podcast since 2013.

We’re doing more podcasting now at Lewis Central because podcasts are easy to do and the students love making them. We are using a cool tool called Soundtrap which brings podcasting directly into the students’ own hands.  Podcasting helps students develop effective listening, problem solving, research, writing and speaking skills and, they’re excellent tools for meeting the learning standards.

An app that brings out the magic

Creative ideas are powerful foundations for learning, and we make sure kids have opportunities to build on these ideas. Recently, one of our high school English teachers, Molly Pettit came to me with an idea to replace the standard two- or three-page written book reflection required in her literature class with a podcast.

We’re a GSuite for EDU school and one of the more effective audio-recording technologies I found for classroom podcasting is Soundtrap (soundtrap.com) Soundtrap is an online collaborative recording studio that accommodates Android, iOS, Chromebook, Mac and Windows. It’s easier to use than the other audio-recording platforms we’ve tried, and the kids can use it across phones, tablets and laptops.  Cross-platform integration is an important feature for our district because so many students bring in their own devices. With Soundtrap, the kids work in an invited group in a secure, walled environment. As an added benefit, they can collaborate on their projects from home—on their own time.

For Molly’s podcasting project, her students were divided into groups according to one of three plays they chose to read: “The Crucible,” “Antigone” or “The Importance of Being Earnest.”

What Molly’s students knew

Together, the students listened to several podcasts before beginning their own. We did some brief training on the Soundtrap app, and I demoed ways in which they could use the platform to fade in and fade out, make intro music and add other unique elements. The kids then created an anchor chart that identified the elements in a strong podcast.

Using the anchor chart as the rubric for the project, Molly’s students knew ahead of time exactly what they needed to include in their 10- to- 15-minute presentations to meet the learning standards. It was an audio report, but because they still had to write and communicate, they could meet the language standards.

“As part of their reading/literature standard, they were required to form arguments and engage in debate. They also had to cite quotes and use text evidence within their podcast. That was a big part of their rubric,” Molly recounted.

Her podcasting project hit heavily on speaking and listening standards. Because Soundtrap is cloud-based, the students had access to a collaborative platform that allowed them to build off each other’s ideas. Soundtrap is also simple to use, making it easy for the kids to record and edit their work.  If any other teachers are interested in bringing Soundtrap podcasting into their classrooms, here are some tips:

6 tips to get your podcast going

  • Ask the kids what they’re interested in. Participation will be greater if they’re part of the selection process.
  • Keep it simple. Look for tools that integrate easily with what you’re already using. If you’re a Google Suite for EDU school, find tools that let you sign in with your Google account. Same thing if you’re an Office 365 school.
  • Think convenience. Many schools are seeing the value of a single sign‑on, where the kids can use the district account instead of creating separate ones.
  • Tap new sources. Almost every state has an International Society for Technology Education (ISTE) affiliate. Attend one of their conferences. Access their resources, which are filled with good tips.
  • Stay open. Ask your neighbors what they’re doing, even if it’s not the same grade level. I remember, as a fourth-grade teacher, hearing a music teacher talk about teaching notes and chords using a “pizza” method. It became a fantastic way for me to do fractions in my math classroom.
  • Create a rubric. What are the objectives of the podcast? What standards must we meet? Do we need a draft? How can I assess the standards on a worksheet?

Soundtrap podcasts push students to collaborate in authentic ways and have academically rigorous conversations around text. They’re easy to create and consume, and they give kids a platform for driving their own education.

Soundtrap recently launched Soundtrap for Storytellers, an all-in-one podcasting tool. In June, students and teachers can access a specialized classroom-appropriate version of Soundtrap for Storytellers without any additional subscription cost.



How to teach empathy & sustainability through global connections

I’ve become incredibly passionate about connecting students globally using technology. I’ve seen the impacts of what this can do for students and the profound impact it can make on these little human beings that we teach!

When our students are able to meet students that look, learn, and live differently than they do, eyes open and perspectives change. They find so much in common, but also celebrate and appreciate differences. They marvel at new information and new ways of thinking. They feel pride in sharing about their communities and schools. The shy kids become a little less shy when they have the chance to speak and share in the comfort of their classroom but the “safety” of just using video to communicate. They feel validated and uplifted when a class across the country or halfway across the world acknowledges, “Yes, we hear you and we feel that way too!” Students find their voices, and often find so much more.

The importance of connecting students globally

If we as teachers embrace and unleash the potential of these connections, we can take students far beyond the introductory stuff (How long is your recess? What books are you reading? How cold/hot is it where you live? Whoa…you like Fortnite, too?) and we can eventually structure these video chats around some serious global issues. We can use this technology to communicate and collaborate with other classes to teach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and inspire our students to action.


5 major changes in the future of learning

Five changes have incredible potential to influence the future of learning, according to a new forecast–and we have to embrace these changes in order to understand the challenges and opportunities facing education.

“Exploring the future of learning today is an act of stewardship to our future communities and to the young people who will live in them,” according to Navigating the Future of Learning from KnowledgeWorks. At at the center of this exploration will be not only schools and districts, but also postsecondary institutions, community-based learning organizations like museums and libraries, and educators and innovators to lead these changes.

The five changes outlined in the forecast are grounded in trends, patterns, plans, and developments that are all taking place today. The authors pose two key questions–one specific to education, and the other general–alongside each change to prompt reflection.


3 steps to implementing a 21st-century financial education curriculum

Effective and accessible financial education has historically been absent in U.S. schools. Outdated instructional practices and a lack of standards have made it difficult for teachers to easily incorporate this crucial topic in the classroom.

According to a 2016 study by LendEDU, more than half of 18- to 24-year-olds wish they’d taken a personal finance course in high school. Unfortunately, not every state has a requirement that students take some form of a financial education course prior to graduating.

As the business education teacher at Niles North High School (NNHS) in Illinois, I’m passionate about ensuring that every child has access to an equitable and effective financial education curriculum. NNHS is one of the most diverse high schools in Illinois, with students who come from almost every corner of the globe and speak more than 70 different languages. I feel lucky that my state requires every student to complete a consumer education course, and I know the importance of providing a course that is up-to-date and applicable to the real world.

After 20 years of teaching, I’ve identified three key elements to an equitable, realistic financial education program into the classroom. Students need to know certain facts about how our financial system works and they need to have healthy and productive attitudes about money and finance, but most of all they need to learn how to make smart financial decisions. Incorporating the following three elements will help students become smart and critical consumers and achieve financial wellbeing. All students, regardless of background, can benefit from a high-quality financial education.

3 elements to a high-quality financial education program

Having a pedagogically sound approach

Students need more than just information to develop financial know-how. In previous years, I focused solely on topics out of a textbook. Now, I’ve implemented finEDge, a new style of financial education curriculum created at UChicago. This curriculum uses modules that introduce key financial topics, walk through the decision-making processes related to these topics, and create productive attitudes about finance.

We were attracted to how the program focuses on providing an opportunity for every student to gain financial literacy skills, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic background. Reflection is an integral part of the curriculum; students are given the opportunity to participate in simulations and scenarios in which they need to think critically and build financial decision-making skills.

Many financial curricula focus exclusively on the model of teachers providing content knowledge rather than allowing students to acquire and construct their own way of working through complex, everyday situations. I’ve learned that by first considering pedagogy, I’ve been able to transform my financial courses from “old school” to something more flexible and powerful.


The importance of jaggedness in personalized learning

According to Learning in the 21st Century: the 2019 Digital Promise LVP Survey, 83 percent of teachers think students are capable of high achievement, but just 26 percent think students are reaching those levels today.

As part of the Learner Variability Project, which “seek[s] to uncover strategies to meet learners where they are across varied contexts and needs,” Digital Promise’s team is examining the key factors for different grades and subject levels that impact student learning. During the edWebinar “Learning in the 21st Century: What Teachers Think Matters,” the presenters talked about the science of individuality, how they’re using the research to help developers create products to meet these individual needs, and examples that show how the Learner Variability Project can work in the classroom.

First, Patricia Saxler, head of education at Populace, explained the science of individuality and why it’s important for educators. Often in science we are taught to ignore individual differences, said Saxler, and look for the average on the bell curve. In education, though, if we’re designing for and teaching to the average, we are leaving out too many students. Instead, she invited educators to think about three concepts—jaggedness, context, and pathways, which are based on the work of Todd Rose in The End of Average—and how they can apply to K-12 education.

  • Jaggedness: Learning is not one-dimensional; there are many factors that make up a student’s learning profile that can indicate where they are on the path to mastery. In preK-3 reading, for example, students need alphabet knowledge, narrative skills, print awareness, and sight recognition. Students may be above average on some skills, below average on others, and right in the middle for the rest. When schools talk about personalized learning, one of the first things they need to do is consider these jagged profiles.
  • Context: The context of a student’s home and learning environment matters too. Educators need to think about what elements are impacting a student’s ability to learn when they’re examining assignments and assessments. For instance, if a student is stressed while taking an assessment, it can affect the results.
  • Pathways: While the ultimate learning goal may be similar for most students, there are multiple valid ways to get them there. Rather than creating one route for every student for the school year, teachers should look at the students’ individual skills and needs and create a path and time frame that works for them. Most important, said Saxler, teachers should remember that pace is unrelated to ability. If the goal is proficiency, then the pace shouldn’t matter.

Following up on the principle of jaggedness, Vic Vuchic, chief innovation officer at Digital Promise, talked about how Digital Promise is helping developers understand these key learning factors. Using research, they created factor maps, hosted on the Learner Variability Project website, that show the different pillars and underlying elements that impact student learning. In addition, there are strategies for content creators and educators to help them assist learners. Currently, Digital Promise is working with developers to implement the strategies in their products. Eventually, it may be possible to certify products that meet different learning needs.

Some schools are already focused on adding learner variability. Dr. Baron R. Davis, superintendent of Richland (SC) School District Two, discussed how his schools are taking the idea of personalized learning to the next level. For example, in the high school they are gradually introducing teachers in main content areas that focus on highly personalized learning. They are taking a similar approach in the elementary schools, in addition to a blended learning model that allows students to work at their own pace with digital curricula.


How we turned around our student tardy numbers


Nicolet High School District is located in the southeast region of Wisconsin and serves over 1,000 students from four Milwaukee suburbs and the city of Milwaukee.

Biggest challenge:

Our district wanted to maximize each minute of every class period by getting students to class by the beginning of every period and reducing the time needed to record attendance. We were seeing our student tardy numbers increasing annually, which meant more students were missing valuable class time each year.

Our teachers were losing instructional time due to the manual processes we had in place for recording student attendance, which ate up several minutes into every period. Meanwhile, our office staff was overwhelmed with writing tardy passes, submitting referrals, and calling students down to the office for discipline-related tardies.


When we began searching for solutions to our challenges, we laid out three criteria. First, we wanted a solution that would help us get students to their resource period classrooms in a timely manner to give them the maximum amount of support. Second, we needed something that would give our staff a flexible way of taking attendance, allowing us to account for students’ whereabouts during the resource period. Finally, we wanted to prioritize the accuracy of our attendance data, because we knew there were periodic inconsistencies in attendance taking at the classroom level.

Skyward, our student information system, and School Technology Associates, Inc. (STAi) offered us the perfect solutions. We purchased tardy kiosks from STAi, allowing students to mark themselves tardy and print a hall pass in our main office. We also purchased PASS+ scanners for recording attendance at the classroom level. Skyward then received students’ attendance information and automated processes to assign students detentions and notify families of disciplinary actions through email.

Processes such as writing tardy passes, assigning discipline, pulling students from class (more missed class time), and contacting parents were eliminated, freeing up countless hours each week for our administrators and office staff.

In the first year, our newly automated tardy process yielded a nearly 65-percent decrease in tardies. Knowing students would sometimes forget their ID badges at home, Skyward integrated student IDs on its mobile app, eliminating the need for many students to carry a physical copy.

Finally, we emphasized the use of positive attendance, which we extended to every class period. Now we truly know where our students actually are, not where they are scheduled to be. Now, more than ever, it’s important to account for students’ location each period of the day, both for safety and accountability purposes. In the event of a crisis, we have accurate data, can identify where our students are, and plan accordingly.

Lessons learned:

  • Communicate with your stakeholders as you change processes and give them an outline of the expectations they will be given.
  • Reinforce your expectations, even after your community has adjusted.
  • Focus on the messaging and benefits of the change to create buy in.
  • Celebrate your districts successes, no matter how small.
  • Maintain the momentum of your culture shift; don’t let the excitement and accountability sputter after year one.
  • Remind your staff how big of an impact they make in recapturing instructional minutes each day.

Next steps:

  • We are beginning to use positive attendance data to track participation in our after-school support programs and extracurricular activities.
  • We will use this data to monitor program participation and ensure the students needing support are accessing it. This will give us a better idea of each programs effectiveness.
  • We are starting to gather the information we receive about positive attendance to inform our staff of student participation in volunteer hours for honor societies and extracurricular clubs such as our robotics team.

Next week:

Turnaround Tuesdays will return on May 28 with how a district redefined student success.