User Generated Education

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Virtual Improv Activities for Remote Learning

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Given my experiential education background, I’ve always been fond of and have used group team building and problem-solving activities with all of the age groups I teach – for example, see Team-Building with Elementary Students. I’ve written several blogs about teaching remotely during the pandemic and how remote learning can be engaging, exciting, and include student-to-student relationship building activities.

I believe that all learning, face-to-face or online, should have the students doing things rather than be passive learners. Recently I went to a workshop on virtual improv activities. I really loved it and am now incorporating these type of activities into my online teaching of both my college students and my elementary students. These activities elicit the same excitement, energy, and engagement as the face-to-face team building activities.

Improvisational theatre games are traditionally used as an ice-breaker for theatre actors to feel comfortable with other actors as well as the script of the play. The skills and processes of this technique can be introduced in the beginning or at the end to [a virtual class] to initiate communication and encourage collaboration. This can be an educational tool to develop communication skills, and creative problem-solving and supportive teamwork abilities. The rules of improvisational theater, or ‘Improv’ as it is often called, are: don’t hesitate, pay attention, never block or negotiate, always add something positive, and don’t be scared of silence. Following these rules, elements of Improv can be successfully transferred from real life settings into virtual team sessions (Improvisational Theatre Can Breathe Life Into Virtual On-boarding).

What follows is a sampling of improv games:

Club Gesture

Everyone chooses a quality to share about themselves, and picks a gesture or movement to represent it. Going around the circle, each person says their quality and demonstrates the accompanying gesture, and the whole group does the gesture too. Ex: Gloria says, “I’m Gloria and I’m highly organized,” pantomiming arranging objects in the air with great focus. Everyone then does her gesture of arranging objects in the air. Alternate version: Each person makes a gesture but does not verbally share their quality, and the group guesses what their quality is (Improv Games for Virtual Space by Jonathon Moses Leiner).

Dance Party

One student on camera acts as the dance teacher. You play music, and the “dance teacher” dances to the song, all the other students try to follow the dance steps to the best of their ability. Every time the song changes, a different student takes over as the dance teacher. This is a great energy builder. (Pro-tip: The challenge is not about how good of a dancer is each student, it’s about how silly can everyone be) (10 of the Best Virtual Improvisation Games for Distance Learning).

Tell Me a Story

Human beings are naturally born storytellers. With this online energizer, you’ll take some time to connect to one another through telling a shared story and be encouraged to have fun while improvising too!The teacher tarts with a line like “Once upon a time, in a land far away, 5 people got together to solve all the world’s problems. Everything seemed easy, until one day one of the people saw on the horizon…” and invites the next person in the group to continue the story and add the next line. This keeps going until everyone’s contributed to the story (20 online energizers for virtual teams and remote meetings (20 online energizers for virtual teams and remote meetings).

Object Improv

Two students do a scene on cam, a third student (or you) has a bell. Every time the bell is rung, one of the improvisers in the scene has to grab any nearby item and immediately use it in the scene. (Pro-tip: challenge the students to make the item very important. For example, if you ring the bell, and one student grabs a stapler and introduces it into the scene, the other improviser should make the stapler relevant to the story) (10 of the Best Virtual Improvisation Games for Distance Learning).

Puppies and Kittens

First, separate the room into two groups: puppies and kitties. You can have the groups either use nonverbal feedback icons or put their hands up to delineate which team they’re on. If you’re being particularly creative, have them change their background image to either a puppy or kitten! The aim of the game is for the puppies, one at a time, to say hello to the kittens in any way possible and try to make any of them smile or laugh. Use speaker view in Zoom so that each puppy is seen and heard clearly when it’s their turn. Whenever a kitten smiles or laughs, they join the puppy team. Continue until only one kitten remains or everyone becomes a puppy (20 online energizers for virtual teams and remote meetings (20 online energizers for virtual teams and remote meetings)!

Energy Ball

Facilitator shows the group an [imaginary] energy ball, then physically remolds it into a new object, declares what it is and pantomimes using the object, and then the whole group uses the object. That person then chooses who to pass the object to next, and that person remolds it into a new object, and so on. Ex: Alejandro remolds the energy ball into a telephone. He holds the phone up to his ear, everyone mimes using the phone, and then passes it to Nia. “Phone call for you, Nia.” Nia receives the phone, says “Oh hi!” on the phone, and then remolds it into a pitchfork, lifting up hay… (Improv Games for Virtual Space by Jonathon Moses Leiner)

Kamehameha

Facilitator sends “energy blasts” as depicted below to different sides of the screen: LEFT, RIGHT, UP, DOWN, CENTER. The group dodges the blasts by moving in the opposite direction of where the blast is pointed. Blast left → dodge right, etc. Up requires ducking, down requires jumping, and center can be any direction. An optional point system could be included to tally successful dodges and/or hits (Improv Games for Virtual Space by Jonathon Moses Leiner).

Tell Me a Pitch

In the online pitch, we recommend setting up a slide deck of weird and wonderful objects and then, inviting your participants one by one to pitch whatever comes up on the next slide to the rest of the group [without knowing what that object is]. Time it so participants have thirty seconds to pitch and keep things moving – bonus points if participants can think outside of the box while pitching. This is a great online energizer that encourages improvisation (20 online energizers for virtual teams and remote meetings (20 online energizers for virtual teams and remote meetings). 

Picture of Shoes

Have each of your participants take a picture of their shoes and upload it to an online whiteboard or Google Slides. You can ask participants to take their photographs in the meeting itself or beforehand if you want to keep this energizer short and neat. That said, it can be very fun for people to take photographs in the workshop. Change it up by encouraging funny poses or use of extra props. You then invite people to discuss their footwear and tell a story of their chosen shoes. It might be that they’re wearing comfy slippers they got for a recent birthday or running shoes they wore while completing a 10k (20 online energizers for virtual teams and remote meetings (20 online energizers for virtual teams and remote meetings)!

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

February 21, 2021 at 6:24 pm

Increasing Engagement, Creativity, and Innovation with Minds-On/Hands-On Activities

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COVID has forced many teacher to do remote learning in a virtual environment. Some have struggled with student-centric and hands-on learning. I have always been an experiential educator. Translating that to a virtual environment has been a little challenging but definitely doable.

Experiential-based minds on/hands on learning . . .

The ultimate goal is to get students at any level of education to become as mentally and physically engaged as possible in the learning process, regardless of the subject they are studying. The basic idea is for students to break out of their usual passive mode of learning that primarily involves listening to a teacher, taking notes and answering the occasional question. Instead, they are asked to in fact DO something during the learning process that has them actively using ALL of their senses. Doing something also means involving a student’s brain in thinking about what is going on around them as he or she tries to learn. All this active involvement makes for a powerful combination that dramatically enhances learning (The Importance of Hands-on, Minds-on Learning in Science).

The characteristics and qualities of experiential-based minds-on/hands-on activities include:

  • Open Ended Tasks Presented – “Open-ended tasks have more than one right answer, solution or outcome and can be completed in more than one way. Different learners may use different types of thinking; and there are no predetermined correct outcomes. Open-ended learning activities are provocative and stimulate divergent thinking about a topic (Open-Endedness).
  • Focus is on Process Rather Than Product – To truly focus on the process rather than products of learning, the educator needs to let go of expectations about the specific products that should be produced by the learners. There are expectations regarding some of the processes in which learners should engage (e.g., divergent thinking, questioning, researching, creating, innovating) but the educator lets go of the pictures in her or his mind about what the products should look like. By doing so, learners get the overt message that the focus is on processes used during the learning activity.
  • Engagement of Mind, Body, and Heart Occurs – Too often students are asked to engage in academics with their brains leaving behind their bodies and hearts. This is especially true as students enter higher grades. Hands-on/minds-on activities obviously use learners’ brains and hands; and because of the engagement of these areas, learners emotions, their hearts, are also often engaged.
  • Productive Struggles and Persistence – Hands-on/minds-on activities often challenge the learner due to their open ended nature. There are no single “right” answers. As such, they often have productive struggles with the learning task. Learners enter into uncharted waters as they work to create artifacts that are new to them, their classmates, their teachers, and sometimes for society. Given this limited “history,” learners often experience and work through struggles. Since they persist through theses struggles, they become productive struggles.
  • Learner-Initiated and Directed – When presented as self-directed learning, educators, as mentioned above, give learners an open ended task, like develop a new type of transportation for use on another planet or design an assistive technology for someone with a disability. Learners, then, being self directed, take initiative and responsibility for their learning, set their own goals, select and manage their resources, and assess the degree of personal success.
  • State of Flow Results – A flow state, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is the mental state in which a person performing some activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity [Flow (psychology)]. I love it when I hear a student say at the end of class, “Is it time to go already?” This to me is evidence that a state of flow occurred from the learner.
  • Learning Comes from Natural Consequences, Mistakes, and Successes – Because this type of learning elicits new information for the learners during each step of their learning process, each step provides them with data. It gives them information about the degree of success or lack of success about the actions they took. They naturally gain insight about whether or not to keep going in the direction they have been, or whether they should change course due to lack of significant progress.
  • Increased Creativity and Innovation – Because of everything mentioned above, learners’ creativity and innovation flourishes.

Design Thinking: Sketching New Inventions for Clients

Consider the rapidly changing world we live in. To thrive in the future students will need to be adaptable and flexible. They will need to be prepared to face situations that they have never seen before. Design Thinking is one of the best tools we can give our students to ensure they:

  • Have creative confidence in their abilities to adapt and respond to new challenges.
  • Are able to identify and develop innovative, creative solutions to problems they and others encounter.
  • Develop as optimistic, empathetic and active members of society who can contribute to solving the complex challenges the world faces (What is Design Thinking? A Handy Guide for Teachers).

Probot

Protobot generates random product and service ideas

My students were each given this link. They were told that they could click on the link repeatedly to get a design they felt comfortable sketching.

Nope or Dope Cards

Nope or Dope cards is usually used as a party game. I used it to have students select a client or buyer and combine several products for that client. Since we were virtual, I would select cards from my deck for each student. They then sketched their prototypes for the type of client and a combination of selected product cards.

Extraordinaires Design Studio

The Extraordinaires® Design Studio is a powerful learning tool that introduces children to the world of design, teaching them the foundations of design in a fun and engaging way. Your clients are The Extraordinaires® – over the top characters with extraordinary needs – and it’s the job of your student or child to design the inventions they require to fit their worlds.”

Here are some student examples of this activity:

Flipgrid Reflections

For the above projects learners used Flipgrid to discuss the details of their projects. Then they commented on one another’s work. Here is an sampling of student Flipgrids:

Inventor’s Workshop

Inventing is a skill and every student can develop that skill. It may be cliche, but it’s true–kids are natural inventors. And once taught the skills of how to invent, there is no stopping them (Opinion: Every student can be an inventor).

I was able to get a DonorsChoose project funded whereby I bought each of my twenty students a box of the Inventor’s Boxes and had a great time delivering them to each of my student’s homes. It was great having all of these materials in one box but none of the materials was unique or unusual. This means teachers can create their own invention kits for their students that is relatively inexpensive materials – straws, pom poms, craft sticks, string, pipe cleaners, rubber bands, binder clips, googly eyes, dowels, and foam.

They spent many hours fully engaged during remote learning making inventions including musical instruments, board games, new tools, machines, and robots.

They then took images, posted them on their own individual Google Sites, and reflected on their attributes.

Puppet Making and Green Screen Recording

Puppet-based learning teaches students design thinking, growth mindset, writing, how to work in sharable media, and how to approach learning without fear. Plus, it’s fun (6 Reasons Why Puppets Will Change Your Classroom Forever)!

This past week I visited my students’ homes yet again (love doing it) to deliver puppet making materials (felt puppet blanks, googly eyes, felt pieces, pom poms, Elmers glue) and green file folders for their green screen background. For the next several weeks, they will be making their puppets, writing scripts, recording their puppet shows in front of the green file folder, and then editing it with a background in https://clipchamp.com/. I will add some examples of their projects after their completion.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

February 9, 2021 at 11:21 pm

Educator Self-Care

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Self-care is not selfish. You cannot serve from an empty vessel.

– Eleanor Brownn

I have written about doing check-ins with students on several occasions, for example, see Emotional Check-Ins in a Teaching Webinar. What I find ironic about myself is that I haven’t discussed self-care of educators. This is especially negligent since I have a Doctorate in Counseling. I should know better as I wholeheartedly believe that in case of an emergency such as the COVID pandemic, educators need to practice . . . “in the event of an emergency should put your own oxygen masks on first so you can breath and assist others.” The pandemic has made the need for educator self-care blatantly apparent. This post is designed to provide educators with practical strategies for increasing their own self-care. After some background information, I offer an interactive infographic on self-care strategies and a 21-day journal for exploring and developing educator self-care strategies.

Self-care is an important component of a teacher’s mental health, but there are misconceptions about what it is. It’s common for educators to dismiss the self-care movement as “selfish” or “superficial.” But for teachers, self-care is so much more than breakfast in bed or treating yourself to a spa day. It’s about taking care of your health so that you’re prepared to be the best teacher you can be for yourself and your students.

The importance and benefits of self-care extend to every profession, but within some careers it is more stigmatized than in others. People in caregiving positions like teachers, for example, often find it easier to tell others to take care of their health than to do so themselves. Because educators are encouraged to focus so much energy on others and so little on themselves, self-care is necessary for teachers to maintain good mental health (https://www.waterford.org/education/teacher-self-care-activities/).

Strategies for Increasing Your Self-Care and Personal Health

Self-care can be broken down into several components or areas. Here is one conceptualization graphic. I added “hot spots” for interactive resources. (I learned a new tech tool, Genial.ly, to create interactivity to the infographic.)

Here is a 21 days journal I created for educators to use. Each day contains a quote, a journal question, and a strategy. For a copy, grab the link underneath it and make a copy for yourself.

View this document on Scribd

Here is the link for you to make your own copy and where you can make your own journal entries – https://docs.google.com/document/d/1t22p8KahDrQWR2soKfm5vIBJxNV_r9JMEb8U14ZbX44/copy/.

If you decide to do the 21 day challenge, let me know how it goes!

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

January 3, 2021 at 12:41 am

Energizing Students Right From the Start

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I, like many of you, have been doing remote teaching since March, 2020. I am a student-centric, hands on/minds on teacher. In normal times when students come to my classroom (I provide pull-out services for gifted elementary level kids), I get them doing hands-on activities within minutes of entering into my classroom. As many of you know, remote teaching is very different than face-to-face learning. Many of my 3rd-6th grade students join my Google Meet class (used by our district) dragging in and saying they’re tired. My goal is to change these frames of mind to alert, ready-to-go frames of mind. I use a variety of beginning-the-class energizers. It is pretty amazing how well these short activities work in changing the energy of my students. Quickly they become energized, joyful, and engaged.

Beginning of class activities have been used to gain student attention, provide accountability, review material, engage with new content, or establish routines. To gain students’ attention, class might begin by using multi-media, hands-on activities, surprising events, humor, or appealing to students’ emotions (Davis, 2009) ( A Starter Activity to Begin Any Class).

I encourage [teachers] to think carefully about the first five minutes of class. In my lesson plan template, one of the first tasks we discuss when planning in-class time is to prepare what I call a “focusing activity.” A focusing activity is designed to immediately focus students’ attention as soon as they walk in (or log in) to the classroom. Most focusing activities take fewer than five minutes of class time and are highly flexible. Focusing activities may include collaborative activities to connect students, generate discussion, and compare ideas; individual activities where students work on their own by reading, reflecting, or writing; or a brief quiz or some other type of assessment. Finally, focusing activities can be high-tech, low-tech, or no tech (Three Focusing Activities to Engage Students in the First Five Minutes of Class).

When I seek or develop activities to engage students right from the start, I want the activities to achieve the following:

  • Activities wake up students’ minds and emotions.
  • Activities are emotionally and cognitively engaging.
  • Students enjoy the process of engaging in the activities rather than seeking specific academic outcomes.
  • Activities are fun.
  • Student playfulness naturally emerges.
  • Students develop feelings of competence and confidence.
  • Critical thinking is often activated.
  • Activities become so engaging that students want to keep playing.
  • Activities promote discourse and connection between students.

Sample “Engage Students from the Start’ Activities

Here is a list of sample activities I have used with my students. Students find them so much fun that I use them several times during the semester. I will add to this list as I find more. If you have used any of these type of energizers with your students, put them in the comments so I can add them.

Rebus Generator

Rebus Generator creates rebus puzzles from sentences. “A rebus is a puzzle device that combines the use of illustrated pictures with individual letters to depict words and/or phrases.” This particular generator has two levels – normal and hard and has the capability to create rebus puzzles from two dozen languages. Here is an example rebus puzzle – see if you can guess it:

My students generate their own and do a screen share. Others yell out their guesses word by word. A few students do it for each class period until all students get a change to share theirs. The students love this so much that we have done it for two cycles of students.

Online Mad Libs for Kids

Online Mad Libs for Kids offers an online version of Mad Libs: “short, silly stories based on your words. Just pick ten words, click the “generate” button and read your own short story!” This website offers mad lib options about jobs, photo shoot, pizza party, gingerbread man, me, queen, butterflies, and balloon animal. Here is an example about jobs:

Students volunteer one at a time to be the facilitator. They choose the which mad lib they want to facilitate, share their screens, ask for the words to fill in the mad lib, and then share the results. Students, who have done mad libs in the past, have gotten so excited about this activity. Those, who have not, learn what they are and their excitement escalates as we play. Similar to above a few kids facilitate the mad libs each class period until all of them get a change to do so.

Two Truths and a Fib

I have been using two truths and a lie with students of all ages.

The main instructions of the game are that each member of the group introduces themselves by stating two truths and one lie about themselves. The statements don’t have to be intimate, life-revealing things—just simple hobbies, interests, or past experiences that make each person unique. The lie can be outrageous and wacky, or it can sound like a truth to make it harder for the other participants. One at a time, each person shares their statements. The group has to guess which statements are true and which statement is the lie. You can keep score to see who correctly guesses the most lies, or just play for fun to get to know one another—it’s up to your group (How to Play Two Truths and a Lie).

A Jamboard version of Two Truths and a Fib was found on Ditch the Textbook website and was written by Kris Szajner.

The Jamboard is set to “anyone can edit” and shared with the students. Each student gets a slide and types in their name. They use the text tool to write out their two truths and a fib – one per column/area. They should be told to randomly place their fib meaning not all of the fibs are put in area 3. Once all of the students have completed this part, they place a sticky note with their name on each of other students’ slides to indicate which one they think is a fib. Finally, each student, one at a time, tells the group which one was the fib. Laughter and squeals of joy result.

Rebus Puzzles

Rebus Puzzles are a little different than the Rebus Generator discussed earlier. Rebus puzzles are pictures, often made with letters and words, which cryptically represent a word, phrase, or saying. Here are some examples – see if you can guess what they are:

I screen share rebus puzzles one at a time. Students can call out their guesses.

Which On Doesn’t Belong

Which One Doesn’t Belong provides lots of examples in the categories shapes, numbers, and graphs.

What is Going on in this Picture

What is Going On in this Picture are ambiguous pictures published by the New York Times. See examples below:

As per the New York Times directions, students are asked the following questions:

  • What is going on in this picture?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What more can you find?

Students are given a few minutes to jot down their responses and volunteers then share their responses. As with several of these activities, this one can be used over several class periods with different New York Times pictures used.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) Games

Two AI games, the Akinator and Quick, Draw!, really don’t have any educational value but the are fun and get the students excited which wakes them up in preparation for learning.

Akinator is a computer game and mobile app. During gameplay, it attempts to determine what fictional or real-life character, object, or animal the player is thinking of by asking a series of questions (like the game Twenty Questions). It uses an artificial intelligence program that learns the best questions to ask through past questions asked by players (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akinator).

Quick, Draw! is an online game developed by Google that challenges players to draw a picture of an object or idea and then uses a neural network artificial intelligence to guess what the drawings represent. The AI learns from each drawing, increasing its ability to guess correctly in the future (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quick,_Draw!).

Students leave their mics on and share findings, joys, and amazements while they play. There can be some direct educational applications if used prior to a lesson on artificial intelligence.

Drawing Conclusions

Drawing Conclusions is a Jamboard activity developed by Julia’s #STEAMing up Jamboards. It consists of a series of visual puzzles for students to solve – see below for some examples:

The original Jamboard has the answer for each of the puzzles. The one I share with students doesn’t have the answers. They can work alone or with one/two other students in a breakout room (sadly, our district took away the option for breakout rooms). There are nine puzzles. Students can work on all of them in one sitting or they can be split between several class periods.

Minute Mysteries

Minute Mysteries are riddles where students ask yes or no questions to try and solve the riddle. These work best in smaller groups so the shyer and quieter students feel more comfortable asking questions. My students like them so much that they often request for them.

6 Word Story or Memoir with Image

Using Unsplash.com, a website dedicated to sharing stock photography under the Unsplash license, students find an image that speaks to them; that is autobiographical in some way. They then write a 6 word story or memoir for that image. Each students screen shares their image and shares their stories or memoirs. To add suspense and engagement, students can email their images and stories to the teacher who shares them with their students. The students then guess who image/story/memoir it is.

Kahoot or Quizziz

Kahoot and Quizziz use a quiz-style teaching and learning method where users answer questions in a competition with other users on the same quiz. Teachers can create their own quizzes but the libraries of these two websites are so extensive that teachers can find quizzes on most any topic. Students cheer when I say we are going to play Kahoot, thus it achieves the goals for using beginning of the class energizers.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

December 24, 2020 at 7:11 pm

Among Us Classroom Style: Another Case for Game-Based Learning

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A few weeks ago, I blogged about my gaming club in Video Games for Relationship- and Team Building. It is still going very strong. Students from the three schools where I teach gifted students look forward to it all week long. We started with Fornite Creative but now they have moved onto Rocket League and Among Us. Recent research supports the positive benefits of playing video games:

With the UK in a second national lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic and Christmas on the horizon, many will stay indoors to play and socially connect through video games. New research from Oxford University has delivered a surprising finding; time spent playing games is positively associated with wellbeing (Groundbreaking new study says time spent playing video games can be good for your wellbeing).

This led me to seek out ways to use their interest in these games to teach academics. I cannot adequately express how grateful I am for educators’ generous and giving personalities as well for the social media platforms where they share resources and ideas. Since I know how much my learners love Among Us, I did an internet search for its use in classroom settings. I found a blog post by @SteinbrinkLaura entitled, How to Add Game Elements to Your Lesson: Among Us-Google Style! Using her ideas as well as some found on the New York Times article, Lesson of the Day: ‘With Nowhere to Go, Teens Flock to Among Us’, I created a language arts Among Us type of game. So, in essence, both language arts and SEL standards are addressed. Here is the slide deck I used with my upper elementary gifted students:

Here is the link to the presentation – https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1Arrd1astkWMQw4iaQMCVuUJ5-miT_EochPB-JC6wOjA/edit#slide=id.p if you want to use it. You will need to make a copy if you want to use it as is or adapt it. Just remember that when using it with students, it should be as a shared doc meaning anyone with a link has editing permission. Here is a snippet of students playing this game:

At the end of the remote learning class where I used it, I heard the words I love to hear from students, “That was fun.” I plan to use this activity again with a different article and a different set of questions.

I never cease to be amazed on the power of games. I have been using games for decades with kids, with teens, and with college students. I have used board games, card games, competitive games, non competitive games, ice breakers, team building games, adventure games, and video games to teach. Their success rate in terms of student engagement and enjoyment is probably close to 100%. I know of no other instructional strategy that consistently have this success rate. My parting shot is a sketch-note by colleague John Spencer about the benefits of games:

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

November 18, 2020 at 9:51 pm

The Importance of Civics Education

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Truth be told, I always disliked history and government classes as a Kindergarten through undergraduate student. I found it dry, boring, irrelevant, and unimportant. I believe this was due to it all being about memorization . . . memorizing events and dates in history; memorizing the branches of government; memorizing states and their capitols. This type of learning reflects only remembering, the lowest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Now that I am a teacher of gifted education, I believe it is important for my students, for all students to participate in civics education. There is a problem with knowledge of civics by today’s children and youth (adults, too). The Center on American Progress stated in The State of Civics Education:

Civic knowledge and public engagement is at an all-time low. A 2016 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that only 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government, which was a significant decline from previous years. Not surprisingly, public trust in government is at only 18 percent and voter participation has reached its lowest point since 1996. Without an understanding of the structure of government; rights and responsibilities; and methods of public engagement, civic literacy and voter apathy will continue to plague American democracy. Educators and schools have a unique opportunity and responsibility to ensure that young people become engaged and knowledgeable citizens.

For civics education to be effective, though, it needs to be engaging, exciting, authentic, and relevant for learners. Here are two civics education practices that can be implemented within the classroom” 

Schools should provide direct instruction in government, history, economics, law, and democracy in ways that provoke analysis and critical thinking skills. These subjects are vital to laying the foundation for civic learning and may also contribute to young people’s tendency to engage in civic and political activities over the long term. However, schools should avoid teaching only rote facts about dry procedures, which is unlikely to benefit students and may actually alienate them from politics.

Schools should incorporate discussion of current local, national, and international issues and events into the classroom, particularly those that young people view as important to their lives. Engaging students in civil dialogue about controversial issues provides opportunities to foster character and civic virtue–important civic dispositions that are the habits of the heart and mind conducive to the healthy functioning of the democratic system. Examples include civility, open-mindedness, compromise, and toleration of diversity, all of which are prerequisites of a civic life in which the American people can work out the meanings of their democratic principles and values (Revitalizing Civic Learning in Our Schools).

As discussed in the NEA article Forgotten Purpose: Civics Education in Public Schools , the value of civics education goes far beyond politics:

Now I am including civics education as part of my gifted education instruction for my 2nd through 6th grade students. There are two reasons I am doing so:

  1. The political climate, not just in the United States, but worldwide has become contentious and toxic. I believe that this is due, in part, to a lack of education in civics.
  2. There are online tools like Brainpop, Newsela, and iCivics that make civics education more interesting and engaging.

I teach at two Title 1 schools with a predominately Hispanic student body. An article from the NEA had this to say about civics education in lower income schools: 

Only 25 percent of U.S. students reach the “proficient” standard on the NAEP Civics Assessment.  White, wealthy students are four to six times as likely as Black and Hispanic students from low-income households to exceed that level. Here’s why: Students in wealthier public school districts are far more likely to receive high-quality civics education than students in low-income and majority-minority schools (Forgotten Purpose: Civics Education in Public Schools ).

I’ve been having my students play the free iCivics games – Win the Whitehouse, Cast Your Vote, and Executive Command. I can’t overstate how much all of my students love iCivics. There are no so many fun and interactive ways to teach civics as well as suggestions and tips for best practices such as  the ones recommended by The National Center for Learning and Civc Engagement in a guidebook entitled Six Proven Practices for Effective Civic Learning.

The necessary elements of effective civic education include classroom instruction in civics & government, history, economics, law and geography; service learning linked to classroom learning; experiential learning; learning through participation in models and simulations of democratic processes; guided classroom discussion of current issues and events, and meaningful participation in school governance.

Access to this document can be found below;

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

October 22, 2020 at 2:47 am

Video Games for Relationship- and Team Building

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I had the privilege of taking a workshop on Fortnite Creative facilitated by Steven Isaacs. I decided to take this workshop because I knew that many of my students (3rd-7th grade gifted students) were playing Fortnite. The idea of using a violent game during classes was not appealing to me so when I heard about Fortnite Creative, I got excited about learning more.

In Fortnite Creative, players can create structures on a private island and share them with up to 16 players (including the owner) for various multiplayer game modes with customizable rules. Players can place, copy and paste, move and erase objects, including ground tiles, items, and game features. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fortnite_Creative)

This means that players can actually build structures on islands along with other players who they invite to join their party.

During the workshop, Steven talked about and show a video of his middle school students’ Rube Goldberg Machines. I love Rube Goldberg machines so the thought of students being able to build one using a gaming platform that were already using was very appealing to me.

Fornite Rube Goldberg Machine Lesson Plan

From Steven’s Fornite Rube Goldberg Machine Lesson Plan:

Who doesn’t love a good Rube Goldberg Machine? Full of humor, wit, and based on simple machines, Rube Goldberg inventions are described as overly complex machines comprised of a number of automated actions to solve a simple problem. I can only imagine how thrilled Rube would have been if Fortnite Creative mode was available in his day. In
this lesson, students will learn about simple machines, engineering, and automation. They will design and build a Rube Goldberg Machine in Fortnite Creative mode.

Some of the NGSS standards Steven listed in his lesson plan included:

  • Motion and Stability: Forces and Interactions
    • MS-PS2-1 Apply Newton’s Third Law to design a solution to a problem involving the motion of two colliding objects.
  • Energy
    • HS-PS3-3 Design, build, and refine a device that works within given constraints to convert one form of energy into another form of energy.
  • Engineering Design
    • HS-ETS1-2 Design a solution to a complex real-world problem by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable problems that can be solved through engineering. (Fornite Rube Goldberg Machine)

(Disclaimer: Fortnite is not supposed to be used by kids under 13. The parents of the students in my class were familiar with their children’s Fortnite use and what we were doing during our Wednesday lunch club.)

I showed them the video, Student Fortnite Creative Rube Goldberg Machine, made and recorded by Steven’s students and told my students their goal was to build something like this. Since the only experience I had with Fornite was what I learned at the workshop, I explained that doing this would be all up to them. They had no problem taking this challenge and running with it.

My Reflection

This went better than I expected. Given that the Fortnite Creative simulates physics, I believe my students learned more about forces and interactions as well as properties related to energy conversion.

For me, though, the bigger benefits were with relationship- and team building. Because our district went remote and given that I teach gifted students at three schools, I combined the 5th-7th graders so we could meet all day on Wednesdays with an hour lunch for the voluntary gaming club. About 6 of my students play during our hour lunch.

Relationship Building – One of the group of students were new to me. Within a half hour of our first class meeting, one of the new 6th grade boys, A., started complaining, asking how long he had to stay. I went to the Fortnite Creative Workshop and the next Wednesday, I asked who played Fortnite and wanted to join a lunch gaming club. A. sparked right up. His attitude towards my gifted class and me took a 180 degree turn. Now, he says that he loves gifted class, engages in all of the activities, and is a strong class contributor throughout all of our learning activities. Since I am a Fortnite Creative noob, he always takes care of me in-world, making sure I am invite to their party, and can find my way around our class’s island for building. I believe this was due to my taking an interest in his life and integrating that into my class. Too often, the teacher expects students to join her world without taking an interest in joining students in their worlds.

The relationship between three students from one school and three from another quickly developed through their shared interest. It’s only been a few weeks and they seem like they have been co-students for years. In fact, they told me that a few of them (from different schools) met over the weekend to play Fornite.

Team Building – Years ago, I facilitated outdoor and experiential team building experiences for all kinds of groups: adult corporate and therapeutic groups for adults and adolescents. As mentioned, Fortnite Creative can be played together by a group. We kept our Google Meet open for ease of communicating during our gaming club. To hear my students working together to build their Rube Goldberg machine and play with iterations of that machine brought me such joy. Their comments were similar to those I heard when I did the outdoor team building activities. They built off of one another’s ideas, expressed satisfactory when iteratios worked correctly for them, and made sure everyone was included in their activities! To get a snippet of their interactions – see below:

Next up for our gaming club – Rocket League (as per my students’ request, of course).

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

October 4, 2020 at 12:27 am

Starting the Year with “All About Me” Activities

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I have written before about the beginning of the school year, Beginning the School Year: It’s About Connections Not Content.

I begin all classes focusing on having the students make connections between each other and with me.  I want students to learn about one another in a personal way. I want to learn about my students so my instructional strategies can be more personalized and tailored to their needs and interests.

This year given remote learning, both synchronous and asynchronous, I developed technology-enhanced “all about me” activities that my learners could do remotely. These types of activities are even more appropriate than ever as a substitute for the typical “what I did over the summer” assignments.

Book Creator All About Me Activity Descriptions

The following Book Creator of descriptions and examples of all about me activities is shared with my learners, grades 3 through 6, via our district’s Open Access website:

All About Me: Getting to Know Our Students

This format provides my learners with a kid-friendly presentation of their All About Me activities.

Detailed Activity Descriptions

Bitmoji Learning Environment

Bitmoji classrooms have become a bit of a craze. They are described in more detail in the Edutopia article, Educators Turn to Bitmoji to Build Community and Engagement. A legitimate criticism leveraged against them is that they are teacher-centric. It is the teacher doing the work. I believe that if learners are not doing as much or even more creating than consuming, then this is a problem. As such, I am asking my students to create their own optimal learning environments. To begin, I ask learners to have a look at mine.

I ask them to note my sofa, picture of my cats, bookcase with books and art materials, my refrigerator with my diet Coke, plant, and window. Then I provide each of my learners (I only have 12 of them) with a Google Slide template, Build Your Own Bitmoji Classroom, developed by @HollyClarkEdu and @themerrillsedu. To their template I add a variety of Bitmojis I created for them due to them being under the age of 13. To learn how to create bitmojis for your learners, see this post by Matt Miller, https://ditchthattextbook.com/bitmojis-for-your-students-how-to-create-and-share-them/.

Personalized Feelings Chart

I start all my classes, both elementary school and college classes, with an emotional check in. I discuss this in more detail in Emotional Check-Ins in a Teaching Webinar. Last year, I had my elementary students make their own feelings pillows for our emotional check-ins (made with felt of different colors, sharpies, yarn for sewing, and stuffing). They loved them. This year, due to remote learning, they are making their own personalized feelings chart. They start by identifying 8 to 12 feelings they typically experience using the Mood Meter developed by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence:

They are asked to select a few from each color. They use either Adobe Spark or a Google Slide to create their own. I show them how to do image searches with each platform and my own personalized feelings made with Adobe Spark as an example:

Lego Selfie

I learned about the Lego Selfie through a post on Aaron Maurer’s Coffee for the Brain. Most of my learners love Legos and have them at home so I think this would be a great choice for them. For those who do not have them at home, they can use the virtual Mecabricks or choose a different activity. Examples of Lego Selfies can be seen at https://photos.app.goo.gl/N1AJSchhanykYgTq7.

Kahoot Selfie

Most teachers and students these days know about Kahoot, a game-based learning platform that makes it easy to create, share and play learning games or trivia quizzes. For this All About Me activity, learners create their own Kahoot Selfie with 5 or more Kahoot quiz questions about themselves, each question having a four possible answers with only one of them being correct. Here is a template to help them with planning – https://kahoot.com/files/2017/07/kahoot_paper_template-1.pdf and an actual Student Selfie Kahoot that they can duplicate and edit with their own questions and answers (they will need their own account to do so).

Nature Materials Self-Portrait

To get my learners away from their computers, one of the All About Me activity choices is to go outside to collect natural materials to create a self-portrait. They have to collect and use at least two dozen objects from nature as part of their design.

Comic Strip: A Change I’d Like to See in the World

For this activity, learners create a comic strip of at least 6 cells that describes a change they’d like to see in the world. I really like StoryboardThat and have an account for it so this is the platform my students use. Here is an example I found so learners can have an idea what to create:

Source: https://www.storyboardthat.com/storyboards/williamhjr/anti-racism

Flipgrid Video: My Hero and Why

Flipgrid, as most educators know, is a social learning platform that allows educators to ask a question, then the students respond in a video. Students are then able to create video comments to one another’s posts. For this activity, learners first watch For the Heroes: A Pep Talk From Kid President. They then access our class Flipgrid to create a video that describes their hero.

Here is a link for you to make your own copy – https://admin.flipgrid.com/manage/discovery/details/24147.

Fake Instagram Account

Because my learners are elementary age, they don’t (or shouldn’t) have their own Instagram account. This activity allows them to create their own (fake) one. The blog post, Fake Instagram Template with Google Slides (FREE), describes the process for doing this. This template – https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1_gupBqIZBToioNFgbAb4nFVlsJgbdW5xneccto6pcFk/edit?usp=sharing – can be used by going under file to make a copy.

Here is my example:

Google Tour Creator

For this All About Me activity, learners create their own 360 degree virtual tour using Google Tour Creator. They need to include at least 6 geographic locations where they’d like to visit. This Google Tour Creator Tutorial video can help you and/or the learners use this tool. Here is the example I created – https://poly.google.com/view/8HpqhXYHzN4.

Aggregating Their Artifacts

Learners are instructed to aggregate all of their All About Me artifacts on a Google Site they create (we are a Google district). For artifacts that aren’t web based like the Lego Selfie and Nature Self portrait, they take photos of them to upload into these photos into their site. A Google site provides me with a way to check their work and give feedback. The learners will also have them all in one place to show their families and easily revisit at a later date.

All About Me Class Badge Progress Chart

The following chart is used to keep track of each student’s progress. They are required to complete the Bitmoji Learning Environment and Personalized Feelings Chart. They can then choose four out of seven others. They can work on the activities in any order they choose. Once completed, I check them and award the badge using this chart to indicate its completion for the individual students.

Here is a link in case you want to make your own copy – https://docs.google.com/document/d/1HNDc202wJE50BGh97CteNdpt8tOGTYg96DOeP49YvGc/edit?usp=sharing

Personal Progress Chart

Learners are asked to make a copy of the following progress chart which is in the form of a Netflix playlist template (created by the talented @MeehanEDU) in order to create their own playlists of completed activities for this unit as well as ones we’re doing later in the school year. You can also make a copy and adapt it for use with your learners.

Here is a link to the template – https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/19Nkwml_hHK6N2KNyHxynOjkUltp_ld9AMGQ0K05y2yI/edit?usp=sharing.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

August 23, 2020 at 12:16 am

Reimagining Education: A Call for Action

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Many of us have been discussing educational reform for decades. Given the unprecedented time of COVID19 and its effect on education, it is a perfect time to revisit and reimagine the purpose, operations, and skills related to a powerful education. Some of the issues that have emerged and are still emerging include: the social emotional health of learners, a realization that students aren’t able to be independent and self-directed learning, and an awareness of inequities that exist in the United States. It has become blatantly obvious that students can’t learn effectively at home – especially without teacher direction throughout the school day.

It’s a perfect time for educators to reimagine an education they wish they had during their own school years so that their learners can have such an education.

Here is what I propose that should be components of a reformed/re-formed education:

  • Self-Determined Learning and Learner Agency
  • Learner Voice and Choice
  • Just-In-Time Learning
  • Whole Person Learning
  • Educator as a Tour Guide of Learning Possibilities
  • Interest-Based Affinity Groups
  • Use of the Learner’s Community
  • Vigorous, Authentic Tasks
  • Executive Function Skills Development
  • A Focus on Social Emotional Health
  • Anti-Racist Awareness and Actions

Self-Determined Learning and Learner Agency

Learners of all ages beginning in 2nd or 3rd grade can engage in self-determined and self-driven learning where they are not only deciding the direction of their learning journey, but also producing content that adds value and worth to related content areas and fields of study.

The learners in a self-directed learning environment where learner agency prevails:

  • Determine what they want to learn and develop their own learning plan for their learning, based on a broad range of desired outcomes.
  • Use their learning preferences and related technologies to decide how they will learn their material based on their own desired outcomes.
  • Form their own learning communities possibly using social networking tools suggested and/or set up by the educator. Possible networks, many with corresponding apps, include: Facebook, Twitter, Edmodo, Instagram, TikTok, blogging sites, Youtube, and other social networks.
  • Utilize the expertise of educators and other members of their learning communities who can introduce content-related resources and suggest online tools that the learners could use to demonstrate and produce learning artifacts.
  • Demonstrate their learning through methods and means that work best for them. It could include blogging, creating photo essays, doing screencasts, making videos or podcasts, drawing, singing, dancing, etc.
  • Take the initiative to seek feedback about their work from educators and their peers. It is their choice to utilize that feedback or not.

Learner Choice and Voice

Education works when people have opportunities to find and develop unaccessed or unknown voices and skills. Audre Lorde poignantly describes this “transformation of silence into language and action [as] an act of self-revelation.” Opportunities for flexibility and choice assist learners in finding passion, voice, and revelation through their work. (Student Voice Leads to Student Choice)

Some strategies for giving learners voice and choice can be found in the following infographic:

Just-In-Time Learning

Currently, most schooling focuses on just-in-case teaching and learning. Students are asked to learn material throughout their schooling just-in-case they need it someday. I contend that after students learn the basics of reading, writing, and math, they are asked to learn way too much content that may never use.

Just-in-time learning is a concept that has become popularized in connection to organizational development. “Just-in-time learning is an approach to individual or organizational and development that promotes need-related training be readily available exactly when and how it is needed by the learner” (Just-In-Time Learning).

Kids (and adults) who need to access information in order to learn something or improve their performance – think video gaming, cooking, learning to play an instrument, fixing something, making something – often go directly to the Internet, most notably Youtube, to get some form of tutorial. This is just-in-time learning. Information is needed “then and there,” which motivates the learner to seek that information “then and there.”

In self-directed, interest-driven education, just-in-time learning becomes the norm. The educator, as truly the guide on the side, encourages and assists learners in engaging in just-in-time learning as a natural part of their learning process.

Whole Person Learning

As someone whose roots is in outdoor and experiential education, I believe a good learning experience engages the intellectual, physical, emotional, and social aspects of the learner. The focus becomes on helping educating the whole learner – not just their brain or intellect. Some have called this head, heart, and hand learning.

The 21st century is placing great demands on our students and educational system. To meet those demands, we recognize that educating the head (cognitive domain), exclusive of the heart and hand (affective and behavioral domains), is no longer educational best practice. It is the education of our students’ heads, hearts and hands that will genuinely prepare them for success in college, career and civic life. (Educating the Head, Heart, and Hand for the 21st Century)

Many researchers (Henting, 1997; Bruner, 2000; Stoll and Fink, 2000; Faultisch, 1999) believe, that quality education and successful education reforms can be achieved by changing the learning culture (with attention paid to the completeness and integrativity of a human being), especially in the context of lifelong learning which integrates all three domains of learning: cognitive (head), affective (heart) and psychomotor (hands). (“Head, Heart and Hands Learning”- A challenge for contemporary education)

Obviously to engage the head, heart, and hands, sitting at a desk won’t do it. Simply put, learners needed to move their bodies and have an emotional connection to the material to increase its stickiness.

Educator as the Tour Guide of Learning Possibilities

The educator, in a reformed model of education, steps back to let the learners take over their own personal learning. The educator lets go of expectations what the final produce should be; should look like; should do.  The educator becomes a provider of resources, feedback giver, and communications facilitator. S/he becomes a tour guide of learning possibilities. S/he shows learners the possibilities and then gets out of the way.

he educator’s role truly becomes that of guide-as-the-side, coach, resource-suggester, and cheerleader as learners create their own learning journey. The educator has more life experience, knows (hopefully) about the process of learning, and has more procedural knowledge about how to find, identify, and use informational resources and social networking for learning purposes. Not only, then, does the educator help steer students in some more productive directions, s/he models the process of self-determined learning increasing the students’ aptitude for this type of learning. Learners, themselves, then also become mentors, teachers, and model learning for one another sharing best practices and strategies for effective learning.

Interest-Based Affinity Groups

Young people often find their own interest based affinity groups online. These include kids gathering via Discord or Twitch.tv to discuss video games, marginalized youth finding others like them through social media, and even groups as specific as those who share their art anime with one another for feedback.

Interest-based, affinity groups groups have been described in the report, an agenda for RESEARCH AND DESIGN A research synthesis report of the Connected Learning Research Network:

The primary driver of participation for interest-driven activity is a sense of personal affinity, passion, and engagement. Learning in this mode is generally knowledge and expertise-driven, and evaluated by the metrics internal to the specific interest group, which can often be subcultural or quite different from what is valued by local peers or teachers.

If interest-based affinity groups are promoted in the educational setting, groups will naturally emerge as members interests emerge. They will be fluid as membership changes and members’ interests grow, evolve, and change. The groups would be mixed ages and genders where members act both as learners and as teachers. There would be situational teaching and learning.  This means that if someone has the knowledge or skills related to a certain area of learning, then that member emerges as the teacher regardless of age.  Contributions by all not only make everyone feel valued, the community as a whole will benefit.

The essence of the demand for freedom is the need of conditions which will enable an individual to make his own special contribution to a group interest, and to partake of its activities in such ways that social guidance shall be a matter of his own mental attitude, and not a mere authoritative dictation of his acts.

John Dewey, Education Philosopher in Early 20th Century

Use of the Learner’s Community

Schools tend to be separate from the community – often not physically but in its use of its resources. The educator as a tour guide of learning possibilities assists the learner in locating and utilizing their community including local businesses, museums, parks, social service agencies, historical associations but it can be as simple as the learners going outside to do a science, writing or art project. Learning in the community is a form of place-based learning:

Place-Based Education (PBE) is an approach to learning that takes advantage of geography to create authentic, meaningful and engaging
personalized learning for students. More specifically, Place-Based Education is defined as an immersive learning experience that “places students in local heritage, cultures, landscapes, opportunities and experiences, and uses these as a foundation for the study of language arts, mathematics, social studies, science and other subjects across the curriculum.” (What is Place Based Learning)

For learners new to using their community as part of their learning process, the educator’s responsibility is to assist learners in both navigating through their communities and to identify community resources that can help with their learning process.

Vigorous and Authentic Learning Experiences

Providing authentic and vigorous learning experiences to all learners should be the highest prior for all administrators, curriculum developers, and teachers.

Authentic learning is learning designed to connect what students are taught in school to real-world issues, problems, and applications; learning experiences should mirror the complexities and ambiguities of real life. Students work towards production of discourse, products, and performances that have value or meaning beyond success in school; this is learning by doing approach (Authentic learning: what, why and how?).

In education, the term authentic learning refers to a wide variety of educational and instructional techniques focused on connecting what students are taught in school to real-world issues, problems, and applications. The basic idea is that students are more likely to be interested in what they are learning, more motivated to learn new concepts and skills, and better prepared to succeed in college, careers, and adulthood if what they are learning mirrors real-life contexts, equips them with practical and useful skills, and addresses topics that are relevant and applicable to their lives outside of school. For related discussions, see 21st century skills, relevance, and vigor (Authentic Learning).

The bottom line, in my perspective, is that learners view their experiences as having relevancy to their own lives, that they address their interests and needs. The following graphic shows some of the benefits of authentic and vigorous learning.

Executive Function Skills Development

Most educators would agree that a purpose of education is to assist learners in developing life skills which will translate to their lives outside of the school setting.  These include goal setting, organizational skills, time management, and strategies to learn new things.  They are skills or ability sets that are important for students to learn any content area knowledge.  These are often discussed in the context of executive functions:

In their book, “Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents,” Peg Dawson, EdD and Richard Guare, PhD state “These [executive function] skills help us create a picture or goal, a path to that goal, and the resources we need along the way”(p 2).  They identify 10 types of executive function skills that work together; namely: Sustaining attention, shifting attention, inhibiting impulses, initiating activity, planning and organization, organization of materials, time management, working memory and emotional control http://kooltools4students.weebly.com/at-and-executive-functioning.html

Most young people, themselves, would note there are skills that could assist them in being more successful in both school and out of school settings.   Most would agree that organization skills, goals setting, and time management are relevant to other areas of their lives.

Executive functions and self-regulating skills development should be part of the school curriculum regardless of the age and demographics of the student body.  Using and teaching these skills often have the advantage of becoming intrinsically motivated and self-directed as well as often making sense to students as something that has meaning and relevancy.

Here are some additional resources to assist learners in developing their executive function skills:

A Focus on Social Emotional Learning

It’s not enough to simply fill students’ brains with facts. A successful education demands that their character be developed as well. That’s where social and emotional learning comes in. SEL is the process of helping students develop the skills to manage their emotions, resolve conflict nonviolently, and make responsible decisions.

Research shows that promoting social and emotional skills leads to reduced violence and aggression among children, higher academic achievement, and an improved ability to function in schools and in the workplace. Students who demonstrate respect for others and practice positive interactions, and whose respectful attitudes and productive communication skills are acknowledged and rewarded, are more likely to continue to demonstrate such behavior. Students who feel secure and respected can better apply themselves to learning. (Why Champion Social and Emotional Learning?)

Here are some resources for bringing social emotional learning into the school and into the classroom:

Anti-Racism Awareness and Actions

When you’re essentially [teaching] a kid to be anti-racist, you’re deliberately encouraging them to talk about race and Racism. You’re deliberately teaching them that all the racial groups are equals. You’re deliberately showing them, yes, there are different colors and there are different cultures. And we should value them all equally.

It’s important for parents and for educators to be intentional about preparing our young people for the world that they are inheriting and living in. To not talk about it is a disservice to all young people. So not just black students who need to learn about their blackness and their history, but white students as well and nonblack people of color need to know our country’s history and talk explicitly about it.(How Can Parents Make Their Kids Understand How To Be Anti-Racist?)

Some anti-racist learning activities can be found at:

Parting Shot

Educational stakeholders such as administrators, educators, parents, and community members might look at this or a similar list of proposed educational reform actions, and say, “This is unrealistic. It can’t be done.” To them I say, “None of you expected the changes that COVID19 would force upon you and your students/children, but you made those changes. Not all have been successful, but most were successful to some degree. It demonstrates, though, that significant change is possible when all stakeholders work together.”

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

August 13, 2020 at 11:03 pm

A Beautiful Boy

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During Fall 2020, I taught gifted education at the high school on our south-side. The south-side is known for its low income housing and its primarily Hispanic population. As an itinerant gifted education teacher, I work at several schools. Our district has extremes of schools – high income communities at one extreme, that have the characteristics of private schools, to the other extreme of Title 1 schools with 100% free and reduced lunch programs. I choose to work at these schools. For three years previously, I taught at Title 1 K-6 schools. I wanted to give high school a try. I really wanted it to work but it ended up being too difficult for me. I realized I can better serve younger students. Too many of my students (noting that they were identified as gifted) have mentally and intellectually checked out of school and were flunking many of their classes. Their emotional needs were too vast and deep to be able to concentrate on their academics. For example, I spent an afternoon with two 9th grade gifted girls who were my caseload, one had gotten into trouble for missing for two days. She had been holed up with a 19 year old guy who wouldn’t take her home. They told me stories about their lives that were absolutely heartbreaking – sexual abuse as children, abusive foster care homes, a father in jail for murdering someone, their own sexual promiscuity and drug use.

This leads me to a beautiful boy, Ivan. He was in a STEM class I taught that one semester. He showed up . . . sometimes. At one point, he was gone for a few weeks. I checked to see why and found it he was in juvenile detention. He was on probation (I am not sure why). Because he skipped school, he broke his probation and was put in juvie. He told me that he got in trouble in middle school due to anger problems, but all I saw was a kind, gentle and soft spoken young man. He told me about only living with an older brother because his mother lived in a town up north with “some guy.” He also told me he thought a lot about what was going on in the world and spent time on the internet looking up these things he thought about.

Although he rarely did work in my class, spending most of his time on his cell phone finding and listening to music, I really, really liked him. I couldn’t help but light up when he walked into the classroom, which was typically late. There was something special about him. I missed him when he was in juvie for two weeks, so much so that when he returned to school and my classroom, I yelled hooray, jumped up, and gave him a big side hug. He smiled at me with his big, bright smile and gave me a big side hug back.

Even with a label of gifted, school met none of his needs. He was only interested in writing and performing rap. He wrote, recorded, and published one of his songs onto an online music platform (I now wish I knew which one). I asked him to play it for me during class. I loved it. His eyes shined with joy and pride when he told me about it and even more so when the other students in the class and I listened to it. Such a beautiful boy!

He was such a beautiful boy. I used past tense, “was,” because this past week we got an email from the high school principal that Ivan was murdered due to gun violence.

I have spent the week wondering. I wonder if the schools better addressed his passion for music with his days spent at school writing lyrics, composing music, and recording and publishing his rap songs – maybe he would have been in a recording studio rather than roaming the streets in the very early morning hours. I wonder what would have been different if the schools focused more in his social-emotional needs than on his academics. I wonder what would have been different if the schools better addressed the socio-cultural factors and hardships that he faced everyday – maybe the cycle of violence and poverty could have been broken. Finally, I wonder what kind of man Ivan would have turned out to be since he was such a beautiful boy (young man).

Parting Shot: I sent the high school principal the photo of Ivan that I took of him working on an Arduino (bottom of post). She sent the news my photo. I guess they asked her for one. It was my final gift to him – being able to show him to the world as engaged in a school project; showing him at his best – I have a hunch there are possibly no other photos like this of him. RIP, Ivan – you really did rock!

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

July 18, 2020 at 2:53 pm

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