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Games or Worksheets: Is there really a question about the choice?

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I work part time with gifted elementary students at two Title 1 schools where most of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches; and where they and/or their parents are learning English as a second language. What I quickly discovered about my students was that many were lacking in foundational skills in ELA and in math. Sadly, the instructional method used by way too many schools, especially those considered low performing like mine, is to give students lots of worksheets to teach such skills. I don’t like worksheets. I didn’t like them when I was an elementary student and don’t know too many elementary students who say, “I love doing worksheets.”

I have been using games in my classrooms (elementary and higher education) for decades. My use of games has included board games, team building and cooperative games, and more recently, video games. In order to help my gifted students learn some of the foundational skills, I integrate a variety of these games. This post is split into two parts:

  • Personal Observations About the Use of Games for Learning
  • Example Games Used to Teach and Reinforce

Personal Observations About the Use of Games for Learning

There has been a lot written about using games for learning. Research generally supports their use for learning:

Across 57 studies that compared teaching with a game to using other instructional tools, incorporating a game was more effective (SD .33). Using a game improved cognitive learning outcomes along with intrapersonal and interpersonal outcomes. Researchers looking at other collections of studies have found that games help students retain what they’ve learned.

I have written about the teacher as an ethnographer and the teacher as a reflective practitioner. In line with these beliefs, I have made my own personal observations about using games with gifted elementary students at low performing schools.

The Desire to Win is a Motivator

One of the biggest draw in the use of games is that students want to build their skills in order to win the game. Most, if not all, of my students embrace and engage in competitive games with the goal of winning. The need to win is a strong motivator; and to win they need to develop those skills. Even in group team building and cooperative learning, learning basic skills in order to be successful is a great motivator for learning basic skills. The same can’t be said of worksheets. The major reward for completing a worksheet is a grade from the teacher. For many students, this type of reward is not all that motivating.

A Sense of Fun and Play

When games are used for learning, excitement and joy become part of the learning process. My learners’ excitement is seen with their squeals of joy, big smiles on their faces, and jumping out of their seats when they succeed in the games.  Doing worksheets is not fun and they do not elicit playful responses. They is limited joy in learning through worksheets.

Learning Doesn’t Feel Contrived, Pushed, nor Painful

Most children play games and many adults do so, too. Games seem to be part of human existence.  Thus, when games are introduced into the learning environment, they feel natural to the learners. On the other hand, worksheets are not part of learners’ lives outside of the classroom. This translates into worksheets feeling contrived and pushed. Doing worksheets is often painful for the learners.

Noise is Expected

Games often include vocal elements. Learner voices and noise are expected and accepted when games are played. The opposite is true for doing worksheets. The expectation is that there is silence in the classroom while students work through their worksheets.

Increased and Engaging Repetition of Concepts

In general, repetition is needed to gain and remember basic skills. Usually this occurs through memorizing and repeating core skills. Games often offer the repetition of basic skills in a fun way as learners work towards completing the game challenges. Doing multiple worksheets can provide the repetition but not the engagement.

Learners Spontaneously Help One Another

Even in games that ask learners compete (see the second part of this post for examples), they often help one another out when one of their peers get stuck. This type of peer assistance is not promoted, may even be seen as cheating when students are completing worksheets.

Natural, Immediate, and Continual Formative Assessment

Most games offer continual feedback on learners’ performances. Games provide immediate feedback about the degree of success with a challenge as this function is built into the game mechanics. The same is not true for worksheets. The teacher is the one who often reviews and grades the worksheet. Feedback does not tend to be immediate nor continual with the use of worksheets.

Increased Engagement

The above characteristics equal increased engagement, and increased engagement often means increased learning. I have to wonder if one of the reasons my learners didn’t develop foundational skills is that they weren’t engaged in their learning processes; that they just went through the motions of doing the worksheets.

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Examples Games Used to Teach and Reinforce Basic Skills

Word Fluency

Scrabble Relay

In this game, students were separated into two groups. A pile of several sets of Alphabet bean bags were placed about 25 yards from the starting line. In a relay type game, group members ran one a time to pick up and bring back to the starting line one bean bag at a time. The relay continued until all of the bean bags were picked up.

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The groups were then asked to create as many words as they could using the letters they collected. Letters could be reused after a word was created. Point values were: one point for words of 2 to 4 letters; two points for words with 5 to 9 letters; and 3 points for words with 10 letters or more.

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Words with Friends

I created a class account with Words with Friends EDU:

The success of this game was better than I expected. The learners had never heard of nor played Scrabble so I was excited to see their level of engagement. They loved challenging one another; learning how the point values worked; and exploring the power words and their definitions.

Basic Number Sense

Similar to the word fluency games, I have been using a variety of both analog and digital games to increase my learners’ knowledge and skill with basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and divisions.

Some of the analog math games I’ve used include”

Some of the digital games I’ve used include:


Parting Shot: One of my gifted students yelled out this week during class (I meet with one group for a half a day and the other for a full day): I love coming to my gifted class. It is so much more fun than learning. On one hand, I was happy to hear how much he enjoys the class. On the other hand, I was saddened that: (1) he didn’t see our fun activities as learning, and (2) his regular classroom lacked such fun.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

December 5, 2016 at 12:43 am

Simple and Rube Goldberg Machines: A Maker Education, STEAM Lesson

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Recently I facilitated a simple-machines-leading-into-Rube-Goldberg-machines lesson with my gifted elementary students.

As I’ve discussed in past blog posts, I use several criteria to guide my lesson design:

  • Instructional challenges are hands-on and naturally engaging for learners.
  • There is a game-like atmosphere. There are elements of play, leveling up, and a sense of mastery or achievement during the instructional activities.
  • The challenges are designed to be novel and create excitement and joy for learners.
  • There is a healthy competition where the kids have to compete against one another.
  • Learners don’t need to be graded about their performances as built-in consequences are natural.
  • There is a natural building of social emotional skills – tolerance for frustration, expression of needs, working as a team.
  • Lessons are interdisciplinary (like life) where multiple, cross-curricular content areas are integrated into the instructional activities.
  • Lessons are designed to get learners interested in and excited about a broad  array of topics especially in the areas of science, engineering, math, language arts, and the arts.

The lesson activities and sequence went as follows . . .

Simple Machines

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  • To conclude the simple machines component, learners were taught about Haikus and asked to write Haikus about simple machines to be posted on their Kidblogs.

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Rube Goldberg Machines

  • Learners were shown several Rube Goldberg machines posted on Youtube.

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  • Learners were given a worksheet that contained several examples of Rube Goldberg Machines and asked to sketch their own cartoon versions.

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Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

November 29, 2016 at 5:07 am

What are the characteristics of high performing schools?

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I am in the unique position of having several types of education jobs. I teach online graduate courses in educational technology to in-service teachers. I am a cohort facilitator for student teachers; and I am a part-time gifted teacher of elementary students at two different elementary schools that serve Kindergarten through 6th grade students. Out of the 16 elementary schools in my town, these two schools have some of the lowest end-of-year standardized test scores in the entire district; are composed of 85% to 90% Hispanic students; have a high percentage of English Language Learners; and all students on free or reduced lunch. These statistics present a dire picture, don’t they?

I tell my student teachers that when they enter new schools for possible employment, they should be able to see and feel the culture of the school almost immediately upon entering the front doors. Because of this belief, I decided to do a photo essay of the artifacts found on the hallway walls at the schools where I teach:

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Because of the variety of my jobs as well as being an active reader and contributor to social media, I do a lot of thinking and reading about the qualities of high performing schools. Again, the data shows that I work at very low performing schools, but how are intangibles measured? How are the following characteristics, which I see, hear, and feel at both of my schools, measured and quantified?

  • A positive school climate
  • A safe school climate
  • Dedicated teachers who love teaching and their students
  • Creative teachers
  • Students enjoyment of being at school and in learning
  • Student creativity and imagination
  • Lots of laughing and smiling students
  • The arts naturally integrated into content area learning
  • School walls filled with beautiful student artifacts

I wholeheartedly believe I am teaching in high performing schools.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

November 17, 2016 at 1:24 am

Halloween Wars: An Interdisciplinary Lesson with a STEM, STEAM, Maker Education Focus

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For Halloween 2016, I did a version of Halloween Wars (a Food Network show) with my two classes of gifted elementary learners. I am sharing this lesson through my blog post as it reinforces how I approach lesson planning and teaching.

Background Information

Principles that drive my instructional approach. regardless of theme, include:

  • Instructional challenges are hands-on and naturally engaging for learners.
  • There is a game-like atmosphere. There are elements of play, leveling up, and a sense of mastery or achievement during the instructional activities.
  • The challenges are designed to be novel and create excitement and joy for learners.
  • There is a healthy competition where the kids have to compete against one another.
  • Learners don’t need to be graded about their performances as built-in consequences are natural.
  • There is a natural building of social emotional skills – tolerance for frustration, expression of needs, working as a team.
  • Lessons are interdisciplinary (like life) where multiple, cross-curricular content areas are integrated into the instructional activities.

These have been further discussed in A Model of Good Teaching?

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Halloween Wars Lesson

For this Halloween Wars lesson, the goals included the following:

  • To work in a small group to create a Halloween scene using food items, cooked goods, LED lights, and miscellaneous materials.
  • To work as a small group to craft a story about their scene.
  • To introduce and reinforce ideas, concepts, and skills associated with maker education, STEM, and STEM.

Standards addressed during this lesson included:

  • Generate and conceptualize artistic ideas and work. (National Core Arts Standards)
  • Exercise flexibility and willingness to be helpful in making necessary compromises to accomplish a common goal; and assume shared responsibility for collaborative work, and value the individual contributions made by each team member. (21st Century Skills)
  • Apply scientific ideas to design, test,and refine a device that converts energy from one form to another. (Next Generation Science Standards)
  • Solve problems involving measurement and conversion of measurements. (CCSS.Math)
  • Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences. (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.5.3)
  • Publish or present content that customizes the message and medium for their intended audiences. (ISTE NETS for Students)

Time Frame: 3 to 4 hours

Procedures:

  • Learners were introduced to the lesson through the following presentation –

  • Learners were split into groups of 3 or 4 members, shown their materials, asked to come up with a team name, and sketch their designs.

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  • In their small groups, learners needed to work together cooperatively to make their display scenes using the materials provided.

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  • Learners made sugar cookies using a recipe projected on the Smartboard. They were asked to cut the recipe in half reinforcing math skills.

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  • LED lights, which learners connected to coin batteries, were placed decorated ping-pong balls and their carved pumpkin.

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  • Finally, learners, in their small groups, worked together on a shared Google doc to compose their story. The story was displayed on the Smartboard and read aloud. One member made editing changes to grammar and spelling based on suggestions by their classmates. (This strategy is further discussed in Teaching Grammar in Context.) Here is one student group’s example:

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

October 31, 2016 at 12:11 am

A Fuller Framework for Making in Maker Education

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Background Information

I recently learned, for the first time, about Aristotle’s belief that there were three basic activities of humans: theoria (thinking), poiesis (making), and praxis (doing). Corresponding to these activities were three types of knowledge: theoretical, the end goal being truth; poietical, the end goal being production; and practical, the end goal being action (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Praxis_(process)).

The Greek theoria, from which the English word “theory” is derived, meant “contemplation, speculation, a looking at, things looked at”.  The word theoria is derived from a verb meaning to look, or to see: for the Greeks, knowing was a kind of seeing, a sort of intellectual seeing (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theoria).

Poïesis is etymologically derived from the ancient Greek term ποιέω, which means “to make” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poiesis).

Praxis (From ancient Greek: πρᾶξις) is the process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted, embodied, or realized (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Praxis_(process)). “Praxis” may also refer to the act of engaging, applying, exercising, realizing, or practicing ideas. Praxis may be described as a form of critical thinking and comprises the combination of reflection and action. Paulo Freire defines praxis “reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed.”(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Praxis_(process))

Implementing a Broader Framework of Making in Maker Education

All of this led me to think about how this would translate into a full spectrum of making in the context of maker educator. Having such a framework would help insure that learning from the making experience is more robust, not left up to chance. I believe a fuller spectrum or framework would including the following elements:

  • Play, Tinkering, Experimentation – This is uncensored, boundaryless, whimsical making. It can be considered free play.  This, in my mind, is the first part of of Poïesis which translated from Greek “to make”.  How this translates into practice is by providing learners with lots of making materials; and telling them to just dive in and play hard with those materials.
  • Framing or Frontloading the Making Experience – This is the introducing the making experience for more mindful and intentional making. It helps both the educators and learners to set purpose and intention for the making activity prior to actually doing it. This is discussed in Framing and Frontloading Maker Activities where I go in more detail how to frontload or frame the maker activities:
    • Using and Reviewing Essential Questions
    • Using Scenarios
    • Specifying Standards
    • Asking Questions Related To Personal Skills
    • Asking Questions to Help with Scaffolding and Sequencing the Activities
    • Asking Questions Related To Using Peer Support-Working Collaboratively
  • Mindful and Intentional Making – Once there is a familiarity with the making materials and processes,  making can become more mindful and intentional.This is the second part of poisis or the making process. Making becomes more goal-oriented, focused, and more results or product oriented (although process is still important).
  • Observing and Reflecting Upon Results – This is the theoria or thinking part of the process. After making, it is when makers step back away from their making to observe and reflect on their processes and results.”Being able to reflect is a skill to be learned, a habit to develop. Reflection requires metacognition (thinking about your thinking), articulation of that thinking and the ability to make connections (past, present, future, outliers, relevant information, etc.)” (Amplifying Reflection).
  • Critical Awareness and Analysis –  This is the praxis, the critical thinking component that combines reflection and action. It takes reflection to a deeper level by dissecting the making process to analyze what worked and didn’t work which, in turn, will inform future makes. This critical analysis should directly and strongly influence future making experiences – the action part.
  • Sharing to Elicit Broader Connections and Change – Given today’s ease of sharing via the Internet and social media, the action part of praxis has been expanded, in this framework, to include sharing out one’s makes, observations, reflections, and critical analyses to a broader audience. This can occur by writing about the making process, and/or by doing a photo essay, video, podcast to share via social media. By doing so, others can benefit from one’s make.

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Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

October 23, 2016 at 6:19 pm

Teaching Elementary-Level Learners About the Brain

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Judy Willis in How to Teach Students About the Brain writes:

If we want to empower students, we must show them how they can control their own cognitive and emotional health and their own learning. Teaching students how the brain operates is a huge step. Even young students can learn strategies for priming their brains to learn more efficiently.

Teaching students the mechanism behind how the brain operates and teaching them approaches they can use to work that mechanism more effectively helps students believe they can create a more intelligent, creative, and powerful brain. It also shows them that striving for emotional awareness and physical health is part of keeping an optimally functioning brain. Thus, instruction in brain function will lead to healthier learners as well as wiser ones.

Here is a run down of the learning activities I did with my gifted elementary students to teach them about their brains:

Introduction to the Brain

  • Learners played a concentration brain game I created. Cards were created that had parts of the brain images on one of the paired cards and the definitions on the other. Games cards included: cerebral cortex, frontal cortex, parietal lobe, temporal lobe, occipital lobe, cerebellum, limbic system, hypothalamus, amygdala, neuron, axon, dendrite, neurotransmitters, synapse. Students were asked to read aloud the definitions when they match a pair. An alternative is to play Neuro-Jeopardy found at http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/jeopardy.html.

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Learning about the Brain Lobes

  • Learners completed a jigsaw puzzle I created about the brain lobes and their functions.

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  • Using the Smartboard, the interactive website, https://www.koshland-science-museum.org/explore-the-science/interactives/brain-anatomy, about the brain lobes was shown to the learners.
  • Using this website and brain anatomy posters on the wall as references, learners, in small groups, created their own model brains using dough (that they made themselves) for the lobes and sticky notes/toothpicks to label the lobes and their functions.

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Learning About Neurons

  • Neurons were introduced to the learners through this Neuroscience for Kids webpage – https://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/synapse.html
  • Learners made their own neurons out of licorice, fruit roll ups, and min-Reese’s cups on top of wax paper and labeled the parts of the neuron on their wax paper. This was inspired by the Neuroscience for Kids webpage – http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/chmodel.html.  Learners were then asked to show how their neurons would correctly connect to one another as they would be in the brain.

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Finishing Up with a Creative Writing Activity About the Brain

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Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

October 22, 2016 at 1:44 am

Teaching Grammar-In-Context

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Archaic Ways of Teaching Grammar

We construct grammatically correct sentences or correct our mistakes by intuitively applying the rules that govern English syntax. If, instead, we had to apply those rules consciously, they would only get in our way, making it impossible for us to speak or write at all. To construct a simple two-word sentence, such as “He dreams,” requires the application of at least seven grammar rules. Imagine trying to apply them consciously following the rules of English grammar.

Over the years, the teaching of grammar has continued to be prominent in English and foreign language instruction, leaving less class time or student energy for students to speak, read, or write in those languages.  As early as 1906, studies were undertaken that attempted to show the relationship between knowledge of school-taught grammar and language skills. Since then, hundreds of such studies have produced some clear and unequivocal conclusions: The teaching of formal grammar does not help a student’s ability to speak, to write, to think, or to learn languages.

It is important for educators to know that, among recent research studies, not one justifies teaching grammar to help students write better.  Although we accept the fact that social, economic, and political forces influence education in many areas, we ought not to allow such forces to outweigh knowledge and reason in determining the school curriculum. (Is Teaching Grammar Necessary?)

Learning Needs a Context

I often discuss and blog about teaching content within a context, that learning needs a context. . .

How often have students been asked to memorize mass amounts of facts – historical dates, vocabulary words, science facts; get tested on them, just to forget almost all those memorized facts a week or two later? Given that is this learning experience is more common than not, why do educators insist on continuing this archaic and ineffective instructional practice?

The visual image I use to describe this is that there are all of these unconnected facts floating around in the learner’s brain. Since they have nothing to connect to, they end up flying away. This is especially true for abstract concepts including memorizing grammar rules.

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The key to increased understanding is providing a context for the facts and the rules. The context becomes the glue to increase the stickiness, the longevity of long term memory of those facts and rules. This is especially true for abstract concepts such as grammar rules. These concepts need something concrete with which to attach.context

Providing a Context for Grammar Instruction

I teach gifted elementary level classes with a good portion of the students being English Language Learners. This translates into ELA grammar making even less sense for them than for English only learners. I do a lot of maker education, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), and STEAM (adding arts to it) activities with them, and ask them to document their learning through taking photos and blogging about those activities using their Chromebooks. Because of the article about grammar and talking with the school’s literacy coach, I decided to bring grammar-in-context into my classrooms. How I’ve done this is through projecting individual blog posts onto the Smartboard. The writer of the blog opens his or her blog post in an editing mode. Another learner reads the blog post out loud. The rest of the learners make suggestions for improvement as it is read out loud. I help guide them asking questions like:

  • Does that sound right?
  • Is that the correct verb for that noun?
  • What tense should that verb be?
  • What type of punctuation in the different pauses?
  • Is that spelling correct?
  • Is that possessive? If so, what is the punctuation?

. . . and again, these questions and the suggested edits are done in the context of the individual learners’ blog posts that have already been composed.

Here is an example of one such blog prior to editing:

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. . . and here is the edited version:

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It is not perfect but, as can be seen, is much better.

Some of my observations from this process that I noted includes:

  • Learners eagerly volunteer to have their blog posts reviewed. First, they really enjoy having their posts read out loud. Second, I believe this is also due to the focus being on improving their means to communicate better not for a grade.
  • The learners know that their blogs are viewed by their own classmates and their sister school (I teach gifted education at two schools and have opened my Kidblog to both schools to view one another’s posts). They have authentic audiences and what to present their best selves.
  • As it becomes a group exercise, the other class members seem to enjoy the challenge and become engaged in offering corrections and improvements.
  • To keep up the motivation and make it manageable, I only do 2 or 3 during any giving sitting.

 

 

 

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

October 14, 2016 at 9:26 pm

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