Differentiation With (and Without) Technology

Erica Babb, science teacher at West Middle, has been sending me a number of different student creations in the past few months – videos, prezi presentations, Weebly websites, etc. I wondered what was happening in her classroom that was allowing students to produce such varied and high-quality curriculum work with technology. When I spoke with her, her answer was a combination of pre-assessment, compacted curriculum, and student choice.


Erica begins each of her units with a pre-assessment. Students who demonstrate proficiency on the assessment are presented with a choice: continue following the unit plan with the rest of the class or deepen their knowledge of the topic through independent study. The simple offer hands students control of their learning. Each is able to determine the path that would yield the most personal reward, increasing engagement and placing the locus of control squarely on the shoulder of the student regardless of his choice.


Students who choose to pursue an independent study have a few steps to go through.

  1. Erica provides a handout outlining what a “compacted unit” independent study will look like for a student. Though much of the child’s time in class will be spent on an independent project, she must still participate in elements of the class where she scored poorly on the pre-assessment.  Details of Erica’s compacted curriculum assignment for her “Earth’s Waters” unit is below:
  2. If a student elects to do the independent study, she then begins planning a deeper investigation of the unit topic. An independent study is not a free pass to learning any topic the child wishes to learn. The product created must continue the work of the present unit, but at a level of depth that goes beyond that of the learning activities of the larger group. Because of this focus, the project topic is somewhat limited, but the methods of presentation are many and varied, often including some element of technology in them.  One example from her product possibilities for the “Earth’s Waters” unit is below.

  3. Once a child has chosen a presentation medium, she fills out a product proposal form, detailing her topic and medium she will then present to Erica for approval. Erica has created a rubric for each medium: booklet, brochure, pictorial journal, poster, PowerPoint/Prezi, report, song writing, and oral presentation.
  4. After Erica approves a child’s proposal, the child copies a portion of that plan onto a “Compacting Contract” that she and her parents sign.
  5. Throughout the unit, the child must journal in an independent study log about her progress each day as well as her work with the class during days where she is participating with the larger group.
  6. Finally, the student presents her project to the class and Erica gives her feedback through a general rubric of the student’s independent work.


Erica’s students have created some amazing products through this process – and it hasn’t been only the select few. According to her experience, a variety of students have been able to take advantage of this opportunity.

One particular story was of a young man who, overall, is not a strong student. For one unit, however, he demonstrated quite a bit of knowledge and earned the opportunity to create a compacted curriculum product. In addition to offering him a chance to grow his existing understanding of the unit topics, the “award” of independent work has given him a sense of confidence in his own ability to succeed.

Technology isn’t the focus of this approach – students are. Just as they should be.

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Annotating Images with Smart Notebook

Each year Peter Papulis asks his geometry students to apply abstract knowledge of proportions, similarity, and ratios to their own experience – through manipulating images in Smart Notebook. Students take snapshots of one another next to prominent places around school, pull the images into Notebook and estimate the height or length of their subjects. If you’d like kids to collect, annotate, or measure images, Smart Notebook might be your simplest solution.

The Project:

“The pre-work makes the project work.” – Peter Papulis

This is Peter’s second year with this project, and he’s noticed that preparing students with the necessary mathematical vocabulary and walking them through the process prior to entering the lab has made all the difference. Here’s his pattern:

  1. Students begin the unit looking at proportion word problems, gathering an understanding of the vocabulary of proportions and a sense of what proportion is all about.
  2. Once vocabulary is in place, Peter surveys to see who has a iPhone or iPod Touch in the room, arranging the groups so that there’s at least one in each group. He then asks the groups to download the free Multimeasure app and experiment with estimating. The app uses the same mathematics students are learning in this unit. One of Peter’s goals is to demonstrate to students that mathematics isn’t something that’s just on paper. Math is used in tools and problems that surround us, and people can capitalize on that in order to make a profit – as the makers of this app (which has a for-cost counterpart) have.
  3. After the hook with the app, it’s back to the classroom for a “hands-on” approach to this idea. Using real rulers and example pictures, students work out how they can use proportion to estimate the height of common landmarks around the world.
  4. After the practice, Peter takes a portion of one period (~45 minutes) for students to take pictures around the school using cameras checked out from the library. Each group had at least 3 pictures of a student (the reference height) standing in front of a portion of the building or other landmark on campus. They are given a rubric and tutorial before beginning the work
  5. The next day in the lab, Peter oriented students to Smart Notebook (his instructions are here), and the final day is reserved for student work: uploading images, calculating proportions, and annotating their slides. The final product? A student-created estimate of the height or length of a place they walk by every day:

A heads-up:

  • Students must position their cameras as close to “reality” as possible. A tilted shot will skew the estimation of the larger object.
  • When calculating the reference height of their peers, students must use the metric system rather than the English system of measurement (e.g. six feet, two inches should not be written 6.2, but converted into metric units – 188 cm).
  • Without the separate “Math Tools” plugin from Smart, ratios can be a challenge to draw on a PC, but Peter’s students worked around this in a variety of ways.

Peter’s unit is effective for many reasons. From the perspective of educational technology, he leverages tech to both hook his students (through their experiences with the app) as well as provide for personalization and choice (as students are able to travel around the campus and select their objects of choice). All the technology is fairly easy to use, moving tech into the background and allowing the curriculum to take it’s rightful place: front and center.

If you or your students are looking for a way to gather and annotate images, Notebook is worth a look!

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Digital Notebooks with OneNote

In August, Will Swihart, science teacher at West Middle, was looking for a digital notebook solution. Students in science record their daily work into a composition notebook, maintaining a table of contents and reflecting on their past work as they move through the curriculum. Will was wondering if there might be a way to record his own work and publish it to parents, without absorbing more of his time. Tucked away in Microsoft Office is a tool that will do just that and more: OneNote.

OneNote is Microsoft’s popular digital note-taking software packaged with the Office Suite. Built to resemble the look and feel of a notebook, with tabs along the top and pages listed on the side, OneNote is especially popular in districts where students carry personal laptops or slates from class to class. Users can record lectures and sync those recordings with type-written notes; copy and paste information from pdfs, websites, and other documents with citation information automatically preserved; and draw right onto the page. Will’s science notebook looks like this:

For a district like ours, where kids use multiple machines throughout the day, this technology doesn’t fit a student’s workflow. However, the tool can be leveraged as a teaching resource, especially when combined with Microsoft’s free SkyDrive service. SkyDrive opens up a space online where users can store Microsoft Office files and others can view them – even without Office installed on their machines.

Will’s goals were 3-fold:

  • Easily post his daily bell ringer and class purpose
  • Add pertinent pictures from his doc camera, worksheets and textbook materials
  • Display the notes online, but avoid the upload/download tasks typically involved in updating a website

OneNote performs these tasks quickly and easily. Will pulls in his bell ringer, a slide created in PowerPoint, simply by dragging and dropping it onto that day’s OneNote page. He can insert an image from his document camera by displaying the item through his AverVision software and doing a screen capture through OneNote. Other files can be added through a “File Print” option in the insert menu of OneNote, making the notebook page a quick representation of that day’s work.

And getting this online? Will posted one link to his website in September. SkyDrive and OneNote have been automatically updating his online science notebook ever since, without Will pushing one additional button. The online version makes the notebook available to students inside and outside school, even if they don’t own Microsoft Office.

If you haven’t tried OneNote yet, check it out. You’ll find it in the Microsoft Office folder in your “All Programs” menu.

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Publish Student Work Online

The first tip I sent out to schools was one that was quick to put in practice, but big on return: impose a NO TEXT rule for student presentations. This week’s tip is like it:

Publish student work online.

If your students are creating something – anything – for your class, a growing body of research is demonstrating that students learn more deeply when they are working for someone other than their teacher or the peers in the classroom. If someone were to ask your students, “Who are you doing this project for?” and their answer would be, “Our teacher”, a few simple changes to your assignment could dramatically affect your students’ motivation and engagement.

Some Background:

Students create all the time, in school and outside it. They create for their peers, for their family, and for themselves. In the last ten years, they’ve been creating more and more and more content, filling up terrabytes of space on the internet with everything from profound reflections on identity to absolute drivel. Why the increase? Because it’s easy. Technology, especially mobile technology, has lowered the threshold of effort required to share with the world.

But the threshold hasn’t just lowered for personal publishing – it’s lowered for educational uses, too. There are compelling reasons to leverage these publishing media in our approach to teaching, and the number of those reasons is growing. Recently, Derek Bruff, the director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching, wrote,

“Social pedagogies [approaches to teaching that leverage social reasons to learn] can provide sufficiently strong motivations since representing knowledge for authentic audiences can satisfy students’ desires for connection and sharing.” [1. Social Pedagogies as Framework for Online Learning]

Publishing work online connects students to real people who aren’t in your classroom, imbuing student work with a sense that the product ought to be worth viewing.

Publishing in this way raises student anxiety about work, a condition that can actually promote learning, and brings a new context to the role of a teacher. Bruff illustrates this with the picture below.

Publishing for an authentic audience produces the stress of performance, a somewhat negative emotion, but couples it with the positive experiences of making connections and sharing. When students are placed within this dynamic, the “teacher” is cast in a different light. Instead of the sole evaluator of a student’s product, she is now the keeper of skills that will help that student perform well in the eyes of an authentic audience.

Will this work for all students? Of course not. Each of us views the task of performing for others a bit differently, but teachers at West High and West Middle have found that adding “audience” to their teaching toolkit has changed the way students are approaching their work.

A few ‘homegrown’ examples

The slides below outline 3 different levels of authentic audience.

  • Low-stress: A teacher groups students in one of her classes with the students in another of her classes. No teaching partner is needed.
  • Collegial: Two or more teachers in the same school building or school district combine efforts and direct students to view and/or collaborate on required work.
  • Distance: Two or more teachers, located across the States or world, connect their students, opening up opportunities for discussion not only about content, but about culture and perspective as well.
Authentic audience isn’t just something good for students.  As adults, we understand how creating for others drives us to work harder, think deeper, and make connections so that our creations are something we can take pride in.  Oddly enough, we often call this “teaching.”
What audiences might you open up to your students this year?
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Wallwisher – feedback without hassle

Every other unit or so, Norma Myers, Spanish teacher at West Middle, opens up a tack-board of sorts on the web. In response to a prompt, students respond with 160 characters or a link to a picture or video. There’s no set up time, and no student registration is required. Just a quick formative assessment using a fun, novel website: Wallwisher.com

You might be hard-pressed to find a website simpler than Wallwisher. Creators set up a “wall” where others can add “sticky notes” that include text and a link or picture. You can create as many walls as you like, and your participants can add as many sticky notes as you ask them to. Wonder how easy it is to set up? Check out the one-minute video below.

For learning?

So, how might someone use this to help kids learn? Well, there are lots of ways. Norma has created a list, and she’s adding to it every now and again. She’s up to fourteen so far. Here’s the list:

  • sentence starters, with students finishing the sentence.
  • birthday wishes in Spanish
  • congrats for school play, math contests etc.
  • links to other sites (games, practice activities, etc)
  • students talk about plans for the weekend, summer etc.
  • grammar explanations, then students give an example
  • I post student errors, students have to correct
  • post pictures when studying adjectives, students write comments
  • when learning how to give advice, I post a problem, they write advice
  • opinion poll (could be anonymous)
  • feedback on activity, quiz etc.
  • during the food chapter, students can give a review of a restaurant
  • storytelling – each students adds new info to the story.
  • matching activity – students match vocab word to a picture or definition

The tasks above mix connecting activities with assessment activities. Norma is able to use Wallwisher to get a bead on her students’ interests, their lives outside of school, and their proficiency in the language, all using a simple interface. She also builds a sense of community among the students in her classes, since multiple periods participate on the same wall.

What about cheating?

With most online tools, the possibility of cheating always exists. This can be worked against in a couple ways.

  1. Ask questions that can’t be answered in the same way by different people. Not only will these types of questions discourage cheating, they also tend to attack higher levels of thinking, in whatever knowledge taxonomy you prefer. If your goal is immediate publishing (i.e. you want students to “see” their posts as well as the posts of their peers right away), you’ll have to employ a type of questioning that will elicit different answers from each person.
  2. Enable “moderation” of notes.Norma’s students are learning the basics of the language, so answers to her prompts will be very similar. To prevent copying, Norma enables “moderation” on her walls. Anyone can add a note, but no one can see the notes of others until Norma approves them. Because Norma’s goal is always correct creation of language, she only approves those notes which meet her standards, and she only approves notes after the deadline for the assignment has passed. Her public walls, with their approved posts, become examples to her students of correct language usage.The picture below displays what a Wallwisher wall looks like to Norma before notes are approved.
    This next picture shows what the same wall looks like to the outside world once a handful of notes are approved.

What about safety?

Participating on a wall offers a nice opportunity to chat with students about the theme of online identity. For younger students, aliases (agreed upon and recognizable by the teacher) might be one solution. For older students, perhaps first name and last initial would suffice. For some, full names may be fine. This is a decision you should make together with your students and their parents.

Walls have unique URLs that most people won’t “happen upon” through a Google search, but enabling moderation for your wall is always the safest way to ensure that only content approved by you is displayed publicly on your wall. In addition, you always have the ability to edit any of the notes on your walls.

What about time?

Wallwisher maximizes curriculum time – walls are easy to set up and adding to one is a snap. Participation in any online task, however, should consider elements of access to Internet-connected devices. Norma has struck a nice balance in this area. She gives her students multiple days, often over a weekend, to complete a Wallwisher activity.

So, what about you? Have you tried out Wallwisher? If so, tell us how you used it in the comments below! If not, give it a go!

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Connecting a Face to Your Curriculum

This week’s tip is a list of 3 unique websites that highlight projects, issues, and dreams from real people around the world. If you’re looking for a way to bring a face to the curriculum you cover in your classroom, you might consider visiting one or all of these.

With the social nature of the web, connecting others couldn’t be more easy to do. The three sites below do an impressive job of collecting support for individuals, teams and causes around the world. If you haven’t checked these out before, they are well worth a look. Simply search for a city, state, or country and read the personal stories that appear.

  • Kiva.org – Created with “a mission to connect people through lending to alleviate poverty”, Kiva enables individuals to connect with entrepreneurs from around the developing world. Kiva community members can sponsor interest-free loans to any number of projects.
  • Change.org – This website is a place where anyone can start a petition, send it out, and gather support for their cause. Social media is changing the decisions of companies and government agencies around the world. Change.org is a small window into how that’s happening.
  • Kickstarter.com – A new home for “starving artists” and entrepreneurs in the developed world is Kickstarter.com. Countless documentaries, albums, inventions, and other creative works are supported here, through the power of online networking.

The web offers a unique chance to bring the stories of individuals into our classrooms, and the sites above might just have a story that will hook your students into that next unit.

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DragOnTape – A Video Mix for Instruction

This week I got an e-mail asking for a tool that could pull clips from individual YouTube videos into a single film. The best tool to make something like that happen is DragOnTape.com , a website devoted to mixing and mashing YouTube videos. The video below has a quick introduction.

If you’re interested in using YouTube in your classroom for other purposes, I’ve written a couple other posts that might have just the information you’re looking for.

Check out:

  • Tips for Using YouTube: an outline of the basics of using YouTube as a publishing medium for you and your students
  • Teaching with YouTube: Tools that allow you to make individual clips of videos, add captions, and create a chat window to view videos with friends
  • Video Resources for the Classroom: A number of websites that have reviewed many thousands of videos and picked just the right ones to use in the classroom.


If you have any additional questions about these or other tools that bring the world into your classroom, feel free to contact me.

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