Monthly Archives: February 2015

Four Easy Tools for Teaching Research

Research is one of the most exciting activities for students. They can select a topic of interest and become experts on it, which is incredibly empowering and motivating.

Research can also be unwieldy. And that’s OK. It should be. The surprising turns of the research process helps us develop important life skills like perseverance, problem-solving, organization, and discernment.

However, scaffolding for research is essential. As one of my administrators always says, “We have to paint the parking lot.” If we don’t provide tools for the research process, students may produce inferior products, or even worse, become so overwhelmed that they won’t begin.

With that in mind, here are four tools that will make research more achievable for your students.

1.  Five Quick Questions to Evaluate a Website

These questions can help students quickly and easily assess the quality of information on a web page. In a digital age, much of our research is online. However, the ease of online publishing results in a wide range of quality. These five simple questions help students feel much more confident about when they should use an online source.  They are essentially a variation of the CRAP test that many teachers use, but I find that students are more likely to use this concise and targeted sheet.

2.  Finding Dulcinea

Finding Dulcinea’s developers call it “the Librarian of the Internet.” It’s a site that evaluates different online sites and articles for quality, and then collects them.  When you complete a search, Finding Dulcinea will present its collected sites to you. If there are no collected sites, it will offer you an option for “selected” sites, which directs you to generally reputable sites like CNN, the New York Times, and the Smithsonian. Finding Dulcinea doesn’t suit the needs of every student’s topic, but it’s always worth checking out.

3. Cornell Note-taking Google Doc

There is nothing cutting-edge about this form. It’s simply a digital variation of Cornell notes. I have students make several copies of the form in their Google Drives. They use a copy for each promising source they find (which is cited at the top of the form). Students list subtopics of their research in the far left column if they already have an outline. If they haven’t gotten that far, I simply ask the to write questions they have about their topic in the left column to get them going. Once they have determined if a source is of adequate quality, they read with the purpose of looking for information about those topics in the left column. When they find a good source and have cited it, they can copy and paste information directly form the source into the second column. What teachers like most about this form is that the third column prompts students to paraphrase the quotes in their own words. This process reminds students both to avoid plagiarism and develop their own writing voices.

4. Former Students’ Papers and Products

Many students feel uncertain of what the expectations are for their final products. Having them examine successful examples from other students helps them feel more confident about the process. These papers and products can serve as mentor texts that help students better understand important research writing components like theses and citations. Check out this post about a lesson where I used former student papers to teach research writing.


Prezi’s Features Integrate Content and Pop Culture

A while back, I co-planned a thematic unit on heroism for ninth grade English students . The students were reading excerpts from Homer’s The Odyssey, and the classroom teacher and I hoped to introduce the concept of archetypes to them in an interesting way.  Learning about archetypes helps students understand how universal themes, symbols, and conflicts repeat across cultures and time periods.

Because students are usually motivated by media (a “super peer,” as Renee Hobbs calls it), we decided that connecting traditional archetypes with modern-day film archetypes might help students activate and connect to background knowledge. In the past, both of us have discussed film connections with students, but using clips allowed us to build concepts from mutual, shared experiences. We decided that Prezi would be a great presentation tool for this goal.

Prezi can seamlessly integrate music, film clips, and photos into presentations. Due to the wide array of presentation options, Prezis often take longer to create than PowerPoints. However, the results  are dynamic presentations that engage students. Prezi can also be utilized as an instructional tool for students participating in online courses.  In addition, students love creating Prezis themselves. Prezis can easily be shared through e-mail addresses with collaborators, and they can be worked on simultaneously by several members of a group.

We were really proud of the product we created, and I’ve shared it with several colleagues. The presentation can be used as one interactive lecture, or it can be broken down to be used as mini-lessons as students encounter new archetypes as they read The Odyssey. 

Students have found it fun to discuss the examples in the Prezi, and they have readily identified other examples of archetypes from other print and non-print texts. In the future, I’d like to have students build a similar archetype presentation with their own selections of cultural images.

Check it our archetype Prezi, and please use it if you like it!

The Coaching Cycle: The Link Between Coaching and Student Achievement

Instructional coaches are tasked with many responsibilities. Leading and developing workshops, collaborating with PLCs, facilitating school-wide assessments, organizing learning walks, analyzing student achievement data, and various other activities all contribute to  positive change in schools. However, in the proceedings and productions of these large-scale activities, oftentimes, the heart of coaching, the one-on-one coaching cycle, can fall to the wayside.

Why? To some people, the coaching conversation seems so small. Facilitating workshops and school-wide activities seems important and can make the coach feel important. Activities like these might provide justification for his or her job to wary teachers and administrators.  Let’s face it — big activities look good.  Also, it feels like we are accomplishing more (faster!) when we have lots of people involved. The coaching cycle just doesn’t seem time efficient, right?

However, much of the available research about coaching suggests that change really happens one collaboration at a time, through the use of one-on-one coaching.

So, what do I mean by a coaching cycle? Although there are many interpretations of what constitutes a “cycle”, I categorize a cycle as a professional learning sequence that includes a pre-conference, classroom instruction, and a post-conference reflection.

The classroom instruction and reflection can play out in three scenarios.

  1. The coach observes the teacher teaching a lesson and provides feedback to the teacher.
  2. The coach and the teacher plan and teach a lesson together. They then reflect together.
  3. The teacher observes the coach teaching a lesson and provides feedback to the coach.

There is still much research to be done, but studies that suggest that coaching has a positive impact on student achievement describe collaborations that I would characterize as coaching cycles.

Some studies show that teachers implement more literacy strategies in their classrooms when they work with literacy coaches (Feighan & Heeren, 2009; Kretlow & Bartholomew, 2010). Teachers especially give high praise to one-on-one coaching when compared to traditional off-site professional development (Gross, 2010; Kretlow & Bartholomew, 2010).  Of all the possible ways coaches work each day, teachers report that significant coach and teacher collaborations have the most impact upon the learning in their classrooms (Campbell & Sweiss, 2010; Gross, 2010; Kretlow & Bartholomew, 2010).  Most studies show that teachers report increased student engagement and on-task behavior as results of coaching collaborations (Kretlow & Bartholomew, 2010). Coaching cycles help teachers make changes in their instruction because coaches can tailor data collection, planning, and advice to the individual teacher’s situation and needs.

A three-year study of elementary schools tracked the amount of time spent coaching and resulting student achievement.  The researcher used alphabet letter recognition and scores on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-III (PPVT-III) to measure student achievement.  A significant correlation between time spent coaching and student achievement was found in the first year, but weak correlations were found during the following two years.  The first year both coaches and teachers had a strong focus on particular content and techniques.  They also had well-defined consultative and reflective conversation cycles.  Teachers and literacy coaches had little focus and fewer structured coaching cycles in years that yielded weak correlations.  The author suggests that more time is not as important as the “type and quality of the interaction” (Shidler, 2009). Thus, the use of structured coaching cycles and a school wide focus likely explains the greater student achievement results in the first year of coaching.

In a study of four middle schools where literacy coaching was implemented for one year,  teachers reported much higher student engagement levels, and student scores made modest gains. Baselines from the state reading test and the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) from the prior school year were compared to scores on both assessments after the year of literacy coaching.   Classrooms with the treatment (individual literacy coaching collaborations) increased an average of five points on the state test and seven points on the ITBS (Feighan & Heeren, 2009).

According to available research, structured coaching cycles yield a significant impact on student learning.

Lasting change happens one conversation at a time. Let’s not allow the elaborate productions of meetings, workshops, and high-stakes data blind us from what we can do that really helps teachers become better for their students: one-on-one coaching.


Campbell, M. B., & Sweiss, C. I. (2010). The secondary literacy coaching model: Centrality of the  standards and emerging paradigms. Journal of Reading Education, 35(3), 39-46.

Feighan, K., & Heeren, E. (2009). She was my backbone: Measuring coaching work and its impact. CEDER Yearbook, 67-93.

Gross, P. A. (2010). Not another trend: Secondary level literacy coaching. The Clearing House, 83, 133-137.  doi:10.1080/00098651003774844

Kretlow, A. G., & Bartholomew, C. C. (2010). Using coaching to improve the fidelity of evidence-based practices: A review of studies. Teacher Education & Special Education, 33(4). 279-299. doi:10.1177/0888406410371643

Shidler, L. (2009). The impact of time spent coaching on teacher efficacy of student achievement.  Early Childhood Education Journal, 36(5). 453-460.

Four Ways to Battle Burnout


It’s common in the world of education.

The long hours, the steep workload, the complex relationships, and the political environment can wear down even the most bright-eyed optimist.  Overextending ourselves is an easy trap for educators, generally people who like to give to others. However, the toll of doing too much leads many of us to harm relationships, dread work, or quit our jobs.

I went through a period in the last few months, where I realized that I was beginning to fade. So, I knew I needed to do something. In my goal to come back from the brink of burnout, I found a few practices to be extremely helpful for refreshing my mind. I share them with the hopes that some may benefit you too.

1. Realize you can’t do it all.

It’s OK to say “no” sometimes. Sure, you want to be a team player. You want to take every opportunity to learn something new. You want to look good in front of your administrators, your students, and your colleagues. But, you will eventually crowd out the important aspects of your non-work life. Do you remember your spouse/friends/children/parents/siblings/neighbors? They would like to spend time with you. You could write tons of comments on every student paper for hours, or you could provide one or two focused comments and then catch a movie or read a book. There are Twitter chats you can join every night, and you might miss an awesome lesson idea if you miss one. You know, it’s OK. You can’t do it all. Say “no” sometimes. Take care of yourself. Realize that you will have to take work home, but set a limit on how much of your free time you are willing to commit to it. Stick to the limit.

2. Meditate

If you are like me, you fall asleep thinking about a million things, and as soon as you wake up, your mind speeds up again. Our world is a chaotic, fast-paced place. For those of us who work in schools, things can feel like they move even faster when we’re at work. Each second we are confronted with new people, problems, and needs that we have to evaluate and respond to almost immediately. This frenetic pace takes its toll on our minds. Many people have found that practicing mindfulness meditation can alleviate their scattered minds. Some people believe meditation is the act of clearing the mind. That’s actually not true. It’s more of an opportunity to notice your thoughts without judgement, and then let them float away. Finding time to practice meditation is difficult, but I find that even meditating a few times a week enhances my mood, energy, and focus.  If you are new to mindfulness meditation, I highly recommend the book, Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World. It explains the process well. In addition, it provides a link for you to download guided meditations in iTunes that can help you if you are a newbie.

3. Recognize Your Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions are tricks that our minds play, which keep us in a negative headspace. For example, I am often guilty of filtering, a distortion where you magnify a small negative event until it eclipses all positive events in my mind. For example, I may have taught an amazing lesson, had no traffic on the way to work, and received a positive e-mail from my boss, but one sarcastic remark from a colleague becomes the only thing I focus on when I go home that evening. That’s a distortion. My day was actually quite good. Check out this list of common cognitive distortions. Almost all of us will see a distortion we often have The key is to consciously recognize that these thoughts are distortions of reality, which enables us to more easily let them go. Once you aren’t listening to your own negative self-talk, you will feel your stress begin to lift.

4. Exercise

Seriously, just make yourself do it. When I get busy, exercise if the first thing I cut from my schedule. That is a mistake. Stephen Covey knew that great leaders must “sharpen the saw” in order to keep it working. If we don’t take care of our bodies, it will affect our self-esteem, productivity, and relationships. Every time I dread working out, I have noticed that I feel better once the workout is complete. Right now, I have a goal to work out five days a week. I want to become stronger so I am lifting weights three days a week. When the weather warms up, I plan to integrate running because I like being outdoors, and I find running to be a great stress relief. Find something you enjoy doing, and plan when you will do it at the beginning of each week. Putting exercise on your schedule will make it more likely that you will follow through with doing it.

So, I have found these four strategies helpful for battling burnout. What strategies do you use?