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Our expert researchers, evaluators, and veteran educators synthesize information gleaned from our research and blend it with best practices gathered from schools and districts around the world to bring you insightful and practical ideas that support changing the odds of success for you and your students. By aligning practice with research, we mix professional wisdom with real world experience to bring you unexpectedly insightful and uncommonly practical ideas that offer ways to build student resiliency, close achievement gaps, implement retention strategies, prioritize improvement initiatives, build staff motivation, and interpret data and understand its impact.

Going paperless

By Blog, Technology in Schools 16 Comments

I’ve lately become intrigued with the idea of going paperless. I have certainly cut back in paper use over the years, mostly without really trying, as technology made printing less and less necessary. A few things have happened recently, though, that really have me thinking about the possibilities of a paperless office and (eventually) paperless schools.

I was recently working on two large projects that, just a few years ago, would have resulted in my printing reams of paper. One was a technology audit that we had conducted which included interview transcripts from dozens of teachers. My job was to go through and code their responses to look for patterns. On another project, we were conducting a literature review for effective pedagogy. Both of these required me to read hundreds of pages of documents and to annotate them with key findings. Instead of printing them out and grabbing the ol’ highlighter, I found an online resource that allows me to upload documents, highlight and tag key phrases, then sort by tags. I not only saved money and trees, but was actually able to get my work done much more efficiently.

More recently, I was packing my office in preparation for a move to another floor at McREL. As I began cleaning out my file cabinet, I was aghast at some of the documents that I’d saved. A meeting agenda from 2006…countless articles that are now saved on my Delicious site…a to-do list from last November. Most embarrassing for me personally was a folder labeled “Web 2.0.” (How very Web 1.0!) If I had wanted to access most of this material, the first thing I would do is search online or use my bookmarks – I certainly wouldn’t thumb through countless files in my file cabinet!

I think there are several reasons why both schools and businesses should start thinking about the possibility of a paperless (or at least paper-reduced) future:

1. If we don’t force ourselves to rethink how we read, write, and communicate, we are ill prepared to teach and work with a generation that already embraces technology as its primary tool for these tasks. At McREL, we are experimenting with new ways to support our professional development sessions. For example, our Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works workshop no longer has a Participant’s Manual, but instead uses a wiki to provide key points, graphics, and links.

2. Schools currently spend upwards of $20,000 per year on paper & printers, even more on textbooks.

3. Even with recycling efforts, less paper means fewer trees are cut down, fewer trucks are needed to transport trees to a pulp mill, less pollution is spewed into the air (I grew up near a pulp mill…lessening that smell for future generations would be a very kind thing to do), and less gas is needed to transport paper to stores & offices.

So here’s my challenge: throughout the next month, question yourself whenever you start to print something. Ask if you can access or provide the same information using email, wikis, your intranet site, Delicious, or other means. Try having a meeting where bringing a laptop is encouraged. Find other ways to get information across during workshops other than printing out your PowerPoint slides. I’d love to hear what efforts you made and the ideas you came up with for going paperless.

(For more information on this topic, see the Teach Paperless blog at or follow his Tweets @teachpaperless.)

Motivation, Feedback and Achievement: Exploring recent headlines

By Blog, Research Insights 3 Comments

Practice makes perfect – so why are so many middle school students more intent on honing their video game reflexes this summer than their math skills? Research suggests that academic motivation tends to decline in American schools as students reach middle school – a quandary for educators, given the links between intrinsic motivation, practice, and achievement (for a practical take on this subject, see David Brooks’ recent New York Times op-ed, “Genius: The Modern View”). Teaching students to delay gratification is critical to this effort – making the development of self-regulation a hot topic in early education. While educators have struggled to determine whether or not instructional strategies can successfully teach children to internalize intrinsic motivation prior to middle school, evidence suggests that focusing on effort rather than ability (‘you’re working hard’ vs. ‘you’re good at this’) is an especially beneficial practice. Other voices have called for parents and educators to explicitly teach children about the malleability of intelligence and the relationship between practice and achievement.

These are complicated issues. As we are all aware, motivation varies by context, culture, and personal predilection: a student intrinsically motivated to finish a Harry Potter novel may simultaneously rely on extrinsic motivation (conveniently enhanced by threat of a pop quiz) to finish Wuthering Heights. Unfortunately, extrinsic motivators (grades, social pressure) begin to break down in middle school, making the development of internal drive all the more valuable. Think this might be an interesting topic for light summer reading? Richard Nisbett’s new book, Intelligence and How to Get It, offers a thought-provoking discussion of the sources of individual variation in student motivation.

Setting life-long objectives

By Blog, Classroom Instruction that Works 9 Comments

I was thrilled to find this article in my ASCD SmartBrief last week on the importance of setting objectives. As one of the strategies highlighted in Classroom Instruction that Works, it’s often the first strategy we talk about during the workshop, and often one of the most important things a teacher can do to engage and motivate his or her students.

This article in particular focused on helping students to see how their decisions in school impact their future lives and careers. Students often go through the motions of “going to school” without realizing that decisions they are making at age ten, thirteen, sixteen, can hugely impact the options they have available by age eighteen. One question teachers often bemoan is the inevitable, “When are we ever going to use this?” If teachers can help their students to understand that learning to problem-solve, work through difficulties, prioritize, and network with others will greatly impact their adult lives, then teachers can help students move beyond their sometimes naive views of wanting to dismiss specific skills because they may or may not need them. Instead, the experience of learning itself becomes a lifelong skill and can help students to reach their future endeavors.

Looking at the classroom from the other side

By Blog, Classroom Instruction that Works 3 Comments

In a recent post on Suite 101 Barbara Pytel writes about why students drop out. According to a survey of 500 recent drop outs, here are some of the reasons they decided to drop out of school:

•    47% said classes were not interesting
•    43% missed too many days to catch up
•    45% entered high school poorly prepared by their earlier schooling
•    69% said they were not motivated to work hard
•    35% said they were failing
•    32% said they left to get a job
•    25% left to become parents
•    22% left to take care of a relative
•    Two-thirds said they would have tried harder if more was expected from them.

Looking at these numbers, educators should ask why. Why did 69% of students feel unmotivated? Why did 47% feel classes were not interesting? Why did two-thirds of students feel not enough was expected of them?

Part of answer might be found by looking inside a typical classroom. McREL has been collecting classroom observation data for over two years. Administrators and others, using McREL’s Power Walkthrough™ software have been in K-12 classrooms from coast to coast, in 27 states, and collected data from over 23,000  3-5 minute visits. What those data indicate might provide some clues to why some students drop out. Here is a picture of the “typical” classroom experience, as indicated by the Power Walkthrough data.

Students walk into a classroom and are seated in rows of desks for whole group instruction for the majority (54%) of their day. The teacher stands in front of the room lecturing for just over 20% of the day. When the teacher isn’t lecturing, students are doing workshops for 16% of their school day. Technology, the world students live in outside of the classroom, is only used by teachers in 22% of all lessons. Students only use technology in the classroom 21% of the time. Students are engaged kinesthetic activities in just 4% of all observations. Just under two-thirds of observations (60%) indicate that instruction is at the lowest two levels of the Blooms Taxonomy. Could this be a reason that two-thirds of dropouts feel not enough is expected of them?

“Yes,” you might say, “but that is high school, not elementary school. Elementary teachers have kids working in small groups and do much more hands-on activities.” Not according to the data. While the overall data indicate 54% of instruction is whole group instruction, the number for primary (K-2) classrooms is 50%. In fact, the data just doesn’t change much at all from primary through high school.

It is time to think about teaching and learning from eyes of the student. Let’s think about designing our classrooms and our instruction for the benefit of the student, rather than the convenience of the adult. As Marc Prensky writes, “Engage Me, Or Enrage Me.”

Celebrating “lightbulb moments”

By Blog, Everyday Innovation 3 Comments

Excerpted from “A Second Chance at Success” in Northwest Education magazine, by Bracken Reed

On any given day in one of Debbie Watkins’s seventh-grade math classes you might find a student standing under a giant lightbulb, calling a parent, family member, or guardian on an old white telephone attached to the wall. Occasionally, the entire class will turn to watch the student make the call. Other times they barely notice, it’s become so commonplace.

It may sound like a punishment, but it’s actually a unique reward. A student gets to turn the light bulb on when they’ve finally demonstrated mastery of a difficult concept, typically one that has been causing them grief for several weeks. Then they get to call an adult of their choosing to share the good news.

These lightbulb moments and celebratory phone calls are indicative of several things at the grade 6–8 Vallivue Middle School, just outside Caldwell, Idaho.

A Denver school’s “Rap to Roots” program … the rest of the story

By Blog, Research Insights 2 Comments

Last week, the top, front-page headline of the Denver Post read “Rhythm Scholars: Rap helps kids boost their academics—from multiplication to Shakespeare.” The story described an afterschool “Rap to Roots” program at the Wyatt-Edison Charter School in Denver’s inner-city Five Points neighborhood. The Post reported that the program “debuted this month in Colorado after success in cities such as Cleveland and Chicago.”

In a nutshell, the program aims to boost kids’ academic achievement by using rap music to motivate students to stay in school and to teach them about literary conventions, technology, and African-American history. The article reported that the program “did significantly better in standardized testing, attention spans in the classroom, and some [students] improved their writing skills.”

The story got noticed both in and outside Denver. Colleen O’Connell, the Post reporter who wrote the article, said that a national TV news network contacted her, expressing interest in covering the story. The next day, ASCD Smart Brief picked up the story and blasted it out to 175,000 readers. And within hours of the article being posted on the Post Web site, more than 80 comments had been posted, ranging from favorable support to equating the use of rap in schools with the demise of Western civilization.

My first reaction to the story was mixed. On the one hand, I could appreciate what the program was trying to do: offer urban kids an opportunity to express themselves creatively, motivate them, and provide them with a positive way to spend after-school hours (“Rap to Roots” is part of the school’s “Open Door Youth Gang Alternatives” program).

On the other hand, the rap lyrics written by one of the program’s 13-year-old scholars didn’t seem to be on par with the expectations of Colorado’s new language arts standards, which require seventh graders to “write fully-developed literary … text” and to “edit writing for correct grammar, capitalization, punctuation, spelling, [and] sentence structure … .”

I worried that this nifty idea might be just another example of well-meaning people setting low expectations for urban kids. So I contacted Michael Schenkelberg, the program’s director, to get, as the late Paul Harvey used to say … the rest of the story.

First off, I learned that the program is more of an adaptation than an adoption of what Schenkelberg had been doing in Cleveland under the auspices of The Initiative for Cultural Arts in Education (ICARE), supported by the Young Audiences of Northeast Ohio, a nonprofit arts-in-education organization. ICARE is essentially an artist-in-residence program. It places artists in classrooms for weeks at a time, during which they collaborate with teachers to enhance classroom learning through arts education that can include dance, music, drama, and visual arts.

An evaluation study of the ICARE program found that the longer students were exposed to the program, the higher they scored on standardized reading, math, and science tests. In addition, 87 percent of teachers said that their students worked more creatively because of the ICARE program. While the study produced correlational, not causal data, the findings suggest the program may have some positive effect on student learning.

However, in contrast to ICARE, the Rap to Roots program is—at least in its initial iteration—strictly an afterschool program that is, for the moment at least, focused on one type of artistic expression. Instead of placing artists in residence in a single classroom, guest artists work with students from multiple grades (fourth through eighth). Those differences, Schenkelberg explained, make it difficult to involve classroom teachers in offering feedback on student work, which might help them take their writing to the next level.

Indeed, at this point, the student work produced through the program is really just a means to a larger end: providing kids with a creative outlet that sparks their interest to learn and stay in school. Someday Schenkelberg hopes to expand the program to look more like the ICARE program—perhaps by bringing in local artists, musicians, and writers to work side-by-side in classrooms with teachers whose students have often seen their arts programs cut or scaled back.

Bottom line: while the Post should be commended for its efforts to provide a “good news” story on education (and place it on the front page), its headline writers probably connected a few too many dots in proclaiming “Rap helps kids boost their academics.”

Nonetheless, “Rap to Roots” shows promise, especially if the program is able to successfully replicate the components that made ICARE successful in Cleveland. Moreover, Schenkelberg should get credit for recognizing that all students deserve an opportunity to explore and develop their creative sides.

Summer professional development that makes a difference

By Blog, McREL Happenings No Comments

Come to McREL this summer for your professional development. We offer sessions for both teachers and leaders, held in our Denver facilities. Our various workshops give you the opportunity to learn how to:

  • integrate vocabulary into your lesson plans;
  • use technology to improve student achievement;
  • take your science lessons to the next level;
  • explore practical strategies for afterschool programs;
  • build capacity to improve ELL performance;
  • promote enthusiasm for learning mathematics; and
  • translate research into results in your schools to improve student achievement.

Learn more about all of our summer workshops, Summer 2009 Professional Development at McREL.