The Edvocate’s List of 19 Ways to Say, ‘Thank You’ to Teachers

A shiny, red apple might be a standby, but these days, there are much better ways to show teachers the appreciation they deserve. Most teachers work seven days a week, preparing lectures, grading papers, and devising activities that engage and educate their students. Yet, for their endless efforts, teachers enjoy just one week every year when they receive thanks. School districts, administrations, parents, and students should strive to do more to show their gratitude. For inspiration, here is an outstandingly long list of the best ways to show teachers appreciation.

  1. Personal Thank-Yous. A simple, hand-written note goes a long way to prove you pay attention to a teacher’s efforts and appreciate them.
  2. Thank-You Breakfast. Teachers get an early start, and few make the time to enjoy a full breakfast. Perhaps toward the end of the year, you can organize a big breakfast for the entire teaching staff.
  3. Coupons From Students. Handmade coupons are an old trick, but they demonstrate appreciation nonetheless. Students can give coupons for “30 minutes of silence” or “Won’t complain about homework.”
  4. Parent Volunteers. Especially in lower grades, teachers can use another pair of eyes and hands around the classroom.
  5. Best Teacher Awards. Many schools take annual polls to determine students’ favorite teachers, but it is less stressful and more fun when all teachers win custom awards. You might consider organizing a yearbook-style “Most Likely To…” vote, such as “Teacher most likely to show a movie” or “Teacher most likely to write a novel.”
  6. Casual Dress Day. Students might not notice, but teachers tend to dress exceptionally professionally. You can give them a break by instituting a weekly or monthly casual day.
  7. Staff Parties. Plenty of workplaces organize employee get-togethers on a monthly or quarterly basis. Teachers should be encouraged to mingle in a social setting every once in a while.
  8. Media Recognition. Local news stations, both TV and radio, will publicly recognize teachers for their hard work, especially if they have done something particularly noteworthy like mobilize their classrooms to collect charitable donations or earn record-breaking scores on tests or college admissions.
  9. Teacher Spotlights. Every month, schools can shine a spotlight on individual teachers by decorating a bulletin board in their honor with personal information like favorite book and favorite treat. Then, students can be encouraged to gift teachers’ favorites throughout the year.
  10. Student Car Wash. Students (and their parents) can spend an afternoon washing staff vehicles in the school parking lot.
  11. Gifts of Supplies. Teachers are always in need of supplies like paper, pencils, and markers. The school can organize a donation drive, or parents and students can offer gifts to individual teachers.
  12. Video Thank You. Schools can record video interviews with students, who express gratitude to their teachers. The interviews can be divvied up to individual teachers or cut together to make a more comprehensive thank-you video.
  13. Free for Teachers Day. Local coffee shops, book stores, and restaurants can offer free items or great deals to teachers on specific days throughout the year.
  14. Teacher Massage. The school can hire a massage therapist for the day to provide free massages in the teachers’ lounge during teachers’ free periods.
  15. Erect a Monument. You can commission a statue in honor of an entire teaching staff, or retiring teachers can receive smaller tokens of remembrance, such as a newly planted tree, a bench, or a book in the library.
  16. Destress Periods. During trying times of year, like standardized test time or end-of-year exams, schools can give teachers extra break periods during the day to destress and recuperate.
  17. New Furniture and Appliances. Parents and schools can work together to purchase new items for the teachers’ lounge. It’s surprising what updated furniture and functional microwaves will do for morale. Even a fresh coat of paint can do much to help teachers feel noticed.
  18. Conference Attendance. Schools and teachers alike earn prestige when teachers present at conferences. Schools can support attendance and presentation with a fund to help teachers travel to and from conferences.
  19. Better Than Apples. Teachers these days buy their own apples. Instead, students, parents, and school administrations should give more unique and interesting gifts, such as gift cards to teachers’ favorite establishments, fresh flowers and potted plants, and sweet treats like candy and baked goods.

The Edvocate’s Definitive Guide to Creating a Culturally Responsive Classroom

Becoming a culturally responsive classroom is hard. To help you along your journey, here is your guide to exploring and respecting the cultural backgrounds of your students while also using diversity as an asset. If you take our advice, you will have a culturally responsive classroom in no time.

Gather a wide base of knowledge about other cultures. This is one of the most critical steps that you as a teacher must take in order to educate students in a culturally responsive way. If you’re an educator, or you’re aspiring to become one, you’d better become familiar with the cultural values, traditions, communication styles, learning preferences, contributions to society, and relationship patterns of their future students.

Don’t just limit yourself to book learning. Granted, you can get some of the education you need by simply reading about cultural diversity. But there is something to be said for genuine interaction and discourse with members of students’ cultures.

Use your knowledge to understand your students better. Yes, it’s true that book knowledge about diverse cultural groups can come in handy when you’re designing lesson plans and educational materials. But taking it one step further, you can often interpret your students’ attitudes and behaviors a lot better if you know more about the cultures they belong to.

Traditional teaching environments force students from those and other groups to modify their thought and behavior patterns to fit standard European-American norms or else face academic and behavioral consequences. However, in a culturally responsive classroom, the onus is instead placed on the instructor to learn about and adapt to the cultural intricacies of the students that they teach.

Avoid stereotyping. This is a big problem that often comes when you are beginning to learn about other cultures. And at first glance, it does seem difficult to apply knowledge about culturally-influenced thoughts and behaviors to the classroom without falling into the traps of over-generalization and stereotyping.

But in order to avoid these problems, your next step is to engage in a rigorous examination of the general cultural practices of their students. This is the beginning of the personal dimension of culturally responsive pedagogy: learning about the specifics of students’ cultural backgrounds and how those cultural patterns and beliefs can be most positively expressed in a real classroom setting.

View each student’s culture as a dynamic and individualized concept. Remember this: a person’s culture represents the sum of many spheres of influence, including context within history, gender, age, religion, family relationships, group memberships, cultural beliefs and practices, historical context, and level of education. Therefore, to avoid stereotyping, the educator must view each student as possessing a personalized culture instead of as a member of a homogenous group.

A bit intimidating? It may seem so at first. However, in practice, there are a variety of methods that can be employed to learn more about a student’s cultural heritage and identity. Read on to Step 6 for some tips on this.

Use classroom assignments as a primary window into your students’ beliefs. Writing assignments can play a significant role in gathering information about student thought patterns and tendencies.  Interviews with family members, assignments asking students to write about learning experiences that occur outside of school, and assignments involving family stories and traditions all can play a significant role in discovering information about a students’ cultural heritage.  Students’ parents can often be solicited as sources of useful personal information and visiting the neighborhoods where diverse students live can help give educators an idea about the level of social support present and the types of challenges that the student might face outside of the classroom.

Get your students’ names right. It may sound simple enough, but a teacher who does not take the time to even know the names of his or her students, exactly as they should be pronounced, shows a basic lack of respect for those students. Teachers should learn the proper pronunciation of student names and express interest in the etymology of interesting and diverse names.

Encourage students to learn about each other. Teachers should have their students research and share information about their ethnic background as a means of fostering a trusting relationship with both fellow classmates.  Students are encouraged to analyze and celebrate differences in traditions, beliefs, and social behaviors.  It is of note that this task helps European-American students realize that their beliefs and traditions constitute a culture as well, which is a necessary breakthrough in the development of a truly culturally responsive classroom.

Give students a voice. Another important requirement for creating a nurturing environment for students is reducing the power differential between the instructor and students.  Students in an authoritarian classroom may sometimes display negative behaviors as a result of a perceived sense of social injustice; in the culturally diverse classroom, the teacher thus acts more like a facilitator than an instructor.  Providing students with questionnaires about what they find to be interesting or important provides them with a measure of power over what they get to learn and provides them with greater intrinsic motivation and connectedness to the material.  Allowing students to bring in their own reading material and present it to the class provides them with an opportunity to both interact with and share stories, thoughts, and ideas that are important to their cultural and social perspective.

Be aware of language constraints. In traditional classrooms, students who are not native English speakers often feel marginalized, lost, and pressured into discarding their original language in favor of English.  In a culturally responsive classroom, diversity of language is celebrated and the level of instructional materials provided to non-native speakers is tailored to their level of English fluency.  Accompanying materials should be provided in the student’s primary language and the student should be encouraged to master English.

Hand out praise accordingly. High expectations for student performance form the core of the motivational techniques used in culturally responsive instruction.  Given that culturally responsive instruction is a student-centered philosophy, it should come as no surprise that expectations for achievement are determined and assigned individually for each student.  Students don’t receive lavish praise for simple tasks but do receive praise in proportion to their accomplishments.  When expectations are not met then encouragement is the primary emotional currency used by the educator.  If a student is not completing her work, then one should engage the student positively and help guide the student toward explaining how to complete the initial steps that need to be done to complete a given assignment or task.  Once the student has successfully performed the initial steps for successful learning it will boost his sense of efficacy and help facilitate future learning attempts.

While popular among educators in traditional classrooms, reward systems should be considered with caution in a culturally responsive setting.  Reward systems can sometimes be useful for convincing unmotivated students to perform tasks in order to get a reward (and hopefully learn something in the process) but they have the undesirable long-term side effect of diminishing intrinsic motivation for learning.  This effect is particularly strong for students who were already intrinsically motivated to learn before shifting their focus toward earning rewards.  Given that one of the prime goals of culturally responsive instruction is to motivate students to become active participants in their learning, caution and forethought should be used before deciding to introduce a reward system into the equation.

A culturally response, student-centered classroom should never alienate any one student, but should bring all the different backgrounds together in a blended format. Teachers should develop their own strategies, as well as take cues from their students to make a culturally responsive classroom succeed.

Teachers: knock down your own biases first. For many teachers, who hail from a middle-class European-American background, a common side effect of being raised in that dominant Euro-American culture is the self-perception that “I’m an American; I don’t have a culture.” This is actually untrue—European-American culture simply dominates social and behavioral norms and policies to such an extent that those who grow up immersed in it can be entirely unaware of the realities of other cultures.

Fortunately, initial cultural biases can be overcome via hard work and reflection.  The necessary element for discarding pre-existing biases is a willingness to go through a process of rigorous self-appraisal in order to learn what needs to be changed to teach in a culturally responsive fashion.  A good way to start this process is by writing down reflections about family history, upbringing, and interpersonal relationship styles and how one’s experience may differ from the experience of a person raised in a different culture.

Eventually the focus of this reflection must turn toward one’s ideas about and racism and bias.  The culturally responsive educator should reflect on the fears, stereotypes, and biases that they have about individuals that are different from them. Once the educator can recognize that their own personal tastes are not objectively better than those favored by other cultures, they can begin to investigate and appreciate the traditions and values of those cultures.

Now take a deeper look into the cultures of your students. It’s easy to be superficial and fall into the twin traps of over generalization and stereotyping when learning about the different cultures of your students. What is important to keep in mind is that each student’s culture is dynamic and individualized.

A person’s culture represents the sum of many spheres of influence, including context within history, gender, age, religion, family relationships, group memberships, cultural beliefs and practices, historical context, and level of education. To avoid stereotyping, the educator must view each student as possessing a personalized culture instead of as a member of a homogenous group. At first blush this may appear to be a daunting task, but in practice there are a variety of methods that can be employed to learn more about a student’s cultural heritage and identity.

For example, classroom assignments can provide a primary window into a student’s cultural beliefs.  Writing assignments can play a significant role in gathering information about student thought patterns and tendencies.  Interviews with family members, assignments asking students to write about learning experiences that occur outside of school, and assignments involving family stories and traditions all can play a significant role in unearthing information about a students’ cultural heritage.  Students’ parents can often be solicited as sources of useful personal information and visiting the neighborhoods where diverse students live can help give educators an idea about the level of social support present and the types of challenges that the student might face outside of the classroom.

Consider how cultural differences might affect academic performance. A person’s culture and upbringing has a profound effect on how they see the world and how they process information. This fact was discussed by Richard Nisbett in his work, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently. Nisbett worked with psychologists in Japan and China and determined that the holistic way of viewing the world typical of many students from those countries differed from that of their American counterparts, who tended to view the world in parts or distinct classes of objects that could each be defined by a set of rules.

Did we miss any?


Culturally responsive teaching is a theory of instruction that was developed by Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings and has been written about by many other scholars since then. To read more of her work on culturally responsive teaching and other topics, click here to visit her Amazon.com page.


Cyberbullying: Top Six Ways to Prevent Threats

By: Victoria Zambito, SVP of Content and Communications, Vector Solutions

Keeping kids safe while in school is becoming increasingly difficult as we see the proliferation of technology among youth. One of the newest threats is Cyberbullying, which has quickly become a serious problem among kids in elementary school through high school.

According to Pew Research, more than half of all students in 5th grade and above report either being a victim of Cyberbullying or know someone who has been Cyberbullied. And, furthermore, Cyberbullying has been linked to depression, school violence and suicide.

Older forms of bullying were bad enough, but Cyberbullying can be particularly devastating for students since messages can be transmitted to and accessed by anyone in seconds — and traditional school safeguards are often ineffective. In fact, 95% of social media-using teens who have witnessed cruel behavior on social networking sites say they have seen others ignoring the mean behavior and 55% witness this frequently (Pew Research).

So how can schools work to prevent Cyberbullying or restrict access to some technological features that put kids at risk?  We reached out to our friends over at Vector Solutions, a leader in online education and parent company of SafeSchools, and they provided us with six key elements to help in the prevention of Cyberbullying in K-12 schools:

Understand Cyberbullying

First you have to know what it is. Cyberbullying occurs when a bully or group of bullies uses communication technologies, such as cell phones and computers, in a way that meets the definition of bullying.

Bullying, by definition, occurs when one or more students exhibit behavior toward one or more other students that meet three criteria:

  1. Harm – the bully intends physical or emotional harm for the victim.
  2. Unfair Match – the victim(s) cannot fairly defend themselves. (and the bully’s harassment is)
  3. Repeated – the harassment occurs more than once.

Once you clearly understand what it is, you can detect it and prevent it.

Be Aware

Be aware that cell phones can do much more than just place phone calls. Cyberbullies use voice messages, text messages, e-mail, instant messages, images, videos and/or social networking websites in a deliberate attempt to repeatedly harass, intimidate or embarrass another person or group of people. Be aware of capabilities and students’ preferred communication methods. This will allow you to closely monitor more commonly accessed technology platforms. And most importantly, don’t allow phones to be out at all during classes.

Stay Informed

Technology is changing faster than ever before. And for parents and teachers it can be tricky to know what is the latest social media or app kids are using. Ask IT professionals at school to help with this. Often, they are much more informed. With regular updates, they can help staff know what “bad apps” to look out for. Also, go direct to the source. Talk to kids openly about what is going on. If you create an open dialogue, you can gain invaluable insight.

Restrict Access   

School staff and parents should be aware that most tools and apps have a minimum age requirement for users, which is typically 18 years old or 13 years old with parental permission. As a school, you can require “Acceptable Use Policies,” or AUP. This is a contract among the school, the student and the student’s parents. AUPs are increasingly popular and necessary. In exchange for permission to use the school’s computer hardware, software and network, the student and his/her parents agree that the student will exhibit responsible online behavior. If students violate the AUP, they can be disciplined.

Enforce Policies

All school staff members are responsible for knowing the anti-bullying policies of their school as well as carefully following the procedures detailed in those policies. If you are not familiar with your responsibilities regarding Bullying and Cyberbullying behavior in your school, ask your supervisor or principal. Failure to follow your school’s policies may result in harm to the students involved. Some threats, such as violence, may even potentially result in legal action against the school and against you individually.

Track & Monitor Incidents

Many schools are leveraging technology like SafeSchools to monitor bullying incidents as well as train staff in prevention methods. Through a custom alert system parents, teachers and students can anonymously report incident 24/7, 365. Districts are notified immediately and can take the necessary course of action to prevent or resolve problems. Systems like this unify all fronts on the fight against bullying.

At the end of the day, prevention is the safest, most effective strategy to reduce Cyberbullying and Bullying behavior. Effective anti-bullying efforts promote a culture of respect and an atmosphere in which bullying behavior is unacceptable. A school-wide approach to Cyberbullying prevention and intervention, with buy-in from all staff and parents, is key to its effectiveness. Be sure your students and their parents are fully informed about your school’s prevention program as well as understand what it means and their individual responsibilities.

Victoria Zambito, SVP of Content & Communications 

As a member of the Vector Solutions executive team, Victoria Zambito is responsible for, and has been successful in, growing the highly profitable online education business since she joined the company 17 years ago. As Senior Vice President of Content and Communication, she is responsible for aligning and rationalizing Vector’s extensive library of over 5,000 courses across its multiple brands, enhancing, standardizing and modernizing content, and driving creative, agile solutions to deliver products. She also focuses on centralizing strategic communications and public relations as the company seeks to develop its brand globally.

Prior to this, Zambito led the Business to Professional (B2P) business unit, where she provided strategic leadership by collaborating with the CEO and core management team to establish long-term goals, strategies, plans and policies for growing the company’s direct-to-consumer business. From 2009 to 2012, she served as Vice President of Marketing for the Vector Solutions family of brands, supporting sales pipeline development, brand awareness and demand generation for both B2B and B2C efforts.





Pass or Fail: Effective Teachers Instead of Retention and Social Promotion

In this multi-part series, I provide a dissection of the phenomenon of retention and social promotion. Also, I describe the many different methods that would improve student instruction in classrooms and eliminate the need for retention and social promotion if combined effectively.

While reading this series, periodically ask yourself this question: Why are educators, parents and the American public complicit in a practice that does demonstrable harm to children and the competitive future of the country?

What if the tools to eliminate retention and social promotion already exist in our classrooms?

What if all we need are more effective teachers?

Given their centrality to the student’s learning experience and to the management of education as a whole, it’s obvious why effective teachers form the most important alternative to retention and social promotion policies. With qualified, competent teachers, most students exhibiting learning difficulties should nonetheless be able to achieve enough academic progress to warrant advancement to the next grade. Indeed, what this conclusion might indicate is that there should be some internal streaming within grades of the American education system.

Students struggling with literacy or math skills could be streamed into a specific classroom either for a specific grade or for the teaching of a specific subject. The focus of the teaching could be to address the specific challenges experienced by the individual learner, to essentially teach to the student, to interpret standards and expectations for the particular student, and to play to their strengths and target their weaker areas for development.

According to Bellanca, the most successful attempts to teach for intelligence entail several basic assumptions. First, teachers must acknowledge that traditional methods for teaching are not always wrong. There are, Bellanca suggests, many high-achieving students who thrive under the traditional approach to teaching and many typical students or low-achieving students who can improve under a more traditional teaching focus. The key is that traditional methods are inadequate for many students who are less achievement-driven.

Because all students are expected to learn a specific curriculum, it is important that all students have the opportunity to be taught in a manner that enriches their learning. This applies to high achievers as well as to those who struggle academically. When faced with a less motivated student, however, a teacher must be able to develop a strategy to target their specific needs. Individual teachers must have a greater repertoire of methods.

More than this, best teaching practices should concentrate on building new theories of intelligence. Teachers should be familiar with new theories of intelligence and be able to build on them in their teaching practices. We do not have the space in this volume to elaborate on specific theories, but it is appropriate to mention Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, Robert Sternberg’s theory of successful intelligence, Daniel Goleman’s theory of emotional intelligence, and Reuven Feuerstein’s theory of structural cognitive modifiability.

The second point is that the public education system should encourage teachers to regard the process of teaching as a strategic act of engagement, consistent with new theories of intelligence that identify active engagement of students’ minds as a prerequisite for learning. Indeed, teachers have support to apply planning as a means of facilitating the effective application of proven engagement strategies. By regarding teaching as a strategic act, teachers can go about the designing lessons and units that integrate a variety of strategies with targeted content so that each student understands the required knowledge and develops the required skills.

Third, teachers have to understand that it takes more than a review of theoretical information to change teaching practices. Continuing education for teachers is crucial but it must include more than theoretical discussions. There must be some effort for teachers to learn to apply new teaching strategies in the classroom, with guidance to ensure that best practices are actually achieved. In other words, the education system should develop scenarios for teachers to receive regular practical training in addition to theory-based continuing education instruction.

Finally, teachers must also be aware that changing their teaching style or otherwise enhancing it is also going to require, in most instances, that students make changes in their own learning styles. Indeed, when teachers encounter students who are struggling academically, the need to change learning styles may be very immediate. It should, however, be recognized that changing learning styles can be extremely challenging for students. Especially when teachers are making changes to their teaching, it is important for them to be aware that the change process has equally significant ramifications on the student’s side of the desk.

Beginning from an abstract, theoretical point of view and using that to construct a framework or big picture may work in some classroom scenarios. On the other hand, starting with a hands-on classroom test of a new method may be the best approach, and will allow students to be involved in the subsequent evaluation.

As alternatives to retention and social promotion, effective teachers function as the most immediate tools available to the education system in terms of identifying at-risk students and applying all that is known about education and teaching strategies and the capacity to adjust teaching models and the like. This could help at-risk students to master the knowledge and skills needed for them to be able to successfully meet standards for graduation. Like any tool, however, teachers need effective handling as well. They need to receive regular training updates, access to research information, and access to networking opportunities.

Why Neuroscience Should Be Taught in Teacher Preparation Programs

Most teacher preparation programs focus exclusively on education. Future elementary school teachers learn about the latest methods for teaching students reading, writing, and math. Middle and high school teacher preparation programs focus on the content area their students will be teaching.

This sounds like a great idea. Teachers should know about education research, methods, and the content they’ll be teaching. But if teacher preparation programs want their students to become truly great educators, they need to teach more than just these things.

In fact, teacher preparation programs should be getting into the sciences—neuroscience, that is. Neuroscience is the study of how the brain and nervous system are developed and how they work. Neuroscientists examine how the brain is connected to behavior and cognition.

How could neuroscience help teachers? Neuroscience can help teachers understand how the brain learns new information. Even having a basic knowledge of neuroscience can inform the way teachers teach.

For example, neuroscience tells us that when children learn new information, that information goes through pathways in the brain. These pathways connect neurons together. The more connections that exist between neurons, the easier it is for the brain to access information.

What does this mean for teachers? When students learn something new, they need to be able to connect it to something they already know. This forms strong neural pathways and makes recall easier.

Teachers who have studied neuroscience know this and more. They know how to get all of a student’s brain active and ensure that what students learn sticks.

In addition to helping future teachers understand how students learn best, neuroscience can help them manage student behavior. Often, the reasons students behave poorly is due to stress. Neuroscientists have studied how stress affects the brain, and their findings can help teachers better understand students’ behavior.

By preparing future teachers with knowledge about how the brain works, universities can help create better teachers. Teachers who are experts on neuroscience and the brain know how to teach students in a way that will make information stick. They’re also better prepared to handle problem behaviors and understand what makes students act out.

Though including neuroscience in teacher preparation programs isn’t traditional, the benefits it offers are numerous. More and more teacher preparation programs are including classes on neuroscience in their curriculum.

What do you think teachers should know about neuroscience? How can studying the brain help future teachers? Let us know what you think!

What is the Importance of a Personal Learning Network?

As discussed in a previous post, a personal learning network (PLN) is a customized social media platform for educators. But instead of sharing pictures, status updates, and liking each other’s filtered profile pictures, educators can learn from people and resources around the globe to improve their teaching methods, stay up-to-date on the latest edtech trends, and receive endless outside support.

Today we’re listing a few key reasons why you should invest in a personal learning network, for the good of yourself and the students you’re responsible for.

So, why PLNs?

Control Everything

No one knows which areas you struggle with as an educator more than you do. Nothing can tell you exactly what’s going on inside your classroom aside from the memories you relive every day. So, it’s your job to seek out a select number of experts and fellow teachers who specialize in or have experienced the same difficulties.

The great thing about a PLN is that it doesn’t limit you. Combine in-person and online resources, wade through several websites, speak with educators and tech professionals and cognitive psychologists. Chat online or skype or meet for coffee. The resources are endless and there are endless ways to customize your experience.

A lot of educators shape their PLNs with a question. How does the classroom adapt to a tech-driven world? How can we personalize education for every student? How do we keep girls interested in STEM courses?

A PLN means people from all around the world with a variety of different specialties are collaborating to answer one question. With that equation, it’s almost impossible for a solution not to arise. If you’re experiencing a problem, the PLN you build is your personalized team combining their knowledge to help solve that particular issue.

A solution to your educational struggle is on the horizon.

Get Challenged

A PLN is not necessarily a group of like-minded individuals. If that were the case, you wouldn’t be seeking out other opinions in the first place because it’s likely you already have a group of people in your life who feel and think exactly the same way as you.

PLNs provide you with people who have different viewpoints on hot topic issues and, if they’ve been vetted beforehand, have a wealth of knowledge, credentials, and research to back up their arguments.

As educators, sometimes we haven’t fixed the problem because we keep using the same method to solve it. A student is struggling with math and we send them to the same tutor, or explain it the same way, or use the same software. Sometimes we need someone to come in and point us in the opposite direction before a solution is found.

Get Out of Your Own Head

In the same vein, the solution to our problem is often right in front of us. We just need someone with fresh eyes to stand before us and point it out.

How do you know you’re in the dark about the latest edtech tool if you’ve never heard of the software to begin with?

If your lesson strategy feels stale or something isn’t clicking between you and your students, get out of your rut and ask the outside community for advice. It’s guaranteed that someone in the education community has experienced the same problem and found a solution they’re desperate to share.

Share What You Know

PLNs aren’t just about taking, they’re about giving back to your network by sharing your own knowledge, ideas, and reflections.

If you have a groundbreaking idea about preparing your classroom for a tech-centered, universally connected world, share it with others and receive feedback, research partners, and ways to develop and execute the concept.

Your unique ideas help others in the education community grow, and if you’re in the development stage, having a sounding board to bounce ideas off of is invaluable to the growth of any project. 

Find a Support System

Being a teacher is an emotionally grueling job that people outside of the education world can’t always understand.

Having an online or in-person group of teachers to share stories with helps you cope with and release emotions building within. Is your classroom underfunded? Vent to fellow teachers sharing the same struggle. Are you feeling exhausted by your profession rather than inspired? Talk it through with educators who’ve been exactly where you’ve been.

Don’t just think of PLNs as a professional resource; think of it as a form of virtual therapy. 

Support Your Students

Don’t limit the kids in your classroom to your own educational preferences and methods of teaching. Interacting with other educators allows you to bring different opinions and ideas directly to your students, so they can also be exposed to a variety of opinions and new ways of thinking.

Education is moving away from the institution and towards the individual. Presenting students with other resources helps them personalize their own educational experience.

In short,

Every website, journal, Twitter feed, and individual person is a resource. With an infinite number of resources in the universe, now widely available through social platforms and internet access, you have the power to hand-pick which ones will contribute to your personal and professional growth.

Create your own personal learning network, if not for yourself, for the people you make daily decisions for – your students.





Why global education rankings don’t reveal the whole picture

Daniel Caro, University of Oxford and Jenny Lenkeit, University of Oxford

Country rankings in international education tests – such as PISA and TIMSS – are often used to compare and contrast education systems across a range of countries. But it isn’t always an even playing field.

This is because countries with very different social and economic realities participate, so countries such as Norway, Russia, Chile, Lebanon and Thailand are all being compared against each other. And this is without the difference in socio-economic backgrounds of these different countries being taken into account.

If the latest world education rankings are anything to go by, Turkey and Thailand perform poorly when it comes to their students’ achievement in science. But our analysis shows that if you look at the rankings differently (from an even starting point), both Thailand and Turkey may in fact be just as good as some of the high performing Asian countries.

Our analysis is a much fairer comparison, as it allows for the differences in wealth and social development in which students learn and teachers teach. It builds upon our previous work, where we produced and analysed an indicator of “effectiveness”. The effectiveness indicator ranks performance of countries as if they all had similar socio-economic conditions – thus levelling the playing field.

This makes it easier to see which countries are actually the most effective at educating their students, with social economic factors like wealth taken into account.

New style rankings

The graph below shows how countries are ranked in their effectiveness. At the top of the effectiveness ranking, we find education systems such as Singapore and Japan, which are also generally high performing in PISA and TIMSS.

TIMSS-PISA 2015. Values higher than zero (towards the right-hand side) indicate that students in those education systems perform above expectations, meaning the education system is effective. Those values below zero, to the left, indicate ineffective education systems.
Author provided

But our analysis also revealed that countries such as Turkey and Thailand are actually highly effective and perform above expectations in terms of education. This is despite both countries having an overall lower performance score in the global education rankings.

As the graph shows, the performance of education systems in Turkey and Thailand is underestimated if guided by country rankings alone. This is because although these countries perform below average and rather poorly in PISA, they are as effective as high performing Asian countries.

This means that Turkey and Thailand would be ranked among the highest performing countries in the world – if there was no socio-economic differences between countries.

TIMSS-PISA 2015. Effectiveness vs performance according to rankings. The horizontal line at 0 separates effective from ineffective systems and the vertical line at 500 indicates average performance for TIMSS and OECD education systems.
Author provided

Our analysis also shows education systems in Norway are ineffective, and the same was found to be true of Australia. So while these countries are ranked highest in human development in the world, they are not among the highest performing in these international tests when we level the playing field.

On the lower end of the effectiveness ranking, we find Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. These countries are also among the lowest performing in PISA rankings and could be doing much better for their high income per capita levels.

Fair comparison

It is clear then that overall performance rankings alone do not make a fair comparison when it comes to judging the quality of education in different countries. And our analysis shows how the socioeconomic conditions of a country are vitally important when comparing global performance in education rankings.

The ConversationUsing our data, there would certainly be a case for countries like Chile, Malta, Georgia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar to look to Turkey and Thailand to work out how to improve their education systems. And as our analysis shows, global education rankings are probably not the best measure of educational performance after all.

Daniel Caro, Research Fellow, Oxford University Centre for Educational Assessment, University of Oxford and Jenny Lenkeit, Research Fellow, Oxford University Centre for Educational Assessment, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Edtech’s Ideal User Interface Requires More Than Simplicity

Most discussions regarding the development of educational technology boil down to one key factor: How easy is it to use? Simplicity is often the name of the game when it comes to creating new technologies — any application or tool that doesn’t offer an optimal experience in terms of usability is usually rejected in favor of one that has a better user experience.

While simplicity and usability are undoubtedly important considerations when developing educational technology, educators have other priorities as well. The most well-designed, elegant solution is meaningless in the face of other deficiencies, which means that edtech developers need to consider the entire experience and role of the technology in the classroom if they expect their products to be embraced and successful. Everything from the graphics interface to the page layout must be designed so that it supports the cognitive processes of learning to improve outcomes.

What does this look like? Good user interfaces incorporate any number of features, but the following are among the most important.

Graphics User Interface (GUI)

The look and feel of any educational technology tool, whether an online classroom, an educational game, or a multimedia presentation, is important to the effectiveness of the overall learning experience. All too often, the GUI dominates the experience to the point that the content becomes secondary to the colors, design features, cartoon characters, logos, and more.

This creates a cognitive overload, in which more of the user’s attention and brain power is devoted to processing the graphics than on the subject matter being presented.

Ideally, then, the GUI should play a secondary role to the content, or enhance the presentation. On a more technical level, this means choosing the right technology for the device or product, e.g., 8-bit, 16-bit, or 32-bit graphics processor, as well as the right colors and design. At the same time, the GUI must be responsive, and compatible with a variety of different devices and screen sizes. Consider developing interfaces that borrow characteristics from familiar websites or games, which help make the product more intuitive and comfortable for students to use.

Also, when choosing graphics for the product, avoid adding graphics or photos simply for decoration. Although studies indicate that most learners are more successful with a combination of text and graphics, that doesn’t mean adding random or unrelated graphics just to break up the text. Graphics should always serve a purpose, whether to explain a concept (especially those that would otherwise be invisible), indicate transitions and progress, show relationships, or indicate the structure of the learning. When technology is designed in this way, it has a better chance of being attractive, intuitive, and effective.

Add a Human Element

It almost seems counterintuitive, but some of the most effective educational technology tools are those that include a human element in the instructional. Studies indicate that people learn better when they perceive some type of social presence, rather than a disembodied “other” providing the instruction. This can be accomplished as easily as using a conversational tone, but most edtech developers also include a virtual agent of some type, whether an avatar, cartoon character, or just a human voice providing narration.

However, while virtual agents can have a positive effect on the learning, it can also be distracting when the agent is used for entertainment rather than instruction — or overused. In other words, a cartoon character that provides an occasional hint or guidance is effective. A cartoon character that pops up every two minutes will quickly become annoying. In addition, your virtual agent doesn’t necessarily need human appearance. As long as the agent exhibits human-like behaviors, such as gesturing, it can be effective, especially when accompanied by a human voice.

Offer Feedback and Control

Learning is most effective when it includes feedback and a give and take between the student and the instructor. Effective educational technology includes ample feedback, not only about student performance, but about progress. Design your product so that it responds to user commands; even something as simple as a green light or click sound when the student answers a question can provide assurance that they are on the right track.

And finally, give users some control. While they may not be able to control the sequence of the content or which tasks must be completed, include features like video control, the ability to review older material, or save their progress and exit. This helps learners become active participants, and not simple passive observers.

Educational technology is a growing and expanding field, and developers are still working on the ideal methods of instruction. But understanding how people learn, and using that information to guide product design, will ensure better outcomes in every respect.

Understanding Academic Language and its Connection to School Success

Carlyn Friedberg, MS, CCC-SLP, Assessment Specialist, Lexia Learning

Alison Mitchell, Ph.D., NCSP, Director of Assessment, Lexia Learning

Elizabeth Brooke, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, Chief Education Officer, Lexia Learning

As students progress through school, they are expected to demonstrate increasing levels of sophistication in their language and reading skills across all content areas. In order to gain knowledge through independent reading and participate in meaningful discussions in the classroom, students must master the complex words and phrases that characterize the language of school. Proficiency in these skills, otherwise known as academic language, is critical for reading comprehension and overall academic success.

Across the country, educators and policymakers have begun to acknowledge the importance of academic language, as well as its notable absence from curriculum and assessment. Recent national and state standards reflect a shift towards academic language by calling for instructional focus on words that appear across content areas, as well as opportunities for students to develop knowledge of words and concepts through discussion and reading (Baker et al, 2014). Students must be able to determine the meaning of unfamiliar words, understand nuances in word meanings and multiple meaning words, and utilize sophisticated words and phrases, including transitions and precise word choice (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010). These demands are particularly challenging for students with impoverished experience or limited exposure to English.

Many students struggle with academic language because their exposure to language outside of school does not include advanced words and phrases. The transition to “school talk” poses a particular challenge for English Language Learners (ELLs) since they must simultaneously develop everyday language already familiar to their monolingual peers, along with academic language skills (O’Brien and Leighton, 2015). Without exposure to advanced English language skills at home, ELLs face double the demands of language learning. Increasing numbers of ELL students attending schools across the country, as well as significant numbers of students from low income backgrounds and those with learning disabilities, have made it an educational imperative that instruction and assessment directly promote students’ academic language proficiency.

What is Academic Language?

The term academic language may be used to refer to formal English rules, structure, and content for academic dialogue and text, and the communicative conventions that allow students to meet the demands of school environments. A concise definition refers to academic language as “the specialized language, both oral and written, of academic settings that facilitates communication and thinking about disciplinary content” (Nagy & Townsend, 2012). For actionable, instructional purposes, these specialized language skills include advanced vocabulary and syntax that help students unlock key elements of both oral and written language. These skills support the listener or reader in gaining a rich understanding of the message being delivered.

What are key elements of Academic Language?

Vocabulary and syntactic knowledge in oral and written language encompass specific skills that allow students to meet academic demands across the curriculum. Though commonly used to denote breadth of knowledge of word definitions (i.e., how many words a student knows), vocabulary knowledge also refers to depth of understanding of word parts (prefixes, suffixes, roots), multiple meanings, and figurative language that shape the subtleties of vocabulary use. Proficiency in word parts and relationships helps students acquire new vocabulary, reason about the meaning of unfamiliar words, and comprehend the sophisticated vocabulary that characterizes academic language, including:

  • Morphologically complex words (words with multiple parts, including prefixes and suffixes) e.g., comfortable; prediction; reconciliation
  • General-academic words that are high frequency and may be abstract or have multiple meanings, e.g., investigate; principle; asylum
  • Discipline-specific words that typically contain Greek combining forms, e.g., ecosystem; longitude; integer

Syntactic knowledge refers to the understanding of parts of speech and rules that govern how words and phrases combine into sentences, and how sentences combine into paragraphs. To comprehend connected text, students must master basic grammatical rules as well as sophisticated knowledge of words and phrases that are used to establish referents, organize ideas, denote relationships between concepts, and develop text cohesion, including:

  • Use of connective words requiring sentence-level inferencing, e.g., consequently; whereas; similarly
  • Resolution of pronoun reference, e.g., We examined the extent to which native plants in coastal regions adapted to climatic changes in their (The reader needs to connect the pronoun their to the noun native plants)
  • Grammatical agreement between subjects, verbs, and tense, e.g., All of the candidates, as well as the current President, are attending the televised debate.

Given the increasing emphasis on students’ abilities to independently engage with complex text, perhaps the domain most impacted by students’ academic language skills as they progress through school is reading comprehension. In fact, researchers have shown that reading comprehension difficulties are in large part due to students’ challenges in understanding the academic language of school texts (Uccelli et al, 2015). Vocabulary knowledge particularly predicts students’ literacy achievement, because it contributes significantly to both word identification and reading comprehension skills. In addition, vocabulary and syntactic knowledge have been shown to account for the majority of individual differences in reading comprehension performance for students in upper elementary school through high school (Foorman, Koon, Petscher, Mitchell, & Truckenmiller, 2015). Vocabulary knowledge and syntactic knowledge help students engage with text and progress towards deep reading comprehension with increasing independence by supporting their abilities to:

  • Acquire knowledge through reading and synthesize it with previously learned material
  • Analyze audience, structure, purpose, and tone of texts
  • Evaluate evidence, main ideas, and details in what they read

How do you teach Academic Language?

Instruction in academic language supports students’ access to content across all subject areas. Because the functions and structures of students’ home languages can significantly affect their reading comprehension, even when their first language is English (Westby, 2005), this instruction must be explicit and structured. Using language from the curriculum, educators of all disciplines can provide students with repeated exposure to and application of high-utility vocabulary words, both general-academic and discipline-specific, instruction in word-learning strategies and word relationships, and practice with complex syntactic forms.

In order to maximize the impact of academic language instruction, educators need to first understand their students’ specific language competencies. Educators should assess students’ knowledge of word associations, use of structural analysis, and abilities to make connections and inferences within and across sentences. In addition, evaluating both academic language and reading comprehension skills through use of authentic academic texts will help educators to identify students who need support coordinating vocabulary and syntactic knowledge with comprehension strategies.  By assessing students’ skills before, during, and after teaching academic language, educators can collect actionable data that helps identify which students are likely to be successful or at risk for academic difficulty and what areas to target in instruction.

Academic Language Instruction for Early Elementary Students

Students need a strong foundation in age-appropriate language to aid their comprehension and expression in the classroom and support them towards engaging with more complex language as they progress through school. For early elementary students who are learning to read, academic language can be taught via oral language instruction. As students’ reading skills develop, they can apply their knowledge to text. Educators can leverage younger students’ natural enthusiasm for learning new words and participating in discussions to teach vocabulary and syntactic skills using the following strategies:

  • Foster a language-rich classroom that includes opportunities for students to learn and apply new vocabulary when following directions, describing, participating in conversations, and listening and responding to stories.
  • Provide explicit instruction in word relationships and categories, high-utility vocabulary (e.g., spatial, relational, temporal, and descriptive words), and content-area words.
  • Teach word-learning strategies for acquiring new vocabulary, including the use of sentence-level context clues and word analysis skills.
  • Demonstrate self-monitoring of comprehension when encountering complex language and ideas in texts read aloud.

Academic Language Instruction for Upper Elementary and Secondary Students

As students approach third grade and beyond, extracting relevant meaning while reading becomes more essential but challenging as students encounter texts that are increasingly complex and diverse (Nagy & Anderson, 1984). To meet these challenges, upper elementary and secondary students need instruction in more sophisticated academic language skills, including advanced vocabulary and grammatical structures. In particular, instruction in words and phrases that contain Greek and Latin word parts are essential to academic success (Corson, 1997), as 60–90% of words found in academic contexts contain these forms. Illuminating the connection between the root “struct” and the words “instruct,” “construct,” and “destruction” not only provides a key to the meaning of those words, but may also inspire students to engage with future novel words in an inquiring manner. Educators can help older students build their vocabularies, learn ways to reason about unfamiliar words, and think critically about what they have read with the following strategies:

  • Teach students about the morphological structure of words (prefixes, suffixes, and base/root words) and how words are joined together. Transitioning students’ thinking from “I don’t know the meaning of this word” to “What parts of this word do I recognize?” has the potential to generate a more active approach in a student’s response to spoken and written language.
  • Before students read class selections, preview and pre-teach vocabulary that will be important for their comprehension of the text, and provide semantic maps (graphic organizers or “webs” that connect new vocabulary to related words and concepts) when teaching new words.
  • Combine exposure and modeling with guided practice and independent, repeated oral and written application.

In addition to developing vocabulary, students need explicit instruction in the ways that words connect to other words, phrases, and concepts; new words must be learned and applied alongside the language structures within which they appear (Nagy and Townsend, 2012). With opportunities to read, write, say, and hear language that varies in form and function across contexts, students can internalize syntactic knowledge skills. In particular, focusing on connective (or “signal”) words and phrases in text can help students interpret relationships between ideas within and across sentences, clarify what they have already read, and provide clues to what they will read.  To teach syntax skills, educators can use the following strategies:

  • When discussing texts, coach students through the meaning of sentences that require careful interpretation, especially those that require connections or inferences about multiple ideas.
  • Provide students with sentence frames that chunk complex sentences into meaningful phrases and demonstrate how changes in word choice and order affect meaning, subject-verb agreement, and pronoun usage.
  • Enhance lessons and conversations using academic language with pictures, video, and other multimedia to help students with language weaknesses connect definition and function to concepts and their current background knowledge.


Through targeted assessment and explicit instruction in academic language, educators have the power to impact students’ vocabulary knowledge, syntactic knowledge, and, subsequently, their reading comprehension. Although this instruction is particularly critical for struggling readers and English Language Learners, all students will benefit from targeted instruction in the words, phrases, and forms that constitute academic texts and discussions. While teachers’ classroom practices support students individually, school leaders can bolster language gains through selection of curriculum, assessment, and professional development opportunities that target this goal.  A unified mission around academic language helps districts and schools improve students’ likelihood of educational success and provides students with the tools they need to comprehend their world, in school and beyondReferences:

Click here to access the references for this whitepaper.




Maintaining a Connection with Students: 7 Tips for Administrators

Most principals were once classroom teachers. They loved education and making a direct impact on students and learning. But something drew them out of the classroom and into administration.

People who become principals understand that their impact will be further reaching than it was in the classroom. They give up the day-to-day, close relationship building with students in order to create and implement systems that will ensure success for all students and teachers.

But principals and administrators are still teachers at heart. The best ones make time to stay involved with student learning. They know their personal relationships with students will create a warm and welcoming culture in the school. We drew on our experiences of teaching in schools and also spoke with principals to collect some of the best ways administrators can stay connected to students despite not being in the classroom every day.

1. Teach lessons about things you love.

Remember that lesson you loved teaching when you were in the classroom? You don’t have to give it up. Make appointments to teach at least one lesson in each classroom throughout the year. I taught at a school with a principal who loved poetry. She asked to come into my fourth- grade classroom and teach a poem by Mary Oliver. My students were thrilled to have a guest teacher. The principal read the poem and led the class in a Socratic seminar to analyze its meaning. Then each student painted an image related to their understanding of the poem.

2. Host a lunch with the principal event.

There’s nothing like bonding over food. Pick a day each week or each month to host students for lunch. You can eat with them in the cafeteria or invite them to dine with you in your office. This helps students see that trips to the principal’s office don’t have to be a bad thing.

3. Get goofy.

Students think of principals as serious people who are usually pretty busy. By participating in school events, you’ll show them that you’re a fun person who cares about the school. Dress up for holidays, parades, and special events.  Volunteer to sit in the dunk tank at the fair. Don’t be afraid to get messy in the hopes of connecting with students.

4. Make discipline a learning experience.

One of the reasons students don’t feel a close connection with principals is because of the idea that their job is to punish students, make phone calls home, and generally be strict and unwavering. Make sure that when you do have to work with students on discipline that you make it an experience of listening and understanding. Trying to get to the root of the issue rather than rushing to punish students will help go a long way towards building trust. If you’re not sure how to get started, check out the Love and Logic program for schools. It’s all about logical consequences and getting students to take responsibility.

5. Take polls and surveys in the hallways.

If you’ve got a big decision to make, ask for student input. During assemblies or while monitoring the hall in between classes, pull a few students aside and ask their opinions on things. Once you learn students’ names, say hello and greet them personally every time you see them.

6. Attend after school activities.

Sporting events have a way of bringing people together. You don’t need to attend every baseball game of the year, but try to make it to a few. Greet students before or after the game. The next day, congratulate students on their participation and achievement. This goes for other functions, too. Attend the community science fair if one of the students at your school is participating. Making the effort to show up for students outside of school hours shows them how much you care. It’s a great way to build relationships.

7. Create a “Principal’s Book of the Month” program.

Share your interests and love of reading with the whole school. Designate one book each month that you want to share with each class. Purchase enough copies so that each teacher gets one. Try to make it to each class at least once during the year to read the book of the month to students. The principals at one of my first schools used this program to build on reading standards. Each grade level would respond to the book of the month and one classroom would display those responses in a designated hallway. As you walked down the hallway, you saw responses to the same book from classes in kindergarten through fifth grade. It was great way to build camaraderie knowing every student in the school had read the same book.

If you’ve made the switch from teacher to administrator, you’ve probably already got a few great systems in place for keeping connected with students. If you haven’t made the switch, hopefully, this gives you some idea that keeping positive relationships with students when you’re a principal isn’t so hard.

Amanda Ronan is an Austin-based writer. After many years as a teacher, Amanda transitioned out of the classroom and into educational publishing. She wrote and edited English, language arts, reading, and social studies content for grades K-12. Since becoming a full-time writer, Amanda has worked with a diverse set of clients, ranging from functional medicine doctors to design schools to moving companies. She blogs for Teach.com, writes long-form articles, and pens YA and children’s fiction. Her first YA series, My Brother is a Robot, is slated for release by Scobre Educational Press in September 2015.