Posts Tagged ‘Student Engagement’

Project-Based Learning Will Rock Your Classroom

Friday, September 20th, 2013

Author:  Jennifer Woollven, Instructional Technology Specialist

If your ultimate goal is to help students become critical thinkers, problem-solvers, excellent communicators and collaborators, project-based learning (PBL) can deliver. After spending four years in a full-time PBL environment, I can’t imagine teaching or learning any other way. Witnessing students take ownership of their learning experience, ask good questions, and take on problem-solving outside of the school walls transformed my idea about what the classroom should look like and what my role should be.

The PBL framework is an authentic learning model. Let me explain: when I want to learn something, like how to quilt or cook a brisket, my learning is driven by a need or desire and by the questions that must be answered in order for me to act on my desire. My research will be driven by the questions: What tools will I need? What materials? What steps should I take? What experts can I turn to for help? I may interview people I know who have experience with these things and I will definitely do Internet searches for sites, images, and videos to help me through the process. In the end I will have created a product and I will have learned a great deal through the process. This is PBL – authentic, inquiry-driven by a need-to-know, and the learner doing and creating.

While it is a natural and intuitive process, preparing to implement and manage PBL takes time, energy and support. Building strong projects that are aligned to standards and engaging for students is an intense process. Teachers need the support of each other, administration, and experts to integrate the framework in a meaningful and sustaining way. Whether you are ready to dive in or just dip a toe, the resources below can help you get started.


Transformation Central Texas STEM Center

Buck Institute

Edutopia resources

Teaching Science through Gallery Walks

Friday, September 20th, 2013

Author:  Kristen Hillert, Secondary Science Specialist

As the school year gets under way and the honeymoon phase starts to fade, the importance of integrating new, exciting strategies becomes more and more important.  Integrating purposeful movement and conversations within the class period increase student engagement.

Gallery Walks can be used in all content areas as a way for students to see each others’ work and possibly evaluate it.  (See the Gallery Walk in action here:

But have you tried using Gallery Walks within the 5E Model as an Explore or Explain activity?  Allow the observations that students make be data that is then analyzed to form conclusions.


Gallery Walk:  5th grade Science example

TEKS: (10) Organisms and environments. The student knows that organisms undergo similar life processes and have structures that help them survive within their environments. The student is expected to:

(C) describe the differences between complete and incomplete metamorphosis of insects.

SET UP:  Each station has a picture of the life cycle of an insect.  There should be at least three examples of incomplete metamorphosis and three examples of complete metamorphosis.  However, the posters should not be labeled as “complete” or “incomplete.” This is something students will discover.

ACTIVITY:  Students rotate between stations and record characteristics of each life cycle including the stages of development.

DEBRIEF:  Students are told that all the organisms they observed can be classified into two types of life cycles and then are given time to sort their observations into two groups.  Students need to explain how they formed the groups.  The teacher then explains the word metamorphosis and introduces the phrases “complete metamorphosis” and “incomplete metamorphosis” and encourages the students to determine which label best fits each group of organisms.


Gallery Walk: 7th grade Science example

TEKS: (6) Matter and energy. The student knows that matter has physical and chemical properties and can undergo physical and chemical changes. The student is expected to:

(A) identify that organic compounds contain carbon and other elements such as hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, nitrogen, or sulfur;

SET UP: Each station has a picture of an organic compound with the formula of the compound beneath it.  There is also a periodic table next to the picture that shows elements of the formula highlighted.

ACTIVITY:  Students record the examples of organic compounds and the elements in them at each station.

DEBRIEF: Teacher facilitates a discussion to help students discover the pattern of what organic compounds have in common and what is different between them.


Gallery Walk:  Chemistry example

TEKS: (7) Science concepts. The student knows how atoms form ionic, metallic, and covalent bonds. The student is expected to:

(B) construct electron dot formulas to illustrate ionic and covalent bonds

SET UP:  Round 1 – Each station has a picture of a simple Lewis Dot Structure for a Covalent Compound with bonds represented by dots.  The dots and element symbols are color coded.

Round 2 – Each station has an additional picture added to it that shows the same covalent compound but with lines to represent bonds instead of dots.

Round 3 – New stations are added with pictures of Lewis Dot Structures for Ionic Compounds.  The dots are color coded with the element symbols.

ACTIVITY:  Students rotate between the stations recording observations using the “I notice…” and “I wonder…” sentence stems on sticky notes and leaving them around the posters.

DEBRIEF:  Teacher organizes students’ observations and reads them to the group.  The observations form the foundation for the introduction to Lewis Dot Structures, how they are drawn, what they represent and how ionic and covalent compounds are represented differently.


  • To learn more about this strategy and other engaging ways to allow students to construct their knowledge of chemistry, join us Wednesday,  September 25, 2013 for the workshop:

Targeting the TEKS in High School Science – Chemistry: Chemical Formulas, Bonding and VSEPR (FA1327062). Register at

What to Look for on Pre-K Classroom Walk-Throughs

Friday, September 20th, 2013

Author:  School Ready Team

Are your Pre-K classes “kid ready”?  Here is a quick list of 5 things to look for.





Student Interaction at the Secondary Level; Increasing Language Development for ELLs

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Author:  Trish Flores, Bilingual/ESL Specialist


Engaging students at high levels of interaction is a goal for today’s schools.  High levels of interaction ensure that students are learning to use metacognitive skills to reflect on what they are learning and how they are learning.  Meaningful interactions create opportunities for students to practice what they are learning and apply it to authentic situations.  Typically, our thoughts on establishing these learning environments revolve around core subject areas such as math, science, literacy, and social studies.  It is not uncommon for teachers of elementary students to engage them in cooperative learning activities that lead to high levels of interaction.  Recently however, secondary teachers of students whom are second language learners are seeing the value and importance of implementing cooperative learning activities to accomplish two goals: content mastery and language development.

It is a wide held understanding that a skill or new learning is perfected after it is practiced and used frequently.  One does not learn to play an instrument on the first or even tenth attempt.  Learning a new skill takes targeted and focused practice that needs to be structured.  In a middle school classroom, teachers can create this learning structured environment by establishing learning stations that are geared to the specific needs of English language learners.  These mini islands of knowledge are organized to allow students the opportunity to use new and existing academic vocabulary in various expressive manners in order to master content and increase their English proficiency.  Although this might be new territory for middle school teachers, it can be accomplished with relative ease and high levels of success.


Student Grouping

As with planning any activity for your classroom, teachers need to be aware of the ability levels of their students when assigning them to station groups.  When working with second language learners, teachers need to know the language proficiency levels of students so that they can create groups that will be successful in expressing their knowledge in a variety of ways. This information also assists teachers in knowing how to scaffold the lessons linguistically.  The proficiency levels for all four communication strands (listening, speaking, reading and writing) can be found in the chart below.

Beginning Intermediate Advanced Advanced High
Beginning ELLs have little or no ability to understand English used in academic and social settings. Intermediate ELLs have the ability to understand simple, high frequency English used in routine academic and social settings. Advanced ELLs have the ability to understand, with support, grade-appropriate English used in academic and social settings. Advanced high ELLs have the ability to understand, with minimum support, grade appropriate English used in academic and social settings.

Groups are flexible and can be changed based on the knowledge level of the content and the language proficiency of the students.



The activities placed in learning stations need to reflect the rigor of the content being taught in a whole group setting.  Once the content is introduced, activities to extend the learning are placed in the learning stations.  Keeping in mind the language proficiency levels of students, teachers need to differentiate the activities by providing resources such as vocabulary word banks, sentence stems, paragraph frames, visuals, dictionaries and other materials that provide scaffolds for ELLs.  It is important to keep in mind the goal of language development when designing activities. Students need to be able to develop expressive skills such as speaking and writing as well as the receptive skills of reading and listening.  It is vital that activities be structured to support student-to-student or group interaction and provide ways for  ELLs to use English to explain concepts and contribute to the work. This gives teachers an opportunity to gauge what the student has learned while assessing student progress in English language development.



It is crucial that students understand how to manage themselves at learning stations. Teachers need to communicate their expectations for time management and group conduct.  Roles such as time keeper, leader, materials person and scribe can be assigned to students to encourage participation and accountability.  These roles also offer hidden opportunities for students to develop their oral language.



Learning stations offer teachers opportunities to observe their students and gauge their level of understanding of content and language use.  As students complete activities they place work in station folders for teacher review.  Teachers may review the assignments to assess students’ use of language.  It is in this final step that teachers can provide students feedback and refine the learning tasks to create higher language learning expectations.

High levels of student engagement are goals for educators.  All teachers, regardless of content or grade level, should strive for high levels of engagement so that their ELLs can have opportunities to enhance their language skills.  Students should not merely be recipients of knowledge but active constructivists of their own learning.  This can only be accomplished when teachers create authentic learning environments that require students to speak, read, and write on a daily basis.

Flipped Classrooms

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Author:  Leslie Barrett, Technology & Library Media Services Specialist


Flipped classrooms.  Flipped learning.  If you haven’t heard these education buzz words in the past 12 months, chances are good that you will hear them in the next. They refer to a concept, a method of teaching, that is gaining attention and popularity in schools and classrooms of creative teachers trying to meet student needs in an increasingly diverse and technology rich world.


What, exactly, is a “flipped classroom”?  In the most general terms, a flipped classroom is one in which the content of a lesson is delivered outside of class time (usually as homework consisting of a pre-recorded video lecture), and the practice portion of the lesson is carried out during class time with teacher guidance.  The concept of flipped learning has been around for a while, but it was most recently popularized by two chemistry teachers, Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams.  While co-teaching in a rural Colorado high school, Bergmann and Sams were looking for a better way to guide students through the application phase of their learning.  “The time when students really need me physically present is when they get stuck and need my individual help.  They don’t need me there in the room with them to yak at them and give them content; they can receive content on their own.”  (Sams 29)  They started recording their lectures using a screencast software called Camtasia and made the videos available for students to watch as homework.  Class time was utilized for students to conduct labs and work on content problems and activities while the teacher circulated among students offering guidance.  Bergmann and Sams later wrote a book, Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day, in which they give readers details about the evolution of their flipped classroom, describe the flipped classroom models and steps they employed, and share their observations on how flipping their classroom has impacted student achievement.  “We had seen our students learning chemistry more deeply than ever before, and we were convinced.  Our method was changing students’ abilities to become self-directed learners.”  (Bergmann & Sams 42)


Executed thoughtfully, there are many benefits to flipping a classroom.  When students watch the content lecture on their own time they have the power to slow down or speed up the lecture to meet their individual learning needs.  They can rewind and review difficult or confusing concepts.  They come to class equipped with the foundation information necessary to engage in learning activities that incorporate the new information.  Students are not left to struggle with content application at home for homework without the benefit of the teacher nearby to answer questions or provide clarification.  Instead of using class time to lecture, the teacher can circulate through individual or small groups of students checking for understanding, guiding deeper thinking, answering questions, and addressing student needs on a more individualized level.  The teacher no longer assumes the role of dispenser of information, but instead becomes a facilitator of learning as students absorb and apply the content.  A flipped classroom model provides more in-class opportunities for teachers to individualize and differentiate instruction to meet a wide range of student needs.  Flipped classrooms can create more student-centered learning environments where the ownership of learning shifts from the teacher to the student.


There are, however, many who disagree with the flipped model of learning.  Critics argue that not all students have access to the technology necessary to view the lecture videos outside of class.  Videos often are hosted on YouTube or other similar video hosting sites that are blocked in many school environments.  And, let’s face it, students don’t always do their homework, often for legitimate reasons.  If students can’t view the lecture videos, how are they going to receive the content delivery?   Arguments are also made that “lecture” is not the most effective method of teaching, and opponents of homework in general are definitely not in the flipped classroom camp.


Like any other innovation in education, flipping the classroom is something that requires careful thought and planning.  It is not the answer to every problem schools today are facing.  It is merely an attempt to create more time during the class day for individualized instruction and to nurture a more student-centered learning environment.  It is a model that capitalizes on students’ innate interest in and facility with technology. There is no rule book or strict formula for schools or teachers to follow to implement a flipped learning model–teachers can use the bits and pieces that work for each unique situation.  As you are presented with increasingly more information buzz on the topic of flipped classrooms, the most important thing to keep in mind are the students.  Would your students benefit from a flipped classroom model?



If you are interested in learning more about flipping your classroom, please join us on February 20, 2013 for our Mastering the Flipped Classroom workshop (SP1325597).


Bergmann, Jonathan, and Aaron Sams. Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day. Eugene, Or.: International Society for Technology in Education, 2012.

Grouping for Learning

Monday, December 12th, 2011

Placing students into smaller groups can help ensure student achievement.  Grouping practices not only impact achievement, but also improve attitudes toward peers and the subject matter.

Instead of this:

found at on 12-6-11

We could have this:

found at on 12-6-11

This level of engagement can be achieved through the use of grouping.  There are various reasons to form groups.

Situations that can be opportunities for grouping include:

  • Inquiry-based projects and investigations
  • Activation of prior knowledge
  • Exploration and expansion on subject matter
  • Reflection, review and reteach
  • Intervention
  • Enrichment

While students are in groups, the instruction can be centered around the teacher or the students.  A small group of students may be working in a teacher-centered group while the rest of the class participates in student-centered learning.

Teacher-centered instruction enables the teacher to differentiate student learning.  You can differentiate by re-teaching, providing enrichment and/or feedback or reinforcing a recently taught skill.


Instructional Focus

Group Formation

Small Group

(same ability)

  • Instruction targeted to specific student  needs
  • Intervention
  • Enrichment
  • 3-5 students
  • Based on assessment data

Small Group

(mixed ability)

  • Practice concepts already introduced
  • Reinforcement
  • 4-6 students
  • Based on students’ learning styles or interests

Student-centered grouping allows for students to co-construct knowledge with their peers, thus allowing for teachers to pull small groups.  These student-to-student interactions also improve student engagement and retention.

Many options exist for carrying out student-centered groups.  The two listed below represent two ends of the spectrum, but a combination of both could be used depending on the content, age of the students and the intended outcome.  The key is students working together in a self-directed fashion to achieve a learning objective.




  • 3-4 students per group
  • 3-5 stations designed to support the TEKS and learning objectives
  • Explicit instructions given at each station to enable self-direction
  • Students may do all or a few of the stations. Work may be completed in one period or across multiple days.

Collaborative Group

  • 2-5 students per group
  • 1 inquiry-based project or activity designed to support the TEKS and learning objectives (may be tiered to adjust for student ability and prior knowledge)
  • Each group is working collaboratively to complete the activity

When educators hear the term “grouping” often we visualize an elementary classroom, but research strongly supports the use of many grouping strategies across all content areas and grade levels.  Students of any age benefit from the opportunity to discuss content with their peers, co-constructing a deep understanding of key concepts.  In addition, grouping builds habits of mind necessary for college and career success.

It may take many forms, but student grouping, in any iteration, is a valuable tool for increasing engagement, retention of content and overall achievement.