I was having a conversation with another teacher a few days ago about one of our Physical Science assignments.  This teacher expressed disappointment with the amount of students that turned in the assignment, as well as with the quality of work turned in (by those that did turn it in).  I wondered aloud what the problem might have been.

This teacher replied, "Well, I thought I would give the assignment some 'teeth' and tell them it was worth 100 points and would severely impact their grade if they didn't do it, but I can't believe half of them still didn't turn it in!  Now a lot of them are failing the class, and it doesn't seem to matter to them!"

That's because points don't work

In my 15 years of teaching, I've seen this over and over again (yet stupidly kept trying to use points as an incentive, being a fantastic example of the definition of insanity).   Most students don't really care about points.  Only the ones who like and are good at playing the game of school care about them, but for some other reward they are getting vicariously through the accumulation of those points (such as not getting in trouble at home, or because achieving high grades based on points is interwoven into their student identities and mindsets).  And, in my opinion, points are simply an intangible reward system that only fosters a "I'll do it only if there's something in it for me" mentality in students.  And it seems that having points be the "it" in what's in it for them isn't working.

So why not change the "doing the work for points" idea into a "doing the work to improve my learning?" idea?

Our school has posters of this in every classroom:
This is the rigor/relevancy framework, and it has been quite useful in focusing my teaching up on the D quadrant, where tasks are highly relevant and rigorous.  Not all learning can start in the D quadrant, but a lot of it can and should end up there.  And that's what I tell students--all work in my class is to help them get to the D quadrant, so they can become thinkers in their own right.  It's not about points; it's about learning, and improving their learning.  After saying this about 15 billion times (approximately) and explaining how each and every activity I do is tied into helping them think at higher levels, I think my students are beginning to believe me (or at least resigning themselves  to the fact that I will never let up on this whole "learning thing").  And, more importantly, they are starting to trust me.  

It's this trust that is a part of the last part of the rigor/relevancy framework that's not on that colorful little chart--relationships.  I'll be honest, I am not a nurturing kind of gal; it's not in my nature to overtly nurture.  But this year, because of our district's focus on these three Rs, I have made it a personal goal to do a better job at building relationships with my students.  This doesn't mean making 100+ new BFFs every year.  It means saying hello to each of them by name as they come in to your classroom. (Don't think this makes a difference?  Do it every day for one week, then don't do it one day.  Your students will let you know they miss it.)  It means explaining to them the purpose of each activity, what mastery looks like for each learning objective, and what the activities and objectives will do for their learning.  It means pouring over formative assessment data and talking to individual students one-on-one about what you and the student can do to help them improve--and fostering the belief of continuous improvement in students who believe that students are either smart or stupid.  It means that, when you see that two of your students are failing another class, you e-mail them and let them know you're there for them if they need you.  It means creating a classroom environment that is safe for failure and lets students know that we're all in this "learning thing" together.

In sum, it's about respecting the learner.  From what I've seen in my classroom so far this year, if students know you care about them, provide a safe place for learning, and respect them, they will trust you.  And then they will work for you and their learning--not for points.
 
 
Since my last post, I have had a lot of questions about what exactly it is that I do with my students since I don't use a textbook or lecture at them.  Like I said in that post, I don't know if I can give anyone a formula, script, or "quick fix" for how to teach without a textbook or using lecture; I only know that I am striving to engage students by using sound strategies that encourage students to practice their thinking and learning skills, making their own meaning.  My main role is to set up my classroom so learning and meaning-making happens.

In order to fulfill that role, I tend to write a lot of my own curriculum materials (including readings) that align closely with  local teacher-created objectives derived from our state standards, use a lot of articles from Scientific American, and have students use online interactive activities and tutorials that match up to our local objectives.  Textbooks have a lot of good information, but they often contain a lot of informational noise that is hard for students to drown out.  And, since my students have been trained that memorizing everything in the text is what school is all about, my only choice was to take the book away so they could do some real, focused learning.

Teachers that want to do this also need to be able to let go and let the students do the learning.  One of the hardest things I do during a class period is stay of my students' way and let them learn without interfering and forcing my understanding of the concepts on them. To satisfy my inner control freak, I lead students through the activities by posing questions for group discussion and providing logical and natural segues and transitions, but I make sure that I am not the sun around which classroom instruction revolves.

The only way I know to show you how to teach without lecturing or using a book is to give you a snapshot of my lessons.  Below I have provided a run-down of some of the activities I did this week with my Biology students as we come to the end of our Ecology Unit. You can take a peek at the learning objectives for this unit here, and the plans below apply to the start of Objective #4, ecosystem interactions.

Monday:  
  • Have students do their daily journal at the start of class.  It focuses on introducing students to the vocabulary of our next objective on ecosystems, while trying to make connections back to our previous one (on community interactions).  If you are interested in how I set these up online, you can view this post.  
  • Engage students in the inherently fascinating study of ecosystems through an activity designed to show them the relevance of ecosystems by introducing them to bioaccumulation and biomagnification.  (This is also a preview of some of the concepts they will need in our next objective.) Using a short video and readings from internet sources, the focus is on why we care about ecosystems and how substances move through them.  
  • This is then connected to the first part of the essential question for this objective, "How does energy flow through ecosystems?" by having students transfer what they learned by predicting how energy would flow through ecosystems.  Students do a lot of discussion along the way, with me asking guiding questions and summarizing the results of their discussions.  (Their takeaway?  That it's through those community interactions they learned about in the previous objective.  Or, as one student put it, "Eating.  Eating is how energy flows through ecosystems, and how pollutants get passed.")
  • The class ends with students take a quick exit slip in Edmodo so I can see if they are making that connection.
Tuesday:
  • Review the connections we made the day before, as well as seeing how well they make connections between the vocabulary words to explain how energy flows in ecosystems through their class journal.  The answers to these journal questions are great formative assessments.  I get an e-mail with their answer when they post a comment, and I can scan the answers as they come in to see if students are still in the "I saw a list of words and I just defined them because that's what I'm trained to do when I see a list of words" mode, or if they are starting to make connections between concepts.  If I see that too many students are in definition mode, I can address that at that time.
  • Students do a vocabulary activity that activates their prior knowledge (which they started to build the day before in their opening journal and in today's journal) as well as forces discussion about the words in their teams.  The strategy I happened to use for these words is called a Partner Knowledge Rater, which I modified by adding a column called "Rename the word in 3 words or less" to get students to put the meaning of the words in their own terms (it's well understood by my students that I will not tolerate any copying of definitions from any source.  They know they will be made to redo any assignment or answer where I see that happen).  They can't own any understanding of the word until they put it in terms their brains come up with.
  • At the end of the period, I have students take an exit slip in Edmodo that asks them to use the words to answer the essential question for the objective ("How does energy flow and get recycled in ecosystems?").
Wednesday:
  • Do the opening journal question, which is trying to get them to see the "end result" of the learning, as well as give them more practice with using the vocabulary words to explain the energy pyramid pictured.  We start trying to make connections between the vocabulary and the concepts the I can statements want them to learn as a class and through team discussions.
  • As a result of the exit slips from yesterday, it was determined my students needed to sit down and really work with the words more in order to understand and apply them, and not just memorize their definitions (old habits are hard to break). So, I decided that using the Frayer model was called for, only we would be doing a modified form of this using Studyblue, converting these into flashcards from which they could study later.  On the cards, they had to write analogies for the word, find a picture that represented the word, and then tell me what the word was not.  (Sidenote: Nowhere in the directions did it say to write the definitions of the words.  This threw about 50% of my students, who, being in answer mode rather than learn mode, asked me where they were supposed to write the definitions.)
  • After making their cards, students must record a short podcast about how the words were connected, and must use all of them to explain verbally how energy flows and is recycled in ecosystems.  They are still working on this, and will be working on this the next time I see them.
  • Students take a progress check on the individual objectives, or I can statements, in Edmodo so I can see what understanding they have gained of them before they start the next learning activity that is designed to directly teach them.  After looking at them, I realize that about 80% of the class already has a good mastery of them, except for one I can statement about how decomposers recycle energy through ecosystems.  This will help me plan specific activities for that objective and to help the 20% that still need help on the other objectives next week.
(You can view the Ecology Objective #4 Learning Activities I developed for this topic here.)

What I do may not be perfect (my lesson plans are in a constant state of remodel), but it's what I have found does right by my kids.  And my students constantly amaze me with how much they can learn on their own this way--and how much they don't need me to stand up and deliver content to them.  They can do their own learning, if we only provide them with the right tools, the time, and the right activities.  It just makes sense.
 
 
As a teacher coach, I often get comments like this:

"I don't know how you can teach students without using a textbook or giving a lecture."   

This always gets me thinking, because not using a text or using lecture of any kind weren't conscious decisions on my part.  I didn't wake up one day and, in a grand epiphany of educational enlightenment, smack myself on the forehead and say, "My God!  I've got to stop hurting the children with that awful textbook and my boring PowerPoint lectures!" These are classroom practices that...well...just "happened" as my teaching evolved, influenced by professional development both personal and public.  

In fact, it's hard to imagine that I used to turn into a pile of gibbering teaching goo when I wandered away from my lecture notes for too long during my early years of teaching.  Lectures and worksheets were my safety net, what I turned to when I couldn't think of anything else to do.   Well, I no longer have that safety net-yet I feel perfectly safe.  (I will admit that being in a 1:1 computing environment helps, since my students all have the power of the resources on the internet in a small black rectangle on their desks.)

I don't know if I can tell anyone exactly how to teach sans textbook or lecturing, but I do know that I do it because it's what helps my students  make their own meaning, not conform to the meaning some textbook or myself puts into their heads.  I do it not because it's the latest educational fad or trend--I do it because it just makes sense.  It's what's good for my kids.  

What I can tell you is that it's not easy.  I really think it involves a fundamental shift in thinking about instructional planning, moving from planning for instruction to planning for learning.  It involves a shift from planning what the teacher will do (teacher-focused instruction) to planning for what students will do (student-focused instruction).  And some very careful thought and reflection needs to go into what students will do.  Some questions I usually ask while planning for learning are:
  • Do the learning activities foster learning for all students, challenging them at their current ability?  
  • Do the learning activities involve making connections between concepts and opportunities to make meaning?
  • Do the learning activities involve student creation of evidence of understanding?
  • Do the learning activities involve metacognitive/self-assessment strategies so students can learn when they have actually learned something, and to what level?
  • Do the learning activities involve students doing the work of learning?
  • Do the learning activities give students the opportunity to learn from failure?
  • Do the learning activities activate, develop, and build upon prior knowledge?
The results of those questions end up looking like any of the units you will find listed along the top of my class websites (this year I'm teaching Physical Science and Biology).  I'm not perfect (can we ever be?) at this, but I believe what I'm doing now is much better at involving students' brains in their own learning.  This type of planning doesn't allow for students to just mark time in your classroom.

One word of caution, however, if you do decide to ditch your textbook and lecturing ways--don't expect some parents or students to be overjoyed with this decision, especially those students who are really good at playing the game of school we have created.  My suggestion would be to gradually use your text/lecture less and less so that students have time to adjust to this new way of learning.  This is especially important if your students haven't had a lot of experience with nontraditional teaching methods or taking responsibility for their own learning.

Is this a lot of work?  Absolutely.  Is it worth it?  Definitely.  It allows me to get out of the way of my students' learning by setting up conditions for them to learn, not ways for me to teach.  Doing this, I get accused a lot of not teaching my students.  I always reply in this way: "Of course I'm not teaching them.  If I'm busy teaching, they're not busy doing any learning." 

Any other thoughts on the use of textbooks and/or lecture in the classroom?  Can they really be used to foster student learning?  Feel free to leave your ideas in the comments.

Also, for more information, you can check out the links below:
 
 
All is quiet on the standards-based grading front so far this year. 

I haven't heard one negative peep out of my precious pupils or their parents.  As a matter of fact, I am almost afraid to write anything about it, out of fear I will jinx it and then I will be the lucky recipient of many e-mails written in capital letters, with every word in bold and every sentence ending in multiple exclamation marks.

I made some small changes in my implementation this year.  My changes weren't earth-shattering or complicated.  They were necessary, however, in order to align with what my community would tolerate (a line I stole from Rick Wormeli) without compromising my focus on learning as the ultimate goal.  (While I would love to implement something like this system, I fear I don't have the SBG maturity yet to do something like that with my students.  Baby steps, I keep reminding myself.  Wobbly, shaky baby steps. )

Most of the changes I made had to do with how my scores in the classroom (based on levels of student understanding) translated into an overall grade/percent for the class (which I don't want to do but they make me and I like being employed).  What I figured out was this: my parents just couldn't wrap their heads around my system because it was causing far, far too much cognitive dissonance when they viewed it in the terms of the points-riddled ranking and sorting educational system they experienced during their schooling.  And I had to find a way to tone down the dissonance without losing the classroom focus on learning, or SBG would be tossed out of my district faster than a visitor without a name tag.  

So, here's a quick run-down of the changes I made since last year, presented in table form.  The bottom row represents visually how my systems last year were received. 
As you can see, the first and second columns were not very popular. The rationale for the first system only going up to 95% was because, in our district, we do not have A+ as an option for any class (we just have A and A-.  Why?  Your guess is as good as mine), so I thought that only going to 95 wouldn't be a big deal, since it's just the letter grade that is reported to colleges, not the percent in the class...and, after all, and A is an A, right?  I have about 35 strongly worded and boldface emails telling you that only having a 95% for my highest percent was, indeed, a VERY big deal.  So, at semester, I adjusted my system to what you see in the second column.  This was still not popular, most likely because of residual anger over the first system and the fact that when I said "Advanced" it did not mean getting all of the multiple choice correct on a test; they had to create and make connections and show me they could do some upper-level Bloom's to earn that score.

The third column was the result of an SBG fantasy I had all last year about replacing the numbers with symbols, because everyone was so fixated on points I was about to quit and find a nice cave on an island somewhere in which to quietly spend the rest of my life.  It was either fantasize about this type of scoring system or how to write a resignation letter that did not involve swearing.

After a peaceful summer teaching summer school and learning to enjoy teaching again, I came up with what's in the final column, which is what I am currently using.  Notice there are no percents attached; this was done to refocus students on what the numbers mean and to get them to stop equating those numbers with a traditional letter grade.  I needed to visually cleanse them of points, and this is what we focus on in class--the learning that each level represents, not the points.

For parents, however....I learned that our parents need points. This is why each level of understanding is represented by a point value (unfortunately) in the gradebook (5 = 10, 4.5 = 9.5, 4 = 9, and so on).  It makes some of that cognitive dissonance go away to see points in the gradebook, to see each learning objective out of a comfortable and familiar 10 points.  (In know this because that's the feedback I received at conferences this year.)  It also informs parents much better about how well their child is progressing as far as learning, and allows for much better parent communication with me.  I am overjoyed this year to have emails that aren't in all capital letters and that say things like, "I noticed my student is having difficulty understanding the types of population growth.  Are there any resources you can suggest to help him at home?"

That email right there made my struggles last year worthwhile. 

One other change I made is in the way I assess multiple choice questions.  Our common assessments for each course involve them, and I have to use these assessments.  Last year I had one heck of a time trying to figure out how to determine what level of understanding a student was at from just multiple choice questions because, unless they are carefully written, they really only show surface-level understanding--and they encourage the fallacy of thinking that learning is about finding right answers.  That's why this year I am transforming how I write my questions.  Instead of writing the questions to see if students can guess the right answer, I am writing the questions so they will actually show me which level (1-4) students are at. (I only go to 4 because a level 5 on my scale--knowing, owning the knowledge, and using the knowledge--can't be shown by using multiple choice alone; they are given separate level 5 opportunities in each unit.)  I write each answer choice at a different level of understanding, and the answer they pick determines their score.  

For example, here is an ecology question that I used recently on a formative assessment.  (Bear in mind that the objective that was being assessed is a simple one that we use to start our unit on Ecology, but I am using a simple one for simplicity in explanation.  You may feel that teaching this is beneath the level of your students....but it matches the needs and abilities of mine.  So, I guess what I'm saying is consider that these are written for my students, not yours, when looking at the example.)

Objective#1a: I can describe what is studied in ecology.

Question: Check out the picture by clicking on the link below.  (There was a picture of a pretty complex food web attached to the question.)  What needs to be added to it to accurately represent all of what ecology is? 

a. It needs to show the relationships between the biotic factors in this ecosystem.  
b. There needs to be more specific details about the predator-prey relationships and what organisms are competing for resources, as well as how they reproduce.
c. There needs to be more food webs in the picture.
d. It needs to show the abiotic factors that the biotic factors are interacting with and to which they are reacting.

Below are the scores students would receive for each choice:
a = 2
b = 3
c = 1
d = 4

So, ladies, it's like one of those quizzes you take in Cosmo, only the values aren't written upside-down at the bottom of the page, the numbers in my room aren't points you add together to get an overall score, and my questions are a tad more meaningful.  I hope.  Anyway, I tell students when reviewing the questions what level of understanding each answer choice represented, and they can then keep track of their progress on each learning objective in their own Google spreadsheet.  This tells them on what objectives they need to work, and helps guide them towards improvement of understanding.  This has been working very well so far--students and parents understand it, and students are really starting to dissect (from the examples given to them in the answer choices) what it really means to understand at each level.  Do I have students still trying to game the system?  Absolutely; but they are quickly finding out that it is a game they always lose.

So, in sum, it's going pretty well so far.  Everyone is learning (including myself), parents are being informed about their students' progress in a way they can understand, and my husband has talked me out of moving to a private island and writing profanity-filled letters of resignation.  

But I haven't checked my e-mail yet. 
 
 
When I wrote this post about the many wonderful ways I love Edmodo, they had just released their new quizzes feature.  Since that time, I have been using Edmodo quizzes to assess everything that's not nailed down and trying to utilize every option in this new feature, and I must say it has handled my rough test-drive pretty well.  Edmodo quizzes are now something I have integrated into my classroom as a regular practice, and my students and I enjoy using them.  

So, in the spirit of my previous Edmodo post, let me count the ways my students and I love  Edmodo Quizzes:
  1. It's easy for teachers to create and save quizzes.  All teachers have to do is click on "Quiz" at the top of their home screen, and then select "Create a Quiz," and they are then taken to the quiz creation screen.  Everything about this screen is intuitive, from adding questions, selecting the correct answer (something I keep forgetting to do! argh!), and choosing the question type.  Also, as you create quizzes, they are automatically saved and can be recalled from the home screen by selecting "Load a previously created quiz."  As with anything you create, just make sure you use a naming system so you can easily find your desired quiz after creating it.  You can find out how to make a quiz in Edmodo by viewing my tutorial below.
  2. It's easy for students to use.  The first time I gave an Edmodo quiz (as a virtual exit slip), all I had to show my high school students was how to click on the quiz from their home screens.  From there, they took the quiz with absolutely no problems, and I haven't had a problem since with any student taking the quiz.  As I said before, the user interface is very intuitive, and students quickly found out they could go back and check all their answers before submitting their quizzes, click on links and pictures attached to questions, and receive their answers immediately.
  3. It allows teachers to give students effective and immediate feedback.  Teachers can allow students to see their results immediately (the default setting), or they can uncheck that option and reveal those results later (useful if you are giving the same quiz to multiple sections during the day).  I usually leave this setting on, because my students have overwhelmingly stated that they like to know how they did right after they take their quiz.  Also, students can then ask questions about why certain answers were wrong/right immediately after the quiz, and learning can take place at that time.  For more specific feedback, there is a box where teachers can leave comments below each question (no matter what question type) when you access the completed quizzes.  Students can see these comments when they access their quiz results.
  4. It allows quizzes to be used for formative or summative assessments.  When you are finished creating your quiz and click on the "Assign Quiz" button, you will be presented with an option to "Add Quiz Score to Gradebook." This means that if you are giving the quiz as a formative assessment, you can leave this box unchecked and the scores won't affect student scores.  If you want to use this as a summative assessment, then check mark that box, and the scores will be automatically entered into the Edmodo gradebook.  In order to help you analyze your quiz data, when you click on the quiz from your home screen to view the results, there is an overview of how your students did on each question using pie graphs to represent the percentage of students who got each question right & wrong.
  5. You can choose from many different question types.  There are four question types available: Multiple Choice, True/False, Fill in the blank, and Short Answer.  Edmodo quizzes will score fill in the blank, but students must write exactly what you write in as the answer or it will be marked wrong.  Short answer must be scored by you looking at each answer individually.  You then click either "Correct" or "Incorrect," and then you can give students partial credit for answers that are partially correct.  You can also leave feedback as to what students got wrong and how they can fix it using a comments box.  One additional option you have regarding questions is the ability to load a previous question from any of the quizzes you have created into a new quiz by clicking on the "Load" button on the quiz creation screen.
  6. Quizzes can be reassigned.  If you have students that accidentally exit out of a quiz too early or if students look at all the questions without answering them and then exit the quiz, Edmodo will mark all of the questions wrong, and you will have students raising panicky hands in the air at you.  However, Edmodo allows you to reassign the quiz to those individual students.  You can select the quiz, and it will open up a copy for editing (you can't actually assign them the originally titled quiz) that has been renamed "Copy of <quiz title>."  Click on "Assign this Quiz," and you can then assign students who need to take this quiz by typing their names in the "Send to" box.
  7. Links, pictures, and documents can be added to questions or answer choices.  As a science teacher, this feature has been extremely useful for me.  For example, I am currently teaching an ecology unit in which one of my objectives is to have students interpret graphs of different kinds of population growth.  I have been able to attach images of those graphs to the question stems themselves (if I ask a question about one graph) or I can attach images to individual answer choices (if I want them to choose a graph that would fit the population growth scenario presented in the question stem).  Students simply click on "Preview" next to the image thumbnail to see a larger version.  I have received a lot of positive student feedback about being able to do this, because they know how badly my biology drawings on the board can scar them for life.  My only suggestion is, if you're forgetful like me, to preview the quiz before assigning it so you can make sure you have attached all of the documents or links you wanted to attach because you can't do this after the quiz is assigned.   To attach image files or other documents, simply upload them first to your Library and then click on "Library" underneath the question or answer choice during quiz creation.  To attach links to questions, click on "Link" below the question or answer choice and paste the URL of your choice.

Below you will find some screenshots to help illustrate these most-loved features of mine (click on the pictures for a larger view), or you can view a short screencast I made on how to create a quiz using all four question types.  Also, check out these resources for more information:
Picture
The quiz creation screen for teachers.
Picture
What it looks like for students taking your quiz if you add pictures/links to question stems or answer choices.
Picture
The Edmodo Grade Quiz screen. It gives a nice overview of how students did on each question.
Picture
The Edmodo Grade Quiz Screen, where you can see what students missed, wrong answers, and leave effective feedback.
 
 
Who says learning has to be quiet?

Learning doesn't always fit into desks arranged in linear rows, and it doesn't always come double-spaced with one-inch margins.  Learning doesn't have to sit quietly absorbed in an task, or watching the clock patiently for the bell to ring so it can move on to the next stop in the educational assembly line.  

Learning can be done quietly (and sometimes should be done this way), but it is not the only way.

Sometimes learning is loud and crazy.  It happens when a teacher is getting just as excited as her students about learning, emitting screams of "sha-ZAM!" when students finally make connections between concepts.   Learning can happen on the floor, sprawled out on a piece of butcher paper with two student heads huddled together in a learning conspiracy, thinking they are talking quietly when the whole room can hear them.  It can happen when students are huddled in groups, creating ways to make living sentences out of concepts to present to their peers, or developing unique yet appropriate hand gestures to remember what words mean, or even when it's "all science words must be spoken as if you are on Jersey Shore" day.   Learning is especially boisterous when yo momma jokes using physics concepts have been sneakily assigned as an analogy exercise in disguise, with the giggles, guffaws, and shouts of, "NO WAY THAT'S SO RUDE" being ejected into the hallway from the classroom.

Sometimes learning is organized and disorganized chaos at its finest, especially when students are failing towards learning. 

So, if you're ever walking by my classroom and hear the screaming, the yelling, the wails, and the "someone just told a bad science joke" moans, don't stop in and ask what the heck is going on.  Don't catch me later in the hallway and, with a look of grave concern, tell me to stop "yelling at" my students, or comment on how loud my class is even with the door shut.

We're just learning.
 
 
Our high school is presenting at the Raising Student Achievement Conference this year in St. Charles, IL, as a model high school.  Our superintendent wants to set up our presentation as a timeline of the many initiatives we have implemented to increase student achievement since he began his tenure at MCHS (none of which, by the way, involved systematic mandated test prep--it all focused on helping students learn and improving classroom instruction and assessment). 

Knowing this, I began to research various free online timeline makers, and I came across a lot of different ones that looked useful for a presentation of this type.  However, one I have not used before is Timetoast.  Wanting to see if this would work for our presentation, I signed up for a free account (fast and easy) and got to making a quick test timeline.

What impressed me the most was how easy this was to use, as the user interface is simple and intuitive.  You can add pictures (no videos, though), links, and description to each event, and viewers of your timeline can click on each of the events to read the description and view the picture in a larger size.  Events are not the only thing you can create, however; you can create timespans to show events that occurred over many years.  No matter what you're creating on your timeline, you start all new timelines as drafts, which, after you're all done working your timeline magic, you can then make public, sharing it on Facebook or Twitter to your heart's content.

Timetoast timelines can be made public or private, and there are many ways to share your timeline-either by sharing the link, or embedding it in a webpage (as I have done below for your viewing pleasure; just be aware that the dates aren't solid, as I was making this off the top of my head just to see what Timetoast could do).  You can also customize the size and background color of your timeline, and it will generate a new embed code for you.  

Another feature I liked was the ability to switch from timeline view to what is called text view.  This transforms the timeline into a nice table of events ordered chronologically (duh), making the events and descriptions easy to read.  This would be an effective way to show at the end of our presentation exactly all we have done to help our students learn.  The ability to leave comments will allow any discussion about our presentation to continue long after the presentation is over.

As a classroom teacher, I also couldn't help but think of ways I could use this the classroom.  The uses for this timeline maker in the social studies classroom are obvious; but how to use this in other subject areas?  Here are a few quick ideas I came up with:
  • In science, I was thinking about having students use this to create evolutionary futures for different organisms, based on their knowledge of how natural selection works.  
  • For a careers class, you could have them make their employment history, and embed this on a portfolio site or a site where they create a resume.
  • In English, you could have them map out the events of a novel, especially if it is a historical novel that spans years or decades.
While there other timeline makers that are out there that may be prettier and offer more options (DipityCapszles, and xTimeline, just to name a few), I think Timetoast is a great starting point, either for use in a presentation or for students who are just climbing the mountain of Web 2.0 tools that are available online.  I have included some screenshots of some of the basics of navigating Timetoast below (click on each one for a larger image).  

Any other ideas or other timeline makers you think are useful?  Please feel free to share in the comments.
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The basics of the Timetoast editing screen.
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The options for sharing your Timetoast timeline.
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The text view of my timeline.
 
 
In our Ecology unit for Biology, our second topic is about population growth.  The objectives are listed below, derived directly from the Illinois Science Assessment Frameworks:
  • I can interpret two different graphs of population growth: exponential and logistic.
  • I can classify examples of factors that limit a population's growth as density-dependent or density-independent.
  • I can predict what will happen to a population's size if the following occur: emigration, immigration, and changes in birth and death rates.
You're riveted by these, aren't you?  If I were with you, I probably would have to stop you from Googling about population growth with reckless abandon.

Well, maybe not.  I know that I would jump right into these I can statements, but I am a science dork to the zillionth power (shocking revelation there).  My students....not so much.  Remember, these are high school students who have been used to the "drill and kill" method of instruction for many, many years.  Natural curiosity is no longer natural for them.

So, when I sat down to review and plan this unit, I thought about how I could draw my students in to this fascinating ecological topic.  My thought process pretty much went like this:

"Hook them.  Engage them.  Engagement means doing something they want to do.  What do they like to do?  Sit and watch me.  Sit and watch things happen.  Sit and watch TV.  TV means videos....watch a video?  What video? YouTube, here I come." 

I brought this idea to my fellow Biology teacher and our reading consultant (Cecilia Frank), and we all helped create this lesson for introducing population growth to our students, tying in how relevant population growth is when considering the problem of invasive species.  In sum, they first watched a short video about the invasive snakehead fish, and then they read a USGS article about them. 

It was freaking amazing.  This teacher-nerd was in teaching nerdvana.

After students watched the video, we discussed their questions as well as the questions in the lesson.  My students were brimming with questions, launching them at me faster than I could answer them.  And, when I asked them if they would like to read more about this invasive species, my students' answer of "YES" almost knocked me down.  As I ended the lesson by having them predict the growth curve of the snakehead fish population on a graph (previewing the first I can statement), I didn't have to verbally prod anyone into action.  Several students from each of my classes lingered after the bell, talking about/asking more questions about not only the snakehead, but also about the Asian carp and those annoying biting ladybugs that aren't ladybugs but are really Asian lady beetles.

I was excited by all the questions, because questions are where all learning begins.

So this is what all those teacher-readings mean by "engagement."  You have to plan for it; it doesn't just magically happen.  It's what turns a good lesson into a great lesson.

(Here is a cleaner copy of the learning activities that are on the website.)