The Power of Digital Manipulatives

I wanted to share this Infographic by MIND Research Institute today, as it confirms some of my experiences with digital manipulatives in my classroom. My biggest takeaway from the infographic is the idea that you can scaffold the concepts by first starting with physical manipulatives (we do learn with our bodies!), and then transitioning to digital manipulatives to “improve transferability of math concepts”, and then finally representing the concepts with numbers and symbols.

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This webapp allows students to see money with the number blocks of their amounts – from mathlearningcenter.org

In my class, I created an elink of digital manipulatives so that students can have most of the digital manipulatives from mathlearningcenter.org at their disposal. You can download all of these tools as apps, but I found that the webapps were almost just as functional (downloading takes up precious storage on student iPads!). I very much followed a scaffolding strategy similar to what the infographic describes.

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I created an e-link on my Moodle course with links to all of the webapps. For more on elink, see Easy-Peasy Way to Give Great Links to Students)

Good teachers use everything that they have at their disposal, and don’t get caught up in searching for silver bullets. There is a place for physical manipulatives in the 21C classroom, as well as a place for digital ones.

Thank you for visiting educationrickshaw.com! Enjoy!


Digital Manipulatives Infographic

Courtesy of MIND Research Institute. 


What do you think about the role of digital manipulatives? Comment below!

Teacher Gets Through Week of Fidget Spinners Alive

Last week, the writers here at educationrickshaw.com took our school’s swim team to Dubai to compete in a meet with over 800 participants. One of the highlights of the trip (for the kids) has been the visit to the Dubai mall, famous for the Burj Khalifa and its indoor aquarium. Many of the students that attended the meet were from my Year 5 class, and they had told me in the lead-up to the meet that they would all be purchasing fidget spinners, as these are not available yet in Sudan.

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Not only did my kids buy a fidget spinner each, but they made sure to buy a supply of fidget spinners and fidget cubes for the whole year level, and all of their siblings. The fidget phenomenon has officially reached Khartoum.

Now, I feel that I am a pretty patient and tolerant teacher when it comes to students bringing things to school. I hated it when my teachers took my Pokemon cards that I had saved up for and carefully guarded in plastic sleeve protectors. I never wanted to become the teacher that took away toys simply because they distracted ME. Then came these freaking fidget spinners. Really quickly, let me tell you how the first week went with these things.

Every few seconds they fly out of kids’ hands.

The addictive quality of these spinners is that they have the potential to deliver a satisfying spin between your index and forefingers. There is a bit of a risk though; they tend to fly out between a child’s clumsy grip just at the climax of a lesson sequence. Exactly when an “aha!” moment is about to occur, a pesky spinner will fly into the corner of the room, prompting the whole class to turn their heads towards the guilty butterfingers who did it.

They’re not great when you need kids to use their hands

Any time a student is using their iPad, writing with a pencil, or reading a book, these spinners get in the way. It is fun to watch a kid try to keep open a stiffly bound novel with one forearm and their chin as they try to spin a fidget spinner on their thumb, but only if you don’t care about that child’s reading goals. I’ve heard the crack of far too many spinners whacking against the screens of my students’ iPads as well, which goes to show that there may still be things out there more impressive to children than technology.

Even though they can be annoying, they are kind of cool. .

I’m not going to lie. . it is fun to spin a spinner on your fingers, or even on your nose. They fit perfectly in your pocket, and they really don’t do much more damage than a cup and a ball would in a classroom setting. The multitude of colors, styles and types of these fidget devices makes them fun to collect and pass around, and it really made mark on our Dubai trip.

I, myself, am a very fidgety fella, so I was initially curious if somehow these toys could cure my constant need to fuss and fidget. Needless to say, I think I’ll be sticking to flipping pens and markers until this fad dies down. .

Have fidget spinners reached your classroom? How have they impacted learning? Please comment below, and be sure to keep coming back to educationrickshaw.com!

Why Students Need HelpDesk Too.

Most schools have a HelpDesk system for faculty to get help in a number of ways. My school has one such system, and I am constantly using when I need assistance with maintenance or our school’s IT systems. The reasons for using these HelpDesk systems are obvious: They are a way to organize and timestamp requests based on urgency, location, and other factors that are not possible with a direct e-mail. HelpDesk makes it so that complicated tasks aren’t forgotten, and that nobody can cut in line.

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It recently dawned on me that students and teachers need a similar system for their classrooms. My students are constantly asking for help, but that help is usually poorly recorded and responded to. Requests for help get forgotten, and the loudest, pushiest students are able to cut in line. Using the Moodle Reservations Activity (Also check out: How can Moodle be used in Elementary?), I put together a HelpDesk system for math that has really worked for my students.

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Check out this video for more info:  https://youtu.be/PhsIvwTPFl4

How does it work?

At different times during math, I have students enter into the Math HelpDesk to indicate their needs in a simple note. They are effectively “reserving” a spot on the carpet with me. I take a look at all of their requests and group them according to what they need help in. As a result, my ability to group students by need has been streamlined, and students that are not being helped are always busy working instead of waiting.

HelpDesks for Everything!

I love that these HelpDesks give students agency and voice in their classroom. I am always trying to give my classroom “back to my students”, and this puts the onus to learn and problem-solve their gaps in understanding on the students. So far I have made HelpDesks for math, writing conferences, and for checking in with me about goal-setting after student-led conferences.

Can you think of any more uses for HelpDesk in your classroom? How might you put one together using your school’s LMS and available tools? Comment below, follow me on Twitter, and keep coming back to educationrickshaw.com!

How Teachers Can Prioritize Building Confidence and Risk-Taking

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Growing up, I was painfully shy. If I ever dared to raise my hand (or got called on without doing so) all of the other students would immediately ask me, “Why is your face so red?” This created a vicious cycle of not wanting to raise my hand because I didn’t want my face to turn red, to loosing confidence because I didn’t have practice speaking up, to turning even more red when I was called on, and so on and so forth.

All of my conferences from elementary through high school were pretty much the same. “Stephanie is always listening, always does her work carefully and on time, but she needs to participate.” Or “I know Stephanie has great ideas in her head, why won’t she share them?”

And (no surprise) although I was slightly better in university, I still rarely shared my thoughts when I wasn’t forced to. As an adult, I am much less withdrawn, but still wonder at my seven-year-old students’ confidence in trying out new ideas, failing, and putting themselves right back out there.

How is it that my school builds confidence so well?

I was chatting with a parent earlier this week who was like me as a student. She is both shocked and incredibly pleased to see her son initiating projects and answering questions in assemblies in front of the entire school. The confidence that our students have is not only going to help them in the future, but makes it so that their self-esteem is through the roof.

Here are the things our school does really well that I think all schools should do (when possible).

1. Have small class sizes

Our school caps classes at 20 students. This not only allows teachers to get more time with each student, but it gives students more opportunities to speak, share, and lead their class members. Allowing students to have so many opportunities to put themselves out there makes it so that what would have petrified me as a child becomes completely normal.

In my class, a math leader leads the rest of the students in correcting the problem of the day every morning. With my tiny class of 12 students, each one gets to be the teacher and call on their peers twice a month. At the beginning of the year, I had a few who were still quite shy, but now they all absolutely love taking the lead!

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2. Give students leadership opportunities

In addition to opportunities for students to be the teacher, our school puts an emphasis on allowing students to take ownership of their learning through

  • group projects and presentations
  • sharing learning by inviting other classes/parents to come see a project they’ve done
  • having classes lead every assembly

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3. Praise students for confidence and risk-taking

One of my favorite parts of the PYP curriculum is the PYP Attitudes and the IB Learner Profile, which are presented to the students as important parts of what makes a good student. One of the PYP Attitudes is “confidence” and one of the IB Learner Profile traits is being a “risk-taker.”

Everyone in the school, then, uses these two words as positive goals to work toward. In fact, when a student shows hesitation to try something new, you’ll hear their friends say, “Just try it! Be a risk-taker.” Or “Be confident, you can do it!”

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Although obviously I have no way of knowing what kind of a student I would have been had I attended a school that prioritized confidence as much as the one I teach at today, I can see the amazing benefits of it in all of my students and hope to see more schools do exactly this.

How do you build confidence in your students? Please share below!

By @SGroshell

“The What” vs. “The How” of Education

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After reading the above tweet, I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea that we may very well spend too much time talking about what we should teach rather than how we should teach. And the more I think about it, the more I crave conversations that concern the how of educationLearning-focused conversation is learner and pedagogy focused – The how not the what. If I had the power to singlehandedly change the conversation in education, I’d ask that we make a shift in the following ways:

Stop Talking So Much About What Curriculum We Should Be Using, and Start Talking About How to Facilitate Learning in the 21st Century.

Since I began teaching only a short time ago, I have seen schools go from local standards, to national standards, to international standards. Never during these changes was I privy to training on how to implement these standards with the best 21C teaching practices. It was always more important to document what I was doing, than how I was doing it. Even the Common Core website seemed to foresee this implementation strategy:

“. . these standards establish what students need to learn but do not dictate how teachers should teach. Instead, schools and teachers will decide how best to help students reach the standards.”

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How different things might have been in terms of buy-in by teachers for Common Core if we had known the strategies to implement these standards in the most research-based and pedagogically sound ways?

Stop Talking So Much About What Learning Platform We Should Be Using, and Start Talking About How We Can Redefine the Learning Environment.

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I’ve written before about different tech tools that I have found useful, such as Seesaw for portfolios, and Moodle as a learning platform for my elementary class. But I’ve found that most any tool can be tweaked and modified to fit any purpose; To use some SAMR-speak for a moment, teachers can Substitute with Edmodo just as they can Redefine with Edmodo. It is precisely for this reason that I get so tired of conversations over which learning platform is best. Rather than looking at How blended learning can take place, we are focused on the new-kid technology on the block. Changing from Schoology to Google Classroom will not solve any of a school’s problems, because the entire premise of the conversation is based around what is best rather than how is best.

Stop Talking So Much About What is the Best Device, and Start Talking About How We Can Best Integrate Technology.

It is true that there are downsides to tablets – no keyboard, low memory, etc – but the minute you want kids to take pictures and video you’ll find that there are also downsides to laptops. The same goes for IOS vs. Windows vs. Chrome, and mobile vs. desktop vs. wearables. Next year, it’s entirely possible that the coolest new gadget will come out and completely change the face of education as we know it.

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Rather than focus on the barriers inherent in any one school-adopted device, I’d like to concentrate more on ways to maximize learning in my classroom. How can we change the relationship between the teacher, the student, and their devices? How do we improve outcomes while promoting 21C skills and attitudes? How can I get the most out of my students and the resources that my school has?

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What do you think? The irony is not lost on me that I have just written an entire post which focuses largely on what we should be talking about as educators, and not as much on how we should be talking about it. . .

Keep coming back to educationrickshaw.com, and please leave a comment or question in the section below!

5 reasons to Drop Math Worksheets and Use “Smart” Online Programs

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To learn a new math skill well, we know that students need to get adequate practice with it – successfully answering a number of problems before considering the skill mastered. Traditionally, students have gotten this practice with photocopied worksheets or a textbook. However, with the technology we now have, online “smart” programs like IXL do the job significantly better than a textbook (or worksheet) ever has. Below I will use my experience with IXL to explain how.

1. Immediate feedback

Giving feedback as quickly as possible is something that’s always on teachers’ minds. We know that immediate feedback is extremely helpful for student learning, but it is impossible in a classroom of more than two or three students to give it to each student during independent practice time.

With IXL, as soon as a student clicks in their answer, there is a little sound (a kind of ding, but surprisingly not an annoying one) and a green bar on top either goes up or down. When students correctly answer questions, the bar will move up and up until it gets to 100% and the child passes. If the answer is incorrect, the bar goes down and an explanation of why appears on the bottom.

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When students get the answer correct, the bar goes up on the top of the screen.

In addition to students being able to learn from their mistakes, feedback is also motivating. Students are proud when they move up. When they move down, they don’t get too frustrated, because it is clear that moving down just means more practice – they can still work to get the certificate.

2. Extra practice on the types of problems students are missing

When a student gets an answer wrong and the bar goes down, more of the same kinds of questions are asked. These same types of problems will continue until the student shows that they now get it, allowing students to get the right amount of extra practice when they need it. No extra copies of revision worksheets are needed.

Additionally, because students are immediately aware that they are having trouble with a certain question type and they are motivated to pass, I’ve found students who are prone to shyness are much more likely to ask for help when they need it.

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Explanation of why answer was wrong

3. Differentiation is seamless

Unlike many online programs, on IXL the teacher doesn’t assign a grade level to the students. Instead, all students have access to all activities. What that means is that if a child is doing extremely well on one topic, they can easily practice one grade level up just for that skill. Likewise, if you notice a student is missing background knowledge for an important subject, you can have them work a grade level down.

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Student view, switching between grade levels

4. Easy to use data to inform your teaching

The Analytics tab on IXL compiles data into the following sections: Trouble Spots, Students, Skills, Scores, Questions Log, Progress and Real Time. My favorite of these is Trouble Spots.

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Easy identification of who might need extra help

Trouble Spots does exactly what the name implies, it looks for areas that you should focus on for small/individual intervention groups. It even chunks the data into groups, for example “Ways to help 5 students at once…” and then tells which kids are missing questions on what skill. To help even more, there are additional questions of the same type for you to use in your small groups. This makes it incredibly easy to give extra help to students who need it while the rest of the class practices independently.

5. The kids LOVE it

I honestly believed that the novelty of the green bar going up and the little ding when you get an answer correct would wear off, but we have just finished the third quarter of the year and my students love IXL as much as they did in the beginning.

Compared to a textbook or practice worksheets, IXL is able to offer the same practice problems, but in such a more effective way.

Has anyone used IXL or another similar online program before? What experiences have you had? Please comment below!

By @SGroshell

How to Set Up a Week of Free Inquiry for Anywhere, Anytime Learning

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When I was just a first year teacher, I placed a lot of value on my ability to control student behaviors. While students were quiet and well-behaved to the passing observer, I could sense that I was not facilitating the kind of learning experiences that I wanted from my teachers during my own education. The relationship between the teacher, the students, and the learning was traditional and strained, and everyday felt like a battle for points and rewards. I felt like I was part drill sergeant, part cheerleader, part disciplinarian, but not at all a teacher.

As my teaching became more and more inquiry based, and more and more student-focused instead of teacher-driven, I began to see that the increased trust that I had for my students did not result in a dramatic increase in unwanted behaviors. In fact, quite the opposite. This year, for the first time, I felt that I had finally built up the structure necessary to facilitate a Week of Free Inquiry, aka a Week Without Walls, or, as my students put it, “College”. For the first time in my career, I had to give up control of movement and control of content as students pursued their own interests wherever and whenever they wanted. Here’s how I did it:

Related: 5 Ways to Give Your Class Back to Your Students

I Organized a Legit Online Learning Environment

When I say legit, I mean legit. There’s no way that you are going to get students to perform at the highest levels in a wall-less physical environment without a dynamic and organized online environment. When my students started the week, they knew how to contact me (e-mail, instant messaging, commenting on assignments) and they knew where and when to find me (in the cafeteria, by online appointment). For weeks I had to build up a wealth of knowledge and skill surrounding the apps on their devices, and I had to foster IT-specific problem-solving skills so that students were able to figure out their IT issues on their own.

I am sure that any robust LMS could be used for a project like this, but I used my class Moodle page (See Moodle in elementary), and students were working on their own school issued iPad throughout the week. Assignments were turned in for review onto their online portfolio (we use Seesaw) and students had their own e-mail addresses. I wish that I had added instant messaging, like WhatsApp or something, to their iPads before the week began, but we communicated fine with just e-mail, Seesaw (see Using Seesaw to Teach Social Media), and the class chat activity on Moodle.

Students Put Together a Game Plan

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As the above sketchnote by @trev_mackenzie suggests, there is indeed a lot of autonomy and independence that comes from true free inquiry. However, even in the illustration we see that there isn’t total, complete freedom. To continue with the pool analogy, the above students may have increased freedom of movement, but they do have to remain in the pool at all times; they are not free to leave the complex without permission. Similarly, they are not allowed to make choices that put others’ safety at risk, or ruin the experience for themselves or others. At all times there is a “guide on the side”, but this guide is much more hands-off than during Guided Inquiry.

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To structure the inquiry I used both of these sketchnotes by @trev_mackenzie. The goal setting (#4) and the calendar (#6) were particularly important in organizing the project.

As students neared their final days of preparation, I had a litany of questions from students to go through, but the main question that kept coming up from my 10 year olds was: Can we do whatever we want? 

I tried to answer this question about the same way every time: This school is a learning space. You can learn whatever you want, however you want, and with whom you want, but you may not choose NO learning. You may take a break whenever you want, but in the end, this project is all about what we can accomplish in one week when we put our minds to it. I think you’ll realize quickly that you’ll need and want every minute that you are given during this special week. 

I Started the Year with a Plan for Gradual Release of Responsibility

There’s no way that a form of learning like this can be possible the first day of school. There are a lot of discussions, mini-lessons and student reflections about how we learn that must take place before a class is ready to embark on a solo journey of this magnitude. Gradual release does ultimately mean giving up the responsibility to the students. I knew my class was ready to take on this project when I felt that they had proven mastery of certain skills at least a few times before in a variety of guided inquiry sequences.

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This one pic says it all about how my class has developed. Idea wall and green screen in the back, flexible seating, blended learning, conferencing, and engagement, engagement, engagement. The students pursuing their own learning is at the center of every experience, not me.

You also have to accept that some students may take longer during the year to get to a point of independence where they will get anything out of a week of free inquiry. For those students, I put them with partners that I knew I could trust to move them along, and I checked in on them more frequently than I did other students. I tried to make sure that their failures at the end were limited to the product rather than the process, i.e. a bad final project, but abundant learning nonetheless.

I Proceeded with the Mantra of “Never Work Harder than Your Students”

After taking attending a workshop at the 2016 Africa Ed Conference in Johannesburg, South Africa by Karen Boyes called Never Work Harder Than Your Students, Let Them Do the Thinking, I began to see how the onus has to be on the student to take responsibility for their learning. When my teaching was teacher-directed, I was doing all of the work, and the students were merely passive consumers of information.

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Why do a song and dance and waste all of your energy while students passively watch the show? Let them do the thinking. Let them plan their path forward. We teachers sometimes just need to get out of the way.

After the workshop, I was very clear with my students about my new expectations: I should never be working harder than any of you! And if I am, then you’re not doing your job right and I’m not doing my job right. This idea of never working harder than your students was critical when I began the Week of Free Inquiry because I had to come to grips with what it meant to release all responsibility to the students as I sat back with a cup of coffee while waiting for my next appointment with a student group.

I Trusted and They Pulled Through

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Our class culture is built around mutual admiration and respect between learning partners. The traditional top-down relationship between teacher and student is virtually gone, replaced with a “learning partnership” model.

In the end of the day, building relationships with students to make them better people is why I became a teacher. I wouldn’t expect a teacher that feels differently and puts less of a value on relationship building to be able to pull off the Week of Free Inquiry. It takes really getting to know your students’ strengths and weaknesses, and really building a culture of trust and a love of learning. Because I trusted them, and they respect me to the point that they will go to the ends of the earth to impress me, they were able to accomplish amazing things during this highly unstructured time.

What do you think? Could your kids pull off a Week of Free Inquiry? Are you ready to tear down the walls and let them be free? Be sure to follow me on Twitter and check out @SGroshell’s Teachers Pay Teachers account.

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How can Moodle be used in Elementary?

My current international school is an extremely forward thinking institution with its heavy emphasis on C21 learning, including blended and personalized learning concepts and ideas. While there are many adopted technologies in our school, such as Seesaw for portfolio and social media use, our school-wide LMS is a Moodle-based platform called KICSLearns. While most people are familiar with Moodle as a learning platform used in universities, there isn’t much out there on using this open-source LMS in elementary schools.

I created a video tour for teachers and parents alike to get a better idea of how Moodle can be used in elementary. I hope you enjoy!

Would this work for your school? As always, thanks for the visit and please keep coming back to educationrickshaw.com! Also, check out our TPT.

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The CODA Perspective on Teaching and Learning

I am the child of a Deaf mother, emphasis on the capital D. CODA has been a term used by some to refer to a “Child Of a Deaf Adult”, aka me. American Sign Language is one of my two home languages – and the one that I spend restless night practicing to the ceiling.

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My mom’s classroom of Deaf and hard-of-hearing preschoolers

It wasn’t until recently that I started to see my mother’s identity as a Deaf woman and a teacher of the Deaf as having a profound influence on my teaching practice. Let me explain.

For us CODAs. . .

Differentiation Comes More Naturally

My mom has to live in a world where many people prefer to communicate by speaking and hearing. While it’s easy to assume that most people have the decency to write their words on a piece of paper to explain something to my mom at a Jiffy Lube, I grew up seeing example after example of poor communication and a lack of differentiation from hearing people of all walks of life.

Maybe that’s why it always seemed like a no-brainer to me that teachers provide a variety of visual and audio cues for students, and to provide opportunities for students to produce work in the formats that suit them. Sometimes a whole class discussion can be intimidating; Use an online forum once in awhile. Some kids like to read by themselves; Create a balanced reading program in your classroom so that kids have the opportunity to read in multiple ways. There are many, many ways to get that “snapshot of learning”, and they don’t all have to be teacher directed or written by hand on a piece of paper.

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Check out this wikihow on How to Communicate with Deaf People

Which brings us to. . .

Technology is Ubiquitous

If you just started reading here, my mom is Deaf, meaning that she cannot hear out of both ears and uses American Sign Language and English to communicate with people. The technology that I grew up watching my mother use has improved dramatically. I have to admit that I am a bit nostalgic right now thinking back at the old days of the TTY and the phone operators, and how that has now been replaced by the iPhone in my mom’s pocket.

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Things have changed so fast, but let’s be clear: We were using that 1980’s device (TTY) throughout the nineties and well into the 2000’s.

While my mom would be first to admit that she is not the most tech-savvy teacher, I wonder if somewhere between the vibrating mattress alarm clock and the flashing doorbell did I start to conceptualize technology differently than if I had been brought up in a hearing household.

In my view, technology should be completely ubiquitous during the learning process. Why some teachers still see technology as a completely separate entity and subject that has no connection to learning is beyond me. In a 21st Century-minded classroom, a student’s device is as ubiquitous as a wall clock, and a teacher plans for ways to maximize learning without focusing on any one tool or device.

Noisy is Overrated

There’s definitely been a trend in recent years to focus on aesthetics more than on evidence of student learning. My Twitter Feed is always full of teachers and administrators professing a “new” messy and noisy style of learning. Now, while my classroom can get that way when the task fits the learning, you can also find my entire class sitting around with headphones while diligently completing a project.

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They’re not flopping under tables with exercise balls and wearing beanbag hats, so they must not be learning!!

My mom’s classroom (which was also my classroom when I was in preschool) is an entirely silent place, but with a lot of language going on. Students are signing, sharing, playing and fighting in the quietest preschool you’ve ever seen. Whether or not you’re a control freak or a laissez-faire style teacher, a classroom shouldn’t always be noisy, and it should definitely never be deafening. Take a page out of a Deaf teacher’s classroom and have a silent day or hour to celebrate the inaudible sounds of learning.

Respect for Home Language and Language Minorities

Raised during a time when sign language has become increasingly threatened by the hearing folks that prefer an implant-only approach for their Deaf children, rather than learning a bit of sign language, I see home language as an important part of my students’ identities.

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Loss of home language is especially an important issue in the international teaching circuit, where many students’ school language is interfering with the students’ retention of their home language. When a child loses their home language to the point that they are no longer comfortable speaking or signing it, it’s nearly impossible to see the transfer of home language to the next generation. It gets even worse for language minorities without a sizable population or community in a child’s host country that can help support home language acquisition.

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Deafness is such a part of my life that it may have even found its way into my teaching. I hope you enjoyed this and other articles you have read at educationrickshaw.com, and I promise that I will keep on signing all of my ideas for blog posts to the ceiling on restless nights.

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