What Does Learning Really Look Like?

I’ve faced myriad challenges in the last 8 months getting a new program at my school off of the ground. I’ve stood in front of a school board that accused me of designing a program aimed at skimming the best and brightest students off of the top, despite the diversity of the students enrolled. I’ve heard the rumblings and rumors by those on my campus who are not thrilled by my desire to try something new. But the biggest challenge is trying to get my students to rethink what it means to be a learner and rethink what learning looks like.

For most of their education, my students have spent their days in classrooms where the teacher was the primary source of information. They’ve been conditioned to sit in assigned seats, take notes, and listen quietly. It was naïve of me to think I could change their perception of learning over night.

In N.E.W. School, we do not have a seating chart. My teaching partner, Marika Neto, and I want our students to create their own learning environment each day to support and enhance the work they are doing in that moment.

We believe the first step in creating is creating your learning environment.Click To Tweet However, that level of autonomy and flexibility is new and unfamiliar to students who have been given few opportunities to make decisions about how and where they learn.

Marika and I rarely stand at the front of the room and talk. If we need to transfer information, like science notes, vocabulary, and writing tutorials, we use the flipped classroom model so students can control the time, place, and pace of their own learning.

We intentionally don’t use our valuable time together in class to lecture. Instead, we use that time to get students exploring, researching, collaborating, and, ultimately, leading the learning.

The best gift I can give my students is to teach them how to learn.Click To Tweet I want them to leave my classroom confident in their ability to continue learning long after we’ve said “adieu.”

We also strive to make learning experiential in N.E.W. School. We want students to get their hands on learning. Too often students are relegated to passive learners. We want them to be active participates in the learning that happens in N.E.W. School.

In the last two weeks, students have been learning about the digestive system to complement their reading of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and our research into diet, food production, and health. Instead of projecting a power point and walking students through the process of digestion, Marika designed a “how to make poop” lab. Sounds gross, right? Talk about a great way to hook students. Just tell them they will be making poop!

Students broke into teams and each team simulated a part of the digestive system. The students mashed up food to simulate teeth and chewing, the mashed food passed through a paper towel tube (aka. esophagus) and into a big plastic bag, the stomach, where it was mixed and mashed some more. Then students squeezed the food through a nylon stocking to represent the small intestine, and so on through the digestive system. They followed the path food takes through our bodies in a hands-on lab that I am sure few students will forget.


Even though student engagement during this lab was extremely high and their resulting multimedia blogs reflected a deep understanding of the digestive system, some students still feel like they are missing some key component of learning because it doesn’t look like the work they are doing in other classes.

The truth is that experiential learning requires students engage with information and with each other. This requires more energy, effort, and focus than sitting in a seat listening to someone else talk. It requires that they take a central role in their learning.

My hope is that learning and being excited about the work they are doing in N.E.W. School will become its own reward, and over time they’ll begin to appreciate that learning takes many forms. It should be fun, engaging, and student-centered.

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Favorite English Tools: New Features for the New School Year

The new school year has ushered in some exciting new features in some of my favorite tools! Here are some of the fresh new features offered this year…


One of my favorite features in StudySync are the Blasts! Blasts focus on real issues that matter to kids. They provide background on the topic, include research links, and allow students to engage in a Twitter-like (140 character) conversation with their peers about a wide range of topics. Now, Blasts are available at 3 different Lexile levels to accommodate a range of reading abilities within a single class! I can have all of my students reading about the same issue, but I can subtly differentiate with this new feature.

StudySync is also adding reading comprehension questions to their readings! The questions are varied and presented in different forms, like multiple choice and drag and drop. They quickly assess student comprehension making it easier for teachers to identify students who are struggling or concepts that need to be retaught or practiced.

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CommonLit has made their library easier to search and added text-dependent questions. Teachers can search the library by Lexile level, theme, genre, devices or standards. Each reading is also paired with questions that drive students back to the reading making these readings a great way to practice using textual evidence in writing.



Remind.com is my go-to communication tool! I can message entire classes, groups of students, individual students, and parents with announcements, reminders, and resources. Now, Remind has made it possible to organize field trips, fundraisers, and special events!



Previously, Vocabulary.com was only available for a large school or district-wide purchase. This year, they’ve made it available for individual teachers to purchase. It isn’t cheap, but teachers looking to help students develop vocabulary may want to consider the investment because Vocabulary.com uses adaptive software to adjust to each individual student’s performance. Teachers just enter the list of words and Vocabulary.com creates all of the review activities.


If there are tools you love that are offering new and exciting features for this school year, please post a comment and share!

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21st Century Version of Ask 3 Before You Ask Me

The first month of school is exhausting! New students, new routines, and, for many of us, new curriculum. Getting kids acclimated to all the newness spurs a lot (and I mean a lot) of questions. In an effort to save my own sanity and teach students how to be independent and resourceful, I put a technology spin on the old adage, “Ask 3 before you ask me.”

It’s not just that I am wild about technology. I also want to model what I do when I have a question. I’m not always in a room surrounded by colleagues when I get stuck or need help, so my 3 is Google, YouTube, and social media.

First, ask Google. 

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Sure, students need some tips for getting the most out of Google and filtering through the results, but we go over all of that together in the first few weeks. After they get an introduction to the Google search engine and know how to use it effectively, then it should be their first stop.

No luck with Google?

Second stop, search for a YouTube tutorial. 

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Today’s learners are increasingly visual. They love pictures and videos, which makes YouTube a fantastic resource for students. They can search for video tutorials on topics ranging from citing properly to making elaborate rubber band bracelets, which my daughter learned to do by watching a series of videos.

No entertaining tutorials?

Third stop, ask people on social media.

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An increasing number of students are already using social media to connect with people, so why not encourage them to tap into their social network to find information on a topic or troubleshoot a problem?

When I’ve done a Google search and checked out YouTube videos and still cannot figure something out, I ask the Twittersphere. Within minutes I have a half dozen responses with links to online resources or suggestions to connect with specific individuals who might be able to help.

Now, instead of just asking 3 people who happen to be in the same classroom, students can ask Google, YouTube, and social media. Ultimately, I think teaching this new version of ask 3 before you ask me will make our students more self-sufficient learners when they leave our classrooms.

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