Toggling: How This Old-School Process Can Help Struggling Learners Today

By definition, to “toggle” is to join one thing to another, or (in its verb form) to move from one thing to another. As education continues to draw on the wisdom of brain development and neuroscience, the process of “toggling” is on the cusp of becoming the new buzzword, the hot new technique in education. The irony lies in the fact that parents, educators, and families have been doing this for generations! Toggling, as it is used in neurodevelopment, applies to the process of moving from one concrete educational activity to one that reinforces the same general principle, but in a less formal manner. For example, students can memorize the names of the continents, but rote memorization does little to actually increase knowledge or create a scaffold upon which to build more complex understanding of geography. Toggling, in this situation, might be to have students use a puzzle of the world to reinforce the skill of identifying the continents. Another example might be to have students color maps of the continents or read/listen to a story about a character who travels the world, jumping from continent to continent.

If this sounds a lot like the kindergarten/early elementary classrooms you remember as a child, you’d be right! The shift toward more qualitative educational strategies has pushed many of these supplemental activities off the table, but for many students, these activities are the gateway to learning!

How does toggling work? Toggling allows learning to occur in a passive manner. Put another way, toggling is when learning takes place “in the background.” That explanation might make toggling seem like a quaint and novel concept, but here’s the thing about toggling: it is essential to learning!

Memory (and learning) is constructed from neural pathways that are non-linear, but that fire together in the brain as patterns. Neuroscientists call these “base patterns.” We link ideas and memories together in an infinite number of combinations, and these combinations are constantly being modified and enhanced through sensory stimuli. Scientists have long known that to increase a memory or skill, one should attach it to as many senses as possible, in large part because the brain patterning is enhanced each time new stimuli from the brain correlates with that same memory or skill. To say it plainly, the more ways we can engage students in learning, using multiple senses, environments, and experiences, the more likely they are to remember it and be able to apply it later. More importantly, toggling allows for the brain to “work around” difficulties like dyslexia or hyperactivity or even personal preconceptions about what students are “good at.” These kinds of barriers can be side-stepped when we employ toggling to reconnect learners to information!

How can you use toggling to help your learner? Go outside and play catch or ride bikes while talking about concepts from school that day. Ask your son or daughter to help you roll out cookie dough and talk about his or her spelling words, science topic or history facts. If you homeschool, toggling can look the same way as I just described or you can employ any of the ideas above. Take a day off from textbook learning to play a math-based board game! Build cities from ancient history out of LEGOs while listening to an audiobook on the same topic! Curricula like “The Story Of The World” and Writing With Ease offer lots of ways for students to practice “learning in the background.” The key to toggling is to downshift learning from the structure of concrete instruction. Allow kids to play more, interact with as many sensory experiences as possible, and use their imaginations!

Homeschool Writing – News and Editorials

groundhogdayThis past election cycle made my job as a teacher very difficult.  It seemed as though each week, some conversation would start up about the presidential election.  As someone who ardently believes that middle school and high school students need a safe space to explore their ideas and opinions in a respectful, factual way, it was always tricky to maintain a free and open environment for those conversations! We opened the new semester exploring news reporting, and it couldn’t have come at a more relevant time!

For the past three weeks, my hsap kids and I have been busy learning about the 5 W’s of good news writing. We have had great conversations about the role of journalism and how much journalism relies on research (pre-writing) and fact-checking. While I required their news stories to be timely, true and have broad appeal, there were those students who found it difficult to leave their biases behind.  Thankfully, we have transitioned into editorial writing; just in time for those who could not wait for the editorial opportunity to share their opinions!

Here is a PowerPoint presentation I used last week to not only introduce editorial writing, but also to help the younger students grasp the concepts behind good opinion writing.  OREOS, anyone?

editorial-cartoons-opinion-writing oreos-image

We will soon use the skills from news writing and opinion writing to launch us into a mini-unit on debate! Can’t wait!

By Student Request: The Book List

One of my writing and book club students came to me about a month ago and said that she had set the big goal of reading 300 books this year! How exciting, right!?! The problem was that she was running out of ideas for book titles.  I immediately knew that I would give her a copy of this master book list I found online about a year prior, while seeking out titles for my own kids to read.  Ever since I gave this student “the list,” I have had others come and ask me for a copy.  So here it is, the master list! More book titles than you can shake a stick at, and definitely more than I could read in a single summer!


In The Footsteps of Giants: TED Talk Examples

Students will begin giving their TED-style speeches next week at Enrichment. Often, the best preparation for something like this is to really watch how others have done the same thing.  While our speeches will only be 3-5 minutes in length, the following TED Talks help demonstrate some of the best ways to use humor, visual aids, and even a script, for your own TED Talk.  (*Pay close attention to the eye contact of the speakers and the tone of voice used. Practice your speeches in a mirror to perfect these skills yourself!)

Former Vice-President Al Gore gives a humorous, but effective TED Talk using PowerPoint slides. Watch his speech HERE.

Author Isabel Allende demonstrates how to give a passionate TED Talk standing behind a lectern, with a script. Check out her speech HERE.

Journalist Stephen Petranek speaks from behind a lectern, with a script, and using slides. This is very close what most of you have suggested doing for your speeches. Check out his example HERE.



Book Club resources: To Kill a Mockingbird

My hsap book club members have been participating in some very insightful conversations about our current book, To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.  For instance, this week, we took part in a “gallery walk,” looking at photos of people and places from the South during the same era.  Students watched a video depicting life under Jim Crow, and read essays about code-switching and life during the Great Depression.

Afterwards, students paired up to make character icebergs! We know that most of an iceberg lies below the surface, hidden to most people.  We took a closer look at characters like Boo Radley, Scout, and Calpernia to analyze which traits can be seen from the surface and which ones are kept below the surface, but appear throughout the novel.  We also used the iceberg metaphor to help better understand why some characters behave the way they do.

Lastly, students are finishing the novel this week! For those students who may be struggling to keep up with the readings, they can use free audiobook resources like the one here. Students can hear actress Sissy Spacek read individual chapters, or even the entire book!

Finish strong! This one is a page-turner, especially throughout the trial! And remember to picture Scout, going ahead of the group, watching it all and relaying the information back to us, in true first-person narrator style!


The Power of Their Ideas

WAY back in college, I read a fantastic book titled “The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons for America from a Small School in Harlem” by Deborah Meier.  This week, I was reminded of just how powerful students’ ideas can be, even if they don’t know how great their ideas are at the time. I hope these two links can help you stay motivated as we approach our second full workday for our Genius Hour projects.

Last month, one of my 6th grade writing students delivered a speech on hunger in America.  In his speech, he suggested that we could find a way to refrigerate leftovers and share those leftovers with the hungry people in our community.  That student might not have had any concrete ideas on how to go about solving the refrigeration issue at the time, but a community on the other side of the planet was busy at work devising a solution to the very same issue.  Check it out here. 

Sometimes, we stumble upon inspiration for learning in the most unlikely of places.  One young student was reading a magazine while in the waiting room of doctor’s office when a spark was ignited.  Another, was grieving the loss of her grandfather to cancer.  Check out these inspiring young women and their amazing TED Talk. They are a true testament to the power of everyday people (under the age of 18) who asked questions, sought answers and made a difference.

Stay curious!!




Project Pitches for Genius Hour

Are you ready for start your Genius Hour project?  Not so fast!  First, you’ll have to “sell” me on your research idea by giving a speedy, 60-second project pitch.  Based on your pitch, you will either be approved to move on or sent back to the drawing board to refine your idea.  If working under pressure isn’t your thing, print out the pitch hand-out and begin prepping for tomorrow.  60-Second Project Pitch

Still need a little inspiration? Check out these effective project pitches created by students just like you!

Genius Hour What and Why (a video explanation for parents)

Last night, I hosted a parents meeting to introduce parents to the concept of the Genius Hour and explain to them how and why I planned to implement a Genius Hour as a replacement for the traditional research report. The support was overwhelming!  Still, some folks were unable to attend the meeting, and for them, I wanted to share a brief video explaining what exactly is a Genius Hour.

Now that we know what a Genius Hour is, some may be wondering WHY?  In my writing classes, I have students in grades 6-12.  By the numbers alone, I have to steer my teaching methods to cover six years of academic development, with five of those grades being in a single class together! Not only does Genius Hour enable me to guide students through the research process in a personalized, meaningful way, the science behind HOW and WHY we learn makes the concept of a Genius Hour, well….genius!

One of the things I asked parents to do for me during this research project was to let their children struggle.  Ask them meaningful questions that may help them work through the problem they are experiencing rather than giving them the ready answer.  (For example, if Will comes to me frustrated that he doesn’t know what to do next for his project, my response can be to say, “Tell me how you got here? Where do you think you could find the answer for your problem?” This is essentially asking a student to intellectually retrace their steps to help them find the answer.)  Most importantly, these types of scenarios are the precise moments when true learning occurs. We are not only teaching our students how to problem-solve, but we let them know that we believe THEY CAN resolve their problem on their own, with a little guidance. This creates (or reinforces) a growth mindset. Studies overwhelming show that students with a growth mindset not only fair better in school, academically, but they exhibit more self-worth and resiliency in life beyond the school years!

I will continue to share videos of student TED Talks, Q & A, and other resources as we work through the next eight weeks.  In the meantime, please know how excited I am, and how proud I am, of each one of our students! They represent homeschooling and YOU, very, very well!

Pep Talk and Prep Work – Day 1 of The Genius Hour

Thursday’s writing classes started off with a little pep talk, not just for the students, but for me, also. Let’s face it, it’s hard to do something completely different!  Building on what we learned in our 6-week speech unit, but allowing students to explore topics of their own choosing, all while bolstering language arts principles meant that I needed to be  BOLD and BRAVE in my approach to this next unit! My comfort zone lies somewhere between organized textbook curriculum and hands-on project-based learning, but this was a departure, even for me! What would the parents say? How would I implement this across 6 grades and myriad writing abilities?  Needless to say, sometimes we all need a little pep talk to help us take the leap.


First Things First

What is a genius hour? The genius hour concept, also known as 20% Time or Passion Projects allow students the freedom to explore topics that THEY select. The concept came from the tech giant, Google. Google wondered what would happen if people were allowed to spend 20% of their work week on something they were really curious or passionate about? (Prior to Google, 3M had employed a similar strategy and thus, the Post-It was born!)  What Google found was that these “passion projects” actually made their employees more innovative and productive. Products like gmail and google + both came out of genius hour inquiries.

This semester, we will use what is known as the “Engineering Design Process” to  frame our projects.  Students will begin by asking questions.  “What am I interested in?” “What are my talents?” “what am I curious about?”  I used a modified version of the forms used on the Runde’s Room website. Scan_20160308 (2)

From those questions, we will begin to sift through topics that will eventually form the base of our guiding question.  Guiding questions are great because they help us filter all of the information that is seemingly at our fingertips nowadays.

Once we have our guiding questions, the researching begins! Students will gather information and data from all kinds of sources, make connections, draw conclusions, and test theories.  It is important to note that Genius Hour projects aren’t graded on the success of the final project.  Instead, students will write outlines for a final presentation that will be recorded (a la TED Talks).  In their presentation, students will share what they learned, where they succeeded and where their failed. They will share their insights and reflect on what they may do differently next time.  These “TED Talks” will then be available to view on our district YOU TUBE channel, as well as at the Share Fair in May.

If this seems like a lot of work, you’re right!  But I can not wait to see what we have gained as a result of the trying! In life, I believe that whether you win or you lose, you are always better off for having tried.  Perhaps we will find that this Genius Hour things is a great way to motivate and inspire our learners, and maybe we will learn some valuable lessons to the contrary. For certain though, the students will gain the benefit of stepping out of their own comfort zones and knowing that I am right out there on the ledge alongside of them!


Finishing Strong – A Satisfying Outline Pt. 2

Satisfying Outline Pt. 2

Final speeches are just a few days away! I am amazed at how quickly 6 weeks can fly by! For those of you still working on your speeches, I have a few more notes to help you out with everything from your transitions to conclusions. Check out the power point above for all you need to know to finish strong!