Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Fun with Time and Date (dot com)

I use this handy-dandy little website every once in a while, and it's nice to see that an old stand-by gets more useful with time by adding new applications and goodies.

It started out with basic things like time zone maps, a service to look up the time in major world cities (very handy when making overseas phone calls and you're too jet lagged to remember if you're ahead or behind of your loved ones' time - and too tired to read a time zone map), and another to build custom monthly or yearly calendars. Of course, it still does those useful things, but you can also look up sunrise and sunset times, count down to the New Year (also available as an iPhone app!), figure out meeting times across times zones (nice for webinars with people from the East Coast, West Coast, and Midwest altogether), calculate the distance between two cities, such as Minneapolis, MN and Albequerque, NM, and look up the phases of the moon.

So if you and your learners are working on geography, calendar reading, learning about time zones, or any of the other functions on this site, you might find it useful - even if it's just to print out a monthly calendar for your class.

Here's the website again: Enjoy!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Lessons from Christmases Past

The first years I worked in ABE, I taught in an evening computer lab with students of all levels and backgrounds. Each class in the program had one time slot a week for computer time, rotating through for 45-60 minutes each. Most of the classes were English language classes, but there was also one basic skills class and one GED class. For whatever reason, most of the ABE and GED students (and their teachers) weren't really interested in learning computer skills, and made very little use of the computer time allotted to them. But there was one student in that group who came down to my lab every week for several months, and of all the hundreds (maybe thousands) of adult learners I have worked with through the years, he's one that I will never forget.

His name was Greg, and he was a Native American man of indeterminate age (I was just a young mid-twenties - anybody over 30 seemed "middle aged" to me then!), possessed of a quiet, calm demeanor and a serious lack of confidence in himself. He had been in treatment for alcohol abuse, but was now living in a half-way house, trying to make his way towards a better future for himself. He had already gotten his GED but was brushing up on some skills before trying to get into technical college.

Being somewhat older, wiser, and more emotionally stable than his peers at the halfway house, he had come to be in something of a leadership position there. One of his responsibilities was keeping minutes of meetings and ledgers of expenses. The reason he came to the computer lab was so that he could learn how to do these tasks on the computer instead of writing things longhand. So I taught him how to use word processing software: how to use "tab" to line income and expenses up into neat rows, how to save to a disk, find his file from the previous week, print his work, etc.

At first he was pretty shy, and he always was a quiet and reserved sort of person. But as the months went by we struck up a real friendship. While we worked together on his computer skills we chatted about all sorts of other topics, and got to know each other pretty well. He really was a sweet guy, and I enjoyed working with him a lot.

For both of us, it was a great experience. For me as a teacher, it was really refreshing to work with someone who was so motivated, really liked learning, and was generally just easy to get along with. Besides that, all my other classes were full groups of 12-20 non-native speakers of English, which are super fun to teach but really wear me out. Working one-to-one was dream! And for Greg it was a chance to learn in a really safe environment, where he could ask any question he wanted and get as much or as little help as he needed. I could tell he was really excited by what he was learning, and it made him feel like a real leader in his house when he could demonstrate to some of the younger and wilder young men he lived with how he was improving himself and learning "cool" computer skills. It was obvious how proud he was of himself. For me it was really rewarding to watch his confidence grow as he became more and more proficient.

Around the end of the year, he decided to move back to North Dakota (where he was originally from) and apply to a local technical college. On the last evening of class before winter break he brought me a little Christmas present - small package of chocolates. I'll never forget what he said when he gave them to me: "Thank you for teaching me this year. You make me feel like I can do anything." I almost cried, right there in the computer lab. And to this day, it ranks up there with one of the most sincere, most touching, and nicest things anyone has ever said to me.

Every year since then I think about Greg when winter break approaches. I wonder what ever happened to him - if he made it in college and continued on the upward spiral he was on when I last saw him. I sure hope so. He deserves a good, stable life and I hope he got it. When I think of him I remember how powerful our work as ABE teachers really can be - how we can truly share the power of learning with the individuals we serve, and change lives forever. The computer skills I taught Greg were simple to me, something many of us take for granted. But to him they were exciting, powerful symbols of his own competence and intelligence. To the toughest audience in the world - the internal one - together we proved that he could do anything he set his mind to do.

Though your students might not have the language skills or the ability to overcome their shyness and tell you this themselves, trust me - you're doing this job too. Everyday you help adults develop their own pride, self-confidence, and innate abilities.

Happy holidays, ABE teachers and volunteers everywhere!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Podcasting: a Piece of Cake?

In preparation for an upcoming workshop on podcasting and audio tools for the ABE/ESL classroom, I've been testing out a free tool from CLEAR called Broadcasts. CLEAR is a federally funded language resource center, and they create, host, and share free tools for language educators. Broadcasts is intended to give teachers a simple, hassle-free, no special software required way to produce a podcast.

In a nutshell, it's podcasting made quick-and-dirty: easy to use, but no bells and whistles. Which is just right, I think, for the average teacher who doesn't need bells and whistles, and doesn't have much time for creative projects like podcasting! Using Broadcasts, teachers can get up and running and publishing a podcast in a matter of minutes, rather than hours or days. Here's how to use it:

Step 1: Go to and sign up for a free account.
Step 2: Test your audio recording setup using CLEAR's built-in Flash recording tool.
Step 3: From the list of applications, choose Broadcasts.
Step 4: Click Documentation to get step-by-step instructions. Print, and read!
Step 5: Or, skip that and just try it out! Click New Channel, then New Episode and dive right in to recording.
Step 6: Click Publish this Channel.
Step 7: Click the RSS icon next to your channel's name to view your channel's feed. The URL for this page is what you want to give to your students so they can subscribe via iTunes or Google Reader. Make a note of this because it's not always easy to find it again, especially if you subscribe using iTunes yourself.

So, now you've published your first podcast! How do your students subscribe so they can listen to you?

These instructions are for iTunes, and they will take you to my first podcast! You can listen to me testing out the Broadcasts tool.

Step 1: Get iTunes (if you don't already have it) from:
Step 2: Click Advanced then Subscribe to Podcast. In the pop-up window, enter the url for the podcast. Mine is: (If you already use iTunes to subscribe to podcasts, this may pop up automatically if you click on the link.)
Step 3: iTunes will download the podcast. Double-click to listen.

Please check out my first podcast and give me some feedback. I hope I'll be able to continue podcasting in the new year. Let me know if you would enjoy getting tech teaching tips this way.

PS: The web address for Broadcasts that I gave in my podcast was not quite correct. Use the one above instead!

English for Work Interactive Goes Online

The English for Work Interactive Video Series, created by former MLC - Arlington Hills Learning Center teacher Bethany Gustafson, was designed to give students the vocabulary and language to succeed at work they were already doing in the hopes this would help prepare them for supervisory positions. Previously only available on a Windows-Compatible CD-ROM, the videos and accompanying lesson planning aids are now available for download and on-demand streaming on the Minneapolis ABE web server.

Their new home on the web is:

The English for Work videos and accompanying materials were developed through a Minnesota Literacy Council technology curriculum mini-grant. For more information on the technology mini-grants, including links to other FREE materials and updates about this year's projects, go to:

Monday, December 7, 2009

Visualizing Word Relationships

From a young age I've had a fascination with "word books." I'll admit to being one of those kids who sometimes sat down and read the dictionary... you know the ones who are just infatuated with words? My older brother gave me a hard cover thesaurus for a high school graduation gift. It was one of the best gifts I got, and probably the only one (except for the Samsonite luggage my parents gave me) that I still own and use.

If I were a kid today, I'd probably be just as fascinated with the new "visual thesaurus" online tools that are springing up on the Internet. These tools represent word relationships in a sort of web, showing the connections that are close as a knot of tightly grouped words, the loose connections sort of drifting away on a tether, the antonyms in an opposing color, and so on. By displaying information visually, they tell us something about words and the relationships among them that I don't think I can quite get from my old thesaurus. For this reason I think they might make a helpful tool for adult learners, especially those who are grappling with complicated vocabulary.

There are several tools available online. The simplest is the "Lightweight Visual Thesaurus" at It's free and has a really clean, simple interface. The most elaborate is probably, but sadly, it's not free (except for a two-week trial). My personal favorite is It's free and it has several really sweet features, including: zooming in on words using the scroll button on your mouse, displaying different kinds of relationships with different styles of color-coded connectors (dashed lines, arrows, etc.) and also showing the parts of speech using color coding.

Try them out and let me know what you think! If you know of another visual thesaurus that I missed, please let me know and I'll include it.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Minneapolis' ABE Online Activity List has Moved

If you were a fan of the Minneapolis ABE Online Activity List ( I'm sure you have discovered that it's gone!

The content, however, has not disappeared forever. It is being reorganized and republished on a new site:

As my friend Nathan at Minneapolis ABE said in his FaceBook announcement:

You may have used our on line activity list in the past. In fact, it is our number one hit on google. (
It is a wonderful resource, but has been a behemoth to maintain. In fact, I don't believe it has been updated since 2007. We are testing an itty bitty page driven by an itty bitty database, that will hopefully be easier to update and maintain. Take a look:, and feel free to give feed back [there], or on the FaceBook group page.
So please update your Favorites/Bookmarks and keep the online learning going!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Immigrant Communities Using Media to Educate for Improved Health

New Routes to Community Health is a program / project based in Wisconsin that is using immigrant-created media (video, podcasts, radio programs, etc.) to educate immigrant communities about health-related issues.

Media projects include videos and audio programs that discuss issues as diverse as H1N1 flu, sexually transmitted diseases, childhood obesity, and mental illness & depression. All media projects can be accessed on their website at

Although the majority of the media resources are not in English (and thus not so applicable for English language learning projects) they provide a wealth of information to the immigrant adults we serve in ABE programs. Take a few moments to explore their site (click media to view examples) and share the information with your learners.

Here's one example of the content from their site:

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Students got cell phones? Try Poll Everywhere

Poll Everywhere is a service that allows you to get feedback from your audience (as a presenter) or class (as a teacher) and represent that feedback as a graph LIVE as it comes in. You can display results in a web browser or in a Power Point slide.

If your students are hooked on cell phone text messaging, Poll Everywhere gives you a tool to hook them into your lesson using a medium they know and love.

Here is an example of a Poll Everywhere poll, which accepts either text message input or input from this web widget. Try it out at

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Computer Skills Needed for Successful Transitions

Fresh on the heels of the ABE Transitions conference, here is further confirmation of the need our adult learners have for computer skills training. In this news report from Minnesota Public Radio about a new program called "Free Geek" (which aims to address the "digital divide" in the Twin Cities) an adult learner at MCTC plans to participate in the program because:

Going back to college has been a big adjustment, especially when it comes to technology. His professors require assignments to be submitted online...

"It's kind of embarrassing to be the oldest student in class and to be the most challenged and then to have to hand in the paper hard copy. They just look at me and think I'm a grandpa," he says.

As adult educators, I think we have a real opportunity to improve the success rate of older adult college students by strengthening their technology skills before they get to this point of feeling stigmatized.

What are you doing in your program to help adult learners succeed on campus? I'd love to hear your success stories!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Comparing Power Point Slides

Right now I'm busy working on materials for a conference presentation on effective use of Power Point. I plan to show example presentations to illustrate ideas about using slides as a visual medium to support the presenter, rather than just an outline of talking points.

Here are two versions of the same presentation: one with typical, bullet point slides, the other is less typical but more powerful. Look at both slide decks and notice:

  • Which one has fewer total slides?
  • Which one is more visually striking?
  • Which one functions more as a document?
  • Which one requires a presenter/audio?
  • In which one do the main ideas stand out most clearly?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Tip from Jason: Read on Web

My colleague and next-office-door neighbor Jason sent me this tip last week, and I liked it so much I thought I would share it here too.

Here's what Jason had to say:

Read on Web has Great Tools for Literacy

While the browser wars continue to wage, often with tools you never think of using, Read on Web is a small plug-in that could be a big help to learners.

The requirements: Read on Web works on Windows 2000, XP & Vista operating systems. It also works with Internet Explorer 6.0 and above (current version is Internet Explorer 8). What you get is a simple but powerful toolbar in your browser:While saving files, emailing articles to friends, and printing may be old hat, the tool bar has a great filtering feature that locates the main text of a webpage and displays it without all the ads or other distracting text. For example, The Minnesota Literacy Council’s home page displays like this:

But with a simple click of the filter button, you get this:

Not stopping there, the toolbar will also read the article to you. Granted it reads in "Microsoft Sam" which is painful to listen to, but you can easily download Microsoft Mike and Microsoft Mary voices which are a bit better.

The Zoom In and Zoom Out buttons are also cool and very useful, but my favorite feature is the speed reading application that puts the webpage into a new window that bolds text and lets you practice reading. Speed Reading also allows you to set the number of lines, font, and words/characters per minute. Pretty cool for a small free browser add-on.

While Read On Web is not going to change how most people search the web, it may do a good job of changing how it looks for some of us. For more information, check out

Spreading a little literacy love…


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

ESL + Tech = Fun!

My colleagues over at the MLC Learning Center - Arlington Hills are demonstrating that even beginning English learners can benefit from the use of technology in their classes.

The teachers are using an English-learning music video from YouTube to teach students the "Washing Machine Song". Using music to teach language is a tried-and-true method for improving pronunciation, rhythm, vocabulary, etc., but using the animated video adds to the teaching potential by appealing to the visual learning style and adding humor!

After (or as part of?) the lesson, the students and teachers also collaborate to blog about their class - which is how I knew about it so I could share it with you.

Ah, I love working in an organization with so many fabulous, creative teachers and motivated students ready to engage and learn English.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Surprising Science of Motivation

I recently stumbled across a fascinating video from TED ( about the well-established and thoroughly ignored science of motivation. And to my pleasant surprise, this morning I saw that at the same time, Larry Ferlazzo posted about this exact same video on his excellent Websites of the Day ESL/EFL teaching blog. Check out his post there - especially for the insightful comments by readers.

Anyway, about the TED video.

It seems like common sense - you offer a person a reward for doing a task, and his/her performance will improve. But in this case, common sense is (apparently) nonsense.

In this presentation from TED, Daniel Pink discusses the science of motivation in the context of business, but I think there is a strong relevance to teaching and learning as well. Basically, he presents research that demonstrates clearly and unequivocally that not only do extrinsic rewards (like cash) not improve performance on most tasks, they actually make performance worse. Yes, worse. The only arena where extrinsic rewards improve performance is on simple, straightforward tasks that do not require any creative or higher-order thinking. If your task requires that people think in order to accomplish it, offering an extrinsic reward will harm your results. Simply put, extrinsic rewards seem to kill creative thinking. Whoa.

In contrast, intrinsic rewards (such as pride in accomplishments) improve creative thinking and results. What happens when you offer an extrinsic reward is that it kills off any intrinsic reward that the activity previously held for the individual.

In the business world, extrinsic rewards are cash, stock options, or the like. In education, they're grades, "extra credit", points, etc. Given this, does anyone wonder why going to school seems to kill the inborn thirst to learn in far too many children? When learning becomes all about the grade, it deadens our native motivation to learn for the pure love of learning.

This video also makes me worried about the goals that Minnesota's Governor & Legislature have set for expanding the "performance pay" system for teachers. By offering increased extrinsic rewards for teachers, will we in fact be cheapening their passion and dedication to their craft?

I encourage everyone to watch the video and think deeply about what it means in the context of teaching and learning. How can we strengthen the intrinsic motivation to learn that our students bring to the classroom? How can we avoid the pitfalls of offering extrinsic rewards to teachers and learners?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Tech Training Schedule Up

The schedule of upcoming Minnesota Literacy Council Technology In-Service Workshops is up on our website!

New this year: Friday afternoon workshops to better accommodate busy teaching schedules.

This fall you can come to MLC for:
  • The Latest and Greatest Tech Resources for ABE/ESL Instructors
  • Author Your Own RealeBooks
  • No Such Thing as a Dumb Question - Helping Adult Educators Make the Digital Migration
  • and more!
For full workshop descriptions, dates/times, and the online registration form, go to:

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Online Lessons for Using an Informational Website has a free online course for adult learners (developed by Idearc Media and ProLiteracy Worldwide) that teaches the skills needed to navigate and make use of an informational website. Although the lessons are specific to Superpages, the skills are easily transferable to other sites.

The course includes audio and video lessons and printable Teacher Notes and Student Workbook pages.

Check it out at:

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Online Exercise Makers from CLA Language Center

These little tools have been around for quite a while, but I have to admit that I had forgotten about them until a couple days ago, when a colleague asked me if there was a better way to make a matching exercise for her online training (the one in the CMS wasn't very pretty). I snooped around my bookmarks and rediscovered these online exercise makers from the CLA Language Center at the University of Minnesota.

There are only three tools, and they have their limitations, but they are FREE, and they are easy to use. The first allows you to make "glossed" web pages - so learners can click on a hyperlinked word to see information about it (whatever extra information you have provided in the 'gloss'), the second allows you to create self-check learning activities (you can embed audio or video, which is nice), and the third to create drag-and-drop matching exercises (including matching to an image).

Once you've made your exercises, you save them as .html files, then share the files with learners through a website or course management system. If you're teaching online, they can make a nice supplement to other online teaching tools.

Check them out at:

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Wish I had a cool graphic... to explain Brain Rule #4: Attention

Looking back at the last two "Brain Rules" Summary posts and thinking... urgh, too much text. But then, I am trying to explain a book... to folks who won't have time to read it... but will they have time to read this? I don't know, but onward we plunge into Brain Rule #4. It's one of my favorites: We don’t pay attention to boring things. Thank you, Dr. Medina.

OK, so at first glance that seems really, really uninteresting. Of course we don't pay attention to boring things. That's why we call them boring!

But this whole chapter is about attention - that oh-so-elusive capactiy that teachers are constantly trying to get from their students. How does attention work? Is it really just a matter of mental discipline vs. bad habits? Or are there principles that teachers (and everyone else) can use to capture and hold the attention of others? Let's take a look at what Dr. Medina has to say.

First, one thing that seems sure from brain research is that the more attention the brain pays to a particular stimulus, the more elaborately it will be encoded, and the better it will be retained. Obviously, we have to get our students’ attention if we want them to learn anything.

Second we have a curious and slightly alarming fact for presenters and professors who stick to old-school lecture format: at 10 minutes into a presentation or lecture, most people begin to lose attention. It’s not our fault. Our brains just refuse to pay attention to the same stimulus for longer than that at one stretch. One guy lecturing = one stimulus. After 10 minutes, no matter how fascinating the subject matter, the brain labels the stimulus as boring, and we just can't pay attention to it any longer.

So a single, uninterrupted stimulus (like a lecture) is deemed boring by the brain. What else determines what we can pay attention to? Culture and life experience play a big role in here. Adults who grew up in totally different cultures and with different life experiences may simply not notice things (especially small details) that we think are important – like punctuation marks, for example. Of course, this is true on the flip side as well. If we were asked to function in a hunter-gather society, would we be able to track animals in the forest or quickly identify edible plants? Probably not. Even if we were taught what to look for, we’d have a hard time at first because the details that are relevant aren’t salient to us. It's going to take a lot of practice before those previously unimportant details can become the focus of our attention.

How does attention work? First, the brain must become aroused to a stimulus as something of interest or importance. It is then brought to our conscious awareness where we can pay attention to it. This happens in three stages:
  • Detection: the brain is in a constant state of surveillance for stimuli. When something important is detected, an alert is sent that activates the next stage.
  • Orientation: the brain and body orient towards the stimulus so we can focus our senses on picking up more information about it.
  • Reaction: as information comes in, the Executive Network processes it and decides what to do about it. The Executive Network controls reactive behavior.

Attention has been widely studied. What else do we really know about it? Four big ideas:

1. Emotions are the basis of attention. During an emotionally charged event, the amygdala releases dopamine (a neurotransmitter than aids memory), flagging the experience as one worth remembering. Emotionally intense times in our lives are seared into our memories. We can't forget them even if we want to, because the brain has encoded the information so deeply and richly. But if your content is not perceived as emotionally relevant, it’s unlikely to grab your students’ attention.

2. We remember meaning before details. Emotional arousal focuses attention on the “gist” of an experience (its relevance to us) at the expense of the details (precisely what happened). But memory of details can be enhanced through association – attaching them to the gist. Human knowledge is organized around core concepts or “big ideas” that guide thinking and give the brain a place to store related facts and details. If you don’t get the big ideas, you’ll never remember the details. So teachers need to focus on making sure everyone understands the "big ideas" in their subject area. If they do, the details will fall into place.

3. When it comes to conscious attention, the brain cannot multitask. It can only shift attention quickly from one thing to another – not pay conscious attention to multiple stimuli at once. Multitasking is a myth perpetuated by the fact that our attention shifts happen very quickly (tenths of a second) and seamlessly. We don’t really notice (pay attention to!) our brain’s gear shifting, so we convince ourselves we aren’t doing it. But in fact, we are biologically incapable of processing multiple attention-rich inputs simultaneously. A good working memory may allow a person to pay attention to several inputs one at a time in rapid sequence, but that's it. And we pay a price for trying to multi-task with a one-track mind. Attention shifting increases error rates and the amount of time required to complete a task – as much as 50% more time and mistakes. So keeping distraction low in the classroom does really make a difference.

4. The brain needs a break. We need time to put new information together, connect it to what we already know, and make sense of it. The most common mistake made by teachers is relating too much information without enough time devoted to processing that information. After a while, the brain will simply stop paying attention to any new information that’s coming in so that it can process the previous information. We shouldn’t overstuff our students with new information. They need time to “digest.”

So, one last thing: How can we get over the problem that we lose our students’ attention after 10 minutes? Use emotion. Do something emotionally relevant (yet still related to your content, such as a funny anecdote that illustrates an idea) at the 10-minute interval and you will recapture their interest. Short, emotionally relevant “asides” that don’t contain details that the students need to remember also allow the brain some of the processing time it needs.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Brain Rule #3: Wiring

In this next installment of my discussion of Dr. John Medina's fabulous book Brain Rules, we'll take a look at how and why every brain is unique. Dr. Medina's rule is "Every brain is wired differently."

You can imagine the brain as a huge intercontinental road map, with millions (billions?) of pathways for transmitting information. There are tiny back roads where hardly anyone ever goes, city streets and two-lane highways, and massive interstate freeways. The larger routes don't just accommodate more traffic, they also have a higher speed limit - allowing messages to travel more rapidly along them. Information routes in the brain become larger and faster the more they are used, so the skills and knowledge that you use regularly have the fastest and strongest connections in the brain.

The interesting thing is that no two brain maps are the same. Although the major highways are in more or less the same places from person to person, the smaller routes differ, and the smallest ones can be totally unique to each person. Everyone's brain map is distinctly their own.

Whenever a person learns something new, he or she forges a new pathway in the brain. Neurons split and make a new connection. The brain changes; it rewires itself. The new pathway is negligible at first - like a few footprints in the grass - but if it is used repeatedly, it will become larger, deeper, and faster. In this aspect, the brain acts like a muscle: the more activity you do, the larger and more complex it can become. So repetition is as central to learning as it is to weight lifting. Learners need to repeat, repeat, repeat in order to lay down strong pathways in the brain.

This process of forging new pathways and then strengthening them is what teaching and learning are all about. When we teach our learners something new, and then help them master it through meaningful repetition, we are helping them rewrite the road map of their brains.

Because every brain is wired in a unique pattern, each learner's needs are also unique. Everyone learns at a different pace and has different associations and networks in the brain to build on, and thus will master complex material to a different depth in a given period of time. Even if every learner starts out in roughly the same place at the beginning of a lesson (which is itself unlikely), they will not end up in the same place by the end of the lesson. There is no such thing as a homogeneous classroom.

So what does this tell us? For one thing, class sizes really do matter. Since each learner is unique, one of the teacher's most important responsibilities is keeping track of where each learner is at. This is much easier to do when there are fewer people to keep track of! In order to perform well at this job, a teacher must be highly adept with Theory of Mind skills (which we learned about in the last chapter). That's because a teacher relies on the subtle mental and emotional signals being broadcast by the learners to "get a feel" for who understands what, who's frustrated, who's confused, who's made a good analogy, who's got a mistaken understanding, who's off-task, who's bored, who's excited, etc. In a crowded classroom, too many signals get lost, and the teacher runs the risk of losing students - the proverbial problem of people "falling through the cracks". In a classroom with fewer learners, the teacher can more easily pick up on signals from everyone and make sure she is keeping everyone on track.

One other thing this tells us is that differentiated or customized instruction is not only beneficial but may in fact be necessary if we are to achieve high quality outcomes for learners. One way this might be done is through software programs that can diagnose the gaps in a particular learner's knowledge and then guide the learner to improve in those areas. This has been done with reading skills software and has proven very effective. Students in a class all get the same lesson from the reading teacher, but then also have a chance to work independently on computers. The computers have adaptive software that assesses their reading skills and then targets their areas of weakness. The difficulty of course, is in developing high quality, engaging, educational adaptive software. It's not that it can't be done - it just that it's going to cost money and time: two things educators never seem to have enough of.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Brain Rule #2: Survival

In this next installment of my discussion of Dr. John Medina's fabulous book Brain Rules, we'll take a look at how we survived by using our brains. Dr. Medina's rule is "The human brain evolved too." You might think of this chapter in the book as a lesson in "Survival of the Brainiest".

This chapter has a ton of good information about the brain, how it is structured, and how it works. I personally find it fascinating, but I know it's not for everyone. And it's probably less relevant to teachers than some of the other content, so I'll focus on just two aspects of this chapter that really have something to say about teaching and learning.

First, the best theories of human evolution and survival indicate that human beings evolved in a challenging world of environmental change, and the reason that we prospered (where other species went extinct) was that we adapted to deal with variation (change) rather than adapting to a single, stable environment. The adaptation that allowed us to deal with the unpredictability of the world was the development of two separate brain systems: one that stores a fund of knowledge (a sort of database of everything we know about the world), and the other a capacity for improvising off that knowledge the way a jazz musician improvises off a musical score. The first system allows us to know when we have made a mistake, and the second allows us to learn from that mistake and try something different.

In classrooms, we need to deal with both systems if we are to tap into our learners' best abilities. It's not enough to transfer some information from teacher to student; the students need to apply that information in a creative or novel way. They need to solve problems that are relevant and interesting to them by making use of the new information. It's in this application stage that the new information is really integrated into the learners' fund of prior knowledge. It's not enough to just do the creative application and problem solving work, either - learners need their teachers to provide the information to build up their database.

In order for teachers to communicate information to learners, they need to be experts in another uniquely human adaptation: the Theory of Mind. Theory of Mind allows us to understand - to intuit - the emotions and inner lives of others. Dr. Medina uses this example:

Read these two sentences:
The husband died. Then the wife died.
How much do you know about these two people?

Now read these two sentences:
The husband died. Then the wife died of grief.

Everything that you can now intuit about these two people, their relationship, and their emotional lives comes from your skill in Theory of Mind. We use Theory of Mind constantly to navigate our complex human relationships. It comes so naturally and is so pervasive in our thinking that it affects everything we do, including teaching and learning. Everything we learn and everything we know is colored by how we feel about it and how we think others feel about it.

As every wise teacher knows, teaching and learning are rooted in relationships. Learners need to feel safe and feel connected to (understood by) their teacher. Without the feeling of safety, learners don't take the intellectual risks that allow them to improvise off new information (and thus truly understand it). Teachers need to be able to gauge and react appropriately to the emotional state and emotional needs of the learners: they need to be experts in Theory of Mind.

You'll see more of why Theory of Mind is so important for teachers in the next chapter. For now, I'll summarize by saying that the human brain evolved to be an efficient learning machine, because learning new things kept us alive in an unpredictable and dangerous world. Our mental software gives us several powerful tools for learning, but our ability to use them is dependent on human relationships and emotional connections.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Brain Rules: Rule #1: Exercise.

I recently read an absolutely fantastic book called "Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School," by Dr. John Medina, a brain scientist and director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University. (Get more info at So much of the information in this book is relevant to teachers-and in many cases, confirms what savvy practitioners have seen for years in their classrooms-that I have been inspired to (re)share it with the world. Or, at least that small sampling of the world that reads this blog. I'll try to summarize one rule each (one chapter of the book) in a series of 12 posts to this blog.

I'll start with Rule #1: Exercise. It's probably the easiest rule to explain and to understand, and it really connects with common sense. The rule is: Exercise boosts brain power.

To think well, we need to move. Our bodies and brains evolved to exist in nearly constant motion. A sedentary lifestyle just ruins our ability to think and learn. If you want one simple way to improve your students' performance, get them up out of their chairs and moving. Even low impact exercise (walking or bouncing up and down on an exercise ball) can produce major improvements in creative thinking, attention and memory - and thus learning. Studies with children have shown that simply adding physical activity to a school routine improves outcomes in core content areas (reading, math, etc.). 30 minutes playing dodgeball may actually do more to improve kids' math scores than 30 extra minutes working word problems. Obviously, you have to have the lessons too. But exercise releases chemicals in the brain that make the lessons stick.

This doesn't just apply to children. To remain life-long learners, exercise is key. It wards off dementia and can halt or even reverse age-related declines in mental performance. In educational settings, there is every reason to believe that adults' brains benefit just as much from exercise as kids'.

One reason for the improvement in mental function among elders may be that exercise encourages the brain to grow new neurons. Yes! That old idea that we are born with all the brain cells we will ever have (and simply proceed to lose them as we age) is just plain wrong. You can grow new brain cells, and exercise might be the best way to release the chemicals that will set that process in motion. At the very least, regular exercise significantly reduces the chance of stroke. And stroke, if it doesn't kill, can cause serious brain damage.

The long and the short of it: sitting still in a chair is not a good brain environment for attention, memory, thinking, or learning. Get your students up and about! A parked butt signals a fuzzy brain.

And on that note, I think I'll go for a brisk walk around the office before turning my attention to my next project!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Reading Rockets Videos from PBS

"Reading Rockets" is a series from PBS that focuses on issues of children's literacy, including brain research into reading difficulties, teaching strategies that work, and ways to empower parents.

Although the series does not deal directly with adult literacy issues, much of the information is valuable to the adult literacy community. Adults who struggle to read were once children who struggled to read. As adult educators, we can learn from our peers who work with children.

Of particular interest to adult educators might be the episodes on Reading Comprehension and Becoming Bilingual. Many of the ideas that these successful teachers are using with children and parents could be adapted to work for adult learners.

Take a look!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Mmmmm... Lots of Teacher Videos

Here's something new that might catch the eye of teachers, program coordinators, volunteer coordinators, trainers and others: a site specifically dedicated to ABE/GED and Adult ESL teacher professional development videos. It's at and is definitely worth a peek.

In-service teachers can learn about teaching methods and strategies they may not have tried before, and trainers and coordinators can find videos that effectively demonstrate strategies they want their staff to use. If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many is a video worth? Anyone who's ever tried to describe how to do something in the classroom will understand the great value in being able to show it instead. We humans are visual creatures (any idea how much of your brain's processing power is dedicated solely to vision?) so seeing a demonstration can be a powerful way to learn. Which is not to mention that watching a 5-10 minute video takes significantly less time than reading a chapter in a teaching methods textbook.

So, see for yourself. You'll get the idea faster than if I write a whole chapter here!

Make sure to check out the "Other Adult Learning Videos" link to see a list of related videos on other sites.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Creating with CLEAR

CLEAR (the Center for Language Education and Research, based at Michigan State Univ.) has a number of sleek, easy-to-use online language teaching tools. Most allow you to build speaking and listening activities for your students - a real rarity among teacher-friendly tools for building online activities. There is also a nice process-writing service for writing teachers called "Revisions".

Teachers can sign up for a free account to build activities. Students can work on those activities without an account (except for the Revisions service, which they do need to register for and be added to their teacher's class). Teachers will need someplace to place their activities for students to access them. That could be a blog like this one, a class wiki page, or a standard web site.

Here is one very simple example: the Audio Dropbox. Intended as a place for students to "drop off" speaking assignments (like they might drop a writing assignment in your mailbox), the audio dropbox takes about 5 minutes to build and embed in a web page. Please feel free to leave me a comment.

Check them out at:
And thanks to Barry Bakin for posting about CLEAR and leading me to their stash of goodies!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Considering Social Networks

Would adult educators and volunteers be interested in a social networking site created specifically for them? A kind of FaceBook for people interested in adult literacy?

As my experience with social networks grows it seems more and more likely that these online communities will expand and proliferate in the years to come. I'm intrigued by the idea of using a social network to create personal learning environments, where educators can connect with other educators, share resources, attend online workshops, and engage in truly constructivist learning. There's a great deal of potential here. Social networks go beyond mere "discussion boards". They allow for the establishment of personal connections and even mentoring relationships, where the "old hands" guide the newcomers (in a true "zone of proximal development" for those readers who're interested in learning theory). I've seen this kind of relationship develop among members of the Classroom 2.0 social network, of which I'm one member among 10,000. A newcomer poses a question or a "cry for help" and is quickly responded to by sometimes dozens of more experienced users.

The question I have is, if I build it, will they come? Or is this just one more thing that my colleagues don't have time to learn or participate in?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Citizenship Day

Hear ye, hear ye, all Minnesota citizenship teachers and ESL teachers with students who want to apply for citizenship!

On Saturday, April 18th, the Minnesota/Dakotas Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) presents Citizenship Day 2009! Immigration attorneys, paralegals, and trained professionals will be available at sites around the state to help clients prepare citizenship applications for just $20. (Which is much, much less than this kind of assistance would usually cost.)

Locations in St. Paul, Bloomington, Rochester, St. Cloud, and Fargo, ND are open from 10:00-2:00. Get more information at

Help spread the word!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Considering "Blog Guilt"

In a meeting this afternoon about my organization's "Technology Vision" I argued that it was important that technology/electronic communications be integrated into work plans and be recognized as "real work". I mentioned that I don't post to my blog very often partly because I feel like it takes me away from what I'm "supposed" to be doing. A colleague responded "Yeah, we don't want to encourage Blog Guilt."

What exactly is "Blog Guilt" and do I have it? Does "Blog Guilt" show up in all those meaningless blog posts that people make about why they aren't blogging? Is it when I don't blog because I don't know if blogging falls under the grant that I work under? Am I misappropriating tax dollars if I'm blogging on work time--and is worrying about that question a sign of Blog Guilt?

I think this is a question for teachers, too--though maybe more broadly as "web guilt". Teachers often aren't given time for work outside the classroom, so spending prep time reading a blog (or accessing other online media, even for work-related purposes) may engender guilt. How do we move to a work culture that embraces the use of web tools as a meaningful work activity? And how do we make sure that what we're doing online is a meaningful work activity?

If you think you've been struck by Blog Guilt, leave me a comment! And I hope you haven't gotten a case of it from reading this blog post!

Friday, February 6, 2009

In the News... Online Citizenship Study

Earlier this week a colleague and I were interviewed by Katherine Glover of for an article about our efforts to create free online self-study resources for immigrants preparing for U.S. citizenship.

You can check out her story here: Minnesota Literacy Council piloting software to help immigrants with citizenship test.

The new self-study resources are under development as part of the Learner Web (LW) project, of which the St. Paul Community Literacy Consortium is a regional partner. While the Learner Web materials will not be available except to LW partners for the duration of the original 3-year demonstration project, once that project is complete, the goal is to have LW released as open-source learning management software, something akin to Moodle, but focused on delivering self-access, self-paced learner-directed resources rather than semester-based, instructor-led online courses.

But Moodle and Learner Web shouldn't really be seen as competitors: the two systems in our case work together in partnership. Using our existing Moodle site we were able to create lessons and practice exercises and host our own content. That content can be seen at: -- click on "Study for the U.S. Citizenship Test". Those lessons are then linked into Learner Web, which is a system for organizing existing resources (such as online courses, websites, books, community organizations, etc.) around the steps a learner needs to take to achieve a goal.

Anyone is free to browse through the Moodle course, which is open to guest users. While you're there, you might want to check out our other online training courses for adult educators and volunteers.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

How to Recover from YouTube-Block

Thanks to Marian Thatcher and Larry Ferlazzo for re-posting and discussing this great blog post by Joyce Valenza. All three teacher techies offer tips & tricks for teachers and students who want to use YouTube videos at school. They offer alternatives that allow us to use YouTube videos as learning resources while we wait for our schools' policies to catch up to 21st century realities.

Even with these alternatives out there, I personally feel that the ban on YouTube should be lifted from Adult Education programs--we are working with adults after all. It's patronizing to treat adult learners the same way we treat children, as though we are their guardians who need to "protect" them from the dangers of the Internet. Clearly K12 schools have a duty to protect their young charges from inappropriate and potentially disturbing material. But teaching children and teaching adults are two totally different endeavors, and restrictive policies designed for 8-year olds should not be applied to their parents! Furthermore, as adult educators we have a responsibility to provide our learners with the skills and know-how to be effective parents and role models in the digital age. That responsibility includes helping our learners understand sites like YouTube that their children are probably using at home or with friends. Yes, there is a slew of awful garbage on YouTube, but there's also a wealth of truly valuable material. Which is why our adult learners need guided experiences with it: so they can provide those same experiences for their own kids.

And on that note, I'll share two of the truly valuable resources I've recently discovered on YouTube. Both are resources for immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship and could be of great use to ABE educators and learners. Enjoy!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Geeking out about Jing

Here is a tool that has great potential for teachers, especially technology teachers. How often do you find yourself demonstrating how to do the same thing on a computer--create an email account, use an online learning resource, or just search on Google? Jing is a tool that can help! Jing allows you to quickly and easily create screen-cast videos, narrated live in real time as you perform and action on your computer. Here's my example (it's too large to embed here, so click the link to view it on

I don't have time this morning to write much more, but Wow! Think of the potential for technology instructors! Check it out at