Tag Archives: Activities

Visual Thinking

I’m kind of a New York Times (NYT) junkie. A few years ago, we bought a subscription to the Sunday Times at home, which additionally provided us unlimited digital access. I signed up for news alerts and a few news digests, like “Education” and “Tests and Assessments,” so I’m sent short abstracts of articles that pertain to those categories.

It was in one of these digests, recently, that I encountered the headline: “40 Intriguing Photos to Make Students Think.” Not the catchiest of titles, but the photo accompanying it piqued my interest:screen-shot-2016-10-04-at-9-27-02-pmSo, I clicked. That’s where I was reminded of another great service The Times offers: The Learning Network. In essence, they deliver education resources like lesson plans, news quizzes and the like all based on NYT articles, photos, graphics and more. Better yet, you can access the Network’s many features without a digital subscription.

Back to what brought me to The Learning Network in the first place: the above picture. It’s part of a weekly feature called, “What’s Going On in This Picture?” Readers are asked three standard questions about a visual text:

  • What’s going on in this picture?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What more can you find?

Then, they are encouraged to acutely observe (a.k.a. closely read) the image, find evidence, and post and respond to comments of others online. Partners, Visual Thinking Strategies facilitate the online discussion Mondays between 9a – 2p Eastern Time (6a-11a Pacific). On Thursday afternoons, Learning Network writers reveal a caption and backstory below the photo on the site.  Check out this week’s photo below (week of October 17):


As for classroom applications, I immediately thought of a warm-up. Whether you participate live through the Learning Network or want to spark an in-class dialog, there are images that relate to nearly any subject are. Five minutes at the beginning of class is plenty to take in the photo and respond, turn to a partner and compare perceptions. Cogs are turning, awareness is heightened and students are engaged in analysis–great practice for getting into the day’s content. And, what a great way to build a community of inquiry, teacher included!

In 21st Century literacy, when we hear or say text, we need to be mindful of the myriad forms that word may conjure. Our students are consuming these many texts in record numbers, daily. Teaching the tools to become informed about what they consume doesn’t get more real.



Strategies and Activities and More, oh my!

“Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my!” is a familiar quote to many from the Wizard of Oz. It’s come to represent the speaker being fearful of a rumored threat. But, we also know that Dorothy locks arms with Tin Man and Scarecrow and plows forward with them in the face of fear and ultimately conquers it (picking up the Cowardly Lion in the process). Perhaps distinguishing strategies from activities isn’t quite as intimidating as encountering wild animals in the Haunted Forest of Oz, but it has leant itself to some uneasiness.

So, let’s extend this analogy a bit: Dorothy’s ultimate goal is to return home to Kansas. In order to do that, she has to employ research-based strategies by engaging in a variety of activities. The first strategy we witness is Feedback; she confers with Glinda, the Good Witch of the North and learns she needs to go on a quest to reach the Wizard. Armed with this new information, Dorothy sets off and soon employs Cooperative Learning as she picks up Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. She collaborates with her partners to follow the Yellow Brick Road, reaching the Emerald City and the Wizard. Optional extension: continue the metaphor with a partner or on your own; for the rest, here comes the connection!

A couple of weeks ago, Shannon and I teamed up with building admin to deliver PD to middle school teachers in our district on this very subject: distinguishing Strategies and Activities (not The Wizard of Oz). In order for our students to achieve positive academic results, we need to engage in activities that employ research-based strategies to better their performance.

Once the foundation was laid, we targeted one specific strategy: Non-Linguistic Representation (NLR) and a specific activity: Concept Mapping. We briefly reviewed Dual Coding Theory, namely reminding folks that we take in information in two ways, linguistically (word-based) and non-linguistically (sensory), concluding that the more we employ both systems of representation, the better we are able to think about and recall knowledge. Following, we facilitated an activity using a jigsaw process in small groups to complete a Concept Definition Map.

Working in content area groups, teams then brainstormed other types of NLRs that would be applicable to their field. Below is an example of one such list:

NLR ELA examples

Let’s take a look at a few of these NLRs that might be transferrable to various content areas:

The 4-Square is often used for vocabulary and as part of the writing process, but it isn’t the sole property of English Language Arts. Students can help solidify new vocabulary by not only defining it and writing about it, but by also supplying a picture to represent the word. When writing, students may benefit from a structured graphic organizer that helps them organize their thoughts and reminds them to incorporate transitions, details, and a summary conclusion. The designs are many and modifiable, too–truly versatile.

Haiku Deck is a presentation software students can use for a variety of purposes/projects. Check out this Haiku Deck Sample. They also provide a simple introduction video you can access on their home page.

Comic strip templates can be used for visualization activities with difficult text or to explain a process in a visual way. I had sophomores in small groups create a strip for the classic poem, “Lady of Shalott” stanza by stanza in order to “see” the action unfolding, which aided their comprehension. Again, if you are tech-minded, there are several comic strip makers and animation apps free online or for tablets, such as Bitstrips and Toontastic. Scientific processes and historical events, among other adaptations, seem like they would be a natural fit to such an activity.

Roseanne Roseannadanna

So, it’s like Rosanne Rosannadanna says, “It’s always something. If it’s not one thing, it’s another.” Either Dorothy gets bumped on the head, dreams of traveling to the Land of Oz and has to get back home to Kansas, or we have students in our classrooms who have their own dreams of success. Regardless, employing researched-based strategies, engaging students in effective activities, and providing multiple ways of gaining that knowledge is best practice.


Strategies vs. Activities: Impacting Student Learning

Last week, we had the opportunity to watch our fearless leader, Angie Kautz, Gresham-Barlow’s Director of Teaching and Learning, present a session on Strategies vs. Activities at one of our district late-start meetings. Administrators and teachers, now knee-deep in the district Data Team Initiative, have had some questions about distinguishing between strategies and activities. Data Teams are asked to choose and implement one common strategy during Step 4 of the Data Team process in order to bolster performance of those students not yet proficient in a targeted skill.

Angie presented a concise distinction that rang true to us: activities are the things we do to utilize a strategy. Examples of strategies include John Hattie’s Visible Learning InfluencesRobert J. Marzano’s Nine Essential Instructional Strategies, and Gresham-Barlow’s own ACTIVE instruction. Activities, then, are the things we do with students.

In the scheme of Data Teams, team members not only would choose a common strategy to teach but also a common activity. This ensures teachers’ ability to track what exactly affects student learning. In Step 5, when considering reteaching, it’s perfectly acceptable to choose another activity to influence student achievement.

Here’s an example from Hattie: The strategy Providing (actionable, timely and specific) Feedback has a .75 Effect Size, which means it has a positive influence on student achievement. In his research, any intervention yielding > .4 effect size will yield positive results. To provide perspective, an intervention that has a “1.0 effect size…is typically associated with advancing children’s achievement by two to three years….” (Hattie 2009). Pretty powerful stuff. Activities to utilize Providing Feedback may include such things as student Self-Reflection, Debate Team Carousel, or Self-Scoring with Teacher Follow-up.

Here’s another example, this time from Marzano: The strategy Identifying Similarities and Differences has a .66 effect size. Activities such as employing a Comparison Matrix, having students create a Venn Diagram, or using T-charts (see Nine Essential Instructional Strategies link above for samples) help to utilize the strategy.

We’ll undoubtedly have more to add as we continue to work with teachers on the nuances between strategies and activities. If you would like individual or team coaching, leave us a comment below!