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What’s in a Stat? Using Data to Impact Small Choices

1 Aug
salutations-chart, from

salutations-chart, from

In a blog post titled, ‘We Experiment on Human Beings,” OKCupid founder Christian Rudder shares how the site manipulated user profiles to gain data on what led to interactions and meaningful conversations on the site.

His post is in reaction to the ruckus over the Facebook emotional contagion study, but I thought it was much more interesting how OKCupid uses it’s data.  Yes, they mine their data for information that will help them make the site more successful (and by extension, profitable) but they also share their information on their blog.  Oktrends is a veritable gold mine of information about our habits, preferences, and our often misguided assumption about what will appeal to a potential mate (or ourselves.)

What’s awesome about their data is that they interpret it for us–so when they share their thousands of data points about what first messages gained the most traction in their post, Exactly What to Say in a First Messagethey get very specific with advice–open with “how’s it goin” or “What’s up,” but not the more formal “Hi” or “Hello.”  Express interest by using the phrases, “I was curious,” or “You mentioned…”  Contrast that with the general advice we often get, like “be casual,” or “show specific interest in the other person.”

Imagine this transferred to other fields.  Let’s take the classroom.  We give feedback to students, but it’s often a general, not-easily-applied kind of message.  For example, “Johnny is not very engaged in his reading.  He needs to focus on his books for longer.”  We have a very general piece of data here–not engaged in reading–that’s sort of equivalent to OKCupid telling users, “you’re not successful at getting dates.”  It’s accurate, but it’s describing a problem, rather than being helpful.  In fact, it’s pretty discouraging to hear.

We could get more specific with our data.  “Johnny reads for an average of 5 minutes before he finds an alternate activity, like going to the drinking fountain or sharpening a pencil.”  But we’ve really just described the problem in more detail, like saying, “people look at your profile on OKCupid an average of 8 seconds before they click away.”

We need some data for when Johnny is successful at engaging in reading to see the difference–or barring that, some data about when other students similar to Johnny are successful.  “Johnny reads for an average of 15 minutes when his book is a series with characters he knows well,” or “Johnny focuses for more than ten minutes at a time when he’s sitting in a favorite spot, facing away from other students so he’s not distracted.”  Suddenly we have some strategies for how to help Johnny, like OKCupid telling us that pictures that show activities spark more meaningful conversations on average than selfies that just focus on a smiling face.

Now imagine we give this information to Johnny, instead of just sharing with parents at conferences or keeping the knowledge tucked in our head.

Johnny, I’ve been marking when you’re reading and when you’re doing a different activity, and I noticed something interesting.  Usually when you’re reading, you read for about 5 minutes before you get distracted.  But sometimes when you read, you can focus for ten or fifteen minutes at a time!  Usually that’s when you’re reading your series books, like Animorphs or The Lightening Thief.  What do you think of that?”

Johnny can make the cognitive leap.  And now he can devise some plans for how to stay engaged more in reading.

Data is a powerful tool for noticing trends, and what works and what doesn’t, but it’s often held by a those in charge.  OKCupid has opened up some of their data to benefit their subscribers, and they’ve made that data specific, comprehensible, and useful.  Too often in education the data is vague (such as “below standard in math” or “5 on the API”) or not shared with the ultimate actors–the students.  If we are really specific about the issue (struggles in reading because doesn’t notice when a vocabulary word is unknown) then we can be very specific about solutions (repeated lessons with short texts working on identifying and attacking unknown words.)

Data can help us to identify problems, but it can also help us to identify solutions.  We can share data with our students, in the form of grades, percentages, or smiley-faces, but the more specific we are with our observations, the more our students can respond with a positive solution to the problem.


Science Vocabulary

9 Feb

Internalizing new vocabulary is tough.  There are usually multiple ways of thinking about a word, multiple forms of the word, and then there’s the “I-sort-of-know-what-that-means-I-could-recognize-it-if-I-heard-it-but-I-can’t-define-it” syndrome with which we’re all familiar.

I started out using a Frayer model to explore our important words (erosion, sediment, and deposition).  The model involves not only defining the word, but coming up with examples and non-examples, and in this case, different forms of the word.  Some of our examples/non-examples are a bit suspect (couldn’t dust on the ground be considered sediment?) but as long as the kids are really trying to think about what works and doesn’t, I figure we’re learning :).

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Next was getting students to use the words in their own talk, which is a “stickier” way of teaching them the word than just writing definitions or talking about it.  Sentence frame are a good way to start this, but they’re controlled structure doesn’t allow for as much fluency with vocabulary as is probably ideal.   I was cleaning out some old files, and I found this vocabulary strategy, which I will boringly title “Categorize and Defend.”

photo 3Students have a list of appropriate words (here it’s from our Earth Science unit, but they could be from history, or a book your studying, or math, etc) and 2-4 categories.  They need to sort the words into the appropriate categories, explaining to their partner or group why they’re putting the words where they go.  What makes the activity so flexible, is that students can put words in more than one category, as long as they can defend why they did so.  There’s no right or wrong answer, you just have to justify.

For example, some students put “minerals” in the rock cycle category, because, “Rocks are made of minerals, so to have a rock cycle, you need to have minerals.”  Other students put them in the weathering category, because, “chemical weathering dissolves certain minerals, like calcite, from rocks.”

The word sort was much more engaging to students than I had anticipated–the more they disagreed and had to support their point of view, the better–and each group was able to come up with a variety of justifications for where they put their words.  It was an interesting opportunity for me to see what they had internalized and what they hadn’t.  The sorting activity on it’s own only took about 15-20 minutes, depending on how long I gave for the debrief discussion.

I would really recommend this more for the middle/end of when you’re teaching a word than the beginning.  Students need to have a fairly wide exposure to the word or learning about the subject in order to have a rich discussion.

50th Anniversary of the March on Washington and Literacy

1 Sep

August 28th was the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King gave his iconic, “I have a dream…” speech.  The weekend before the anniversary, civil rights leaders, politicians, and even a 9 year old named Asean Johnson gave speeches about the March 50 years ago, and where we are today in terms of civil rights and economic equality.

John Lewis gave a particularly powerful speech–full of historical references (history that he was present for), biblical references, references to Lincoln’s speeches, King’s speeches, and more.  It struck me what a powerful persuasive piece he was demonstrating.  His last few lines, “I’m not tired, I’m not weary, I’m not prepared to sit down and give up.  I’m ready to fight, and continue to fight, and you must fight,” showed the power of repetition, of appealing directly to the audience, of short, directive sentences.

Think how much our children could learn from studying these speeches–about writing, about speaking, about politics, and history.

Lewis’s speech had a lot in it that was more appropriate for high schoolers.  His reference to Lincoln’s “house divided” speech, for example, is  a little beyond elementary school students, and not everyone would be comfortable sharing the violence he references with young children.  But there are other speeches that are riveting and appropriate for younger students.

On Tuesday I showed my class an excerpt of King’s speech–just a little over a minute  from the “I have a dream” section.   We talked about how King used repetition to ingrain the phrase, “I had a dream,” into our heads.  If he had used the sentence just once, would we remember it? Would we associate it so firmly with King and civil rights?  Not nearly as strongly.  One student noticed, “His voice sounds different…he’s talking differently,” and we talked about the fact that King was a preacher, and how he used the cadence of his voice to add power to some sentences, and to have people listen more closely to others.

We spent less than 10 minutes watching and discussing this clip, but when students begin to write persuasive essays, study speeches, and research the civil rights era, this is an example I can come back to.  We can discuss how King’s speech fits in history (CCSS RI 4.3), compare and contrast it with current speeches–like 9 year old Asean Johnson’s (CCSS RI. 4.9), and write our own persuasive speeches that we present (CCSS W4.1 and a host of listening and speaking standards).

There are some amazing historical speeches, caught on video, that students can watch, analyze, and mentor off of.  It’s high level informational literacy that blends a host of skills and standards into one project.  Exciting stuff, and I’d love to have more ideas of videos and speeches to use with the class.  What kind of historical events do you show your class?


Perspective Taking: Internment Final Project

12 May

To wrap up our unit on the Internment Camps, I wanted students to write a diary from the perspective of a Japanese American child living during the WWII period.  The diary had four main events: the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when notices of relocation went up, life in the camps, and coming home.  We spent almost a month delving into what life was like during that period, and I wanted students to be able to take all they knew and put it into the final project.  At the same time, I recognize that any writing assignment adds an additional layer of challenge to students, and an assignment like this one requires students to use narrative skills, historical thinking and writing skills, and editing skills.  It’s a tall order.  How to support them?

We ended up brainstorming as a class for each section.  Students first talked in small groups about how a Japanese American might feel after an event like the Pearl Harbor bombing.  Then they shared out, and we created a group list of words such as, “Devastated, afraid, sad, uncertain.”  Working together, they then came up with thoughts someone might have, and finally they brainstormed facts they knew about Pearl Harbor, such as the fact that it was a military base and that it was in Hawaii.

The final notes looked something like this.

photo 1 copy

Armed with these brainstorming notes, students then wrote their entries independently.  Students shared their favorite parts each day, so they could hear each other’s work and get inspired.  It was fun to see ideas zoom through a classroom.  One student had the idea to quote from the radio announcer for the Pearl Harbor entry, “This just in, we have reports that Pearl Harbor has been bombed,” and I saw the impact reverberate through the room.  Quotes from radio announcers began to appear in other entries, followed by quotes from Roosevelt, quotes from parents, and so on.  Each piece was unique, but I could see how the group brainstorming and sharing sessions had supported them in including as much detail as possible.  Here are a few final products!

photo-30           photo 2   photo 4photo 5

photo 3

Building Perimeter

5 May

Area and perimeter have always been a doozy to teach, not because the concepts are so difficult but because students tend to mix them up.  When we get into problems like “keep the perimeter the same, but create the smallest and largest areas you can,” their heads really spin.

Enter the popsicle sticks.  It turns out that popsicle sticks are the perfect perimeter building material.  They could take the number of sticks they needed to represent a given perimeter (like 12) and create different rectangles.  Then they would count the squares inside and find the area.  You know an activity is a success when your strongest mathematicians want to build, and your struggling students are successful.



Afterwards, students transferred their work to graph paper and wrote about which perimeter made the largest area.


photo 4

We had a discussion afterwards about what kinds of shapes made the largest areas (fat ones–the closer to a square, the better)and what kinds of shapes created the smallest area (long and skinny.)  Some students also came up with mathematical ways to create create shapes with a certain perimeter besides guess and check.  They discovered that for a perimeter of 14, for example, you need to create a shape with two sides that add up to 7, which then doubles for the opposite 2 sides.  Not all students were ready for that logic, but it spread through about half of the class.  Area and perimeter really lend themselves to building, we’ll have to do more in the future!

The Not-So-Surprising Similarity Between Propaganda, Advertising, and Statistics

23 Apr

Look up propaganda and one of the first definitions you’ll find is this:



1. Information, esp. of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.

This came up because I was teaching my students about propaganda used during WWII to increase patriotism, both through appeals to pride, such as the following:

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and appeals to fear, such as:

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I wanted the class to really understand how propaganda was a government’s attempt to influence the way people think, often in ways that might not be in their best interest, or in ways we don’t consider morally right.  But for fourth graders, this is a tough pill to swallow. They understood the injustice of the second posters, but propaganda is still a pretty big concept.  So I linked it to advertising.

Students readily understand that Hershey’s really wants to sell chocolate bars, and that the way they slant information tries to convince the consumer to think a way that’s not in his or her best interest.  Case in point: the  “Snickers stops the hunger” campaign.  Umm, yes.  If by, “stops the hunger,” you mean because you have an extra 50lbs of “snickers gut” hanging from your belt, then yes, yes it does.  Advertising isn’t propaganda because it doesn’t have a political base, but I’m letting that slide for now.

The class’s assignment was as follows.  Design a “propaganda” poster that convinces the reader that a particular fruit or vegetable was disgusting and dangerous.

photo 2


The most interesting thing about this assignment?  How many students struggled to come up with a fruit or vegetable they didn’t like.  Apparently I have a class full of children who adore brussels sprouts and broccoli.

The ins and outs of how to convince people that their fruit or vegetable was yucky was the interesting part.  We looked at a bunch of propaganda posters and advertisements, and realized that arguments were generally built on one of four platforms:

1) A compelling picture.  Cruel Japanese soldiers with a red background, a triumphant American soldier with a flag waving in the background, or a brown and moldy piece of fruit.  Something to draw your eye and make you feel a strong emotion.

2) The The false comparison.  This is where the “a mushy banana will lead to a mushy brain” comes in.  Propaganda and advertisers routinely make connections that aren’t real.

3) Impressive statistics.  “9 out of 10 dentists prefer Colgate.”  According to whom?  Kids used bar graphs, pie charts, and stats to explain why their vegetables were the worst.

4) Appeal to an expert.  My favorite on this one is Airborne’s, “Developed by a teacher!”  campaign.  Many of my students went the doctor route, such as, “Doctors warn that too much watermelon can be deadly!”  A surprising number also went with the political expert–Barack Obama is an anti-fruit spokesman on many of these posters.

Here are a few of the final products:

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photo 1

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The class had a lot of fun, and I think they not only learned some persuasive techniques of their own, but hopefully to have a more discerning eye when they look at advertisements or see their local news.

For those of you interested, it also addresses common core standards 4.3 and 4.6, which concern explaining ideas in a historical text and comparing different accounts of the same information, including point of view and focus.


Primary Source Analysis: Letters

21 Apr

I found some letters from the Internment Camp period, written between a librarian named Ms. Breed and children she knew in the camps, that have been saved and archived.  They gave some insight into how the children of the camps thought about their predicament, as well as their general outlook.  It’s a little like a mini internment version of Ann Frank’s Diary.

I was thinking about how to share these with the students, and specifically how to have them make meaning from the letters (without me lecturing about each line).  We could have done a similar activity to what we did with previous primary source documents–a write around, a discussion of the letter with a partner, etc.  But I wanted to try something different.  I wanted each child to try to engage with the letters on their own before they began to work with others.

Enter Notice and Note, the new book by Kylene and Beers that I referenced a few weeks ago.  One of their strategies for close reading involves students reading and annotating the text on their own, and then discussing remaining questions or thoughts as a group.  I modified it slightly as follows:

1) Students read the text independently, annotating with a “!” or “?” things that surprise or confuse them.

2) Students re-read the text, writing down their questions if they still have them, or, if they interpret the meaning on the second reading, writing their new thought.

photo 1

3) Students share their remaining questions with the class.  We put questions on the SMARTboard, and then the kids discussed them in small groups.

photo 2

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4) The class discusses the most salient questions or thoughts as a whole. 

We repeated this structure for four letters.  It was an interesting experiment.  Kids came up with questions from the literal (what does “morale” mean?) to the inferential (if there was no fence up for a period, why didn’t people try to escape?)

I liked the fact that students had to grapple with the text on their own, but also got to discuss their ideas with a group and share out with the class.  On the flip side, I probably need to do some more work modeling what kinds of things you could question.  I had a fair share of students tell me they had no questions, and then when I read a line from the letter and asked them what it meant they said, “Oh, I didn’t understand that part.”  It seems like recognizing when you’re confused is still a concept we need to work on.


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