Looking at High Performance Learning Environments

In a world with increasing amounts of technology and distractions for students, we need to up our game as teachers. We have to figure out ways to keep their attention while making sure that they learn the knowledge necessary to keep up with the world around them. Below I will analyze three videos that illustrate different teaching styles that attempt to address the skills that students will need when they, one day, become adults.


3rd Grade Chinese–Math Class

It’s tricky to address the academic expectations in this video. The teacher uses engaging call and response techniques – especially inclusive of actions and singing – that clearly captures the students’ attention.

However, from the naked eye, it doesn’t seem that much precedence is being put on their independent thought. It appears that the majority of the math skills represented here are learned through rote memorization. After reading, Explainer: what makes Chinese maths lessons so good?, there seems to be a lot of pressure put on Chinese students specifically for the academic achievements in math (2014).

In reading more about Chinese societal norms, pressure to perform both academically and behaviorally in school are ingrained in the culture from a young age. These qualities are are taught by families and society and thus, issues don’t arise in the classroom as frequently as they do in Western countries (Campbell & Henn, 2015).

So what is really happening in this classroom? Though the students are learning mathematics through song, to me it seems that the focus is too heavily placed on math and memorizing facts. Students aren’t actually engaging with the content beyond repeating what is being said. There is something to say for it though, as Chinese students’ math scores blow American student’s math scores out of the water (Bidwell 2013). I think we would have to delve deeper into their instruction to know what is working for Chinese students. From this video and the article, it seems that pressure is the biggest element.


Whole Brain Teaching Richwood High – The Basics

When first watching this video and and seeing Whole Brain Teaching in action, I felt that it addressed behavior expectations more thoroughly than academic. The teacher is consistently using call and response, and action and response techniques to engage students. When delving deeper into this idea of pedagogy, the teacher is attempting to stimulate different areas of the brain – specifically the hippocampus, the motor cortex, the prefrontal cortex – by gaining each student’s attention first through call and – response, then engaging the students’ motor cortexes through motions and gestures, and finally the prefrontal cortex through teaching and explaining concepts taught in these ways between the students (Teachers tap into brain science to boost learning).

By addressing all of these different elements of the brain while teaching content, the teacher attempts to associate feelings and motion to achieve deeper understanding. The argument is that words and concepts are associated with these feelings and leads to a better knowledge of what each different concept or word means (Teachers tap into brain science to boost learning). We can see this in practice in Whole Brain Teaching Richwood High – The Basics, where students are chanting along page numbers, what they are meant to discuss on each page, as well as the speed reading techniques that are also accompanied by gestures.

Though I can understand how these techniques work well with students that need to move around and feel stuck when having to sit in one place, I also feel that this learning method could be distracting to other students. There is so much movement involved that there is very little time to sit and focus on a specific task. Personally, I think integrating bits of this method could be beneficial, but using it religiously throughout the day would be overwhelming and excessive.


Roller Coaster Physics: STEM in Action

Overall, I felt that this video exemplified the most rigorous level of expectations for both academics and behavior, as well as norms and procedures that had obviously already been set in place. It is easy to see when a classroom is operating like a well oiled machine during difficult activities that involve high levels of thinking as well as varied academic skills. In each of the video sections, all students were completely engaged with the activity as well as one another.

Throughout the students’ discussions on potential and kinetic energy, they also consistently used 21st century skills to achieve their overall goal: create an awesome roller coaster. Students collaborated as a team and let their skills determine what role they would play (i.e., accountant, organizer, engineer, etc.). They all worked together to problem solve the best strategies to create the roller coaster that they were working to build. Students also used ICT and Technology to help in creating their roller coasters and in creating a series of videos to film their final outcome.

The norms and procedures that were in place in this class were evident through the way the students addressed one another, spoke to the teacher, and stayed focused throughout their roller coaster lessons. At all times, students spoke about what they were aiming to accomplish and how they were planning to accomplish goals using terminology specific to the lesson, which leads me to believe that one of the teacher’s norms includes discussing a topic using academic terminology appropriate for the lesson.

Additionally, the students collaborated in such an open way with one another that I imagine the teacher has norms and procedures that relate to listening, respecting, and trusting one another. Not once during the video, did I hear another student talk over one another, sound exasperated, or seem frustrated. I know this happens in every classroom from time to time, but it was evident here that students really take the time to listen to each other, believe in what their peers have to say, and value sharing ideas.  



In my fourth grade class, I hope to take different elements from the latter two and steer very clear of the first. Though songs and repeating are fun to do every once in a while, I would not make them part of my everyday practice. I would much more like to incorporate the strategies used in the Roller Coaster Physics video. Here, we didn’t see students, we saw miniature adults taking charge of their own learning in a professional manner! They didn’t need to be cajoled into performing. Instead, they were able to have fun and take part in gaining knowledge through an activity that was interesting and informative.  

Granted, everyone needs to take a break from hard work sometimes. I think this is where Whole Brain Teaching comes into play. Completing activities while moving around and accessing different layers of the brain is an excellent way to get students out of their seats, having fun, and moving or dancing around. But personally, I also wouldn’t rely on this technique too heavily. While it might work for specific students, it could be very distracting to others. Focusing instead on activities that they enjoy that support their academic needs is the clear and obvious winner.



3rd grade Chinese–math class.avi. (n.d.). Retrieved February 27, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h7LseF6Db5g

Bidwell, A. (2013, December 3). American Students Fall in International Academic Tests, Chinese Lead the Pack. US News and World Report. Retrieved February 27, 2016 from http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2013/12/03/american-students-fall-in-international-academic-tests-chinese-lead-the-pack

Explainer: What makes Chinese maths lessons so good? (2015, March 25). Retrieved February 27, 2016, from http://theconversation.com/explainer-what-makes-chinese-maths-lessons-so-good-24380

Critical Practices for Anti-Bias Education. (2014) Teaching Tolerance. Retrieved from February 11, 2016 from http://www.tolerance.org/sites/default/files/general/PDA%20Critical%20Practices_0.pdf

Framework for 21st Century Learning – P21. (n.d.). Retrieved February 13, 2016, from http://www.p21.org/our-work/p21-framework

Henn, S. C. (n.d.). Chinese teachers blame WELFARE STATE for lack of British pupils’ discipline. Retrieved February 27, 2016, from http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/595616/Are-Our-Kids-Tough-Enough-Chinese-School-BBC-education-Shanghai-classroom-behaviour

Roller Coaster Lab. (n.d.). Retrieved February 27, 2016, from http://pilotrobertmace.edu.glogster.com/roller-coaster-lab/

Roller Coaster Physics: STEM in Action. (n.d.). Retrieved February 27, 2016, from https://www.teachingchannel.org/videos/teaching-stem-strategies

Teachers tap into brain science to boost learning. (n.d.). Retrieved February 27, 2016, from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/teachers-tap-brain-science-boost-learning/

Whole Brain Teaching Richwood High – The Basics. (n.d.). Retrieved February 27, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8iXTtR7lfWU



Creating a Positive Classroom Climate

I have never taught in a classroom in which I am the same race as the students. I have only ever taught in Vietnam at Vietnamese and Korean public schools. So I’ve always been the “odd one out.” Up to this point, fostering diversity has meant making students comfortable with me: the ethnic American teacher that has suddenly landed in front of them, speaking a foreign language, and trying to get them to learn.

Seeing the mixed reactions to me, the foreign teacher, it’s easy to see the importance of developing a safe and open atmosphere to make learning happen. Creating a positive classroom environment can reduce conflict, stave off bullying, and provide an atmosphere where deeper learning can be achieved. Not to mention, schools have seen improvement in academic achievement from students who have been taught social and emotional learning, and a huge part of that is empathy for one another. So how do we create that environment?

In my experience, the best way to make students feel comfortable is through developing a fun culture in the classroom, and making the students feel like we are in a community where everyone is open to express their ideas. How one creates that environment can be tricky, but it’s all about starting at the beginning, specifically, in the first few weeks of school.

First, it’s important that students know how to treat one another. Below are the key points that I think should be taught on the very first day. These ideas are taken directly from Teaching Tolerance’s brief entitled “Critical Practices for Anti-bias Education.”

  • Listen to each other. Deeply listen to what others say and to the feelings, experiences and wisdom behind what they say.
  • Be humble. Recognize that, however passionately we hold ideas and opinions, other people may hold pieces of the puzzle that we don’t.
  • Respect. Trust the integrity of others, believe they have the right to their opinions (even when different from your own) and value others enough to risk sharing ideas.
  • Trust. Build a safe space to explore new ideas and work through conflicts, controversy and painful moments that may arise when talking about issues of injustice and oppression.
  • Voice. Speak the truth as we see it and ask questions about things we don’t know or understand, particularly on topics related to identity, power and justice.

A lot rides on those ideas and it’s important to discuss them with the class. How does it make them feel? Are any of these words new to them? I think that first allowing individual students to reflect on these ideas, then speak with a group about their thoughts, and lastly making this a class discussion is key to fostering the welcome environment of your class in the first few days of school.

Following this activity: introductions! Who are you and who are they? As a class, you will be working together throughout the year, and you will get to know each other more and more as the year goes on.

I like to hand out a graphic organizer that asks students questions such as: How many brothers and sisters do you have? Where do you live? Where were you born? What is your favorite book? Who is someone that inspires you?

The organizer allows students to respond to each question with words, pictures, or both. At the center of the organizer: a picture of themselves.

The next activity – hang the organizers up around the room and let the students read about each other and ask each other questions so they get to know everyone in a warm, friendly, and open environment. In the words from Teaching Tolerance, “It is…important that students have opportunities to learn from one another’s varied experiences and perspectives” (Critical Practices for Anti-bias Education). I like to draw on those varied experiences and perspectives to build the classroom community at the very beginning of the year. The teacher should walk around the room and do the same. This will help the students identify the teacher as a facilitator for open dialogue.

This activity also sets a tone for the year. It illustrates a few key components of what we will be doing for the year:

  • Communication. We will be doing a lot of talking! Students will have to discuss content, issues, and interesting tidbits to connect more deeply with the material we’re learning. At the beginning of the year, the material is them.
  • Collaboration. We are all in this together. It won’t be one teacher and a lot of students. It won’t be every student for themselves. We will be one class, as a whole, learning and growing together.
  • Social and Cross-cultural Skills. It doesn’t matter where the other students are from, or where the teacher is from, you will need to discuss with at least five other students to find out more about them.

In these activities, the teacher’s role will be huge. For one, this gives an opportunity for the teacher to find out personal details about each of the students, learn how to pronounce each of their names, and find out more about their family or home life. Additionally, it allows the teacher to get a sense of the different cultures that are present in the classroom. This activity can help guide the teacher in selecting activities to be used throughout the year that can combine content learning with tolerance, cultural awareness, openness, and social and emotional learning.

For example, as students will be learning about different cultures throughout the year, why not investigate a little bit more about the cultures that exist in the classroom. In my last class, we had a mix of Korean and Korean-Vietnamese students, with me, as the American teacher. I developed a lesson that had students learn and teach each other about each others’ culture. They discussed popular foods, popular (and simple) phrases, and the countries flags, and condensed the information into posters and videos for the class to watch.

While watching the video, students noted down similarities and differences between the cultures, and discussed them as a class. Next, all students learned popular phrases in each language from the language “experts” (native speakers), then practiced them in class together. Finally, students were encouraged to praise each other in a new language and continue using those phrases throughout the year.

The students were very engaged and found it fun to learn more about culture in general. the more they saw one another say things like, “cool,” or “that’s awesome,” in different languages in response to differences in other countries, the more excited they became. They were amped up to continue learning about other countries throughout the year.

What’s the outcome of these exercises? Hopefully, for students to learn more about who they are and be proud of who they are. Also, to respect the diversity in the classroom and learn more from others differences and similarities, and to connect with experiences and perspectives of students from the same or other cultures.


Critical Practices for Anti-Bias Education. (2014) Teaching Tolerance. Retrieved from February 11, 2016 from 


Fry, M. (December 16, 2015.)What? Retrieved from https://prezi.com/wtmynrmopg3a/what/
Framework for 21st Century Learning – P21. (n.d.). Retrieved February 13, 2016, from http://www.p21.org/our-work/p21-framework

Mobile Learning: Let’s Do It!

I know a few key facts about each of my students that helps me realize that I need to integrate mobile learning in my classroom. For one, all of my students (100% of them) have mobile devices with internet access. Another fact, they use these devices for at least one hour every evening after school and a lot more frequently on the weekends. Roughly 75% of them chat with a friend or family member regularly using a messenger app and 100% of them play games.  

One other fact, I’ve never actually seen any of them use their phones in school, that is until I completed a Scavenger Hunt that required them to bring their phones to school to take pictures and videos, and upload them to a folder for the whole class to see. They loved the activity. They were so engaged with the content – answering questions, finding clues, and simply finishing the scavenger hunt – that they nearly forgot about the goal – to get the most points and win! And, of course, to review the math concepts we’ve studied this semester.

After seeing how much fun they had using devices in the classroom, I thought there has to be a way to do this more often to benefit the students. However, I need to figure out how to do this in a smart way. Here are some guiding principles I think I would need to address before using a mobile device in the classroom:

  • How much time will it take to integrate technology into this lesson? How much time can I set aside to introduce the activity and the technology needed? Is this time well spent?
  • How is a mobile device enhancing the lesson? Is it a means to achieve the learning objective? Am I using the phone to promote 21st century skills?
  • Have a I used the app I’m planning to use with my class before? Have I spent enough time fooling around with the app myself? Have the students used it before? Do I need to give a tutorial?
  • Have I made my plan for phone use clear? Was I specific in planning out how the students will use their phone? Is there room for creative use in a different way if a student knows of a different program/app to use? Have I clearly defined my expectations?
  • Have I assigned project leaders? Have I chosen students to be the experts of this app so I have more helping hands walking around to ensure the project goes well?
  • Do I have a backup plan? Do I have additional resources that can make the plan still work, if say, I lose internet access during the class? If everything goes haywire at the last minute, do I have another option I can use to supplement or replace my activity?
  • Do I have a system in place? Have I sent a permission slip home to parents about phone use in this activity? Have students signed a contract detailing that they are accountable for their phones? Is everyone’s phone labeled? Do the students have a special place to leave their phones to make sure they don’t get lost or damaged?

Once I have addressed these principles in creating activities that integrate phones into the classroom, I can begin to do just that.

Here are some explanations of why, and how, I would implement mobile devices into the classroom:

Navigation. Why not use some of the basic functions we use all the time to help students get used to GPS at a young age? Students can start tracking the location of objects and recording different features. For example, let’s say you’re studying plant life in your class. Students can walk around school or their community, find specific plant life, write down its location, then record observations about its size, leaf texture, and condition. If you wanted to complete a history project, you could explore a historical site in your area and have students break up into groups to record their findings of artifacts and document where they were located so the whole class could find other them. With this type of activity, you could also keep in touch throughout with the use of the mobile device (Ash 2010).

Collaboration. Another great way to integrate devices into the classroom is using chat programs to get discussion flowing and questions answered. A teacher could have live threads for questions as a way for students to post their questions without disrupting the flow of the class. That way, the teacher can finish their train of thought, and then address all questions at one time. Or, better yet, if another student knows the answer, they could post it and share their knowledge with the rest of the class. There are also those really engaging topics that students just don’t want to stop talking about. If they have a forum to continue discussing online, who’s to say they will stop? It allows for students to engage more thoroughly with the topic and they could continue discussions into the evening hours if they choose.

Quick solutions to problems. Alternatively, some of the questions that students have are simply understanding a word or needing a visual aid to help reference what a teacher is discussing in class. Why not let them quickly look it up? This is a great way to start getting learners to research their own questions online quickly and efficiently (Ormiston). For example, when teaching students about underwater landforms the other day, my students wanted to understand the actual depth of the Mariana Trench and one fact is that Mt. Everest could actually fit inside of the trench. This could be an opportunity for the students to look up the exact height of Mt. Everest and see for themselves how tall Mt. Everest is, and imagine the mountain fitting inside of the trench.

Photos and Videos. Using basic photo and video apps to create engaging presentations, documenting things they see, collaborating with another to make a cool project, are all easy and simple ways to see the future of mobile devices in the classroom. These types of projects also leave room for student innovation. They can pick their own apps that they know how to use well to create projects independently or with their peers.

Fun. Last, but certainly not least, how much fun do students have using their phones? Tons! It’s hard not to see how much they actually love using their mobile devices. It can transform a lesson from “watching paint dry” to actually painting a wall with friends, and there are so many ways that we can do this. If you can take one activity and make it more fun, why not? It will be more fun for the students and more fun for the teacher. You can take a math lesson and turn it into a scavenger hunt that uses various apps – for example, GPS, photos, and videos. You could have your students check in at locations when investigating their community for pollution and document what they see, or take videos of park features if they’re learning about urban spaces, etc. There are a myriad of ways to use mobile devices to make lessons more fun.

We can see all of the benefits mobile devices can contribute to a lesson, so why not include them in the classroom? We know that our students use them everyday and it’s high time that we harness their capabilities as a use for learning. They will need their mobile devices in order to develop 21st century skills that they will need in the workforce later on, so we should start using them as early as possible. As long as we do this in a well-planned and orchestrated way, I can see nothing but a positive outcome.


Ash, K. (2010, October 15). Educators Explore How to Use GPS for Teaching. Retrieved February 02, 2016, from http://www.edweek.org/dd/articles/2010/10/20/01gps.h04.html

Hardison, J. (2013, January 07). 44 Smart Ways to Use Smartphones in Class (Part 1) – Getting Smart by @JohnHardison1 -. Retrieved February 02, 2016, from http://gettingsmart.com/2013/01/part-1-44-smart-ways-to-use-smartphones-in-class/

Ormiston, M. (n.d.). How to Use Cell Phones as Learning Tools. Retrieved February 02, 2016, from http://www.teachhub.com/how-use-cell-phones-learning-tools

Sinha, R. (2013, May 15). Integrating Mobile Technology into the Classroom. Retrieved February 02, 2016, from http://edtechreview.in/trends-insights/insights/330-mobile-technology-in-classroom