Blue Classroom

Edunating Links

If you can't get all you need from us here at Edunators check out these awesome resources that have been helpful to us in our development as teachers and in the creation of this website.

A great resource for all things educational technology, TeacherCast is also home to some great education related podcasts and blogs as well. You can also follow their founder Jeff Bradburry on Twitter at

In his effort to “catalogue the internet for students, educators and parents” Jerry Blumengarten has created a website for pretty much anyone. If you’re looking for pretty much anything, chances are Jerry’s got a page for it. His Tweets alone make him a valuable member of your Personal Learning Network. Follow him at

Home of the educational model that saved my career, Layered Curriculum, Dr. Kathie Nunley’s website is loaded with informational articles, newsletters and other resources for teachers and parents regarding education and brain development. The sample unit sheets alone make it a gold mine for great classroom ideas and her books are invaluable for anybody looking to improve their Differentiated Instruction. Her Teaching Tips page is worth a bookmark as well, with great ideas submitted by teachers from all over the world at every grade level and subject matter.

Dr. Bobb Darnell is a energetic, entertaining presenter that brings a wealth of knowledge wherever he goes. Any school district would be lucky to have him and any teacher is sure to walk away with something they can use in their classrooms the next day. His website is full of tremendous links and useful information for both parents and teachers, well worth whatever time it would take to check it out. 

All Things PLC

Powered by Solution Tree, All Things PLC is a great resource for those looking to develop and sustain a Professional Learning Community. Their weekly Twitter chat every Thursday at 9 pm. EST is a one of our favorites as well. Follow it using #atplc.

I really enjoy the blogging of Joe Bower and his work regarding Abolishing Grading is admirable and thought-provoking. He’s another Twitter Rockstar as well, at

A great resource for team building games that can help you build relationships with students or help your faculty build a more collaborative culture. Worth a stop if you feel like your classroom has been in a bit of a rut lately and you need to relax for a day and learn to enjoy your students again. &

Both of these blogs are a fantastic resources for classroom ideas and intriguing content for teachers. We highly recommend you check them both out and follow them both on Twitter as well. 




How Layered Curriculum Saved My Career

I firmly believe sometimes we make this “teaching” thing entirely too freaking complicated.

Teacher CryingFor some reason, this image showed up in Microsoft Clipart when I typed in "Frustrated Teacher". Pretty much sums up how I was feeling after my first couple years, actually.

Kids are kids. They act like kids. When they don’t want to do something they whine, complain and generally do anything they can to avoid doing it. Actually, it’s not all that much different than adults when you think about it. The only difference is that for kids “avoidance behavior” may look like throwing pencils, rocking their desk on two legs, playing with the hair of the girl in front of them or texting their friends if they think they can get away with it.

Adult avoidance behavior, we sophistically call it procrastination, appears more productive on the surface (that’s how we justify it) and it may look like balancing a checking account, finding excuses to chit-chat with colleagues, or oddly enough, texting a friend if they think they can get a way with it. Hell, if the faculty meeting is bad enough I’ve even been known to throw a pencil or two.

Two years into my teaching career I was dangerously close to becoming one of the thousands of teachers who leaves the profession in their first five years. As we have famously heard time and time again, 50% of them do.

So there I was, November of my third year talking to my principal about possible alternatives in the educational world. I was considering moving my career towards Alternative schools for At-Risk kids or perhaps Special Education.

Yet, the “classroom grind” had become overwhelming. Facing my classroom full of students with a wide range of abilities and a wider range of “avoidance behaviors” I was convinced at the ripe old age of 25 that “kids today are just different.”  Yet while it’s easy, and occasionally humorous, to blame bad parenting, popular music, economics or the Internet, the truth is my assignments sucked and I wouldn’t have wanted to do them either. Shoot, I don’t like to do things my principal asks of me unless she can convince me “why” I should do them, yet I expected my students to demonstrate the maturity to do as asked with no true motivation beyond “Mr. Clements said so!” ? Epic fail.

Around that time the chairperson of our district Professional Development committee (who was also on my grade level team and a good friend of mine) mentioned she wanted to attend a workshop offered through the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s (DESE, the state of Missouri’s governing body for education) and the Regional Professional Development Center. The RPDC is an arm of DESE, and our local chapter, Heart of Missouri, was offering a workshop on Dr. Kathie Nunley’s Layered Curriculum®. (

The workshop was presented by Steve Ritter, who is currently the principal at Lakeland High School in Missouri but at the time was teaching High School Social Studies at Clinton High School. Steve is a certified trainer of Layered Curriculum and has been a phenomenal resource for me in my career. If you're interested in bringing Layered Curriculum to your school or have other professional inquiries you can visit Steve's website at

If you’re interested in learning more about Layered Curriculum you can check out my “Differentiating Instruction Using Layered Curriculum” post elsewhere on this site. As sure as I type this though I can tell you what I’ve gained from using it and from having absorbed all that Dr. Kathie Nunley has to offer goes far beyond a mere method of instruction. It’s an outlook on education.

HowlerMonkeyAccording to Teacher extraordinaire and brain research Kathie Nunley, much of student behavior can be categorized comically as "captive behavior".

Dr. Nunley looks at “avoidance behaviors” the same way zoologists look at monkey’s flinging poop against the walls of the cage. It’s not explainable; it’s simply “captive behavior”. Go to the mall or to a park and observe kids and you won’t see them doing any of the crap they do in our classrooms. Why do they do it? It’s captive behavior! In the “real world” we all love to allude to when stressing the importance of responsibility, learning is almost ALWAYS driven by the LEARNER. Adults rarely are forced to learn something they have no desire to learn. Even if required by a boss or employer, the desire to keep our job and pay the rent is motivation enough. And even then as an example, do we really learn it as well as we learn things we have a genuine curiosity in?

So how do we avoid these behaviors and encourage motivation in students? Simple – we grant them the power of choice. By providing students with choices in how they demonstrate understanding of an objective, we provide them a sense of ownership over the material and the “illusion of control” over a situation. They inherently take more pride in their work, after all, they chose it. Furthermore, granting choices allows for teacher and student to work together to reach a variety of learning styles from auditory, visual, and tactile learners as well as English Language Learners and Special Education students.

My students are given choices for virtually every assignment you would have them do. Honestly, this is probably the best thing I’ve ever done for myself and my students. They’re so much happier and thus, so am I.

If students still aren’t engaged despite having an array of choices we have to consider the troubling, yet very real possibility that the choices were offering them just aren’t very good. When forced to choose between a rock and a hard place, adults avoid the situation whenever possible. Students lacking the maturity and mental toughness of an adult can’t be expected to behave differently.

Happy Kids, Happy TeachersHappy kids means happy teachers. Sometimes all it takes to make kids happy is choices. Even if it's just the "illusion of control" it does wonders to change behavior.

The final key component is to find unique ways of grading assessments to encourage accountability. Nunley suggests Oral Defense grading, which is a book in and of its self, but essentially it just means that rather than grading every little thing that is written down, student and teacher have a mini-conference over a given objective where the teacher asks questions to determine if the student knows the material. No cheating, no matter if the assignment was finished, no papers to grade, no faking it. You either know it or you don’t. If you know, move on. No? Try again. It’s beautiful.

Dr. Nunley’s ideas are grounded in years of classroom experience at the high school level as well as her own research into the human brain and adolescent development. She is quick to point out that the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, responsible for decision-making and responsibility, is not fully developed until at least the late-teens to early twenties. As a result expecting adolescents to always act responsible and make great decisions is a little like asking a five year old to read or a one year old to walk. Some can, some can’t, but it’s unrealistic to expect it from all children at the same time. Responsibility is an aspect of brain development that simply occurs at different times and as a result, we should teach it and encourage it, but not make decisions based on it. Students should be granted multiple opportunities to demonstrate learning and they should be allowed to demonstrate it in a variety of ways.

Layered Curriculum, 2nd Edition by Kathie Nunley

That’s a lot of information to take in and some fairly radical ideas for a traditional classroom teacher to consider, so please check out my post “Differentiating Instruction Using Layered Curriculum” for more information and a more through explanation. Or you can read Kathie Nunley’s brief synopsis here. If you’re serious about giving it a whirl, I highly recommend Nunley’s book “Layered Curriculum 2nd Edition” on the subject. It is a very easy read and well worth the $25 or so it costs.

Is Layered Curriculum the “magic bullet” so many educators are looking for? Maybe. There are a lot of problems with traditional classroom models and Layered Curriculum provides answers for many of them. However it provides some unique problems as well. Strong classroom management is a must, otherwise a teacher will never be able to juggle having students working on five different things at one time. There’s a lot of pre-teaching that goes into it with regard to parents and students, particularly if you’re subscribing to the traditional grading model that goes along with it. The “min-conferences” may eliminate a lot of take-home paperwork grading for teachers, however it’s HARD WORK spending most class periods trying to churn out as many mini-conferences as possible. There are some aspects of Layered Curriculum I don’t practice much any more for a variety of reasons, but its essential components I’ll never give up.

Yet as I type this I’m on my seventh year of teaching Middle School Social Studies with no immediate plans to do anything else. I firmly believe my students learn more in my class than most and I love that I can spend a lot of time talking about “learning styles” and teaching kids “how to learn” as well as Social Studies.

It may not be the magic bullet, but Layered Curriculum saved my career. And it might have saved a colleague from catching a pencil to head at our next Professional Development Day.

How Eminem and Wikipedia Help Me Teach Students About Research Papers

I was walking down the hallway of school one day, sort of half-humming and half-singing a song that had been stuck in my head all morning. A 7th grade student I don’t know (I teach 8th Grade) stopped me in the hallway and said “Hey! That’s Eminem! You can’t sing that! You’re too old!”

I chuckled to hide my bruised self-esteem before explaining to the young lady that the song “Lose Yourself” came out my freshman year of college and that Eminem is older than I am.

She of course didn’t believe me so I gave her the classic teacher line of “Look it up” and went back to my classroom. It was my plan period and I was trying to figure out how I was going to help my students understand the purpose of citations in their research paper. They had just started an interdisciplinary research project that the Language teacher and I were working on together. Since the start of the project, we had noticed a variety of issues.

     1)Some students never cited sources. Rarely were they trying to pass off the work as their own, they just didn’t understand what needed citation and what didn’t.

     2)They were struggling with summarizing a source and using it to support their point, so they tended to just copy/paste huge chunks of text.

     3)Proper citations were alien to them. They just copied and pasted the link to wherever they got their information from. Occasionally, they would give the title of the book if their source was hard copy (which was rare).

     4)The difference between a reliable source and an unreliable one seemed lost on them. We had a lot of MySpace pages, Facebook pages, even Yahoo Answers type websites cited as fact.

     5)Most of my students had never read any professional research, so the format was lost on them. Furthermore, they had no desire to read any. It’s not like there’s a lot of University’s doing research into the things that really excite them, and even if there were, research is typically written at a level that is difficult for them to digest easily.

EminemPerformingThe 40 year old Eminem, performing in 2011. Borrowed from Wikipedia Commons. It occurred to me then, how to remedy this problem.

When my students walked in the next day, I had Eminem’s Wikipedia page pulled up on my projector. Students were immediately remarked excitedly (or sarcastically) that “we’re learning about Eminem today”. I shared with them my story about the 7th grade girl telling me I’m too old to be singing Eminem, to which they (painfully) agreed. When I insisted he was ten years older than I am, they didn’t believe me.

“Why not?” I asked.

 They pointed out that I’m not exactly the world’s foremost expert on Eminem, why should they believe what I say on the topic? I’m just an old guy singing a song. Most agreed, I was not a creditable source. Likewise, when I showed them his age on Wikipedia, they were aghast before quickly saying “Yeah, but teachers always say Wikipedia isn’t a reliable source!”

“No?” I asked. I then showed them the footnotes, which they’d always ignored, and that it revealed Eminem’s birthday was taken directly from his official website. They agreed this was a creditable source and even noted that if his official website was going to lie it would make him appear much younger than 40, which to an 8th grader, this is “over the hill”. (One student remarked, “I don’t care, he’s still hot.”)

We then proceeded to spend some time reading through the page. I showed them that his first album came out when I was a junior in high school and his most successful albums came while I was in high school or college. We talked about why certain pieces of information were cited with footnotes while others were not. Students were able to find some sources that they deemed very reliable (mostly interviews he’d given with reputable news outlets) and others that were perhaps not as dependable. We discussed primary vs secondary sources, and I showed them that while Wikipedia itself may not be the best of sources for their own research work (since it is open source) I showed them that it is a FANTASTIC place to go if you’re looking for sources by using the references at the bottom. Plus, it provides a solid model of what a research paper should look like, at a readable level for middle school students. We talked about how websites with user generated content aren’t reliable by themselves, but that they can occasionally provide direction on where one might go to find creditable sources on a topic.

Light bulbs went off around the room as students began to see what their own research should look like, at least in terms of formatting, citations and creditable sources. “So, you want our papers to look like a Wikipedia page?”

I hesitated, but agreed. We’d work out the finer points later.

When a student asked about the formatting of the references, noting that there was more information there than just a link, we discussed why citations were formatted in a particular manner. I showed them the website and encouraged them to use it while formatting their research papers. 

When students went back to work on their own papers the next day the quality was much improved. There was still some work to be done in summarizing sources and using it to support their own writing, but at least they had a vision for what their work should look like.

This next year, I think I’m moving this lesson to the first week of school. I may require my students to cite EVERYTHING they turn in this year, even if it means citing my in class lectures or their own textbooks. The move to Common Core State Standards has made it preferable for Social Studies and Science teachers to support Language Arts classes as much as possible within the areas of Non-Fiction reading and writing. Having my students draw information from a source, use that source in an appropriate manner, and cite their information will be one way in which I can contribute to this. Not to mention the fact that I believe this is a skill with significant importance going forward in their academic careers. Not to mention it provides a fair amount of critical thinking in the process as they evaluate the validity of a source or argument.

I may be too old to sing along with Eminem in the hallways of school, but I’m not too old to recognize an awesome opportunity to connect with students, laugh a bit, build some relationships and teach a little non-fiction writing in the process. 

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Is My Classroom Focused on Learning?

Step 1: Accept Responsibility For Learning

Step 2: Grading For Learning

The Poor Man's Excuse for Standards Based Grading

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