Apr 22

VIP’s in the Computer Art I Class Room

VIP“All learning takes place one step at a time,” according to Fred Jones, author of Tools for Teaching. Noted for his tips on “weaning the helpless handraisers”, Fred Jones developed the Visual Instruction Plan (VIP) strategy. “A VIP is nothing more than a string of visual prompts.” Students refer to these prompts to see what to do next. VIP’s work in any subject area, including computer art.

Krysta Stanko, Computer Art I teacher, asked her students to create logos for a company. She created a VIP for her students, posting it on a sideboard for reference. Seven of her seventeen steps are shown above. She then projected on her Brightlink board her personal graphic examples of each step. 

As students worked on their logos, I noticed that a few were on step 3, many were on step 8, some were on step 5, and one was practically finished (step 16), putting on the finishing touches. All could tell me which step they were on. Those who had been absent were on step 3. Part of the beauty of the VIP is that students can work at their own pace, referring to the steps for the answer to, “What do I do next?” I saw no one off-task, due in part to Ms. Stanko’s last step: “At the end of each class, type what you accomplished today, the steps you did, and send it to me (virtual share) for a daily grade. This step held all accountable.

Take a look below as student Daryl Nelson explains where he is in the project: 

VIP sample from Renee Balch on Vimeo.

Students in this Computer Art class were independently working while Ms Stanko critiqued their work and redirected some to the next step. No helpless handraisers in sight.

To take your VIP to the next level, try combining your steps with a graphic for each in an easily shared google doc. You can use simple tables such as tables you would insert into a word document. Take a look at this VIP created by Varina’s ITRT, Mike Dunavant.

More VIP’s can be found on the Food Network and Betty Crocker web sites. Happy Cookiing. And happy, less-stress teaching with Visual Instruction Plans of your own.


Mar 25

Giftedness and Boredom, Part Two: Tackling the Issue Head On

When boredom becomes a stagnant source of negativity that kills a child’s interest in learning and when that boredom is the result of poor curricular decisions, it needs to be addressed. Let's do it.

read more

Mar 20

Collaborative Teaching

How does collaborative teaching look in your classroom? Do you plan together and teach equally? Or does one teach while the other manages discipline? Maybe the collaborative teacher works closely with specific students. Was there a discussion between you and your instructional teacher/assistant at the beginning of the year regarding planning together, teaching, disciplining, grading papers, and calling parents? You may want to consider having this discussion at the beginning of the year, but it is never too late. The beginning of marking period 4 may be a good time. Use the suggested topics below in your meeting with your co-teacher:


In visiting a self-contained Algebra I, Part II, class last week, I was privy to collaborative teaching that works. First, teacher Emily Warren stood amid her students writing one of their responses on her slate, which was transferred to a graphic organizer on a flipchart. Another student then explains his thought process in solving a problem. Ms. Warren listens fully and then informs him and the class that another step needed to be done first. A word problem is shown on the flipchart above the graphic organizer. Ms. Warren used color-coded highlighting of key words and what was given. Following this, the instructional assistant, David Lewis, who was sitting with the students, interjected that there was also another way to solve. Take a look:

MVI 2441 from Renee Balch on Vimeo.

Ms. Warren then stands behind the students, using her slate, while Mr. Lewis accesses the online Casio calculator, and it is projected on the flipchart. He models the calculator functions that need to be used, while questioning students. Students repeat what he is doing on their hand-held calculators. He ends by saying that there is still another way to do this:



MVI 2442 from Renee Balch on Vimeo.

I have had the privilege of sitting in other math classes where Mr. Lewis shows alternate ways to solve problems, and it clicks with some of the students. In one particular class last year, a student spoke up and said she had the correct answer but used a method different from how both the co-teacher and teacher had shown. Mr. Lewis listened to her explanation and had her do several more problems using her same method with different numbers. It worked every time. The lesson here? Listen. Test methods. Conduct teacher and student think-alouds. Collaborate in the way that works best for you and your co-teacher. All will benefit.

Mar 11

Giftedness and Classroom Boredom: Maybe It’s Not All Bad

Michaelangelo is credited with commenting that, “If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.” Persevering against boredom in the very face of that boredom is what builds tenacity, skill, and the patience to solve long-term problems.

read more

Feb 24

Sorry, But… Your Exceptional Child Might Not Be “Gifted”

I have had this conversation, or similar ones, many times over. Once we finally get there, at the heart of it all, will lie two central debate points. One is the age old question of Nature versus Nurture. The other will focus on how we ultimately define and assess the quality of “gifted-ness.”

read more

Feb 17

Cross-Curricular Strategies

So, a student is given a Combination Notes template to use in one of his math classes. He struggles with the strategy at first because it is new, and this particular notetaking technique forces him to stop 3 times to write his notes 3 different ways. The strategy helps him remember the information though. He is getting the hang of it and begins to see the validity in taking notes this way. It was a bit time consuming for his teacher in the beginning to teach and model the strategy, but it paid off in terms of student retention and achievement. What if the student’s  science, English, and history teachers used the same strategy? Students would have already learned it and would be able to fall right into place. The strategy could be used across content areas for the purpose of increasing student comprehension, retention, and active listening.

On a smaller scale, using the same strategy across the 4 core content areas is being done at Varina High School’s Saturday morning SOL review sessions. Students meet for 15 minutes before going to their session. They are taught a specific strategy to use in all of their sessions: math, English, science, and math. The February 9th sessions used the  Vocabulary Introduction Chart to sort their content area’s vocabulary for that day according to their level of knowledge. This was used across the content areas to access prior knowledge and build background knowledge.

When asked for her opinion on its use for her Saturday session,  English teacher, Mrs. Walker, stated, “I liked the graphic organizer, but it would’ve gone better for us if we had an actual reading passage (like for the reading SOL).  We were able to use it with one or two writing words – I think one was thesis statement?  Can’t remember exactly.  But it’s something neat for my ninth graders to pin in their notebook and add to as the year progresses.” So, her students will be using the strategy in her classes for the remainder of the year.

Math teacher Dave Waterman said, “I did it at the beginning of the lesson so the students were pretty quiet and didn’t give a whole lot of feedback, but they seemed to grasp the idea that it was an easy way to determine what topics to study and how to choose what to spend the most time on. It also helped me because I found out what 2 things I was about to teach that nobody remembered.” Math teacher Jessica Meade used it as well, stating that the students used the strategy, writing the definitions in the column as they were going over them. Science teacher, Jennifer Burnett said it was used in her session as well.

The Saturday Session Strategies are in the “Strategies for Students” page on this blog. They are for parents, students, teachers, and administrators. Using them across the content areas will not only increase student confidence in using them but also build capacity in the class room.



Feb 04

When It’s Time to Cut Your Gifted Child Some Slack

Giftedness does not exempt that individual from going through the same behavioral developmental stages and benchmarks that any other person must inevitably go through.

read more

Jan 20

Surviving the Middle School Years with your Gifted Child

The key to surviving the middle school years with your gifted child lies in a few surprisingly simple things you can do to support your ‘tween.'

read more

Jan 10

The Active Class Room

Health and P.E. teacher and department chair, Gretchen Hiort, believes in using physical activity in the class room for the purpose of increasing student achievement. She periodically uses yoga poses such as the warrior pose  to have her students stretch. She also has her students do a standing “Rock, Paper, Scissors” activity with a partner as seen in the video below. For those of you like me who need a refresher on the meaning of “Rock, Paper, Scissors”:  paper beats rock, rock beats scissors, and scissors beats paper. This would be an active exercise to use in your own class room to determine roles or tasks in partners, or who will be the reader, etc. Check it out:

MVI 2355 from Renee Balch on Vimeo.

 Mrs. Hiort also uses seated yoga poses that require students to lift their arms over their heads and then plunge to the floor to stretch their backs as shown in this video clip:

MVI 2356 from Renee Balch on Vimeo.

Mrs. Hiort says we so rarely lift our arms above our heads. She hopes that all teachers will use active class strategies to improve focus. She is not the only one to realize the benefits of movement in the class room. Ron Nash of Ron Nash and Associates, Inc., Collaborating, Consulting, and Coaching in 2013,gives active class room tips: Teachers can take their lesson plans—no matter the subject—and decide what can be accomplished with students who are standing and paired or grouped with classmates. The simple act of standing up sends 15% more blood to the brain—blood that carries oxygen and glucose (for energy). Nash says, “Here is what I have found in four decades in education: Kids who are not given opportunities to move in a structured way will find ways to move on their own (going to the pencil sharpener when the pencil is already sharp, asking to go to the restroom, taking something to the wastebasket, or talking to a neighbor). In classrooms where teachers provide the movement as a matter of course, students don’t generally DO all these other things in an attempt to move—the teacher provides the movement. Build into your lesson plans opportunities for movement in the name of learning.”

I attended a Ron Nash Active Learning Workshop, and while teaching us specific learning strategies, he modeled active movement. He also used music during the movement. We were frequently getting up, finding partners, and discussing and collaborating. In the middle of the day we had a huge lunch. Normally, my eyes would have been heavy after lunch. But with the periodic movement he had us engaged in, I was wide awake. It was the only workshop I have ever attended that kept me energized throughout its entirety.

National research has been conducted on movement in the class room. Dr. John Ratey on Good Morning America spoke of ABL or action-based learning. He said that movement activates the brain to wake up. Dr. Ratey said that a single bout of exercise improves cognitive function. It improves attention and motivation and decreases anxiety and impulsivity. I know for me that when I am finding it impossible to keep my eyes open during an after-school meeting, if I get up and go to the restroom, I am fully awake and alert by the time I sit back down. Hmmmm…….

So, it may serve us well to reflect on how or even if we use movement in our own teaching practices. Ron Nash suggests asking ourselves, 1) Do I break my class periods or blocks into eight- or ten-minute segments that permit my students to alternately stand, move, and sit? 2) Do I get my students up for a minute of exercises that will release serotonin, dopamine, and other neurotransmitters?  Much better than going to the rest room….


Dec 19

Does research have to be boring?

Not if you are a student in Mrs. Suders’ English 11 class. In her desire to create a more concept-based project, Varina High School English 11 teacher, Christine Suders, chose Persecution and Intolerance as themes with the over-arching concept of CHANGE in a recent Crucible Research Project. The concept is in direct response to the eleventh grade theme of the American Dream: the traditional social ideals of the United States, such as equality, democracy, and material prosperity.

 Mrs. Suders gave students choice in selecting topics ranging from the Holocaust to Arab Americans and Muslim Americans, post 9/11. They were to become experts on their topics and eventually teach it to the class.  Students worked in groups of four and collaborated to create their own group norms. Each group member had a project role, including Leader/Facilitator, Recorder/Elaborator, Checker/Timekeeper, and Spokesperson/Press Secretary/Webmaster. Having choice and the opportunity to work with peers kept boredom at bay.

Mrs. Suders held each group member accountable for his/her work by requiring meeting notes from each on a daily log. The premise for the project was “We need to understand the past if we want to change the future.” And change is rarely boring…