Author - Kristin Oropeza

Empowering Learners in the Classroom

As many educators prepare to return to work and welcome a new group of students for the new school year, it is a great time for us to reflect on classroom practices and look toward new ways of empowering our next group of students.

Empowering our students is one of the greatest tasks and privileges that we hold as teachers. You, as the classroom teacher, have the profound opportunity to inspire and liberate student voice not only in your own classroom, but, hopefully, beyond that.

As you greet new students in the next few weeks and start learning this new group’s quirks and strengths, think about employing some of these ideas to empower your students and help them find their voice.

1. Give choices.

And not just on that multiple-choice quiz! Students want to feel like they have choices – that they are in control of their own learning. (My three-year-old toddler would agree!) It’s okay to release the reigns every once in a while – and please, give yourself that permission! Choice boards and menus are great ways of letting students have agency in what they work on in the classroom.

2. Ignite fires.

(No, not literally!) Help students discover what they are passionate about. What is it that they really care about? What interests them? What gets them excited? Find these questions out and continue to build that fire within each student. Use this knowledge to guide your teaching and help bring their interests into what’s being taught in the classroom.

3. Grow your storytellers.

Every student has a story to tell and it’s our job as educators to cultivate and help those ideas thrive. Educational technology has made storytelling in the classroom easier than ever. Using blogging, podcasts, videos and multimedia creation websites – like my favorite, Adobe Spark – teachers can make sharing even your most shyest student’s story that much easier…and fun.

4. Encourage self-expression.

As a “forever special education teacher,” I am all about letting students show mastery through multiple means. Let them use the tools, strategies, and processes that work best for them. It doesn’t have to be standardized or uniform from one child to the next. Honoring their voices will build trust and encourage further risk-taking. Let students get creative with the how and you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the what.

5. Get students involved in the assessment process.

As educators, we are all too aware of the role assessment plays in what we do in the classroom. Instead of letting rubrics and scales get in the way of determining student growth, let students be agents of their own assessment. Have students set goals, check their progress and then adjust course as necessary. Let students engage in self-reflection, peer-assessment and student-teacher conferences. Students should learn to welcome the idea that learning is all about progress over perfection, and that mistakes are not only expected but also embraced.

6. Inspire debate.

It’s critical for students to understand that not everyone is going to have the same opinion as them – and that it’s okay to show dissent. Empower students to disagree and be comfortable in expressing differences. Finding and exercising our own voice is a protected right – we should not expect any less from our students. Debating is an excellent opportunity to showcase student voice.

Making Time for Science

Time – the killer of science instruction, at least according to an article from Edsurge this month.

As Elisabeth Stock explains, science instruction, unfortunately, is abandoned in favor of English Language Arts and math instruction.

According to a 2018 National Study of Science and Mathematics Education report, many elementary school teachers do not provide science instruction every week. According to the National Science Teachers Association Position Statement, “Elementary science instruction often takes a back seat to math and reading and receives little time in the school day.”

But why is STEM important? According to the non-profit Out Teach, the demand for STEM jobs has rapidly increased in the last decade – at a rate of six times faster than non-STEM jobs.

Stock’s article offers a couple of key suggestions for increasing science exposure to students. These suggestions include:

  • Bringing families onboard
  • Make science come alive

Getting families involved and making science more accessible for them is key. Parents are key stakeholders in science instruction and it’s important to leverage parents in their children’s learning.

To read more of Stock’s article, check out the Edsurge article here.

Study Reveals Teachers Struggle to Address SEL in Classroom

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is trending in the world of education right now. But as a recent article in EdWeek points out, many teachers feel ill-equipped to address these needs in their classrooms.

According to the article by Sarah Schwartz, “research has linked focusing on these social-emotional competencies to higher academic performance and better outcomes outside of school. But while most teachers say it’s important for them to teach these skills, many still don’t feel equipped to help students manage their emotions—especially when it comes to the children who are facing the greatest hurdles, according to a new nationally representative survey from the Education Week Research Center.”

The study, performed by Education Week Research Center, found that many teachers felt they had inadequate training in the area of addressing SEL in their classrooms – only 12% of teachers felt they were “Very” prepared in addressing students’ mental health needs.

The study also determined that the biggest challenge teachers were facing (29% of those surveyed) was the focus on academic content left little time to address the bigger SEL needs they might have.

To read more on the study by Education Week Research Center or to hear more ideas on how teachers are adapting to incorporate SEL practices into their classrooms, check out Schwartz’s article here.

21st Century Learning and Why It’s Still Important

For more than two decades now, education experts, policymakers, and business leaders have been calling the education community to action with this startling revelation – rote memorization and automated learning experiences are not going to prepare students for an ever-changing, information-driven society and work place.

A focus on needed “21st Century Learning Skills” was demanded and has – since it’s inception – saturated the educational learning sphere. Decision makers and educators alike turned to the then newly minted “4Cs of 21st Century Learning Skills” – Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Creativity – as a framework and guide to the types of skills they wanted to organically grow in classrooms across the nation.

These competencies remain applicable as we get further into our current century, argues David Ross, global education consultant and former CEO of P21, “because they seem to be the one constant in a rapidly changing social and economic environment.”

But the 4Cs are not just another trend – it’s a learning movement that hopes to empower both educators and students alike. Ken Kay, co-founder of the influential consortium called the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (later rebranded Partnership for 21st Century Learning, or P21), stated, “People are interested in not just adopting the 4Cs, but understanding what they can do to customize this framework at the local level. What can they design that works well for their community?”

To read more from EdSurge’s original article by Suzie Boss and why the 4Cs are still crucial skills in the classroom, please visit EdSurge.

Robotics and Coding in the Classroom

Who knew robots in classroom would turn into the next big thing? Give students hands-on tools (cool devices like robots!) to learn – and excel – in 21st century computational thinking and coding is a no brainer in schools across the country.

Sphero, a programmable robot, can be found in more than 20,000 schools around the globe. But that’s not the only thing rolling into classrooms – educational robotic kits, including Dash and Dot, LEGO Mindstorms and LittleBits are also paving the way for students in K-12 to learn progressive coding skills.

However, students get more than just a base of knowledge in coding – teaching and using robotics in the classroom is also giving teachers the means of teaching students persistence and critical problem solving skills.

Apart from being a hands-on, exciting and relevant introduction to STEM for many students, working with robots can reach students who might otherwise struggle in traditional classroom settings, says Chris Kunkel, a math teacher and STEM coordinator in New Jersey.

To read more about how Sphero, LittleBits, and other robots are transforming classroom instruction or to get inspired to bring robots into your own classroom, read Dan Tynan’s article here.

An Experiment in Flexible Seating – Summer Edition

There’s been a lot of talk about classroom design lately and more specifically, how classroom design ultimately affects student learning.

Rebecca Hare recently wrote a blog post for OnCUE about learning spaces and even showcased a redesigned classroom at CUE BOLD. Hare’s co-author, Bob Dillon, has written extensively about transformative learning spaces and argues that learning spaces are tools for learning and should be student-centered.

And then there’s the research.

Research has shown that intentional classroom design achieves some pretty great things. Creating a community of learners? Check. Helping students work at their optimal level of challenge? Check. Encourages holistic learning among students? Check.

With all of this discussion on classroom learning spaces on my mind, I decided to wage an experiment on flexible seating. As a Technology TOSA during the school year, I don’t have a classroom to call my own. But when I was given the chance to teach summer school (4th grade science, nonetheless!) I jumped at it – knowing that my three-week summer school stint would be the perfect opportunity to try out flexible seating, should I ever make it back into my own classroom.

Now, because it was summer school and because there was literally NO budget for my grandiose ideas of classroom design, I did flexible seating my way – on a budget.


I turned to Teachers Pay Teachers for gathering some quick (and free!) resources for flexible seating in the classroom.

Here’s what I downloaded:

How to Manage Flexible Seating – Freebie: This was a good place to start, as this document shared one teacher’s experience with using flexible seating in her room. She also includes some handy “noise level indicators”, which I would use again for flexible seating purposes.

Flexible Seating FREEBIES: We used the flexible seating contracts from this resource when we discussed flexible seating the first week of school. Many of the students I worked with had never been in a classroom that used flexible seating – and as such, were REALLY excited to try it. Had this been my own classroom, I would have also shared the included letter home to parents (discussed the “why” of flexible seating).

Flexible Seating Lesson Plan FREEBIE: This freebie included two things I used in the classroom – a tree map graphic organizer (which – being a Thinking Maps district – my students were familiar with) and color pictures (for myself) to visualize, during the planning process, the type of seating options I would like to provide for students. Yes, I could have probably had students create their own tree maps in Google Drawings but with only 3 weeks of summer school, our time was precious.

EDITABLE Flexible Seating Expectations FREEBIE: This freebie was what I used for my flexible seating rules/expectations for seating – all I did was print and laminate these. After going over the expectations DAILY with students for the first week, we put them up on a bulletin board and referred to them throughout the duration of summer school.


Because I was starting from scratch, I started small. Here’s the breakdown of what I bought to start it all up:

– (2) Adirondack chairs from Lowes ($14.98 each)
5″ Bed Risers from Amazon ($11.99)
– (2) Yoga balls of varying size from Five Below ($5 each)
– (4) Outdoor Seat Cushions from Five Below (on sale for $3 each)
– (6) Metal Stools from Five Below (in-store only – $5 each)
– (3) Wobble cushions from my former SPED classroom (free!)
– (4) Lap desks from Michaels ($5 each)

Grand Total: $113.95

Lounge chairs were another popular choice for students.


Students had several seating options available to them. Apart from the traditional seating I had left in place at certain tables, I also included the following:

– A lowered table close to the floor with cushions for seating
– A raised table on risers for students who preferred to stand
– Lounge chairs with small cushions and a swivel chair that was left in the classroom
– Lap desks for students who preferred to work on the floor
– Wobble disks for students who needed to move in traditional seats
– Metal stools

A raised table for students who preferred to stand


As this was not my regular classroom, I couldn’t exactly get into total “Fixer Upper” mode and start throwing stuff out. I did, though, have some of the traditional tables moved out of the classroom to give us some room to work with. I ended up moving two of those larger tables out of the room, temporarily. I also had to leave certain pieces of furniture in the room (e.g. filing cabinets, extra chairs that weren’t being used, bookshelves, etc.).

Stools were a great alternative to traditional chairs. Note to self – invest in sturdier stools for upper elementary students!

I also planned some of the seating arrangements based on the top number of students I was set to have – 25. If I had more students, I would have had to plan on some more seating alternatives.

Finally, because I didn’t have unlimited funds and was trying to really limit what I did spend (within reason), I gave myself a budget of $120. Everything that was purchased was purchased with the intent of using it for several years before having to replace anything.

(From Left): Seating expectations that were reinforced and referred to daily; a lowered table with seat cushions for students who wanted to stay “grounded”


I had three classes of about 25 kids each (so around a total of 75 fourth graders). I was surprised to find that not many knew what flexible seating was, let alone had been in a classroom where a teacher utilized it. This was exciting – and really a great opportunity to experiment with students across my district (from various schools and demographics). Here are some initial thoughts after running the experiment for three weeks.

Students loved the choice of sitting where they thought they would learn best – and moved accordingly.

NOT FOR EVERYONE: Flexible seating is not going to work for everyone – as a former special education teacher, I will be the first to admit that. There’s a lot of groundwork that needs to be laid in order for it work and work successfully. Three weeks was a great start but I would have loved to have longer to try it out. And some students are not going to know how to handle themselves when given the choice to sit where they work best – because, honestly…some of them don’t know how to “be a student” let alone a responsible one who can self-regulate.

SELF-REGULATION: Knowing how to self-regulate and be cognizant of one’s own learning environment is critical. Some students were aware of which seats they worked well in – and were able to verbalize to me if they needed to move if they weren’t in a place conducive to their learning. Others, did not and then were “blind-sided” when I exercised my right to move them after multiple warnings and side-talks.

This seating arrangement provided the opportunity for a more collaborative working environment.

LONGEVITY OF SEATING: If I were to use this in my own classroom, I would definitely invest (a little more!) in better stools. I loved the stools I got for summer school – but let’s face it, they were bargain store stools! Whether it was the sheer weight of fourth grader bodies or because several students couldn’t follow expectations and keep all four feet on the floor, two of the stools didn’t make it out alive. I would definitely recommend something more sturdy for larger (heavier) bodies. I would also consider getting a few more yoga balls; the ones I purchased were surprisingly durable and were a BIG hit with all of my classes.

GREAT FOR COLLABORATIVE WORK: The majority of my lessons during summer school required students to work in small, collaborative groups. The various seating options provided each group with ample work space to create and make with our STEM challenges and lended itself naturally to more collaborative working opportunities among students. Students felt they also had plenty of space to move and work if they needed to.

Another surprising favorite – standing tables!

STUDENT/TEACHER RECEPTION: Students were SO excited to have this type of seating arrangement! The stack of chairs in the corner of the classroom was a visual reminder of what they could have had, and so the majority of students took our flexible seating expectations quite seriously – they didn’t want to lose it! Other teachers were curious too. I had several stop by and pop their heads in and ask questions about the classroom learning space design. And when we had a surprise visit from our district assistant superintendents and program director, I know they looked closely at the seating arrangement and were curious too.

The experiment itself went surprisingly well – much better than I thought it would. I want to attribute that to the planning prior to starting the experiment and then the constant reflection (of students) during the process and the focus on expectations of our flexible seating arrangement. Given more time, I think this would have been a successful seating alternative to traditional seating.

Flexible seating lends itself nicely to the collaborative work environments that we, as teachers, want to see in the classroom, while also providing students with choice and ownership over their learning space.

The Argument for Transformative Learning Spaces

CUE Spark Dillon Article

Learning space design gets a makeover.

Bob Dillon, co-author of the book “The Space” with Rebecca Hare and “Redesigning Learning Spaces”, discusses changing the narrative around learning space design in his recent article for Medium website. Dillon states that “neat, fancy and cute have become the norm” and that many educators feel guilty because their classrooms may not be as Pinterest perfect as their neighbors. It is up to administrators, Dillon urges, to refocus the attention on the purpose of the learning space and not cosmetic appeal.

Dillon smartly states, “Space either inhibits learning or supports learning. It is very rarely neutral.”

He encourages educators to think about how instructional philosophy, and tools for learning intersect directly with learning space design.

Public support of innovative, new learning spaces is also key – but don’t rely on “emotional pleas,” Dillon warns. Substantiated research can be used to show that intentional classroom design supports brain-based learning.

Dillon also encourages educators to use student voice to support your space design practices. There isn’t anything stronger for an argument than hearing directly from the students and beneficiaries of these intentional learn space design practices. Dillon recommends recording videos, “showing students learning in these environments or discussing how space design supports growth.”

For more information or to read Dillon’s article in depth, visit the Medium website. He can be reach on Twitter @drrobertdillon.

Addressing Social Emotional Learning in EDU

Social Emotional Learning

Social Emotional Learning has – in recent years – become a priority in many districts. Youth suicide rates have shown a steady rise in recent years and the number of violent occurrences in schools is also on the incline. With mental health diagnoses growing at an alarming rate, many experts believe that this is the next national crisis.

Many see social emotional learning (SEL) as a preventative measure to address these growing concerns in the school system. Unfortunately, the sad reality is that only 8 states currently have standards that address SEL in grades PK-12th; these states include Nevada, Kansas, Illinois, Michigan, West Virginia, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Maine. Thirty-six states – California included – have SEL standards for pre-school age students only.

In a recent article by Megan Collins for EdSurge, Collins recommends four easy steps to begin the process of addressing SEL within your own teaching practice. These steps include:

1) Reviewing the CASEL Framework: Use the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning as a starting point.

2) Taking an Inventory: Self-reflection is important – take a moment to reflect on your own interactions with your students and how those interactions fit within the CASEL competencies.

3) Starting Conversations: Explicitly identify these interactions in a meaningful way. The conversations that follow will “allow SEL behaviors to become observable and real to your students,” according to Collins.

4) Broadening the Scope: Having these real discussions will likely cause a shift in thinking for both students and teachers alike. SEL goes well beyond the classroom and it’s critical that everyone within the school system – from counselors to support staff to administrators and parents – be involved in those conversations.

For more information or to read Collins article in depth, click here.

To see what others are saying about SEL, make sure to follow the hashtag #SEL on Twitter for more news, articles, and tips for incorporating SEL instruction into classroom routines.

Students Grow with Formative Assessment

Formative Assessment

Formative assessment is the ongoing process of evaluating student learning. Unlike it’s formalized, standardized testing counterpart, formative assessments are not used for grading but are focused on providing students opportunities to monitor their own learning and self-assess one’s mastery of content and skills.

As a former special education teacher who didn’t rely on formal standardized testing data to determine student growth or achievement (because, really – what good was the CAASPP for except for making my poor kiddos cry?) – I used more formative assessment pieces in my planning and instruction to help me establish if my students were really getting the instruction I was presenting in class. It also showed me which concepts I should probably go back and reteach for student mastery.

And, because we were lucky to have 1:1 devices in the classroom, I was able to pull in some educational technology to help me gather valuable data on my students. Here are some of my favorite applications that I used when teaching SPED and that I continue to use now in my TOSA position with my TK-5th grade classrooms.

Padlet: Padlet is a web-based platform for creating online bulletin boards that allow teachers and students to share and collaborate, from any device. Users can post text, links, files, photos, and videos. I started using Padlet with my younger TK and Kindergarten students who weren’t logging into Google Classroom yet. Because the boards can be password protected (and private), students were able to collaborate through this online discussion board, much in the same way that they would have done in Google Classroom. The only caveat to this program? Under a free account, you are only able to create three padlets at a time.

Pear Deck: Pear Deck is a web-based formative assessment tool that allows you to create interactive lessons using Google Slides. Pear Deck offers a library of free templates that you can use to create interactive assessments in your slides, with everything from math templates to critical thinking questions to slides on social emotional learning – and more! Pear Deck has a paid and free version. Although I get by quite nicely with the free version, if you have the funds to pay for a subscription, I would highly recommend it. If you’re looking to try Pear Deck Premium, click here for 3-months of premium access!

Edpuzzle: Edpuzzle is a great tool that allows users to turn videos into quick assessments, through the use of strategically placed questions. It’s as simple as choosing a video from YouTube (or uploading your own), trimming the video, inserting a question anywhere and then tracking your students progress. Edpuzzle does offer a premium account but most educators I know (myself included) use the basic version.

Kahoot!: If your students love game-based learning (and, really – which kid doesn’t?), Kahoot! should be your go-to for free engaging quizzes that will get all of your students actively participating. While you can create your own quiz, Kahoot! also offers an extensive library of games. Students can play as individuals, groups, or pairs.

Flipgrid: If you haven’t gotten #FlipgridFever yet, now is the time! Flipgrid is a free site that allows students to post videos in response to questions and topics posed by their teacher. It also gives students an opportunity to reflect, collaborate, and receive and respond to constructive feedback offered by their peers.

Google Forms: Google Forms is a great tool for creating quizzes or forms to collect data from your students. Forms allows users to use a variety of question types (multiple choice, short answer, paragraph, check boxes, drop-down, linear scale, etc.) – along with the ability to upload pictures and videos for students to view and answer questions on. I use Forms throughout the school year, across subject areas and is a quick and easy way of collecting information from your students.

Quizlet/Quizziz: Both Quizlet and Quizziz are web-based platforms that allow students an alternative to the traditional methods of studying new vocabulary terms. While I have used both platforms (and both are reputable, in my opinion), I will say that Quizziz has some perks that Quizlet currently does not offer. First, Quizziz makes it easy for me to important classes from Google Classroom. I also appreciate that Quizziz offers me data on my students after each quiz – making it a bit easier for me to determine who needs some additional help with certain topics.

Listicles in EDU (No, It’s Not What You Think)

Listicle Image

What on earth is a “listicle”?

According to Charles Logan, an educational technologist in the College of Education and Human Ecology at The Ohio State University, a listicle is the merging of a list and an article. Buzzfeed and other online news sites bank on them.

But how can they be used in the name of education?

In a recent EdSurge article, Logan explains what listicles are (he breaks down the entire anatomy of a listicle), as well as why and how teachers can be using them in classrooms.

Logan explains that listicles are great ways of “promot[ing] close reading, abstract thinking, and critical playing; develop[ing] digital and media literacy; and build[ing] upon a connected learning framework.”

To read his article, visit EdSurge. If you want to read more about listicles, check out Logan’s slide deck.

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