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Starting Strong: Building a Positive Classroom Culture through Your Academic Content

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Welcome to the start of another great school year! Whether your students have already returned or will be arriving back soon, your brain has surely transitioned to teacher mode, and you’re ready for a successful year.

As a teacher, you know the importance of setting the tone early and establishing norms that will empower your students to grow and succeed. What can be difficult is justifying the “loss” of content time to focus on this critical culture building. Fortunately, you don’t have to sacrifice content to achieve culture. You can have your cake and eat it too!

The following BetterLesson Master Teachers created lessons for the first days of school that skillfully integrate foundational content with culture building activities:

Deborah Blackley, 3rd-grade ELA – Establishing Norms for Speaking and Listening in Class

Sue Andrews, 6th-grade ELA – Becoming a Community of Learners

SiriNam Khalsa, 9th-grade ELA – Supporting Students to Speak and Listen with Confidence

Lindsay Thompson, 10th-grade ELA – Unit 1: Setting the Tone for a Great Year

Glenda Funk, 12th-grade ELA – The First Three Days of School

Amanda Cole, 1st-grade math – Creating a Culture of Math

Ursula Lovings, 6th-grade math – Unit 1: The First Week of School

Amanda Hathaway, Algebra 1 – Creating a Positive Classroom Climate

Tim Marley, 12th-grade math – Creating an Environment of Collaboration and Critical Thinking

Justin Price, 3rd-grade science – Unit 1: Building a Classroom

Ashley Cooper, Biology – Building a Foundation for Success in Your Classroom

Anna Meyer, Physics – Cooperation and Communication in the First Week

BL-TeachCycle_FINAL-LOGO (2)At BetterLesson, we recognize that classroom culture has a direct impact on student outcomes. That’s why our personalized professional development platform, TeachCycle, specifically supports teachers to build and develop positive, collaborative cultures in their classrooms.

Our highly trained TeachCycle coaches work one-on-one with teachers across the country to address issues of classroom culture like:

  • Building Confidence and Competence with Classroom Routines and Procedures
  • Building a Collaborative Classroom Community
  • Developing a Growth Mindset
  • Developing Digital Citizenship and Literacy Skills

If you are interested in learning how TeachCycle could provide you with personalized process for achieving student growth in an area of classroom culture (or Math, ELA, Science, or a blended model), please request a demo at

Should You Jump on the PBL Bandwagon?

BandwagonIt’s the end of August, the last gasp of summer. The days are getting just a little bit shorter, Labor Day is around the corner, and try as you might, you can’t escape the ubiquity of back to school advertising.

Whether you’re a first-year teacher or a seasoned veteran, there’s nothing quite like the surge of nervous, yet excited anticipation that sets in this time of year. The school year is about to start! The kids are coming back!

For teachers, standing at the threshold of a new year can bring about feelings of promise and possibility…This year is going to be something special! These magical moments between the dog days of summer and the chaos of the first day are the perfect time to make plans about the new and exciting things you’ll try in your classroom.

Over the last few weeks, we at BetterLesson have outlined some ideas to inspire your New (School) Year Resolutions: revamping your technology toolbox, adding blended elements to your class, or even participating in a new form of PD! There’s one more suggestion we have as we kick of the 15-16 school year: Project Based Learning.

The Project Based Learning Bandwagon has been barreling across the country, attracting teachers from far and wide. But fear not, it still has room for you! Before you jump aboard, however, you’ll want to consider a path that makes the most sense for you and your students.

First, a brief introduction: Project Based Learning (PBL) is a student-centered teaching method wherein students develop skills and knowledge by working through and solving open-ended and complex problems, questions, or challenges.

PBL transforms the traditional notion of top down, teacher-directed instruction, into a richer, deeper, student-directed form of authentic inquiry and learning. The benefits to using PBL are well documented:

  • It makes school more engaging for students.
  • It promotes deeper, more authentic learning.
  • It builds 21st century skills of collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking.
  • It provides students an opportunity to connect with communities outside the confines of the classroom.

And it’s not just the students who benefit! Countless teachers have seen dramatic improvements in their own enjoyment, motivation, and job satisfaction.

A full conversion to PBL is quite a commitment and takes time and deliberate planning. Rather than resolve to transform your entire class for the start of school, why not start small with just one unit?  You could even get your feet wet by using a Project Based Assessment to see how it feels before taking the full leap to PBL. A project early in the fall could also help set the tone for classroom collaboration throughout the year.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “There is no way I could have my students do projects AND get through all the standards I need to this year,” don’t worry! PBL and CCSS go hand in hand! What’s more, the BetterLesson Master Teachers have your back! These inspiring educators have woven Common Core Standards into beautifully crafted projects, providing you with everything you need to get started with PBL.

What are you waiting for? Jump on the bandwagon!

Here are some highlights from the BetterLesson Master Teachers. As always, access to these resources is free and open to all teachers:

Lori Knasiak, an 8th grade science teacher from Illinois loves using PBL units in her classroom because they push the students far beyond just memorizing facts, challenging them to apply their knowledge in unique ways. Check out Lori’s first PBL unit about the End of Humanity, or this one about Designing a Cyborg Eye.

Mariana Garcia Serrato is a science teacher who uses projects to great success in her 7th grade class. Check out her projects on Controversies in Genetics, Evolution, and Geologic Time.

8th grade math teacher, Christa Lemily blends art into two of her unit projects (scale models and dilations), giving students a chance to practice with math concepts in an engaging way. She also offers ideas for using projects throughout the year, and has several mini-projects, which would be a great start for the PBL neophyt.

Andrea Palmer has her 6th graders work on a College Project throughout a unit about decimals.  This is a great example of how PBL can run in the background of a unit, without being the minute-to-minute focus for 3 weeks.

In cases like Andrea’s (above), projects are the basis of learning.  In other cases, performance tasks or short projects, can be a method of assessment, like Michelle Schade’s Pizza Performance Task for 6th grade math, or Marisa LaksTransformational Geometry Task, which also incorporates reading Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.

Dr. Elizabeth Watts Bromery summarizes her passion for PBL in this great reflection video. You can also access all her amazing resources for her 12th grade ELA First Semester Project: From BEOWULF to CANTERBURY TALES.

In this multi day project, Kristal Doolin has her 7th grade ELA students complete a Best Book Project to culminate the year and provide a resource for next year’s incoming students. This could be transformed into a great opening year project by having students report on their best summer reading.

For more great project-based ideas and lessons, head to

Tips of the Trade: Getting Started with Blended Learning


Okay, so you made the decision. Last school year, students didn’t seem as engaged as they could be. Differentiation and personalization was super time-consuming and difficult to manage. Data cycles and feedback took too long, and the data got stale. You did some research and thought to yourself, “this blended learning movement seems like it could be onto something. But…what is it exactly, and how can I get started?”

Many of our Blended Master Teachers here at BetterLesson experienced that same thought process. One thing was true for all of them; no one digital tool and no one model is going to work for every blended teacher. Developing your toolbox will allow you more flexibility as you experiment with what works best in your classroom. The process of trying and failing and trying again is part of the risk, and in turn part of the huge reward that these blended educators have experienced. Ultimately, it boils down to knowing your students and what works for them, even it takes a couple “loops” to figure it out!

Blended learning is strategically using in-person instruction and technologies to personalize learning for students. It does not replace effective teaching, it enhances the teacher’s ability to be in many places at once without actually having to be there, while still gaining important insights about student understanding. Our Master Teachers developed some points educators should consider as they take their first steps towards blending their classroom.

  • How are you going to design your classroom? Thinking about how you want your blended classroom to look and feel is hugely important. Your design will form the foundation of your practice and directly affect student outcomes. Testing a design with a small chunk of your academic schedule, and seeing if it feels right for your students is a good first step! How will students move throughout the classroom? When will they be using technology? Where will they be using it? What procedures will you have in place? Are students going to be moving through content independently on their own? Will they work in collaborative groups?
  • How are you going to manage your content? Part of the shift for educators and students alike is delivering and receiving content online. Choosing a learning management system and a content platform that fits your needs & the needs of your students is a big first step.

Ed-Tech Tool Suggestions: (teacher-created website); Versal; Haiku; Gooru Learning; Khan Academy; nearpod; Remind; (For more ideas and inspiration, feel free to check out last week’s blog all about Master Teacher suggested tech tools)

  •  How are you going to capture real-time data? A benefit to all of these online programs is they give the teacher access to data on every student at their level immediately. They allow you to review and automatically create new groups/assignments based on students’ level of understanding.

Ed-Tech Tool Suggestions: Socrative; formative; Google forms;; Kahoot!

  • How are you going to plan, both short term and long term, for your students? One of the many benefits of having students work in a blended environment, is that they don’t have to move onto the next lesson or skill if they are not ready to do so (until they master!). That idea seems like it would make planning very difficult. However, many ed-tech tools make planning the day to day assignments based on student needs a piece of cake!

Suggestions: (teacher-facing); creating a Daily Agenda via Google Docs for Students with big learning goals (student-facing); having a student workspace like wikispaces (student-facing); brightloop (teacher and student-facing)

Please check out the Blended Master Teacher Project and the 100+ strategies that can help you get on and stay on the blended train! There are more to come soon!

Tech Tools

What’s in Your Toolbox?

It’s officially August, which means it’s time to dust off your technology toolbox and think ahead to the coming year!toolbox-tech

Research suggests that properly used technology can enhance student learning by creating opportunities for increased engagement and collaboration, allowing for more creativity and differentiated pacing, and expanding the learning environment beyond the four walls of your classroom. But how do you know what tool is right for you?

Having the right tool for the job is essential in every field, no more so than in education. With so many new products and updates coming out every day, however, knowing what tools are available can be a full time job, making it nearly impossible once the school year starts. That makes summer the perfect time to get ahead! Whether you’re an app authority, or a technology tyro, your toolbox can always use some new inspiration.

Enter the BetterLesson Master Teachers. These talented educators from across the country pepper their lessons with some of the best, most high-leverage technology available. All their lessons and the accompanying resources are available for free on the BetterLesson site! The lessons linked below highlight tried-and-true tools that can enhance great lessons to make them truly spectacular.


Suggestions for formative assessment:

Socrative: This web-based student response platform allows students to submit answers to your quizzes on any web-enabled device. Multiple choice questions are graded instantly and you can track student progress in real time through the teacher dashboard.

In this lesson, SiriNam Khalsa uses Socrative to conduct an open-book quiz in this 9th grade ELA lesson.

Kahoot!:  Kahoot! takes rigorous, game-based formative assessment to a new level of student engagement and excitement.

Mariana Garcia Serrato uses Kahoot! to conduct a review game in her 7th grade science class.

Watch Daniel Guerrero reflect on why he uses Kahoot! with his 5th grade math students.

Poll Everywhere: This web-based response system is great for anonymous polling or feedback, for when you don’t need a student name tied to an answer. Present responses in a graph, as text, or even a snazzy word cloud.

Devon O’Brien uses Poll Everywhere to hook her 8th grade ELA students into the lesson.

Suggestions for teacher workflow and classroom management: Not only a plagiarism checker, Turnitin offers a simplified way to collect, grade, and give feedback on student work.

In this lesson, 11th grade ELA teacher, Cassy McCoy Carey uses Turnitin as a teaching tool to help her students learn about proper citation and even grammar. Extend your class beyond the confines of the school day with this social networking platform. You and your students can share ideas and work through problems in a safe and secure online space.

See how Christa Lemily gets her 8th grade math students talking about math at home.

Gooru: This online platform allows you to create collections of multimedia resources (video, audio, websites, documents quizzes, etc) for your students to access in or out of class.

Watch Johanna Paraiso discuss the benefits of a Gooru collection.

ClassDojo: This powerful classroom management tool is quick to set up and enables teachers to reinforce and encourage positive behavior in the classroom, and communicate with families.

See how Jennifer Martinez uses ClassDojo with her 3rd grade ELA class.

Classcraft: An educational role-playing game, Classcraft aims to supplement classroom learning by encouraging teamwork and increasing student motivation. This is a great option for older students.

Read Jessica Anderson’s explanation of this classroom management strategy.


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Technology is wonderful in the hands of a skilled teacher, but its real game-changing potential comes when placed in the hands of students. As a teacher, you don’t have to be an expert, you just have to create the opportunity. A well-designed, rigorous assignment, like those below will provide the impetus for your students to truly amaze you.

Jessica Anderson’s use of Flipboard in her Genius Hour is an excellent example of students taking their learning into their own hands and creating something truly impressive.

Suggestions for student writing:

Google Docs: Google has transformed the way the teachers and students collaborate on writing, allowing for more in-depth feedback, faster turnaround, and genuine editing.

In this lesson, 4th grade math teacher, Mary Ellen Kanthack shows how Google Docs can be used to help students write about math.

Watch Johanna Paraiso’s students use the collaborative power of Google Docs to take notes in a 12th grade ELA class.

Blogger: Blogging is a great way to get student writing out of the classroom and into the real world, helping them to see more purpose in their writing and write for a different audience.

Blogger is a preferred platform for several Master Teachers, including 12th grade ELA teacher, Richard Jones who outlines his process for setting up blogs in this lesson.

Suggestions for student presentations:

Prezi: Prezi is a web-based presentation tool that upends the notion of a PowerPoint-like, linear progression through slides. Instead, slides are organized visually on a canvas, allowing students to zoom and pan to emphasize their ideas.

In this lesson, Andrea Praught shows that with deliberate scaffolding, it is possible to have even 2nd grade students create Prezis!

Haiku Deck: This free app uses artificial intelligence to instantly transform your students’ ideas into a visually appealing presentation, making it an especially great option for short-term projects.

In this lesson, 4th grade science teacher, Mary Ellen Kanthack has her students make Haiku Decks from the photos they take on their museum field trip.

Google Slides: Like Google Docs, Google Slides can be shared by several students, allowing them to collaborate simultaneously on the same presentation. Text, shapes, images, and videos are all easy to add and edit, making Google Slides a favorite of Master Teachers.

Nicole Prejna has her 3rd grade ELA students use Google Slides to create and present digital biographies.

Suggestions for student video creation:

GoAnimate: This easy to use, web-based animation platform lets students create videos complete with voiceovers, music, and moving characters.

Monica Brown has her 4th grade ELA students use GoAnimate to create videos about dress code.

Microsoft Movie Maker: This windows-based program (or iMovie, the Mac alternative), is powerful, yet easy to use. Students can edit together photos and videos shot with a cell phone, and set them to voiceovers or music to create rich video.

Deborah Gaff’s 7th grade science students make claymation style, stop motion videos showing the many stages of mitosis.

Suggestions for content practice:

Khan Academy: Khan Academy provides an online platform to give math students the opportunity to practice and master skills. Students receive instant feedback, and can ask for help when they need it. All student data is compiled into a single teacher dashboard, making it easy for you to monitor individual student progress.

Rhonda Leichliter uses Khan Academy to help scaffold her Algebra I lesson on systems of equations, while Shaun Errichiello uses it to differentiate learning opportunities for his 8th grade math students.

NoRedInk: This web-based platform is the ELA answer to Khan. Students gain rigorous practice with grammar by correcting sentences to work toward mastery of a particular rule.

Cassy McCoy Carey uses NoRedInk to enhance her Amazing Grammar Race lesson.


As with anything, it is important to diversify your repertoire of technology tools so that you always have the right tool for the job.

If you are interested in moving to a blended teaching model, BetterLesson can help! We offer an entire program – from concept design, to implementation, and ongoing support –  through our TeachCycle process.

Coming Soon to a Classroom Near You!

Summer is in full swing! That means vacation, catching up on rest, and summer blockbusters. This year’s crop of films range from franchise sequels,  like Jurassic Park and Terminator, to original films, like the family friendly Inside Out, to biographical documentaries like Straight Outta Compton. These films serve as a temporary reprieve from our daily life and give us the opportunity to be immersed in a story other than our own. The sights and sounds transport us to places near, far, and imagined. They sometimes make us feel that the impossible is possible.

The proliferation of smartphones and cameras has placed the power of the film into the hands of millions of people. In the modern age, anyone has the opportunity to capture and share a story of their own. Teachers have also jumped into the video trend. Many have found effective way to integrate film into their practice to enhance student learning.

Some teachers have become “producers” and create videos used to support the learning of content. Others have taken on the role of the “director” and capture their students at work using the footage to personally reflect on the effectiveness of the lesson. A growing number are “starring” in videos to share their lessons and practice with educators around the world. At BetterLesson, we have had the privilege to see how educators across the country are using video to improve educational outcomes for their students.

BetterLesson has done some filming of our own. Over the past two years, we’ve collaborated with hundred of teachers across the country and produced videos that showcase the various ways teachers leverage videos in their instructional practice. These strategies are then viewed and implemented by teachers participating in BetterLesson’s professional learning offering, TeachCycle. TeachCycle provides teachers with the opportunity learn new strategies and quickly try them out in their classrooms to see what works (or doesn’t) for their students. Strategies in video format allow participants a window into the practice of a fellow educator. The sight, sounds and emotions of the classroom come to life, providing a vivid model for what a strategy in action actually looks like.

While the videos we make don’t expose the genome sequence needed to bring dinosaurs to life or provide the trick to time travel, they may make a strategy that once seemed out of reach now within the realm of possibility.

Taking a Risk To Dive Into Learning


Taking risks is hard.  Taking risks can seem impossible for teachers.  School days are packed with tight schedules, set routines, and high expectations for teaching and learning.  The fear of taking a risk can hover above your bright idea lightbulb like a lead balloon. How can teachers harness the power of taking a risk, seeing what works, and iterating practice to improve outcomes for students?  Where can teachers find support to take that learning leap?

BetterLesson launched TeachCycle to support teachers to engage in continuous improvement cycles.  Here’s a story about a TeachCycle team that took a risk and gained new insight about the age old problem of supporting students to engage in rich academic class discussions.  This team’s current reality for class discussions was lots of teacher talk (not by choice!), blank faces, one word answers, and a handful of off topic responses.  Sound familiar?  This TeachCycle team felt compelled to take a risk and try something new. So, we started our TeachCycle meeting by discussing a strategy that could have big impact for improving engagement and the quality of class discussions.  Enter Socratic Seminar, an inquiry based collaborative discussion strategy.  We talked through what we would measure to see if the strategy was effective, what we could learn if it worked and what we could learn if it didn’t.

Socratic Seminar was not an immediate success.  In fact, the strategy failed in our first TeachCycle loop.  It didn’t magically get students to engage in rich collaborative discussions but implementing the strategy helped us learn where to start to reach our goal.  The teachers noticed that students were more engaged when they were responsible for generating the discussion questions but that most students needed support to produce quality questions about the text.  A second learning was that students needed guidance to actively listen.  Students were giving one word answers and not seizing on the opportunity to build on a peer’s idea.  The identified student needs helped the TeachCycle team brainstorm additional strategies to implement such as accountable talk stems.  Suddenly, taking a risk didn’t seem so scary to this team.  They were learning about what worked and didn’t work for their students (quickly!) and they had support of each other in the process.

Taking a risk in your classroom might always generate a little fear.  Our hope at BetterLesson is that TeachCycle  will help you to take that dive into learning with support.  We believe in supporting teachers to engage in continuous cycles of improvement to find out what works best for students as quickly as possibly.  Ready to take the plunge into TeachCycle?

Growth Mindsets Key for Students and Teachers


At BetterLesson we are constantly thinking about growth mindsets. As a small start-up interested in having an outsized impact on teacher learning, we have to tackle big challenges with limited resources. This means everyone on our team has to be ready to stretch themselves; evolving and growing professionally, as we work to launch our new professional learning platform, TeachCycle.

We aren’t alone in our interest in growth mindset development ( see millions of Ted Talks on the subject). Educators especially have become increasingly interested in developing growth mindsets in their students. Inspired by the powerful work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, teachers (and parents alike) are recognizing that students need the mental tools to tackle challenges inside and outside the classroom.  Students need to see learning (in any context) as an ongoing, ever-evolving process. Greatness, is something developed through hard work and dedication. No “master” ( think Michael Jordan, Beyonce, Charles Dickens) is born with all the skills necessary for success, everyone has to struggle, even fail, as a natural part of the learning process.

As educators, we value  grit and perseverance in our students. It’s only natural, that we should value the same traits in our teachers.  Teachers need support and training to develop these critical growth mindsets. After all, no teacher (no matter how masterful) ever bursts into the world (or classroom) fully-formed.  Likewise, no struggling teacher is doomed to failure. Teachers who embrace a growth mindset in their own professional life, know that even the best teachers make mistakes. What sets masterful teachers apart, is their ability to reflect and learn from mis-steps and course correct quickly.  In today’s ever-changing educational landscape, growth-minded teachers are better equipped to tackle new and varied challenges.

So how do you develop a growth mindset in teachers? At BetterLesson, we have been working on this particular professional learning challenge for some time. TeachCycle, our new professional learning platform, aims to empower teachers to quickly learn what works for their students (and what doesn’t). Shifting mindsets is a huge part of the process. During TeachCycle, teachers work with a BetterLesson coach and tackle a series of high-leverage teaching challenges. These challenges break down the myriad problems of practice a teacher may face at any time into discrete manageable chunks. By focusing in on a challenge, teachers are able to try-out new strategies in a targeted way, and learn “what works” for their particular students and teaching styles. Teachers use the principles of fast cycle learning, to implement and evaluate the effectiveness of these strategies. Sometimes the strategies work fantastically, other times strategies misfire, but because teachers are immediately collecting data, they can adjust quickly to both failure and success.

TeachCycle focuses on building steady positive momentum. In the face of challenges, there is ALWAYS, something a teacher can do (whether big or small) to impact student learning. Moreover, every teacher can learn something from the TeachCycle process. No matter where you are on the teacher development spectrum, newbie and sensei alike can refine and develop their practice, by honing in on their teacher moves and their direct effect on student achievement. This process of continuous improvement empowers teachers to develop growth mindsets. In TeachCycle teacher learning is never fixed or finished!

Teachers in our TeachCycle pilots often make their process explicit to their students and are transparent about their efforts to grow and evolve as an educator. In doing so, they model the growth mindsets they seek to instill in their students. This transparency is key and so valuable for teachers and students alike, together they are partners on a lifelong journey of learning and growth.


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