Project-based Learning at Home: Making Homework Profitable

posted Jun 3, 2013, 9:13 AM by Christine Gordon

Project-based learning is a powerful tool that promotes student engagement in both academic and social-emotional learning, but is typically reserved for classrooms and after-school programs. Recently I had a bit of an “aha!” moment and adapted the core principles to use at home with my sister (pictured here with me!) to help improve her writing skills (and yes, we have even made $16 from our project to-date!)

The background: Michelle, my little sister, is 12 years younger than me and about to finish the 9th grade. This year in school she had to write quite a few essays and was really struggling with them. One of her biggest challenges was keeping her essay on topic so as soon as she got an essay assignment we'd focus together on crafting an outline, making sure that she really understood the process and could eventually do it on her own. But this meant that later when it came to writing the actual essay itself, things became very rushed and stressful. I know many parents and tutors can relate to me when I talk about the challenge of finding time to both help a child develop skills and to just get tonight's homework done!

The problem: I needed to find a way for my sister to improve her writing skills in a way that was meaningful and enjoyable to her so that she would be willing to invest the additional time beyond her already heavy homework load. She was already willing to work with me to improve her writing, the key was to make it more enjoyable and meaningful for both of us. I also saw value in giving her the opportunity to find her own style of writing outside of academia and to practice writing for an actual audience, not just the theoretical one in the writing assignments she was getting from school.

The solution: I distilled the core principles of project-based learning down to a few essential characteristics and approached Michelle with my idea to think of a project that would be relevant to her and giver her a real-world reason to practice the art of writing for it's own sake. You, too, can use these characteristics to help frame a project with your own child(ren) and just in time for summer, too! (As always, for more resources, check out the collection of parenting resources I've curated and you can filter and sort them by type, tag, etc.)

Essential Characteristics of Project-based Learning

  • Relevant to the student and personally meaningful
  • Addresses a real need/problem with an unknown solution
  • Opportunity for open-ended investigation and exploration
  • Student-directed with opportunities for reflection
  • Adult-facilitated

The project: We decided together that we would create a blog to help teens and their families find shared interests and things to enjoy together. We've called it "Big And Little Picks" - I'm the "big" and she's the "little!" and while it's still in the early stages, it has already got a life of its own! 

The best part is that like all great project-based learning she is learning far more than just the intended academic skills; in my sister's case this means developing skills in web development, blogging, marketing and accounting to name a few. And of course there's the added benefit of the extra opportunity it has given us to connect, share and create together as sisters. (Although I think Michelle is more excited about the $16 we've earned so far!)

I can't say at this time where this latest venture will take us, but I can say that our tutoring time has become a lot more enjoyable for both of us!

Circle Time For Big Kids? Teambuilding with Teens in 5 Easy Steps!

posted May 1, 2013, 7:57 AM by Christine Gordon   [ updated May 14, 2013, 8:01 AM by Christine Gordon ]

  If you are not already doing teambuilding activities with your students, now is the time to start! Circle time is a popular daily routine found in many preschools, but I think it is a tool with huge potential returns for older children and even teens too, with some adaptations of course! 

  If you are just beginning to make changes to your program culture to move towards one that is more inclusive, supportive and engaging, then circle time is a good place to start. It can be both structured and flexible at the same time, it builds relationships between and among staff and youth at the same time, it allows staff and youth to learn each others names, and it easily lends itself to scaffolding so that you can add complexity as your students strengthen their social-emotional skills. 

Steps to starting circle time with your group: 

1.  Announcements   If you havent done anything like this with your students before, then start small. Its best to literally sit in a circle, with everyone on the same level, if you have the room capacity for this. Begin with impersonal, simple things like just getting everyone together for the daily announcements. (Keep announcements short and relevant to them!). End the circle time with some kind of (short!) shout a simple 12 3 [name of the program/mascot/school] works well and adds a bit of fun and whimsy, as well as clearly defining the end to circle time and transition to the next activity.


2.  Trivia   After your students have mastered getting into a circle (or whatever arrangement works best for your space) and can sit through the announcements, consider adding something like a trivia question. Be sure to have the question prepared a head of time (this can become a “classroom job”!) and vary the topics widely from sports to fashion to history, etc.

  Ask the group the question and keep calling on students until someone gets it right! This is a good opportunity to make sure you say each student’s name as you call on them (or ask them to say their name if you don’t know it yet) – this is the first step to building relationships! Keep it short, lighthearted and fun!


3.  Expectations   After some time, your students (and staff) should be well into the habits of circle time. This is a good time to add the next layer. Review the group expectations by calling on students to name one of them. Expectations should be short, framed in the positive, and posted visibly in the space. (If you don’t have group expectations, brainstorm them with your students).

  As each expectation is named, ask one or two students to give an example of what that expectation looks like. For example, an expectation to “respect others” looks like introducing yourself to new students and an expectation to “respect the space” looks like throwing your snack wrapper in the trash (not the floor!). Doing this daily may seem redundant, but it is well worth it. Plus, it allows any new students to get quickly caught up with the program culture and expectations for behavior.


4.  Shout Outs   The more practice your group has with circle time, the smoother it will be and the less time it will take. Investing the time up front to teach students these skills will pay off later in your students’ improved relationships and behavior. If you’ve been following along in these steps, your circle time hasn’t been very personal yet – this helps keep it emotionally low-risk for your beginner students. Now, however, let’s add in some shout-outs (really, these are compliments with a “cooler” name!). Since you’ve been reviewing the expectations and what they actually look like daily, adding shout outs won’t be a big stretch.

  Tell students that you’ve really noticed them stepping up lately and you’d like to give some shout outs. Staff should role model this: for example, “I’d like to give a shout out to _____ because I saw you get a bandaid for your friend yesterday when he was hurt.” Remind students that shout outs are for something you saw someone do that was helpful/respectful/etc (or whatever the language is for your expectations) and ask if anyone has a shout out to give.

 Setting it up this way helps prevent some of the “I like your shirt” compliments you might get otherwise; keep reinforcing that a shout is for what someone did. You’ll be amazed at the kinds of things students start coming up with – it is powerful! (Note: Push students to be specific. When they give a shout out for “being my friend”, ask them to give an example of what that person does that makes them a good friend.)

5.  Student Facilitators   Lastly, when your students really get the hang of this, you’ll feel the difference. You’ll notice it in the shout-outs they give. You’ll notice it when they start crowding around you suggesting trivia questions before circle time every day. You’ll notice it when they start bringing new students into the fold and introducing them to the circle time ritual on their own.

When this happens, it is time to kick it up a notch and start handing over the facilitation responsibilities to students. Ideally, “classroom jobs” are part of your larger routine, and circle time provides several opportunities. Students can be in charge of giving announcements, asking the trivia questions, leading the call-and-response for the expectations and eventually even facilitating shout-outs as they become more experienced and familiar with positive, specific and encouraging feedback. Just be sure to equip them sufficiently with the training they need to be successful. This should be a positive experience for everyone.

  With these steps you are well on your way to starting each day with a supportive, enjoyable teambuilding ritual. And, the bonus? If you are (or intend to start) using the Positive Discipline framework (as I would suggest!), the work you put in towards circle time will set your students up for success when it comes time to introduce class meetings for group problem-solving and conflict resolution!

App: Noteshelf (for iPad)

posted Jan 16, 2013, 9:30 AM by Christine Gordon   [ updated May 29, 2013, 12:36 PM ]

Here's an iPad app that I've been really impressed with that I think could help students and teachers alike, and even parents too. Basically it is a note-taking app, but it's the best I've found and I'm now using it for everything!

Here's a more in-depth review from a mom/homeschool-teacher.

In summary, the pros:

 1. Custom covers and pages! This app is so visually pleasing! You can customize all the notebook covers and the individual pages. You can make notebooks with photos from your photo library on the cover. And, you can make your own paper like planners, schedules, lined paper, journal paper, etc. 

 2. Organize your notebooks! You can organize your notebooks any way you like and this includes putting multiple notebooks together into a 'binder'. It's really quite handy. I have one for work, one for school, and one for personal things. I've been taking notes from my online classes, lesson planning and tracking my progress in the gym :) All from one app! Plus, you can copy and paste notebooks or individual pages really easily within the app. 

 3. Writer friendly! This is perhaps the most important feature. I've tried other note-taking apps on my iPad and my wrist always ends up making squiggles whenever I rest it on the screen. This app features a 'zoom in' box to let you write more naturally, and whenever you get to the end of the box, it automatically jumps down the page for you. It's very intuitive and I used it yesterday to take notes on a live speaker. I had to write quickly and it kept up with me no problem!

 4. Easy to share! You can quickly and easily send pages to Evernote, Dropbox, email, print, etc as a PDF or image. Imagine if your child does their homework on here and then you could email it directly to the teacher. A student could email his notes from class to a sick classmate to help them stay caught up. Teachers could use it as scratch paper when helping a student with, say, a math problem after school, and then email a copy directly to the student for their records! I for one am enjoying using it for lesson planning my workshops because it is so handy to move pages around and you can erase and re-write as much as you like!

The cons:

  1. No to-text feature - the only thing missing would be the ability to turn your handwriting into text. Some apps offer that, but this doesn't. That being said, it is not something I have actually felt like I needed to date. You can insert text onto the page which I have found helpful for creating forms or 

 - Get a stylus! You will definitely want to invest in a stylus! I'm actually using one from the dollar store with a squishy tip and it is great for taking notes quickly without scratching your screen or making any noise! I will be looking for one a bit bigger though because it is just a bit too skinny and short for my hand.

 - Make your own paper! It is easy to make your own covers and papers right from the iPad. First, I prefer Pages to get the basic layout - I insert lines for lined paper, or a table for a monthly calendar. Make whatever you want. Then, I take a screenshot (power button + home button) and then I open it in a sketching app. I erase the extra bits from the screenshot and then save the end result as an image. Lastly, open noteshelf and use the image you just made for custom paper. It is a bit of a multi-step process but it is quick when you get the hang of it. It is also easy to do it on your computer, especially if you are using photo stream. Save your creation as an image and upload it to photo stream so that it goes to your iPad.

**For the record, no one has asked me to write this - I just really like this app and wanted to share with others!

Are you on the MOOC bandwagon?

posted Oct 23, 2012, 6:20 PM by Christine Gordon   [ updated Oct 23, 2012, 6:33 PM ]

I've recently fallen in love with MOOCs (massive open online courses). These free classes allow anyone to learn just about anything! I've taken a handful now and while they range in quality, I've found them very empowering and informative. I've taken a few from,, and have now just started a class with Stanford's Venture-Lab, mentioned in the previous post. This Venture-Lab class is called Designing A New Learning Environment (DNLE) and the irony is that, for me at least, this MOOC format is itself a (relatively) new learning environment!

There's a lot of debate about where exactly something like Coursera fits into the larger education world, and I found this article particularly interesting. In summary, perhaps something like Coursera is more comparable to a (totally awesome, dynamic and interactive) textbook than a university class? That being said, however, one of my Coursera offerings (A History of the World Since 1300 from Princeton's Jeremy Adelman) is one of the best history classes I have ever taken. Ever. But in the interest of evenhanded-ness, here's a blog from one of my fellow DNLE students about her recent experience in a not-so-good Coursera class. 

But, what makes my most recent MOOC adventure, the DNLE class, so amazing, is it's use of teams. Only a week in and we've had to form teams based on shared passions, interests and goals. We haven't actually done anything as a team yet, but it has been great (virtually) meeting everyone. The peer-to-peer interactions in this class have been superb; already we are networking, sharing resources and generating dialog. I cannot wait to see all that comes of this experience!

And, the beauty of all of this is that not only am a I learning as a student, but it is encouraging me to reflect upon the experience as an educator as well. I think we're in for a major restructuring of how we define, and engage in, education. And, I think, the line between educator and learner is blurring. In all of my MOOC experiences I have seen participants range from homeschooled teenagers to PhDs and MDs - this definitely shakes things up!

How do you see the future of education as we move into a more digitized and globalized world?

Learning or Training? How Do We Teach For Tomorrow, Today?

posted Oct 15, 2012, 2:41 PM by Christine Gordon   [ updated Oct 15, 2012, 2:51 PM ]

I've just signed up for a MOOC (massive open online course) through Stanford's Venture Lab called Designing a Learning Environment. Technically it has just started today, but already the forums are active. One of my fellow students was playing with the idea of learning vs. training and it has got me thinking. 

Historically, schools were designed to train workers for the industrial age factories and factory lines. This is what we would call "training." However, the world has changed significantly in recent years, and the rate-of-change is ever-increasing. But the real question here is, have we changed along with it? Eddie Obeng would argue that no, we have not been keeping pace, as in his TED talk, he says "We spend our time responding rationally to a world which we understand and recognize, but which no longer exists.”

Smart Failure for a Fast-Changing World

For kids that are starting kindergarten today, we have no idea the kinds of careers they'll have. by the time they retire (in 2070!). How do we educate kids for jobs that don't even exist yet? This question shapes our fundamental approach to schools and helps define how we see the goals of education. Sir Ken Robinson famously speaks to this in his TED talkSo "education" is, at least in part, preparing students for the unknown.

Schools Kill Creativity

So what do you think? What should schools of the future (ie present) look like? How do we teach creativity? What does a good education look like?

5 Do's and Don'ts for Every Youth Worker

posted Jun 27, 2012, 11:52 AM by Christine Gordon   [ updated Oct 15, 2012, 2:56 PM ]

1) Don’t stand over kids– you don’t always know their histories and some of them can be really sensitive to displays of power and you could accidentally trigger them. Kids have been exposed to traumas you’ll probably never know about and these kids often have higher hormone levels and are easily sent into fight or flight.

Instead, do watch your body languageSit or kneel whenever 

possible to be at eye level with your students. Different cultures have different definitions of ‘personal space’ so pay attention to your students’ comfort levels. Avoid crossing your arms and maintain a neutral stance as much as possible. 


2) Don't talk about students while students are present. In fact, don’t even talk about students with other staff unless there is a good reason. When you talk about a student in front other students, you set the stage for a culture that approves and supports of gossiping, bullying, labeling, and power imbalances.

Do save your talk about students for staff meetings that are held away from the presence of students. Commit to using strengths-based language even among yourselves and work to find solutions for problem areas. Support and encourage your team in doing the same. Model a staff culture that is respectful, inclusive and empowering and your students will pick up on it.

3) Don’t label students.  Young people are constantly forming their identities and they need to believe in their own potential. When they hear enough labels, its hard for them to imagine they have alternatives and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Do focus on students' strengths instead. A gifted youth worker can find something positive in even the most challenging students. When you point these strengths out to these challenging young people, you may be the only person to have done so in quite some time. Make a commitment to always focus on strengths and positives and you will become a much-needed, positive force in their lives.

4) Don’t let chaos rule. Without structure, routine and limits, safety, both emotional and physical, will be compromised.
Fuzzy, inconsistent limits are confusing for students and can feel unfair. And, when limits are
reactionary rather than proactive, power is unequally in the hands of the limit-setter and can invite resentment and retaliatory behavior.

Do prioritize safety. Avoid being reactionary by setting expectations as early as possible and before behavior challenges arise. Develop rules and define what respect will look like in your program collaboratively with staff and students together. When students test boundaries, firmly, but calmly, remind them of the limits they helped create. Be available to listen to what might be causing them to act out as they are likely trying to solve another problem with what looks like acting out.

5) Finally, most importantly, don’t keep quiet if you suspect the abuse or neglect of a child.

Do immediately report any and all signs of neglect or abuse to a supervisor. This includes if a student discloses, or you suspect, they are being harmed in any way or may harm themselves or others. And this applies to volunteers as well as paid staff. Everyone is responsible for ensuring the safety of all children. For more information on the signs of child abuse, please check out the US DHHS website here.

KidSpeak Consulting offers a more extensive free online introduction to youth work on Udemy

Book: The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog

posted Mar 8, 2012, 3:34 PM by Christine Gordon   [ updated Mar 8, 2012, 3:35 PM ]

Originally posted on November 15, 2011 by Christine Gordon

Perry, Bruce and Maia Szalavitz. The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook–What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love, and Healing. New York: Basic Books. 2008. 288pgs.

I’d classify this one as a must-read for parents, teachers, anyone that works with youth, and pretty much everyone else. Told through the eyes of child psychiatrist Bruce Perry as he works with case after case of traumatized child, these stories are surprisingly uplifting and inspirational. Perry is able to explain a lot of the brain science and theory behind his work in plain English accessible to anyone without any training in neuroscience. His prose flows smoothly and is very engaging as he works the reader through his strategies for rewiring the children’s brains. His compassion and sincerity bleed through the pages and its no wonder he is able to reach and connect with kids that others have written off. I couldn’t put this book down and literally read it in one sitting – despite the intensity of the children’s stories. I highly recommend it for anyone working with or raising young people. I only wish the book had been longer!

Book: The Boy Who Loved Windows

posted Mar 8, 2012, 3:27 PM by Christine Gordon   [ updated May 14, 2013, 8:00 AM by Christine Gordon ]

Stacey, Patricia. The Boy Who Loved Windows: Opening The Heart And Mind Of AChild Threatened With Autism. De Cappo Press. 2004. 320pgs. (Kindle edition available)

Another one of those books I just couldn't put down and ended up reading in one sitting! Beginning with his birth, Stacey’s personal account of raising her son Walker gives us an intimate look into his struggles to connect and her desperate search to find help. She artfully captures her son’s sensory integration difficulties in a manner readily understandable. Bringing the reader on her journey through moments of panic, hope, relief, fear, and love, Stacey recounts her search for different therapies and the funding assistance to pay for them (a roller-coaster ride in itself!). In particular, the book focuses on the family’s work with Stanley Greenspan using his inspiring, play-based “Floortime” approach and is a beautiful account of the method’s specifics as well as the amount of family work it takes. Stacey’s heart-wrenching, intimate honesty leaves the reader feeling like a part of her family. Not only for people that raise or work with children with autism, this story highlights the power of connectedness and empathy for all humans, leaving the reader redefining potential and advocating for courage and hope. I look forward to reading more by Stacey as well as learning more about Greenspan’s work. Stay tuned!

Praise and Positive Reinforcement: Helpful or Hurtful?

posted Mar 8, 2012, 3:17 PM by Christine Gordon   [ updated Mar 8, 2012, 3:20 PM ]

Originally posted on April 24, 2011 by Christine Gordon

Positive reinforcement seems to be a buzzword in education and parenting circles these days: in summary, it is a behavior modification technique that relies on reinforcing preferred behaviors with rewards. Practitioners are encouraged to ‘catch kids being good’ and to give a positive reinforcer (often verbal praise like “good job!”, candy, or progress towards earning a bigger reward) as close to the time of the good behavior as possible. In contrast, when a child behaves ‘inappropriately’ it has become popular to issue a consequence such as taking away a reward, giving a timeout (away from other kids/family members/classroom), etc. On the surface this can make a lot of sense and feel very respectful when these rewards and consequences are revealed ahead of time, but what happens when we begin thinking deeper?

Its time we invest the time and energy in teaching kids the skills of empathy, compassion, decision-making, humility, critical thinking, delayed gratification and causal thinking – and lets not forget the power of role-modeling these!This system of conditioning our children through positive and negative reinforcers quickly develops into manipulation (and not on the part of the kids…). When we treat our children like rats in a maze (though I wouldn’t treat rats like this either), how do we expect them to behave any better? When we ‘teach’ them through rewards and incentives, how do we expect them to ‘perform’ without the presence or promise of a reward? And therein lies the problem. 

There’s a lot of research in behavior science that shows similar conclusions: rewards and incentives actually lesson a person’s ability to complete a given task efficiently and even lessen a person’s interest in the activity (particularly true for children). We are raising a workforce and population that relies on external stimuli for their self-worth and motivation, and that’s a frightening scenario. And, when we smother our children in praise like “good job!” and “great work!”, we must leave them feeling like we’re trying to convince them of something not quite true. A system of rewards and consequences encourages children to please the one in control of the rewards and consequences, rather than being socially productive and responsible for the sake of the community. So instead of viewing children as animals to be trained, how can we move to a system grounded in mutual respect and dignity for all involved? For more on this, check out this post from the Harvard Business Review.

Mirror Neurons from PBS Nova

Lately, my litmus test to decide whether something is praise used as a reward or encouragement that empowers has been that if something would be condescending to an adult, its probably just as condescending to a child. Remember there is no room for shame when growing healthy, self-reliant children! 

Instead of littering kids’ environments with cheerleader-like “good job!”s, save them for the occasions when something great really has been accomplished. In the meantime, empower the (young) people in your life by acknowledging your faith and trust in their own judgement. Provide the space for their own reflections by noticing their behavior, successes, motivations and growth with non-evaluative statements like “I notice you put in a lot of effort on your homework today” or “yes, a trash pick-up day will help the community” or “I have faith in you”.

Kids, and people, do better when they feel better. But positive reinforcement, as it has been manifested in sticker charts, incentives and rewards, only leaves children feeling manipulated, tokenized and less interested in whatever it was we we’re trying to get them to do more of in the first place! This is a controversial issue today, but is one that requires and deserves further examination and thought. Stay tuned!

At Risk Children or Children At Promise? Labels Matter!

posted Mar 8, 2012, 3:06 PM by Christine Gordon   [ updated Mar 8, 2012, 3:30 PM ]

Originally posted on April 2, 2011 by Christine Gordon

I’m struck this week by the power of words to shape a child’s experience, development and identity. Unfortunately it was a theme this week: I overheard two Kindergarten students call each other a “fag”, watched a mother tell her 2nd grader that she needs “to be stronger” and ignore her hurt feelings, and heard a teacher publicly shame a 1st grader for not being able to quickly zip up his coat. Are you kidding me? When did this become okay?

Throughout this week I am remembering the words of Mitzi Toro – a school counselor in Hawaii that is recognized for coining the change in language that labels children as “at promise” instead of “at risk.” I attended a seminar she gave years ago and since that time I often reflect on the power of labels. The “at-risk” label is used frequently and seemingly without much intention in the world of education and youth programming. There’s no way it doesn’t become a self-fulfilling prophecy for at least some of the kids that hear it being applied to them. I can’t imagine how I would react if I knew people in conference rooms and beyond were readily referring to me as at risk, let alone our kids.

I can’t think of labels without thinking of the movement to use people-first language that I was first exposed to when working in Colorado with people with special needs. The basic premise is that saying something like “autistic kids” or “the blind” defines people by their physical abilities or developmental differences instead of by their strengths, character, etc. Something as simple as identifying someone as a ‘person with _____’ (autism, down syndrome, learning disabilities, etc) almost guarantees that you’re going to generate an image of a person first and foremost for the listener, and any differences in abilities/development/etc will be secondary characteristics. It forces us to use language with intention and, I think, more intention would serve us all well.

And, in case you’re wondering, I did stop the two Kindergarten students as they walked by, but the interaction led me to the conclusion that they didn’t even know the meaning of the word they were using, but they just knew it was hurtful and therefore in their list of name-calling options. I don’t even want to think about where a couple of 5 year olds heard this language.

Children are notorious for internalizing all kinds of things to the extreme. They hear something we say in passing and all of a sudden they’ll replay it over and over in their heads and interpret meaning we never intended.

So, let’s all work harder to empower our youth with intentional, careful language. And, we adults can become allies to children by helping remind other adults of the power of words, despite how difficult that conversation can be.

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