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Contributors: Cindy Hughes, Kellie Grant, Rachel James, Jennifer Duarte


Still here, still changing

It's been awhile since we've posted on this blog.  Our TLLP ended, and although it continue to have a major impact on our practice, the time for blogging hasn't necessarily been there.  We've also found other ways to communicate, such as Twitter and Google Plus.  There many people can communicate at once, in a community setting, rather than taking the time to read several different blogs.

However, blogs still have their place.  The opportunity exists for more nuanced musings.  It is a place to write in more depth about the things we are doing and the changing shifts in our practice.  I'm involved in another TLLP, this one looking at the Intermediate Classroom in the 21st Century.  We continue to change and grow.  Inquiry based learning is a huge component of my classroom. Two years ago, when I started on this new venture of allowing the use of personal devices in the classroom, everything was guided.  I told them where to go and what to do - or I at least gave specific topics.  Now students are guiding their own inquiry, and my role becomes more of a coach, helping them along when they need it, and then watching them go.  What an exciting time to be an educator!  Like the man says "They'll learn much more than I'll ever know."

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Current, Connected and Captivating: Using Chrome Books to Teach Science and Social Studies


Being able to access the internet using the Chrome books has made the world of difference to how I deliver my Social Studies and Science curriculums.   The Chrome books, purchased with the monies from our Teaching Learning Leadership Program grant, allow my students to access information that is up to date, connected to the curriculum and interesting.


All of us remember going to the text book provided for us in grade school and thinking, “How on earth does this apply to me?  These people look like they are from another place and another time.”    All of a sudden, “that” kid starts messing around and the class goes off the rails and little learning took place.  Is it any wonder that when mom and dad asked at dinner that night what happened to you that day, you replied with a well-thought out, “Nothing?”


The opportunities we have using the Chrome books and the Desire 2 Learn Blended Learning Platform have improved the overall experience for students who are more technologically capable and not very engaged in learning. In the grade six unit, Understanding Earth and Space Systems, we have watched Chris Hadfield cut his fingernails in space, discussed applicable space related Ted talks, used interactive Ontario Education Resource Bank learning objects dealing with a variety of topics including the phases of the moon, finding and accessing the amazing website: Scale of the Universe 2.  That was all within one week, during a time of day that usually would be hard to earn and keep their attention.  Add in some direct teaching and a healthy amount of playing with flour to simulate meteor crashes and we have a whole crew of students excited about space exploration.


Information that is curriculum connected has been something I have personally struggled with over the time that I have taught.  A beginning teacher error that I had fallen into concerned the mathematics text book.  Following it exactly for the entire first term, I was horrified to realize the chapter dedicated to geometry didn’t cover A SINGLE expectation of that grade level. Thirteen years have passed since then; I have always operated right from the curriculum since, and have found that sometimes finding content to deliver the right expectation was difficult.

Take the following grade six Social Studies expectation from the newly revised document:


A2 Inquiry: The Perspectives of Diverse Communities


FOCUS ON: Perspective


By the end of Grade 6, students will:



formulate questions to guide investigations into different perspectives on the historical and/or contemporary experience of two or more distinct communities in Canada (e.g., the development of the reserve system from the perspective of First Nations, European settlers, and the federal government; the forced relocation of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War from the perspective of Japanese Canadians, the government at the time, and the government that issued an apology to Japanese Canadians; the formation of ethnic neighbourhoods from the perspective of the newcomers, their children, the people already in the neighbourhood, the local school, and/or the agencies and governments that provide services to the neighbourhood)


Sample questions: “Why was the Chinese head tax created? What was the thinking of the government that imposed it? How did the policy affect Chinese immigrants to Canada and their families in China?” “Why did some people think Louis Riel was a hero while others thought he was a traitor?” “Why do newcomers to Canada tend to settle in neighbourhoods with people from the same country/region?”


Had this expectation landed at my door in the years before we had an interactive Bright Links projector connected to the Internet, let alone access to time with Chrome books, I would have lost my mind.  Social studies are not my strength.  I can talk to students about science for weeks without having to check information or find new facts; social studies expectations are where I find everything to be a chore.


In taking apart the expectation I see that I need information about the following:


  • historical communities - I have resources that I can use from the old curriculum – aboriginal, European explorers and settlers – but I will most likely investigate where I can find student friendly information about these communities on the internet so the students can act more autonomously
  • contemporary communities - I need to look up the statistics of the immigrant population of the community I teach in and find information about what happens to newly landed immigrants upon arrival, I might find an online expert who can speak to their experience trying to assimilate to life in Canada
  • distinct - make sure that the students understand exactly what this word means – hand held dictionary or again, www.dictionary.com is very useful
  • perspective - give the lesson about perspective to students that involves them looking at the room from the floor, their desk and on top of their desks and seeing how things that are essentially the same look different from many angles


Of the four distinct parts of this one expectation, only one can be readily accessed in the classroom with no additional information – the perspective activity, the next can be found in a dictionary – the word distinct – but my students would more likely use the Internet to search the meaning, and the final two parts of the expectation? - Definitely needs Internet research time, both my students and myself.  


            Another key part to this expectation needs to be pointed out:  had this come before access to so much information the work I expected from my students would be at a lower calibre.  When you have students who can access information from somewhere other than the school library you can expect more research to occur and the level of research to be higher.  A school library, because of time constraints, budget and sheer volume of books required cannot keep up to the valuable content found on the Internet.  


            Having readily available access to the Chrome books every day and therefore the Internet, has made my anxiety during planning Social Studies almost disappear.  I still need to put in the time to make sure I have covered the right information but at least I have the tools required to deliver what is needed.


The last and most important part of how these tools have changed my teaching would definitely be how interesting I can make the content that I can deliver.  Teaching Space in grade six can be difficult – we can’t all go for a joyride around the moon – but what I can do is show them some people who have.    I. love teaching with the world of information at my fingertips.


Some of our favourite sites that we have enjoyed either together as a class or partnered on a Chrome book are:




Relative sizes of the planets in relation to positioning of the moon


Ted Ed: How many universes are there?


Traveling inside a black hole


Lego man in space


Natures Best Camouflaged Insects


Social Studies:


Google World Wonders Project


First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada


Our Canadian Girl


Natural Resources Canada – The Atlas of Canada


CIA World Fact book

Free the Children – We Stand Together


& Math (just because I love it too):


Interactive math manipulatives


Place value rap


Volume demonstration

            In conclusion, I don’t think I could ever go back to teaching without access to Chrome books.  Being able to access the internet and other perks of the machine (such as access to Google docs) has changed how I plan, what I plan and the level of expectations I give to my students.   The time made available by this project has allowed my students to access information that is up to date, connected to the curriculum and interesting.  

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How Integrating Technology is Changing My Classroom

How Integrating Technology is Changing My Classroom

From the blackboard to the Smart board, teaching has changed drastically in my ten plus years in education. This year in particular has been a journey into the world of D2L, Google Apps for Education, Chromebooks and working with my colleagues on our TLLP project. Implementing technology in the classroom has made my lessons more engaging, students more accountable for their learning and providing descriptive feedback more immediate.
In the classroom, coming up with interactive lesson plans for every subject and every lesson is time consuming. This year I have been using D2L (Desire to Learn) which is an elearning website set up by the Ministry of Education in Ontario (https://wcdsb.elearningontario.ca/). On this site I have been able to use activities that have already been generated that are grade specific and align with the Ontario curriculum. These activities are located on OERB (Ontario Educational Resources Bank) and are easy to embed right into the D2L site. By incorporating them into the site students do not require any other passwords to access the activity and are not searching the internet to locate a website or URL address (which use to be very time consuming and could lead them finding inappropriate content). The students in my class are able to navigate the site easily and look forward to the online activities.
More recently, my students have become familiar with some Google apps for education such as Google docs and Google slides. They become excited when they are able to share their work with me and their peers. Last week I shared Google doc file with them. In groups they had to fill in a portion of a table on the shared file. In real time we had the entire class filling in their portion of the graphic organizer. We were able to edit and ask questions. It was really neat to see the table filling in on the Brightlink in front of the class right before our eyes. Students were providing feedback to one another and all students were participating at the same time.

Using technology in the class daily with the Chromebooks has really helped keep the low-level learner interested in academics and allows for them to be part of activities at an entry point suited for them. For example, most of the activities on D2L have an audio component and gives instructions orally and in writing. This allows for struggling readers to participate but understand the activity without much intervention from the teacher. They are able to review activities done at school, at home. Strengthening this connection between home and school has made the students more accountable for their own learning.

Gone are the days in my classroom when a student says "I left my assignment at school," or "My USB didn't work." Using Google docs and slides for assignments gives students the opportunity to work on projects they started at school, at home as they wish. I am noticing that the students who rarely handed in work on time before, are more eager to complete tasks because they have the technology to help them along. For those on an IEP, the fact that they can complete drafts on a Google Docs is a lot less threatening or cumbersome than writing something out by hand multiple times.  The stigma of being the only kid with a laptop-which was a sure sign of an IEP is gone.

Having the Chromebooks daily has also allowed for the students in my class to feel comfortable using the tools on Google with my support and that of their peers. Together we work through how certain features worked on Google Docs and Google Slides primarily. I really think that having them work in collaboration with one another has improved their confidence in technology. Being able to work side-by-side coaching them along when needed gave them more accountability towards learning. In my class two student share a Chromebook. When they are not working on a group or partner task, they must split the time allotted between themselves and thus learning the ropes of time management and sharing.
According to Black, Harrison, Lee & Wiliam (2003), “Descriptive feedback is the most powerful tool for improving student learning.” One of the newest tools that I use to provide descriptive feedback with Google is the ‘Share’ and ‘Comment’ capability on Google docs. When students are able to share their work with me, I can comment on a draft and highlight specific errors or give positive reinforcement much more timely than in the past. I still believe that having face to face teacher-student conferences are very important. In a busy school day of a Junior split grade class, getting to meet with all students in one lesson/day is not always feasible. Now I am able to give feedback even when students aren’t at school and I don’t have to keep their work to correct it. They are able to continue to work on a task and I can still give suggestions or comments simultaneously. Students are also sharing work with other students and becoming more proficient at giving feedback to their peers.  
Having the technology so readily available in the classroom is transforming how I teach and is moving my own learning curve in yet another direction. I am surprised at how quickly I have made the shift towards using technology in education to this degree. In this past term especially, students show that they are enthusiastic about learning in all subject areas whether it be an activity on OERB or video that engages students critical thinking on D2L. Students in my class have ownership over their learning and are able to access activities that we do in class, at home. They are taking part in building their knowledge when they conference with peers in person or when sharing documents to complete a group task. Providing more timely and useful feedback during a task is just another way technology is moving my students towards building success. I am embracing this change and hope that others will also see the great benefits of allowing technology in this manner into their classrooms.

Jennifer Duarte

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Gradual Release of Responsibility - A Cautionary Tale

Last week I was involved in some professional development at my school, and had the opportunity to speak with the guest teacher in my classroom.  He had positive things to say about his day, and he also gave me the greatest compliment I have ever had.  He said that my students knew exactly what they should be doing and when, and they were able to work independently and collaboratively and the day practically ran itself.

I felt so proud! I told my students the next day how they were showing that they were ready for high school and indeed “real life”.  I pointed out that my principal doesn’t direct me in every aspect of my day, and likely their parents’ bosses don’t either.  Instead we are trusted to know what we should be doing at any given time.  I applauded them on the development of this skill and later sat down and asked a few of them to reflect on this.  I explained that in education lingo we refer to this as “gradual release of responsibility.”

Their answers were really interesting. They were able to point out not only the benefits but the pitfalls of taking on more responsibility for their own learning.  Without knowing the jargon, each student I spoke to mentioned differentiated learning - that students were able to work at their own pace and reread information they didn’t get the first time - as the best thing about gradual release.  They were more engaged when finding information themselves rather than listening to a lecture or copying notes.  And even when they did mention the potential problems - they all said the same thing, which was getting off track - one person did mention that they were able to use that as a reward.  They would get so much done and then take a few minutes to check email or surf around a little bit.  I think that sounds like what a lot of us do!

Before my head got too big however, I had a cold dose of reality.  Students have been working on a cell unit using their blended learning site from the OERB.  They have been very engaged and have enthusiastically found their way around a microscope and were able to produce beautiful drawings of plant and animal cells.  As I monitored their work, everyone seemed to be doing their job and I spent my time going over other things with individual students.

And here is where the cautionary part comes in.  Lulled into a false sense of security, I failed to check in with the class as a whole to ensure they had the main points, and that there weren’t any misconceptions.  When it came time to do a quiz on the plant and animal cells, they were all able to label the cell parts and even describe their function.  They knew the animal cell was roundish and the plant cell was squarish, but few could tell me *why*.  They had somehow completely missed the function and importance of the cell wall in plants.  

Frequent check-ins are a vital component of gradual release.  At the end of a session when students have been working largely independently, bring the class together and ask for contributions of their learning.  This can be done in many ways - shyer students like to use mini whiteboards or communicate through social media platforms like todaysmeet.com.  And if they don’t provide you with the information you are looking for - like the most obvious difference between a plant and an animal cell - then you need to go old school and give them the information.

Gradual release of responsibility empowers students and develops all of their learning skills.  But while teacher takes on more of a role of coach, sometimes teacher still needs to be teacher, and not only monitor to ensure students are on-task, but to check for misconceptions and understanding.

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It's Just a Matter of Time

It’s just a matter of time ...
It is easy to see that we are a culture of technology when we closely observe the world around us.  In fact, technology is a predominant and unavoidable presence in our lives.  It is more often noticed by people when their technological device is temporarily out-of-service how much they depend upon technology versus when it is a fully functional item that allows them to continue with their daily routines.  This is a reminder about the codependence we have with technology and ourselves.

Our lives are currently filled with iPads, iPods, cellphones, laptops, flat screens televisions … and the list is daunting.  It makes techies smile having regular access to these devices because it gives them the ability to instantly connect to the world.  It makes others secretly smile because they know that these devices will become obsolete just like the Beta or VHS player that filled many of their homes or classrooms not too long ago.  It’s just a matter of time before we notice the transformation of technology in new forms and dimensions.

Nonetheless, these devices will spark memories of the current generation in years to come. Technology can be traced to a certain point in time, even though technology is never defined by time because it is always changing.  Devices are reminders of the technology that once was, the technology that is currently in place and the power of technology that is yet to come.

It is hard not to wonder what the world will be like tomorrow and the capabilities that these technological advances will offer to make the world a more fascinating place.  It is even harder to imagine what the world will be like in twenty years from now or in the more distant future as the marvels of technology unfold.  It’s only a matter of time to see what kind of power that this new technology will have to offer.

As an educator, I constantly ponder the question, “Am I preparing my students to embrace a world that is highly defined by technology by equipping them with both the emotional, intellectual and technical skills to adapt to this powerful evolution?”  More importantly, “Am I preparing myself to embrace technology that readily defines the lives of myself and my students?” It’s just a matter of time before we need to approach the world as innovators, entrepreneurs, critical thinkers and life-long learners that can handle the momentum of technology.

It was just a matter of time that technology changed the interface of my classroom for both my students and myself.  It started with a “Teacher Learning Leadership Project” (TLLP) in which our goal was to integrate technology, specifically personal devices, into our classrooms to capture the attention of the low-achieving or disengaged student.

Our team received 16 Chromebooks for our students and it was just a matter of time before I realized the magnitude of the project.  It was a mixture of overwhelming excitement, nervousness, and the task of navigating Google Chromebooks as a way to deliver lessons to engage my students.  When the project first started, I was not sure how children who were 7 and 8 years of age would have the capabilities to tackle a Google Chromebook when it posed a challenge to those of us who had some prior knowledge.

On one hand, I feared this type of “playground” for my students because I knew it’s potential risks.  To mitigate these risks, I contemplated taking the more traditional route of teaching my lessons through the simple textbook & paper tasks to avoid any type of interaction with a Google Chromebooks.  On the other hand, I wondered if it is even a greater risk to not expose my students to new learning through different mediums!  It was just a matter of time that the later of the two predicaments took precedence.

My first concern was my students ability to access their accounts using lengthy logins and passwords.  It was evident that this was an area that they grasped rather quickly.   My students learned how to set up user accounts, add profile pictures and complete a google search to make their picture best represent their personal interests.  It was just a matter of time before they caught on to logging on and keeping this knowledge in check for next time.  

We later graduated to having 4 Chromebooks in the classroom.  Thanks to help of some older students who helped our class review the basics about Google Chromebook features (e.g., finger strokes on the keyboard) our class was ready to venture a little bit further into the technological world.  We accessed www.shepherdsoftware.com to play educational games and educational apps from the Chromebook store.  

It was just a matter of time before students were inquiring about navigating the web for places they typically access on their own personal time.   It was at this moment that I realized how capable and eager my students were to learn about new forms of technology.

We eventually made a class plan for using Google Chromebooks and followed guidelines modelled by our Waterloo Catholic District School Board computer policy.  Students were then using Google Chrome books to access our online classroom D2L site https://wcdsb.elearningontario.ca/.  Students later used the Google Chromebooks to support their classroom learning such as completing graphic organizers from teacher directed sites for subject areas like Social Studies.  Now I can’t wait to try Google Drive to create multiple choice questions etc.  The possibilities are opening up in ways I’ve never imagined.

The level of engagement from all students was astonishing.  It just a matter of time before all school systems embraces technology to develop the 21st learner!

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My Plan to Capture Your Attention – (or how devices and tech have improved a young boy’s life)
Our Mission:

Integrate technology, specifically personal devices, into our classrooms to capture the attention of the low-achieving or disengaged student

Or in regular language: use these magical technological devices that seem to speak student language better than teachers can to get students who usually aren’t interested to collaborate and engage with me and learn how to use their tech devices as tools.

How things have been going:

                Since the beginning of this school year a lot of things have changed in my classroom.  Each year I begin by setting up a brilliantly laid out, stimulating classroom environment and add all the necessary supplies to ensure success; I order duotangs, notebooks and pencils – I check my favourite binders and computer files for interesting ways to “get at the curriculum” and then I wait for the kids to arrive.  (Best possible scenario!)
                Now, I am much more focused on an alternate preparation for next school year.  I will be contacting our school board eLearning consultant and making sure I have a new “virtual” classroom setup for the upcoming year on our school board blended learning site.  I will be building the website I will share with my students to teach them and parents to communicate share with them.  Instead of bringing home paper this summer, I will be bringing home my Chrome book.
                Our project was specific to capturing the attentions of the low-achieving, disengaged student.  You all know who I am talking about – the kid that really seems to have some potential but rarely uses it – the kid who understands that adding more would improve his/her mark but doesn’t want to put in more time.
                I have found that in changing the way that I teach – using personal devices as a tool and welcoming them into my classroom environment – has begun to turn the tide for the disengaged students that I have chosen as my focus.
                We suffered through some setbacks at the beginning of the school year; waiting for WiFi capability, working through the bugs of the GAFE accounts; getting new GAFE logins partway through, playing Clash of Clans in our desks (another post on that alone!) etc.  Once all that was working we were off!
                My plan was simple:  put as much interesting stuff onto my blended learning site as I could manage and use the Chrome books I had at my disposal for ¼ of the day to turn my classroom into a technological wonderland.
                What actually happened was so much richer and more impressive.  My students, without any input or encouragement from me, started to bring their own devices to school and using them all day long.  A lot of them had iPod touches or phones or tablets.  The students started to use these devices during spelling for online dictionaries; they used them as calculators, as personal computers or search engines.  All this started happening on its own. 
                The only rule I had put into place (keep in mind – I wasn’t expecting the devices to show up until I had sent a well-written plea to parents to send them in) was that all devices were to be used as tools.  We had times and places for play and the devices were not to be part of that.
                So time passes.  I begin in earnest to teach mainly social studies and science through the blended learning website I had created for my classroom (https://wcdsb.elearningontario.ca/) and then I begin noticing some incredible things. 
My Desire 2 Learn Opening Screen
               First, science and social studies teaching is much easier when the resource you are using is not written in language well above the reading level of your students.  The textbook I was accustomed to using is very near impossible to read for struggling learners.  The Ontario Education Resource Bank, on the other hand, is very easy to use, had a lot of content and was fun for the students to engage with.   
               Second, there were very little interruptions to learning time. Students were not off task often, there weren’t distractions of one person goofing around and another sitting and playing with a fiddly toy in their desk.  Everyone was on task and tuned in.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t a "turn to page 67 and read until the end, do some questions" type of person before the technology.  I like to think that I chose projects and activities for my students to engage with and feel interested in.  The problem before was accessing information – sometimes the resources too hard/not interesting/not current and students have a hard time engaging with them.  Everyone remembers in grade school going to a text book and finding the one picture that everyone is laughing at because the people look like they could have been your parents.  The reason - the resource was aged.  This doesn’t often happen with technology.  You can easily find up to the minute information that is both appropriate and relevant.
Ontario Education Resource Bank
Lastly, and most importantly, my students whom I would in the past have to lead through this content were achieving success ON THEIR OWN!  I have one student I am thinking of in particular who navigated a comparison of Canada and China, United States, Mexico and Japan – on his own.  He had a graphic organizer, as part of the accommodations of his modified IEP, and he had knowledge of how to use it.  But in the past he would have needed me too.  This time he sat with his partner, just like everyone else, and he engaged with the learning objects I chose for him and his classmates about the various countries and he pulled out key information about each society that was the same and was different.
This student also wrote a companion paragraph to the graphic organizer to compare on country of his choice to Canada.  He wrote it, alone, the very first time.  This was a major breakthrough.  This young man was not the type of person to write a paragraph without thorough scaffolding of information expected.   To say I was impressed was to say that Niagara Falls has a few tourists.
 I loved it!  He didn’t need me anymore.  It wasn’t that there was more time for me to help others; it was that he could be autonomous like the others.  He was proud of himself.  He took that paragraph and the comments I had added to it and he made it better.  He then also took the paragraph home and got it signed.  THE FIRST TIME I ASKED!  This is one of the kids who would maybe take something home to share with mom and dad, but more likely would need reminders and a phone call to get something back. 
In conclusion, using devices at school and all this technology was terrifying to me in the beginning of our project.  There – I said it.  But as this year has progressed I see the benefits far outweigh the negatives.  I have never seen such progress from disengaged students.  I would highly recommend this way of teaching to anyone.  Devices are here to stay – we might as well use them to our own advantage.

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But what if I really want tacos for supper?

When starting this project, there were – and continue to be – a number of logistical issues to deal with. What device were we going to use? Was there going to be a stable internet connection available? Where do we store the devices? How do we best share them?

The biggest issue came in changing our thinking about using devices at all at school.  There are few things in recent years more taboo than getting caught with a cell phone. I have read some board’s policies on the matter where even volunteers in a school must turn off their phones the minute they enter the building.
Burying one’s head in the sand on the issue, however, is not the way to deal with this. Reality is that the use of smartphones and personal devices has exploded – it has changed the way society functions at a fundamental level. As educators we not only have a responsibility to our students to teach them how to use a device responsibly, but we would be foolish to ignore the vast amount of information available to us.
That doesn't take away from the sound reasons behind the original ban on cell phones and personal devices – and addressing those provides our first challenge.

It is vital that an environment of trust be established.  It my classroom, texting, social media and telephone calls are still not allowed – including at recess.  I have appealed to parents to avoid sending texts to their children during the school day in order to foster this feeling of trust. By far the majority of text messaging among my students has been done between parent and child - I forgot my gym clothes, I have a headache, I want tacos for dinner. My students have to trust me too - they have to know that if they need to reach their parent, I'll take them to the phone at recess.  If they tell me they aren't well I will respect that and let them go to the office to call home. If they want tacos for dinner - well, that's a time they learn they have to communicate before or school or wait. 

We have a list of rules up that students are expected to follow.  And they know the consequences if they don’t – they don’t want to lose access to the Chromebooks and the other devices they bring in. At first, daily review is vital, but it's important to point out reminders once in awhile too.  They must also sign a contract, specifying when personal devices will be used and under what circumstances.  The bottom line: it's always under my direction and supervision.

Which is not to say it has been perfect.  A colleague walked in my room to discover one seemingly hard-working and studious pair playing a rousing game of Angry Birds rather than working on the science assignment.  Careful monitoring is also an important part.  And realistically – who among us hasn't snuck a glance at a text message received during an endless staff meeting?  Or checked the score of a game?  Teaching students to deal with distractions – and get back on task is valuable indeed.

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