Tag Archives: technology

Kids These Days Are Amazing

I know this title is going to cause some teacher eye rolls because it is rough in education right now. Some of us are using every classroom management tool we can think of and still struggling with refusals to work or listen. I get it- I am there, too.

However, despite this year being even more difficult than last due to social-emotional needs we weren’t expecting, I still think kids these days are amazing. I don’t think I could show up to work everyday if I let this belief go.

I like to use this countercultural phrase because we often hear “kids these days don’t want to learn” or “kids these days don’t know how to make choices for themselves” or “kids these days just don’t care.” I wholeheartedly believe this is not true. Kids, like all human-beings, have an innate need to learn and make sense of the world. Right now, a global pandemic, a year of less connection, continued uncertainty, etc. has caused learning to end up on the backburner of needs. Am I saying this means teachers should just suck it up and deal with the environment of burnout we are experiencing? Absolutely not. We have also been through all of these draining circumstances, too, and we have to give ourselves grace and maybe even a break. The only thing I ask from you is to stop, look around, and see what’s going right. YOU are doing many things right.

I had my own moment of revelation as I sat in bed for days grading our most recent project while I am quarantined for COVID (my case is not bad, and I am doing okay). This quarter, our sophomore English students chose a nonfiction book on any topic they wanted that made them curious and they wanted to know more about. Students chose books like Lone Survivor and Stamped and I Have The Right To. They read about true crime, UFOs, wars, history, racism, assault, poverty, the justice system, psychology and on and on.

My inspiration when creating this project was from those ordinary moments we all experience: we are sitting on the coach watching a movie or reading a book and a question about what we are reading/watching pops in our heads. “Did that historical event actually happen?” “Did those actors break up?” Then, we find ourselves down a rabbit-hole of research from which we emerge half an hour later after reading about how asparagus might cure unwanted hair loss. Though I am making light of this common phenomenon, it demonstrates the yearning to know and understand in our real lives. I wanted to create that phenomenon as authentically as I could for my students while fostering independent reading.

Inquiry Project Details

As students read the nonfiction books they chose, they kept an inquiry log of questions that arose for them as they read their book; they took these questions into our research days to find out more information about a topic in their book. For example, multiple students read about sexual assault and wanted to know statistics about assault in America. At the end of our time reading, questioning, and researching, the students created either a podcast, a TED talk, or a website to present their learning to their peers. This project involved choice, authentic research, authentic product, digital literacy, and authentic publishing. The conversations, products, and learning that came from this project were superb. I had to take a few moments to just stop and bask in the goosebumps-producing joy that is kids being freed to learn what they want to learn.

Of course, there were lots of road bumps (or even total road closures) along the way. We had issues with students picking random books without a lot of consideration as to their interest in it to just get their reading check grade. We had students who didn’t or wouldn’t read. There were lots of absences and catching students up. And we also dealt with a total lack of knowledge in research because of the circumstances of their last two years of school.

For students who picked books they didn’t actually want to read, the remedy was pushing them hard to read in the first two weeks with the option of abandoning their book. Some kids still didn’t read enough within the two weeks to know if they enjoyed their book or not, so those students were stuck with their book and the lesson to choose more carefully next time. For students who had a hard time getting started in their reading (always the toughest, but most important time!), my colleague, Kristal All, created these awesome bookmark trackers so students could practice making checkpoints along the way for themselves. These led to some good conversations about goal-setting, following through, and the mess we make for ourselves when we don’t do the work early on. We also had reading conferences to check in on their progress, understanding, and enjoyment of the book as well as to check in on what kinds of questions students were asking about their books. They kept track of their questions on this document.

Many students started out asking questions that would later be answered in the book or questions about the author’s thoughts/feelings. As we continued in our reading, we steered students toward asking broader questions about the topics that arose in the book that would be better for outside research. We kept reminding them that if the question could be answered by the book, it wasn’t a research question. It took a little while to get them out of a compliance mode and into true curiosity, but the work was worth it for true learning.

Every two weeks, we had a research day. We would start with a mini-lesson such as using the benefits of using the databases, bias in sources, or reliable vs. unreliable sources. The students would then be released on their own to do their research. For my level students in particular, I highly encouraged them to stay on our school databases so they did not have to do the extra work of determining reliability/credibility and so their citations would be made for them. I plan to do some more lessons to open up their research to the whole web next quarter. Our first research day really helped students reframe their thinking about what kinds of questions they should be asking as they read their books.

We used these charts to have conversations about bias in media and when it’s appropriate to use certain sources. For this project, we encouraged them to stick to the center of the bias chart, if researching outside of the databases, since this was supposed to be purely informational.

At the end of the quarter, students chose what mode of media they wanted to present their project in- TED Talk, podcast or Google website. They were given this sheet of instructions, tutorials, and planning documents. The intention was for students to get a major grade for the project and a major grade for presenting. This was our rubric for the product they created. My getting COVID messed up presentations for my classes, but I think it still heightened the level of product I received from the students. For the TED Talk and podcast, students would simply play their media for the class and answer questions at the end. For websites, students would have to present in real-time in front of the class and answer questions. The podcast was a popular choice for students since they didn’t have to be on camera, they got to re-record as many times as needed, and they could potentially read off of their script without anyone knowing. It was also fantastic for my students who are learning English as a second (or third or fourth) language. They got to practice the very important skill of speaking, and I was so impressed with how hard they worked on these.

Student Products

I did this with both my level and my honors ELA II classes. This podcast was produced by a wonderful young lady in my honors class, Brooklyn Spikes (tw: it deals with the topic of sexual assault). She sounded like a podcasting professional, and I think everyone can feel the passion in her speaking. This podcast was created by a student in my level class, Enzo, and my favorite parts are the well-timed comedic pauses and asides.

I wish I could share the amazing websites students have done, but my district has publishing settings where only those inside the district can access the sites. Nevertheless, I will share that many students knocked it out of the part with their website design, flow, engaging details, etc. I have received no TED Talks, and I am still reflecting on why that option wasn’t chosen.

The Joy in it All

I chose to share this project because, at its core, it is a pretty simple idea from which I saw such a powerful effect. It wasn’t easy, as seen in all of our setbacks above, but I think the students were more engaged in their reading and more excited to learn than they have been for a couple of semesters. I know I felt immense joy every time I had a reading conference, and I got to see the light in my students’ eyes as they passionately explained their topic to me. That’s why I say kids these days are amazing. They are very much re-learning how to “do school,” but I think this proves that they are up to the task and that authenticity and choice lead to ultimate engagement. I will also add that this project could not have been as successful without the wide-ranging availability of books for students to choose from (with permission slips from their parents saying they will talk to their children about what they feel is appropriate for them to read). There are many counterarguments to book bans, but above is mine. I hope these resources are helpful to you in some way. Keep hanging in there, teacher. Your work is making a difference.

Rebecca Riggs is in her 5th year of teaching, but her first year at Conroe High School. She just finished reading The Cousins by Karen McManus and really enjoyed another thrilling mystery from the author. She would like to thank COVID for nothing except the little margin it afforded in which she was able to write this blog post. She is starting her Master of Education in curriculum and instruction at UT Tyler in January, but has no plans to leave the classroom soon. She does, however, wonder when she will find time to post on the blog. Her next read will be Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford. You can find her on twitter @rebeccalriggs or on instragram @riggsreaders


“Give Jack he jacket”: Teaching Student Writers How & Why to Give Credit by Tosh McGaughy

Before a recent literacy conference in my state, an educator I follow, Lois Marshall Barker (@Lit_Bark), tweeted a popular phrase from Grenada, “Give Jack he jacket.” She was reminding everyone to cite their sources in presentations, and I fell in love with the phrase. Though ethical and academic standards for copyright, plagiarism, and citation have been a part of our literary world for centuries, the instantaneous access to seemingly infinite resources and information of the internet generation has changed the conversation. While formatting those citations in my youth required purchasing the latest edition of the required style guide, now students can easily use digital sites or add-ons to do the formatting in just a click. What have become the more crucial skills to teach are discerning the credibility of the sources that are being cited and avoiding plagiarizing the ideas of others.

Teachers and librarians are teaching critical inquiry lessons to help students learn to evaluate the deluge of information available to them in simple browser searches. A quick Google search will yield many excellent #fakenews lessons. Both Common Core and other state standards include evaluating sources, avoiding plagiarism, and citing properly. While many educators consider these to be College and Career Readiness standards, given the meteoric rise of social media as a news source, these standards actually deserve to be labeled “the most essential standards”.

As “the most essential standards”, the ideas of evaluating a source or author and then giving accurate credit (Give Jack he jacket) must be taught explicitly and modeled with every different piece of text that students are invited to interact with in the classroom. Teaching these standards only when students are doing a research project or paper isolates or compartmentalizes these fundamental skills when they are truly skills that all literate adults must master in order to navigate the inundation of digital information that is at our fingertips or in our feeds.  

With the open access to information that technology provides, plagiarism now can be a simple act of “cut and paste”, so understanding the ethical reasons for avoiding plagiarism and giving credit to authors must be an on-going, face-to-face, teacher-student conversation. Writing conferences provide teachers with many quick opportunities to check-in with students throughout the writing process, and these conversations can grow ethical student writers in deeper ways than simply paying for an expensive on-line plagiarism checker and rarely talking about or modeling how to avoid plagiarism. If only for this one reason, secondary language arts teachers have to find creative ways to make a routine of writing conferences.

As a parent of teens, I have had many conversations about “right and wrong” with my own children who have grown up in a very different world (technologically speaking) than I did just 25 years ago. Heated debates about finding and downloading “free” movies and books on-line has helped me understand how crucial (and frequent) these discussions must be in classrooms, too. The teen default response,“Everyone else does it”, really does seem to apply in this instance, but I firmly believe that teaching “right from wrong” does work when done repeatedly, systematically, and relevantly. And, I think these “most essential standards” must be taught by one writer to another writer and not simply relegated to a digital algorithm that “checks” for less-than-ethical choices. 

Please share (in the comments below) your best lessons and resources for teaching how and why to avoid plagiarism. 

A few resources:

Commonsense Media CultofPedagogy AMLElesson

PBS Learning Media NYTimes Anti-Fakenews Apps

Allsides.com The Flipside Snopes.com

Using Technology to Extend Reader’s Advisory

While I do teach one class of Senior English and one class of AP Capstone Seminar, the majority of my job is actually as the Teacher Librarian in our Senior School (Grades 6-12). As a Teacher Librarian, I spend a lot of time focusing on Reader’s Advisory as students stop by the library looking for a book to read.

Reader’s Advisory can take some time and is often about asking the right questions. While some students come to the library with a clear picture of what they want to read, more often than not, students have a vague notion of what they are looking for or have no idea at all. Sometimes when students enter the library they have a clear goal in mind, but more often I come across students mindlessly wandering the shelves because they want a book (or have been told they have to get a book), but really have no clue what they are looking for. These students may be in a reading rut and nothing is inspiring them. When I encounter these students, I always start with questions such as: what is the last thing you read that you really enjoyed? What did you like about that book? What didn’t you like about the book? Sometimes the questioning period is short and I have just the right book for the student, but sometimes the process can take much longer with every suggestion I give being turned down. While my role in Reader’s Advisory can be an important one, often the best advisors when it comes to helping students find their next great read is not me, rather it is their peers. While it is important that we as teachers and librarians are reading the books our students are reading and while it is important that we are able to recommend books to students, it is also equally as important that we are creating a culture of reading in our libraries and in our classrooms where our students are sharing the books they love with their peers and where they are engaging in Reader’s Advisory by recommending books to each other.

To read some more great ideas about creating a culture of reading in your school and your classroom, check out Melissa Sethna’s post on the first steps you can take in transforming a culture.

While some of the best Reader’s Advisory between students happens in the casual conversations in the library or in the classroom or in the excited moments when a student just has to share this amazing book he or she has been reading, technology can also help us extend our reading culture beyond the walls of the classroom and the school itself. At our school, we have been using technology in an exciting way to help extend the conversations around books beyond the school walls.

Over the past few years, our English department has been using Biblionasium and Goodreads to broaden our reading community and to help our students engage in discussions about reading and to connect to Reader’s Advisory moments in larger communities.


Some of our Grade 6 and 7 students using Biblionasium to write reviews and recommendations about their favourite books.


With our Grades 6 and 7 students, we have introduced Biblionasium. Biblionasium is a free social book sharing platform for younger students (there is a paid version, but the only real added feature to this version is that it allows you to link your Biblionasium class with your library catalogue). It allows teachers to create online reading communities. At our school, our Grade 6 and 7 students all belong to our online Biblionasium community that has been set up by their English teachers and by myself. On Biblionasium, students can log the books they have read by placing them on their own virtual bookshelves, can write reviews of these books, can place books on the group’s virtual book shelf to allow other students to see them, and they can also recommend books to other students. As well, the teachers in the group can send book recommendations to the whole class or to specific students. Because it is a program designed for elementary students, Biblionasium confines students to the class that was set up by the teachers and students can not interact with other users on the site. This allows students to engage with their classmates in their Biblionasium group, but does not open them up to a larger community of strangers.


Page 1 of many (we have had this group going since 2014!) of our Grades 8-12 Goodreads reading group Recommended Reads bookshelf.

With our Grades 8-12 students, we have moved from Biblionasium to Goodreads, another free platform. While many teachers use Goodreads for their own reading, they may not realize that is also allows you to create groups that you can use in your classes. It is this feature we use with our students. We have created a private group for our Grades 8-12 students and for teachers at our school. Much like the Biblionasium group, this group is a place for our students to place the books they have read on their shelves, to share books on the group shelves, to recommend books to each other and to write reviews. The group itself if private, which means only our students and teachers can access it and our shared bookshelves. Unlike Biblionasium, however, the reviews that the students write on Goodreads are visible to the larger Goodreads community. While this may not be ideal for younger students, for our older students it has extended their Reader’s Advisory community in many profound ways. When they write book reviews for the Goodreads community, they are contributing to a larger global discussion about books and when they are looking for book recommendations, they can tap into the reviews and suggestions of a huge community of passionate readers. This not only gives them the experience of writing for a real audience, and access to many amazing mentor texts for book reviews written by other people in the Goodreads community, it also gives them membership into a vast group of people who love to talk about books. This year one of my Grade 11 students discovered that Emma Watson, her favourite actress, is extremely active on Goodreads and, in fact, runs her own feminist book club through the site. My student quickly joined this club and was soon reading her way through Emma’s reading list and engaging in amazing online conversations with other members of Emma Watson’s book club. She was soon bringing these conversations into the classroom and quickly had a whole crew of students – male and female- avidly reading Emma Watson’s recommended books and debating them every chance they could get. I tell you, there is nothing as exciting as walking into a classroom full of students planning their Alias Grace Netflix binge watching session because they just finished reading the book with Emma Watson’s bookclub and they need to watch the Netflix series to see if it did it the book justice in order to join in on the conversation going on in the Goodreads group on this very topic.

Using technology to extend the classroom reading community can have some challenges and does require a certain amount of work with students in regards to interacting with others in the digital environment. The use of technology through reading community sites like Biblionasium and Goodreads can be a powerful way to have students extend their reading community, explore new books and recommended reads, and share their recommendations and critiques with a larger community.

Pam McMartin is a Senior English Teacher, English Department Head and Senior School Teacher Librarian in Tsawwassen BC, Canada. She is also addicted to Goodreads and spends decidedly too much time stalking people’s virtual bookshelves in search of her next great read. She is always looking to expand her Goodreads family, so feel free to add her as a friend. Besides on Goodreads, you can follow her thoughts on Twitter at @psmcmartin.


Guest Post: Technology Transforms a Writing Workshop

In response to this post I wrote about walking the talk in our content areas, another teacher has responded to my invitation to write. She says of herself:  “Karen Clancy-Cribby loves learning, especially from adolescents. She’s a teacher, writer, and Writer’s Workshop is her life. Literally.” Find Karen on Twitter @kcribby.

My husband and I live in the country on land that is expansive, scrub oak, tall grasses.  Every time I go to the kitchen sink, my first look is up at the hill, across the valley, and I scan the hillside before my gaze settles to the immediate foreground.  I do this probably twenty times a day.

It hit me today, as I thought about this blog, that how I look out and around, before settling into the immediate, is how I think about everything.

I’m a big picture person, and when I was given the great honor of being offered the opportunity to guest blog about technology and Writer’s Workshop with this amazing group of teachers, I jumped at the chance.

Then I realized I’d signed up to write about a lesson.  Well, therein lies the rub.  To describe a traditional lesson is just not what resonates with the organic nature of the classroom we’ve been so fortunate to run with Writer’s Workshop.  The “we” in that sentence refers to my language arts colleague (and former student, and former student teacher) who I team with daily.

I’ve embraced Writer’s and Reader’s Workshop since I first read Nancie Atwell’s “In the Middle” back in 1990.  I’ve read Fletcher and Calkins and others since, but I’ve mostly just been diving in.

So, back to the whole lesson idea.  Lessons in WW can, and should, of course, be planned, but to speak of them outside the daily dynamic of the classroom doesn’t make sense to me.  Sure, plan for different activities, plan with the end in mind, know and plan for what students should know (even that is a stretch, but that’s another blog), but the ebb and flow of class has to be more dynamic and a response to what happens with students.  So, WW has been an ideal.  Set aside time for mini-lessons, reading and writing time, feedback and closure.

Now, with technology in the mix, well, wow.  So, instead of blogging a WW lesson with technology, I’m going to give you a day in the life of WW with technology.  I need to thank my language arts cohort and daily teaching partner, Emily, who suffered through all of these pages of drafts for this idea for a focus.

Here is our day:

Student working on writing in the winter pulled up a fire for cozy atmosphere.

We have our daily agenda and objectives on a Google Document shared with our students, who walk into class oftentimes having already pulled this document up on their Ipads or phones.  Every day, we ask students to answer a question as they come into class.  Thanks to another colleague, Kris, we call these “Fire-Ups,” given that warm-up seemed too tepid to describe the first lesson of the day which should be big.  So, students pull up the agenda on their iPads and log into their Google Doc on the Chromebooks.  Sometimes they need to look up a few things to answer the question, sometimes they need to just think, and sometimes they need to read and re-read to answer the question, which, ideally takes no more than ten minutes for everyone to feel okay to discuss the question.

Within ten minutes of class, we will ask them how much time they need.  It’s usually no more than a few minutes, but oftentimes, our questions are bigger than we planned.

So, our agenda is a work in progress, and we adapt, as all teachers do,  as the class goes along. Sometimes, all students need a nudge in a certain direction, and we extend the lesson.  This often looks like one of us “saging on the stage,” while the other uploads examples or research hints and tools.

Other times, and I’d hazard to say most times, they all just need to fly.  Then, we have the luxury of sitting down at our desks, reading over their virtual shoulders and giving them individual feedback in person or on their Google Docs.

Writer’s Workshop has been my educator dream ideal since I was in college, and now the ideal is…well, I hate to sound absolute, but it’s possible, truly possible.

Technology allows all of that to happen immediately and in real time.  I am fortunate (understatement) to teach with someone who not only embraces the workshop pedagogy as passionately as I do, but she is a whiz with technology.  Four years ago, when she was my student teacher, we had netbooks, and we started using Google Docs, and I’ll never forget those opening days of my brain exploding.  We had our agenda on the overhead screen, shining from her computer.  The agenda was made in Google Docs.  I had a few students who preferred to access their writing from their phones.  If I didn’t read literally over their cyber-shoulder, I would not have believed how fast they could write using their phones.  As more and more students used their phones alongside the netbooks (we are so lucky to now have Chromebooks!), I started thinking about so many possibilities of all the access they had to information.  Then, there were whispers of our district going 1:1 with iPads.  I’ll never forget standing in the front of the room with Emily, my student teacher, and I looked at her and said, “we can have the agenda online for them to have access to,” and she looked at me and said, “they can write their responses on a Google Doc too.”  That was four long (or short?) years ago.

Now, we’re all online, and I feel as though the newbie teacher dreams of a perfect Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop are now a reality.  Well, perfect is an oversell, but all of those years where I would say, “read and write whatever you want” have been transformed.

Students walk into the classroom, open up their Chromebooks and their iPads. Most students pull up the agenda on their iPad and then start answering their fire-up question on their running Fire-Up Google Doc.   The question is related to where we have been and where we are going.  We try to stretch the question, make it something they need to think about.  Sometimes there is a background/research portion, and then the question.  Sometimes it’s a piece of literature they need to explore for techniques; sometimes it’s a revision piece they need to evaluate.  These Fire-Up questions are very often taken from my own personal writing.  Writer’s Workshop isn’t WW without the teacher as writer.  The beauty of the Fire-Up being taken from my writing is that I am starting most classes with modeling myself as writer.  I can then keep going back to my writing, allowing everyone to critique it.  I have noticed that students are at their best when they are critiquing my writing.  With peers, they sometimes become too gentle, or the reverse, too harsh.  With my writing, they are quick to get to the heart of what needs improvement or what things work and why.

I get to do the think-alouds about my own writing; things I like, things I want to make even better, my purpose, etc.  This leads to them then taking that mini-lesson and my modeling metacognition, and then they look at their own writing, and other’s writing.

My teaching cohort Emily and I were talking the other day about how she needs to do some writing. We have an easy balance together, but she’s right.  She needs to write.  The best way we show ourselves is at our in-progress stage of writing, discussing what we want to do for purpose, topic, and audience.  We should not show ourselves ever thinking we’re “done.”

Back to how technology transforms this all.   Sharing is more immediate; there are multiple modalities for discussion (Edmodo for responding, Padlet for throwing out fire up responses, sharing of Google Docs for commenting).  The transformation, for me, having taught using this model for so long, is that if I ask a student to explore an interest, they can do it, right then, right there.

They can find and access a kazillion mentor texts.  ‘Nough said.

Student finishing up an online literature circle discussion using Edmodo.

Student finishing up an online literature circle discussion using Edmodo.

Here is another snapshot of this transformation.  As we were moving into the second quarter of language arts, Emily asked me how we should frame our lessons as we continued.  It hit me that though we were using the workshop model, it had transformed to such overwhelming possibilities.  It felt like grooming a rock star who had hit the charts.  I have no idea why that analogy came to me, but it’s so hard to describe the little monsters we’d created with so much room for them to stretch, reach, and grow with Writer’s Workshop.  I answered her with a gleeful, big, let’s see-where-this-will go shrug and said, “well, nothing has changed, let’s keep the workshop going, but maybe we need to call it something more expansive, like, “Learning on your own.”

The next day, when LOYO was on our agenda, and many students knew what the acronym was, well, wow.  The teacher learner in me talked about how their learning was officially limitless, and I was excited to sit down and visit with them and see where they were going.
I’m excited to see where I’m going.  I get to do this.  Every day.

Wrapping up with book trailers

After a slew of snow days and an extended year that pushed the end of school into the second-to-last week of June, my students’ motivation lagged as we approached our final month together. They needed an engaging project that still proved to be challenging and fun. Inspired by Amy’s work, my students and I celebrated the end of the reader’s workshop with a final book trailer project.

The process was organic; students latched onto the idea of watching mentor texts and dissecting the craft to gain a firmer understanding of the writing genre. Over the course of a few days, we analyzed and discussed the differences between the book and movie trailers for John Green’s upcoming film Paper Towns, a class favorite. We combed through countless examples of professional book trailers, dissecting the craft of the films and looking at the cinematography, hook, pacing, script, music, and scene choices. Finally, after brainstorming and storyboarding, students used Stupeflix, WeVideo, Puppet Edu, or iMovie to generate stunning book trailers. The results blew me away.  Here is a small sample of some of the trailers I’ll be using to supplement my book talks next year.

**Make sure to unmute the video. In some cases, the sound doesn’t automatically play.

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown–Created by Matt


Perfect by Ellen Hopkins–Created by Emily

Missing Pieces by Meredith Tate–Created by Alyssa

Looking for Alaska by John Green–Created by Tristan

Authenticity: Making it Real with Student Blogs

North Star of Texas Writing Project (NSTWP), in which I am a teacher consultant, asserts that authenticity is connecting student learning with significant audiences, tasks, and purposes.


Blogging with my students is one way in which I make that connection happen. Writing posts and commenting on the work of our peers has become an integral part of my readers/writers workshop classroom.

photo: Petras Kudaras

During the second week of school, once schedule changes calm down a bit, I introduced the idea of blogging to my students. This year I wrote a post on my class blog and imbedded an article that made them see that blogging can have value to their futures. You can see that here.

I’ve had students use Edublogs as their blog platform in the past, and I know some teachers have their students use Kidblogs. I decided to go with WordPress this year. I thought using the “real world” blog platform would be a good idea. You know, just in case some students loved the idea and kept writing long after they leave my classroom. Finally, eight weeks into the school year, I am glad I went this route, but the set-up, especially with my 9th graders took a lot longer than I’ve had to spend in the past. (Most of my students are not as tech savvy as many technology advocates would like to believe. For more on that read this post:  Digital Novices vs Digital Natives.)

These are some ways I’m transforming my teaching by using student blogs this year (See this SAMR model for ideas on instructional transformation):

Timed Writing. I need students to be able to think quickly about a topic, organize their thoughts, and write effectively in a short period of time. Years ago I had students complete timed writings on paper with a pen, and I’d take the stack of essays home and laboriously grade them. By having students post to blogs, my classroom is getting close to being green. We do very little writing on paper anymore. I can read student posts with the swipe on my finger on my iPad, and I try to leave comments that inspire improvement in their writing. Sometimes I put the score from a rubric. Most times I say something I like about what students have written. They like that kind of feedback best, and it usually prompts some kind of improvement in their next post–something that rarely happened with the marks of my red pen.

For our first timed writing, students wrote about their reading lives. We spend 10 minutes at the beginning of each class period reading our self-selected books. I conference with each student, brief one-on-one chats. I learned more while reading student posts about their reading habits than I did in the prior eight weeks of school. I posted a reflection of my own reading life on my class blog with the actual assignment, and then students wrote on theirs. The response to our wide reading warmed my teacher heart. Read a few of these students’ posts, and you will see why: Helen–A Path Led by Wise Words; Gina–Lay Down the Bridges; Mian–A Passion for Books; Emilio–Reading Life

Our second timed writing, students wrote an argument in response to our in-class study of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The American Scholar.” Some student posts were thoughtful and wise; most were ineffective and needed major revisions. All students wrote and showed what they’d learned from their reading and our class discussions.

Persuasive Practice. The AP Lang exam and the 10th grade STAAR test both require students to be effective persuasive writers. I like this blogger’s post:  Blogging is the New Persuasive Essay. As I teach my students how to use persuasive techniques, I also want them learning about their world. They have to know “stuff” to build their credibility after all. So every Monday my students write a post that they base upon something they read in the news. They scan headlines until they find a topic that interests them. Then they pull an idea from the article, and then they write an argument based on that idea. So far, we haven’t delved too deeply in the art of persuasion; we’ve talked mostly about form and structure and a few rhetorical devices, but some of my students have taken ownership of this weekly recurring assignment. Here’s a few to give you an idea:  Kathryn–Words Hurt; Ashley–Recycled Look or Recycled Lives; Jason–Smoking is Safer? Impossible; Adrian–Chemical Mistakes

Published Polished Pieces. As we move through different genres of writing, I need my students to fully immerse themselves in the process of creating effective and moving texts. We started the year with a focus on narrative. I know, it’s not on the AP exam or the STAAR test anymore. But story is so important. It’s what connects us as humans, and it’s story that has helped create a classroom community where students are not afraid to take risks and throw their hearts out on the page. While a few student narratives are not as polished as I would have liked prior to publication (grades being due always seems to interfere with authenticity), if you read just these three, you’ll see why story is important. I can be a better teacher to these PreAP students because of what I know from these posts. Esmeralda–Memories; Mercedes–What Do You Think About Moving? Bryanna–Why Batman?

I remember learning from Kelly Gallagher that students should write more than I can ever grade. Well, of all things in my teaching life, I’ve finally figured that one out the best. I cannot read every post my students write, but I can read a lot, and I can give a lot of feedback in a way that is meaningful so that students respond. We just started reading and leaving feedback for one another. I can already tell that this will be more valuable than just me giving feedback. After we spent two class days reading one another’s narrative posts, I had students tell me on their own narrative evaluations:  “I knew I could do better after I read other people’s.” For an example of our student feedback, read the comments on this one: Amy–Forever a Bye. The instruction I gave students was 1) Be polite but honest, 2) Bless something you think the writer did well, 3) Press a moment that needs more detail or description, 3) Address an issue of concern in regard to style, grammar, etc. For our first time, I’m proud of these students for the feedback they gave their friend.

Engaging student writers is often more than half the battle. So many times they have the attitutde “What’s in it for me?” By allowing students to choose their topics, and allowing them to express their true and authentic voices, I get better participation, and I get better writing, and I get to know the hearts and minds of my students.

That is all I ever really want.

photo: Dee Bamford

#NCTE13  Writing Teachers (Re)Inventing Literacy Instruction by Following the North Star

The 21st Century Sandlot

This has to be one of my all time favorite movies. If you haven’t seen it, well you should question your cultural literacy!

smore2What does this have anything to do with my tech tip you ask? Well, aside from the name (Smore), not much. While browsing the interwebs the other day I stumbled upon an awesome newsletter that my sweet teacher friends at Cannon Elementary School sent out to their families (seen here: https://smore.com/yds4). Immediately I’m struck by the bright colors and awesome pictures of their learners engaged and excited about learning. I also loved their concise way they shared important information with their families. I don’t know about you, but I have little attention span for a lengthy email where you have to labor over every word just to decipher the point of the entire email. For me, the Smore flyer was awesome. I was able to get a brief glimpse into their classroom and if I were a parent I would know how to help my learner at home. — LOVE IT!!  And just in case you think it might be hard to use, it is not – I tried it! I literally spent ten minutes making an awesome flyer that I can now easily share with anyone!

Let me put it this way,
classroom newsletters will never be the same!


Go ahead – try it!
Then, let me know how you used it in your classroom!

50% of the Teachers Were Willing to Try

I underestimate people sometimes. For those who know me personally, this is no big surprise.

Today, a colleague and I taught (or attempted to teach) some of our peers how to use two (we believe) pretty simple technology apps. We kind of thought it would be easier than it turned out to be. Here’s what I learned:

1. Some teachers are not interested in learning–or even trying–to do anything with technology. It does not matter how much you testify to what has worked wonderfully well with your students. They do not care. They are not going to even pull out the cell phone and give it a try.

2. Some teachers are so impatient with their own devices that they will not even give you a chance to help them, or walk them through whatever application you want them to see. This frustration comes out as anger (and is often rude) against the person just trying to show them a tiny little thing.

3. Some teachers watch and listen, turn on, and try. They ask questions. They push buttons. They light up when they “get it.” They enjoy the experimenting and the experience of it all.

Quick quiz. Which of the three above do you think I want to work with every single day?

Self-evaluation. Which of the three above are you?

My friend JC Hamlin and I showed our peers Twitter and Vine today. We’ve both used Twitter with our students for awhile now; we both want to use Vine with our students this year.

Here’s a tidbit of our presentation:

Three Ways to Use Twitter in the classroom:

  • as communication within the walls of the class and beyond
  • as a backchannel (Shy students speak up when they can tweet their responses)
  • as a way to include the outer-circle in an inner-circle discussion

Why using Vine makes sense:

  • students love to make and share videos
  • most students have a Smart phone–or a classmate who has one
  • it’s fun

The assignment:  1. Create a Vine that introduces yourself to your students without showng your face. 2. Tweet it to us.

My Vine Introduction

50% of the teachers in the room successfully “played” with technology today. 50% of the teachers were willing to TRY.

I wonder how this translates into what the instruction looks like in their classrooms. Really, I wonder.

15 hours later:

Okay, so after thinking about this pretty much all day, I realized a few things:

1. I exaggerated. It wasn’t 50%. I’m amazed at how a few sure can feel like A LOT.

2. I must remember to be patient. At first I took a long time to learn tech things; I need to allow others time, too.

3. The experience, the emotions–positive and negative–are an fine parallel to what happens in class with my students.

So, the question I ask myself as I go into another year of teaching: What systems do I have in place, what communication skills, strategies, relationship-building tactics do I have in mind to deal with it. Better.

There’s an app for that!!


Handouts from the session: Must Have Apps – Students Must Have Apps – Teachers

Click image below for the presentation

Screen Shot 2013-01-19 at 6.49.11 PM

Please come check out our session at #TCTELA at 2:45 Jan. 19, 2013! You can find our handouts in image form in our presentation Prezi here! Hope to you see you there – we’ll talk about the power of using technology to transform the education you provide, as well as give us an opportunity to collaborate and “smackdown” on the latest great apps for reading, writing, organizing, collaborating, and much more!!

My Top 5 Gurus – Who Are Yours?

Thank you, Melville Publishing for picture....
These people, places, and collections of great knowledge have made me a better teacher.  They are my gurus, my distant teachers, and my life-savers when the screws are put to me in the classroom, and for the 987th time, when the students have “turned the tables” on me, as my new favorite artist Adele sings.  Thank you, gurus, for moving me.  Thank you for holding the mirror up.  Thank you for forcing me to look into the teacher I thought I was after 11 years and igniting a flame that has burned up the dross in my classroom on a daily basis.  What remains after such an intellectual bonfire amidst the students and myself are the ashes from which knowledge, compassion, inspiration, communication, and fellowship arise.  It truly is a “beautiful collision” (thank you, David Crowder).

#1. The Buck Institute for Education – This organization acts as my collective teacher, from its web resources to its handbooks in print to its well-trained educators, whose blogs and conference opportunities have inspired me to let project based learning completely change my life.  I love teaching because of what BIE has taught me.  Check out their website and their blogs for new educators in PBL.  Fantastic research and downloadable resources! (PBL Do-It-Yourself is a life-saver!)

#2.  Aimee Buckner – Her tried and true suggestions for using reader’s/writer’s notebooks in Notebook Know-How and Notebook Connections have given me many ideas that actually work.  I wanted to know how someone specifically used the notebooks in an authentic and real way, and she even included actual copies of posts from her kids!  It’s fantastic!

#3. Cooperative Catalyst – This is an amazing consortium of bloggers, writers, teachers, and others who write about education, trends, needs for change, pedagogy, social issues, etc.  I have found all sorts of new gurus here!  Posts are by various authors – thus, the “cooperative.”  It is said of this blog that the more voices that join, the deeper the discussion goes.  Many of the authors here can also be followed on Twitter.

#4. Don Tapscott – His books Growing Up Digital and Grown Up Digital have exceeded my expectations of what I thought I might learn about technology.  Not only did I learn about the digital natives I teach, or the “hand-held” generation who have never known life with a record player, 8-track, or rotary phone….  But through his work I learned about myself.  My modeling of appropriate use of technology and my role as a respectful contributor in the digital marketplace is equally important to what they can teach me about new tech and devices.  Follow him on Twitter, where the nuggets of wisdom just keep coming…. (@dtapscott)

#5. TED – Two words: pure awesomeness.  TED is so awesome it might actually make you go blind.  Watch videos, learn what’s out there, [if you have cash – ha!] go to a conference and get goodies (then tell me what they were!), or just download the talks.  This conglomeration of cutting edge technology, insightful and charismatic speakers, and world-changing ideas has really given me great classroom engagement pieces.  The videos are mind-blowing at times, sobering at others.  If you haven’t tuned in to TED, run, don’t walk, and start with this amazing video, with technology now a few years old: “The Sixth Sense.”  Follow TED on Twitter: @tedtalks, @TEDnews, @ted_com.

Now, to you: who are your gurus and distant teachers?  And who will you then teach “everything you know”?
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