Technology Pursuit

Blending Technology Into the Language Arts Classroom

Category: Uncategorized (page 1 of 17)

Build Curiosity with a Mystery Box

Have you seen advertisements for Hunt a Killer? Or the Mystery Package Company?

Inspired by them, I created a mystery box to introduce our Macbeth unit. My objectives:

  • Increase curiosity in the story
  • Build background knowledge before reading
  • Improve prediction and inferential skills.

My next step was to find objects to put into the box that would guide a student inquiry into Macbeth. Here’s what I included:

  • Two character maps
  • Map of Scotland and important Macbeth sites
  • A possible dinner menu for the banquet scene (with a note from Lady Macbeth)
  • The letter Macbeth wrote Lady Macbeth in Act 1
  • The “Double, double, toil and trouble” spell
  • Doctor’s observation notes of Lady Macbeth in Act 5
  • The “tomorrow” speech
  • An image of two bloody daggers
  • A (very cheap) crown

For access to all these items (except the crown), click here.

Last, I created a set of questions that would guide student thinking.

The result: A lot of engagement! Within seconds, someone from each group had the crown on their head. With a large assortment of items, everyone in each group had plenty to examine and discuss.

More importantly were the conversations I overheard. Students used information from different pieces of writing in the box to try to answer the questions. They debated and discussed  their conclusions. By having to explain how the texts lead them to their answers, they’re getting practice in using textual evidence.


It’s Time to Cull Your Vocab List

It’s time to cull our vocabulary lists.

When’s the last time you really looked at the vocabulary words that you teach and asked yourself if all these words were essential for students to know for life? Or are you forcefed a vocabulary program by your district, but deep down you know some of the words aren’t relevant to students now and will likely never be?

The sad truth is that so many vocab programs and workbooks out there are filled with words that simply aren’t used often in our world. Or we as teachers rely on textbooks to point out words that “should” be taught (which at least they’re within the context of learning rather than randomly selected like many vocabulary programs.)

I’m fortunate enough to have the freedom when selecting vocabulary words, so a few years ago I eschewed the vocab workbooks our district owned and selected words from the texts that we read. But since I’m revamping the junior level English curriculum this summer, it’s also time to re-examine the vocabulary. We’ll be reading new texts and leaving others behind, so I want to make sure that the words we’re focusing on this year in our vocabulary instruction are also words relevant to our texts.

But how to decide which words to use? Simply choosing long words isn’t the answer, nor can we teach students every arcane word there may be in a text.

Here are some steps I’ve been following:

  1. I limit my number to 12 words a month that students are responsible for demonstrating mastery. When I’m creating an initial list, I’m looking for words that not only appear in texts we’ll be reading, but for words that could also be used in other contexts.
  2. Checking college bound vocabulary lists. There are often important words on their lists that connect well with the content you’re teaching.
  3. Consider words that have multiple meanings. For example, “pedestrian” or “novel” or “objective.” Students likely know the first meaning, but the second meanings of these words are also extremely important–not only for students to use in their own writing, but when they’re reading, they need to know by context which meaning to use.
  4. Examine any important affixes that could be linked to the word. When I teach “circumvent,” I ask students what shape “circum” connects with. Of course, they answer “circle.” “So,” I continue, “when we want to circumvent someone or something, we go around it.” This emphasizes that “circum” is an affix that can be used in words outside the math classroom, too.
  5. This summer, I’ve started using the Google Ngram Viewer. This is a handy tool that shows the frequency of a word from 1800-2008. By checking words with the Ngram Viewer, I have another way to know whether this is a word students are likely to encounter in the future.

Examining some of the texts I potentially will have students read in our “truth” unit–a study of fake news, biased news, and unreliable narrators–I came across the word “polarization.” This is a word that

  • could be connected to both this context but also to science.
  • contains affixes that could be potentially addressed
  • is important to the context and understanding of our unit

With the Ngram chart, I can see that “polarization” has grown in frequency and currently scores a .0005, which is on the higher end of the words on my curriculum vocab list (for comparison, “dog” ranks .004, “investigate” ranks .001, and “complication” scores a .0004).

(More on how to use the Google Ngram Viewer here.)

Now take a look at “phototropic,” which is actually a word in the freshman vocab workbooks in our district.

A score of .000003! For whatever reason, the word achieved peak popularity in the 1930s (I’m surmising this could be connected to science text of the time), but even then the peak score was .00001–still not an extraordinarily high score. Granted, the affixes in this word may have some benefit in teaching, but I question whether this word is appropriate for a freshman vocabulary study. Does it connect with their texts? No. Can it be used in multiple contexts? Not that I’m aware of. Is the word used frequently and/or growing in frequency? Definitely not.

The Ngram Viewer is only a tool. It shouldn’t be the sole determinant of whether a word should be used or eschewed.

However, the Ngram Viewer can be a great tool for determining which words make the final cut on your vocab list. Or if you’re forced by your district to teach a set list of words, the tool can provide insight on which words to make “must learn” words and which words are of secondary importance.

Plus, creating levels of words within your lists can provide a way to differentiate. Students who show mastery your core  words can then focus their learning on a second tier of words–words that maybe aren’t as frequently used but still beneficial to know, such as enervating, ostentatious, or supercilious.

Think Microgoals

Yesterday I had the privilege of hearing my friend Michael Matera (@mrmatera) give the keynote address at the Westside Personalized Summit in Omaha. Like any great keynote (which his was), there is always one golden nugget that you grab. For me, it was microgoals.

Goals can be scary, especially if they’re big. We tell our students and ourselves to break them down to smaller goals, but it can be hard to even tackle those smaller goals. We make excuses:

We’re too tired.

It’s too cold outside.

We don’t have all the materials.

Michael spoke about microgoals. Instead of a goal of 50 push-ups a day, or 20, or even 10, set a goal of ONE push-up.  Will one push-up per day turn you into sexy, fit athlete by the end of one year? No.  But as Michael said, once you’re on the floor to do that one, you’re now committed. Are you really going to stop at one? Likely no, at least not most of the time. You’re going to put in five. Or maybe ten. Other days, you might even put in more.

Let’s take this beyond exercise. Committing yourself to a writing routine is hard. Every professional writer will tell you that. Instead of setting a 500-word goal per day, try 100, or even 50. Then give yourself the freedom to quit. There may be days that you will, but there will also be days that you’re now committed, you’re in flow, and you keep going.

This works great with students. They hear me say the mantra “The first 100 words are the hardest” every time we start a major writing assignment. Other writing teachers may scoff that I set a mere 100 word goal on the first day of a student writing project, but I do it because it’s easily attainable. One hundred words is a paragraph. It’s five minutes of work. Yet once students (or any writer) have 100 words down, it’s easier to keep going, and also easier to return the next day and continue the work.

We can set microgoals for any task we dread.

The bathroom needs cleaned? Commit to cleaning just the sink.

Papers to grade? Commit to grading one.

Endless emails to reply to? Reply to one. Or maybe two.

Even if you decide to stop after that microgoal, you’re already further than you were when you started. Just that much will provide the momentum to tackle tomorrow’s microgoal.

What I really like about the microgoal concept is the feeling of less guilt. When I procrastinate on a goal–say cleaning the bathroom, which definitely could use a good scrub–I feel guilty at the end of the day when I don’t do anything in there. By setting a goal of cleaning the sink and then doing that tiny goal, I can feel good that I moved forward on that task. Granted, I didn’t get the whole bathroom clean, but getting one part done feels much better than doing nothing.

Right now, this second, what’s one microgoal that you can set? Walking around the block? Reading that book you’ve been putting off for the next five minutes? Picking up three things and putting them away? Now, go do that. At the end if you want to keep going, do it! If not, congrats–you’re still further than you were earlier.


Kahoot? Quizizz? Gimkit? What Should I Use?

It’s been a few years since I last wrote about my favorite student response system for formative assessment. Every year, these companies come out with improvements and upgrades, and it’s hard to keep up with what each has to offer.


However, different systems may fit different moments in your class. Do you want your students to have repeated practice? Do you want them to take their time and process? Do you need some energy in your room? Each of these different systems provide different benefits. Here’s a rundown of the three I use most.

Quizizz: Perhaps my favorite, and here’s why. One, I can turn off the timer on questions, which is very important to me. I’ve found that when students get more points for faster times, they answer without thinking. What’s more important to me is that they take a little longer to think about questions and choose the answer carefully. Does this take away energy from the class? Yes, but accuracy is more important. In addition, Quizizz has great question banks, so you can create quizzes using past questions you’ve written or questions from other teachers’ quizzes. A huge time saver!


I frequently use Quizizz to get a pulse of the class, especially in checking their vocabulary learning. A quick 4-6 question Quizizz gives me an immediate idea of what words they know well and which ones require more practice. I show the results for each question (with no student names) at the end of the Quizizz, so the entire class knows where they stand.

Kahoot: The granddaddy of gamified student-response systems, Kahoot can’t be beat for the energy it brings to the room. Because students tend to focus on the “race” rather than the “thinking” for answers with Kahoot, I don’t use it as often.


I do like to use Kahoot when I’m first introducing vocabulary. Sometimes we do a Kahoot before I introduce words so I can get a sense of which words they know well, know somewhat, or don’t know at all. (Plus, reading their non-verbals is very telling, too). A few months ago, I started using it as I read a narrative that contained all our vocab words. As we encountered each word, I played the next Kahoot question that focused on that word. This served as a great way to make students use context clues from the text, and also an opportunity for me to explain the word more. (Informal input from the students was they felt they knew the words much better with this method than doing the Kahoot in isolation as a way to introduce words.)

Gimkit: This is the new kid on the block. Like Quizizz, students work independently on their own screens, but like Kahoot, they are racing against time or competing for “money.” Each question is worth $1 to start, but can be increased by purchasing power-ups. Students can also purchase power-ups as insurance (because you can also lose money by answering questions incorrectly), change the colors of their screens, or freeze their biggest competitors.


Unlike the other systems, Gimkit will continue to cycle questions, which means you will need to have a good variety of questions for each game (I would suggest at least 10-12). This is great for low-level knowledge questions (vocabulary, multiplication facts), but I don’t use it for higher level questions.


Another downside: you can only have 5 “kits” (aka quizzes) unless you purchase the paid version. For me, the paid version is worth it, but you have to do what’s right for you.



Others to Try: Socrative and Quizalize


In the past, I’ve also used Socrative and Quizalize, which are both good systems. Both allow for flexibility with questions (especially if you have longer questions with more content). Both systems allow you to save and reuse quizzes.


Socrative provides a rocket-ship visual that is labeled with colors rather than names, so students can see how they’re doing comparatively to others but don’t have to worry about others knowing their score.


Quizalize scores well with its robust reporting of results and the added bonus of sending students to different activities based on how they score, which could be a huge benefit for differentiation after an initial opening assessment.

What I’d suggest is find the 2-3 systems that fit best with your style and what you’re looking for in a student response system. Each one has unique benefits, so choose the one that’s going to fit the need your students have at that time.

Create Your Own Media Bias Chart


Chances are, you’ve seen this media bias chart (or similar ones) on your social media.

During my fake & biased news analysis unit, I wanted to incorporate this chart. I could have just had students study and analyze it, but I didn’t know how long-lasting the experience would stay with them.

Instead, I decided students could make their own charts.

Using markers and butcher paper, I drew an XY axis. I also added a section on the side for sources that didn’t have a place on the chart (such as satire like The Onion).

When class time came, I first modeled how to search for sources on, where students could then see how sources were rated. (See the BBC results below). Then I showed them how the chart worked–left/liberal sources on the left, right/conservative sources on the right, as well as the level of factual reporting.

At that point, the students started looking up their own sources. I asked students to find at least five sources–and they needed to move quickly because if their source was already on the paper, they had to find another one.

I also encouraged students to check sources that they see on social media, and to Snapchat and YouTube they went. Of course, many searched mainstream sources or sources their parents used.

What did they find from this? Our mainstream media tends to the political left. However, we live in a conservative rural county, so many also realized that many sources they see on their social media feeds tend to the right side of the political spectrum.

We ended with discussing how every form of reporting has some bias. Any news passed on is slightly skewed through the reporter’s perspective, but as the chart shows, some sources choose language and stories that lean left or right politically. We also talked about how this chart doesn’t indicate which sources are right or wrong, good or bad–except for the extreme ends of the spectrum, which are downright fake news and faulty reporting–but that the goal is to be balanced in our research and reading. If you use a source that leans right, then also peruse a source that leans left.

Another great source (if your school doesn’t block Facebook like mine does) is Wall Street Journal’s Blue Feed/Red Feed. It’s a great comparison of what our social media feeds can look like if we program them to see only left-leaning or only right-leaning sources. This encourages discussion on how this can affect American’s understanding of both sides of issues, as well as the effects it could have on our society if we refuse to listen to those who think and believe differently from us.

Lessons and resources like these are essential to make our students critical thinkers about the media they consume and their responsibility to society. The media bias continuum activity, in particular, was one that students commented said had a major impact on how they viewed the media.

Any other resources you love using to encourage critical thinking about media consumption? Share them below!

Audio Book Upgrade: Recording Children’s Books

When I was a kid, I spent hours at the town library listening to books with cassettes. I wanted to read each one, though I can’t remember whether I reached that goal.

Fast forward thirty years, and my students have re-created a similar experience for our elementary students. Here’s how we did it.

Step One: My theater/speech students visited our elementary school library and selected 2-3 books. This short field trip was one of my favorite days of class. Students gasped in delight as they found books they’d forgotten about–just as if they’d found a long lost friend.

Step Two: Practice and record. I first modeled reading a few books, talking about enunciation, pausing, and changing voice. Some students chose to do the project alone, but others worked together, serving as different voices for each other’s books.

I let them choose whichever recording device they wanted. Most simply used their phones. If you wanted to take it a step further, you could use Audacity and edit the final product, even adding special effects and music.

The most difficult part of the project was collecting the recordings. Because students used many different platforms, I received the recordings via email, text message, or AirDrop. Keeping them organized was a challenge. I eventually uploaded them all to a Google folder.

Step Three: Upload to Anchor. Originally, I’d planned to keep the recordings in a Google folder that was available via the QR code, but to play the recording required a few more clicks to open up Google player. Thinking this might be too much for a kindergarten or 1st grade students, I tried Anchor instead.

With Anchor, users only have to click “play.” Plus, recordings are easy to upload and the channel can remain private, so that only our elementary students with the QR codes can access it.

Step Four: Create the QR Codes. For each of recordings on Anchor, we created a QR code (there are lots of QR generators to choose from). We then taped them in the inside covers of the book before returning them to the elementary library.

This was the first year we tried the project, and we truly did figure it out as we went. In the future, I’d recommend creating a class Anchor account and recording directly on Anchor, unless students wanted to edit on Audacity or WeVideo and add background music or special effects. Other than figuring out how to transfer recordings from several types of cell phones, the project was an easy, fun, and rewarding for all of us!

Word Count Challenge

I call it the Blank Page Syndrome. It’s when you have to write something, and you know it will require thinking and work. Even if the topic is something you enjoy–such as me writing blog posts–there’s still that reluctance in the back of your mind. It would be easier to check social media, play another game of ToonBlaster, or find someone to chat with.

Our students have Blank Page Syndrome, too, and who can blame them? In fact, writing is more daunting to some of them. And the longer the assignment or project, the worse it can be.

To help students overcome this first step, we have Word Count Challenges.

On word count challenge days, the goal isn’t to write beautifully; it’s to write prolifically. I start by challenging students to put away their perfectionism–first drafts are about getting words and ideas down, not making each sentence perfect. Also, I encourage them to close any tabs of temptation–social media, email, prom dress e-boutiques–and focus on the task at hand.

Then they write to a goal. Many days, it’s a simple 100 word goal. My mantra is “the first 100 words are the hardest.” Whatever big task we’re working on, the hardest part is getting started. Once we’re going and we’re in Flow (as coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) then it’s much easier to continue the task.

Sometimes I give other incentives. The other day I exchanged the word count for gold in students’ Classcraft accounts. Each word equaled one gold coin. Other days, I might give a flat amount of XP for reaching a 100 word goal. Or anyone who reaches the goal gets their name entered for a free snackcess card (a punchcard for five pieces of snacks in our class snack box.)

Granted, it’s a bit of external motivation. But what do we do on big projects? We set mini goals, and when we reach those goals, we often reward ourselves. For example, after I comment on five student essays, then I get to play Clash Royale for ten minutes. Or eat a brownie. Or take a walk.

You can also add another step if you want to focus on student goal setting. Have students set their own minigoal for the day. Maybe it’s 50 words. Maybe 200. Or maybe it’s finding five sources.

Doing this teaches our students what most of us already know: The way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Hosting a Word Count Challenge is one way to help them with that first bite.

The Underappreciated Third Space

Whew, I’m back!

I’ve been on hiatus for a few months as I coached our high school speech team. As I do most years, I have the best of intentions to keep posting during this time, but I always underestimate the amount of energy speech season requires (typically leaving me in zombie mode by the time I arrive home).

I’ve also been doing a LOT of reading of research associated with my doctoral program, and every once in a while, something hits me.

Today, it was a big hit; it’s called third space.

This is the hybrid space in the doorframe of your classroom, in the hallway, or on the fringe of your classroom. It’s where you and your students communicate and interact on a more social level before class or before the bell rings. And according to Deborah Bieler, it’s a vitally important (and oft overlooked) opportunity to build relationships with students.

In her book The Power of Talk, Bieler discusses how our interactions with students each push toward attrition or retention of a student. Most of the time, we think about teacher/student communication as a formal exchange during class time or in conferences. However, Bieler points out that the quality of our interactions in third space can be just as essential in building a relationship with a student and ultimately building that student’s desire to stay in school.

There have been years where I’ve tried to teach to the last minute, or keep students working until the last minute. Even two weeks ago, I wondered if I should start reading poems or a book aloud for the last few minutes of class.

These aren’t bad ideas, except that I now realize what the loss would be: spending this third space time with my students.

In my school, the students tend to line up near the door at the end of the period. It’s the only high school I’ve taught at where this happens. Also, it’s a pet peeve of mine.

But lately, I’ve started to use the time to stand there with them. I’ve used the opportunity to strike up conversations–What are you doing this weekend? How’s track practice going? How’s the new car treating you?  And when we have those conversations, we can all relax. We’re not talking about assignments or writing or what we’re doing in class tomorrow. Instead, we’re connecting on a personal level.

No longer will I feel guilt if I don’t start class immediately with the bell because I was busy talking to students, nor will I feel bad if we end up chatting the last few minutes of class. I’m busy building relationships, which is the #1 job any teacher should have.

New Vocab Words? Introduce Them with Narrative!

No teacher would argue the importance of using context clues to understand new vocabulary. What’s harder is how to teach it. One way I’ve approached it is the use of narrative.

Each month, we focus on twelve vocabulary words that are selected from our current texts (the vocab words from the past two months have been from Macbeth–We started studying the words a few weeks before we began reading the play.)

To work on students’ context clues, I write a story that includes all twelve of the words.

But I don’t stop there.

I also include each student’s name within the story, further motivating them to read on. Usually, I add in our principal’s name (who often plays the villain or the token death) or other teachers.

Check out our most recent story, Siren Song!

As students read the story, they write down the vocabulary words (which are bold and underlined), and then try to determine the definitions based on context clues. They also write or draw an example.  All this they do on a strip of cardstock, which we dub our “vocab bookmarks.” After they finish, I look them over and correct any misconceptions.

Finally, they use the bookmarks in their independent reading books for the rest of the month. Students are also allowed to use their bookmarks during our daily challenges (usually a Quizizz or vocab game), and they gradually wean themselves off their bookmarks through the month. They’re also allowed to use the bookmarks on their assessment (which is using the words in writing), though after four weeks of practicing the words, they rarely need them.

How long does it take for me to write a story? About 30-45 minutes. After one story, I make a copy for other sections and change the names. Plus, the stories are then easy to tweak and reuse in following years.

This is an activity that works great on days that you have a substitute or a block of time for independent work. Plus, it’s so much fun watching the kids laugh with each other and search out their own names!

True Crime: A Springboard for Argument Writing

Sarah Koenig and the Serial podcast took the country by storm when they first broadcast the story of Adnan Syed and his alleged murder of his former girlfriend Hae Min Lee. Quickly, I saw teachers on Twitter chat about using the podcast in the classroom–some as a form of literature to analyze, others as a way to meet listening standards.

As for me, I’ve used the case in the past few years as a springboard for argument writing. This year, I also included the Curtis Flowers case, highlighted on season two of In the Dark, as another true crime option for students to analyze and discuss.

The Process

After introducing argumentation with the game Superfight, I introduce the Adnan Syed case in a similar way as Sarah Koenig does in the podcast. I have a Google Form that asks students to give an alibi for three different times, ranging from the previous day to six weeks prior, which is the same amount of time between Lee’s disappearance to the discovery of her body. Always, the students become frustrated with trying to remember where they were, especially when I prohibit the use of their phones or social media (as high school students didn’t have them in 1999). This is an activity that sticks with them throughout the unit, and often I hear students from other classes asking me if they’ll get to do the same unit in the future!

Together, we listen to the first episode. I also provide hard copies of the character map and some primary documents, such as the cell phone records and the Asia McClain letters, so students can peruse these as they listen. We stop occasionally and discuss. Some students take notes. At the end, everyone writes down three questions they want to know more about (this can work really well on a Padlet page, too).

We then move onto the Curtis Flowers’ case. Again, I provide hard copies of evidence, such as a map of the crime scene and the transcripts of the cross-examination of Curtis Flowers, so students may peruse them while they listen.

Once they’ve listened to episode 1 of both cases, they choose one to follow. I give them  3-4 school days to research. Some choose to “divide and conquer” by working as a team to find information and share with each other. Some students choose to work alone.

From there, students plan on a graphic organizer, which I look over to be sure the foundation of their argument is solid. (A sample organizer that’s scaffolded for more struggling students can be seen here). Then, students draft their arguments using both primary and secondary sources. For more details of the unit, you can go here.

Why It Works for Me

  • It’s Real World. Not all students will become lawyers, but many will have to serve on a jury or participate in our legal system. All will have to make voting decisions based on analysis of primary and secondary sources.
  • Mystery. A “Who-done-it” holds a fascination for students. They want to be the one who finds a piece of evidence no one has found or develops a new theory. Even months later, students still stop by to give me updates on the case. They’re still intrigued and following it!
  • Primary Documents. Students have been using secondary resources since they were in the primary grades, but often we don’t emphasize primary sources. With cases like these, students can easily use both primary and secondary sources.
  • Limited Choice. For most writing assignments, I choose the genre and allow my students to choose the topic. For our formal argument research paper, they’re more limited in choice, but they still have the choice of which case to follow. Being limited to the two cases provides for other opportunities. It’s much easier for students to work together and collaborate. During peer review, students are familiar with the cases and can provide deeper feedback about argumentation and counterarguments. The same can be same for me–being familiar with both cases, I can point out misconceptions students have or different angles they may want to consider in argument construction.
  • Applicable for All Levels of Students. I use this unit for both dual credit College Composition and my struggling seniors. Both populations are drawn to the topics and the research. I simply provide more scaffolding and adjust expectations for the second group.

I’ve used this unit with both juniors and seniors, but other teachers have found success with the Serial podcast even with sophomores. Even if a true crime angle isn’t your cup of tea, the resurgence of podcasts provide teachers even more resources to provide to students. With most students owning their own smartphones, it’s so simple for them to listen during long bus rides, driving in their vehicles, or sitting at home–all of these being places that my students said they’d listened to podcasts for this research project.

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