Technology Pursuit

Blending Technology Into the Language Arts Classroom

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Yes, I’m Telling You to Be Grateful for Stress


It’s been a stressful past two weeks. I was senior sponsor for Homecoming. We’ve had daily rehearsals for our one-act play. I’ve had observations by our local service unit and the department chair of our local college (and as much as I’d like to say that doesn’t make me nervous, it’s still an energy zapper).

I may or may not have eaten an entire bag of cheese popcorn and a bag of dark chocolate chips this weekend.

This was the first time this school year when I felt myself slipping under the water, where every time I crossed something off my to-do list, two more things popped up. I was simply surviving the days, dragging myself home, and procrastinating my ever-growing list. I was missing the proverbial forest for the trees–focusing only on what I had to do and forgetting about my long-term goals, my vision to help others, my commitment to my blog.

Then I ran across this Facebook post:

Could you believe this made me grateful for stress? OK, maybe not super grateful for the stress itself, but a reminder that teaching –and the stress that comes with it–is what creates meaning in my life. Sharing engaging, playful ideas for the classroom creates meaning for me. Presenting at conferences and meeting other fantastic educators creates meaning for me. In her TED talk, Kelly McGonigall also talks of the health benefits of stress, and no surprise, one of the biggest is the oxytocin boost we get when we….help others!

I’d venture that we all have weeks–or multiple weeks–where we feel overwhelmed with teaching and all the meetings, paperwork, and “duties as assigned” that go with this profession. And, at least for me, it’s so easy to have tunnel vision, to survive just long enough to leave school by 5pm, grab a bag of my favorite white cheddar popcorn and collapse in my living room.

However, I can’t forget to be grateful that I’m doing what I love doing. As the post says, we have to trust ourselves that we will be able to handle the stress, that we will get through this, that we are making a difference and doing what we enjoy.

This week I was accepted into the doctoral program at the University of Nebraska (back to my first alma mater–GO HUSKERS!), and for that I’m extremely grateful. But I’m also extremely anxious about the load that is going to come with taking doctoral classes and writing a dissertation the next 4 years.

I have no idea how much stress this program will introduce into my life. Yet, anytime we push ourselves to innovate and take risks, we’re going to experience stress. It’s the cover charge for growth.  As hard as it is, and will be, we need to take a moment and view stress from that perspective: BECAUSE we have jobs where we teach amazing kids, jobs where we get to innovate and create, we will have stress.

The next time you’re at your wits end with a never-ending to-do list, here’s your challenge (and a challenge I make to myself):

Be grateful. You are a teacher; you are making a difference in others lives; you are creating meaning in your own life. Stress is simply a by-product of having great job of Educator.

Student Reflection with Sown To Grow

Study after study has shown the benefits of student reflection, and that’s why SowntoGrow is one of my highly recommended sites to use in the classroom.

But instead of me grading the work and then giving the score to students to reflect upon, I decided to switch the order. Instead, students first reflect upon their work, and then I share my thoughts and reflection with their score.

If the student reflects first, he/she isn’t influenced by my thinking. Instead, I get a better idea of what they’re proud of or what they want more work on. I’ve often found that if I put my grade and comments on a work first, they simply regurgitate what I told them as their next goal. That doesn’t lead to their ownership–it’s just putting down what I think they should put down and moving on.

I can then read not only the student work but also his/her thinking. Most of the time we agree, but occasionally our scores are far apart OR their future goals of improvement are different than mine. This becomes a great entry point for a conference.

I also like how easy it has been for my students to use. This process only takes students a few minutes to log into the site, reflect, and move on to the next task at hand. After the first few times, students can do this own their own as part of a self-paced system or a blended learning classroom, and then I can conference with them after perusing their reflections. Most of all, I’m excited for them to review their work at the end of each semester and see how much they’ve learned and grown!



Dealing a Title!

One thing I tend to overlook when I teach writing is titles.

We get through revisions and formatting, and then all of the sudden, my students want to know if they need a title. “Yes,” I tell them, which inevitably leads to, “Well, what should I title it?”

For once, I finally created a lesson solely based on TITLES.

Inspired by The Quiet Year, I created a “title prompt” for each card in a playing deck. For cards 2-10, I simply gave a title of a book or essay and asked students to tweak it to make it their own. For Jacks-Aces, I gave a prompt or challenge, such as “Think of a song that could double as a title for your essay.”

I gave each student a deck of cards, and they drew ten cards from the deck. They looked up the prompt for each of their cards and wrote down potential titles. Ahead of time, I warned them that some of the titles would be worthless–and that was OK! As writers, we don’t always write Pulitzer Prize winning material the first time. This warning is important so students don’t get caught up on making each title brilliant. This activity is about quantity, not quality.

Finally, each student took a highlighter and rotated around the room, reading everyone else’s titles. They marked their favorites with a dot from their highlighter.

By the end of the activity, every student had at least two quality titles for their essays. A few days later, when it came time to prepare the essays for publication in our literary magazine, not one needed any help with a title.


Mission Impossible: Themed Flex Learning

Finally, after weeks of learning our routines, our technology, and the expectations of our classroom, we ventured into our first week of flex learning.

It was also Homecoming Week, golf districts, cross-country conference, the school blood drive, and two away games for volleyball, so it was a good time for students to move at their own pace since each day there would be a few students missing from classes.

To celebrate the first week, I dubbed it Mission Impossible and used the narrative for each of my three classes. Inspired by John Meehan’s Break-In games, I set up a slide deck with all of the “missions” of the week and the links to each of them. Each day I tracked student work using a traditional clipboard checklist to ensure that everyone stayed on track.

On Friday, everyone who completed all the missions on time rolled a 20-sided die to determine how much XP they earned (so 1=100, 20=2000).

The best part of the week were the hidden code words. Students could find up to three code words. I’d created JPGs of each of the codewords–mammoth, parka, and czar–and how they are words we’ve gained from the Russian language. I stored the JPGs in my Google Drive and linked them to images in the slidedeck and assignments. If they found the words, they earned a piece of candy, 20 HP, or 100XP.

Here are the slide decks below:

College Composition:


British Literature:

Applied Communications 12:

Four Ways to BLEND Your Classroom


This year I have the privilege of being part of a pilot team to bring Blended Learning to our district. Yesterday, we gave our first presentation to our colleagues.

What I loved was seeing the different techniques each of use were using; all of us were blending, but all in different ways.


  1. Flex Learning: This is my go-to form of Blended Learning, especially since I’ve been 1:1 for several years now. With Flex, students can choose their pace and order of assignments. We still have class activities and direct instruction, but as the year goes on and students become familiar with digital learning, we have more and more flex days.



2. Survive and Thrive: One of our elementary teachers uses this concept in her science classroom. Using Google Classroom, she sets up a “Survive” curriculum with the lessons and activities that students need to know. However, students may also choose the “Thrive” path, where they can learn the same concepts and beyond with more challenging activities.


3. Hyperdocs: A middle school ELA teacher has been using more Hyperdocs this year. In this Digital Citizenship hyperdoc, she has not only the activities linked but also has divided them into days. This provides deadlines for students–which some of them still need, she pointed out–but gives others the options of working ahead.



4. Station Rotation: Our middle school science teacher shared how she’s utilized station rotation. For her, 13 minutes seems to be a great time for each station. Her stations comprise of an IXL station, a lab station, another computer-learning station, and a small group station with her. She’s now on her third rotation and says it gets smoother every time.


Blended Learning has so many different methods, and that’s why I love it. You can use the method that works best for your style, students, and content. I’ve tried station rotation only a couple times this year, but now I’m inspired to keep using it. I also love the idea of survive and thrive–I’ll definitely be wanting to steal this idea, too! (And I’m so glad that these teachers are the ones working with my own sons!!)



Balderdash–For Writing & Introducing Units

Yesterday was the last day of school before a 5-day fall break, and my college comp class had just finished descriptive essays. What fun writing activity could we do for one day?

Bring in Balderdash.

The game is a vocabulary game, but its purpose isn’t to teach vocabulary (I would suggest Apples to Apples or a million other games to modify to teach vocabulary.) Instead, players are not expected to know the word but rather write phony definitions that seem realistic. They earn points each time someone guesses their definition as “correct” instead of the actual correct one; players also earn points for guessing the correct definition.

Balderdash encourages creativity and detail thinking–general statements such as “a type of animal” won’t be very persuasive. Also, players have to adapt to a more academic voice, so Balderdash provides good practice as we leave personal writing (narrative and descriptive) and enter more research and argumentative writing.

Add in the critical thinking involved of analyzing which definitions seem too obvious or which players seem to have a pattern in their definitions (Do they often use definitions involving animals, or food, or the military?), and Balderdash is a game that hits on several different skill sets.

This is a game you could probably create on your own if you have enough time, but I’d suggest buying the game. There’s no pop culture or current events involved in this game, so it has a long shelf life (Seriously, I think I bought my version when I was in middle school, and I just turned 40.)

When I introduce the games to students, I give them this set of directions below, but I also walk them through the first round. After that, a group can easily play the next 30-45 minutes on their own.

Balderdash could also be a fun way to introduce a section of reading or a unit. The newer versions of Balderdash don’t stop at definitions. They include names, abbreviations, phrases, dates, and places. Creating your own Balderdash cards using these facts from a new unit or new chapter can be an engaging way to prime students for what they’re going to learn.


Evolution of my Vocab Assessments

Over the years, my vocabulary teaching has matriculated through so many eras. The same can be said about my assessments. Let me walk you through what I’ve done in the past and, ultimately, where I am today.

  1. Workbook Activity Completion. We never discussed much about vocabulary in pre-service teaching classes, so my first era of teaching vocabulary assessment was workbooks. Have students work through them, give them the grade at the end of the week. The end.

Benefits: Some workbooks I used did have some good passages that emphasized using context clues. Students were using and thinking about the words (for those who actually did them).

Downsides: Maybe some of the activities were good, but I never knew how much students retained by just assessing their workbook activities. And let’s be honest: I was young, naive, and there was definitely some “teamwork” happening, and by that, I mean straight out copying each other’s work.

2. Fill in the Blank & Sentence Writing Tests. Eventually I admitted workbooks weren’t enough, and I added tests where students had to fill in the blank with vocab words and then write sentences.

Benefits: This did elevate assessments to DOK 2 & 3. Students had to demonstrate ability to use the words in their writing, and I did provide question prompts, such as “What would you extol? Why?” for their sentences so they weren’t writing in a vacuum.

Downsides: The sentence idea was an improvement, but then I tried to do what other teachers were doing and took off credit for grammar mistakes, too. Often, students may have used the word correctly, but then I’d take points off for grammar. I struggled with this. What was I trying to assess here? Vocab AND grammar? Or just vocab? And if it is both, where was the line for acceptable, risk-taking grammar errors, such as forgetting commas after an introductory phrase? Should they be deducted a point just because they forgot a comma when another student wrote a simple sentence that didn’t require commas?

3. Completely Objective Tests. Full disclosure: as much as I’d like to justify this move, the cold truth is I was lazy. I wrote an online test, students took it, the computer scored it, and boom, I put it into the gradebook. I will say the questions I wrote went beyond DOK1 to DOK2. There were fill-in-the-blanks, synonyms and antonyms, T/F statements that contained both words, and some questions that provided three sentences and asked for students to choose the one where the word was used correctly. One bright spot, though: I stopped using words from vocabulary workbooks and selected words that connected to our content that we were reading, so students were actually encountering the words and we could talk about them in class discussions.

Benefits: Yes, there was one good thing that came out of this. Students could retake a vocab quiz as many times as they needed: for the first time they had the option to achieve mastery.

Downsides: Again, no DOK3. Students never had to demonstrate their ability to use the word, either orally or in written format.

4. My Current Assessment: Short Story OR Occupation Application. Two or three years ago, I told myself to stop taking the easy way out. I needed a way to assess students where they were using the words–after all, wasn’t that what I wanted them to do out in the world? I also wanted a way to incorporate more student choice. This was the result. Students could either choose to write a short story using the words OR they could use the words in the context of one of four occupations. Afterwards, students could rewrite or make corrections until they reached the mastery level they wanted. I also turned my focus onto the word usage itself; I would mark some grammar errors so they could see them, but I stopped stressing about grading those, too.

Benefits: Students are actually using the words in writing, they have some choices, and they have the option to make corrections–and many of my students are doing just that. In fact, it’s better than retaking an entire quiz for a couple of questions that they missed. They’re making changes only on the ones they missed. Plus, there is student choice, which leads to differentiation. Some choose to try the short story route, which is more difficult. Other high-level learners take the challenge to only write their sentences in ONE occupation.

Downsides: I’m always wondering what else I can use to challenge more students. Should I allow higher-achievers to choose some of their own words? Except when I’ve done that, they sometimes choose words that aren’t well-used in our lexicon. Should we have 15 words a unit and students choose the 12 they want to focus on?

That’s why this continues to be an evolution. This is where I am now, and who knows what my thoughts on vocabulary assessment will be then.

When You Don’t Know Everything…Make Your Students Take Over

Theater and Speech Communication is a new class this year. We started with very little curriculum, just the basic idea that we’d study theater for a trimester, speech for a trimester, and then maybe video creation for the last trimester.

One of the main concepts my students wanted to learn about was acting techniques.

And I’ll be honest: I know very little about theater. Sure, I’ve been an assistant director for the past few years, but other than that and Theater 101 in college (and we’re talking pre-21st century), I know nothing. Speech is my area of specialty.

This is not a problem, though.

I did a modicum of research to find some of the prominent forms of acting and narrowed them down to Stanislavsky, Strassberg, Meisner, and Practical Aesthetics.

That’s where I stopped and turned to the students.

After randomly splitting into four groups, each group researched their style and planned a presentation and activity around their style.

Admittedly, I have amazing students in this class, but they’ve dug into their technique research with alacrity!

The first group, the Practical Aesthetic presenters, led class today. After describing the technique, they led the class in a webbing discussion about the connections between characters in our one-act play script for this year.

You can see them in action (and their web in process on the board) below:

Again, I realize I have amazing students, and that’s one reason they embraced this lesson set.

However, I don’t think this would have worked if I’d just created this idea on my own. We spent time at the beginning of the year brainstorming and voting for their learning targets. Most of them prioritized acting techniques as one of their top three “wants” for this trimester of learning. There wasn’t much buy-in needed. They jumped in because they’d already told me this was what they wanted to learn—even if it wasn’t something I knew much about.

So take the plunge. Let them tell you want they want to learn, and then, just get out of the way.


Magnetic Poetry Vocab Sentences

Learning meanings of words is the first step of vocab instruction. Demonstrating new words through conversation and writing is a higher step.

Since I assess students’ vocabulary mastery through their writing, not multiple choice or matching, I’m always looking for fun and sneaky ways for students to practice their words. Today we tried out Refrigerator Sentences.

The concept is inspired by Refrigerator Poetry. Using Google Drawing, I made a couple dozen text boxes with various nouns, verbs, and prepositions. I also added three of our vocabulary words.

The goal: Use all the vocabulary words correctly in sentences in five minutes.

I copy/pasted the slide enough times so there was one slide for each student. I also wrote each student’s name at the top of each slide to avoid the conclusion of whose slide is whose.

And the whole activity went well! After five minutes, I was able to scroll through the slides, reading the sentences aloud, and pointing out minor errors or where a word might need added. It also gave me a few insights of where there was still some confusion of how a word could be used (for example, a person could emulate another person, but can’t really emulate an inanimate object.)

Even several minutes after the timer went off, some students still continued to play with the words.

And that’s the key concept I’m looking for. Play. Especially when I’m working with students who aren’t interested in school or who struggle with writing, refrigerator sentences is an easy way to get them to “write” sentences without actually writing them.

By using Google Drive, students can  add words or apostrophes as needed, so they don’t feel restricted, but by giving the a pool of words to start with, they don’t feel so threatened by a blank screen.

It’s definitely an activity I’ll be using again and again. Check out today’s work below:



Gimkit: A Fun, Alternative Q/A Game

Lots of you have played Kahoot and Quizizz. I like both, though for different reasons and purposes. I use them frequently for vocabulary review. But a variety is always good.

Meet Gimkit.

(First, I love the fact that this app was made by high school students. )

That aside, it seems similar to Quizizz in its appearance…but that’s until students find the store. Students earn bucks for each question they answer, and then they can purchase upgrades, such as streak bonuses or multipliers.

As a teacher, you can either have the students compete as a team or individually. Personally, I’m a big fan of the team aspect–this prevents high-achieving students from dominating competitions and can help lower-achieving students still feel they’re part of a successful team.

You can also set whether students win either at the end of a set time or for the first team that achieves a certain money level. There’s also the option of the class working together to achieve a certain money level–say $100,000–and then everyone wins together.

This is a game I would recommend for low-level recall–DOK 1–such as when students are first learning vocabulary words or memorizing multiplication facts. Students will likely see the same questions a few times, so I’d suggest keeping questions based on facts that students need to know. (For DOK 2, I would suggest using Quizizz and shutting off the timer.)

We’ve played this twice this school year, and I’ve yet to still hear a complaint.

(One student did call it “dank,” but turns out that’s a compliment…)

Ready to give it a try? Check it out here.

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