Technology Pursuit

Blending Technology Into the Language Arts Classroom

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The Problem with Quiz Bowls

I had fun today. I served as a quiz bowl judge for our conference competition. The amazing facts that high school kids could answer–and I couldn’t–blew my mind.

I also struggled today. This competition is supposed to be our answer of promoting and challenging our schools’ greatest minds, and 98% of the questions didn’t get past the Maslow’s lowest level of recall.

Instead, they answered random trivia questions about 1984, nuclear energy, litotes, and Ptolemy. Except for a handful of math questions, nothing provided any deeper thinking beyond DOK1.

Is this really the best way we can challenge our best minds? With a competition to determine who is the greatest fountain or worthless knowledge? With a competition that is often done in conjunction of many beers at the local BW3s?

I’ll admit it: I’m guilty of owning both the Trivia Crack and Jeopardy apps. If you have a trivia night with wine, I’ll be there an hour early to get started. However, let’s call these games for what they are: Escapism.

Playing trivia games does very little to develop our critical thinking, creativity, and problem solving skills. Instead, our sponsorship of quiz bowls is only glorifying students who HAVE the most knowledge, rather than those who USE the knowledge best.

I propose we eliminate quiz bowls and replace them with competitions that will improve and truly display amazing student thinking, with competitions that will push students up the pyramid of Maslow’s Hierarchy. There are already better options in schools, such as Math Olympiad, Odyssey of the Mind, Destination Imagination, and probably hundreds of others I don’t know about. Let’s promote these formats.

Instead of asking low-level questions, let’s provide challenges:

Maker Challenges: Think Marshmallow Challenge, or bridge building. Perhaps provide the same materials to each team and require each one to build a Rube Goldberg machine.

Breakout Challenges: Pretty obvious here. Which team can solve the fastest?

Visual or Tangible Puzzles: Again, races for each team to solve the fastest.

Story/Situation Problems: Involve math, involve logic, but solve the problem.

There are already so many TV shows using these mental games. Big Brother, Survivor, and Idiotest all have games that involve these deeper thinking challenges.

Maybe it’s time we take a lesson from our TV reality shows and make our students’ academic competitions just as challenging as those on TV.

Google Vocab Challenge

I’ve always been jealous of social studies teachers and the games available to them. One game I especially envy: the global draft game, where students draft countries and then compete by the number of mentions or hits the country gets each week on Google.

How could I exploit this for ELA usage? After much pondering, I decided a draft-based game would work best with vocabulary, where teams could draft words that they liked best.

However, we couldn’t just run the words through the Google stats and see how many hits they get–not much learning there. Instead, I modified the game by presenting a key word, such as “mathematics” or “Fortnite” and asking each team to select a vocabulary word that they’d drafted to pair with that word. Then I typed in the key word and their chosen word. The vocab word that earned the most number of hits with that key word–wins!

At first, my students were skeptical. But once that first round was over, the energy built. Several classes commented at the end how we should definitely play that game again.

Here is what I love about the game:

  1. Students have to talk about the words before they draft them. This means they have to not only know the meanings but also consider the various contexts the words could be used.
  2. During the game, students make more connections between the key word and their own drafted words.
  3. Just the right amount of luck is needed. While knowledge of the word is helpful, sometimes another team simply has a better word with more hits. I witnessed many examples of teams gaining a lead but then falling behind. This level of luck led to that magical “flow” that kept students involved the entire game.


This is the slide deck I built for the first time we played the game.


The Card Game Game Jam

You want your students to learn a concept really well?  The go-to answer is….game jam.

Sure, game jams can start with a basic topic or theme and game creators can take it and run. Nothing wrong with that approach. In fact, amazing games can result.

However, a few more parameters can also create amazing games.

My seniors were getting ready to write rebuttals, which meant we needed to go over how to find problems in others’ arguments, which meant we needed to do some work with fallacies. I wanted students to be familiar with a few common fallacies, and I wanted them to practice analyzing many arguments and figuring out what the fallacy or problem was. Yet, I didn’t want to do a basic Q and A game–I wanted their thinking to be really embedded, and I wanted them to be able to talk about their thinking.

Bring on the game jam. Specifically a Card Game Jam!

First, I gave a 3-minute lecture on fallacies and then in pairs, students sorted images from The Little Book of Arguments with 7 oft-used fallacies.

Once they had a basic knowledge of the fallacies, I split them into teams to create game jams. Beforehand, I made four sets of fallacy type cards and one set of example fallacy cards for each team. I also provided dice, game pieces, notecards, and poster paper.

Teams first went to work designing their game and writing a set of instructions. Then they beta tested their game and adjusted directions as needed. Finally, the groups switched games, though each group left one member behind to teach the incoming group the game.

I imagined a traditional card game like maybe a blend of pitch and Apples to Apples, and yes, one group created a game of Go Fish. But one group created a Candyland inspired game, another designed a similar boardgame, and the last group created a Hedbanz-type game.

Some games were winners. Some, well, not so much. Groups talked about what they would’ve done differently. Some students said they wished I’d labeled the fallacy examples so the answers were clearer (though that was by design–I wanted them to discuss and decide for themselves).

This lesson required some front work. I printed some cards on cardstock, and others I laminated. Finding the fallacies definitely took time. However, this lesson is easily repeatable in future years with no work required.

And based on how easily my seniors are tearing apart arguments now–I think the game jam definitely achieved all I’d hoped for!



Financial Games Your Juniors and Seniors Should Play

I don’t teach financial literacy, but I have been offering two great games as side quests for my juniors and seniors in my ELA classes because they help my students start thinking more about their future finances.

  1. Time for Payback. This is my favorite of the two. Think of it as the Oregon Trail game with the college theme. The goal is to get through college without accumulating too much debt–but beware! Some of my students found that if they focus too much on saving money and working extra hours that they lose the game and “drop out.” This game is robust with lots of choices for students to make and also includes some simple mini-games to mimic the stresses of college, such as registering for classes and balancing your time.

2. Claim Your Future. While not as robust as Payback, this one focuses more on careers and salary. Players still have budget choices, such as housing situations and food budget. While Payback is best for students considering college, Claim Your Future is great for ALL students, including lower-ability students who might be living with their parents for a time after graduation (there is an option for that in the game, too).

Juniors and seniors know about debt and finances. But often, they don’t think about how the choices they’ll be making this spring and summer could be making huge impacts on their future finances.  These games prompt students to think about those choices and decisions now.

5 Ideas to Start the Semester

I’m always faced with a dilemma the first few days of the spring semester. Students are busy rearranging schedules, so I have students switching sections and often at least a few brand new students coming into my class for the first time. (And depending on your school, you may be getting completely brand new students).

I hate to jump into heavy content lessons in these first few days because of the schedule changes, so each January I’m faced with the conundrum of what to do those opening days.

Without further ado, here are five strategies I’ve used over the years.

  1. Breakout/Escape Game. This is my plan for the first day back this semester. My Brit Lit students will be reading Macbeth, so they’ll be playing a modified version of Unlocking Shakespeare. My College Comp students are continuing their persuasive writing, so they’re playing a modified version of this Ethos-Logos-Pathos game. I love creating my own Breakout games, too, but with a plethora of these games available now, it’s also super easy to take another pre-made game and modify it to meet your own needs.

2. Marshmallow Challenge. Another great option, especially a day or two into the semester, for building both relationships among students and for encouraging innovation and out-of-the-box thinking. While this may not be focused on any content area, it’s a great activity to set the tone for your classroom. Plus, it can be adapted to many content areas. For my own area, we reviewed expository paragraph structure by writing reviews about the activity.

3. One Word. You’ve likely seen–maybe even participated–in Jon Gordon’s One Word movement, where you select one word that will be your touchstone for the year. Now take the next step and do it with your students. Find out more about how I did it in this post.

4. Social Collaboration Game. Start the year with a little fun and get your students socializing and critically thinking. One of my students’ favorite games last semester was Two Rooms and a Boom. While you can purchase the published version, you can download the game digitally–it just takes a little more work cutting apart cards. Mafia is another similar game that can be played with large classes. If you have a smaller group, you can check out One Night Ultimate Werewolf.

5. Game Jam. Let your students create a game! All you need for a basic game jam is some materials such as markers, poster board, notecards, dice, baskets, whatever you have around your classroom. I prefer to give the students a few parameters, such as a theme, or a few rules, such as it can’t be a basic Q/A game. Parameters can be extremely helpful for them, especially if it’s the first time they’ve ever created a game; otherwise, they may be overwhelmed by the options. Then, you’ll of course need a second day for the students to play each other’s games! For more information, check out The Game Jam Guide.

Morphing Your Students Into Heroes

The Hero’s Journey has been a mainstay in entertainment ever since George Lucas picked Joseph Campbell’s brain about his study of mythology and then transformed the Journey into Star Wars.

The entertainment business has been capitalizing on the Hero’s Journey for decades. Why hasn’t education boarded the train yet?

That’s a question Trevor Muir poses in The Epic Classroom.

Muir describes how he and other teachers have framed their project-based units of learning to loosely follow the Hero’s Journey.

The Old School Journey

Sadly, most of my own K-12 learning — and more of my own teaching units than I care to admit — follow a very sad, very dull journey.

First, teachers introduced the unit. This usually entailed the words, “We’re starting a new chapter today in our textbook.” Followed by notes, and if we were lucky, a — wait for it — video!

Notes and lectures led us up a mundane path of (not so) rising action to the climax: A TEST! Because nothing excites an adolescent so much as answering multiple choice questions on a beautiful 70 degree day.

Finally, the denouement: The tests are handed back! Questions are gone over. Then tests are generally turned back in so that future students don’t know what’s on them.

Making Learning Truly Epic

Trevor Muir’s The Epic Classroom challenges teachers to rethink about units of teaching by ramping up the essential points in the Hero’s Journey and making students excited for the projects that await them. In the book, Muir describes how he finds a theme in each unit and connects it to a potential service project in his city. He doesn’t necessarily have the entire project planned; he allows the students to do some of the planning footwork with him.

A new unit starts with the inciting event. For Muir, it’s often a guest speaker, but if we harken back to Dave Burgess’ classic Teach Like a Pirate, teachers can find plenty of other ways to hook a class. A quick field trip, either literal or virtual; a powerful game or role-playing activity; a mystery for students to solve — an inciting event needs to lure students down the rabbit hole of the unit.

The biggest component of any novel or movie is the rising action, and during that rising action, we want conflict — some twists and turns that we don’t see coming. If we see them coming, that’s when we put the book down or flip off the movie. Same goes with our units. Structure is important, but too much predictability and students disengage. Sometimes we need to flip the structure of the class, use a new app, or better yet: Ask students for what’s getting dull in our classroom and how that can be spiced up!

Then comes the all important climax. I hate to admit how often in my career that the climax has been…a test. My claim here is not to call for complete test elimination (though I advocate for as few as possible), but instead to create a climax that’s important for the students. Trevor Muir’s unit climaxes are the presentation of his students’ projects to authentic audiences. The word authentic is important. We can’t continue to isolate ourselves inside of our protective classroom walls. If we want students to feel like heroes, like they accomplished something worthwhile, it needs to be promoted outside of school.

Finally, the denouement. The hero returns to his old world, except it’s not quite the same because the hero isn’t the same. What discussion, reflection, celebration can we plan for our students to wrap up a unit of learning? How can they share their thoughts with their colleagues? A unit needs to end with more than passing back the test; like a movie or a book, we need to clearly end a unit with our students, allow them to give final takeaways, and celebrate what they’ve accomplished.

We as humans love story. The structure is innately built into us, and we learn better through narrative and purpose. By tweaking units with Trevor Muir’s ideas, we can make our classrooms truly epic.

Shutting Off Notifications: A 7-Day Experiment.


Day One.

I’ve been having worse anxiety than usual lately. (Full disclosure: I have General Anxiety Disorder. I take Lexapro. I love it.)

My anxiety tends to intensify in the summer because I have more time to think and overanalyze. So I’ve done something I’ve read about hundreds of times but never had the courage to do: I shut off my notifications.

Facebook. Twitter. Snapchat. Instagram. All notifications off. (I did leave my text message notifications on for family reasons.)

Let’s see how this experiment goes.

Day Two.

I’ve realized what a habit I had with checking my notifications. Every time I walk by my phone, I hit the home button, only to see a blank screen appear.

But here’s my reaction to that blank screen: Relief.

Not because I don’t have any notifications waiting for me on Twitter or Facebook. I know I do. Since I can’t see them, I don’t feel the instinct to respond right away.

Instead, I’ve intentionally checked my social media once during the day and once toward the end of the day.

Day Three.

It’s Twitter chat day — the craziest day of my Twitter week. As usual, I scheduled all my promo posts first thing in the morning and then went offline.

Usually I spend these days fairly attached to the Twitterverse; even during the school year, I try to pop into Twitter a few times during the day to check for questions or messages. Today, I checked twice at times I personally scheduled to check my notifications.

Yes, there were lots of them. The majority of them didn’t need my attention. I responded to the few that did.

The result: I had less anxiety for this chat than I have in recent memory. Usually this day is a build of anticipation and anxiety, hoping for a productive and insightful chat.

Today I felt calmer going in, and although I had major tech problems during the chat and my stress-level was high, I felt calm coming out of the chat as well — an even-keel throughout the process.

Day Four.

Continuing to love this “notifications-free” experiment. I still find myself hitting that home button on my phone a few times a day, and then pleasantly realizing, “Oh. Yeah. I forgot I did that.” Definitely a sign of what a habit loop I’d planted myself into.

Yet every time I see that blank screen, I still feel relief. I know the blank screen doesn’t mean I don’t have FB or Twitter posts waiting for me, but I can’t believe the power of the blank screen. It’s like an illusion that I know isn’t real, but I’m happy to play along.

Day Five.

Re-listening to @melrobbins’ 5 Second Rule on Audible (I also have the hard copy, but I definitely recommend listening to it — Mel Robbins is an amazing speaker), I was able to reconnect to other reasons for shutting off the notifications that I’d forgotten the first time I listened to the book.

The past five days, I’ve been enjoying the less pressure to respond immediately to messages and tweets. But I also didn’t realize — until Mel Robbins mentioned it — that I’ve also enjoyed the greater focus that comes without checking notifications constantly.

Checking email — and I imagine Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, whatever — releases the same chemicals as pulling the lever of a slot machine, says Mel Robbins. Notifications, especially with a tantalizing “ding,” only prod us further to check now!

I deleted my gmail extension several days ago, and today I deleted my Tweetdeck bookmark. Because how much time does bookmarking really save as opposed to typing the first couple letters of the URL before the rest of the address pops up? Very little. How much productivity and focus do I get from not having that visual reminder?

I don’t know. Not something you can measure. I can tell you that I’ve checked my gmail significantly less — I’d guess 75% — this past week that I’ve been without that extension.

Day Six.

The rabbit hole. We’ve all done it, checked just one thing on social media and then you scroll down. And you keep going…and going…

I’m doing this less often during the day without the notifications. What concerns me is I’m still doing it the 2–3 times a day I do intentionally check social media for messages and to participate in a Twitter chat.

I’ve realized the slot machine metaphor extends to all social media — not just email. We scroll through Facebook for several minutes at a time, but how many posts are we truly moved by or thankful to have seen? One out of ten? One out of twenty?

Same with Twitter. Not that I will ever let go of the greatest professional development tool out there, but even scrolling through a Twitter stream, it’s easy to go down the rabbit hole, looking for the next great tweet. It is, in essence, finding a mini-treasure every time you find a tweet that resonates.

It’s time to be more intentional about my social media time. Maybe it’s limiting myself to three minutes on Facebook, or five minutes on Twitter if I’m not participating in a chat. Bottom line is I need to stop reading social media and telling myself I’m being productive.

Day seven.

Here I am, day seven, and the notifications are not going back on. Here’s what I’ve gained from the experience:

  • More relief from not seeing the constant stream of notifications that I “feel” I should respond to
  • Less checking my phone every time I walk by it. It’s a habit I’m still working on.
  • More focus and being “in the moment” without hearing the “ding” of a message and the immediate thought of “I should check that.”
  • More conscientious of my social media time overall — and my need to be more intentional with it.

Want to Publish a Class Book? Google Slides is the Answer

Generally, education is moving away from paper and locomoting to digital. This post is going to be about the reverse: Turning the digital into paper.

Digital provides endless possibilities for student creation. While I encourage many forms of online publication–it’s the easiest way to spread student work–they still get most excited about the old-fashioned form:

The hard copy.

A few of our hard copy publications

Each year, we publish a class literary journal for college composition. Each student chooses one of their favorite essays and does the following:

  • Edits the essay again for grammatical and style issues
  • Selects copyright free images to accompany their writing, OR creates their own images
  • Copies their writing into a template in Google Slides

There are some good online templates, such as Lucidpress. However, Google Slides is a quick and easy way to create a hard copy book AND an app that students are already familiar with.

Here’s how I do it.

  1. I create a Google Slides file and adjust the slides to be 8.5 x 11 inches.  I create several slides with  several templates.
  2. I distribute the file to students through Google Classroom and MAKE A SEPARATE COPY for each student.
  3. When students are finished pasting their essay & images, I open each file and copy/paste each student’s essay slides.*
  4. Download the file as a PDF
  5. Choose a publication company. I use MagCloud.

* You could certainly distribute the file as a shared file for the class. This will save the work of copy/pasting their slides into your master file.  I do this often for other activities. For this assignment, though, I wanted to avoid confusion of students creating slides, accidentally deleting others’ slides, not copy/pasting templates before use, etc.

On the last day of school, my seniors found their literary journals through a BreakoutEDU game. It was cool, but what was cooler: they spent the rest of the period signing each other’s pages, like the real authors they are.

Students selected from copyright free images or their own photography to pair with their writing.

Another publication of their found poetry collages. I took a photo of each collage, copied them into Google slides, and downloaded into a PNG. Very little time required!

You can also mix student art projects or other curricular projects into the book. Also notice the author profile in the bottom right. Students have the choice to write their own or partner up and write a classmate’s.

G-App Smashing: Combining Games and Non-Game Apps

I’ve been thinking: It’s time to take App-Smashing to the next level. I submit for your consideration, G-App Smashing.

G-App Smashing (verb): Combining a game activity with a non-game app to create sheer awesomeness.

Edtech is brimming with apps. Just as we gamified teachers twist everyday materials around us into games, why not do the same with apps?

I took another look at some of my favorite apps and reimagined them: How could they be used as a game or game-based activity?

Flipgrid: This was the app that launched this idea. A colleague and I brainstormed Flipgrid ideas one of the last days of school, and when I mentioned “flipping” it into a game, she said, “Easy! Charades, or skits. Have students act out vocabulary words!”

Another game-based use for Flipgrid is using it for a showcase following game-creation projects or game-jams. Demonstrating their game and gameplay through Flipgrid can provide a wonderful channel for parents and the community to see into the classroom.

Padlet: The column layout on Padlet provides a great place for modifying listing games, like Scattergories. Each team could list words or ideas in their column, but only if no other team has used it.

Tisha Richmond @tishrich used a column Padlet at the Summer Spark conference for structured game brainstorming. The first column was theme, and participants suggested theme ideas; then the second column was “setting,” the third “characters,” and so on. This format can provide structure to game planning for both teachers and students.

Popplet: The app is all about connections, so it’s perfect for students to illustrate their understanding of connections in their learning. In a two-person game, one starts a bubble with a key concept (osmosis, impressionist movement, monopolies) and the next must add a new connecting bubble with an image of that concept. Then the second player must start a third bubble that connects to either the first or second bubble.

Of course, Popplet could be used to mindmap ideas for games, too. I’ve had some students who think better with this format than linear ones.

Google Slides: If it’s possible to have a favorite Google app, then mine would be slides. There’s so much flexibility to this app, it’s ridiculous. One of my new favorite game-inspired ways to use slides is Dee Lanier’s Smashboards! Use one of Dee’s templates or create your own game-board-like slide to create a quest-based way to teach problem solving!

This concept gives me so many ideas it makes my head spin.

Google Drawing: Two words: Digital Manipulatives! Let’s face it, making manipulatives can be time consuming, but not if you use Google Drawing! Create manipulatives of concepts, vocabulary, whatever, and allow students to sort and classify them.

Another idea comes from Kasey Bell, who used Google Drawing to create Magnetic Poetry.

I’m sure I haven’t scratched the surface. Since I’m 1:1 Chromebooks, I’ve no doubt that there are dozens of iPad apps that I haven’t even considered. But next time you’re using some of those non-game apps, stop and consider: How can I game this up?

Summer: The Time for Dogfooding

The Silicon Valley-ites have a phrase teachers need to adopt — and use. Dogfooding.

It’s another word for beta-testing, for trying out new ideas and products before turning them over to their customers. In our case, our students.

Jennifer Gonzales from Cult of Pedagogy describes the process and benefits of dogfooding in her blog here. You should definitely read it.

Beyond classroom activities, there’s another thing teachers need to dogfood, especially during the summer months: new technology. Summer is the peak time for edtech companies to roll out updates; summer is also the peak time for teachers to explore new apps and decide if any might make their classroom learning even better.

But sometimes we (ok, I), get caught up with the bells and whistles and shiny things of new apps that we roll them out in the fall to our students. And then — the class grinds to a halt.

“Our screen doesn’t look the same.”

“It’s not letting us type.”

“It’s really hard to see. Is there a way to make it bigger?”

“This won’t let me log in.”

Oh, the joys of using new apps. In the excitement of the great advancements new apps will bring to class, we teachers can forget the unsexy nuts and bolts of new apps. We overlook the login process, the differences between our dashboard and the student screens, the idiosyncrasies of really running an app.

We forget to experience a new app from a newcomer’s point of view.

This is where dogfooding comes in. After we spend time vetting new edtech and concluding that Yes, this is the ONE, we need to switch on that Incognito screen in Chrome and test it out as a student.

By doing this, we can be prepared for what a student is going to see. In the past few days of dogfooding, I’ve found student views that made parts of my content far too small. I’ve discovered what I thought students would be able to do — nope, can’t do it.

And because of this dogfooding, I still have time to adjust and prep to make using new apps smoother for students.

Another aspect that makes dogfooding harder than it looks is forcing yourself to think beyond the moment. How will the app work into your overall classroom system? Will you use it for direct instruction? Small groups? Independent work? And how will students receive feedback for the work they’re doing — does the app give clear, automatic feedback? Or will you need to give feedback later? If that’s the case, how much time will this take? Maybe there’s a way for students to give feedback to each other with the app, but if you do that, how will you monitor this?

A mess of questions, I know, but ones that are easy to overlook when looking at new edtech — or new methods or activities — for your classroom.

This year I’m focusing on faster and more frequent feedback, so using tech for more immediate feedback is a titanic focus for me. While dogfooding and putting myself in a student mindset, I’ve found apps that don’t give good, clear feedback.

As a result, I’ve had to eschew some apps I wanted to use. For other apps, I’ve had to creatively embed or think of new ways to give student feedback immediately.

Summer is the time for fun, imaginative planning for next year, but it’s also the time for some down and dirty, immersive dogfooding as well. While discovering and creating new plans, don’t forget to take some time to consider how it will work in your classroom, with your teaching systems and feedback, and ultimately, is it really doing the work you need it to do?

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