Technology Pursuit

Blending Technology Into the Language Arts Classroom

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My Favorite Tips from ISTE ’18

I attended ISTE to find more ideas for student quests for my classroom, new ways for them to engage and create with school and learning. Somehow, I’ve distilled the whole experience into my favorite takeaways.


-Take Quizizz and Kahoot to the Next Level: You’re probably familiar with these Q/A response systems (and if not, go check them out!) For your next assessment or text, have your students write the questions and potential answers…and explanations why their incorrect answer options may seem correct but aren’t.


-Create VR Tours with Google: New from Google is the ability to build your own virtual tours. Add pins to the tours for students to click for more information. Or, provide clues in the pins instead and use your VR Tour as a platform for a Breakout or escape room game.


-Use Writable for writing assignments: I’ve lost count of how many writing and/or feedback platforms I’ve looked at over the years, and I’m so excited for what Writable has to offer. After students complete a writing–short or long–the system immediately assigns peer reviews for anonymous feedback. Students earn feedback points for any comments the original writer marks as beneficial, and they also earn revision points for each piece of feedback they use to revise. Plus, it integrates with Google Classroom and Google Docs, so a total win!


-Try Sown to Grow to emphasize growth mindset: I’ve already been in one Zoom meeting about this website, and I’m very excited to share its possibilities. Teachers can insert content standards or soft skill goals, and then students reflect upon these goals weekly or biweekly. This site provides a place for comments from teachers and collects student-reported data to show growth over time. Great for personalized learning!


-For quick reviews, use photos as analogies for learning!: This is a simple trick. Show an interesting, perhaps wacky, photograph to students and ask them to work together to create an analogy or connection between the photo and the previous day’s learning. This super simple activity stretches students’ minds and gets them thinking outside the box.


-Quest-Based Learning for the Win!: While at ISTE, I had the fabulous opportunity to attend Classcraft’s Questathon, where we worked in teams to create new narratives based on the Hero’s Journey. Classcraft first debuted their quest feature last fall, and let me tell you, it’s a game changer! I now use quests as my LMS to deliver our class content. This has given me opportunities to personalize student learning and give them more agency and choice. I highly recommend checking out Classcraft!


Right now, the world of edtech is burgeoning with new products. It’s easy to be overwhelmed at conferences. What important is finding the technology tools that will advance student learning the most. There are many flashy, shiny tools out there, so choose carefully. Is it easy to learn and use? Can students not just consume with it but also create? Is it easy to share student work with stakeholders? Do students have purpose and an audience? Can it be used for multiple purposes? Whether you adopt any of my takeaways listed here or go out and find your own, make your edtech choices work for you.

When Students Make the Games

I’ve written before about students making games to cement their learning, but I want to show off Andrew Arevalo’s project, Top-Middle-Bottom, a math game his fourth grade students designed.

Top-Middle-Bottom is a card game, where students play cards to either grow their points or to reduce other players’ points. One player serves as the “banker,” which is the scorekeeper of the game. This role is central to gameplay; with the constant change of the scoreboard, the banker gets significant practice in arithmetic, plus the other players are constantly monitoring the scoreboard to double-check the math.

This game has brought not only great content practice to students but a much higher engagement and interest in math. And as we all know, when students are having fun and enjoying what they’re learning, their commitment and willingness to be challenged rises.

What makes this game doubly powerful is that the students designed it. Teacher-designed games or commercial games can be great for student learning, but when students experience the design, iteration, and thinking behind the game, their understanding grows.

My own kids and I have been really lucky to play Top-Middle-Bottom. Beautiful high-quality cards and lots of strategy and opportunities to win. In all, Andrew’s students have designed 22 cards (currently), but even playing with the first 8 is a big plenty for a challenging game. This game certainly has potential to grow and expand as you bring in new cards or take out others.  All my kids–14 yo daughter and 10 & 12 yo sons–enjoyed playing!

To check out more about Top-Middle Bottom, go here.  And check out a student journalism piece about the game below:


Go-To Resources for Teaching Fake News


I’ve been hard at work upgrading our fake news unit for next year. It’s been a couple years since I first created the unit–long before the infamous 2016 presidential election! Since then, the internet has exploded with resources, lesson plans, and games to teach fake news. Let me show off some of my favorite, best-of-the-best selections that I’ll be using!

  1. iCivics News Literacy Unit: Great resources available for teaching journalism, bias, satire, and misinformation. Both web-based and PDF activities are available. I love some of the depth in these lessons, such as studying the word choice used by The Hill v Washington Post, or CNN v FoxNews. The unit doesn’t have a lot of collaboration, but it has solid information and activities that you could use as is or modify to be more interactive.

2. NewseumEd: This website was new to me, and man, am I glad I stumbled across it. Let me tell you, there are some jewels of lessons and materials in here. I especially love the ESCAPE acronym they introduce for analyzing a suspicious source and the lesson about “Is it Shareworthy”–(I actually might enroll some of my extended family enroll in that lesson).

3. Factitious: I started using this game last year. It’s a basic game that presents the player with an article, and the player simply decides whether it’s real news or fake news. Factitious is a quick and fun way for students to get a baseline of their “fake news” sniffing abilities at the beginning of the unit and then return to the game at the end for another round.

Bad News

Fake It to Make It

4. Fake It to Make It and Bad News Game: These two games put you in the seat of a fake news mogul. What’s the benefit of that? Students get a feel for WHY people do this, what decisions they make, and THAT gives them a deeper understanding of what signs to look for when evaluating news. The Bad News Game is simpler and quicker, while Fake It to Make It is much more robust with more choices and strategy. Both are good, all depending on the time and depth you want your students to get.

Welcome to the CIA: Cicada Induced Anxiety

It starts in early July every year. The cicadas sing their long strained songs, and I know that summer is past its peak and on the downhill slide. In 4-5 weeks, I’ll be back in school for teacher in-services, and in six weeks, I’ll be welcoming students in my classroom again.

Usually, my CIA is a mix of excitement and anxiety. There’s so much I want to do each July, but I’m excited to get back to school.

This year, I’m not ready.

June has been crazy good. I danced until my feet blistered in Chicago, acted like a robot to get into a Safehouse bar in Milwaukee, and finished my oral exams here in Nebraska. I caught up with teacher friends I only see in the summer, met new colleagues that I can’t wait to know better, and enjoyed workshops and sessions that will make me a better teacher. I’ve gone down some rabbit holes with new tech tools that might fit well with my classroom goals.

But I’m also juggling six hours of classes. I’ve watched a colleague and a great uncle laid to rest in the same week. I’ve started studying for my GRE. And when I was driving the other day, I counted up at least 40 hours behind the wheel during June–not counting the hours I’ve spent on planes, shuttle buses, and subways.

And now, the cicadas are mocking me.

I have so much I want to tweak and improve for next year, and I feel so behind. Going to conferences makes me compare myself to the amazing teachers I meet–a dangerous thing to do.

Maybe some of you feel this way, too. This anxiety, this need to make this year the best ever, the unattainable desire to get it right this year. To be organized. In control. And if you’re like me, the desire to be less stressed during the school year only leads to more stress during the summer.

The past few days I’ve been feeling better. I don’t have all the answers to make anyone with CIA feel better, but here’s what works for me.

  1. The list. I took this idea from Mel Robbins, motivational speaker and author of the 5-Second Rule. Write down everything you need to do in one big list. It took me a while. I keep returning to my list days later and adding more. Then Robbins says highlight the ones that need done today–3 or 4 at most. Do those. Don’t worry about the rest today. Each day, I take on a few things on the list. Many of those things can’t be done in a day, but I can work on them for a little while.  (And some of them I have to accept may not get done this summer, like deep cleaning my carpets. The world will continue.)

2. Stop waiting for the time to make it perfect. Even writing this post, I wrote sentences in my head for days. I thought about what I would do for images. Finally, I had to tell myself just start. Don’t even worry about finishing. Just start it. Write down some ideas. And here I am, already over 500 words in a mere 20-30 minutes. Even if I only work for 5-10 minutes writing down ideas or an outline for a project, I can rely on my subconscious to start doing more work on it, especially if the ideas swirling around in my mind are finally out on paper and I don’t have to worry about them anymore.

3. Stop and breathe. Easier said than done, but I hadn’t done much yoga in the past month except for a little stretching here and there before workouts or in my hotel rooms. I hadn’t really sat down with a yoga video, which is what makes me slow down, focus, and just breathe. After just a couple sessions, I already feel calmer and more in control.

4. Stop comparing. If I get caught up in what other amazing teachers are doing, I start to feel lacking. I’m not creating enough amazing looking games, or I’m not connecting my kids enough to other classrooms, or I’m not personalizing or creating enough learning paths. I can get to the point where I look at social media and think, Wow, that’s such an amazing teacher. I wish I could be as amazing. I forget that social media isn’t real life. How often have I posted about a bombed lesson or a student project that fell far short of standards? Rarely (though maybe we should…) All teachers have areas to improve. No one has got this occupation figured out and in the bag. The best we can do is own where we are, focus where we want to go next, and accept that we can’t do every fantastic idea that we see.

And don’t be afraid to talk to someone. Find colleagues who can remind you how awesome you are. Or if you need to, find a professional. It took me months to get up the courage to talk to a doctor about my anxiety, but after doing so a few years ago and being more conscious about my anxiety, I’ve learned how to recognize my signs of increasing anxiety and what steps to take to slowly reduce it. (Plus, full disclosure here, Lexapro helps me out, too!)

Whether you can relate to any of this or not, enjoy this summer, embrace your own cicadas (well, not literally), and don’t forget how awesome an educator you are.

StoriumEDU Beta is HERE!!!


Next month, I’ll be presenting my top ten favorite critical thinking games for the classroom at Summer Spark, but here’s a sneak peek at one that’s going to engage almost every student: Storium EDU.

This spring, some of my students beta-tested the new StoriumEDU. Similar to the amazing original Storium, the EDU version allows students to work together to create a 3-scene narrative story followed by an epilogue.

As a teacher, you set up a classroom and add your students. Then you start a “game” by selecting the students who will collaborate together on a narrative. You can remain in the game as one of the players or assign one of the players to be the “organizer,” essentially the leader, and make your students do all the writing. (As a teacher, you still are able to access and control the story at all times.)

Each player selects a character archetype and can either choose an avatar available in the system or upload an image of their own.

At the beginning of each game, the team selects cards that determine the setting, the initiating event, the ending conflict, and the overall tone/mood of the game. The players can accept the cards or “reshuffle” until they get a set they like.


A similar set of cards is selected at the beginning of each scene, giving students more focus about what to write and how to shape the story. Each student writes part of each scene, contributing more to the story. At the end of Act 3, the student with the highest word counts earns the chance to start the epilogue.

Here are some of the aspects I like about StoriumEDU:

-The cards in the game guide students to create strong characters and a narrative arc, but students are also free to make their own choices if they find their story moving in another direction.



-The current game comes with a default Young Adult Dystopian deck, but teachers can create their own decks. This can create huge possibilities–history teachers can create a deck set in the Civil War, for example. Tailoring your decks to fit your content area allows teachers to bring this narrative game to nearly every class.

-Right now, only teachers have the capability to design a deck, but a couple of my students used my log-in to create their own horror-based decks. There are great possibilities here–students can create their own genre of deck and then another group of students can write a story based on it.

– Although students do not need to be near each other to write their stories, the students who sat together and planned the story out loud created a stronger and more cohesive story than those who didn’t talk to each other. The game definitely promoted teamwork and verbal communications skills between teammates.

If I were you, I’d go to and sign up for the waiting list. Seriously, like now.

Jenga-fy Your Class!

I’m all about different ways to modify current games for the classroom, especially if I can make them go beyond the traditional Q/A trivia game. One way to make poetry writing more playful was introducing Jenga Poetry to my students.

The concept is super simple. On each block, I wrote a noun, verb, or occasional adjective. When students pulled each block, they wrote down the word before returning the block to the top of the tower. Once the tower fell over, players could then use their word list to write their own poems or combine their words to write one group poem.

The concept proved to be super fun, and students often replayed the game. This made me think of other ways the game could be played:

1. Thesis Development. Place a topic on each block. With each block pulled, the players have to form a thesis about that topic. This could give them practice in creating theses but also ignite some ideas in their own mind.

2. Idea Development. Actually, my original plan for the Jenga blocks was to write questions on them for my seniors to reminisce about their high school memories before beginning their Last Lectures.

3. Concept Webs. Blocks could contain any major ideas or vocabulary that’s currently being taught. Students can create webs based on the words they’ve pulled.

No doubt there are dozens of other ways Jenga could be applied to your classroom. Get creative and design one!

Learning Through Making

A few weeks ago, I gave an Ignite talk about the power of making.

Too often, teachers end units with A MAJOR PROJECT to demonstrate student learning. However, we need to make projects the vehicle of learning, not just the assessment. By forming my poetry unit around projects with an audience, students learned through making and discovery.

(I recorded the speech on Adobe Spark, so check it out below!)


That Time When I Had a Formal Observation and on the Reflection I Couldn’t Decide If I Had Taught Or Not

My principal surprised me with a formal observation today. Three days of school left for seniors, so of course, today is the best day to be observed [note inserted sarcasm].

Seriously, though, my principal and I get along great and I warned him ahead of time that I didn’t know how productive we’d be with three days left of high school. I didn’t have any formal lesson planned, just independent reading time followed by worktime. Thankfully, my principal is the type of leader where he completely understood.

I’m not one who gets worked up about observations. I used to. I’d stress about it weeks in advance since we had to sign up for a day and time that we wanted the principal to come in. I’d try to plan something amazing for my students to learn, or maybe some fabulous presentations they’d give. Anglo-Saxon research presentations by students were my very first observation–I was so proud of myself for figuring out a way to be observed without actually teaching.

In some ways, you could say I wasn’t actually teaching today, either. There was no formal lesson. Three students alternated writing a collaborative story on an online game they’re beta-testing and working on their last vocabulary assessment (or let’s be honest, probably surfing YouTube when I wasn’t watching.) Another couple designed and planned their video reading responses. One wrote some refrigerator poetry. Two worked on papers and presentations for other classes. And one just read her book, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

When I completed my post-observation reflection that asked me about how effective my teaching was, I drew a blank. At first, I thought, “I didn’t teach today.”

That’s the trick of the blended, quest-based classroom. It can feel as if I’m not really teaching. Just reading over shoulders, answering questions that arise, checking that seniors are on track to have all their work done to get signed out Tuesday.

It took me a couple minutes to remind myself I was teaching. I just wasn’t teaching to the stereotype of teaching that still looms in my mind: a wizened adult leading a lesson in front of rapt students.

But now, teaching is about providing a variety of opportunities for students. It’s juggling all the activities my students are doing because I know they’re more engaged and learn better when they control pacing and choose assignments. It’s meeting with kids one-on-one to explain a list poem or how to cite a source for their American history paper.

And teaching is also about all the front work I did to make this period work. It’s the set-up of different quests of creative writing students could choose from. It’s setting up a classroom culture of relaxed work with dim lighting and soft music.  It’s the relationships I’ve built through the year so I know which student to tease, which student to show some tough love, and which student to give a little bit more attention to because he doubts himself.

Teaching has changed, I preach to everyone time and again. Sometimes I need my own reminder, too.


The Easiest Classroom Daily Agenda EVER

For years I experimented with daily agendas for my students. Each year, I rolled out a new technique, from the whiteboard to a website, looking for the right one to stick.

Then I embraced the obvious, simplest answer: A Google Doc. Below is one of the agendas we are currently using this year.

I created one for each one of my preps. Each week I add a new table with the dates at the top, missing work in the left margin, and then a cell for each day of the week. One document lasts all year long, so in the first days of school, my students bookmark the page so they can click on it anytime.

This method has reaped benefits:

  • Any links my students need are available in one place.
  • Changes are easily made–so much easier than using webpages or slides.
  • Absentee students can always review what they missed.
  • Students have an overview of our journey and always know what to expect. Even outside of class, I see them on the agenda.
  • I don’t have to remind students about missing work. I keep a reminder section and link the assignment, as well.
  • Our school has “make-up slips” that students have to have signed before being excused for school activities. I never have to think what to write. It’s always the same: Check the Agenda.
  • I have a record of an entire year on one document. I refer back to previous years to compare pacing, refresh my mind about activities I used, or locate docs I can’t find in my Drive.

And let’s talk about the memes. They’re fun. I change them every week as well. They have no other purpose than to make everyone smile and look forward to the change at the beginning of the week. It’s all about building a culture of fun.

This is the fourth year I’ve used Google Docs for my daily agendas–and I don’t foresee changing it anytime soon!

7 Tips for Surviving Research Papers


Today I got to sit down with our two new teachers in my wing–let me get an Amen for the first year of teaching!–and love the fact that they are planning a collaborative cross-curricular research paper. Here were some of the tips we talked about…maybe you can find some useful.

1.Narrow Down Your Objectives. Don’t try to evaluate several standards at once. What’s really important to you? Our new teachers today decided organization was extremely important, as well as researching a variety of sources. I suggest making a rubric of 4 or 5 areas at one time. More than that and you’ll be overwhelmed in the end, and if your students do any reflection activities, they’ll be overwhelmed as well.

2. Don’t Skimp the Pre-Writing. This is essential. I use a variety of pre-writing strategies–T-charts, mind maps, post-it notes, sketched boxes, or a combination of all. Pre-writing strategies aren’t a one-size-fit-all. However, it’s important that all our writers have a plan. Before I let any student continue into a major paper, I need to see a (tentative) thesis with what their (tentative) main points are, as well as how they relate and prove the thesis. Later if students have problems, we can look at the pre-writing together and better see how to resolve it. Seriously: Take just as much time to lead pre-writing activities as you would expect students to write.

3. Accept that Research will be MESSY. Provide students with more than one way to keep track of research, such as Google Keep, Google Docs, Evernote, and traditional post-it notes.  Then allow them to choose or experiment with their own system. This process will be messy. Students will lose track of where they are, lose their source, lose their notes in the depths of their Google Drive. But if we want students to find a system that works for them, we need to let them muddle around. We as teachers need to go into the process knowing it will be messy and that students will make mistakes.

4. Rethink the “Word/Page Count”.  Don’t set an arbitrary number. Instead, think about it. Do you want at least a page for each main point? Then add an intro and conclusion, and you’re looking at four pages. But also consider what your students are able to do. This afternoon we talked about how wide-ranging our students’ abilities were; some could handle six or more pages, while others would be challenged by writing a full two pages.

5. Create a Differentiated Menu. This idea arose when talking about how to challenge the higher achievers. To do this, we sketched out a rubric with requirements for an A, a B, etc. To reach that “A” level, their students need to complete a higher number of pages, a wider variety of sources, and a direct quote integrated into each main point.


6. Don’t put points on your rubric. I find that the more points you put on a rubric–points for each category, for example–the stricter and more complicated your grading gets. I recommend either a 3- or 4-level rubric. While I follow the 1-2-3-4 (1=little to no evidence, 4=advanced) format, we talked today about an A-D rubric for this project. However, I do avoid using any more points than this. Writing is subjective. It can’t always be whittled down to points. Plus, totaling up points for four or five categories takes time and slows you down. (Better yet, complete the rubric and then conference with the student about their final grade.)

7. Make videos for mini-lessons. Students aren’t ready to learn how to integrate quotations or format in MLA style until they reach that very moment where they need it. Use Screencastify or Screencast-o-matic to record mini-lessons for these skills. Some students still will try to ask questions rather than watch the videos, but I refer them to the video first and then allow them to ask questions. Most of the time, I don’t hear from them again because the video has done its job. Many teachers cringe at the thought of making a video, and I get it! But also consider how many times do you want to teach the same lesson? Plus, you gradually build a library of videos over the years.


I’m sure there are hundreds of other tips to writing research papers.  Feel free to add them below!



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