Technology Pursuit

Blending Technology Into the Language Arts Classroom

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4 Ways Actively Learn Rocks for Student Readers

We’ve been reading Beowulf the past few days, and we’ve been doing it on Actively Learn. Today as everyone was reading, I noticed a few things about the program that make it so good for readers (both those who struggle, and those who don’t…)

Here are some highlights of Actively Learn that is great for students:

  1. Hear It: I noticed one of my students had donned his earbuds and was listening to his Chromebook. When I looked closer, I could see the words highlighting across his screen. This clever reader, on his own, had started using the Read It tool, which allows students to hear it as they follow along. This wouldn’t be ideal for fast readers, but for slower readers or those who struggle with comprehension, this is a perfect tool.

2. Multiple Choice to Check for Understanding: At first, my students worry that their grade goes down if they miss one. I reassure them that it doesn’t. I use multiple choice questions as a way to ensure that they’re understanding the main concepts in the text, or to practice ACT-type questions. Since they immediately see the answer, they can confirm their knowledge, adjust their understanding, or stop and ask me a question if they don’t understand how to reach that answer. I also use short-answer questions, which I can score and give feedback on while students are still reading.

3. Define: This is a tool I’ve grown fond of even in my iPad. If I run across a word I don’t know, I double-click. Same thing in Actively Learn. Students don’t have to leave the app–they only need to click on the word and select “define.” The definition comes up in the right hand margin, courtesy of Merriam Webster.

4. Size and color adjustments. Many of my students change the background color of the page to blue, pink, or even black. While most of them probably do this because it’s “cool,” there are some students who can better discern the words by changing the background color of the page. The settings also allow students to enlarge the wording and change the font. The Open Dyslexic font is also available for students.

Actively Learn is my go-to for student reading. There is a premium version, which does provide some cool data and allows unlimited downloads of websites and Google Docs, but even the free version gives you three uploads/month, plus access to non-fiction articles and lots of literature options.

An Anglo-Saxon Funeral: A Digital Breakout for Beowulf

I have the pleasure of teaching both juniors and seniors in British Literature, but weeks like this cause problems. The juniors have to do MAPS (standardized testing), but the seniors don’t. Over two weeks, we have three days where the seniors need an alternate activity while the juniors are busy.

Enter Digital Breakout sidequests!

Since we’re reading Beowulf, I created a digital breakout last weekend based on an article I read about an Anglo-Saxon teen who was recently unearthed. Incidentally, she was buried with a cross, which made it one of the earliest Christian graves in England.

Both juniors and seniors can work on solving the digital breakout, though seniors simply have more class time to work on it.

To make my breakouts, I love using Google sites. It’s easy to embed a Google form, link images, and add Google docs and sheets. Plus, students can work on these together or independently as a side quest.

Want to check it out? Just click the image below!

Six-Word Stories

One of my favorite go-to lessons is Six-Word Stories. The premise is so simple: just write a six-word story (or memoir or summary). Student love it because it’s so attainable. Any of them can write a six-word story.

Last Friday, we used six-word stories with a focus on creating emotion and imagery. We started with using the six word story “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” (allegedly by Ernest Hemingway). Then I provided students a series of photographs to use as inspiration for their six-word stories. I chose photographs that were filled with emotion and could perhaps have different interpretations.

Students then wrote 3-13 rough drafts of six-word stories, chose their favorite one, and submitted it to their peers for feedback. Finally, we posted final drafts on the hallway walls and other students voted on their favorites for couch competition.

It’s a deceptive task, easy at first look but more difficult as students get started. They have to distill the topic down to its very essence, and then choose the very best words–and only six of them–that will convey their message.

I also love that it’s so easy to use this concept in any content area. Use it to summarize a day’s learning, make students write from a historical leader’s point of view, or explain a math concept.

The Easy Way to Celebrate Student Writing

Last week my students wrote collaborative stories on StoriumEDU using a fantasy deck that I designed based on Classcraft maps. The past two days, we’ve been sharing them.

StoriumEDU doesn’t have a way to share stories among students and the greater public (yet, my friends, yet.) Not to be deterred, we went analog, and filled up a couple of blank bulletin boards, too!

This wasn’t a peer review–more a celebration of writing. Since the writing was only online at StoriumEDU, the students all queued their stories to the opening scene. Then they left their Chromebook, moved to another person’s Chromebook, and read the story there.

To add more focus to students’ reading, each student also completed a quick sheet with four prompts.

  • Story one: What was the best example of word choice/phrasing in this story and who was the writer?
  • Story two: What was the best moment in this story, and who was the writer?
  • Story three: What was the best sentence in this story, and who was the writer?
  • Overall: What was your favorite story and why?

Every five minutes, students moved to a new story. After the third story, they cut apart their forms and stapled them to the bulletin boards.

Sure, this is an easy way to show and share student writing, but more importantly, I want students to be proud of their writing. I wanted them to see their writing and their name recognized by other students. I want them to feel that others enjoyed what they wrote. I want them to feel competent as writers, because so often students come into class saying over and over, “I’m no good at writing,” even if they are quite competent.

Later in the year we’ll get into more peer feedback and revision. For now, I just want them to be comfortable writing and, more importantly, sharing it.

Below is a copy of the sheet we used.


Reading Response Time

Every 2-3 weeks, my students write a reading response over their independent reading books. My students have been doing this for years, but I’ve decided to focus a bit more on their responses this year.

In the past, students often focused too much on summarizing the story, rather than responding to what they read. This year I want to help them build stronger responses so that they share and support an opinion of the book or reading, not a summary.

The first change I made this year is creating more formal prompts for students. In the past, I’ve used sentence stems and I’ve modeled, and sentence stems work to some extent. But often, students would finish a sentence or two, and then the rest of the response would turn into a summary. By having some prompts to choose from, I want students to first practice building an opinion and then details that back it up.

For prompts, I turned to the Table Topics game, Book Club edition.

This cube comes with 135 question cards. A few days ago, I chose a couple I wanted to use this week (as well as a question of my own), and then created a graphic on Google Slides for the prompt

Students choose ONE of the questions to answer (because I want them to go deeper into a question, not answer all three with surface-level answers) on their Reading Response Sutori.

I haven’t used Sutori for reading responses before this year, and trust me, I’ve tried many, many analog and digital forms of reading responses over the years. I wanted to use Sutori because it will save the conversation that each student and I have throughout the year, and they can see how their reading is progressing.

None of my students’ responses are currently public (though Sutori comes with that ability if desired–right now I want them to be comfortable with what we’re doing before going public with it.) However, I’ve been working on my own timeline as a model, and you can see it below.

First Experiences with Station Rotation

Ever since I heard Catlin Tucker talk about Station Rotation a year ago, I’ve been interested in using the strategy. Last year it didn’t happen, so this year, I’ve pushed myself to do it.

On this, the fifth day of school, we’ve done it twice.

This isn’t a post about the amazingness of the strategy, how I can’t believe I’ve missed out on it all this time.

But it’s not about it being a complete failure.

It’s…been okay.

The first day I really enjoyed it, partly because I took myself out of the equation. I was able to observe students working–and teaching–each other. Today I took my own group and used it to show them how to check out books and navigate the bookshelves. The other two stations were looking through genre baskets and viewing FlipGrid book reviews of former students.

In general, the students I’ve taught before were committed. Students who enjoy reading were committed. Those who don’t enjoy reading–they generally did the minimum.

Maybe it was because I didn’t talk with many of them one-on-one. In fact, the few conversations-where I was really able to connect with a student and make some solid book suggestions or get an insight to what they liked–those were the times I felt successful.

Looking back on today, maybe I put aside the shelves and checking out. Or maybe I somehow make those independent tasks and set aside more time for conversations.

And maybe I just need to remember that  turning students into readers is a process. I need to keep talking, conversing with them one-on-one. Finding the books that match them.

It’s not time to abandon station rotation yet. We’ll keep trying, being consistent. Sometimes really good strategies take time.

First Day Goosechase!

The past few years, I’ve tried different activities every new first day of school. We’ve done Jon Gordon’s One Word, we’ve played Breakout, and this year…

…we GooseChased!

I started with a set of 52 missions to give students a huge variety of choices. Four of those missions were required ones, such as logging into Google Classroom and setting up their classroom mailbox.

Then (after warning the students not to interrupt classes–which was moderately successful), the students were able to complete other missions, such as finding their favorite spot in the library, making up a group dance, taking a selfie with a teacher, taking a photo of a freshman-sophomore-junior-senior grouping, and finding a senior photo of a staff member (several of our staff members and teachers graduated from our high school, so this one is especially fun!)

I gave them three days to complete as many missions as they could, and then the winners earned dibs to the class couch for the next week.

What was awesome? Everything!

  • All the other teachers spent the first day going over rules. We had fun. (Sure, we went over the syllabus a few days later. We’re still setting up routines and expectations. But you know what? I still haven’t needed to talk about rules. They’ve been in school many years. They know them.)
  • I was able to watch and observe them, see who chose to work alone and who worked with a partner. I could see who the leaders were and who tended to be followers. A couple of times I noticed behavior I didn’t 100% approve of and addressed it before it developed.
  • This built some great teamwork and memories, and it set the tone for our class–that we’re in this together.

I admit–to pull this off, I purchased the education version of GooseChase, but kids have already been asking me when we can play another one (It’s Monday–the game just finished Friday!).

And we definitely will play again. I can use this for finding context clues in reading, as a way to show evidence of a writing skill, or an example of vocabulary words out in the wild.

Looking at Learner Survey Results

Giving students surveys is a popular way to start school.

I’ve seen many different surveys on blogs and in books, but what I haven’t read as much about is how teachers sort through the results. I’m not sure if there is any right or wrong way to go through the results, but I do know that for secondary teachers, surveys create large amount of data to read and sort through.

Reading through the information is important, though. Surveys are often one of the first things we ask students to do, and they want to know that we read it, that we care about what they think and like. One student even asked me, “Are you really going to read what I put?”

Yes. Yes, I am.

I spend this Saturday afternoon reading through the results for a couple hours, and I ended up creating a few charts of results to share with students on a slidedeck. Doing it helped me think about the results and analyze them, but sharing the results with each class will give the students an overview of the learning environments and preferences that their classmates may have.

Plus, I learned all this about my students:

  • All the possible careers they’re considering
  • Creative projects is what the majority prefer for assessments
  • Experimentation and watching a video is the preferred way to learn for most of them
  • They’re curious about a variety of topics, including philosophy, mechanics, publishing, volcanoes, and self-esteem.

On Monday I’ll go over the results with them. I’m hoping that they’ll see that I am very interested in their lives and in the ways they enjoy learning, but also that our classroom is filled with students with other preferences, such as working alone, and they’ll need to respect those preferences.

Below is the slidedeck and the survey I used this year:


Syllabus with Sutori

Last week, a fellow teacher asked me thoughts about Sutori.

I got to know Sutori back when it was Hstry, but even back then, I thought it was pretty cool. In fact, we even used it for Project-Based Learning, where students uploaded their pictures and progress reports.

But I hadn’t used it for a couple years–honestly, no major reason why–until my colleague brought it to me and made me remember how much I liked it.

Immediately, I decided to redo my syllabus into a Sutori.

What I love is the clean layout, the intuitive use, and the many options, including quizzes and discussion forums. But for my syllabi, I decided to keep it simple and allow students to browse through it at their own pace.

Now there is a free version that allows you to add text and images, which even just that is pretty cool and great to use with students. But I did splurge for the premium, so I could embed videos, create forums, and the like.

Check out my Brit Lit syllabus below. You can also see my College Comp and Applied Communications syllabi, too.

A Photo Finish: Photo Scavenger Hunts

Our admin pulled a good one on us. On our in-service schedule was “Data Review.”

(Which makes me want to drive screws into my nailbeds.)

Instead, they surprised us with a Photo Scavenger Hunt, all organized and designed by our ESU educators Stephanie Bernthal and Jeff McQuistan (so, unfortunately, I can take no credit for this activity.)

All the staff–teachers, paras, even custodians and maintenance–were split into teams and given an envelope of tasks that included these:

  • A team selfie
  • An aerial of school spirit
  • Quiz Bowl
  • A pic with the oldest trophy
  • A movie scene re-enactment
  • A pic with a VHS alum’s senior picture (all groups had at least one VHS alumna)
  • A pic with our bell
  • An inspirational quote in sidewalk chalk
  • A pic in the “Land of Enchantment”

Using Padlet and its stream format, each team assigned a techie to be responsible for the pictures. For the next 45 minutes, each group roamed the high school to accomplish the tasks. Points were awarded for all members being in the pictures and creativity.

Designed by Stephanie Bernthal and Jeff McQuistan

And then our superintendent revealed…these points would carry over to future challenges! Great teaser for more exciting activities to come in the new year.

This was a great kickoff activity for our staff! New staff were able to make new relationships and also get a feel for the culture of our school. Plus, since this included staff from all buildings, I got to better know other teachers who I’d never chatted with before. I also loved that this included all staff, so camaraderie was built district-wide. Granted, we’re a small district–this couldn’t be done in large districts, but it could certainly be done with building staffs.

Plus, the ideas proved contagious. Today I created a 50-mission GooseChase that my students can work on over the first two days of school (some classtime, but mostly out of class), including several missions that involve a group of students, family members, even pets. Our middle school staff shared with me today that they’re wanting to do something similar with their middle school homeroom classes to build their teamwork, especially as a way to build connections with their new 6th graders.

Thanks to Jeff and Stephanie for bringing this great activity to us! This actually makes me look forward to what more lies in store for our PLN groups in the future!

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