Technology Pursuit

Blending Technology Into the Language Arts Classroom

Month: June 2015

Should Student Read-Alouds be Revived?

Since my college methods class to now, the general feeling about student read-alouds in the classroom has been an emphatic “NO.” The reasons made sense. One, students reading aloud comprehend less of the content. Two, students who are not fluent readers can be embarrassed and ridiculed. Three, students who are not reading aloud tend not to focus on the material, especially if the teacher is following a predictable pattern of “who goes next.”

So that was that. With the exception of reading Shakespeare aloud, I avoided read-alouds. I read aloud often so students could hear the cadence of the words from a good reader.

Listening to Teach Like A Champion 2.0 challenged my beliefs.


When Lemov first broached the subject of read-alouds, I nearly tuned him out (I listen to the book on my iphone while exercising.) The concept died twenty years ago. I couldn’t believe this guy was actually dedicating part of his book to this, especially after many of the brilliant ideas he’d given me so far.

I kept an open mind and listened on.

Read-alouds can help teacher assess student fluency. Teachers can make a quick correction to mispronunciations or poor attention to the punctuation of a passage. Teachers can also ask students who read well to reread a sentence, pointing out to students the highlights of that student’s reading.

“But what about student comprehension?” I thought. “And suffering through the poor readings?  Those don’t benefit anyone and slows the pace.”

Lemov answered my concerns. One, this activity doesn’t need to be a long one. Perhaps for the first few minutes of a reading, especially a particularly difficult one. This was a good point. How many students struggle with reading poetry–Beowulf and Shakespeare and Chaucer, particularly, in my classroom. This was something I should do to reinforce the appropriate pauses at punctuation and to make the reading more fluent for students–thus improving comprehension.

But will they pay attention?  The key is to change readers often, and more importantly, be unpredictable about when to change and who reads next. Don’t change at the end of a paragraph or the end of a stanza. Change at the end of a sentence in the middle of a paragraph. Then cold call a new student–(perhaps use a random draw for this if you have names on popsicle sticks or an iPad app that randomly selects student names). Students are more likely to pay attention.

What about the struggling readers? Again, keep it short. By being unpredictable about the lengths of student reading, a teacher can end their reading after a couple of sentences. If you have students who get very nervous about reading, you can approach them before class, ensure them they will only read two sentences (no one else need know this secret), so that student can mentally prepare. If the pacing seems to have slowed after a struggling reader, then choose a more capable one next, or read the next section yourself to get the class back into the rhythm.

I also like the idea of the teacher being the first reader.  This establishes the tone, the mood, and the expression of the piece.  It provides students with a model of what their readings should sound like.

This year I’ll be using more read-alouds. Not super-often, and not for a long time, but for key soliloquies or starting a text.  Keeping it short–5-8 minutes–is another key for my high school students. After that point, I can also offer students the option of continuing the read aloud with me in a small group off to the side of my classroom, allowing those students who want to forge ahead independently to do so.

Hstry for Reflection and More

hstry timelines image


When I’d first heard about Hstry Timelines this spring, I didn’t know if I could use it much. “More of a social studies thing,” I decided, and I didn’t play with it much after that.  Students could make timelines of books they were reading, but teaching juniors and seniors, I wanted them to do higher level thinking than that.

Recently, I’ve given Hstry a second look, and I’m elated that I did.  I’d first thought of Hstry too literally as timelines–thinking outside the box, and now looking at others’ timelines, it can serve as much more than history lessons.

1) Use in flipped or blended learning. By embedding videos, text, links, images, and questions, teachers can create lessons for students to progress through. I love the simple, graphic layout of Hstry, which is easy for anyone to follow. Plus, timelines embed beautifully into Schoology.

2) Reflections. When I’m reading (or listening to) a book, I’ll come across a brilliant idea and think, “Yes!  I need to remember that!”  A quote, an idea, but a day or two later: it’s gone. Sure, I have this blog I could record it on, but I feel that my posts should be more developed.  I could jot it in one of my two-dozen journals, but then I can never find it again. A few weeks ago, I started a timeline of my reflections. It’s so easy and non-threatening that I don’t feel I have to have beautiful formatting or deep insights.  I can type in a sentence or two, or if I find an image on Facebook or Twitter I want to keep, I upload it to my timeline.  I like being able to review all my thoughts over the course of a month.

Hstry for Education

Imagine this for students. It’s so simple that elementary students can easily use it. Use it for exit slips, or once a week to journal about what they’ve learned, questions they have, or want they want to do next. I only wish that student timelines could have public links for parents to see them, too.

3) Reading logs. Just as I’ve started using a timeline for my own reading reflections, so can my students.  Last year, they turned in reading reflections through Google forms.  This made responding to them easy with the help of Google Sheets and a mail merge/email script, but they didn’t see their progression. I love this timeline format because they can see their old reflections and see how their reading has progressed or changed through the book.

4) Creative “book reports.” I almost hate to use the phrase “book reports” here, but timelines could be a form of multimedia project for a book. Students could create a trailer and upload it as a video; add photos of what they believe characters look like; create a quotation image in another program and upload their favorite quote images; and of course, add their own reflections.

5) Forums. After you create a timeline, students can add comments to items you’ve added. This doesn’t allow for an intense conversation, but if you’re looking for a place for students to give short responses, a Hstry timeline could work.

The site is also working hard to add new features, such as adding more html capabilities to their text windows.  So take a look at Hstry. Or a second look.  There’s far more potential than you might see at first glance!

Chrome Tone: A Must Have Extension

Shortened URLs and QR codes have been life savers for giving out website URLs during class.  Because no matter how organized you are, writing agendas or posting on calendars and linking websites students will need for class, there’s always one that just comes to mind.  Or discussion leads to a new idea. Or you think of a site that will be a great resource to students as they’re working.

In the past, I’ve shown the shortened URL (we use laptops in my room), but there’s still the delay of everyone typing it in. Plus, the question:  Is that a capital I or a lower case l?


But now there’s Chrome Tone!  One press of this extension button, and your current webpage is broadcast to all  Chrome users within earshot–including over Google Hangout and the phone. A small window pops up on everyone’s devices, and they can choose to open it and go to your website or close it.

What once took one or two minutes now will take seconds. Maybe that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but when your lesson is flowing and you have that teachable moment–well, one to two minutes definitely disrupts the flow.


But say your students use iPads or are BYOD. Check out Chirp.  This will send the websites to devices.

Check out my other favorite extensions here.


Frequent Tests Help “Make It Stick”


(I’m currently reading Make It Stick,  inspired by Jennifer Gonzales and her blog Cult of Pedagogy. Join her in her July book club!)

So I’m charging right through the book Make It Stick (Let me tell you, the audio version makes the hours of painting the patio fly by), and there’s so much goodness in it.  Some of it only reinforces what good teachers know.  For example, using a variety of activities–it prevents student boredom, but it also reinforces learning. Practicing a concept with a variety of activities is more beneficial than the same activity. Also, allowing time between practices is important. The time allows the brain time to “forget” and then have to relearn. Ultimately, what the authors are saying is this: If you want learning to last, it should be hard. If the learning is coming too easy, it’s likely not to last.

What I wanted to focus on in this post, though, is what the book discusses about testing. Or at least, that’s what they call it.  Frequent testing.  Low-stakes testing. Or what most of us in the trenches know it as, formative assessment.

I’d venture that anyone reading this likely knows the perks of formative assessment.  It gives teachers a more objective view of what students know and don’t know.

But the authors have discovered that this frequent, low-stakes testing serves another purpose–one that I’ve been wondering about myself the past few months.  This low-stakes testing can serve as a form of learning in itself.

Long story short, the authors found that the more tests students completed on a subject, the better they performed. One, students experienced less test anxiety because the frequent, low-stakes testing provided them enough experience to feel comfortable on later, high-stakes (aka graded) exams. Two, formative assessments served as a learning activity in itself.  It forces students to recall information, thus really challenging what they know. It’s easy to read or listen to information and believe that you’ve mastered it; test situations provide objective results for if this mastery is true, or if it’s only an illusion.

One example that the authors discuss is a political science professor’s use of frequent cumulative quizzes in lieu of a massive final exam. Student performance AND engagement increased, and the professor discovered the students’ writing rising to the level of students two years ahead of them. I believe this is what we as teachers need to aim for.  This idea of cumulative quizzes reinforces retention of knowledge–not just memorization and forgetting it after the unit is over. Plus, this is a more accurate assessment of what students know; frequent quizzes over the course of a semester, rather than a few major tests.

Another technology tool that I need to take more advantage of is the feedback box on online quizzes. This summer I need to spend more time with those assessments and provide information for when students answer a question incorrectly. They need more than just knowing the answer was wrong; they need to know why. This is something I haven’t done enough of in the past–and need to improve this school year.


Luckily, a slew of online formative assessments are available for teachers to use.

  • Most LMS, such as Schoology and Canvas, provide quiz functions
  • Google forms
  • Hstry timelines
  • Versal
  • Quizizz
  • Socrative
  • Kahoot
  • PearDeck

Play with some of these.  Kahoot and PearDeck are teacher paced. Socrative and Quizizz are student-paced but need to be started by the teacher. The others can be available to students at any time and don’t require a teacher to start them. I also have a more detailed comparison of Quizizz, Kahoot, and Pear Deck here.

Warning: Rereading and Repetition Aren’t Effective Study Skills!


I started listening to this book last night during my evening walk (it’s available on Audible–check it out!), inspired by Jennifer Gonzales’ decision to use this for a July book club at Cult of Pedagogy. The book focuses on the neuroscience of learning, but it’s written in a conversational vernacular that made those segments of jogging during my walk a lot less painful.

In the first chapter, the authors discuss what activities don’t work for learning.  What stood out most for me:  Rereading and repetition, the two standbys of studying, are the most ineffective study skills.

1. Rereading. Studies have shown that rereading a text has little to no effect on learning. In an a controlled setting, researchers instructed one group of students to read a text once before the quiz, and the second group to read the text twice before the quiz. Both groups scored THE SAME. A third group reread the text a few days later before taking the quiz, and they performed slightly better than the other two groups. So all those teachers who told you to look over the material?  They were leading you down a primrose path of inefficiency.

2. Repetition. To clarify, this is repetition alone that is ineffective. For example, the authors describe a campus safety meeting where staff members were told to write down where the closest fire extinguisher was to their offices. A professor who couldn’t remember set off to his own office in an investigation. Turns out, the closest extinguisher was mere inches away from his office door–an office that he’d occupied for nearly twenty years! As the authors pointed out, repetition without any other way to make connections results in no long-term learning.

If you’re looking for summer reading, here’s your book. Or if you eschew reading for the summer, download the audio version (like me) and take a listen.

Make Your Classroom Like American Ninja Warrior

My family loves watching American Ninja Warrior.  It’s something I don’t cringe at my kids watching, and there’s something novel about it.  The ever-changing obstacles.  The wacky costumes some of them wear.  The stories behind the competitors.

In fact, my kids even turned our hallway into a horizontal spider climb, complete with a flashlight as a spotlight.  I was pretty impressed and let them compete for the next two hours. (Their father was not as impressed and made them stop.)

What if our classrooms were a little more like American Ninja Warrior? Not with spider climbs or spotlights–actually, I’m thinking a spotlight in my classroom is a great idea. I submit to you that a little American Ninja Warrior may not be such a bad idea in our classrooms.



  1. Competitors support each other.

More than in any other sport, the competitors in American Ninja Warrior support each other.   They cheer and scream when the others succeed at a new and challenging obstacle.  When the Bull conquered the Cannonball Alley for the first time–as a rookie–the entire crowd, including each competitor who had failed on that obstacle screamed in shock and thrill.  What if we had that kind of support among classmates in our rooms?  Maybe a little less audible screaming, but I’d love to see my students encouraging and supporting each other like ninja warriors.



  1. Variety–but in a predictable format

On every Ninja Warrior course (before the ultimate course at Vegas, Mt. Midoriyama), a 14-foot-warped wall towers over its competitors, taunting them to make it to the top. At the end of every city finals, a 25-foot spider climb looms, where competitors have to use their leg and arm strength to scurry up by bracing themselves against the walls. There’s a sense of assuredness about these obstacles.  They’re givens.  Each course also follows a pattern in its sequence, starting with the stagger steps.  A balance-testing obstacle will always show up as the second or third obstacle. The later 4th and 5th obstacles will test upper-body strength.  While these obstacles change, what they’re testing doesn’t change.

And that’s what American Ninja Warrior accomplishes so well.  A balance between the expected and unexpected.  Our curriculum has to be the same. Students (and teachers, too) love doing something new.  They don’t want the same thing every unit or module. Yet, they want to feel an underlying rhythm or purpose. In every unit, my students will encounter vocabulary, literature, non-fiction, writing, and discussion. Those are givens, something they get used to.  However, I try to change up vocabulary reviews: we use Memrise one unit, perhaps Quizlet the next.  Or I’ll give them the choice between two of them. Or maybe they can play the Heads Up app by Ellen DeGeneres for part of the period.



  1.  A welcoming of all types

Competitors have come dressed in gold lamme, tie dye, and doctor’s scrubs.  They’ve dressed as Trojans and chickens.  American Ninja Warrior welcomes everyone, no matter how crazy you dress or act.

But that’s just the American Ninja Warrior way.  It welcomes rock climbers and breakdancers, surgeons and maintenance men, stuntmen and English teachers, 20-something gym rats and grandfathers. It doesn’t matter what your background is–the ninja warriors will embrace you.  And what a great culture to have in a classroom–an all-inclusive, everyone-belongs culture.



  1.  Reviewing the course before embarking on it!

Before their runs, competitors may walk beside the course, analyze the obstacles, see the entire course as a whole.  But before anyone runs, course officials explain the requirements of each obstacle and what can get a competitor disqualified. For example, if even a big toe touches the water–you’re disqualified.

My point is that students should see the big picture of what they’re learning. Let’s lay the unit out in front of them.  A map, whether a flow chart or even a list of assignments. At the very least, displaying the list of essential questions for the unit. Let’s show students where we’re going and what will be expected of them.


  1.  Feedback by watching others

Like it or not, our society has become accustomed to immediate feedback. Critics complain that the next generation needs to learn patience, but the truth is, I think we all want immediacy, regardless of age. I once had a vacuum cleaner that had two lights, green and red. If the carpet was dirty, the red light came on.  Once it was clean, it turned green.  Immediate feedback.  Vacuuming became like playing a video game.

Perhaps I digress.

American Ninja Warrior allows all competitors to watch each other.  When one warrior falters, the others learn from them and adapt their own strategies.  There’s no mocking, no trash talking.  It’s a culture where competitors use the mistakes of others to improve their own performance.



  1. Recognition

At the end of every course, competitors must hit the red button.  This red button serves a logistical purpose: it stops the clock. (ANW does track the times of each run, though the focus is really on completion of the course.)

But the red button does so much more than that.  Pushing that red button is a celebration, a declaration that the competitor has conquered the course and is now a master. That’s something we need in our classrooms, too.  Whether it’s sticking a badge to a folder, moving a game piece along on a course map, or a celebration day, we need to recognize students. What’s more important, too, is that they need to have a hand in that celebration. They need to stick that badge to their folder, move their own game piece, plan their own celebrations.  They need to be the ones to hit that red button.


Saying that I want my classroom to look more like American Ninja Warrior (sans the Warped Wall and Cannonball Alley) is the easy part.  Making it so is hard, and I don’t have the answers. What I do know is I need to be more organized to make my classroom more transparent to students and parents so they can see the course that lies in front of them. I need to be more immediate with my own feedback to students.  And creating a culture of acceptance, of collaboration (not piggybacking), and of supporting each other through the obstacles of learning.

It won’t be easy, but it’ll be worth it for my students’ education.


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