Technology Pursuit

Blending Technology Into the Language Arts Classroom

Month: September 2015

My Favorite Direct Instruction Tool: Pear Deck


Ideally, students spend most of their time working on their own, creating their own writing, progressing through their own lessons. Sometimes you need a direct instruction lesson, though. Sometimes a concept is easier to teach–and more importantly, to learn–through direct instruction.  Sometimes seeing each other’s ideas in real time is beneficial. And sometimes, after several days of doing an in-class flip, we all feel the need to learn together and interact.

But using direct instruction doesn’t have to mean pure lecture. I use Pear Deck as a way to keep my students thinking actively, whether it’s about a video we’re watching, a section they’re reading in a text, or a concept I’m presenting (or reviewing.)

croc dolphin

Today I used Pear Deck in three classes. First, my Applied Communications 12 class learned about revising for tactfulness and preciseness. After showing some good and poor examples on Pear Deck, I gave them a couple statements to revise through Pear Deck’s text option. In a minute, the class could see everyone’s revision on the projector screen. When there is more than one way to revise, it’s good for students to see how others did it and talk about it.

With my Applied Communications 11 class, we analyzed advertisements for loaded language. I had uploaded images of ads, and students were able to use their laptop mouse pad to circle the loaded words in the ads.  Then we were able to look at everyone’s circles and compare.

Finally, we watched the infamous Macbeth banquet scene. Four times during the scene, we stopped and students either answered a question I posted for them or wrote their own text response. I then revealed everyone’s (anonymous) responses on the projector screen. This allows for all students to share what they’re thinking without the fear of others knowing which response was theirs.

Pear Deck is a phenomenal resource for direct instruction. Although some of the features (such as drawing) comes with the premium version, anyone can still do text responses and multiple choice questions with the free version. And you can’t do any better than free.

Classcraft! My Platform for Gamification


A few weeks ago, I launched Classcraft in my six classes.  Actually, I launched the game For Badgeria!, but I’m using the Classcraft app as a fantastically handy platform that does so much work for me. In this post, I’ll talk about what lead me to gamification, why I chose Classcraft, the benefits I’ve seen, and the challenges you may face.



It all started about nine months ago when I began researching gamification. The concept sounded interesting, no other reason. That lead me to quest-based learning, game-based learning, blended learning, and to the ultimate realization that if I could I could blend these ideas together, my classes could become more engaging for both me and my students.

I didn’t choose to gamify my class for the sole purpose of making my students more engaged.  If they’re not already engaged in the curriculum, then gamification is simply pouring chocolate syrup over the dullness. In fact, I spent most of this summer reframing and reworking my curriculum to make it more focused using the Understanding by Design framework–one suggested by many curriculum designers and “gamified” teachers.

But I wanted to build the culture and engagement of my students. I wanted to add more choice and self-paced learning to my class. I’m still working on all these things, but adding gamification and Classcraft is one of the steps.


Why Classcraft specifically?

There are many great scoresheets out there created by extremely smart and talented teachers. What I like about Classcraft is the interface that does so much of the work for me. If I want grades to be part of the XP, the program can add XP to the students’ total as the grade rises. If I want to add XP for several students, I can do it quickly.

I also chose Classcraft so students would have access to the different armors and pets available. I knew that this would be attractive to a few students, but I had no idea this would be so attractive to so many! Teaching 17- and 18-year-olds, I had no clue how excited they would be about getting new pets as they levelled up.


Impact on my classroom

The game has added a level of playfulness in our room. My students enjoy the random event of the day function in Classcraft (even when it’s a bad event), checking out each other’s avatars, checking in on their pets.

And when we’re having fun, learning is fun. It’s that simple.

I also enjoy having the extra form of “commerce” in class. Sometimes I want to recognize students for winning a game, for showing leadership, for showing perseverance, or for doing something great outside the classroom. This isn’t something that we can easily show through grades, but I can show it through Classcraft.  I award XP when we play games, when my students win Scholar of the Week or Badger of the Week in our school, heck, I awarded 100 XP a few days ago for a student who wrote a fantastic physics lab writeup and wanted me to read it during my independent reading time.  Why should high expectations only be held within my four walls? I give XP for meeting high expectations and working hard both inside and outside my room.



Do your research. I did a LOT of playing around on Classcraft before I made the leap. I watched tutorial videos, read the FAQs, checked out the discussion board. Not being a gamer, I also had a steeper learning curve learning the difference between XP, AP, and HP. Gamers have an advantage here.

This carries over with non-gamer students. Some of my students are still having trouble keeping them all straight, but it’s getting easier. And as I’ve told them, it’s part of the game, part of every game. You don’t memorize all the rules before you start. You learn and figure it out as you play.

One concern that I do have is using Classcraft or any form of gamification as a form of classroom management. I don’t drain my students’ HP for discipline reasons.  I let random event of the day do that. Some teachers may disagree with me and think that this makes the game less exciting. Perhaps, but if a student needs disciplined, it needs to from me, not from the game.

That said, could Classcraft or any form of gamification create better classroom management? Yes, but it should do this indirectly. By having stronger student engagement and a better classroom culture, students should have less interest in misbehaving.



Classcraft? Yes!

Gamification? Yes!

Games-Based Learning? Yes!

Blended Classroom? Yes!


I’ve loved using all these this school year. What I most want to emphasize, though, is the importance of two things. One, a well-designed curriculum. As a teacher, we are responsible for designing learning experiences for students that will be engaging, interesting, and most of all, effective. The other thing you need: A relationship with your students. Without these a strong curriculum and strong student-teacher rapport, our approaches and techniques are meaningless.

Ninja Badges!

Yesterday, we awarded our first round of the much-coveted ninja badges!

These badges are awarded to students who make improvements on their practice ACT tests.  Here’s how it works.

Every few weeks, we do 10 questions of the reading ACT in British Literature class and 15 questions of the English ACT in college composition.  For the junior level business English class, we do a literature terms quiz because our state test has quite a few literature terms on it.

After they complete the test and we go through the answers, they plot their progress on a personal bar chart. If they maintain or improve their scores from their previous test, BAM!, they earn a ninja badge.

Last year I laminated badges for them to sign and hang around the room. This year I’ve switched to stickers. I purchased blank white circular labels, designed these ninjas on, and then pasted them to a Word document using their label template. Then all I had to do was print them off, and I had a customized sticker.

Some students put their stickers on their folders, while others stuck them to their clothes, proudly wearing their new title around school.

I should mention here that I teach 17- and 18-year-olds. Often we think that students of this age are preparing for college, so we should be serious with our teaching approach.

This is wrong.

Even with older students, teachers should be playful and fun. Even with older students, we should play games and hand out stickers when deserved.  Even with older students, we should be silly sometimes.

And there is no better time to be silly than when practicing for the ACT. While I’m not a proponent of this constant testing of students, I do believe in preparing my students for a major test that could provide them with hundreds or thousands of dollars in scholarships.

Anyone is welcome to use the badges I’ve designed below:

2 1 3

Vocabulary Game: “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad”

Screen Shot 2015-09-09 at 10.30.34 AM

I’ve introduced my students to Meatloaf.

Not only because they need to be exposed to melodramatic power ballads, but also because it was a catchy title for a quick vocabulary game.

The premise is simple.  Students write sentences using two out of three vocabulary words.

Here are more details:



-Make cards with three vocabulary words on them (this could also be adapted to any curricular area). I made at least five for each group of students.

-Split students into groups/teams of 3-5 people. (I prefer smaller groups so it’s harder to piggyback on others.)

-Each team needs a piece of easel paper and markers.



-The game begins by giving each group a card with three words.

-As teams get to work creating their first sentences, turn on “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” in the background. This serves as the timer for the game.

-As teams finish a sentence and you approve it, give them another card.

-The game ends when the music ends.


This is a fun way for students to practice using the words in sentences, seeing connections between words, and better understanding words. Working in groups, students find it non-threatening, and I’m able to point out errors and suggest slight sentence alterations as I’m roaming around.



Teaching “It’s Not Brain Surgery”: Part Two

In my last post, I described how I introduced the growth mindset concept to my students using a video embedded in Zaption.  This post will describe how I introduced studying and learning techniques described in the book Make it Stick to my 11-12 grade students.

After reading the book this summer, I wanted to share some the Make It Stick learning concepts to my students. However, the research is fairly new, and although there are a variety of articles published on the internet about this topic (specifically, I would recommend Annie Murphy Paul’s recent stories in Scientific American), most of them are geared toward either an audience of educators or adults.

My other objective was getting a pulse on my students’ reading abilities. I’d hoped by finding articles about this topic, I could also get a baseline measurement of student comprehension through their short responses.

Finally, I found three articles that worked well:

1. “How to Supercharge the Way You Learn” by David Robson

2. “6 Important Things You Should Know about how Your Brain Learns” by Belle Beth Cooper 

3. “The Lesson You Never Got Taught in School:  How to Learn” by Simon Oxenham


I uploaded these articles to the Actively Learn website, where you can embed questions and media into a piece of writing. Plus, it has a super-slick grading screen that allows you to move through student responses faster than any product I’ve seen.

Actively Learn


The last step that students completed was a sketch note, where they wrote and sketched what they thought were the most interesting highlights of the articles.  Below are some student examples:


IMG_0749IMG_0750 IMG_0748 IMG_0745


Teaching “It’s Not Brain Surgery”: Part 1



Earlier this summer, Jennifer Gonzales of Cult of Pedagogy inspired me to read the book Make It Stick, which was featured in her summer book club. The book promotes a variety of study strategies that go beyond the usual–and generally ineffective–reread and highlighting techniques. The book also encouraged teaching students about brain research and these study skills directly.

I searched the internet for texts that supported these ideas, but most of them were written by teachers for teachers–not for high school students. Finally I did find some articles that I could use with my high school students, as well as a growth mindset TedX Talk.

I constructed a two-part mini unit: It’s Not Brain Surgery. (OK, maybe it’s a bad name. I’m open to suggestions for better names.)

Part 1: I created a Zaption video about fixed vs. growth mindset, along with a short writing assignment. (This also served as an initial writing assessment so I could get a feel for where my students’ writing skills were.)

The feedback I received from my students was extremely positive. Many of them responded how they’d never known this before, and that the video was–(gasp!)–actually interesting!

Please use either of these items in your own classrooms, or allow them to inspire you to make a similar lesson of your own!

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