Technology Pursuit

Blending Technology Into the Language Arts Classroom

Month: September 2018

Four Ways to BLEND Your Classroom


This year I have the privilege of being part of a pilot team to bring Blended Learning to our district. Yesterday, we gave our first presentation to our colleagues.

What I loved was seeing the different techniques each of use were using; all of us were blending, but all in different ways.


  1. Flex Learning: This is my go-to form of Blended Learning, especially since I’ve been 1:1 for several years now. With Flex, students can choose their pace and order of assignments. We still have class activities and direct instruction, but as the year goes on and students become familiar with digital learning, we have more and more flex days.



2. Survive and Thrive: One of our elementary teachers uses this concept in her science classroom. Using Google Classroom, she sets up a “Survive” curriculum with the lessons and activities that students need to know. However, students may also choose the “Thrive” path, where they can learn the same concepts and beyond with more challenging activities.


3. Hyperdocs: A middle school ELA teacher has been using more Hyperdocs this year. In this Digital Citizenship hyperdoc, she has not only the activities linked but also has divided them into days. This provides deadlines for students–which some of them still need, she pointed out–but gives others the options of working ahead.



4. Station Rotation: Our middle school science teacher shared how she’s utilized station rotation. For her, 13 minutes seems to be a great time for each station. Her stations comprise of an IXL station, a lab station, another computer-learning station, and a small group station with her. She’s now on her third rotation and says it gets smoother every time.


Blended Learning has so many different methods, and that’s why I love it. You can use the method that works best for your style, students, and content. I’ve tried station rotation only a couple times this year, but now I’m inspired to keep using it. I also love the idea of survive and thrive–I’ll definitely be wanting to steal this idea, too! (And I’m so glad that these teachers are the ones working with my own sons!!)



Balderdash–For Writing & Introducing Units


Yesterday was the last day of school before a 5-day fall break, and my college comp class had just finished descriptive essays. What fun writing activity could we do for one day?

Bring in Balderdash.

The game is a vocabulary game, but its purpose isn’t to teach vocabulary (I would suggest Apples to Apples or a million other games to modify to teach vocabulary.) Instead, players are not expected to know the word but rather write phony definitions that seem realistic. They earn points each time someone guesses their definition as “correct” instead of the actual correct one; players also earn points for guessing the correct definition.

Balderdash encourages creativity and detail thinking–general statements such as “a type of animal” won’t be very persuasive. Also, players have to adapt to a more academic voice, so Balderdash provides good practice as we leave personal writing (narrative and descriptive) and enter more research and argumentative writing.

Add in the critical thinking involved of analyzing which definitions seem too obvious or which players seem to have a pattern in their definitions (Do they often use definitions involving animals, or food, or the military?), and Balderdash is a game that hits on several different skill sets.

This is a game you could probably create on your own if you have enough time, but I’d suggest buying the game. There’s no pop culture or current events involved in this game, so it has a long shelf life (Seriously, I think I bought my version when I was in middle school, and I just turned 40.)

When I introduce the games to students, I give them this set of directions below, but I also walk them through the first round. After that, a group can easily play the next 30-45 minutes on their own.

Balderdash could also be a fun way to introduce a section of reading or a unit. The newer versions of Balderdash don’t stop at definitions. They include names, abbreviations, phrases, dates, and places. Creating your own Balderdash cards using these facts from a new unit or new chapter can be an engaging way to prime students for what they’re going to learn.


Evolution of my Vocab Assessments

Over the years, my vocabulary teaching has matriculated through so many eras. The same can be said about my assessments. Let me walk you through what I’ve done in the past and, ultimately, where I am today.

  1. Workbook Activity Completion. We never discussed much about vocabulary in pre-service teaching classes, so my first era of teaching vocabulary assessment was workbooks. Have students work through them, give them the grade at the end of the week. The end.

Benefits: Some workbooks I used did have some good passages that emphasized using context clues. Students were using and thinking about the words (for those who actually did them).

Downsides: Maybe some of the activities were good, but I never knew how much students retained by just assessing their workbook activities. And let’s be honest: I was young, naive, and there was definitely some “teamwork” happening, and by that, I mean straight out copying each other’s work.

2. Fill in the Blank & Sentence Writing Tests. Eventually I admitted workbooks weren’t enough, and I added tests where students had to fill in the blank with vocab words and then write sentences.

Benefits: This did elevate assessments to DOK 2 & 3. Students had to demonstrate ability to use the words in their writing, and I did provide question prompts, such as “What would you extol? Why?” for their sentences so they weren’t writing in a vacuum.

Downsides: The sentence idea was an improvement, but then I tried to do what other teachers were doing and took off credit for grammar mistakes, too. Often, students may have used the word correctly, but then I’d take points off for grammar. I struggled with this. What was I trying to assess here? Vocab AND grammar? Or just vocab? And if it is both, where was the line for acceptable, risk-taking grammar errors, such as forgetting commas after an introductory phrase? Should they be deducted a point just because they forgot a comma when another student wrote a simple sentence that didn’t require commas?

3. Completely Objective Tests. Full disclosure: as much as I’d like to justify this move, the cold truth is I was lazy. I wrote an online test, students took it, the computer scored it, and boom, I put it into the gradebook. I will say the questions I wrote went beyond DOK1 to DOK2. There were fill-in-the-blanks, synonyms and antonyms, T/F statements that contained both words, and some questions that provided three sentences and asked for students to choose the one where the word was used correctly. One bright spot, though: I stopped using words from vocabulary workbooks and selected words that connected to our content that we were reading, so students were actually encountering the words and we could talk about them in class discussions.

Benefits: Yes, there was one good thing that came out of this. Students could retake a vocab quiz as many times as they needed: for the first time they had the option to achieve mastery.

Downsides: Again, no DOK3. Students never had to demonstrate their ability to use the word, either orally or in written format.

4. My Current Assessment: Short Story OR Occupation Application. Two or three years ago, I told myself to stop taking the easy way out. I needed a way to assess students where they were using the words–after all, wasn’t that what I wanted them to do out in the world? I also wanted a way to incorporate more student choice. This was the result. Students could either choose to write a short story using the words OR they could use the words in the context of one of four occupations. Afterwards, students could rewrite or make corrections until they reached the mastery level they wanted. I also turned my focus onto the word usage itself; I would mark some grammar errors so they could see them, but I stopped stressing about grading those, too.

Benefits: Students are actually using the words in writing, they have some choices, and they have the option to make corrections–and many of my students are doing just that. In fact, it’s better than retaking an entire quiz for a couple of questions that they missed. They’re making changes only on the ones they missed. Plus, there is student choice, which leads to differentiation. Some choose to try the short story route, which is more difficult. Other high-level learners take the challenge to only write their sentences in ONE occupation.

Downsides: I’m always wondering what else I can use to challenge more students. Should I allow higher-achievers to choose some of their own words? Except when I’ve done that, they sometimes choose words that aren’t well-used in our lexicon. Should we have 15 words a unit and students choose the 12 they want to focus on?

That’s why this continues to be an evolution. This is where I am now, and who knows what my thoughts on vocabulary assessment will be then.

When You Don’t Know Everything…Make Your Students Take Over

Theater and Speech Communication is a new class this year. We started with very little curriculum, just the basic idea that we’d study theater for a trimester, speech for a trimester, and then maybe video creation for the last trimester.

One of the main concepts my students wanted to learn about was acting techniques.

And I’ll be honest: I know very little about theater. Sure, I’ve been an assistant director for the past few years, but other than that and Theater 101 in college (and we’re talking pre-21st century), I know nothing. Speech is my area of specialty.

This is not a problem, though.

I did a modicum of research to find some of the prominent forms of acting and narrowed them down to Stanislavsky, Strassberg, Meisner, and Practical Aesthetics.

That’s where I stopped and turned to the students.

After randomly splitting into four groups, each group researched their style and planned a presentation and activity around their style.

Admittedly, I have amazing students in this class, but they’ve dug into their technique research with alacrity!

The first group, the Practical Aesthetic presenters, led class today. After describing the technique, they led the class in a webbing discussion about the connections between characters in our one-act play script for this year.

You can see them in action (and their web in process on the board) below:

Again, I realize I have amazing students, and that’s one reason they embraced this lesson set.

However, I don’t think this would have worked if I’d just created this idea on my own. We spent time at the beginning of the year brainstorming and voting for their learning targets. Most of them prioritized acting techniques as one of their top three “wants” for this trimester of learning. There wasn’t much buy-in needed. They jumped in because they’d already told me this was what they wanted to learn—even if it wasn’t something I knew much about.

So take the plunge. Let them tell you want they want to learn, and then, just get out of the way.


Magnetic Poetry Vocab Sentences

Learning meanings of words is the first step of vocab instruction. Demonstrating new words through conversation and writing is a higher step.

Since I assess students’ vocabulary mastery through their writing, not multiple choice or matching, I’m always looking for fun and sneaky ways for students to practice their words. Today we tried out Refrigerator Sentences.

The concept is inspired by Refrigerator Poetry. Using Google Drawing, I made a couple dozen text boxes with various nouns, verbs, and prepositions. I also added three of our vocabulary words.

The goal: Use all the vocabulary words correctly in sentences in five minutes.

I copy/pasted the slide enough times so there was one slide for each student. I also wrote each student’s name at the top of each slide to avoid the conclusion of whose slide is whose.

And the whole activity went well! After five minutes, I was able to scroll through the slides, reading the sentences aloud, and pointing out minor errors or where a word might need added. It also gave me a few insights of where there was still some confusion of how a word could be used (for example, a person could emulate another person, but can’t really emulate an inanimate object.)

Even several minutes after the timer went off, some students still continued to play with the words.

And that’s the key concept I’m looking for. Play. Especially when I’m working with students who aren’t interested in school or who struggle with writing, refrigerator sentences is an easy way to get them to “write” sentences without actually writing them.

By using Google Drive, students can  add words or apostrophes as needed, so they don’t feel restricted, but by giving the a pool of words to start with, they don’t feel so threatened by a blank screen.

It’s definitely an activity I’ll be using again and again. Check out today’s work below:



Gimkit: A Fun, Alternative Q/A Game

Lots of you have played Kahoot and Quizizz. I like both, though for different reasons and purposes. I use them frequently for vocabulary review. But a variety is always good.

Meet Gimkit.

(First, I love the fact that this app was made by high school students. )

That aside, it seems similar to Quizizz in its appearance…but that’s until students find the store. Students earn bucks for each question they answer, and then they can purchase upgrades, such as streak bonuses or multipliers.

As a teacher, you can either have the students compete as a team or individually. Personally, I’m a big fan of the team aspect–this prevents high-achieving students from dominating competitions and can help lower-achieving students still feel they’re part of a successful team.

You can also set whether students win either at the end of a set time or for the first team that achieves a certain money level. There’s also the option of the class working together to achieve a certain money level–say $100,000–and then everyone wins together.

This is a game I would recommend for low-level recall–DOK 1–such as when students are first learning vocabulary words or memorizing multiplication facts. Students will likely see the same questions a few times, so I’d suggest keeping questions based on facts that students need to know. (For DOK 2, I would suggest using Quizizz and shutting off the timer.)

We’ve played this twice this school year, and I’ve yet to still hear a complaint.

(One student did call it “dank,” but turns out that’s a compliment…)

Ready to give it a try? Check it out here.

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.

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