Technology Pursuit

Blending Technology Into the Language Arts Classroom

Month: June 2019

What have you failed at this week?


Writing this post takes courage for me because I don’t like to admit my failures.

The irony is that time and again I’ll say in conversations and Twitter chats that teachers need to be accepting of student mistakes and failures. Why, then, am I not more accepting of my own failures? More importantly, why do I dwell on those failures SO MUCH that I hesitate to take a future risk, fearing that I’ll just fail again?

I need to change my mindset about failure and lose the negative connotation it has.

While I was listening to The Power of Moments on Audible today, authors Chip and Dan Heath shared a story about a father who asked his children, “What did you fail at this week?”

Right away I had one. I’d been turned down for a book project.

But what about the failure before that? I began to struggle because I couldn’t think of a recent failure before that one. That’s when I started wondering: Was I putting myself out there and taking new risks? Was I trying to be innovative or just trying to survive?

The book includes the story of the inventor of Spanx, who was rejected by male clothing manufacturers again and again, but she’d experienced so many doors slammed in her face during her sales career that the word “no” didn’t faze her anymore.

Deanna Singh, entrepreneur and change maker, keynoted the Summer Spark conference in Milwaukee this year, and her final message was similar. In the Q and A, she was asked about her failures–as it turned out, she was creating a “failure” resume. She wanted to outline all her failures that she experienced, so others could understand that failure is commonplace and even an integral part of success.

Failure is scary. As Chip and Dan Heath explain in their book,Ā  it’s almost cliche to hear “Take Risks,” but when we hear this phrase, there’s an unspoken promise that all will work out, that we’ll enjoy rainbow-filled results.

Unfortunately, that’s not true, and that’s tough for me to accept. I don’t like putting myself out there if I’m not sure I can succeed. Part of me wants to stop thinking about book submissions, stop reading other great teachers’ books (because I’ll compare my failures to their successes), and stop tweeting my posts–surely, someone will recognize that I’m an impostor.

If I’m going to ask my students and my own children to take risks and expect failures, I need to as well. I need to eat my own dogfood. I need to take a risk every week and be grateful, even excited, about my failures.

The Difference Between a Good and GREAT Conference


I just returned from Summer Spark in Milwaukee yesterday.

I’m exhausted. I got home, brought in my suitcase, and collapsed on the couch and slept for two hours (except for the one moment when my teenage daughter thought it would be funny to tickle my feet. Death threats were given.)

But this is how you know that a conference was phenomenal–you’re fully exhausted afterward. And you don’t get fully exhausted from the sessions, although the sessions at Spark were amazing. Truly. I highly recommend going.

What makes a good conference GREAT is what happens outside the session.

And I’m not talking about the adult drinks, though those are fun, too. What I’m talking about is the deeper conversations about our beautiful practice called teaching.

Let’s start with the power of roundtables and food. Over breakfast and lunch and great food at Spark (the great food is a bonus), teachers from several states (and Canada šŸ˜‰ shared philosophy and opinions about the greatest issues in our practices. We covered grading, professional development, social media, instructional coaching, just to name a few. While sessions are great, it’s theseĀ conversationsĀ  that are just as powerful. Great conferences provide these moments.

The learning extends to evenings, too. If you’ve been to ISTE, you know the hundreds of social events available. And though you may be tired–trust me, I’m an introvert, so I always am–you need to go. Or if you’re hosting a conference, you need to plan one. At Spark, there’s always a game night, accompanied with good food and beverages. We didn’t talk education, but we built relationships. We laughed hard, those deep stomach-hurting, tear-erupting laughs that never end. And we played games. Admittedly, I never likeĀ learning a new game. It takes brain work. However, I’m always glad I did. This year, I learned to play Silicon Valley Startup, a game I had little interest in. But as I played, I started thinking of classroom connections. I also built relationships and connections with my fellow players (I’m talking to you Mike Washburn, Jon Spike, Jeff Gargas, Chad Ostrowski, Dave Kolb, Scott Beiter, and Lori London). If you want teachers to build relationships, I’m not sure there’s any more effective way than introducing a hilarious game.

Let’s not forget the transportation to these events. These moments are oft overlooked, but they’re also opportunities for conversations and laughter.Ā  I was fortunate enough to spend time with Andrew Arevalo @gameboydrew during my layover to Spark and with Tisha Richmond @tishrich before our flight out of Spark. These are opportunities to hear more about their teaching lives, which are so different than my own. If we don’t get out of our region, we don’t learn about how different schooling looks in other parts of the country. Car rides to events also lead to deep conversations about podcasts and social media and other educational topics–and what’s more important about these conversations were the people willing to discuss both sides of the issue without passing judgment.

My point is that the sessions at education conferences are good and important. I certainly choose which ones I attend depending on the speakers who will be there and if I’ll learn something new from them that I didn’t know before.

But to take your conference–or your conference experience–from good to great is the conversations that you’re having or providing the opportunity for outside those sessions.

Build Curiosity with a Mystery Box

Have you seen advertisements for Hunt a Killer? Or the Mystery Package Company?

Inspired by them, I created a mystery box to introduce our Macbeth unit. My objectives:

  • Increase curiosity in the story
  • Build background knowledge before reading
  • Improve prediction and inferential skills.

My next step was to find objects to put into the box that would guide a student inquiry into Macbeth. Here’s what I included:

  • Two character maps
  • Map of Scotland and important Macbeth sites
  • A possible dinner menu for the banquet scene (with a note from Lady Macbeth)
  • The letter Macbeth wrote Lady Macbeth in Act 1
  • The “Double, double, toil and trouble” spell
  • Doctor’s observation notes of Lady Macbeth in Act 5
  • The “tomorrow” speech
  • An image of two bloody daggers
  • A (very cheap) crown

For access to all these items (except the crown), click here.

Last, I created a set of questions that would guide student thinking.

The result: A lot of engagement! Within seconds, someone from each group had the crown on their head. With a large assortment of items, everyone in each group had plenty to examine and discuss.

More importantly were the conversations I overheard. Students used information from different pieces of writing in the box to try to answer the questions. They debated and discussedĀ  their conclusions. By having to explain how the texts lead them to their answers, they’re getting practice in using textual evidence.


It’s Time to Cull Your Vocab List

It’s time to cull our vocabulary lists.

When’s the last time you really looked at the vocabulary words that you teach and asked yourself if all these words were essential for students to know for life? Or are you forcefed a vocabulary program by your district, but deep down you know some of the words aren’t relevant to students now and will likely never be?

The sad truth is that so many vocab programs and workbooks out there are filled with words that simply aren’t used often in our world. Or we as teachers rely on textbooks to point out words that “should” be taught (which at least they’re within the context of learning rather than randomly selected like many vocabulary programs.)

I’m fortunate enough to have the freedom when selecting vocabulary words, so a few years ago I eschewed the vocab workbooks our district owned and selected words from the texts that we read. But since I’m revamping the junior level English curriculum this summer, it’s also time to re-examine the vocabulary. We’ll be reading new texts and leaving others behind, so I want to make sure that the words we’re focusing on this year in our vocabulary instruction are also words relevant to our texts.

But how to decide which words to use? Simply choosing long words isn’t the answer, nor can we teach students every arcane word there may be in a text.

Here are some steps I’ve been following:

  1. I limit my number to 12 words a month that students are responsible for demonstrating mastery. When I’m creating an initial list, I’m looking for words that not only appear in texts we’ll be reading, but for words that could also be used in other contexts.
  2. Checking college bound vocabulary lists. There are often important words on their lists that connect well with the content you’re teaching.
  3. Consider words that have multiple meanings. For example, “pedestrian” or “novel” or “objective.” Students likely know the first meaning, but the second meanings of these words are also extremely important–not only for students to use in their own writing, but when they’re reading, they need to know by context which meaning to use.
  4. Examine any important affixes that could be linked to the word. When I teach “circumvent,” I ask students what shape “circum” connects with. Of course, they answer “circle.” “So,” I continue, “when we want to circumvent someone or something, we go around it.” This emphasizes that “circum” is an affix that can be used in words outside the math classroom, too.
  5. This summer, I’ve started using the Google Ngram Viewer. This is a handy tool that shows the frequency of a word from 1800-2008. By checking words with the Ngram Viewer, I have another way to know whether this is a word students are likely to encounter in the future.

Examining some of the texts I potentially will have students read in our “truth” unit–a study of fake news, biased news, and unreliable narrators–I came across the word “polarization.” This is a word that

  • could be connected to both this context but also to science.
  • contains affixes that could be potentially addressed
  • is important to the context and understanding of our unit

With the Ngram chart, I can see that “polarization” has grown in frequency and currently scores a .0005, which is on the higher end of the words on my curriculum vocab list (for comparison, “dog” ranks .004, “investigate” ranks .001, and “complication” scores a .0004).

(More on how to use the Google Ngram Viewer here.)

Now take a look at “phototropic,” which is actually a word in the freshman vocab workbooks in our district.

A score of .000003! For whatever reason, the word achieved peak popularity in the 1930s (I’m surmising this could be connected to science text of the time), but even then the peak score was .00001–still not an extraordinarily high score. Granted, the affixes in this word may have some benefit in teaching, but I question whether this word is appropriate for a freshman vocabulary study. Does it connect with their texts? No. Can it be used in multiple contexts? Not that I’m aware of. Is the word used frequently and/or growing in frequency? Definitely not.

The Ngram Viewer is only a tool. It shouldn’t be the sole determinant of whether a word should be used or eschewed.

However, the Ngram Viewer can be a great tool for determining which words make the final cut on your vocab list. Or if you’re forced by your district to teach a set list of words, the tool can provide insight on which words to make “must learn” words and which words are of secondary importance.

Plus, creating levels of words within your lists can provide a way to differentiate. Students who show mastery your coreĀ  words can then focus their learning on a second tier of words–words that maybe aren’t as frequently used but still beneficial to know, such as enervating, ostentatious, or supercilious.

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