Technology Pursuit

Blending Technology Into the Language Arts Classroom

Author: Melissa Pilakowski (page 1 of 22)

Netflix-Inspired Reading Recommendations.

Today was a weird scheduling day. We just came off two days of “extreme-cold-rolling-blackout” days, and tomorrow is a day off school.

What to do on this day before a 3-day weekend?

I tried Netflix-Inspired Reading Recommendations. Students share reading recommendations of their favorite books using a format similar to Netflix shows and movies.

I got the concept from some clever teacher in the Twitterverse, but I can’t remember who. (If you think it was you, comment below and claim your glory, please).

The Set-Up

First, I designed my own slide for The Marrow Thieves. (If you haven’t read it, you should.) I modeled it closely after Netflix’s graphics, making only a few alterations to make it work for books. I also added a section for pros and cons.

I then set up a template for students to use to keep the graphics somewhat uniform. After that, a simple copy/paste a few times in the slidedeck–enough so there’s one slide for each student–and it’s ready to go.

One tip: I create a set of slidedecks for students with last names starting with B, last names starting with C, etc. This keeps only a few students on a slidedeck at one time, which prevents lagging (and headaches and frustrations).


This isn’t a high-thinking activity, but it does have a few other benefits. One, it builds a reading community. I printed and posted these in our hallway for current students. I’m also going to make these available to underclassmen next year when we start planning our reading lists for the year. These recommendations show that everyone reads in our school–if you want to be like a certain cool upperclassman you admire, then maybe you should read the book they recommend.

I also emphasized visual design. Fonts have emotion, I reminded students, so choose a font that will fit the tone and mood of your book. Also, the image(s) you choose need to match the book’s tone and mood.

We also revisited some simple tidbits. Copyright dates are on the copyright page, usually the first or second left-hand page of a book. We reviewed genres, and students chatted as they worked about how best to describe the genre of their book. (One junior reading Flags of Our Fathers chose Historical Military, whereas his classmate reading 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers in Benghazi settled on simply Military since the event wasn’t distant enough that he felt it was “historical” yet.)

I also pushed the importance of word choice. I limited them to around 30 words–three lines on the template. They could not go over this limit. This pushed students to focus on what was truly important to the plot and choose words that packed emotion.

This isn’t an activity that’s going to help students make great reading or writing gains. However, it’s a fun one that does have benefits that we often overlook. I wouldn’t do this more than once a year (if I do it again at all), but it’s a great one for a 15-20 minute timeframe on that Friday afternoon.


Book Review: Read the World

Clearly, 2020 has presented educational challenges in technology and social justice. At first, these topics may be seen as two distinct issues. Yet, they come together in Read the World: Rethinking Literacy for Empathy and Action in a Digital Age by Kristin Ziemke and Katie Muhtaris.

Read the World focuses on using technology and building empathy through teaching students the skills they need to be strong readers. In chapter one, Ziemke and Muhtaris describe their pedagogical beliefs. Students need to be independent, they need to collaborate and create, and the classroom and curriculum need to be focused on them. Chapter 2 shares over 15 lessons to help students better comprehend digital texts, including infographics and images. Chapter 3 dives deeper into developing critical thinking and empathy through lessons that help students learn to use different lenses and perspectives. Finally, chapter 4 moves from students’ consumption of reading to their creation of content that will help make our world better.

Each lesson explains with its purposes, the protocol, and ample examples of student work, which is often a combination of both offline and online writing. While the lessons are mainly geared to upper elementary/middle school students, I found several takeaways that I am already planning to use with my high schoolers:


  • Questions We May Ask to Consider a Text from Multiple Viewpoints. These are questions provided by Ziemke and Muhtaris that prompt students think beyond the text to other points of view. I particularly like these questions: 
  • What information aren’t they telling us? 
  • What values, cultures, or beliefs are represented in the text?
  • How does the author use language or text features to attract attention?


Already, I’ve referred to these questions often as I’ve worked on lessons plans for the coming year.



  • Using Padlet to Structure a Lesson. Ziemke explains how she uses a Padlet page to organize online reading and responding. In this example, she provides images to view, texts to read, and a link to Flipgrid for student responses. All these can be easily modified. Students could give feedback to images or choose which text to read. Students can also easily leave written responses directly on Padlet if they aren’t comfortable with Flipgrid (I find that the older students are, the less comfortable they are with filming themselves.)




  • New York Times’ “What’s Going On in This Graph” and “What’s Going On in This Picture?” How did I not know about these weekly features? Each week, a new infographic and image is published at these links, and students are encouraged to study and analyze these visual texts. This is a great inquiry-based approach to reading these digital texts and developing analytical skills.



Read the World is a great reference for any literary teacher, especially at the middle levels. It’s a testament that critical reading, technology and empathy can be successfully intertwined to prepare our kids to be difference makers. 


Why You Should Read Balance with Blended Learning

I’ve read hundreds of education books over the past 25 years. Most I nod at and say, “Hey, that was good.”

This one, Balance with Blended Learning, was one that shook me up–in the most awesome way possible.

Maybe part of it is who I am as a person and teacher. As an English/Language Arts teacher, I feel overwhelmed trying to give student feedback. I know they need frequent and timely feedback. I know they need frequent writing opportunities.

I also know I have a ton of non-classroom responsibilities–class sponsor, play director, Twitter chat moderator, doctoral student–and while some of them are my own undertaking, I don’t want to give them up. These are all things that make me a better teacher and a better colleague.

That’s where Catlin Tucker’s newest book comes in. I’ve long been a fan of blended learning and integrating technology into the classroom, but the prospect of cutting down on giving feedback and assessing work outside of class hours (which induces an enormous amount of stress for me) is thrilling.

Plus, Catlin’s approaches focus on standard-based grading. For the past couple of years, I’ve been working hard to focus more on grades at the end of a unit and via student conferences, so her grading approaches also meshed well with my philosophy.

Here are a few of my favorite takeaways:

  1. Side-by-Side Assessments. Catlin assesses her students when they are sitting right next to her. She reads through their work, thinking aloud for them, and uses a hard copy of the rubric (provided well ahead of time) to assess their work.  The key is to keep these conferences to a few minutes, and that means focusing on a limited number of standards/objectives. Catlin warns that this can be an adjustment; it’s easy to lose track of time, so it takes practice. In the long run, students get more out of that few minutes than they do out of comments in the margins that you spent 15 minutes writing.
  2. Student Self-Assessment & Reflection. This comes before the Side-by-Side Assessments. Students complete their own copy of the rubric for that assignment. I also had the idea of having students use Google comments to highlight specific parts of their work to highlight how their writing or work reflects each bullet point on the rubric.
  3. Station Rotation for In-Progress Feedback. The best feedback comes during writing; once a student is done writing, it’s much harder to encourage them to revise and change. Catlin both describes and gives visual examples of how to set up station rotation so that she can provide feedback at one of those stations. Again, she admits it’s not always easy. Teachers need to be focused when they’re with their 5-8 students and narrow in on only 1-2 objectives (such as thesis or using evidence) when giving feedback. It’s easy for us to see a mechanical error or a missing transition and not comment on it, but we also need to remember that students can’t handle lots of feedback at once. Choose the 1-2 standards for that day and focus on those.

Trust me, those represent only a few of the strategies to not only help teachers find balance, but to also motivate students, improve their reflection abilities, and help them become more autonomous. This is a book that’s not just about teachers–it’s a book that can also grow students’ metacognitive and executive function skills, too.




Review: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States

This summer I have a renewed focus to not only increase the number of diverse titles in my classroom library but also become more familiar with those titles. After all, if we don’t haven’t read a book, it’s pretty hard to which students it will appeal to. Let’s start with this worthy addition to any humanities classroom.

Title: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (This is an Amazon link. I get nothing if you buy it. In fact, you’ll earn a lot more street cred if you buy it from your local bookstore.)                             

Author: Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz; adapted by Jean Mendoza and Debbie Reese

Publisher: Beacon Press

Date of Publication: 2019

Genre: Non-fiction

Ethnic Representation: Indigenous Peoples

In the original book, Dunbar-Ortiz traces the history of the United States, albeit through an Indigenous lens, and Mendoza and Reese adapt and condense the book to make it more accessible to YA audiences. The book begins at the Europeans’ arrival in the Americas and continues through the gradual removal and destruction of Indigenous peoples as the white settlers claimed land across the continent. The authors lay clear many of the facts that are glossed over in traditional history textbooks, such as the pope’s Doctrine of Discovery to declare the Christian “right” to claim new lands for Christians, the devious plans of Jefferson to transform Natives into farmers and bankrupt them, and the torturous treatment of Indigenous peoples in the southwest by the church missions. The book ends with descriptions of protests and social activism, including the American Indian Movement and the Standing Rock protests.

Although I’ve taken several classes in American Indian literature, much of the information supplied in this book was not only new but downright shocking. Perhaps I was taught the Doctrine of Discovery in high school, but I’m fairly certain there was no discussion of the immoral use of religion as a way to claim inhabited lands. I’m also aware of Jefferson’s troubling ownership and use of enslaved people but not of his hushed plans to eliminate Natives through bankruptcy.

The destruction and genocide of Indigenous peoples continue throughout the book, and the authors not only remind readers of the events, but they provide extra information that impacts the context of the events. For example, most US citizens are well aware that the Second Amendment in the right to bear arms and form a militia; however, the authors point out that the purpose of a militia was not only to fight the British, but also to track down escaped Blacks and to murder Indigenous peoples. Extra information such as this is threaded throughout the writing, not just surprising me but also shocking me with the brazenness of white politicians of the time. The authors also provide examples of euphemistic language used by politicians to assuage concerns of white citizens–who, sadly, didn’t need much comfort since they, as Christians, already felt their supremacy over the Indigenous due to the Church’s Doctrine of Discovery.

In addition to the main text, the book is replete with sidebars that provide more content and often prod student thinking even further. One sidebar explained Washington’s work as a surveyor and how this role led to the destruction of Indigenous villages. Another sidebar described the “client class” found in some southeast Indigenous nations, which were comprised of members of the nation who had special privileges due to their cooperation with the whites. It was often members of the “client class” that signed treaties, and they did not represent the rest of their nation. When appropriate, maps, sketches, and photographs are included with the text and sidebar to provide visuals to readers.

This isn’t going to be a book that appeals to every student. It’s going to be a book for students who are history buffs, passionate about social change, and/or interested in the life and strife of Indigenous peoples. This is also an important book for educators to read, especially social studies teachers and teachers of Native students (but really–all educators should read this.) There are many points during an American history curriculum where excerpts of this book can provide an alternate lens of how the destructive actions of people of European descent irreparably harmed the Indigenous peoples who had already created their own nations and civilizations on the continents.

The Books We Tell Students to Read


Somewhere along my education journey, this statement embedded in my mind: Make sure your classroom library reflects your students. 

But this isn’t good enough. Instead, we should be thinking this:

Make sure your classroom library reflects people globally.

My classroom library certainly doesn’t, nor do my recommendations. I’ve always purchased new books every year that my students wanted, such as more mysteries, more true crime, more military, or more non-fiction. I’ve also purchased a couple of new young adult literature collections each year, which usually include a few diverse authors.

Until now, I’d felt good about this. I could find books and authors from nearly every background if a student requested it.

The problem is, my students don’t request it. Nor have I usually included these books if I’m narrowing down choices for a struggling reader. Sure, I’ve promoted The Hate U Give and Everything Everything, but providing one diverse author out of every nine or ten books is anything but a win.

Yesterday I spent a few hours thinking about all of this and also doing some research on what our government and media are suggesting our teens read. Here’s what I found in my very unscientific study:

To summarize this infographic, 80-90% of what these sites recommend are white authors. (And dear god, NPR! Did you read ANY books by a POC? Sherman Alexie as the first one on the list….in the 31st position!)

I can’t say my recommendations are any better than this infographic. Here’s how it goes in my room. If a student needs a book recommendation, I peruse my shelves and find 3-5 books that would be a good fit for that student’s interests. However, how many of these 5 books are from a Person of Color? One, maybe two on a really good day.

What’s even worse is that I do have titles from a diverse set of authors (though not enough). Unfortunately–nay, let’s go despicably–I haven’t read many of them. This is a huge problem, because I make many recommendations based on books I’ve read. This means I’m going to be focusing on reading more diverse authors for my summer reading.

But there aren’t many titles from authors of color in young adult literature

You’re not wrong, although I would argue that publishers are picking up more titles by authors of color. Do yourself a favor and pick up The Poet X, All American Boys, or The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. However, if we made pie charts from the past two years of published young adult authors, those charts would be similar to the ones above.

I get that publishers are buying more from white authors because that’s where the money is. That means we need to do a better job as educators to purchase books from diverse authors. We need to raise the demand for those books and those authors, as well as provide these diverse voices to our classrooms.

There are some minority backgrounds that are harder to find in books, such as Native American teen life. Sure, we have Sherman Alexie, and there are other great Native authors who write for a more adult audience, such as Louise Erdrich, Joy Harjo, and Leslie Silko Marmon. But there is a huge dearth of Native authors writing for teen audiences.

That means we need to actively search these books out. There are a few out there, such as Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich-Smith, and The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline. Unfortunately, the number of Native voices writing for young adults, or at least finding publishing success, is far too low, especially for students on or near reservations (like mine).

Take the opportunity this summer. Look through your classroom books and search for voices not present and represented. Locate and order books that can add to your students’ knowledge and understanding of our global community.

Vocabulary Connections with Padlet

When learning new vocabulary, it’s important for students to link that vocabulary to something that they already know. That’s why the ubiquitous Frayer Model includes a square for students to provide or draw examples.

Students can also take this to the next level with finding GIFs that illustrate their vocabulary words.

Made with Padlet


The How-To
  • Start with a Padlet wall with a column format.
  • Name each column with a vocabulary word.
  • Make sure the settings allow users to add to the Padlet and that it isn’t in “View Only” mode
  • Start the Padlet off with 3-4 examples of what you expect. I ask students to include an image or GIF and to use the word in a sentence that explains the image.
  • When you’re ready, provide students with the link.

This activity works to reinforce the vocabulary words in students’ minds, but I also use it as a formative assessment for using words in a sentence. Students’ sentences give me a sense a which words they’re integrating easily and which words they’re struggling with. I can then focus future instruction and practice with those specific words.

Another huge benefit is students being able to see other students’ sentences. They can see how other students integrate the words, which can be bonus learning to those students who need a little more scaffolding.

This same idea can be modified for other classroom uses. Students can use GIFs to represent their current mood as a daily or weekly check-in. Or students can post a GIF and a sentence as a quick response to a text or video.

A few hints when using this activity:

  • Give students choice. Rather than making them find an image for each word, let them select 5-6 words.
  • Create multiple Padlet walls. I assign walls to 6-8 students because the walls can get filled with graphics quickly. This leads to longer times to open the link.
  • Use for self-paced learning. After students learn this activity, it’s a great one to use during station rotations, playlists, or days you’re absent and you’re leaving sub plans.






Weekly Check-Ins with Memes


I wanted to do a super easy check-in at the beginning of each week, but I also wanted it to be fun.

Thus, the Weekly Check-In with Memes.

It’s easy-peasy to make this happen.

  1. Find and download the memes you want to use.
  2. Open a Google Form
  3. Choose a Multiple Choice Question
  4. For each “option”, click the image button and upload the meme you want.
  5. Add a final open-ended question

This open-ended question has given me insight into a lot of what the kids are thinking and feeling. Given that I teach seniors, a lot of them wanted to vent about this lackluster graduation season. Some are giving me a heads up that they’re working full time. Some just want to tell me they painted their toenails purple.

Any students who click the two lower memes or write me a message definitely get an email from me later in the week. (Sidenote: I write my notes right in the “response spreadsheet” created by the Google Form and use Yet Another Mail Merge to send emails. Saves lots of time!)

I try to change the memes week-to-week. This week: It’s the Tiger King version.

This check-in is something I started during this time of remote learning, but I’ll continue it when we’re all back together. Ever-changing memes also keep the kids excited to wonder what you’ll have on the check-in.

My Favorite Google Hack: Make a Copy for Students

Let me show you my FAVORITE Google Classroom Hack: Make a template and make a copy for students. It’s great for multiple reasons:

  1. Easy feedback. Check into student work without waiting for them to share a document with you.
  2. Provide links to resources. Especially when it comes to longer writing assignments, I love being able to add links to resources on the first page of the assignment. They are easily accessible to every student because they’re literally ON the assignment.
  3. Provide easy access to models. You can provide a model of what you expect on the assignment, so students can easily refer to it. Longer models, such as past research papers or blog posts, can be easily linked instead.

No more asking students to share documents. No more excuses that their document is on their home computer. No more complaints that Google “lost” their document. It’s all right there in your Google Drive and easy to find.

Let’s Do This

First, start a Google doc that will be the template.

  • I start with a code for a heading. This is the first assignment of our multi-genre writing unit, so the code is MG 001, followed by a more descriptive title. Later, this makes it easier to refer to when talking to students or locating in Google Classroom.
  • Using a 1×1 table (Insert>Table), I add the objectives of the assignments.
  • Then I write all the details I want my students to have. I also include links to resources, models, or previous work that they may want to refer to when working on the assignment (such as a brainstorming document completed the day before).
  • Add in examples or models of what you expect from students.
  • Don’t forget your deadline!
  • Last, I add a line telling students to “write below.” This seems obvious, but it’s not there, several students will ask if they should do their assignment on that document or on a new document. This small detail saved me from saying 10 times a day that they can write on that same document.

Then comes the Google Classroom magic.

  • Click on the Classwork tab, and this screen will appear
  • Click on “Add” and locate your template.
  • Now click on “Students can view file.” This will bring up a dropdown menu, where you can then click “Make a copy for each student.”
  • Finally, complete your title (in this case, I would put MG 001: Annotated Bibliography), any instructions (I usually leave this blank since the directions are already in the document) and add a due date.


That’s it. Hope this works for you! For me, it was a hack that forever changed the way I assigned work on Google docs and slides!



4 Reasons to Play Gone Home in the Classroom

You’ve returned from a year abroad to your family’s new house in the Pacific Northwest. There’s no one to meet you at the airport, and when you finally find the hidden key into the house–there’s no one home. Slowly, you find your way through this old house that once belonged to your strange uncle, but there’s no sign of your parents or sister.

What you do find are televisions left on, boxes of your family’s belongings, and dozens of clues for you to piece together the story of where your family had gone.

Welcome home. Gone Home, that is.

Debuting in 2013, Gone Home gained acclaim for its story development as a digital narrative set in the late 1990s. Players attempt to solve the disappearance of Katie’s family by examining artifacts such as journal entries, business letters, and newspaper articles while experiencing the ominous feel that we’ve all felt of being alone in an unfamiliar place at night.

English teacher Paul Darvasi recognized the potential of using Gone Home as a digital text and used it to teach close reading, literary devices such as allusion and mood, and writing critical narratives. (Read more about Paul’s unit here.) And now, he’s sharing his experience by helping lead a Gone Home game study on Participate! Paul and fellow teacher-gamer Jon Spike lead the discussion board and join in Thursday afternoon Twitch streams, where Mike Washburn and Steve Isaacs try their hand at the game.

Still not sure whether the game is right for your classroom? Here are four reasons why Gone Home is the next great text for your curriculum.

1. Teaching inferences and conclusions. The game is filled with texts for students to read, and every text contains some clue or background that helps you solve the mystery. It’s impossible to play the game and not make inferences! Also, reading goes beyond textual analysis; the game contains many visual and audio clues that players have to consider when solving the mystery.

2. Students need to read multi-media texts. Face it–our world is changing, and the need for students to be proficient digital readers grows every year. More than ever, this generation needs to critically “read” photographs, videos, audio, social media posts, memes, movies, video games–the list is endless and becoming longer. Gone Home is an experience that allows students to use their literacy skills to critically analyze and evaluate Gone Home both as a narrative and as a video game.

3. Promotes LBGTQ stories. Not only is Gone Home a mystery, but it also includes an LBGTQ storyline, which is a huge bonus given the dearth of LBGTQ texts currently on our classroom bookshelves. While there has been some growth in LBGTQ stories in recent years, we need to continue providing more texts like these for our students.

4. Encourages academic conversation. As students play, either side-by-side or in small groups on a single device, conversation naturally grows. At first, group dialogue focuses on how to get into the house and where to go next, but as students examine the artifacts, they become detectives. They analyze and debate about what texts mean, and they reread documents to make sure they’ve gleaned every important detail. Sometimes guiding students to have academic conversations can be tough, but these conversations evolve organically while playing Gone Home

No doubt there are more reasons to play Gone Home. Pop on over to the Gone Home game study discussion board with your comments and questions!

The Final Project: Choice Projects in College Composition


Link to this Final Project Slidedeck.

The last major piece of writing that my college comp students complete this year is one they choose. I’ve seen a variety of genres, from a poetry anthology  (complete with a sestina) to an APA research paper on AIDS. It all depends on students’ current interests, career goals, or simply an area of writing they feel they could improve.

Even though we’re learning online this year, the process doesn’t change. Students submit their proposal and set of deadlines. Each week after that, they need to complete a progress report and any questions/requests they have for me. In the meantime, I read through their work in progress and give feedback to them.

Besides the topic and genre, students also choose how they will publish their work–because they need to publish their work. Whether they create their own page via Adobe Spark or start a Medium account, they need to create a piece of work that will be published to the world.

However, there are also deadlines and parameters for the project (see above). Usually, I require at least 1500 words, but given our current craziness, I’m requiring 1000 this year. Based on these parameters, each student completes a project proposal with a timeline to complete all the work. (See below)

Each week, students update their progress on their second slide, as well as ask questions or request assistance from me. Of course, some students will not meet their deadline, and I suspect this may especially happen in these early weeks of the project this year since I’m not seeing them daily during class time. What I reiterate to them is to be honest, tell what they did get done, and then adjust next week’s plan accordingly so that they still make progress.

I’m not sure what this project will be like this year with our new learning environment. Is it possible students will fall behind? Yep. I’d even say it’s likely. But making (and adjusting) plans is just as important a skill that they need for college. The only thing I do know is that I’ll try to treasure these final weeks with my students as much as I can.


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