Technology Pursuit

Blending Technology Into the Language Arts Classroom

Author: Melissa Pilakowski (page 1 of 18)

Our Optional Hour of Code

As an English/Language Arts teacher, I don’t have a lot of coding in my classroom. We do a bit of HTML when we do Choose Your Own Adventure stories on Twine, but that’s it.

This past week, Hour of Code week, I decided to offer an opportunity for interested students. On Classcraft, I made a sidequest for students to complete a set of Angry Birds challenges on Code.Org. 

The sidequest served to be a perfect Friday activity for those done with their regular work for the week. In fact, one of my senior girls enjoyed it so much that she’s considering taking coding next semester.

If you haven’t checked out, it’s filled with many great coding games like this that are applicable to all ages. Even though my juniors and seniors enjoyed this, my 5th grade son could easily enjoy it just as much. (In addition, even my experienced coders challenged themselves with the complexity of the blocks and routes they made.)

Jigsaw Your Peer Reviews

I’ve tried dozens of ways for students to peer review each other. Analog styles, such as using post-it notes or forms. Digital, online ways using special programs or comments on Google docs.

A year or two ago, I read one of Starr Sackstein’s books, where she described how she jigsawed her peer reviews, where groups focused on one specific area of a paper, such as organization, word choice, or introduction.

After a few rounds, jigsaw peer reviews have soundly become my favorite form of peer review to do with my students. Here’s why I think it works:

  • It’s more kinesthetic. We use hard copies, and it allows readers to feel more connected. That kinesthetic feel can’t be replaced.
  • It’s more social. Starting in groups and comparing ideas, peer feedback becomes a social activity.
  • It’s scaffolded. We start by working in groups and then release to independent work, though conferring with partners is always allowed.
  • It’s less overwhelming. By only focusing on one section or aspect of a paper, students aren’t overwhelmed by longer papers or papers from struggling writers.


    1. I print off all the drafts from a Google folder using Mergy to merge them together into one PDF.
    2. I give each student a secret code (like 001, 002, etc.) and write it at the top of the paper. They also use their code later when reviewing. It keeps feedback anonymous. I write the code at the top of each paper in lieu of the writer’s name.
    3. I print the forms for each of my groups (see below) using a different color for each group. For argument papers, as we just finished, my groups are Intros & Conclusions, Section 1, Section 2, and Section 3. (To make the process smoother for students, I also highlight the thesis and draw lines between sections so they’re easy to locate) (For narrative writing, groups might focus on character development, setting, dialogue, and plot structure.)

Introducing Peer Review:

Generally, most students have done forms of peer review when they reach my classroom, so my emphasis is on expectations and the why. First, I reinforce WHY we do this: one, it provides feedback (and this is the obvious reason), but two, I emphasize that they become better writers through this process. They will see how other writers “move” in their papers and start thinking about their own “moves.”

Then, I show them examples of comments that meet and don’t meet expectations (last page of the Google Doc embedded above.)

Round 1 of Peer Review:

I split students into small groups no larger than four students and place each group in charge of one section. I give each group 2-4 papers. Each group member must read their assigned section of EACH paper. Then, the group’s recorder writes on the colored form the feedback that the group has for each paper. (Groups might only have one recorder, or they might take turns).

This takes time if it’s done well. I don’t rush students through this. I want them to discuss these papers, the feedback they want to give, and how to tactfully give that feedback. On average, round 1 takes 20-30 minutes.

After Round 1:

Once the group has carefully discussed and given feedback to all the original papers given to the group, I tell them they can start working independently, completing the colored forms on their own. Of course, they still have their group to confer with if they need ideas or help with their paper.

On the second day (this usually takes us two periods–we don’t have block scheduling), groups read for a different section than they did on the first day. Another alternative is I’ll give each group a few feedback forms of each color. Readers can simply see which sections still need read on that paper based on what colored forms are still missing (readers staple their forms to the papers when finished).

Let me also mention the benefit of using different colors for each section. In one glance, we all know if a paper has feedback for all its sections or which section it’s missing.

What Do I Do During the Process?

I answer questions from readers. I give them feedback ideas if they’re struggling with a paper. I move papers from one group to another. Sometimes I hand specific papers to specific readers because the reader might have a helpful background knowledge about the topic, or maybe the writer needs a “special touch” from a tactful reader. If the writer is in the same room at the same time their paper is being read, I make sure their paper bypasses their group and lands elsewhere.

The Day After Peer Review!

Two things. Obviously, students then receive their own papers back and have feedback from four different readers. They use that feedback to revise their papers (in addition to the comments I’ve also given them–generally, I try to focus on giving students two comments that will most help their paper).

Second, students then vote on their favorite feedback giver. Using a Google form, each student gets to vote on the student code who gave them the most helpful and specific feedback. Those winners are recognized in class and earn extra XP, gold, or something else in our game.


I’ll admit it–this is more work than digital feedback. It takes more planning and  more prep time. The result, however, is the best feedback I’ve seen in all my years of teaching. This system provides more accountability to me and to each other than anything else I’ve used, and writers take their given feedback much more seriously. The 60-90 minutes of prep time is that much time I receive back when I’m reading and evaluating final drafts.


Thankful for the Imperfect

I connect to so much of what Suzy Lolley writes in this blog post. Social media makes other lives seem perfect. I’ve often been guilty of reading teachers’ books or seeing their presentations and thinking, Wow, they’ve got this teaching gig figured out. For a long time, I saw how far I still had to go compared to them.

Slowly, I’ve realized that we all feel this way. None of us feel like we have it figured out. None of us will be perfect teachers. I don’t have to aim for the perfect classroom performance every day. It’s okay to be imperfect.

Read more here:

Social media can really skew our view of ourselves. I don’t know about you, but the more I see people’s perfect families, perfect houses, and perfect lives, it makes me feel like there’s something wrong with me. It can make my gratitude meter run a little low. However, in this month of gratitude, I want to be very intentional to be thankful for the imperfect.





Who’s Your Guide When Things Get Tough?

This time of year can make it hard on us teachers. It gets dark early. We’ve been in school a few months, but Christmas Break is a long ways away. To help us, though, we have all kinds of people around us.

Maybe we should take some time to recognize them and be grateful. Josh Stock does just that in this post below!

Who is your guide when things are tough?

Grateful to Hit the Reset Button

In honor of gratitude month, some friends and I decided to share posts of what we’re most grateful for. My friend Adam Powley writes about how he is grateful for the reset button.

In the B.C. years of my marriage (that is Before Children) my wife and I rocked Guitar Hero. Neither of us play guitar but ability to pretend to be rockers, enjoy the music, and just be goofy with each other got us through some tough times. We were in the B.C. era because of infertility issues and jamming on together on a fake plastic guitar was one way for us to have what game designer Nicole Lazzaro called “Serious Fun”, or mind altering play. This silly game, with its cartoonish rockers and its Superstar Mode Power Up, was a way for us to escape and find a meaningful connection with each other.

During one of our jam sessions one of our guests noticed that I picked up on new game mechanics pretty quickly and told me it was “evidence of a misspent youth”. I took this to mean that I had spent a lot of time playing video games in my childhood. There was a negative connotation to this but I wasn’t upset because I did play a lot of video games but I did a lot of other things too. Flash forward to marriage AD (Achieved Descendants)* and my new job as an 11th grade US History teacher and that misspent youth began to pay off when I joked with a colleague during lunch duty that school should be more like a role-playing game. This discussion led me on a journey towards gamification and game-inspired classroom designs and has radically improved both me and my students’ classroom experience. There are so many game inspired concepts that I am grateful for but I am extremely thankful for the notion of a reset button.

Want to read more? Of course you do! Go here…

Yes, I’m Telling You to Be Grateful for Stress


It’s been a stressful past two weeks. I was senior sponsor for Homecoming. We’ve had daily rehearsals for our one-act play. I’ve had observations by our local service unit and the department chair of our local college (and as much as I’d like to say that doesn’t make me nervous, it’s still an energy zapper).

I may or may not have eaten an entire bag of cheese popcorn and a bag of dark chocolate chips this weekend.

This was the first time this school year when I felt myself slipping under the water, where every time I crossed something off my to-do list, two more things popped up. I was simply surviving the days, dragging myself home, and procrastinating my ever-growing list. I was missing the proverbial forest for the trees–focusing only on what I had to do and forgetting about my long-term goals, my vision to help others, my commitment to my blog.

Then I ran across this Facebook post:

Could you believe this made me grateful for stress? OK, maybe not super grateful for the stress itself, but a reminder that teaching –and the stress that comes with it–is what creates meaning in my life. Sharing engaging, playful ideas for the classroom creates meaning for me. Presenting at conferences and meeting other fantastic educators creates meaning for me. In her TED talk, Kelly McGonigall also talks of the health benefits of stress, and no surprise, one of the biggest is the oxytocin boost we get when we….help others!

I’d venture that we all have weeks–or multiple weeks–where we feel overwhelmed with teaching and all the meetings, paperwork, and “duties as assigned” that go with this profession. And, at least for me, it’s so easy to have tunnel vision, to survive just long enough to leave school by 5pm, grab a bag of my favorite white cheddar popcorn and collapse in my living room.

However, I can’t forget to be grateful that I’m doing what I love doing. As the post says, we have to trust ourselves that we will be able to handle the stress, that we will get through this, that we are making a difference and doing what we enjoy.

This week I was accepted into the doctoral program at the University of Nebraska (back to my first alma mater–GO HUSKERS!), and for that I’m extremely grateful. But I’m also extremely anxious about the load that is going to come with taking doctoral classes and writing a dissertation the next 4 years.

I have no idea how much stress this program will introduce into my life. Yet, anytime we push ourselves to innovate and take risks, we’re going to experience stress. It’s the cover charge for growth.  As hard as it is, and will be, we need to take a moment and view stress from that perspective: BECAUSE we have jobs where we teach amazing kids, jobs where we get to innovate and create, we will have stress.

The next time you’re at your wits end with a never-ending to-do list, here’s your challenge (and a challenge I make to myself):

Be grateful. You are a teacher; you are making a difference in others lives; you are creating meaning in your own life. Stress is simply a by-product of having great job of Educator.

Student Reflection with Sown To Grow

Study after study has shown the benefits of student reflection, and that’s why SowntoGrow is one of my highly recommended sites to use in the classroom.

But instead of me grading the work and then giving the score to students to reflect upon, I decided to switch the order. Instead, students first reflect upon their work, and then I share my thoughts and reflection with their score.

If the student reflects first, he/she isn’t influenced by my thinking. Instead, I get a better idea of what they’re proud of or what they want more work on. I’ve often found that if I put my grade and comments on a work first, they simply regurgitate what I told them as their next goal. That doesn’t lead to their ownership–it’s just putting down what I think they should put down and moving on.

I can then read not only the student work but also his/her thinking. Most of the time we agree, but occasionally our scores are far apart OR their future goals of improvement are different than mine. This becomes a great entry point for a conference.

I also like how easy it has been for my students to use. This process only takes students a few minutes to log into the site, reflect, and move on to the next task at hand. After the first few times, students can do this own their own as part of a self-paced system or a blended learning classroom, and then I can conference with them after perusing their reflections. Most of all, I’m excited for them to review their work at the end of each semester and see how much they’ve learned and grown!



Dealing a Title!

One thing I tend to overlook when I teach writing is titles.

We get through revisions and formatting, and then all of the sudden, my students want to know if they need a title. “Yes,” I tell them, which inevitably leads to, “Well, what should I title it?”

For once, I finally created a lesson solely based on TITLES.

Inspired by The Quiet Year, I created a “title prompt” for each card in a playing deck. For cards 2-10, I simply gave a title of a book or essay and asked students to tweak it to make it their own. For Jacks-Aces, I gave a prompt or challenge, such as “Think of a song that could double as a title for your essay.”

I gave each student a deck of cards, and they drew ten cards from the deck. They looked up the prompt for each of their cards and wrote down potential titles. Ahead of time, I warned them that some of the titles would be worthless–and that was OK! As writers, we don’t always write Pulitzer Prize winning material the first time. This warning is important so students don’t get caught up on making each title brilliant. This activity is about quantity, not quality.

Finally, each student took a highlighter and rotated around the room, reading everyone else’s titles. They marked their favorites with a dot from their highlighter.

By the end of the activity, every student had at least two quality titles for their essays. A few days later, when it came time to prepare the essays for publication in our literary magazine, not one needed any help with a title.


Mission Impossible: Themed Flex Learning

Finally, after weeks of learning our routines, our technology, and the expectations of our classroom, we ventured into our first week of flex learning.

It was also Homecoming Week, golf districts, cross-country conference, the school blood drive, and two away games for volleyball, so it was a good time for students to move at their own pace since each day there would be a few students missing from classes.

To celebrate the first week, I dubbed it Mission Impossible and used the narrative for each of my three classes. Inspired by John Meehan’s Break-In games, I set up a slide deck with all of the “missions” of the week and the links to each of them. Each day I tracked student work using a traditional clipboard checklist to ensure that everyone stayed on track.

On Friday, everyone who completed all the missions on time rolled a 20-sided die to determine how much XP they earned (so 1=100, 20=2000).

The best part of the week were the hidden code words. Students could find up to three code words. I’d created JPGs of each of the codewords–mammoth, parka, and czar–and how they are words we’ve gained from the Russian language. I stored the JPGs in my Google Drive and linked them to images in the slidedeck and assignments. If they found the words, they earned a piece of candy, 20 HP, or 100XP.

Here are the slide decks below:

College Composition:


British Literature:

Applied Communications 12:

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!!)



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