From Jeopardy and the Amazing Race to Full on Gamification: Confessions of a Wannabe Gamer

I am by no means a gamer nerd but my evolution of the use of games in my classroom has gone from power point Jeopardy Games and Amazing Race QR Codes to a full on gaming platform, avatars,  Boss Battles, and strategizing  my lessons for student opportunities to level up.

On December 2, 2015 7:00 PM EST I will be leading a webinar for ISTE’s Professional Learning Series addressing gamification as a tool for classroom learning.

Get Your Game On: Boost Content Area Learning with Gamification

Gamification, the application of game playing, is all the rage in classrooms these days. There are numerous ways to bring games and game playing into your content area classroom that promote learning and deepen student understanding. Whether you are looking for engaging gaming tools like Kahoot! or are interested in introducing a game platform like Classcraft Games into your classroom, join this webinar to learn about what gamification looks and examples how teachers are using games in classrooms today, how you can implement a variety of games and game based learning into your classroom, and gain additional resources to level up your teaching.

Gaming offers so many positive opportunities for students and teachers alike to increase engagement, content learning, and problem based learning.

New to gaming, here are some tips and tricks to getting started:

  1. If you are using the Jeopardy templates to quiz your students knowledge of a subject matter and stir up some competition, try  Kahoot! or Quizizz. These two simple learning games allow you to create a quiz or survey for your class, students use their mobile devices to answer the questions, and shake up the traditional quiz or question and answer classroom practice.
  2. Minecraft Your Book Assessments (and more). Last year I had a student who was a big gamer, coder, and into Minecraft. After he read the Maze Runner he created the entire setting and plot of the book into a Minecraft game for his fellow students to play. Andrew Miller has a great blog post on Edutopia about other ways to use Minecraft in your classroom.
  3. Digital Badges & Reward motivate some. The Smithsonian Quests and Khan Academy offer digital badges for students who explore and complete online learning tasks designed by these two companies. For some students, this individualized learning offers inspiration and motivation.
  4. So, you want full on gaming? Classcraft is one gaming platform that offers free online, educational role-playing game that teachers and students play together in the classroom. Students can level up, work in teams, and earn powers that have real-world consequences. With Classcraft, the game runs passively in the background, collecting points and managing powers. — And those of you attending my webinar, I will be giving away one FREE PREMIUM subscription to Classcraft!!

Looking for more information about Gamification in the classroom, check out the following resources:

Edudemic’s 23 Best Game-Based Educational Resources of 2014

MindShifts Using Games for Learning

Best TED Talks About Gamification 

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Utilizing Interactive Notebooks to Support ELLs in Your Classroom

The following slides are from a workshop I led with my colleague and ELL teacher, Vanessa Kravitz, at the annual New York State Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (NYS TESOL 2015).

Interactive English Notebooks are successful tools for teachers and students to engage, organize, and encourage critical thinking. Interactive foldables are three-dimensional interactive graphic organizers that can be used at any level and with any subject area as a learning and assessment tool, as well as a portfolio of learning, and student created textbook. Research states interactive foldables provide tools used to visually represent relationships in text, help students retain information, and keep students actively engaged in the instructional process and learning as they create foldables (Zike, 2000). Interactive foldables offer a hands-on approach to teaching, are effective study guides, help students organize information, and can replace the use of worksheets. This workshop introduced interactive notebooks and addressed how one English teacher and one ELL teacher integrated them into their middle school classrooms to support diverse student needs, specifically ELLs,  for reading and writing success. High quality instruction is essential to promote language acquisition and ELL success (Short & Echevarria, 2005), and interactive notebooks organize, engage, and encourage student understanding. In helping students attain the Common Core learning standards, interactive foldables are a scaffolding tool for English Language Learners and a personal learning tool for all students. Participants created, folded, and tried out interactive notebook activities in this hands on workshop to learn how interactive notebooks can help students read closely, critically, and write with more depth.

What are ways that you can support ELL students in your classroom. Here are five things you can do immediately to support these students:

  1. Utilize Visual Aids
  2. Do More Small Group Work
  3. Learn About the Background of Your Students
  4. Offer Sentence Stems & Thinking Frames to help with Content Area Language & Learning
  5. Allow Scaffolding in Their Native Language – All students to write in their first language and take note while reading in their first language

How does one grade the interactive notebook? Below is a rubric I created to evaluate my students interactive notebooks.


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Unpacking Race in To Kill a Mockingbird and A Raisin in the Sun in Response to Ferguson and Baltimore

This week I presented at the annual Critical Questions in Education Conference in Baltimore, MD. I presented with my esteemed colleagues, Audrey Fisch and Susan Chenelle, authors of Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird (2013) and Using Informational Text to Teach A Raisin in the Sun (2015). 

Texts like To Kill a Mockingbird and A Raisin in the Sun are widely taught in language arts classrooms throughout the United States.

But how are these texts being taught? What kinds of questions are students being asked to think about in relation to these texts? How can we use these seminal literary works to unpack and uncover the difficult “hidden history” of race in the United States? How, using text pairings with informational and other literary texts, can we support our students in engaging in difficult but informed conversations about race in our classrooms? This panel will offer specific strategies and assignments developed in relation to best practices, research, and classroom experience.

With Raisin, for example, we offer strategies to incorporate readings on the violence associated with housing desegregation and on restrictive covenants and duplicitous housing practices like redlining and contract selling to underscore the kinds of obstacles families like the Youngers faced. We also offer strategies to incorporate readings about the current state of housing discrimination and research about the inequalities of opportunity in order to underscore for students the ways in which the issues in Raisin continue to resonate and impact society today.

With Mockingbird, we suggest ways to think through the troubled racial politics of Harper Lee’s 1959 novel, allowing students to explore the ways in which Atticus is not a hero and the blindspots in young Scout’s unreliable and incomplete narration of the events in the novel. Working with material about lynching and about African-American maids and nannies, for example, students can unpack Mockingbird’s complex racial politics. Sections from the new Go Set a Watchman can be used to further complicate our understanding of and the continuing relevance of both works.

In addition to these two iconic texts, we will share contemporary titles like The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore (2010) and Jason Reynold’s When I Was the Greatest (2014) that offer poignant glimpses into urban America. Participants will walk away with a list of more than a dozen contemporary Young Adult texts to expand classrooms libraries and build text sets that support units on race, ethnicity, and identity.

Events in Ferguson, Baltimore, and elsewhere demand critical conversations in our classrooms about race and ethnicity in the United States. Teachers need to expose young people to diverse texts that help them understand the troubled history that produced the segregation, the urban blight, the hopelessness, and the abuses of power that characterize these troubling events. Our students need to have conversations about these issues that are grounded in historical facts and texts. Literary masterpieces, like Mockingbird and Raisin, are the ideal places to begin these difficult conversations, but only when these texts are thoughtfully conjoined with other contemporary and classic, fictional and informational texts and resources that allow our students to be informed thinkers.

Below are the slides for my presentation and a link to the valuable information from Audrey & Susan’s power point.

How are you using these texts or others to engage in critical conversations with your students?

I would love to know. Post your comments below.

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Talking Race & Social Injustice with All American Boys author Jason Reynolds

This summer I had the amazing opportunity to be delayed at the airport with Jason Reynolds as we waited to board our flight to St. Louis for ILA. I guess it was the fact that I was reading Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman to pass the time and he asked me what I thought of the book (I will leave my response to that question for another post). We began talking about all different writers and books. He offered me a glimpse into his writing life, his writing mentors, and I was immediately in awe. Jason Reynolds is an award winning YA author who writes honestly and authentically about urban teens today. He was mentored by the late, great Walter Dean Meyers and spins new books out every six weeks — he already has ten books in line to be published with his publisher.  I am amazed, inspired, and motivated.

Jason Reynold’s most recent book, All American Boys (2015) co written with YA author, Brendan Kiely, is a must read. The story is told from two perspectives: Rashad (African American) and Quinn (White). When Rashad is mistaken for a shoplifter, a white police officer get physically aggressive and Rashad lands in the hospital with multiple injuries. But Quinn witnessed the police brutality and he must decide whether to speak up about what he saw or stay silent.

This book is so important today as we all turn on the news and are inundated with police violence, brutality, and racial stereotyping. As one reviewer on GoodReads wrote, “This is a book to start conversations, in our classrooms and with each other. It’s a book to make you take a step back and look at bias in your own life. The power in this book lies in the stripped down simplicity-two boys, two views, one incident, which, through the honesty and realness of the characters who are dealing with complex issues of race, community, perceptions, stereotypes, and assumptions, is able to address a timely issue in a way teens will be able to relate to without feeling lectured at.”

When I read the book I knew I had something powerful, timely, and important in my hands that I needed to share with other teachers and students. This was the first book that I my students read for our Twitter Book Chat. Last night my students and I had the opportunity to talk about the book and tweet with author, Jason Reynolds. This is a dream opportunity for any teacher, to have her students talking about a book with the author in critical and reflective ways. I am so grateful to Jason for taking time to speak with my students.

Here are the discussion questions used for our All American Boys Twitter Book Chat:

Q1: We frequently see videos and news broadcasts about black people in America being intimidated, beaten, shot, and murdered by cops, one after the other after the other. How does All American Boys inform your knowledge of this? 

Q2: What surprised you and shocked you in the text? 

Q3:In the text, the boy’s basketball coach tells the team to “leave it at the door” — Rashid’s beating and hospitalization. Do schools and teachers have a responsibility to addressing these incident? Why or why not?

Q4: Is what happened to Rashad, Quinn’s problem? Should he notify the police about what he saw outside the market? Is Quinn racist?

Q5: What makes Rashid and Quinn genuine characters? What make you believe their stories, their choices, their reactions? 

Q6: How has reading this book made you more empathetic, a more compassionate human being?

Q7: What will you do differently after having read this book? How does it influence your responsibility as an Upstander? 

Q8: What does this book communicate about non violence, civil rights, and passive resistance?

Q9: Who’s story do you want to know more about? Should readers to know more about Paul’s story?

Q10: What questions do you have for the authors? 

Jason Reynolds @ILA15

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The Need To Tell: Monologue Writing in English & Social Studies

Diane Arbus Photograph

Look at the person in the photograph.

Who is this person?
What is her/his name?
What is special about her/him?
Where is she/he?
How does she/he feel about being there? Why?
What does this character want, need, or dream about?
What’s stopping her/him from getting it?
What does she/he need to tell?
Who is she/he telling?
Why is this day different from any other day?

1. To create an individual character and establish a foundation for characterization.
2. To write a monologue based on a photograph used to create a character.

This activity was first presented to when during a playwriting workshop for teachers presented by Young Playwrights, Inc. This activity can work as a creating writing assignment or role playing in response to a story or specific period in history. For example, I use photographs of Japanese Internment and students choose a person in one of the photographs to write about experiences during internment. Integrating tools of creative drama and theater tools – like pantomime, movement, improvisation, scripted drama, oral interpretation, debating, storytelling, readers theater – creatively communicates ideas to others and requires students to become the people they read about and study.


  1. Post a photograph on the SMARTBoard. This will be used for a whole class brainstorm.

Tell the group that there are no right or wrong answers, as you will all be making this up as you go along. Ask the following questions:

Who is this person? – Get a specific answer. You may have to vote between 2 or 3 names.

What is her/his name? – Have writers begin to define the age, occupation, and general biographical information based on what they see in the photograph. Make a group decision who this person is.

What is special about her/him? – Have writers think about the way he or she talks, dresses, walks. We are looking for specific character traits.

Where is she/he? – Get writers to be as specific as possible.

How does she/he feel about being there? Why? Happy? Sad? Worried? Angry? What does the expression in the photography tell you?

What does this character want, need, or dream about? – We are moving away from what can be seen to inferring emotions and thoughts based on visual cues.

What’s stopping her/him from getting it?

2. Inform the group they will now have the opportunity to allow her or his 􏰂􏰋􏰆􏰃􏰆􏰂􏰅􏰌􏰃􏰁 􏰅􏰉􏰁character to speak. to begin writing a monologue or speech Instruct writers 􏰎􏰈􏰌􏰆􏰣􏰜􏰁(written in first person) bearing in mind what the character Needs To Tell. Add three new questions writers should answer individually:

What does she or he need to tell?

Who is she or he telling?

􏰖􏰁Why does this need to be told today?

The character doesn’t need to answer these questions in the monologue, but the answers should be what drives her or his words.

3. Expand the Activity – After students share out ideas based on the class character brainstorm, I have them choose their own photograph (I have a class set for students to choose from around seven or eight different photographs based on the theme we are studying) and complete the assignment on their own. It is often fascinating for writers to see how many different and distinct stories and characterizations can emerge from a single photo.

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Close Reading Practice: Station Work with To Kill a Mockingbird

The beginning of fall means To Kill a Mockingbird in my 8th grade classroom and it is also the time to immerse students into the practice of close reading. The more and more students have opportunities to reread chunks of texts, the better their ability of peeling back the layers of a text. To Kill a Mockingbird is a wonderful (and complex) text to use for close reading of a story still relevant today and the beauty of Harper Lee’s craft of writing.

Early in the school year students need support with close reading. I have students chunk parts of the text and read it first for the basics or literal understanding. The second and third readings are reading with more purpose: language, craft, vocabulary, and mechanics. I want students to actively use the information from their readings to talk, share, write, illustrate, and or debate the theories and ideas they are formulating in their mind while reading.

To help students read and reread the text, I created three different learning stations this week. Each station had students practice towards mastery and gain more confidence with close reading. Students were to choose two of the stations to complete within a forty minute period. Each station was leveled based on students’ understanding of the text.

Station One – Level One – Literal Understanding of the text. I created a Bingo Board with twenty five questions about the plot in To Kill a Mockingbird. Students had 15 minutes to complete double bingo (or for additional points, complete the entire board for homework) with questions addressing Who, What, Where, When, and simple How questions.

Station Two – Level Two – Notice and Note Signposts in the Text. Students were to go back into the text and pull out examples of the six signposts from K. Beers & B. Probst’s Notice and Note. This text is one of the fundamentals in my teaching repertoire because it requires students to be engaged with and analytical of the text.

Station Three – Level Three – Text Dependent Questions How the Text Works, What Does the Author Mean, and Synthesis. These questions were the challenge questions for my students. Students who really were looking to grapple with the text and go back and do deep digging within the chapter chose this station. These questions might include:

  1. The beginning of Chapter 7 Scout refers back to what Atticus told her about “climbing into another man’s skin and walk around in it.” This is the second time Atticus’ maxim is repeated in the story — it’s something to note and notice (repetition). What does this metaphor do for us as the reader? What does this metaphor help the reader to understand?
  2. Chapter 7 is a series of vignettes about mysteries Jem and Scout find: The sewn up pants, the gifts in the knot hole, the soap sculptures of the children. What is the author doing here? What is the mood among the children in the beginning of this chapter versus the end? How do we know?

I work with an amazing Math teacher who levels all his math work in the class. Students choose the math work based on their understanding of the math concepts taught in class. The basic work is labeled “Mustard” whereas the next level of work has a bit of a kick with a few challenge  questions is labeled “Wasabi.” For those students who rock the math concepts and want a brain teaser, they select “Naga Jolokia,” — the world’s hottest pepper! I always model his class work when I am differentiating my lessons. Not only does the station work allow for differentiation, it also encourages student choice. Choice and practice get students closer to mastery with key ideas, concepts, and strategies.

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Students as Resources when Gamifying Your Class

I learned about Classcraft less than a year ago after attending an EdCamp in Connecticut. An English teacher took his rote vocabulary lessons from a Wordly Wise workbook and gamified his class with Classcraft to entice students to enrich their everyday vocabulary. By introducing Classcraft Game into his middle school ELA class and having students write weekly journal entries for their game avatars using the Wordly Wise vocabulary he was able to incorporate creative writing, vocabulary building, and gamification into his class.

I was hooked and immediately set out to gamify my own 8th grade ELA class. Gaming, a huge trend in education today, I have to admit, was not my expertise. But to use Classcraft in your classroom you do not have to be a big time gamer. And this is where your students who are obsessive gamers can step forth and help out. I knew that I was going to need some additional help in addition to the online tutorials and blog posts in setting up my class craft teams and quests. I turned to my students for help.

Luke (I have changed his name to protect his identity), was one of my students last year that just was going through the motions of school. You know, the one who is too angry with his parents, his weight, his social status in middle school to even pick up a pencil in class and take notes or complete his homework. But, he listens to all his teachers lecture in class and will still ace the tests and quizzes barely passing each quarter. The only time I saw Luke happy and smiling was at lunch time when he was sitting with his friends talking about gaming and the newest, best, greatest game being released or his recent score. I knew he was the one I could tap and help me set up Classcraft and also help teach the ins and outs to his classmates.

So, during class one day I told Luke I needed his help with a game I found online and asked if he could help me set it up. That afternoon he returned to my classroom and I showed him the website. He went home created his own class and learned the elements of the game to help me the following day. The next morning told me he thought the whole concept was cool and described how to organize the teams in each class: two Mages, two Warriors, and one Healer. I set up teams in all my classes and asked Luke to help me show the class about the game. All of a sudden, Luke was on top of the middle school social ladder. He knew everything and the competition was erupting the minute he showed the website on the SMARTBoard.  I had instant buy in from all.

One of the things I love the most about Classcraft is the fact that teachers can personalize it to their content area and class needs. My students earn Experience Points (XP) by completing homework (it’s not graded only given points for Classcraft) or participating in our Twitter Book Club outside of the classroom. Students also earn points by answering questions in class, working well with others, and for the Fastest Foldable when putting together Interactive Notebooks.
Our students are our best resources. Use the expert gamers in your class to help establish teams, add additional powers, and share opportunities to earn XP. Gaming is all about collaboration and you want your students on your team.

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Students Share Insight on Using Twitter as a Classroom Tool

Recently, a local reporter from Fios news came to talk with my students about the use of twitter in the classroom as a learning tool. Here is the news report with my students talking about the benefits of utilizing twitter for learning.

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Thinking About Ongoing Assessment

In Data Driven Differentiation in the Standards Based Classroom (2004) G. H. Gregory and L. Kuzmuch identify three questions that help planning assessment:

1. What do I know about my students now?

2. What is the nature and content of the final assessment for this unit or period of time?

3. What don’t I know about the content knowledge, the critical thinking, and the process or skill demonstration of my students?

Early in the school year, parents are requesting grades while I am working on building skills and learning more about my students strengths and weaknesses. This past week for example, after reading through the summer reading assessments (which I do not grade), I did a teach back of the introductory paragraph and claim and students revised their writing. Instead of a grade, I used a rubric that offered three responses in regards to meeting the learning target rather than a grade of 1, 2, or 3: “Nailed It!” “Almost There” and “Keep Trying.”

For me, assessment informs instruction much more than it informs student learning. Here are some assessment strategies I use in my classroom to support student success:

1. Whip Around: Teacher poses a question, students write response, students read written responses rapidly, in specified order. This develops closure, clarification, and summary.

2. Status Checks: This can be a thumbs up/thumbs down, students can use colored cards (red, green, yellow) to show their understanding.

3. Quartet Quiz: Teacher poses question, students write a response, students meet in quads and check answers, the summarizer reports, “We know . . .” The teacher can record responses on the board. This allows for closure and clarification.

4. Jigsaw Check: Teacher assigns students to groups of 5-6. The teacher gives each student a question card, posing a key understanding question, students read their question to the group. The scorecard keeper records the number of students for each question who are: really sure, pretty sure, foggy, and clueless. The students then scramble to groups with the same questions they have to prepare a solid answer. Students then report back to their original groups to share answers and re-do scoreboard.

5. Squaring Off: Teacher places a card in each corner of the room with one of the following words or phrases that are effective ways to group according to learner knowledge: Rarely ever, Sometimes, Often, I have it! or Dirt Road, Paved Road, Highway, Yellow Brick Road. Tell the student to go to the corner of the room that matches their place in the learning journey. Participants go to the corner that most closely matches their own learning status and discuss what they know about the topic and why they chose to go there.

6. Yes/No Cards: Using a 4X6 index card the student writes YES on one side and NO on the other. When a question is asked by the teacher, the students holds  up YES or NO. This can be used with vocabulary words, true/false questions, or conceptual ideas.

7. Thumb It: Have students respond with the position of their thumb to get an assessment of what their current understanding of a topic being studied. Where I am now in my understanding of ______________? Thumb Up = full speed ahead (I get it), Thumb Sideways = Slow down, I’m getting confused, Thumb Down = Stop! I’m lost.

8. Journal Prompts for Ongoing Assessment: Choice A – Write a step by step set of directions, including diagrams and computations, to show someone who has been absent how to do the kind of problem we’ve worked with this week. OR Choice B – Write a set of directions for someone who is going to solve a problem in their life by using the kind of math problem we’ve studied this week. Explain the problem first. Be sure the directions address their problem, not just the computations.

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Digital Writing Tools For Reluctant Writers

So, your students tell you they hate writing or they profess they are not good writers. Why beat them over the head with writing essays? Here are ten digital writing tools to help build writing endurance and have students create authentic and creative writing pieces.

  1. Blog It – This year my students are blogging about their Genius Hour projects. Each of their blogs detail and record their passion project research and findings. Students can create blogs about anything and everything so don’t only have them write on lined paper for your eyes only. Let students write for a global audience and write about topics that are meaningful to them.
  2. Collaborative Writing with Google Docs – Whether students are working collaboratively compiling research for a debate or working together to write a screenplay or story, why do it alone? So many authors today are collaborating and students should be able to work together too.
  3. Digital Inspirations – My friend and colleague, Carol Varsalona creates these amazing pictures and inspirational words on her blog Beyond LiteracyLink and has all different writers, teachers, and artists contribute their own digital inspirations. Have your students take their own photographs and write inspirational words, poems, ideas to go along with the images produced.

C Varsalona Beyond Literacy Link4. Podcasts are a great way to get students writing, speaking, and collaborating. I am a huge fan of NPR’s RadioLab podcasts and have used them in my classroom as a mentor text. Students can script their podcasts before recording them and make their own radio shows on all different issues and topics.

5. Prezi Picture Books in lieu of a traditional picture book, students can create their own digital picture books using Prezi or Google Slides and then screencast an audio file reading aloud the picture book created.

6. Twitter Poems and 140 Character Memoirs

7. Remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books in the 1980s? Have students create their own Choose Your Own Adventure story or research inquiry using YouTube, Thinglink, or SymbalooEDU. Students do all the writing and research and allow the viewers to choose the direction of the story or inquiry.

8. Create Your Own Textbook on Wikispaces. What if you had students create the course textbook for the students next year? Let students curate the materials, and design the texts that are essential to classroom learning and content knowledge.

9. StoryWars is a website that was recently shared with me because it is a collaborative story telling website where people can upload their own stories or contribute a chapter to an existing story. Participants can read a story, write a chapter, or vote on a story’s path.

10. Make it a graphic novel using ToonDoo or Bitstrips blending dialogue and cartoon images together.

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