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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Back to School: Setting Up a Positive Learning Environment

This week was a whirlwind with the first day of school on Tuesday and two days later, Back to School Night. After engaging in a conversation about setting up a classroom environment that is conducive to learning with parents and teachers, I decided to share my classroom space, beginning of school materials and philosophy in setting up a positive learning environment for my students.

The Landscape of My Classroom:

The set up of my classroom,  the colors, decorations are all influenced by brain theory.  My classroom is beige with green accents. I do not put up boarders or tons of posters around my room because I find them to be a distraction and chaotic for my students. Green is a calming color that represents nature and the environment. I even have two comfy green chairs that students can do work in. The necessary learning tools are available to students to access: pencils, whole puncher, and pencil sharpener.  Behind closets and cabinets I store additional supplies for easy access: highlighters, colored pencils, markers, glue, scissors.

There are three different learning spaces in my classroom. I have adapted these learning spaces from ISTE 2015 Convention. The center of the room, the tables are in a U-shaped organization. This is the space where I teach mini-lessons and face the SMARTBoard. This area is called the “campfire” where we learn from experts and participate in group discussions.

In another area of the room I have set up tables in quads for small group and collaborative work. This area is referred to as the “watering hole” and this space allows me to work with small groups and even teach mini-lessons in small setting to target skill development.

For my students who prefer to work alone, there are areas of desks off on the side for students to work quietly and independently. This space is called the “cave.”

The walls in my classroom highlight learning outcomes, student exemplars, and book title suggestions. I have found some awesome ideas on Pinterest that inspired my Homework board and the board that posts my CCLS, Learning Goals and Essential Questions.

I was also inspired by Pinterest in revising my syllabus for this school year. And took my template from Everyone is a Genius Blog. I got a ton of positive feedback from parents and my principal about this document.

For Back to School Night, I shared these slides to give parents additional insight in my classroom teaching and philosophy.

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What, exactly, do I say to students? Teacher Prompts that Promote Positive & Specific Directions

Have you ever had someone give you directions and you got completely lost? Or attempted to follow a recipe and the dish turned out awful? Maybe to were trying to recreate a craft or model you saw online and it turned out nothing like the original picture.

In my speech and debate class I used to have students write out the directions how to make peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I set up a table in the front of the room with the main ingredients: bread, peanut butter and jelly. Then, I selected two volunteers: one student to read aloud his or her directions and the second volunteer to literally follow the directions exactly as they were being communicated. Here is where the challenge (and silliness) began. Giving clear, concise instructions to others is an important skill for young people to learn. In this activity, students practiced communicating ideas to others, recognizing steps in a process, and recognizing the importance of the use of clear language.

As teachers, we are always looking for ways to support student learning, articulate our objectives clearly, prompt students thinking or actions in positive and specific ways.  Here are more than a dozen positive and specific teacher prompts that cue student engagement, action, and thinking from George McClosky, Bob R. Van Divner, & Lisa Perkins’ list of “Self-Regulation Executive Function Definitions with Examples of Teacher Prompts.” No matter the student, classified or not, prompting in positive, specific, and brief directions helps all students succeed.

Perceive – “Everyone look at the board.”

“Listen to this.”

“Try and notice how . . .”

Modulate – “This is the kind of problem that requires a lot of thinking power to complete.”

Gauge – “What kind of thinking will this situation require?”

Sustain – “You might need to think longer about this if you want to come up with a good answer.”

Stop/Interrupt – “Please stop doing that.”

Inhibit – “Let’s listen to what XXX is saying.”

Hold – “Hold that thought while we continue.”

Manipulate – “Now take what you just said and try to think about what might happen next.”

Foresee/Plan (Short-term) – “Can you come up with a plan for solving . . .”

General/Associate – “Is this similar to any other  . . . . we have already done?”

Balance – “Be sure to look closely enough to see all the details.”

Store – “Remember what you just heard.”

Retrieve – “Who can recall what we saw . . .”

Time – “Spend about five minutes thinking about it.”

Monitor – “Look at each item carefully. Some require  . . . and some require . . .”

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West Coast Treasure: Resources for Adventure, Discovery, & Wonder

I have just returned from a week long vacation in San Francisco with my family. The benefits of my children having a teacher for a mother is that our vacation will be a fun filled adventure filled with discovery, wonder, and learning.  Hence, our trip to the west coast included jam packed days for exploration and inquire about the world. Below are the places that we visited and the array of resources that all teachers and parents can utilize online or in person that encourages science inquiry and an interest in American history.

Muir Woods

Muir Woods – Muir Woods National Monument is a sanctuary of Redwoods and ecological treasure. The ginormous trees are breath taking with the tallest tree is Muir Woods over 250 feet. Some of these trees are over 1,000 years old. This destination offers scientific facts about the California Redwoods, the role of Fog and Fire, the anatomy of the trees, and the history of the National Parks Service that protects this forest.

California Museum of Science

California Academy of Sciences – This Museum in Golden Gate Park is an aquarium, planetarium, and natural history museum. With hands on exhibits and virtual programs, the museum promotes science in both theory and everyday experiences. There is a host of programs and curriculum available online for educators.

de Young Museum of Fine Arts – Another great museum in Golden Gate Park, this art museum boasts a collection of Modern Art from around the world. The Marcus Garden of Enchantment is playful and mysterious and encourages people to explore its different pathways, structures, artworks, and natural features. Don’t forget to take the elevator to the top of the tower for a 360 degree view of all of San Francisco if you visit the museum. Online you can find an abundance of curriculum resources for educators covering teaching guides and lessons.


Alcatraz – My 10 year old son would tell you that this was the best part of the vacation, visiting the island and listening to the stories of those who experienced Alcatraz as guards, inmates, and families. Alcatraz has a broad history from first being established as a fort during the civil war, a prison from 1859-1963, occupied to make a political statement for Native Americans, and now an ecological preserve. It is amazing to go inside the prison and hear stories from an array of people who worked there before it closed as a prison. There was also a unique exhibit on the island titled “Portraits of Resilience: Children of Incarcerated Parents” that brings to the forefront the impact of incarceration on families today. The NAACP reports that there are more than 2 million people in prisons. Criminal justice is a critical topic in education that plays a role in teaching history and literature. Books like Jason Reynold’s The Boy in the Black Suit and Wes Moore’s The Other Wes Moore paint a different picture from the Al Capone Does my Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko. Whereas the image of the gangster in the 1920s brought a romanticized picture of outlaws, over crowding in jails and racial bias in our prisons today offer a very different image worth exploring.

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Monterey Bay Aquarium – I know so many people who wanted to be marine scientists when they were younger. Monterey Bay Aquarium would be a dream job for many. Where else can you see so many differently kinds of Jelly Fish or Sea Stars in one place? This aquarium is an amazing center that specializes in researching and educating about marine life in order to co exist and sustain our oceans. The educator’s tab on the website offers an abundance of curriculum materials for all grade levels addressing current exhibits.

All around us are amazing cultural centers that promote learning, science, history, and an appreciation for nature around us. You do not have to take a trip to San Francisco to experience all the great resources that abound the city. Online one can take virtual field trips and peek into an ant colony, swim with the sea otters, or be inspired to write a poem about the beauty of the photographs of national landmarks.

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Tackling Words & Images Critically with Students

I am currently collaborating with both the Jacob Burns Film Center and Actively Learn to promote critical reading of images and words in my middle school English classroom. Together we wrote a proposal to present as a panel at SXSWedu in Austin, TX in March 2016 addressing ways to help students read critically. We need your help getting our panel selected, 30% of judgement is based on people’s choice.

Our proposal states,

As the historically static world of text, and the dynamic visual media worlds are converging, students are reading more and more on a screen than in a paper text, and are required to transfer reading skills to visual media. Technology and schooling continue to evolve, teachers must continue to support/equip students with literacy skills needed to participate, engage, and succeed in our global and digital society. To do so, students must develop skills to read in print and online, decode these messages, and critically think about text and media. The diverse panel will address strategies and techniques for teaching students to read texts critically and deepen comprehension of digital texts.

To see more and vote YES you can click on the icon below.


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Harnessing the Power of Picture Books in Middle School

Rundine Sims Bishop (1990) wrote, “Books are sometimes windows, offering views of the worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author.  When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.”

Because books have the power and potential to allow their readers to experience and see so many layers of ourselves and our world, teachers must select and read a wide variety of literature with diverse perspectives. As Sue Christian Parsons pointed out at ILA 2015,” [teachers must] work diligently to ensure that the books in our classrooms shine brightly as mirrors and, for readers to see themselves readily in book around them.

I am defining diverse books as books that honor the complexity of life and people. At the same time, diverse books go beyond just diverse characters, settings, and experiences. Diverse books can also include a wide range of genres and types of text. Whereas picture books are prevalent in elementary classrooms, they also have a place in middle school classrooms.

Pictures books offer stimulating artwork, accessible language, a smaller amount of text than a novel for. Picture books can be used for read alouds, introducing a complex idea, whole class modeling, enrich vocabulary and word development, and even creative writing prompts.

I have used the Mysteries of Harris Burdick as a read aloud and creative writing prompt to kick off a mystery unit.

To introduce complex ideas of communism and socialism during our dystopian unit I read aloud Click, Clack, Moo by Doreen Cronin and pair it with Farmer Duck by Martin Waddell.

While students are reading To Kill a Mockingbird and Melba Patillo Beals’ memoir, Warrior’s Don’s Cry I have read aloud Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles, Teammates by Peter Golenblock, and Separate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh.

In my classroom have a bin filled with picture books and poetry anthologies about the Holocaust and Japanese Internment.

I kicked off Genius Hour this past year by reading aloud What Do You Do With an Idea? by Kobi Yamada and Mae Besom and also The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires.

Picture books are accessible books for students of all ages. They offer layers of stories told through words and images. They should not be left behind when students move up from elementary school.

I would love to know how you are using picture books with your middle grade students. Please share your ideas for picture book text pairings and how you are using pictures books in your middle school classroom in the comments section of this blog.

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Strategies to Boost Meaningful Conversations About Text

As we read, our minds can be activated in a variety of ways. Sometimes questions come up that might not be answered, a difference of opinion arises that isn’t cleared up or we want to say something. Our minds often linger on those questions, opinions, or ideas long after we have closed the book. Whether your students keep a Reader’s Notebook or you are looking for strategies that promote written conversations among students about books, here are some strategies for responding to text independently and with friends.

Responding to Reading with Journaling

  1. Focused Freewrite or Quickwriting – The idea is to simply write for 15 to 20 minutes. Don’t stop for anything. Go quickly without rushing. Never stop to look back, to cross something out, to wonder how to spell something, to wonder what word to use, or to think about what you are doing. Freewriting is an exercise in bringing together the process of producing words and putting them down on a page about a specific topic or subject. You can write about a particular character in the text or a specific chapter or conflict. You can respond to what surprises you, what intrigues or disturbs you in the text.
  2. Metacognition Reflection  – This response involves taking stock of where you are now, where you’ve come from, and analyzing what has happened to produce the discovered growth or change in yourself. In this response you are more self aware about yourself as a reader. Some guiding questions: What did you learn from what you read today and how did you feel about it? What is important to you about the book and what would you like to say about it? What connections did you make between your own life and experiences and what you read about today?

Writing With Friends

  1. Literature Letters – This response is a way for you to have a conversation with your teacher or another student about what you are reading. You will write a letter and will receive a letter back. All of the letters will record your thinking, learning, and reading. In your letters, talk about what you’ve read. Tell what you thought and felt and why. Tell what you liked and didn’t like and why. Tell what these books said to you and meant to you Ask questions or for help, and write back with your reactions, ideas, feelings, and questions.
  2. Dialogue Journals – Or written conversations are logs of reflections, reactions, and responses kept by a student and regularly exchanged with student partners in the class (Atwell, 1998). As you read the text, try to make connections between what you’ve read and what you already know. When you prepare to write a dialogue journal entry, think about how different parts of the text relate to your personal experiences, to things going on in the world, or to other parts of the book. For this entry you might pull out telling quotes from the text and respond to the quotes in your own words.
  3. Write Around (Daniels, 2007) – Form a group of four. Each person gets a large blank piece of paper and puts their initials in the upper left hand margin. As students work, request they follow the following: Use all the time for writing and don’t talk when passing papers. 1. Students write for one minute. Write your thoughts, reactions, questions or feelings about the topic. 2. Pass your papers clockwise. Students read through the entry on the page, and just beneath it, write for a minute. Write responses, reactions, or make a comment or ask a question. 3. Pass the papers again – repeat and continue four times total. You need to allow a little more time with each entry because students will have more to read with each successive exchange. 4. Now pass one last time and you should get back the paper that you began with. Now read the whole thing over and see the conversation you started. You won’t write the answer this time, feel free to continue the conversation out loud for a few minutes.
  4. Meaningful Discussions Talking Stems

I know what ________ is like because . . . . [Students make logical connections to their lives]

I agree/disagree because in the text . . . . [Students reference the text]

I wonder why . . . . [Students question why the author does something]

I’d like to add . . . [Students build on what others say]

I am confused by . . .  Could you explain . . . [Students ask for clarification]

Tell me more about . . .  Why do you think . . . .[Encourage readers to think deeper]

All these strategies are Writing to Learn activities which means students are utilizing writing as a tool to promote learning. Writing to learn allows students to think on paper and helps students clarify and organize their thoughts and improve their retention of content.

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Let’s Talk About Race: Writing & Discussion Prompts Inspired by The Other Wes Moore

“Very few lives hinge on any single moment or decision or circumstance. . . he inspired me and countless other young people to see ourselves as capable of taking control of our own destinies, and to realize how each decision we make determines the course of our life stories.”

My incoming 8th grade students are reading The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore (2010) for the all grade summer reading requirement.  The Other Wes Moore is about two kids who grew up with the same name of Wes Moore. There were many similarities among the two of them in addition to the same name – they were both raised fatherless and they were born in the same neighborhood in Baltimore,Maryland in the late 70’s. During their formative teenage years their lives took different turns. One grew up to be a Rhodes Scholar, dec­o­rated com­bat vet­eran, White House Fel­low, and busi­ness leader. The other is serv­ing a life sentence in prison for felony mur­der. The book tells the story of these two men coming of age and attempts to address the influencing factors how their similarities diverged into tragedy and success.

There are so many compelling passages that can spark important conversations around race, identity, and personal responsibility. I have pulled three particular passages that can be used as writing prompts and or critical conversation starters.


“When did you feel like you’d become a man?” Wes asked me, a troubled look on his face.

“I think it was when I first felt accountable to people other than myself. When I first cared that my actions mattered to people other than just me.” I answered quickly and confidently, but I wasn’t too sure of what I was talking about. When did I actually become a man? There was no official ceremony that brought my childhood to an end. Instead crisis other other circumstances presented me with adult-sized responsibilities and obligations that I had to meet one way or another. For some boys, this happens later – in their late teens or even twenties – allowing them to grow organically into adulthood. But for some of us, the promotion to adulthood, or at least its challenges, is so jarring, so sudden, that we enter into it unprepared and might be undone by it. (2010, page 66)

Prompt: When do you become an adult? Some cultures have ceremonies that signify adulthood, but what age or experiences mark adulthood?


“Do you think we’re all just products of our environments? His smile dissolved into a smirk, with the let side of his face resting at ease. 

“I think so, or maybe products of our expectations.”

“Others’ expectations of us or our expectations for ourselves?”

“I mean others’ expectations that you take on as your own.”

I realized how difficult it is to separate the two. The expectations that other place on us help us form our expectations of ourselves.” (2010, page 126)

Prompt: Are we products of our environment, expectations, or other?


The common bond of humanity and decency that we share is stronger than any conflict, any adversity, any challenge. Fighting for your convictions is important. But finding peace is paramount. Knowing when to fight and when to seek peace and wisdom.” (2010, page 168)

Prompt: What does forgiveness look like and sound like? Is it easy or hard to forgive someone? Explain your response.

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