Is All Evidence Equal: Weighing Textual Evidence

This week I gave my students a short response prompt based on the propaganda presented in their dystopian texts. Students are reading Animal Farm, The Giver and Unwind. The prompt was as follows:

A variety of propaganda techniques are used throughout the fable in small and incremental measures to confuse, influence, and keep the other animals on the farm under control, as well as to make outsiders think that Animal Farm was successful.

There are six types of propaganda that are commonly recognized: 1) Bandwagon, 2) Scapegoating, 3) Unapproved Assertions, 4) Slogans, and 5) Fear.

Which type of propaganda did those in control use to their advantage most effectively?

Why did that type of propaganda work so well on the members of the community?

In your short response be sure to identify the type of propaganda used effectively with two or more examples textual support. Also include why this type of propaganda worked so well on the others.

Whereas my students know to include direct textual evidence in their writing, the question remains: Is the evidence students are selecting the strongest evidence to support their claim? 

This year I am requiring students to organize textual evidence using graphic organizers I create to use in tandem with the foldables that go in their Interactive English Notebooks. But is not just about students mastering the ability to pull any evidence from the text, it is necessary  students also weigh and debate the evidence selected so that it is the strongest in supporting their claims.

Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen address this same topic in their book Teaching Interpretation Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning (Heinemann, 2014).


Based on the ideas presented in their text, I have created a foldable for my students to remember that not all evidence is equal. To reiterate this idea about evidence, I have taken various quotes about fear from each of the three dystopian texts for students to work in small groups and rank the evidence for use in the short response prompt above: Which is the strongest evidence? Why? Which is the weakest evidence? Why? What makes the strongest evidence the strongest? What makes the weakest evidence the weakest? Which evidence tells? Which evidence shows?





Tagged , , , , , ,

Gamification to Boost Student Learning

This month I am presenting on Gamification at the The Connecticut Educators Computer Association Conference and then for my school’s district wide professional development day. I blog often about gamification and I think it is a useful teaching strategy to motivate students and allow for differentiation. Teachers can add elements of gaming in their classroom with activities like Bingo and board games and can introduce Live Action Role Plays (LARP) and utilize game platforms for management and avatars.

Below are the slides from my presentations and a few examples of activities that I have gamified for my students to earn XP (experience points) and unlock classroom opportunities that promote learning and success.


Here are three examples of activities that I created based on traditional games and game shows for my students to show their understanding of the texts we read in class.

Connect Four:



Quick Fire/Bingo Reading Review:



Reading Quest:


Tagged , , , ,

Google Inspiration and Innovation: CT GAFE Summit Take Aways

This weekend I had the opportunity to attend and present at the Connecticut Google Apps for Educators Summit. This two day event was filled with so many amazing workshops and opportunities to learn the ins and outs of the ever evolving Google Suite for Education. The Summit was presented by EdTech Teams and included awesome presenters Chris Craft, Kern Kelley, Jeffery Heil, and others who are all Google for Education Certified Innovators.

There were so many great presentations addressing STEM, Makerspace, BreadoutEDU, as well as learning more about different Google Apps. Of all the awesome workshops that I attended, here are a few key ideas that anyone can utilize in their classroom.

Google Geekiness – Chris Craft and Kern Kelley both led workshops that gave me new ways to utilize the Google Suite with my students and parents.

Say you have a big summative assessment coming up and it has many parts to it. A teacher can add a step by step list of tasks in Google Sheets and then schedule automatic email notifications to any recipient before the task is due. This is great for IEP and 504 students who need larger tasks broken down into smaller and simpler steps. Plus, the email reminders help students stay on task.
Kern Kelley taught me how to make animated movies in Google Slides. By making multiple slides and incorporating .gifs on the slides, students can make short animated videos to convey a science concept, illustrate how they solved a math equation, or even recreate a scene from a book read for school. You can see what I created in less than an hour.

Kelley has written a book, The Google Apps Guidebook (2012)  with his students that details dozens of lesson ideas using Google Apps in the classroom. In the book, he describes the steps to creating animation in Google Slides.

Active Viewing – Showing a video in class or for homework should not be a passive task. With Extensions like EdPuzzle and PearDeck, watching videos and presentations can be interactive and hands on.  Both these applications allow students to embed reflection questions and have students give feedback in written, oral, and video form.

Re-imagine the Rubric – Jeffery Heil addressed the limits of rubrics in conjunction with a Growth Mindset philosophy. Rubrics should not be a menu, but more of a checklist that only includes mastery criteria. He described how he uses badges to help more students meet mastery. Feedback is key and students need to be able to show evidence of their learning throughout, eliminating the one and done assessment mentality. Focus should be on learning, not a grade.

Work Smarter, Not Harder with Google Forms – Well, I have completely rewritten the lessons that I was going to teach to my students this week and put everything onto different Google Forms to collect their responses and show evidence of their learning after attending Jeffery Heil’s Game of Forms session. Now that one can embed images and videos in Google Forms, there is so much that teachers can do to go paperless and create interactive lessons. Google Forms can be used for submitting assignments, pre assessments, exit tickets, and even a Choose Your Own Adventure activity. Flubaroo and Doctopus are two add ons with forms that can grade and manage the flow of student work.


Students Innovators – I just finished reading Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World by Tony Wagner. This book looks at the characteristics of student innovators and how their parents and teachers helped to cultivate creativity and innovation. Wagner cites three key ingredients: play, passion, and purpose. Genius Hour and Passion Projects in school are not a new idea. True inquiry is based on personal passion. Today, school is not about knowledge pursuit or memorizing facts. In fact, students can learn what ever they want on the internet. YouTube is a teacher. Learning in the classroom should be about play, purpose, tinkering, and failure as a good thing. Having students learn something they are passionate and then reflect on their learning is eye opening and often inspiring.

I have shared my ever evolving experience with Passion Projects and Genius Hour in my own classroom. To read more about my own experiences with Genius Hour these past four years click here and here and here

This year I have created a choice menu for students to help them with their passion projects and I am creating a more Choose Your Own Adventure approach with my students to help them pursue their passions.




Tagged , , , , , ,

Mise en place & School

Wikipedia defines Mise en place as (French pronunciation: [mi zɑ̃ ˈplas]) “a French culinary phrase which means “putting in place” or “everything in its place.” It refers to the set up required before cooking, and is often used in professional kitchens to refer to organizing and arranging the ingredients (e.g., cuts of meat,sauces, par cooked items, spices, freshly chopped vegetables, and other components) that a cook will require for the menu items that are expected to be prepared during a shift.

September is my time to put everything in place for my students to understand the requirements and routines of the classroom. I use the first month of school to set up our interactive notebooks, build classroom community and trust, introduce weekly Genius Hour and establish the gaming elements of my English classroom.

I have created a gamified Genius Hour activity to kick off the Classcraft teams, build team work, and begin thinking about possible genius projects. Add a little XP – experience points to all the tasks and the challenge begins. I am planning out how to gamify all of my Genius Hour time for my students with various tasks to help them play, tinker, research, and create.

I will have to share the results in a later post.

Tagged , , ,

Metaphors and Analogies for Teaching Writing

Writing is an abstract idea for many students in middle school. Particularly, essay writing. In an attempt to make writing more accessible to my students, I have been using metaphors and analogies to help my students understand the elements of writing an essay.

Lindsey Richland, professor at University of Chicago, has written many research articles on the use of analogies in mathematics classroom. She lists six cognitive supports for the use of analogies in the mathematics classroom. These supports include:

  1. The teacher uses a familiar source analog to compare to the target analog being taught
  2. The teacher presents the source analog visually
  3. The teacher keeps the source visible to learners during comparison with the target.
  4. The teacher uses spatial cues to highlight the alignment between corresponding elements of the source and target (e.g., diagramming)
  5. The teacher uses hand or arm gestures that signaled an intended comparison (e.g., pointing back and forth between a scale and an equation)
  6. The teacher uses mental imagery or visualizations

Richland’s work is also relevant across content areas. I have found that using metaphors and analogies with my students helps them to visualize and make connections with the content being taught. For example, while working on revising our summer reading essays, I made the following analogies:

Introductory Paragraphs are like Birthday Invitations – The first paragraph of your essay is extremely important.  You will need to get the reader’s attention, build interest, preview the topic and offer necessary background information, and most importantly state your claim clearly and concisely. Similarly, when you send out a birthday invitation to your friends you need to get your friend’s attention, build interest, preview what is going to happen at the party and include any necessary background information, and most importantly, state where and when the party is is going to happen clearly and concisely.

When teaching the claim, I borrowed an analogy from author,  Katherine Bomer, “Essays, like a music composition,  circle around a central idea, riffing on it with stories, questions, and observations, but ultimately cohering around the CORE IDEA.”

I also talked about writer’s having to navigate their thinking on a page the way Google Maps and Waze helps to navigate us home. Unfortunately, there is no app to help teachers and students navigate through an essay. Thus, writers need to always be explaining or clarifying the relationship they are creating between evidence and ideas. Writers need to be sure and clarify or explain each piece of evidence from the text so that readers don’t get lost, confused, or the wrong idea.

What are the metaphors and analogies that you use to teach writing with your students to help them visualize the task at hand? Share your ideas in the Comments below.



Tagged , , , ,

Hidden History


In the Author’s Note of Ruta Sepetys’ Salt to the Sea she writes,

Every nation has hidden history, countless stories preserved only by those who experienced them. Stories of war are often read and discussed worldwide by readers whose nations stood on opposite sides during battle. History divided us, but through reading we can be united in story, study, and remembrance. Books join us together as a global reading community, but more important, a global human community striving to learn from the past.

What determines how we remember history and which elements are preserved and penetrate the collective consciousness? If historical novels stir your interest, pursue the facts, history, memoirs, and personal testimonies available. There are the shoulders that historical fiction sits upon. When the survivors are gone we must not let the truth disappear with them.

Please give them a voice.

Sepetys’ work of historical fiction is a collection of vignettes told in alternating voices of young adults who are refugees trying to escape their war torn countries during World War II and hoping to board the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that will take them to safety. Caught between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia’s Red Army, many of these young people left their homes and families behind on a quest for freedom and safety.

During World War II the Wilhelm Gustloff was carrying more than 10,000 refugees, five thousand who were children,  when on January 30th, 1945, a Soviet submarine torpedoed the ship, sinking with majority of the passengers on board. That is more than the lives lost on the Titanic and the Lusitania, and yet I did not know any of this until I read Sepetys’ book. In fact, she writes that “in the year 1945 alone, over 25,000 people lost their lives in the Baltic Sea due to ships being bombed and sunk.”

I want to hone in on the idea of “Hidden History.” What is the history that gets told and taught in our schools. This concept sparked two different projects for a history/humanities class.

Hidden History Project –  Students research and uncover a piece of “hidden history.” Students can write about or create a video about some aspect of history that has been lost (like a piece of art or artifact), uncover a mystery, or share the story of a survivor or witness.

For example, National Geographic’s video on the mysterious Amber Room, considered the Eighth Wonder of the World, was lost during WWII when it was looted by the Nazis. The Amber Room, a world-famous chamber decorated in amber panels backed with gold leaf and mirrors, originally constructed in the 18th century in Prussia.

Historical Testimonies – When I taught a middle school drama class I asked students to interview a family member one or two generations older than the students and then turn the interview into a monologue to present to the whole class. This assignment has two parts. First students select a family member to interview and brainstorm a list of questions to ask the person about an important time in their life — See the Great Questions from StoryCorps. The second part of the assignment would be for students to read through and edit the interview responses to create a monologue that tells a memory moment of this particular family member. Students can dress up and bring in an artifact of the person when presenting the monologue.

Tagged , , , ,

What did you Read this summer? A Back-to-School Summer Reading Assessment

Summer reading is a political topic these days. Should students be assigned a required summer reading book or should summer be about reading what ever one likes? Should students be allowed to have choice in what they read? How many texts should students be required or expected to read over the summer?

This year, my colleagues and I decided that instead of a required summer reading text, students could read any book of their choice. Incoming students were given a suggested book list created by students that included many contemporary titles both fiction and nonfiction.

With a wide range of summer reading books, how does one assess students? Rather than a creative book reflection and project, I have turned to the traditional essay to assess student reading. This assessment is not one that is graded, but used as a gauge of reading tastes and gain data of students’ reading and writing strengths and weaknesses. I use these assessments to help guide my teaching of reading and writing at the start of the school year.

My summer reading assessment prompt stems from the poignant essay What we Hunger For written by Roxanne Gay.

This essay is honest, harrowing, reflective, and offers a personal response to the Hunger Games trilogy.  The author begins by highlighting the representations of strength in women like Katniss and then brings in her own personal experiences that shaped her reading and admiration of strength in the “flawed” protagonist of Suzanne Collin’s books. Gay addresses the negative response to the violence in the trilogy and through her personal confession offers a counter claim against telling young people what they can and should read. She brings in supportive arguments from contemporary YA authors like Sherman Alexie to support her claims.  Gay concludes with her analysis of Katniss as a strong and relatable character by highlighting imperfection in and all around us. This essay is powerful and inspiring. I knew it was something I wanted to share with my students.

For my 8th graders, I have edited the essay to use as a mentor text. I want students to think about the central ideas in their summer reading books and how it shapes their thinking. How do the books we read over summer time support us and sustain us?

summer reading essay 2016

I look forward to what my students share with me. What are the books they read over summer vacation, and the lessons they share with me.

Do you have a unique or thoughtful summer reading assessment? Feel free to share in the Comments section on this blog.


Tagged , , , , ,

Interview with Shawn Young, CEO Classcraft Games

During a week long trip with my family to Quebec this past week, I was able to meet up with Shawn Young, CEO and Co-Founder of Classcraft Games in Sherbrooke, Canada.

Shawn’s insight into gamification in education helps inform my classroom practices and use of games with my students. As I continue to plan for this upcoming school year, I share the the knowledge Shawn divulged about technology, building (life long) skills, and the future of gamification in education.


Michele: What does gamification mean to you?

Shawn: Gamification has become a bit of an umbrella term in the last few years – people apply the term to anything where you can gain points or badges. Not surprisingly, seeing gamification  from this lens leads to experiences which can feel stale, boring or lack meaning.

For me, gamification is much more than that. In fact, I prefer the term ludicization : “To create a situation from which play can emerge”. In this sense, gamification becomes the art of crafting experiences in which many of the components of games can be applied (autonomy, competency, social relationships, randomness, feedback, etc.) to create a state of playfulness. Using these components leads to genuine fun (with a purpose) from which intrinsic motivations can stem. Simply put, good gamification is applying extrinsic motivators that will be internalized to produce intrinsic motivation.

Michele: As a former teacher, what do you see as the benefits of gamification for teachers and students?

Shawn: This depends on the approach, really. With Classcraft, we help teachers gamify the experience of coming to school, rather than gamifying content, like you would see with math or language games. From that perspective, the benefits on classroom culture are huge: students are taking ownership of the way the classroom is run and are significantly more engaged, even with the rote day-to-day tasks that occur naturally from class life. The game is very collaborative, so they gain a team that’s looking out for them and face challenges together. They also get much more positive reinforcement than they are used to, which has a big impact on their perception of self-worth. Obviously, this is great for teachers, who feel like they are working with students, not against them.

Michele: How did you first get involved in gaming for education? When and how did Classcraft come to fruition?

Shawn: Classcraft stemmed out of my own unique background as grade 11 physics teacher, web developer and gamer. I have been playing board games and video games since I was kid and that continued on into my adult life. As an educator, I was able to relate culturally with my students – indeed, we were playing the same games! I had a poor school experience growing up, often feeling like I was wasting my time, so my main focus as a teacher was making sure that coming to school was pertinent for students and that they felt that it was.

It dawned on me that the experience of coming to school would be much more satisfying if it was like an RPG, so I made a quick prototype and started playing with my students. I fine-tuned the game over the course of 3 years before making a little website to share with other teachers what I was doing. Overnight, the website attracted 150 000 visits – seems like a lot of other people were interested in doing the same! I then teamed up with my brother, Devin, who is a designer, and our father Lauren, who has 35 years experience in business and accounting, and Classcraft was born. Since then, the platform has evolved tremendously!

Michele: What are the elements from (classic) video games that can benefit teachers and students for gamification purposes?

Shawn: When thinking of this question, people tend to look for tropes – ”Should I use XP + levels?” “Do students need an avatar?” or “Should I lay this out on a map?” are typical questions that come up from these types of questions. At Classcraft, our focus is more on the fundamental psychology of self -determination theory and how it applies to video games. There is a reason gamers are willing to spend hours repeating the same boring task to complete an objective, but aren’t willing to spend 5 minutes doing math homework: games fulfill 7 fundamental motivational needs (autonomy, competency, relationships, discovery, surprise, feedback, storytelling). These are the elements we lifted from games to design a playful experience and they are outlined on our blog.  


Michele: What life skills and Common Core Standards does Classcraft and gamification address?

Shawn: Classcraft is very customizable: it can be used to develop any “soft”-skills by identifying behaviors that show mastery and giving points for that. For example, if you want to develop grit in your students, you’ll identify behaviors that are indicative of grit, like persevering in the face of adversity, and give students points for those behaviors, thus encouraging explicitly to internalize them. Because all of these behaviors are logged in the game, you’ll be able to assess development of these skills by looking at the per-student behavior analytics in the platform. That being said, Classcraft explicitly foster meaningful teamwork, ownership of learning, prosocial skills and perseverance. In terms of CCS, Classcraft doesn’t gamify curriculum, it gamifies the experience.

Michele: You have said that “when playing video games, kids feel a sense of empowerment.” Can you talk more about this. What do you mean?

Shawn: In a video game, the player inherently knows that they can succeed. Even in the face of the most difficult challenges, they can try as often as they like and develop their skill. Often times, they can tackle problems in several ways and make meaningful choices about their trajectory within the game. All of this leads to a sense that the player can shape their destiny and build mastery for success.

Compare this to the school experience: kids often have only one set way to complete their journey through a course and only get one chance to demonstrate mastery of given piece of content.  It doesn’t feel very empowering.

Michele: As the Gamemaster for Classcraft, what are you dreaming up and working on now for teachers to benefit from you gaming platform?

Shawn: We’ve got a lot of things coming🙂 One thing we’re focused on is integrating with more platforms and partners. We’re already integrated with Google Classroom and Microsoft’s Office 365 and we want to create more opportunities for teachers to be able to gamify the entire student experience, no matter which platforms and tools they are using. We are also looking at building more game features, like self-correcting quizzes students can complete for XP and storylines they can play out throughout the year.

Michele: What has the best thing about creating Classcraft and sharing it with teachers all around the world?

Shawn: This may sound hokey, but it’s been really great for everyone on the team to see the profound positive impact we have had on teachers, students and parents. Every day, we receive videos, pictures and testimonials from people using Classcraft telling us how it has changed their lives for the better. From the shy fifth-grader who wrote us to tell she had finally been able to make friends because of Classcraft, to the burned out teacher who has found the love of teaching again, to the parent who is raving about how motivated their child is, all of these testimonials act as fuel to keep us imagining new ways to make the classroom a better place.

Michele: Since gaming and gamification is continuously evolving, where do you see it going? What do you see as the future of gamification for educational purposes in the next year, 5 years, and even 10 years from now?

Shawn: Who knows!?🙂 It’s definitely an exciting time for the field. Tech is changing faster than we can anticipate and opportunities like VR and augmented reality will definitely have an impact on the field. I’m certain we’ll see it become much more prevalent than it is now, as educators see success stories and jump on board.

Tagged , , , ,

Museums Tell Stories: Behind the scenes of AMNH

Last night I had the amazing opportunity to go behind the scenes of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. It was early evening and the museum was closed to the public. My tour guide was a writer for the museum and she talked about finding the stories in exhibits.

Today, a writer’s job is not just to list the facts. Rather, people are drawn to stories and personal connections. The details presented on the exhibit walls are snippets of stories about our history, our world, our environment. The museum has more than 33 million artifacts and specimens in its collection and only a fraction are on view for the public. To learn more about some of the amazing stories about the artifacts behind the scenes of the museum, you can visit the AMNH blog Shelf Life which offers videos detailing the rarely seen items in the American Museum of Natural History.

My favorite episode so far is Episode Eight: The Voyage of a Giant Squid which describes how a giant frozen squid was transported from New Zealand to the United States. To get the giant squid through customs, it had to be identified as frozen seafood and sushi in order to be brought to the museum for research purposes. The references to giant squids in mythology and classical literature like Jules Verne’s 20 Thousand Leagues Under the Sea are brought to life when we see an actual giant squid or gargantuan size exhibit at the museums and listen to the tales told by scientists and paleontologists.

The museum also has an App that offers snippets of stories and backstories to the museum’s more famous items on display. To view the giant whale being cleaned or to learn how the giant sequoia tree was brought inside the museum, the app offers more photos and videos to the questions you want to know more about.


Whether you live near New York City or are on the other side of the country, the American Museum of Natural History has resources available to ALL teachers and students with curious minds on it’s website. There are curriculum materials, online seminars, and professional development material connecting with the Common Core Standards that any teacher can access to learn more and to discover fascinating stories to share with our students about our world past and present.

Tagged , , ,

10 Picture Books that Celebrate Creativity, Invention & Genius

Okay, I will admit that I am a picture book junkie. Even as my own children outgrow picture books and move into chapter books, I still collect picture books to share with my students as well as read with my own kids. Picture books are glorious short stories with inspiring pictures that speak about big ideas in a limited amount of words.

Previously, I have written blog posts on the power of picture books to inspire students of all ages.  I have found so many new great titles that I will be sharing with my middle school students for read alouds, genius hour, and just for fun.













Tagged , , ,