Sunday, August 14, 2016

Writing Blocks: A Writing Program Based on Deliberate Practice

If you are daunted by writing instruction, this post is for you. If you are looking for more 1:1 information, please check back next week. Writing is on my mind tonight. 

One of the most daunting tasks for any teacher is teaching writing. In the era of texting and Snap Chat, it can feel almost hopeless. I taught 8th through 11th grade ELA for six years before moving on to social studies, and it is an issue in both subjects.

Regardless of the subject I am teaching, I always require writing. Students should be doing it, and practice makes perfect, right?

Well, actually, wrong. If students are writing, that’s beneficial, and it has its place. They should be doing it. But if I sing in my typical off-key fashion every night in a friendly game of Rock Band with my son and husband, I may become more comfortable at singing, but I’m not going to get any better at it. I’m still singing off key.

Likewise, my students can journal and write essays on a weekly basis and become comfortable doing so, but they may not actually get any better at it. Eighteen weeks later, they are in the routine of writing, but their sentences are still not varied, their subjects and verbs still don’t agree, and their capitalization and punctuation are still inconsistent.

So what do we as teachers do about this? When I was working on my gifted endorsement 12 years ago, the instructor said, “If it’s not an ELA class, we should only grade the students on their content and not count off for grammar and mechanics.”

I have never disagreed with something more strongly in my career as an educator.

Writing is a medium for conveying ideas. If students are using that medium, then regardless of the subject we are teaching, they should use that medium correctly.

Would you ask a student to create a PowerPoint and accept a single slide packed with text? You would probably expect students to follow some guidelines in creating an effective presentation. The medium AND the content matter.

Why should that be any different for writing? Writing is not just the problem of the ELA teacher. Writing spans all of the content areas. Students should become adept at using the medium.

We all, then, regardless of our content area, need to have a writing emphasis. The question then becomes—how do we teach it effectively? Just having students do it is helpful, but it is not sufficient.

I became interested in generative grammar about 11 years ago when I was fumbling with this question as I was working on my Specialist degree. Generative grammar is essentially all about the logic and structure of language. It was originated by linguist Noam Chomsky. In essence, you use existing sentences to generate new ones.

I created a simple sentence imitation program that I used in my own classroom as a daily warm up and saw distinct improvements in student writing. But I never fully fleshed it out until recently.
It has become a daily writing program called “Writing Blocks.” Writing Blocks is based on the principles of generative grammar and sentence imitation that I became intrigued by so many years ago, but the true value and function of sentence imitation crystallized for me fairly recently. It all started with my addiction to podcasts.

I love podcasts. One of my favorites is FREAKONOMICS. Back in April, they did a series on self-improvement. One of the episodes was centered around K.A. Ericsson’s research on deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice is the idea that anyone can become an expert at almost anything if they devote time each day to meaningful practice.

I have absolutely no musical talent, and again, if I sing in a Rock Band game every night, I may become more comfortable at singing, but the quality of my voice probably won’t improve. However, if I hire a voice coach and work on scales and improving my range and ear daily, I’m more likely to improve. That is meaningful, deliberate practice.

But what is meaningful practice when it comes to writing? I think it goes back to generative grammar. Students should look at existing sentences, consider their structure and meaning, and imitate them.
Most writers begin by reading and are somewhat derivative at first. On that same episode of Freakonomics, here’s what Malcolm Gladwell, an established writer had to say about his craft:

"I began as a writer trying to write like William F. Buckley, my childhood hero. And if you read   my early writing, it was insanely derivative. All I was doing was looking for models and copying them. And years of doing that — out of years of doing that, emerges my own style."

Gladwell did this by being a life-long reader. Many of our students have not been. So how do we help them make up for lost time?

That is difficult to do, just as it is difficult to learn a foreign language in old age, but it can be done. 

That is what this program attempts to do.

Each day, students are exposed to a different sentence. They discuss the sentence. They play with its order and its meaning. They imitate it. At the end of each week, they use those sentence patterns to construct a paragraph. At the end of six weeks, they use one of those paragraphs to construct an essay.

It comes with examples, rubrics, PowerPoint Presentations, and foldable graphic organizers. Check out this video preview:

You can grab a free sample of the program HERE.

How do you teach writing? Leave a comment below, and let me know!

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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

1:1 Ready: Teaching Digital Citizens

As teachers, most of us have more content than we can possibly teach well, let alone cover, in the time allotted to us.

Time has always been our enemy, but now we see 1:1 on the horizon, and a blended classroom promises to alleviate much of that stress. It is easier to flip, differentiate, assess, and grade than ever before.

But with these blessings comes a new burden—the burden of teaching our students to behave responsibly in the digital realm. We must now teach our students digital citizenship.

There are many components of digital citizenship, but I would define it simply as learning to behave responsibly in the digital realm.

Responsible digital behavior has several basic components, including but not limited to:


Students should maintain respect for one another and their devices at all times. They should refrain from harmful language and cyber-bullying. They should clean and care for their devices.

Students should understand that people they encounter online are not their friends and that conversations with friends online are not private. They should know never to disclose personal information such as location and passwords. They should understand the danger of meeting someone they met online in the real world.

Students should be aware of intellectual property laws and understand how to properly credit a source. They should understand that illegal downloading and sharing is theft.

     Students should understand that anything that they share, text, or upload will not go away. They should be aware of the permanence of their digital reputations and that it will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

Students should be responsible with their internet use. They should not allow the digital world to consume them at the expense of real-world relationships. They should also be responsible with the sources they choose to trust and practice fact-checking.

 Download this FREE Sign (in color and black and white) and accompanying note page to remind students about the importance of these five components of digital citizenship for free HERE.

I spoke to other teachers (the type in the trenches) who are going 1:1 this fall about the need to teach digital citizenship (they all have blogs that I find immensely useful, so I’ve linked to them for you below, just click on their names), and here’s what they had to say.

Brittany Washburn, a science and technology specials teacher for grades 2-5, said:

Have you all seen the new ISTE standard 2 for digital citizenship? It's really intense wording. "Permanence of my actions" "legal and ethical behavior" "obligations of sharing intellectual property" "maintain digital privacy and security". They aren't messing around.
Starting the school year with digital citizenship when you're in a 1:1 classroom is so important to setting expectations.

Danielle Knight, a pioneer in creating digital interactive notebooks, and a secondary ELA special education teacher, said:

I try to instill the values in my students about credibility and what to believe online.

Danielle has an excellent point. How many of your students believe everything that they see online? The infamous Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus is a clever example of that. We must teach our students to be discerning—now more than ever in this age of information overload.

Christina Schneider, a secondary ELA teacher, made an excellent point:

I don't think students always come to us with this as background knowledge. Just think about how many emails you've received in the past from your district's IT dept. warning teachers not to click on a certain link...
As we use more digital teaching tools in the classroom, it is important to also teach our students about digital citizenship. Today's youth need to know the written, as well as the unwritten, rules of the Internet so that they can be effective and productive collaborators in the digital world.
I will teach digital citizenship to my students this year by introducing them to a Digital Citizenship Mini Flip Book. This mini flip book will cover different aspects of digital citizenship, from laws to passwords, so that they can be digitally aware.

Get it HERE!
This is an AWESOME flipbook. My free sign and notes offer a brief reminder to students about citizenship, but Christina’s flipbook is very detailed. I’m going to have my students keep a copy in their paper interactive notebooks. I really like that it has a place for students AND parents to sign. You can get a copy of it HERE.

Get it HERE!
I have a Digital Citizenship Video Webquest, as well that encourages students to look into some important issues surrounding digital citizenship. The films are short and engaging and students are guided in responding thoughtfully to each one. You can get it HERE.

Will you teach Digital Citizenship when school starts? If so, how will you do it? Leave a comment below to let me know!

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Sunday, July 17, 2016

1:1 Ready: 3 Ways to Avoid Making Technology the New Book Work

Summer is a reflective time for me, and I'm guessing, it is for most teachers. I use the mini sabbatical to spend time with my family and recharge. But I also use it to plan for the next school year. That is a process that comes with a lot of reflection.

So far this summer, I have been preparing to go fully 1:1 with my classes. I began the process last year (as much as my access to technology would allow), so I've used the summer to reflect on what worked and what didn't. So far, in this series, I've blogged about two things that have served to make my life as a teacher so much easier--Google Forms for Multi-Media Assessment and making OUR lives easier and Screencastify for content delivery in absentia.

Technology has opened a wide world of possibilities in the classroom--virtual field trips, flipped classrooms, less paperwork for teachers, digital interactive notebooks (thank you Danielle Knight for teaching us how to do it--you can check out her brilliant toolkit HERE).

But as we move forward, I think it's important to do so mindfully. We should remember our
ultimate goals as educators of students and as purveyors of content. We are here to nurture young minds and to deliver content in the most effective ways possible. Just because students are using their devices doesn't mean that they are engaging in quality assignments.

Think about it this way--when textbooks were the thing, we didn't exclusively use them just because we had them. Most of us realized that teachers who did so week after week were phoning it in. Let's try to be the same way with our Chromebooks, IPads, or whatever devices we're using.

Planning is at the heart of the effective classroom. That's not going to change just because we go 1:1.

So, upon much summertime reflection, I've thought of...

3 Ways to Avoid Making Technology The New Book Work

We've all been there--I'm there now--sitting in front of a screen, typing away. That's good. We're focused when we do that. We're thoughtful (if we're not checking facebook, which I may or may not be currently doing). But we're also shutting other people out.

Technology is certainly not the only cause of that--book work certainly has the same effect.

But in the old days, it was considered bad practice to do nothing but book work for an entire course. So let's avoid doing that with computers and thinking that it's okay just because we're incorporating technology. Let's continue to vary our activities.

An example of how I might do this is when I'm introducing a new unit. I always begin with vocabulary. I have digital flashcards with film links and 10 to 11 pages of activities (cloze reading, matching, puzzles). I assign it all in Google Classroom. Last year I made the mistake of assigning it all at once. That made for a lot of screen-staring time (a.k.a.--a whole block of book work).

So I'm making an effort to break it all up. I can make copies of my big documents in Google Drive (as many as I want), and delete slides or pages so that I'm just assigning a little at a time. Students can create folders for each topic in their Drives so that they stay organized.

Here's an example of how I plan to do it this year (you can preview the entire vocabulary unit I'm using as an example HERE):

1. Assign the flashcards and matching activity before we begin the unit and instruct students to preview the cards, watch the films, and complete the matching activity at home, during lunch, before practice, in study hall--you get the idea.
2. The day we begin the unit, I'll only assign the cloze reading to the students. I'll set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes, and let them complete it and submit it to me.
3. Then we'll go over the answers together. There are all kinds of ways for me to know if they actually tried or just put down anything down, not the least of which is that I'll have their submitted answers. I also like to "cyber stalk" them while they're working. You can read about how to do that HERE.
4. Then we'll play QUIZ-QUIZ TRADE or QUIZLET LIVE.

I've advocated a 3-3-3 Station Rotation Model in the past. I like it--it's simple. It enables flex-grouping and differentiation. It allows the teacher to give students more individual attention. You can find out more about the Station Rotation Model HERE.

I plan to use it as a way to avoid turning computers into book work substitutes. But--and this is important--only ONE of my stations will use technology. I know, I know, I know--that's not what I said last time, but now all of my students will have their own device. They need something different at each station--moving locations is part of it, and what's the point in moving if they can just access everything on their devices?

*A work around for this if, say, you want the task cards at station 2 to be digital, or you want to give virtual notes at one station and a virtual tour at the other, is to have a link or QR Code to the activity (the website--your screencastify on YouTube or linked to your Google Drive). If you have digital handouts for these, you can assign them in Classroom or via email, but they should have to move to get the link that goes with it.

Here's an example of what I might do:
Station 1: Technology Station, for example: virtual notes, virtual tours, digital interactive notebook activity
Station 2: No Technology (*or see suggestion above) for example: task cards, foldables, cartoons, puzzles
Station 3: Teacher Led--some type of remediation or enrichment
End of Class: Formative Assessment

Games require thinking and interaction. They can help students review or learn material, but they also promote cooperation and collegial competition. In other words, they build social skills. When students are playing games with each other, even if the games are on the computer, they are not isolated.

They don't have to be lengthy games or take much prep. For games like this, I highly recommend becoming familiar with a few Kagan Structures. You can read about five to get started with HERE. They are quick, they break up your lessons, and they get students talking (hopefully about what you want them to :)).

I'm not a huge fan of whole class games because some of the students just don't participate. I prefer partner and small group games because they force everyone to participate (generally). Check out this video to see some that I made for Google Drive that are easy to assign in Classroom and can be played in small groups.

You can check out the games HERE.

How are you planning for effective instruction in a 1:1 Classroom? Leave a comment below to let me know!

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Monday, June 27, 2016

1:1 Ready: Use Screencastify and Flip

This summer, I'm getting 1:1 ready with simple tips, tricks, and discoveries for the blended classroom. We return in the fall (well, summer, really--90+ degree August hardly qualifies as fall) to a shiny Chromebook in each student's hand and a skeptical furrow on each teacher's brow.

My goal is to make the impending transition as painless as possible by being 1:1 ready. So far, I've been looking at the possibilities of using Google Forms to enrich student assessment and to make our lives as teachers simpler.

This week I want to look at using an absolutely free Google extension to flip your class. So let's see how to...

Use Screencastify and Flip!

Technology enables teachers to stand the traditional classroom on its head. There is no longer a need to spend an entire class delivering content to students. Instead, we can flip our classrooms, or deliver content to students outside of class. That frees up class time for projects, remediation, and extension.

If your students don't have access to technology at home, or if flipping just doesn't work for you, then try using Screencastify to create content stations for a station rotation model. Have one station for content delivery, one station for extension, and one station for remediation/enrichment. Honestly, this is probably the way I'll use Screencastify most of the time.

I prefer it to any of the other screencast tools I've tried because it's incredibly simple, and you don't need to download any other programs to use it.

Below I made an infographic and, of course, a screen cast with Screencastify demonstrating how to get started.

Have you used Screencastify, or do you think you will? Leave a comment below, and let me know!

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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

1:1 Ready: Use Flubaroo to Make Self-Grading Quizzes

I'm spending my summer break getting 1:1 ready. Each and every one of my students will show up for class this fall armed with a brand new, glistening Chromebook.

This is happening to me. Me. The great lover of foldables, coloring, cloze notes, and good old fashioned interactive notebooks. But I learned a long time ago that if you don't roll with the punches, you end up with cracked ribs. That's not fun. It makes coughing painful and breathing just plain hard.

So my rule is always to roll with those punches--I don't like to hurt. But I'm not abandoning pen and paper and good old-fashioned stuff, oh my. You can read all about my take on this HERE.

But as I've said many times, when the digital works best, I'm going with it. It does make my life easier--no copying, cutting, stapling, pasting (I have a headache just mentioning these things). Plus (and arguably most importantly), students need to develop practical technological skills outside of snap-chatting and texting.

And one time that the digital works best for sure is with creating self-grading quizzes.

When I first started using Google Forms to generate quizzes, I learned a code to use in Google Sheets that would make the quizzes self-grading. There were a lot of steps there, and it almost wasn't worth it. But then somebody came up with the free Add-On Flubaroo that does all of that for you. It's super easy. I was sold.

Here's How it Works:

First, go to Forms, and create a quiz. If you're a newbie to this, no worries, just check out this video blog to see how to open a Form and create a quiz.

After you've created your quiz, follow these steps:

The implications for using Forms and Flubaroo as formative assessment are astounding. I've used it to group students and re-group them according to their progress on any specific day. Remediation in small, targeted groups is actually practical now that we don't have to grade everything by hand (as we either forgo sleep or feeding our children dinner that doesn't come with a toy).

What are your tips for being 1:1 ready this fall? What would you like to hear more about? Leave a comment below to let me know.

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Tuesday, June 7, 2016

1:1 Ready: Inserting Images and Films into Google Forms

We are officially on summer break at our house (except for my son's summer math classes, but we won't mention those). There are two things this family of teachers is focusing on this summer.

1. Continuing our summer hometown tourist tradition.
2. Getting 1:1 ready for the new school year.

I will be posting 2016's first hometown tourist edition next week, but this week I want to focus on my first 1:1 Ready post (and I will be posting them all summer).

One of the greatest things ever about Google Drive is Google Forms. I use them all the time, and I have many colleagues who use them. Last week, I presented at the Tech Summit for my county (my topic was Interactive Notebooks in the Digital Classroom--you can check out the presentation HERE).

Before I presented, I sent out one of my quizzes in Forms to my department so that their answers could provide a sample demonstration for me. They are some of the most wonderful people I've ever worked with, and they were more than happy to help. The responses I got back made me realize that most of them don't know how to make a Google Forms quiz multi-media.

"How did you insert that image?"

"How did you get that film in there?"

I made a quick tutorial for them that I'm going to share here.

Inserting pictures and films is an immensely useful feature in forms, so this week's 1:1 Ready tip is all about how to make your Forms Multi-Media. It's surprisingly easy to do.

Go into your Google Drive, and open a new form. Follow the example below to add images and films.

It's as simple as that--thank you, Google! ;) Here's a video tutorial, in case you want to dig deeper.

Be sure to check back next week for our first Summer Hometown Tourist Adventure of 2016 and more 1:1 Ready Tips!

Be 1:1 Ready with these Google Classroom Hacks:
Grade at a Glance with Color
Help Students Succeed in Real Time
Send out Reminders in a Flash
Formative Assessment with Forms
Collaborative Review with Slides
Stay Organized with Creative Projects

And Check Out These Printable Forms about Getting Started In Google Classroom and Troubleshooting:
Get it Here!
Get it Here!

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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Google Classroom Hack #1: Stay Organized with Creative Projects

School is almost over. Three more days, but most importantly, zero more Mondays.

I am about to complete my 15th year in the classroom, and in that time, I've noticed that three things in education have remained consistent through the years (for me, anyway).

1. Nothing ever stays the same. The bureaucrats love shaking things up, and if we don't roll with it, we get bitter and burned out.

2. The school year speeds along until the last six weeks. Then time slows to a sputter, and we limp along in slow motion until that last joyous, bittersweet day.

3. Mondays are always the worst. The WORST. ALWAYS.

I've been counting down those last, limping six weeks by looking at the positive side of #1. Many people I work with are shaking their heads and feeling overwhelmed about going 1:1 next school year.

I completely sympathize. I felt the same way when I learned of the impending technological changes. You finally get comfortable with something, and then the proverbial rug is pulled out from under, and you have to start all over again. And again.

So I decided to get a head-start and do a 1:1 test run in my classes this past semester. I'm glad I did. I feel much more confident with the new set-up, and I've learned that this can actually make my job easier and increase student engagement.

I've written about this for the past six weeks. You can check out my Google Classroom Hacks here: Grade at a Glance with Color, Monitor Student Work in Real Time, Send out Reminders in a FlashFormative Assessment with Forms, and Collaborative Review With Slides.

Another concern many of us have is that going 1:1 will sap student creativity, but I've found that's not the case. You can still give students options, allow them to be creative, and blend your classroom (a digital and a traditional hybrid).

So that brings us the Google Classroom Hack #1:

Stay Organized with Creative Projects

In the past, I've liked to engage my students in open-ended projects to close out the semester. This semester is no different, except for one thing--it will be easier for me to keep track of their projects. Easier because we're using Google Classroom.

My students and I had a discussion about what the project should be and what the requirements would be. We decided on a presentation.

Some of them wanted to do a basic Google Slides Presentation. Others wanted to write an essay. Others wanted to create a game. One particularly artistic student wanted to do a series of pictures with captions.

"Fine," I said. "But we need direction and guidelines." Boring, boring me.

They spouted off ideas, and I jotted them on the good old-fashioned whiteboard. I had a student type the suggestions into Classroom. I then instructed the students to think about it that night and if they came up with anymore ideas, to leave them in the comment stream.

The next day, we discussed what they had come up with and used those ideas to create guidelines. We used those guidelines to create a rubric.

This is what we came up with. Grab it HERE for free. I check and then leave comments in the blank boxes.
This process served two purposes:

1. Students felt ownership of the project's genesis, and, therefore, were excited about it (a REALLY big deal, as any teacher knows).

2. It got them thinking about it and gave students who may have struggled to come up with ideas, well, ideas.

Now, how will Google Classroom help this unfortunately unorganized teacher stay organized?

They are presenting to the class. If they do a Slides or Google Drawings (more on this later, I promise) presentation, they "turn it in" right in the assignment box I created for it in Classroom. If it's pencil and paper drawings or an original board game, they take a picture of it and submit it there, as well (find out how to do that HERE).

Here's a board game that one of my students is working on--it has cards to go with it, and I'll have those, but this picture will be in Classroom to remind me of what she did.
I have everything all in one place. No more searching through piles of projects to refresh my memory when I'm going back and leaving comments and assigning grades from the presentations.

These projects are not due until the end of the week, but so far, so good. The students are engaged during this, the LAST week of school.

How do you handle open-ended projects in a blended classroom? Do you think this could work for your classes? Leave a comment below to let me know!

Read the first hack in this series--CLICK HERE.

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