Instagram: Document and Share Grammar Gaffes

Last week while out to dinner with my family, I stumbled across a sign with a blatant grammar error. I froze in front of the sign eyes wide and mouth agape. My initial reaction was one of disappointment because my students were not there to witness and correct this real life grammar gaffe!

I could not wait until the next school day to quiz my students on the problem with this sign. So, I took a picture and posted it to my class Instagram account with the question “What’s wrong here?” Within 20 minutes, I had three responses to my question!

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I was delighted that students would chime in outside of school hours to explain the grammar mistake. There was no incentive. Instead, they were clearly intrigued by the challenge.

In an effort to connect our grammar lessons to “real life,” I’ve encouraged students to begin documenting and sharing the grammar mistakes they encounter in life. They can post them on Instagram and tag me (since I don’t follow anyone with my school Instagram account) or they can email me their photos directly if they don’t have an Instagram account.

Again, Instagram offers a way for me to enhance the learning happening in the classroom. For more ideas on how to use Instagram in the classroom, check out my blog on Instagram scavenger hunts and Instagram sensory walks!

Interested in  technology tips to help you teach the Common Core? My book Creatively Teach the Common Core Literacy Standards with Technology will be published in June 2015 by Corwin. Just in time for summer reading!

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Teaching Speaking & Listening Skills for Today’s Student

In the last few weeks, I’ve heard several adults comment on how sad it is that students today are always on their devices and, as a result, don’t communicate with the person sitting right next to them. I can understand the concern in this statement; however, I don’t think it acknowledges how much our students are actually communicating. Yes, they communicate differently than most of us did a kids or teenagers. But just because they communicate in different ways using different means does not make that communication any less valuable to them.

I’d argue that we need to value the modes of communication our students are using. Even though most adults are not avid users of apps like SnapChat, students are gravitating to these more informal and increasingly digital forms of communication. As educators, we have an opportunity to teach students how to be successful and responsible communicators regardless of the mode of communication they use.

There are myriad tools and online resources teachers can use to help students to cultivate 21st century communication skills that don’t involve pen and paper. In addition to formal writing, our students need to know how to articulate their ideas in 140 characters or less and engage with a global audience using social media. One of my favorite classroom tools for teaching this form of communication is KQED Do Now.


KQED’s Do Now is a weekly activity that engages students in a global conversation about current issues using social media tools like Twitter. This is a great resource for teachers who want to build in meaningful opportunities for students to engage in a more digital and succinct forms of communication with other students all over the world.

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In addition to the “Do Now” question, there is an introduction that provides an overview of the topic, a video resource, and additional research links for students to explore to learn more about this topic.

For educators new to using Twitter in the classroom, KQED offers a “Guide to Using Twitter in Your Teaching Practice” to help you get started. The guide includes information about online safety, netiquette, and Twitter. There are also resources for parents and administrators.

How are you teaching speaking and listening skills for today’s student?

Interested in  technology tips to help you teach the Common Core? My book Creatively Teach the Common Core Literacy Standards with Technology will be published in June 2015 by Corwin. Just in time for summer reading!

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Get Common Core Ready: Achieve Dynamic Student-led Discussions

Discussion can be a powerful tool for learning yet engaging all students in equitable discussions can be challenging. When I began teaching, I was frustrated because in-class discussions were dominated by a small group of vocal students while the rest of the class sat quietly avoiding eye contact. It wasn’t until I incorporated online discussions into my traditional class that I was able to engage every voice in our class dialog.

Starting with Online Discussions

I use Schoology for our online discussions. My students begin the year developing and practicing their online communication skills with online icebreakers. Online icebreakers give students an opportunity get to know one another and build a community online.

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Note: For educators interested in incorporating online discussions into their curriculum, my first book Blended Learning in Grades 4-12 provides resources and strategies to support this shift. It includes my dos and don’t for online communication, strategies students can use to ensure they are saying something substantial online, a collection of online icebreakers, and tips for weaving online work back into the classroom! 

Weaving Online Discussions Into the Classroom

Each day we weave our online discussions back into the classroom with an activity I call “Four Corner Conversations.” I count students off by 4, and each group goes to one of the four corners of our classroom to engage in a smaller group conversation. Groups revisit the points made in our online conversations and discuss the reading. These smaller group discussions give every student an opportunity to participate and have a voice in the conversation. This is much harder to do in a whole class conversation with 25 or 30 students competing for air time.

IMG_7142During first semester, I provide groups with questions, quotes and information to fuel these small group discussions. I want students to get comfortable sharing their ideas in real time. What I find amazing is how fluidly the skills honed in our online discussions transfer into our classroom conversations. Students, who are naturally shy or reluctant to talk in class, are more confident after having an opportunity to engage online. Online discussions allow them to think about a question, articulate a response, respond thoughtfully to peers, and receive validation from their peers.

Shifting to Students Designed, Facilitated & Assessed Discussions

By second semester, students to take over our in-class conversations. Each night they design a dynamic discussion question and submit their question via the Google Form I have embedded in our class website. Then I review the submissions, select strong questions, and ask those students to facilitate the in-class discussions.

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Group facilitators lead the conversations. They know it’s their responsibility to engage every voice in their group. This is an important life skill. To be “college and career ready” students must “Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

In preparation for student-led discussions, we spend time reviewing what it looks like to lead a discussion. We crowdsource a list of strategies facilitators can use to include every group member in the conversation.

As students engage in their groups, they complete a facilitation form pictured below. This form asks them to track the participation of their group members. After the conversation is over, they evaluate their facilitation skills. I also like to find out who they felt was the strongest member of their group and why.

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Note: For educators using Google Apps, click here to view a copy of the student-led facilitation form. If you sign into your Google Account, you can go to “File,” click “Make a copy,” and it will automatically save to  your Google Drive.

Each class a new set of facilitators assume the role of designing, leading and assessing the in-class conversations. It’s amazing to watch them develop as both facilitators and as active participants in a student-led discussion. They must negotiate challenging topics, consider different perspectives and think critically about a range of issues. It’s in these moments when I feel we are capitalizing on the collective intelligence in our classroom!

If you have a great discussion strategy that works in your classroom, please post a comment and share it!

Interested in  technology tips to help you teach the Common Core? My book Creatively Teach the Common Core Literacy Standards with Technology will be published in June 2015 by Corwin. Just in time for summer reading!

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Creating Memes to Explore Themes

Yesterday, I stumbled onto the KQED YouTube video about making memes. I love memes! A meme is a humorous image, video, piece of text, etc. that is copied–often with slight variations–and spread rapidly by Internet users. I decided I wanted to find a way to incorporate memes in my English class. The timing was perfect. We are just wrapping up The Joy Luck Club and I had the computer lab booked!

I decided to have students create an original meme focused on one of the major themes we discussed from the novel. I was clear to tell that the meme was not about the novel, but rather dealing with a similar theme. I wanted their memes to be clever commentaries on life.

I shared a few memes that deal with the power struggles between children and their parents, unrealistic parent expectations, and the challenges of growing up.

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Here’s a progression you can follow to guide students:

Step 1: Decide on a Theme

Ask students to identify a theme they want to focus on when they create their memes.

Step 2: Complete an Advanced Google Search

Show your students how to do an Advanced Google Search to look for images that have been labeled for reuse. Most students probably haven’t ever done an advance image search looking for images labeled for reuse. Unfortunately, many teens grab images online and reuse them without permission, so this is an important life lesson.

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Step 3: Decide on an Image

Once they’ve decided on an image, have them save the picture to their device or take a screenshot.


Step 4: Upload the Image to a Google Drawing

Ask students to log into their Google Drive and create a new Google Drawing and upload their image. If you are using Google Classroom or Doctopus, you can create a Drawing for your students. If your students create their own Google Drawings, remind them to use a standard naming convention (e.g. Class Name – Last Name – Theme Meme).


Step 5: Add Clever Text! 

Ask student to add text to their image to create their memes. I reminded my students that their mix of media and text should send a clear and interesting message about their chosen theme.

Here are some of the memes my students created!

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Teacher Tip: If you aren’t using Google Classroom or Doctopus, an easy way to collect all of your students’ memes is to ask students to complete a Google Form like the one below. That way all of their information and URLs to their Google Drawings are stored in a Google Spreadsheet.

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Interested in  technology tips to help you teach the Common Core? My book Creatively Teach the Common Core Literacy Standards with Technology will be published in June 2015 by Corwin. Just in time for summer reading!

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Drive Higher-Order Thinking with RSA Animation

RSA animation is essentially whiteboard animation. The artist draws pictures on a whiteboard to depict concepts using a combination of words and pictures. If you’ve never seen an RSA animation, I’d suggest watching “Changing Educational Paradigms” which took a section of Ken Robinson’s TED Talk and animated it using this technique.

I love the idea of representing complex concepts with images and words. To do this effectively, you have to really understand the information you are attempting to communicate visually.

While teachingRay Bradbury’s futuristic novel Fahrenheit 451, I wanted my students to examine why society shifted from reading books and valuing literature to burning books. There is a conversation in the book between two characters in which this shift is explained; however, there are many factors at play and students struggle to understand all of the reasons why society shifted.

In an interview about why he wrote Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury said, “I’ve tried not to predict, but to protect and to prevent.” If his mission was to protect books and the ideas in them and prevent people from burning books and devaluing literature, then it’s crucial that students understand why book burning (in the novel) became the norm.

I decided to have my students create RSA animation films to portray this shift. I knew creating a film would force them to analyze the text, evaluate the factors at play, and create!

Step 1: I asked students to do a close reading of the pages in the text where Captain Beatty explains why society changed.

In small groups, they took their annotations and created flowcharts on paper illustrating the different factors that led society from reading books to burning them. I also asked them to include direct quotes from the book to link each image to the text.



Step 2: After creating a flowchart, each group started a shared Google document and wrote a rough draft of a script detailing the transition from reading to burning books. Then one member of the group became the official writer for the group. It was the writer’s job to edit, refine and improve the script.

Step 3: In class while the writer was working on the script, the other members of the group began the actual RSA animation. One student was the artist and another student filmed the artist as he or she drew. The videos were captured using cell phones then saved in Google Drive.


Step 4: Once the script was complete, students uploaded the video into iMovie and selected “Modify” > “Fast Forward.” This allowed them to take a 10-15 minute video of the artist drawing and condense it into 2-3 minutes.

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Step 5: Here’s the tricky part! Once the group knew how long the video would be, one group member had to record a reading of the script and attempt to match the events in the script with the scenes being depicted in the video. This took some practice. Then students then uploaded their audio and layered it on top of their video in iMovie.

Step 6: Each group published their RSA Animation video to one of their group member’s YouTube channel. Note: You can ask students to make the video “Public” so anyone online can view it (my preference) or they can post it as “Unlisted” which means only people with the link can find it.

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Step 7: I used a Google Form to collect and organize the videos. Each group had to submit the Google Form below with their group’s information and the URL to their video. So all I had to do was open the spreadsheet where the information was stored and click on their URLs to quickly view the videos!

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I love how creative yet challenging this assignment was for my students. They had to employ higher-order thinking to successfully accomplish each task required to create the video. It was fun watching them troubleshoot and bounce ideas around. While observing them, I found myself smiling. They are so incredibly creative and resourceful when they want to be! I know my students this year have a much better understanding of why Bradbury’s dystopian society destroyed books.

Interested in  technology tips to help you teach the Common Core? My book Creatively Teach the Common Core Literacy Standards with Technology will be published in June 2015 by Corwin. Just in time for summer reading!

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Thesis Statement Throwdown!

Every English teacher has experienced the frustration of introducing a writing skill, like how to write a thesis statement, over and over again without it “sticking.”

Three years ago, I began “flipping” my writing instruction, so students watch videos on my YouTube channel, take Cornell notes, then come prepared to class to do the actual writing. I love this approach to teaching writing! Students can watch my explanations as many times as they need to over the course of the year. Plus, I get to support them as they write in class. (See my post on synchronous editing).

Alas, there are always students who need more practice. That said, I can only read so many essays in a year. Instead of feeling frustrated, I decided to design a fun activity to practice writing thesis statements. This is how thesis statement throwdown was born!

Thesis throwdown is a quirky combination of group collaboration, writing practice, funky music, and competition. Here’s how it works:

Step 1: Write an essay prompt on the board. I vary my questions between informative and argumentative topics. KQED’s Do Now series is an excellent place to grab writing prompts!

Step 2: Put students into small groups and give them 5 minutes to construct a solid thesis statement in response to the essay question. The conversations that take place are incredible!


Step 3: Randomly select two groups to compete. I don’t tell them ahead of time who will compete in the actual throwdown because I want everyone to give it 100%.

Step 4: As each group writes their thesis statements on separate whiteboard, I play a fun but slightly random song. Our thesis throwdown music list has ranged from “Everybody Dance Now” to “Eye of the Tiger.” My philosophy is that the music keeps everyone interested and entertained while the two groups write their thesis statements on the board.


Step 5: Once both thesis statements are written on the board, I turn off the music and set to work! I edit each thesis statement and “think out loud” as I work, so students can hear what I am responding to in a positive way–strong vocabulary, parallel language, and clearly stated assertion–and what needs to be added, removed or edited. The more I let them into my process as an editor, the more likely they are to successfully edit their own work.


Finally, a winner is declared!

The entire activity takes 10 minutes from beginning to end. It’s hard to believe a writing activity can be so much fun, but this is really entertaining if you add the music and just have fun with it.

In the two weeks we’ve done thesis statement throwdown, I am shocked by the improvement in the quality of the thesis statements. It’s worth a try if you are feeling like your students just aren’t delivering quality thesis statements. After all, the thesis is the most important sentence of an essay. We want students to leave our classes confident crafting a strong thesis statement!


Interested in  technology tips to help you teach the Common Core? My book Creatively Teach the Common Core Literacy Standards with Technology will be published in June 2015 by Corwin. Just in time for summer reading!

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Favorite Chrome Extension for Writing: Grammarly

Interested in more technology tips to help you teach the Common Core? My book Creatively Teach the Common Core Literacy Standards with Technology will be published in June 2015 by Corwin. Just in time for summer reading!

Editing your own work is one of the biggest challenges that any writer faces.  It’s exponentially more challenging to identify and correct your own grammatical mistakes. As you edit, your eyes miss errors because your brain knows what you meant to say and skips right over the mistakes.

So, how can we help students to see their mistakes so they can correct them? I’ve recommended that my students use Grammarly (, a free Chrome extension, to help them catch their errors as they compose emails, engage on social media, and write assignments online.

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Grammarly checks contextualized spelling, grammar, sentence structure, punctuation, and style. The number of mistakes will appear in the lower right-hand corner in red. Each individual mistake will be underlined in green. When you hover over the underlined section, a small window pops up to help you identify the type of error you’ve made and Grammarly suggests an improvement. You simply click on the suggested improvement and it automatically changes!

Grammarly catches errors as students compose messages almost anywhere online! Students can also create a document in their Grammarly account and begin writing directly on that document to catch errors as they write.

Because my students use Google documents for all of their written assignments, I recommend that they copy and paste their work into a Grammarly document to check it before submitting a final draft. Students are amazed by what Grammarly catches! Most don’t even realize their writing has errors until they use Grammarly.

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For those of us shifting to the Common Core Standards, this simple tool offers an easy way to support students in developing a “command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing.” If students begin to recognize the types of mistakes they typically make, it will be easier for them to look for and identify those mistakes in their own writing in the future. This also makes it easier for them to “develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, [and] editing.

I know some teachers feel programs like this give students the answers, but I disagree. Often students cannot identify their own errors and need support to develop as writers. I know in my own work as a writer, I’ve found tools like this, in combination with my editor’s feedback, enlightening. For example, I didn’t realize I have a tendency to split my infinitives (who knew!). However, when it was pointed out to me on a few occasions, I became aware of my tendency to do this and began to look for this error in my own writing.

Congratulations to Penny C. who won the Grammarly Giveaway!

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Common Core Reading Resource: Smithsonian Tween Tribune

Interested in more technology tips to help you teach the Common Core? My book Creatively Teach the Common Core Literacy Standards with Technology will be published in June 2015 by Corwin. Just in time for summer reading!

I’m always on the look out for great resources to support reading. While leading a training in Alaska this weekend, a participant mentioned The Smithsonian Tween (& Teen) Tribune. This free resource is a great place to grab informational and nonfiction texts written at various Lexile levels to support a wide range of reading abilities.

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Create up to 9 classes! Teachers can easily differentiate instruction assigning articles written at a range Lexile levels to different groups of students within a single class. Strong readers might be able to read an article that measures 1130L, while other students in the same class may need to read the same article written at a 1000 Lexile level. This differentiation challenges students at different reading levels while allowing them to access the same information.

Sidenote: If you are wondering what the target Lexile range is for your students, check out the chart below, which is provided in Appendix A of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Science, Science and Technical Studies. For more on “text complexity,” click here.

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Once teachers create an account and set up their classes, they can assign articles and collect student data. Teachers can use the “Classroom Dashboard” to see which students have posted comments to an article and how they scored on the quiz about the reading.

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Teachers can search by topic–animals, art, book reviews, education, science, sports, technology, world news– or they can search by Lexile levels.

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Students can add comments to the articles they’ve been assigned. These comments are private to the teacher and the student, unless the teacher decides to “go public.” When a class is public students read comments posted by students around the world. However, the teacher must approve students’ comments before they are published on the site.

Each article has a 3 question quiz students can take. The first question typically checks for understanding and the other two tend to be more challenging.

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The Smithsonian Tween Tribune shares many features with Newsela. For more on Newsela, click here.


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Google Drive: The Basics

For teachers who are just getting started with Google, Google Drive can be intimidating! In preparation for a Google training, I’ve put together a short explanation of Google Drive and its basic features. Although an increasing number of people have a Gmail account, I run into teachers all the time who are not sure what Google Drive is or how it works.

Google Drive is like a big virtual bucket! It’s where everything you create with Google apps–documents, forms, sheets, slides, drawing–are stored. And unlike a traditional word processing document, you never need to click “Save”…EVER.  Your work is automatically saved every 5 seconds (or so).

Google Drive comes with 15 GB of free storage, so you can save files, photos, and videos. You can access any file in your Google Drive from any device as long as you have internet access. This means you are no longer tethered to a piece of hardware. You can open, edit and share files from any device that can get online.

For those with unreliable internet access, you can also install Google Drive onto your devices and work offline. Then when you are back online, your devices will sync and store your work!

Here are some screenshots to help you navigate your Google Drive.

Organize your files in whatever order makes sense to you. You can limit your view to the files you’ve created, the files that have been shared with you or the files that have been most recently edited. This makes it easy to locate the files you’re looking for.

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Click on a file or folder and check out the “More actions” icon (3 vertical dots) to manage your documents more easily.

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Enjoy total transparency with the “View Details” icon (black circle with the letter “i” in the middle). Simply click on a file or folder and see all of the activity associated with it. You can see when documents were created, when they were edited, and who edited them!

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Last, but not least, you can insert files, photos and videos directly from Google Drive into your emails.

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If you use Google Drive and have tips to share, please post a comment!


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New Tradition: Family Reading Time

Most of my blog posts are inspired by the work I do with my high school students. This post is inspired by my own children–ages 6 and 7. My children attend a Spanish immersion school, where they receive 90% of their instruction in Spanish. As part of their homework, they must read each day.

My daughter, who is in 2nd grade, is expected to read independently for 25 minutes a day in Spanish. She is an avid reader, who devours chapter books in both English and Spanish.

My son, who is in kindergarten, is just beginning to read. We do reading lessons at night, but I felt like he needed quiet time on his own to slowly sound out words and get comfortable reading without me looking over his shoulder.

So, we started family reading time!


It’s simple. Every night we all go into the living room with our books and read quietly for 30 minutes. It’s been amazing! The kids absolutely love it. They literally chant “family reading time” as they skip into the living room because they are so eager to read. The magic of family reading time is that we all do it together. My husband and I stop whatever we are doing and we all read. It’s becoming one of our many family traditions.

Not only does this make it easier for the kids to complete the required reading for homework, but it also sends the clear message that we, as a family unit, value reading. As an English teacher, it’s incredibly important for me to instill the love of reading in my children. I love these quiet moments together. I would encourage every family to try this!

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