Build an Online Community to Complement Your in Class Community

More and more teachers are venturing online with their students to enhance and extend the work done in the classroom. There are myriad benefits to engaging students online and replacing classic pen and paper assignments with more dynamic online lessons, asynchronous conversations and collaborative activities.

Unfortunately, many teachers jump into the online space without creating the foundation needed to ensure students will participate respectfully, supportively and substantively.

I believe we must follow the same steps we use in the classroom to build community online.

1. Establish Clear Expectations for Behavior

2. Give Students a Chance to Practice

3. Gently Correct Missteps Online

Establish Clear Expectations for Behavior 

Just as we discuss the norms for behavior in our physical classroom, I had students decide what was appropriate for our interactions and communication the online space. I asked them to work in groups to establish “norms” for our behavior online. Then I presented them with my “Dos and Don’ts for Online Communication” (available with other online community building resources in my book Blended Learning in Grades 4-12). We merged our lists to ensure we had a clear set of expectations prior to our first assignment online.

Give Students a Chance to Practice

Many of my students have never been asked to complete work online prior to my class, so it is important that they have a chance to practice in a low stress situation. I use online icebreakers to create opportunities for students to get to know one another and practice these new expectations for online behavior and communication.

Below is a screenshot of our first online icebreaker this year. Students stunned me with how strong their initial interactions were. I believe it was a product of our classroom conversations about online communication norms.

Screen shot 2014-08-22 at 12.09.46 PM

Screen shot 2014-08-22 at 12.17.51 PMI’ve designed a collection of icebreakers that work well in the online space to help students get to know their peers, form relationships and practice engaging respectfully and substantively with one another online. (Note: 16 online icebreakers also featured in my book Blended Learning in Grades 4-12).

Gently Correct Missteps Online

Blending online work with face to face interactions in the classroom is most effective when the work done in one medium is woven seamlessly into the other medium.

After our initial online discussions, I selected several student responses and replies and copied them onto a document. I removed all of the students’ names for anonymity. Then I made copies – one for each group.

I asked the groups to read and critique the online discussions:

    • What was done well? Identify areas of strength.
    • What could be improved? As a group, add edits to the paper to improve the responses and peer replies.
    • Are any of the “dos and don’ts” of online communication violated? If so, how can you fix those errors?

photoThey worked collaboratively to discuss, critique and improve the responses and peer replies. Then we finished with a whole group discussion of what was done well and what missteps need to be avoided next time.

These types of activities reinforce expectations for online engagement to ensure that students’ work online stays respectful and productive. I’d encourage teachers to approach the online space with intention and use the same kinds of strategies they use in the classroom to build community online.


Posted in Learning | 6 Comments

Crowdsourcing as a Class with Blogger

The first few days of school can be a bit of a blur for students who are bombarded with syllabi and class rules. One of the ways I like to break the cycle of “sit and get” that first week of school is to use a crowdsourcing activity to put the responsibility of establishing expectations on my students. Instead of telling them what I expect, I ask them questions like:

    • What would make this class feel like a community?
    • What can your peers do to make you feel welcome?
    • How can you help to keep this classroom a safe space?

My students have been in school for 10 years by the time they get to my class, so they have a pretty good idea of what makes a classroom a welcoming and safe community.

Screen shot 2014-08-16 at 3.54.38 PM

The second day of school, I asked them to discuss what they thought was polite versus rude when engaging in different forms of communication. In small groups, they had time to talk about their particular mode of communication. Then they constructed a “dos and don’ts” list of behaviors for face to face communication, text messages, photos sharing with commenting ability (Snapchats or Instagram), and email. Given the large number of students using photo sharing apps, I was particularly interested in their take on what was polite and what was rude.

Screen shot 2014-08-16 at 3.50.38 PM

The challenge is that I don’t have enough wall space or white board to capture all of their incredible ideas. I also want to make sure we can reference the ideas they generate throughout the year.

Instead of crowdsourcing on the board, which is temporary, students post their ideas directly to our class blog. Our class blog is a space specifically designated for them to share ideas. I have a class website, but the class blog belongs to them.

Using Blogger to Crowdsource

Step 1: Set up your blog

You’ll find the Blogger app by clicking the collection of squares in the upper right hand corner of your Gmail. Blogger is Google’s free blogging tool, so it’s attached to your Gmail account.

Blogger - click on blogger icon

Step 2: Give your blog a name

Blogger - create a  new blog

Step 3: Change setting to allow students to email and text directly to your class blog

Screen shot 2014-08-16 at 4.13.23 PM

You’re all set! Now students can use their devices in class to post their ideas and crowdsource. You can capture it in one shared space where everyone can view the information that has been generated.

Posted in Learning | 9 Comments

15 Reasons I Love to Teach

I teach because I love to learn.

I teach because it challenges me to grow.

I teach because I had great teachers who inspired me.

I teach because every day is different.

I teach because our students can make a difference.

I teach because it allows me to be creative every day.

I teach because I can model what it looks like to fail, not freak out and try again.

I teach because I want an excuse to read stories and talk about them.

I teach because high school students are hilarious.

I teach because technology is creating exciting new ways to communicate, collaborate and create.

I teach because students deserve a safe space to learn and engage with their peers.

I teach because I don’t have to sit at a desk.

I teach because 9 days out of 10 I leave school with a smile on my face.

I teach because I like to listen and I want every student to know their voice matters.

I teach because I get to experience the thrill of “ah ha” moments all the time!

This is my favorite way to end the summer and get ready for school. It always makes me thankful to have chosen this profession. I’m so lucky to wake up every morning excited to go to work.

Start this school year by making your “I teach because…” list. This could be a fun all staff activity with post-it notes too! I’d love to have teachers post a comment and share their #1 reason for teaching.


Posted in Learning | 5 Comments

Back to School To-Do List #2: Plan Epic Icebreakers

I feel for my students on the first day of school. It’s an overwhelming experience for my 9th grade students who are navigating a new campus and acclimating to new classes and classmates. I like to plan fun icebreakers to help them get past their fear (most are terrified) and get to know their peers! Here are three of my favorite first day icebreakers

#1 Personality quiz 

Instead of calling roll, I ask students to put their new schedules in the corner of their desks. Then I provide them with two part personality quiz to complete as I walk around silently taking roll. This efficient way of handling roll on the first day is a welcome relief to most students who are tired of listening to a long list of names at the start of class.

You may be questioning, “why a personality test?” First, students love answering questions about themselves. Second, it helps me to design their collaborative seating assignments after that first day.

This year I’m using this fun 5 Minute Personality Quiz, which asks students to rate words in the order they describe their personalities. After determining whether they are a lion, otter, Golden Retriever or beaver, I ask them to go to the corner of the classroom with that animal posted. As a small group, they read through the description of their personality type and discuss how accurate they feel it is.

The backside of this more structured personality quiz, is a “Would you rather…” activity. I list a collection of statements, like “Would you rather vacation at the beach or at the snow?” and “Would you rather go without your phone or a car for a month?” These statements range from intriguing to absurd, but students love it. Plus, it provides fodder for additional icebreakers asking students to stand on the side of the room that matches their particular selections.

#2 Design a Class Scavenger Hunt

This year I put together a class scavenger hunt compiled of questions, like “Who worked at a summer job?” and “Who speaks three languages?” and “Who watched the final game of the World Cup?” Students have to fill in as many of the blanks as possible and can only use a student’s name twice.

This activity gets students out of their seats and out of their comfort zones. To answer the questions, they have to walk around the room meeting people and making conversation.

#3 Socrative Space Race Ice Breaker 

I love Socrative and use it for everything from quizzes to review games to icebreakers. On the first day of class, I put students in small groups of 4 and challenge them to compete in a space race. Each group only needs one devices to make this activity work.

Prior to that first day I design either a pop culture quiz or a name that movie line quiz. I try to keep the topic fairly accessible to the majority of students. Then the groups compete against each other to answer the questions correctly. Because I run this quiz as a space race, students can see their rockets zoom across the screen as they answer questions correctly, which adds to the competitive nature of the activity. Most students forget to be nervous they are having so much fun.

If you are looking for more icebreakers, check out this Google document I started and blasted out on Twitter inviting my PLN to add their favorite icebreaker activities. If you have a fun icebreaker you use, please add it to the document so it continues to grow!

Posted in Learning | 4 Comments

Back to School To-Do List #1: Sign up for Remind

August is right around the corner and, like most teachers, I have a TON to do before my students return in 3 weeks. In an effort to help teachers prepare for the first day of school, I wanted to share some of the items on my to-do list.

If you’ve never used Remind (previously Remind101), this is a quick and easy tool that allows you to send groups of students and parents text message reminders. I’ve recorded a screencast walking teachers though the simple process of signing up for an account. I’ve also highlighted some of my favorite features.

Not only can teachers send text message reminders to communicate with students and parents, they can also have fun with this tool. Check out the blog I wrote about using Remind for Shakespeare Trivia!


Posted in Learning | 2 Comments

5 Ways to Provide Parents a Window Into Your Classroom

When I attended my daughter’s kindergarden Back-to-School Night two years ago, I was delighted to see a video of the classroom playing on a television in the corner. As a parent, it was exciting to see my child in the context of the classroom. My daughter’s teacher had simply videotaped the children singing, working on projects, and progressing through their daily routine. The classroom was no longer a mystery. I left wanting to provide the parents of my 9th and 10th grade students with a similar experience.

Most parents of high school students probably have no idea how their children spend their days or what they are doing in their classes. This makes me sad as I will eventually be the parent of a high school student. As a result, I’ve tried to create windows into my own classroom.

Here are 5 strategies I’d suggest teachers consider:

1. Use a Twitter Hashtag or Create a Class FaceBook Page

You can post announcements, share pictures, and connect parents to resources and documents online.

Screen shot 2014-07-16 at 10.27.14 AM

Tip: If you are using Twitter you do not need to follow your students’ parents, but you can add them to a list “Parents 2014-2015.” If you are using Facebook, you do not need to friend you parents for them to follow a Facebook page you’ve created for your class.

2. Create a Class Instagram Account

This makes it possible for parents to actually see what students are doing in the classroom. Post pictures that give parents a sense of what is happening each week.

Screen shot 2014-07-16 at 10.42.34 AM

Tip: If you are using Instagram and plan to have a public account where you will post pictures of your students, you need your parents to sign a photo release form. Like Twitter and Facebook, you do no need to follow any parents or students with your class Instagram account.

3. Post Content Videos & Tutorials to a YouTube Channel

If you flip your classroom and provide video content online for students, parents can watch the videos too. This provides parents with the tools to support their students as they work on an assignment.

Screen shot 2014-07-16 at 10.37.28 AM

Tip: Organize your videos into “playlists” so they are easier for your parents to navigate. For example, I have essay writing videos in their own playlist and vocabulary videos in another playlist.

4. Share Animoto Videos

Animoto is so easy to use I often take pictures of students working on projects or in their daily routine to share with parents via short videos. I play a video at Back-to-School Night and then post them to our class website for parents to view.


Tip: You can create a simple Animoto video just using your phone. Take pictures and video clips, then use the Animoto app to create a polished video in minutes!

5. Share a Master List of Student Blogs

All of my students started writing their own blogs this year. I encouraged them to blog about any topic they are passionate about. One strategy for getting more eyes on your students’ blogs is to encourage parents to check them out! Create a Google Document with the blog titles (no names) and hyperlink to each student’s blog. This encourages parents to click on blogs written about topics they are interested in, while also giving them a sense of what students are working on for your class.

Tip: Post a link to a “View only” Google Document from your website. This way both parents and students can check out the blogs any time.

If you are using different strategies to engage your parents or provide a window into your classroom, please post a comment or find me on Twitter! I’d love to learn from what other teachers are doing.

Posted in Learning | 19 Comments

Kids Will Be Kids: 8 Easy Strategies to Engage Students

As an educator, speaker and blogger, people send me articles on a wide range of education topics. My husband’s grandmother sends me articles in the mail, my father-in-law forwards interesting NPR segments via email, and my neighbor down the street leaves newspaper clippings in my mailbox.  Last week when I met up with my parents in Avignon, France for a shared holiday Mom mom presented me with an article titled “The Drugging of the American Boy,” published by Esquire Magazine in April.

Not only do I teach teenage boys ranging from 14 to 16, but I also have a 5 year old son, so the topic was relevant to me as both an educator and parent. The article begins with the shocking statement that “if you have a son, you have a one-in-seven chance that he has been diagnosed with ADHD.” The article documents the dramatic increase in both the number of children being both diagnosed with and given prescription drugs to treat ADHD. In 2013 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “released data revealing that 11 percent of American schoolchildren had been diagnosed with ADHD, which amounts to 6.4 million children between the ages of four and seventeen.”

As I read the article, which questions the causes of the 42% increase in ADHD diagnosis since 2003, I could not help but think about the traditional classroom setting and how “unnatural” it is for young children, particularly those who are high energy, to sit for long periods of time.

My own son transitions from his Montessori preschool to kindergarten this year. I am both excited and nervous for him. At his preschool, he is given the freedom to decide which “work” he will do in the classroom, and the kids are taken outside several times each day to play. He is often running hot laps in the yard with other little boys when I arrive to pick him up.

My son is active, energetic, and curious. These should all be wonderful qualities that are celebrated. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Too often teachers are working in overcrowded classrooms that don’t allow for much movement. Many teachers are also forced to teach without the necessary supplies to stimulate, engage, and challenge students. I face these same obstacles in my own classroom, which does not lend itself to movement or exploration.

For the last four years, I’ve focused on creating a student-centered classroom. I’ve tried hard to create a space that facilitates conversation, collaboration and creation. This is not easy to do with with fairly traditional desks and classes of 30+ students, yet I make it a point to get kids moving around the room during our 90 minute block period. There are several strategies I use to do this. I wanted to share them with other teachers who, like me, work in traditional settings but want to provide students with more opportunities to engage with their peers to enhance learning.

1. Four Corner Conversations

Every day I break students up into four discussion groups. I call it four corner conversations since each group sits in a circle in one of the four corners of our classroom to discuss the previous night’s reading or online discussion. As you can see in the picture below, there isn’t a ton of room, but we make it work. The conversations get students out of their chairs and are more intimate giving everyone a chance to share their ideas.

Screen shot 2014-07-01 at 11.23.52 AM

2. Tea Party

I have no idea where this name came from as there is no tea served, but the idea is a fun one. Give every student a quote on a related topic. For example, during Fahrenheit 451 the quotes relate to conformity and nonconformity. When we read Lord of the Flies, the quotes are all about human nature. The students have to read their quote to as many classmates as they can in 5 minutes. Then we have a follow up conversation as a class about the quotes they found most interesting and powerful. Just the act of standing up and moving around makes this activity fun for students.

Screen Shot 2012-11-19 at 11.23.31 AM


3. Learn by Doing or Building

I wrote a blog about incorporating elements of the Maker Movement into my English class this year. For example, instead of telling my students everything I know about Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, I had them do research and build a replica of the Globe Theatre. It was incredible to watch them face challenges, problem solve, and create. Kids are incredibly creative if we give them time and space.

photo 3

4. Visit a Computer Lab

My school only has 2 computer labs for a campus of 1750 students, but I reserve a lab as often as possible so students can learn in a different setting. Since I have no actual technology in my classroom, save my students’ devices, I use these times in the lab to do synchronous editing or allow them to work in real time collaborating on projects using a range of web tools and Google apps.


5. Crowdsource Instead of Lecturing

It’s not fun for students to sit still, listen and take notes for a prolonged period of time. I’ve tried to replace some direct instruction with crowdsourcing. Instead of telling students about Shakespeare’s sonnets or life during the Great Depression, I allow them to work in groups with their devices to research information and share it with the class. The energy in the room is so different when students are asked to generate the information!

Screen shot 2013-04-18 at 10.10.58 AM

6. Go Outside

Throughout the year, I ask students to go outside. I’ll ask them to go to the quad and leave me a voice message (using my Google Voice number) about their four corner conversations. When we are reading a Shakespeare play, they rehearse their lines outside before they perform in the classroom. Simply going outside gives them more room to move around and more space to make noise (away from other classrooms, of course).

Google Voice message17. Lights, Camera, Action!

Get students performing. Yes, teenagers can be shy, but they also have a flare for drama. Tapping into that can be thoroughly entertaining. During our Othello unit, my students don’t read Shakespeare’s play, they perform it! If you are thinking…but I teach science or history or math, how can I do this? If you teach science or math, have students create their own YouTube channels featuring cool demonstrations and funny commentary on science or math modeled after Veritasium, Vi Hart or Vsauce. If you teach history, have students perform and record reenactments or create short style documentaries.

Screen shot 2014-07-01 at 11.56.50 AM

Yes, I gave that boy a sword!

Yes, I gave that boy a sword!

8. Storytime

Every week I ask students to sit on the floor for a children’s story. At first they think I am crazy, but they love this routine. Regardless of the subject you teach, there are awesome picture books on a related topic. I’d make time to read to your students.

Screen shot 2013-07-16 at 2.25.37 PM

My efforts to encourage movement, conversation and collaboration have been incredibly rewarding. I don’t have classroom management issues and my students often comment on how quickly our 90 minute period flies by. I wonder…if more classrooms encouraged movement and embraced the chaos involved in creativity, would the number students being diagnosed with ADHD be so high?

Kids will be kids. I believe we will get more from our students if we remember that many of our students need to move to learn. If we want to cultivated excited life long learners, we need to create an environment that sparks curiosity and fosters creativity.

Posted in Learning | 22 Comments

My Favorite Mobile Apps #3 – Evernote

Are these a common sight in your classroom? How many of your students successfully organize their binders? How easy is it for them to access their notes, work, and resources?

Screen shot 2014-06-18 at 3.10.08 PMIf your students are anything like mine, they carry around enormous binders full of paper. Some of my students are more successful than others at keeping these binders organized so they can find their work.

At the end of the year, I was sad to see that many students just dumped entire binders worth of notes into the trashes around our campus. For them it’s cleansing and cathartic to throw their work away at the end of a school year. However, if each year is supposed to provide the foundation for the next, then it makes sense that students might want to reference their previous work.

My class is almost entirely paperless, so many of my students have begun to take notes on devices (phones and tablets) instead of on paper. Teaching them how to store and organize their information online is an important life skill. It’s part of the reason I love Evernote.

Evernote app

Ideas for using Evernote with students:

    • Create a digital notebook
    • Store resources for easy access
    • Brainstorm and save ideas
    • Capture and save photos for a project
    • Take a picture of white board with notes
    • Make a to-do list
    • Record voice reminders for assignments
    • Share files
    • Access files saved to desktop

Students can use Evernote on their devices in class and access their accounts from any computer. They can organize information into different notebooks and use tags to make finding information quick and easy.

Please share how you are using Evernote with your students!


Posted in Learning | 5 Comments

Creating a Google Apps Classroom

I had the pleasure of co-authoring the book Creating a Google Apps Classroom with Elizabeth Calhoon, Kyle Brumbaugh, Ramsey Musallam, and Robert Pronovost — a collection of incredibly talented and creative Google Certified Teachers and seasoned professional development facilitators. It was just published by Shell Education!

Screen Shot 2014-06-07 at 3.45.46 PM
Cook up amazing recipes with this engaging, resourceful Google™ cookbook! Great for both the beginning and seasoned Google-using teacher, this resource is the perfect tool to help guide teachers using, or preparing to use, Google Apps for Education™. Featuring Appetizer Recipes (warm-ups), Entrée Recipes (fresh take on an old standby lesson), Side Dish Recipes (used at any point in in lesson or unit), and Dessert Recipes (creative lessons to enjoy with your classroom), this resource will help you feel comfortable using Google Apps™ in no time. Helpful icons, easy-to-follow instructions, screen shots, and websites are also provided throughout for ease of use.”

Screen Shot 2014-06-07 at 3.45.58 PM

Some of my most popular blog posts have been about how I am using Google Apps in my classroom, so I hope this easy-to-use book will be a helpful resource for educators using Google Apps with students!

Posted in Learning | 18 Comments

Maya Angelou’s Words Are Worth The Fight

This morning the BBC played softly in the background as I shuttled my children to school. Most mornings they whine when I turned the radio to a news station, but this morning they were absorbed in their own worlds in the backseat.Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 3.36.44 PM

As the news anchor reviewed the day’s top stories, he announced “Maya Angelou has died at the age of 86.” I couldn’t process what I was hearing. I’ve revered Angelou my entire life. Her words, her voice, her insight, her honesty and her humor.

As a poet, she gave me gifts like “Phenomenal Woman” that taught me to see beauty in “the span of my hips, the stride of my step, the curl of my lips” and  “the arch of my back, the sun of my smile.” Her poem “Alone” reminded me that “nobody can make it out here alone,” and that life is, at its core, about human connection.

Ironically, this woman, who I never met, inspired me to fight the hardest battle of my professional career. The first year I taught her early autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, a small but vocal group of parents in my district bombarded me with abrasive phone calls and accusatory emails. They called her beautifully written story “pornography.” I was stunned. The attack on my decision to teach this book, and, subsequently, on me as a person was intense. I had to ask myself, why was I teaching this book?

The answer is simple. Hope. For all of the students who walk through my door carrying more than just their backpacks. For those students who carry sadness, pain, insecurities, self-loathing, and despair. For every child who comes to school hungry and is afraid to go home. For anyone who has ever felt they have no voice. This autobiography is a reminder that there is hope.

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 3.44.22 PM

Every time I read Angelou’s early autobiography, I am amazed that she was able to overcome life’s obstacles and blossom into the accomplished woman she was. She endured poverty, discrimination, sexual and physical violence, abandonment, and pregnancy all before she turned 18. Angelou’s story is one of resilience, tenacity and a love for life.

In life’s darkest moments, it is stories like Angelou’s that remind us we are not alone and that beyond the darkness there is light. I feel fortunate to have read her story as a teenager and to be able to share her words with my students.


Posted in Learning | 5 Comments