Get Common Core Ready: Transfer Active Reading Strategies Online

I’m writing a series of blogs titled “Get Common Core Ready” that are inspired by my next book Creatively Teach the Common Core Literacy Standards with Technology (to be published by Corwin in spring 2015). This first blog will focus on helping students to transfer their pen and paper annotation skills to the online space.

I’m a stickler about annotations. For years, I heard students lament, “Tucker, I never remember what I read” or “I just don’t understand what is happening in this book.” In response, I began to teach students the art of annotating.

I provide students with strategies they can use to annotate the texts we read. I encourage them to:

  • Identify and define unfamiliar vocabulary words
  • Underline words or phrases that hint at or reveal a central idea/theme in the text
  • Identify new characters or individuals and describe them in a few words
  • Note any symbols and brainstorm the deeper meaning of those objects
  • Underline or highlight sections of text that are descriptive, poignant or thought provoking
  • Make connections to other texts, movies, or points of reference
  • Predict what will happen next
  • Ask questions
  • Capture emotional reactions to events, people and/or dialogue

Some students capture their annotations in the books we borrow from our school library using post-it notes, while other prefer to take Cornell-style annotation notes.











The trick for the 21st century student, who regularly reads both paper and digital texts, is to transfer those classic pen and paper annotation strategies online. It’s too easy for students to skim online articles and texts without thinking deeply about they are reading. Yet more and more information is becoming available digitally, so it’s important that students know how to actively read digital texts.

In addition, a large number of students will be tackling the Smarter Balance Assessment and PARCC exam this spring. It’s crucial that they are able to actively read digital texts if they are going to be successful on these exams. If students have not been given the opportunity to regularly read and annotate texts online, they will not have the digital reading stamina or active reading skills necessary to be successful on these Common Core aligned exams. The more we ask students to read and annotate online, the more likely they are to feel confident and prepared for these new digital exams.

There are a two tools I regularly use to encourage students to annotate online.


StudySync has an extensive digital library composed of excerpts from classic and contemporary literature, poetry, short stories, famous speeches, and nonfiction texts. For every text my students read, they use the built-in annotation tool to highlight and create notes employing the annotation strategies suggested above.

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The goal is to train students to think about what they are reading and use annotation strategies to make sense of complex texts. Each student’s annotations for every text they read are saved and can be easily referenced as they continue through the online lesson.

Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 12.52.06 PMStudySync gives me the freedom to pick and choose texts that will complement the traditional titles I teach. For years, I was limited to the literature available in our book room. Now, I have access to hundreds of titles at various Lexile levels (users can search for texts by Lexile). I can pair FDR’s Inaugural Address (pictured above) with To Kill a Mockingbird, which specifically references that speech, to provide students with historical context.

This is a phenomenal resource for schools and districts looking to shift to the Common Core and embrace a digital approach to literacy development. This is a paid for product worth checking out!


Instead of making copies of online resources or articles, I’ve gone entirely paperless. I no longer print articles, make tons of copies and pass them out to students. Now, I simply find supplementary readings online and hyperlink to them from our class website.  I instruct my students to “Diigo” them, which means I want them to read and annotate the online texts.

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Students click the hyperlink on our class website and go directly to the article I want them to read and annotate. On their device, they can upload the Diigo toolbar so they can easily annotate anything they read online. There is even a Diigo Chrome extension for those students using the Chrome browser.

Diigo - annotating a digital text #2 -highlight and note

Students can highlight in several colors and create post-it notes as they read. These are automatically saved to their individual Diigo accounts.

Diigo - annotating a digital text #4 - share with a group


Diigo notes can be private or shared with an individual or a group of individuals, which makes sharing resources easy if students are collaborating on an assignment. When they are done reading and annotating, they click “Share” and email their annotations directly to me.

Escaping the paper trail is so freeing, and it teaches students an essential life skill. Using Diigo teaches them how to process and organize all of the information they read online.

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Teachers Must Be Architects of Learning Experiences

When I step back and think about my own evolution as a teacher, I am struck by how dramatically different my approach to teaching is today compared to 14 years ago. When I first stepped into the classroom as a new teacher, at the age of 22, I felt I had to be the expert on everything. In retrospect, this is, of course, ridiculous.

Even after 14 years in the classroom, I do not claim to be an expert! Instead, I’ve learned something much more valuable: I should not strive to be a fountain of knowledge but rather an architect of learning experiences.

In first few years of my teaching career, I prepared mini-lectures to help my students understand concepts, vocabulary, grammar, writing, and literature. Unfortunately, this approach, which involved me talking and them listening, kept my students firmly in the role of passive consumers. As a result, it failed to yield meaningful learning. It also failed to capitalize on the collective intelligence in my classroom.

Today, my classroom is a more chaotic space where students collaborate almost constantly to learn from and with one another. It isn’t that my role is less valuable. However, the focus of the actual lesson is not on me; it’s on them. My energy is spent in two specific areas: building lessons that challenge students to construct knowledge together and providing support/feedback throughout the process as needed.

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Many educators refer to the role of the teacher today as the “guide on the side”; however, that title feels too passive given how challenging our jobs are! I like the analogy of the architect – one who designs a building and as needed supervises its construction. That is how I view my role as a teacher. I design lessons with the goal of providing meaningful learning experiences that demand students be curious and creative. Then I am a presence in the classroom to lend support as their interactions drive the lesson.

Shifting to the role of the architect is challenging. The truth is it’s easier to stand in front of a classroom and tell students everything we know about a topic we have been teaching for years. It is exponentially more challenging to design learning experiences that allow students to construct knowledge. Conversely, it’s easier for students to sit passively staring at a teacher while taking notes; it’s harder to be an active and engaged member of a group. However, being an active participant in a classroom is much more socially and mentally rewarding.

The more we can make learning an experience and engage our students as active generators of information using the tools at our disposal and the collective intelligence in our classrooms, the more likely we are to cultivate students who are intellectually curious and armed with the skills needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world.


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Instagram Sensory Walk

My students are really great at describing what things look like in their writing. They are not as skilled at putting smells, tastes, sounds and feelings into words. As a result, their narratives often feel flat, one-dimensional, and unreal. In an effort to get my students expanding on their descriptions, I decided to do a sensory walk using Instagram. *Check out my blog on using Instagram for scavenger hunt activities.


When I announced that they would be going outside on an Instagram sensory walk, they initially protested, “But Tucker, it’s pouring rain outside!” I cheerily responded that rain was perfect for a sensory walk! There would be all kinds of smells, sounds, and sensations with the rain falling.

My students formed small groups of two or three for the activity. At least one student in each group had to have an Instagram account and the account had to be public for the activity. This made it possible for other members of the class to view their images.

Once they recovered from the shock of having to leave our warm cozy room, I explained that I wanted them to explore our campus, which is quite large, and take pictures. Since the pictures would provide a clear visual, their job would be to use the comment field to describe the scene with vibrant vocabulary and rich details appealing to the other, often neglected, senses.

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In addition to pairing their photos with sensory rich descriptions, I asked them to tag their photos with my Instagram name and our shared hashtag. This way it was easy to see their pictures.

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Despite the rain, they had a ball running around campus taking pictures and collaborating on the best descriptions!

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Save Time Grading with Doctopus & Goobric

I’m always on the look out to spend LESS time grading or, at the very least, to feel like the time I do spend grading is productive and efficient.

Several months ago I wrote a blog titled “Google Docs: Grading Tips & Tricks” in which I shared some simple strategies for grading more quickly when working with Google documents. In addition to those tips, I recently wrote a blog about the new editing feature in Google Documents, which is making it easier to provide formative feedback.

During a training last week, I was surprised that several teachers using Google Apps with students had not experimented with Doctopus, a Google Spreadsheet script developed by Andrew Stillman, and Goobric, a Chrome extension that adds rubric functionality to any document shared using Doctopus.

When Google upgraded to include “Add-ons” to Google Documents and Sheets, I lost the ability to use the rubrics I had designed and created using Google Forms. I was no longer able to “insert” the FormEmailer script to send out individual emails directly to students sharing their rubric feedback and scores with them. This is what inspired me to check out Doctopus and Goobric, which when used together can accomplish the same task!

Jay Atwood, a Google Certified Teacher, has created two easy to follow tutorial videos walking through the process of setting up both Doctopus and Goobric. If you are interested in going paperless, viewing your students’ documents as they work, providing more formative feedback, and streamlining your grading and assessments online, check out these tutorials to learn how to use Doctopus and Goobric.

The New Doctopus & Add-on Gallery

Goobric: Assessing Student Work

With the addition of Add-ons to Google Documents and Sheets, teachers only need to add Doctopus to one Sheet and add the Goobric Chrome extension one time and both will be available from then on.

If you have a favorite time-saving strategy when it comes to grading with Google documents, please post a comment and share it! I love learning from the other educators who read my blog.

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The Definition of Literacy is Changing

Growing up I heard the words literate and illiterate. I knew that people who were literate could read and write, and people who were illiterate could not. I remember trying to imagine what it would be like to navigate the world as an illiterate person. How would you get from place to place if you couldn’t read street signs? How could you cook if you couldn’t read a recipe? How would you know if it was safe to take a particular medication if you couldn’t read the label? These were some of the myriad questions that occupied my mind as a child.

Now, as an educator and parent I find myself revisiting this question of what it means to be literate. The definition of literacy is changing. Literacy means something different today than it did 10, 20, or 30 years ago.

I equate literacy with access to information and opportunities. In the past, people who could read and write could pick up a paper and read the news, pursue a career in almost any field, or attend college.

Technology is changing what it means to be literate. Literacy is quickly evolving to encompass skills that extend beyond reading and writing with pen and paper. Students today must be able to navigate the online space to successfully access information and opportunities.

My husband teaches an AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) support class for first-generation college-bound students. Last year, his AVID seniors were applying to college and every step of the application process was online. Students who needed financial aid had to submit those forms online too. If those students had never been asked to create an email address, use a search engine, or work online, could they access the information they need to get ahead in an increasingly competitive and digital world? No. For many, they can’t even apply to college without basic technology skills.

When faced with the prospect of using technology with students, I’ve heard several teachers say, “What I do works for me.” Some resist the move to integrate technology because it’s unfamiliar and scary. There are phenomenal teachers who have been teaching for decades with pen and paper, but I’m concerned that teaching exclusively with pen and paper is not enough anymore. It will not adequately prepare our students for the jobs that await them after high school.

Technology is increasingly woven into the fabric of our lives. It must also be woven into the fabric of education to help students hone the skills they need to be truly literate in today’s society.

School leaders and administrators should engage teachers in a conversation about literacy. It creates more teacher buy-in when it comes to technology integration.

During my trainings and workshops, I ask teachers to brainstorm their thoughts in relation to these two questions: What does it mean to be a literate person in the 21st century? What skills do students need to be successful? The answers, usually, provide a strong case for the role of technology in education and the need to develop, not just traditional literacy, but also technology and media literacy.

This is a conversation worth having…

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Word Sneak: Vocabulary Game Inspired by the Tonight Show

While killing time in the airport last weekend, I watched a series of Jimmy Fallon Tonight Show clips. While watching Jimmy Fallon and Bryan Cranston playing “Word Sneak,” I was inspired! I decided to use this game format for a vocabulary review in my class.

Here are the steps for any teacher who wants to replicate this thoroughly entertaining vocabulary review game:

1. Start by playing a clip from The Tonight Show, so students know what they are being asked to do. Definitely preview the clip you plan to use to make sure it is appropriate for the grade level you teach.

2. Break up a list of vocabulary words into two shorter lists. I printed them out, so students could mark the words they were able to successfully and seamlessly “sneak” into the conversation.

3. Put students into pairs facing each other conversation style. Give each person a list with vocabulary words. Note: each member of the pair should have a different list of words.

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4. Ask pairs to exchange their lists temporarily and allow students 60 seconds to add 3 random, silly (yet school appropriate) words. This adds some spice to the activity.

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5. Once students have added random words to their partner’s paper, ask them to exchange papers and begin! As they “sneak” words into the conversation, they can check the words off of their list. However, if their partner does not think the word was inserted into the conversation “casually and seamlessly,” then they do not earn a point for that word. Note: I’d suggest setting a timer for 5 minutes.

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6. The person who successfully sneaks the most words into the conversation wins!

This game was ridiculously fun! I tweeted Jimmy Fallon (and The Tonight Show) to thank him for inspiring this fun activity. Look what I got in return! My students were totally pumped.

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New Google Docs Feature: Editing Student Documents Just Got Easier!

Today I took my classes to the computer lab to do synchronous editing on an essay they are writing. As they continued to work on their essays, I edited them. This way we can work simultaneously on their documents and use the instant chat window to discuss questions or problems.

While I was working, I saw a new feature in the upper right hand corner of their Google documents below the grey “Comments” button.

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Now, any user with “can comment” access to a document can make suggested edits to the document. These suggestions are marked by a green bracketed box and a comment is automatically attached. For example, if a student did not indent the first line of his/her body paragraph and I indent it for them, it marks the change in green and leaves an automatic comment.

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If I delete a word or phrase, it appears in green with a strikethrough and a comment is generated. This allows me to make in text changes that are easy for students to see. They can either keep the “suggested” change or remove it.

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My favorite part of this new change is that it highlights my in text comments in green. I’ve shared my trick for customizing preferences in Google documents to make grading faster in a previous blog titled “Google Docs: Grading Tips and Tricks.”

Teachers can create shortcuts in their Google docs so that if they write “awk,” it automatically becomes [awkward wording – rework for clarity]. In the past, these changes appeared in black. Now they appear in green when a teacher is in “suggesting” mode. They visually stand out on the page and are easier for students to see.

In the example below, my student misspelled the word society. I have my preferences set so that if I write “sp” with a space in any Google document, it automatically becomes [spelling error]. Now, that phrase is highlighted in green and a comment is generated.

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I’m so thrilled about this new feature, I had to share! It acts like track changes in Word making it even easier to provide valuable formative feedback as students work on their documents. I also appreciate that students have the freedom to decide whether they want to make the suggested change or not. This encourages them to think more deeply about the changes that have been suggested.

For anyone interested in setting their preferences in Google documents to create automatic shortcuts for comments, check out the screencast below.

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Advanced Google Search Tip: Sort by Reading Level

While presenting a series of Google trainings in Alaska last week, I discovered that very few participants knew how to do an advanced Google search by reading level. It’s such a useful trick for differentiating reading materials in the classroom, I wanted to share it.

Step 1: Enter your search terms into the query box.

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Step 2: Click “Search tools” > “All results”> “Reading level”

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Step 3: View the breakdown of your search results by reading level. To view only the “Basic,” “Intermediate,” or “Advanced,” simply click on the desired reading level to filter your search results for resources that fall into that specific reading level.

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Step 4: Each search result will be labeled with its specific reading level.

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This is super helpful for those of us who have classes with a wide range of skills and abilities. I can search for a topic, but select resources at different reading levels to differentiate my instruction.

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Common Core: Explicit vs. Implicit Information

Words like “explicit,” “implicit,” and “inference” sound like a foreign language to most students, yet the Common Core expects students to “read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it.” Students must be able to identify both explicit and implicit information, so they can make inferences about what they read. The trick is designing fun activities to keep students engaged as they practice and apply these new skills!

Yesterday, I briefly described each term and had students record the definitions.

    • Explicit – clearly stated so there is no room for confusion or questions.
    • Implicit – implied or suggested, but not clearly stated.
    • Inference – a conclusion made based on both information/evidence and reasoning.

To practice, I showed my students three movie trailers. I selected trailers for movies that target a teenage audience.

Before we began, I explained that movie trailers attempt to balance explicit and implicit information. They reveal enough explicit information to give you a sense of the movie’s premise, yet they rely on implicit information to capture their viewer’s imaginations. If the movie trailer has been successful, the audience will be intrigued enough about the movie to pay to see it.

Here is how I organized the lesson:

Step 1: We watched the upcoming Hunger Games: Mockingjay movie trailer. I encouraged students to note all of the explicit information presented in the trailer. 

Step 2: After the trailer, I gave my students a couple of minutes to quietly fill in any additional explicit information they learned. Then I asked them to brainstorm the implicit information revealed in the trailer.

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Step 3: After jotting down a list of explicit and implicit information, they discussed their information in small groups of 3 or 4. Then they made inferences about the movie based on the explicit and implicit information they gathered from the trailer. The group dynamic was great for sparking additional ideas!

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Step 4: After the groups made their inferences, we reconvened as a class. I asked groups to share the explicit and implicit information they generated, then invited them to share their inferences. Because their subject matter was a movie trailer, instead of a piece of literature, they were less intimidated (less fearful of being wrong) and more eager to share their ideas.

We repeated this process with two more movie trailers (The Fault in Our Stars and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles).

Extend & Apply to Literature

After finishing our evaluations of the movie trailers, I asked students to apply these new terms to Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, which we are currently reading.

I asked students to crowdsource information from the first three chapters of the novel. I asked them to identify what they learned about the historical, social, economic, and political context of the novel. Each group collaborated for five minutes to generate a list of information.

After they finished crowdsourcing their information, I asked each group to work together to go back through their lists and decide whether each piece of information was explicitly stated or implicitly suggested. After discussing each piece of information, they labeled it either “explicit” or “implicit.” This gave them a chance to take the practice they did with the movie trailers and apply it to the text we are currently reading.

Finally, they also took that information and articulated specific inferences they were able to make about the novel based on their information.

*Note: This extension activity would also work with an informational text.

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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.

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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.


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