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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Drawing Developmentally

Susan Donley presents a really fascinating chart of drawing development in children at her Learning Design site. Betty Edwards (author of The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain) and Viktor Lowenfeld (author Creative and Mental Growth) chronicle the developmental abilities at children at various age levels (although your experience may vary).

If you're a fan of Daniel Pink and his book A Whole New Mind, both names should ring a bell. If you haven't read that title yet, I highly recommend you pick it up. (I've also done a workshop on teaching ideas from that book).

Parallels can be drawn to children's stages of cognition which roughly correspond with these same ages. When we ask in frustration, "What were they thinking?" this site kind of answers that.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Visual Bookmarking Using Sqworl

If you're looking to share multiple links, you can always email a list of hyperlinks; however, that looks kind of crowded and lacks a visual element. You can also post those links on a website, provided you have one. But with Sqworl you can instantly create a one-page site which visually presents a snapshot of all chosen sites at a glance.

How could this be used in the classroom? Teachers can create a quick set of links for student reference or for use as a webquest. Students themselves can import web sites as they conduct research online. You could also use this application to create a personalized homepage (similar to Pageflakes), featuring those sites which you regularly visit for updates.

The video below shows how the site works, and may give you some ideas for its use.

Sqworl Screencast from Caleb Brown on Vimeo.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Twiducate: Social Network for Schools

Most parents still have a lot of reservations (rightfully) about social networking.

Perhaps Twiducate is the right tool and venue for making it happen for your classroom. Has anyone out there tried it yet?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

15 Free Resources for Young Readers

This is a guest post by education writer Karen Schweitzer. Karen is the Guide to Business School. She also writes about online school for

Incorporating technology into the reading and learning process can motivate young people to read more. There are many different sites online that are designed to engage children and encourage a lifelong love for books. Here are 15 Free Resources nearly every young reader will enjoy.

Book Adventure - Book Adventure is a free reading program for reluctant readers. The program motivates kids by encouraging them to create their own book lists, participate in online activities, and earn points that can be traded in for prizes.

Big Universe - This award-winning website is an online community for k-8 readers and writers. Big Universe users can read, create, and share books online.

Read Print - Read Print is a free online library with more than 8,000 books, poems, and short stories. The site hosts the best-loved classics from thousands of different authors.

International Children's Digital Library - The ICDL is a multicultural library for kids. Offerings include hundreds of high-quality historical and contemporary books that can be read online.

Storynory - Storynory provides free audio stories for kids. A new story is published each week.

What Should I Read Next? - This free web application allows users to type in a book they like and receive suggestions on what to read next. Suggestions are pulled from a pool of nearly 70,000 reader favorites.

DogEared - This book blog from National Geographic Kids is written by kids for kids. Readers can find book reviews, get book recommendations, and submit books for consideration.

Kids' Review - Kids' Review is a UK site that offers book recommendations and book reviews for young readers. All of the reviews are written by kids and authenticated by teachers.

RIF Reading Planet - Provided by the non-profit organization Reading Is Fundamental (RIF), Reading Planet is a good place for young readers to find books to read. Users who sign up for a free membership can also write their own book reviews.

GoodReads - This social networking site for booklovers was not created specifically for kids, but it does offer children's literature recommendations. Young readers can also use the site to keep track of what they have read and share book reviews with friends.

BooksWellRead - Readers who use this site can create private book lists to keep track of what they have read. The site also offers a place to take book notes and get recommendations from other users.

BookGlutton - BookGlutton is a site where older children can read and discuss books at the same time. The site is perfect for anyone who wants to start an online book club.

Jen Robinson's Book Page - Devoted entirely to promoting children's literature, this blog provides book reviews, book recommendations, information on book events, and a weekly newsletter.

Growing Readers for Life! - Aimed at parents and teachers, this blog explores different ways to encourage reading among kids. The blog also has a companion newsletter with additional tips.

The Reading Tub - The Reading Tub is a non-profit organization that promotes reading and literacy among children through book reviews, recommendations, author interviews, newsletters, and a blog.

Thanks, Karen, for sharing these sites!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

PBS Video Online

I love using snippets of video in my lessons, and now PBS has organized many of their films online for instant, free access. Some are full length programs, while others are just segments; either way, there's lot to see.

This is also a great way to have students view videos at home, since many parents still (rightfully) fear Youtube.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Online Comic Creators

A friend on Twitter shared this; a great collection of online comic creators which can be used as a creative response to reading or as a writing option. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, so check them out for yourslef before unleashing your students.

A couple of these would be great extensions for the Hero writing lessons I presented on my Teach with Picture Books blog some time ago.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Presentation and Workshop Documents

From a friend on Twitter comes this link to Presentation and Workshop Documents, a great collection of original how-to's offered by John Larkin. His knowledge of Web 2.0 is quite extensive, and he has some terrific resources offered at this site.

If you're a proficient user of all things Web 2.0, perhaps this is a link you can pass on to your newbie friends.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Research Made Easy

Okay, not easy, but much clearer! Kentucky Virtual Library's Research Rocket offers a student-friendly, step-by-step introduction to the research process.

While the screen shot to the right gives you a basic idea of the steps involved, what it doesn't show you is that each individual step provides its own easy to understand tutorial (see below).

For media center specialists or teachers introducing students to the research process, this is both a great introduction and a great stand-alone resource to which students can refer when going through the motions of information collection and organization.

(The picture to the left is the page a student would access if she clicked on the "Scan First" square of Step 4 on the map. As she reads over the information provided, she can also roll the mouse over the graphics, which provides additional visual cues).

And of course, there's always the option of using individual components of the whole process (such as the Scan/Survey module here) as reading comprehension skill builders in the elementary classroom.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Famous Failures

From the excellent Learning in Maine blog, a look at Famous Failures. Not bad company to keep!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Class Tools

Just this morning I had an excellent experience using an exciting interactive site called Class Tools which allows you to create games, activities, and diagrams in Flash (without knowing a thing about Flash!).

While covering an eighth grade social studies class, I informed students that they would be creating review games for an upcoming test. They were less than enthusiastic (and those of you who are familiar with the typical enthusiasm level of eighth graders will know that causing them to be even less excited was something of a real feat).

Hoping to rescue the moment, I asked if some of them would like to create a game online. Even this was met with grudging acceptance, but they agreed, perhaps considering it at least a momentary reprieve from creating another stale board game with markers and construction paper).

Well, in about twenty minutes time, I had some very excited eighth graders on my hands. Not only were they pleased with what they produced, but one exclaimed, "Wow, I actually know this stuff now that I had to type it in to create the game."

While I can't show you what they created, I'll show you one of the sample files from those posted on the site:

Click here for full screen version

As you can see, a Dustbin game requires you to sort words into their appropriate categories; this morning, for example, the students created a Dustbin about the Middle and Southern Colonies.

Another pair of students created an arcade game, which is playable in five formats (again, this links you to a sample at the site). I'd recommend you try several levels of the game option called Word Shoot.

In addition to the games functions, the site features several clever and adaptable utilities for creating other study aids. Teaching suggestions are provided for each, just in case you find yourself wondering, "Cool, but what can I actually do with this?"

Class Tools is well worth a look! Just one word of warning: be sure to save the game you've created before you play it! We learned that lesson the hard way.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


You've probably seen this before, but it's new to me! While some math teachers might think it's gimmicky, I think a great exercise for students when confronted with any gimmick is to figure out how it works. And, does it always work?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Questionaut: Out of This World Game

Tucked away in the BBC Bitesize KS2 Games section is a quirky little game called Questionaut. It has no flashy intro and no instructions, and that's precisely the way its creator intends it.

Questionaut begins with a placid enough scene: a strangely hairy, organic shape floats freely in space, accompanied by some funky synth music. A fish jumps in a pond, a creature sitting in a tree weaves a basket, and a small blue figure wearing pilot's cap and goggles dangles his foot over the pond. But nothing happens. So instinctively, the user moves the cursor about, looking for some clues. When placed over the basket, the cursor turns to the familiar pointer finger (this is about as much help as the user will get!) and from here the adventure begins.

Each level presents its own mysteries, which must first be solved with the cursor (what needs to be clicked first, then next?) and then through a series of general knowledge questions. Stage One, for example, (pictured below) asks questions related to reading, writing, and grammar. Others stages include questions on various math and science concepts. Each stage is populated by its own peculiar cast of characters and grooves to its own unique soundtrack.

Most animation and online gaming fans will immediately recognize that the creator of this addictive game is Czech developer/designer Jakub Dvorsky, best known for his popular online Flash game called Samorost. In Dvorsky's own words,

"Samorost" in Czech means a root or piece of wood which resembles a creature; but it is also a term for a person who doesn't care about the rest of the world. I think it's a nice Czech word which has various meanings.

A fitting name, since the goal of the game is to help a small white gnome through a puzzling series of tasks intended to divert a gigantic mass of floating driftwood from colliding with his home planet. Okay, so it's hard to describe, but very addicting to play.

Samorost became so popular that it now has a sequel in which the gnome embarks on a longer quest to rescue his kidnapped dog (chapter one can be played for free, while additional chapters can be played by purchasing the full version for a mere $5).

I'm not here to sell the game. I'm here to sell the idea that teachers should be including games like this in their curriculum, rather than dismissing them as "wastes of time." Dvorak's games require critical thinking skills and an ability to "fill in the gaps" between what is known and what is unknown. They also appeal to a student's natural curiosity and desire for play. And I think we can all agree, his games simply look and sound unlike anything we've seen out there before.

Let's all hope for more collaborations between Dvorak and online ed sites in the future.

Monday, June 29, 2009

What Student Writing Teaches Us: The Blog Tour

Today I have the pleasure of hosting Mark Overmeyer's Blog Tour for his Stenhouse publication What Student Writing Teaches Us. This fabulous new book (see my full review in the post below) answers many of the questions teachers have about using formative assessments to improve student writing. I also challenged readers of this blog to send in questions for the author which might not have been addressed in the book.(For those of you who haven't checked it out yet, you'll find the full book online at the Stenhouse site).

I was surprised at the in-depth responses Mark provided for the questions sent in. Check out the questions and Mark's answers below, and be sure to grab a copy of his book when it becomes available.

Next year I am planning on using the areas listed on our state writing rubric (ideas and content, organization, sentence fluency, word choice, and conventions) to be the main form of assessing most of my student writing, whether it is to assess just one of the areas (or subcategories within an area) or to look at student writing as a whole throughout the year. I thought of setting it up similar to the CAFE Menu for reading.I thought it would be helpful since we would build common language about writing and it would help students to evalauate their own writing and their peers better. It would also help me to see student progress over time. I am still trying to think through the process before school starts next year though. Do you think this will be effective or do you have any words of caution for the route I am going? (from Mrs. V)

You ask a great question - one I have thought about often as I teach writers of all ages...

I think your idea of using qualities such as ideas and content, organization, word choice, etc. to help students self assess is a good one, and not just because these categories are listed on your state writing rubric. I think this is a logical move on your part because strong writing does, in fact, contain these elements. Like you, I teach students to be aware of their progress in using these qualities or traits in their writing - and my state rubric also evaluates student success based on these factors.

One piece of advice I can provide that I hope will help you: Try to always think of writing instruction as "whole to part" first, not "part to whole."

Years ago, when I first used the traits you mention in my writing instruction, I based all of my mini-lessons on the qualities of writing, but I did not always provide a context. So, since I love word choice lessons, I spent two to three weeks on word choice. I also like to teach sentence fluency, so I typically followed the word choice work with fluency mini-lessons.

Were my students engaged?


Did they improve as writers?

I am not convinced they did improve as much as they could have because I was teaching part to whole.

Now, I always provide a context for any mini-lesson about a particular writing trait. For example, if I am asking my students to write personal essays, we first study models of this genre, and then we begin generating ideas and writing drafts. Once we have begun the genre study, I can infuse mini-lessons about word choice, organization, and sentence fluency that are genre specific. Word choice is not the same in a poem as it is in an essay, or a persuasive letter, or a lab report. All traits are genre specific, and when we think of genre first, we are thinking "whole to part."

When I plan now for any type of writing, regardless of the length or complexity of the writing students will produce, I answer the following question: "What am I asking students to write?" (or, as Katie Wood Ray once phrased it when I heard her speak: "Ask yourself: What are we asking our student writers to make?")

When I focus my word choice, organization, and sentence fluency mini-lessons on specific genres, my work is much clearer, more "true" to real-world writing, and more focused on the "whole" rather than the "parts". And, in my experience, students become much stronger writers who are able to more easily self-assess their progress.

For more information about this type of instruction, read Katie Wood Ray's brilliant book
Study Driven. I use it regularly as I plan for all ages of writers.

I hope this helps! Take care, and good luck! Enjoy the rest of your summer!

This question is related to student writing, but not so related to the topic of your book. But I would appreciate if you had any advice. I teach 6th grade Language Arts. Any suggestions for how to most effectively use five classroom computers for in-class writing? Too often I see my colleagues having their students using the computers simply as word processors (typing up final drafts). I'm hoping to make them a bigger part of our writing process. Suggestions or thoughts?
(from Colleen in New Hampshire)

Thank you for your question.

Here are a few ideas, and a resource I hope can help you with further suggestions. While technology is not always my strength, I am lucky enough to work in a district that provides a lot of staff development on technology and literacy. I take advantage of these courses and workshops whenever I can!
Some thoughts:
  1. Use the computer for different types of "final copies", such as podcasts. Podcasts are relatively simple (if I can do them, anyone can!) and they are best created in small groups anyway. Teachers I know who are most successful using podcasts discover which students in the class already have some expertise in creating them. These students can become tech experts as other students create their podcasts. Podcasts work well for genres such as personal essays, photo essays, and any type of research-based writing that can include photos and voice-overs.
  2. Ask students to use the computers to participate in blogs or wikis as they respond to each other about the literature they are reading. Five students per day per class period can spend some time on the blog or wiki, and this can become part of the way your students respond to each other's thoughts and ideas. It's like an online discussion. You can also use blogs and wikis for students to respond to each other's writing.
  3. If you ever use quick write exercises, consider using visual prompts on the computer screen for students to respond to. They can write for 5 to 10 minutes after looking at a photo or video clip to practice descriptive or narrative writing. If you try this, then each day, five different students can respond to the visual prompt. By the end of the week, everyone will have had a chance.
Sara Kajder has a wonderful book out about how to use computers effectively in the classroom. Sara's book is called Bringing the Outside In, and you should check out her website as well. If you ever have the chance to see her speak in person, by all means go. She taught me so much at IRA a few years ago.

I hope this helps! Take care, and good luck!

Mark: I read through the book and got some great ideas. I'd like to know what other books and sites you would personally recommend to a new Reading/LA teacher who will be teaching average ability students in grades 5-7. (from Karen)
Thank you - I am glad you found the book helpful.
Here are some books that I highly recommend, annotated briefly:

  1. Study Driven by Katie Wood Ray. I cannot recommend this book more highly for helping you to create solid, genre based units of study. In Chapter One, the first description of a fifth grade classroom studying commentary made me rethink everything I do with all students. Katie Wood Ray not only helps us to raise the bar for all our students, she helps us find interesting genres for students to study. I have read this book twice per year for the past three years for courses I teach, and each time I read it, I find new nuggets of wisdom.
  2. The No-Nonsense Guide to Teaching Writing by Judy Davis and Sharon Hill is full of great ideas for setting up and maintaining a writing workshop, and includes a curriculum map for the year. I have used it many times as a resource, and I especially like their suggestions about writer's notebooks and teaching poetry. Bruce Morgan's book Writing Through the Tween Years will support your work if you are interested in learning more about using mentor texts and student interest to drive your writing instruction. You also need to know about Kelly Gallagher's excellent Teaching Adolescent Writers. He takes on many of the same topics as Bruce Morgan and Davis / Hill, but he provides more concrete suggestions about grading, developing mini-lessons and helping students to self edit. If you have some structures already set up in the writing workshop and want a troubleshooting guide about conferences, reluctant writers, helping students edit, and other topics, my first book is called When Writing Workshop Isn't Working: Answers to Ten Tough Questions, Grades 2-5. (I always hesitate to recommend my own books when I am asked this question, but many teachers in upper elementary and middle school have told me my book helped them refine their workshops...)
  3. If you want resources on teaching grammar in context, look no further than Jeff Anderson's Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, and Style into Writer's Workshop and Everyday Editing. These two books finally help us answer the question about how to embed skill instruction in the writing classroom without resorting to error-correction exercises and worksheets. They deserve a place on every language arts teacher's shelf!
  4. For reading instruction, I must recommend Cris Tovani's classic I Read It, but I Don't Get It. Though she works with struggling and reluctant adolescent readers, I used this book when I taught gifted fifth and sixth graders with great results. Cris's book helped me to understand how important it is for all readers to establish a clear purpose for reading, and she also helped me see that all readers need to know when meaning is breaking down. When meaning breaks down, we have to know it first, and then change our strategy - and she provides practical, classroom-tested suggestions. I use Cris's techniques with all ranges of readers, from struggling to on-grade level to gifted.
Happy reading! Enjoy the rest of your summer!

All best -

I know that the old adage says, "Write what you know." I also accept that students will write more enthusiastically about topics that have meaning to them personally. But how can we wean them off of such egocentric writing into areas which may not relate to them personally? (from E-man)
This is a great question, and one I have pondered for at least 20 years.

"Write what you know" seems like a simple adage, but it does not provide simple answers to the problems we may encounter as writing teachers.

As a teacher of writing, when I focus solely on topic choice, some writers improve, and others don't. I will fully admit that maybe I am doing something wrong in my instruction, but I am just speaking from many years of experience when I say topic choice alone does not necessarily make for great writing experiences for all students.

The more I work with students, the more convinced I am that "write what you know" fits best within a genre study.

So now, I work within what I call a "framed choice" while we study a specific genre.

For example, when I return to school in the fall, I am going to support primary students as they write poetry, intermediate students as they write personal essays,, and high school students as they write restaurant or music reviews.

The choices they make will "live" inside these specific genres, and I find this provides more opportunities for success because when we study the same genre as a class, we can all become more clear about how to be successful in this genre.

The book that has influenced me greatly in my work with genre studies is Katie Wood Ray's
Study Driven. I cannot tell you how much it has transformed my thinking with all the writers I work with, from kindergarten to graduate school. The best part is that I see a lot more energy from all these writers as well, and their self assessment of their own work has convinced me that genre studies are the way to go. Many, many writers have told me that they start to think of many new topic ideas when they become clear about how genres work.

My advice if you are working with fourth graders through high school is to NOT begin the year with personal narratives. Try out a completely different genre - maybe begin the year with personal essay (for a mentor text, see the last piece in Charles R. Smith's book
Rimshots where he talks about his influences) or commentary (see multiple suggestions for how to use commentary in the classroom in the first chapter of Katie Wood Ray's book Study Driven). In my experience for the last five years, new genres bring out new topics, and new excitement.
Wow! Thanks for taking the time to reply in such detail, Mark! I especially appreciate the book suggestions, since I'm always looking for proven practices from my colleagues in the field.
Thanks to all who sent in questions, and let's keep up the dialogue! There's a lot we can learn from each other.

Friday, June 5, 2009

What Student Writing Teaches Us

When conducting my How to Teach a Novel workshop, I’m frequently asked how to best assess reading. I’ve recently noticed, however, that participants ask just as many questions about assessing student writing.

For that reason alone, I’m pleased to participate in the Blog Tour for Mark Overmeyer and his Stenhouse publication What Student Writing Teaches Us. This extremely practical yet highly informed book answers many of the questions I’ve asked myself over the past 20 years, or heard from my colleagues in teacher workshops.

Prior to Mark’s visit here on June 29th, I encourage you to check out the full book online at the Stenhouse site. As you read, jot down your thoughts and questions for the author and then send them my way. We’ll pose these questions to Mark when he visits this blog on June 29th. Don’t hold back! Don’t be shy! This is your chance to pick the brain of a guru who has spent countless hours in classroom, observing and interacting with teachers and students passionately engaged in the writing process.

Jeff Anderson remarks in the Foreword:

The focus of Mark’s book is the most important and often least talked about
facet of assessment: formative assessment. Formative assessment is,
specifically, assessment for learning versus assessment of learning.
When I’ve mentioned formative assessment in various training situations, I’ve been met with furrowed brows and tilted heads; the fact is, formative assessment is not nearly as well known nor as widely practiced as it should be. This book will prove a remedy for that void. In simplest terms, this book answers the complex question “How do we move from trying to evaluate every piece of writing to using writing as a basis for our teaching?” (p. xv)

Again, take the opportunity to read the whole book online. For those who’d like some highlights, however, here are just a few of the notes I jotted down as I read:

Chapter 1: Defining Assessment in the Writing Workshop
  • Three keys to success: modeling, clear expectations, and meaningful practice toward a standard.
  • High-stakes testing has too often caused us to equate assessment with a final grade or score.
  • Formative assessment should be used to adjust what students are doing and, perhaps more importantly, how they’re being taught.
  • Although formative assessment may change our teaching, it is in no way arbitrary; it is still guided by our expectations, knowledge of proven strategies, and standards.
  • Good assessment not only improves learning, it encourages students to believe in themselves as writers.
Chapter 2: Formative Assessment in Action: Setting the Stage for Success

  • Teachers who become automatons (my word) in service to their teaching guides will not see opportunities to improve students’ skills.
  • Good standards (IRA, NCTE) are not reductive and can be effective tools for planning.
  • In order to better meet students’ needs, we can change the variables of time, topic choice, and talk.
  • Limited topic choice may actually help some students.
  • Framed writing, too often considered “the bad guy,” can be a good thing if it offers multiple possibilities for story development.
  • In an exemplary writing class, kids will have the opportunities and the know-how to choose their own writing tools.
  • The origin of every successful class experience is the teacher’s purposeful planning, keeping all learners in mind.
  • Through an inquiry-based approach, the learners can assess their own learning as well as that of their peers. Teachers do not need to grade 100 papers each night to see this learning for themselves.
Chapter 3: Feedback as Formative Assessment

  • Rubrics have some liabilities (not news to me).
  • Rubrics are too often used simply as grading tools rather than learning tools.
  • Students and teachers can develop more user-friendly rubrics which will encourage growth as writers (and Mark shows us how).
  • Poetry, by its seemingly unstructured nature, is difficult to assess using rubrics (difficult, but not impossible).
  • Frequent conversations about assessment create a common language in the classroom.
  • Listening is perhaps more important than talking in student conferences.
  • Anecdotal notes can be even more telling than rubrics.
Chapter 4: Self-Assessment

  • Elementary and middle school classroom nee to be more like primary classrooms, where the writing process is truly a workshop.
  • Students should not simply set goals, but be taught how to choose methods to meet those goals.
  • Different students will find solutions to their writing needs through different resources.
  • Students can learn how to ask for the type of support they need.
Chapter 5: Grades

  • Grades based totally upon what students can accomplish with total independence are not accurate measures of students’ abilities.
  • Teachers must take the time to gather data in several ways.
  • Students who consistently under perform can be coached to greater success (and Mark explains how).
  • Creating multiple situations where students test quietly with no support is NOT test prep.
  • Grading does not need to be difficult or all-encompassing; students should clearly understand how the process works.
  • Dialogues with students about their writing can reveal much more than the writing itself about student skills.
  • Simple changes to present practice can create a balance in grading.
Chapter 6: Keeping Records, Keeping Track
  • Read student work with an eye for what to “admire.”
  • Positive approaches to assessment should replace energy-draining “error hunting.”
  • Looking for things to admire in student work will help teachers to better plan for writing conferences and mini-lessons. (Mark discusses other reasons for this more positive approach. He also shares a record sheet for writing samples which guides his assessment while helping him to note mini-lesson needs).
Every chapter is supported with real-life dialogues, bulleted summary lists, suggested forms and charts, and teaching models which can be easily replicated. For veteran and novice teachers alike, I highly recommend this book!

While at the Stenhouse site, be sure to check out the contest for teachers at the bottom of the page. For your quick, 500 word response to a prompt you can win an autographed copy of What Student Writing Teaches Us when it becomes available in mid-July.

You can also check out my previous posts on Stenhouse titles at my How to Teach a Novel blog and my Teach with Picture Books blog (if using Internet Explorer, you may need to reload the page for this blog to appear properly).

Thursday, June 4, 2009

How to Teach Reading and Language Arts

In response to one frequent reader of my Teach with Picture Books blog, I have created a lens over at Squidoo (How to Teach Reading and Language Arts) that aggregates the feeds from my three blogs into one place. So now it's easy to see the last four posts of each of those sites in one location. For all the graphics and certainly the video clips, you'll need to click on individual posts, but at least now you've got a single vantage point to check out my latest resources and rants.

While there you'll also find the lenses (static sites) that support each of those blogs. These static sites contain links and information which you'll never see on the blogs, so be sure to stop by and visit those as well. Teaching with Picture Books features 13 reasons why upper elementary and middle school teachers should be using picture books in the classroom (a great resource if you're trying to convince teachers, colleagues, or your boss of the importance of picture books), How to Teach a Novel features ten steps to doing it well (notice I didn't say ten easy steps), and Teaching that Sticks provides an overview of the best-selling Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (which inspired that workshop and the blog that you're reading right now).

How to Teach Reading and Language Arts will change almost daily, so stop by often to see what's being served up.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

911 Writer's Block

Are you or your students experiencing writer's block? 911 Writers Block is a cool little site that allows you to push a button for instant assistance! Need a Setting? an Ending? a way to Kill a Character? You'll find all of these and more. Once you finish goofing around with the push button phone and reading some of the prompts shown there, be sure to click on the tabs at the top of the site to see what else WeBook has to offer.

Monday, June 1, 2009

NeoK12: Educational Videos and Lessons

EduTechieGal has unearthed another web gem over at her site. NeoK12 is a site which has compiled and categorized (thank you!) hundreds of educational videos for grades K-12. The site is labeled as 100% Kid Safe, as all video submission are reviewed and approved prior to posting. Definitely worth a look! You can also help build that site into a more valuable resource by referring videos which you presently use or have created yourself.

And if you still haven't checked out EduTechieGal, she's got over one hundred tools for teaching posted on her site. She gives you just enough of a riff to explain it, and the rest is up to you.

Friday, May 29, 2009

You Can Handle Them All

Classroom management is key to effective instruction. You can't even begin to worry about making your teaching sticky if you don't first have an environment which is respectful, safe, and orderly. For novices and veterans alike, one of the best classroom management websites available can be found at This website, maintained by The Master Teacher, lists 117 problem behaviors, structured by

  • behavior (attitudes and actions of the child),

  • effects (ways in which this behavior affects home and school),

  • actions (to be taken by the adult in dealing with this child), and

  • mistakes (common errors which may actually perpetuate the problem).

A behavior labeled The Smart Aleck, for example, is defined by these characteristics:

  1. Makes "funny" comments that actually go far beyond humor. And the cutting effect is intentional.

  2. Often rude, and usually disrespectful. Different from the smartmouth; the smart aleck's misbehavior includes both word and deed.

  3. Has been overindulged by adults.

  4. Tries to act superior to others.

  5. Attempts to cover an inferiority complex with this type of behavior.

  6. Denies, and hides from facing, the feeling of inferiority. Is fooling him/herself-and possibly others.
    (and so on, for a total of eleven descriptors).

So, does that define your problem behavior? If not, the site offers related behaviors: The Class Clown, The Defier, The Distracter, The Loudmouth, The Show-Off, or The Smartmouth. Yes, these are separately defined behaviors! Step one, then, is making sure that you zero in on the appropriate behavior.

So let's suppose that The Smart Aleck is the proper label. You'd then be able to view the Effects of this behavior. The Effects list helps you realize that that the feelings you're experiencing are a natural outcome of this behavior and not simply you "overreacting." The Effects list can also help you dialogue with the student and parents about the behavior's effect upon others.

Now comes time to take Action. In the words of the site: "Identify causes of misbehavior. Pinpoint student needs being revealed. Employ specific methods, procedures, and techniques at school and at home for getting the child to modify or change his/her behavior."

Perhaps most useful of all is Mistakes, a list of those misjudgments which may "perpetuate or intensify the problem." It's so tempting to respond in turn, yet rarely productive (or mature).

Looking for preemptive strategies and structures to use in the classroom? I highly recommend Setting Limits in the Classroom: How to Move Beyond the Dance of Discipline by Robert J. Mackenzie. If it had been the first book on the topic that I purchased as a new teacher, I would not have purchased any others. He later came out with another title, Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Child : Eliminating Conflict by Establishing Clear, Firm, and Respectful Boundaries which offers solution for more difficult students.

When you visit You Can Handle Them All, be sure to first read the sidebar to the right. It begins: "We are labeling behaviors, not children!" A good sentiment to keep in mind when approaching your discipline problems.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Organizing Thinking

Often in our attempts to do what is best for students, we often forget to simply help them do what is best for themselves. Graphic organizers are an effective tool that allow students to think for themselves, or to organize information when reading novels or texts.

I know, graphic organizers are nothing new. But take a look at what else is out there. There's certainly more than Venn diagrams and Cornell notes. A great first place to look is where you'll find over fifty organizers in pdf format.

From that site:

Why do they work?
Random facts are quickly lost. However, the brain's ability to store pictures is unlimited. And since the brain likes to chunk information, the graphic organizer complements the way the brain naturally works.

When do they work?
Graphic organizers will be beneficial to students whenever they are given new information. They can be used to sequence, brainstorm and organize. During reading and listening students should be encouraged to graphically organize new information.

Need a few more? I doubt it, but here are a few that I've used as well.

ABC's of the Writing Process Links to many graphic organizers.

Enchanted Learning Organizers Printable hand-outs.

Free Printable Graphic Organizers Frequently updated list of organizers.

Graphic Organizer Creator Create timelines, concept webs, Venns, and more for free at this site.
Graphic Organizers HIGHLY RECOMMENDED! Extensive excellent list from Region 15 school district in Connecticut.

Graphic Organizers (Links) Links to many types of organizers.

Graphic Organizers for Kids Kid friendly.

Graphic Orgs for Literacy Graphic Organizers for Literature

LATCH Organization LATCH acronym stands for 5 ways to organize ideas.

MOSAIC Listserve Awesome list of organizers in pdf or Word format.

Skills Continuum Different organizers with guiding Qs.

Various GOs Listed by category.

Venn Diagram Interactive Create a Venn Diagram online.

WriteDesign On-Line Some graphic organizers with reasons for using.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

ReSnooze: Another Way to Organize Your Life

I know there are many methods to remind yourself of events and deadlines but Resnooze seems like a cool way to take some of that burden off of you. Resnooze is an online app that will regularly remind you of dates to remember, at whatever frequency you choose.

For example, I might use Resnooze to schedule
  • regular parent contacts
  • distributed assessments and writing samples
  • visits to websites which are updated, but not as frequently as blogs
  • interim reports and end-of-marking-period grades
  • regular family events (doctor and dentist visits, pet meds, etc.)
Demo Girl (I guess she's a really hip, digital-age superhero) provides a nice synopsis of this application (if the embedded video below doesn't run, click here).

Saturday, May 16, 2009

YAuthor: Create Course Content Online

yAuthor is an on-line authoring tool that allows users to create professionally looking interactive content easily. For the teacher, this might mean independent learning modules, self-paced reading selections, tutorials, quizzes, or flipbooks.

This application is fairly new, but the present site features a tour, several demos, and some publicly viewable projects. The interface is extremely easy to use, and allows the teacher to choose among several page formats and quizzing styles (multiple choice, cloze, matching, fill-in-the-blank). Modules instantly provide users with feedback (requiring that they return to wrong answers for correction) and final scores on a page-by-page basis.

One of the better examples at the site is an assessment module on the Civil War. It shows several page formats and quizzing options.

The site is free and looks to be constantly improving with more advanced features. Get in now while the memberships are free!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

How to Teach a Novel: The Blog

Since some of this blog's readers are upper elementary and middle school teachers (special shout out to my homeschoolers), I thought you'd like to know that I've launched a new blog over at Wordpress.

How to Teach a Novel is aimed at teachers in grades 3-12 who use authentic literature in the classroom. This blog will attempt to bring you related web sites, effective and efficient practices, and current and relevant articles related to the art and science of teaching the novel.

You might first want to check out my older, static site over at Squidoo which bears the same name. The How to Teach a Novel "lens" (Squidoo's unique name for personal sites) presents a step-by-step approach for the teacher who holds a novel in hand but lacks the resources to teach it. It's the online companion to a popular workshop I've presented several times over the past couple years. (As for the presumptuous titles? They make it easier to find the sites when searching Google).

I'm a longtime fan of novels, I love teaching them, and I feel that there's a right and a wrong way to go about it. I'd love to hear about your experiences as well. Drop me a line and share your favorite sites and books, best practices, and your success and horror stories. We're in this thing together!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Victor Hugo once said something to the effect of, "An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come." Teachers are constantly torn between embracing new technologies, which come fast and furiously, and clinging to their traditional methods.

Back in the olden days of 1990 I presented a group project for my Masters in Instruction and Curriculum. Our lesson plan included the use of the Green Acres theme song as an anticipatory set to a unit on rural versus urban lifestyles. The professor was satisfied with the project overall but asked, "Keith, how would the average teacher be able to get the opening song for Green Acres?"

I had stayed up until 1:00 AM and copied it (most likely illegally) from an old rerun, but I answered, "In a couple years they should be able to get it from an electronic library. You know, sign out television shows the same way that people sign out books." (I wasn't being prophetic; I had probably read somewhere that such a capability was just over the horizon). The professor laughed, as did a couple students in the audience, so I added, "Or they can stay up until one in the morning to copy it off an old rerun."

The fact is, many teachers now drown in the tidal wave of new technology. That's why I'm so grateful for sites like Recess Duty, EduTechieGal, and Free Technology for Teachers which give us our tech immersion just one ankle-deep wave at a time. I can handle that.

How about you? Are you feeling overwhelmed? How do you keep up with the latest tech products and applications? What professional development opportunities does your school offer on a regular basis for the average classroom teacher to keep informed about tech advances? Which delivery system has your school or district found most useful in educating teachers in this area? Are there other technology-for-teacher sites that you can recommend? Leave a comment or drop me a line.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Motivating Readers with Movie Scripts

I am guilty of many things, one of them being the use of some nontraditional materials to get kids reading in the classroom. It's no secret that I totally dig picture books for all grade levels, and I also feel that appropriate graphic novels can serve young readers.

Another way to motivate reluctant readers is through the use of movie scripts. For many students, scripts are both engaging and nonthreatening, since the overall plot lines are already familiar (and don't be surprised if students know whole scenes by heart as well). The Internet Movie Script Database features dozens of scripts from current movies and television shows, categorized by genre and fully searchable. These can be read right online, with no download or additional software needed. Simply Scripts has a larger assortment of scripts, from movies, television, radio, stage, and more. Several other sources are available through Google, but I've found these two to be most reliable.

These scripts can be used in other ways as well:
  • Students attempting to write scripts can use these as models for conventional formatting.

  • Teachers working on proper use of quotations can assign a portion of a script to be rewritten as traditional dialogue.

  • Oral expression can be examined through multiple readings of sections, emphasizing different words and varying rate and pitch. For example, how many emotions can be expressed by rereadings of the simple question, "Really?"

  • Students can discuss the use of flash forwards and flashbacks as vehicles for advancing the plot.

  • Speakers of English as a second language can practice reading portions, comparing their diction with that of the on-screen actors. (I suppose you'll have to be careful which scripts you choose for this purpose. Having a classroom full of Nathan Lanes or Robert DeNiros is probably not a desired outcome of instruction).
Some disclaimers:

  • Movies rated R appear here as well, so proper guidance on this site is needed.

  • I am not a lawyer and I don't play one on TV, but my guess is that printing off entire scripts from this source or any other is probably not legal and should be avoidedSnippets of the scripts might be okay, but don't take my word on that.

  • Although the scripts I viewed seemed true to the movie versions, it's possible that some vary from the final theatrical releases.

  • These script sites exist to sell movies, books, DVDS, etc. For that reason, some schools are likely to block them! I recommend you search about a bit and you may be able to find the desired script on an unblocked site.
Have some other uses for online scripts? Email me or leave a comment below.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Wisc-Online: Cool Learning Tools

Wisc-Online is the repository for thousands of "learning objects," short, focused slide shows and animations, often accompanied by interactive questions and reviews. These are varied by subject and grade level, and just perfect for whole-group interactive whiteboard or individual review.

You know I like it because I usually steer clear of sites that require sign-ups (even if they're free), but Wisc-Online is totally worth the trouble!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

I Made Something, Look!

Josh Selig, president and founder of New York’s Little Airplane Productions, shares on the need for professionals to take some creative time for themselves. Sorry, teachers, but writing lesson plans, mapping curriculum, and grading papers do not count as creative time, no matter how good you are at those tasks and how much you enjoy them (and I know we all enjoy them). Check out Josh's insightful blog at Planet Preschool.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Top Ten YouTube Videos for the Classroom

Tara Seale has compiled a nice list of the Top Ten YouTube Videos for the Classroom over at her Enhanced English Teacher blog. If you're a middle or high school English teacher, you'll find some great resources and insights there.

For example, those of you who have had the immense pleasure of attending my Teaching that Sticks workshop or my How to Teach a Novel workshop have heard me mention Joseph Campbell's "Hero Myth." The clip below features a discussion of the Hero Myth as it appears in The Matrix. Christopher Vogler, author of The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writersand Using Myth to Power Your Story takes over where Joseph Campbell left off. This snippet of video serves to set up this topic up for classroom discussion.

Thanks for the list, Tara! Visit her site and give her some suggestions for building it to a Top Twenty!

(Missed my How to Teach a Novel workshop? Visit my How to Teach a Novel lens over at for an abreviated run-down).

Friday, April 24, 2009

Trackstar: Staking Your Claim on the Internet

In terms of the Internet, Trackstar is old school. Many teachers, however, haven’t had the chance to see it in action. Basically, Trackstar is a collected set of websites framed by a table of contents which is always visible. As each site is selected, the heading above the site viewer changes to include the teacher’s notes about the site being viewed, as well as questions about its content.

Now that I’ve thoroughly confused you, check out a couple examples that make it very clear. Stayin' Alive: How Plants and Animals Adapt to Air Pollution is a well constructed track with clear instructions and a variety of sites. In addition to the frames format of that previous link, you also have the option to see your links and notes in text form.

An example of how this application can be used for professional development purposes can be seen in Teaching Writers Right. Presenters or teachers forming collegial study group will find that this is an efficient way to organize sites and documents for group viewing.

Is Trackstar difficult to use? Not at all, since you don’t need to create your own tracks; you’re welcome to use the hundreds that have been created over the years. The homepage allows you to search by topic, author, or top tracks. Just be sure to check that all links are still working, and that the related heading content and questions are appropriate for your student group.

If you do wish to create your own, the process is simple, with ample prompts and sequenced steps.

Using Trackstar, teachers can

  • present students with online learning tasks within a controlled scope of sites;

  • assign individualized online tasks, differentiated by both web sites viewed and annotations added;

  • incorporate current events using the Trackstar’s monthly themes or the Track of the Day;

  • create modules that can be independently completed by students as homework or extra credit;

  • structure lessons which can easily be carried out by a substitute teacher or a cross-grade learning partner;

  • supply parents and students with a “virtual study guide” for upcoming tests;

  • store, categorize, and tag their own favorite sites for future use (all sites for one unit can be found in one location;

  • share their “best of” sites with virtual colleagues; and

  • collaborate with colleagues to compile sites and comments in using a “wiki” format.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Edu TechieGal

Edu TechieGal (I think I got the caps and spacing correct on that) is a once-a-week dose of cool tech tools for teachers. Now, I know that there are dozens of tech blogs out there (feel free to email me your favorites), but I found Edu TechieGal to be extremely simple, focused, and truly geared toward classroom users, at all grade levels. Plus, she doesn't go into too much detail about the sites; gives you just enough to whet your appetite, pats you on the head and says, "All, right now, off you go."

Some of my favorites from her site: Literactive, a colorful and friendly little site for the preschool and kindergarten crowd, Be Funky, a super-simple photo effects site, Tenement Museum (pictured on the right), a really cool interactive immigrant experience site (where the heck was this when my daughter and I were doing that Ellis Island project two months ago?), and Word Ahead, a collection of vocabulary video flashcards, perfect for students hoping to cram vocab in preparation for SATs and other standardized tests.

So check out her site, give her a word of encouragement, and definitely forward some links to other tech sites of interest to teachers.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Privileged Status of Story

"I have read that the mind treats stories differently than other types of
information. It seems obvious that people like listening to stories, but it’s
not obvious how to use that in the classroom. Is it really true that stories are
somehow "special" and, if so, how can teachers capitalize on that fact?"

The answer to this question is well worth a read for any teacher desiring to put the power of story into their daily instruction. Cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham addresses the topic of story in his excellent article The Privileged Status of Story, one of his many Ask the Cognitive Scientist columns at the AFT's American Educator.

Daniel first defines story using four features commonly agreed upon by professional storytellers (playwrights, screenwriters, and novelists). These features (sometimes called the 4 Cs) are Causality, Conflict, Complications, and Character. Even if a teacher chooses not to tell "stories" in the traditional sense, employing just one of these features can have a profound impact on every lesson, helping to create learning that is interesting, memorable, and easier to comprehend. (Are you hearing some of our sticky ideas?).

Although his role is to point out the theory and research behind the well-deserved status of story, Willingham writes like a practitioner, offering suggestions which are practical and simple to implement. For you fans of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, this article is a concise, highly accessible how-to guide for putting story to work in your instruction.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything

Sir Ken Robinson, best known for his TED talk of last year (see second video below), is on the web again, this time talking about his new book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. For those of us who have heard or used the expression "in his element," we understand phrase to mean that he is "doing what he is best at," or "doing what he was born to do."

That's The Element in a nutshell: a bold proclamation that people can do best what they actually enjoy and are good at (no news there), but that too often they are turned from the pursuit of what will ultimately fulfill them by the dictates of others, the "realities" of making a living, and (you guessed it) schools that limit their choices and dreams. Not saying he's wrong, mind you, but we all knew that was coming. And that's probably bad.

A favorite part:

Finding a purpose in the work we do or they way that we spend our time which resonates deeply with who we think we are, is an essential part of knowing who we are. In a way, if you don’t know what you can do, then you don’t really know what you might be.

Our own lives are not linear. Think not of linear metaphors for human growth and development, but organic metaphors… that our lives evolve around the responses we have to the opportunities that meet us. We, in turn, reciprocate with them. We still run our education systems as if life is linear. We run them as if it’s mechanistic. This is one of the reasons so many things get phased out of education, because people say, "Well, you’ll never get a job if you do this." Things are dropped off the end because they don’t meet the linear assumption.
If you've got the time, this is well worth a look.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Sticky Teaching in Action

I love to see a good "sticky lesson" in action. Check out this clip from Mr. Langhorst's 8th grade in Liberty, Missouri. See how many of the six elements of "stickiness" you can see spot (see the Teaching that Sticks sister site for a quick primer from Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

I love this approach! In my third and fourth grades, where I've taught the Revolutionary War as well, I've taken a slightly different approach. Students were presented with a letter from the school board, announcing that due to last year's low test scores several drastic measures would be put into place: extended school hours, summer school for all students below a 3.5 average, school on Saturdays, and no more Physical Education. Students became quite upset that neither they not their parents were in attendance at this meeting, and that they were being punished for last year's bad scores (purely fictitious as well). Seeing how distraught my students were, I graciously allowed them to draft letters to the testing coordinator (Mr. Itzall LaSham) expressing their feelings. Without fail, students created the most articulate, persuasive writing of their lives! When read aloud, the letters of protest were impassioned and convincing.

But then I wondered aloud, "I'm not sure if we should have done this. Perhaps Mr. LaSham will get upset, and call your parents. Are you guys really willing to take that risk?" Out come the erasers, but not for all. Most students are so adamant in their beliefs that they refuse to erase their names, no matter what the consequences!

It's usually at this point, although sometimes much earlier, that some student will exclaim, "This is exactly what happened to the colonists! We're being forced to live by rules that we didn't help to make." And eventually, of course, I do let students in on the secret: The letter is fictitious, and so is the testing director (Mr. It's All a Sham). We then discuss the similarity between their letters and the Declaration of Independence. Both documents express extreme dissatisfaction, but the latter is further expressing outright rebellion. Should the colonists lose this war, the bold Declaration will serve as King George's hanging list.

In nearly twenty years of implementing this lesson, students have been faithful to not share it with their siblings or friends, and each year's new class faithfully falls for the trick: hook, line, and sinker. But the real payoff is that years later, when students return from high school and college to visit, they'll ask, "Did you do the letter yet?" and they'll vividly recall every aspect of the lesson, including its point.

Now that's a lesson that sticks.

(If you're a social studies teacher, check out Eric Langhorst's blog for more great resources and insights. Thanks to John over at Teacher Toys for the link suggestions).

Saturday, April 11, 2009

How NOT to Teach a Novel

Some teachers, with all the best intentions, treat novels like pinatas, beating them with sticks until every last piece of sweet candy falls out. Those of you who caught my How to Teach a Novel session at the New England League of Middle Schools (NELMS) Conference know I use that metaphor frequently. For good reason, trust me.

As Kelly Gallagher points out in his recent book Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Readig and What You Can Do About It, teachers underteach books; that is, they assign chapters in extremely difficult books for independent reading, and students either choose not to read the selection, or they read it with little understanding. On the other end of the spectrum, however, are those teachers who overteach novels; they are not satisfied until the pages have been wrung out like dish rags, emptied of every teachable vocabulary word, allusion, metaphor, and simile.

In my How to Teach a Novel sessions I certainly point out that every novel should be read and reread with pencil in hand, in order to decide, "What's worth our attention?" or, more practically, "What's worth teaching?" (see How to Teach a Novel for a synopsis of this topic). That doesn't mean, however, that the teacher needs to teach it all!

Imagine that you're listening to the Motown classic My Girl on the radio. How frustrating would it be if every twenty seconds the DJ interrupted the song to examine its language, or to "enlighten you" with some historical background which places the song or group into a historical context?

I've got sunshine, on a cloudy day

(Does the singer literally have sunshine? Is this an oxymoron alone, or is it meant to, in some way, be metaphorical?)

When it's cold outside, I've got the month of May

(Who knows the origin of the name Motown? Right, it's related to the fact that Gordon Berry established his record label in Detroit, which is also known as the Motor City. But who can tell me the nickname Berry gave to Motown Records itself? Why don't we continue to pause the song while our listeners look that up?)

I guess you'd say, "What can make me feel this way?"

(Note the use of sentence variety here, and the way in which the singer directly addresses his audience. Is he expecting an answer? What do we call a question in which the speaker does not expect to receive an answer?)

I think you get the idea. When it comes to teaching novels, I wish everyone did.