Save the forest: the paperless classroom

A paperless English classroom? Yes, please! It’s the unicorn of the English world–how do we empower students to think and learn for themselves without consuming a wildfire’s amount of paper? Well, these are my top tools for not only saving paper but also saving what little free time you have, if you’re an English teacher. In no particular order, my favorite tools.

Tool one: Touchcast

Are you sick of staying after school, pouring over those posters? Or wading through terrible Power Point presentations? Touchcast is a powerful tool for any content area, because it supports interactive video. Imagine: it’s not a printed and poorly glued picture, it’s a graphic that, when clicked, takes you directly to the website from which it came. Students can use their face or their voice in an organized presentation that invites the viewer to interact. Polls, a live Twitter feed, embedded videos, all hosted on not only Touchcast’s website but also on the iPad from which it came. It’s another free tool, on iPhones, iPads, and Apple desktops.

Tool two: Diigo

Have you ever taken your students to the library to print their research articles, because you want them to highlight and annotate the information they plan to use in their paper? Well, not only does Diigo, a Chrome extension, make printing articles a thing of the past, it also allows students to collaborate. They can share their annotated websites and pdfs, not just with you but with the class. Did you students forget to record the author or title of the website they visited? Well, because Diigo links to the information on the web, it’s easy for students to get back and get that vital citation information. And it’s free!

Tool three: Google Classroom

Google Classroom became my go-to tool for turning in papers last year. It is by far the easiest way I’ve found to disseminate and collect student work. I post the assignment, and students have an organized, uniform way to give it back to me. It’s timestamped, so I know if it’s late, and because Classroom does the legwork for keeping student work in one place, it’s easy for both my students and me to find it again. No more am I searching through my email to find student work. Totally free, as long as your school is a Google Apps for Education user. (If they’re not, go beg. It’s worth it!)

Tool four: Snagit

Do you spend hours marking up a student paper, only to have the student in question seemingly resubmit an identical paper, with only the minute grammar mistakes or spelling mistakes you marked changed? Or have you spent an entire week meeting face to face with students, painstakingly workshopping, only to have the student apparently ignore all your well thought out criticisms? Well, it’s not because students don’t care; it’s because they’re overwhelmed and confused. By using Snagit to create a screencast of a student’s paper, you can use your voice and your mouse to point out suggestions to students. Because you can record and because your students can replay those recordings outside of class, you not only save time, you save your sanity, because students will do a better job at revising their work. It’s a Chrome extension. And yes, it’s free.

I have used all of the above tools for several years now, and they have really done an amazing job at transforming my classroom. And now, as a bonus, the new tool I’m implementing this year:

Tool five: Goobric

Last year, the first year I used both Snagit and Google Classroom together, it took me hours to create an individual rubric for each student, which I would share in the Google Classroom comments along with the screencast. Well, Goobric is a major game changer. All I had to do was change my rubric from a Google doc to a Google sheet. Goobric not only created a rubric for each of my students, it recorded the results on a spreadsheet and copied the rubric on each student’s paper.

Have a great start to the year, and good luck in your new, paperless classroom!

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Creating meaningful student blogs

Yesterday, we created definitions of community, the theme of my composition classes. When I asked students to think of what constituted a successful community, many wonderful words came through. Communication, respect, trust, (not) isolation to name a few. I left with a warm glow: this year is going to be epic.

Have you ever gone to the gym, or tried to go to sleep, and the ideas just don’t stop coming? Well, it hit me like a lightning bolt on the arc climber yesterday: their definitions of successful community are my solution for how to solve last year’s student blog problems.

First, some small background: I’ve been blogging off and on for several years now, and I’ve had students in my creative writing class blog for two of those years. Creative writing students understood the purpose behind their blogs, and the connections they made with other writers was meaningful and pretty amazing. So last year, when I decided to use blogs with my high school composition classes, I thought they would be even more powerful. I was wrong.

Students did not understand the reason behind our publishing. I had asked them to reflect on their own learning and demonstrate their progress towards a particular Common Core standard, and I even had a parent who came in all hot about how terrible Common Core is. I talked him off the ledge when I showed him the standards, but my students did not buy in to the whole concept of reflective blogging anyway.

So now it’s this year, and I have a clearer purpose for their blogs. Less about standards based grading, which I love but the district doesn’t use (yet), and more about building a community of writers. I had planned to require students to comment in a meaningful way on each other’s blogs, and to have them blog fairly frequently. My ideas were reinforced by by the voxer book club that Paul Bailey invited me to join this summer. We’re reading Innovator’s Mindset together, and they have been wonderful to get to know using this new to me technology.

So how will the definitions come into play? Well, blogs are one way to communicate with others beyond our classroom. We can break our isolation from the world, show mutual trust and respect, and learn how to appropriately communicate online. I can’t wait!

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Using makerspace to break the tyranny of now

The piece of cardstock seemed to mock me. I felt my tension headache crushing my temples. All around me, everyone was happily folding away, making these elegant boxes, and yet here I was, with the lid still not formed. And when my neighbor, a quiet young mother from Saudi Arabia, leaned over and said, “Look, you just tuck it this way,” I gritted my teeth and declared, “I’m just not good at crafts.” That’s when I realized, I was “gripped in the tyranny of now,” as Carol Dweck describes in the below TEDTalk:

You see, although in the past I had always patted myself on the back for having a growth mindset, by believing that something difficult was out of my reach because I wasn’t good at it meant that I had a fixed mindset about making objects with my hands. So I set out to change. I accepted the power of yet. I wasn’t good at making origami boxes, yet.

For the first day of class, I plan to share this story with my students and invited them to feel the power of yet. We’ll be listening and discussing the above talk, as well as beginning the process of our own origami boxes. By making an object with our hands and minds, we will struggle together.

As an interesting aside, another teacher and I got in a passionate discussion about the difference between I can’t do this and I don’t want to do this. While it is true that I really didn’t want to make crafts in my composition theory class this summer, in part because at the time I couldn’t figure out the purpose of such tasks, I realize now that there is a deep connection between feeling one can’t do something and not wanting to do it at all. Embrace the struggle!

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Finding my “why”

Do you know your “why”? Your reason for doing what you do? What gets you out of bed every day and helps you know your purpose on this planet?

I’m a dive into the deep end kind of a person. I’m the one who’ll stay up all night, because the book just keeps getting better and better. I’m the one who looks up, realizing it’s been hours since I started playing Skyrim and now I desperately have to pee. (I’m also the Queen of TMI, so sorry about that.) I’m the one with a plate overflowing with work that I just can’t say no to. I’m the one working full time, part time, and attending college classes, all at the same time. I rarely stop to look at the big picture, the why of my life.

Let’s admit it: I find reflection painful, like being asked to look at myself in a mirror. Reflection always makes me see the wrinkles, the silver creeping into my hair, the loose skin and persistent fat rolls that six months of Weight Watchers and twenty pounds of weight loss just doesn’t wear away. Reflect? Ugh. Do I have to?

Well, when two administrators I admire, Bobby Dodds and Neil Gupta, both independently talk about the importance of establishing just WHY you do something, I know I have to sit up and take notice. So hear goes:

The why that is in the center of all that I do as a teacher is: I want to empower students to think and learn for themselves. Knowing my why helps define my purpose going forward.

So, do you know what your “why” is?

Props to Bobby Dodds for sharing the above YouTube video, which I plan to use to help students define their “why” this year.

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Game on!

Often the biggest barrier to innovation is our own way of thinking. –George Couros

Ever wondered how to implement gamification into your classes beyond kill and drill review games? Me, too. Last year, I tried implementing Classcraft last year, but it didn’t quite fit. The excitement wasn’t there, and the energy to gamify flagged when kids leveled up enough to get their favorite outfits. I was just debating whether or not to try again when my husband stepped in.

He’s my favorite sounding board, because he believes I can do anything I set my mind to achieve. And when I told him about my epic fail to make the energy spike in my room, he jumped in with an awesome idea: create a storyline that is more epic than merely leveling up.

Some wild drawings later, we came up with this: a massive game of RISK, with students trying to dominate the world of the classroom. With his background in geology and our backgrounds in gaming, he painstakingly came up with a world map for my kids to dominate.

Each Classcraft team begins in a city on the map. They move one hexagon for every assignment they turn in on time. Together, the team is more powerful, but each member can go on their own to explore the map. As they conquer each square, they will uncover side quests that align with the unit we’re about to begin. Some quests will be available only for higher level characters. Each team has a resource they must first find and then protect from the other teams, and teams can challenge each other in a Boss Battle to conquer the world, all while deepening their connects to each other and to the content of the course. Students who fail to complete their work cannot move forward in the game and risk weakening their teams. One team will rule supreme, as kings and queens of our kingdom. After dominating, they can move on to conquer the other continents (that represent the other classes I teach.)

Gaming ties right in with my desire to create deeper connections within my classroom, as well as fits right in with the novel we read this summer, Ready Player One.

Let the games begin, and may the odds be ever in your favor!

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Gamify Your Open House

Open House at my school takes place before the first day of school. We’ve read Ready Player One by Ernest Cline this summer, and I’ve been reading Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros. I want to make Open House interesting and fun, so I’m challenging my students this year: go on a photo scavenger hunt and send me the pics. I want to get to know my students, and I want to gamify the experience. Let’s play!

To win your choice of five amazing books, be one of the first to complete this photo scavenger hunt. Can you

  1. Take a selfie with our assistant principal
  2. Take a “shelfie” with your favorite read from this summer
  3. Take a selfie with your best friend
  4. Take a selfie with your favorite teacher from last year
  5. Make a snapchat story in my classroom that includes one thing you wonder about. (if you don’t have snapchat, just take a pic and include what you wonder in the email)

Send the completed 5 pics to All 5 photos must be together to win.  Consider finding an app or site to combine your photos and sending me a link to them.

Can’t wait to meet you at Open House! Let the games begin…

Added bonus: see how Ready Player One and Pokemon Go are connected: The Motley Fool