Makerspace as motivation

Just as my juniors are building relationships using a breakout game, my sophomores deserve more than the typical sit and get day one. Last year, I had them create origami boxes. This year, I’m leaning towards just the lids. They are the most challenging part of the box, and challenge, plus six word memoirs, should present them with an opportunity to practice grit and growth mindset.

Here’s a link to how to make the boxes, if you want to try it out yourself.

Instead of me standing up and explaining what to do, students will begin in one of four stations. The stations are:

  1. Origami box lid
  2. Six word memoir
  3. Six word memoir
  4. Origami box lid

Day one is only 28 minutes long, so I want them to have time to finish the lid and the memoir. Each station will have directions and models of what I want them to make. My goal is for them to create a box lid, glue in their memoir, and write their names on the back of the box lid. This way, I get to know them, but they do not have to overshare on day one. I plan to create the word YET on my wall, using the box lids.

If you’d like to try six word memoirs, below are some linked suggestions:

After an interlude of essay writing to show what they know from their summer reading assignment, Ready Player One from Ernest Cline on Day 2, we’ll move on to something I’m really excited about: personal motivation posters.

On Day 3, we’re back in makerspace.

After spending some time perusing examples of excellent motivational design, students will photograph each other and create their poster, using a quote that inspires them and their image. I’ll print these and mount them on black cardstock on my very white front wall, right under the word “community.” I can use this activity to get to know their names as well as allow them to get to know each other.

“A logo for MaKey Makey: Alphabet soup” by jayahimsa is shared under a CC by 2.0 license.


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!

Image attributed to

Innovation in Writing Conferences

As part of my quest to improve my teaching and stretch my horizons, I am taking part in a Voxer book discussion. This blog post represents my reflection on Chapter 1 of George Couros’s Innovator’s Mindset.

First, a little background. Although I am in my seventeenth year of teaching, this is the first year I have taught College Composition. For those of you that are not Ohio teachers, there is a push for high school students to get college credit for the classes they take. Teachers must be certified to teach these classes, are observed by the college, and must submit college aligned course syllabi in order for students to receive credit.

As a first time Composition teacher, I knew that one of the best ways to improve as a writer is for students to not only write frequently but also to receive quality, individual feedback. The traditional way is through a face to face conference, but with 60 students in my composition classes, I found this difficult. I tried group conferences, peer revising, and other more traditional methods, but I was unhappy with the quality of student writing. So I tried something new: using TechSmith’s SnagIt Chrome Extension to screencast my comments about their papers.

Here’s an example of two screencasts, recredited in WeVideo to protect student anonymity:

Using the rubric I provided them, I explained WHY their organization was lacking. Because they had submitted their assignments via Google Classroom, I could highlight one of their sentences and make suggestions to help them improve. While the screencast lacked the “back and forth” that a traditional conference provides, my students found these videos transformational. Their writing improved by leaps and bounds. When offered the option of having me write on their printed papers in place of a video, only three of 60 students opted for the traditional way. When they reflected on their success for the year, many students shared that my videos helped them know how to improve.

I have since heard that many of my fellow high school composition teachers are not commenting on student papers. Instead, they are asking students to peer revise & edit each other’s work, and requiring students to meet face to face in order to resubmit a paper. This, they assure me, saves them time and energy.

Let’s be honest, here. It took my entire Thanksgiving break, my entire Spring break, and untold afternoons and weekends in order to screencast. I had to read students’ papers multiple times. Was it worth it? Well, my students improved amazingly.

Now I have to decide: do I continue to innovate and screencast, or do I require students to work together and abandon my innovation?


Schoology Saves the Day

I dreaded this moment for more than a week. An angry parent wanted to meet about her teenage son’s grade on a project. On the one hand, I felt confident that I had sufficiently laid out expectations and parts of the assignment on our course in Schoology. On the other hand, this was an angry parent, and they don’t always listen to reason. I had insisted that the son be present for our meeting, so that we all could sit down and be on the same page.

If you haven’t read earlier posts of mine, I teach College Prep and General English to Sophomores. I have been experimenting this year on flipping my classroom, which is where you put any direct instruction online for students to complete at home and use class time to work one-on-one to apply any direct instruction. Flipping has allowed me to add a whole new dimension to my teaching. For example, earlier in the year I assigned my CP students a variety of tasks and let them decide which they wanted to work on. I had them create goal sheets to decide what task, if any, they wanted to work on during the class. Then they self analyzed to determine if they were successful in their goals.

For the next few weeks and up into exams, we are reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Rather than allow for lots of student choice in activity, I am asking them to read and annotate the book, write some higher order thinking questions about the chapters they’ve read, and discuss with others in the class. But this was not what the parent was angry about.

As a precursor to reading the book, we learned a little bit about trial procedures and had a fairytale trial. I had posted on our schoology course some deadlines and expectations for the project. We had our trial. Everything seemed ducky. But one student did not fully complete the individual portion of the assignment and turned in one part of the group assignment late. This was the assignment she wanted to discuss.

I started the conference with asking the son to get out the papers he had gotten back from his project. As he was going to his locker to get his folder, I showed the parents our schoology site. I explained how they could find the assignments that were currently due, as well as the assignments that were due in the past. The parents could plainly see that we had myriad assignments throughout this month, all with clear deadlines.

I explained that it is my policy to allow students time in class to work on projects like this and that I always circulate around the room, asking students if they need help and working one on one with them. He has rarely asked me for help, so I rarely help him. The clearly delineated project expectations and deadlines, along with the student’s assertion that yes, I really did go around and help others, ended the parent’s argument that her son didn’t understand what he was supposed to do. Although he might not have understood, neither did he ask for help. They left happy that I was preparing their son for the online forums of colleges and universities, in some small part.

Now the ball is in his court. He knows he can ask questions and get help. Will he? Only time will tell.

The Elephant in the Room

This year, for the first time in my 15 years of teaching, I am a mentor for a first year teacher. I remember my first year. Some days, I’m sure that everything went swimmingly, with students all doing exactly what I had planned for them. But those are not the days I remember. I remember collapsing in her room, head in hand, and sobbing my frustration into her sympathetic ears. There are many reasons to become a mentor, but Kathy is my reason. I felt the need to give back.

We had planned for her to come watch my worst class, which has students who are motivated to learn mixed with those who resent teacher authority and work to derail the others. She and I share the sophomore class, and some of my problem children cause her trouble as well.  But the week we had planned, she got the stomach flu. Then we had an inservice day, and everyone scrambled to grade their “pre-assessment” tests that no one thought we were really going to use. Then we had nine weeks grades due. So the deadline stretched out into the future.

This past Friday, she suggests Monday as a possible day that I could come see her class. Great, I think, except that it’s the second to the last period of the day, and there is no way I can find someone to cover my class  on Monday in that small amount of time. So I email my principal and vice principal, asking them if they can come watch my class.

And here’s the dilemma: my students are reading a novel, The 5th Wave, by Rick Yancey.  In this novel, the narrator swears. Since I’ve asked my administrators to hit play on the audio file, they’re going to hear my voice, reading the swear words.  The students are chatting their textual analysis into an online chatroom, something that we’ve practiced twice before.  We ask our students to keep the profanity out of the classroom, with the idea that private speech and public speech are separate.

So now I wonder: how will my principal react to hearing profanity? Let’s hope it goes well.

Taking the Plunge

Right now, as school approaches, I have one big decision to make. Do I attempt a flip of all my classes, or just one? Let me give you a little background of the types of English I have ahead of me:

Social Media and Digital Interactivity–This class is totally new to me. Right now, only four students are enrolled, due to the period this class is offered. I saw it as an opportunity to show them how to use SM tools to connect with our community. It seems a natural fit for flipping, but with so few students, I don’t know if it will be worth the time.

Regular English 2--This will be the 5th year I’ve taught this prep. For the first time, I am the only one in the building teaching it.  I want to try flipping, but these students are reluctant to do homework. Since flipping makes homework truly mission critical, I am worried it won’t work. But I have 4 sections of this flavor of English, so it might be more time efficient.

Advanced English 2–This is the 2nd year I’ve taught this prep. I’m thinking that it might be the easiest to flip, as I only have 1 section of it and these students do homework.

When I look back at my beliefs, being true to my values means I ought to try flipping them all. What to do, what to do…