The Best Tips for Math Success

e3Many students feel like knowing how to do well in math is an inborn skill, something that can’t be learned. But the truth is that anyone can be successful in math – they just need the right strategies.

Jerry Brodkey, Ph.D., has taught math for over twenty years, from Algebra I to AP Calculus. Over time, he has developed a list of recommendations that he discusses with the parents every year at Back-To-School Night. Here are Brodkey’s top ten tips for performing well in math.

– Do all of the homework. Don’t ever think of homework as a choice. It’s the most important way that students practice and master the concepts taught in class. Set up a regular time and place that make doing the homework feel automatic.
– Fight not to miss class. Math class moves fast, teaching a new concept every day. What students do today builds towards tomorrow. Math punishes absences; to keep up, students have to make time to come back and learn what they missed. So if there’s an optional appointment to be made, take care not to schedule it during math.
– Find a friend to be your study partner. We all have reasons for legitimate absences. So find a friend who will take good notes when you’re gone and will call that night to fill you in on the homework. This is good practice for the real world, where building positive relationships is necessary to thrive. In more advanced classes, it’s a good idea to build a study group to practice for tests.
– Establish a good relationship with the teacher. High school teachers have up to 175 students, so it’s important to distinguish yourself. During the first week of school, introduce yourself. Let your teacher know that you are interested in her class, and welcome the opportunity to learn. Ask questions that show you’re paying attention. Parents should also introduce themselves, via e-mail or at Back-To-School night. Teachers respond best to students who show that they care about the class.
– Analyze and understand every mistake. Our culture has become perfection- focused, and it’s tempting to ignore our mistakes. Students want to pass over a mistake made on homework or a test, to just let it go. But it’s important to fix mistakes and understand why they were made; otherwise we’re doomed to repeat them. Take time to figure out the thinking behind a mistake, and figure out how to do it right. Ask the teacher if you’re unclear. In advanced classes, it can be helpful to write a paragraph of reflection about why errors were made.
– Get help fast. If a student realizes that something is difficult, he should seek as much help as possible as quickly as possible. Teachers are very receptive to requests for extra help. Straighten out misunderstandings before they start to snowball.
– Don’t swallow your questions. Questions are the vehicle by which we learn. If you have one, ask it. Chances are that many of your students have the same question. Saying it out loud will help you, your classmates, and the teacher. Asking good questions is a lifelong skill, and school is a safe place to practice. The more questions we ask, the easier it gets. A good teacher will respect all questions. If you feel that your teacher embarrasses you for asking a question, talk to your parents and have them tell the administration; this is a serious problem.
– Basic skills are essential. Quick: what’s 9 times 7? To be successful, students must be able to answer this correctly in their sleep. The multiplication tables are the basis for most high school math problems. If your child doesn’t know them, practice! Make flash cards, buy a computer program, and practice, practice, practice.
– Algebra I must be mastered. Algebra I skills are crucial to later math courses. Students must master skills like solving systems of equations, graphing, slope, and simplification of radicals. Don’t push students to take Algebra I until their teacher says they are ready. And if their Algebra grade is below a C, strongly consider re-taking the class. Even in Calculus, most problems consist of one difficult step, followed by ten steps of Algebra.
– Understand what the calculator is doing. It’s not enough to know how to use the calculator; students need to know what the answer means. They should ask themselves what the calculator is doing for them, and always analyze the calculator’s answer. For instance, if the teacher asks for “the square of negative three,” many students will type in “-3^2” which gives the answer “-9.” But the real answer is “(-3)^2”, or 9. Students should play around with their calculators and become familiar with the way they work.

In today’s highly technological world, math classes have taken on a new level of importance. Brodkey’s tips can help every student do her best in every level of math. No matter what college or career a student is considering, doing her best in math will maximize her options for the future. Our math games make math more engaging as students develop skills in number sense, arithmetic, geometry and more.

Tips to Build Background Knowledge

e2The question then becomes, how do we build children’s background knowledge? Core reading materials often encourage us to activate, support, build on, and tie to children’s existing knowledge base. But what do we do when there is no existing knowledge base? Or when there is little to build on? If you asked us, for example, to read an elementary physics text building on our previous knowledge base of physics, you would likely see blank stares, akin to a deer in headlights.

This issue becomes even more complicated in the age of Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The CCSS place a premium on the amount of background knowledge we provide to children prior to reading a text. It’s not that the standards negate background knowledge or its contribution to comprehension; rather, the authors of the publishers’ guidance to the CCSS emphasize close reading, developing knowledge through text, regarding the deliberate and careful analysis of text as the gateway for developing independent readers (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers,2010).

Although at times, this clash of perspectives might seem like a catch-22, the problem is solvable. Teachers can effectively build children’s background knowledge early on (Neuman & Wright, 2013). However, at the same time, we must recognize that knowledge is not just accumulating facts; rather, children need to develop knowledge networks, comprised of clusters of concepts that are coherent, generative, and supportive of future learning in a domain. Here’s how we do it:

– Begin by teaching words in categories. For example, you can try something as simple as this: “I’m going to say the following words:strawberries, bananas, papayas, pineapples. They all are a type of… (fruit).” Categories of objects begin to develop concepts, and the use of generic nouns (fruit) has been shown to be highly related to language and vocabulary development.
– Use contrasts and comparisons. For example, you can give children puzzlers like, “Is an artichoke a type of fruit? Why is it or is it not a kind of fruit?” Puzzlers help children think outside the immediate context and consider the reasoning behind these contrasts and comparisons, which can further their understanding of categories and concepts.
– Use analogies. An analogy is another type of comparison, but this time the comparison is made between two things that are usually thought to be different from each other. Analogies help children build knowledge because they compare something new to something we already know. For example, try something like, “bird is to feather as dog is to… (fur).” Children can use similes (comparisons using the words like or as) or metaphors (comparisons without using like or as) to build new knowledge.
– Encourage topic-focused wide reading. Reading builds knowledge, but wide reading has typically been interpreted as reading about a lot of different topics, demonstrating breadth rather than depth in reading. Try this variation: Encourage children to identify an interest and read as many books as they can on one topic. What you find is that children will develop a deeper knowledge and expertise on a topic. These interests will drive children to read more.
– Embrace multimedia. We often think that direct experiences are the most compelling ways to build knowledge. As many teachers can attest, there is nothing more thrilling than watching children engage in learning through direct experiences or seeing their delight and excitement on field trips and other activities. Although it is certainly not a replacement for real-life experiences, multimedia can often provide a wealth of information that we could only wish to experience firsthand. Further, it can introduce children to important words and concepts in a highly motivating way and build a shared knowledge base among all of your students.


The importance of background knowledge is especially salient in the age of Common Core. To meet the demands of these new standards, children will be expected to develop knowledge through text, both narrative and informational, within specified difficulty ranges at each grade level. Informational text, in particular, is likely to have a greater density of conceptual language and academic terms than typical storybooks or narrative texts. Consequently, these texts will place increasing demands on children’s prior knowledge, further attenuating other risk factors.

Without greater efforts to enhance background knowledge, differences in children’s knowledge base may further exacerbate the differences in children’s vocabulary and comprehension. The imperative to foster children’s background knowledge as a means for providing a firm foundation for learning, therefore, is greater than ever.

Tips to Choose Read Aloud Books for Babies to Third Graders

e1How do you choose books to read aloud with your child? There are many things to think about: how interesting the topic or characters might be for your child; an intriguing setting, time period, or plot; the liveliness or beauty of the language; or how engaging the illustrations are. Some books are more appropriate based on social and emotional development at each stage of a young child’s life. Find guidance here in choosing great read alouds.

It’s never too early to start reading to young children. Babies and toddlers are listeners, building their vocabulary before they can even talk.

What to look for in choosing books for babies and toddlers:
Brightly colored pictures of simple objects.
Simple texts, rhyming, and repetition.
Books that introduce colors, shapes, counting, and letters.
Lift-the-flap and sturdy pop-up books to encourage exploration.
Board books and cloth books — perfect for young hands to manipulate.
See some of our favorite read alouds for babies and toddlers

Read alouds for preschoolers

Preschoolers are aquiring language skills quickly. They enjoy the sound of language — even nonsensical words — and a good laugh; after all, they’re developing a sense of humor!

What to look for in choosing books for preschoolers:

Bright, big illustrations.
Simple stories with basic plots.
Books that help answer a preschooler’s “why?” questions about their world.
Rhyming text, including the classics like Mother Goose and Dr. Seuss.
Classic stories with universal themes such as friendship and generosity.
Activity books that encourage exploration, observation, and play.
Bedtime stories to calm preschoolers after their busy days!
See some of our favorite read alouds for preschoolers >

Read alouds for kindergarteners

Kindergarteners — they’re growing up, and so is their taste in books. They’re developing empathy and relationships with other children.

What to look for in choosing books for kindergarteners:
Titles that explore kid interests, expand horizons, and offer exposure to different kinds of writing.
Stories that let them see how characters in different situations behave toward others.
Engaging informational texts with lots of colorful photographs or illustrations that help kindergartners build knowledge about the world.
Cumulative tales full of built-in anticipation, like There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.
Longer stories or chapter books with thematically rich issues that lead to discussion and reflection.
See some of our favorite read alouds for kindergarteners >

Read alouds for first graders

First grade is when many children begin to read independently. But reading aloud with first graders remains not only a pleasurable but an important activity.

What to look for in choosing books for first graders:
Rich language — words and phrases that deliver complex meaning and imagery.
Stories with more complex plots that spark a desire to predict and learn what happens next.
Books that relate to the experiences of a first grader and feature characters similar in age.
Narrative nonfiction that’s full of fascinating facts yet reads like a story.
Silly stories and poems that have fun with words and sounds.
See some of our favorite read alouds for first graders >

Read alouds for second graders

Second graders are expanding their interests and putting ideas together in new ways. Books — timeworn or new, fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose — shared aloud allow both adult and child to explore the world together.

What to look for in choosing books for second graders:
Old favorites — second graders may want to read the same book many times, even though you may have thought they’d outgrown it.
Characters dealing with the same fears, interests, and concerns that they experience.
Nonfiction genres that introduce second graders to biography, history, and real stories of nature and science.
Picture books that lead you to chapter books, such as Diary of a Spider and Charlotte’s Web.
Chapter books to read aloud that are rich in detail and above independent reading level.
See some of our favorite read alouds for second graders >

Read alouds for third graders

Empathy, experience, vocabulary, and a love of language continue to grow long after third graders can read by themselves.

What to look for in choosing books for third graders:
Books that tackle tough topics and lead to discussion that helps kids cope with daily challenges.
Characters they can relate to and learn from.
Stories that keep your read aloud lively and interactive and lead to lots of conversation.
Picture books that build knowledge and support connections to the complexities of the world around them.

How to Using Graphic Organizers Correctly

What is a graphic organizer? A graphic organizer is a visual display or chart that shows the relationship between ideas, facts, and information.

It can allow a third-grade student, for example, to chart out chronologically a summer vacation by writing specific information in each box in a connected series. Another graphic organizer might have three columns and require a seventh-grade student in a world history class to list the causes of WWII. Those causes are listed in the far left column, then, the middle column asks for effects, while the far right column requires the student to write in evidence or a source to accompany each cause and related effect.

A piece of paper that says "Chronological Structure" at the top. Below that are two, connected rows of three-sided squares, like opened boxes. Below that are three columns with rows of lines to write notes.

A Pre-Writing Tool
Teachers carefully select a graphic organizer after deciding what type of writing they want their students to engage in – narrative, argumentative, or informational. They then select specific skills for development in that type of writing. In a narrative writing assignment, does the teacher wish the child to develop sequential writing, or perhaps the focus will be on description and details? Determining this will help a teacher select the appropriate graphic organizer.

The ultimate purpose of utilizing a graphic organizer as a tool is to prepare students for writing. Simply put, a graphic organizer assists a student with thinking and is a pre-writing tool — not the end product. Some young writers may need this thinking tool more than others. That said, a writer in your classroom might want to skip using a graphic organizer and be ready to dive into the writing. Let her.

Teachers need to remember they are not developing charters of information, but they are developing writers. The only way to build fluency in writing is to write.

Improve Writing by Writing
As I’ve seen in my many classroom observations, we teachers can get caught up with treating the graphic organizer as The Assignment, especially with struggling students. At some point, with learners who are struggling, we need to stop encouraging them to finish filling in those boxes or columns on the graphic organizer and move into what matters: the writing.

It’s much more important for a student to practice writing – the only way to build writing fluency – and stumble through stringing thoughts together this way than to fill in a graphic organizer completely or perfectly.

Lastly, grade only the writing and not the graphic organizer. This will help keep the focus where it really matters: on our students as writers.

More Informations About The Science of Effective Learning Spaces

If you’ve ever attempted to clear your head by taking a walk outside or zoning out by a window as the clouds roll by, you’ve intuitively hit on something that scientists have been researching for years: Our natural and built environments seem to affect how we think and feel. Researchers have recently focused on determining how environmental factors can affect kids’ ability to learn. Studies show that a well-designed learning environment supplements evidence-based pedagogy and curriculum design. Let’s examine four environmental factors that can enhance or hinder learning.

Daytime Light Exposure Can Boost Learning
Light does more than just allow us to see the world around us. When light enters our eyes, it also engages a non-visual system that affects the timing of our sleep-wake cycles and our cognitive performance. In fact, parts of our eyes connect directly to a part of our brain that secretes hormones influencing our levels of sleep (melatonin) or alertness (cortisol).

Even more importantly, all light is not the same. While the presence of any light can influence hormonal secretion via this non-visual system, blue light has the most powerful effect. People are more alert and less sleepy when exposed to blue light versus other wavelengths. Sunlight, full-spectrum LEDs, and most digital screens are rich in blue light.

One study of 21,000 U.S. elementary students showed that, over one school year, kids who were exposed to more sunlight during their school day displayed 26 percent higher reading outcomes and 20 percent higher math outcomes than kids in less sunny classrooms. However, even if your classroom has less natural light than you’d like, other studies have shown that replacing your artificial lighting with blue-enriched bulbs can improve students’ cognitive performance.

Daytime blue-light exposure may have a powerful effect on adolescents in particular. Biological changes during puberty delay the sleep-wake cycle by shifting melatonin secretion to later in the evening (making it harder for teens to fall asleep early) and later in the morning (making it harder for teens to wake up early). This means that teens often accumulate sleep debt during the week, which has negative effects on academic performance. First, it leaves them less alert and able to pay attention during the school day, and therefore less able to learn. Second, the quality and quantity of sleep are affected, interfering with the brain’s ability to store the day’s learning. Later school start times can help reduce these challenges, but blue-light exposure throughout the school day may also help. Light resets the body’s circadian rhythm, so exposing teens to light can increase their alertness and improve academic outcomes.

Nighttime Light Exposure Can Hinder Learning
Given that American teens spend an average of nine hours per day using digital media (not including media time for school or homework), there are growing concerns about the blue-light exposure from all of this screen time. If such exposure happens as kids are preparing for sleep, the blue light may be compounding the sleep disruptions caused by asynchrony between school start times and their delayed sleep-wake cycles.

By disrupting kids’ sleep patterns, blue-light exposure before bed also interferes with learning by leaving them sleepier and less able to learn the next day, as well as by disrupting the storage process of the day’s learning that occurs during sleep. In fact, one of the easiest ways to boost learning is to improve the quality and quantity of sleep (and by putting some sleep between studying and testing). Reducing pre-bed screen time can effectively maximize sleep’s benefit on learning.

Interaction With the Natural Environment Is Good for Learning
Think your student is spacing out when she’s gazing out the window during class? She may be instinctively seeking a cognitive reset that will improve her ability to focus. Many studies have demonstrated the power of the natural environment – whether real or simulated in video games – on kids’ learning and well-being.

One study of over 10,000 fifth-grade students showed that kids in schools with unrestricted views of nature tested higher in reading, math, and language arts than students in schools with urban views (or no views at all). Other studies have shown that interaction with nature can be particularly helpful for kids with ADD and ADHD, and that the greener the child’s play spaces, the more reduced his or her attention deficit symptoms.

Again, don’t worry if your classroom or child’s bedroom lacks views of nature. In a 2009 study, researchers introduced leafy plants into the classroom and found a positive impact on students’ well-being and behavior, with fewer hours of sick leave and disciplinary events.

Classroom Design May Distract From Learning
The many factors that make up classroom design have been studied for their influence on learning. Factors that can interfere the most with learning are noise, temperature, and (surprisingly) seating arrangement.

1. Noise: The interfering effects of noise during learning – particularly noise that includes voices (language) – is quite profound in young children. The likely reason is that the brain systems which allow us to filter out distractions and focus on the task at hand (executive functioning) are still developing in children. Thus, children are particularly vulnerable to the acoustics of noise. Because noisy interference makes it difficult for kids to stay on task, it has widespread effects on learning. Noise has been shown to profoundly impact reading, writing, and comprehension skill learning, as well as overall academic performance.

2. Temperature: If the temperature of a classroom or home studying environment is outside of a comfortable range, it can be a source of distraction that interferes with learning. A review of studies investigating the relationship of temperature and learning outcomes revealed ideal thermal ranges for optimal learning: between 68 and 74 degrees Fahrenheit, with about 50 percent humidity.

3. Seating arrangement: Another source of distraction can be a classroom’s arrangement of desks and chairs. In a classic study, researchers tested three seating models with different levels of independent versus interactive arrangements. They showed that elementary school students were least on task when desks were arranged in rows, better on task when arranged in clusters, and best on task when in a semicircle. Another study, however, suggests that the best arrangement should be determined by matching it with the task at hand: More interactive tasks benefit more from interactive arrangements (semicircle and clusters), and independent tasks from independent (rows) arrangements.

In sum, there are many things about the built and natural environments that can impact student learning, with some researchers suggesting that 10 to 15 percent of variance in academic outcomes is influenced by the environment.

The Best Strategies to Fire Up Hesitant Writers

Haven’t we all heard similar lines in our classrooms? We see hesitant writers sit with pencils in their hands and paper on their desks, almost as if they’ve been handicapped by the task we have set for them.

How is it that some students have so much to say when talking, but when a pencil is put into their hand they suddenly hesitate, struggle, and have nothing to say? How can we help these hesitant writers eliminate the barrier that suddenly appears when they’re asked to write?

The answer is to have them produce ideas without writing at all. That’s right, the way to get hesitant writers to produce as much writing as they do talking is to have them do exactly that – talk.

Strategies That Work
1. Student Talks, Teacher Writes

Have your student stand up while you sit at the desk.
Pick up the student’s pencil and say, “You talk, I’ll write.”
This usually catches students off-guard – it takes them a moment to realize this is a real option.

2. Audio Record It & Then Transcribe It

Identify a way your students can record themselves speaking their essay rather than writing it. This could be a tape recorder, a digital audio recorder, a computer with a microphone, or an audio recording feature on a phone.
Hand the recording device to your student and say, “Step out in the hall and recite your essay using this.”
They can then play the recording back and write down their words.

3. Audio Transcribe It

Pick an app or tool that transcribes speaking as text. Some options: PaperPort Notes, Dragon NaturallySpeaking, Dictation Pro, VoiceTranslator, or the text-to-speech tools that are built into many smartphones. Try one of these on your phone, tablet, or computer.
Tell your students, “Go ahead — speak your paper.”
After speaking, the students can email themselves the transcribed text and work on the draft from there.
Communication Before Craft
The sooner students (and teachers) see that writing has nothing to do with a pencil, a piece of paper, or a keyboard, and is simply communicating, the sooner they will start making incredible progress. Barriers will come down. The hesitation of putting the pencil on the paper to write will go away. In my view, writing is simply communicating through pencil marks rather than through speech.

Our concern is not whether a student communicates through a pencil and pen, keyboard, chalkboard, audio transcription device, or other means. Our real hope and goal is for individuals to capture their high-quality thoughts and convey them effectively to others. The strategies here break down the barriers between a student’s mind and their audience. These strategies free up thinkers to express their thoughts without the hesitation that makes some students’ minds go blank as they pick up that pen or pencil.

Some Tips for Supercharging Your Learning Stations

Early in my career, my go-to method for introducing a new novel was to create a PowerPoint on the author’s biography and some context for the book. For example, before I taught To Kill a Mockingbird, my students sat placidly and took notes as I prattled on about Harper Lee’s life and Jim Crow laws. I felt that there was always a lot of information to share prior to reading, and that meant a lot of me talking and them sitting and listening.


For all of my carefully selected pictures and the delightful parallel structure of the bullet points on my slides, all this direct instruction drastically limited student engagement. I reduced my students to vessels into which I attempted to pour information. I was the performer, and they were merely the audience; my instruction centered on me rather than on them. Thankfully, I finally discovered the power of learning stations for fostering student engagement and making students into active rather than passive learners.

Imagine a classroom where clusters of students work in separate stations. One group reads and analyzes a sonnet while another watches a video on the importance of Shakespeare. A third group gathers around the Smart Board playing a game that tests their knowledge of Shakespearean drama. Elsewhere, students work together as they sift through a short text on Shakespeare’s life and times to find key terms around which to write a meaningful summary. After a specified amount of time, students switch tasks, cycling through all learning activities.

Strong, meaningful stations are challenging to create, but the benefits in student learning make that hard work worthwhile. Here are six tips for designing meaningful learning stations:

1: Choose content wisely and hold students accountable for learning it. Something that’s fun, like cutting out paper dolls of different characters, may not help students learn anything. Choose your objectives and decide what students need to be able to demonstrate to reach them. To ensure that students are active learners, I require them to fill out a worksheet on which they complete an activity at each station. After receiving a grade, students can use their worksheets as study guides.

2: Switch it up. One of the reasons students enjoy stations is that they have diverse tasks; they’re never doing the same thing for an extended time. Shifting the learning focus from station to station keeps students fresh and engaged. To introduce the Harlem Renaissance, if I have students interpreting symbolism in poetry at one station, I may have them listening to and describing snippets of Harlem Renaissance jazz music at the next. While both stations allow students to flex their critical-thinking muscles and explore important concepts, the tasks are nonrepetitive.

3: Incorporate technology. Have a group use a Smart Board to play an educational game (design your own or find one online) aimed at helping them uncover content. Or have them watch a short video and answer higher-level questions. Implementing technology opens a world of possibilities. I make sure students can complete something on their stations activity worksheet so that they take away concrete evidence of their learning.

4: Provide opportunities for both individual and group tasks. Let students collaborate while still holding everyone accountable for their own learning. While students will complete their own worksheets so no one simply coasts along, interaction unlocks potential and adds to engagement. At some stations, my instructions will include discussing the content with the group before recording answers. Grouping students on your own or randomly with a grouping app (such as PickMe) can help with classroom management and task completion.

5: Coordinate timing. If you’re not careful, one station might take five minutes while another takes 15. You don’t want one group sitting idly, waiting for the teacher to signal that they can move on, while another group feels frustrated at trying to cram too much into a limited time. Completing each task yourself can indicate where you may need to cut corners at a station, or even divide a large task into two separate stations if the content can’t be sacrificed.

6: Help students bring it all together. Students need reminders of why they’re doing these activities. After they complete each station, I require them to synthesize the information; I want them to put all the pieces together to help them reflect on what they’ve learned. For example, after learning about Elie Wiesel’s life, Jewish culture, various groups persecuted by the Nazis, life in the concentration camps, and the geographical regions affected by the camps, I had students write a short summary reflecting on what they learned about the Holocaust and how it affected people.

With learning stations, students don’t just sit back and take notes. They become active rather than passive learners and unlock information for themselves, and you become a facilitator rather than a performer.

Tips to Integrating Technology and Literacy

When teaching with digital natives in a digital world, one question facing many educators revolves around integrating technology to help facilitate learning: How do you work technology into the pedagogy, instead of just using something cool? That task can be especially daunting in language arts literacy classrooms where reading and writing skill development is the crux of daily lessons. However, as 1:1 technology initiatives roll out, integrating technology into the classroom is our reality.

With hundreds of sites, apps, Chrome extensions, and platforms available, choosing the right ones can seem overwhelming. As an eighth-grade language arts teacher, I’ve experienced this myself. Following are four tools that can help provide immediate formative assessment data as well as top-of-the-rotation feedback to help students develop personal learning goals.

If, like my school, you’re in a “Chromebook District,” these suggested tools will work well because all integrate perfectly when you sign in with your Google ID, limiting the need for multiple passwords. This saves a lot of student confusion, too.

1. Online Annotations via Scrible
Annotating texts is an evidence-based literacy strategy to help students understand and navigate complex texts, and a large part of my district’s schoolwide literacy initiative. Annotating digitally as part of our 1:1 Chromebook program was something that I wanted to incorporate, and Scrible has proved to be a valuable tool for my students.

Registering is quick and free, whether via Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, or your own email account. Upon registration, users should select an educator account, which allows them to create libraries where they save the annotation for future reference. The one drawback is that Scrible doesn’t yet support .PDF files. Among the highlights and benefits:

Students can work collaboratively on the same file.
Students and teachers can share annotations with each other.
Teachers can use annotations as formative assessment and comment back to students, allowing for immediate feedback.
Users can share annotations online via Facebook or Twitter.
With the sharing option, teachers can share any in-class modeling with students who were absent.
Annotating digitally allows for greater student choice as students find their own online texts.
There is a Google Chrome extension that you can add to your toolbar.
2. Video Annotations via VideoAnt
Digital literacy and using video as “texts” can create a myriad of issues for students who don’t take effective notes. Developed by the University of Minnesota, VideoAnt allows users to annotate videos and save them to their own virtual “ant farm.” The benefits:

Users can timestamp important parts of a video, allowing for easy access later.
Users can type notes with the timestamp, creating a quasi two-column note-taking tool.
Users can share video annotations with others.
3. Feedback via Kaizena Shortcut
Formerly known as Kaizena mini, Kaizena Shortcut is a Google extension that allows teachers to provide actionable, detailed feedback in a streamlined fashion. Typing out feedback in Google Docs comments boxes can get cumbersome. Even limiting feedback to three or four items takes time. Also, what happens when you need to address grammar errors? With Kaizena, teachers and students can:

Provide feedback in the form of typed comments.
Record comments verbally so that students can hear their teacher’s voice on playback.
Insert links to grammar lessons.
The last bullet point is clutch for teachers who tire of providing feedback about the same grammar errors over and over. For example, many of my students commit that cardinal sin known as the comma splice. In Kaizena, I created a lesson on comma splices in which I typed a detailed explanation of what they are and how to correct them, as well as a link to a YouTube video about them. This lets teachers provide effective feedback that appeals to students with diverse learning styles. The drawback is that you have to manually create the lessons for each topic. But once you have them, the work is done, allowing you to differentiate grammar lessons based on individual students’ errors.

4. Formative Assessments via EDPuzzle
Teachers of language arts and all content areas try to differentiate learning to reach a diverse group of learners by using video clips. But how do you know if students are really focusing and engaging in active learning during videos? EDPuzzle helps collect formative data that can drive instruction.

Users simply register for an account and then create classes. Each class gets its own code that students use for joining. Teachers can search and upload videos from YouTube, TED-Ed, Vimeo, KhanAcademy, and other sites. Then you create a lesson by embedding questions in the video that provides immediate formative data and allows you to check for understanding. Questions can be multiple-choice or open-ended.

I’ve used this when differentiating lessons, and it has worked flawlessly. For example, when working with theme, I broke the lesson into three levels. The first was for a basic understanding of the definition of theme. The second was for analyzing text to explain theme. The third focused on the crafts that writers use to create a theme. Students came in and completed an entrance slip via Socrative. I then used the data to determine where they were in the process of learning about theme, and assigned them appropriate videos in EDPuzzle.

As students completed the videos, I was able to check for understanding based on the data from their completed questions before moving them to the next level. I could also provide real-time feedback to the questions, explaining concepts further if needed.

While there are hundreds of technology tools out there to help language arts teachers, these four have helped me enhance my use of formative data and feedback to further student achievement in a diverse and differentiated classroom.

The Best Innovative Learning Stations That Get Students Reading

Whenever I would introduce a new novel to my students, I always got the same reaction: Students moaned and groaned about the storyline, expressed their lack of interest in the author’s writing style, and proclaimed their everlasting boredom with the class as a whole. In order to avoid student complaints, I decided to implement book clubs in my classroom—students now have the opportunity to work in groups and choose what book they as a group want to read for a given unit.

In order to make this work, there are a few things you should do. Have the students work together in groups of three or four, and offer the groups their choice of books—you should select options that ensure that students are still following Common Core standards. Next, have each group create a reading schedule.

In my classroom, I use the station rotation model of blended learning. I set up five or six stations around my classroom. With their groups, students walk into the room and look at the assignments listed on the whiteboard. They then pick the assignment that they need to develop and go to the designated station.

I decide which is the most important learning station they need to work on for the week, and I work with each group at that station. That way, I’m able to assist them and make sure they master certain skills. I usually work with one to three groups per day at my station, and after that I’m constantly monitoring student progress around the classroom.

10 Ideas for Engaging Learning Stations
These are learning stations that I’ve had success with. As I mentioned, I don’t set up all 10 every time we work with stations—I’ll use five or six of these at a time.

Annotate the Text: Have students identify important elements of the book as they read. Diigo is an excellent resource.

Character Profiles: Have students create profiles of significant characters. They can use Glogster to build a collage of pictures and details about each one.

Interview the Author: Have your students read about the author of their book. The group then composes questions and answers, and records an interview with one student playing the interviewer and another the author. Students can use tools like Snapchat and WeVideo to record themselves.

Tone/Mood: Have students identify the tone or the mood in different passages throughout the text, and then have them record themselves reading quotes in that tone or in a way that evokes that mood.

Theme: Have students identify a major lesson the author is trying to teach. Create a movie poster that portrays that lesson. This can be done on paper or using Google Drawings.

Movie Adaptation: If there is a movie adaptation of the book, have your students watch clips on YouTube. They can take notes using and compare the clips with the book.

Plot Development: Have students create a timeline or Google Docs presentation of major events in the story. Tiki-toki is a good resource for creating timelines.

The Bigger Picture: Have students relate a major issue in the book to something going on in the world today. Newsela is useful for this.

Video Blogs: Instead of answering a traditional journal question about the book, have students record themselves talking about the book. Flipgrid works really well.

Goodreads Chat: Have your groups participate in a chat about their book with the community at Goodreads.

I have discovered that allowing my students to pick from a variety of task options creates student buy-in and valuable opportunities for academic growth. They enjoy having the choice of books and activities to complete, and take advantage of the opportunity to explore their creative side. Students often approach me and ask me if they can use a certain program or do something different for an assignment, and I’m always eager to see what they end up doing.

New Ideas for Using Minecraft in the Classroom

Minecraft is no longer a new tool in the field of game-based learning. Because Minecraft has such open possibilities and potential, teachers have been experimenting with different ways to use it in the classroom for a while now. Some teachers use it to teach math concepts like ratios and proportions, while others use it to support student creativity and collaboration. (Minecraft Education Edition, which launches on November 1, 2016, has additional features for collaboration.) Here are some great ways to use Minecraft in the classroom:

Make History Come Alive
There are many already-created three-dimensional replica structures, like the Roman Colosseum and the Globe Theatre in London, that you can import into the game and have students explore. Many teachers have students create experiences (an update on dioramas) to show their knowledge of historical places and times. Students can also use Minecraft to create stage performances.
The Globe Theatre in London
Focus on Digital Citizenship
Minecraft is a collaborative game, and students actively work in competitive ways, but they can also work together to solve problems and challenges. I’ve watched many students play together, and I will say that they really want to do well when they play, but they sometimes struggle to communicate with each other in ways that are polite and safe. Teachers can use this as an opportunity to build digital citizenship skills. As students play, teachers should observe and give feedback with checklists and rubrics. Teachers can also facilitate discussions and reflections to support each student in effectively communicating and collaborating.

Add a Tool for Writing
Minecraft can be used to tell stories with characters, locations, choices, motivations, and plots. Teachers can use Minecraft as a tool for students to write and create stories based on their character. Perhaps students might create a backstory for the world they create, as well as for their character. Students can also create a story with different plot elements using the game they play and add more creative elements.

Aid Visualization and Reading Comprehension
One of the best ways to have students display their reading comprehension is to ask them to create a visualization. They can reconstruct various settings from a text, and even re-create scenes and plot events. They can also use these recreations to give a presentation or make predictions on what might happen next, and then actually create those predictions in the game.

In addition, many standards we have focus on close reading and critical thinking skills. Readers must make inferences, examine point of view, interpret words, and analyze how a text works. Although games may be light on reading, students must use the same kinds of skills in Minecraft and other games. Games like Minecraft have “domain-specific” words students must know. Students as players must also consider point of view and make inferences based on the world and situations. Teachers should play the game, and reflect on the skills needed to play it, and make connections to transfer these skills when students read complex texts. Minecraft is complex, and students must “read” it carefully and thoughtfully.

Address Problem Solving and Other Math Principles
Like reading standards, math standards call for complex problem solving and critical thinking. Teachers can use Minecraft to build skills needed for math competency. One example is persevering through solving problems. Minecraft requires this, and students can create different challenges for each other. Another skill we seek to develop in students is using appropriate tools in a strategic way, which is exactly what students must do when playing Minecraft. Teachers can examine their math standards for other related skills and use Minecraft to facilitate growth.

Increase Student Choice in Assessment
One of the easiest ways for teachers to use Minecraft in the classroom is as an assessment option. When students have voice and choice, those who enjoy Minecraft can choose it as an option to show what they know. Whether it’s used for a demonstration of knowledge of ratios and proportions or a simulation of a historical event, Minecraft can be another tool to create engagement in the assessment process.

As you consider using Minecraft in the classroom, make sure to have specific objectives in mind for implementation. Don’t forget to take time to set norms and expectations. Have students teach each other. Have them teach you if you need help. And if you’re worried about how parents might feel about the game, invite them into the classroom to see the work students are doing.

There have been so many great experiments with Minecraft in the classroom, and we can learn from each other how to use the game to better support student learning. How do you already use Minecraft in the classroom? How might you use it in the future in new and innovative ways?

Some App for Your Coursework

A few years ago, I wrote about creating an edtech ecosystem. Each ecosystem contains different tools and apps, and deciding which is best depends on your devices and infrastructure as well as what best supports your students. Within this ecosystem concept, each piece of technology provides a different functionality. A given piece might allow teachers and students to transport information, create new learning artifacts, or communicate, collaborate, and share.

As educators, we often seek out not only one ecosystem but also one app to solve all of our problems and meet all of our needs. For example, over the past several months, I have engaged in a number of conversations about technology with educators that began with an either/or question:

Should I use Google Drive, Google Sites, or Padlet?
Should I use OneNote or Google Classroom?
Should I use SeeSaw or Office365?
My reaction to each line of questioning is: What do you want your students to do?

Although I understand these teachers’ concerns that they not overwhelm their students (or their colleagues) with too many tools, that single solution does not really exist. Depending on the tasks that students may need to complete, and the skills that you may want them to gain, a variety of options may be required. Choosing the best options can seem daunting. To start figuring out which tools to bring into your ecosystem, consider these essential questions to guide your thinking.

Where Do I Want My Students to Save Their Work?
This may be the most fundamental question, as well as the most critical: When students share devices, storage becomes a significant challenge. Your school may choose Google Drive, Microsoft’s OneDrive, Apple’s iCloud Drive (especially now that iOS 9.3 supports Apple Classroom), or the new Dropbox for Education as a storage option. Students can then access their files from anywhere and any device. As an added benefit, providing a central platform across all grade levels and classes helps to give students some organizational consistency.

Additionally, when schools supply Google Apps for Education (GAFE) and Google Drive, Office 365 and OneDrive, or iCloud and iWork, teachers can share resources with students and/or colleagues, encourage real-time collaboration on documents, and support students as they compile learning artifacts.

Do I Need to Streamline Workflow for My Students?
Getting content to students and collecting it from them poses a significant challenge to teachers in a digital environment. Over the past few years, teachers have designed a number of creative solutions ranging from posting content to class websites to using learning management systems like Edmodo, Schoology, or Canvas. However, two platforms have emerged that have significantly streamlined the process for educators in Microsoft or Google environments.

When teachers use Google Classroom, it essentially creates a virtual inbox/outbox system for students. As teachers create assignments in Google Classroom, it automatically names and distributes files, organizes content, and provides students with an assignment calendar. Google Classroom can also provide them with a single location to find information, links to online resources, and digital conversations with their classmates.

On the other hand, OneNote and Class Notebook solve many of these challenges as well as support students with digital note-taking. From any device, students can organize virtual binders and also access shared resources from the teacher. Older students might use both Classroom and OneNote.

Do I Want My Students to Share the Story of Their Learning?
To develop their critical thinking and creativity skills, students need an opportunity to share not only what they have learned but also how they learned it and why. To meet this need, many schools have looked to tools such as Google Sites, Seesaw, and Kidblog.

Consider these blogging and journaling tools as an opportunity to reflect, share, and co-create understanding among students. They can also be viewed as a portfolio of work as students choose what they want to share with their classmates or a broader audience from their storage solution while simultaneously adding to the collective knowledge of the class.

What Else Do I Need?
Do students need to collaboratively create a gallery of projects to share with parents? In this case, a web-based tool like Padlet might be perfect. Would they benefit from a digital canvas to support their brainstorming and planning for a large research project? RealtimeBoard can provide them with a host of tools and allow them to easily insert documents from Google Drive, OneDrive, or Dropbox.

Depending on what your students need and what you would like for them to be able to do, it may be time to consider a both/and mindset when it comes to digital tools instead of engaging in an either/or debate.

Informations About Technology in Your Humanities Classroom

In Neil Postman’s The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School, published in 1995, the seemingly clairvoyant social critic explains how “the computer and its associated technologies are awesome additions to a culture.” But, he continues, “like all important technologies of the past, they are Faustian bargains, giving and taking, sometimes in equal measure, sometimes more in one way than the other.”

Twenty years later, Postman’s words ring truer than ever. In my experience, technology has the powerful ability to help teach and illuminate, preparing young people to succeed in a world that champions digital expertise. Still, I try to remain vigilant and make purposeful use of technology, realizing when it is not only unnecessary but may even hinder intellectual growth and development.

Sometimes I choose to implement technology in my humanities-based classroom, and sometimes I choose not to.

With Taking Notes
In my high school courses, I strive to act as a guide-by-the-side, with students engaged in debate and discussion. They use technology, when appropriate, to answer their own questions. Since I rarely lecture, most students don’t feel a need to take copious notes or hide behind a screen. They control their learning. For teachers with larger classes who may view lecturing as a necessity, check out an intriguing 2014 study published in Psychological Science, “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking.”

I recently spoke to coauthor Pam A. Mueller of Princeton, who explained that laptop note takers often record a lecture verbatim, even when instructed not to, resulting in poorer processing of content. “You don’t have to be selective, you don’t have to think about what [content] means,” she told me. “Whereas when you’re writing longhand, it’s slower, which forces you to process the content more deeply.”

With Self-Directed Learning
Along those lines, I also coach students to think about what constitutes credible information, and where to find it online. This is a crucial skill to master, no matter what profession an individual ultimately pursues. At school and at home, students use the internet to explore subjects that interest them and make sense for the course. As online learning tools advance, I believe teachers will become all the more responsible for guiding students to appropriate sources, rather than teaching material directly themselves. I’m definitely in good company in this thinking. “I think kids in 20 years are going to walk into school and pick their peers for the day,” Curtis J. Bonk, professor of instructional systems technology at Indiana University and author of The World Is Open: How Web Technology Is Revolutionizing Education, told me. “And they’ll be coming from all over the world. They’ll just hit a little map, and they might even pick their teachers for the day coming from the Philippines and Singapore and other places.”

With Research
It may be true that students know how to access digital library databases, but not all know how to make effective use of them. Repositories like JSTOR, for example, provide access to thousands of academic journals. Unlike in a quick and instantly gratifying Google search, however, students must enter precise keywords to get a successful search result. That calls for preliminary research, and as vast and informative as the internet is, it doesn’t always yield the most academic search results. It’s always a good place to start, but I’m a fan of also directing students toward printed materials. There is still much to be said for searching for books in a quiet library, especially since the internet doesn’t provide free access to much scholarship.

With Writing
In an increasingly digital age, students must practice more than just academic writing. They need to practice communicating online and using a first-person narrative to promote themselves and their ideas. They need to know what to share, where to share it, and how to attract an online audience. I also teach my students about hyperlinking, which Vicki Davis, author of Reinventing Writing: The 9 Tools That Are Changing Writing, Teaching, and Learning Forever, tells me “can change everything” from how writers footnote to how readers access information. In my classes, I also introduce students to writing opinion pieces. I’m eager to see them share their work online, and I often ask permission to share their work on The Gator, the student-run news site which I also advise.

With Proofreading
With the projector on, I often model how I proofread, with students scrutinizing how I write and rewrite a sentence, word, or paragraph before moving on. I try to explain my thought process, as well as why something doesn’t sound quite right to my ear. I then break students into groups of two or three and ask them to edit an anonymous piece of student work to share with the class. Unbeknownst to them, I sometimes throw in sections of my old high school or college essays, or even drafts of articles I’m currently working on. When I reveal myself as the author, students are surprised to see my mistakes and achievements. Students also upload their work online for peers to inspect or comment on. This year I’m excited about incorporating voice annotations, using Turnitin, to offer additional feedback on written work.