Category Archives: literacy

Simple Online Notetaking Tools for Students


Wee Tweets: Second Graders Join the Twittersphere

Walk into Jill Ouellette’s second grade class and ask how many writers there are. Every hand enthusiastically shoots skyward. 16 self proclaimed adventurers and explorers who come up with ideas while reading, playing with legos, riding their bikes. They tell me they have millions of ideas-and my question to them was this: Who knows about all your ideas?

Their answers were strikingly similar. Mostly it was their parents, sometimes a lucky grandparent or a friend. Never anyone out of their small social circles. I thought them ripe for expansion.

I have to admit that what follows is NOT my original idea. I was inspired by Kristin Ziemke, a second grade teacher from Chicago who was a speaker at this year’s Leveraging Learning Institute in Auburn, Maine. Kristin spoke about how she used Twitter to help fan her student’s interest in writing and sharing their ideas. She gave examples of their skills when they started and their skills as they became more experienced. I was totally convinced that this was a great idea.

What I didn’t have was a classroom of my own to try it in so I had to hijack one. This is where Jill came in. Jill’s new to our school but not new to teaching.  She’s had experience in technology rich classrooms. She doesn’t cringe when she sees me coming – in fact, when I approached her with the idea, she jumped on it. It helps that she’s in her twenties and familiar with Twitter.

I started by having a chat with the students. I asked them to tell me the story of their classroom. I didn’t frame it much. I wanted to hear their words. That’s the first and probably the most important thing in using Twitter or any sort of microblogging. The students need to know that it is THEIR ideas that are important. This is not a formal assessment.

I shared Kristin’s feed (@OurKidsTeach) so students that are not familiar with Twitter can see what it’s all about. I said we’d be reading, seeing, and listening to the story of her students’ classroom. We picked apart the timeline so students had an understanding that they could share via photo, text, or video. We looked at all the different ways this classroom shared information. They had things they wondered about. They had impromptu book reviews. They had photos of artwork and classroom show and tell items. There was no “theme” other than ideas that went through the students heads.

What’s the benefit to having these early writers tweet? Here’s just a few:

  • students show their engagement with content in a personal way
  • students learn to share ideas more freely. Punctuation and spelling will follow
  • students get an authentic audience for their writing
  • ideas spark more ideas
  • students learn the concept of digital citizenship and digital footprint early on. I touched briefly on what they would want to include in their classroom story and what they would want to leave out. They were spot on, even at 7! It also provided a great way to begin addressing online safety. We decided as a class that initials would be a great way to identify each student safely.


The second graders were excited to start. As with anything, practice is important so I had come equipped with paper tweets. I asked them what part of their classroom story they’d like to share, and how they’d like to represent it. Could they draw a picture, they asked? Of course. Did spelling count? Not a bit, I said. Get your ideas down and post them for others to see.

Talk about 100% participation. Some wrote quick notes and brought them over to me. No spell checking, no “take it back and fix this” in this exercise. I took each tweet and posted it on a “feed” on the wall as it was finished. Some students took great care in drawing a picture to represent their idea (multimodal learning works well!) The responses were varied, ranging from “How do you build a spaceship” to “I love Fun Friday.” Students were very interested in reading the ideas of others. Conversation broke out all over the room.

The next step was to hand out laminated Tweets. These are their “real” everyday Tweets and can be written on with dry erase markers. I made them to fit on 11X17 paper to make writing easier for little hands. (Blank Tweet templates are available here. Please feel free to share them). Jill allowed them to put them anywhere in the room as long as they were easily visible. Students wrote and hung their first official tweets and it was time for me to leave.

I checked back with Jill a week later. She said they were still excited about tweeting and were updating them regularly. She created a classroom account. You can follow it at @missoulette88 to see their progress. Here’s one that one of her students posted after a lesson on fractions- visual proof of the connection the student made with the content.

IMG_1543 2

Note: It’s important to get parental buy-in for this process. Draft a letter explaining the purpose of this tool and the process students will use when posting. (Most teachers do the posting.) Be sure to have a signed media release on hand prior to posting any photos or videos of students.



Research Cheats for Struggling Students

research cheats
The purists in the crowd may take great umbrage with this post, but I’m willing to risk their wrath. I have to meet kids where they are- and where many of them are is struggling when it comes to research.

I’ve vetted this Research Cheat Code sheet with small groups of students and it’s worked well. It contains four tools that work well together. These tools are also helpful for any student in the “pre-search” process. They are:

1. Google Advanced Search – allows students to search by reading level.

2. Using CMD F (keyboard shortcut) to search for keywords in a document to aid in scanning for relevant information.

3. TLDR– “Too Long, Didn’t Read” is a summarizing tool that gives options for short, medium or long versions of articles. There is a “summary” section that students should bypass as it often omits critical information. CMD F will also work in TLDR to aid in scanning.

4. Google Similar Pages– Provides students a list of similar sites, cutting out the junk that Google often packs into the search results.

Please note- TLDR and Google Similar Pages are Chrome extensions. Students need to use Chrome in order to use them.

This Research Cheats handout can be kept handy to help students out.

Research Cheat Codes

Brain Warmup with Geoguessr

Screen Shot 2014-11-29 at 8.09.48 AMI will begin this post with the disclaimer that I was addicted to Geoguessr from my very first attempt (and fail!). I have poor geography skills on a good day and this game would normally not be one that I would gravitate to.

The basic premise is simple. Geoguessr provides a Google Street View of a building or area. You have to figure out where in the world it is. You are able to move around using the same tools you do in StreetView. Once you think you know where it is you submit a guess. Geoguessr shows you a map of the actual location, your guessed location, and the distance between the two.

The beauty of Geoguessr is not in how it strengthens geography skills. It’s a great way to wake up the brain and begin using the problem solving skills necessary in any discipline. Strategies that worked for me were to look for language clues on buildings – for instance, WC on the bathrooms told me I wasn’t in the US. Other clues might include the side of the street that traffic flows on, what pedestrians were wearing, or flags that are flying in front of buildings.

Geoguessr allows you to “take what you get” or use their filters to narrow down the geographic area.

At our school we’re addressing not only curriculum but also the manner in which we ask students to think and attack obstacles. We’ve adopted the 16 Habits of Mind . For some students these are not innate skills and need to be discreetly taught. The use of Geoguesser as a learning warmup touches on a number of these habits and frankly is just plain fun.

Distracted by Tech? Address the Problem, Not the Symptom

I wish I had a dollar for every time someone asked me to block a site. Truthfully, I’d charge people that want me to block all games from the internet a little more.  It would  fund my retirement nicely. It’s a problem that occurs everywhere- the complaint that games and social media distract students and make it difficult if not impossible for them to do the learning they need to do.

Lately the complaints have ramped up from teachers frustrated by students who are running out of time to complete work before the end of the year. They ask me to look through the students’ laptops and find out what they are doing instead of work. It’s tedious but it is part of my job so I do it.

Students have never been at a loss for ways to avoid work. This year I am seeing some old tools like Stealthy paired with newer ones like PanicButton. These are extensions from the Chrome Webstore that allow students to get around our filters (Stealthy) and hide webpages that they don’t want you to see (PanicButton).


The extensions will show up (unless they are hidden) to the right of the address bar in Chrome as shown in the photo above. I suggest you start looking for them.

ImageThe Stealthy button is a red square with an arrow in it. When it’s red, it’s off and the school’s filter is in place. When it’s green, it’s on and the student is using a proxy server to get around the filter. This will allow them to go anywhere they want. There’s no free lunch here- there are risks. You can read about them here.

ImageThe Panic Button is a red circle with either a target in it or an exclamation point. Both do the same thing- they hide the pages the student doesn’t want you to see, and replaces them with a more school appropriate page. Students can set the page they want you to see.

We CANNOT control the use of these tools. We can’t block them. We can make the students remove them. They are easily re-added as soon as we turn our backs. It’s less of a discipline issue than it is a sign that the student has become disconnected from the learning.

I’ll challenge you to think of these tools not as the problem itself but as a symptom of a bigger issue. Not completing work is not a new problem. It is not caused by laptops, phones, or iPads. Technology has certainly made procrastination easier but it didn’t invent it. All these tools are a big fat arrow pointing at the real problem- the student is stuck.

So why did I bother to point these things out? Because they are a visual that leads you to conversations with your students. When you see that students have installed these kinds of tools it’s kind of like noticing they have a rash. It certainly provides an opening to begin a discussion. I had the opportunity to chat with two young men this week about their use of both of these tools. I asked what educational purpose they served, and as you could expect they had a hard time coming up with one.

Both students are athletes. I asked them if they would ever consider working hard in practice when the coach was watching, and slacking off and doing something else when the coach had their back turned. They thought this was ridiculous! Why would they do that? How would they ever get better? Neither wanted to sit the bench, and they acknowledged that that kind of behavior would be counterproductive.

This made things too easy. I asked how they thought using the PanicButton was going to help them if it only made them look like they were learning. Neither could come up with an answer.

Here’s where the door opens for you as a teacher. Distraction, procrastination, defiance- they are all symptoms of the same problem. Disengagement. It might be disengagement from a particular assignment or it might be disengagement from school as a whole.  It’s our job as teachers to figure out WHY. It’s not about “who’s fault” it is. It’s about finding solutions. Forward motion is the goal.

I’m not a social worker so I can’t fix the big problems- but here are some suggestions you might try for the smaller ones. Keep in mind that this does not have to be done for an entire class- apply these as you identify students who could use them.

Reading issues:

  • Print articles students need to read. When reading gets tough and Facebook is on another tab, the temptation is to turn to the easier task.
  • Use summarizing tools like Skimzee, SummarizeThis and TLDR (Too Long, Didn’t Read). Some work better than others but most work better than not reading at all.
  • Remove ads from pages by using Clearly in Chrome or Reader in Safari.

Distraction Issues:

  • Not all work is best done on the laptop. Decide if closing the lid will be beneficial for students.
  • Sometimes GoogleDocs provides too many notifications about new email, chat requests, etc. Have students write in Pages. Pages files can be uploaded for storage, or they can paste their work into a GoogleDoc when they are done. They can also use WriteSpace, a tool that provides a black screen with a cursor for distraction free writing.
  • Have students turn their airports off if they don’t need the internet.
  • Seating. If you know a child has a hard time focusing, do not let them sit in the hallway or with their back against the wall. Give them a seat where their screen is visible and keep an eye on what they are doing.
  • Ask students to use tools like IAMSTUDYING or Website Blocker. These allow the students to customize a filter that will block the sites they need to stay off of as well as the times they’d like them blocked. Helping students learn to self monitor can be crucial.


  • Exit tickets are a great way to hold students accountable for what they have done in class. Some teachers start with a daily goal and ask students to evaluate how they have done. They don’t leave class without handing in the ticket.
  • Ask them to email a copy of their daily work to you. It will only take a minute for you to evaluate what they have done and know how well they are using their time. This is especially effective when you are doing a whole class video. gives you an easy way to do this.

If you’ve been in the classroom any time at all, you already have a hefty toolbox of strategies to help students. When you look at the behavior with technology as a symptom it makes it easier to put together a set of strategies to get your students moving ahead.



Integrator’s Tip: Action Mapping Gives a New View of Presentations

Tech integration is an interesting job. It’s equal parts psychology, tech expertise, and marketing. Right now business is light and I’m in that marketing phase, trying to find ways to get back into classrooms. When I’m in this mode I try to focus on something that I know teachers do regularly and give it a little twist.

Right now I’m marketing presentations. Not because I necessarily think they are a great learning tool- more because they have become a staple of student evidence of learning.  In my prep work I uncovered an organizational model called Action Mapping. It’s from a blog by Cathy Moore and in a nutshell it focuses on what people need to be able to DO with the knowledge they are learning rather than just WHAT they have to learn. It’s given me an interesting way to look at an old standby.

Here’s how it works:

You identify the learning goal
You identify what skills your students need to reach it
You identify why students most often fail to reach the goal (lack of knowledge, lack of skills, lack of motivation, environment)
You design learning activities that are realistic and relevant to the learning goal
You identify what your students need to know and do to successfully complete the activities.

It’s a lot like what teachers already do to create lessons, but the emphasis is more on the “doing” than on the “knowing.” I applied it to creating presentations and all of a sudden I got a completely different integration road map.

Learning goal: Show understanding of a topic or question through a particular lens provided by the teacher (or better yet, created by the student! But I digress…) in presentation form.

Skills Needed: Strategies to find appropriate information on the topic. Knowledge of connections between the information found and the essential question. Ability to read digital text. Method of taking and saving notes. Means of organizing found information. Ability to find and appropriately cite images.

Students most often fail at presentations because:  They lack content knowledge because they copied and pasted information onto slides, they lack  correct information (or enough information) because they have poor search skills, they lack skills in finding sources at the appropriate reading level,  they lack understanding of how to correctly cite sources, and/or they lack  skills in how to present information in a presentation setting.

Identify learning activities that are relevant to the goal:  Develop search strategies to find accurate sources of information, decipher text to glean needed information, organize information so that it makes sense in a presentation, use notes to supplement text on slide, use graphics to supplement information, show understanding of copyright laws by correctly citing all sources of information

What do students need to know to be able to complete the activities: effective search strategies, strategies for reading digital text, digital note-taking, information organization tools,  how to find bibliography resources, how to use public speaking tools like speaker notes.

Action mapping suggests that you do a graphic organizer to help with the planning. This, I think, is a crucial step, as it points out the many areas where integration can take place:

Click to see larger image

Click to see larger image

All of a sudden I have many more opportunities to bring technology into the classroom in a useful way. You’ll notice that there is NOTHING in there on how to use Prezi, Keynote, HaikuDeck or any of the other presentation tools available to students. Action mapping helps tease out what students REALLY need to be able to do to create a good presentation- and font size and animations don’t make the list.

NoRedInk is worth a second look

Last year I wrote about NoRedInk, a tool that is very useful for helping students learn grammar. At that writing, NoRedInk had 3 categories to work with: apostrophes, subject/verb agreement, and commas, sentence fragments, and run-ons. Nine months later that have expanded their tool to include LOTS more.

ImageNoRedInk fits nicely with my workflow model (see previous post). It’s easy to use for the teacher- you create a class and decide what sorts of practice quizzes you want your students to use. You check the categories, the number of questions you want, the number of points the quiz is worth, and whether you want to make the quiz available right away or schedule it for later on.  You can assign the quiz to a whole class or individual students, making it perfect for student centered learning environments. NoRedInk creates the quizzes from a question bank and customizes them based on choices the student makes about characters from popular music, sports, movies, or names that the student puts in.

What’s of equal value is what you get back. You get an answer key for each quiz. You get a report that says who took it, how well they did, and what questions they missed.

student view of NoRedInk feedbackStudents get lots of feedback too. They get a message when they answer a question incorrectly as well as the opportunity to try it again. If they miss the second question, they are given a screen explaining WHY the answer was incorrect- and a button that takes them to a similar question to try again.  Students have the option of getting practice quizzes as well and can choose the topic they want to work on. There’s also a progress chart for students to use to see how well they are mastering each of the areas.

Give NoRedInk a look and see if it will work for you and your students.