Through a New Lens: Negotiating Release

This article was originally posted at on January. It talks about the need to assess our student’s ability to be self directed learners- specifically when it comes to technology. It contains a tool that teachers can use to assess the level of self-direction and the skills that need to be taught in their individual classrooms. Read on:


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.

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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.



Branding Your Classroom: What’s Your Story?

twtMy colleagues are probably getting a little tired of me touting the power of Twitter as a tool for developing a personal learning network. I won’t be swayed, of course, but I may be shushed just a bit…but only because I’ve come across an even better idea for how to leverage social media in the classroom.

I’m a bit of a podcast freak and I’ve just discovered Talks with Teachers, produced by Brian Sztabnik. Brian publishes regular interviews with some of the most interesting educators in the country. The podcast promotes itself as a resource for K-12 ELA teachers but truthfully it has something to offer everyone.

I chose two podcasts this week. The Power of Branding with Tony Sinanis and Joe Sanfelippo told the story of two administrators who used student interest in Twitter to build a visible digital “brand” that gave insight into what their schools were like and what they had to offer from a student perspective. Over time their tweets gave the community a public view of their school from the student stakeholders themselves. My thought was that this could provide great advertisements for schools as we move into situations where we may be vying for pools of students with expanded school choice options.

I followed that podcast with an episode by one of my favorite bloggers and presenters, Vicki “Cool Cat Teacher” Davis. She talked about using Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to record those aha moments in the classroom- connections students make- or just documentation of what happens on a regular basis.

She took it a step further and suggested the use of Storify to create a weekly newsletter for parents and community members based on the week’s tweets and social media entries. I tried it- it’s easy! Here’s a sample of a quick one (10 minutes, I promise) based on our Hour of Code in early December:

There are several take-aways here:

  • Using social media in this way gives students an introduction to blogging… and blogging enables students to connect with content on a personal and authentic level.
  • It’s the epitome of student voice.
  • Learning becomes transparent.
  • Allowing students to create the newsletter adds choice to their voice.
  • Your classroom suddenly has a story that’s being actively told.

Like it or not, your classroom is already “branded.” Is it the one you want? If not, how can you change your practice to change the story that can be told?

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

Backchannel Chat in Action

Moe Beaulieu is a risk taker. She’s a relatively new teacher who has her students on her radar. She’s not afraid to try to meet them where they live. When I popped into her English I classroom  this week she was talking with them about expectations, the realities of teacher pace, and the upcoming documentary they’d be watching.

I had come down to try to talk to one of her students but I saw an opening and, as I am apt to do, walked right on through. I talked to her about using Today’s Meet, a backchannel chat tool, as a way to provide her students a venue for asking questions and making connections during the documentary. I showed it to her very briefly, spoke with the student, and left.

At our staff meeting today Moe said she’d used it- and was stunned at the conversation that went on during the documentary. Not all students chose to post to  the backchannel but those that did made interesting comments, asked clarifying questions, and raised points of view that might not have been shared had students just watched the video. Those that didn’t post still had access to the ideas and questions (and answers) in the chat. She’s given me permission to share the transcript of the chat with you. You’ll find a link to it at the end of this post.

Moe was smart. She didn’t try to use backchannel as a way to make sure everyone was paying attention. She didn’t threaten them with it as an assessment tool. She simply used it as a way for students to deepen their understanding of the topic via collaboration.

The transcript is a glimpse into her students’ thinking as they were learning. It provided a way for students to have a voice when speaking out loud would be distracting. It’s available for viewing after the documentary, providing jumping off points for discussion, debate, and further research. Moe could also use it to determine overall class understanding of the film.

You’ll need some context before reading the transcipt. These students were working on a learning target about conflicting viewpoints and evidence. They watched Lost for Life,  a film about young adults who made poor decisions as teenagers and are now in jail serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. Click here to access the Today’s Meet Transcript.

How could this work in your classroom?

Out on a Limb: Holding Ourselves Accountable

I had a conversation with a colleague on one of the last days of school that has stuck with me ever since. We were discussing classroom management (I had just posted my “Distracted by Tech” article). My colleague said, “I get so tired of listening to complaints from some of our staff. All I hear is what the students haven’t done or won’t do and what they (the teacher) isn’t going to do. I’d love to hear how teachers hold themselves accountable for student success.”

I write often about strategies for holding students accountable when using technology but rarely have I thought about my own accountability when teaching.

This post isn’t really about tech integration and may offend some people. It’s not my intent. My intention is to spur thinking for those who are stuck and frustrated and perhaps are thinking laptops and phones are the cause of the learning blockage.

Teacher accountability isn’t easy. It’s not about how detailed my lesson plans are or how clear my directions for projects are. It’s not about how much kids like me. It’s about how effective I am in my teaching practices. In a nutshell, teacher accountability means that I take a regular look at my teaching practices, my classroom management, and my personal pedagogy and see how well it is meshing with student achievement.

For me this falls into four segments:


As a human teacher there are students I click with and students I don’t. Some can be downright nasty to be around when they are wearing their armor. I find that sometimes I don’t WANT to get to know these students- but if I am holding myself accountable, I have to find ways to develop some sort of relationship with all my students. We don’t have to be BFFs but I do need to give them the same amount of time and attention that I give the “easy” students. Sometimes I will keep track of who I have worked with during class- then make a concerted effort to connect with those that are off my radar during the next class. It may take all year but I can usually make headway with even the most hardened soul.


I teach digital citizenry and it’s abstract. There are lots of “if…then” situations and quite frankly it’s a topic that often seems remote to students because these situations won’t ever happen to them- until they do. I don’t have too much trouble showing them in class why it’s important that they learn about it. What is difficult is figuring out how to help them change their actions. I’ve had success having students show mastery in the classroom and thought I was teaching well until I saw these same students in real life trouble for doing the exact opposite of what they learned. I don’t hold myself accountable for their decisions, but I do hold myself accountable for the fact that I didn’t teach the information in a way that made it leave the classroom walls.

Relevancy makes learning move WITH the student. My challenge is to find ways to make what they learn pop up as a behavior choice when they are faced with decisions.


Having a classroom workflow can make life so much easier. Many classrooms have this already- it is a physical workflow chart designed and agreed upon by students that indicates what to do when a student begins a project, is finished with a project, or is stuck. A large majority of behavioral issues and/or work stoppages result from students not knowing how to start their work or getting confused during an assignment. When all students are on the same page in the workflow, students can help each other move ahead.

(Spoiler alert. Some might be insulted here.)

Teachers need a workflow too, and part of our workflow has to be to move away from our desk. Relying on students to come to us when they need help isn’t effective or efficient. It gives us no way to start conversations, recognize good progress, or give the feedback that keeps students moving. Being on our feet and moving around the room keeps kids more accountable and helps us have a better idea of how they are doing.

Having a plan of how you will target those that are falling behind (and moving ahead!) helps with efficiency. Knowing where my students are in their learning helps me group them so they I can better give targeted instruction. I have often done daily seating charts so I can put students together based on their progress, saving me from answering the same questions at different times all over the room. Planning MY workflow helps the overall progress of the class.

Ongoing assessment

The days of the end of unit test as the only assessment are gone- thank goodness! We now rely on a number of kinds of assessments that allow students to show what they know. What we aren’t so good at (still) is the really informal formative assessment. Throw out the idea of the quiz- we don’t have to work that hard. Formative assessments that are quick and simple can give us a really good handle on how our students are grasping the material. Rather than expound upon the ways we can do this, take a look at Edutopia’s “Dipsticks: Efficient Ways to Check for Understanding.” You should find something here that will work for you and your students.



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.