February 28

How do I generate writing topics?

We all know that on-demand writing skills are important for students to develop because that is what is most often used for assessment.  So, lots of us gather prompts or develop our own prompts in preparation for that on-demand writing assessment.  However, that isn’t the only kind of writing students need to embrace.  We all know that in order to improve at anything we have to practice, practice, practice.  So, with that in mind, we encourage students to practice writing in any way we can.

Most any writing teacher worth her salt will tell you that students need to choose their own writing topics when writing creatively.  So, we encourage students to collect ideas for writing.  For some that means a list at the front of the composition book we use as our writer’s notebook.  For others it is a collection of sticky notes attached to the journal we carry around with us.  Those of us who utilize electronic devices as our day book for writing tend to make lists or snap photos to remind us of something that inspires us to write.

The assignment my teacher friend made (mentioned in Blogs Take Hold) for her students to choose a topic might provide students with the freedom to dig in and write about what is on their minds.  Such an assignment provides some structure and focus but still allows students to make choices and keep their writing personal.  However, it might also be a stumbling block when they cannot narrow their focus enough to choose something about which to write.  Sometimes our students claim they have nothing to write about and need a bit of inspiration.  So, how do we help them bypass this excuse and support them when they make such a claim?

In my classroom I found that writers start off with lots to write about and have lots to say.  Then, they sort of hit a slump.  So, that might be when you pull in something such as The Boston Globe’s Big Picture or NY Times Lens or even a magazine, an article, or an issue mentioned in something like Scholastic/NY Times Upfront and provide that as an inspiration piece for their freewriting assignments.  I also use things like images and documents from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Tennessee Holocaust Commission’s Living On, or the National Civil Rights Museum or any number of topic specific resources – even a video clip from Discovery Ed or TED Talks would be good.  Providing such a thing as inspiration just prevents some students from sitting idly trying to come up with a topic.  I simply offer that up with a statement such as this: If you aren’t sure what direction you want to take with your writing today, you might want to use… posted on the board as inspiration.

Of course, the best way to generate writing topics is to be an observer, a reader, a noticer, and to do lots and lots of writing!

February 27

Blogs Take Hold

My teacher friend, JoEllen is blogging with some of her students today and I cannot wait to hear how it goes!  She sent me this message following our afternoon together Tuesday:

I was so excited about implementing blogs into my classroom after yesterday's session, and this is one of the blog sites I came up with for my Writing Enrichment students.

She and her students are starting off with a ‘free-writing’ assignment.  Her students are choosing a writing genre such as a short story, personal narrative, poem, song lyrics, etc. and writing on a topic of their own choosing.  I know that JoEllen is excited to be starting a new venture with her students and I’ll bet her students will be excited to have the opportunity to blog with her.

There are so many things I really appreciate about the opportunity JoEllen is providing for her students.  First of all, her students are stepping into a truly modern mode of writing when they are blogging.  Art teacher/blogger Hope Hunter Knight began her blog as a way to “show art learning from her classroom to parents, showing processes, the inspiration, and the concepts behind the pieces.”  Yet, what she found is “collaboration benefits all students.  Sharing ideas in a huge pool of resources…is an unparalleled benefit in this age.”  Blogging is a living, breathing, document which evolves with writers just as the writer evolves in life.

The second thing that I really appreciate about JoEllen’s assignment is that it is something she is using for enrichment.  That doesn’t mean that only those who need that something more should be blogging.  What it says to me is that blogging is an opportunity for all students.  This same assignment would work for remediation, for an introductory assignment, for a wrap-up assignment, or simply for classroom writing practice.

The third, and probably the most important thing I appreciate about JoEllen’s assignment is that students have so much choice.  In this case, she is encouraging her students to practice writing and to develop their writing skills.  However, the assignment could just as easily have another focus.  If, for example, her class had been studying a historical event such as The Civil Rights Movement or The Holocaust, students could demonstrate their knowledge about the event in a genre of which they feel mastery…or…they could stretch their writing skills by trying a new genre.  If students were studying a topic in science such as weather and interpreting meteorological data to make predictions about weather events.  The current assignment would work as well.  Students could create a blog post using the genre theme.  They also could create a blog post which would include photos or images from a public domain source to report the knowledge gained during their study and pose questions to their reading audience.  The important aspect is that no two assignments have to be the same.  That makes learners have ownership and makes the learning truly individualized!

I’m looking forward to hearing from JoEllen to know how her first steps toward blogging worked out.  More importantly, I look forward to watching and learning how her student bloggers (and she) progress and learn through blogging about their thinking and learning.

February 26

Blogging in the Secondary Classroom

blog wordleYesterday I was fortunate enough to work with a group of teachers who were digging into learning more about the possibilities of using blogging as a writing, communication, thinking, and learning tool in their classrooms.  We looked at the two resources readily available for teachers and students to put to work as blogging tools – Kidblog and Google Sites.

We investigated reasons why we should blog and why students should blog.  The primary reason which kept working its way to the top of the heap was to improve student thinking.  Yes, I did mean thinking.  E.M. Forster once said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”  That statement has never been truer.  We have ideas.  We have opinions.  Yet, until we commit those to writing, they are still vague and vacillating.

There were other reasons, of course.  Some of them are that it provided students with an authentic audience for their work.  This instilled motivation for quality writing.  It gave them practice at writing – explaining and clarifying ideas.  It expanded their vocabulary.  It improved their grammar and mechanics skills.  Writing and responding improved conversational skills.  It also promoted thinking to come up with a new topic or respond to another student’s post.

Blogging also offers students the opportunity to collaborate and communicate in ways that sitting within the same four walls does not.  A shy student might post something profound and intriguing in a blog that he/she would not have the courage to say aloud with peers sitting around.

Some of the resources we used as fodder for discussion (in a blog post and comment segment) included:

The workshop was work intensive for the teachers who participated.  However, I think we had a productive afternoon.  Don’t take my word for it… Teachers like Carolyn, reflected in a blog post saying, “I believe the use of a blog will increase student’s “digital footprint” and writing skills, as well as communication skills and using/accepting constructive criticism in a digital setting. ”  While Laura’s reflection said, “I do think mathematics makes blogging for assessment a bit more challenging, but as a resource I could definitely see the benefit. Honestly, I was interested in blogging when I walked in today, but I really didn’t think it had a place in my content area. However, I can now see how it could be utilize in a mathematics class. I think the biggest benefit of blogging in my class would be the formative assessment.”  Fred was inspired and reflected that, “This was… something I can use immediately. I enjoyed the hands on approach, and help build my confidence in using a blog.”   JoEllen even sent me a link to the blog she is utilizing later this week with her students!

Why not give blogging a try in your classroom?  You might get a clearer picture of how your students are thinking!

February 25

Hard Work

As a classroom teacher, one of my favorite times in class was when I had assigned work to students and given them instruction how and turned them loose to work on the assigned task.  It put the student in-charge of his/her own learning and provided time to work toward achieving.  It also allowed me the opportunity to observe and coach my students.  My favorite things to hear as I circulated the room were the comments such as, “This is hard,” or, “I am really having to do some thinking on this.”  That told me the assignment I had designed was a high quality one where students were engaged in deep cognitive work.

Today I had the opportunity to facilitate professional development sessions for our district’s BYOT Teacher Leaders.  Our tech coach team had worked diligently to design, revise, and plan strategies and concepts for teachers to learn and explore and adapt to fit their learning standards, create quality best-practice lessons, and share ideas with their colleagues.  The payoff for me was that every single teacher in my sessions voiced that they were walking away with ideas, concepts, and strategies they could put into practice – if not right away – in the near future.

I am grateful to have the opportunity to work with some of the best teachers in the world, but when they walk away from a morning or afternoon spent sharing and learning with me and their peers and feel like they got even the germ of an idea that was worthwhile and inspirational, that makes it a time to remember.

We tend to avoid hard work as much as we can.  Why is that?  It is rewarding and the self-satisfaction cannot be compared to anything in this world!

So, to my teacher leader friends who I had the wonderful opportunity of sharing the day learning alongside… Kudos with a capital K!  Keep on working hard and we all will benefit from your efforts in the payoff of having students who really are ready to save your life if they happen to be the EMT who is standing over you when you are lying in that ditch someday.  (You know that is just an analogy don’t you?  I hope you don’t wind up in a ditch somewhere.  REALLY!)

February 20

Picture/Thousand Words

Remember yesterday’s post?  Why couldn’t a teacher use something like this as a starting point for class?  Questions which come to mind for me are:


  • Write a journal entry explaining how the image relates to the math concept we have been studying?
  • Utilize this image and create a math problem which relates to the math concept we focused on yesterday.
  • What would a mathematician do with these tools?
  • How do the objects in this image inspire your mathematical thinking?


  • Describe an experiment in which a scientist would utilize 75% of the objects in this picture.
  • Which one of these objects most closely relates to the element/compound/chemical equation we focused on yesterday?  Explain why.
  • Which one of these objects could best be used to demonstrate the physics theory we have been studying this week?  Explain why.
  • Using one or more of the objects pictured, what would you design to solve…?


  • Fit the objects pictured into a timeline and explain their relativity to that timeline.
  • Select a historian from the period we have been studying and relate him/her to one of the objects pictured.  Justify your selection with logical reasoning.
  • What do the objects in the picture have in common and how do they relate to the topic we have been studying?


  • Using the image as inspiration, write!
  • Write three sentences relating to this photo and be sure to include (grammar/mechanics concept studying).
  • How do the objects in the picture relate to the book/play/short story/poem we read in class yesterday?
  • Which of the objects pictured most closely relates to the author?  Explain the relationship providing logical reasoning to justify your assertion.
  • Think of the main character of your book/short story/video and explain which of the objects pictured most closely represents him/her.
  • Determine the theme/setting/mood of this image and write an explanation to justify your decision.
  • What do the objects pictured have in common and why are they important to this class?


  • What role do these objects play in technology today?  Justify your assertion.
  • Write a caption for the photo that includes figurative language.
  • Use the image as inspiration to write a personal narrative in the voice of…
  • Write a vivid description using the image as inspiration.
  • Include as many vocabulary words as possible to write a coherent paper based on the image.

Sometimes a picture inspires much more than a thousand words.  Why couldn’t the image (or any image) be used to inspire assignments – especially creative assignments where students are designing a problem, a solution, or creating text?  Who says we can only use the image once?  What images are you envisioning to use in your classroom?

February 19

Don’t even try to tell me…

While visiting a school today, I heard this utterance come from a teacher:  “Don’t even try to tell me you didn’t know…”  I remember thinking and saying the same thing a time or two when I was in the classroom…well, maybe more than a time or two.

Every educator has been there.  We take ten to fifteen minutes or more to carefully explain something.  We model what we expect students to do.  We ask students follow-up questions as a quick formative assessment to see what students took in and digested.  Then, we allow them to ask us questions to clarify anything that is still foggy in their minds.  Finally, we turn them loose and expect our students to complete the task at hand with all confidence that they know what we expect and can get the job done.  Yet, not ten five two minutes into the assigned work time, there are questions that you felt certain were answered before you ever turned students loose to work.   ARGH!!!  What went wrong?

The answer is nothing – that’s right – absolutely nothing!

If that is the case, why are there so many questions?  Why can’t the students complete the task at hand?  What was left out of the instruction?

Maybe the student or students in question just weren’t ready to learn all that yet.  The information the teacher was sharing wasn’t all relevant to each student at that particular time.  Part of the learning curve is being ready to learn and, let’s just face it, we aren’t all ready to learn at the same pace.  I know, we group students together by age as if the date of birth is the most important factor for determining stage of learning-readiness.  Well, we have to start somewhere.

As a gardener, I certainly don’t expect all my vegetables to ripen at the same rate or all my flowers to bloom at the same time even if the seeds were started in the dirt or growing mix at the same time.  So, as a teacher, we shouldn’t expect all students to know the same things at the same time.  By the same token, I also don’t expect all my tomatoes to be the same size or all my lilies to have the same size bloom.  So, why do we expect students to demonstrate the same level skills as one another?  Continuing to use my gardening metaphor, I also don’t pull up plants and throw them in the compost bin if they aren’t all big and beautiful.  As my Daddy used to say, some of them are a little more “hard-doing” than others and need a bit more attention.  That also doesn’t mean we ignore the ones which seem most thrifty.  Just as we do in our gardens, we also must do in our classrooms – provide all those tender sprouts with attention but provide different attention to different ones.  In a garden we call this nurturing and in a classroom we call it differentiation of instruction but really, we could use the term nurturing in both settings.

Students learn best when they make connections between the curriculum and their diverse interests and experiences.  The greatest learning occurs when students are pushed slightly beyond the point where they can work without assistance.  This point differs depending upon each student’s struggles and gifts.  So, we don’t need to teach by providing a single avenue for learning for all students in a class.

Here are some ideas for ways to let technology support that idea.

Identify the major concepts, principles, and skills students should learn.  What is it you are going to measure?  Do you want every student to write an essay about the major world religions and their influence on society in different locales or do you want to see that students know about major world religions and their influence on society?

What is it you are measuring?  If you are measuring your students’ knowledge and you want to know that students know and understand the major points, offer some options for students to make the learning become personal.  Ask them to demonstrate what they know.  For some, writing an essay to describe and compare and contrast the major world religions might be just the right path and that student could create an essay using a Google Document.  For another student, creating a Prezi which shows different aspects of the major world religions including pictures, text, maps, and more.  Students might want to use Discovery Education‘s Board Builder to create a digital poster which includes images, video clips, text, and more to explain and contrast the major world religions.  A student with a tablet might want to create an iMovie or a Videolicious video to demonstrate what he/she knows.

The options are endless and I’ve just offered up a choice few.  Mainly, when we are planning a lesson, we need to consider first, what is it we want our students to know?  What am, the teacher, going to measure?  Next, we should consider how am I going to measure that?  Guess what I plan to write about tomorrow?  Don’t even try to tell me you don’t know!

February 17

On the Horizon

As a kid growing up I loved the Jetsons!  I liked the idea of zooming around in little rocket-type cars.  I liked the idea of having a robot to clean house and cook.  I liked the idea of having a chat with somebody who was in another location but they could be seen and heard on a television-type screen.  I still like the futuristic ideas that were presented by that dated cartoon!

I zoomed to work this morning – not in rocket-type fashion, but with relative ease on the highway with my own vehicle.  I spent my morning sending messages and reading messages from folks all over the country.  Then, later today, a colleague and I had a video chat much like they did on the Jetson’s.  I was at the instructional technology headquarters at one school and Ginny was in a different school that was miles down the road.  Yet, we could see and hear one another just as if we were across the room from one another.  It was fun!  It also saved gas and time.

According to eSchool News, there are several trends which will “rock education.”  One of the trends mentioned recently regarding bring-your-own-technology points out that students want personalized learning.  BYOT is truly a part of that.  Students use personal devices in ways to suit their own needs to enhance and enrich their own learning.  Do you know of anybody who doesn’t want his/her own personal work space?  We can even watch toddlers and see that such a phenomenon begins at an early age.

It has been exciting to watch personal work space to grow from having a desk and storage options to having easily accessible digital tools.  We have moved from having a lab where our digitally accessible tools were housed to having a rolling lab to having such a digital tool which slides into our own backpack or pocket.  It is now suggested that on our horizon is wearable technology.  How cool and handy and edgy is that?  As I prepare to power down my laptop, close my iPad, and pack up for the day to head home, I just have hopes that Rosie, the robot is at home and she has cleaned my house and has dinner ready to put on the table!

February 14

Take Notice in Math

We consistently hear that students should be doing “real-world” assignments and applying what they learn to “real-world problems or situations.”  Real-world math problems are everywhere – and science inquiries are as well. I’m wondering…as teachers, are we asking intriguing questions which require that students invest in their own learning?

One of the strategies I used in my middle school ELA/Reading classes was to post something (usually a quote, excerpt from a literary work, or just a well-written sentence) on the screen and ask students to jot down what they noticed.  (You can learn a bit more about this strategy by reading Take Notice!)  Annie Fetter, a math instructor at The Math Forum, suggested in a presentation that teachers should utilize the exact same technique in math.

Image courtesy of Imgfave (http://imgfave.com/view/2424661)

Image courtesy of Imgfave (http://imgfave.com/view/2424661)

Post a diagram, a picture, a blueprint, a sketch, etc. on the screen and ask students to jot down their noticings.

Make a list of the things they notice which pertain to math or science.  Your list could look something like this:

  • kiwi
  • angles
  • triangles
  • large triangle
  • Isosceles triangle
  • equilateral triangle

Next, ask them if they could expound upon that.

  • The kiwi looks like Pacman.
  • The kiwi looks outlined.
  • The kiwi looks like wheels on which to roll the triangle.
  • There are 3 angles.
  • There are 4 triangles.
  • A large triangle is formed in the center.
  • The kiwi could also look sort of like an iPad protector around the triangle.

Take some time to discuss their noticings.  The students may automatically relate them to math.  If they don’t, gently direct them toward a mathematical discussion.  This image could lead to an expanded lesson on angles, triangles, Isosceles triangles, equilateral triangles, and so much more!

Then, ask students what they wonder.  In this example some of the wonderings might be:

  • I wonder if the person who created this intentionally made the triangle…
  • I wonder if there are other shapes that could be created with kiwi…
  • I wonder what other shapes are around us with just a little bit of manipulation…
  • I wonder how the person got the lines of the triangle lined up so straight…
  • I wonder what the angles of this triangle might be…
  • I wonder what the angles of those little lines within a kiwi would measure and if I could measure them all would it total 360 degrees…
  • I wonder if I could apply some of these goofy formulas we’ve been studying would fit this triangle…
  • I wonder if I could create a series of shapes using different fruits…
  • I wonder if I could take those same kiwis and form other shapes…
  • I wonder if I could take this idea and create something architectural for another class like a mirror frame…

See how such a strategy could lead to a “real world” problem that the student creates and explains him/herself?  Wouldn’t that make a much better final assessment of knowledge acquired?

Take five minutes to watch Annie’s video and see if she doesn’t inspire you to utilize this strategy as well!

February 13

Take Notice!

When I became a “content-area” teacher years ago, I was handed a little spiral book with groups of mini-lessons.  There was at least one set for each week of the school year.  The idea was that I should post a sentence with several errors at the front of the room and ask students to make corrections.

During the first three years I was in that school, somehow that spiral book would get lost each year and I had no idea where to find it.  So, without the resource, I wasn’t able to use that strategy as a jumping off spot for my grammar/mechanics portion of class.

After that first year, I attended a workshop led by Jeff Anderson who had a much better idea and an improvement upon this strategy.  So, I adopted his improved idea.  He started off his workshop describing the same strategy that I ‘lost’ and using math to explain why it was a bad idea.  He suggested that students were spending more time looking at poorly written sentences than at well-written ones.  So, instead, in his class students would see a well-written sentence posted and were asked to share what they noticed about the sentence.

First, staring for five to ten minutes at a well-written sentence was much better than the other alternative.  Secondly, students were not guessing and were actually thinking about the sentence and were investing in the exercise – sharing what they noticed and learning whether their own idea was a correct assertion.

Often, students would notice things I had not even thought about.  Sometimes their assertions were incorrect and provided a different kind of teachable moment.  Almost every time some student would notice precisely our standard focus for the day and would send us off on a meaningful discussion, lead to a meaningful follow-up query or writing exercise, and the lesson would be developed with seemingly little effort on my part.  The lesson would be much more student-driven and student-owned.

This strategy would often send each student delving into the pages of his/her outside reading book – and it didn’t matter if that book was fiction or non-fiction or even on what reading level the book was categorized.  This strategy also would prompt us to look into our own writing notebook and find an example that was like the mentor text.  If we couldn’t find such an example, it was so easy to simply revise our work and mimic the author’s technique to include such an example of good writing.

Wow!  Look at all the natural aspects of good writing such a strategy inspires!  Students were thinking, reading, writing, and revising!  All that came from one little strategy – noticing.

Below is a sentence.  What do you notice?  In what way could you use such a sentence to inspire your lessons and your students’ learning?  How would this strategy make a difference in student learning?

“Percy wouldn’t notice a joke if it danced naked in front of him wearing one of Dobby’s hats.”  –J.K.Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire