Three APPS to Help Support Students with Special Needs: Helping all Kids Grapple with Grade Level Expectations  

by Dr. Bryan Drost

I had the best time with teachers the last few days—curriculum mapping away.  It’s what curriculum directors live for: discussions of vertical and horizontal alignment.  However, about halfway through the second day I could tell that I had “lost” two teachers: more specifically, two intervention specialists.  Attempting to bring them into the conversation, we had a bit of a heart-to-heart, and this phrase came out “My kids can’t do these standards.”

My heart broke with these sentence: of course, part of it is that we haven’t made the shift that students with special education needs are part of the “ALL” in all of our students, but at the same time, it was clear that these teachers needed some strategies to help work with their students. Although I knew that in the short time I had to work with these educators, I would not be able to solve all, I did know that they were capable and that they could use APPS to help students acquire our college and career-ready standards.

As we worked together, I shared with her my version of the acronym APPS for technology integration within the classroom: how will an application help students Acquire meaningful content standards; how will an application help students Progress through meaningful feedback; how will an application measure Proficiency of student learning, and how will an application Support the student in learning content.  (You can find more examples of this in my blogs on Achieve the Core’s Aligned blog at https://achievethecore.org/aligned/five-apps-to-redefine-your-math-class/)

The following are three APPS that I shared with her that I believe you too can use to help redefine your classroom and facilitate higher order learning activities that encourage self-directed learning and ongoing assessment for our students with special needs as well as the rest.

One of the concerns with some special needs students is that they can’t read the complex text that is required on them at grade level.  Research has consistently proven that we need to make sure kids get exposure and regular practice with grade-level text.  In other words, simply giving students texts that are not at their lexile level is problematic.  So what to do?  Why not try one of these free Google tools.  Take on an grade-level text, maybe from Newsela. Download the freeTextTeaser extension.  TextTeaser allows students to summarize the content from a webpage as a list of sentences or in paragraph form.  What’s really great is that you adjust the output using a slider to give different detail levels of the passage or article.  This gives teachers the opportunity to frontload texts for students so that they can participate in those rich, on-grade level conversations while the intervention specialist is working in small-group or one-on-one with helping the students make sense of the larger passage. An alternative to TextTeaser is SMMRY, a tool that performs basically the same task.TextTeaser

Desmos is my second APP for you all.  Often, students with special needs that are struggling math need some type of visual to represent mathematical relationships and as a result, when this isn’t provided, will shut down and become frustrated.  To be frank, many of us need those visuals.  In addition to helping provide a visual, Desmos harnesses the social nature of online interactions into meaningful math inquiry.  For example, by using the Function Carnival tooll, students are given the freedom to experiment with functions and are given direct feedback that allows them to revise their thinking and improve their mathematical practices and improve on that sense of perseverance. Lastly and what is most powerful about this tool is that the system also gives teachers the ability to randomly pair students with electronic devices, allowing students to create questions and challenges for each other based on aligned content. This can help students with special needs as it provides a model for mathematical thinking. Check it out at https://teacher.desmos.com/  In Ohio, at least, keep in mind that this is a crucial tool that students need to be exposed to as this is the same calculator interface we will be using on our State Achievement Tests.DESMOS

My final app is really one that can be used in all disciplines, and isn’t limited to say math or ELA.  As students progress into higher and higher grade levels or as content gets more and more challenging, it is essential to help students see the relationships between ideas. Often times students with special needs that have difficulty with organizing information need support in keeping ideas and these relationships straight. Ideament is a great app that allows you to draw a diagram – a mini map, concept map, flow chart, etc. and convert it to a text outline and vice versa.  This is a great way to help students with special needs organize information for something that they need to write, but also can be used to in relationship to text.  For example, copying and pasting a portion of text into a word document will allow the software to create a diagram of the text to help students organize this text and make sense of the relationships amongst ideas, perhaps say in a science text. Students also have the option of manipulating these diagrams to reorganize them in ways so that they too can learn how to process the information.  Although it is appropriate for all students, adults can benefit from it as well. I used when I started writing this blog!Ideament

While these APPS don’t solve everything, they do transform classrooms as areas of grade-level learning for all students.  Through the use of APPS, I know that you will discover additional ways to help support all students.  I encourage you to respond to this blog or e-mail us to tell us how you’re using them.  I’d love to learn more too!

 

Capturing Student Interest: Problem-Solving on the First Day of School

by Tricia Ebner, M.Ed. & NBCT

Take a moment to think about this: what do most students experience on their first day of school in your school building? What is the first day of school in your classroom like for them? After years of spending that first day going over the classroom rules, expectations, and procedures, I decided it was time for a change. I needed to do something to liven up the experience and make it more engaging for my students and me.

I’ve turned my first day of school into a problem-solving activity. I’ve tried to find different ways of doing this. For example, last year my family and I took a cross-country trip. As we traveled, I purchased postcards at various locations, and I took a few minutes to write welcome postcards to my incoming sixth graders. Along with a welcoming message, I asked them to bring the postcards to the first day of school. To increase the percentage of students bringing postcards, I posted a note on my classroom door, reminding students to bring postcards, so that when they toured the building at schedule pick-up, they and their parents would see the reminder. I  also bought a few extra postcards, so that those who forgot could still be involved in the activity.8.6.17 blog post graphic

On the first day of school, I had a map of the United States hanging on my board. After checking the roster and making a quick run through names, I gave students their challenge: they needed to take their postcards, and using any information they had on those post cards, they needed to figure out where I had been, and when, with a goal of identifying my travel route. I didn’t give them any other instructions.

It was fascinating to watch the students work on the challenge. At first there wasn’t much organization. Some just sat and read the postcard again. Others approached classmates to see where their postcards were from. Eventually, the class began to organize itself. Students got into groups based upon where their postcards were from. Then they began to notice other thing about the post cards, such as the postmarks. From this, they began to sort out travel dates.

Ultimately the class needed a little bit of help, but they figured out the travel route. They gained some time interacting with each other, using their reading, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. I gained a wealth of knowledge about my students. Observing them showed me the leaders in the class, and those who were content to sit back and let someone else take their postcards and solve the challenge. I saw how they handled disagreements. I also saw who could work well together, and who quickly moved off-topic when working together. The knowledge I gained in the first day was valuable as I began to organize the class for a project-based learning activity. My students were engaged in the work, and a couple even commented that the class period had flown by far more quickly than they would have expected of a 70-minute class period.

As you begin thinking about ways to launch your year with your students, I challenge you to consider this: what kind of hands-on, problem-solving activity could you use? What could you challenge them to do that will show you their communication and critical thinking skills? Try it out! See what you might learn, and how it might set the tone for the year ahead.

Need ideas for problem-solving situations you might use? Consider taking a “mystery” approach, whether it’s to share something about yourself or your class.

 

The Power of a Poem

by Tricia Ebner, M.Ed., NBCT

There are some points in the school year where a major focus or unit is wrapping up, but starting another major unit just isn’t a great idea. There may be a break approaching, or the schedule is going to be peppered with adjusted schedules. Sometimes it’s good to change the pace a bit and work on shorter “mini-units.”

I found myself in this position at one point last year. We had finished a unit, and the next few weeks would be filled assemblies and visits from the high school guidance counselor as my eighth graders prepared to schedule their classes for their first year of high school. Since we hadn’t done much work with poetry during the year, I decided that was the direction to move. I started with one of my favorite lesson resources: the ELA lessons available on www.achievethecore.org. There I found ideas for Gary Soto’s poem “Oranges.” The discussion questions were excellent, and the topic of the poem, a boy’s walk around his neighborhood with a girl he likes, was one I knew my students would be secretly interested in, even if they played it “cool” during class discussion. What I especially liked was one of the writing tasks at the end of the lesson: take the poem, and write it into narrative form.

We have a literature anthology that includes the poem, so we used that and a good stack of post-it notes as we read the poem. As we moved into discussion, I asked students to discuss the questions in small groups, so they could work together and have more opportunity to share their thoughts than a whole-class discussion would allow. As I introduced the narrative writing task, there was a bit of groaning, but then one hand shot up. The question: “Can I write the story from the girl’s point of view?”

The complaining stopped as everyone paused to consider the possibility. This twist appealed to me. It required close reading of the poem and drawing lots of inferences on the girl’s thoughts and feelings. I agreed that this was a terrific idea. A couple of other students asked about other points of view, such as the shopkeeper’s, or the dog’s. I asked if there was enough information on those characters to allow the writer to produce a reasonable narrative of the events in the poem. With a grin, the student responded, “Enough to write the length of story I want to write–a really, really short one.” We ultimately agreed that the narrative could be written from the boy’s perspective or the girl’s, and in first-person or third-person, as the student chose.

The results of the writing were impressive. I asked students to take the piece to a polished rough draft product, but the pieces were short enough, and the students invested enough that much of what they submitted could’ve been a final draft. What surprised me was how many of them–boys included–chose to write from the girl’s perspective. It was exciting to see the students digging for clues and using everything they could to convey their main character’s thoughts and feelings. Most took key phrases from Soto’s work and embedded them into their narratives. This also meant that they had to focus on their own word choices and use of figurative language, so that Soto’s words weren’t a stark contrast from their own. I didn’t have to encourage them to get feedback from one another; most were eager to share their drafts, asking, “Do you think this works?” or “Did I get across how she must be feeling?” Their enthusiasm was contagious.

I’m not sure who learned more from this lesson, the students or me. The students certainly grew in their understanding and appreciation of poetic devices, figurative language, and narrative points of view and perspective. I learned that the right text, at the right time, set up in the right way for the students, can foster creativity and generate impressive writing. It was a lesson and activity well worth pursuing.

 

It’s Not Over When the Testing is Done

by Tricia Ebner, NBCT

Within the next few weeks, Ohio’s state assessments will be finished, and we will be in the last weeks of the school year. If you’re like many Ohio teachers, you’re considering the options for meaningful, engaging lessons and activities in these last weeks. After all, it really isn’t over once the state assessments are submitted. What can we do with our students that continues to build their skills and knowledge while keeping them focused and enthused as the weather warms and summer break beckons?pablo4.9.17

When I consider this situation, I like to ask myself a couple of questions:

  1. Which of the standards could I address in more depth? In answering this, I consider where my focus has been. During January, February, and March,I tend to put more emphasis on those standards I know will be included on Ohio’s state assessments. In English language arts, our writing tasks are focused on informational/expository writing and argument, since narrative writing isn’t included on the state assessment.
  2. What kinds of tasks and activities do my students really enjoy, not necessarily because they’re easy but because they’re appropriately engaging and challenging?

One of the most engaging activities I’ve done with my students is conducting mock trials. Working through the process of reading and analyzing witness statements, crafting questions, prepping witnesses, and writing opening statements and closing arguments is exciting, real–world kinds of tasks. The English language arts standards are embedded within these activities, too. For more information about mock trials, check out this blog post.

This kind of reflection and planning isn’t limited to English language arts. Consider these possibilities for mathematics, science, and social studies.

Math: Take the major work of the grade and craft a real-world kind of task involving the use of those skills and concepts. For several years, even before Ohio adopted our current learning standards, I had a colleague who loved presenting students with tasks that incorporated math into real-world situations. For example, she asked students to consider the costs of redecorating their bedrooms. Students were responsible for calculating area, the square feet needed of carpet or other flooring, the amount of paint it would take to change the color of the walls. They calculated the cost of baseboard and trim around windows. They also had to work within a budget. For several days, students almost seemed to ignore the adults in the room because they were so engrossed in planning out their ideal bedrooms.

Science: What kind of cooperative, hands-on project or experiment might engage students toward the end of the year? Projects like building and testing rockets made from two-liter pop bottles can be engaging and also practice team collaboration skills. In life sciences, students have imagined themselves discovering islands with a complete, self-contained ecosystem, filled with unusual, never-before-discovered plants and animals. Students practiced skills in the classification system, developing food webs and making plans for preservation of this fictional island. It is a terrific way to review some of the major concepts within life sciences.

Social Studies: What aspects of the year’s curriculum do you wish you could have spent more time investigating? What questions did the students have? My colleagues in social studies are getting ready to have their students investigate medieval history through some hands-on activities and creations, including manors. Or perhaps a simulation activity, like the mock trials described in language arts, could work.

Whatever your subject area, it’s worth considering how taking a more hands-on, project-oriented approach can be motivating and engaging for students as we hit these warm spring days. These kinds of activities synthesize the skills and concepts we’ve studied all year. It brings the learning together in a tangible way for students, and that’s a great note to close the year. After all, it’s over when the testing is done.

What classroom challenge have you faced recently? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.

 

Encouraging Reading

by Tricia Ebner

In the past few years there has been a strong focus on close reading to foster deep understanding and analysis of text. It’s also important, though, for students to continue reading lots of books, stories, articles, and poems. One of the key strategies in growing and strengthening vocabulary is through volume of reading.pablo-44

This can get particularly difficult as students move through their middle school years into high school. As studies become more involved in upper grades, the homework load can increase. Schools also offer more extracurricular activities, including clubs and sports. The demands on a student’s time increase, and oftentimes, pleasure reading slips down the priority list. I’ve observed this drop in reading among my eighth graders. In my school, my eighth graders are in English language arts for 50 minutes a day, while sixth and seventh graders have more minutes of ELA instruction. This makes it difficult for me to provide significant, routine independent reading time. I considered requiring a reading log. Past experiences with reading logs weren’t successful, though. Avid readers were annoyed by them, and reading logs only served to make reading an even less-appealing activity for apathetic readers. I needed to find a way of encouraging reading without making it a chore.

I decided to try quarterly “book projects.” Each quarter I ask students to read a book entirely out of class and then prepare some kind of presentation about the book they’ve read. In the first quarter, students select a book and then choose from a variety of options for presenting, including a Siskel-and-Ebert partner review kind of presentation. For the second quarter, I take a bit of time to explain Paul Harvey and his “The Rest of the Story” segments from years ago. Then students select a biography and prepare a presentation to share their own “Rest of the Story” segment about their biography subject.

The third quarter project is my favorite. We call it the “Outside the Box” project. This project challenges to read something they would not normally ever pick up. They need to read at least 75 pages of whatever they select and then prepare a presentation about it, sharing what they liked, what they didn’t like, and why.

Last year was the first I tried this particular project, and it seemed to be the favorite of our projects for the year. A number of students read books they said they would never have selected normally, and discovered a new author or genre they had never imagined themselves liking. One boy, for example, shared that he had picked Twilight by Stephanie Meyers because what could be more opposite of his reading tastes than sparkling vampires? By the time he gave his presentation, he was halfway through the fourth book in the series and readily admitted that the books were far better than he had expected.  

We are about a month away from presentations for this project this year. When I explained the project to my eighth graders, several of them went to each other and asked classmates to select books for them. It didn’t take long for my students to check out books that they normally wouldn’t have selected. Another way I know this is an engaging project: already students have finished their books and prepared their presentations, and the due date is March 13.

I’ve decided to have my students give oral presentations rather than write a review because it’s a great opportunity to practice speaking and listening skills. My students prepare three to four minute speeches, and as they listen to their classmates, they note titles and authors they might want to consider reading.  

I am still trying to figure out the best approach to fostering a love of independent reading in busy eighth graders. While I continue to consider possibilities, these quarterly book projects are encouraging independent reading, and we know that ongoing reading is one of the best ways to continue strengthening reading skills.

What classroom challenge have you faced recently? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.

Test Prep: Literacy Assessments

by Tricia Ebner

As we turn our calendars from January to February, one of our school-year realities begins to come into focus: the state assessments are on the horizon. This raises the annual question and dilemma for many of us: what is the best way to prepare our students for these assessments?

The answer is simple and complex, all at once. The best possible test-preparation we can give our students for the Ohio literacy assessments is solid, well-crafted, standards-aligned instruction and activities throughout the school year. After all, our assessments are based on nothing more and nothing less than Ohio’s standards. Having a laser focus, daily, on students’ needs and the standards and expectations of our content and grade level is optimum.

While this this is true, many of us still want to do something to reinforce test-taking skills and strategies. After all, we want to be sure our students can approach the assessment with confidence, not feeling nervousness over the testing platform or format. There are three simple strategies we can use to help our students become familiar with test and question format as well as the technology platform.

  • Give students frequent practice with questions designed in the same format as the state assessment. By taking a little bit of time to study how questions are structured, especially the multi-part questions and the technology-enhanced questions, we can craft the same format of questions for texts and skills we are currently addressing in our classrooms. Is there a critical vocabulary term in a piece your students will be reading soon? Why not craft a two-part question as a means of working with that word and also showing students how that kind of question might look on the spring assessment? If you have technology readily available, consider crafting these kinds of questions on a web site such as Edulastic, which gives students the technology practice as well as the question format practice. Another good strategy is having students work on their writing tasks on the computer, using whatever word-processing program is readily available.
  • Use released passages and items on occasion as a practice tool. I’m going to reveal my bias here: I am not a huge fan of test-prep packets. I resist spending a week on packets, with lessons focused day-in and day-out on passages and questions. Instead, I select a passage and question set that we then use for bell work over several days. My students have been much more willing to meaningfully engage in an analysis of a question or two at the beginning of class, and then move into our more routine work. I’ve also found that these “bite-sized” efforts tend to be better for my students who struggle with test anxiety. Usually we’ll work through two or three passages and related questions over the course of a few weeks. I always make sure we address a literature passage and a nonfiction passage that addresses the history/social studies or science/technology standards.
  • Use the practice test or half-length test. Putting the kids on the platform and having them work through released or practice items is also helpful. Personally, I don’t have my students keep a paper-and-pencil record of their responses; instead, I have them jot down the item numbers of questions that give them more difficulty, and then we “debrief” on the experience after everyone is finished. Again, I try to keep this activity low-risk and low-stress.pablo-41

 

Our statewide spring assessments are important in a number of ways, from students showing what they know and can do to building and district report cards and even our own teacher evaluations. When I keep specific test-preparation activities balanced with our routine class work, and I keep the activities low-risk and low-stress, we all approach the spring assessments with confidence. As a result, my students are more likely to give their best efforts and performance, and I will see more accurate data about what they know and can do, and what areas of instruction might need improvement for the next year. Keeping a balanced perspective on assessment keeps the focus on learning and growth, and that’s a win-win for everyone.

In case you missed it: the Ohio Department of Education announced on Friday, February 3, that it has released half-length practice tests on the Test Portal. You’ll find released items from the Spring 2016 assessment there as well.


How have you faced a lesson-planning challenge? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.

The Challenges of Teaching College Credit Plus

The persistent inner voice  questions me daily.  How do I build and maintain a post-secondary course culture in my high school classes?  I’m a second-year college credit plus (CCP) English teacher.   I’m also a professional and a standards advocate.

Ethics and guidelines matter to me.Though it would be easy to teach students the same way I taught AP English or even a junior or senior English class, CCP Comp 101 and 102 are not traditional high school courses.  High school students are taking these courses for transcripted college credit.  Therefore, the college board requirements and the 11-12th grade Ohio writing standards are no longer my guide.pablo-39

When we first received this teaching assignment 2 years ago, my colleague who also teaches CCP Comp and I knew that we needed to meet with our community college’s English rep.  Since collaboration is an integral aspect of our high school teaching culture, it was natural to reach out and link arms with our higher ed colleagues.  Building rapport took time because we were not on the same campus and assumptions about our domains (secondary vs higher ed systems) needed to be clarified.  However, after orientation and emails, we built the communication bridge.

I’ve learned and developed my approach to instructing the CCP classes.  Initially, I believed that there were no guidelines.  I foolishly thought I had total freedom because my erroneous assumption was that college instructors do their own thing.  Ha! The guidelines that the college English department has for Comp 101 and 102 have clear objectives and learning outcomes.  From rhetorical knowledge, to critical thinking, reading, and writing, students would be building their knowledge of the composing process.  They would be developing collaborative skill, applying knowledge of writing conventions and be composing in electronic environments.

My second awareness hit me when theory and practice collided.  Yes, based on test data, many students were college ready and most of them had the college-ready “survival skills,” of self-direction, independence, self-advocacy, ability to handle the rigor of the syllabus and keep the pace, and thoughtful ownership and engagement in developing their writing skills.  However, they are still 16 and 17 years old. So, making professional decisions about whether to hold steadfast on expectations or to seize the opportunity of teachable moments became commonplace.  For example when a girl came to me and asked how do I cite a work in an anthology, I sat down and cognitive coached her through the process instead of giving her the answer or telling her to go figure it out.  While many others navigated the electronic resources on their own, those that cared but were slightly lost needed extra attention.  Therefore, incorporating conference time aka office hours into my syllabus, and encouraging students to initiate the contact has been helpful for CCP students.

No matter what, CCP requires students to be accountable. As well, teaching CCP demands my accountability to the college and to my students.

What classroom challenge have you faced recently? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.

The Power of Good Questioning

by Tricia Ebner, NBCT

During one of my first post-observation conferences as a novice teacher, my principal told me that while I had many strengths as a teacher, my questioning skills were weak. He said I needed to improve those in order to continue strengthening my practice. It was something that I stewed over for days afterward, but then I began to reflect on my practice and expectations. I wanted my seniors to be highly engaged, excited about the British literature we were studying and eager to share their ideas in discussion and writing. I was working really, really hard to generate that kind of engagement, and yet nothing was happening. The texts were rich, the writing tasks seemed solid. When I was truly honest with myself, I had to admit the questions were the weak point. It simply wasn’t possible to generate the kinds of rich discussion I wanted with basic who-what-where questions. I needed to pose better questions.

While this observation and my subsequent realization happened over twenty years ago, my reflection on question hasn’t stopped. At the time my first principal made his observation, the internet was new enough that I didn’t have access to it. (Yes, this was shortly after dinosaurs stopped roaming the earth, or so it seems to my middle school students today.) I read all I could. I perused the college textbooks I had kept. I searched my growing library of English Journals from NCTE. As I worked on my master’s degree, I read resources in the university’s library.

My quest for asking good questions still continues. While I have changed and improved, my students have also changed. The types of questions that resonate well with my 6th, 7th, and 8th graders are those that dig deeply into our studies. When I ask deep, powerful, open-ended questions, we all learn. The connections and insights students make through these kinds of questions are key. They foster critical thinking. Asking these kinds of questions also models the kinds of questions students need to ask independently, of themselves and their reading and research.

I’ve found the lessons on the www.achievethecore.org web site to be particularly strong and powerful. They’ve helped me better understand what strong, solid question about text look and sound like. Recently I used the questions surrounding the short story “Eleven.” After reading the text independently, we began going through the text a second time, this time stopping to note various plot, characterization, vocabulary, and writing style choices. At one point, I asked the student to consider why Cisneros had chosen to start five sentences in the first few paragraphs with the word “And,” a question suggested by the lesson plan on the web site. As they shared various thoughts, the class realized that this approach conveys a more conversational style and gives the narration the voice of an eleven-year-old. Then one student said, “It reminds me of what Gary Paulsen did in Hatchet.”

This kind of powerful connection was possibly largely because of the kinds of thoughtful questions we were discussing. Asking questions like this gets students to consider the author’s purpose and reflect on how writing style can support the purpose. The critical thinking that goes into answer questions like these and then extending them into observations and connections with other texts is powerful. It’s also the kind of reading we need our students to engage in as they continue learning and growing in this 21st century.

The challenge of questioning in the classroom isn’t one solved quickly. There are no five-minute strategies to developing strong, powerful questions. It takes time, effort, and practice. Sometimes question sets I have developed have been flops, with students quickly answering in short, surface-level responses. Every flop has taught me more about crafting better questions. It’s a journey and process, and one that is well worth pursuing. By crafting deep, powerful, meaningful questions, we are helping students to stretch their learning, use texts as resources, and become more independent, empowered learners.

One tool for crafting good questions about text is the “Guide to Creating Text Dependent Questions,” also found here on the www.achievethecore web site.


What classroom challenge have you faced recently? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.

Resources in Action: NewsELA and Analyzing Arguments

by Tricia Ebner

Like many teachers, I spend a bit of time on my winter break working on lesson preparation for the time ahead. I’ve learned that good planning for the first weeks back makes the days easier for everyone. This year, as I looked over my plans for January, I saw that I had one of those situations I’ve come to dread: a one-day “gap” between units.

After looking at possibilities for shifting activities around, I decided to live with the one-day gap and use it as an opportunity for a review and preview. A look through my plans suggested that a focus on argument, specifically reading and analyzing another’s argument, could be a good goal for the day.pablo-37

With this in mind, I turned to some of my favorite text resources. While I love the text sets and mini-units on Achieve the Core, most of those take more than a single 50-minute class period. CommonLit had some possibilities, too, but since it is a tool new to my students, I suspected that the fascination with a new site would overshadow the review I wanted my students to do. So I turned to NewsELA. There I found a Pro/Con text set on the feasibility of self-driving cars. This was exactly the kind of resource I needed. Neither text was long, and NewsELA had them paired together into a single document. A brief four-question quiz followed the paired texts. Furthermore, since the set was on NewsELA, I could use the texts at different reading levels to more specifically address my students’ needs. It didn’t take me long to arrange my students into smaller groups for the purposes of our reading and discussion.

My next step was to find a good way to review the elements of argument. I started by pairing two pictures on a Google slide. One was of two birds sitting on a branch, with one hunched down and the other squawking at the first, wings outstretched. The second picture was a courtroom scene, with a lawyer addressing a judge and jury. The title of the slide was, “Which picture best represents the kind of argument we use in language arts?”

Then I searched for a brief video overview of the elements of a strong argument. I found one through XtraNormal, a computer-generated animation site. I knew the animation would keep my students’ attention, and the dialogue between the two characters, a teacher and a student, would provide the kind of “cobweb-clearing” review we needed before reading the text.

I used this lesson with my eighth graders last week. They had just finished a cold-read assessment the day before, taking the skills and standards we had been focused upon during our reading of A Christmas Carol and applying them to a passage from Tuesdays with Morrie. The paired photo slide generated some chuckles and comments, with a few students telling the class that they wished argument meant the kind of “discussion” going on between the two birds. Our brief discussion and comparison of the two photos set the stage for our work for the class.

The video worked well. At first, some students focused more upon the quirks of the computer animation, but by the end of the video, the students remembered the elements of argument. We had a brief discussion about a couple of points within the video, and then I handed out the text pairs. Students read individually and then answered the four questions. Then they gathered into the small groups I had organized before the lesson, and they worked to answer seven questions I had posed for them:

  1. What is the claim of the pro article?
  2. What is the claim of the con article?
  3. What are the reasons used in the pro article?
  4. What are the reasons used in the con article?
  5. What evidence is used in the pro article?
  6. What evidence is used in the con article?
  7. Which of the two texts is the stronger argument?

As I circulated among the groups, I heard students debating finer points of the texts, especially the qualities of the evidence. One of the strongest ideas generated by several groups was that the evidence for the text in favor of self-driving cars tended to be weaker, because there simply aren’t enough instances of self-driving cars yet. The class as a whole decided that because there are specific examples of self-driving cars failing, the con argument is stronger. One student noted that as testing continues, stronger evidence supporting the value of self-driving cars may become available. I was pleased to hear students not only analyzing the qualities of the two arguments, but also considering how the quantity and quality of evidence available will continue to grow as tests and experiments with self-driving cars continue.

I was pleased with how this one-day lesson worked. The integration of photos, videos, individual questions, small group discussion, and whole-class discussion provided good variety. My observations of the students at work confirmed my thinking that students needed to refresh their understanding of elements f argument. The results of the four-question “quiz” also showed some interesting results that I will be considering as I continue preparing for our next unit, which will focus on argument.

When faced with this situation again, I will take similar steps. Using texts from a variety of sources gives me a broader range of options. NewsELA worked beautifully for my goals in this particular instance; the next time I have this kind of situation, however, I may want to focus on standards that could be better addressed by texts offered by other resources, such as CommonLit or ReadWorks.

Using readily-available resources, like NewsELA, made it easier for me to plan and use a single-period lesson geared toward my students and their needs.

How have you faced a lesson-planning challenge? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.

Five Favorite Apps for ELA–and More

by Tricia Ebner

This year it happened: one-to-one computer access became part of my school district in grades 8-12, and computers became more easily accessible for other grades as well. In all three of my assigned grade levels (6-8), my students now have daily access to computers. When this was announced to us last spring, I was thrilled. This easy accessibility was going to make technology integration so much easier for me. Then reality struck: I needed to find technology-based tools that could help me more easily do what I wanted within my classroom.


pablo-31I’ve been keeping my eyes open to other teachers’ favorite apps and web sites, often checking out recommendations on Twitter. When I’ve had the opportunity, I’ve attended professional development sessions devoted to sharing apps useful for classrooms. My focus throughout this process has been on finding tools that will be useful for my students and me as we continue to learn and grow. My foundational principle has been that the app or web site must help us toward our goals; the technology is not a goal by itself. Then I consider three additional factors: privacy protection for my students, cost, and ease of use. When an app meets these criteria, I will try it within my classroom to see how successful it is with my students.

So far, I’ve discovered a number of apps that help my students and me with our work. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Padlet:  This free app allows me to set up virtual “bulletin boards” where students can respond to questions or post ideas for consideration. It’s a great springboard for class discussion. Sometimes I’ll use it to start class by posting a question or thought-provoking quote, and then individual students post their responses. At other times, I’ve used it after students have discussed a question in pairs or small groups. The groups craft a responses to the question, and then we can look at the various ideas when I project the page on our interactive white board. By keeping my Padlets secret, so that only those who have the link can participate, I am able to maintain student privacy.
  • Backchannel Chat: This has revolutionized certain activities in my classroom. I learned about this tool at the NCTE Convention in November, and since then I have used it with both sixth and eighth grades. In fishbowl discussions, this app allows those students in the outer circle to participate in a silent, virtual discussion, while those sitting in the inside circle conduct their verbal discussion. I’ve also used it while showing a video. When my eighth graders watched a filmed version of A Christmas Carol, I was able to pose questions encouraging them to consider why the director selected particular camera angles, lighting, or how an actor’s delivery of certain lines impacted the meaning of the words. We had these discussions in our Backchannel room, without interrupting the flow of the movie. One of my favorite features of this tool is that students who are normally reserved and quiet in whole-class discussions will often share terrific insights in the Backchannel. There is a free version, and the paid version ($15/year) provides some excellent additional tools to help manage the chat, including the ability to “mute” individual students and download a transcript of the chat.
  • Edulastic: This free tool provides a huge range of questions and question formats, making it a great way to design and use computer-based assessments. There are question banks aligned to standards, so that teachers can select items aligned to standards students have been addressing in their work. Teachers can also write their own items and note which standards are being addressed. There are four levels of privacy for questions, too, including private only to me (teacher), school, district, and public. This tool is being used more and more often for common assessments in my school. The question types available include tech-enhanced options, such as drag-and-drop and multiple-part questions. This is a great way to give students more regular experience with these kinds of assessment items, reducing the need for focused, dedicated test prep work around technology tools, because students are seeing these kinds of questions on assessments throughout the year.
  • PearDeck: This tool allows teachers to create interactive slide decks. It has revolutionized how I use slide shows, such as PowerPoint or Google slides. I can share information, ask questions, and even embed videos. Now I can present a skill or idea, and then I can have students practice it, so that I can conduct in-the-moment, real-time formative assessment that helps me decide upon next steps. There is a free level, which allows limited use, and a paid subscription level. (There is another tool available, called Nearpod, which has similar features and also includes a library of lessons for use, with free and paid membership levels.)
  • EDpuzzle: This free tool provides the ability to embed questions within videos. It makes watching videos more interactive and helps me see what students understand–and don’t understand–about video segments we watch. There are lessons available for use, and I can also make my own. It’s a great option for flipped instruction and self-paced activities because students can watch independently, and I can still track how well they understand what they understand the video and its information.

 

It’s worth noting that a none of these tools are focused exclusively on English language arts. These could be very useful in just about any class and subject. Using these tools has streamlined work in my classroom, making certain activities more efficient and giving me feedback faster. For example, I used to have students complete a paper chart comparing the Christmas Carol movie to the novel. Then I would take time to read through each chart and note individual student understanding. This year, with Backchannel Chat, I could ask questions and track student understanding in the moment. Tools like Peardeck and EDPuzzle make multimedia presentations much more interactive and engaging. Having regular one-to-one access isn’t a requirement for using these; there are creative ways of using these tools in a variety of settings. If you’re looking for technology tools to make work more efficient in your classroom, consider trying one of these.

Do you have favorite apps you use within your classroom? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.