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

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  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!


Review: Favorite Resources

by Ohio Teachers for Quality Education

Summer is a great time to investigate potential resources for use in the classroom. With the different pace of summertime, we have an opportunity to explore various web sites and tools. This week we’re taking a look back at some of our favorite blog posts about resources. Consider taking a few moments to check out some of these past posts and the resources they share. You may find something you’ve been wishing for!notes-macbook-study-conference

Technology Resources: No matter what we teach, there are apps that can support learning and teaching. In this post from January, Tricia Ebner shares five apps that can be useful in any classroom.

Literacy Resources: Selecting the vocabulary terms to focus upon can be challenging task; this post shares how the Academic Word Finder can be a great resource to helping make those decisions.

Text sets are useful not only in English language arts but also in science, social studies, and more. This post from November takes a look at how text sets can be useful in helping students develop deeper understanding.

Math Resources:  If you’re looking for resources that will help you deepen your understanding of math, Dr. Bryan Drost shares some of his favorite math tools and resources in this blog post from October.

Charesha Barrett shares how one public library put together a program to support kindergartners and their parents in working with math at home in this post.

Educator Char Shryock shares how manipulatives aren’t just for primary grades. Read here how they can be useful in high school classes, too.

English Language Arts Resources: Just as there are terrific resources for math, there are also great options for English language arts. Check out this post featuring resources for teachers.

A strategy for teaching tone is shared in this post from December. The ideas here are valuable to consider in teaching reading and writing, too!

If you’re looking for ideas to use in teaching writing, Char Shryock shares how two fourth grade classrooms partnered in this writing activity

Don’t forget that the Ohio Teachers for Quality Education web site has two tabs devoted to resources. If you’re just getting started in your teaching career, or you’re changing grade levels and/or subject areas, you may want to check out the Just Getting Started Resources. If you’re looking for tools to help streamline your work or change the routine, check out Our Favorite Go-To Resources.


Do you have favorite tools and resources you’d like to share with other Ohio teachers? 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 Misconceptions about State Assessments

by Dr. Bryan Drost & Tricia Ebner

As Ohio’s statewide testing window comes to a close, it’s a good time to think about the purposes and uses of Ohio’s assessments. While we realize that there is a ton of frustration regarding testing, we are also aware that there are a number of misconceptions regarding these assessments.  It is our hope that through this entry, you will lower frustration as you will be informed with accurate information regarding our accountability system and will continue to focus on the true purpose of the assessments: documenting students’ learning progress.

State assessments are diagnostic in nature. Honestly, the state assessments are summative. They are assessing students’ skills and understanding of the standards for the school year. This is one of the reasons they are administered in April and May; teachers need as much time as can be reasonably provided to work with their students on the work for the year.

That said, the assessments can certainly be used in a diagnostic way, by next year’s teachers. As a teacher, I use the assessment results in two ways. First, I reflect on my practice over the previous school year and look to see if there are gaps in students’ performance. If those gaps seem widespread, then I know I may need to look at how well I addressed those particular standards. This becomes a revision point for my instruction in the coming school year. Secondly, I look at my incoming students’ results to get a snapshot of their skills and understanding in April and May of the previous school year. I use this as one of many data points to help me determine my starting points with instruction in the coming year. Those are certainly diagnostic uses I have in the fall, looking at the previous spring’s assessments. However, the assessments are summative for the current school year.

 Kids do better on paper-pencil testing.  Over the last year, there has been quite the discussion regarding paper-pencil testing versus electronic testing, and any perceived differences with the format.  Misconception alert: these two studies on Ohio’s testing system (not New York’s, California’s, etc.) have shown that although there are some small differences at various grade levels, overall kids do just as well on paper as they do on the computer.;

In some cases, the reverse has actually been researched to be true: “Mode constants identified in the lower grade math assessments indicated that math tests administered online were somewhat easier than when administered on paper.”

The data collected on students is being sold. The answer to this one is simple: no, it isn’t being sold. It’s against Ohio’s laws to sell information on students. In fact, the Ohio Department of Education doesn’t even see students’ names when testing information is collected. This is why students have to log into the assessment portals with their SSID, a numerical code. Administrators are not permitted to share student names with ODE; this is also a violation of state law. As an example, when I have had data appeals, I am specifically only allowed to share a student’s last name or their SSID, never both in communications.

The test changes significantly when the vendor changes. This misconception was at its height when Ohio moved from the PARCC assessment to the AIR and still seems to be circulating as value added data comes back into play next year with the expiration of Safe Harbor. To see the issue with this misconception, it’s important to understand how an assessment is constructed. A blueprint is developed based on standards and that is given to the assessment vendor. The blueprint specifically identifies the skills and understanding to be assessed in relationship to the standards. This means the vendor used to craft the assessment isn’t going to make a significant difference in the kinds of items, skills, or understanding assessed, unless the standards change. Think of it this way: cities have standards for the type of houses they are allowed to build; when a future homeowner purchases a blueprint from an architect, the blueprint is based on the standard. Change the contractor, and the house is still going to look extremely similar to any other home built using the same blueprint. In other words, if Ohio were to throw out AIR this year, we would still have a similar blueprint as the standards have not changed.

The writing of Ohio’s tests is secret, done by people in back rooms with trenchcoats and fedoras.  Nothing could be farther from the truth!  Each year, ODE in conjunction with AIR assembles a team of teachers, administrators, and other educators who write draft assessment questions.  These questions are then scrutinized many times.  After a decent chunk of questions is approved by the Content Advisory Committee, the questions are sent to the Sensitivity and Fairness group where discussion ensues related to bias, appropriateness for testing, as well as accessibility for all students.  Any questions that do not meet this group’s strict criteria are thrown out.  From here, questions have to be field tested; after data is collected on the questions, the testing groups meet again to ensure that the questions don’t have unintended bias.  Because of all of these steps, it can take upwards of two years for questions to appear on exams.  In other words, the questions that the team is writing this year, won’t appear for at least another two years. All of Ohio’s created questions must conform to high psychometric levels as well as meet Ohio’s guidelines for sensitivity and fairness.   

Sometimes it’s easy to fall into the misconceptions, especially when we are anxiously awaiting this year’s results. It’s important to be mindful of these five critical facts about Ohio’s assessments. This can help us more clearly focus on the real goal of Ohio’s assessment system: documenting our students’ learning progress.

BLASTT! Blending Literature and Science Together With Technology

by Stephanie Nowak
3rd Grade Teacher, Mentor City Schools

I Wonder…..
Wonder and curiosity are inherit. From birth children learn by exploring their natural world. For many years the hands on learning approach, or Piaget’s theory of constructivism trumped, what we now call “Blended Learning.” This type of learning combines hands on or inquiry based learning while integrating technology. This “new approach” is often referred to as Genius Hour, Problem Based Learning, Engineering, Design Thinking, Tinkering, and Makerspace. This shift in teaching utilizing technology as part of “Hands On Learning” (aka Blended Learning approach) provides opportunities for students to utilize their natural curiosity in order to produce knowledge and form meaning based on their experiences. Whatever you coin it, this process is rooted in constructivist theory. It’s hands on, engaging and when done successfully can yield amazing results.

Survival of the Fittest
If you are surviving today’s educational demands you are doing so at an alarming rate and pace. You want to be innovative, but who has time when you are mandated to teach the core subjects for the majority of your day, attend PLC’s, and constantly assess and monitor data? Now add to the mix district and building initiatives and the task becomes daunting. You feel like you are on Survivor. You find a way to survive even when you feel like you are failing. You find a way to survive when the joy of discovery has been put on a shelf, replaced with test preparation, running records, and formative assessments. That’s where I found myself, in survival mode.

I have taught third grade for 23 years for Mentor Public Schools. I continue to grow and try new things but this has been a balancing act. With state mandates it’s become increasingly harder to do “Hands on Learning,” even though, I know how meaningful and effective it can be. In addition, every minute on my daily schedule has been assigned. It can make you feel like you are just going through the motions, working hard, looking for the finish line. I knew I needed to find a way to use my passion for science and integrate that passion into the existing curriculum. I was losing this race and my passion was slowly deteriorating.

Finding Your Passion 
Curiosity can be a very strong motivator. Through the years I began creating units that not only aligned to the standards cross curricularly, but were tech savvy, engaging, hands on, and utilized a blended approach. I was asked to share this approach and I hope I convince you to be a risk taker and try it within your own classroom. I have always been curious, I see connections, and when I don’t see them I look for them. I model this within my own classroom. For example have you ever wondered why our climate is getting warmer? Why are scientists studying Ohio Brown Bats fearing that they will become extinct? What about “Where did Amelia Earhart disappear to? Do Goldfish have a memory longer than three seconds? Can you build a house out of soil that the Big Bad Wolf can’t blow down? These questions may seem totally random but each is designed to create enough curiosity to engage the learner. The bonus is that each question and the unit that evolved from it are cross-curricularly aligned to Third Grade Standards in ELA, Math, and Science.

I believe that Science is the hook and technology the bait for a balanced literacy experience designed to meet the diverse learners in our classrooms. Literature and science combine to engage, excite, and drive instruction. Technology can connect our world by bringing science to life. This is key to finding your passion again, while meeting the diverse needs of learners, and integrating initiatives.

What do you do with an IDEA?
I wish I had written this book by Kobi Yamada. That’s exactly how to approach an integrated approach to learning. What do you want to do? What excites you? What do you expect the kids to learn? Is it aligned? Is it connected? My advice, start with an idea and then use the backwards design approach to create your unit. You will start to see so many connections and each year the unit will become stronger. You probably have a favorite “idea” that you have used in the past but just don’t have time for, well, it is time to resurrect that idea. By doing this, your passion is reignited and that passion shows in your teaching and your students motivation to learn.

Sharing that Passion 
I’ve been fortunate to belong to the Ohio Department of Education Science Network Regional Leaders for the last four years. I also am the District III director for SECO (Science Education Council of Ohio). These are just two platforms of many of which I’ve been given the opportunity to share. It starts with passion and mine is contagious. I’ve presented at the local, state, and national level. One of the units I’ve created is being developed by my NRL’s at the Ohio Department of Education. That unit is Save Lucy the Bat.

It started in the fall of 2015, I stumbled across Save Lucy the Bat, an interactive book online. This book is about White Nose Syndrome in little brown bats, a disease that is killing Ohio’s, and many others states, brown bat population. What we aimed to do was educate ourselves and others on this deadly disease and the impact it is having on the bat population. 98% of bats affected die. Without these creatures, our insect population isn’t controlled which can also affect our crops. With no natural predators, farmers have to rely on insecticides. Most kids and adults are scared of bats. The students looked past their fears and misconceptions and began to want to help.

My Passion
I have always had a fascination for bats. In the past my students have researched them, read about them, and spread the word to their friends and family that bats are more helpful than they are harmful. With the age of technology, I decided to try to Skype with an organization devoted to these furry little mammals. My intent was to educate my students on this fascinating creature.

The Save Lucy website is designed to allow children to explore bats and conservation by reading Lucy’s Story, then joining Lucy’s Club, where young users earn points by completing various conservation projects. This skype was the only motivation my students needed to connect to their learning. From that point on, my reading workshop centered around nonfiction text, writing persuasive paragraphs, and journaling on the behavior of bats after watching live bat cams. In Science I used Nearpod to introduce the design process building and designing bat houses. I then used a Green Screen App called Touchcast for the students to create videos sharing their persuasive writing.

The unit continues to grow each year. This past year’s class created slide shows to persuade others to help Save the Bats. This example is just one of many that shows the power of Blending Literature and Science Together with Technology. My advice, start small, learn from others, share your ideas and your passion. By reaching out to others I captured my passion and helped ignite the passion of fellow educators. What I’ve noticed the most is that my hard to reach students thrive when I approach literacy through Science. This isn’t a new concept, just a concept that needs to be find its place again in the educational culture today.

Show me the Evidence
My wise friend Char Shryock once told me if you can provide evidence of a child’s learning you are meeting the majority of the OTES indicators. This was my AHA moment! This strengthened my desire to integrate a blended learning approach that was evidence based. In her presentation on Evidence Centered Design, Char states that, “Evidence Centered Design can inform a deliberate and systematic approach to instruction that will help to ensure daily classroom work leads to all students meeting Ohio’s New Learning Standards.” In order to support claims, we must gather evidence–what can teachers point to, underline or highlight to show that students are making progress toward doing what we claim they can do? Blending learning using this focused engages students and enriches learning.

I believe I’ve shown you the evidence, I’ve shared my passion and my approach to learning. I hope this motivates you to take something you are passionate about and resurrect it. You can follow me on Twitter @StephNowak3 and I can be reached at I have several of my projects on my Blog that you can read about to get ideas for integration into your own classroom. I believe in paying it forward so if you want assistance in any way please reach out!

Three Simple Literacy Strategies for Test Preparation (and more)

by Tricia Ebner

As spring testing season approaches, teachers are reflecting on students’ progress and planning to address those skills and concepts that might need reinforcement. There are three simple ways every teacher can support the skills students need to use on their spring assessments, regardless of the content area.

  1. Review the importance of reading questions carefully. Sometimes skipping one little word makes all the difference between choosing the correct response and choosing a distractor. This is something we can practice with students throughout the year, on formative and summative assessments in our classes. Use think-alouds occasionally to show students how we can read and analyze what a question is saying, and how doing this helps us answer the question. Have students discuss questions in small groups, coming to consensus about what they have to do in order to answer the question. Taking a few minutes to utilize these strategies from time to time can reinforce these skills and encourage the habit of reading questions carefully.
  2. Require the use of evidence in responses. This is another universal skill and concept. The use of evidence is important in any subject area. When we require evidence to be used in supporting responses to questions, we’re encouraging and reinforcing the need for critical thinking and reasoning. (One tip here: number the paragraphs on any multiple-paragraph text you plan to have students read. This makes it easier for them to refer to specific evidence, whether it’s in a discussion or written response.) Asking for evidence doesn’t have to be complicated. Sometimes it’s as simple as adding the question, “What does the text say that supports your response?” Some teachers require students to put the page number or paragraph number in parentheses behind their answers to questions as a means of encouraging students to verify their answers within the text.
  3. Use the Academic Word Finder to identify those vocabulary words students need to become comfortable with. This tool quickly finds those terms for you when you copy and paste text into it. By entering text, selecting the grade level at which the text will be read, and letting technology work its magic, you will soon have a list of vocabulary terms appropriate for readers at a variety of reading levels, also making it useful for differentiation. (To learn more about how the Academic Word Finder can be invaluable for differentiation check out this blog post.)


Incorporating these three simple steps can make a difference in our students’ learning, growth, and even confidence on assessments. Embedding practice in reading questions carefully, requiring evidence, and developing academic vocabulary throughout the year are universal skills for any grade level and subject area. Test preparation doesn’t have to be packets of questions or a couple of weeks of drills. When we incorporate strategies such as these, we’re preparing our students for learning, growth, and even the spring assessments.


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.

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.

The Challenge of What Next

by Tricia Ebner

Even though it’s not the true middle of a the school year when the semester ends in mid-January, I’ve always viewed winter break as the midpoint in the year. I’ve found that this is a great time to pause and reflect on what my students have learned so far, and what we need to address in the coming months. It is sometimes easy to lose sight of the big picture of what students need to learn and be able to do by the end of the school year when we’re working on the more detailed parts of skills like research, reading informational text, and writing arguments. It’s not a good feeling to return to school in January wondering, “Are we working on the right things?”pablo-29

Taking some time in December and early January to reflect on what we’ve done so far and what we still need to address is critical. I have several resources to help me reflect on what my students have learned, where our demonstrated needs are, and what I need to be sure I address in the coming months.

  • Lesson plans: I use a lesson planning web site for writing up my weekly plans. This site enables me to access my plans anywhere, and it also allows me to conduct an “audit” of the standards I’ve focused upon. This helps me ensure I’m not overlooking standards.
  • Student performance on assignments and activities: Looking through student work samples and my anecdotal notes also gives me information about what’s going well and what needs attention. I often ask students for their thoughts, too, and they are usually honest about what they know and what they don’t know. Occasionally they will surprise me and say they don’t really know a concept or particular skill, when their work suggests they do. That tells me they aren’t yet confident, so I need to give them more opportunities to work with that and increase their confidence.
  • Progress monitoring information: I also use information from the benchmarking & progress monitoring assessments we use in my district. I appreciate having this “outside” perspective to provide another look at how my students are performing on particular skills.


This year I am seeing some results that have prompted me to consider changing my approach in the coming months. For example, the eighth graders I teach are generally performing well. There are no major gaps in our work so far. However, I am not seeing the kind of growth I want for them. This has prompted me to look carefully at the kinds of activities I’ve used in past years, and I’ve already eliminated one option, a literature-heavy unit, in favor of one that has a better balance of literature and informational text. I am now considering a couple of options I’ve never used before.

On the other hand, the growth I’ve seen in my seventh graders’ reading and vocabulary skills in the past quarter has been impressive. They have been focused on a unit that utilizes text sets and integrates academic vocabulary, reading, speaking, listening, and writing skills in a beautifully seamless way. Seeing how powerful this has been for the seventh graders has prompted me to consider how I might revamp activities in all of my classes to incorporate more text sets..

Over the winter break, I’ll spend time reading and making decisions about next steps for my students. I’ll get some plans sketched out, and in January, as my classes wrap up the second quarter and get ready to launch the third, I’ll continue reflecting on what student work is showing me about what we still need to learn. Taking time now to consider where we are and what we still need to do helps me ensure we’re addressing the standards and students’ needs, supporting their ongoing growth this year. A little time in reflection now can pay off in the months ahead.

For more information on using text sets, check out Char Shryock’s blog post found here.

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 Use of Manipulatives in High School Math Classrooms

By Char Shryock

Stop in and observe an elementary math lessons and you might see students using manipulatives to help them model their thinking and test out their strategies.  HS math classrooms look much different.  Students may have a graphing calculator as a tool but often are lacking opportunities to use manipulatives to model their thinking or derive meaning.

I recently attended the Ohio Council of Teachers of Math (OCTM) state conference.  Teachers were sharing digital tools that support HS math students.  One website that was shared is After creating a free login, teachers can add a class and access math tasks with embedded opportunities to model mathematical thinking collaboratively.  I tried the Giant Alligator Investigation.  Here is the task description, An enormous alligator lurks in the swamp. Can scatterplots and least-squares regression tell you if you have enough animal tranquilizer to stay safe?”  I really liked that the lesson starts with students making predictions, plotting predictions on a graph, then looking at actual data, making more predictions, and then using calculations to make a recommendation on how to handle the alligator.  Desmos also has Quadratic, Exponential, Modeling, Functions and Linear bundled lessons.

The NCTM Illuminations website also has a number of digital manipulative tools that are appropriate for algebra and geometry students.  One of my favorite manipulatives is the digital algebra tiles.  The algebra tiles tool presents the student with a problem to solve, positive/negative number tiles, and variable tiles to use to model an answer.  Other interactive manipulatives include geometric solids, an interactive calculus tool, and a line of best fit graphing tool.  All tools are searchable by grade level and standard strand. 

Don’t have access to technology in your classroom? Here is a template for creating your own algebra tiles for your students to use.