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Maybe Teaching doesn't have to be so Lonely

As a teacher, you're constantly surrounded by people. But you never have much of a chance to talk about what's on your mind. Instead, you share everything you think will help the minds of the students before you. All day long. Every day.

Sure, there are faculty meetings. Department meetings. Intervention meetings. Grade level team meetings.

But do you ever really get a chance to just talk to your peers about what's going on in your classroom? To share what's working and what isn't? To ask for help?

Not really. And maybe you wouldn't even want to, since there's a good chance you don't know most of them very well.

Though I think we can all agree teachers carry a huge weight of emotional concerns for their students and a constant need for new ideas and information, there are very few chances to dispel that weight and feed that need through conversation with colleagues.

So, my friend, here are ten ideas for how you might collaborate in a more joyful way with those around you. Whether you're a first year teacher, a veteran, a department chair, or a curriculum coach, perhaps you can get some conversations going and help lead the way in this direction at your school.

#1 The Breakfast Club

After my first year of teaching, I went to a particularly epic conference called The Exeter Humanities Institute. It was there that I became a die-hard Harkness discussion devotee, and I came back to my school in California eager to share the ideas I had learned. So I started my own breakfast club, inviting any interested teachers at my school to join me for a breakfast conversation once a month about Harkness. At first I shared ideas and answered questions, and gradually as others tried out the method, it became a broader conversation.

Maybe there's a subject that interests you or a small group of your colleagues. You might start a breakfast club to talk genius hour, Screencastify, hyperdocs, escape rooms, one-pagers, or some other exciting strategy.

Then again, perhaps it should be a wine club, dessert club, or sushi club.

Whatever works for you. This is a fun way to combine professional conversations with fun bonding. You're bound to get to know some of your colleagues better at the same time that you learn with them and from them.

#2 PD Teams

We've all sat through the dreaded faculty meeting that doesn't apply to us. Ew.

Nothing like being taught how to teach reading when you've already been teaching it for twenty years, or hearing about how to use a new tech tool that would never work for the specific group of students you're teaching.

Perhaps it's time to lobby your PD coordinator to let your faculty form into PD teams. Let interested parties sign up for what they'd actually like to learn about. Then your team can grab an empty classroom and dive into a subject together.

Maybe a group of stressed-out and overwhelmed first year teachers can participate in Angela Watson's 40 Hour Workweek Club together.  Maybe another group will get a Breakout EDU membership and work together on building escape rooms that can be used throughout their departments. Maybe one group wants to take Jennifer Gonzalez's JumpStart Teacher Tech (yes, that's my affiliate link, because I really believe in Jenn's good work) course. Maybe another group will dive into the teacher blog world and learn everything they can about genius hour, then present it back to interested sectors of the faculty.

PD teams could look different at every school, but the main thing is, every teacher gets to choose what will actually help her become better at reaching her students.

#3 Host an Unconference

Have you heard? Some conferences are FREE, and they are actually some of the best ones.

Hosting an unconference just might make you feel more connected to other teachers than anything else could. An unconference, sometimes called an Edcamp, brings together likeminded educators to share their ideas for a day. Doesn't sound that crazy, does it? But here's the spin, nothing is planned until the day of.

In the morning, someone puts up a blank schedule on a wall, and people can sign up to lead conversations and share ideas in all the slots. As the day goes on, you might feel inspired to sign up for an afternoon session, even if you were too nervous to start as a presenter in the morning. People simply look at the board and go where their interests lie. No major pressure. No cost. No crazy tech. Just teachers getting into rooms together to talk about what really matters in their classrooms.

You could host an unconference within your own faculty, collaborate with other local schools, or go big with something statewide.

#4 Faculty Events

Sometimes the thing that breaks down the most barriers between teachers has nothing to do with teaching. It's just a simple chance to spend time together away from the pressures of work.

Maybe you organize a day out at a minor league baseball game for your department, families and significant someones welcome.

Maybe you borrow an idea from the faculty at one school where I worked and throw an over-the-cheesy-top nacho-making competition, complete with judging, rubric, and prizes.

Maybe you invite everyone you work with out for cake batter frozen yogurt with rainbow sprinkles.

Whatever you choose,  getting together outside of work strengthens relationships inside of work. You're a lot more likely to collaborate with the person you made the contest-winning nachos with than a stranger down the hall.

#5 Join a larger Community Online TOGETHER

There's a lot going on online when it comes to teacher PD (as you clearly know).

Maybe you've found a teacher blogger that you love, a podcast you enjoy listening to, or a Facebook group that you're fond of. Wouldn't it be nice to share it with a colleague or two?

I host the Facebook group, Creative High School English, and I love talking to all the amazing teachers inside. I also love that one of them is actually a colleague of mine right here at my school. It's fun when I get a chance to tag her to answer a question about something I know she's brilliant at, and I always like to see her ideas mixed in with everyone else's. Consider bringing your department along for the ride when you find a great place to collaborate or learn online, wherever it is.

#6 Private Department FB Group 

While I love being part of a giant group on Facebook, collaborating with teachers across the world, if I was a department chair right now I would start a small group just for my department. It would be a place for us to share our wins, post photos of amazing projects, ask questions, and link to great resources.

The first few minutes of every department meeting could be a time to pop into the group and make posts and comment on other's posts. (A bell ringer for teachers!) It would be such an easy, informal way to support each other. And the department chair could make it a point to be in there once a day for a few minutes, checking up and answering questions quickly. That way no one has to wait for a free moment in the halls - which will never come - to ask a question.

#7 The Department Pro Squad

Another fun way to come together as a department and do something meaningful is to choose a subject that everyone is interested in, whether it's independent reading, making grammar more interesting, improving the feedback process, using workshop, etc. and have everyone spend time during a department meeting (and beyond) doing research into the topic.

Then bring the group together to share ideas over coffee, lunch, or dessert. Make it a chance to share great ideas and enjoy some time together too.

#8 Mentorship

Many schools have a half-hearted "mentorship" program that matches new teachers with experienced ones in a formal relationship. But how often does that mentorship really work out?

Sometimes you have to go outside the boundaries of programs like this for true mentoring relationships to develop. I had two wonderful mentors my first year of teaching, but neither was assigned to me by the school. One invited me to lunch once a month and just listened and said supportive things. The other kept a steady funnel of classroom ideas flowing into my ears.

So if you're a veteran teacher, maybe it's time to seek out a new teacher and be the support she needs. You're likely to learn a lot from her even as you help her survive the exhaustion of that challenging first year. And if you're a new teacher, maybe it's time to pick up an extra large Americano on the way to school and drop by the desk of the wise teacher you wish would be your guru, hand over the coffee, and start asking questions.

#9 Hallway Galleries

There's a reason why one billion people use Instagram. We like visuals.

One cool way to get more conversations going between teachers is to turn your school hallways into galleries for student work. Make that empty gray corridor into a giant bulletin board of student projects, and soon you'll want to drop by the room down the hall and learn more about the genesis of the amazing projects displayed outside of it. And you'll be receiving complimentary inquiries about the one-pagers, food trucks, blackout poetry, and more displayed outside your door too!

#10 Retake the Faculty "Lounge"

The faculty room/lounge/work area COULD be such an amazing space. A place where people could sit down and share ideas, pick up an excellent PD book, take a peek at bulletin boards filled with conferences, journals to submit to, and recommendations for great websites, Ed Twitter Chats, and Instagram hashtags to check out. There could be healthy food now and then as well as candy, new curtains as well as long lines for the photocopiers.

If you build it, they will come. If you can find a way to get a few people on board with making the faculty room a nicer place, a gossip free zone, a place to collaborate and not complain, your movement will hopefully generate momentum. Time for a #makeover.

Well, there you have it. Ten ideas for building professional community and friendships at your school. It's not easy being the only adult in the room 95% of the time during your day, and it helps a lot to  have people you trust around you. Yet teaching is rarely very collaborative. Sure, it's fun to have your own domain and teach just the way you want to, but it would be nice to have a support network right outside your door. Maybe you can be part of starting that at your school. Maybe you can start tomorrow.

I'd love to see and hear what you do. Please tag me on Instagram @nowsparkcreativity with photos of your unconference, faculty room makeover, breakfast club, hallway galleries, and more, or share your progress in our Facebook group, Creative High School English.

What to Buy with your Teacher Budget or Grant

So you've got some money to spend on your class, or you're planning to apply for some using Donors Choose. But what will help make your classroom a better place for you and your students?

I see this question a lot inside my Facebook group, Creative High School English. It can be overwhelming to have a block of money you're supposed to spend all at once, and not know what will help your students the MOST.

So here are some ideas. Browse through and consider what would help you to engage, inspire, and motivate your students toward greater heights of creative learning. Every classroom is different, but I've got a good feeling that some of these things will feel right to you.

Flexible Seating
Flexible seating is all the rage across the United States. While we usually see it in the form of giant blue bouncy balls and rocking plastic mini-chairs for primary students, secondary ELA teachers are finding their own way. Couches, bean bags, beautiful counters with brightly colored stools, ottomans, shaggy rugs - all of these additions to a classroom can add cozy places for students to fall in love with reading and writing. Check out the way my friend Emily transformed her ELA classroom to a more flexible learning space with less than fifty dollars. 

Classroom Library
More and more, ELA teachers must be the book providers in modern schools. Even if your school has a library, unless it's a truly thriving space that beckons and beguiles students, you're going to have more success getting your kids matched with great books right in your classroom. If you've got some money, here are the ten top titles I'd recommend to start hooking your reluctant readers.

The Big Ten:
The Selection
Ready Player One
Ender's Game
The Hunger Games
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
The Outsiders
The Hobbit
Go Ask Alice
The Fault in our Stars

You can find a longer list of recommendations here, if you're looking to spend more money on books.

Breakout Edu Membership

If you're interested in breaking into the world of escape rooms as a way to engage your students, getting a Breakout Edu Membership is a way to make it so easy. You get the gear for doing escape rooms, plus access to a bunch of escape room activities that have already been created. You can read more about what escape rooms are and how they work to inspire creative thinking for your students here. 

Moveable Parts for your Classroom

Make your classroom a more creative, collaborative, adaptable space with moveable parts. Buy cans of chalkboard or whiteboard paint, mini whiteboards or chalkboards, markers, chalk. Buy post-its for outlining story ideas on foam boards or commenting on gallery walks. Buy art supplies to fill a materials station you can use for ELA makerspace projects, sketchnotes, and one-pagers. 

Theater Corner

I applied for a grant in my first year of teaching for theater props and costumes to use in class, and we loved our theater corner. I spent my one hundred dollar mini-grant on funny clothes, wigs, glasses, and even a little makeup to put on an old shelf in one corner of my classroom, and we had so much fun with it all. Theater props and costumes are a great addition to any reader's theater project, and they also add a lot if you're having your class read a play out loud. You'll be surprised at how much your big kids like dressing up.


Screencastify is a great tool for recording videos to help your students and parents. The tool records your screen as well as your voice, so it's easy to use it to go over things. You can record yourself giving feedback to save your commenting time, explaining the steps in a paper or project, giving a lesson plan for a sub day, guiding parents on a tour of your class website, hyperdoc, or grading database, etc. Screencastify is a free tool, but if you want to be able to export your videos instead of link to them, you need the paid version. If you've got budget, that might be nice!

Classroom Transformation Kits

If you spend any time at all on teacher Instagram, then you've seen the classroom transformations going on these days. It's possible to switch the look of your classroom quite quickly with the right props - turning it into a coffee shop for a poetry slam, a cafe for a book tasting, or a theater for a play performance. If this idea appeals to you, you could spend some of your money on plastic bins you can label with each type of transformation, and the props that can help you put it into action. That way as the years go by, all you have to do is grab your coffee shop kit and make magic when you want that extra pizzazz for a special event.

Classroom Posters and Bulletin Boards

I can still remember the boring posters in so many of my classrooms growing up. Though their messages were probably positive, their contents were so dull. These days creative teachers are making amazing wall decor over on Teachers Pay Teachers. My favorite secondary ELA decor over there usually comes from The SuperHERO teacher and Building Book Love, but if you start searching, you'll find a million other options too.

Homey Classroom Elements

If you wish your classroom was a bit cozier, you could follow the trend and pick up some homey elements. A colorful rug, lamps, a hot chocolate or coffee station, Christmas lights, pretty shelf liners, and a can of paint are all solid options for making your classroom a place where you and your students feel relaxed and ready to do your best work.

(This is my favorite coffee shop - but I think it's perfect classroom inspiration!)

Literature Circle Sets

If you've wished you could try literature circles, but don't have the class sets to make it happen, this could be a great time to pick some up. Learn more about successful literature circles for big kids here.

Here are some ideas for set titles you might like to teach:

Dystopian Lit Circle Texts (YA):
The Hunger Games
The Maze Runner
The Giver
The Uglies

Gripping YA that Confronts a Major Issue:
Eleanor & Park (abuse)
Love, Hate, & Other Filters (racism, terrorism)
The Hate U Give (police brutality)
Turtles all the Way Down (mental illness)
Speak (rape)
The Outsiders (prejudice, abuse, teen violence)

Into the Wild
I am Malala
The Glass Castle
A Long Walk to Water
Boys in the Boat

WWII Books
The Diary of Anne Frank
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Dystopian Lit Circle Texts (Classic):
Animal Farm
Fahrenheit 451
Brave New World

Book Hooks (for reluctant readers)
Ender’s Game
The Outsiders
The Hobbit
Harry Potter
Ready Player One
The Crossover

Classic Lit
To Kill a Mockingbird
The Sun Also Rises
The Great Gatsby
Fahrenheit 451
Pride & Prejudice

Graphic Novels
American Born Chinese
Fahrenheit 451
What It Is

Well, I think that about covers it! Hopefully you've found some ideas that you're excited about. Of course, if you need tech, that's another way to go and that can quickly use up your budget or grant. But I'm thinking if that's what you want, you know what to get already.

If you liked this post, you might like to follow one of my favorite Pinterest boards, "Eye Candy for English Teachers." 

Host a One-Pagers Fair at your School

There are science fairs, art fairs, National History Day fairs... why not English fairs? Maybe it's time to add a special school-wide event promoting literacy, artistry, and imagination at your school.

What am I talking about? A one-pagers fair! Since I first blogged about the concept of using templates to help students explore literature with one-pagers over a year ago, thousands of teachers have introduced this project in class. I love seeing the amazing results all over social media and in my inbox too. What creative work our student are doing! Let's go on a quick tour of a few examples over on Instagram..

When I see the quality of work students are producing, I love to imagine them getting to share that work with their entire school and community.

By the way, before we dive into the fair, if you haven't yet signed up for the free one-pagers assignment including four types of templates with four different sets of instructions to choose from, you can sign up for those below. All the photos above feature the templates from this free download.

So what would a one-pagers fair look like?

Well, there are a lot of ways you could do it. 

You could have every English student at your school create a one-pager for the novel of their choice, whether an in-class read or an independent reading book.

You could let every English teacher choose a different type of one-pager to do with their students, whether on novels, poetry, nonfiction, essays, short stories, podcasts, or films. The one-pager fair would be a celebration of so many different forms of 21st century literacy. 

You could share the idea with your whole English department, and just let those who are interested have their students participate, leading perhaps to a smaller fair.

You could pilot the fair with one grade level or course - having all 9th graders share their independent reading or literature circles books through one-pagers, for example, or all A.P. students produce one-pagers connecting multiple works as a term-ending assignment leading into the fair. 

You could make fair entrance mandatory for the students who do the one-pagers project in class, or just let the kids who get really into it enter. 

However you choose to format your one-pager fair, there will be a few key steps that will help you achieve success.

Figure out your location and date and get those locked in. 

Then, you'll want to advertise the fair somehow throughout the school and community. Consider using the easy poster-making tool over at Canva to make a poster like the ones below (made in Canva), and add in the details of location, date, and time. Feel free to download the top poster and drop it into a Powerpoint slide, adding your logistics across the bottom, if that feels easier.

You'll want to enlist a panel of judges to award prizes for the fair. These could be members of your English department, but they could also be a panel of local authors, journalists, graphic designers, or other related professionals. 

I suggest you design a SIMPLE rubric for the judges, so they don't have to spend an hour with each entry. 

Consider a few categories like these, with numbers up to five or ten for each. 
  • Textual Interpretation
  • Textual Representation
  • Graphic Design
  • Creativity / Distinctiveness
  • Clarity
You'll want to decide what you'll be awarding prizes for. Will you just have Best Overall and second and third prizes? Or will you award prizes at each grade level? In different categories of one-pagers (podcast, short story, etc.)? For the different rubric categories, like Best Graphic Design, Best Textual Interpretation, etc.?

Then you'll want to create certificates for those prizes. Again, Canva is a very easy way to do this for free. Perhaps you can find some local sponsors interested in putting some money or other prizes up to go with your certificates. You might even be able to fund your special event through Donors Choose, and get money there to provide prizes.

Once you've nailed down these details, you're ready for an amazing event. See if you can recruit some parent volunteers to bring refreshments, and add a little background music on the big day if at all possible.

I hope you're inspired to start recruiting team members in your department to host your very own one-pagers fair. I can't WAIT to see pictures! Please tag me on Instagram @nowsparkcreativity or post in our Facebook group, Creative High School English, so I can applaud your awesomeness.

Literature Circles for Big Kids: A Blueprint

You hear it right and left these days, choice gives students motivation in their reading.

It makes sense, really. Who doesn't want to pick out their own book? When I go to the library, I love walking down the aisles, grabbing colorful books whose covers pull my attention or books by authors my friends have recommended.

Our students want the same thing. That's why literature circles can be such a great idea. You provide your kiddos with a variety of books to choose from, get them into groups based on their choices, and let the magic happen.

Except... the magic doesn't always happen. Literature circles aren't the easiest to get right.

My first year as a teacher, I knew I didn't have time to fit both The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby into my year, full as it was on either side with all my curriculum experiments - poetry slams, play performances, Transcendental village projects, and creative writing festivals. I knew I could just pick one, but my heart broke a little at the thought of abandoning either Hemingway or Fitzgerald. Who could split up such close friends?

So I pitched both books to my students and let them pick the one they wanted to read. We ended up split about half and half. I had them assign the reading to themselves over the days we would spend on literature circles, and then I introduced them to the traditional literature circles roles (similar to these). They each had a role to prepare for and then present each day, and I collected those role prep sheets to give them credit for their work throughout the unit.

It was OK.

I liked that it pushed them to be independent with their discussions, but I didn't like not being able to rescue both groups at once if they were really struggling.

I liked the concept of the roles, but I didn't like how the prep felt like busywork.

I liked the good work the groups did together, but I felt like it got a little repetitive meeting day after day to do the same general thing.

Earlier this year I asked the amazing teachers in my Facebook Group, Creative High School English, for their best tips on using literature circles well. Crickets. Soon someone chimed in to say that no one was responding because literature circles just don't work.

Well, you know me, I love a challenge.

So this winter I have been designing a new literature circles concept. I call it, literature circles for big kids.

Here are the guidelines to help get you started. (By the way, need book sets before you can do literature circles? Check out this guide to using Donors Choose effectively for funding.)

#1 Start with a Book Tasting

Opening your literature circles unit with a book tasting will allow your students to "sample" each book and find out if they like it. It's a simple activity, but requires a bit of muscle. Pull your seating together into little cafe-style tables and, if possible, throw some tablecloths over them. Set the mood as much as you can with vases of flowers, a little background music, maybe some snacks. (Check out some photos for inspiration in this fun article over on We Are Teachers).

Then spread your literature circles book choices out over the tables. Have students move from table to table, previewing the books and jotting down their reactions on a piece of paper (some kind of a menu or book review handout that you create). By the end, they should have a clear favorite or two.

At this point, you can have them turn in a list of their top three choices, or you can try to sort things out in person by having them move to different parts of the room representing different books. If you've got enough books for everyone in their first choice group, then you can skip the step of collecting preferences and assigning books. If you don't, you can ask people to try to shuffle a bit in new directions (pitch hard for the book that's getting no love!) or just move right into collecting preferences. Assign the books and move forward from there.

#2 Let Students Assign their Reading over a Select Few Meetings

This is a key adjustment with this literature circles for big kids program. It's HARD to keep the momentum going for independent group meetings if you slowly wade through the books a chapter at a time.

So instead, embed your literature circles work inside some other unit, so you can spread out their group meetings (and they can schedule their reading) over the course of about a month. Maybe you're working on real-world argument and vocabulary, or doing an ELA makerspace unit, or blogging, or trying out genius hour for the first time on the alternating days.

Just print up a basic schedule for the month for your students, and ask them to assign their own reading so they can finish the book in segments for your meetings. Here's an example calendar (below) to give you the idea.

Alternatively, if your kids really struggle to complete reading outside of class, you can alternate meeting days with reading days.

#3 Give Groups Creative Activities to do during their Meetings

Now here's another key switch. Instead of making each meeting the same, with every role offering a short presentation on the work they've brought in, followed by a discussion that will only be as good as the enthusiasm each group member brings to it, make each day a different activity, as you might with a whole class novel.

Tons of different types of activities would work, but the ones I brainstormed for this unit are: silent discussions, open mind character analysis activities, book-themed Instagram posts, one-pagers, lightning theater versions, and making video book trailers. For each activity, you can assign a short homework that goes with the reading and helps them prepare for that particular type of activity. So before a silent discussion, you might have them brainstorming discussion questions and circling their favorite. Before a lightning theater version activity, you might have them create timelines of five key moments in the reading so far.

With everyone doing similar activities, you'll be able to let groups share out at the end of the period or even do full gallery walks or performances in the next period if you want to. Students will be interacting with allll the books being read and hopefully getting interested in other titles.

#4 Wrap it up with a Group Share

To finish your literature circles unit effectively, have students do a final project that leads to a shareable product - like Youtube-style book trailer videos or a Literary Food Truck Project (click here to visit a post all about literary food trucks and pick up a free curriculum set).

Make the finale of your unit the enjoyment of this final product in a special class event, and let students vote on their favorites so you can give out awards. This way, every student is exposed to the themes and ideas of every book. Then your next move can be to set up all your literature circles books in your independent reading library, so everyone can branch out and try more from your set as part of your choice reading curriculum (don't have one yet? Sign up for the 5 Day Choice Reading Challenge here!).

Hopefully you're feeling ready to design the Literature Circles unit of your dreams. Empower your students with choice, but keep things from dragging and give them lots of creative ways to interact with their reading with this fun blueprint.

If you'd like a hand prepping your materials, you can find my new full curriculum for Literature Circles for any Booklist right here on TPT.

057: Creative Tech Tools for ELA Teachers, with Jennifer Gonzalez

(This post contains affiliate links. I'd only recommend something I really believe in. In fact, this is the first time I've ever included an affiliate link in a post). 

While I consider myself reasonably techy, having started my own podcast, made a serious friendship with Canva, and even gotten the hang of basic video creation, today's guest, Jennifer Gonzalez, takes it to a whole new level. 

I'm betting you already know about Jennifer's website, Cult of Pedagogy, and her podcast by the same name. It's an incredible source of information for teachers at all grade levels and in all disciplines. 

Each year she spends two months updating and revising her tech guide for teachers, then puts out a podcast featuring her favorite new tools for the year. She's even put together an online course for teachers interested in maximizing their creative use of technology in class, JumpStart

My legs fell asleep as I laid in bed last night, glued to the pages of her 2019 Teacher's Guide to Tech, finding thing after thing I had been wishing I could get my hands on as I clicked through its hundreds of colorful hyperlinked pages featuring virtually every useful tech tool available to teachers. 

An explanation for those little QR code squares I see everywhere and how I could actually use them in class? Yep. 

An explanation for how on earth these #Twitterchats I'm always hearing about actually work? Finally.

Tools for helping students with their writing? There were actually six separate CATEGORIES full of tools for just this.

More than just telling me what I've been wanting to know, the guide also told me about lots of things I didn't even know I wanted to know.

Like how to use Noisli to create my own happy place wherever I'm working. Maybe I'm sitting by the cute paper snowman in the hall outside my daughter's preschool, trying to cram in ten minutes of work before I get to hug her. Now I can be playing coffee shop sounds with hints of a roaring fire in the fireplace and a light rain outside into my earbuds. I MEAN COME ON! How cool is that?

So you can imagine I was excited to sit down with Jennifer and ask her to focus in especially on technology for creative ELA teachers. And it was just as much fun as I thought it would be. 

Get ready to learn about some great tools for you to use in class immediately, innovative ways schools are building learning spaces around tech, and how to get students started with curation projects and podcasting. This episode is FULL of ideas you can incorporate into your curriculum, no matter what you're teaching. I can't wait for you to hear it. 

You can read the full transcript here,  listen below, or tune in on iTunesBlubrry, or Stitcher. Read on for the written highlights. 

The Best and Brightest New Tech tools for ELA Teachers

We started our conversation by focusing on some of the newest tools Jennifer discovered this year that would help creative ELA teachers.

Equity Maps: This is a discussion tracker you can use to see who is participating and how. You plug in your students' names before the discussion and then observe and mark down what each student is contributing.

"Whether it's to disagree with a classmate or to bring up a brand new point," said Jennifer,  "or to build off of something that someone else is saying, or even if they're not there derailing the discussion completely or just being distracting, they mark all of that down and then they have this map of who participated, how much, what kind of quality contributions did they make, and so on. It's just a really neat idea in terms of - you know - figuring out how much your students are participating."

Once the conversation is finished, you can all look together at the results. Everyone is bound to learn something about their own contributions.

"I think it's really good to encourage students who aren't participating very much to show them how little they really did, and it also can work the other way for those who tend to dominate the conversation," said Jennifer. "It can show them how often they really were participating. It can also just help the teacher in terms of balancing out who they call on."

Microsoft Translator: If you've got students in your classroom who speak very little English, this tool may be your new best friend. 

"It translates people's conversations while they're having them, and it's kind of amazing technology," said Jennifer. "It uses artificial intelligence to guess what you're saying. It's an app that you can put on your phone, and it works both ways. Students can ask you questions and it gives you a written transcript of what you're saying. I could be talking and I could maybe have a student come in from China, and they can program it so that while I'm talking, they're getting a written transcript of what I'm saying in Chinese."

This tool can help language learners in partner discussions and small groups, as well as in conferences with you. 

Webjets: This is a mind-mapping / curation tool that will allow students to gather information, websites, videos, podcasts, images, and anything else they can find online into a virtual workspace. 

"This is like Padlet on steroids," said Jennifer, "because you can collect things on to this sort of bulletin board online. It can be links to websites, it can be videos, the videos will be embedded and playable right there on the board." 
The program is useful both for creatively teaching material and for giving students an option to present their ideas back to you. "I could see it being a really nice format for teachers who wanted to share a flip lesson or just a collection of things for students to look at and read," said Jennifer, "and it can also make a great format for the final submission of a project. If the student has a multimedia project that they were doing that had maybe a video component, maybe a podcast, maybe some images, and then also some text. You can even embed a working Google doc inside this board and actually go in and edit it right on the board. It's just really flexible and an interesting." 

A Successful Tech-Based Program to Inspire

Next up, I asked Jennifer to share a story from one of her many interviews and collaborations, of a school that is successfully using technology in a unique and inspiring way. She shared the story of one school in Ohio, that revisioned it's library from a space with only books, to a space filled with moveable furniture, freestanding whiteboards, and various movable tech tools students could use to collaborate on group projects. (Plus, the books are still there...) Almost like the Google Garage for high school. Now they call it the learning center.

"In some ways this idea is very similar to the way we have always rented out iPad carts, Chromebook carts, computer labs," said Jennifer, "we reserve those, but it's all in this big space. There's a lot of other types of technology in there now that really get kids to collaborate now, instead of everybody just being on their own devices. They've even got a system to where teachers can just send small groups or individual students down to work on their own projects and take advantage of all of this technology that's in there. They've increased their student use by over a thousand percent, where they would maybe get nine kids a week would come in. Now it's one-hundred-fifty kids coming in."

Classroom Project Idea: Curation

Curation is a relatively new type of classroom project. It involves students gathering a range of sources on a topic and putting them into a collection, with commentary on each aspect of the collection which shows why they've included it and perhaps analyzes it, depending on the assignment.

"I feel like curation-- I'm kind of tired of the expression --- '21st-century skill,' but I really do feel like curation is one of the most important skills that we need to have right now with all of the information available to us. Teachers and students, all professionals really need to learn how to filter through all the information that's out there and collect stuff for a specific purpose, and then deliver it in a way that your audience, whoever that is, can consume it in an enjoyable way," said Jennifer.

Jenn suggested elink as a particularly helpful option when it comes to curation. This tool will allow students to pull a web link and see the URL and picture from the site, then add their own text to explain its relevance to the project. It's a lot like making a Facebook post, so it's quite intuitive for most of our social-media attached teens.

Example of an elink I created for Jenn's blog post about Curation.

Jennifer had lots of fun suggestions to get us started thinking about how to use a curation project. "I think a teacher could do something that's like a literature review that people do in academic research where you talk about all that's come before this, and here's what this person says about that, here's what this person says, maybe here's an example of something that's not well researched. We're really bringing in the evaluation level of Bloom's taxonomy where students are judging something for quality as opposed to just saying, 'Here's the information that I got.' ...There's a lot of different ways that we could do this. We could do a ranked collection, for example. Maybe if we've been doing a lot of self-selected books throughout the school year, a nice end of year project would be for students to collect the top ten quotes from the books that they read that year, and they gather those up in some way. If we're doing a grammar type of an assignment, for example, they could be looking for some real-world examples of hyperbole."

Aren't you excited to try this out?

Classroom Project Idea: Podcasting

Perhaps since Jennifer and I are fellow podcasters, I felt we could have stayed on this subject for an entire show. There are so many fruitful ways you could use podcasting in class, once you get over the initial tech hurdles (that are really not so bad!). 

Let's start with some steps for getting students started effectively, and then look at a few different ways to use podcasting in class. 

1. Begin by exposing students to a range of different appropriate podcasts. "I would not let them loose," said Jenn,  "but let them see all the different kinds because there's so many that are really, really specific. There's just baseball podcasts, and there's just podcasts that are about a TV show. I think if students realize all the different kinds of topics they could actually do a podcast on, they would get really excited because there really is something for everyone."

2. From there it's time for students to think about what they'd be interested in talking about. "I think the harder thing about podcasting is figuring out what you want your content to be and then actually planning that out, and also getting over the idea of hearing your own voice recorded," said Jennifer.  "It surprises me actually because I've got an online course for teachers called Jump Start. It's ten modules, and it's for tech integration in the classroom. The last module is just basic podcasting, and they have to make four audio recordings. A lot of people talk about struggling hearing their own voice."

3. Once students have an idea for a topic, it's time to think about the style of their show and their audience. Will they record on their own? Do interviews? Incorporate lots of research? At this point, they can map out maybe five short five minute shows.

4. Jennifer recommends cutting through the stress of trying to record in a sound editing program to begin. Simply have students record audio into one of their devices, or use something like the Google Chrome "Simple Audio Recorder." Once they have their series of audio files, they can pull them together on a Google Slide to present.

5. For students who want to take it further, Jennifer recommends using Garageband or Audacity to dive into the process of actually editing and mixing sound files, and then using the highly accessible platform, Anchor FM, to go live to the world.

OK, so if you're really interested in diving into podcasting deeply with your students, here are some more ways (beyond a stand-alone podcast unit) you could build it into your curriculum.

Podcasting sure could make a great elective...

Research Paper Option

As an alternative to writing a research paper, you could let students record a research podcast. "One of the best podcasts I've listened to lately is called Teaching Hard History which is all about slavery," said Jennifer. "It's done by Teaching Tolerance. There is some academic depth to this podcast. It is definitely not people just sitting around shooting the breeze. For kids to listen to that and see how much research really goes into that, having a having a podcast or a podcast series would make a really nice option for kids who prefer to talk instead of write. Especially, if there is some really rigorous academic criteria that's going to be applied to the grading of it."

Genius Hour

If you're interested in trying a genius hour project with your students, in which they pursue a personal interest in class throughout the year, a podcast - like a blog or a Youtube channel - would make a great outlet for them to document their work. They'd be using their ELA skills to process what they are learning as they explore what truly interests them.

Curation Project

This could make a great project for students even before (or after) diving into making their own podcasts. Let them look around for a series of podcast that fit a theme they are interested in, whether that's a certain niche topic or style. Maybe they'll share three podcasts about technology that are interview-style with well-mixed music. Or maybe they'll look at three popular teen podcasts with three different production styles and what makes each one work.

Four Pieces of Advice for Keeping Tech Anxiety at Bay 

I saved this question for last, because I wanted us to be inspired by all the options before we talked about the anxieties that can come up with tech. Luckily, Jennifer has a ton of good advice for helping us overcome those anxieties.

Mindset: "If you go into it expecting that you're going to have problems, then that's actually a good thing, as opposed to going into it just crossing your fingers and praying that nothing goes wrong. Go into it with the attitude of, 'Okay, sooner or later something is probably not going to work, so I am going to ride that wave when it comes, and that's okay.' Just knowing ahead of time not everything goes right. With that in mind-- and I guess when I say that I don't mean that you're going into it pessimistic, you're going into it loose and realistic, like, 'Things could happen, and I'm going to be okay with that.'"

Start Small: "Starting with something really small like, for example, when I'm talking about the podcast, don't try to have them do a full-fledged learn the audio editing and everything. Get a simple audio recorder, tell them you can re-record but you can't edit, it's like voicemail, and then don't mess with all that crazy difficult stuff. Just do the first step first and figure out the simplest way of handling it, and then you're going to get the bug and you're going to want to try something harder. Start with small projects that are low risk."

Do Trial Runs: "If you're going to use a new app with your class, don't walk in first period and just start. I'd say two days before, get five kids to come in at lunch and try it with you first and see where are the bugs, what are the questions that the kids are going to have, what piece of it did I completely forget about that I need to remember. Do trial runs either with your very smallest class, or with a group of people after school, or just yourself. I sometimes, I'll have my own children try something out with me that I want to test because I'm not sure how it works or whatever. Most teachers have those couple of kids, or a nephew, or something where they can test something out before you're looking at losing a whole class period to something."

Always have a Backup Plan: "Always know, 'What am I going to do if the internet goes out?' or if, 'This thing suddenly locks us all out we can't do this.' What is your analog plan? Is it to just do it on paper or to just not do this activity right now and move to something else. As ELA teachers, the kids have a book, just read your book. 'Everybody, just get out your independent reading book and that's what we're going to do while I figure this out.' It's good to have a backup plan so that you don't end up freaking out if it doesn't work."

Well, I think you're ready! Time to go try out all these awesome ideas, and then share all the amazing results over in our Facebook group, Creative High School English

Connect with Jennifer Gonzalez

By visiting the website, Cult of Pedagogy, you can spring out to her podcast, blog, videos, and store.

Check out her 2019 Teacher's Guide to Tech here.

Learn more about her technology course for teachers, JumpStart, here. If you're a department chair or curriculum coach, check out the group licensing options. You could launch the course with a group of interested faculty at your school.

I am an affiliate for Jennifer's Guide and course. I asked her if I could recommend them here, because I think it's awesome. As an affiliate, I receive a small commission if you purchase her guide or course through my links. So your purchase from this site helps support the work I do here at Spark Creativity. I would never affiliate for a product I didn't believe in. In fact, this is the very first affiliate product I've ever shared here on my site. 

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