Sunday, October 5, 2014

RAN (Reading and Analysing Non-Fiction)

Recently, two of my colleagues (Michael Ball and Gina Micomonaco) reminded me about The RAN Chart--Reading and Analyzing Non-fiction.  Based on the work by Tony Stead, a RAN chart is a great starting point for an inquiry classroom!

The categories are:

Prior Knowledge (What I think I know)
Confirmed (I was right about this)
Misconceptions (What I couldn't prove)
Wonderings (Questions I still have)
New Learning (What I did not know)

Here is one they created for a Junior class:

What I love about the RAN strategy is that it encourages kids to delve further into a text and test out their theories.  It also encourages "wondering."

"Wisdom begins in wondering." --Socrates

I do like the idea of using post-it notes as students can move them flexibly from one column to the next, but you could easily create a Google Slide (one for each category) which students could use with the same flexibility.  I would show older kids how to use "revision history" in Google Slides to track their progress.

The real power of this strategy, to me, comes at the end of the process, where students track what they have learned about the topic.  The RAN chart and post-it notes become key artifacts of their learning.  Students could take pictures of the post-it-notes that they had created, and combine then images or key quotations from the text.  Students speak to what they were thinking at the beginning, how that thinking changed, and what they learned about the topic.

Students can use tools like Explain Everything, iMovie, Keynote/Google Slides/Powerpoint, Prezi, or Adobe Voice to present findings.

Like any graphic organizer, it is important to model first, then have students try it in partners, before moving to independence.

The RAN strategy, a very useful graphic organizer, has seemed to fall by the wayside in high school classes.  This year when I work with high school teachers and their students, I plan to use it!

Have you tried RAN in a high school classroom?  I'd love to hear about it!

Here are two excellent resources which provide further support and ideas:

 Adventures in Literacy post by Colleen and Stacy.  Their blog is chalk-full of helpful tips for reading based on Core Standards.

Making Shift Happen post by  Lorraine Boulos on using the RAN strategy for Inquiry based learning using the Wendats as a sample (Ontario Curriculum).

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Setting kids up for success

Many of us are two weeks into a new school year and with that comes the opportunity to think reflectively about what has worked and what hasn't.  Here are a couple of ideas that may help to create a positive learning environment and set the tone for the rest of the school year.

Have EVERY student create an IEP (Individualized Education Plan)


We understand that students who are accessing student services are legally entitled to an IEP, but wouldn't it be useful if all students communicated their strengths and needs to their teachers?  Not only might this be a great opportunity for teachers to get to know their students, but it would also eliminate the stigma of an IEP.  Heck, I wish I could give some conference presenters my own IEP!

How about creating IEPs on a Google Doc or Google Form so that it can be shared with teachers the following semester or year?
Sample IEP on Google Forms

Foster a Growth Mindset

"Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning." Benjamin Franklin

I just returned from a two-day SIM session which used the Growth Mindset Theory as the underpinning of how we can achieve greater student success in Math in Ontario.  The theory has been around for a while, but it's worth mentioning because research supports that fostering a growth mindset works.

Some students (many of whom have been told they are failures in school since Kindergarten) don't believe that they can learn, that trying is futile. Undoing these beliefs takes persistence and a caring adult who genuinely believes every student in front of them can learn and who provides opportunities for growth and reflection.

So Teacher mindsets make a huge difference!  Do we already pre-determine our students' ability based on social, cultural, or genetic factors? Do we think we know in September which students will work at Level 4?  Do we refer to a group of students as "My Level 2's,  Level 4's?"  If the research shows that Growth Mindsets contribute to student success, then our language and actions as teachers has to reinforce the belief that the students before us can and will learn as a result of our teaching.

And it works!! We told a group of grade 9 Applied students that they would be better readers at the end of the semester, worked hard to give them strategies, asked them to reflect on which strategies helped them to be better readers, and guess what? At the end of the semester, they not only thought it to be true, but they performed better on the post-diagnostic.

Check out this video:

This simple anchor chart shared on Twitter by @Principal_EL reminded me about how important it is to ensure that students really believe that they can become better readers, writers, creators, etc...

I would actually have students sort a few sentences that reflect one Mindset or another and then create their own anchor chart.  

More information on Growth Mindsets:
Carol Dweck's article on Mindsets and Equitable Education
Jo Baler's work on Mindsets in Math
Brain Pickings Blog on Fixed vs. Growth Mindsets
You can even become a Mindset School.

ASK your students for Input and then LISTEN to what they say

Why not show kids the Curriculum expectations and get their ideas?  If we relinquish our "control" of what kids are learning, we may just be surprised at the results.  Perhaps not for the entire course (just yet), but how about for one "unit" or for 10% of the time?

I love Shelly Wright's three guiding questions:
What are we going to learn?
How are we going to learn it?
How will we share the learning?   

Her blog is a great starting point for any teacher looking to move to an Inquiry-based classroom.

In my experience, students who were able to choose their own reading, tended to be more engaged in the activities.  So obvious but so often we dictate what kids read, when they read it, and what questions are important about the reading!

Focus on Self-Assessment and Goal Setting

In their book, "Knowing What Counts, Self-Assessment and Goal Setting," authors Gregory, Cameron, and Davies provide practical ideas and templates for practising self-assessment so as to improve self-directed learning in students.

I especially love the simplicity of some of the strategies and the reproducible templates, particularly the idea of "proof cards": Teachers give students cards that have a word or phrase printed on it such as "favourite," "potential," "perseverance", or "improvement".  Students select ONE proof card, a word, and an example from their own work that provides evidence or proof of that word or phrase, as well as reasons to support their selection.  It's a great way for students to recognize their growth.

Regularly asking students what strategies work and don't work best for them, also helps them to realize that they can actually control how they learn best.  Tech tools such as Google Forms, Padlet, Socrative are quick ways a teacher can gather and share regular input from kids about what they know.

Here are a couple of examples of student self-assessment forms I've used in English Class:

Monday, June 30, 2014

There's something about ISTE

I am constantly in a line (for food, for a session, for the bathroom), and the Wifi is quite frankly worse than it is at home, and yet the experience of ISTE is one that is incomparable to any other.

Where else, would you be in contact with about 15,000 other like-minded educators who know that teaching can look differently?  That student-centered learning yields remarkable results, and that technology can help students to create and share in ways we could have never imagined?

Kevin Carroll (in his keynote address today) said that the moment he committed himself to the path he had chosen, providence set in; everything he needed to be successful just fell into place.

And so it is with ISTE, I think.  Once you commit yourself to being a part of this amazing energy, that is bigger than anything you've experienced before,  you can't help but go back to your classroom and commit to transformation.

Even though I know it will take weeks to digest all of the information that has come my way, I think there is no better PD in the world and no better opportunity to connect.  Because even though we have Twitter and Google Plus and other collaborative virtual tools, we thrive on the  face-to-face connections that validate us as a part of something bigger,  and that dispel the belief that we're just outliers in our lives back home.

Cheers to all you amazing educators in ATL! Looking forward to Philadelphia in 2015!

Friday, May 9, 2014

It's time we try something different in English class

On Tuesday and Wednesday of last week, I had the privilege of listening to Will Richardson speak about bold classrooms and what they could look like.  He told over 500 teachers at YCDSB that we need to suspend our nostalgia for what school looked like in the past, because that world no longer exists.  He challenged us to look at the courses we have been teaching for the past 10 years and ask ourselves whether or not they are fundamentally the same now as they were then.

His challenge to our group of 500 teachers and administrators over the two days he spent with us:

Transform your classrooms into places of passion, purpose, and participation, where kids are using technology to do real work for real audiences, solve problems, make things that matter, and change the world.

These ideas are not really new to me.

And yet, I was perplexed and couldn't sleep after that first presentation.  I came to the realization that in the four years that I've been in my role, I hadn't really impacted as great a change as I would have hoped: that nostalgia for what school should look like, very much impedes any real transformation in Education today.

Without adequate time to process my learning, I became immersed in new learning at the Connect 2014 conference in Niagara Falls where I was able to meet and speak with so many like-minded educators.

The presentations and ideas of Michael Fullan, Shelley Wright,  Lori DeMarco, Peter Aguiar, Paul Yip,  Zoe Branigan-Pipe, and Jim Pedrich each with their own rich experiences and stories from the field, swirled together with the ideas that had been already tossing in my head, creating a tsunami.  I spent two days completely impressed by the innovation of teachers and students in pockets around our province.  And again, I felt like I hadn't been enough of an "instigator" in my own professional life.

For me, the easiest and most difficult transformation can happen in high school English class--especially our applied courses.


English teachers are passionate and hard-working and they spend so much time and energy trying to connect stories, novels, plays, and poetry to students' lives.  They change their syllabus regularly to include contemporary texts and include current events.  They spend more of their time providing feedback to students on their papers than any other discipline.

And yet...

"Students are increasingly bored in school and teaching bored students is especially challenging."
                                                    --Michael Fullan, Connect 2014

Students in applied English courses are generally disengaged, unmotivated, and disinterested. They don't feel connected and don't feel that the course is relevant.  Plagarism runs rampant and students spend more time reading summaries of texts on the web than they actually do reading the texts. And generally speaking, technology doesn't help because students are not impressed by technology in and of itself.  And let's face it,  submitting a literary essay electronically is not too different from submitting a word-processed print copy.

When I think about why so little has changed in terms of the way we teach English over the past 20 years, I can only conclude, that as Will Richardson suggests, it is nostalgia.  You see, unlike other Ontario Curriculum documents, no content is prescribed in the Overall Expectations for Language Arts or English.  Students are required to read, write, listen, speak, and create and understand media for a variety of purposes and a variety of audiences.

That's it.  Lots of examples (from 2007 when the document was created), but no "thou shalt" statements.

And yet, across the province (and I know because I ask everyone I meet) English high school courses look like variations of this:  poetry unit, non-fiction unit, short story unit, novel study, Shakespeare. Our texts are still primarily selected by teachers and delivered to a whole class at the same time, and our physical classrooms still look very much the same.  And while that may have been an effective way to organize a course ten years ago, this is not working for many of our students: especially those in applied courses.

Could we find a more modern approach?
What opportunities exist for inquiry-based or project-based learning in an English class?
How might we better equip our students to read and understand the world in which they live and into which they will graduate?

You could say that because I haven't had my own classroom for four years (I am in classrooms co-teaching regularly, but that is not the same), I am idealistic and out-of-touch with the realities of a modern classroom today.  And so, I am going to get into a classroom in September to reimagine English for modern learners. 

Are you with me?  Let's create a "Modern Learning Movement" in English! I'd love to hear your ideas!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Using Garageband in the Classroom: Working, Saving, and Sharing

So now that I'm actually in the classroom, co-teaching with a fabulous English teacher and using Garageband with students, there are a few things we've learned that may be useful to you. 
N.B.We are using shared devices. 

The Assignment

Students were asked to take two poems and the song lyrics of one song that share the same theme and create a "Mash Up".  The result will be an entirely new poem which they will recite and put to music using GarageBand.  This is a senior English class, so what the teacher is looking for is a fairly comprehensive explanation of student choices including an analysis of poetic devices.  You could definitely do this same assignment with younger students, with the focus being oral/reading fluency, rather than analysis. 

Step 1:  Student work periods

If possible, assign the iPads to partners or triads so that they can continue to work on their creations on the same iPad for more than one day.  Working within the App is ideal for editing, and we found one work period to be insufficient time.

Step 2:  Moving your GarageBand creations off a shared device

Option A:  
Airdrop the GarageBand creations from shared iPads to a teacher iPad or to a teacher Macbook--this is ideal if your students still need to edit.
Option B: 
"Open In" Google Drive (as per these video tutorial instructions)
Option C: 
Share to your Youtube Channel

Step 3:  Playing your GarageBand creations

For Option A:  
If you are not using shared devices, or if you've Airdropped your creation, you may play directly from the GarageBand App
For Option B:  
If you have saved the device to Google Drive, you will need to be in the Google Chrome App to be able to listen to the creation on your iPad.  OR you can access your creation on a desktop or laptop provided you have Reeltime, Quicktime, etc...  
**OR download Drive Tunes from the Google Chrome store to play directly from your Google Drive account.
For Option C:
Play directly from your Youtube Channel

If you teach English, and want to assess students's speaking skills (Oral Communication strand) as they work, feel free to use or modify this Assessment Checklist we created.

I can't wait to share the student samples!  They are working so hard and LOVING it.  

Monday, April 21, 2014

A fresh look at Assessment

Just before the holiday weekend, I had the honour of participating in a workshop led by Sandra Herbst on Assessement.

The first thing she did impressed me the most.  She introduced herself to each participant (well over 100 teachers and administrators), looked each of us in the eye, and sincerely welcomed us.

She later went on to say that in her school district, there is an expectation that EVERY STUDENT is greeted by name and welcomed EVERY DAY.  It made me think about that quotation by Maya Angelou  about how people remember how you made them feel beyond anything else.  Sandra emphasized that many students in her District may only encounter a caring adult at school, not in their home lives.  It made me recall a time in the not-so-distant past when  I would dive right into the day's lesson just as students arrived so that we could "cover the material."  What a missed opportunity!

It's so simple and yet so profound.  I think about what an impact it would make on the climate of a classroom and a school if we took a few minutes every day to ensure that our students felt welcome and valued.

I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.       --Maya Angelou

Here are a few other ideas that resonated the most with me:

  • "assessment" comes from the Latin to "sit beside"-->we need to spend more time observing and conversing with our students; prompting their thinking and giving them feedback about next steps--not just testing them and moving on.
  • "evaluating" is about placing a judgement on work which, more often than not, stops the learning
  • technology is a tool that can help us to find out more about what a student "knows" that goes beyond "pen and paper" tasks
  • some tech tools can help us to capture student conversations--she highlighted Quick Voice Pro and Voki--I have used Educreations for this purpose as well
  • being transparent about what is expected (Success Criteria) is crucial to students knowing how to achieve success
  • if we focus on learning, students will achieve far better on standardized tests than if we focus on "preparing" kids for tests
  • understanding a student (learning needs, social needs, etc...) will help teachers make decisions that will help move learning forward
  • it is essential to establish what "quality work looks like" --> then, when students submit their work, it is important that they identify what parts they believe to be examples of quality in their own submission (Use notes in Google Slides or Comments in Google Docs)
  • A "visual continuum" can help empower student to create quality work: Basically the teacher posts several examples of work that become incrementally more sophisticated--a student can identify where his work is on the continuum and what more is needed to get to the next stage--there are no marks or levels at all on the examples, and students are told that even beyond the "best" example, there is other criteria that could make it better. It is important that the examples are not always posted worst to best.

Throughout the workshop we saw videos of teachers and students learning together, we engaged in some high-impact activities, and had excellent discussions at our table.  I will certainly be taking this information into my daily practice.

Much of this work echoed the research done by Carol Dweck in the area of Growth Mindsets.

More information about Sandra Herbst can be found here.  She can also be seen on Twitter @Sandra_Herbst

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Let's get our kids talking!!

Reading and Writing float on a sea of talk.

--James Britton

More and more research is suggesting that academic conversations are foundational for other literacy skills.  Read this excerpt from a book called Content Area Conversations for a good foundational understanding of how important academic conversations really are.

Here is a poster I created with sentence stems that help kids get started or move them along when they have nothing to say.  I love to get students to add to it and make it their own:

These are a few of my favourite tools (insert Sound of Music theme song here) that may just get your kids talking more in class:

Face-to-Face Talk

1.  Save the Last Word for Me (Also called Final Word):  this is a great strategy to get kids talking and listening to each other.

2.  Grafitti:  This strategy gets kids up and moving and thinking and talking.  This is my favourite--I've never been in a class where this hasn't worked like a charm.  As a pre-reading strategy, I take excerpts from the story or article students are about to read; the level of understanding increases dramatically when students have had time to think and discuss.  If you have access to technology, you can use this strategy in combination with an Interactive Whiteboard or Whiteboard app (see Educreations below)

3.  Say Something:  I first learned about this strategy when I read Kylene Beers' book, When Kids Can't Read.  This is so simple and effective at any age.  It can be used for fiction, non-fiction, a video, an image; just about anything you want kids to talk about in class.

Virtual Talk

Face to face talk is extremely important, but sometimes technology breaks down the barrier and allows for students to participate when they wouldn't normally.

1.  TodaysMeet: simple but so awesome for getting kids to start a "conversation" and have their voices heard.

2.  Padlet:  Just a blank "pad" which give students the opportunity to post an idea, a link, etc...Students watch the pad get populated in real time.

3.  Voicethread:  I really love how this tool allows kids to listen to the perspective of others before adding their own.  I also like the different options--audio, video, text.  I don't love that there is a subscription fee after your initial free ones,  but if you're creative, you can let your free ones go a long way.

4.  Educreations (or ShowMe, DoodleCast, Explain Everything):  Any simple whiteboard tool that captures students speaking.  We have access to iPads so it's great to use with partners.  I find they need something upon which to anchor their conversations so I have them take a picture (image or text) and speak to specifics.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Chrome Extensions that are necessary for some and good for all

I attended a Google Bootcamp with Learnstyle this summer.  There I met +D.J. Cunningham, a successful and dynamic entreprenuer who founded the company despite his dyslexia.  During our summer BootCamp, he showed us some valuable Google Chrome extensions that level the playing field for our students (not just those with learning disabilities).  Here are his recommendations, plus a couple of my own which I have been sharing with teachers in both elementary and secondary schools.

These extensions can be found by launching the App icon (top right hand corner of your Google sign-in page)

 and then clicking on "Chrome Store" icon.  Be sure to search for extensions rather than apps.  Once downloaded an icon will be added to your toolbar for easy access.

Read and Write for Google
The free version has a read aloud and translator for the web and Google docs, as well as a dual-color highlighting tool.    It also allows users to choose their voice and voice speed.   The premium subscription has talking and picture dictionaries as well as word prediction software.   This extension is perfect for struggling readers and writers, as well as English Language Learners and I love the fact that it works seamlessly with Google Apps for Ed.

Simple Dictation
This is a very simple to use dictation tool that allows students the ability to speak in order to compose an email or search the web.

This Google extension is an easy-to use text to speech tool that will basically read the web for you.  Unlike Read and Write for Google, there is no integration with your Google Drive.  There is a pause option and a speed control, as well as a variety of different human-voice options.

The Ginger extension (not to be confused with a variety of cat-related apps in the Chrome Store)is a spelling and grammar checker that offers corrections based on context including commonly confused words.

Diigo is both an annotation app (sign up for full version at as well as an extension which allows you to annotate (sticky note, highlight) and store resources you collect on the web.  It's the perfect place for students who have trouble managing resources and finding all of their research notes.

These tools help to level the playing field for our students who struggle with reading and writing.

If you have any more, please feel free to share!

Other awesome extensions I use daily include: Evernote webclipper that works with my Evernote account; Pocket for those great articles I won't have time to get to until later; and Bitly for shortening URLs. 

Friday, January 3, 2014

Using Tech tools to promote Academic Conversations and Student Voice

@picswithastory December 31st, 2013
Thanks to a MISA Grant, I am able to work with a group of English Department Heads and teachers from across six secondary schools in our Board.  Our focus is to improve Oral Communication: specifically, to promote student voice,  academic conversations, and metacognition in grade 9 applied English courses.  Because of a Board-wide technology initiative, we will have access to iPads for our project.

We began by isolating a few tech tools that might help us.  We narrowed it down to the following:
Today's Meet;
Educreations (similar to Doodlecast and Show Me);
Garage Band;


Though students don't actually speak when using this tool.  We chose this as a great entry point for all students to have a voice.  A teacher could draw upon the entries of shy students who rarely participate orally.   This is a risk-free way to begin to value the contributions of all students.

Educreations (or a similar Whiteboard app)

We decided upon educreations because we wanted to capture student conversation as it was happening.  We purposely selected the tool for its simplicity.  The idea here is that students are given prompts and are to use the tool to record their ideas and opinions.  Then, more importantly, students listen to themselves and assess their skills and set goals for next time.

Both of these tools have worked very effectively.  We have co-taught a lesson using a poem about homelessness as a springboard.  We will begin our next planning phase using both GarageBand and iMovie.


Garage Band

Though the perfect tool for music lovers and creators alike, the audio recording feature makes it an ideal tool for students to practice their speaking skills and reflect on them.  Click here for a previous post about using Garage Band for reading fluency.


The teachers believe that if students have a media product about which to speak, they may be more successful when presenting orally.   Students will use iMovie to practice speaking formally as their task will focus on an oral news report and an editorial.  The teachers also wanted students to present live, so they will be presenting their selected current event and introducing their iMovie.

I am very much looking forward to seeing the results of this planning and learning.