Two Tech Tools for Enhanced Literacy Instruction

Another busy week is about to conclude and here on Team Summit, that means we are winding down work on two fairly significant writing pieces.  The first, a response to literature based on the novel Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson, focused on using evidence to identify plot structure and elements of literature. The second, a research paper on yellow fever, probed student understanding of the movement and migration of disease and the impact that can have on cultures and community.

For the most part, these CCSS based writing tasks are the norm for language arts and the development of literacy. What may be more important are the processes and tech tools we are utilizing to enhance the writing process. The first, and most accessible, involves student-teacher collaboration using Google Docs. I’m assuming that this platform is becoming the norm throughout writing classrooms and workshops.

In my experience, I am seeing significant improvements in student submissions since establishing Google Docs as our standard writing platform. Because we have shared, reviewed, and revised our work so frequently and seamlessly using the Google Docs share function, the writing process has become, in a sense, an ongoing revision process. Students continually make improvements and I am attempting to monitor their progress and provide feedback in as timely a manner as possible. Some key points from this experience:

  • Importance of Positive and Constructive Feedback: Because students are being asked to share their work on a regular basis, it is critical that they have the language and tools that will allow them to provide effective feedback to their peers. This has required additional instructional time and consideration.
  • Self-Editing and Reflection: Google Docs allows students to continually revise and receive feedback from peers and teachers. It pays for teachers to stop the process and thoughtfully direct students in the art of self-editing and reflection. This can provide students with a “break in the action” and the opportunity for teachers to give mini-lessons as needed.
  • Student Input: as part of our developing practice, we are surveying students at the end of each assessment task to get their input on materials, methods, and the most effective teaching strategies. Using Google Forms, each assessment exercise presents opportunities for improvement based on student input.

Screen Shot 2015-01-22 at 9.43.30 PMA second tool that I utilized during these writing processes was passed along by Adam Deyo (@adam_deyo) in a workshop on Monday. Padlet is a free, easy-to-use app that allows a teacher to create a wall, or pad (pictured), that students can use to pose questions, resources, and responses. This is a very easy application that allowed our students to collaborate with each other to find answers, research information, and share links to relevant information.

For teachers looking to increase student collaboration, student engagement in the revision process, and tools to build a writing community, the use of Google Docs and Padlet come highly recommended.


Technology and Personalization

Last week during my teacher advisory period, I asked my 7th and 8th grade advisory students if they could share their trimester goals with me electronically. All of the students have these documents in their Google drives but when the documents began to trickle into my inbox, I was taken aback by the results.

What was so unusual about such a simple task? Of the first 5 students to submit their work, four had chosen to complete the task is subtly different ways. One student simply took a screenshot of their goals document and embedded that into the body of an email. A second student shared the Google document using the Share feature. A third student directed me to her website where I could find the document and a fourth student included the document as a .png attachment.

This was an eye-opening reminder of the importance of personalized learning and the role that technology can have in allowing students to achieve the same goals with different problem-solving strategies. In his 2007 Phi Delt Kappan article, “What is Personalization?”, James W. Keefe alludes to the advantages using technology to personalize learning:

Personalization requires interactive learning environments designed to foster collaboration and reflective conversation. The personalized learning environment is child-centered, with a values orientation, a measure of creativity, and constructive learning activities. It builds on the child’s natural ways of learning, with a unity of thought, action, activities, and experiences. An essential ingredient of personalization is a school culture of collaboration in which teachers, students, parents, and other community members work together in a cooperative social environment to develop meaningful learning activities for all students. (Keefe, 221)

In my line of thinking, the use of technology dovetails beautifully with Keefe’s vision of an interactive learning environment. Indeed, the students in my advisory, through their demonstration of different solutions to a relatively simple task, demonstrated the importance of allowing students the opportunity to demonstrate learning using a wide range of formats. In this case, as with the hundreds of other tasks,  small and large that students complete in our classroom, technology provides students the opportunity to successfully achieve objectives through multiple pathways.

Equally important is the notion of a collaborative learning environment. Technology allows teachers and students to collaborate and share the learning experience. In this case, the sharing of Google documents enables me to monitor, share, and discuss student goals and hopefully, to encourage and personalize the student learning experience so that they can achieve them.


Keefe, James W. “What is personalization?.” Phi Delta Kappan 89.3 (2007): 217.

Twitter and Professional Development

By this time, I’m assuming that the majority of teachers and educators have some understanding of Twitter and it’s potential as an information technology tool. Certainly it can be viewed as an effective social media tool capable of creating large online communities and groups of followers tuned in to information streams. That said, recent experiences with the platform have reinforced my belief that Twitter can, and should, be used as a personalized, primary source professional development tool for teachers. Here are some quick examples of how information from Twitter has impacted my teaching:

  1. Expert Information: Teaching the themes of geography can be enlivened and differentiated through the use of digital media including pictures, videos, and infographics. By following sources such as the United States Geological survey @USGS and NASA, teachers can have incredible resources delivered right to their desktop.
  1. Lesson Planning: Twitter sources can be the core element of an entire lesson plan, they can be used to connect curriculum ideas, or they can be introduced as a topic of discussion at the beginning of class. Integrating the Twitter feed into the class dialogue presents untold opportunities for students to be critical thinkers and to develop a stream of resources directly connected to key curriculum concepts.
  1. Archiving Great Ideas: A quick run through of your Twitter feed can provide a wide range of ideas for on-the-ground planning as well as academic research, reflection, and pedagogical technique. While this may be overwhelming, by starring different posts of interest, teachers can begin cataloguing those ideas for future use. Periodically revisiting those starred posts can help plan for new units and new lessons.
  1. Inspiration: If you want to be inspired, there is no better way than to follow teachers and associates on Twitter. You can keep up with new ideas, view teaching techniques, and follow links to new ideas, technologies, and research that can be implemented immediately.



Personalized Learning Plans and Cross-Curriculum Integration

One advantage of implementing Personal Learning Plans is the possibility of cross-curriculum integration and learning. There are numerous opportunities for teachers to collaborate, innovate, and develop learning activities in partnership with colleagues and students.

Because the PLP is “portable”, students can incorporate activities from different classes into the platform. This presents teachers with the opportunity for the assessment of multiple standards and skills. Students can utilize this portability to demonstrate their expertise in different learning environments.

An example that is in development at Main Street Middle School involves foreign language students creating videos documenting their emerging foreign language skills. Once the video is created, students self-assess themselves based on their foreign language fluency. But it doesn’t end there. Students can also assess their presentation skills, body language, and, for students comfortable with technology, filming and video presentation. Super-motivated students and teachers could also have students annotate those videos to document strengths and challenges.

Building on the review of the skills present in the videos, students can then set goals for future learning opportunities. Because the PLP travels with the student, skill improvement and growth can be documented over time and across the classes. Students then have evidence that can be shared with teachers and parents to demonstrate development.

A third opportunity connected to the PLP is the development, integration, and assessment of the Agency of Education’s Transferable Skill set. Though this can be accomplished in stand-alone classrooms, collaboration across the curriculum enables students to realize the integration of these skills throughout their educational program.

PLPs and Presentation

Personal Learning Plans can be leveraged into outstanding presentations. Here’s the proof.

A few months ago, our school’s Technology PLC was asked to present the work we had completed towards implementation of a Google-based Personal Learning Plan template. Having a year of experience with the PLPs, we agreed.

After discussion and input from group members, we decided to focus on multiple goals. First, we wanted to evaluate staff understanding or awareness of Act 77, the statute identifying personalized learning and flexible pathways. Second, we wanted to model relevant and appropriate professional development around personalized learning and its role in the classroom. Finally, and most importantly, the team wanted to familiarize the staff with the Google Sites template that was created and adopted for the pilot project.

Deciding on the best method for presenting our work on the PLPs was difficult. We had a limited amount of time and we wanted to give teachers proof that the PLPs could be a viable part of the classroom. To do that, we asked several students to present their work.

The first student segment was conducted by two eighth graders who have completed Phase 1 of the PLP process. Admittedly, these two students provided exemplars of the PLP process. That said, their presentation, created without teacher guidance, was outstanding. They were able to move through the pages of the Google site fluently and, because of the “personal” elements of the project, with great familiarity. The old adage about students doing their best work on topics that they know most deeply was brought to life.

The second student segment included a student panel answering questions from the staff about their PLP experience. Again, these students were asked to speak without prior preparation. Again, their performance was flawless. Not only did they provide accurate information about the PLP process, they also were able to articulate how the process differed from traditional teaching methods.

Post-presentation feedback indicated that the student presentations were convincing, relevant, authentic, and professional.

My conclusion? PLPs can be used to help students create outstanding presentations because they are comfortable and familiar with the material. It’s an added bonus to the project.

Mavericks, Teaching, and Google Scholar

Screen Shot 2014-11-12 at 5.25.02 AM

This picture was taken at Mavericks, a famous big wave surfing spot in California. Intrepid surfers are enticed by the huge waves, regular break, and recognition that comes from successfully navigating the treacherous surf. Having never surfed, I’m assuming that the fear of being crushed by the wave is also a motivating factor in getting out of the tube successfully.

As a teacher, I often feel that the swell of responsibilities often threatens to overwhelm my ability to operate effectively in my core role: classroom instructor. Among the long list of Things To Do, meetings, email responses, lesson planning, accommodations, and problem-solving, we sometimes overlook the importance of focusing on our craft.

To that end, I have been attempting to develop research habits that allow me to find short, easy-to-read, educational pieces that can directly inform my classroom work. To do so, I have started using Google Scholar, one of many research oriented applications provided from Google. I definitely don’t know all the bells and whistles that come with the program, but simple searches can often provide excellent resources in a wide-range of easily consumable formats. For teachers lacking the energy to read books and journals during the school year, the option to refresh and re-invigorate can come from shorter research articles.

More importantly, the information found through research can be directly implemented in the classroom setting. For example, a recent search turned up a document titled, What Works In Classroom Education², a text outlining 9 essential strategies for classroom instruction. Following the links provided by Google Scholar, educators can access a PDF of the document for quick reading and consumption. Furthermore, once a researcher gets hold of an idea or text, one can often find related articles on the topic, also using Google Scholar.

One of the recommended strategies from Marzano, et al., was the use of note-taking. Seems simple right? No so fast. The authors also suggest that teachers should encourage and give time for review and revision of notes; notes can be the best study guides for tests.³ In my case, this seemed like simple advice. Prior to a summary writing exercise, I asked students to review their notes by reading through them silently and then having a short table-talk to review the information.

Was it effective? I’m not sure. I’ll have more information when I review the writing. That said, this little tip, garnered from some quick research, helped me to re-focus my efforts and avoid wiping out on this day.

  1. Quirarte, Frank. Mavericks Californing USA. Digital N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2014. <;.
  2. Marzano, Robert J., Barbara B. Gaddy, and Ceri Dean. “What Works in Classroom Instruction.” (2000).
  3. Marzano, Robert J., Debra Pickering, and Jane E. Pollock. Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Ascd, 2001.

Writing Matters: Using Wordclouds To Identify Key Terms

If you are comfortable with using a wide range of technology in your classroom, I highly suggest you follow Richard Byrne who runs and manages the website Free Technology of Teachers. He can also be followed on Twitter @rmbyrne. 

Mr. Byrne is a prolific technology teacher who is a huge provider of amazing sites and tools that can help regular teachers improve their game. Last week, he posted about a Google script that can be installed in Google Docs to create word clouds.

What’s the big deal? First, and I quote his column, “Word clouds can help students analyze documents written by others as well as documents of their own creation. By copying the text of a document into a word cloud generator your students can quickly see the words that appear most frequently in that document.”¹

This is important for three reasons. Students can analyze the word clouds to determine if the text of their response includes key concepts and terms from the course of study. Second, by creating multiple word clouds of notes taken electronically, students can identify which set of notes most accurately reflects the essential learning of the original source. Third, teachers can highlight the academic vocabulary that should appear in student writing. Teachers can also clarify any misunderstanding or student questions regarding these topics.

Having read Mr. Byrne’s blog, I quickly and easily installed the word cloud script following his directions. I then copied and pasted several examples of world clouds, taken from notes on identical digital texts, for students to compare. Sure enough, students unanimously selected the word cloud that most effectively identified key vocabulary and concepts.

Utilizing this visual technology is simply another way to engage students in conversations about key terms, effective note-taking, and academic vocabulary. It is quick, easy to use, and provides students with a visual element in their revision process.


  1. Byrne, Richard. “Create a Word Cloud Within Your Google Documents.”Free Technology for Teachers. Blogger, 19 Oct. 2014. Web. 27 Oct. 2014. <>.