Flippin’ Flipped Learning, Yo!


Hey there, dear reader! It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything. I spent the past month traveling to San Diego and Denver, partaking in Netflix binges (Sense8, anyone?) and brewery shenanigans, and researching how to implement the flipped classroom model for the first time: all very important summer activities for a teacher blogger.

But now the first day of school is nearly upon us, which means it is time to get back to work. As you may already know, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to flip some of my lessons this summer. Since I’m to teach ninth grade for the first time this year, I figure this is the best time to flip since I need to develop new curriculum resources anyway.

Initially, I didn’t think flipping would be too much of a shift. I’ve always been a tech savvy teacher, so flipping some of my lessons seemed like a natural next step in my professional development. Alas, the more I’ve read, the more I’ve learned; the more I’ve learned, the more I’ve realized what a large task I have in front of me.

Have I wavered? No! Have I procrastinated? Yes! But I’m done with that now, so bring on the flip!

The first thing I’ve discovered on my flippin’ journey are Twitter hashtags #fliplearning and #flippedlearning. Why are there two (or more) hashtags and not one? Because it’s Twitter, and the hashtag you use depends on how many characters you have remaining in your sweet little tweet. As a novice Tweeter, I’m amazed at the number of (free!) resources available to teachers swimming around the Twitterverse.

People have a lot to say about the flipped classroom model, and many educators have taken it further than I ever imagined. When used with fidelity, flipped learning changes much more than content delivery. I’ll admit, it’s a bit intimidating: kind of like watching a professional skateboarder land a Stalefish Grab when you’re barely able to stand up without banging your head into the concrete (and yes, I did just Google “fancy skateboarding trick” to come up with Stalefish Grab).

Skateboard Slay
Reading about the flipped classroom model on Twitter
How I imagine my first flipped lesson IRL
How I imagine my first flipped lesson IRL

But, since success is almost always a product of failure, I’ve brushed my survival instincts aside and made three major adjustments to my plans for the first few weeks to allow for flippin’ scaffolding!

Flippin’ Adjustment #1: Watch the first few videos in class

One of my prized Twitter finds is a podcast called The Flip Side with Jon Bergmann. The episodes titled “Flipping Your Class? Do This, Puh-Leeze Don’t Do That” Parts One through Five have been extremely helpful by answering my questions about video length and the importance of making them interactive and whatnot (more on this later). Most importantly, however, Bergmann stresses the importance of teaching students how to watch and learn from the videos. He suggests watching the first few videos in class so the teacher can model how to pause and rewind the video to clarify important points, show the students how to take notes, and teach them how to develop meaningful questions to bring to class the next day.

Flippin’ Adjustment #2: Hold the students accountable

Once you’ve taught the students how to learn from your videos, Bergmann urges his listeners to resist the urge to reteach the content from the video the night before. Since some of our darling students may not watch the videos on time (just as they don’t always complete their homework on time) we may be tempted to teach the content again in class, but that completely negates the flipped learning ideology. Plus, it encourages students who have watched the video to blow off the next one. Why watch it at home when you’re going to teach the same thing in class tomorrow?

Flippin’ Adjustment #3: Dedicate class time to applying concepts

Bergmann also cautions against the temptation to assign a video without in-class application. Yes, we have too much content to get through and too little time to get through it, but if students don’t have the opportunity to practice the concepts discussed in the video while their teacher is available to support their learning, they might as well not watch the video at all. The whole point of the flipped classroom model is to increase your one-on-one time with the students as they partake in hands-on learning in the classroom. Don’t treat your videos as substitutes for real learning.

Now that I’ve explored the flippin’ concept and adjusted my lesson plans, I can no longer delay the inevitable: I need to create my first flippin’ video. Gulp. So, to synthesize my learning and practice using iMovie (and procrastinate making an actual video to use with my students) I created a flippin’ video on how to make a flipped video! You can see the video below, or if you don’t have six minutes and thirty-eight seconds to spare just skip ahead to my checklist below.

Seven Flippin’ Video Tips

  1. Show your flippin’ face! Disembodied voices are creepy and boring and lack nonverbal cues that aid effective communication. Get over yourself and get in front of the camera.
  2. Vary your flippin’ speech! Avoid the “Bueller” effect and actually sound excited about your content. If you’re excited, the kids will be excited too. They’re just pretending to be bored.
  3. Record flippin’ everywhere! Have you ever been on vacation somewhere and thought, “Man, I wish my kids could see this.” Well, thanks to that handy-dandy smartphone in your pocket, they can! Pull out a video and record your thoughts. You can edit them down later.
  4. Make your own flippin’ videos! You know what your students need to succeed on your end-of-unit assessment, so you should be the one teaching in your videos. Students prefer to learn from their teacher. If there is an awesome video on YouTube that is completely perfect for your lesson, download it and cut to it in your video.
  5. Make them inter-flippin’-active! Accountability, accountability, accountability! Use programs like EDPuzzle (read my post on EDPuzzle here), TodaysMeet, PollEverywhere, or your favorite learning management system to give your students a reason to watch the video, formatively assess their learning, and give them a safe place to discuss the concepts from your videos online with their peers outside of class. Bonus: if you have the kids ask questions the night before class, you can review them and tailor your lessons and individualize your instruction.
  6. Include flippin’ note reminders! Students are kids, and they need constant skill reinforcement. Remind them to pause the video and jot down important information using your preferred note-taking system.
  7. Keep them flippin’ short! Again, students are kids, and they have limited attention spans. I’ve read that the average medical student has an attention span of only twenty minutes. Med students! They’re like, the cream of the crop! Bergmann suggests sixty to ninety seconds per grade level maximum, so if you teach tenth grade, keep your videos no longer than fifteen minutes. Also, don’t forget that students will have to pause the video to take notes, which will add to their viewing time. If they’ll need to take a lot of notes, try to keep it between five and eight minutes.

That’s all for today, folks! I’m going to attempt a video introducing Greek and Latin roots. Wish me luck!

If you want to read more about strategies using technology and the SAMR Model, check out my post on EDpuzzle or my post on updating EdTech PD. You can also read the first post in this series here.

Check out my next post: My First Flippin’ Video!

Flippin’ with EDpuzzle


Guess what, dear reader? I created a flipped video using EDpuzzle! It only took me an hour (and let’s face it, an hour is a bit too much time to spend on one, four-minute video), but I’m optimistic that I will become much more efficient at creating EDpuzzle videos, especially if I add questions, audio, and text to videos I create myself instead of the videos in the EDpuzzle library. Half the challenge was figuring out if I was using the right video, what to cut out of the video, what to include in my audio notes, and what questions to ask.

I couldn’t figure out how to embed my EDpuzzle video into this post, but if you click here you’ll be able to see my EDpuzzle video in a new tab.

If you’re wondering what I mean by “flipped,” you should check out this informative EDpuzzle video that compares and contrasts flipped classrooms and traditional classrooms.

Why EDpuzzle?

First of all, it is FREE! EduCanon is a similar program, but it’ll constantly pester you to upgrade to receive certain services. EDpuzzle will never panhandle its users.

Screen Shot 2015-06-19 at 1.51.59 PM
EDpuzzle Library – you can use any video from any of the sources on the left.

So Many Options!

As I mentioned earlier, EDpuzzle makes it easy for teachers to add questions, comments, and audio notes to a video. You can create your own video and upload it to EDpuzzle, or you can select a video from their extensive library.

Crop Videos

Crop a Video
Crop any video!

Have you ever found a YouTube video with useful information in the middle of the video, but irrelevant information at the beginning or end of the video? With EDpuzzle, you can crop a video down so you only use what you need.


Use Audio Track to Record Over the Entire Video

If you want your students to watch a slow-motion video of a bullet hitting an apple so you can discuss the transfer of energy or something, you can record your explanation over the video. This is a neat feature, but I wish it would let you record over only a portion of the video instead of making you record over the entire thing.

Keep it Personal with Audio Notes

Some videos use academic language that is just out of students’ reach, and some students need to hear you explain things multiple times before they finally get it (or tune-in). With EDpuzzle, you can interrupt the video with audio notes to re-explain concepts from the video using kid-friendly language. This could also simply act as a cue letting the students know what is or isn’t important. Audio notes are different from audio tracks because they stop the video to play the track instead of playing over the video. Even though they pause the video, audio notes do not tally into the total length of the EDpuzzle video.

Assessment and Accountability with Quizzes

This name of this feature is a little misleading because it allows you to do more than just quiz students. While you can make them answer multiple choice questions (I love the “no skipping” option!), you can also ask short-answer questions or leave comments to the right of the video.

Multiple-Choice: This is exactly what it sounds like. Ask quick, level one questions to make sure your students are paying attention, or ask level two questions that make the students apply the information covered in the video. You could also ask a series of questions before the video as a pre-assessment, then ask the similar questions again at the end of the video to track student learning. But be aware, EDpuzzle gives immediate feedback on multiple-choice questions. Students will know if they answered correctly or incorrectly as soon as they click continue.

Multiple Choice
I plan to use the multiple choice option to have kids predict the difference between subordinating conjunctions and coordinating conjunctions. Asking kids to make predictions increases engagement!

Short-Answer Option: This is also exactly what it sounds like, but when I flip my lessons I’ll use this feature to ask students what questions they have about the content. This will allow me to tailor the next class period to meet student needs. Hello, data-driven instruction! I know this is somewhere in the NM Teach Domains…As for me, I’m planning on pairing EDpuzzle with PollEverywhere or TodaysMeet so students can ask questions about content in real-time.

Open Ended Question
After the video covers the information kids need to test their predictions, they have to summarize what they’ve learned in a short answer question.

Comment Option: This is a neat tool that allows you to simply add a comment to the right of the video. Like the audio notes, this can be used to restate information in kid-friendly language but it targets visual learners more than auditory learners.

In this video, I used the comma option to restate the rule I want the kids to remember. I phrased the rule differently than the video to give the students multiple opportunities to learn the information.

Multiple Ways to Share with Students

Once you’ve finished creating your video, you can assign it to a class. This is important if you want to see your students’ results after watching the video. To set this up, students will have to create their own account (FREE!) and join your class using a unique code. Then, you just assign your video to a class!

Assign to Class


If you aren’t worried about student data but you still want to share your video with a large group of people, you can simply share a link or embed the video into certain platforms like Schoology. The data won’t be saved, but anyone with the link can see your comments and answer your questions.

Student View

When students are logged in, they’ll see their assigned videos and completed videos side by side, along with their scores on completed videos.

Student View 3

If students try to work in another tab while the video plays in the background, the video will automatically pause. However, clever students will quickly figure out that the video will keep playing if it is open in a different window.

Students may also realize that they need to rewatch a portion of the video again before they’re ready to answer a question.Rewatch Time If that’s the case, they can simply click the “rewatch” button and the video will start over from the last stopping point (question, comment, or audio note).

Viewing Data

On the teacher side of things, you’ll be able to see some helpful data and quickly grade short answer questions:

Screen Shot 2015-06-19 at 4.16.06 PM
IMPORTANT: Be fastidious when creating your multiple choice questions. Once you assign a video to a class, you cannot edit it, even if you realize that you neglected to change a multiple choice option from “correct” to “incorrect” as evidenced by this image.

Teacher View 3Just make sure you always double-check your questions before assigning a video to the class. Once it’s been assigned, you will not be able to edit it.

That’s all I’ve got for you today! If you want to read more about strategies using technology and the SAMR Model, check out my post on using PollEverything in the classroom or my post on Animoto. You can also read the first post in this series here.

Check out the next post in this series: Professional Development 2.0!


Simply Animoto

Logo-V2_Full-Color1-e1382125340276If you’ve poked around this website a bit, you may have stumbled across a couple of videos I created using a nifty web-based program called Animoto. You can find the videos here and here.

If you scroll down you’ll also find an Animoto Tutorial video I created for my students showing how I made the above video.

Animoto is great because it is super simple to create a short video using text, pictures, and video files that are already on your computer, iPad, or SmartPhone. You just log in, click “create,” select a style, then drag and drop! It is so simple and intuitive, even young elementary students can create a video with Animoto.

At this point, you may be wondering why use Animoto when there are plenty of other tools out there that students can use to create a glorified slide show. For me, it’s the platform. Most other video-editing programs I’ve used require a full-blown lesson on how to actually use the program. Aside from getting the kids logged in, I won’t have to teach an entire lesson on how to use Animoto. I can just give them the computers, tell them where to go, how to log in, and what I expect them to create with the program. After that, I can focus on teaching content again. If they need a little extra help maneuvering the program, I’ll just direct them to my nine-minute Animoto Tutorial below.

Animoto and the SAMR Model

samr_coffeeNow that you’ve become acquainted with Animoto, you need to create meaningful lessons. In an earlier post, I discussed the importance of using technology as a way to enhance student learning. The SAMR Model is a great tool because it serves as a reminder to use technology to create new learning experiences that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. If you want to know more about how to apply the SAMR Model to your own lessons, check out the first post in this series: Doug, SAMR, and Me: Reflecting after a week of PD.

Animoto in my English 9 Class

Mandala Project

Ever since I started teaching, I’ve always had students create an artsy-fartsy representation of themselves to present to the rest of the class. Some years I’ll have them create shields, others they’ll create self-portraits, and last year my American Lit classes made personal flags. It’s a great way to learn names and get to know the students. Plus, I have a ton of student artwork to hang on the walls, which helps the students feel more comfortable and proud to be there.

Last year, however, after presenting his flag, I had an English language learner (ELL) write about how anxious presentations made him because he didn’t speak English very well. I realized that by requiring presentations the first or second week of school, I was already setting some of my students up for an anxiety-ridden year in a classroom where they don’t feel socially safe; the exact opposite of what I intended for this particular project.

Animoto will help me change that. This year, my students will create Mandalas for their artsy-fartsy Ms.Hayes-needs-art-on-her-walls project. Since Animoto is so quick and easy to use, I’ll give students the option to use Animoto to present their Mandala to the class instead of a traditional presentation. Since Animoto has apps for smartphones and tablets, shy or tech-savvy students can use their own technology and their own time to create the video, and ELLs can recruit help from friends or teachers so they feel confident about their English usage in the video.

Vocabulary Review

My students will also have Greek and Latin root-based vocabulary quizzes every Friday this year. When I taught juniors and seniors, I didn’t provide any vocabulary instruction during class (unless students asked for help, that is). I told them that in order to prepare for college they needed to get used to studying on their own outside of class, and if they needed help or explicit instruction I would be happy to give them one on one tutoring. That worked for juniors and seniors. That won’t work for freshmen.

Since I’ve designed my vocabulary units to give students repeated exposure to the same nine Greek and Latin roots over a five-week period, I can use Animoto as an assessment tool or as a review activity before unit tests or the summative vocabulary exam during finals week. Here’s a basic idea of what that’ll look like:

  1. Break students up into nine different groups.
  2. Assign each group one root word from that unit.
  3. Students then must use Animoto to explain how that root word operates within words we use in different contexts.
  4. I can then take all of the videos, use iMovie to squish them together, then share them with the rest of the students to use as a study guide before the big exam.

Reader Chair Share

Many teachers have had their students use Animoto to create a book trailer for something that they’ve read in class. While I think that’s a great idea, I don’t want to watch 150 Animoto trailers on the same book.

Instead, I might modify their idea a bit, and have students create a book trailer on something they’ve read for fun outside of class. If a student is reading Harry Potter outside of class for example, they can make a book trailer on Animoto and use that to sell the rest of the class on the series that their crazy English teacher is obsessed with. I might set aside time for students to present their Reader Chair Share videos, or – perhaps when we have a little extra time at the end of class, or when the students’ brains are zonked from endless standardized testing in the spring – I can play a few student-created book trailers to encourage them to read for pleasure outside of class and over summer break.

Creating a Teacher Account on Animoto

If you’re interested in using Animoto in your classroom, you’ll want to set up a teacher account so you can have free access. Since we live in a society where teachers make plenty of money to spend on their students and their classrooms (note my sarcasm), Animoto has made it a bit difficult for teachers to get free access for twelve months. If you’re going to set up an account, make sure you follow the directions below:

Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 10.53.10 AM

Unfortunately, Animoto thinks that most teachers only have fifty students. Ha! That’s why I’ll either have students work in groups, or students in different classes will have shared accounts. Digital citizenship lessons are imperative to any modern curriculum!

That’s all I’ve got for you today! If you want to read more about strategies using technology and the SAMR Model, check out my post on using PollEverything in the classroom. You can also read the first post in this series here.

Check out my next post on making Flipped Videos with EDpuzzle!

Poll Where? Everywhere!

polleverywhereTwo days ago I wrote about some of the basic concepts necessary for authentically integrating technology into the classroom. Today’s post is about a nifty web 2.0 tool you can use to enhance learning in your classroom. Introducing PollEverywhere!

PollEverywhere is a polling website that allows you to ask multiple users a question or a set of questions. On the surface, it is similar to other audience response systems such as Socrative and Kahoot, but dig a little deeper and you’ll discover a much sleeker program.

The First Day of School

Picture this: your freshmen walk into class on their first day of high school. You decide to use PollEverywhere as both an icebreaker and as an easy way to assess the students’ needs. The kids take out their SMS-enabled phones (flip-phones work too), you project a PowerPoint or Keynote presentation with directions for accessing the survey on the board, and they all take out their cell phones (you should probably have a conversation about appropriate cell phone use in the classroom first).

The first question pops up: “Which middle school did yPollEverywhere RealTime Responsesou attend last year?” The students use their cell phones to answer the question, and then the image on the board seamlessly changes to represent student responses in real-time. Cool, right?

Perhaps you also want the students to collaboratively create class norms. Just ask a short aimagesnswer question, and PollEverywhere will then automatically sort their answers into a word cloud, making it extremely easy for students to see what is most important to their peers. No more typing student responses into Wordle after school! 

Flip Your Classroom!

I’ve always wanted to try flipping some of my lessons, but the idea has always intimidated me a bit. How would I know if my students watched the video before coming to class? What do I do with the students who didn’t watch the video before coming to class? What programs do I use to make the videos?

I’ll write more about flipped classrooms later, but PollEverywhere has inspired me to actually try it this year. After assigning a video, I can have the students post questions to PollEverywhere before coming to class, or as a bell-ringer at the beginning of the period. If necessary, I can adjust my lesson for the day to reflect the students questions from the night before.

PollEverywhere and SAMR

So, how do my ideas for PollEverywhere fare against the SAMR Model? I’m not sure. PollEverywhere definitely passes the substitsamr_coffeeution stage because it acts as a direct substitute for having the students turn in their questions on a sheet of paper. PollEverywhere’s slick way of organizing and presenting data easily bumps it up to the augmentation stage, because it is much more functional and efficient than traditional paper polling. But does it “allow for significant task redesign” required to reach the Modification stage? I’m not sure. All I know is PollEverywhere will streamline assessment, giving teachers more time to adjust instruction to meet students’ needs.

Check out my post on using Animoto in the classroom! You can also check out my post on how the SAMR model can help you rock evaluative observations.

Doug, SAMR, and Me: Reflecting after a week of PD

Summer is officially here for most teachers across America (woohoo!) and unlike most summers, I decided not to take on the burden of a summer job this year. Doing so cleared up my schedule so much, that this has become one of the busiest summers of my career. 


May twenty-second was the last day of school, and I’ve spent twelve of the following thirteen weekdays being professionally developed by organizations such as ABC Community School Partnership, College Board, Apple, Discovery Education, Promethean, and APS’s Vanguard Team. And I still have eleven non-consecutive days of scheduled PD to go. 

Note to self: when scheduling PD next summer, leave buffer days for reflection and relaxation!

The best and worst thing about back to back PD is the overwhelming amount of new approaches to include in next year’s curriculum. I’m only half way through my jam-packed summer, and I already feel bogged down with ideas for the next school year. The past few weeks have been a whirlwind. So many new ideas! And strategies! And texts! And tools! And they’re coming at me so quickly that I’m afraid I’ll forget about something really cool before I’m able to include it in my plan for the new school year.

I’ve spent the past week learning all about new strategies to use with the technology available in my classroom. Now, before I continue, you should know that I describe myself a tech savvy, born-again, Apple purist, meaning I now own an iPhone, iPad, and MacBook Pro (well, it’s a school-issued computer but you get the idea). I try to integrate technology into my lessons as often as possible, and I rarely get excited about other people’s tech-strategies because I often feel like I have a better, techier (pronounced tech-E-er) way to do it.

But not this week. This week, I’ve felt a lot like Russell in Up when he and Carl Fredricksen meet Doug for the first time.

When it comes to new tech tools to use in the classroom, I’m sure many of you feel more like Carl Fredricksen than like Russell. I can think of a few Carl Fredricksens myself (Mr. Lee, anyone?).

Today, however, I started to feel a bit overwhelmed. There are just so many Dougs out there, all competing for my immediate attention!

Me trying to simultaneously nurture all of my ideas on how to use Schoology, Animoto, PollEverything, Tellagami, ChatterPix, ClassFlow, EdPuzzle, lino, iMovie, Keynote, Pages, ActiveInspire, and…and…and…inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale.

Consequently, I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing right now. They told us to focus on just one tech tool and design just one digitally infused lesson for the next two hours, but in order to sustain my sanity I’m going to use this time to start a series of posts on the awesome tech and my ideas from the past week so I can refer back to them later.

But first, the basic concepts of using technology in the classroom: The SAMR Model!

The SAMR Model: Bloom’s 2.0

When using technology in the classroom, it’s important to not just use it for the sake of using technology. I don’t knoScreen Shot 2015-06-12 at 9.02.29 AMw about other states, but New Mexico teachers will get a score of Highly Effective for Domain 2B on their evaluative observations if technology “is used skillfully by teachers as appropriate to the lesson.” If you’re anything like me though, Highly Effective isn’t good enough. You’re aiming for a score of Exemplary, in which case technology needs to be “used skillfully by teachers and students as appropriate to the lesson.”

At first glance, many of us (myself included) may think that our students are already using technology skillfully within our classrooms. I mean, they’re using Padlet to turn in their exit tickets! It’s like they’re slapping sticky notes onto a piece of chart paper, but they’re using technology! That qualifies as Exemplary for Domain 2B, right?

Wrong. This is where the SAMR Model comes into play:

Click on the picture! It will take you to a student-created YouTube video that explains the model.

The SAMR Model is like Bloom’s Taxonomy for technology. Check out the SAMR image above. There are four levels of technology integration in the SAMR Model, just as there are six levels of thinking in Bloom’s Taxonomy, and like Bloom’s Taxonomy, all levels have a time and a place in the classroom.

The Padlet exit ticket I mentioned earlier would be an example of simple substitution – if you don’t take advantage of Padlet’s accessibility. But what if, as homework, we make the students refer back to the Padlet exit ticket and summarize all of the different responses into one concise paragraph? We’ve just moved on to augmentation! Padlet is still being used as a substitute for traditional strategies, but we have improved functionality through easy access for anyone with an internet connection. But don’t get too excited. It’s a step towards Exemplary, but it isn’t enough.

At first, the SAMR Model was a bit inconvenient. It reminded me that I wasn’t using technology skillfully enough to be considered Exemplary because I was hanging out in the substitution and augmentation range. Effective? Yes. Highly Effective? Maybe, depending on my evaluator. But Exemplary? No. Rude. After attending a whole bunch of mini-lessons on how to meaningfully incorporate technology into my lessons, however, I no longer feel like giving the SAMR Model the cold shoulder.

Tech Talk – Know the Jargon! 

I forgot to tell you! I learned a new phrase this week: blended learning. ooOoh! Some of you may be shaking your heads at me, wondering how the heck I’ve made it this far in my career without knowing the term blended learning. Have you ever skipped over an unfamiliar term while reading a text of some sort instead of stopping and trying to figure out what it means like a good little reader? I know I’ve heard the term blended learning before, but I’ve never used it myself or stopped to figure out what it means. Here’s a list of terms you may have heard or read without attempting to process the definition.

  • Blended Learning: This term describes learning achieved through a combination of face-to-face traditional instruction and technology-based instruction that happens outside of the traditional classroom. Websites like My Big Campus, Edmodo, Schoology, and BlackBoard are considered blended-learning environments.
  • Web 1.0: This term describes websites that behave like a one-way street. When using Web 1.0 tools, students are passive recipients of information. Think of Web 1.0 tools as teacher-centered lectures. There is a time and a place for them, but if used too long or too often they lose their effectiveness.
  • Web 2.0: This term describes websites that behave like a two-way street. When using Web 2.0 tools, students are actively engaged in both receiving information from the internet and interacting with others through digital means. Think of Web 2.0 tools as student-centered activities.

Fun fact: Web 2.0 was the one-millionth word added to the English language! 

Now that we understand the basic concepts of digitally infused classrooms, we need to put them into practice with concrete lessons. Originally I was going to include a list of ideas describing how I plan on using these new tech tools with my students next year. Seeing as how I am already over 1200 words, however, I think I’ll save the actual ideas for another post (or series of posts) in order to keep from overwhelming you with a bunch of Dougs all at once.

Doug = so-awesome-it's-intimidating technology
Doug = so-awesome-it’s-intimidating technology

Putting Theory into Practice: EdTech Strategies

Put theory into practice and read more from this series!

1) Poll Where? Everywhere!

2) Simply Animoto

3) Flippin’ with EDpuzzle

4) Professional Development 2.0

5) Flippin’ Flipped Learning, Yo!

6) My First Flippin’ Video…In the Classroom

7) Support Learning with Aurasma

8) Final Thoughts

Check out my running list of awesome teacher tech tools.

Vocabulary and the Interactive Student Notebook

It’s official: I’ll be using Interactive Student Notebooks (ISNs) next year. I’ve heard about ISNs through AVID for years, but I’ve never been brave enough to try using them with my students. It seems as if ISNs would completely change my daily routines, which is fine, but I’ve always been unwilling to put forth the time, energy, and resources necessary to implement those changes. I’m excited to try them next year though, mostly because I’ll be teaching freshmen for the first time so I need to adjust my practice anyway.

I stumbled across the ISN idea on Pinterest a few days ago. Since I have been trying to figure out how to teach Greek and Latin root words next year in order to address the ELA CCSS L.3 and L.6, I was drawn to a pin titled Greek and Latin Root Words for Interactive Notebooks. It was a link to Teachers Pay Teachers, which I’ve used only once before.

The bundle included forty-five root words with corresponding terms on cute black and white images screaming to be colored. I paid $12.50 for the 200 + page document (totally worth it), and my mind has been racing with ideas ever since:

Wow! These are great! How can I fit all forty-five root words and the corresponding terms into just one year? 

Divide the roots into five five-week-long units with nine root words per unit.

Okay, so should I have just a few root words per quiz, or what? 

No, quiz the kids on the corresponding terms every week. That way, they’ll be exposed to each root word five times through five different words, which will also give them five opportunities to demonstrate mastery of the roots. 

Bam! Alright, so how does this tie into the interactive notebook idea? The cute pictures are too big and time consuming to include in every unit. 

Cut them out, color them, and hang them on the windows or the wall. Create a new foldable for each unit so there are only five total vocabulary foldables throughout the year.

Ooh! Okay, I know how to do this…

ISN Vocab Root Word Foldable

I created this foldable in about three minutes. I added the words and pictures in another five.

It’s great because the flaps allow for easy studying, and the pictures inside the flaps help the kids to process the information and make connections. The kids can even color code their flaps if they wish!

There is space around the foldable as well, so the kids can add words to the margins.

I did this on plain printer paper, but I’ll print on cardstock for the kids because these flaps are see through. Not very useful for quizzing yourself!

Once I created the root word foldable, I realized the kids will also need a study guide for their weekly terms. To create this, I simply modified the vocabulary study guides I used this year, and I turned them into a foldable in order to make a tactile study guide:

ISN Vocab Study Guide Folded

ISN Vocab Weekly Study Guide

Earlier this year, while reading Vocabulary for the Common Core by Robert J. Marzano and Julia A. Simms, I was intrigued by the idea of having students track their vocabulary progress. They suggested having the students use a data table to increase their own awareness of their learning. The Marzano data table is below:

Marzano and Simms Vocabulary Tracking Chart

I like components of this chart, but I feel as if lacks some important information, like actual data from vocabulary quizzes. I thought it would be helpful to have the students chart their comfort level for each root word, then compare that to the results of their vocabulary quizzes. The resulting table is below:

ISN Vocab Data Sheets

How will this all go into the interactive notebook? Easy!

At the beginning of each unit, the students will receive a new list of words and a new data chart. They will fill out the comfort level side of the chart before the mini-lesson.

I will then give a mini-lesson on the definitions of each root word, and the first group of corresponding terms.

Afterwards, the students will create the root word foldable and receive their first study guide. Every week after that, I will give them another study guide and review the root words and corresponding terms.

The students will fill out the comfort level tracking table again after the third and last quiz. Then, they will take their Vocabulary Unit Test and record the score. Hopefully, their grade on the test will correspond with the data on each chart!

At this point, it is all theory. I’m not sure what will and won’t work, and I can easily see myself forgetting to do the data tables or prioritizing other things instead. Also, I’ll have to design the quizzes to be easy to analyze so the students can see clearly which terms they did and didn’t understand.

It’s a work in progress!

Curriculum Planning: A Seven-Step Process


This year has been a year of unofficial professional development. I’ve had to develop not one but three new curricula mostly from scratch. All of the things I took for granted in the past were suddenly challenges: what books should I teach? Well, crap. I haven’t read most of the books available in the book room. How do I teach advanced writing skills? What do I do when my seniors still don’t understand the difference between literary analysis and plot summary? Needless to say, I made a lot of mistakes.

But mistakes are good. They are humbling, and grounding, and extremely educational. I learned that I need to go back to the standards, something that I thought I was doing at my old school but, as I learned this year, I was lazy about it then. I kind of knew the standards, but I really knew what I wanted to teach my students. Then I wondered why they weren’t getting higher scores on their standardized assessments at the end of the year. And, I’ll admit that I didn’t look at the standards as closely as I should have this year either. I was overwhelmed, and I was in survival mode. But today, I am focusing on my learning, not on my mistakes.

I’m moving to the ninth grade next year. Officially, my job is to realign the ninth grade curriculum by bridging the communication gap between the freshman teachers and the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth-grade teachers. I’m expected to help the freshman teachers take the awesome things that they are already doing individually and channel their ideas into a collaboratively designed new curriculum that aligns with the new standards, the new PARCC assessment, and the English department goals.

After spending a considerable amount of time developing my English 11, English 12, and AP Literature curricula this year, and after developing the first two of units for my English 9 curriculum, I’ve realized that my original method for curriculum mapping was missing one key component: I didn’t fully understand the standards. I looked at the standards as separate entities requiring separate lessons instead of as connected skills. I treated the CCSS document as a checklist instead of as a roadmap. Once I “covered” a standard, check! I was done! No need to cover that again!

I forgot that the standards are end of year goals, and they need to be addressed constantly. They also were not designed to be taught in isolation. For example, Anchor Standard RL 1 requires students to cite textual evidence to support analysis of a text. To truly achieve student mastery, teachers need to expect their students to use that skill any time they complete an assignment targeting RL 2 (analyzing theme), RL 3 (analyzing characters), RL 4, (analyzing words and phrases), RL 5 (analyzing authors choices), and RL 6 (analyzing point of view) – and those are just the Reading Literature standards.

Any time students write anything, they should be expected to pull textual evidence, which means they should always be writing about a text. Every time students are expected to interact with a text, the specific tasks should target one of the five standards categorized as Key Ideas and Details and Craft and Structure. The two standards under Integration of Knowledge and Ideas are much more specific and would best be taught using specific lessons, but even these lessons require students to cite textual evidence (RL 1), and they can easily be connected to RL 2-6. Basically, everything the students do in class should target multiple standards.

In order to prepare for next year and become better acquainted with the 9th grade standards, I broke out my handy-dandy notebook and outlined the standards, intentionally moving parts of one standard to another to make connections and create a unit framework. Observe:

Screen Shot 2015-04-17 at 12.27.24 PMScreen Shot 2015-04-17 at 12.28.45 PM

The CCSS Writing standards are on the top, and my simplified notes are on the bottom. As you can see, I’ve narrowed down the specific skills the students will need to learn. You will also notice that I’ve arranged the key skills to align with the specific text type. Simply by looking at my notes, I now know that I need to have my students write at least three large texts this year: one argumentative text, one expository text, and one narrative text. Suddenly, the standards seem much more manageable. 

Woah! Light bulb alert! The standards list the most important skills first, and the least important skills last. Don’t believe me? Think about the PARCC assessment. Every question on the ELA PARCC assessment targets R.1: using textual evidence to support claims. Appendix A specifically states that Argumentative Writing (W.1) is the most important of all three types of writing (skip ahead to page 24 for Common Core’s explanation). As for Language, L.1 requires students to “demonstrate command of the conventions of Standard English when writing or speaking,” and SL.1 focuses on the students’ ability to collaborate and communicate with any person in any situation.

So, when preparing students for high-stakes assessments (especially if they are expected to pass a standardized test to graduate), prioritize the standards listed first over the standards listed last. 

It isn’t enough to simply break down the standards into manageable pieces, however. The next step is to connect the Writing standards to other parts of the curriculum. I did this by connecting each piece of writing to the texts my students will read next year: The Odyssey by Homer, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. I know that I want to start the year with writing in order to establish good habits from day one, and I also know that the students will need something text-based to write about (this targets the RL 1 standard as soon as possible). From what I can remember about my high school experience with The Odyssey, the students will also need some prior knowledge about Greek gods and goddesses before tackling the text, so they’ll need to read some informational texts and conduct some research (Ooh! Reading Informational Texts, here we come!).

The answer is obvious, isn’t it? Teach writing habits and writing structure by writing an expository text on Greek gods and goddesses. Since this is the first expository text I will expect the students to write, the focus will be on basics such as sentence structure and purpose, paragraph structure (I use the eleven-sentence paragraph format for many reasons, which I plan to explain in a later post), and Standard English. If you refer back to the Common Core State Standards, you’ll see that lessons on paragraph structure target RL. 1, W.2a, W.2b, and W.2c, and lessons on sentence structure target L.1a, L.1b, L.2a, and L.2b. When trying to pound the nitpicky specifics of grammar and mechanics into students’ heads, I’ve found that it is best to teach the lessons after the students have realized that they need it, not before. By creating the need, you create relevance. And by creating relevance, you create engagement. Engagement leads to learning. Bam.

But wait! I’m not done with The Odyssey! In fact, my hypothetical students and I haven’t even started reading it yet! Now that I’ve started building proficiency toward the expository Writing standards and the Reading Informational Texts standards (and notice that I said started, not accomplished), I can segue into another standard: Reading Literature.

I’m going to pause for a minute to ask you a question, dear reader. Why do we teach literature? Seriously. Take a moment to ponder this question. Why do we insist on making kids read stories that were written however many years ago? Why read poetry, or drama, or any other works of fiction? If you don’t have an answer to these questions, you had better figure it out before you make the kids read a text, and that answer should go beyond “because the district makes me do it” or “because it is in the standards.” If you cannot articulate the purpose for reading a specific text, your unit will be unfocused and pointless.

Why am I going to read The Odyssey with my students? Several reasons: because it provides insight into the unchanging human condition across cultures and eras; because it is alluded to in many of the texts the students will be expected to read before graduation; because it is an excellent mentor text for students to use to analyze various narrative techniques; because it teaches the students valuable lessons about their own lives; because reading strong writing teaches students to become better writers; blah blah blah. I could go on and on.

While reading The Odyssey, we’re going to focus mostly on the Reading Literature standards – but I’ll assess my students’ progress on those standards mostly through writing, which means that in addition to teaching the Reading Literature standards, I’ll also have to teach Writing standards. Endlessly. How do I possibly do that in the little time available for this unit? By teaching reading through writing, and by assessing students’ analysis of craft and structure through writing.

Most of the big important Reading Literature standards require the students to analyze technique: How is the theme developed? How are characters developed? How does the diction impact the reader, the mood, the tone, the setting, etc.? How does the structure create suspense or surprise? How does the point of view relate to concepts outside of the text? These are excellent questions to ask the students because they are all standards-based, and they would make excellent exit tickets, discussion questions, one-pager topics, and bell-ringers. Notice how every question will require students to pull textual evidence to support their claims. Oh, and they need to avoid plot summary while answering these questions, because the standards require analysis, another skill that requires explicit instruction (check out my post on teaching analysis here).

So, as we’re reading The Odyssey, I need to provide lessons on:

  • Specific techniques used by writers
  • How to analyze texts for those techniques
  • How to write about the significance or impact of those techniques
  • How to avoid plot summary while writing a textual analysis
  • Writing strong sentence structure and paragraph structure (because let’s face it, kids need constant exposure to proper sentence structure and paragraph organization).

Oh, and I need to make sure I’m preparing the students for the summative assessment as well, which has been on my mind while planning the entire unit. Whew. That’s a lot.

Speaking of, on to the summative assessment. After carefully studying various techniques, the students need to put these techniques into practice by writing their own narrative poem. I will expect them to use the same techniques they found in The Odyssey, but requiring them to create something ups the ante, nudging some students to proficiency and others to mastery. Furthermore, it also targets the narrative Writing standard and reinforces the standards taught while reading.

Geez, and I haven’t even created my daily plans yet. That comes last.

When designing curriculum, you have to know where you’re going before you can possibly know how to get there. In fact, that is true for any type of leadership position. After all, isn’t that what good teachers do? Lead their students through a year’s worth of learning opportunities?

When planning curriculum, it is tempting to start with strategy. Teachers have to do something with their kids every day, so they are first tempted to ask themselves “what will I actually do with my students during this unit?” and “what will daily instruction look like?” instead of “what is the point of teaching this unit?”

I’ll say it again, you have to know where you’re going before you can possibly know how to get there. 

Don’t plan the daily details until you know the structural details. You cannot fill a house with furniture before you’ve built it.

But once you have planned the structural details, you can use Marzano and AVID strategies to create daily plans. You can decide when to use technology, when to hold a Socratic Seminar, and how to balance individual, small group, and whole class activities. You can add time for routine lessons and tasks such as notebook checks and unit-based vocabulary quizzes.

Finally, you need to make sure the students are aware of the standards you’re teaching. I do this by writing unit objectives and daily learning objectives on the board and by listing the targeted standards on rubrics, project descriptions, and my class website. I even have the standards hanging in my classroom so I can point to them during lessons.

Basically, when planning curriculum at the beginning of the year, follow these seven steps:

  1. Break down the Writing standards. I start with writing because most standardized assessments test students reading comprehension and analysis through writing.
  2. Connect to anchor texts. Basically, your summative assessments for each literature unit should be one of the three types of writing, if not a combination of all three.
  3. Break down the Reading standards. Make connections! How can the Reading standards support the Writing standards?
  4. Use “smaller” Reading standards to create text-based writing tasks. Each task’s prompt should target one of Reading Literature standards 2-6. These could be bell ringers, one-pagers, discussions, exit-tickets, etc.
  5. Design writing lessons connecting smaller Language and Writing standards to reading tasks. This is where you can create mini-lessons to tackle the tedious rules of Standard English, discuss diction, practice embedding quotes, or reinforce sentence structure and paragraph structure.
  6. Create daily plans using technology, AVID Strategies, and Marzano Strategies. Make sure you’re communicating the learning goals to the students, preparing them for the summative assessment, and checking their progress for proficiency!
  7. Fill in routine lessons and tasks. Design vocabulary quizzes to reinforce reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition, plan time for notebook checks, etc.

Analysis Shmanalysis: Making Analysis Accessible for All Students

Man, I haven’t published anything in a while. I let life get in the way. And Netflix. Lots of Netflix (New Girl, anyone?).

I also think that I’ve been a little burnt out on writing, and I know I’ve been burnt out on teaching. It’s been difficult to bring myself to spend brainpower on anything aside from lesson planning, grading, and all of the administrative tasks required of teachers. Basically, I haven’t wanted to spend any time on anything extra. Hence the Netflix.

But perhaps I’m leaving that strange funk because I’ve been thinking a lot about analysis lately, specifically about why my seniors are struggling with it so much. I started this school year thinking that they would already know how to analyze a piece of text. Isn’t it something that they’ve had to do since sixth grade? I mean, check out the progression of textual evidence and analysis in the RL. 1 standard:

  • The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts (ELA) specify that by the end of their sixth grade year, students should be able to “cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.” (RL 6.1)
  • When they get to seventh grade, they should be able to “cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.” (RL 7.1)
  • The eighth grade standards are even more specific, specifying that they need to “cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports analysis of” blah blah blah. (RL 8.1)
  • When they get to high school, they need to “cite strong and thorough textual evidence…” (RL 9-10.1)
  • And by their junior and senior years, they should be using textual evidence for everything mentioned before, but they should also use it to determine “where the text leaves matters uncertain.” (RL 11-12.1)

Whew. That’s a lot of fluff, don’t you think?

So, why are my students struggling with analysis so much?

If you’ve been paying any attention to anything related to education in the United States (which I’m assuming you have since you’re reading this), then you’re already aware that this is the Big Scary Year for teachers and students living in Race to the Top states. In just four short weeks (hot damn, that’s soon!) my students will be taking the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) assessment for the first time. Never heard of PARCC? Other Race to the Top states opted for the Smarter Balanced Assessment System. Same difference.

The whole point of the CCSS and the PARCC assessment is to prepare our student for college and choice careers. The fact is, American students have already fallen behind many international students, and it’s freaking everybody out. Ergo, the CCSS and the accompanying assessments (born of the grand Pearson Demon, but that’s a bedtime story for another day) have graced American educators with their unwelcome presence.

Don’t get me wrong; I support the CCSS for English Language Arts. I like how the standards build on each other, how the standards are designed to support student learning. I think they make sense. Sure, they’re super rigorous, and yes, the Math CCSS are ridiculous, but I truly believe the ELA standards will do good things for our students as long as ALL teachers, not just ELA teachers, are given the tools, resources, and professional development necessary to teach the standards well. Hopefully, my analysis of teaching analysis (HA!) will be helpful for other teachers, not just myself.

Now, back to analysis. Check this out: I plugged all of the anchor standards for reading literature and reading informational texts into Wordle to create a beautiful word cloud. After eliminating the common words, the image below is what popped up:

Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at 5.56.33 PM

Notice that the most commonly used word in the reading standards is “text.” Well, duh. So, after eliminating “text,” along with some other unnecessary words such as “two” and “e.g,” I created the lovely little cloud below.

Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at 5.58.26 PM

It appears “analyze” is the most commonly used verb in the reading standards, followed closely by “determine.” Let’s dive deeper into the reading standards though to make sure we really understand just how much today’s high school students have to analyze a text.

The first two Reading Literature Anchor Standards state:

  • 1: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
  • 2: Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.

Both of these standards require students to “determine” something, yet the standards seem to use the verb “determine” as a synonym for “analyze” in order to avoid sounding too repetitive and redundant. You can’t “determine” a theme of a text without some degree of analysis.

Analysis: meaningless buzzword, or meaningful skill?

Since the CCSS have come out, the concept of analysis – whether used as a noun, a verb, or an adjective – has become a popular buzzword for teachers, administrators, and politicians alike (well, maybe not politicians), yet it is the skill that challenges students the most. This is unfortunate considering it is also the number one skill required by the standards. In order to remedy this problem, we must ask why the problem even exists.

I believe (and I don’t have any scientific proof to back this up, just my own experiences) that despite their best intentions, many teachers don’t actually know how to articulate what analysis is. They know how to do it, they know what it looks like when they see it, but they cannot actually articulate what it is and how to do it in kid-friendly language.

– OR –

They think they know what analysis is because they’ve never had to define it before. Considering the standards require the students to start analyzing a text in the sixth grade, it’s possible that teachers in the later grades assume that the students already know what it is and how to do it. I certainly did at the beginning of this year. Then, students turn in “analytical” papers that mostly contain plot interpretation, and because that is a step above plot summary, the teacher is satisfied. I’ve done that before too.

I’m not trying to cast blame on America’s teachers, but it is a hard fact that we have to accept if we hope to make progress. Society expects teachers to be experts in their fields, and it is very unforgiving of teachers who don’t “know everything.” When I first started teaching, my friends would give me a hard time for not knowing specific historical facts or for not being able to recall obscure grammatical rules off the top of my head. They would say, “You should know that! You’re a teacher!” Many people don’t understand that teachers often have to review and relearn the material they’re planning to teach the week before the lesson. It’s almost as if people forget that we are human, and then they punish us for reminding them of that unfortunate fact.

I think that’s why many teachers are afraid to admit when they don’t know something or when their understanding of a concept differs from their colleagues’, especially something as heavily stressed as analysis. I’m not blaming teachers for not knowing how to distinguish it from plot interpretation or how to teach it, I’m blaming society for creating a culture in which teachers are afraid to admit that they need help with something. Instead of acknowledging the problem and confronting it head on, with support, they ignore it, hide it, and struggle to resolve it on their own.

How can our students hope to learn what analysis is if their teachers can’t figure out how to explain it to them? I don’t know about other teachers, but I was never taught how to teach analysis in college. I don’t remember being taught how to analyze a text. I just remember writing a paper for English 201 and everything fell into place. Someone must have taught me how to analyze though, right?

Not necessarily. Tulane University’s article titled “Teaching Analysis” suggests that analytical skills come naturally to people who read a lot:

“What is it that enables English teachers to find so many interesting things to say about something we’ve read? The simplest answer is this: all the other things we’ve read. More specifically, strong readers are those who have read a very great deal and who can thus carry into every act of reading something like a vast catalogue of memories of other texts. When we look at a new piece of prose, we do so ‘through the lens’ of the many dozens of other things we’ve read, texts that are at once very similar and very different from the one at hand. When we look at a new text this way, all sorts of unique features in the piece we are reading become visible, all sorts of ways that this particular piece is saying something new or making an unfamiliar move – or, conversely, repeating ordinary messages in fairly standard ways. In the simplest sense, experienced readers are able to supply the sort of context necessary to make a text seem more and more thickly dotted with meaningful moments and significant turns.”

Does that mean that only our avid readers will be able to dive deep into a text and use analysis to tease out the subtle nuances that make it worth reading? No. I refuse to believe that. It just means that teachers need to collaborate with each other to make sure their expectations are consistent across the curriculum, and that they know how to break down the concept of analysis in a way that is accessible to students.

Okay, so what is analysis?

Google’s Definition of Analysis

When unsure about what something is, many of our students rely on the handy dandy Google machine to give them more information about it. The problem is if Google doesn’t give them a useful answer, they tend to give up right away. Shucks.

This is a problem because Google’s definition of analysis is like flat fountain soda: watered down and boring: “Analysis: A detailed examination of the elements or structure of something, typically as a basis for discussion or interpretation.” Okay. Well, yes, that does seem to be a definition of analysis, but is it useful to our students? Does it tell them how to analyze something? Not really.

Dictionary.com's definition of analysis
Dictionary.com’s definition of Analysis

I found Dictionary.com’s definition of analysis to be much more useful, with three relevant definitions to academic analysis: “1. The separating of any material or abstract entity into its constituent elements; 2. This process as a method of studying the nature of something or of determining its essential features and their relations; 3. A presentation, usually in writing, of the results of this process.”

I really like Dictionary.com’s definitions because they all relate to the steps of analysis. In order to analyze a text, you must first separate it into its constituent elements: theme, character development, tone, etc. Then, you have to consider how a particular element relates to something bigger within the work. For example, how does Fitzgerald use the setting of The Great Gatsby to make a statement about the political or social issues of the time in which it was written? It goes beyond the obvious socioeconomic statuses of East Egg, West Egg, and The Valley of Ashes. Students must also consider how the characters’ behaviors change from one setting to the other. They must consider why Fitzgerald decided to place the car accident in the Valley of Ashes, why Tom’s infidelity occurs in New York, and the significance behind Daisy’s infidelity in West Egg. What does this suggest about the differences between the two affairs? What does it suggest about the pains and desires of the characters themselves? Finally, the students must be able to present their analysis to others. Usually, this is done through an analytical essay, but it can also be done orally in a discussion, or through a presentation.

While exploring the concept of analysis, I stumbled across this wonderful resource from Austin Peay State University that explains the difference between plot summary, plot interpretation, and literary analysis. Upon reading the words “plot interpretation,” I was first confused, then excited. I had never heard of plot interpretation before. Check out the differences between the three types of writing below, or read the entire article here.

  • Plot Summary: A condensed description of the basic plot points of a text. Plot summary does not address the deeper meaning, nor does it contain opinions. It simply explains what happened in the text.
  • Plot Interpretation: This is when a student describes details they’ve had to infer from the text, yet they still haven’t reached the deeper meaning. This is like picking up on someone’s body language or subtle sarcasm without understand why they’re acting that way. For example, students may infer that Lady Macbeth is experiencing extreme guilt because she is sleepwalking and having nightmares of blood-soaked hands that cannot be cleaned, yet they don’t take it further by connecting her guilt to the overall theme or the work or to the unchanging human condition.
  • Literary Analysis: Literary analysis requires you to first break down a text into its constituent parts, and then look at how each part contributes to the deeper meaning of the whole. You must first be able to comprehend the text (which is required to write an analysis), make connections within the text (which is required to interpret the plot), and then finally consider how one piece of the text contributes to a deeper or hidden meaning. Often, this deeper or hidden meaning relates to the human condition in some way.

Now that we know the difference between plot summary, plot interpretation, and plot analysis, let’s revisit the questions I posed about The Great Gatsby for the prompt, “how does Fitzgerald use the setting of The Great Gatsby to make a statement about the political or social issues of the time in which it was written?” A student who is at the plot interpretation level would simply discuss the obvious socioeconomic statuses of East Egg, West Egg, and The Valley of Ashes, and the corresponding characters’ attitudes about money. In order to reach the literary analysis level however, students must also consider how the characters’ behavior changes from one setting to the other. They must consider why Fitzgerald decided to place the car accident in the Valley of Ashes, why Tom’s infidelity occurs in New York, and the significance behind Daisy’s infidelity in West Egg. What does this suggest about the differences between the two affairs? What does it suggest about the pains and desires of the characters themselves? Now, how does this all relate back to the prompt, “how does Fitzgerald use the setting of The Great Gatsby to make a statement about the political or social issues of the time in which it was written?”

Literary analysis is as much about asking the right questions as it is about making connections between the elements. Ideally, the questions will require you to make connections between the elements. The Great Gatsby questions might lead a student to discover the relationship between setting and characters, and that relationship will then tie into a theme that is applicable to the political or social issues of the time in which it was written.

In literature, everything is connected, like a series of roadways. Students just have to discover the roadways. The question is the on-ramp; the connection is the road. Sometimes, a connection will be like a large, twelve-lane highway, easily accessible to everybody. More often, students will have to take the smaller streets or the tiny back roads to discover the connections. They may explore a possible connection before realizing it dead-ends far from where they hoped to be, but it may lead to something even better if they remain open-minded and willing to explore the unfamiliar.

How to Teach Analysis: A Step-by-Step Guide

Teaching analysis this year has been like building a sand castle with dry sand. I’ve had to break old habits while developing new ones: not an easy task when teaching high school seniors who think they know everything already. But it has forced me to rethink and redesign my practice, and I’m grateful for that.

  • Comprehension: As we already know, before students can analyze a text they first have to comprehend it. This simple truth is evident in the CCSS elementary standards. Tracing the RL 1. Anchor Standard back to grades one through three reveals a great deal of questioning, recalling, retelling, and summarizing. These skills lay the foundation for our next step: plot interpretation.
  • Plot Interpretation: Looking again at RL. 1, students in grades four and five are expected to start making inferences about plot, but first they must be able to identify the cause and effect relationships within the text. Initially, they have to be able to recognize basic patterns, using key details from the text as evidence of these patterns. As they progress through the grades, they need to recognize more complex patterns within the text, as well as across multiple texts and across disciplines.
  • Literary Analysis: Once students have a solid understanding of the plot and its inferences, they must then break the text down into its constituent elements. This includes theme, character, setting, plot, conflict, imagery, diction, symbolism, etc. Most prompts identify the element for students to analyze, but others are less restrictive. After choosing an element (or elements), the student must then refer back to the text in search of tangible, text-based clues that indicate the abstract, intangible concepts. When looking for clues, it may be necessary to forge connections that don’t already exist. Analytical essays are persuasive, after all.
  • Articulation: Finally, students must be able to articulate their analysis in a way that is both clear and concise. What’s the point of all the great analysis they’re doing if they don’t have the language to express their complex thoughts? I believe that organization is essential. Students need to know what concept to introduce first, where and how to use textual evidence to support their claims, and how to support their textual to their claim by writing support or analysis sentences.

Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 2.38.17 PMWhen first introducing students to analytical writing, it is helpful to give them a formula to follow. Think of it as writing training wheels because without it, their writing is going to fall back into in the comfortable familiarity of plot summary. I like to use the eleven-sentence paragraph outline format in which every sentence serves a specific purpose. Not only does it scaffold the organization process, but it also provides a great opportunity to segue into sentence structure which the kids will eat up because they are learning it out of necessity, not because it’s on a to-do list. Vocabulary acquisition will also come much more naturally to the students at this point, and this is when I like to review lists of abstract nouns and transitions. Finally, when it is time to transform the outline into a rough draft, show the students how to embed textual evidence.

By the end of the unit, your students will have meticulously written something they’re proud of both because they’ve delved deeper into a text than ever before, and because they were able to articulate their complex thoughts in a way that makes sense to others. Basically, they’ll feel like a bunch of smarties, and they’ll have evidence of their intelligence! Isn’t that a great feeling?

So, next year when I get the chance to teach literary analysis all over again, with a (somewhat) clean slate, I’m going to start by identifying where my students fall on the plot summary, plot interpretation, literary analysis spectrum so that I can scaffold their learning appropriately without having to backpedal. I’m going to start with the ALA Protocol on the word “analysis,” explain the differences between plot interpretation and literary analysis, and force my students to forge connections where they don’t already exist with conceptual analogies. I’m going to focus on the skill of analysis rather than the product, because if the skills are strong, the products will be too.

But first, I’m going to finish watching New Girl on Netflix, because holy crap, I wrote way more on analysis than I originally thought I would. Thanks for sticking with it through the end!

Deliberate Diction Unlocks the Door to Success!

My Diction Door has expanded to become a Word Wall after all.

Hot diggity, the Diction Door was a success! Here’s some proof:

Student A: “Geez, class is already over? It feels like it just started!”

Student B: “This was fun, Miss! Can we do it again?”

Student C: “Aw man! I wanted to define Aesthetics!”

Student D: “Miss, it says that bantam is a chicken! Are they saying that Kit Carson was a chicken?!”

Student E (in response to Student D): “Ooh! That’s a metaphor!”

Here’s how it all went down

When the students walked into class, their desks were already arranged into groups so they could work in their literature circles. Since we’ve been reading the first four pages of Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides, I had each literature circle pick one difficult word from the text to contribute to the Diction Door. They were not allowed to choose a word that was already on the door.

Once they picked their word, I passed out the Diction Door Templates (one of each color per class), a black Crayola marker, and a pair of scissors. I told the students that they were to write down the definition and the original sentence that used the word, and that they needed to create a new sentence using the word. Finally, I gave each group four small pieces of paper that matched the color of their template, which they used for synonyms.

After that, I simply walked around the room and listened to the students work and talk to each other. Once they finished, I taped their word and synonyms onto the door.

The Diction Door Templates
The Diction Door Templates

But not all went as planned…in a good way

I’ll admit, I was a little stressed out about it during 1st period. Originally, I thought that it would take the students about 10-15 minutes. I was wrong. Like, WAY wrong. It ended up taking the entire class period, which surprised because I expected the students to just look up the word and then write down the definition. Instead, they looked up the word, didn’t understand the definition, looked up more words in the definition, and then rephrased the original definition so that it made sense to them!

The Diction Door also provided many teachable moments that I hadn’t originally anticipated. For example, one group of students realized that the word “deliberate” could be an adjective or a verb. Then they had to decide if it was being used as an adjective or a verb in the passage. Not only did this help them understand the word, but it also helped them understand the difference between verbs and adjectives!

With the word “Womanize,” the students found the dictionary.com synonyms first. They used words and phrases like “flirt,” “fool around,” “stud,” and “ladies man” as their synonyms. I explained that these words were too positive, and that womanizing isn’t a good thing. I told them that “objectify” would be a good synonym for womanize, but I couldn’t think of any others and the students were struggling to find appropriate synonyms online. I sent them across the hall to ask their social studies teacher. He started rattling off words like “chauvinistic” and “sexist.” Perhaps the feminist side of me kicked in during this exchange, but I’m totally okay with that.

Originally, I just wanted to have a Diction Door because I didn’t think I would have enough space for a word wall, but I actually ran out of space on the door. I had to extend it a bit and now the word wall is covering a white board that I don’t use very often. I made a sign for the word wall, and I still have a sign for the diction door up, but I decided to make a poster to maintain the diction door theme. It says: Deliberate diction unlocks the door to success! We navigate our whole lives using words. Change and improve the words and I believe we can change and improve life.

Deliberate diction unlocks the door to success: We navigate our whole lives using words. Change and improve the words and I believe we can change and improve our life.
I made a banner!

Overall, I am extremely pleased with my diction door/word wall. The students had a blast with it, and I added a word to the wall today: allusion. I also referred to a couple of the words on the wall while talking to the students about avoiding redundancies in their writing. Next year, I’ll have to rearrange my classroom so that the word wall has room to grow. I’m sure it’ll end up spilling out into the hall outside of my room like this teacher’s word wall.

Oh, and for the record, my diction door/word wall is very aesthetically pleasing! Too bad I’ll have to cover it up when we have NMSBA testing in a couple of weeks.

My newest addition to the word wall
My newest addition to the word wall

Wading into Word Walls

Image from: http://goo.gl/Gkmn0n
Image from: http://goo.gl/Gkmn0n

I have an announcement to make: I’ve decided to make a word wall in my classroom.

To some, this may not seem like a big deal or like a difficult task, but for me, this is a new, scary, unpredictable adventure. I’ve always been intimidated by word walls; mostly because I’ve never really understood their role in the classroom. I do know that they are considered a best practice, and I know that when used properly, word walls can have a major impact on students’ vocabulary.

But I’m still intimidated.

I decided to bite the bullet and implement a word wall the other day when my students were struggling through the first four pages of Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides. With words like caromed, bantam, bumpkin, terrestrial, fastidious, and cadence, I realized that I can’t possibly expect my students to use context clues for every difficult word. Plus, in an effort to create a more student-centered classroom (and to not spend an entire day on vocabulary), I figured a word wall would be the most effective way to tackle the difficult vocabulary in the excerpt over an extended period of time.

Now, the question is, how does one use a word wall?

Questions to Consider…

Where will I put it? I don’t have a lot of free space on my walls. Plus, since my walls are concrete, the only way to hang something is by hot gluing it to the wall (tape doesn’t work on the paint on my walls for some reason). I do have a closet door at the front of the room…perhaps I’ll have a Diction Door instead!

I know that I want the students to select the words to go on the wall, and I know that I want them to look up the definition for the word, write an original sentence or two using the new word, and list synonyms for the word. I’ll need some sort of template for the students to use.

I also know this is something I will leave up for all of my classes, so I need to develop a system where each class will contribute different words to the wall. But how should I organize it? Should the words be in alphabetical order? Or should they just go up in a random order?

The perfectionist side of me is kicking in too. I want everything to be uniform, so I want all of the words to be typed, using the same size font. I know I want the definitions to be typed too, but getting the students to type and add the definitions to the wall will take away from the seamlessness of the strategy…so what’s more important? A messy, student-driven word wall, or a neat, teacher driven-word wall?

…Learning is messy. I suppose an organic word wall is a messy word wall.

The Plan

I’ll cut out a bunch of multi-colored strips of paper. The students will use these strips of paper for the words and definitions. I’ll also cut out smaller pieces of paper for synonyms. These will surround the original word. I’ll give each group a few markers so the words are easy to see from the back of the classroom.

Since I already sorted the students into mixed-ability literature circles, I’ll just have each literature circle select one word from the text to add to the wall. Then, as a group, they will find the definition, write a new sentence using that word, and find as many synonyms as possible. They will write these things down on the strips of paper, and then I will tape them up on the sheet of butcher paper taped to the door at the front of the classroom (A.K.A. Diction Door!) Each class will add new words, but they can also add synonyms to existing words.

The whole thing should only take about ten minutes per class.

I’ll keep you posted on the results. In the meantime, check out these word walls that other K-12 teachers have in their classrooms…

Image from: http://goo.gl/dpN80w
Image from: http://goo.gl/dpN80w
Image from: http://goo.gl/Iy2cB7
Image from: http://goo.gl/Iy2cB7
Image from: http://goo.gl/GtiOcp
Image from: http://goo.gl/GtiOcp
Image from: http://goo.gl/C46eiT
Image from: http://goo.gl/C46eiT
Image from: http://goo.gl/tlFNn5
Image from: http://goo.gl/tlFNn5

I hope my word wall Diction Door is pretty too.

Wish me luck.