Improving Peer Feedback in Blogs

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_535675201In the beginning of our blogging year, I always tell students to wait to comment on each other’s writing. There are always those who ignore me and add all sorts of silly comments with emojis. What they don’t realize is that I have to approve all comments first. I control this intentionally because I want to teach them how to comment.

This may sound super controlling, but there is a reason for this. I teach my students to comment on what the author did well as a writer — focusing on the lessons we have worked on in class. I tell them to leave the constructive criticism to me — that’s my job. They need to read for what was done well and highlight that. The results have been more than I had hoped for.

The Benefits of Positive Feedback

My students’ comments are truly insightful:

  • “I really liked how you put show not tell in your intro because it really helps me understand how she is feeling.”
  • “I love how you made a connection to your real life with your family and Judah 🙂 I also like your choice of words and detail because you can really picture your story.”
  • “There were some pleasing turns in this story that I really enjoyed!”

Students love getting comments from their peers, and when the feedback is positive, I see them more excited to write and to revise their writing. I can still leave private comments about things that need fixing (spelling is my #1) or I can have a one-on-one conference if there are larger issues.

My students let me know if I am behind on approving comments because they love to see their names in print in an “editor” mode. It also allows for good conversation if I choose not to publish a comment. Usually it is because they either were critical or forgot to comment about the writing. Keeping their focus on what the author did well as a writer helps them leave meaningful feedback and also shifts their mindset for their own writing.

The biggest benefit from intentional commenting is that it has made my writers more aware of their own use of craft and more aware of good writing as they read. Students are coming up to me to show me good passages in books. Some are starting to notice when stories are not well written. This is something I could not teach and if I tried, I probably could not achieve.

I am excited to see how commenting will continue with this group this year. I may experiment with allowing them to add craft suggestions and see what evolves. I’ll keep you posted!

beth croppedBeth Rogers is a fifth grade teacher for Clarkston Community Schools, where she has been teaching full time since 2006.  She is  blessed to teach Language Arts and Social Studies for her class and her teaching partner’s class, while her partner  teaches all of their math and science. This enables them  to focus on their passions and do the best they can for kids. Beth was chosen as Teacher of the Year for 2013-2014 in her district. She earned a B.S. in Education at Kent State University and a Master’s in Educational Technology at Michigan State University. 

‘Tis the Season for a Fantasy Adventure

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

crowns-gameSomething about winter calls for a good, strong fantasy story. The cold, blustery weather makes me want to curl up and disappear into an epic tale full of adventure and magic. There’s no shortage of such stories available, but if your favorite reader has consumed all of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings iterations available, they will be itching for something new and exciting this year.

Look no further than The Crown’s Game, by Evelyn Skye, an alternate history set in enchanting Imperial Russia, with all of the magic, adventure, and romance for which fantasy buffs will clamor. (Bonus: The cover is gorgeous! We know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but most kids admit that they do anyway.)

The Plot

Vika’s father has been training her to manipulate weather and animals since she was a child. He wants her to become the Imperial Enchantor, the powerful magician who protects the Tsar and helps him defend Russia against enemies. It is the only thing she has ever wanted.

But Vika doesn’t know about Nikolai, the talented orphan adopted by a wealthy family that has helped him hone his abilities to charm machines and conjure fantasies from his dreams. They intend to make him Imperial Enchantor and solidify their place in Russia’s high society.

Neither Vika nor Nikolai know about the other, and neither of them know about the Crown’s Game — the Tsar’s magical battle that will force them to demonstrate their skills. The victor becomes the Imperial Enchantor and part of the Tsar’s Guard. The loser suffers defeat and dies.

Why It’s Worth Reading

We all have times when life gets busy or exhausting. Sometimes we need a break.

Reading this kind of fantasy fiction, set in an exotic location and full of activities that could never take place in real life, is like stepping out of reality for a few moments a day and taking a mental vacation. I’ve never had the privilege of traveling to Russia, but I felt like I was visiting the real locations depicted in the book — the colorful buildings of Nevsky Prospect and the regal Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. The Crown’s Game makes Russia intriguing and exciting, and may even spark some natural inquiry from students about where this book departs from history and becomes fiction.

9361589Additionally, this book reminded me of a Russian YA version of The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, which is a favorite of mine. Who doesn’t love a story in which the high-stakes battle pits soul-connected contestants against each other? I never stopped hoping that they would somehow manage to find a magical loophole so that they could both survive and go forward together. If you know teens who liked The Night Circus, encourage them to read this title, or start with The Crown’s Game and use it as a bridge to stretch their interest from YA into literary fiction.

Evelyn Skye is a debut author, but The Crown’s Game is the first book in a planned series (The Crown’s Fate is expected to release in May), and I have a feeling that it is going to be quite popular. Jump on the bandwagon before everyone else is doing it!

Book Details

Reading Level: AR = 5.9, Lexile = HL800L

ISBN: 9780062422583
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Balzer & Bray
Publication Date: May 17, 2016

Awards & Accolades: Starred review from Kirkus Reviews

Bethany Bratney

Bethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and was the recipient of the 2015 Michigan School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.

Finding the Details

Notes from the Classroom

image2This year as a kindergarten team, we had to decide on a Professional Learning Community goal to enhance our instruction. We decided that we’d like to work on having students elaborate in their writing and illustrations, and include feelings in both.

Here is part of what we’re doing.

In the Beginning

In kindergarten we start off our writing instruction by telling oral stories. This is the perfect time to model the adding of details and feelings to one’s story.

We start off by saying, “I bought a toy,” and see if the students find this to be an interesting story. Of course they always want to know more! When it’s the students’ turn to share stories, we ask questions to elicit more details and to see how they’re feeling.

After a few days of oral storytelling with emotional details, we model a detailed illustration of the event discussed. We also phase in the lessons on labeling (i.e., names, label the items in the pic, feelings, etc.).

Just as you convince young readers they are readers, you also need to convince them they are a community of authors and illustrators. Constant praise and access to writing outlets is key.

Mentor Texts

Mentor texts also show students how authors and illustrators include details to make the story more interesting. When feelings are shown, readers can better relate to and understand the story.

Additionally, mentor texts lend themselves well to lessons on writing what are often referred to as small moments. These are moments that have happened to the students, which they would be able to write about in detail. Young authors often express they have nothing to write about; sometimes they just need a little inspiration, and mentor texts can help with that too!

Below are just a few of my personal favorites. I would love to hear a few of your favorite mentor texts in the comments below; I am always looking to expand my library!

  • Hug. This is a great example of something young authors could emulate, in order elaborate their feelings.
  • cover_gramandgrandpaBear’s Loose Tooth and Bear Feels Scared (really the entire Bear series). One way to use these texts is to inspire a story about when students may have lost their first tooth, or about a time they were nervous and had someone help them.
  • Llama Llama books. These books include wonderful descriptive words and the easy flow of the text is fun for children to hear. The descriptive words alone are a great thing to point out for students to add to writing. The storylines are also relatable and a great jumping point when working on details.

Cross-Grade-Level Writing

Something new I’d like to try with my kindergarteners this year is set writing time with our second grade buddy class. Our intention is that writing together will build the skill level of the students as well as the confidence of the second graders. This thought is in its infancy stage and I will hopefully be able to post more about it later in the year.

For now, my coworker and I would like to have the students work together on a book about a character who has struggled to learn and/or do something. They will create a fictional character or write about themselves. We will have lessons built around the details of characters’ feelings, both when they struggle and succeed. The students will work to reflect this in the illustrations and the words.

We will have them share these with each other and other classrooms when completed. The power of an authentic audience is also motivating when writing!

In The End

At the end of the year I know my classroom will be full of amazing authors and illustrators. I know this because I believe in them and because of the growth they’ve already shown in three short months. Most started at the beginning of the year with the creation of what I refer to as sun people–a circle with arms and hands sprouting from it, with a smile inside and no words.

Now they are drawing multiple people with bodies that are separate from their heads, details in the scene, and labels with the picture. Some are adding a descriptive sentence or more about what is going on. I am elated and know they will keep going because they are motivated and believe in themselves too!

image1Tricia Ziegler (Twitter: @axf96; blog: is a kindergarten teacher at Loon Lake Elementary, in the Walled Lake School District. She is a part of the Walled Lake iCouncil (Instructional Council) team and is part of starting a coding club at her school this year. She is in her eleventh year of teaching, with nine in kindergarten and two in Second Grade. Prior to that she taught in the Walled Lake Great Start Readiness Program, which is a state-funded preschool program for at-risk students. Tricia attended Michigan State University for her undergraduate degree and specialization in Early Childhood. She then attended Wayne State University for her Master’s in Teacher Education.

Podcast #17 Formative Assessment: A Conversation with Dylan Wiliam

Formative Assessment News Podcasts Professional Learning Research & Theory

Dylan Wiliam is a world-renowned educational leader and researcher, specializing in teacher development and formative assessment. On today’s podcast, Dylan shares the key aspects of formative assessment. He offers his thoughts on teacher development. And he shares some practical ideas to consider for your teaching.

In addition to hearing Dylan speak about formative assessment and learning, there are some useful links included below.

On Feb 1, 2017, Dylan will be speaking at Oakland Schools. The workshop will focus on embedding formative assessment into daily practice. You can learn more about this workshop, and you can register for the event, by visiting this page.

Additional Links

The Dylan Wiliam website

Practical Ideas for Formative Assessment

Classroom Assessment Minute by Minute

Listen to this podcast on iTunes



Video Raised the Revision Bar

Notes from the Classroom

toplogo2xThis post’s title is better if you sing it to the tune of “Video Killed the Radio Star,” but I suppose that’s true of almost anything ever typed. Anyway, if you’ve followed my rantings for any period of time, you’re probably familiar with my efforts last year to modernize the writing feedback process via audio feedback to students. Despite some hiccups from the technology itself, the experiment has been a reasonable success.

At least, when it’s used as intended.

The site I use ( for providing feedback has another feature–it allows me to track which students have actually listened to said feedback in order to, you know, become better writers and whatnot. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that not all of them are tuning into my dulcet tones–and it would probably surprise you even less to learn that the students most in need of supportive, growth-mindset feedback are the demographic least likely to listen.

Sing It Again, Zig

This leaves me in a bit of a bind. The students really need to absorb the feedback on their paper, and I’ve invested a lot of time into restructuring the feedback itself into something friendly and positive (it’s like the Fireside Chat of paper grading). I can beg them to play the audio, or try withholding their grade itself until they do, or even demand that they summarize my thoughts in their own words, but none of that really feels like learning so much as a grumpy middle management technique.  

But two things have occurred to me, prompted by the discovery of an app called Flipgrid. First, struggling students are unlikely to do much with feedback if they aren’t invested. Second, the best way to get them invested is to let THEM use technology to express themselves, not just the other way around.  

The logical conclusion of those two premises seems obvious: Students should be shooting 90-second video clips, wherein they explain their own revisions based on my feedback, and then share them in a public space and use them as models for their own future writing!  

Sometimes it’s the most obvious things that we overlook.

“Flip Mode is the Greatest” (I Hope)

Busta Rhymes said that, but I’m pretty sure he was referring to his record label. I’m hoping it’s true in this case too, though, because Flipgrid is the centerpiece for the next phase of revision work in my class. My students just got back their audio feedback from me. In the next few days, they’ll have time to digest it and revisit their own writing, along with their rubrics (which also have feedback from me).  

Then the real fun begins! All of my students will be choosing one paragraph (or 200-ish word section) of their narrative and making revisions to it based on the audio feedback I provided them. They will have time to workshop the revisions in class, conferencing and all.  

After that, I’ll be modeling for them a Flipgrid video. The app allows them–from their phones or computers–to create exactly 90 seconds of video and submit it to a “grid” that I have already created for this assignment. The videos get pre-approved by yours truly, and then they become a part of a communal online space (“The Grid,” which Flipgrid should totally copyright so they can sell the movie options to Hollywood later).  


A screenshot from my revisions grid–note the model video I made at the bottom. Click to enlarge.

I’m hopeful that this high-tech approach to revisions will have a two-pronged impact on students. Foremost, I’m hopeful that making revisions a performance-based activity will encourage greater effort from reluctant writers. It’s a challenging task to create exactly a minute and a half of video narration that sounds polished and conveys everything you need it to. I tried it last night to create a model: by my fourth try I was getting frustrated, and by my final cut I had to leave several pretty great one-liners on the “cutting room floor,” so to speak, just to hit the time window. I’m hoping that there’s something about staring into a camera lens that will make kids a little more invested.

I’m also hopeful that when students suddenly have a shared space, where they can openly watch one another’s writing processes visualized and narrated by their own peers, that they will discover in that space both models for improving their own writing and reassurance that they aren’t alone in the frustrations and limitations they sometimes feel as writers.

Time will tell! Tune in for part two of this blog in a few weeks–I’ll let you know how it went and alert you to any tweaks that you might want to make if you’re feeling similarly ambitious. Who knows–maybe we’ll discover that all it takes is a bit of amateur video footage to make good writing “go viral” in our own classrooms.

Michael Ziegler

Michael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.  

Peers: The Best Writing Coaches?

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_507176578In my first post, I described some writing problems that surfaced in my AP US History classroom, as well as my new plan to implement a peer-to-peer space where they could be addressed. The space is called HerodotusHive and it fits into my wider writing program. So far this year, I’ve worked with former students to set up HerodotusHive, and we’ve even had a few sessions. Below I describe the process I went through to create this new learning space.

Mentor Historians Onboard

As explained in my first post, the idea for HerodotusHive started last year when Corey, a former student, offered to help my current students. Now I needed to reach out to more Coreys.

In September I made a list of APUSH alumni (now juniors and seniors) who were strong writers and had potential to be good mentors. I had invitations delivered to 47 students. I was thrilled to see that 38 came to hear my pitch and signed on.

Not every moment of a teacher’s year is one for the storybooks—trust me, I know—but it was incredibly heartening to see the number of former students who came to listen and then said, “Yeah, sounds good. Let’s get started.” I had a deep roster of Mentor Historians in place, ready to help.

Now I needed to share these plans with my current students and get some buy-in. From Day 1 I stressed the importance of adopting a growth mindset. Since APUSH became a 10th Grade course, I noticed many students were increasingly grade focused in the wrong ways. I stepped up on my soapbox and urged them to ditch the question, “What can I do to bring up my grade?” and encouraged them to think in terms of “How can I write better thesis statements?” So when I pitched HerodotusHive to my classes, I explained that we can all get better at writing, implying this was not a program solely for struggling students. And to their great credit, they listened. For our first HerodotusHive, almost half of my 65 APUSH students attended.

What Happens at HerodotusHive?

During my pitches to former and current students, I explained that a HerodotusHive would focus on a featured skill, like the writing of introductions. I then shared the agenda so they had an idea of what they were signing onto:

1. We review the featured skill in a flipped lecture I have recorded (and posted to Google Classroom as a resource). It’s essential for a HerodotusHive to start here. As skilled as my Mentor Historians are, they still need to review what it is I’m asking my current students to do. My current students had seen this once in class and now they’re reviewing what’s needed to write at a high level.

2. Mentor Historians share little insights on how they had success performing this skill.

3. I then post a practice question on the screen and break my current students into groups where Mentor Historians will be there to help.

4. Current students work through the writing task as Mentor Historians help, and I circulate to support and answer some content questions.

Peer Instruction At the Core

At the core of HerodotusHive is a belief that mentor-writers can help developing writers. I’ve studied the work of Eric Mazur, a Harvard physics professor, who explains why this is important:

For more Mazur, you can watch the entire interview and read a feature article. One thing worth noting is that he undersells his value as a teacher in the learning process. Note that he created the space to learn and that he is still lecturing, but the mini-lectures are just more purposeful.

My takeaway is that there are indeed strategic moments in the development of a writer when I, the teacher, am not the best person to help them. And I’m OK with that. Students learn plenty from me about writing, but we know that as teachers we aren’t the only source of learning. Nor should we want to be.

If we set aside the subject matter, the premise of Mazur’s peer-instruction model is that strong students can help developing students. I know it’s transferable because I’ve used the method in AP US History when we work with difficult political cartoons and in my economics classes for supply/demand graphing. In both cases I witnessed little epiphanies across the room as kids now understood something they hadn’t just seconds before.

However, like in physics, these two examples involve right and wrong answers. Writing is different, so as I designed HerodotusHive over the summer, an open question in my mind was whether or not peer instruction would yield the same magic here. In my next post I’ll share early results. Spoiler alert: It’s no longer an open question.

unnamedRod Franchi (@thehistorychase) is in his 21st year teaching Social Studies at Novi High School. He did his undergraduate work at Albion College and the University of Michigan, and earned an M.A. in English at Wayne State University and an M.A. in History Education at the University of Michigan. Having served as an education leader at the school, district, county, and state levels, Rod now works as AP US History Consultant and AP US History Mentor for the College Board. He is also Co-Director of the Novi AP Summer Institute and is an Attending Teacher in the University of Michigan’s Rounds Program.

Podcast #16 Heidi Kattula – Executive Director of District and School Services at Oakland Schools

News Podcasts Professional Learning Uncategorized


heidi_2In July 2016, Oakland Schools had a significant reorganization. During this reorganization, smaller units were formed from the existing larger departments, and some additional administrative roles were created. A number of these units are part of the District and School Services. Dr. Heidi Kattula is the Executive Director of District and School Services at Oakland Schools.

In this podcast, Heidi talks about how the reorganization can support Oakland County educators. She discusses some of the exciting innovations in education and some of the challenges. And she shares some personal information as to who she is.

Click here to listen to this podcast through iTunes.