Sing (err…Speak) Their Praises!

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_352223126A funny thing happened as my students were wrapping up their narrative journalism papers a couple weeks ago on the shiny new Chromebooks I’d reserved for the assignment. As I was reviewing a few formatting details with them, it suddenly dawned on me that my deadline for a hard copy of the paper–the end of the hour–was physically impossible. There is no printer attached to our Chromebook carts.

After panicking momentarily and shrugging off the realization in front of the kids, I remembered a lovely feature of I told my students to submit their papers to Turnitin as usual, and that no hard copy would be necessary. In place of the normal written feedback on their papers and on an attached district rubric, my juniors would be getting three minutes of my silky-smooth voice walking them through their writing, using Turnitin’s audio feedback feature.

“Pass me the mic”

You should know that there are lots of educational tools out there for providing audio feedback to students. If all else fails, the phone app Voxer will let you share voice memos with anyone who “friends” you in the application (which can be done without revealing your actual cell number).

If getting ahold of a recording method isn’t a problem but the huge shift in how you provide feedback is, then I’d ask you to consider why conferencing remains the most impactful method of improving student writing. Kids listen when you talk to them one-on-one. Even the reluctant writers.

In fact, The Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests that the best feedback for student writing “mirrors conversation with student-writers.” Though speaking your thoughts aloud falls one voice short of a “dialogue,” it certainly allows you to imitate the key elements of a good writing conference: your supportive tone of voice, the context for your criticisms, and clear guidance for how to move forward.

Talk Them Up

shutterstock_406788406Let’s consider briefly what written feedback tends to look like when you have 100 essays to grade.

You can use a coded system that reduces full ideas to symbols (that your lowest readers will ignore), you can write slightly longer phrases in the tiny margins (which your kids may not be able to read), or you can attempt to provide a full-bodied paragraph of feedback at the end of each essay (which will eventually give you carpal-tunnel syndrome and break your spirit completely…oh, and many of your lowest writers won’t bother to read it.).

I want to suggest to you that audio feedback solves ALL of these problems. In place of countless marks and comments about a student’s grammar, for example, you can now make one supportive, constructive observation. Here’s one hypothetical piece of feedback about possessives:

“One area you should be focused on in future essays is knowing when to use the possessive versus when something is plural. You confuse the two twice in your first paragraph. You use some really interesting syntax throughout the piece, so this small punctuation issue is holding back the power of how great the rest of your writing is.”

See how I softened the blow of the feedback by connecting it to a reminder of something done well? That’s a lot harder to do in the one-inch margins of the essay itself.

What’s more, you can tell them a sort of “story” about their writing. In place of fragmented ideas like “weak intro” or “explain this better” you can walk them through a coherent examination of their paper’s successes and struggles:

“Notice how your thesis is ambiguous about character X? Now look at how much your second body paragraph struggles to make a clear point about how X behaves in the final scene. Your vagueness in the introduction is keeping you from maintaining a clear focus in your body paragraphs.”

And really, that’s the big advantage to audio feedback: isolated, pragmatic written comments peppering the margins are transformed into a comprehensive walkthrough of their writing. If your department uses a standardized rubric, the structure of your feedback is even provided for you.

Students Want to Listen

I’ve found that even my reluctant writers and apathetic learners are intrigued by the idea of a few minutes of audio just for them. If you keep the tone friendly, they’re especially interested. It feels personal–like you’ve set aside time to speak just to them.

If you aren’t so sure your kids will be as eager about it, save the score of their paper for somewhere at the end of the audio file–make them listen to what you have to say in order to arrive at their score. I promise you won’t have to provide such enticement the second time around if your audio is done right–they’ll be happy to listen.

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.  

Newsela: A Nonfiction Resource

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

newselaAs a workshop-model Language Arts teacher, I am always searching for excellent mentor texts to guide students’ writing and reading. The hardest mentor texts to find are informational texts that are grade-level appropriate, as well as high interest in content.  

But there is a great new resource for Language Arts teachers at all grade levels:, an online resource that can be upgraded through subscription. I want to share some information on the resource as well as some ways I used it during an informational reading unit to meet the needs of all my learners.

How the Program Works

Within Newsela, you can search topics, and you can refine that search to include grade levels or a particular Common Core State Standard in reading.

From this search, you’ll get a list of articles that have been redeveloped for kids at an appropriate age level. Each article has five levels. You’ll notice, for example, that 3rd grade and 4th grade titles have a statement of the main idea of the article and a lower word count. Eighth grade texts of the same article, on the other hand, have a more complex arrangement of text, as well as an increase of almost 200 words.

At the max level, which is the text as published in a newspaper, you’ll see more complex arrangements of text, as well as the use of advanced punctuation that is not part of the lower-leveled texts. Texts at the “max” level no longer include section headings, and while the word count remains similar to the 8th grade texts, the language is more abstract.   

When citations are necessary, the author of the revised texts is always listed as “Newsela Staff,” and the article titles are not capitalized, which forces explanations for kids. 

Within each grade-level text, you’ll also get four standardized-test-like questions: two for the CCSS standard you searched for, and two for another standard. All of the questions are labeled for the standards, so there is no guessing on the teacher’s part. These questions also vary slightly by grade level.  

If you have the pro subscription, you can send the quizzes to kids’ devices, and you can gain their answers. Additionally, the pro subscription allows the teacher to assign articles, see who reads the article, and allows the students to annotate texts digitally.

Using Newsela in the Classroom

Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 4.10.35 PMFor the informational reading unit in my classroom, I chose 8th-grade-level texts from Newsela. The students enjoyed the texts, which looked at: the use of fit furniture for increased movement; schools that use gardening programs to improve health awareness; and school elections and democracy. The texts from Newsela allowed me to create a text pack to use with kids. Since we review these texts together, all students used these 8th-grade-level texts.

Newsela next helped me align texts with informational reading standards, by suggesting a complementary standard for each of the texts I chose around our critical issue. The site also offered me multiple-choice reading questions for each article and standard.

As a class, we read the texts, while modeling reading strategies associated with the standard we were working on that day. Later, students practiced these same skills independently, using texts at their independent reading level with a critical issue of their choice. Newsela offered many resources for student reading materials.

As we read and practiced strategies with partners, I also formatively assessed students using the Newsela questions. Following this practice, we reviewed the features of the questions and the answers. We discussed why particular answers were correct, and how a question’s wording informed the type of answer that was desired. This practice was to give students more experience with test question language, not to get right answers.  

In my classroom, this practice became a small competition with little stress for students. I also used these materials to assess my students in a summative way on the reading skills they learned during this unit. I provided personal texts for a student’s reading level, along with 8th grade assessment questions; throughout the course of this unit, I realized that students could be assessed at grade level even if they couldn’t read the 8th-grade-level text. At the same time, providing students with an appropriate reading level text allowed them to be more successful on grade level experiences.

In the past, I’ve struggled to find informational texts that are reading-level appropriate and high interest. Newsela offered me these. I recommend the use of this resource for all ELA teachers.

pic 2Amy Gurney is an 8th grade Language Arts teacher for Bloomfield Hills School District. She was a facilitator for the release of the MAISA units of study. She has studied, researched, and practiced reading and writing workshop through Oakland Schools, The Teacher’s College, and action research projects. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Education at Central Michigan University and a Master’s in Educational Administration at Michigan State University.

Classroom Campfire, Coffeehouses & Caves

Notes from the Classroom

The kids’ names are memorized, the first stack of papers is graded, and the first cold has passed through.  I’m deep in the trenches of a new school year, but my battle plan actually began over the summer.  With enough time to reflect, plan, and dream big during those warm months, I typically bite off more than I can chew and choke a bit on the sustainability of my early choices.  This year, I took a big bite out of my classroom arrangement.

It has been years since I’ve reconsidered the layout of my classroom: partially because in trench warfare you don’t get a lot of time to reconfigure, and partially because I like my set-up and it’s working for me.

The Classroom Campfire

The Classroom Campfire

But in August, we are overly-ambitious. In August, we are readers of too many articles.  So in August, I read this article and was inspired to make my classroom a more flexible learning space.  In the piece, David Thornburg presents three “archetypal learning environments” that summarize the primary ways we learn: on our own, with a group, and from an expert.  The author then correlates these learning styles with physical spaces:  “caves,” “water-coolers,” and “campfires,” respectively.  I found this concept fascinating, especially in conjunction with current research on differentiated instruction and Universal Design.   I wondered if simply providing all three learning environments in my classroom would help me to engage all learners on all levels at all times. I felt challenged to consider whether or not I could provide high quality instruction without relying on the campfire (with me as the expert) as the primary form of delivery.

One of 4 Coffeehouses

One of 4 Coffeehouses

So I set out to rearrange my room, providing Thornburg’s environments to my students with greater purpose, frequency and variety. First,  I minimized the “campfire” to 10 students total and located it near the projection space in my room.  I wanted to make the teacher’s desk more accessible to the campfire concept, so I removed my personal belongings in an effort to make the “teacher desk” simply the expert desk. I also rotated the desk to open into the classroom, instead of dividing the expert from the campfire.  Tables that were once joined in a linear fashion I grouped into “coffeehouses,” which I consider the more teenager-friendly version of a “watercooler.”  Here, I knew I would make use of my lessons that involved small group discussion and project based learning.  Finally, I recruited some free standing desks to tuck into the corners of the room and serve as “caves.”

One of 5 Caves

One of 5 Caves

Rearranging the physical space was the easy part of this commitment.  Adapting lessons that regularly enabled all three learning styles, however, was far more challenging. I knew that over the course of a term, I certainly made use of these three learning environments, but my challenge here was doing so with greater purpose, frequency, and variety.  So I rewrote my first unit to include a daily choice– students were presented daily with a “Poetry Face Off” and then elected whether to annotate that poem with me in the campfire, with peers in the coffeehouses, or independently in caves.  It was an uncomfortable risk to let go of whole group instruction, but I’m starting to like that level of discomfort in my classroom.

Even more bothersome than lesson planning was wondering how often I should allow students to dictate their own learning space/style, and how often I should require them to try other styles?  By simply rearranging the desks, I had called into question the fundamentals of my practice:  

  • How much did I trust my students to drive their own learning?
  • How heavily did I weigh my own expertise as the “deliverer” of content and “director” of learning?
  • How much naivete would I communicate with my students as I navigated something new?
  • How would I communicate expectations and hold them accountable when they weren’t in my direct view?
  • Would it be possible to build classroom culture and community without direct guidance?

As with all great risks, I couldn’t plot out the potential outcomes.  I simply had to, in the words of Edgar Allen Poe, “ride, boldly ride” in the direction of Eldorado.  There are things that I would change for next year, of course, but on the whole, this experiment has given me the opportunity to learn about my students in a different way.  Instead of collecting early assignments to try and get to know them individually, I’ve had a chance to observe them as individuals in my classroom and interact with them in a more authentic way.

I’ve got a much smaller campfire, allowing me to make individual connections earlier in the year.  For example, it would have taken me a month to pull out Heather’s comments in a large group, but in the first week, I was able to give her a non-threatening space in which to contribute.  I was able to read my students’ abilities in a quick, formative way by having small group discussion from day one.  I was also able to just connect with them less as an authority figure and more as a coach.  It might sound silly, but in my campfire I can sit in a chair and speak in a lower voice, and I think that has given me the chance to come across more as a coach and less as a dictator.

164170012The students are also independently establishing an important aspect of my classroom culture: collaboration. While I was unable to doctor the groups as much as I would have liked, the self selection told me which students could handle working with their friends and which couldn’t.  I was sure to assign them a weighty task, which forced them to consider whether they could risk spending the hour socializing.  It also told me where my classroom cliques were, which informed my seating choices on days when students didn’t self-select.

Because of a simple change in physical space, my students have also differentiated their own learning from the first day of class.  The kids who needed to be challenged began by electing to work alone, assuming that they would want to work at a quicker pace. I watched as they slowly gravitated into other spaces, learning from me and from their peers with far less resistance.  The students who were anxious about underachieving began in the campfire, and when they trusted themselves, began to work with peers.  From their choices in physical space, I was able to deduce students’ needs and guide them on a more individualized learning path.


Holly Zimmerman is an English and Speech teacher at Groves High School in Birmingham.  She holds a bachelor’s degree in English education from Western Michigan University, and a master’s degree in educational policy from Harvard Graduate School of Education.  This post was likely co-authored by her frolicking four-year-old or her giggly baby, who make teaching far more challenging and remarkably more worthwhile.