The Grid and The Great Gatsby

Notes from the Classroom

toplogo2xMy last post was about the new app Flipgrid and my plan to use it to get my students talking about revision. My goal was pretty simple: Get students to make meaningful revisions that they could explain and support as good writing.


In order for students to perform well on this revision assignment, they needed to succeed in two separate phases. First, they had to make revisions–based on very directed feedback from me–that improved a section of their paper. Then, they had to fill 90 seconds of video with their explanation of why their revisions constituted effective writing.

Here’s what my rubric looked like for the video itself. In order to receive full credit:

The video

  • clearly explains specific and meaningful changes to the text
  • outlines why the changes were made, using the language of the rubric strand
  • includes visible and thorough annotation of the revised section to help guide viewers
  • Clearly demonstrates that the author understands how to improve writing for future pieces
  • feels polished and uses the full 90 seconds available

When I finalized that rubric, I had to tell myself that if worse came to worst, I could always toss the scores and tell the kids it was a learning experience. I had faith in them, but this assignment basically demanded that each of my writers speak for a minute and a half…like a professional writer.

Which is why I’m pretty comfortable saying that Flipgrid is a game changer. I’m going to let the students’ efforts speak for themselves, but first some context: they revised a narrative that reimagined a scene from The Great Gatsby from a different character’s perspective. My feedback on it narrowed them in on certain areas of their writing that they might choose to improve on (narrator’s voice, organization, etc.), and then they chose one of those for the video. (If you’d like to skip ahead and watch the videos, scroll down to the bottom of this post.)

Flippin’ Fantastic

Turns out my concerns about their meeting the rubric demands were misguided. Most of them killed it with this assignment.

Take note of a few heartening examples:

  • A student who exited ESL about a year ago added sensory detail describing a character praying on the “cold, painful floor.” His explanation of the revision: “This emphasized that he was really sad and was begging for God’s help.”
  • One of my more talented writers, whose original narrative was imbalanced with long flashbacks, color coded her revision to emphasize how her new organizational structure improved things: “There’s an obvious balance [now] between what’s going on in the scene and what Daisy is thinking about,” she explained while pointing to the modified paragraph order.
    A frame from a student video: note the color coding and annotation of how she developed narrative voice.

    A frame from a student video: note the color coding and annotation of how she developed narrative voice.

  • A writer who had struggled to establish the voice of her narrator added several lines of narrative reflection to establish her main character’s selfish motivations in the scene, and explained how this transformed the narrative perspective.
  • A writer who enjoys playing with diction added the phrase “riled me up” to her narrator’s reflections and explained, simply, “I thought that was cool.”

It was cool. All of it was cool. Even the kids whose revisions themselves weren’t quite masterful were able to articulate not only what they had improved in their writing but also why it was better.

Re-vid-sion Is Key

If you like what you’re seeing but you’re also wondering whether the video element really matters to its success, think about this: Talking about writing is a stressful endeavor for most young writers–even the good ones. Using Flipgrid to turn that process into a student-driven, premeditated, predictable, finite process alleviates all sorts of stresses that otherwise tend to silence less experienced writers.

Video is a familiar medium that allows them to combine a visual outline of their efforts with a verbal elaboration of their reasoning. As a result, many of my students suddenly loosened up a bit and actually had some fun talking about their writing (seriously–one student even took a picture of himself with a wad of dollar bills in his mouth as the opening to his video, which I’m going to just presume is a reference to all the wealth in The Great Gatsby and try not to think about ever again).

There’s one more treasure buried in this sea of video footage. My students’ grid of videos are my new models for future writing. Don’t know how to structure dialogue? Go watch Ken’s video. Did I knock your organization last time around? Check out what Lauren did with her opening paragraphs on that last assignment.

It’s the most productive 90 seconds my kids have ever spent on their phones.

The Videos

Here’s a small selection of student videos:




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.  

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. 

Early Choice = Engagement & Excitement

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_375784555So it’s November, and it may seem odd to see the title “early choice” in a blog post. It’s not early in the year, and yet for an elementary teacher whose students are blogging, it is.

It takes time to get students used to the blogging format, establish procedures, teach digital citizenship, and truly begin to use the blog purposefully. I’ve been blogging with my 5th graders for a few years now, and there are certain things I always like to do in the first few months of school. But we all know that life throws us curve balls and sometimes you have to improvise.

One lesson I always do on Halloween is based on The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, by Chris Van Allsburg. After reading the book to the students, they each choose one story from the book to complete. The story starters all lend themselves to heavy fantasy, which is a genre students don’t get much class time to enjoy in terms of writing.

The day after Halloween, I was unexpectedly out of the classroom (but still in the building) and decided to have the students spend their Language Arts time blogging their stories. (In the past, we had only published these on paper.) The excitement was palpable. Several students asked if I was serious. (“Yes.”) More asked if they could work on it from home. (“Yes!”) A few even asked if they could write more than one installment. (“Yes! Yes!”)

As I read through my student’s stories, I saw them using italics, bold print, and different font sizes, colors, and types of font, all for emphasis. These are things that would not be as easy or evident in regular paper or pencil writing:

I was in a dome made of green leaves and flowers. Then I stepped out and looked up. There were tree houses made of sticks, weeds, and bark. I saw little heads poke out of trees and windows. But there was something odd about the place. There was shimmering dust everywhere. And there seemed to be no end. The land seemed to grow bigger, like there was no end to it.

Giving Students a Reason to Be Excited

The ability to easily add emphasis inspired my students to be more creative and I think, in some cases, to write more. I have students who ended their posts with cliffhangers and promises to the reader that more would be coming. Writing in a digital format ensures them an audience and makes them feel their writing is purposeful, which inspires them to write more, even when it is not an assignment.

Moments like this remind me why I love teaching. It’s easy to become bogged down and overwhelmed by all of the demands on our time these days. But seeing how technology can inspire my students and transform the writing process inspires me to constantly push myself to let go a little more, trust my students, and let them fly.

I have a new post-it note at the bottom of my computer screen now: “Build in more choice.” In a child’s school world of “have to,” choice is freedom. Choice is fun. And from this teacher’s perspective, choice just might be the key to getting my students to new heights.

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. 

Stealing Time for Workshop

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_163387808In May, as the school year was winding down, I was met with an all-too-common challenge: running out of time. There were about four weeks left, and the calendar was quickly filling with standardized tests, field trips, and sports competitions. I needed two solid weeks of writing workshops with my tenth graders to complete their final writing piece–an op-ed–but it looked like ten kids would be gone each day for the next four weeks.

I addressed my problem by adding some flipped mini lessons to my writing workshop. Instead of starting class every day with a mini lesson in class, I did a screencast of the same lesson and assigned it for homework. One night the students watched a ten-minute video about improving their diction in their op-eds. Their assignment was to show me where they’d made an intentional choice with their diction. In class, I could quickly check in with each writer, give some feedback about their diction, and assess their understanding of the skill. And my absent students didn’t miss any key instruction!

I was really happy with how the unit worked out for two main reasons. First, I felt like I was stealing back time for writing workshops to do the thing that is key to improving student writing: face-to-face conferences. Second, I was assigning purposeful homework that was giving my students a chance to practice, without their being overwhelmed or confused.

That’s how I ended the year. As I get ready for this new year, I’m wondering how I can expand on this success from the spring. Most kids will tell you that one-on-one time with a teacher has the most impact on their learning. Most teachers will tell you that one-on-one time with their students is the most effective way to move the needle with their learning. So this fall I’m committing to stealing as much of that time back as I can, in the following ways. 

Day One Overview

Course procedures and the course overview are brutal. On one hand, you want to go over some key information with the kids. On the other hand, it’s the first day!

I want to start building my classroom community. I want them writing. This year, I’m going to steal time by flipping my procedures and course overview. The students’ first night homework will be to log into our Google Classroom page, watch a (short!) screencast of the course overview, and answer a question or two in a Google Form for me. 

I’ll be able to gather some information about the students, and ensure that they all know how to log into Classroom. And I’ll free up a whole class period for some opening writing, reading, and community building.

Differentiated Reading Instruction

Last year I flipped my writing workshop mini lessons, but why not use technology with reading instruction as well? My students are all at very different places with their ability to read and annotate complicated texts. Typically, we practice reading strategies as a whole class. We often need a whole class period to work through a text together. We will still do that sometimes, but what about assigning different texts (based on student ability and interest) and using different online tools to help students practice on their own?

Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 4.10.35 PM

A screenshot of Newsela. Click the image to expand it.

Last year, Amy Gurney wrote about Newsela and its potential for differentiating reading instruction. That’s a great tool to add to my blended workshop toolbox. While students practice, I can do one-on-one reading conferences.

Examining Mentor Texts

At various points in reading and writing workshops, I like to examine mentor texts with the students. Sometimes we’ll look at a professional piece of writing to consider how the author develops an argument. Other times, we’ll look at a student essay and discuss what is going well and what the student may want to revise.

This is a great whole-class activity and a valuable use of time. But, sometimes that whole-class examination could be replaced with a video of my reading and annotating the text. Apps like ExplainEverything make it very easy for me to create a quick video. Students can see and hear my thinking as I read and process a text. The time saved could be used talking one on one about the students’ writing.

I am certainly not advocating that you replace your teaching with a series of online lessons. I will always believe that the best teaching occurs when you are working one on one with student writers and readers.

Still, the reality of modern schedules and schools means that we won’t always have as much time for the deep discussions that we need. Blending technology into my reading and writing workshops means taking various tools and using them to refine and enhance my teaching. As I start the 2016 school year, I want to be purposeful about how I use technology tools to free up time, in order to go back to the basics: face-to-face discussions between readers and writers.

Hattie Maguire (@TeacherHattie) is an English teacher and Content Area Leader at Novi High School. She is spending her sixteenth year in the classroom teaching AP English Language and Composition, AP Seminar and doing Tier 2 writing intervention. She is a National Board Certified Teacher who earned her BS in English and MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University.

Meeting Students Where They Write

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project
Student blogs

Student blogs. Click for a larger image.

Many of my students claim that they “don’t write,” even though those same students wear blisters on their thumbs from texting and tweeting. Texting, 140 characters, commenting, blogging–these are all forms of our students’ writing, and they’re ones we can leverage.

The first step in this shift has to be mine. I have to respect what students are already writing.

It’s tempting to dismiss 140 characters or email or texting as minor forms of communication. But it’s also easy to use those forms to discuss argument or voice, or any of the other things I want my students to be great at. In fact, it’s easy to find plenty of people doing more of this kind of writing than published writers–real writing lives in the wilds of the real world.

Look at email or texts, and what you’ll find are arguments made with passion, humor, evidence–all kinds of evidence used all kinds of ways, all in writing. The trick is looking for it, and in being more flexible in what I consider a final product.

Social Media as Assessment

A recent conversation with a group of colleagues revealed that we have doubts about what we are asking our students to produce as summative products. I think we all can agree that the day of the five-paragraph essay has come and gone, and that ACT writing is really only useful when someone takes the test.

But what about the final essay? Is it time to reconsider the worth of the polished, final draft?

Now, I’m not in favor of abandoning polished drafts, but in expanding our influence over other forms of writing, by valuing them in our practice. Let’s infiltrate the places where our students are already doing writing they care about, and let’s help them do it better.

Take a  quick tour of student blogs and you’ll find a rich environment of writing and argument. My students have been writing on Tumblr for some time. I went there because I found that a decent number of students were using the platform to talk about things that interest them.

As a bonus, Tumblr is a great place to look at visual arguments and voice. Most of my students like to offer opinions about things they care about. Their phones are full of examples of this. So they need openings to develop their ideas, allowing them to write about what they care about. Here again, blogging platforms like Tumblr are a great place to work.

Look at where people, who are not writers, write in “real life.” Almost everyone I know spends a fair amount of their professional lives writing. They use email, texts, and tweets to make arguments in writing. This reminds me how, once upon a time, we treated letter writing as an art. In fact, I remember studying a set of memos for the writer’s technique. So is it unreasonable to treat the 21st century’s Johnson and Boswells with less respect?

Turning Theory into Practice

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A student proposal. Click to view a larger image.

So what does this look like in practice?

For one, before I let my students do almost any “big” project or writing, I ask them to write me a proposal. They have to tell me why they think it’s worth doing, how they’ll go about it, and how they’ll measure the success of the work.

This kind of writing lets me see how well their skills are developing. Even though it doesn’t meet the definition of final draft, doesn’t mean I don’t take it seriously. A writer who can write a proposal is probably making clear, effective arguments in writing.

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Annotations, Google Doc. Click for a larger image.

In addition to proposal writing, it’s important to create and use places where students can use the skills they develop, in ways that mirror the writing they already do. I like to use or to set up a backchannel using a shared Google Doc.

These both work well to promote discussions about how to use evidence, because students have to link their ideas directly to the text they’re annotating. These tools also tend to support precision and economy in language. The students understand that the audience isn’t going to wade through a “wall of text” to get to good argument.

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Annotations, Click for a larger image.

To many of my students, writing is something that they “don’t do.” But that’s because they have mostly only seen it held captive in textbooks and assignments.

But if they see it in the wild–blogs, texts, online–and with permission from their teachers, they’ll see themselves as part of that writing life.

RICKRick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.

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.

Dr. Troy Hicks – Literacy Webinar

Revising Digital Writing

Thursday, January 14, 2016  7-9pm EST (optional discussion 8-9pm)
recording    slides    hyperlink paragraph example     web text paragraph

craftingdigitalwritingAs the inputs continue to multiply, how can we help students find, evaluate, and synthesize information from a variety of sources? More importantly, how can we help them craft — and revise — digital writing in effective ways? When revision happens with multimedia, we must think broadly about how text, images, audio, and video can be used to best reach an audience. Based on Hicks’ book Crafting Digital Writing, we will explore a variety of web-based tools and mobile applications to help students combine amplify their voices when revising digital texts.

Recommended Reading: Crafting Digital Writing: Composing Texts Across Media and Genres

Hicks_PortraitDr. Troy Hicks (@hickstro) is an associate professor of English at Central Michigan University and focuses his work on the teaching of writing, literacy and technology, and teacher education and professional development. A former middle school teacher, he collaborates with K–12 colleagues and explores how they implement newer literacies in their classrooms. Hicks directs CMU’s Chippewa River Writing Project, a site of the National Writing Project, and he frequently conducts professional development workshops related to writing and technology. Hicks is author of the Heinemann titles Crafting Digital Writing (2013) and The Digital Writing Workshop(2009), as well as a co-author of Because Digital Writing Matters (Jossey-Bass, 2010) and Create, Compose, Connect! (Routledge/Eye on Education, 2014). He blogs at Digital Writing, Digital Teaching. In March 2011, Hicks was honored with CMU’s Provost’s Award for junior faculty who have demonstrated outstanding achievement in research and creative activity. Most importantly, he is the father of six digital natives and is always learning something new about writing and technology from them.