Saturday, November 8, 2014

Tech is a Four Letter Word

The word tech has four letters and that has me considering the awesome possibilities of using tech the way we use other four letter words. In some cases substituting tech for the F-word or the S-word results in a whole new meaning for the phrase. Fortunately, tech is not considered a ‘bad’ word yet. Thankfully, we can still say tech in school and professional settings. So I think we all should throw out a tech bomb a little more often. 

Making the swap would let us say things like. “Tech That!”And, “What the tech are you talking about?” When things are going well we can say, "This tech is totally rad."When you can't tell how someone did something amazing try, "Are you teching kidding me?" (Notice that teching is only one ‘a’ off from teaching. Coincidence? I think not.)To congratulate something well done we would have, "You totally teched that.""What the tech is this?" Works when you want to know more about how someone did something. “Who the tech made that decision?” Use that one carefully. "No tech" would be tragic. 
If you are pompous about your skills try saying, "Yeah, I'm totally teched."And when something goes wrong you can just yell "TECH!" And then move on to plan B. 

Now, I know of course that tech is short for technology, but four syllables is too much for our fast paced future age. Ain't nobody got time for that. And tech is much more useful in its four letter capacity. 

I'd also like to point out that we need our existing four letter words, literally. Without the F word our species would cease to exist. And as for the S word, well most of us do that daily. If we didn't we'd get toxic and die. Likewise tech is now also a crucial part of our lives. It deserves curse word status. Done reading this? 

Well tech off then, and go tech yourself.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Why do NaNoWriMo with students?

My students are writing novels, yes novels. I don't teach a graduate writing course; these are high school freshmen and they are really writing novels. Sometimes this raises concerns. If you are a teacher who is also doing NaNoWriMo with your students you may be familiar with these concerns. 

This is the generic version of what I tell people who express concerns about the volume of this project. 

This is the fourth year that all of the freshmen at my school have done NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. It is a global event for adults and students. We participate in the young writer's program for students in grades 5-12. Right now there are over four hundred freshmen working on novels and three classes of seniors as well.

We spent several weeks in October on planning for the novel and we will spend several weeks in December on revisions and editing, but in the month of November we write. In class we do writing sprints. Most students write 200-300 words in 10 minutes and then we take a quick break before going again. In a typical period students get 20-40 minutes to write, depending on the length of the period.

Students set their own word count goals and we support them to revise those goals as needed. 20,000 is a pretty typical goal, but I have some students who write over 40,000+ words and others who write 5,000. The site gives students tools for monitoring the statistics of their novel and helps them stay on track to finish on time. Students who meet their goal by 11/30 "win" NaNoWriMo and get a code to receive five free copies of their book from Create Space. We have no control over the fact that the process for writing drafts ends on 11/30.

We encourage students to write daily, as in everyday. Students will take their overall goal and divide it by 30 to get the average number of words they should write every day. We use the site to see what percentage of their novel they have written. Students use their novel stats page to see if they are meeting their goals. If a student has less than 60% complete before Thanksgiving break we likely will encourage that student to adjust his or her word count goal.

Yes, NaNoWriMo comes with challenges, but it also shows students that they can accomplish something they never thought possible before. They learn about goal setting, time management, and the challenges of being an author. After NaNoWriMo, students never read a book again without considering the work the author did to create it. We also find students are never again intimidated by word counts of 1000-2000 words on essays after writing ten or twenty times that much for their novels.

Students may encounter periods of frustration. Many writers do depending on how their writing process is going. We expect that and are fully prepared to work with students when those stresses arise. We want NaNoWriMo to be an exciting, educational and rewarding process for students.

I hope this information is helpful.
As I write this, we just finished the first week of NaNoWriMo. Excitement is high, students are writing, novels are being created, and novelists are everywhere.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

How to "Password" protect a Google Form

I make a lot of Google Forms and "a lot" is an understatement. I use them with my students and my colleagues. I use them to track my own time helping my colleagues. I use them when I teach other teachers how to use them. I help my administrators use them. I help my family members use them. I tweet them, post them, link to them and embed them. When someone asked me what Google Forms were good for it took me three blog posts to come close to answering the question.

Sometimes though, I want to control who fills out my form, or who even sees the questions I am asking. That's when I add a password. Okay, technically it is not really a password. I just make the first question on the form a text box that requires a specific word before the user can go on to the next page.

My current use of this is for quizzes in my classroom. I used to write a short link on the board when I wanted students to take the quiz. By withholding the link I could be sure students would not take the quiz before they came to class, or look at the questions ahead of time. Now I post the link to the form on my class blog, then I give the students the password when I am ready for them to start.

I'm not paranoid about quiz security. I'm not going to change the password every period. I don't worry about kids in period one sharing the password with kids in period 7. These aren't high stakes assessments. I also enjoy making the password something related to our unit of study, or a spelling word students will need to look up before they can take the quiz.

I think I will also use passwords on other kinds of class work to be sure students listen to directions before they rush to get started on filling out a form.

Having a password on the form also prevents people not in my classes from filling out a form meant only for my students. Our class blog gets lots of visitors and I'd rather not have to scrub the data if other people are filling out my forms. (People still fill out quizzes about Gatsby that I haven't used in three years because they find them on my old class blog.)

For exact directions on how this works check out this tutorial video I made for you. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

My Son Tells Me What He Thinks Kids Should Be Learning

What do students need to be learning?

A few nights ago, while driving home, my middle school son began to talk.  He and I were alone in the car, which is rare, and as he began to speak I listened. After a few moments I said, "I want you to continue with your point, but you have to promise to email me your thinking about this later."

Neither of us can recall his exact first words, but it was something along the lines of "School is teaching me the wrong things."  This is what he emailed me later. I have not edited any of it.

A guest post from my son (via email):
In this day and age, you don't need to know every name and date involved with every war in history, and you don't need to know every answer to every conceivable question, because answers are easy to find. If for some reason you need to know some obscure historical fact, you can look it up on a smartphone. What you do need is a mindset for solving problems, asking questions, and thinking critically, so that you may solve any problem you are faced with. I believe that the best way to instill this mindset in a child is through video games. 

Video games offer constant mental exercise, immediate feedback, and an approachable setting. One of the best games for this would be a game called Portal, released by Valve in 2007. Portal teaches you to think outside the box and against adversity. The game consists of a series of 'test chambers' which you must exit by placing two linked portals on the walls in order to place cubes on buttons, launch yourself over tanks of acid, and find a way around deadly, deadly lasers. In chamber 09, a character named GLaDOS, who monitors your progress, tells you that the chamber is impossible and that you should make no attempt to solve it. At first glance, this appears to be the case, when upon closer inspection, it is revealed that you can, in fact, solve the puzzle. Portal gets children thinking critically, or, as valve put it, "Thinking with portals"

They also made a sequel. Portal 2, 2011.

He went on further when he was speaking about the importance of teaching students perseverance. The example he used about the impossible chamber in Portal was part of his point about continuing to work on a problem even while being told it's impossible.

I love that he used the word mindset. I haven't specifically used that word with him. I suspect some irony in that he probably picked it up at school. Portal is a great game for teaching problem solving and three dimensional thinking. It probably won't gain widespread classroom use anytime soon, but if you have kids at home you might want to consider getting them on it.

Kids these days...

Thursday, September 11, 2014

How do you keep students engaged with a class novel?

I have a trick or two that seem to work every time I teach a class novel.

First, I need to explain that I am not a huge proponent of whole class novel reading. That is to say, that a teacher chosen, "classic" text, that the underfunded school library happens to have enough copies of, is usually not the right book for every student. I teach a de-tracked 9th grade class, which means one of my students is reading Dostoevsky by her own choice (in Russian no less), and others are challenged by anything written above a 4th grade lexile. I think there are plenty of things that make for great "whole class" readings, poems, plays, articles, editorials, short stories and blog posts are all great things to read, or close read, and discuss as a class. But novels? Novels take up a lot of class time, so they have to contribute a great deal of value for every student before I'm ready to use one book for everyone's learning experience.

(Pause while English teachers throw vegetables at me.)

That point being made (I hope), there are still novels that are worthy, in my opinion, of whole class study.  I previously taught American Lit for several years and the book I looked forward to reading with my students each spring was The Great Gatsby. Though not a fan of this text myself in high school, I took it on each year as a personal challenge, to show my students why it is still read and appreciated. The tricks I used though, to hook my students on this classic story can be applied to any novel. Let me break them down for you.

Before we read: Getting into the themes of Gatsby before I ever say the word Gatsby. We do an activity on paper. Students sit in groups of six and each starts with a single piece of paper with one question at the top. There are six different questions. I give them two minutes to answer their question and then we rotate the papers one person. They continue answering and rotating until everyone has had a chance to answer the question, and respond to previous answers. This happens in SILENCE. When everyone has their original paper back they can (and do) discuss the questions at length. I ask the person who started with each question to summarize the thinking of his or her classmates. Question five asks, "If your boyfriend or girlfriend cheats on you is it alright for you to cheat on them?" Every year about 80% of my students say NO! (That percentage is remarkably consistent.)
You can get a copy of this activity here for free. If you'd rather pay for it you can find it here too.

Chapter 1: Nick moves out to Long Island and we begin reading the novel. I use the Tim Robbins audio version to play the text for my students. He does a great dramatic reading. I also project five questions about chapter one and I make sure my students notice the answers in the text by pausing the recording. I encourage them to add the questions and answers into their notes. These are straight comprehension questions with very clear answers. There is no analysis or even pausing to appreciate language. We are mercenaries on a hunt for answers.  (Pause for more vegetables.)

Chapter 2: Nick and Tom go to New York, stopping first in the Valley of Ashes to pick up Myrtle. Before we read we take a quiz on chapter one, but this quiz is a gift, not a gotcha. The questions are the same ones I projected the day before and the answers are already in their notes. My students look at each other in disbelief. Everybody gets an A and they smile. Then I project the questions for chapter two and we keep reading. No one can resist an easy A, and even students who didn't jump into notetaking for chapter one begin to write things down for chapter 2. With the introduction of adultery, booze and a nasty moment of domestic violence, chapter two definitely gets their attention.

Chapter 3: Nick attends Gatsby's party. Again we begin with a quiz. Again it is a gift to anyone who was present for our reading of chapter two. The questions are the same and the answers are in their notes because I made sure they noticed the answers the day before. Tim Robbins is still reading to us and the questions are still projected, but I'm not making a big fuss about the answers. When I pause the audio now I use the time to make a point about the language or plot points they might have missed. But by now my students are trained. They know the pattern. Those projected questions will be on their quiz the next day and they know what to do. Except for one little detail. Chapter three is long. We just don't have time for all of it in class. They keep reading for homework. They aren't expecting the bonus question on the quiz that you can only answer if you read the chapter, rather than asking a friend for the answers to the given questions. And yet, over 75% of them get it right.

Chapter 4: Gatsby asks Nick to help him see Daisy. I do not project any questions. I tell students I didn't have time to type them up, or I forgot to make them, or that I want to see how they do on their own. Yet, as we read I pause and point out the things I know will be on their next quiz. I wink and nudge and make it very clear that there is a reason I am pointing out this place in the text. They take notes. They have just learned to take notes about the things the teacher points out in the text. I ask them if Nick should help Gatsby see Daisy? There is little debate. They are rooting for Gatsby.

Chapter 5: Daisy and Gatsby have tea with Nick. I continue my opening with a quiz routine and then we read, but I say, "This chapter gets a little private. I'd like you to read it on your own." Okay, I may have implied more racy details than the chapter really delivers, but my students read and the room is really quiet. We pause then for some writing. My students need to reconcile their determined support for Daisy and Gatsby with their previous statements before the novel that adultery is never acceptable, even if your husband is cheating too.

Chapter 6: Tom and Daisy attend Gatsby's party. I almost always assign this chapter as homework reading and then we hit on a few points in class. There isn't much happening here as far as the plot. I still quiz students on it, but I don't shed tears over the ones who didn't read it.

Chapter 7: The group heads to New York. This chapter requires visual aides. I find pictures of the yellow rolls royce and the blue coupe. I display them and we note who is in each car in the way into town. The climactic scene in the hotel room has most of my student hoping Gatsby and Tom will end up in a fist fight. As they leave we note again how the drivers of the cars seems to have changed. I'm focused on making sure they know who is where and when, but these characters are so vivid it's not hard to keep track of them. I forget all about making sure my students get the right information in their notes. We are all caught up in the story.

Chapter 8: You do know what happens in chapter 8 right? Students who read ahead the night before come stomping in to my room before class to yell at me because of the events of chapter 8. Often they are the students who told me earlier that they had never read a whole book before for school. I have to keep a straight face even though inside I am giddy with their passion for the characters.

Chapter 9: We know it's over, but we still linger to appreciate the way Nick wraps up the loose ends. My students write and talk about the emotional journey the novel took them on as readers. We dive back in to find favorite quotes and bonus appreciation goes to students who find quotes that seem more prophetic in hindsight. We write essays about who was most responsible for Gatsby's death. Every year a few choose to write about why the novel is terrible and should never be used in schools. Theirs are always the most detailed, analytical and interesting to read.

Whether they love it or hate it, all of my students have a response to The Great Gatsby. They all read it, or at least most of it. They all know about the characters, the plot, and the unreliable narrator. They talk to me about the book when they come back to visit after graduation. Once a former student even told me that his army drill Sargent used to grill his soldiers about The Great Gatsby during exercises. The Sargent thought it was a great book and expected all his recruits to have read it in high school. My former student said I had saved him a lot of extra push-ups because he knew the answers.

Still, as teachers, we know the questions matter more than the answers. I would like to thank my friend David Theriault for asking the question that prompted this post.

For more about how I have taught other longer texts see this post about how I used The Crucible.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

How do you get to know your students?

In the past week, several novice teachers have asked me this question. It's a good question to ask and it is especially important in the first few weeks of school, but getting to know your students is a year long process. Some of them you will know a lot about very quickly, others will surprise you with important information in May. Getting to know your students isn't a step in the teaching process; it is a mindset professional educators adopt that keeps them open to the clues, tidbits, and details that help them know their students strengths, needs, and interests.

I'm sure there are exhaustive lists of "get to know you" activities on the internet. These are just some of the things I have been using for the past few years that work for me.

I learn their names as quickly as possible.
This is probably pretty obvious. I have some tricks for it, but it can still take me a week or more to get them all in my head.  Name learning tricks:

  • I greet them all at the door and ask their name.
  • I assign seats and keep them in the same seats until I know their names.
  • I call roll out loud for a few days. 
  • I walk around and peek at the names on their papers as I practice their names in my head. 
  • While my students are working on a group activity (getting to know each other), I quiz myself on their names. 
I learn something about them:
  • One of my "get to know each other" activities is to ask my students to make a list of the names of the people at their table and write down one fact about each person. I collect their lists and learn those facts. 
  • I give them a student data form that asks about their previous learning experiences and their interests. 
  • I give them a reading survey to get to know what they like to read and find out more about their reading lives. 
  • I ask them to write me a letter about themselves during our first class period. 
  • We write six word memoirs. 

I watch them:  I know this sounds creepy, but kid watching can tell you a lot. 
  • I'm watching to see when and how a student gets distracted from a task. 
  • Who stalls about getting started on work? 
  • Who avoids reading and needs help picking a better book? 
  • I look to see how they relate to one another. They come to me with a long history of going to school together. Many of them went to the same middle school and some go even further back. What social dynamics have they brought to the classroom this year? 
  • Who is smiling? Who looks frustrated? Who seems isolated? 
  • All of these factors will impact their learning.

I listen to them:  The conversations before, during, and after class tell me a lot about my students. 
  • What are they happy about? 
  • Which classes are they struggling with? 
  • What are they posting online? 
  • During class it is pretty obvious which students have a lot to say and which prefer to play the invisibility game. 
  • Do they challenge each other's thinking? 
  • Do they contribute their own ideas? 
  • Do they speak in complete sentences? 
  • Do their words reflect understanding or confusion? 
Getting to know my students takes the whole year, and some I still feel I never know well enough. In addition to getting to know them, I let them get to know me. Their first activity in my class is to write down a question they have, but leave their name off.  At the end of that period I start pulling the questions out of the bowl and answering as many as I can. I give them answers that are helpful, honest or flippant depending on the question and the mood in the room at the time. Some are about school things, "Where is the cafeteria?" Some are about our class, "How much homework will we have?" Some are about me, "Are you a fun teacher?" I let them figure out that last one for themselves over the next 180 school days. 

You can visit my class blog post from Day 1 from last year. The one for this year is similar and goes live on Tuesday morning.  

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

How I used Socrative for Writing Instruction

I've hit upon an interesting and effective writing pedagogy using Socrative. This worked well multiple times last year and I'm now confident about it enough to write about it.

Socrative is an app and a website for getting questions out to students. The students need devices to respond, but Socrative is really flexible. It works on smart phones, iPads, laptops and even iPods that have wifi connections. Basically, if a student can access the internet, they can respond to a Socrative question.

My favorite way to use Socrative is the single question mode that lets me send out a question whenever I need to see student answers. (You can also pre-plan quizzes that are either teacher paced or self-paced.) The single questions can be multiple choice, true false or short answer.  It's the short answer questions that help me with writing instruction.

Say I'm working with my freshmen on a specific skill, like character description, creating a particular mood, or introducing evidence in an essay.  I will model the skill, show them several examples and then send out a short answer Socrative question and ask them to try writing their own instance of the skill we are working on.

Students get the question immediately and they all begin crafting their attempt at doing the writing move we are trying. I see their efforts flow onto my screen as soon as they submit them. I can tell right away which students are "getting it" and who needs more help. It's low stakes because they know I'm not grading these, we are just experimenting with a new skill. But then something amazing happens. When all of my students have made their attempt I can send the responses out for a vote. The names get stripped and every student sees what every other student wrote, anonymously. After reading through the responses each student "votes" for his or her favorite example from the answers.

From their votes a handful of answers emerge that are generally (at first) much better than the rest.  As a class we read them and talk about why they thought these examples were good.  I find students pay much more attention to exemplars written by their peers than they do with other mentor texts.

Then we do it again, and everybody writes another version of the same skill, and they all get better. That's not hyperbole. Everyone writes better on the second round. We vote again and the pool at the top gets larger, each answer gets fewer votes because the overall quality has improved. Then we do it again. I can usually fit three rounds into a 50 minute class period, with time upfront for my initial instruction. Over the course of that period I can see the growth in my students as they come to understand what we are trying to write and get multiple chances to practice.

Sometimes an answer gets 90% of the vote on the first round. "This is terrible." I say. "That's great if one of you can do this really well, but what about the rest of you? We need to step it up people." Their answers get better and the vote gets more spread out.

Often the answers that rise to the top are not from the students you would expect. I've watched my English Learners and students with IEP's drop their jaws when they see that their classmates voted for their writing. It turns out (in my classroom) that fabulous writing voice is not closely correlated with other forms of academic achievement. The quiet students often have really interesting things to say in their writing.
From our end of the year course survey

My students request this activity. They also see the immediate improvement it makes in their writing development. It allows them to rehearse their academic writing skills. And it's fun. It's immediate, but anonymous feedback about the quality of their writing. It's an opportunity to level up quickly. It's also paperless, highly engaging, requires little preparation time from me, and most importantly, very effective.

The data from our end of the year course survey shows that my students saw their own growth as writers, (5=strongly agree). Much of that had to do with the writing assignments we worked on, other scaffolding, and a lot of hard work on revision, but some of it came from our practice with Socrative. I encourage you to give it a try with your own students and let me know how it goes.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

How to Make An Awesome Google Teacher Academy Video

This year there will be a record number of Google Teacher Academies and a record number of applicants. The application process has been revised and the questions have changed, but the one minute video is still an important part. While an awesome video won’t always get you in, a terrible video will probably keep you out. Lots of people apply to the GTA, but only a fraction of them get in. I've had many friends ask me for video production advice and this is what I tell them.

You don’t need to have amazing video production skills to make a great video, but it will help to avoid some common mistakes.

The Prompt:
Like your high school English teacher told you, answer the prompt. There used to be a choice of prompts, right now there is only one, “How do you innovate in the classroom or educational community to generate positive change?” Your video needs to respond to that question and hopefully show evidence of the positive change you have created. You only have 60 seconds, so stick to your message.

There are many ways to make a quality video, planning is key to all of them. Write your script and plan your shots ahead of time, so that you use the one minute most effectively. Consider adding music, titles and credits. Anything that makes your video look more professional will probably help. Include your own voice through narration or by appearing in the video. Be sure the audio quality is clear. If you are shooting the video on your phone, be sure to turn it horizontally; vertical videos do not look good on YouTube. Show your personality and be creative.

Upload your video to YouTube and make sure it is not set to private. Unlisted or public are the settings you want. A private video won’t be viewable by anyone but yourself. After uploading, send the video link to a friend and ask them to see if they can watch it and hear it. And make sure you are using a YouTube video link. Google owns YouTube, using another video service to share your video is poor form.

Stay Positive:
Many people apply to the Google Teacher Academy two or three times before they get in. Unfortunately, I’ve seen great people get discouraged after one rejection. Remember, this is a very competitive pool. By some estimates, only one in ten applicants get accepted. I don’t want to discourage anyone from applying, but be prepared to try a few times and make sure your application is the best that it can be.

Good luck to everyone applying to the Google Teacher Academy in 2014.

Some examples from friends who went to GTA: Note that some of these were in response to previous prompts.
Diana Neebe
David Theriault
JR Ginex-Orinion
Linda Yollis
Jen Roberts (me) 

There are a few things NOT to do in a GTA video:
Do not just talk to your webcamera. That's a very hard way to make a quality video.
Do not shoot your video while holding your phone vertically. Vertical video looks terrible on YouTube.
Do not express how little you know about Google tools. If you really know nothing you aren't ready for the GTA. There are better ways to learn the basics of Google Apps.
Do not submit a video you clearly made for another project.
Do not submit a link to a video that isn't on YouTube.
(Yes, I've seen people do all of these things. I don't think any of them got to go to the GTA.)

More Sample Videos
This spreadsheet is a voluntary list of folks who applied to the GTA in Austin in 2014. They included links to their videos and some of them later posted if they were accepted or not. Again, the video is only one part of a larger application, but this might be helpful.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Listen Edition: Great Public Radio Content

Listen Edition is a site ( that curates connect from public radio stations and combines it with high quality curriculum materials, and I'm excited about it.  I already like using stories from NPR in my classroom and I want my students to learn to listen. So often though,  what I find is a matter of chance; my students get to hear the stories I happened to hear on my way to work if I thought one of them really connected to our current unit of study. Listen Edition is curating content from lots of public radio stations I don't get to listen to, and picking the best pieces from a large pool of quality content. 

So I'm excited that Listen Edition pulls from public radio sources. I'm excited that there are great stories for students to listen to. I'm excited that there are high quality curriculum materials for each story. I'm excited that I can differentiate content and send different stories to different groups of students. And I'm happy that this is a tool we could use to get students used to the kinds of listening tasks they will have to do during Common Core testing. 

Listen Edition works on a freemium model, but I'm dissapointed that the paid version only has a site license and not a per teacher or per classroom option that would lower the barrier for teachers who want to pilot the site before going school wide with it. 

I was also really impressed by Karen Gage, COO. I met her and learned about Listen Edition here at ISTE. When I walk the floor at ISTE, especially at the start up booth, I'm really interested to see who will step out of their booth and try to bring me into their ideas. There were a lot of startups this year and they all ignored my passing, but Karen stepped out, said simply, "Do you use public radio in your classroom?" Because I do, I was intrigued by her question and I wanted to see what she was working on.

Check out if you are also interested in using great public radio content with your students. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

ISTE 2014 Ignite: I Predict...

Photo By: Diana Neebe
Yesterday, I gave my ISTE 2014 Ignite talk in front of a few thousand of my closest friends and many more who were watching remotely. Though the experience was certainly terrifying, I am really glad I did it and the positive response to my message has been wonderful.

I'm including the transcript of what I had planned to say below. I know it didn't come out exactly as written. In the interest of time I had to cut one of my favorite lines, but it was also the one I stumbled on most in rehearsal, so I think I was meant to let it go. It was, "Yes, many of my predictions are my own hopes carved into prophecies by raw optimism."

As teachers we should predict the future, but we also have an influence in shaping it.
Thank you to all the friends who came to cheer me on and all the new friends who tweeted me afterwards. #iPredict

ISTE 2014 Ignite Talk
I Predict...

Hello,  I’m Jen Roberts. I teach high school English with 1:1 laptops in San Diego. But before I taught high school, and way before my students had laptops, I taught 7th grade, and Edgar was one of my students.

When I taught Edgar and his classmates in 1999, dry erase boards were the latest technology, and my teacher computer weighed 60 pounds. But outside our classroom, Google was getting started, people were beginning to buy small computers called laptops, and Wifi was on the horizon.

Today, Edgar is a computer professional. I know because he is the webmaster at my son’s preschool. The job he does today did not exist when he was in my class.

When I run into Edgar, I get a fresh reminder that we are preparing our students for their futures. As teachers, we should be futurists. That’s the nature of the business. And predicting that future is not just our prerogative; it’s our obligation.

Of course, our predictions won’t be right all the time, or even most of the time, but that’s not the point.  Predicting the future is not about being perfect or even specific. It’s about being open to possibility. You will be wrong, but by how much?

If I predict that my children will own electric, self driving, cars by the time they are 25 I might be right. I’m just extrapolating on existing data. It could happen.

If I predict that in ten years schools will have 100 times the bandwidth they have now, I might be wrong. But what if I’m right? In 1964 Isaac Asimov predicted that phone calls would become video calls by 2014. He was right! What comes after video calls? Imagine the possibilities for learning and human interaction.  

And field trips are going to be a whole lot more interesting. Virtual Reality Headsets will let you take your class on a virtual field trip to any place in the universe and any point in time.
The price point on these will come down to the point that every school can have a cart of VR headsets.

I predict that wearable tech is coming to our classrooms, where it will initially be banned and then eventually accepted. Who would have guessed in 1988 that we would all be carrying cell phones today? Google Glass and others will become just as ubiquitous as cell phones have. What else is coming?

In 2013 I stepped into a 3D cave and an undergraduate at UCSD walked us through a hemoglobin cell. She estimated the setup cost about 1 million dollars. But a mass produced version of a 3D pod could be commercially available to schools for a fraction of that cost. And I want one.

As we move into an era where the common core is reshaping curriculum and 1:1 programs are putting a device on every student’s desk, I’m concerned that we will see a growing tension between corporations who want to package and deliver content, and educators who want to create collaborative, productive spaces, for children to grow.

I’ worried that the next educational divide will be between the students who have the privileges and autonomy to determine their own learning and those who don’t.

I predict that climate change will impact our kids lives. But, It will also drive innovation as we adapt. It will become a wedge issue in politics because there is no compromise that will stop weather patterns from changing and sea levels from rising. Our students must be prepared to change and innovate to survive. They will need to make hard decisions when they choose who to vote for and where to live.

I predict that our world will become even more connected, driving the pace of innovation even faster. Students who are ready to join a connected community of innovators will have an exponential impact on the accelerated change coming in the rest of this century. Being a part of a connected classroom community and connecting across the globe with other classrooms is a good way to get started.

Our kids are going places, but they won’t get there all alone. Artificial intelligence already flies our planes. It will soon drive our cars, boats and tractors.  And AI will help us make decisions from all the big data we are collecting. It may even help us predict…

Yes, many of my predictions are my own hopes carved into prophecies by raw optimism. I have prophetic dreams, not the kind that show me the future while I am sleeping, but the kind that tell me that innovation and education are a human rights.  

These are the dreams that tell me we can leverage technology to awaken the curiosity in our students and engage them in positive change. Our students are going to be living in the future for the next one hundred years. Predicting what that world will look like is not hard, and preparing them for it is the challenge we’ve already accepted.   

I predict that many of you will tweet me your predictions for your students. I hope I’m right.
Hashtag #iPredict
And by the way, I predict that ISTE 20-14 is going to be fabulous.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Word Lens in the Classroom

Word Lens is a free app for iOS and Android that translates printed words instantly.  You open the app, select the language and point the camera at the text. What appears on your screen though, is not what the camera sees, it's the translation.  (Android version)

I can't vouch for the accuracy of the translation, and I would hate to try to read a whole book by waving my phone over it. If you are a student who is still learning English though, this app could help you check your understanding, or give you the translation of the word that is stumping you. This will have classroom applications for students new to English and will potentially also have applications in World Language classrooms.

Word Lens currently offers translations to and from English for the following languages: Spanish, German, French, Italian, Portuguese and Russian. Google recently bought Word Lens so all of the languages are now free and I hope the list of languages will continue to grow. I think it is also likely that we will see the functions of Word Lens built into the next iteration of Google Glass.

If you are a teacher concerned about how this technology will impact student language development I would encourage you to read my earlier post about Google Translate.  The genie is out of the bottle, and now she can take her pick of languages to play with.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Free Audio Books All Summer-Updated for 2016

Audiobooks SYNC is giving away free audio books for teens all summer. There are two new titles each week, but they are only available for download that week. You can register to get text message reminders about the titles each week.

Once you download the book you can listen to it as long as you like. They don't expire. Tell your students.
  1. Get the Overdrive App (It's free.)
  2. Go to the site. I like to go there on my phone for direct downloading.
  3. Click on the title you want. (There are only two per week.)
  4. Register to download the titles for that week. You need to enter your name and email address. 
  6. Click download. 
The overdrive app can also be used to borrow e-books and audiobooks from many libraries. You sign in with your library card number (and a pin from your library) to search for titles, borrow them or place holds. Library digital collections are great for getting a book fast if you aren't super picky about the title you want. Specific and popular books often have waiting lists. Like real library books though, these digital library titles will expire after a few weeks. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Independent Reading

Part of the classroom library. Photo By Jen Roberts
About fifteen years ago a really smart person, and I wish I could remember who, asked a group of teachers, "What do you want your classroom library to teach your students?"

It was one of those pivotal questions that, as Fitzgerald would say, "I've been turning over in my mind ever since." It was the beginning of my understanding that teaching is implicit as well as explicit. That the way we spend our time says something about what we value, that the way we treat books says something about the importance of reading. What follows from that then, is not a formula for getting students to read. It's an explanation of what I value in my classroom and how I make time, space and resources available to students based on those values.

We read every day for at least the first ten minutes of class. Really. Everyday.  My students think I have a special talent for recommending the right book to them, but really I just know a lot of good books that almost any reader would love. My signature opening question is, "Tell me about the last book you liked." Some of them still fake read, a few still grab the closest book leading to some hilarious choices, but most beg me to extend reading time. "Are we ever going to get to read for the whole period?" is a common question.

For several years now I have "required" students to read two self chosen books for each six week grading period. Sure there are caveats about the books needing to be appropriate for school, but more importantly they should be appropriate for the student. I want students reading books they like.

When I taught 11th grade I insisted at least one book come off of the very long "recommended" list. Most of that was cannon American Lit, but I also used it to slip in titles students would love, but probably not choose without a push, The Life of Pi, Tuesdays with Morrie, The Things They Carried and lots of Toni Morrison. On to the recommended pile I threw recent bestsellers in nonfiction, The Tipping Point, Moneyball, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Book reports suck, but I still want them writing something about what they read, so we use Goodreads and their reviews contribute to a larger reading community. It's not as authentic and "real" as I'd like, but it's better than reading logs, or something without any audience at all. I've written about how I use Goodreads a few times.

I buy a lot of books.  My local library has a great used book sale and I pick up 10-30 books a month that way for under $20. Anything that sold well in the last ten years eventually shows up there and there are lots of classics too.  When I go to NCTE and ALAN I bring home (or ship home) over 100 books, many of which are brand new titles and even advanced reader copies that you can't buy yet. My students love being able to read books that aren't on sale yet.

I have a check out sheet for students who borrow books, but I know many titles never get written down and lots don't make it back to the classroom, despite my nagging. I'd venture to guess that half my former students have at least one of my classroom books. There is no real limit to how many a student can borrow at once, though I start to tease students who have more than seven. Once in awhile I find a book from a former student left in my box in the office. It's always a happy moment.

Okay, if you are still reading you will probably understand why I cover paperbacks in clear contact paper. (Well, technically I train some students to do it for me every year.) This makes the books last so much longer and they look good on the shelf for many years of readers. Obsessive, yes. Effective, also yes.

I'm a realist.  I know all this emphasis on reading and books does not make readers out of all of my students, but I also know there is a significant proportion who read way more than they otherwise would because they are in my class. There is also a portion who come to me without any interest in reading for fun and leave my class with a new appreciation for books and favorite authors they are super excited about. They shake their fists in mock anger and say things like, "You did this to me Mrs. Roberts." and send me angry text messages when the book takes a twist they don't appreciate.

Research has shown  that children do better in high school when they read for pleasure. (Sullivan and Brown 2013)  But I don't need a study to tell me that copious reading will boost long term academic achievement for my students. I know it will expand their vocabularies, broaden their background knowledge, make them more empathetic, and help them connect with other successful readers. I also know it will give them pleasure, transport them away from their daily lives, and show them new possibilities.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Passwords and Students

Strong passwords chart
Strong Passwords Chart
This week I found myself talking to my students about passwords, specifically the need to change them, make them strong and avoid repeating them.

I posted this chart to Twitter yesterday and got a lot of retweets along with a lot of reaction.

1. People wanted to complain about passwords, how many they need, how hard it is to remember them etc.

2. People wanted to tell me how to create even stronger passwords or use other password systems or even apps to help you generate and remember passwords.

3. People wanted to thank me for talking about this with students. (I like those people the most.)

Clearly, passwords are an issue that lots of people have really strong feelings about. They are the weakest link in our human/machine interface and lots of people have developed nearly superstitious behaviors about them.

The truth is that passwords are a lousy way of proving who you are.  Anyone who really wants to get into your online life will find a way, just like a thief determined to burgle your house will find a way in. You take precautions, lock your doors and avoid hiding keys in obvious places, or you start building an underground fortress in an undisclosed location.

Talking to Students about Passwords
I am really hoping that 10 years from now my students look back on the conversations we had this week and think, "Wow, remember when our English teacher had to explain how to make strong passwords? Can you believe that's how we used to handle our online security?" In the meantime my educational objectives are to get them to stop using the same password for everything, stop telling their friends their passwords and start creating stronger passwords. Along the way we are learning things like how to recover a forgotten password, the beauty of two step verification, and the importance of a recovery email.

Tiered Passwords
One approach I have taken with students is to encourage them to have a tiered password system.

Level 1: Sites that are super important to you, they carry sensitive personal or financial data. These sites each get a dedicated password that is complex. You only use that password for that site. mDiB&Fu33y

Level 2: Sites that carry personal data, but don't have connections to your economic life. These sites would get an easy to type and remember password that still has unique characteristics and adds a site specific keyword.  s0cia1-twitter567

Level 3: Sites you don't care about much, hardly ever use and only occasionally need to access. (Delete these accounts?) Go ahead and use a generic password but consider adding something specific to it.  generic#23

Level 4: Sites that seem sketchy. Never give them a password you use anywhere else important. Have a special root password for sites you don't trust.  MyDogsName43

Password Tip for Parents:
One of the best things we did when our kids were little was give them a password to access our home computer. They didn't need that password as a security precaution, we used it as a teaching tool. We made our phone number the password. The kids learned the number very quickly and I know that they always know how to call me.

More Password Resources
I've had an interest in passwords for a long time.  They are supposed to help us validate that we are who we say we are when we interface with the machine, except they don't. If this week has sparked a geeky interest in passwords for you too, I offer the following recommended readings.

Kill The Password
Choosing a Secure Password
Create a Stronger Password

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Google Scholar: Add a Library For Easier Access To Research

Google Scholar SettingsGoogle Scholar can help you search for research articles, but it can also help you get them if you have access to a local university library. This is particularly helpful for teachers working on advanced degrees. 

Adding a university library to your Google Scholar is quick and easy.
1. Go to
2. Click the settings icon on the upper right side.
3. Choose Library Links
4. Type in the name of the university where you have privileges.
5. Check the box for your university and hit save.

Add a library to Google scholar
Now try searching for your topic and you'll notice that to the right of many of the results you will see a link that says "Get this at -your library-".

Without adding your university library most articles will only give you an abstract and then ask you to pay for the full text.  Because your university has already paid for access to those texts it can save you time and money to add your university library to your Google Scholar Settings.

A huge thank you to Eric Cross @sdteaching who demonstrated this great trick in his first ever screencast. Eric was a graduate student in my class last semester. I'm glad I get to keep learning from him.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Chrome Extensions For Teachers

I know there are hundreds of great chrome extensions, and for a more exhaustive list check out my friend JR Ginex-Orinion and his Chromando Training Site. These are five I use all the time.

Awesome Screenshot: 
Awesome screenshot icon
In the posts below this one you might notice I have some really long screenshots of google forms and my classroom charts blog. I got those with Awesome Screenshot because you can capture an entire web page. You can also blur out personal information, and annotate the screenshots with arrows. You can save them directly to Google Drive too. Get Awesome Screenshot

Clipboard History:
This extension saves a copy of the last ten things you copied. This comes in handy if you do a lot of moving information around. Mine is full of URL's, email addresses and, even a form letter I was sending to groups of my graduate students. The sample below gives you an idea. Just click the eyeball next to a clip to see it again and recopy it. Get Clipboard History
I often need to email links or share them with students. I like to use to make them shorter, but ShortenMe makes the process much faster. Instead of copying the URL, going to, pasting it in and clicking shorten; I just hit the shorten me icon in my browser and it automatically makes a short link for the page I am on and copies it to my clipboard. (Which also puts it in my clipboard history.) All I have to do is paste it into the email or blog post I am writing. Also, because it uses I can always visit the page to see how many times the short link has been used. Get ShortenMe

Like many teachers, I find lots of things online for my students to read, but some of that text comes with a lot of distractions. Also, a lot of the time I want to move the text into a Google Doc to combine it with a graphic organizer and share it with my students privately. Clearly removes the distractions and even lets me easily save the article to Evernote. Plus the icon is so cute. 
Color Picker:
I like it when things match. You probably didn't notice, but the dark blue of the title box on this blog matches the dark blue of the mountains in the picture. That did not happen by accident. I used color picker to quickly grab the code number for the color blue I wanted and then customized the blog header
to match. It also comes in handy for making colors coordinate in presentations. And I used to to make the colors of my classroom blog match our school colors.

And More:
I'm sure I've probably left off your favorite extension. The best part of writing this post is you will all probably tell me about cool extensions I may want to try. Add them in the comments below.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

My Classroom Charts Blog: How to make your own
Storing paper charts is far from ideal. They take up space and they are hard to organize, so when I needed that cool figurative language chart with the umbrella I had to dig till I found it. Not the best use of my time.

So in August I started taking pictures of the charts I knew I would want to use again. The problem is I'm not good about organizing my photos either and scrolling through my camera roll was almost as bad as digging through old charts.

The Answer: Classroom Charts Blog
I created a new blog with Blogger. I called it (I was amazed it was available.) I went into the settings of my new blog and added a secret word email address. To add pictures to the blog I just email them to that new address and they appear as posts.

Once I had sent one picture using the secret word email address for my blog, my phone remembered that address and made it super easy to send more pictures.  From my camera roll I pick the chart I want to send, I usually edit it to crop out edges and the auto enhance makes it look a bit better. Then I send the photo by email with the title of the chart as the subject line. Voila, a few moments later the chart posts to my classroom charts blog and I can find it again easily later.

To make your own you'll first need to create a blog. If you've never done that before there is probably a "create blog" button in the upper right corner of this blog you are reading right now. There is a pretty good tutorial here.  Then you'll need to adjust your blog settings to accept email submissions. The screen shot below will help.
Publish to a blog by email
Click this picture to see it larger.
Because the charts blog is all photos I chose a dynamic page layout and I use the flipcard version. This makes it easier for me to see as many charts as possible at once on my screen. Most of the charts I post come from my own classroom, but when I see something great in another classroom I snap a quick picture and ask my colleague if I can post it on the blog.

Added Bonuses
  1. My students and colleagues can easily access all of the charts.
  2. If I want to include a chart in a blog post I am writing for my class I can get a URL for it from the charts blog and add it quickly.
  3. When I work with other teachers and they have a question about something I do it is easy to pull up the charts blog and show them an example.
Make your own
I hope you will start a charts blog for yourself.  If you are an English teacher there may be charts on my blog you want to duplicate for your own classroom. 

Marker Tip: I've tried a lot of markers, but I find the scented ones from Mr. Sketch are the best for me. Their colors stay bright for the longest. Other more popular brands fade fast and make charts look old quickly. 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

What's a Google Form Good For? (Part 3) Assessment

Formative or summative, Google Forms give me lots of way to see how my students are doing.
  1. I can use a form to ask how a project is going
  2. If we are reading a novel I can use forms to give a comprehension quiz for accountability. 
  3. When students give presentations the rest of the class can contribute to the evaluation with the presentation rubric
  4. When my students are reading a text I can ask them to share their thinking with me
  5. I can even have students create a shared resource as I shared in this previous post. 
  6. And when students have finished their essay they can self grade on a rubric
If you are using a form for assessment and it is all (or mostly) multiple choice you can have your form grade it for you using Flubaroo. Learn more about Flubaroo.

Tips For Short Answer Questions
First, it is much easier to read student answers if you widen the columns. Just hover over the line at the top of the column and when your cursor becomes a line with an arrow at each end you can click and drag the line to widen the column.  It also helps to limit yourself to just 2-3 short answers per form.

Second, it can be easier, especially at first to print out the sheet for grading. Before you print, change the color of your sheet. To do that click in the box above row 1 and to the left of column A. The whole sheet should turn light blue. Now click on the paint can icon and switch to white. You'll save a lot of ink not printing the grey background and your sheet will be easier to read.  To grade a printed sheet I work on one question at a time. Working vertically is faster than grading each student one by one horizontally.

What's A Google Form Good For (Part 1)
What's A Google Form Good For (Part 2)