Friday, April 24, 2015

Epic Rap Battles as Assessment

With one to one Chromebooks this school year and fewer restrictions on internet browsing, the opportunities for meaningful technology integration in my classroom have grown exponentially. I have been able to post youtube videos to my Google classroom that students can watch at home and make flipped instruction possible, or even hold a Twitter chat to discuss the literature we read. But I would be kidding myself if I said students mostly used their Chromebooks for instruction! Our Chromebooks have also meant fun, a new toy for many students who might not have had their "own" devices before this experience.

One of my most adventurous assessments this year was born from combining my students' love for the fun of their Chromebooks with my love of redefining instruction with technology and alternate assessments--the Epic Rap Battle! Based on the Epic Rap Battles of History (example-Shakespeare vs. Dr. Seuss) my students love to watch on Youtube, I created an assessment for Ayn Rand's novel Anthem that is an Epic Rap Battle (assignment here)! One part poem, one part argumentative essay, one part performance, this assessment covers many standards!

Since we had already used the music creation site Soundtrap ( for our Poetry Is Music Marketing Project (lesson here), it only made sense to use the service again. I was immediately drawn to Soundtrap over other music creation services because it is collaborative in nature (more than one student can work on a song at a time) and my students can sign in with Google! Since Soundtrap had been very interested and supportive of our classroom use before, I asked the company if they could provide some prizes to help motivate my students to do their best work on this assignment! To my delight, they happily agreed to send some lanyards our way as soon as they were printed!

Our Epic Rap Battles didn't turn out as amazing as I had hoped for the first round.  My students were able to cite some text evidence, build arguments, and write some decent poems, but they REALLY struggled in the performance aspect. Since this was a major portion of the grade, I was forced to re-evaluate this time around. Next year, I plan to focus much more on the performance aspect of the project to help make this a non-issue.

Winning Epic Rap Battle Groups

Here is a good example of some ladies who brought attitude to the performance, even if they didn't rehearse enough not to need a script!

How do you incorporate student interests and/or pop culture into your lessons? Do you ever use music in your non-music classroom? I'd love to hear your stories!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Redesigning Our Research Paper for Community Involvement

As we reviewed, updated, and rearranged our curriculum to correlate with the new Indiana College and Career Readiness Standards for Language Arts after our state opted out of the Common Core Standards last summer, we determined The Odyssey would be our major literature companion to our research paper. This research paper is our last major paper of the year, but it is the first "real" research paper our students ever write. I have generally helped facilitate this process by having all students write on the same topic, just choosing which direction to take that topic. While many papers are similar, it gives me a chance to focus on the skills and formatting of the research paper.

I wanted to give my students a topic that was recent, relevant, and in some way involved our community, since one of my major focus areas this year is to provide opportunities for home, community, and world interaction with our learning. Thinking of Odysseus's 20 years away from home and eventual happy reunion made me reflect on what life was like after the story ended. Would Odysseus live happily ever after with his family in Ithaca? Would he be satisfied no longer having adventures and visiting exotic lands? Would he have nightmares from his war days or losing his men on the way home? Would he be content to rule just Ithaca since he is "Master of landways and seaways"?

This line of questioning led me to recall a college classmate of mine who struggled to come back to normal life and classes after 14 months of active duty he had never anticipated. I had just begun my freshman year in fall of 2001 when September 11 happened.  Of course I'll never forget that day, but I'll also never forget when one of my classmates disappeared in February and the professor told us he had been deployed to Iraq. After the initial shock of the announcement, I really didn't think about him at all until he arrived back, as suddenly as he had two different classes I was taking the next school year. Our college had put him back into the same classes he had been enrolled in upon his return. He struggled. Everyone could tell sitting still for nearly two hours, even fifty minutes was torture for him. He always faced the door, searching for something or someone unknown who might enter. When those last 6 weeks of the semester ended, I never saw him again. Every once in a while, like trying to determine a topic for this research paper. I think of him again. I never saw him again after that semester; I have no idea if he followed through and became a teacher.  But I hope he did.

With these two thoughts in mind, I knew immediately that I would have my students research the difficulties soldiers returning from a war zone, like Odysseus r my college classmate, might have in returning to a "normal" life after their experiences.  Most of the research is from after 9/11, and many of my students have a family member or acquaintance who has served or is serving in the military. Next, I knew I wanted to have a veteran come to visit my classes and offer first-hand experiences. I sent out several text messages and emails and made a few phone calls, but a good friend of my brother-in-law was my first and only response. It can be extremely difficult to get someone away from a real job to fit in time to accommodate our school schedule!

When the day of our guest visit arrived, my students were amazing as always! We had already generated a list of research questions and begun reading articles on our topic, so they had plenty of background knowledge AND curiosity to fill a fifty minute class period with questions for our veteran to answer. My students listened attentively, took copious notes, and fired away questions the entire class period!

Perhaps most impressive of all was their reactions after our interview sessions. In EVERY class period, at least one student approached our guest, shook his hand, and thanked him for his time that day and his service to our country. Without any prompting, they immediately asked the next day if we could send a thank you card-one student even brought one in herself! They talked so much the following day about how difficult it must have been for ur guest to share such personal information with a room full of strangers, and how several of them went home to talk more about the topic with a family member who has served in the military. Our papers aren't drafted yet, but I'm already calling this new research paper a success!

How are you building community connections in your classrooms? What are some of your ideas for reinvigorating the standard research paper? I'd love it if you'd share!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Draftback Extension for Modeling and Reflecting on the Writing Process

I am a confessed chrome extension addict. I use so many that I use the extension Extensity to manage them all; I can turn them on and off as needed with no more than a click, despite the long list I keep. A good extension can add functionality and save much time through my browsing experience, so I’m always looking for a new one to add to my collection.

A new extension introduced  to me at the Indiana GAFE Summit was Draftback, a tool that will play back the revision history of any Doc where you have editing rights. The product overview explains “It's like going back in time to look over your own shoulder as you write.” Another teacher explained that her district first started using Draftback as a tool to “catch” students plagiarizing papers. Draftback will easily illustrate big blocks of text pasted into a student’s writing, either from the web or from another student’s writing, so it made sense to use it with this intent. I could immediately see this application in my building; as much as I hate it, some students are plagiarizing papers. It is usually obvious to me when a student plagiarizes, and a quick Google search often reveals the truth. However, with the collaboration aspects of Google Drive, young plagiarists are turning less often to the internet and more often to their peers. Several teachers in my building have found students turning in writing assignments that have been shared between students, often for two different teachers of the same class. Other industrious young students find an upperclassman to share a Google Drive assignment from the previous year with them. If only these same students would spend half as much time completing the assignment as they do trying to get around the assignment!

After using it for some time and seeing the student writing played back, the teacher who introduced me to  Draftback started to see its potential as a tool for modeling the writing process. If students could see the process of revision as it truly is, messy and non-linear, perhaps they would be less afraid to go back and revise their work in the future. Maybe they would understand no right or wrong way exists to go about revision, so long as it gets accomplished. Perhaps evidence that even an English teacher doesn’t magically write the final draft on the first attempt would give them hope and confidence in their own abilities!

My students are going to begin drafting research papers next week, and I am excited to introduce them to Draftback.  I want them to see my editing process, and to be aware of their own. So here’s their first example: the Draftback of this blog post!

How do you model the revision process for your students? I’d love to hear your ideas and your experiences if you experiment with Draftback too!

Monday, April 20, 2015

Edu-Inspiration: A Tale of Amazing Mentors!

I am not the type of person who does things half-way. When I commit to something, I give it my all. I set goals, lofty goals of being the best at what I’m doing. Thank goodness I have had such amazing education mentors who have the same drive for excellence!

Once I made the decision to become a teacher, I knew what kind of teacher I wanted to be. I had amazing teachers in school who pushed me in all the right ways, challenged me to do better than I thought possible. Curriculum was differentiated, and I had plenty of choice and voice in what we learned.  Most importantly, learning was fun! I was engaged and interested, and I cared deeply about learning.  That’s the teacher I wanted to be for my future students.

I enjoyed my college classes, but I didn’t feel prepared to be the teacher I wanted to be. Even the classroom observation and mini-teaching practicum experiences did not help me feel better. Enter student teaching: I was blessed to have an amazing mentor in Deb Blaz at Angola High School. Mrs. Blaz was and IS the teacher I aspire to be. A highly sought after presenter and author of six books, I was just lucky enough to have her coaching me through my student teaching journey.

My husband and I had only been dating a couple of weeks when a casual conversation turned to my major and post-college plans. “Oh, you’re going to be a French teacher?! Do you know the best French teacher in the state used to live across the street?! Next time your home on a school day, we’ll set up a meeting!” my now mother-in-law exclaimed. And she did. The very next Friday I was home I went to the high school to meet Mrs. Blaz, who turned out to be even  more amazing than her reputation. A lowly college freshman, I asked her to please take me on as a student teacher in three years when I was ready. I was shocked when she agreed! I had the opportunity to visit her classroom several times before our actual student teaching journey began for observations, and I was always amazed by the level of engagement and achievement I found there. But nothing could prepare me for the inspiring journey student teaching turned out to be!

I had heard those horror stories of the cooperating teacher who leaves the student teacher behind after the first week, hanging out in the teacher lounge, writing a dissertation, or even leaving the building! My experience was nothing like those. Deb stayed in the classroom with me each day, constantly coaching me and encouraging me to improvement. She framed each mistake I made with concrete ways to improve upon them, and I went from nervously teaching my first, full 50 minute lesson in French to confidently changing lessons 6-7 times in our ninety minute block period in those twelve weeks.  We spent time each day debriefing, planning, and managing the 3 prep, ninety-minute block workload. It was definitely not easy, but it was amazing!

One of the biggest things Deb did to shift the mindset of the students was to include me from day one in the teaching of the lessons. She asked me to participate in the teaching from the very beginning, helping students fill in their passport hall passes on the first day (with the 4x4 block schedule, I was able to be student teaching in the spring on the first day of the new semester, new classes). About halfway through my tenure, Deb actually gave up her desk to me and sat at the side table where i had started instead. She thought it was important I fully take on the role of the classroom teacher, and that sitting at the “teacher’s desk” would play a major role in student perception. Really, this gesture did much more for me as the student teacher, changing my mindset of my role!

"Schreibtisch.2" by User:Mattes - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons 

Unfortunately, I was not able to get a job teaching alongside Deb right out of college. I spent six years teaching in a district about forty-five minutes away. As a probationary teacher, I was assigned an “official” mentor, my friend Stephanie Mazur. She gave me some amazing insights on building relationships with students those first years; and I once had a student tell me she was the hardest teacher, yet the most awesome teacher. That’s exactly the teacher I want to be, pushing their learning while building relationships that can take that pushing!

Three years ago, I gained the opportunity to change districts and teach once again with Deb Blaz. Although I don’t get to teach French alongside her as we once envisioned, we can still share lessons and ideas like we did in those student teaching days. This year, I’ve even had more of an opportunity to collaborate with her as she is teaching one section of English!  

I owe so much to these amazing, hard working, and inspiring mentors in my life! They, and my PLN of mentors on Twitter, continue to push me to achieve greatness. I wouldn’t say I have achieved the greatness I seek, but I am trying to get there each and every day!
By Petey21 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Who have been and continue to be your mentors, in and outside of education? Have you thanked them lately?

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Enhanced Text Annotation with Google Drawings

After learning more about Google Drawings with Adam Seipel at the Indiana Google Apps for Education Summit, I pondered how to best and most meaningfully incorporate them into my lessons. One of the most exciting possibilities seemed to be using the Google Drawing board as a Thinglink, as we can easily add images and links to other videos, images, websites, and documents. Then, as an English teacher, I wondered about using text as the “background” image as a means to digitally annotate the text.

Annotating the text is simply a student showing his or her interaction and understanding of the text, but it has been traditionally done with a paper and pencil (Check out these awesome student annotation instructions from ReadWriteThink!).  Google Drawings is a way to harness this age old task, bring it to the digital era, and open it up to the digital resources available to students that help them make meaning of the text. With the push to 1:1 devices and online texts, this seems almost a natural evolution to our process. After a short play session, this was my first attempt at digital annotation.

The form of the annotation, as with paper and pencil versions, is mostly up to the student. I simply took a screenshot of an online text, but you could easily use any camera to take an actual photo of a text. Then I began adding the lines, shapes, text boxes, images, and links. One excellent feature of Google Drawings is the Insert-Image-Search. Google only searches for images which are free to use, so we don’t have to worry about students breaking any copyright laws if they stick to using this feature for images!

The possibilities for adding and linking are endless! How do you envision annotating digital texts? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Friday, April 17, 2015

No Worksheet Week

I teach English to ninth and tenth graders all day, in a time of insane standardized testing. Seriously, my sophomores take a high stakes test, or a predictive test for a standardized test, every month of the school year from October through May. They equate learning with stapled papers and bubbles to fill in with number 2 pencils. Between the testing and the worksheets and packets I see them completing for other classes, I’m surprised they have any interest in school at all. Not to say I don’t give the occasional worksheet, but I want to do everything in my power to make school a positive, fun, and productive place. I want my students to do, to create; if they don’t create things now, they won’t be likely to create things as adults.  Needless to say, I was completely on board when I heard of the #noworksheetweek challenge on Twitter.

Comic Summary of The Invocation
Immediately, I thought, “this won’t be hard; I rarely give worksheets anyway!” I participated in my state’s Twitter chat (#inelearn) the week beforehand and even gathered some new ideas. Then, I found out I would have to miss at least half the day on Monday of #noworksheetweek, and my first thought was, “I’ll leave some handouts for the sub...oh snap! #noworksheetweek!” This is the real struggle.  It IS pretty easy for me to teach without worksheets, so why is my response different when I won’t be there?!  Sure, some students try to push the boundaries a little with a substitute teacher, but I have good students.  We’ve built relationships. I have them do and create all the time! Why would I leave them anything less when I have to miss a day? They deserve better!

Working on the Iron Chef Activity
Just a little more thought helped me plan out a creation activity for my absence.  My sophomores were easy--We spent Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday writing and peer editing argumentative essays.  Thursday and Friday were rounded out with watching a film to prepare for a Socratic seminar the next week.  My freshmen were a little tougher.  We were just beginning to read the Odyssey and write a research paper. On Monday, they read, created a comic summary of one of the scenes, and searched for evidence of strengths/weaknesses of Odysseus’s leadership for a graphic organizer we will continue throughout our reading. Tuesday found us discussing the reading and practicing paraphrasing and summarizing different sections of a news article. Wednesday we generated research questions as a group, collected articles, and formed a tentative Works Cited page. Thursday brought an Iron Chef assessment of the Cyclops section of the Odyssey, and on Friday we read and marked up our research articles and planned our own epithets based on our personal traits, modeled after The Odyssey.

The whole week, I did not use a single worksheet, but I wonder how often I do it without being intentional? I wonder how much more I can do it if I AM intentional about planning no worksheets? As I asked my students to reflect, their response was all the same. They liked #noworksheetweek, but they didn’t feel anything unusual was going on in my room. Instead, they urged me to keep fighting for them.  They are creative, capable, intelligent beings who can Do and Create if we allow them to do it! They asked me to spread the word, to show other teachers what is possible if we do away with the worksheets.

What could your students do if they weren’t doing worksheets? What are some of your favorite non-worksheet activities or non-test assessments? Please share in the comments below!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Reflection on the Indiana GAFE Summit 2015

I’m not quite caught up for this busy week because I spent last weekend working and learning at the GAFE Summit in Franklin, Indiana. I love all things Google, and my first summit didn’t disappoint!

The event organizers did a wonderful job, and Franklin Community High School was an amazing place with friendly hosts. Even though more than 500 educators attended the conference, most with 2+ devices, our wireless connections were wonderfully fast and reliable. The building is equipped with amazing furniture which allowed for easy movement and plenty of comfort; the school even has charging areas with student-designed furniture! In addition to the expected adults in charge, Franklin had a team of students who gave up the weekend to serve as guides and resources for the event. Students even attended sessions to learn more about Google, and having a student join in a session about the new Hoosier Student Digital Leaders program sponsored by the Indiana Department of Education was an amazing opportunity. The young man was a perfect ambassador for the program, interested, attentive, eager to learn, and ready to add his voice to the conversation.  I can’t wait to get a student technology team in place at our school to offer our own students such opportunities for leadership!

The keynote speakers were dynamic and inspiring, as expected! Google Evangelist Jaime Casap stressed the importance of creating and collaborating--not “group work,” but true collaboration where students contribute equally to solve a problem. To stay relevant, Google is always trying to improve and building on its success, and we need to ask the same of our students. If they have mastered something yet, its our job as educators to offer them more opportunities to improve, show growth, and reach mastery.  If mastery is achieved, we need to push our students beyond that boundary and get them innovating. In that same vein, Jaime, touched on digital citizenship by explaining that digital citizenship is the minimum requirement in today’s world and the future. To keep improving, we need to teach our students to be digital leaders! Finally, he reminded us that we’re educating students for a future that doesn’t yet exist. By recalling his own journey with technology in education, he showed that the tech we are so fanatical about today will be our own children’s or student’s Commodore 64. They are using the worst technology right now that they will encounter.

I learned some new tips and tricks for GAFE, and I even had time to create two new class activities for this week during the training. Michelle Green’s presentation on Amazing Race and Iron Chef inspired activities led me to create one of each for my students, and Adam Seipel’s Google Drawings session helped me create a  beautiful, digital graphic organizer to help my students prepare for Socratic seminars at the end of our reading. Thanks to the Google Drawings session, I’ve also decided which GAFE feature I will spotlight in my Google Trainer application!

Some of my favorite ideas came from collaborating with the other attendees about the presentations; the presentations simply inspired the conversations we shared! In Matt Miller’s awesome presentation on Google Hangouts, one teacher shared the brilliant idea of using Google Hangouts on Air to broadcast and record morning announcements in the school. I love this idea; a leaky roof several years ago ruined our broadcast room, so a secretary has been reading announcements in the morning. This solution will offer a cost effective solution to engaging students in creating announcements, and an easy way to distribute and archive them for our school!

Most of all, I was impressed by the number of Indiana educators willing and able to give up an entire weekend to develop their Google skills and integrate technology into their classrooms! We are modeling the digital leadership for our profession and our students! I can't wait to try even more tricks I learned, and share them to make learning more relevant and engaging for my students! How will you inspire digital leadership today?

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Dear First Year Teacher Self

Dear First Year Teacher Self,

You know those crazy, scary thoughts you had about the time demands of teaching? You know, the ones brought on by seeing the first year teacher race into the teacher’s lounge, down a Snickers and a Coke in 2 minutes flat, and pass out asleep on the couch for the remainder of lunch while you were substitute teaching as a college sophomore? Yes, it really is that intense. Teaching, really teaching, is an exhausting job.  Even when you design student-centered, differentiated, authentic learning experiences.  Especially when you do that.  But it’s all worth it; just make better food choices.  When the student’s wish they could spend all day in your class, when you see a student who has been told he’s a failure succeed, and when the bell rings and the students say, “I can’t believe class is over already!” you know your fatigue is paying off!

Remember how terrified you were that you might mess up or not know the answer? It’s really going to be ok. You won’t always know the answer, and sometimes your perfectly planned lessons won’t work. Use that to your advantage. Teach students it’s ok to make mistakes, that we shouldn’t avoid them, that we won’t learn if we don’t make them. Admit mistakes, revel in them, announce them to students because you won’t make too many. That student who never speaks up in class? He’s been ridiculed for mistakes.  He needs to trust you to model a First Attempt At Learning so he’ll share his brilliance. The girl who cries when she *only* earns 95%? She needs to reclaim her childhood, and you can help!

Never forget your main purpose. Keep student engagement and learning as your compass, and you will never go wrong. Administrators, politicians, standards, tests...they will come and go. Your students will only get one school experience. If they are learning, if you make it fun, interesting, and relevant to their lives, they will have positive views on learning and school long after graduation. They deserve to be the center of everyone with a stake in education’s universe; and if others won’t put them there it’s your job to fight for them.

Take care of yourself, and connect with as many educators as possible who know these ideas are true!


Your more experienced, but still student-centered, Self

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Social Media and the Power of Positivity to #celebrateMonday

Yesterday was our first day back to school after a week long spring break. I was happy to go back, because I truly believe I have the best job in the entire world; but I also knew from eight previous years experience what my students would probably be like on the first Monday back. Many of them would be happy to be back as well, but few would say so. Most would be tired, for they hadn’t gotten up at “school time” all week. Most would have waves of energy that come from seeing their friends they might not have seen for a week. And in the last couple of years, they have to see if everything they heard about on social media was true and lasting.

I had planned accordingly.  We would learn and get something accomplished, but the day wasn’t too strenuous.  They would have time to collaborate with their peers. I would use the routine of that darn required vocabulary book (that’s another story) to help them get back into the swing of things. And, since it was Monday and they would all be checking social media today more than ever, we would do a #celebrateMonday.

My students know I value social media when used productively, and I have been incorporating it into my classroom regularly since we have the advantage of 1:1 Chromebooks this year. One of the positive uses I’ve been promoting is the idea to reshape our thinking about Mondays. In their book School Culture Rewired, Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker promote the idea, explaining that our culture places more value on the weekend. The only way to change the overall feeling about Mondays and make students (and educators) want to be at school is to change our mindset to look forward to Mondays and the fresh opportunities they offer.

I have been tweeting #celebrateMonday reasons for a few months now, and a few weeks ago I thought, “This would be a great idea for my students!” I made the assignment voluntary, so the first few times not many students did it.  It might not be “cool” to tweet about this. Mrs. Manahan is a crazy lady anyway. Why should we #celebrateMonday? Steadily, the number of students tweeting reasons has been increasing! But I was not prepared for the response I got yesterday!

As I explained it was another Monday and reason to celebrate, and would you please consider tweeting your reason with the hashtag, my students got excited! They were so excited, they asked me to take pictures-selfies with all of us! The results were amazing, and first period the day after spring break turned into an amazing, energized, happy place to be!

The excitement was contagious too! More than one-third of all of my students tweeted a reason to #celebrateMonday yesterday. Slowly but surely, my positive attitude and discussion is working...How else can we impact school and classroom culture with a deliberate, gradual, and relentless message? What other positive changes can we bring if we try? Oh, the possibilities!