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Friday, October 2, 2015

Cool Trick for Managing Text Excerpts in Google Docs

My students and I often analyze text excerpts via Google Docs. I paste a substantial portion of a text into a Google Doc, students make their own copies, and they then highlight and annotate that text using the commenting feature. (This is a great way to manage self-selected close reading discussions). Difficulties arise, however, when it comes time to share, and students need to direct each other to their chosen passages. We either waste time counting paragraphs, or search for sentences at the bottom of this page or the top of that page.

I knew that sentence numbering was an option in Word, but everything I read online indicated that it wasn't possible in Google Docs. Then I stumbled onto the following video, which presented a perfect solution. Check it out, and then read on for a few helpful tips learned through our trial and error.

So simple! And my further suggestions and observations:

  • Teach students that they can't change the font style or size of either the text or the numbers. Changing either will skew the line/number correspondence. (The Docs commenting feature does not change line spacings).
  • Show students how to use the Control + F function. Control + F opens a tiny dialogue box at the top or bottom of the screen (depending upon the browser you're using), and this can be used to quickly navigate the entire text by line number. So if a student says, "My passage begins around line 245," the entire class can type 245 into the "Find" box, hit Enter, and jump immediately to that location without scrolling. (Note that "line 243" would not work, since no line was specifically assigned that number). Students soon learn that key words from the text can also be searched this way, allowing them to locate desired text passages when building arguments.
  • Do you need to manually create that narrow number column every time? Nope. The video points out that after numbering a substantial number of pages, you can save the Doc as a template. Just keep in mind that font style, font size, and line spacings must all match those of the numbered column in order for this to work with future text insertions.
  • Can you number paragraphs instead of lines? Absolutely. But this would need to be done manually, and it would likely make more sense to number the paragraphs using a narrow column to the left rather than to the right.
  • Can two students work on the same Doc and both leave comments? Yes, and both sets of comments would show authorship. But in my experience, this leads to students racing through the text to get to the "good parts," while losing meaning and depth in the process.
  • Keep in mind that copying a Google Doc does NOT preserve comments. So a student could make a copy to share the same text with a friend, and the copy would be comment-free.
  • When else would line numbering prove helpful? If you were providing students with a passage accompanied by questions, you could refer them to specific lines within the passage easily.

Hope this helps! Let me know how you tweak it to work in your own classroom.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Reading Response Sheet

I've posted before about close reading in the classroom, and I continue to believe that close reading experiences are often most powerful when students select the passages for study.

In addition to providing students with text excerpts in Google Drive for annotating, I have also occasionally used a simple Reading Response Sheet, which you can access as a pdf or via Drive for your own editing purposes (go to File, and Make a Copy; you can then alter and edit to your heart's content).

I resisted every urge I had to over-complicate this thing, and with good results. Students felt the freedom to write only as much as they thought they would need to participate in the classroom discussion; some took laborious notes with supporting page and paragraph numbers, while others wrote gist statements with sporadic page numbers. In all cases, however, the sheet slowed them down to consider what they were reading, and to settle upon one or two excerpts that they felt passionate about discussing.

Hope you find this useful! Let me know how you might modify it for your classes.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Teaching Theme in Literature

Theme is an important concept for understanding texts of all types. Too often, however, students (and teachers!) confuse theme with topic, main idea, or author's purpose.

Let's agree that by theme we mean a universal lesson about life that one can learn from a given text. The theme of many a Lifetime movie, for example, has been "Love conquers all."

In its simplest sense, a theme might be identified by a single word. "Determination," for example, is a common theme of many movies, television shows, and of course books. But we typically want students to express the theme in a complete thought, leading to more developed ideas such as
  • Through hard work and determination, one can achieve seemingly impossible goals.
  • Determination in the face conflict can reveal a person's true character.
  • Determination is necessary to overcome adversity.
  • To one who is determined, every problem is another opportunity to succeed. 
In my own class, each common novel is centered on at least one theme, which in turn is used to generate essential questions. For the novel Holes, our central theme is Identity:

Theme: Identity
Identity might be defined as uniqueness, distinctiveness, individuality, or personality. The identity of a person or group is rarely static, but instead is constantly being changed by internal and external forces. 

Guiding Questions: 
  • How do we form our identities?
  • How does what others think about you affect how you think about yourself?
  • How is identity shaped by relationships and experiences? 
  • What can you learn about yourself by studying the lives of others?
  • When should an individual take a stand in opposition to an individual or larger group?

Why teach theme?

Identifying theme is more than an academic task on a standardized test. By understanding theme, students can 
  • better understand connections between diverse text types unified by a single theme; 
  • practice strategies and skills within the same theme, while increasing text complexity and decreasing instructional support;
  • connect prior learning to advanced topics, 
  • access familiar themes to inspire their own writing, and 
  • make connections between disciplines beyond language arts.
A novel study of Because of Winn Dixie, for instance, might spark a fourth grade unit on Identity which encompasses many other subject areas (click for full view):

What's the best way to help students understand theme?

Often, the theme of a story or novel is stated overtly. We see this all the time in movie trailers. A voice over informs us that "a moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory" in the trailer for Unbroken, the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympian taken prisoner by Japanese forces during World War II. Watch the trailer and you'll likewise hear nearly a dozen similar statements which could easily serve as theme sentences for this story.

In Half a Chance by Cynthia Lord, our narrator Lucy frequently shares thoughts which might serve as themes for the text. In the book's first chapter, we read:

Dad always promises me things before he leaves and then forgets by the time he's home again. I couldn't help have a little bit of “I hope so” that this place would be different. That's the thing with new beginnings - sometimes they’re more than just starting over again. 

 Sometimes they change things.

Is that the book's main theme? We don't know yet, but we now have an anchor statement to which many of the book's events and details may be tethered. 

As we read the book, we discover that the family moves frequently and it is the nature of her father's career as a photographer that he isn't home as often as Lucy would like. Lucy does feel a connection to her father, however, in that she also enjoys photography. She explains that when they first move to a new place, she takes a picture as soon as they arrive. "It always makes me feel a little braver, knowing that on some future day I can look back at that photo, taken when it was new and scary, and think, I made it. Like creating a memory in reverse."

In our search for other possible overt themes, we hear that Lucy's father believes that "it's just as important to show the hard things in the world as it is to show the beautiful ones. Even in the midst of horrible things, there are bits of wonder, and all of it's true." Lucy later shares her own philosophy, explaining, "One thing I learned about moving was that once you were there, it was better to just look ahead. Because even if you went to visit the places and people you left behind, it was never the same - except in photos." Either one of these philosophies can be supported with later events in the story. It's a wonderful piece of realistic fiction, perfect for grades four to six, and fans of Cynthia Lord won't be disappointed.

But what about those books where theme is more covertly expressed? Here it's necessary to pluck out specific details and events which somehow, reflected upon as a whole, seem to express a lesson we can learn about life.

In Dan Gemeinhart's The Honest Truth, the reader is hard pressed to find a single sentence that expresses the theme of the book. In this powerful novel, Mark's cancer has returned after everyone thought he was finally healthy. Mark decides to make one last meaningful move in his life, which is to climb Mt. Rainier as he had promised his late grandfather. He leaves home without telling his best friend Jessie or his parents, armed only with a backpack full of supplies and his faithful dog Beau at his side. We alternate between the heart-breaking challenges of Mark's journey (told in the first person) and the helplessness of his friend and family at home (told in the third person). 

Throughout the book both Mark and Jessie express their feelings in haiku, a favorite poetry form learned from a third grade teacher, which the two had written in and spoken in as a form of code. Jessie, for example, writes:

"Across far, dark miles 
a friend can still hold your hand 
and be there with you." 

These haikus provide hints of the book's many themes (such as friendship), but a single haiku alone fails to fully express the book's overall message about living one's life.

Extensions for the Classroom

If you've ever seen the throwback game show called $100,000 Pyramid, then you already know how to play the Theme Game. In the Theme Game, one student (the Guesser) sits with her back to the projector screen. If you don't have a screen, then placing a computer out of the Guesser's line of sight works just as well. The Hint Giver stands in front of the Guesser, and the Hint Giver (and the Audience) can see the screen or projector on which theme words will appear. As a theme word appears, the Hint Giver can provide action clues, clues from books, nearly anything imaginable that will help the Guesser figure out the theme word being shown. 

The Theme Game (see download options below) contains 11 sets of five words each, and you can certainly add more. What makes it challenging is the amount of time you allow the pair to correctly guess their five words. For my sixth graders, 90 seconds worked well for most pairs to be successful. Keep in  mind, however, that they had read many books, stories, poems, and articles in common, and so were able to provide clues rooted in those text sources; this may not be the case in all classrooms.

The Theme Game is available free in PowerPoint or in Google Slides

I've provided a simple Theme Exercise using an original short story called Cheerleading Challenge. I've provided the story in Word format, Google Docs format, and PDF format, should you wish to change the formatting, add additional questions, have students annotate the text Google Docs, etc. All versions include a simple chart at the story's end to help students organize their thinking, and this chart can be copied and added to other texts with which students work.

Finally, if you want to infuse your own texts into an exercise, then check out the Themes Statement handout. Substitute your own poems, short stories, nonfiction articles, books, etc. for the titles included there. The handout mentions a simple list of universal themes which may prove useful as an ongoing reference.

More About The Honest Truth

Fans of Counting by 7s and Wonder will love The Honest Truth. Teachers will as well, not just for its complex and compelling story line, but its models of exemplary writing.

The book contains many fantastic passages, but I found a few to be especially compelling. Students will come to understand the power of repetition in passages such as this one: 

Jess sat down and, after a few false starts, Mark's mom told her everything. She told her about the last call from the doctor and what he'd told her. She told her about how Mark had taken it... 

Mark's mom sat looking down at her hands, at her fingers tied tight together. They were a mom's hands, soft, with only small wrinkles, and chipping polish on the nails. They were empty with only themselves to hold. (pp. 69-70) 

Or the use of sentence fragments:

While we waited in the gloomy afternoon, several more people showed up and joined us. An older couple with no climbing gear but three cameras and a pair of binoculars. A family with two little kids that ran around and screamed. An old guy with a walking stick who was so lean and healthy looking he looked like he could walk a thousand miles without hardly noticing. (p. 96)

Or action:

At the last second, just before my body hit the black water, I gulped one great big breath of air. I filled my lungs, and then the freezing water grabbed my body and did its frigid best to stop my heart. 

The water was more than cold. It was ice that moved. It was strong and fast and there was nothing I could do. I would have screamed,but the cold was squeezing my lungs like a black fist. For one second I saw Beau looking down at me from the log, getting smaller as I rushed away, and then the water spun me and I was gone. The last I saw of him, his front legs were already in the air. He was jumping in after me. (p. 123)

Or emotions which are difficult to put into words:

But worst of all: It would all be without him. He was who she walk to school with. Who she sat next to in class. Who she shared lunch with. There, with all those eyes and that one little space next to her where he was supposed to be, he would feel so much more gone. And she would feel so much more alone. (p. 135)

All in all, it's a memorable novel which you can confidently recommend for independent reading, or use as a class read-aloud.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Tech Tools for Assessment

Assessment isn't what happens after instruction; assessment is instead what guides instruction and moves it forward. Formative assessment, the ongoing "pinging" of student progress, is a key part of instruction and not an afterthought. Wiliam (2013) stated it this way: “It is only through assessment that we can discover whether the instructional activities in which we engaged our students resulted in the intended learning. Assessment really is the bridge between teaching and learning.”

With this in mind, I've created a collection of over 30 free assessment tools which teachers can use at all stages of the learning process. I've annotated these sites and provided introductory videos which will help you to get started immediately.

Why the Emphasis on Assessment?

When my older daughter was five, she purchased a rubber squeaky hammer from the dollar store. For days she walked around the house, asking what needed to be hammered. So I guess she proved Abraham Maslow to be correct when he said, "I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail" (Maslow, 1966, pp. 15-16). I sometimes feel that teachers are like that when it comes to a new technology. We get excited about a single site or application and seek ways to use it immediately and often, regardless of its appropriateness to the task. “While well-designed tools or assessment strategies are a key component to authentic formative assessment, if they are not what teachers consider the right tools for the immediate task at hand, they are frustrating and counterproductive” (Formative assessment that truly informs instruction, 2013, p. 2).

We should strive to work in the opposite way. Let's first consider our instructional objective, which is never "to use a new technology." Let's then ask, "Is there a technology that we can incorporate to somehow facilitate, extend, or improve this lesson?" When it comes to tools for assessment, we are seeking measures that are timely, frequent, authentic, engaging, practical, collaborative, and reflective. That’s a long list, but not every assessment needs to meet every criterion. We as teachers simply need to select judiciously; if a technology doesn't fit the bill, we shouldn't force it.

Technology tools are especially effective in administering formative assessment. Formative assessment can be defined as “a deliberate process used by teachers and students during instruction that provides actionable feedback used to adjust ongoing teaching and learning strategies to improve students’ attainment of curricular learning targets or goals.” Mursky (2015) goes on to describe its attributes, which include clarifying intended learning, eliciting evidence, interpreting evidence, and acting on that evidence. Few teachers, however, were trained in how to elicit evidence of learning in a manner that is authentic, practical, or engaging. Other teachers fail to differentiate between formative and summative assessments; instead, they simply set assessment tasks, not fully realizing “that formative assessments are for learning, not necessarily of it” (Miller, 2015). As a result, these teachers are likely to associate assessments with summative examinations and standardized testing, and to see them as something that happens discretely apart from instruction. It’s even possible, in cases such as the PARCC test, that teachers view assessment as an intrusion on, or distraction from, classroom instruction and learning. “In a context in which assessment is overwhelmingly identified with the competitive evaluation of schools, teachers, and students, it is scarcely surprising that classroom teachers identify assessment as something external to their everyday practice” (Heritage, 2007, p. 14). We need to see assessment as a key factor in learning, and digital tools can play a huge role in this mission.

The purpose of Tech Tools for Assessment is to introduce teachers to digital assessment applications which will motivate and inspire students while yielding practical outcomes for reflection and continued growth. The tools provide measures that are timely, frequent, authentic, engaging, practical, collaborative, and reflective. Whenever possible, teaching applications and exemplars have been included in each site’s description to assist the teacher in understanding each application’s use and to aid the teacher in introducing the applications to students. As teachers, we need to “effectively communicate to our learners both a description of how they will perform an assessment activity as well as a description of how we will judge the quality of their performance” (Vega, 2015). These tools can play a critical role in meeting these objectives.

Continue reading my rationale for these tools, or check out the collection for yourself.

Feel free to share your own favorites in the comments below.


Formative assessment that truly informs instruction. (2013). Retrieved from National Council of Teachers of English website: 

Heritage, M. (2007, October). Formative assessment: What do teachers need to know and do? PHI DELTA KAPPAN, 89(02), 140-145. 

Maslow, A. H. (1966). The psychology of science: A reconnaissance. New York: Harper & Row. 

Miller, A. (2015, February 3). Formative assessment is transformational! Retrieved from 

Mursky, C. (2015, January 30). Formative assessment practices to support student learning. Retrieved from 

Vega, A. (2015, January 27). Blended and online assessment taxonomy design. Retrieved from 

Wiliam, D. (2103, December). Assessment: The bridge between teaching and learning.Voices from the Middle, 21(2), 15-20.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Increase Reading Interaction Using This One Simple Site

I cross my fingers each time I assign my students a chapter, short story, or article to read at home for our next day's discussion or close reading. Too often I'll pile on related comprehension questions or threaten a quiz just to increase the likelihood that every student will get the reading done. Annotations, summaries, probing questions, and reflections on favorite quotations fill my bag of tricks, but I've always wanted something that would more actively engage my students with the text.

Enter Curriculet.

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Curriculet is an easy-to-use site which allows you to embed annotations, definitions, questions, images, videos, and quizzes into online text passages.

According to the site, "We believe that every moment of learning begins with reading, that teaching is a craft, and that the most effective curricula begins with the inspired work of great teachers and is perfected through peer collaboration. Curriculet is revolutionizing the way kids read, and how teachers create, share, and teach with a simple yet dynamic digital reading platform."

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The site offers three options for text selections:
  • Choose from dozens of popular texts which can be "rented" for classroom use. These texts come complete with embedded features to assess structure, diction, textual evidence, point of view, central idea, summary, media, and more. You can edit, add to, or remove the embedded material, saving the new Curriculet as your own.
  • Choose from a number of free texts, which include many novels in the public domain such as Tom Sawyer and Treasure Island, poems such as "The Raven," and short stories such as Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour" and Ray Bradbury's "The Pedestrian." Teachers can additionally choose from a growing number of many popular passages. These free texts typically come complete with embedded media which can be used as is, edited, deleted, or added to in the same manner as the rented texts. 
  • Upload your own text. Then embed customized questions, definitions, annotations, and media. Most Word and Google Doc format texts convert easily to reading passages, but even URLs can be converted into Curriculet form simply by using the "Add My Own Content Button" in the Library page of your teacher account. Questions can be open ended or multiple choice, tagged by skill if desired, and the text to which they refer can be highlighted for ease in student reference.
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In all cases, the multiple-choice questions and quizzes are self-scoring. If you include open-ended questions, you're given the opportunity to hand score these simply as correct or incorrect, adding comments as needed.

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If you're using novels in a whole class manner, the easy access via any mobile device plus the bonus of customized embedded content would be worth the cost. But I can also see Curriculet as being equally useful in
  • differentiating reading, either by content (assign different text selections) or skill (assign the same text across the class, with varying levels of questions and assistance via notes);
  • discussing current events, as students can answer questions focused on factual understanding, and then respond in more subjective ways via open ended responses; 
  • measuring formative grasp of any given reading skill, using short, controlled passages with just the right number of questions to gauge the the progress of individuals students or the whole class;
  • assessing comprehension of critical attributes of a genre, topic, theme, etc. using one exemplar text;
  • contextualizing vocabulary, which is too often taught in isolation from meaningful text.
The site is free to use and easy for students to join. Give it a trial run and be sure to reach out to the folks at Curriculet with your feedback. Their goal is create a quality reading experience, and I think they're on the right track!