Distance Learning Reflections

Just like my original Distance Learning post was mostly for my own good, so is this reflection post. Who knows what the 2020-2021 school year will bring; I want to remember certain things that worked (or didn’t) as this year comes to a close to make the future less daunting. My Twitter feed was a play-by-play of trial and error, this is the highlights related to my initial distance learning post.


  • Weekly Announcement – this worked mostly as anticipated. Some students requested more detail in the directions, but most were content with the cliff notes version with the wealth of links directly to the assignment. Parents often commented that they were able to follow with the weekly assignments without getting lost in the navigation. A disadvantage was the week and a half assignment cycle – that’s how long we spent on each topic, so half the updates included 2 different topics.
  • Learning Support – I used a Google Sheet and the Form Mule add-on to send frequently, personalized emails to individual students. I also created GoogleDocs with abbreviated assignments and simplified instructions. However, when emailing students and parents (36 total), only one student in a 2 week period actually clicked on the Bitly link to access the GoogleDoc. So while I was providing the resources, they were not being accessed.
  • Check Ins – the Zoom check-ins were attended by more than half the students. I kept them to 20 minutes so I could meet with multiple small groups. I also sent weekly (more or less) emails to every student on the team using the same Google Sheet / Form Mule combo. This could take anywhere from a couple hours to a couple days depending on the level of personalization.
  • Office Hours – we had weekly team office hours. They were sparsely attended. However, 5 students pulled their grades from failing up to a C by attending office hours the last week, so it was successful, even if under-utilized.
  • Grade Book Messages – I didn’t use these for every assignment. I saw that the students who needed it most were not reading the messages. A student shared their screen for help during office hours and I saw they had 117 unread messages, many from me with tips for completing missing assignments.
  • Assignment Feedback – While I provided it for every assignment that did not earn full credit, same issue as above. Students were reading it. They would just tell their parent they had no idea why they did not get full credit and either not resubmit or resubmit the exact same thing. I would need to intentionally teach how to check messages and feedback on Canvas. Honestly, I learned so many grade book tricks out of necessity, so I can share some of the random knowledge with students.
  • Digital Task Tracker – Not a single student opted to use this, so I won’t waste the time recreating this.


  • Scripts – I thought I would move away from the scripts as time progressed, but I didn’t. It kept me consistent between classes and in the separate recording I needed to do for students not attending live. Because I recorded first, I was much more comfortable during the Zoom mini-lectures. Even the discussions I had opening statements, closing statements, and anticipated questions to prompt students with. This might continue next year, especially if there is a mixed classroom setting.
  • Graphics – I used graphics for waiting for more students to log in as well as some quick checks/challenges. I really liked the idea of pixelating images that went with the topic and asking students to try to figure out what it was.
  • Settings – Different meetings required different settings. I only used the Waiting Room before beginning the lesson. After that I allowed students to automatically join (still with the password). I never had to remove someone who wasn’t supposed to be there and it prevented students from being locked out and missing class. Yes, I muted on entry. When I had office hours, I used the chime to notify when a student joined, since my camera was off while there were no students.
  • Chat box – Great for quickly sharing links with students. Only one student tended to type random things, and they rarely attended, so it was a non-issue.
  • Added Interactions – This was a student request the 2nd week. She said she missed her peers and wished there were additional ways we could interact. So I hosted optional Zoom review games, including digital breakoutEDUs.
  • Small Groups – It took me seeing someone’s random tweet to learn how to set up the breakout rooms on Zoom, but better late than never. I used them for office hours and digital breakout games (breakout rooms for breakout games).


  • Workspace – I thought I would use the GoogleDrive Workspace feature more, but I didn’t. Instead I went with Option B, which was having an obscene number of tabs opened all the time (at least 20).
  • Schedules – I created a schedule that I kept on my laptop desktop to keep myself accountable for work. Certain times were set aside for specific tasks. This was extra important with two toddlers, set times I needed childcare support. Luckily (?) my father-in-law was unable to work during this entire time, and would stop by about once a week for the two hours I needed for direct instruction.
  • Home Office – A random storage room was converted for a home office with a locking door. It kept all my school stuff in one place, still chaos, but manageable.
  • Canvas Homepage – This was one of two major changes I made during the course of distance learning. Instead of having a visually appealing homepage, I got rid of the distractors, and just had the active modules and the most recent announcement at the top. I don’t like the way it looks, but the students reacted positively to it.
  • Canvas Workflow – I also learned how to use the Requirements feature for the Canvas modules. Each week improved the effectiveness of the check marks. It took until the penultimate week to feel fully satisfied. This was also a good framework for conversations as a PLC about what was expected. The students liked the green check marks identifying what they had done and what they still had to do.


  • Must Do / Pick One – The structure of each topic worked as hoped. There were a few Must Do items. The main assessment was the Pick One that students selected; each was unique and allowed for students to show their knowledge in different ways. The work quality and quantity did decrease as the weeks progressed, but that wasn’t surprising.
  • Nearpod – I’ve been a longtime user of Nearpod and they didn’t let me down. I could record audio on the slides for students to listen to me instead of reading a boring presentation. It included videos, virtual field trips, websites, images, information, and quiz questions. I could view reports to see which students accessed them and how much they interacted.
  • Newsela – Also a longtime user of Newsela. There were a plethora of articles about each of the ancient civilizations, so I created rich text sets. I assigned one article per civilization, but the other articles were options on the Choice Board. The benefit was students could change their reading level to better understand the articles.
  • Flocabulary – Except for Hunters & Gatherers, each group had at least one Flocabulary video that corresponded. Greece, Rome, and the Renaissance had multiple applicable videos. I really liked the Read & Respond activities and hope to use those more in the future.
  • Choice Board – This was a student favorite. In all surveys, they said they appreciated the options available. I tried to design high interest activities with a mix of resources. There were many resources we used more than one week: Newsela Text Set, Duolingo, BreakoutEDU, Quizizz, Kahoot, Edpuzzle, Nearpod Virtual Field Trips, Quizlet, and some hand on creation activities. Students had to complete one, but most completed multiple options per civilization.
  • Digital BreakoutEDU – I’m proudest of these. I created digital breakouts for Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Rome, and the Renaissance. Only one of these existed pre-distance learning. Being stuck at home was conducive to my design process; I could practically stop what I was doing whenever inspiration struck. Students enjoyed working together to try to solve these.


After reading the CDC potential recommendations for school in the fall, there is a lot to think about. I felt more confident in what we were doing by the end of the process. There needs to be more SEL and intentional teaching of the learning management system – hopefully to motivate students to engage in their own learning and to remove the excuses to not have access to the learning. I’m already brainstorming my next digital breakouts. If some students are at home while others are in school, there will be more robust learning progressions, but that can be managed with strong communication and efficient tech tools.

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Planning for Virtual Learning

I had started writing a blog post a month ago about intentionally writing lesson plans that easily convert to virtual substitute during flu season, since nothing is worse than having to write sub plans while feeling horrible. Obviously it feels like the entire world has been turned upside down since that. For the past two weeks my district has been evaluating and designing virtual learning opportunities. Today I start teaching through Canvas and Zoom. 

This blog post is mostly for my own benefit. By writing down my plans and anticipated problems, I hope to be as prepared as possible for this week. This is not my first time teaching virtually; I have the benefit of having taught an educational technology grad class virtually for 3 semesters, but I know it will be a vastly different experience because of the age of learners and levels of motivation. 


I used to have a daily Announcement with directions and necessary links on our LMS Canvas; now I will post a detailed weekly Announcement with directions and necessary links. It will be familiar to the students, but allow them the freedom to work at their own pace. Last night I posted the Announcement for students, emailed parents with a PDF of the Announcement and directions on how to become an Observer on Canvas, and emailed learning support students/guardians about the built in modifications available and my recommendations for the assignment choices. 

2For communication about assignments, I will host brief check in meetings with my classes on Zoom the first day. They can see me and hear me explain the expectations. It will give them a chance to ask questions if necessary. I have two types of office hours – virtual on Zoom and guaranteed email checks. Side note: I use Canva to create beautiful images for Canvas and Zoom. 

Once students start turning in assignments, I will be able to send messages from the Canvas grade book – for students who score below a certain score or who have not turned in an assignment. I need to remind them where to check for messages – both Canvas inbox and email. On Twitter, @TheiTeamHawk shared a digital task tracker, I am providing that as an option for students.  

Task Tracker

I pre-wrote my script on Notes. That way it is out of view when I share my Chrome screen on Zoom. As I get more comfortable, I might just write the big ideas and bullet points for what I need to remember to mention. However, right now, the script makes me feel more confident. Since I can’t record sessions with students, but need to post the communication on Canvas, I practiced with the platform over the weekend. I only did it twice, opting for authenticity instead of perfection. At the top of my script I include all the links for websites I plan on referencing while teaching. I have them open before recording, but in case they are accidentally closed, it is easy to access with little stress. This is something I learned while teaching the online grad class. You cannot be overprepared. 

4For the Zoom sessions with students, I have an image that will be shared on the screen when they log in. I like that Zoom allows features to manage people joining – like muting entrants automatically, controlling video, and the waiting room. This is the opening slide before we get started. 

I will ask a check in question and have every student respond in the chat box, which will allow me to take attendance afterwards, yes I know there is an option for that through Zoom reports, but this is more personable. “While we are waiting for people to join and to make sure you can hear the audio – I want you to respond in the chat box with 3 emojis: 1. How are you? 2. How many people are learning/working in your house? 3. What is something fun you did recently? 😏 / 4️⃣ / 📦🎢 “ My experience of being in high school and college during the zenith of AIM chats are definitely an advantage for managing reading/responding to text while doing other things. 


For me, I am maximizing GoogleDrive, including features I didn’t use previously. With priorities, GoogleDrive will allow you to create a Workspace with up to 25 files. This keeps everything in one space without having to search through the chaos of hundreds of subfolders. I created a schedule for myself; there are school scheduled obligations/teaching blocks, but I also wanted to have enough time to leave feedback and check in with students who are not completing assignments. It was also important to communicate to my husband and kids that there are certain hours I will not be available. I am lucky to have a dedicated home office. It was for my husband’s catering business, but unfortunately that has been suspended right now, so I took over the space. 


This was a huge adjustment. Initially we could only provide enrichment opportunities, then we could provide scaled back learning. So our PLC decided on three levels of content requirements, communicated with three different colors in the directions: Must Do, Pick One, and Choice Board. The names are self-explanatory. 

Must Do is either reading the text or going through the Nearpod. I created the Nearpod to include audio reading the slides to support the learning support and English Language Learners I have. A new feature on Nearpod will allow students to record audio back in the Open Response Question. This is awesome! I will be taking advantage of this next week. 

Our assessments had to change. Big ideas will be assessed, and not just in traditional ways. Students will Pick One: an open note quiz (because we can’t stop them, so might as well allow for all students), creating original artwork, or a Zoom conversation. I will not be lecturing for 90 minutes, twice a week that is scheduled. I will have 15-30 minute directions for students with the remaining portions being asynchronous. If students cannot attend synchronously, I do have the recordings posted on Canvas. Our 1:1 classroom was already set up in this blended way, so it will not be too different to plan and deliver. 

Screen Shot 2020-03-30 at 6.55.28 AM

The Choice Board allows flexibility and plenty of choices to extend their knowledge. Some of these tools were specifically selected because they have features to benefit learning support students, like Quizizz has an option to read the questions aloud. All of the options – from the Must Do to Pick One to the Choice Board – will have associated assignments on Canvas to turn in for feedback. It has yet to be determined the grading aspect of this virtual experiment/experience. I am ready. 

I will teach you on Zoom

Unknown original creator – I tried to find them – but it’s widely shared online without attribution


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World Shipping Monopoly

The most time intensive application activity I have ever set up is World Shipping Monopoly, which says something because of how many breakouts I have created. The original activity was inspired by the Boxcars, a world trade/shipping simulation created in 1975 by Joan Steffy. The 7th grade geography teachers had used it for many years. The simulation worked for most of the students. However, each year a group of students just ended up copying numbers endlessly without understanding the purpose, and as the teacher in charge of After School Tutoring for years, I saw this side of the project. 

I wanted to design something that would give the students the same functional knowledge/application, but in a way that would be more meaningful. After finding a PDF template for creating your own version of Monopoly, I was inspired to make a world shipping board game version. It took MONTHS, but it was created and utilized last year. That worked for the first year, but I updated it this year using Canva – to design and print. The result is stunning. 

ChanceChance Cards are mini-opportunities to teach and apply the economic and globalization concepts of the unit. It also pulled in real world situations, like a trade war creating tariffs or a natural disaster closing a port. For the 2nd year, I am making more positive cards and reduced the cost of the negative ones. Some chance cards apply to the person on the Chance spot, but others are dependent on a color space. This year I am going to have a Chance Card of the Day; this will give me a chance to explain the geographic and economic background to the scenario, instead of just hoping they made the connections themselves. There will also be a Quizlet set to explain the major terms that apply throughout the game. 

Now the details – which I am recording as a reminder for myself for future years:

World Ship MonopolyBoard Layout 

  • Sorted countries by HDI 
  • Goes around the board from lowest ranked to highest ranked based on 2018 data
  • Occasionally moved them one or two spaces to keep geographically close places next to each other 
  • Added a non-capital city that will not have trade and the corners are oceans, except for the one corner that is a mandatory fuel stop
  • Still have Chance cards, which are my favorite part of the game


  • Reduced the number of available commodities at each location – but make sure they have at least one export and one import. 
  • Got rid of similar things – like computers, but kept smartphones
  • Kept items related to other chapters – like crude oil, sneakers, and textiles 
  • The commodity choices still demonstrates that more raw materials available in developing countries, and higher profit items come from the developed countries. 

Set Up 

  • Each student gets a board with 10 spots for commodities/shipping containers
  • Each student gets $2,500 to begin
  • Everyone starts on the fuel space 
  • Everyone rolls the dice. Whoever has the highest number goes first, then the players go in a clockwise order.


  • Roll a single dice.
  • They get one trip around the board without paying for fuel. Each additional trip, they must stop and pay for fuel at the labeled corner.
  • At each capital city, you are allowed one export and one import. 
  • Some spaces are just a city. If there is no import/export information listed, you may not trade.
  • Players may never have more than 10 commodities at once. 
  • If you run out of money, it is up to the global financier (Mrs. Whiston) to determine your fate
  • Students may use a calculator to help, but all transactions are done with paper money * and must be recorded on the Balance Sheet 

Different from Regular Monopoly

  • No one owes a property. Players buy/sell commodities instead. 
  • No Luxury Tax, but some tariffs incorporated into the Chance cards
  • Must stop to pay for fuel 
  • Do not collect $200 for passing Go
  • No jail 


The groups for this part of the unit were determined by a pre-test and teacher observations – both geography teacher and math teacher – since the traditional version is math intensive. The first few days last year I heard a lot of “this is the dumb group” and “why can’t we play the real way?” The comments completely changed by the end. They only complained if we were not playing the game. There was not a single comment in the last 2 weeks about being a stupid group. Instead there was almost pride when other envious students discovered we played Monopoly. When asked to reflect on what they thought I wanted them to learn, they were fairly accurate. It took countless hours to create, but I’m glad I did. I am excited to start this unit after break with a new group of students. 

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BreakoutEDU: Nearpod Edition


Creating Breakouts is my favorite way to procrastinate. Many of them incorporate digital tools for clues, like Nearpod. There are two ways to utilize Nearpod within a Breakout: students can try to discover the five letter code to access a Nearpod or students can find clues within a student-paced Nearpod lesson. While you can embed a GoogleForm within a Nearpod, it is not good for hosting digital locks, since it clears the responses if students navigate away, but that is the only weakness. 

You have to use backwards design – the last part of the puzzle has to be created first. In class, I daisy chain the Nearpods, one is interwoven with another one. For the sake of this post, I just created a single Nearpod to host all the examples together. There is also a single Google Form to see how the digital locks work. I apologize that many of the examples involve latitude and longitude, as a geography teacher, that is how my breakout brainstorms work. Don’t worry, there is a Flocabulary video incorporated to give you a refresher and a clue. 

If you are working on clues that will lead students to the five letter Nearpod code, you want clues that can be easily modified for each additional Nearpod Code you generate. Luckily the codes can be extended beyond the original 30 days, but if you use it more than one year or semester, you want to be able to quickly update it. I customize images on Canva, which allows me to edit and/or duplicate as necessary. Other potential ways to share the Nearpod code: 

The final suggestion is also solid justification for why this works. Intentionally misspelled lists: Why should you use Nearpod and BreakoutEDU? 

  1. Creatjve use of the tool and the strategy
  2. Energizing and ezciting competition between groups of students
  3. Interesting probiem solving potential for students
  4. Engaging studemts to think critically
  5. Challanging lesson that is memorable

Once students have “unlocked” the Nearpod, they can find the next series of clues on the Nearpod. Many of the features of Nearpod lend themselves to being clues. Using the Nearpod code above, you can see each clue in action in conjunction with the GoogleForm for locks. If you didn’t figure out any of the four clues above, the Nearpod join code is: IXLNE (it’s invisible, I still didn’t want it to be too easy).

  • Virtual Field Trips – easily recognizable places can be mixed with a blank map, latitude and longitude finder, or even be the necessarily emoji for Codemoji. For inspiration in places to include, check out 360cities.   
  • Fill in the Blank – hidden message in the blanks. It could be a secret word, number, or direction lock. It all depends on the creativity of the message writer.
  • Slide Show or PDF Viewer – add a random letter or number on consecutive pages, it turns into a code
  • Audio or Video – in this case I used a Flocabulary video, but I have also used music videos where the lyrics were important or fake voicemail messages
  • Draw It – give students coordinates to add on grid or a map, it can be a directional lock or a letter lock if the background image already has letters. Most puzzle worksheets would work here.
  • PhET lab or Desmos Calculator – give them some of the parameters, they solve it, possibly for a 3 digit code
  • Websites – like Jigsaw Planet can either be a stand alone clue or information they need to solve the next clue

Obviously this is just the tip of the iceberg. If you wanted to see more of my brainstorm process for BreakoutEDU in general, check out my previous post. It also includes the GoogleDoc Game Flow Template I use to tame the chaos.

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Unlocking Design Secrets for BreakoutEDUs

BreakoutEDU is challenging and exciting. It is a similar concept to an Escape Room, and can involve physical or digital locks (without actually locking the students in the room). I did have one of the original Official BreakoutEDU boxes, but I create my own Breakouts with various additions. There are pre-created resources online or you can get as creative as you want. I love using Breakouts because if done right, all students are engaged; it is not just for the smart kids or the vocal kids. They have to work collaboratively to be successful. Students will request it.


I love trying to explain my crazy thought process during school professional development or at Edcamps. The first place to start is a good brainstorming document. I use a Game Flow GoogleDoc for each of my BreakoutEDUs. The original document was inspired and shared by BreakoutEDU; however, I have customized it and modified it to adapt to the learning needs of my students. I also have additional notes and anticipated student mistakes / suggestions for hints since I share these with my PLC. I switched from physical locks to digital locks because of frustration with jammed directional locks and sweaty hands accidentally rubbing the numbers/letters away. I often use an actual physical lock for the final clue, because there is excitement when they get to see what is in the box. 

This Game Flow GoogleDoc is specifically for digital breakouts using Google Forms for the locks. The difference is that it incorporates the custom formatting to create a lock and the custom error message. Learn from my mistake: without a custom error message it just prompts with the answer. HUGE and disappointing fail. It’s so important is it worth repeating – YOU MUST HAVE A CUSTOM ERROR MESSAGE. The Game Flow also includes a space for brainstorming. I often start the process with a single inspiration. I gradually develop the clues around key vocabulary, big ideas, important events, places, people, etc. It is not the type of thing I sit down and design at once… I will admit that sometimes the obsession takes hold and I can develop a game in a single weekend. 

I know there are other platforms for hosting a digital breakoutedu, including the offficial breakoutedu website with a paid subscription – but I’m a fan of mixing Google Sites and Google Forms. There are so many other tools to create hints. Some of my favorites: 

If you are still unsure what this looks like, there are plenty of examples. You can just Google Digital BreakoutEDUs to find resources. There are active Facebook groups of BreakoutEDU teachers who often share their creations. My current BreakoutEDUs include: 

Climate Change in Antarctica Digital BreakoutEDU

Example BreakoutEDU Contract

Election Literacy BreakoutEDU

World Shipping (Globalization) BreakoutEDU 

Winter Holiday BreakoutEDU 

To manage the chaos and the groups staying focused – I employ a Team Contract. This is not part of a traditional breakoutedu, but it establishes clear group expectations. I also include three symbols at the bottom that the students can utilize for hints. When they request a hint, I just cross one off. Students take it seriously and hold each other accountable when they start complaining or threaten to quit. 

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Defining Whiston

For ten years my identity was defined by my job, and I loved it. I created complex lessons like Choose Your Own Adventure lessons with Google Forms or engaging Nearpods or collaborated on global projects. I attended conferences – often presenting my favorite edtech tools – and I planned edcamps and in services. Everywhere I went I ran into Twitter connections who felt more like family than random names online. 

The last three years were full of change. Marriage. Baby. Another baby. Now I am trying to redefine myself. I am defining Mrs. Lisa Whiston. For some reason I envision it being said with the same intonation as Lydia Wickham in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. 

I don’t want to get lost in the endless of laundry or never-ending meal prep. I still value being a reflective educator, part of which is writing out my thoughts to talk through the problems and to remember for future years. The reflections will just take place in the 20 minutes before the laundry needs to go in the dryer or the 40 minutes until the next feeding. 

So defining Whiston will still be a reflection of my classroom, but it will be less Pinterest and more practical. The images will not be custom designed – if any image is included. Each phrase will not be wordsmithed to be witty – and please forgive any errors, I might not re-read as carefully. 

As the baby begins to cry, it signals the end of my first blog post in three years. But I am back and already brainstorming the next ideas I want to share.

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The Fab Flocab

The fabulous thing about Flocabulary is that their passion engages students. This summer they expanded their available features (which you can read about on their blog). What I want to focus on today is the videos themselves from a newer unit.flocab-tweet-new-geography

Two years ago I exchanged a series of tweets with @Flocabulary mentioning that I loved the Week in Rap (and still do!) and that my students were obsessed with it. However, as a geography teacher, the applicable video choices were slim to none at the time. Flocabulary is constantly expanding their high quality video content. Last February a Geography category was added to Social Studies, and since then many videos have been developed that align with geography: Five Themes, Map Skills (which might win for catchiest name: Mappy Map), Continents and Oceans, Landforms and Bodies of Water, Latitude and Longitude, Migration, 50 States & CapitalsRegions of the US, and Urban, Suburban, and Rural. I am a very happy geography teacher now.

Unlike a textbook, students want to interact with the resources multiple times. So the videos can be used at the beginning, middle, or end of a lesson or small unit (or any combination of these). So what will this look like in an actual unit? I will use the Five Themes videos as an example. The Five Themes is the foundation for my geography class, so I was ecstatic when the videos appeared in the Flocabulary library. After a pre-test on Google Forms, I will show the Five Themes video as an introduction. We will watch the video twice: once at the original speed and once slower so they can absorb the lyrical significance of each line.

Based on the pre-test scores, some students will need implicit, small group, teacher instruction. Other students will learn from a flipped model; they will watch the videos independently, and then have teacher guidance on the more intellectually challenging application practice. The components of the Five Themes that have videos are: Movement, Region, Human-Environment Interaction, and Location. Videos, quizzes, and Read & Respond can be assigned if students have their own account. The videos quizzes will be formative assessments to make sure the students understand the content. For the students who learned the content with me, they get to watch the videos afterwards to reinforce the concepts in a catchy way. It does not matter the level of the learner; they are all engaged and ask to watch the videos multiple times.

At the end of the unit, all the students will create a project to show the Five Themes of our community. They have choice for what they want to create, anything from posters to videos to photo stories to letters and so much more. The Lyric Lab from Flocabulary will be a perfect addition to the creation menu. There are many ideas for implementing Flocabulary in the classroom, this was just a snapshot of one unit in my class. There are more suggestions and a How To section on the Flocabulary website.

The Opening Day presentation at my district focused on the message that students will be more successful and try harder when they feel they matter. I feel the same way with edtech companies. I embrace and find many uses for tools when I feel that my students and I matter to the company. Flocabulary makes that happen. A big thank you to the fab Flocab family!


Because I’m sure I have captured your interest and you want to experience Flocabulary for yourself, you can sign up to receive a free 45 day trial AND be entered for a chance to win a teacher license for a year.

    • You need to enter every field in the form to be eligible (it should only take them a minute!)
    • Everyone that enters the giveaway will receive an email for an extended 45-day school-wide trial of Flocabulary.
    • Winners will be drawn at random.
    • Your readers must enter by October 16th at 11:59ET.
* Full Disclosure: I am an MC Educator for Flocabulary… but they approached me to join because I was already super passionate about their company.
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Digital Differentiation Toolbox

1Checks for Understanding

My key to success is frequent checks for understanding that can move students seamlessly from one group to another. I’ve had students move from the remediation group to the enrichment group after having an ah-ha moment where everything clicked. There are a variety of tools I use for pre-tests and formative assessments during a unit. My requirement is that student answers can be turned into a spreadsheet to be analyzed and potentially select data can be shared with the learning support teachers.

  • Google Forms: I do not know what I would do without Google Forms. I use the Add-On Flubaroo to grade and share results with students. I can also set conditions to answers to guide students or direct them to different pages of the form based on their response. That is really useful if I want to give them different instructions based on their answer to a specific question.
  • Quizizz: Multiple choice game for students to respond to questions. It can include images. The questions are displayed on the student device, so they are self-paced. It does include a time limit per question, but that can be set by the teacher creating the Quizizz set.
  • Socrative: I have used Socrative for years. It does not have the visual pizazz of some sights, but it does meet my requirements.
  • Formative:  There are so many options of what you can do with Formative. A student favorite is the draw feature. I can harness that interest into annotating on top of an image of text. Teachers can watch students respond in real time, so you don’t have to wait to see a spreadsheet to know which students need additional practice.
  • Nearpod: If I am already using Nearpods for the lessons, it is easy to incorporate a couple questions using the Quiz feature of Nearpod.

Kahoot is a student favorite, but it is not on my list as a formative assessment tool that drives instruction/groups. I find that the student desire to answer quickly ruins the honest snapshot of what they actually know. I do use it as a fun review game after we have done the hard part of actually learning.

2Student Paced

Student Paced is how I describe the group with general knowledge who can move at a faster pace for the lesson. They will have additional choices with practice options and application of the knowledge. I utilize a lot of resources that give the teacher the option to duplicate, so I can have two or more similar resources, customized for a portion of my class. In a given unit the digital resources will change, but there are some that are consistent for my student paced group. My requirement is that students will demonstrate their thinking in a way that is visible to the teacher through saved work/responses.

  • Nearpod: Lessons can be duplicated. With a code, students can go through the lesson at their own pace. Other websites can be included in the Nearpod presentation.
  • Google Docs / Google Classroom: Google Classroom automatically creates, names, shares, and organizes Google Docs through the assignment feature. I can have each student open the assignment. I can then customize the task, but adding some extra challenging prompts to select students. For the Map Challenges, I keep track of the different versions of the document by labeling them Challenge 3A, Challenge 3, and Challenge 3.0. To the causal observer, they look identical. For many activities the change to the assignment is just the expected outcome. Higher level students need to provide more than a single word answer; I prompt them through comments to add specific supporting details for their answer.
  • Quizlet: This study app and website has been in digital toolkit from the beginning. With my teacher account, I can see statistics for the students: what they did, how much they completed, which ones they most frequently missed.
  • EDpuzzle: Just because I have students working at their own pace does not mean they are not hearing the information from me. I use some flipped videos to explain key topics. With EDpuzzle I can embed questions to check for understanding. It also displays view statistics, so I can tell if someone skips part or if they go back to watch a part four times.
  • Flocabulary: Flocabulary is more than just videos. They have some new features that will allow students to enrich their learning and boost their creativity. I can’t wait to have students try the Lyric Lab. Writing lyrics is more challenging than it originally appears since they have to master the content and the beat. The Pause & Play feature asks probing questions to prompt discussion. Even working at a self-pace, the students could have a discussion through Google Classroom or respond in writing on a Google Doc.
  • Newsela:  An easy way to extend the learning is to ask students to find real life examples to apply the knowledge. I have them use Newsela to find articles that demonstrate their knowledge.

3Teacher Guided

Teacher guided are the students who will thrive with personal teacher attention. I am able to use duplicated and modified resources similar to the student paced group. With teacher guided there is an emphasis on images relating to the content as well as having students explain their thinking verbally. 360º images are great conversation inspirations. With only 5 or 6 students in the group, I am able to listen to everyone and no one can silently hide.

  • Nearpod: Lessons can be duplicated. With a code, students go through the lesson at the pace set by the teacher. They can not skip ahead. 360º images are easy to incorporate with Nearpod Virtual Field Trips. The draw feature is also a student favorite. It is a good way to see student thinking and I can ask probing questions to get more information. The features do not have to be complex to be effective.
  • Google Docs / Google Classroom: Google Classroom helps with organization; there are no more excuses when the assignment is lost. Just like I can customize specific students’ documents with more challenges, I can also provide tips and hints for students who might struggle. I want them to try to solve the problems on their own, but I can anticipate the misconceptions.
  • Flocabulary: While I mentioned before that Flocabulary is more than just videos, the videos are what grab the attention of some struggling students. They like the mix of lyrics, beat, and images and they are willing to watch the videos over and over again. This helps them remember the content in the long run.
  • Tiny Cards: Study app that is similar to Quizlet, but this builds in what it expects in students. It also allows for slight misspellings of words, which is significant when working with struggling learners.

Breaking into Groups without Heartbreak

Grouping is about the perception. For the small group that is going to work with me, they sit in the back around a low coffee table while sitting on comfortable pillows. Students are often more excited about picking out the perfect pillows than being worried about being in the small group. My personal ah-ha moment came with review games last year. Why would I only have one version of the review game if the lesson was differentiated? It had to be disheartening for the students who were always on the bottom of the leaderboard. Now I use an old Windows Surface to run a second version of the Kahoot (or other review game) for the small group in the back. With only 5 or 6 people playing, they are frequently on the leaderboard. They are proud of themselves and smile a lot more.

Overall Reflections

a-personal-teaching-approach-mb46tln212070t84wegphyaqk8s1wwvuvp35rr13hqA tool that can visually connect the entire differentiated path is Symbaloo Lesson Plans. I just started playing with it this summer and like the potential, especially if a single question can function as a deciding point for what a student should learn next. Digital differentiation is not for the lecture lover or the lazy planner. This requires lots of work ahead of time to work smoothly in the classroom. I consider it a labor of love. I am willing to do it so more students love the content and are confident in their ability to learn.

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TDQ Professional Goal

TDQ CoverEach year we are asked to come with a problem of practice with actionable steps to improve. Last year wasn’t very inspiring, so I want to try something different this year. I’m going to base my goal on TDQ: Pathways to Close and Critical Reading (grades 6-12) by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey. This book was recommended by one of my favorite ELA colleagues Renee @rowens1. The topic originally came up during a Professional Learning Committee meeting. The data, and thus the problem of practice, proves that on standardized tests and in everyday life students struggle with supporting claims with evidence. This blossomed into a session at our unconference about cross curricular literacy skills, but my goal is to move from discussion to action.

Non-fiction reading is integrally part of Social Studies and Science, so we are natural teachers and guides for the non-fiction ELA skills and standards. I embraced this concept last year; I used consistent language to ELA when the situation arose in reading passages, but I want to be more intentional. Besides being inspired by conversations with my ELA colleagues, I attended a surprisingly inspiring presentation at the Pennsylvania Council of Social Studies about making TDQ the SLO goal for an entire SS department. Normally that many acronyms in a sentence is an attention killer. But they provided evidence that students will grow if non-ELA teachers purposefully incorporate TDQ into lessons.

So now that I have a sizable goal for this year, what is my game plan? I will harness the power of technology to efficiently provide students with a variety of TDQs at their level. This game plan includes Newsela, Google Classroom/Google Docs duo, and Flocabulary.

NewselaLogo.jpgThe inclusion of Newsela is nothing new. The article selection is appreciated by students and teachers alike. This year I want students to learn how to track and monitor their own reading progress. This will be especially true for my higher level learners who need to be challenged in meaningful ways. The quizzes pull from ELA reading standards, so Newsela is an easy match to my professional goal.

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classroom logoGoogle Classroom / Google Docs is the easiest way for me to provide specific and ongoing feedback to students. The Google Doc is automatically created, named, and shared when the student opens the document. As the teacher I can observe the progress and leave comments in the margin with the first word typed… or encourage them to get started if their document is blank. There are Google Sheets Add-Ons that I love, like Goobric for adding a rubric to a Google Doc.

Saving the best for last: Flocabulary. I have been a Flocabulary fanatic for awhile, but some of their new features directly align with my professional goal. Last year they introduced a quiz feature that checks for content knowledge. This summer they released a Read & Respond feature, which is currently limited to mostly ELA videos and the new Week in Raps. Since the Week in Rap is 85% of my Flocabulary usage during the year, it works out perfectly. Have no fear, Flocabulary does plan on expanding the feature to other videos. So what is Read & Respond? It is short close reading passages based on the theme of a video. The Teacher’s Guide gives the grade alignment.

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Another new Flocabulary feature that I anticipate using is the Pause & Play feature. You guessed it, you play the video, and sometimes it pauses, prompting with discussion points for the class. Students could use those as the questions, then they would develop a claim and find evidence from the original article cited in the interactive lyrics.

If I wanted to get really crazy, I can mash up the resources. I envision creating a Google Doc with the Pause & Play questions, with links to the article from Flocabulary as well as a corresponding article on Newsela. The Google Doc can be distributed to each student with Google Classroom, so they can edit and respond to the questions. This is just the early stage of the brainstorm. Ideas might shift as I read through TDQ: Pathways to Close and Critical Reading. Since the school year will begin during the height of an intense presidential campaign, they really need critical reading skills … as do many adults of voting age.

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Is it a fad?

Breakout ToolboxRecently when I was excitedly explaining the newest BreakoutEDU I created to reinforce map reading skills, someone asked: “Aren’t you worried it [BreakoutEDU] is just a fad?” They of course were implying that the time and money I have spent developing breakouts to align with my curriculum and to engage my students was not well spent. Last year the students played two: one for Canadian Culture and another for Aztecs, Incas, and Mayas. They loved them. This summer I developed one for map skills, thematic maps, as well as one for teachers to preview the concept. I plan on creating one to go along with Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom, which we read in class during Black History Month.

IMG_3769.2015-11-16_205535Last year I also used a lot of Virtual Field Trips through Nearpod to take them to all the places we were talking about. They loved these too. It took time to develop a lesson that included strong content, formative assessment, and visual engagement in one. Students who would rarely talk would take screenshots of the interesting things they saw and ask about them later. Students would be out of their seats because they could not contain their excitement over some of the images they saw and wanted to share with someone at their table. Those were the best questions/discussions. Not bad for a fad.

This brings me back to the question: what if it is just a fad? I do not just duplicate my lesson plans every year. They are constantly evolving and changing to meet the needs of my current students. So what if BreakoutEDU or Virtual Reality or gamified learning or badges are just a fad? If it is something that has research supporting it is beneficial for student learning and I have seen positive student engagement in my own classroom, it is a trend I’m willing to buy into. Which includes dedicated both a reasonable amount of time and/or money. I have a Nearpod library filled with lessons incorporating the Virtual Field Trips that get students out of their seats because they are so excited to explore and a closet shelf full of boxes and locks for BreakoutEDU. I’m looking forward to another year of engaging and exciting fads. I feel better about this trend then the standardized testing I have to administer that does not bring any joy to learning. My students are worth it.JPEG image-6CC82217A144-1

And yes, there really is research that all of these work in education:

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