Thursday, April 30, 2015

Guest Post: Baby Steps to a More Student-Led Classroom

By Melissa Milner

Thanks to Paul Solarz and his fantastic book Learn Like a PIRATE, my classroom is becoming even more student-led than ever before.

Baby Step 1

Every time we come back from vacation, the desks and chairs are in the corner due to our room being cleaned and the floor being waxed.  I always have my students collaborate and figure out how they want the room set up.  This time, I said nothing.  I greeted the kids at the door, asked them about their vacations and waited to see what they would do.  They got straight to work moving the furniture, but some were unsure whether they were just putting it back where it was before vacation or choosing a new set-up.  One student said, "We get to decide, remember?"

Off they went, moving furniture and planning the set-up. It was a hoot to watch.

The finished set-up is super cool.  They always have better ideas than I do!
It was really great watching them during the day.  They set up the carpet remnants in the middle of the circle to work and were still able to enjoy the classroom library area because their set-up design purposely allowed for it.

Baby Step 2

Our morning meetings are always student-led. No one has to raise their hand, and they have to listen and respect each other.  I usually pose a question and then sit back and listen.  This time I asked the class how they could lead more in the classroom.  They mentioned that they can use the "give me five" hand signal that our school has adopted to quiet down the class when they get loud.  I challenged them to think of other reasons to use the "give me five" signal.  Cricket... cricket... They clearly were not used to teachers asking them a question like that.

I shared with them ideas in Paul Solarz' book.  They were clearly excited by this new lens on the classroom and their role within it.  I went to the classroom jobs chart and one by one took many of the jobs off.  I kept only a few.  The class was shocked, but they got the point.  Everyone is responsible for the day-to-day running of the classroom!  Here are some of the ways that students led today:

  • The class worked hard on writing work and one student realized it was time to get ready for switching classes.  She raised her hand to give the "give me five" sign and everyone stopped and looked.  She got embarrassed that everyone was looking at her and then said it was time to get ready for switching.  One student praised her saying, "Good job!"  It was adorable.  It amazes me how much they support each other.
  • We already had student-led book clubs and our reading workshop routine is very predictable.  Without a cue from me, students transitioned into reading workshop and were focused and collaborative.
  • One student used the hand signal to get the attention of his classmates and start our daily homework check.  He called on students to tell the assignment for each subject.
  • Many students refocused their peers during math groups after we had a fun interruption from the Rotary Club (trees for Arbor Day).
  • I am sure there are more examples that I can't think of right now and others that I didn't see in the hallway during transitions to different classrooms.
Oh wait...
  • A student wrote the class schedule on the board for tomorrow.  This was a job that rarely got done earlier in the year.  Now that students are in charge of transitions, they understand the importance of having a schedule posted.
I can't wait for tomorrow!

About the Author:

Melissa Milner is a veteran teacher and lifelong learner in Massachusetts. Catch her on Twitter @teach1991 and via the hastags #geniushour, #tlap, and #meadowstaff.  She blogs at Mrs. Milner's Class and What's Up in Room 16?.

A Guide to Creating a Collaborative Learning Environment

I'm passionate about giving my students learning experiences rather than merely conducting a class.  I like to call it 'Collaborative Learning' and I've been building my model for the past 3 years.  Lucky for me, EdSurge picked up my recent post on how I do it.  It is up on their site today.  It is also in this week's Instruct Newsletter.  Click on the screenshot below to read. Thanks!

Monday, April 27, 2015

Balancing student privacy with the benefits of #EdTech

This article was originally published in The Hill.

There is momentum building behind education policy in Washington these days. And with good reason. It has been nearly 15 years since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act and a lot has changed in our nation’s classrooms.  

In addition to considering issues like accountability and teacher quality, federal policymakers are now thinking about the role of technology in school. One bill would add new regulations to the collection and use of student data. Another contemplates updates to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA).

Protecting student privacy is, of course, a paramount concern for teachers like me. Because the role of technology is essential in all of our lives, it is also increasing in our children's classrooms. This means we are creating more data and we must ensure that data is safeguarded. We must remember, though, that technology plays a critical role in helping teachers prepare students to intelligently consume and contribute now and as professionals.

As lawmakers consider the next generation of education policy priorities, I hope they will consider not just the risks, but the ways that teachers are using technology in the classroom to improve student results, to engage their students in new ways of thinking, and to reduce time spent on administrative tasks so that they can provide more, personalized attention to students.

If policy makers don’t know how teachers in their states and districts are using technology and data, they should ask. Teachers have valuable insights, and getting their perspective will lead to more thoughtful and meaningful legislation.

As a history teacher, technology plays an integral role in my classroom and curriculum. Not only are my students using lesson-enhancing technology to engage more deeply with content, but they are also learning a “digital fluency” that will prepare them for today’s increasingly tech-driven job market. The everyday use of technology in the classroom and at home is teaching students to be critical consumers and thoughtful producers, skills that both colleges and employers expect from today’s generation of students.

Over the past year, face-to-face video chats have provided my students with multiple opportunities to consult with and question experts from around the country and across an ocean. They’ve explored science and industry at a museum in the UK, chatted virtually with experts in the tech industry, and used simple online tools like video hangouts to collaborate with each other on homework assignments.

Technology helps to encourage and inspire my students – it gives me the tools to bring otherwise abstract concepts to life to deepen their understanding of history. It allows students to become creators – building a narrative through statistics and then designing an infographic, or pulling multimedia sources together to create videos that bring history to life, and sharing those videos with the class.    

Technology has also made my work easier by simplifying how I communicate with my students and their parents. For example, I can use one app to send out text message reminders about approaching assignment deadlines and another to create vocabulary study decks students can access on their smart phones from anywhere. These seemingly small enhancements have saved significant amounts of time.

Education technology has also allowed me to take my classes paperless. Long gone are the days of “my dog ate my homework”; now students can access and store everything digitally. Notes aren’t lost and students are no longer carrying around heavy backpacks bursting with folders and crumpled paper. And, given the rich primary source and multimedia resources available to educators, I’ve been able to go “textbook-free” too. Rather than read a single book by only one or two authors, my students are consuming content from leading scholars across the field they are studying.

Student privacy matters to educators and parents. Protecting and supporting my students and children is incredibly important to me. But the use of technology developed by experts for the classroom allows me to assess my student’s understanding, to provide feedback, and to create opportunities for my students to collaborate with one another in ways that were previously impossible.

I’m not arguing that there shouldn’t be strong measures in place to protect student data, but any changes to federal law and any new regulations that follow must ensure that teachers can still access the tools they need to help their students succeed. It’s an important balance to get right and I hope Congress and state legislators do it with much-needed teacher input.

Gallagher is a history teacher in Reading, Mass. and a lawyer by training. She was recently named a PBS 2015 Digital Innovator, is a regular panelist at education conferences and a contributor to education blogs like EdSurge and the Smarter Schools Project.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Guest Post: A Guide to Using Instagram in the Classroom

By Jennifer Gray

Everyone loves social media.  Middle school students, like adults, take out their smart phones and tablets every chance they get to check their Instagram feed.  I am a teacher who doesn’t want to fight for my students’ attention.  Instead, I want to become a part of what they are using anyway.  I created my own classroom Instagram account: @mrsgray108

As a teacher of French and Spanish, I don’t think kids can ever get enough practice.   When my students are home at night scrolling through Instagram on their phones, I love that they can be learning a new French or Spanish word or getting some practice with vocabulary they already know.  Making a connection through Instagram brings my class closer and makes my subject more relevant.  Below are just a few ways I’ve incorporated Instagram into my classroom.

French and Spanish Word of the Week:

I like to introduce a new word about once a week.  Sometimes I choose a word that students have asked me about in class, or I chose the word based on the time of year.  For example, this year at Thanksgiving I introduced the French word for “turkey.”  It is my hope that students think of this word while they are eating their Thanksgiving dinner.  

Study Tips and Reminders:

Sometimes I post a picture of the topics on an upcoming quiz as a reminder, and other times I post resources that are available to them.  Below, I posted a screenshot of an online practice game.  Students know I am available and can ask any questions they have.

Promote Class Events and Field Trips:

I post pictures from class when students are engaged in something interesting.  Posting images from class encourages a positive class image and sense of belonging.  Below, visiting students from Ecuador were running a lesson.    It will be a memory students can look back on, and the Ecuadorian students starting following our class on Instagram!

Connect Home and School:

It’s important for the students to know that I have a life outside of the classroom.  It’s also important for them to know that I think of them when I am home.  Posting to Instagram helps keep me connected to my students even when we are out of school.  

My students wrote children’s books in Spanish and French.  I wanted students to know that this assignment wasn’t just for me, their teacher, to read, but I would be sharing their stories with actual children.  Specifically, I was going to share their books with my three- and five-year-old children.  To make it more interesting, I offered extra credit to the projects my kids picked as their favorites.  It was a fun assignment, and even more fun to announce the winners on Instagram.  Below are pictures I posted of my kids reading student books.

Encourage Participation from Home:

Even better than teaching a new French or Spanish word, I love to get my students to write comments or answer questions in a foreign language.  Sometimes I offer extra credit or a sticker to the first person to answer correctly.  Below, I asked students to describe Tom Brady using a new Spanish adjective.  I also told the students how to say the words to a Disney song in French, but I asked them what the literal translation is.


Whenever I see something relevant to what we’re doing in class, I post it to my Instagram for the students to see.  When we learned that “soy” means “I am,”  I had to post a joke about it.


I post pictures of things that are relevant to French and Spanish culture.  Pictures of my travels, pictures of interesting world events, and anything about life in a foreign country is a great way to make connections.  Through Instagram, I taught my students about April Fool’s Day in France, posted pictures of it in my classroom, and even showed them a joke I saw.   I was hoping one of my students would translate it for me.

Other Ideas:
  1. Showcase student work - Take a photo or screenshot of exemplary student work to share with parents and the school.
  2. Cross promote - Make connections with other classes, teachers, and schools.
  3. Give Support - Post inspirational quotes and create or a self-esteem boost for students and the class.
  4. Check-in - Make it a place for students to post questions.  Sometimes other students have the answers, too.

If you create an individual enough hashtag, you can put all your posts in one place.  You can create a hashtag for your class, a unit you’re working on, or an entire school.  These are some hashtags I use with my students:

Compatible Photo Apps:
Sometimes I post a photo and write about it or ask questions in the comment section, but sometimes I want the picture itself to have text. These apps allow me create any visual I want:

This is only my first year using Instagram in my classroom and I’m sure I will expand it as the years go on. I have found it fun and unbelievably easy.  The great thing about Instagram is that is compatible with all your other social media platforms.  With one click you can share with your Twitter, Blogger, and Tumblr.  The feedback I have received from students has been overwhelmingly positive.

Student Perspectives:
“Since social media is such a big thing now, and almost everyone has it, it makes it an easy resource for learning and reminders.” -Owen L
“Tell them about upcoming events that are happening in school or when things are due.”- Mary B.
“Let’s students leave helpful comments for others.” -Jacob G.
“I see students engage in their learning outside of class. It also creates a school community that continues once the day is done.”- Eric G.
“Allows students to ask teacher/students for help and be able to get a quick response.”-Olivia S.
“Teachers can use IG for helpful HW hints.”-Rebecca A.

Teacher Accounts to Follow:
Following other teachers is a great way for me to know what is going on in other classrooms and to get ideas.  These teachers post everything from inspirational quotes to interesting ways to post homework for kids.


I need to thank all the teachers I follow on Instagram for some great ideas.  A special thanks goes to Julianne Mitrano for outlining great ways to use Instagram in the classroom.

About the Author:
Jennifer Gray is a French and Spanish teacher at Parker Middle School in Reading, Massachusetts.  She introduces her seventh grade students to foreign languages for the first time and she is dedicated to fostering a love of learning about other cultures and languages.  

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Dr. Will Show - The Connected Educator

Tonight I had the pleasure of chatting once again with Dr. Will.  This time we talked about the benefits of being a connected educator.  Check out the complete post on his blog.  Watch the video podcast below.

The Collaborative Learning Formula

Over the past several years I've posted many examples of collaborative learning in my history classrooms grades 8-10.  I've also spoken about the #gallagherhistory model at various conferences around the country and right here in Massachusetts.  The part that gets most students' and educators' attention is that I do not give tests.  Ever.  Lecture is also never a part of the student learning experience.  I invariably get follow up messages and emails filled with questions.  Here are some of the most asked questions and their answers.

What is the formula?

Here it is:
Examples of media produced by students during our
activities that promote analysis and discussion of evidence.
  • Essential Question that connects history to students' lives
  • Evidence from primary and scholarly sources that can be used to find an answer to the essential question
  • Activity to help students dig into the evidence and develop their own understanding of the topic.  These activities are usually collaborative in groups of 4-6 students.
  • Record their understandings both with textual and visual annotated evidence using either Evernote or Google Drive.  These notes are taken independently so students are developing their own understandings.
  • Publish Learning on their own blogs.  We use Blogger.  Most students choose to make them public, but I provide all with a tutorial on how to make Blogger private in case they have concerns about publishing online.
We go through this process weekly and most classes meet for 55 minutes about 4 times per week.  Therefore, students are responsible for publishing at least weekly reflections on their learning from our class.

Where do you get your content?

The short answer is: research.  I'll admit I was not a history major and my graduate degree is not in history either (I actually went to law school and have a J.D.), but after teaching the subject for 13 years I've gotten pretty good at finding what I need.  I'll never claim to know everything.  In fact, most of my colleagues have more raw history content knowledge than I do.  But the skill that I want my students to learn is how the find out what they want to know, not to memorize all of the information we cover in our class.  I model this for them every time I put together a lesson.  My go-to sites when I research are Reading Like a HistorianGilder LehrmanLibrary of Congress, and the Internet History Sourcebook to name a few.  We use primary source documents, artifacts, and art.  They study the opinions of historians based on scholarly works and also high quality documentaries from established sources like PBS and Ken Burns.  I even use video overviews like Crash Course and Hip Hughes History.

This makes some educators and even some education trainers uncomfortable.  They want to know what content my district purchases.  They want to know where the content model comes from so they can duplicate it and bring it to other classrooms.  They want to know who taught me this method.  The answers to those questions are not easy or quick.  I learned from a lot of people. I found these sources through my own research, tips from my colleagues, and the awesome shares from educators I follow on social media like Twitter and Google+.

How do you come up with your essential questions?

It's been a process for me to develop the skills and mindset to write essential questions that will make the history really matter to my students.  I don't always "nail it" either.  One of the best resources for writing great essential questions as the basis for lessons is Grant Wiggins.  For example, this is a great article about the important elements of a high quality essential questions that will promote meaningful learning.  I can tell when I've really captured my students' attention.  Here's a student blog post in which Kara, a sophomore, went above and beyond the required 19th century Women's Movement historical content and added statistics and commentary on the state of gender in today's American society.  For me, the most important requirement for a good essential question is that it gets to the core of the way human beings treat one another. 

How do you manage reading and grading 120 blog posts (that's how many students I have) per week? The grading must be overwhelming!

Yes, I do read all of my students' posts.  Every word.  It is some of the best and most rewarding reading I do.  I encourage them to be honest about whether the learning experience was meaningful and if they have ideas for improving it in the future.  Their posts have been affirming when we really come together and learn, and have been reflective when I know their ideas for improvement will make me a better teacher.

My grading scale is rather simple:
  • A = Historians and experts in the field would be impressed.
  • B = Teacher is impressed.
  • C = Your parents (who love you unconditionally) would be satisfied.
  • D & F = Generally not given.  I don't accept posts that will not earn at least a C.  We (student, teacher, parents) work together to make that happen.
That's it. No fancy rubric.  I do, however, provide guidelines for student blog posts that are always available on our class website.  You'll notice that the guidelines are more about blog etiquette and good writing than about specific formatting.  I want to give students freedom to write about history in a way that makes sense to them.  By the time we hit February, most students exceed these requirements on a regular basis.

As for feedback, I conference with each student 1-on-1 at least once within the first quarter of the school year.  They get real personalized feedback on trends in their writing early on, and I get to know what really matters to them in their lives outside of history class.  Beyond that, some students check in here and there for feedback on their writing.  Others are satisfied with the general feedback I give to all classes on a regular basis.  Sometimes they need a reminder to embed the media they created or to add captions to the media connecting it to the main idea.  Other times they need a review of proper citations and adding hyperlinks to their posts.  When all is said and done, I'm checking in with my students often about their writing without filling in complicated rubrics or commenting publicly with critical feedback on their blogs.  The system works for us.

In the end...

This might not work for every teacher or every group of students.  But I have taught heterogeneous groupings, honors level, and college prep level and most students have felt more invested in the content with this formula.  I do think it is possible to teach this way across all subject areas and I truly believe the shift to this way of thinking about and interacting with our students is possible.  Confidently, I can state that teaching this way has been the most rewarding change I've made in my professional life.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Guest Post: Snapchat: Beyond the Duckface

By Leia Richardson

It’s thirty seconds before the bell rings for class.  Students are bouncing into my classroom.  Instead of getting out material for class, I watch them take one more picture of themselves making a goofy face, a tongue-sticking-out face, or the ubiquitous duck face, and then send it off to a friend in another class.  Sound familiar?  If you teach high school it is.  And I’m sure you can guess that in this scenario students are sending funny pictures of themselves through the app Snapchat. But what if Snapchat was the material for class?  This was the question I explored during a Twelfth Night and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn activity, and it was inspired by one of my students who suggested using the app in the first place.

While reading William Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night, students usually gripe that the play isn’t funny. My goal for the students was to experience the comedy in Act II, scene iii, a hilarious over-the-top party scene. Knowing regular questions on a piece of paper would not get the job done, I turned to Snapchat.  As a result, we reviewed the scene and had some good laughs.


  1. Create two creative frozen stage pictures where you and your group “act out” what is happening in your assigned lines.  You should really be looking to display the low comedy in this scene.  The bigger and more over-exaggerated the better!  Think about who is standing, sitting, doubled-over, on the ground, slumped, singing, dancing, yelling, etc.  Think about the emotions the characters in your scene are experiencing.
  2. Get into your stage pictures and then literally TAKE a picture with your phone in Snapchat.
  3. Decorate your stage pictures in Snapchat by clicking the pencil icon on the top right to draw, the T icon on the top right to type, or the emoji icon on the bottom to add pictures.  Include details that you imagine would be in the scene: setting, props, etc.  BE CREATIVE and accurate!  
  4. Save your stage pictures to your camera reel by pressing the save icon on the bottom left.
  5. Open your camera reel, click on your stage pictures, and then tap the share button to email me your stage pictures.
  6. Find a quote to represent each stage picture and be able to explain the quote and how it relates to the stage picture.
  7. Present on the Smartboard and be prepared to defend your choices.

Twelfth Night Examples:  
In Kayla, Ryley, Will and Nat’s stage picture, you can actually feel the energy and fun of this raucous party scene where Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, The Fool, and Maria disturb the straight-laced Malvolio.

"Welcome, ass! Now let's have a catch" (2.3.18)

In this scene, Simran, Iza, Rachel, and Gabrianna got even more creative with Snapchat by drawing in props that they imagine would be in the scene when Malvolio rebukes the revelers.

"My masters, are you mad? there no respect 
of place, persons, nor time in you" (2.3.89-93)

What I loved about this activity was that students were up and moving and interacting with the text in a physical way.  When I did the same activity with my sophomores to review The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, some students were exploring different locations in the school to find the perfect setting for their photo op.  I also loved that they were having fun. Shakespeare (and Twain!) can be dense and challenging for students, but that doesn’t mean that class has to be tedious and mundane in order to check for understanding.  In order to improve this activity, I will likely give a time limit next time because some groups were done quickly while other groups stretched out the activity to the end of class.  Though Snapchat can sometimes have a reputation of allowing our teens to disseminate irrelevant, silly, or even provocative pictures, I wanted to show my students the positive uses for this app, and how it can ultimately aid in their learning.  Overall, Snapchat provided me with a good visual to peer inside the heads of readers, check for understanding, and springboard our discussion.

About the author:
Leia Richardson is an English teacher at Reading Memorial High School who also teaches an extra-curricular playwriting class and is the advisor to The Doctor Who Club.  She is passionate about emphasizing “the arts” in The English Language Arts curriculum.  In addition to reading and writing, students are encouraged to act, sing, dance, draw, and even do yoga in her classes.