Sunday, September 20, 2015

Finding Nonfiction for Use in the Classroom

In the wake of the Common Core Standards, a slew of websites have sprung up to provide teachers with resources to teach nonfiction and make it engaging. In addition, many of these websites have also addressed the different reading levels present in an average classroom. Most of the websites choose and adapt high interest articles that appeared in other new outlets. These web tools have become in invaluable resource for the classroom teacher looking to make nonfiction more engaging and attempting to differentiate nonfiction based on a student’s reading level. When looking for engaging nonfiction to help students increase their reading abilities or to pair with the fiction we are reading, these are the five websites I use in my search.


This website is the most popular entry in this category. While not every feature is not free, much of the content is usable without having to pay. Students and teachers can create an account using their Google login credentials. This account gives access the large selection of news articles on Newsela. Students can read the articles and even take quizzes. The primary feature of Newsela is the ability to adjust the Lexile level of the article. This feature allows the teacher or student to differentiate articles for each student in the teacher’s class. Teachers can also pay a fee to have access to data about their students reading abilities and progress on standards.


This website also has high interest articles geared toward students. The articles tend to be short, but teachers and students can adjust the reading level of the article. One feature that makes this web tool unique are the links to articles on the same subject along with that articles reading level. These links allow the reader to go more in depth on the same topic. Each article is also followed by a “Yes/No" poll where students can vote and view the results. Finally, each article has a short response question that students can complete and would function as a great quick write.

The Smithsonian

The Smithsonian offers a suite of resources for kids from kindergarten to high school in English and Spanish. Collectively the resources are known as TTribune which refers to TTJunior for grades K-4, TweenTribune for grades 5-8, TeenTribune for grades 9-12, and TTEspanol for Spanish speaking students. Students can read high interest articles, adjust the reading level, and even answer a critical thinking question. Students can also comment on the article after their comment has been approved by the teacher.


This website also collects child-safe content from across the web. While the Lexile level of each individual article can not be adjusted, students are provided with a list of articles at their reading level. They can also practice vocabulary and receive reports about their weekly progress.


Curriculet is better known for being a platform for providing a tool to help teachers create quizzes, questions, and annotation tools for the texts they are reading in class. But they have partnered with USA Today and therefore provide a library of nonfiction articles that can be read through their platform. As of the writing of this blogpost, Curriculet offers a 45-day free trial and then charges money for access to the articles after the trial period.

I don’t use any one of these tools exclusively, although Newsela seems the best match of free and useful. So if you are looking for nonfiction to use in your classroom, or you only know about Newsela and are looking to check out other resources, any of the tools on this list should help. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Create a Character Confessional Using Storyboard That

This year I tried a lot of new things: using EngageNY modules, teaching Shakespeare to middle school students, and testing out the web tool Storyboard That. All three of these new experiments came together for me in a performance task for an end-of-the-year unit.

I wanted to expose my 8th grade students to Shakespeare before they reached high school. I decided that the play A Midsummer Night's Dream would be a good choice. It has an engaging plot, a lot of humor, and sets students up to successfully read Romeo and Juliet in 9th grade. Fortunately, EngageNY has a module that focuses on this play, so I didn't have to come up with daily lesson plans. As the unit came to a close, the students were supposed to complete one final performance task: a Character Confessional. Here is the explanation from the EngageNY unit overview:

In this third unit, and after studying the thematic concept of control throughout A Midsummer Night’s Dream, students will write a narrative that will act as a “confessional,” where a character from the play explains his or her attempts to control or manipulate someone else in the play. 

A sample narrative Character Confessional can be found here. Since it was one of our final assignments of the year, I decided that the students didn't need to complete another long form piece of writing. Instead, I swapped out the narrative with a comic. A colleague reminded me of how easy it is to create comics using the website StoryboardThat, so students used this tool to create their performance tasks. The original narrative assignment had three parts, so I had students create three sets of six-cell comics for this assignment. The students still had to write in the first person, but they could include various characters and sets from the play. Here is an example of a finished product.

What makes Storyboard That such an excellent tool is the large library they have of characters, scenes, and objects. Students really seemed to enjoy this performance task and it really demonstrated their understanding of a complex theme in this complex and comical play.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Tracking Student Projects Using Trello

When students are working on long or short term projects, it is important for the teacher and the students to be able to easily track group progress. Trello does this in a very visual and drag-and-drop fashion. Signing up for Trello is easy, especially if you use the Google sign-in option. 

The website uses the metaphor of a board where users create lists and cards. Each list can have multiple cards and users assigned to each card. Once the teacher creates a board and lists, students can easily be searched for and added to the board.

Trello board for my students' screencasting project.

Currently, my students are working on a video project with multiple steps. I have created a board for the project and a list for each step along the way. After adding my students to the board, they each create a card with explains where they are at on that step and who is in their group. When a group finishes a step in the project they simply drag their card to the next list, which is also the next step in the project. When I login to Trello I am able to see at a glance where each group is at and which groups may need my help to get to the next step.

Before using Trello I would walk around to each group and ask for a status update. This process could be time-consuming and frequently I would get stuck helping one group, only to discover another group needed my attention. Trello boards for each project let me see at a glance track student and group progress and intervene when and where necessary.

Here is a video explaining the basics about how to setup Trello from the Youtube channel InfoSharer.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Gallery "Walk" Using Google Slides and Padlet

I am currently trying one of Engage NY's ELA modules in my English class. In order to build background for the novel for the unit, the module has the students complete a Gallery Walk with primary sources. The sources range from poetry, to images, to quotes from historical figures.
I decided to digitize this process and brainstormed the best solution. I needed to recreate the sticky note aspect of a gallery walk, but also keep all of the student comments organized. I thought about putting the primary sources on a Google Doc and then having students add comments, but this would create too many comments in the margin since each student had to comment on each source.

I decided instead to put each primary source on a Google Slide and create a link to a Padlet wall for that slide. Students spent time reading and observing each slide for the gallery walk, and then clicking on the link to add to the padlet wall for the slide. Students were able to add their comments about the slide and interact with other student ideas. The Padlet wall functioned as the sticky notes for each artifact.

I staggered which slide each student started on in order to cut down on the number of students adding to a Padlet wall at the same time. Once each student had contributed a comment for each artifact  of the digital gallery walk, I put students in groups in order to summarize the comments for each slide.

Using Google Slides and Padlet for the gallery walk had a couple of advantages. First, the gallery walk now had a permanent digital home. Students could access the artifacts and comments at a later date. Padlet allows the creator of the wall to make it "View Only," therefore students can access the artifacts and comments at a later date. Second, this activity could be used in a flipped classroom model. Students could complete the Galley Walk at home and then the discussion of the artifacts could happen in class.

This process would never replace all Gallery Walks in class. But when you need one that students can complete in the cloud, this process seemed to work.