Category Archives: Student Response


I don’t know how Richard Byrne does it, but he has this ability to suggest technology tools on his blog that fit in perfectly with lessons I am planning for the week.  In this case, I had known about the tool, Loopy, but forgotten about it. Richard recently included it in this post, “Three Good Ways to Create Instructional Animations.”

My 3rd graders are learning about Systems Thinking, which is a pretty hard concept to get across to anyone, much less children who are 8 and 9 years old.  We just completed the book, Billibonk and the Thorn Patch, about an elephant who learns his actions can have far-reaching consequences.  The book portrays some simple feedback loops, so I showed the students the basic ecology loop on Loopy.  Then I let the students try to create their own to represent a portion of the story that we read.

A few caveats before you look at their examples:

  • Loopy was blocked in our district for students, so I needed to log in for them to use it.
  • The Billibonk projects are works in progress at the moment.  Time ran out before they finished, and the text and loops definitely need some revision.
  • I only have 3 students in that particular gifted and talented class, and this is not an activity I would recommend students in large classes do without a lot of scaffolding.
  • These probably won’t make a whole lot of sense to you if you haven’t read the Billibonk book mentioned above.
  • The site does give you an embed code to use on a website, but it unfortunately does not work on this blog.  Therefore, you will have to click on the links below to see the “Loopy” from each student.

The interesting part of this process was listening to my students explain what they were creating, and how eager they were to make complicated loops with many factors.  I felt like they understood systems thinking in a way I’ve never had students “get it” before.  One of my students was so excited about it that he said he was going to show it to his dad at home and create feedback loops to represent other things.  Since my goal is for them to apply this to real life situations, I was happy to hear that.

Billibonk Systems Thinking 1

Billibonk Systems Thinking 2

Billibonk Systems Thinking 3


Depth and Complexity Mats

Sandra Kaplan’s icons for Depth and Complexity are great ways to learn more about topics in every part of the curriculum.  I particularly like the students to use them to help them gather more information when they research.  My 2nd graders are still learning how to apply the icons, so I was happy to see these Depth and Complexity for Critical Thinking Mats on Teachers Pay Teachers.  After downloading these, I printed the colored mats and laminated them for use with my younger students.  They are currently studying the structures of animals.  Before I let them loose on researching their own animals, I wanted to show them the different ways we could look at the information.  I chose some videos about leaf-cutter ants to show the class, and divided the students into groups of 3 – giving each group a different mat with a question about the topic.  As they watched the videos, the students used dry-erase markers to fill in information that applied to their question.  At the end, we put all of their information together into one PDF to share their learning on Seesaw.  (By the way, there are more than 6, but I chose these specifically for this topic.)

This was the first time I had tried this, and I felt that it went really well as it helped the students to narrow their focus and take notes.  Next week, we will synthesize what they have learned about leaf-cutter ants using those notes.

I would recommend this activity for any class being introduced to Depth and Complexity, or to use any time you are showing a video or lecture to a whole class.  The students pay more attention when their video watching has a particular purpose, and it’s interesting to see the different ways that you can look at one topic.  Photo Nov 27, 10 10 19 AMPhoto Nov 27, 10 09 48 AMPhoto Nov 27, 10 11 15 AMPhoto Nov 27, 11 10 46 AM

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I should probably explain right at the beginning of this post that I am not going to be talking about crime scene investigation.  Or television shows.  Or the fact that I couldn’t stand C.S.I. Miami because David Caruso is a terrible actor.  Or the fact that watching too many episodes of C.S.I. resulted in me being less worried about being murdered in my home than about the idea of a team of people being so horrified by my lack of housekeeping skills that they wouldn’t be able to concentrate on solving my murder.

No, this is a different C.S.I.  This one is a Visible Thinking Routine from Harvard’s Project Zero.  I am a little upset with myself that it took me 27 years to discover these Visible Thinking Routines.  It’s good I don’t plan to retire any time soon…

In this case, C.S.I. stands for, “Color, Symbol, Image.”  Students can use this to reflect on something they’ve read, a video they’ve watched, or anything else they have learned.  From the student responses, teachers can really get a great idea of each student’s comprehension of the material.  It is also what I like to call a “self-differentiated” activity because students of many abilities can use this tool at their own level.

I decided to use C.S.I. with my 5th graders to find out how they felt about the novel we are reading, The Giver.  We haven’t gotten far in the book, so I plan to have them do this same activity after they have finished the story so we can compare/contrast their feelings about it.  Before giving them the green light to start, I showed them this example (thanks to Kristen Kullberg for sharing this and the Kinder example linked below on her blog) from another dystopian novel, The Hunger Games.  You can see a couple of their completed products below. (The sticky notes were added by other students when we did a gallery walk and they could put stickies on the “wow” ideas.)

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Here is a link to the template that we used.  If you teach younger grades, here is an example of a Kinder C.S.I. product. This template might be more useful for younger students (less wordy).

This was a good formative assessment.  The students seemed to enjoy it, and I was able to see that they had already developed some interesting insights about the fictional community in the book.  I’m looking forward to using some more of the Visible Thinking Routines from Project Zero!

Send Me a Rainbow

If you teach older students who have their own phones, this might be a fun idea for an impromptu writing prompt.  The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has decided to make more of its artwork available to the public by digitizing it and allowing us to text requests.  Only 5% of its entire collection can be viewed in the SFMOMA’s physical building, but thousands more pieces are accessible through this new feature.  You can text the number 57251, and type, “Send me” followed by a keyword or color.  There’s something suspenseful about the whole endeavor that makes it a bit addictive.

I tried it out by texting, “Send me kindness, ” and received the following, somewhat depressing, reply.

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Maybe kindness was too abstract?  So I tried, “Love.”

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Now remember, this is the Museum of Modern Art, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by the answer to my next request.

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Not really sure what the museum bot was trying to tell me there…

Anyway,  I soon discovered that trying to use this activity as a “pick-me-up” was a bit too unpredictable, especially after I received a sad portrait of the war in Iraq after I asked for “home.”  However, my daughter and I did have fun using emojis and asking for pictures of bread and dogs.  (It does work with emojis, by the way.)

Not to be outdone by artifical intelligence, I decided to end our texting communication by asking for something that couldn’t possibly be mis-interpreted in a bleak way by a computer. “Send me a rainbow,” I asked.

And it did.


Austin’s Butterfly

My friend, Donna Lasher (@bdlasher), shared this video with me on Twitter earlier this week.  I was blown away by watching how constructive feedback from his peers was used to improve a student’s work dramatically.  In this video, you will see the power of a good critique as well as an excellent argument for giving students more time and options to do multiple drafts until they achieve mastery.  This is what Growth Mindset is all about.  (For more videos about Growth Mindset, click here.)

Screen Shot from Austin's Butterfly
Screen Shot from Austin’s Butterfly

SXSWedu – Deeper Game-Based Learning

To see my other posts on SXSWedu 2016, please click on:

Game-based learning is something that is mentioned quite frequently in educational discussions and articles.  It is, understandably, a controversial topic – particularly when the games being used were not specifically designed for education (World of Warcraft and Minecraft, for example).

The panel at SXSWedu on Deeper Game-Based Learning consisted of two teachers, the director of the Educational Gaming Environments Group, and the author of The Game Believes in You.

Paul Darvasi, a teacher at a private school, uses a game called, “Gone Home” with his high school English class.  Darvasi is a huge proponent of game-based learning, but he does caution, “Be judicious.  Think carefully about how you integrate games into your curriculum.”  The teachers who bring games into the classroom with the intent of enriching the curriculum content and engaging students will be much more successful than those who introduce games solely for the source of entertainment.

Peggy Sheehy, who uses World of Warcraft to teach about the hero’s journey in The Hobbit,  told us that it is essential to be transparent to gain parental support.  Once parents are invited to the classroom to participate in the lesson, they recognize the value and become her biggest champions.

Both teachers believe that game-based learning has transformed their classrooms into places where students have lost their apathy and are truly participatory in their own learning.  They also agree that it allows students to receive regular feedback, and to constantly improve their learning based on that feedback.  As Sheehy explained about traditional classrooms, “When you get a 60% it means you failed, but it should mean, ‘Wow!  I mastered 60%; now let’s see how I can achieve the other 40!'”

If you want to incorporate game-based learning in your classroom, take baby-steps, according to these two teachers.  And, make sure you elicit parental support early.  Sheehy says, “Teachers are saying, ‘How do we begin?’ not ‘I don’t want to do it!'”  To which Darvasi replied that we shouldn’t “fear something we don’t do well.  We need to change the mindset.”

To see more of Sheehy’s work, you can go here.  You can also download her curriculum for free here.

If you are an elementary/middle school educator, you may want to take a good look at Zoombinis, which was developed for tablets by EDGE at TERC. TERC is a non-profit organization that includes game designers, educators, and researchers.  They are very interested in hearing from educators and developing meaningful curriculum for using games in the classroom.  I’ve had a great experience so far with using Zoombinis in the classroom, and hope to share more about specific ways to tie it in to your math curriculum in the next few months!

You may also be interested be interested in using Minecraft in an educational setting.  I recently published a post on this from a session I attended at TCEA that may have some helpful resources.

To re-iterate Darvasi’s advice, while game-based learning should be done with deliberate planning in your classroom, do not feel like you need to know everything about it before you use it.  As with many thing in education today, sometimes we are better teachers when we aren’t the experts 😉

The Game Believes in You by Greg Toppo
The Game Believes in You by Greg Toppo


I think that my brain naturally looks for trends.  Whether it’s on social media, in Flipboard magazine articles, or at education conferences, if I’ve heard about something more than a few times, my brain starts alerting me that I should try something new, already!

Newsela is one of those tools that kept turning up in educational discussions, and I finally decided to take the time to learn more about it.

One of the skills that needs some extra work at our school is summarizing non-fiction texts.  Finding relevant non-fiction at an appropriate reading level for students can be difficult.  This is where Newsela can be a huge help.

As a teacher, you can get a free account on Newsela, and set up an account with classes to which you can assign news articles for them to read.  If you are an elementary teacher, you can choose the option for the elementary version of Newsela which filters out articles that might contain “mature content.”

Once you have a class, you can have your students sign up for Newsela using your class code.  If your students have Google accounts, they can sign in using their Google credentials. (There is also a Chrome app for Newsela that you can add so students can access it more quickly.)

A teacher can find an article on Newsela, and then assign it to the class.  You can search for it by grade level and/or reading standard, or just type in a topic and see what you get.  Newsela also offers articles in Spanish.

After you select an article, you will see an option to assign it to a class at the top of the page.  When the students of that class sign in, they will find that article has been assigned, and be able to access it.

Newsela allows students to read the articles at comfortable lexile levels.  It also offers a writing activity for each article, as well as a quiz.

Another great feature of Newsela is its Text Sets.  These are collections of several articles that support many well-known pieces of literature.  For example, I found text sets for two books I read with my classes, Tuck Everlasting and The Giver.  You can also create your own text sets by using a button at the top of each article.

Newsela Text Sets

The free version of Newsela is limited, as you can’t track your students’ progress on the quizzes, whether they’ve viewed the articles, or annotations they’ve made.  Newsela Pro offers all of these options.  You can view the comparisons of the free and pro versions here. It does not list the price of the Pro version, as you must request a quote from them.  You can get a free trial for 30 days to try it out for yourself.

Newsela Pro