G Suite and Formative Assessment

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It’s almost report card time and most of us are focused on summative assessments. However, as with anything cyclical, we’ll be looking at formative assessments again before long! The good news is the G Suite for Education has a number of tools to help with formative assessment.

The simplest tool is Google Classroom. In Classroom you can ask your students quick questions and have a record of all their answers with very little effort. Depending on what you are wanting to know (do they know how to multiply fractions; can they give you an example of evolution at work?) you can choose short answer questions or multiple choice questions. If you ask the question at the end of class and then look at the answers before the next class, you will not only get an idea of who is understanding the information individually but you can also see if the class as a whole is fine as is or if they need more instruction.

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Google Forms gives you several ways to collect information from your students to help drive instruction. One of the easiest ways to do this is to create short, self-grading quizzes. The self-grading quiz serves two purposes. You get a spreadsheet with all of the results, so you can quickly see who understands the work. Your students get immediate feedback in the form of knowing which answers they got right and which wrong. Here is a short video to guide you through the process of creating a self-grading quiz.

Another way you can use Google Forms for quick, formative assessment is to create a short form that starts with a drop down menu with all of your student’s names in it. This will take a bit of work, but the form can be copied for later iterations. From there, you can create a “question” with the skill or outcome you are planning to assess (I did this with “Can say the date in French”). Your “answers” to this question are in the form of checkboxes containing your descriptors. I used:

  1. Great job!
  2. Wrong day
  3. Wrong date
  4. Wrong month
  5. Wrong year

What you will end up with is a spreadsheet with all of the information you need to decide who knows the information and who still needs further practice!

I am sure there are many other ways the G Suite for Education tools could be used for formative assessment. I hope these ones are helpful for you!

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Some Google Classroom Fun!

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I’m not sure about the rest of you, but with FSAs finally finished and report cards looming on the horizon, I am in the mood for something fun that doesn’t tax my brain too much! So, this week we’re going to learn how to use Google Drawings (a very under utilized but awesome part of the GSuite tools) to create a custom banner for Google Classroom!

Google now has lots of choices for making your classroom look different from other teachers (more important in high school, where students might need to keep track of 8 different classrooms) but when Google Classroom started off, there was very little choice. You couldn’t even use your own image! However, despite the choice we now have,  sometimes it’s fun to have something that’s entirely unique and just yours!

To start with, find Google Drawing by going into your Google Drive, clicking New and scrolling down to More. Then mouse over to Google Drawings and open it up! Banners need to be a certain size in order to work well. To set the size, you need to go File > Page Setup. From there, open the drop-down menu and choose Custom. Set it to Pixels and put your numbers to 1500 and 400. That will give you a banner shape!

For the next bit, I figure it’s easier to show rather than explain so here’s a little video I created, showing you how to create a basic banner! Once you’ve mastered the basics, see how creative you can be!

Grammarly and Wall-E: A Cautionary Tale

 

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Photo cred: Arthur Caranta

My students and I were recently getting ready for the FSAs – standardized literacy and numeracy tests given to all Grade 4 and 7 students in British Columbia. We were discussing what they were allowed to do to help themselves and one student asked, “Can I use Grammarly?” This was followed by a short discussion during which I found out that many of my students had installed the free Grammarly Chrome extension. My answer, of course, was no, because that’s what the FSA rules would say. But as the kids started working on the tests, I started thinking. Would my answer to Grammarly always be no? Would there ever be a time where my answer would be yes?

For those who don’t know, Grammarly has several iterations, but the one my students have been using is a free Google Chrome extension that, when applied to a piece of writing or an email or a tweet or post, will check your spelling and grammar and help you fix them. Sounds great, right? I mean, who hasn’t accidentally sent an email with an error or tweeted something without spell-checking first? Grammarly will make sure that doesn’t happen. Awesome sauce!! (Disclaimer: Grammarly for Chrome is NOT part of the G Suite of educational tools and is not recommended by our district. My students installed it on personal accounts without checking with me.)

Almost. Here’s where Wall-E enters our cautionary tale. Wall-E is an animated science fiction story created by Pixar. In Wall-E’s world, humans live in spaceships, where they have become hugely obese due to a reliance on automation. Machines do everything for the humans and as a result, humans have grown lazy and indulgent. Have a look:

So, here’s my concern. If I let Grammarly do all the “heavy lifting” for my students, will they end up like the humans in Wall-E? Incapable of editing their own work and understanding their grammar errors? What happens when we go old-school with pencil and paper? Shouldn’t they know how to write a proper sentence on their own? Know how to check subject and verb agreement? Will they learn that using Grammarly? Or will they take the easy way out and let Grammarly do the work for them? I mean, come on….we are talking 12 year-olds here!

Now, I don’t see myself as a Grammarly Grinch. There are several members of my extended family who have learning challenges and I am sure they would benefit from Grammarly. And yes, there are students currently in my classroom with learning challenges who might benefit from a tool like Grammarly. For those students, we have Read & Write for Google Chrome. With its newest addition of the Check It tool, Read & Write does most of what Grammarly does and it has still other tools that help students with different learning challenges.

So, to answer my question from the top, I’m going to take my lesson from Wall-E. My answer to Grammarly will always be “no”. We’ll dig in and learn some grammar this year. And for those students who need some extra support, we’ll use Read & Write. And we’ll all exercise our learning muscles, to make sure they stay strong.

A Button, Some Math and a New Robot!

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

One of the things about writing a weekly blog is that you have to write something. Every week! It’s usually my Monday night ritual. Even on Monday nights when I accidentally fall asleep on the couch and wake up with a crick in my neck and ten minutes until “bedtime”! Yikes! Luckily for me, my weekend included the annual CUEBC (Computer Using Educators of BC) Conference, so I have things to write about! So, without further ado, I bring you “A Button, Some Math and a New Robot”!

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First, the button. I’ve written here before about Read & Write for Google Chrome, an awesome extension our district has enabled for staff and students. This weekend at the conference I learned about a new function on the Read & Write toolbar! It’s called “Check It” and it’s a tool designed to check for spelling errors, grammar errors and homophone errors. The Check It button is located on the far left of the toolbar and it looks like a check mark inside a circle. You can use it after you’ve done your writing or while you are writing. Here’s a short video from the people at TextHelp, explaining the tool.

Pretty cool, right? On to Math and back to the people at TextHelp! Turns out Read & Write is not the only tool they make! They make quite a few other tools but the one that impressed me this weekend is their Math tool, EquatIO (rhymes with ratio). We have not purchased this tool but guess what? It’s free for teachers!

EquatIO makes math digital by allowing users to write or speak math equations and convert them to digital text and numbers. Using EquatIO, you can add shapes, graphs and equations into Google Docs and Slides. Now, again, as a non-Math teacher I am not sure exactly what all the functions of EquatIO do, but the secondary Math and Science teachers in the session with me were positively giddy about this tool!

 

The third thing that really stood out for me this weekend was a little robot called K8. One of the first things I loved about K8 is that it’s Canadian! Designed by InkSmith, K8 starts off as a kit, so before you can use it as a robot, you actually have to build it. Cool!

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Once built, K8 is powered by the Micro:bit and the Microsoft MakeCode site allows students to build code for K8 using either block based code or Javascript. K8 includes an ultrasonic sensor and two independently controlled motors. Not sure what you’d do with a K8 robot? The team at InkSmith has thought of that and they have a number of “get started” lessons to help you and your kids get going. I’m pretty sure once the kids figure out how to use K8, they’ll be developing their own lessons and challenges!

That’s all I’ve got for tonight! Time to brush my teeth, put my jammies on, set the alarm and climb under the covers! See you next week!

Technopeasant or Technoinquirer?

I was recently discussing Micro:bits with a colleague, Jeff Muthanna, who was trying them out with his class for the first time. He is an incredible, passionate, caring educator with years of experience but when it comes to technology, he sees himself as a “technopeasant.” I disagree. After talking with him, I see him as a “technoinquirer” and I’ve asked him to write a guest blog. I hope you enjoy it!

guest blogger

Jeff Muthanna’s Blog

So I recently figured out something about technology that is a game changer.  I also had a breakthrough, no, I’m going to say it: a triumph with technology. Just to give you an idea of where I’m coming from, I’m pretty sure I have never written the words triumph and technology in the same sentence. Why? Because tech is a little scary. It’s always new, and just when I think I’ve got a handle on it, it evolves at such a head-spinningly fast rate, I feel I can never keep up.

As a teacher with 20 years under my belt, I have seen technology become increasingly more important in the classroom. As I work in a school that is a “digitally enhanced learning community“, I am expected to have some proficiency with tech – but I’ve also always pointed to the “enhanced” part of that title – we are not “all tech all the time”.  The learning is still at the forefront of what we do, the tech just enhances how we can learn. But I can’t say that being able to use tech doesn’t involve some learning in itself, and I have always believed that if you want a student to know something, you must teach it; hence, especially with new technology, a problem arises.

There is a definitive gap between knowing how to use a technology and knowing it well enough to lead a class in their learning about it.  Sometimes it feels like a divide that can’t be broached. We have all experienced a lesson falling apart when we have to pause repeatedly to figure a technology out. First, you feel your students’ attention waning, this increases and plateaus at disinterest, then you feel the sweat start to bead on your forehead as you divide your attention between trying to keep theirs and getting the tech to work… I get this same feeling when I think about teaching my students how to code or build a robot. I personally can’t do that ( I will add in the word “yet” here or my kids will call me on it), so how on earth could I ever teach it?

But here is the beauty of inquiry based learning:  we are inquiry based teachers. This means we do not have to completely know something to facilitate learning about it. Most recently, I had a successful experience with micro:bits in our classroom.  After an introduction from our digital literacy support teacher Cari Wilson, I borrowed a class set from the district. I can now say I am a firm believer in having a general understanding (even a novice “I-think-I-get-some-of-this” understanding) and just going for it.  I  mean, you can still drive a car without knowing how spark plugs or compressors or other underpinnings work, right?  

I don’t mean to sound cavalier by saying just go for it. In fact, this goes against every teacher-molecule in my body that shouts “plan it, have a back up plan, and maybe a plan C and D in case the first plans don’t work”. I guess my comfort zone in teaching is having enough of a grasp of what we are learning in class so I can guide students when they take a wrong turn.  But here is what I’ve learned: sometimes the best learning happens when you CAN’T help your kids. Sometimes the best learning happens when they have to persevere through problems, collaborate with their peers, and really strategize as they realize that failure is a part of the journey in learning. When I had to look at a frustrated eleven year old and admit, “I honestly don’t know how to do that”, the grit and determination I saw in them as a result was astounding.  They have never worked so closely with each other, or made such good use of resources provided, than when they realized that asking me was a lost cause. (Writing that sentence just made me laugh out loud, I hope they don’t use it as the headline for this blog.)

Because this task required determination, I witnessed a triumph: a sense of pride developed in my students for having figured something out, and then this beautiful willingness to help others emerged. (Okay, I admit it – after being asked a bevy of questions I sincerely could not answer, I started an “ask these kids” list on the board for those who needed help. I’m pretty sure I called it “Class Experts” and by default they were. The list started with the two names of my “whiz kids” (you have these kids in your class too, I know you do) but then the most amazing thing happened. Kids started signing their names up to the list. (On their own, without a prompt – you know that feeling when something goes right in the classroom without you even planning it and you feel like crying?) The more students accomplished, the more they were willing to help others towards their goals as well. That day, it became clear that the number of student helpers on my white board was directly proportional to the confidence and capability they felt by learning something themselves.

I believe this is true inquiry, and I believe this is what makes teaching technology completely manageable in our classrooms. While I still don’t feel I have any mastery with tech, I do have a renewed faith in the power of inquiry when it comes to figuring it out. Technology, in my case micro:bits, was the most engaging task I could think of for my students to show me their own power as learners. I believe in the power of my kids, as mistake makers and risk takers and learners. I think being brave and using new technology in our classrooms is the best modeling we can do for our students.  I think it was Nelson Mandela who said “Courage is not the absense of fear, but the triumph over it” ( although I bet he only had to type that on a typewriter; or write it with a pen…)

Ten Tips for Leveraging Digital Opportunities Within an Inquiry Based Learning Environment for “Just In-Time” Learning, from one Technopeasant to Another…

  1. Be brave.  If you can’t be brave for yourself, be brave for your students.
  2. Be explicit in pointing out perseverance when you see it around you.
  3. Treat mistakes as teachable moments.
  4. Know that you don’t have to be an expert. The power of google allows you to virtually invite experts into your classroom. Have a couple sites for your kids to access that explain the fundamentals of the tech you are using, or have searchable databases. (There you go, facilitating learning again. You’re amazing.)
  5. Know that, as a teacher, it’s okay not to know. Model this and live in the discomfort for a while, it will give you insight into how your students feel when they’re learning something new.
  6. Know that it’s also okay for your students not to know. (The secret here is that sometimes the fun comes from figuring it out!)
  7. Even if you feel inadequate or unqualified when it comes to technology, you up your cool factor just by trying it and by getting the kids to try it. Strange but true.
  8. Honesty is the best policy (as in “I’m learning alongside you guys, I’ll share what I know with you and then I’m hoping you can share what you learn with me.”)
  9. Inquiry, growth mindset, and technology are actually the perfect combination. Consider  this is an opportunity for you and your students to learn something new.
  10. It’s a pretty good feeling to know that you tried. It’s an even better feeling to know you  succeeded, not because you knew how to do it, but because you learned how to do it.  I have a feeling that if you have the courage to try micro:bits in your classroom – or something else that is new or unexplored, you will experience a very elusive feeling  – a sense of triumph with your technology.

 

3 Googley Ideas From ISTE 2018

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In late June, I had the pleasure of attending the annual ISTE conference, held this time in Chicago. It was quite the experience! Equal parts craziness, exhilaration and learning. I went to bed each night with my head swimming with all the things I’d seen and heard!

Over the next few months I hope to share some of what I learned with all of you. I thought I’d start with one of the most crazy sessions I went to, called Goog-smacked! It was hosted by some pretty high level ed bloggers, Vicki Davis, Eric Curts, Matt Miller and Kasey Bell. The idea was to showcase 60 Google related tools in 60 minutes. It was high energy and loads of fun and boy, did I learn a lot!

So, here are my three favourite things they showcased!

1.Using the Voice Note Feature in Read & Write To Give Feedback

Read & Write for Google Chrome has a tool on the toolbar called the Voice Note. You can use Voice Note to leave verbal feedback for students in Google Docs or Slides!

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To do this, you open the student’s doc and also open the Read & Write tool bar. Click on the Voice Note icon. This will open up a microphone box. You can click on the microphone and record up to a minute of feedback. When you are done, click the Stop button and then the Insert button. You can do this as many times as you want.

Students can listen to you feedback by clicking the Play button in the comments.

Just a reminder – this only works if you are using Google Chrome as your internet browser and you are logged onto both Chrome and Drive with your sd45 account.

2.Google’s Applied Digital Skills Curriculum

Google has some pretty neat digital skills instruction that students can work through. There are lessons in event planning, budgeting, resume writing, project research and even If, Then Stories. Google uses video and written instruction to walk upper intermediate and high school age students through a wide variety of applied digital skills using Google tools.

Teachers create a classroom and then have students join. Please note that this is NOT part of the G Suite for Education tools. Students should not use their real names and teachers and students should not put any personal information online, as always. Once the classroom is set up, students can work at their own pace.

3.Google Drawings

Google Drawings is an under-utilized part of the Google tools family, and you can do some pretty cool things with it! For instance, here is a custom Venn diagram I created last week for a story comparison. It took me about two minutes to create!

Harry Potter and Cinderella

As a teacher, you can use Google Drawings to create all sorts of cool templates, lab charts, digital badges and diagrams. Here is a link to a blog by Matt Miller that showcases some cool graphic organizers you can create in Drawings.

Your students can use Google Drawings to create labelled diagrams, mind maps, memes, comics and annotated images to name just a few!

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If you haven’t tried Read & Write for Chrome, the Applied Skills curriculum or Google Drawing, take a bit of time and try one of them out!

Awesome Digital Resources!

Did you know that if you teach in a public school in British Columbia, you and your students most likely have access to a wide range of online digital resources? Resources that are written at appropriate levels, are safe to use and can be accessed from both home and school. Intrigued? I thought so….

World Book Webinar

These resources are available through ERAC, a group that basically sources and evaluates resources for BC teachers and students. Much of ERAC’s work is evaluating print resources like novels and picture books – some of you might have even been evaluators at some point!

Another side to ERAC is the BC Digital Classroom, a collection of online resources designed to support learning and the new curriculum. The majority of BC school districts have purchased these resources, as have many independent schools. And I bet you didn’t even know about them!

When you and your students are at school, using the district wifi, you can get right into the resources without user names or logins. Most districts have links to the resources on a district webpage.

When you and your students are at home, you need user-names and passwords to access the resources. The best people to get these from are your Teacher-Librarians.

Okay…I hear you saying, “Enough already, tell us about the resources!” Onward!

The first set of resources are the World Book offerings. Yep…online encyclopedias! But, unlike Wikipedia, these ones are written with kids in mind. The first offering, World Book Early World of Learning, is meant for the littles (K to 2). It’s not really an encyclopedia – more of a safe place for kids to explore with stories, games, videos and articles of high interest. One of the best things about this site is that it “talks” to the kids, by reading all of the text out loud!

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The next three sites, World Book Kids, Student and Advanced, are geared to students from Grade 3 to 9. Kids has more of a Grade 3 to 5 feel, Student is more upper intermediate and Advanced is more high-school-ish. All three have lots of great information and features like read-aloud, research help and copyable citations for bibliographies.

World Book Science Power has some fantastic new curriculum aligned resources for both Grade 3 to 6 teachers and students, including some bare bones but still helpful complete Science units. World Book Timelines provides a number of pre-created timelines of interest (for instance, there is one on the Prime Ministers of Canada) but the best thing about this site is that kids can create their own timelines.

World Book Discover (English) and Decouverte (French) are good general offerings for Grade 3 to 9. There’s even a Spanish version for those who are teaching Spanish! And finally, World Book Dramatic Learning is full of great plays and reader’s theatres, searchable by age, number of characters and subject.

At the High School level, the three best offerings (in my opinion) are Gales’ Canada in Context, Science in Context and Global Issues in Context. All three highlight recent events but also allow students to research historical events or topics that interest them. Within a topic, resources can range from video to essays to newspaper and magazine articles. Students can create notes, have the text read to them and work on citations.

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One of the other sites included in the ERAC digital resources is My Blueprint, which some high school teachers are exploring as a high school version of Fresh Grade.

Although the above list is not exhaustive (there are lots of other digital resources from ERAC), those are my favourites. Enjoy!

Digital Natives…Say What?!

 

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I still remember the first time I heard the term “digital natives.” It was during one of my first Educational Technology Masters classes. The prof introduced the term and talked about how kids today, born into a digital world, are more tech savvy than their baby boomer and Gen X teachers. I know at the time I thought…really?! I guess it depends on how you define tech savvy-ness (not sure that’s a word but I’m going with it!)

Sure, your average teenager is better at selfies (I still feel too self-conscious), Snapchat, texting while walking (nope – still can’t do it!) and likely knows how to use an iPhone better. Most kids are fearless with technology in a way that most adults are not. They are willing to experiment and play. And play is maybe the key word here. Kids are great at playing with technology – Youtube videos, online games, Minecraft worlds. Kids can do all of that!

But what if your idea of tech savvy is using technology to work? In a school setting? Hmmm….not so sure that kids are ahead of the curve here. How many times have you asked your students to save a file, set up a document, create a chart or send a proper email, only to have them look at you as if you are speaking a foreign language? Do your students understand how to search safely? How to find jewels in a sea of internet junk? How to differentiate their writing for texts vs. essays?

Do they understand why it’s not a great idea to have their device remember all of their passwords? Do they know how to manage their digital footprint or even why that’s a thing? Do they understand that they need to apply critical thinking filters to what they read and see on the web?

So, while you might think that the students in your class were somehow magically born knowing more about tech than you were, my experience shows that’s just not true. Kids still need adults to help them learn how to use technology safely, meaningfully and purposefully, especially in an education setting.

Now, if you still want to learn how to take an awesome selfie or how to keep up your Snapchat streak or attempt to understand Fortnite’s appeal…ask a kid for help!

Fresh Grade Redux

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A recent blog post by our superintendent brought up the idea of recycling or revisiting previous work, with a goal of enhancing it or adding new perspectives or ideas. Since Sean Nosek, Associate Superintendent for our schools, will be sending out an email today letting staff know that Fresh Grade is ready to use for our elementary schools, I thought I would reuse/recycle/revisit my post on Fresh Grade from last year, with a bit more perspective and some added “bits”! (Also, I ate lunch at 4, didn’t get home until 7:30 and was on a conference call until 9:30 so I am not sure I have it in me to write an entirely fresh, new blog post tonight. Like my family, you’re all getting leftovers!)

A couple of quick tidbits….this year, elementary teachers in West Van have a choice of reporting platform. Teachers can choose to use MyEd BC, which had been re-jigged to the point where we can create a very “West Van” type of document, or they can choose to use Fresh Grade, continuing on with what was started last year with a pilot group of about 20 teachers. Teachers who choose to use Fresh Grade as their CSL platform do not have to use it as an e-portfolio if they choose not to, although I would argue that it is in its use as an e-portfolio that Fresh Grade truly shines!

On with the leftovers…er…information! I am really going to focus on using Fresh Grade as an e-portfolio here – information about using it as a CSL document (along with supporting training videos) will be out to teachers soon!

Free vs SD45 Account

Yes, you can get a free account but the district has an enterprise account and I advise you to use that one. Go to app.freshgrade.com and make sure you log in with your sd45 account. Note that in a shared teaching setting, the enrolling teacher is the one who “owns” the Fresh Grade account. However, they can easily invite their teaching partner into the classroom. Here’s how! When you use the district account, the students are already in your class and parent emails are already added in. All you need to do is check permissions and send invites to parents.  Also, district accounts are automatically archived and a student’s work will follow them from year to year.

Names, Names, Names….

You have likely noticed that the names in your Fresh Grade classroom might not exactly match the names of the kids you see in your room every day! That is because Fresh Grade pulls names and data from MyEd BC, where students are known by their legal names. Those might be quite different from the names you use in class! At this time, there is no way to change those names. I ended up taking pictures of my class and uploading them for each kid – it helps with identification!

Post Once, Twice?

Think about how often you are going to post to Fresh Grade, what you are going to post and who is going to post it. Make sure you set reasonable goals for this. I know a kindergarten teacher who made a goal to post a Math centres picture with an explanation to all her students’ accounts once a week, a Grade 3 teacher who taught her students to use the iPads to post a picture and reflection of something they were proud of each week and with my Grade 7 class the students posted pictures and reflections of their work and I posted video and assessments on a weekly basis.

How often you choose to post and who does the posting will be up to you. However, be thoughtful about it – the idea is to post exemplars and indications of learning and progress. In my experience of using Fresh Grade over the past few years, my students’ self-reflections have been very powerful indicators of their learning and self-awareness.

What To Post?

Images – Pictures do tell a thousand words! And they don’t need to be pictures of the students themselves. Post pictures of their work, centres or activities you do in class or even field trips. The one caution here would be students whose parents have said “no pictures” – be careful not to include those students in pictures that go out to everyone else.

Video – I often use video to capture my students doing presentations. There are two advantages to this – parents get a window in to the classroom and I can mark their presentations later rather than scrambling to mark them as I watch them. Just be aware that video clips can’t be too long and that uploading them at school can sometimes be slow.

Sound – One of the coolest uses of this I’ve seen was from a primary teacher who recorded her students reading once a term. At the end of the year, you could listen to all three recordings and really hear how much the student had improved!

Self-reflections – As I noted before, this can be very powerful. I do spend a bit of the time at the beginning of the year teaching my students what a good self-reflection looks like and before long they are writing self reflections that are in-depth and very interesting. Here is a year-end reflection from one of my Grade 7 students. I think it’s a very powerful reflection of her as a learner.

This term I have had many learning experiences that have helped me grow as a learner. For example, I have discovered that as a learner I like performing in front of people. This is very interesting because in the beginning of the year I was scared of presenting and always tried avoiding it. However now, I realized that presenting makes me happy because I get to see smiles or intrigued faces on other people. I learned that I enjoyed presenting when I performed my poem in front of the entire class.

Written work – students can add writing right into Fresh Grade. If the work you want to include is on paper, I suggest taking a picture of it. If you want to upload a digital file, it needs to be in PDF format at this point.

Help and Support

Finally, if you have questions about using Fresh Grade, they have loads of support! You can find support on the website here and there is often interesting information in the Fresh Grade blog here. You can also check out their Youtube channel. Here’s a video they made last year about the Fresh Grade experience in West Vancouver!

Read! All About It.

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Photo by Victoria Borodinova on Pexels.com

I like to think that, at this point in my career, I’m a pretty good teacher. I might even have days or moments where I’m really good!  But (there’s always a but), there’s room for improvement. This year one of the things I would like to focus on is reading. I want to read more often, I want my students to find things they enjoy reading, I want them to help them become better readers and I want to help them become more critical consumers of information. So, with that in mind, I thought I would share some great digital reading resources with you.

The first one is a site called CommonLit, which can be used with students from Grades 3 to 12. CommonLit has fiction and non-fiction reading passages, searchable by grade, genre, literary device and theme. They also have text sets (a variety of texts about a similar topic like “Ancient Egypt”) and Units. Units present a number of reading passages, assignments and questions around a theme. For instance, in Grade 5 and 6 there is a unit on “Outsiders”, with an essential question “What makes someone an outsider?”. Reading passages in this unit include a paired set from Harry Potter and Cinderella, as well as another paired set about what it’s like to feel outside because of your culture.

CommonLit is free for educators. You can set up an account and then have your students sign into your “classroom”. One caution: DO NOT use Sign in With Google – for yourself or for your students. This IS NOT part of the G Suite for Education environment. Another caution: when setting up student accounts, I do not use full names for my students. I use their first name and then as a last name I generally use the school mascot. As student email are optional, I do not use emails and I do create the students passwords, rather than using the very long ones CommonLit assigns.

With these cautions in mind, CommonLit is pretty awesome. Once you have found a reading passage you like, you can assign it to your whole class, or to a small group of students. Or you can just download it as a PDF! Reading passages have a toolbar very similar to that of Read & Write for Google. Students can have the text read out loud to them at a variety of speeds or in a variety of languages (including Chinese. Arabic, Korean and Japanese – no Farsi yet), they can look words up in a dictionary and they can highlight text.

Selections have reading comprehension questions, discussion questions and some even have a built in “guided reading” feature that stops students at certain points, asks them a question and only lets them continue if the question is answered correctly. Most texts also have Paired Texts, that match the first in either genre, theme or literary element. There is also a Parent Guide you could send home and Related Media, such as small related video or audio clips that enhance the learning experience.

From the teacher dashboard, you can track what your students have read, how they’ve done on the comprehension questions and a variety of other things. From the original Cinderella, written by Charles Perrault in 1697 to an essay about Rosie the Riveter and her impact on women’s rights, CommonLit has lots of great reading and learning opportunities. They even have learning opportunities for teachers, with weekly webinars on how best to use the site.

woman sitting on grey concrete pavement reading book
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Another, very similar site is Newsela. Newsela focuses strictly on non-fiction articles and it has both a free and a paid version, although you can do almost everything using the free version. Newsela has articles from Grade 2 to Grade 12 level. If you create a Grade 2 to 5 class, your students will only see articles that are deemed “Elementary” in nature.

The sign-up process with Newsela is similar to that of CommonLit. Again, I caution you not to use the Sign in With Google option and to stay away from using personally identifiable data such as full names. With that in mind, Newsela can allow you and your students to examine all kinds of up-to-the-minute topics from the news. Most articles have up to 4 different Lexile (reading) levels you can choose from, so that the article can be used with a variety of readers. The articles also have activities associated with them. Some of these activities are only available in the paid version, but others can be used in the free version, too. Like CommonLit, the teacher dashboard in Newsela allows you to create assignments and view student progress.

toddler reading book
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While younger students can use CommonLit and Newsela, the sites are really geared to intermediate and high school level students. Epic Books, on the other hand, is geared to younger students. Epic is free to educators and it includes over 25,000 fiction and non-fiction titles for students from 5 to 12. This site also includes audio books and a selection of videos. There is an iOS app but it also works on laptops.

Teachers have a teacher dashboard where they can assign books to students, create a library of books they like and create comprehension quizzes for their students. You can assign a book to your entire class or to a small group or just to a single student.

Setting up your class is easy. You add students in (again, no full names) and Epic creates a little “person” for each student. You can also assign a 4 digit password to each student, although you don’t need to. To log-in, students put in a class code and then choose their little person to begin. If you are teaching Grade 4 and older, please do not choose the “Import Google Classroom” option – again, Epic Books is not part of the G Suite for Education environment. You can also add parent emails in so parents can track their child’s progress. It should be noted that the education version of Epic can only be used at school – kids cannot log-in to their account at home. Parents can subscribe to Epic at home if they want.

So, between the awesome books in the library and the great reading opportunities available on sites like Newsela, CommonLit and Epic, I have no doubt that my students and I will be able to work on our reading skills this year! Hopefully you find something here that you can use, too! By the way, if you are looking for a way to track independent student reading, check out this post from last year!

Read on!