Playlists: competency-based learning

I’ve tried 3 units (2 with 6th and 1 with 8th) based around the idea of competency-based learning. It’s going well! I’m going to be starting another one with the 8th graders after state testing.

It works like this: I first break down the standards in each unit. Then, I break down those standards into specific skills and see if any of those skills can be grouped together. Each group (or skill that can’t be grouped) becomes a playlist.

For each playlist, I then develop learning activities for background knowledge, formative assessments/activities, a competency-based summative assessment, and extension activities. Then I push the playlist out to students.

For example, when we were learning about nonfiction this last week in 6th grade, one group of skills was about argument structure and evidence in autobiographies/biographies/memoirs. The playlist was centered around a few videos (I had to make one), them picking one formative assessment to do, a 10-question self-grading google form quiz, and a couple of games that helped them learn more about argument. You can check out the playlist here.

The key to these playlists is two-fold: choice and mastery. The more choice the better. For mastery, if they don’t get it the first time on the quiz, they go back, do another activity, and take the quiz again.

This playlist isn’t one of the best ones I’ve made. I spent way more time making playlists for my unit I did this with for 8th graders. For those playlists they had so much choice! Check one out here. Choice on how to learn the background knowledge, choice on what formative activities to do (individual, partner, whole class), and more choice on extension activities. This takes a lot of preparation time, however. When making that unit, I think I counted that I created around 50 activities and 10 quizzes.

Here are the positives that I’ve found:

  • Students get to choose what to do
  • Students can pick how they want to learn
  • Students, if they don’t get mastery the first time, have an opportunity to go back, learn what they didn’t at first, and then prove mastery.
  • I can work one-on-one or in small groups with students much more often and in a more targeted manner to teach very specific standards/skills

Here are the negatives that I’ve found:

  • It takes a TON of time and creativity from the teacher side to create a good playlist with lots of choice
  • There are still the same “predictable” disengaged students, although I’ve found that there are fewer with playlists than with traditional teaching
  • It is quite a bit of paperwork/keeping track of scores

Create your own dystopia! Creativity, choice, and voice!

We are wrapping up a dystopian literature unit. During the unit, we have studied civil disobedience, dystopian characteristics in several short stories, and have written an essay evaluating the satire inherent in a piece of dystopian literature as well as the civil disobedience in that literature as well. This next week we are finishing up the unit. In addition to a test and a BreakoutEDU, I thought it would be fun to have students create their own dystopias.

View the assignment at this link.

In this assignment, the main goal is for students to have an outlet for their own voices through creativity and choice. Students get to pick an issue in their own lives or their community (or the world), and then exaggerate that issue in the form of a dystopian satire. Students get to choose the issue, and then they also get to choose how to create their dystopia. I am having all students write a quick summary of their dystopian world; however, all students get to choice how to creatively bring these worlds to life. Some of the websites I’ve suggested are Canva, Storyboard That, and Adobe Spark.

I have several digital choices that I’ve come up with including simply writing it out as an actual story, to creating an infographic or a comic or even a propaganda video. I’ve even left it open for students to propose their own ideas for creation if they want. I’m excited for all the creativity!

Students can work in small groups, pairs, or alone as another layer of choice. In order to give some audience to their creations, I’m setting this assignment up as a contest as well. As we do with most projects, students will post their work to Google Classroom and will view each other’s work. In addition, I will have students vote on the dystopia creation that they feel best embodies a dystopia, is the best example of satire, and is the most creative.

Judging books by their covers: using imagination to teach elements of fiction

“Never judge a book by its cover” is a cliche of which most our students are aware. This lesson takes that cliche, and turns it on its head to help students use their imaginations, creativity, and collaboration to better practice the understanding and application of story elements.

In the lesson, small groups get a book and are asked to imagine a plot and theme of the book based only on the title and what they can see on the front cover. Groups imagine these elements, draw a plot diagram, and then present their stories with the rest of the class. At the end, groups then get to read the inside/back cover and students are always excited about how their plots are similar or different from the actual book.

This lesson is meant to cover the CCSS standard for 8th grade ELA-LITERACY.RL.8.2, which reads: “Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text” (English Language Arts Standards » Reading: Literature » Grade 8). Depending on what elements your focus on, you could use this lesson with many grade levels based on this specific standard.

This lesson is ideal for students as a review/extension activity. Personally, I implemented this lesson after noticing through assessment that my students were still struggling with plotting out the conflict of stories that they had read. I wanted a lesson that included creativity instead of simply reading another story and drawing another plot diagram. My goals for this lesson also included having students work together collaboratively and to get them excited to share their ideas with each other. These skills (creativity, collaboration, and communication) are three of the four 21st century skills that are students desperately need.

These elements can be changed however it best suits your students’ learning needs. The elements that I focused on in this lesson are: protagonist/antagonist, dynamic/static characterization, conflict, narrator, theme, and a plot diagram (setting, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution). As stated, you can change these around as suits your students’ needs, focusing on those terms that they need the most reinforcement in.

The lesson hook is to tell students that today they are going to judge books by their covers. I prepared for the lesson by grabbing enough books from my classroom libraries to have the class split up into groups of 2 or 3. I made sure the covers of these books were engaging and interesting looking and only had a title and author on them. That way students would have enough material to spark their imaginations, but not any plot points that would stifle those same imaginative juices.

I let each group pick a book, making sure to emphasize that they must judge the book solely on its cover. Then I emphasize to the students that they are to use their imaginations and collaborate together to complete the imaginative task laid before them.

I project a list of questions that students are to answer. Students typed up their answers on a document and used an online drawing tool OR my white board to create their plot diagram. (You could get this to students however you see fit based on technology available in your class.) I made sure to emphasize (going along with the standard) that their theme, characters, setting, and plot all needed to be connected to that main idea summary that they began with.

Imagine a story creativity questions

  1. Write a 1-3 sentence summary of what happens in the book.
  2. What is the conflict? (and what type is it)
  3. Who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist?
  4. What is the setting? (time, place, AND social context)
  5. Draw a plot diagram for the story
    1. Remember that CLIMAX is where the conflict undergoes some change
  6. Is the protagonist dynamic or static and how?
  7. Is the antagonist dynamic or static and how?
  8. What type of narrator is it? (1st, 3rd limited, 3rd omn.)
  9. Write a theme statement for the book

I then had students present to the class, while making sure that everyone could see the cover of their book. Finally, after presenting, each group read the back cover/inside cover.

Overall, this was a fun and engaging activity. Students were hooked from the beginning and my formative data showed me that students engaged in the elements of fiction at a higher rate than previously in the class. It worked well to engage students in three of the 4 C’s and was highly aligned to a CCSS standard.

I encourage you to try this lesson out with your students, at any grade level.


DocentEDU-better than Curriculet

So, maybe you’ve heard, but the company Curriculet went out of business. You can read about Curriculet going out of business and why on Edsurge.

Anyway, although it pains me to see a company go out of business (that was someone’s dream!) I am not sad since I have DocentEDU. DocentEDU really outshines Curriculet in every single way for reading and literacy instruction and general lesson creation.

The problems (as I see it) with Curriculet were:

  • It was a closed system. You could only use the books that they already had (that you then had to buy expensive class sets for). Or, you had to import in texts from other websites which made it seem very closed. In addition, you were only able to use the questions that Curriculet provided on these texts. Students are different, classes are different, and they deserve different questions, authenticity, and books and texts that interest them and are as current as possible!
  • It was expensive. You had to purchase class sets of books. I don’t know about you, but in addition to paying for the actual service, having to pay for class sets of books seems pretty out of reach for my budget.
  • It was based on static questions. The main way that Curriculet had students interact with a text was simply through questions. Questions are great and they are the backbone of any class, but questions are very static. No student I know gets excited about reading yet another text with questions sprinkled in. Borrring….and pretty much the exact opposite of how we can get students engaged in and excited about school.
  • It was hard to differentiate. Since all you could embed in texts were pretty much questions, you couldn’t really differentiate for any different styles of learning or gaps or advantages in background knowledge. Any teacher worth their salt knows that Student A and Student B are going to know different amounts about whatever subject they are studying. Adding a great YouTube video or presentation or vocabulary set in the lesson is what can make a huge difference for these students. Curriculet didn’t allow for this.
  • It was focused only on reading and mostly English/language arts classes. I love reading-focused programs obviously as a language arts teacher. However, I don’t like that Curriculet only seemed to focus on these types of classrooms. It was very inflexible and hard to use in any other sort of curriculum area. Creating a blended science lab was impossible with this program.
  • It had no collaboration/interaction between students. Students sat, read, and answered questions. Unless prompted by a teacher in the classroom, students were simply by themselves. How boring and how horrible.
  • It was very teacher-centered. Teachers chose the content, teachers assigned content. Students were only the people who absorbed the content.

All of these problems led to Curriculet’s downfall. And, what I’d like to shout from the rooftops is that DocentEDU solves all of these problems!

  • DocentEDU is an open system. You can go to any website and use on any published Google doc. That means you can create a lesson literally out of any text or image you have on the web. You can take an article you find 5 minutes before or hear from a student’s own interest and have them go to that actual article as a lesson.
  • DocentEDU is a dang cheap system. Since you can use DocentEDU on any online text (you can even scan in paper texts you have and make them compatible with just a few simple steps), it’s not forcing you to buy books. Also, a subscription is very cheap, coming out at just $40 a year for unlimited students for one teacher. If I have 140 students, that’s 28 cents a student. 
  • DocentEDU is dynamic and flexible. It’s not just questions. It’s highlights, comments, open-ended questions, multiple choice questions, live student discussions (yes, live!), and literally anything with an embed code including movies, Google Maps that are explorable, vocabulary, science interactives, zooming presentations, live drawings, real calculators, and anything you can find an embed code for. The possibilities are endless for how interactive and dynamic you can make a text with DocentEDU. What’s even more amazing is that the teacher can add these things to a lesson live as students work on the lesson! If you find that your students are struggling at a certain spot, add in some insight and your students will see it immediately.
  • DocentEDU makes differentiation simple. You have students who need fluency modeling while they read (audio)? Embed an audio book or even your own voice reading! Have students who don’t know the basic background knowledge needed for the lesson? Embed a YouTube video or a presentation! Have students who don’t know the vocabulary? Embed an interactive vocabulary tutorial! It’s super amazing. As with the point above, you can change the lesson live as students are doing it, so differentiation is easy in an just-as-needed manner.
  • DocentEDU makes lessons awesome in any curriculum area. It works on any webpage. You can have it be text based, or not. Make an science lab or a novel study or read the Declaration of Independence or a math lesson. It is such a simple tool that it can be used in any classroom. Check out the example lessons for all curriculum areas here.
  • DocentEDU has live discussions for students to interact while reading. You can embed a live discussion for students to talk to each other and reflect on what they are doing anywhere in your lesson. As I mentioned earlier, since the lessons live update, you could embed a discussion at any time before or during students completing the lesson. Unlike other discussion boards, these discussions live update as well.
  • DocentEDU lessons can be focused on students. Students can create docents (lessons) themselves. Just ask a student to find a text that they want to read, and have them use the DocentEDU toolbar to create a lesson for other students! Or, assign them a text that they’re interested in, and they can mark up the text with their own insight, including their own embeds and even emojis!

In summary, although it is sad that Curriculet is dead, I highly urge all teachers who were using the program to head on over to DocentEDU. It’s better in every single way!

Students and interactive reading

I really believe (as I’m sure you do as well) that the more students read, the more successful they will be. However, one of the things I always struggle with is how to get tangible evidence of my students actually interacting and thinking about text while they are reading it, not just afterwards. We all know we can put a book or an article or a poem in front of a kid, and it can look like they are reading. Heck, maybe we even made sure it was at their reading level and in their area of interest. However, I’m sure you’ve been there when after they’ve read you ask them a question about the text and you get a deer in headlights look back.

In order to comprehend text, students must be thinking and analyzing the text during reading. There are many different active reading strategies-you should find one that’s right for you and your students. However, once you find one, how can you effectively integrate it with technology? My solution for that is DocentEDU.

DocentEDU allows teachers to include open-answer questions, multiple-choice questions, highlights, comments, their own text, videos, interactive vocabulary, and an ever-expanding list of awesome interactive tools into almost anything online. This includes articles from newspapers, short stories you might find, any website with primary source information, and even published Google Docs for those oldie but goodie PDFs you have lying around.  Then, DocentEDU allows students to then read that text you’ve assigned and follow your active reading instructions. Students can annotate the text (once again, pretty much anything on the internet) by leaving highlights, comments on the highlights, emoji responses, longer texts of their own, and even embed their own interactive content which they make/find. What’s even more amazing is that the teacher can see what the students have annotated LIVE as the students do it.

DocentEDU is also very flexible, so you can adapt its usage to any type of curricular area or pedagogical reading concept that you may already know and use!

This is such a great tool that really allows my students to dive deep into whatever they are reading. I recommend you try it today. Below are a couple of videos that show the ins and outs of this web tool.

Using “Hamilton” to teach poetry elements

So, I found an amazing article from the Wall Street Journal that uses an algorithm to visually show the rhyme patterns in “Hamilton” as well as other famous rap and R and B music. It is seriously amazing. It teaches rhyme, perfect rhyme, imperfect rhyme, internal rhyme, assonance, and consonance with more. It is so amazingly cool just for the visual aspect as well as the source material it uses.

So, I used DocentEDU to turn it into a lesson to teach the basics of poetry to students in a super engaging way.

Make a copy of the lesson from this link here and tell me how it engages your students! I know I’ll be using this lesson as an intro to poetry elements to my students next year for sure!

Hamilton article