Tag Archives: Best practices

Using Subtext in English Class

By Bree Valvano

Image Credit: https://www.renaissance.com/products/subtext

As I continued to research and discover new ways to use technology, specifically the five new classroom iPads I have been given, I came across several articles that discussed an app called Subtext. This app allows you to download eBooks and create a collaborative reading area for students and teachers. The app allows users to define words, research concepts in a reading via the web, highlight lines, link to videos and other resources, mark notes, ask questions, and comment all in real time. If you know anything about me and my teaching philosophy, you know I had to learn more about this tool.

After downloading the app on my personal iPad and playing with it for a short time, I Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 7.58.26 PMquickly saw the potential this app has for promoting collaboration and close reading of a text. Subtext allows you to create a classroom environment where students can collaborate when discussing a text. The teacher can embed information and web links for students to use while they are reading a text. The teacher can also add questions for students to answer, and/or the teacher can see the comments the students are making and add his/her own comments and answer questions. The teacher can also create specific assignments for the class that are linked to Common Core Standards. Since the Common Core focuses on close reading and using textual evidence to support arguments, this tool has great potential to assist teachers as they help students practice these skills.

As with any app, there are a few things you need to know before you get started. Students and teachers need a Gmail account to log into the app. Since most people are using Gmail and it’s free to set up an account if they are not, this doesn’t seem like too big of a deal. Also, the app itself is free, but you may need to purchase the text documents, depending on what is available. There are some free books, but not all books are free. You also need to purchase licenses so students can access the tool. The cool thing about the licenses is the fact that they can be assigned to a student for the lesson and then reclaimed, after the lesson, so you can use them again in another class. I personally think the cost is totally worth it.

I recently tried the app with my English IIH classes. They worked in groups to complete a close reading activity on Poe’s poem The Raven. Before the activity, I added questions and imagescomments to help the students analyze the use of language and literary devices to convey theme. I explained the features in Subtext, and the students got to work. While students were asking questions, I was able to add my comments and they were able to answer each other’s questions. Students were also able to use the features to look up unfamiliar words and search the web to find helpful information. At the end of the lesson, I asked students what they thought of the tool and the response was unanimous. They thought the app was both fun and helpful. They enjoyed being able to construct meaning and collaborate when completing a close reading of the text. I will definitely be using this tool again.

Our Big Read (Chapter One)


This year, the teachers and administrators in our high school decided to participate in a big read. The Big Read was originally a program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts to promote literacy in a community. The idea behind a big read is for people from diverse backgrounds to come together and discuss a text. Our high school decided to try a modified version of this with teachers and administrators. So, today, over 150 people came together to begin reading our selected book and discuss teaching strategies. Our book this year is Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. Make It Stick is a book about how we learn and the many strategies that can be implemented to help people become more productive learners. In my opinion, it is essential reading for anyone in education interested in improving how they organize lessons for students and how they assess student understanding.

Over the course of the year on this blog, I’ll describe how we discussed the text as we read it and the ways it might influence how we teach. Today, our five departments in the high school spent two hours reading the first chapter and discussing its contents in small and large groups. The humanities department used the following questions based on chapter one to guide reading and discussion:

  • Why is learning misunderstood?
  • How do schools get learning wrong?
  • How do schools get learning right?
  • Why do the authors say, “learning is an acquired skill, and the most effective strategies are often counterintuitive”?
  • How does the myth of repetitive practice influence our teaching?
  • Do you agree with Einstein that “creativity is more important than knowledge”?
  • What is the power of active retrieval?
  • How can what you learned in chapter one influence your teaching this week?

Like the humanities department, the STEM department also focused their discussions on finding specific strategies from the reading that can be implemented in classrooms and sharing those strategies with their groups.

For many of us, our big takeaway from chapter one was understanding that learning can be difficult, and in many respects should be difficult–with students being allowed to learn from mistakes. Letting students grapple with difficult concepts prior to instruction can lead to lasting benefits in terms of how material is remembered. Not to spoil things for our big read community, but I’ve become fascinated with the research of the Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner who becomes a minor figure later in the book. In my opinion, his concept of “errorless learning“–the idea that errors are not necessary for learning to occur–has exerted a great influence in the field of education as many teachers (myself included) can sometime shy away from allowing students to make mistakes and then learn from them. After reading chapter one, many people I talked with felt that adjusting their instruction to bring more problem solving to their classrooms might benefit students as it will encourage them to take chances as they solve problems and learn from the mistakes they might make in the process. I have already received e-mails from teachers who are beginning to tweak their lessons to incorporate a more generative approach to instruction with lessons based on traditional problem- and project-based learning models or by using a SOLE lesson with their classes.

Make It Stick has had a profound impact on how I think about teaching and learning. I’m excited that our teachers and administrators will begin using the book throughout the year to serve as a framework for how we discuss instruction and assessment. I’ll update the blog with how we’re using it during the year and the types of questions it raises during discussions. I really think Make It Stick is one of the most important books about learning that has been written in some time.

Free Professional Development While You Drive


I had to write a post to share something I came across on Twitter–Brian Sztabnik’s podcasts called Talks with Teachers. Brian is an English teacher and blogger who is in the process of putting together an impressive list of podcasts on education, bringing “the stories and inspiration behind America’s great English educators” to our commute. So far, over twenty podcasts have been uploaded to the Talks with Teachers iTunes channel. This morning I had the pleasure of listening to Sarah Brown Wessling, the 2010 National Teacher of the Year, talk about building a culture of literacy in her classrooms. During her interview, Sarah emphasized the power of having students read their writing orally as a way to improve their writing. I’ve found this strategy to have a huge impact in my classes as well.

As you drive to and from work, listen to some of America’s great educators like Carol Jago, Larry Ferlazzo, and Troy Hicks, and add some of their insight to your bag of tricks. I’ve started to listen to these podcasts on my morning drive and find them inspirational. Indeed, the goal of Brian’s project is to “boost morale and help teachers find joy and purpose.” Brian has certainly accomplished his goal.

A full list of the Talks with Teachers podcasts

Some Quick Ways to Check for Everyone’s Understanding


In a recent article in ASCD’s Educational Leadership, Dylan Wiliam writes about  ways teachers can ask the right questions the right way. In the article, Wiliam recounts perhaps the most familiar way teachers formatively asses their students. A teacher asks a question to the class and picks a student who sits eagerly waving a hand in the air. The teacher and that student interact and the class moves on. This cycle is repeated in classrooms across the country. Wiliam calls this method “the standard classroom transaction model or I-R-E (for initiation-response-evaluation).” It’s not that this method is bad, it’s just that more effective models exist. For Wiliam, “just about every aspect of this scenario actually gets in the way of learning–and it doesn’t provide enough information on what most students in the class know and need to learn.” The goal in every class should be to assess all students every 20-30 minutes of instructional time. Some traditional ways to do this are by having students use dry-erase boards to write answers, thumbs up/thumbs down, entrance/exit slips, and short, timed writing assignments. While these methods are tried and true and will work great in your classrooms, I thought it might be a good opportunity to illustrate some new tools that might change the way you assess. In this post, I’ll link to some amazing tech-savvy ways that teachers can check for everyone’s understanding.

All-Student Responses (without paying for clickers!)

When people hear about all-student response systems, they immediately think of clickers. However, there’s a host of free services teachers can use that will get the job done just as Unknownwell–and maybe with a bit more style. I’ve written about tools like Socrative, PollEverywhere, EduCanan, and TodaysMeet in previous posts. These four sites are great for generating instant student feedback during a class in different ways. For example, Socrative works great with objective-type questions while EduCanan allows users to embed questions into videos. But, if you’re looking to add targeted questions to your daily classroom routine, perhaps the best all-student response system I’ve seen recently is Nearpod.

Nearpod lets teachers upload or create presentations and add questions within the presentation for students to answer. Students log on to Nearpod with a teacher-generated access code and the presentation becomes available on their device. Students can answer questions as they appear on their screens from multiple-choice questions to open-ended  responses. This data gets transmitted to the teacher in real time. Nearpod is quickly becoming perhaps the most-used online assessment tool in our high school. The teachers at our school who discovered this deserve a TON of credit. Nearpod amazes.

How To Assess Quickly

The reality is that not every class will work with a Nearpod presentation or TodaysMeet backchannel. If you’re short on time and computers, there are a few methods you can employ to “assess all.” Dylan Wiliam explains perhaps the simplest way for teachers to improve classroom questioning is to stop asking for volunteers. Wiliam calls this method “No Hands Up.” popsicle_stick_namesThe traditional way to call on students during no hands up is to use names on popsicle sticks. Ask the question, then pick a stick at random and that’s the student who has to answer the question. This forces all students to think of answers in anticipation of being called on. Sometimes I think we don’t give students enough time to think of answers when we’re teaching. I know I’m guilty of sometimes choosing the first hand that gets raised. By giving students time to wait after you have asked a question and then select a candidate, slower learners will have time to formulate an authentic answer. While popsicle sticks certainly work, are there any cool apps or websites out there we can use to pick students? You bet there are!

There are many student randomizers available online. iLeap’s Pick A Student is free and is a very basic app to use. There are other versions that, for a dollar or two, offer better screen480x480graphics and more fun. HAT by Cool Classroom Software ($.99) is one that allows teachers to select names out of a virtual hat using their device. Students aren’t repeated until everyone in the class has been called on. Another interesting possibility is a web-based service called Random Name Picker. This website features a giant spinning wheel where you can add all the names of students in your class. Click to give the wheel a spin; whoever is selected has to answer the question. I’ve thrown in some names from our department on the wheel. Maybe the first person selected has to write a post for Randolphhum?


During a lesson, think about trying to hear all your students’ voices. In his ASCD article, Wiliam writes about one teacher who described this assessment process as “making the students’ voices louder and making the teacher’s hearing better.” That sounds great to me. Regardless of whether you’re picking names out of a real hat or a virtual one, if you assess all students in your classes regularly, you’re bound to become a better listener.

Ways to Develop a Culture of Differentiation


Differentiated instruction is a concept whose nuances are too numerous for a full understanding from a single blog post. However, after writing a brief introduction to differentiated instruction earlier on our blog, I thought it might be worthwhile to highlight some strategies and wisdom discussed by the differentiation master, Carol Ann Tomlinson, at a recent workshop I attended called Differentiation and the Curriculum-Assessment-Instruction Connection.

Tomlinson during her workshop

For Tomlinson, good instruction starts with curriculum. Planning a focused curriculum means—at the very least—clarity about what students should:

  1. Know—facts, vocabulary, definitions
  2. Understand—principals/generalization, big ideas of the discipline
  3. Do—process, skills

The principals of KUD serve as the framework for Tomlinson’s curriculum and lesson theory. “To ensure understanding,” she exhorted, “work from clear KUDs!”

Another interesting component of Tomlinson’s theory is her plea that every lesson plan should be, at its heart, a motivational plan. “Young learners are motivated and engaged by a variety of conditions,” she explained. From Tomlinson’s 2003 book Fulfilling The Promise, she lists those conditions as:

  • novelty
  • cultural significance
  • personal relevance or passion
  • emotional connection
  • product focus
  • choice
  • the potential to make a contribution or link with something greater than self

For Tomlinson, the best lessons are ones that capture a student’s attention from the beginning by asking questions to which students will want to know the answers.

ImageDr. Tomlinson used this image as an allegory for her philosophy about curriculum and instruction. In classrooms, we need to say, “if you hit these targets you will be successful.” In the end, if we as teachers are unclear about learning goals, how can we expect students to master them? In the words of Rick Stiggins, the founder of the Assessment Training Institute, “Students can hit any target that they know about and that stands still for them.”

There are many ways to bring elements of differentiation into your classes. Remember, the primary goal of differentiation is that all students will learn as much as possible. Strategies for bringing differentiation into your classroom are:differentiation

  • Breaking students into different groups based on their understanding
  • Have students answer questions asked by other students–Can they arrive at understanding without you?
  • Use “experts of the day” to answer questions
  • Use brainstorming or think-tank groups prior to beginning work
  • Provide graphic organizers with prompts to guide gathering and synthesizing of information
  • Have students show you what they know
  • Create assessments that allow students to show they learned the content–the hallmark of a good test is that kids have the opportunity to show you all they know about at topic
  • Try really hard to find different ways for students to show you what they know
  • Use exit cards as a way for students to show understanding
  • Give students choice
  • Besides giving students essential questions think about the teacher’s essential question: Why should young learners care about this stuff?
  • Give students surveys to determine if your teaching is working

Regardless of your instructional approach, the lessons from an expert like Tomlinson have tremendous value. I was particularly struck by a slide she shared which outlined her philosophy. In short, it describes what effective teaching is.

Effective differentiation is part of effective teaching:

  • Creating an environment that invites learning
  • Knowing with clarity the learning destination
  • Checking regularly to see where students are in regard to the destination
  • Adapting instruction to ensure steady progress for each learner
  • Establishing routines that balance structure and flexibility to allow attention to varied learner needs

Looking for more on differentiation?

Carol Tomlinson’s website has many resources including a list of all her publications. The Teaching Channel has over 50 videos on the topic. And here’s a blog by the Education Technology Guy with a whole host of links to resources.


An Introduction to Differentiation

“Education is an art, but it is also a science.” Carol Ann Tomlinson

Dr. Tomlinson speaking at the Roxbury Education Seminar

On Friday, I attended a workshop by Carol Ann Tomlinson, one of the foremost authorities on differentiated instruction. Dr. Tomlinson has written many books on the topic and currently serves as a faculty member of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education. Her talk was an amazing experience so I thought I’d share some wisdom from one of education’s leading personalities.

What is differentiation? Differentiation is best explained as a way of thinking about teaching and learning and not a set of strategies. The hallmark of effective teaching with a differentiated mindset is thinking about teaching with the learning environment, curriculum, assessment, and instruction working together in harmony. “It means teachers proactively plan varied approaches to what students need to learn, how they will learn it, and/or how they will show what they have learned in order to increase the likelihood that each student will learn as much as he or she can, as efficiently as possible,” said Tomlinson. In other words, “differentiation is a sequence of common sense decisions made by teachers with a student-first orientation.”

Tomlinson shared a series of five steps teachers can use to bring differentiation into classrooms:

  1. Ensuring an environment that actively supports students in the work of learning (mindset, connections, community)
  2. Absolute clarity about a powerful learning destination (KUDs*, engagement, understanding)
  3. Persistently knowing where students are in relation to the destination all along the way (formative assessment for and as instruction)
  4. Adjusting teaching to make sure each student arrives at the destination and, when possible, moves beyond it (addressing readiness, interest, learning profile)
  5. Effective leadership and management of flexible classroom routines

“If this is all differentiation is, why isn’t everyone doing it?” wondered Tomlinson. Throughout the session, she returned to the theme of meeting the needs of all learners. To drive her point home, Tomlinson shared a Charlie Brown cartoon where Charlie and Lucy talk about their teacher–“My teacher thinks that teaching is just like bowling; you aim down the middle and try to hit as many as you can,” Charlie explained. Lucy replied, “She must not be a very good bowler.” It is obvious that Charlie’s teacher was only hoping to reach all students in the class and not taking a proactive approach to ensure that outcome actually happened.

Ensuring that the needs of all learners in a class are met is the fundamental point about differentiation. Taking a student-first approach to teaching is a way to get there. But, what does being student-first mean?  To help explain this principle, I think a slide I saw from a presentation by author Chris Lehman speaking at the University of Wisconsin can best illustrate this point:

From Chris Lehman’s talk at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

While Dr. Tomlinson did tend to focus on the classrooms of elementary and middle school teachers, I found many aspects of her talk applicable to our high school classrooms. As teachers we know that every class is different and every student is different. Thinking about differentiation and a student-centered approach can remind us to pause, reflect, and check that everyone in our classes understands the material.

In my next post I’ll outline some ways teachers can begin implementing differentiation in high school classrooms.

*KUD is “know, understand, do”

Making Us Think


This week I’ve encountered two articles that have really made me think. I’d like to share them with you:

The first article is from the blog Two Writing Teachers and is by Anna Gratz Cockerille, a literacy coach in New York City. In her post she writes about teachers using their own writing to help students learn the process. 

The second article is from SundayReview in The Times. Tina Rosenberg writes about the efforts of Clintondale High School in Michigan to “flip” their classes. The concept of flipped classrooms is not new but I was struck by how Clintondale is using data to inform their decision making in the process.

Try to find a few minutes and read these articles. They’ll make us all think about how we can continue to innovate our teaching practices and maybe even offer a bit of inspiration.

Jonathan Olsen