Tag Archives: group work

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“Level Up” your Teaching with Newsela’s Free Features

So you’ve started using Newsela, but you haven’t done much besides having students access articles and possibly taking quizzes. I’ll offer some new ways you could use Newsela to “level up” implementation in your classroom. This post is the first in a series of three short posts, and it focuses on ideas for the free version of Newsela than any teacher can use.

  1. Highlight Purposefully as a Reading and Research Strategy

Newsela comes equipped with a highlighting feature. Students can use up to four colors to code text in different ways. For example, last year I had 9th grade English students participate in an inquiry unit called “The Grown-up Project.” Students were tasked at reading literary and informational texts for evidence that would answer the following compelling question: “What primarily causes someone to grow up: the aging process, external events, or personal choices?” For the informational texts, students selected articles from a Newsela text set that I created, looking for evidence to answer the question. I assigned students to use a different highlighting color for each of the possible types of evidence as well as the fourth color to highlight the quote they believed was most important in the article.

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2. Differentiated Reading Groups

One of the main reasons I love Newsela is that each text has a Lexile selector that allows you to differentiate readability at five levels. It is an amazing tool to differentiate with dignity.  If your students have access to devices, that can very easily select the levels for themselves. However, if you don’t have devices, you can print articles on whatever level you choose. One way to use this feature is creating differentiated reading groups.

Students can be divided into groups where each group reads a different article under a the same topic or theme. However, each group’s article can be leveled differently based upon the current proficiencies of that certain group (obviously, the teacher would need to create groups for this to work well). As an example, my colleague Lily, a biology teacher, created a genetics text set, where each student group read about a selective breeding and genetically modified organisms. Each article was leveled differently based upon the current proficiencies of the group. Then, a member of each group jigsawed with members from other groups in order to share information about their articles. All of the students were on equal playing field in regards to content, even if they had texts at different Lexile levels. By the way, since each group has a different article, it is not obvious that they have different readabilities. 

If you want to hear about any of these strategies in depth, access the Newsela “Celebrate the Educator” webinar in which I shared the 6 strategies for “leveling up” with Newsela.  

What are some interesting ways that you are using the free version of Newsela with your students?


Want Personalized PD? Become a National Board Certified Teacher.

Hey, that’s me (circa 2006) when I first embarked on the National Board journey.


I learned a lot about myself, my students, and my teaching in the rigorous process of certification. You see, National Board Certification holds an honest and unflinching mirror up to your practice. Once you deeply understand the standards and the expectations of the process, it becomes pretty clear where you have room for growth.

So, with all the discussion about how we personalize professional development, becoming an NBCT should certainly be part of the discussion.

When we think about how to personalize professional learning, we often think about offering choices or personal goal setting. Or we sometimes think about assessing the practice of educators and giving them specific trainings or goals. Although all of these are good options, I feel National Board does a little of both.

Investigating the standards objectively helps us see where we are successful — without rose-tinted glasses. Videos, student work, and independent assessments provide evidence of what’s working and what’s not. Feelings are not facts, and this evidence shows us where the real work is – not just where we think it is. Obviously, feelings and facts don’t always correlate.

So for each of us, the National Board process reveals something different about our practice, and that’s why it is a great form of personalized professional development.

Where were my weaknesses in 2006? I couldn’t effectively use groups in my classroom. I didn’t know how to support English Language Learners. I didn’t know how to formatively assess and personalize writing instruction.

So, I went to work learning about these areas. I asked my fellow colleagues for ideas and strategies. I read professional books. I tried out hunches in my classroom and made tweaks — just as any action researcher might do.

And I got better.

My students showed me with their progress, engagement, and feedback.

I would not have made the progress as an educator that I have without holding up a mirror to my practice, so I could objectively see my strengths and weaknesses.

National Board Certification was that mirror.



The Vocab Games: Dinner Party

Dinner party is a fun game that you can use to expand vocabulary. The game develops students’ word consciousness by having them explore the morphological patterns between words.  Morphology, or teaching students to recognize the spelling-meaning connection of roots and affixes, has been proven to be enhance students’ vocabulary acquisition more effectively than using context clues alone.

Here is how you play Dinner Party.

First, create sets of cards with words that feature the target morpheme.  For example, one set might  focus on the root cand:  candidincandescentcandle, and candidate.  Another set could have pend, pens words:  pendantpensive, appendage, and impendingWords Their Way is a great source, but you can also find many sets by just Googling “words with ______ root.”  Make sure that you have at least one card for each of your students.

Here is a photo from one set I created for a recent game.  It featured nat, which means “birth.”


Now that you have all of the cards, simply shuffle them all together.  You will hand each of your students a card, and you will ask that they find “guests” who have similar cards to their own.  Once students begin to find one another, they are to sit down for their “dinner party.” They will then discuss what their words have in common.  This discussion should lead to students understanding the meaning of the root.  In addition, they begin to see how the root has literal meanings in some words and figurative meanings in others.

One of the best aspects of Dinner Party is that it is inquiry-based. Students discover meaning by connecting the new words to words they already know. In addition, it provides students with opportunities to move, which can increase engagement. Dinner Party can be a short activity, or it can be expanded upon by reshuffling the cards and playing again or by students sharing and teaching their word groups to the class.




When White was White, and Other Ugly Truths from My First Year Teaching

I am constantly inspired by the positive work that I see others sharing on blogs and social media.  I, too, find value in sharing what works, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the value of learning from mistakes.  So, I am sharing some of the poor choices I made when I first  taught and reflecting on my growth since then. Isn’t it wonderful that we have the capacity to grow and we are not defined by our past mistakes?

During my first year teaching, I entered the classroom of a rural and mostly poor community unprepared. Not only were my practices instructionally poor, but they were culturally blind. I did not consider my students’ cultures at all, and I wrongly assumed that their beliefs, interests, and values were identical to mine simply because I was white and so were most of them. I set the same standard for all students.

For example, I taught two standard-level English IV classes that first semester. I assigned a paper that required the students to write about Beowulf’s heroic characteristics. Assigned is the appropriate word because I did not really teach my students. I never assessed their prior knowledge to determine how they viewed the term hero, nor did I ask them about people who they believed to be heroes. In essence, I did not tailor my instruction to students at all; I believed that they all viewed the concept of hero in the same way that I did. My practice at the time reminds me of a quote from Gloria Ladson-Billings in her book The Dreamkeepers, “Often they [teachers] believe that ‘culture is what other people have; what we have is just truth.” I thought that my view was true, and I could not understand why my students did not share it.

I did provide my students with a rubric and a thorough explanation of the assignment; however, I never truly taught them how to write.  I never modeled writing, never use pre-writing activities to help them brainstorm ideas, and never helped them organize their ideas. I believed that, as seniors, they had these “prerequisite” skills.

Since I did not assess my students’ prior knowledge, did not know them as people, and I did not provide quality instruction, most of my students did not achieve. Many did not write papers. Some turned in papers that they had plagiarized from the Internet. I gave them zeroes. I was angry, and I blamed them. Most of the students who received zeroes were economically disadvantaged. I unknowingly punished them for lacking my culture and knowledge; thus, I perpetuated their learned helplessness. For the rest of that semester, I developed much lower expectations for those students. My instruction did not excite or challenge them, and I had many discipline issues.  I still think about those students today, and how I underserved them.

So, it is quite serendipitious how I began reflecting on this part of my career that I’d rather forget.   As a literacy coach in my school district, I now work with teachers to integrate effective, engaging literacy practices in their classrooms. Now, I am much more cognizant of and responsive to cultural differences. My current role operates on the philosophy that we as educators should have high expectations about student capabilities and that we are responsible for tailoring our instructional practices to support all students. It is through this work that Beowulf came back into my life.

Recently I had the opportunity to collaborate with a new teacher who was teaching Beowulf. There is a stark contrast between my first-year of teaching this material and the way I co-planned and co-taught this time. The new teacher and I decided to collaborate on a lesson where she would have students read an informational text, introducing the Anglo-Saxon culture of Beowulf to her students. Her class is culturally and linguistically diverse, and the text she had chosen was quite difficult. I encouraged her to use the difficult text but to use scaffolding to support students in a way that respected their differences.

Before the students read the text, we had them do the “Say What?” strategy. This strategy lets students preview the text for unfamiliar words and share the meanings they know with one another. Next, we gave explicit instruction on any remaining words that students could not teach one another. We operated on the belief that students were competent enough to teach one another words they knew; in fact, they were more effective than we were because they explained terms in language their classmates readily understood.

We also assessed the students’ prior knowledge so we could give appropriate instruction. We used several other techniques to support students such as chunking text and establishing cooperative groups. After several difficult weeks with these students, the new teacher was pleasantly surprised by both the students’ excitement and the sophistication of their work. She told me that she had originally planned to make them copy overhead notes before we decided to work on the lesson together. In fact, she said the students developed much better summaries of the introduction than she would have.

And in my own personal “re-do” of Beowulf from my first year teaching, we planned lessons where students described characteristics and examples of “heroes” according to their own viewpoints, and then they compared and contrasted their views to how Anglo-Saxons viewed heroism.

When I look at my teaching journey, I notice that early on I only tended to behave in more culturally proficient ways when I worked with students who were  linguistically or racially different from me. Ironically, I was most unsympathetic to white students, who I believed were intentionally doing the “wrong” thing. Most of the students I failed in my first year were white. Since our skins shared color, I mistakenly believed we shared culture. Thus, I think we as teachers need to understand that culture is not fixed by race nor ethnicity or even income. Culture is a complex set of ever-changing factors that are different for every individual . We must look critically at our own cultures to understand that they are not the “truth”.  Our goal should be to learn about each of our students as individuals, allow them to connect to their own background knowledge to make connections to content, and become more cautious in how we interpret the actions of our students through our own cultural lenses.


How QR Codes Support Teaching and Learning

A QR (Quick Response) code is a special type of barcode than can hold more information than traditional UPC barcodes. With a QR code reader app, information can be retrieved and displayed quickly using the camera on a smartphone or a tablet device. Most QR readers can also create QR codes. These barcodes can connect to web URL’s, text documents, e-mail addresses, and other information.

Information Stations

Are there certain areas of your space where it would be convenient for students to regularly access information? Consider creating QR codes that allow students to easily retrieve important information. For example, in a weight training class, a teacher could post QR codes at each piece of exercise equipment. The featured poster links to videos that show proper form for chest exercises.


Differentiated Skills Groups Oftentimes, we need to differentiate instruction for varying student needs, but we are unsure of how to accomplish the task. QR codes can be linked to different online tasks that develop students’ skills. Teachers can assign students to scan a particular QR code, or students can self-assess and choose for themselves. The codes pictured were created after students had completed writing drafts. The teacher identified three areas for different groups of students to develop: parallel structure, subject-verb agreement, and correct use of apostrophes.  The QR codes link to related activities at chompchomp.com.


Promoting Self-Selected Reading Connecting students with books that meet their interests is a vital for creating motivated independent readers. Online book trailers are an engaging way to convey information about books in the 21st century. Create a display of books with QR codes to initiate a visual “booktalk” that students can access on demand. The photo below is a book display created by Samantha Gallman (@hav2laugh), the media coordinator in one of the schools I serve.


Group “Scavenger Hunts” QR codes are a great tool for classroom scavenger hunts. First, teachers can determine the types of information they want students to explore. Then, they can search for websites, videos, maps, and documents that support students learning the information. The pictured scavenger hunt had earth and environmental science students explore the effects of pollution in regards to ocean acidification, the greenhouse effect, and other aspects of climate change.


Reading Scaffolds Teachers can create reading scaffolds for students with QR codes.  For example, QR codes can be attached to a text’s margins. When 9th grade students read “The Sniper,” I created QR codes that linked to background information, pictures, and YouTube videos that would support and enrich their reading experience.


Create Your Own QR Reader and Qrafter are free QR Code apps that can create QR codes. You can also create your own QR codes on your desktop or laptop using The QR Code Generator. Please use the comments section below to share ideas about how you are using QR codes to support learning in your schools.