Tag Archives: writing

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“Level Up” Your Teaching with Newsela Pro

This is the second post in a series of three, and it focuses on ideas for Newsela Pro users. For ideas for the free version of Newsela, check out my last post.

So you have access to Newsela Pro, but you only use the quizzes. Here are two easy ways you can “level up” how you use Newsela Pro in your classroom.

  1. Supporting Writing and Academic Language with the Write Prompt

I recently had the opportunity to work with a group of English language Learners. In the lesson, we looked at conflicts occurring in Syria. I chose a Newsela article about the teenage rebels that fighting in the conflict .

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The purpose of the lesson was for students to use a graphic organizer to track causes and effects of teenagers being involved in the war. You can check out the lesson plan for resources. Every Newsela article comes with a Write prompt, where students respond to a CCSS standard-aligned question. If you have access to Newsela Pro, you are able to edit the Write prompt. For this class, I embedded these sentence frames into the Write prompt in order the scaffold their responses.

  • One factor that has caused teenagers to fight in Syria is __________________. Another reason that teens are fighting is ________________. (Other factors causing teens to fight include ___________).
  • One of the effects of teenagers fighting in Syria is _____________. Additional impacts from teens fighting include _________________________.Screen Shot 2017-03-19 at 3.24.10 PM

2. Scaffolding Complex Texts with Annotations and the Lexile Selector

What are the major three shifts of the English language arts and literacy common core standards is text complexity. Newsela’s Lexile feature allows students to change the complexity of text to suit their comprehension. However, there are times I want to really challenge them with the text at or above their grade level. One way I can do this while still scaffolding students is this adaption of the “Trying on the Most Difficult Text First” strategy from this International Literacy Association publication on close reading.

  • Use Newsela’s annotation questions or create your own annotation questions in a complex version (for your grade level and students) of the article.
  • Ask students to make initial responses to the answers, and annotate their own confusions.
  • Then have students read a more comfortable Lexile version of the article to aid comprehension.
  • Next, have students return to the complex Lexile version and revise their responses.

This method encourages students to tackle rigorous text, while also providing scaffolding for them to grow as readers!

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

What are some interesting ways that you are using Newsela Pro features 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.



Blogging Blues or Blogging Bliss? – A Few Guidelines for Educators


The following blog post is a re-posting from my shared blog mayerandmckee.blogpsot.com.

Blogs are omnipresent. Many online readers spend about as much (or more) time reading blogs than they spend reading the publications of organizations and news media. As someone who reads quite a bit online, I regularly visit blogs that focus on education, films, fitness, and local news. Reading blogs is REAL, authentic reading in today’s society.

So shouldn’t blogs be used in the classroom?

I must admit that I have little experience with students blogging. Since I have a number of Facebook friends and Twitter followers who work in all facets of education, I asked this question to the Internet ether: “What has your experience been in using blogging with students?”

As you can probably predict, I received a variety of responses.

Many people discussed the advantages of blogging with students. Students who are quiet in traditional classroom discussions find their voices through blogging. Blogs are multi-faceted compared to pencil-and-paper writing. Students can embed Web 2.0 creations using Prezi, Animoto and Voki within the context of their writing. One colleague shared that students’ blogs became their portfolios for his class, eliminating the loss of papers and constant organization that comes with traditional portfolios. Overall, educators talked about increased student engagement that resulted from students having audiences other than the classroom teacher.

Concerns came up as well. Technology issues like spotty wi-fi had turned blogging experiences into debacles. Some educators were concerned that overuse of blogging, which is generally more informal in style, might limit students’ academic writing progress. Assigning blogging for homework is often not an option because some students have limited access to technology in the home. In addition, some students may not have the technology skills to easily begin blogging.

After reading their feedback, I wondered what guidelines might help us, the inexperienced and sometimes intimidated, successfully integrate blogging into our classrooms. After consulting some sources, this is what I found:

1. Be a model for students.

As with almost any new skill or strategy we teach students, it is important for us to model how to blog. You may want to begin your own class blog with information about class activities and homework. Your blog will get students familiar with blogs as well as model the capabilities of using them (Rhode & Richter, 2009). It will also provide you with practical information like the impact of school filtering software and quality of internet connectivity. Students should also have opportunities to read other blogs that they find interesting.

2. Guide students more in the beginning.

Since many students might struggle to spontaneously create content for their blogs, you may want to provide a specific topic when students write their first blogs (Rhode & Richter, 2009). Either technologically-savvy students or you can help students learn the nuances of the blogging platform.

3. Emphasize interaction.

Make sure that you encourage students to comment on one another’s blog posts. You can comment on students’ blogs, too. Students will thrive on writing for real audiences and receiving feedback from their readers (Hobbs, 2011; Rhode & Richter, 2009). Of course, you should model appropriate comments (Edublogs, 2013).

4. Be crystal clear about safety expectations.

Generate a list of all the safety expectations you have for students. For instance, bullying language in comments is unacceptable. Students should not include personal identification information like their last names and home addresses (Edublogs, 2013). Consult your district’s AUP’s, or “acceptable use policies,” to include other safety expectations. Explicitly teach these expectations to students, ask them to sign contracts, post expectations where students will see them, and plan to re-teach your expectations throughout the year (Kline, 2013; VDOE, 2007).

5. Use rubrics to help students meet learning goals.

Although students should be encouraged to blog often about many topics, you may want to use blogging to teach them to write effective hooks, to argue a point, or to present research information. Rubrics help immensely in this area to clarify the learning targets of blogging activities (Hobbs, 2011). Through modeling and guided practice, students can demonstrate their acquired writing skills in blogs. However, remember that you will be assessing the quality of their writing, not necessarily the topics — which brings me to the last guideline.

6. Respect student choice.

Although students will have to follow safety expectations, we should respect their choices in writing topics as they become accustomed to blogging. The power of blogging comes in the authentic activity of being an author. Thus, students should be encouraged to write on a wide variety of topics (Rhode & Richter, 2009). They should not be relegated to teacher-chosen topics every time they blog. Choice will motivate your students.

I hope these guidelines will help you. I plan to use this plan as I integrate more blogging into my instruction. Did one of these ideas resonate with you? Did I forget something? Respond in the comments to continue the conversation!


Edublogs. (2013). Curriculum corner — using blogs with students. Retrieved from http://edublogs.org/curriculum-corner-using-a-blog-with-students/

Hobbs, R. (2011). Digital and media literacy: Connecting culture and classroom. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Kline, E. (2013, March 25). Best practices in educational blogging. Retrieved from www.classroom20.com/profiles/blogs/best-practices-in-educational-blogging

Rhode, J. F., & Richter, S. L. (2009, October 16). Blogger beware: Teaching with blogs best practices. Presented at the 2009 SLATE Conference, Chicago, IL.

Virginia Department of Education. (2007, October). Guidelines and resources for internet safety in schools. (2nd ed.). Retrieved from http://www.doe.virginia.gov/support/safety_crisis_management/internet_safety/guidelines_resources.pdf

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.

Mentor Texts and the NC Graduation Project

Recently, a friend and colleague who teaches 12th grade English approached me about a troubling situation.  Her students had turned in drafts of their research papers for the NC Graduation Project, and she had provided feedback to all of them on how to move forward.  One particular student became upset.  He said that he had worked really hard on his project, and he could not believe all the corrections he must make.

The teacher took what he said to heart.  She knew that he had put a lot of effort in to his paper, but it was so far from her expectations.  As an instructional coach, I know I don’t always have the answers, but I understand the power of questions.  After a few questions, I asked the one that led to our “A-ha” moment:  “Have students ever seen a completed research paper for graduation project?”  Well, they hadn’t.

This leads me to the power of using mentor texts for teaching writing.  A “mentor text” is simply a finished example of a particular genre or style of writing.  If you would like to study mentor texts more deeply, you can always check out the work of teacher/author Kelly Gallagher who has written extensively on them.  I have learned much about mentor texts from my colleague, middle school instructional coach Kendra Jarvis (@KCameronJarvis).

The teacher and I decided to collaborate by introducing the research paper when she had a new class of students during the second semester.  We asked former student authors for permission to use their completed graduation project papers for instruction.  They agreed.  We did remove their names and replaced them with fun pseudonyms.  The paper I used for the lesson I taught was on the health benefits of martial arts and written by Tony Stark.  The paper met the classroom teacher’s requirements, but it still had room for improvement.

Here is what happened in the lesson:

1.  Real Collaborative Inquiry

Instead of giving students a rubric for evaluating the paper at first or telling them what I thought about it, I asked them to work with a class mate to find (1) what was effective, (2) what recommendations they would they to the writer, and (3) what questions they had.  Students had the option of collecting their thoughts on 3-column charts or through text codes and annotations (E-effective, R-recommendations, ?-Questions).  Many students raised good questions about the format of in-text citations, and how often/where they should be used.  Some discussed ways the author could have varied his sentences after noticing a series of sentences beginning “Karate is…Karate is…Karate is….”  In addition students praised the well-crafted first paragraph, understanding that the author clearly stated his thesis and prepared the reader for the information in the paper.   Organization was also a strength.

2.  Beginning with the End in Mind

Early in the lesson, I asked the students, who have all heard about the impending graduation project since 9th grade, “Have you ever seen a finished graduation project paper?”  Not a single one had.  As Stephen Covey said, highly effective people begin with the end in mind.  These students had no idea of how the end of this long research road would look.  After reading and discussing the mentor text, I literally saw the students’ stress diminish.  They all said that they believed that they could accomplish their own papers, now that they had seen a finished one.

3. Formative Assessment Increasing Knowledge and Motivation

Once students had seen a finished paper, they became more motivated to ask questions about the process.  Because we were not focused on what was “right”, students’ questioning and ideas flowed in a safe, collaborative learning environment, where even the teachers were questioning and learning from students.  Instead of beginning with a barrage of lessons about correct citations, students first learned the purpose of citations.  Then, their questions drove the instruction.  Their motivation increased because they were now the ones steering the learning.  Later, I shared the NC Graduation Project Paper Rubric with students.  I asked them to make note of where they had noticed effective writing that the rubric also valued.  I also asked them to mark elements we hadn’t discussed.  Areas we missed became the topics of future lessons because students and the classroom teacher now understood that those areas would be their “blind spots” in the writing process.