On the Challenges of Moving Beyond Print to Digital

We regularly use digital texts in the classroom. From Smartboards, to iPads to Chromebooks, and desktop Computers in the Classroomcomputers, we routinely incorporate technology in instruction and it is typically a collaborative process with our students. As educators continue to unpack the layers and meanings of 21st Century Skills and all that this entails to prepare students for success in a global environment, this requires a broader understanding and definition of texts. Such broadening results in viewing literacies as a shifting, evolving, and dynamic force that extends beyond print to digital.

For teachers one of the major challenges of fully embracing this conception is access to technology. Another is fear. Fear of relinquishing control over how and what information is received in the digitally mediated lives of our students, and fear for our students’ safety as we continue to develop an understanding and raise questions about digital citizenship. While we also grapple with these issues, we see the value of making everyday use of technology in the classroom. Our students enter the classroom more and more technologically savvy, and when they have access to the tools and methods that interest and motivate them, they’re excited to learn. Additionally, it results in more fluid power relationships between students and teachers. This makes our classrooms energetic spaces where new possibilities emerge each day. This is not to say that we don’t experience challenges! However, the issues we grapple with inspire long problem-solving sessions (thanks Panera Bread Company!) where we voice our frustrations and concerns and then ask, “How can we fix this?”

Access to technology is a real frustration that many teachers face. Continuing to raise this issue in informal and formal settings with colleagues, administrators, and parents, can be helpful for brainstorming solutions. The PTSA, foundations, and grants can be instrumental in helping teachers find funding to help increase the amount of computers in classrooms and school computer labs. Chromebooks, compared to iPads, are better on the budget as you can purchase two Chromebooks for the price of one iPad. These books can provide students with Internet access and to Google Docs in order to work collaboratively with peers and teachers.

Another challenge in this digital age is helping students to assess the validity of the digital texts they encounter. In addition to learning to read print-based texts critically, students need such guidance with digital texts. We teach students that all texts are angled and therefore should be questioned and critiqued. We provide our students with six tips to help them determine if a website is credible. We’ve synthesized a number of recommendations we’ve researched regarding website credibility to 6 checks for our students. When our students are determining whether a website is a good source we ask them to look for:

  • author
  • date
  • sources
  • domain name (.org, .com, .edu, .gov)
  • site design
  • writing style

Of paramount importance to us is keeping our students safe and helping them develop a sense of digital ethics by using technology responsibly.  To this end, we have found these instructional methods successful:

  • Working in groups is effective for younger students and is easier to monitor.
  • Have students navigate online with a specific purpose. Provide graphic organizers and a focus for online work.
  • Create digital bins. These “living folders” contain links to digital resources gathered specifically for students’ use. They can be collaborative folders or teacher-created depending on the age and experience of your students and the purpose for instruction. (Look for our next post on digital bins shortly.)
  • Have ongoing discussions about digital citizenship and digital responsibility and set clear, firm consequences for behavior that does not meet the expectations you establish with your students.

While there are definite challenges to helping our students to both navigate digital texts and become responsible digital citizens, it is important for teachers and schools to engage in ongoing discussions with students and parents as we continue to determine best practices in this digital age.


Joys of Teaching!


DanaSonja1For this Valentine’s Day post, we wanted to celebrate ten simple, everyday joys of being teachers.

We are still head over heels in love with teaching.

1. Having a window into the lives of my students and seeing what makes them glow. From getting a new puppy to winning a basketball tournament to celebrating a grandparent’s birthday. I love hearing about their special moments both inside and outside school. ~Sonja

2. When they can’t wait to tell me about a book they read and loved and plead for me to read it too. ~Sonja

3. Flipping the chart paper to a new, fresh piece. There is nothing better than new chart paper. Sorry ipad and document camera, I love you both too, but I love my chart paper most of all. ~Dana

4. When my students take ownership of a vocabulary word they learned months ago, like macabre, and use it accurately and authentically. ~Sonja

5. Changing the numbers on our “New Book Releases Countdowns.” Do you do this in your classroom? It’s a really fun way to get kids excited about books. ~Dananew releases

6. After years of teaching, reading picture books or poems, to students who have never heard it before, is the BEST! Seeing their eyes light up at the good parts is why I love reading aloud. (Reading favorites is awesome too!) ~Dana

7. To the Turbo Pencil Sharpener that has lasted far longer than its warrantee and is quick and quiet, XOXO ~Dana

8. Being thought of over the weekend and receiving baked goods (yes…they’re mostly cupcakes) they’ve made at home and brought in just for me 🙂 ~Sonja

9. The moment a student receives a letter in the mail from a beloved author. To all authors, your reply letters mean the world to students. It can be life changing for a reader. Thank you so much for your time! ~Dana

10. The confident, dazzling smiles on their faces when they know they’re on to something big in their writing. Love! Love! Love! ~Sonja

Teaching “Symbolism” Digitally- La Luna

DSC00888I like to think about ways I can teach my reading minilessons with technology and multimedia. A personal challenge of mine is to find ways to teach any reading minilesson with technology. Not that I want to use digital texts all the time, but I like to think creatively about how I might use them and if they offer less, more, or equal value to my minilessons. Ultimately, I like to think about “How can technology support and enhance my reading workshop?”

When I first saw La Luna, a DisneyPixar short film, I knew it would be an awesome text to teach symbolism. First, it doesn’t have any words, making it is accessible to all students. Second, after teaching a quick strategy for finding important objects, students can identify symbolic objects easily in the film. Last, it has a lovely, heartwarming message. I LOVE using it and my students do too!

I usually do this lesson as my third or fourth symbolism lesson- that way students are already familiar with the idea of symbolism. I say something like, “Today we are going to look for symbolism in a text and create interpretations about it. In order to do this, I am going to teach you a strategy for finding symbols. The strategy is to look for objects that repeat over and over OR seem very important. We’re going to try this today.”

Try this together using La Luna. Create a T-Chart and have students list repeated or important objects they see in the short film. (A completed T-Chart is provided toward the end of this post.)

As students watch La Luna, you may want to model creating a list on the whiteboard or chart paper along with them- especially at first. I like to pause the film at different parts in order to model jotting initial thoughts about what the objects might symbolize. For example, you might pause to discuss the symbolic nature of the boat, ladder, hats, or brooms.

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la luna

Have students share their ideas with a partner or with a small group.

At this point, I would stop the lesson— but only for the day. I would want students to go off and try this strategy with the books they are reading. I would circle back to their ideas the next day and teach a new strategy for creating deeper interpretations about the symbols they found (and possibly uncovering themes, too!)

You can use this strategy with other digital texts. This lesson also works well with Disney’s “Let it Go” song from Frozen. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=moSFlvxnbgk OR with Disney’s Mulan http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zC2LGK9BdjU

Great Read Alouds!

I just love the experience of an entire classroom, silenced by a great book! The wide-eyed looks on the faces of my students as a character they love encounters a challenging experience… The pleas they make for just one more chapter when I announce it’s time to stop… Just priceless! Here are a few fan favorites:

Wonder by RJ Palacio http://rjpalacio.com/


The Watson’s Go To Birmingham, 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis http://www.randomhouse.com/features/christopherpaulcurtis/


The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau http://www.jeanneduprau.com/books.shtml


Frindle by Andrew Clements  http://andrewclements.com/books-frindle.html


The One And Only Ivan by Kathleen Applegate       http://theoneandonlyivan.com/

the one and only ivan

Beyond Test Prep

Photo by Amber Arnold — Wisconsin State Journal

It’s that time of year again. Testing. With this one word comes so much anxiety, frustration, and stress. And I’m speaking of our students. Neatoday recently reported on educators’ frustrations over test prep or, as referred to in the article, the “test and punish model.” As adults, we’re used to grappling with a host of challenges in our daily lives. But our young learners rely on us to create a space of creativity and joy, despite the demands placed upon us by administrators and educational policies.

The following is a list of ideas to help balance the inevitable and unavoidable test preparation expected of so many educators with joyful, meaningful learning experiences in the classroom.

Read Alouds

I have yet to encounter a student who did not enjoy a funny or adventurous read aloud. This can be a welcome escape from the realities of “test prep” and can motivate students through the work at hand in order to reap to the rewards of reading. Go to “Books We Love” on this blog for a few fan favorites that are gripping to students and leave them begging for “Just one more chapter!”

Artist’s Workshop

My students love seeing this written on the agenda. The first time one of my students saw these words she exclaimed, “ I don’t know what this is, but it sounds fun!” Children love opportunities to be creative. Yet, many students, particularly once they reach middle school, come to see themselves as “inartistic.” The key is to create experiences where all students feel successful. You can achieve this by placing emphasis on the process, rather than the product. Also, create open-ended prompts that will lend themselves to a variety of interpretations. Finally, provide students with opportunities to engage in a number of art experiences and explore a variety of mediums, rather than boxing them into just one.

The following examples are a result of taking wonderful course called Art for Classroom Teachers at Teachers College, Columbia University. In addition to opportunities to sketch and draw, students can explore the possibilities of:

  • Printmaking – Using a variety of tools such as Styrofoam, toothpicks, and ink create different types of prints on different types of paper.
  • Paint – Using a brush and one paint color notice the types of brush strokes that can be made.  Or, explore a technique such as brush strokes, shade and tone, size to show perspective, etc. to paint a place where you feel relaxed.
  • Collage – Using materials such as papers, buttons, pipe cleaners, and glue, to depict an image of something you like to do with your friends.
  • Clay – Try out techniques such as pinching and coiling.
  • Construction – Create a structure using a variety of shaped boxes, wire, tape, and other materials. Decorate using paint, collage, or other techniques.

These experiences will indeed require strong classroom management skills so that students know how to use materials properly and how to clean up efficiently. However, the benefits of such artistic explorations are immeasurable.

 Outside Exploration

A 20-minute exploration outside on the playground or a courtyard on the school grounds can be an energizing experience. Students can read independently, or they can be read to. Students can write or sketch in their writer’s notebooks while observing something in their surroundings that they see everyday, but perhaps have not studied. Or play a quick game with the class. For great games to play with kids, including recommended ages for each game and instructions visit Responsive Classrooms at https://www.responsiveclassroom.org/article/games-kids-love-play. So much of our students’ lives are spent indoors. Going outside during the school day, beyond recess time, even in the snow, is such a rare, unexpected gift.

Create an Experiment

Work with students to create a hands-on scientific experiment around a fun topic. My favorite: paper airplanes! Abbe, a remarkable teacher, shared this idea. This is one of the most inexpensive experiments to conduct with students and the best part is they get to fly paper airplanes… in school!

Working in groups, students construct 5 or 6 different types of paper airplanes and make predictions about which will fly farthest. Rather than writing a traditional lab report, Abbe came up with the idea of having each group create an illustrated diagram of each step of the scientific method. The question guiding the experiment is simple. “Which plane flies the farthest?”

We’d take our classes to the cafeteria after lunchtime hours, have them line up meter sticks across the floor, and watch our students conduct their experiments and record the result. Our students were having so much fun flying those planes, they didn’t realize the plethora of skills they were enacting and practicing during the process. But Abbe and I did!

Visit http://www.funpaperairplanes.com/ for templates and videos to guide you and your students toward making several different types of paper plans.

Dance Party

Jocelyn, a school counselor, and I share a love of music. We are known to break out in song and dance in a classroom, hallway, or even in the cafeteria. Last year, we scheduled weekly “dance parties” in my classroom. Select a song that gets students out of their seats. Set simple parameters to keep everyone safe and to make sure classrooms next to and below yours are not disturbed. Then, let the music move you! My latest craze is Happiness by Pharell Williams. Check out his video under This N That!

Dramatize a Short Story

My students love reader’s theatre. And even when some students are not interested in taking on a part with a lot of lines, they are happy to be involved somehow in the process. My motto is, “There are no big and small roles! Each role is as important as another!” Students who are reluctant to take on speaking roles can portray inanimate objects and demonstrate the “role” of symbolism in a story.

Recently, my class read Early Autumn by Langston Hughes, which features two characters, Bill and Mary. That didn’t stop my class from finding a role for each person. Autumn is symbolic in this story. Therefore, students became trees, the wind, and falling leaves. The story takes place in Washington Square Park in New York City. So students lined up classroom chairs to create park benches that students sat on to portray the dynamics of a city park complete with people sitting and chatting, reading, or just people watching. They even portrayed the city bus that eventually one of the speaking characters boards.

Of course, the first few times of acting out this story resulted in laughter and silliness among students. But moments like these are great opportunities for classes to bond and new friendships to emerge. Besides, in the midst of days that may be heavy due to “test prep” and eventually, testing, laughter really is the best medicine. After a few rehearsals, my students brilliantly brought Hughes’ story to life and demonstrated before my eyes their ability to analyze and interpret literature. Bravo!

Certainly, these types of experiences should be ongoing in our classrooms in order to provide a variety of ways to engage students. However, at times, we can feel pressure to “forget” the importance of nurturing classroom environments in ways that result in vibrant spaces of creativity and exploration. As we prepare and approach the testing season, let us remember that we teach children, not tests.