Safe and reliable tools for student research projects!

As an fifth grade ELA teacher, one of the major assignments in my class each year is a research project. Research projects are a great way to introduce students to the discussion of reliable sources and primary versus secondary resources. One of my greatest concerns with any research project is the autonomy I am providing my fifth graders as they search the Internet for sources, images, and facts. Even with the strongest of filters, things can slip through the hands of an educator quickly. However, I have found technology that helps manage such searches, creating a much safer environment.

Here’s a small list of safe and effective tools for your upcoming research projects.

1. Turn on the Safe Search in Chrome.All bias thoughts aside, Chrome is my preferred browser. All the computers in my classroom have Chrome as the default browser. Chrome enables me to use a Safe Search feature with a simple on/off option. To lock your Safe Search, you simply log into your Google account and lock.

2. Provide students with reliable search engines. Since I strive to provide technology-rich projects, I want to provide students with the proper tools. One of those tools are reliable and safe search engines. There are several out there on the Internet, but my favorites are Kidtopia and KidRex. Both of these search engines are Google driven and loved by my fifth graders!

3. Use Pinterest as a research hub. To use Pinterest in my classroom, I set up a gmail and Pinterest account just for student use. Students can browse the selected pieces and collaborate on a group board. With the use of these accounts, students are provided with a mini-lesson on digital ethics. They are forewarned of the loss of internet privileges which are spelled out in their Computer Users Contract provided by our district. I have never had an incident where major consequences had to be enforced. In my opinion, my students are choosing to respect the integrity of their work environment because I am giving them the tools they love to use outside of the classroom.

There are many websites and teaching techniques that will ensure safety and reliability when it comes to using technology in the classroom. As technology continues to be a part of my students’ lives, I am forever researching better ways to use these tools in the classroom!

Avoiding the pitfalls of popular technology!

Technology is intended to make our lives easier in the classroom. However, there can be unforeseen consequences! From social media mishaps to students who won’t get off of their smartphones, here are some ways to cope with — and avoid — the pitfalls of popular technology.

1. Educate your students and yourself

As tech-savvy as students can be, I find they often lack the most basic common sense about digital citizenship. But that does not mean that they can’t learn! Common Sense Media, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, offers lesson plans, units, and teaching tools for all grade levels regarding digital citizenship, including digital literacy. Teach your students how to be responsible technology users. This is not just a classroom skill but a life necessity!

2. Protect yourself

Be careful with social media. Even if your settings are private and your account is difficult to find, assume that anyone — including students, their parents, and administrators — can read what you’re posting. Many teachers have gotten into trouble because of their postings, and the media isn’t shy about reporting on these incidents. Be cautious, too, about your profile information on these sites, and the people whom you follow and follow you.

Do occasional searches of your name on Google and social media sites.  You may find a past mistake come back to haunt you, and there may not be much you can do about it (though there is some advice here on what to do). You may also find identity theft. Several years ago, a Google search of my husband’s name revealed a fake profile on a social media site we had never even heard of. The profile picture was my husband, but it was a picture we don’t own. We contacted the site and had the profile removed.

Finally, should you find any evidence of bullying, threats, or illegal activity while on social media or hear of it from a student, you need to report it to the appropriate person in your building. In my class, Twitter in particular has been a source of student conflict. Although students know that public profiles are monitored, they still make unwise posts.

3. Make clear rules and consequences

From the first day of school, establish clear expectations, rules, and consequences regarding technology; then, consistently enforce them.  Whatever rules you have, make sure your students fully understand them!

Plagiarism is another issue. I have a clear policy about plagiarism: it’s not tolerated at all. But I make sure that students understand what plagiarism is and teach them how to avoid it. Also, since I teach seniors, who must write a thesis paper as a graduation requirement, I use  TurnItIn allows students to check their own work for plagiarism before the assignment is due, so it’s a learning tool as well.

4. Set a good example

If we don’t want our students on their phones during class time, we shouldn’t be on ours either. I keep my phone on vibrate and in an unobtrusive place. As the wife of a NYC firefighter and the mother of two small children, emergencies have happened. In those (fortunately rare) instances, I explain to my students why I need to use the phone. In turn, if a student has a genuine emergency, I’ll let him leave the room to use his phone. Students appreciate that I give them my full attention and thus, they are more likely to do so in return.

5. Schedule some technology free time

Sometimes the amount of technology surrounding us is overwhelming, and can even affect our health (carpal tunnel syndrome, eye strain, an obsession to beat a level on a game).  Don’t bring your technology to bed (it can cause problems falling asleep).

And, every once in a while, it’s nice to be technology free.  My family recently spent the weekend camping in Montauk. I begrudgingly left my laptop at home (I didn’t want it getting sandy or overheated in a tent or car).  When we arrived, we discovered that our iPhones were useless, since there was little to no service. After the initial panic, I enjoyed it. So what if I couldn’t check my email, text, or tweet? I enjoyed simply being with my family in a beautiful setting that no device could rival.

Get creative with formative assessments!

Formative assessment is a vigorous and engaging tradition that we as teachers should be committed to cultivating in every classroom. Why is it such an essential part of learning? It serves as an assessment tool for teachers, probing for understanding, and guiding decision-making about future instruction. Formative assessment creates a supportive environment in which the teachers and students learn and teach each other effectively, and instruction is tailor-made to fit each learner.

Formative assessment is an ongoing, fluid experience – a spontaneous, on-the-fly process that guides teachers toward understanding which resources to utilize with specific students according to their specific needs. Analyzing student work is a valuable part of formative assessment, as it clarifies which pieces of the learning process students might not understand. As an effective teacher, be prepared! Know the content that you’re going to cover, and have an understanding of the progression you want your students to make to achieve that ultimate goal. Utilize a plethora of questioning strategies and focused observations, engaging students in the learning process with a sense of urgency, and closely monitoring their progress and comprehension. Students should be entrenched in the content of the curriculum, entirely present with each other, and focused in the process of learning.

An effective formative assessment system gauges student understanding and nurtures retention. Teachers are able to pinpoint student strengths and weaknesses, down to their most minute need. Formative assessment results are used to drive instructional strategies and resources. These results should be effectively and easily communicated to students, teachers, parents, and administrators in a consistent and easy to understand format. When teachers analyze data and use it as a tool to tweak the curriculum, the curriculum becomes dynamic and alive, not just a static document.

There are literally hundreds of ways and opportunities to formatively assess students. Education today is moving away from the sole use of traditional paper and pencil assessments. Valuable formative assessments now come in a plethora of forms, adding interest and engagement to the classroom while still providing the information needed to differentiate instruction and guide student learning.

A tried-and-true method of formative assessment is the “Ticket-Out the Door,” or the “Exit Ticket.” Students compose a written response to a question posed by the teacher, and are allowed to leave the room (or in many cases, transition to the next subject) only if their response meets the approval of the instructor. Similarly, teachers may utilize this strategy as a pretest, having the students complete an ”Entrance Ticket,” or a “Ticket-in-the-Door” to gauge student knowledge on the topic of the day.

Another quick and effective formative assessment, “Show What You Know,” can also be used at the end of the lesson. This is simply a higher order or critical thinking question posed at the very end of the lesson after the lesson summary. Students write their response to the question in a complete sentence on a sticky note, and post it on the “Show What You Know” board. This gives the teacher an “at-a-glance” view of whether students understand the concept presented or not.

The “Text What You Learn” strategy engages students at a high interest level, and allows teachers to formatively assess student knowledge of a concept quickly and effectively. At the beginning of the class, students use their cell phones to text in a response to a question that the teacher has presented through the Poll Everywhere software. Responses are projected on a SMART Board, and students are given the opportunity to self-assess, and see what their peers have learned. This provides valuable information to the teacher on how to move forward with the lesson.

Edmodo has a free micro-assessment called Snapshot which provides assessment feedback by student and standard. Progress can be monitored by choosing the standard(s) to be assessed, and utilizing the standards-aligned Math and ELA questions (for grades 3-12). Snapshot displays information on student mastery of standards, and with prioritized recommendations, teachers are able to customize lesson plans and improve the performance of individuals. There is even a built-in calendar and time limit selector option, so teachers can schedule Snapshot for the most opportune time during lessons.

Socrative is a super simple tech tool teachers can use to enhance classroom engagement, assessment and individualization of content. This is a free student response system in which students respond to the teacher through a series of educational exercises and games via any web-enabled device: smartphones, laptops, and/or tablets. Socrative takes teachers 3 minutes to set up and takes their classes 20 seconds to load. Easily differentiated, Socrative can be tailored for any learner.

If you don’t have that level of technology in your classroom, you can do a “quick write” at the beginning of your class. Ask students to provide you with a brief summary of what the homework was about, or what the key point in the reading was last night. They can either hand these in to you, or you can have students share them with a Collaborative Pair Partner or group — all to truly pinpoint where the lesson should begin.

Whatever tool or strategy is chosen, formative assessment is a culture, of sorts, that teachers create in a learning community that is dynamic and engaging.

It’s time to start exploring the world of Blogs!

School is about to start up again! This is the opportune time to plan for the upcoming school year and think about the changes you might want to make in your classroom. Most tech-minded teachers already know about top education sites like Edudemic and Edutopia, but where else should you look on the web to find tips this summer? Here are some great blogs that will help as you plan for the fall.

Free Tech 4 Teachers: This excellent blog written by Richard Byrne covers all kinds of technology, from web-based tools to apps. Byrne updates regularly with reviews and descriptions of new tools.

The Innovative Educator: Public school educator Lisa Nielsen focuses her work on using everyday technology to inspire and motivate students. This blog will help you incorporate technology that students already use, such as cell phones and social media, into your classroom.

Cool Cat Teacher: Written by Vicki Davis, a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director of a small school in Georgia, this blog strives to help teachers use technology to innovate their teaching. Davis also hosts the Every Teacher Matters podcast, in which she interviews teachers about best practices for using technology in the classroom.

Teacher Tech: In this blog, self-described “technology missionary” Alice Keeler gives tutorials on how to do all sorts of technology-based tasks. Recent posts include instructions on how to use Tweetdeck to follow multiple hashtags at once and how to create and manage YouTube playlists.

Teacher Reboot Camp: Shelly Sanchez Terrell challenges teachers to transform their teaching. In addition to her 30 Goals Challenge, Terrell also runs a blog full of resources for teachers, including her “A to Z Guide of Technology and Trends,” a weekly webinar, and a series of “survival tips” for teachers.

Those are just five blogs to help you jumpstart your search. What other blogs do you use to inspire your teaching? Please comment below.


ClassDojo seems great… but how do I begin?!

There is no “right” way to implement ClassDojo in your classroom. The ways to utilize ClassDojo are as varied as the number of teachers using It all over the world. So how does one begin?

Start by familiarizing yourself with ClassDojo. Take the tour, and explore the website to discover uncharted territory. Enter your students’ names. Peruse the behaviors listed and decide whether or not you will add to what already exists to personalize your behavior plan for your classroom. Create and customize new behaviors as needed.

Introduce ClassDojo to your class by first building interest and ownership in the program. You might ask questions like, “Who likes monsters? What would you think if we used a behavior plan in which YOU were represented by a MONSTER? How would you like to be able to design your OWN monster?” Student buy-in will be astronomical — guaranteed!

Show students the student video. This will get them fired up and excited about using ClassDojo. Be ready with copies of the parent letter immediately following the video, encouraging students to share it with their families. Offer an incentive for students to bring it back signed, saying their parents will participate. Take a look at ClassDojo Messaging, too! This will open up a whole new medium with which you can communicate effectively with parents. Parents with wireless mobile devices love ClassDojo because they have access to instant feedback about their child’s behavior progress.

At the beginning of each day you can “check reports” and view graphs to analyze student behavior data as a class. This aligns with the Common Core graphing and data analysis standards and it helps students take ownership and control of their own behavior and learning. Commend students for the positive behaviors shown on the graph, and discuss ways to improve the negative behaviors. Set a goal for the percentage of positive points to be reached at the end of the day. Offer students a reward for reaching that goal.

Download the ClassDojo app on your mobile device and use it as you are teaching, circulating, and monitoring the classroom. Be sure that the sound is turned up enough for students to hear when you give a positive or negative point. This is highly effective! If you have ClassDojo projected on your ActivBoard or SMART Board, students love to see who received a positive (or negative) point when it pops up on the screen. Be consistent with your expectations for behavior and the assigning of points. This will ensure that your classroom management is uniform, and that student behavior remains as stable as possible.

From experience, hearing the positive or negative point sounds are even more effective if students cannot see who is being awarded points. Hearing sound immediately causes students to self-check and monitor their own behavior. This is called the “Dojo Effect”. They will literally sit up straighter and focus on the task at hand when they hear the sound. Students think, “Was that me? Am I doing what I am supposed to be doing?” You might even create a bogus student in your class to award positive and negative points to just for strategic implementation of the “Dojo Effect.”

End each day just as you began, by reviewing and analyzing the behavior graph available in ClassDojo reports. Discuss what you are doing well and what behaviors you need to focus on improving in the future. Cement the effectiveness of ClassDojo by rewarding students for reaching their positive point percentage goal. Small individual candies like Skittles or M&M’s work well.

There is no “yellow brick road” leading to the one, true way to use ClassDojo effectively in the classroom. Explore, experiment, and discover the possibilities with your students and ClassDojo. Never will students be so excited about and take such ownership in a behavior plan as they will with ClassDojo!


Using ClassDojo for more than just behavior!

Have you ever thought about using ClassDojo for data tracking needs besides behavior? As educators, we are continually collecting data on our students. No matter what grade-level you teach or how many classes you have any given day, ClassDojo can assist in collecting, storing, and producing customized data without the need for a spreadsheet or paper. You just need to think outside the box!

In my own little fifth-grade world, I use ClassDojo to gather a multitude of data. ClassDojo allows me to create as many classes and behaviors as I’d like, so I can keep track of so many different types of data points. For example, I track our students’ work habits. I track whether students complete an assignment for ELA, math, science, and social studies. If a student does not complete the assignment, he or she receives a negative point for the specific subject area. Students can also receive a negative point if they are unprepared for class. This really comes in handy when quantifying subjective data such as “work habits”, which appears as a grade on students’ quarterly report cards. At the end of each quarter I enter the date range of the quarter within the “Customized Report” and instantly have a number of missed assignments for each of my 97 students. This number is then translated into an O, S, or N based on a grading scale pre-determined by our administrators. The data truly makes my job of submitting these types of grades much easier.

Another great use of my ClassDojo account has been tracking my Junior Beta members’ service hours and meeting attendance. Just as I do with work habits, I create categories for meetings and projects we are completing. Members receive points for attending monthly meetings and completing service projects. This replaces hunting for sign-in sheets or begging for Beta folders to monitor student participation. By the end of the year I have collected a useful report of students’ individual hours and have guaranteed proof of hours earned. Once again, this omits the loss of documents and playing the guessing game on which member may have gained his or her hours in order to receive an award at the end of each year.


The amount of data that can be collected through ClassDojo is endless. I have already started a list of spreadsheets I will be converting to ClassDojo next school year. This list includes the large amount of signed paperwork students must submit each year prior to school starting, fees collected, forms returned, etc.

It’s time to think outside the “paper” box you collect each year and save yourself a lot of work!

Is it time to FLIP your classroom?

One goal at my school this year was to switch how we teach towards a flipped instructional model. On the surface, it may sound simple. Students learn from videos, online collaboration, and recorded lectures at home instead of at school; and voilà! — loads of valuable classroom time is freed up. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy.

Let me rewind back to phase one of our technology plan. Our first meeting revolved around questions like, “How come the Starbucks down the street only has one of those spaceship-looking thingies on the ceiling and about 200 people on the internet, while we have 5 of those things and no one can stream videos?” Yikes! Eventually, we figured out to send our most tech savvy staff to trainings and conferences to figure out our bandwidth issues!

Enter phase two — a 1:1 iPad program and full suite of great apps. We discovered a Learning Management System that allowed teachers to post assignments and videos, create “bundles” of lesson plans and units, and give students access to chat sessions, polls, and organizational systems. All year-long teachers and students collaborated to learn from each other using these amazing tools.

By phase three teachers were ready for seamless integration! I recall, in my relentless optimism, saying, “We aren’t going to assign any homework this year! It’s just practice!” I imagined shouts of joy, fist pumps, maybe even a student throwing a pile of worksheets in the air in ironic celebration of our new, paperless workflow.

By the end of the year it was clear that there were as many triumphs as there were challenges when it came to the flipped classroom. Both students and teachers agreed that organization was streamlined with an LMS, and we truly achieved a nearly paperless workflow. The copy machine soon lost its status as an activity hub and we got a Keurig! Students benefitted from the ability to review lessons online at any time and advanced students were able to work more independently and complete extra credit activities. Differentiation became easy and authentic. Students enjoyed online collaboration, something more familiar and natural for them. Everyone agreed that flipped homework was both meaningful and engaging — the way homework was meant to be.

Interestingly enough, the challenges we identified were some of the same associated with regular, old, technology-free teaching: lack of time for lesson development and the issue of incomplete homework assignments. The same culprits turned up unprepared for class. Without “pre-learning” the flipped model comes to a grinding halt. Teachers are once more faced with the choice of holding conscientious students back or plowing onward, regardless. Development and curation of bundles and lesson plans took hours and hours of prep time. It would have been very tempting for teachers to simply give up, considering these obstacles.

All things considered, year one of flipped instruction went well for us. If we were to do it all over again I’d recommend that other schools be sure to set aside as much teacher-training and preparation time as possible. Encourage your staff to “play” with this technology, make mistakes, and fail brilliantly. Start small. Ask teachers to post one video on your LMS per night. This might be all you get from tentative tech-users for a while, until students start asking for more — and they will. Know that effective teachers are not always effective online instructional designers, but blended learning can balance this out. Finally, remember that the flipped model is only a catalyst for learning. Students are still the center of the classroom and sound teaching methodologies and strategies are still as vital as ever.

Technology Rules! …literally

Before the school-year begins, you need to establish clear guidelines for technology in your classroom. Whether your school is 1:1 iPads, shared laptop carts, or computer labs, students need to know what is expected of them when they power up technology tools.

8 rules for technology in the classroom:

  1. “Apples Up!”: When teacher is talking, iPads must be face down on students’ desks.
  2. Use two hands to carry iPads or laptops. “Hug it like you love it!”: Great for younger students. Reminds students to hold the device to their chest. “Both thumbs on top!”: Good for older students. Students should stack books or papers beneath the device, then carry everything together.
  3. Never carry devices by a cover or lid.
  4. No food or drinks near devices. No devices in the lunchroom!
  5. Always use the app or website the teacher directed. No unauthorized apps or chatting.
  6. Wash hands before using any shared devices. We all know how easy it is for germs to spread like wildfire in a classroom!
  7. When technology time is up, save and power off quickly.
  8. Do not take iPad or laptop out of bag/desk/cart unless directed by teacher.

As a teacher, it also helps to set some guidelines for yourself when integrating technology into your lesson plans!

5 rules for technology in the classroom — for teachers:

  1. Make sure the technology adds real value.
  2. Set clear expectations and guidelines for students. Make sure they know the technology has real educational value and is more than a fun tool or distraction.
  3. Before any student work appears online, get administration and parental permission. No last names or location information!
  4. Test all apps and websites before having students use them. If there are bugs you’ll want to know what they are and how to fix them before class starts.
  5. Be open to student choice. Technology allows students to create animations, record podcasts, or make infographics all from the same device. Give students the freedom to explore outcomes that interest them.

Once you’ve established these guidelines, you and your students can start to enjoy the many benefits of technology in the classroom!

Engage students with ClassDojo: thoughts from an administrator

One of the easiest ways to gauge a teacher’s effectiveness is by watching their students’ behavior. What tips and tricks do they use to keep students in line and attentive throughout the day? ClassDojo is a free online tool that allows teachers to organize classes and keep track of positive and negative behaviors of students. There is also an app available that allows teachers to follow behaviors throughout the day, regardless of where they are.

As an administrator I have seen ClassDojo used in a variety of ways. Rather than focus on the typical use as a behavioral management tool, I particularly enjoy classrooms that take ClassDojo to the next level. There are a variety of ways that ClassDojo can be used to help teachers manage their classrooms that doesn’t involve separating the “good” students from the “bad”.

One creative way to use ClassDojo is to edit the award titles to reflect concepts and skills taught in that particular classroom. This draws attention to different student learning objectives. “I mastered fractions” means more to a student than a teacher checking off a homework packet once a week. Obviously it would be time consuming to differentiate awards based on assignment, but concepts would be easy. Providing students with a visual where they can track their progress increases students’ awareness in a transparent way.

As a fourth grade teacher I would create a checklist for every assignment or project. Students would highlight or check off their name when they completed their work. ClassDojo can be thought of as an engaging, high tech version of the checklist. Teachers can create award titles through ClassDojo that teach students responsibility such as, “name on paper,” “correct heading,” “double checked work,” etc.

Lower grade teachers who have students rotate through stations could change their award titles to reflect each area and keep track of who has completed what. High school teachers could use ClassDojo to track novels, reports, or genius-hour projects.

Another amazing feature of ClassDojo is that parents can create accounts, giving them the ability to see how their student is doing in real time. In the world of IEPs and behavioral plans this is an easy way to keep parents involved with what is going on in the classroom. Parents will appreciate the ease of staying in the loop through reports as well as ClassDojo Messaging! The simplicity of this tool is a win-win!

Regardless of how you choose to use ClassDojo, get creative and make it work for your students!