Top 10 ISTE takeaways for English teachers

ISTE always overwhelms me by its size and scope, and in Denver, I wanted to come home with tools and resources specific to teaching English and Language Arts.  Here are ten edtech tools and resources I think English teachers can leverage to increase engagement and deepen learning.  #1-2 are whimsical, #3-5 relate to classroom interaction, #6-7 deal with reading, and #8-10 help with writing and writing feedback.

1. Call Me Ishmael

Students brainstorm a book that's challenged or delighted them. They call a phone number. They leave a voicemail reflecting on the book's effect on them. These voicemails get turned into typewriter animations by the site's curator. Here's an example from a reader who was moved by The Catcher in the Rye.

2. Vocabulary Size Test

This 50-question vocabulary quiz of synonyms and antonyms attempts to gauge the overall size of a user's English lexicon. Students could complete this in 5-10 minutes as a reminder that our vocabularies will always grow with reading and speaking daily. I might use this as a precursor to Membean's diagnostic tool. Other free sites include Test Your Vocab and My Vocabulary Size. (Each varies in its methodology.)

 The author's results.

The author's results.

3. Docent EDU

This tool allows teachers to assign any reading passage (from a website) and interpose comprehension and reflection questions. Requires a subscription.

4. Quizizz

Much like Kahoot! and Quizlet Live, Quizizz is a game platform that allows a classroom of students in real time to answer questions on their devices. Quizizz would make for a great prelection tool. Teachers could create, say, a ten-question quiz on a newly introduced era of American Literature, and students would -- at their own rate -- complete the Quizizz. Teachers get real-time data (Excel spreadsheet of results) and students compete to ascend the leaderboard.

 A sample Quizizz that could be used as a pre- or post-test activity.

A sample Quizizz that could be used as a pre- or post-test activity.

5. TeachersPick (iOS app)

I've been using DecideNow to spin a wheel and randomly call on students during class discussions. TeachersPick is a digital popsicle-stick picker that does the same but with the ability to track who's been called on and who hasn't as well as add emojis to gauge engagement.

6. Books that Grow

If you have a struggling reader who might abandon a reading passage on account of its difficulty, and you had the opportunity to give her the same passage at incrementally easier reading levels, might you try it? Books that Grow take public domain works and scale their reading levels to engage all readers.  This webapp allows students to read MLK's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," for example, in four versions, from level 2 to 4 to 6 to 8. The subscription model allows teachers to create classes and deploy reading assignments within classes. Students might start reading something at a Level 7 and then reread it at Level 9. The goal, it seems, is to get students invested in the content on the path to eventually engaging the primary source text.

 Screenshot from BooksThatGrow's Level 4 rendition of MLK's famous letter.

Screenshot from BooksThatGrow's Level 4 rendition of MLK's famous letter.

7. Common Lit

CommonLit.org is a free repository of texts grouped by theme or genre that can be distributed by teachers to students or read online. Each text has a contextual background preface, footnotes for challenging vocabulary, text-dependent comprehension questions for students to answer, and discussion prompts. I've seen quality fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and primary documents in the collection.

 Screenshot from the "Lady of Shalott" page on CommonLit.org. Notice the mouse-over footnotes, the gray box with the contextual background info, and the questions on the right.

Screenshot from the "Lady of Shalott" page on CommonLit.org. Notice the mouse-over footnotes, the gray box with the contextual background info, and the questions on the right.

8. StoryDice (iOS app) and Rory's Story Cubes (iOS app)

Both priced at $1.99, these apps gamify creative writing tasks.  Students roll the digital StoryDice to get icons representing characters, setting, and plot. Rory's version presents players with nine dice and up to 10 million combinations of scenarios to inspire creative quick writes or impromptu oral stories.

 Screenshot from the StoryDice app. Create a story from the face-up icons.

Screenshot from the StoryDice app. Create a story from the face-up icons.

 Screenshot from the Rory's Story Cubes app. Keep a few static and roll the rest for a plot twist or character revelation.

Screenshot from the Rory's Story Cubes app. Keep a few static and roll the rest for a plot twist or character revelation.

9. SAS Writing Reviser

This Google Docs add-on gives student writers a small suite of revising tools.  Perhaps your student is struggling to embrace the active voice. Maybe your students begin every sentence with a Subject-Verb opener.  Dangling modifiers? Lack of parallelism? SAS Writing Reviser highlights within a student's text in Google Docs areas for revision: economy, variety, power, and clarity. If you have students with Chromebooks, this is a great add-on.  SAS Writing Reviser is part of a larger application that works on iPads, too, called SAS Writing Navigator.

 Screenshot of a Google Doc with the SAS Writing Reviser add-on to the right. This student began most sentences with the Subject-verb opening. By highlighting these openings, SAS gives the student a visualization of the impact of monotonous syntax.

Screenshot of a Google Doc with the SAS Writing Reviser add-on to the right. This student began most sentences with the Subject-verb opening. By highlighting these openings, SAS gives the student a visualization of the impact of monotonous syntax.

10. The Graide Network

Imagine an undergraduate student who wants to become a teacher. That student volunteers to be your virtual teaching assistant who will grade student work according to your assignment protocols and your assessment rubric. The Graide Network provides teachers the ability to add another layer of substantive feedback to student writing. I imagine using this for early drafts of major writing assignments.

 Screenshot from the results of The Graide Network's end-of-year teacher survey.

Screenshot from the results of The Graide Network's end-of-year teacher survey.

Emoji Literacy, Face with Tears of Joy, Domino's, and Urban Dictionary

When I did my MA in Linguistics, I spent a year studying urbandictionary.com, a collaboratively authored online slang dictionary. While students and parents continue to use that resource as an arbiter of meaning for the evolving lexicon of the masses, emojis have since supplanted many slang words as daily topics for debate, but as with slang, emojis seem to evade codification.  Even Oxford Dictionaries 2015 word-of-the-year, the "Face with Tears of Joy" emoji, did not produce universal understanding among my students.

"Face with Tears of Joy" emoji. Oxford Dictionaries 2015 word-of-the-year

Recently, when I asked my students to associate an emoji with the feeling they got when thinking about the American Dialect Society's 2015 word-of-the-year, singular they, they did not agree on the meanings for the various smiley faces.

Here is how students reacted when I queried them on polleverywhere.com. Notice where each student dropped their green pin (see what I did there with singular their?): sunglass face, smirky face, tongue-wag face.  Perhaps these are self-evident emojis, but others caused fierce debate. Is a droplet of water always a tear or always sweat or neither? Do emojis perspire due to emoji exertion or emoji despair?  Is there emoji existential panic?  Why do emojis fume with emoji nasal blasts?  Do purple devil emojis only get the benefit of two emotions?

 polleverywhere.com

polleverywhere.com

Some distinctions in meaning are moot. Does the red face mean 'angry' or 'perturbed' or 'fuming'? Is a rosy-cheeked kissy face caused by puppy love or a passion more amorous?

But other emojis, my students demonstrated, demand scrutiny and debate.  Is an upturned smile always sinister? Is a flat mouth neutral -- that is, halfway between a smile and a frown -- or something else entirely?

To solve this mystery, I engaged -- of course -- Domino's Pizza.  In 2004, it was a student who turned me on to urbandictionary.com ("Mr. Damaso, you're in the dictionary.").  A decade later, two students came into class early to give me a playing card deck, a stack of cards imprinted with the Domino's logo depicting single emojis or sometimes strings of emojis with corresponding definitions and usages on the back.  I guess I'm turning to giant pizza retailers now for all of my pictographic standardization and codification needs.  Yes, there's the Emoji Dictionary and Emojipedia and Wikimoji, but I'm going with Domino's because Domino's.

Domino's reports on its companion website that demand was great for these decks, and they're all out. (Don't worry: You can still print your own.)  The deck promotes "Emoji Literacy," but in the end, of course, pizza sales become the clear objective of this promotion. Apparently, there are many ways to eat pizza and many reasons why.

 Left to right: 'hey girl, hey,' 'relaxing,' 'trying to work out,' and 'speechless.'

Here are a few of my favorites in the Emoji Literacy deck from left to right: 'hey girl, hey,' 'relaxing,' 'trying to work out,' and 'speechless.'