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.

Use a Coordinate Axis PollEverywhere Question to Start Engaging Conversations in Class

Last week I learned from Derek Bruff that I can create a scatterplot x-y coordinate axis poll in PollEverywhere. I've been using these graphs to stimulate conversations in class about guest speakers, readings, and even the podcast Serial.   Multiple choice and free response questions and even the newer discourse feature of PollEverywhere allow students to express opinions, but there is something about dropping a pin on a plane that allows for nuance of expression. With coordinate axis polls, I can challenge my students to assess a writer's bias, a speaker's believability, a story's dynamics, an essay's coherence,  etc.  Here's how I do it:

Step 1: Create the x-y axis graph

Using directional arrows and some text boxes in Word, I place oppositional words at the top and bottom of the y-axis and left and right of the x-axis. I take a screenshot, and then upload the .jpg as a clickable image to PollEverywhere. 

Step 2: Deploy the poll and freeze the screen (or "hide click markers") 

I make the poll full-screen and project it for student view.  Students can navigate to the poll on their smartphones or computers.  You can allow them to drop multiple pins, but for this exercise, I limit them to a single pin.  They read the question and drop a pin.   Was the keynote speaker very relatable but just a bit vague? Was she hyper-detailed but not relatable to the teenage audience?

Step 3: Small group share

Students share their screens with a nearby peer or two and justify the exact placement of their pin on the x-y axis. I invite students to share their answers in pairs or triads for just 2-3 minutes before returning to the large group.

Step 4: Large group share

I then ask students to share the profits of their small group discussions. You may even ask them to predict where most of the pins will appear when you unfreeze the poll. Perhaps a particular quadrant.  PollEv allows you to designate a square as the "correct" answer if you wish.

Step 5: Unfreeze screen (or "Show Click Markers")

PollEverywhere has a button that allows you to reveal or conceal the dropped pins, so a teacher can either "freeze" the screen (using the remote for the projector) or simply select the pin icon to show/hide the dropped pins.

Here are some examples from this week of teaching. Notice how clustering of viewpoint may occur. Students can be randomly called upon to stand and justify their pin's placement. Students could move to the four quadrants of the classroom to represent the quadrants of the coordinate axis graph and continue the conversation that way.

Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Bias and Thoroughness in the reporting of Sarah Koenig in the hit podcast Serial

Relatability and Detail in a character's experience in Cormac McCarthy's The Road

How do you use continua or scatterplot data to help students investigate the grays of seemingly black and white questions?

Google Docs for Collaborative Text Annotations

As a way into a poem with students, I often "crowd-source" the initial analysis through collaborative text annotation in Google Docs. Today I read them the poem "There Will Come Soft Rains" by Sara Teasdale. They were familiar with the poem from Ray Bradbury's short story of the same title. After reading the poem aloud (displayed onscreen), I said, "Go!" and each student was tasked with highlighitnig and commenting on a single word in the poem with a somewhat vague charge: annotate the word for its significance.

Students analyze diction choices in the Teasdale poem and then deepen the analysis by replying to each other.

In three to five minutes, you get a fully annotated poem and many inroads to conversation about rhyme, poetic devices, allusions, imagery, on and on.  Docs on the iPad is a little clumsy for students to navigate, but touch-holding a highlighted word will allow them to see the comment and then reply to it.  I encourage students to deepen the analysis of the word in question or to ask a follow-up for the original commenter. 

Today I showed them the Lit Genius page for "There Will Come Soft Rains" and said, "We can do better than this." They did.