Thursday, 30 October 2014

Support Reading Across any Subject with NewsELA and Diigo

Our school has been focusing on literacy this year and I found a great platform that I've been using to help teach reading of current events in the science classroom AND focus on reading skills and strategies. NewsELA can be installed into your chrome browser and has a host of news articles that you as a teacher can "assign" to students after you create you own classroom code and share it with them so you can track their progress over time.

View of articles on the NewsELA article page. Students can test themselves on "assigned" readings or based on interest. 

In the past, I would find articles on major news outlines and copy the links into a website for access. NewsELA grabs articles from major news outlets which ensures that topics are relevant and global and rewrites them at a number of different reading levels. The big plus that drew me to this was that students can select the reading level that is appropriate for them. If they've done MAP score testing, MAP generates a "lexile score" which is zone of proximal development with reading abilities and being able to choose a level that is good for them and MUCH easier than creating different tiered readings. As a teacher, you can dictate which levels students should read. If they're more accelerated readers, you can suggest higher levels, or drop it down for emergent readers.

As students generate data, patterns emerge as to who is on grade level. Image courtesy of

When working with reading development in the science classroom, I didn't know how effective my instruction was over the year until external assessments in the spring. To show effectiveness earlier, NewsELA shows progress in real-time and also generates a personalized "report" to show growth over time of individual students. After enough quizzes are taken, reading skills can be filtered to show how well a student can identify word meanings, text structure, central idea and arguments and claims. Just to name a few.

A students progress and reading level over time. Image courtesy of

Enter Diigo to Individualize Instruction and Focus Reading Skills Development

Diigo is a tool that allows you to annotate, highlight and save web articles, and it's for this reason that is becomes very handy for specific reading tasks. MAP and WIDA generates a list of tasks that individuals can focus on, and class lists and Descartes analysis on MAP will suggest a suggested activities for individuals such as:

  • Identify topic sentences, main ideas, and details in paragraphs
  • Differentiate between fact and opinion
  • Identify frequently used affixes and root words to make/extract meaning
  • Identify multiple meanings of a word in context ("Cell", "Table")

As students all have different areas of growth to work on with reading development, it can be made easier to group students together and use this highlighter to practice skills and share them with one another.

Class Diigo highlights and discussion points based on group tasks. 

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Hour of Code!

The annual "Hour of Code" is coming! Our school is getting on board and my colleague Lori and I will use our science classes in the middle school for a designated time for students to access the "Hour of Code Website" and navigate through tutorials of their choosing. There is a misconception that coding is only for computer teachers or ICT staff. Before I started, most of my coding experience was relegated to tinkering with height and width code numbers for embedding youtube videos, working with scratch animation, and the occasional formula when working with Google spreadsheets. What I didn't know, was that many of the formulas that I used with spreadsheets were a entry-level form of Javascript and not too technical for even me.

Image courtesy of

Although Code Academy has a number of free tutorials to explore, I've taken it upon myself to participate in the 20 hour "Intro to Computer Science" course. So far, I've done the basic tutorials, but I can't believe how much fun it is. My first program that I wrote is using block programming to draw a symmetrical set of polygons. All of the tutorials that I have done so far are a blend between instructional videos and a break afterwards to practice what you've learned. Here is a familiar character giving one of the lesson tutorials on "if" statements:

I'm going to reserve judgement at this time, and at this stage of my coding ability, I have yet to see the applications of coding in the science classroom, but I hope with more experience, I can provide advice on how one could use this with students. Until then, I'm going to ask any readers out there:

When was the last time you tried something new? 

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Academic Literacy-Part 4: Innovative Literacies

At this time last year, we were planning for earth week. Not earth day, which is in the spring, but earth week. My wife and I were in charge of planning earth week for the entire MS, and a thread that came out of the planning process was the story of a young man in Los Angeles named Caine Monroy who had built an arcade in his father's auto parts store. One day, a young filmmaker named Nirvan Mullick walked in to buy a rearview mirror and wanted to make a short movie of Caine and his arcade which he posted on social media, namely Reddit.

Caine's arcade exploded. People were coming from the airport and celebrities even were endorsing this such as Jack Black and educational reformers such as Sir Ken Robinson were advocating for maker culture in schools. The excitement was not confined to that side of the ocean. Soon after, a movement was started that spread to other countries and schools that were advocating for maker culture. Our school jumped on board and I even made a video of the culminating day which spilled over to a skype chat with Nirvan Mullick himself, and a buddy of mine (who is 100 times the filmmaker I am) who made a school-wide video of Caine's arcade that was actually was chose as the 2nd best video in the world for the global cardboard challenge. See it below:

Saigon South Int'l School: Caine's Arcade/Cardboard Challenge 2013 from jeff nesmith on Vimeo.

What I really liked about the whole experience is that it gave students a chance to play, be creative, which brings us to our fourth of academic literacies: Innovative Literacies.

Innovative Literacy Defined
We've all heard the mantras in educational reform that many of the jobs of the future don't even exist yet and we need to raise generations of graduates who are flexible, adaptive and creative. Creating legions of knowledge reproducing test takers is no longer good enough. Perhaps good enough to get a good enough mark on the SAT and a desireable college acceptance letter. Still, innovative literacies are literacies that encourage students to apply their knowledge laterally to other domains and even cut across multiple subjects. As such, innovative literacy is a way of coming up with new, creative approaches and prompts inquiry and curiosity.

"Students won't develop innovative literacies until we see their value and provide students the opportunities to explore these curiosities"
David's Connection
We had a collaborative discussion yesterday in science class on the conceptual (or guiding) question: "Why do some organisms have more of a right to life than others? For example, why do we want to save a polar bear from extinction but don't mind killing a mosquito?" Since we've been learning about microscopic life and their value to the ecosystem and their importance to a number of products, it seemed like a good point to apply their knowledge across multiple domains. The kids made great connections such as we empathise more with organisms whose child rearing habits are the same as ours and also how an organisms proximity to extinction will only then prompt our protection.

However, the most powerful statement that I heard came after the discussion from a quiet boy named "David" who isn't normally chatty. On his way out, he said to me:

"Mr. J, our different value systems for living things is just like racism. Some people discriminate against others just because they think they're inferior"

Implementing in the Classroom
Caine's arcade was a school-wide initiatives so it was easy to get on board and feel the magic. However, after such phenomena, it's easy to want to relapse into business as usual. Some ideas that I think cultivate areas for classroom teachers are:
  • 20% Time. Giving your students time to explore subjects that are interesting to them. Some schools are doing some DYNAMITE work with 20% time and students are creating amazing work, which reminds me of a....
  • Personal Project. For all you fans of the IB I am overcome with awe when I see what students are doing for their personal projects be it building a guitar, teaching someone to play music, or inventing better hand soap. 
  • STEM Initiatives. It's easy for science teachers to have elements of maker culture in physical science, but a cross-collaboration with grade level teachers can integrate aspects of writing and art. The math teacher and I teamed up to develop a project wherein students engineered a distillation apparatus as seen below: 

  1. Van Amelsvoort M. (2006) A space for debate. How diagrams support collaborative argumentation-based learning. 
  2. Graff, G. (2003) Clueless in Academe: How schooling obscures the life of the mind. 
Related Posts
  1. Academic Literacy Part 1-Digital Literacies
  2. Academic Literacy Part 2-Argumentative Literacies
  3. Academic Literacy Part 3-Collaborative Literacies