Using the ShowMe App

This post is by Bree Valvano, an English teacher at Randolph High School


Last year I wrote a blog entry about the app ShowMe which allows the user to create tutorials on a whiteboard that can be uploaded and shared with others. Since then, I have been creating videos with the app to help my students gain a better understanding of how to annotate a text. I believe these videos are a valuable resource for students who may need extra reinforcements.

However, after attending a web conference on using tablets in the classroom, I heard about another interesting way to use this app in the classroom. The speakers in the web conference suggested having students use the app to create their own videos. Since I now have access to five iPads for my students, I thought this would be a great way to make my classroom more student focused. By doing this, students will be able to demonstrate their ability to use their active reading skills and share their ideas with others.

I plan to try this idea out in a week or so in my English IVB classes. I have already posted a few videos on Blackboard to model how to annotate a text (you can see a sample here). Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 8.18.34 PMNext, I plan to have students work in small groups, using their own annotations of chapters from The Kite Runner, to create their own videos. I am hoping that this lesson allows me to assess what students are picking out of the novel and help them improve their ability to actively read a text. Once the videos are completed, students will share the link with me, and I will post them on our class Blackboard page. If all goes as planned, we will also use this tool when reading the more complex play Hamlet later this semester.  I am hoping that the students enjoy taking ownership of their own learning and enjoy hearing their own voices, and the voices of their peers, as they talk through the process of breaking down the text.

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I don’t want my fellow teachers to think that this will only work in the English classroom. I think this idea could work in any subject area. Students in a math classroom could create videos to demonstrate how to use a specific formula or demonstrate how to solve a problem. Students in a science classroom could demonstrate their thinking when completing a lab or explaining how the life cycle works. Students in a history classroom could demonstrate how they would annotate a primary source document. Really, the possibilities are endless. I believe that if we put the responsibility of learning in the hands of the students, we will be pleasantly surprised.

Bringing History to Life With Docs Teach

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A sample activity from Docs Teach

Primary sources are the backbone of successful history classes. Using original documents to investigate the past makes history more real for students by giving them access Screen Shot 2014-10-12 at 9.24.00 AMto documents and ideas created by people who were alive during the time period being studied. “Bringing young people into close contact with these unique, often profoundly personal, documents and objects,” notes the Library of Congress, “can give them a very real sense of what it was like to be alive during a long-past era.” Now, the National Archives has brought many primary sources to life by creating a flash-based site where teachers can assign students ready-to-use activities or create their own fun ways to have students analyze primary sources. Students can then use computers or iPads to complete tasks, sending their analyses of the documents directly to the teacher via e-mail.

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Three of the seven activity templates available on the site

Called Docs Teach, this primary source platform developed by the National Archives might be one of the simplest and most engaging websites I have seen for use in history classrooms. Did I mention that it’s free? Teachers have the ability to select their own activity-creation tool from the seven available models, find appropriate primary sources from the thousands housed on the site, then add their own assessment questions to the activity based on the model selected and current focus of a class. If you’re new to Docs Teach, I recommend searching for the activities created by the National Archives Education Team, as these are great examples of what is possible on the site (click on “activities” on the top menu bar, then “browse”, then “featured activities”).

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Sample assessment activity

Teachers with class sets of iPads can create their own lessons, then have students log in to their assigned classroom and complete the activities using the Docs Teach iPad app. With their iPads, students can analyze primary sources and then send their answers directly to the teacher. For a twist, teachers with access to laptops can even have students create their own primary source activities and questions to assess classmates. Since Docs Teach is flash-based, activities cannot be created on iPads but can be completed on them. Each activity is given its own unique URL which makes sharing them easy. Searching and creating on the site is simple as the National Archives has divided the content on their site into eight historical eras starting with the Revolution and ending with contemporary issues. The connections to history classes are obvious with Docs Teach but the ability for English teachers teaching American literature to use the site to connect historical information to the texts being studied in class is an added benefit. The National Archives has succeeded in bringing the gamification of education to primary sources. Teachers should consider investigating this tremendous resource and adding it to their classroom activities. The learning curve is not steep; I think I’ve got the site down and how to create lessons in less than an hour.

For a host of video tutorials on how to use Docs Teach click here.

To learn how to assign student activities to the Docs Teach iPad app click here.

Our Big Read (Chapter One)


This year, the teachers and administrators in our high school decided to participate in a big read. The Big Read was originally a program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts to promote literacy in a community. The idea behind a big read is for people from diverse backgrounds to come together and discuss a text. Our high school decided to try a modified version of this with teachers and administrators. So, today, over 150 people came together to begin reading our selected book and discuss teaching strategies. Our book this year is Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. Make It Stick is a book about how we learn and the many strategies that can be implemented to help people become more productive learners. In my opinion, it is essential reading for anyone in education interested in improving how they organize lessons for students and how they assess student understanding.

Over the course of the year on this blog, I’ll describe how we discussed the text as we read it and the ways it might influence how we teach. Today, our five departments in the high school spent two hours reading the first chapter and discussing its contents in small and large groups. The humanities department used the following questions based on chapter one to guide reading and discussion:

  • Why is learning misunderstood?
  • How do schools get learning wrong?
  • How do schools get learning right?
  • Why do the authors say, “learning is an acquired skill, and the most effective strategies are often counterintuitive”?
  • How does the myth of repetitive practice influence our teaching?
  • Do you agree with Einstein that “creativity is more important than knowledge”?
  • What is the power of active retrieval?
  • How can what you learned in chapter one influence your teaching this week?

Like the humanities department, the STEM department also focused their discussions on finding specific strategies from the reading that can be implemented in classrooms and sharing those strategies with their groups.

For many of us, our big takeaway from chapter one was understanding that learning can be difficult, and in many respects should be difficult–with students being allowed to learn from mistakes. Letting students grapple with difficult concepts prior to instruction can lead to lasting benefits in terms of how material is remembered. Not to spoil things for our big read community, but I’ve become fascinated with the research of the Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner who becomes a minor figure later in the book. In my opinion, his concept of “errorless learning“–the idea that errors are not necessary for learning to occur–has exerted a great influence in the field of education as many teachers (myself included) can sometime shy away from allowing students to make mistakes and then learn from them. After reading chapter one, many people I talked with felt that adjusting their instruction to bring more problem solving to their classrooms might benefit students as it will encourage them to take chances as they solve problems and learn from the mistakes they might make in the process. I have already received e-mails from teachers who are beginning to tweak their lessons to incorporate a more generative approach to instruction with lessons based on traditional problem- and project-based learning models or by using a SOLE lesson with their classes.

Make It Stick has had a profound impact on how I think about teaching and learning. I’m excited that our teachers and administrators will begin using the book throughout the year to serve as a framework for how we discuss instruction and assessment. I’ll update the blog with how we’re using it during the year and the types of questions it raises during discussions. I really think Make It Stick is one of the most important books about learning that has been written in some time.

Reflections on a Year of Blogging

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Randolphhum’s most frequent visitors by country

Thank you, WordPress. It was about one year ago that I started a blog for our high school humanities department. I decided to call the blog Randolphhum for obvious reasons. In hindsight, I might have selected a more powerful name. Maybe “Schoolhouse 2.0″ or “Educational Smackdown” or “Reflections From a Sweater Vest Wearer” would have been better? I wasn’t sure where the blog would take me, but I’ve been thrilled with the journey. Writing a blog has enabled me to sit down, process my thoughts, explore themes in education, and refine my writing. Over the course of a year, I have been joined by some members of our humanities department to write over 45 blog posts that have been read over 3,500 times by people all over the world. Randolphhum’s blog posts have covered everything from curriculum to educational technology to assessment theory. Over the course of a year, people from 73 countries have checked out what we’re doing in our department and school. Having the ability to convey thoughts and the actions of a school to a global audience is empowering–and a bit nerve-racking.

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Full count of visitors to the blog from September 2013 to this Sunday morning.

The most popular story every published on our blog was a post titled 3 Free Ways to Change Classroom Dynamics. The least popular post? It was called Using Children’s Books to Engage Young (and Adult) Writers and I probably spent more time writing that post than any of the others (my wife warned me that one stunk). Seriously, only eleven people wanted to read that? It’s clear when looking at the blog’s statistics that readers favor shorter posts that focus on educational technology. Posts about computer coding, Mozilla, and flipped learning were all popular. Above all else, readers want to know about innovative products or theories and how they can make a difference in classrooms immediately.

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…thought we’d be more popular in Nepal?

The biggest thrill about our department’s blog is when someone else submits a post to be published. When a teacher takes the time to write something about a classroom experience or an idea that they are passionate about and submits it for our blog, I think it’s unbelievable. Teachers have submitted posts dealing with their favorite icebreaker, how they have started to use Google Drive, and new iPad apps making a difference in their classroom. In a way, our blog can become a virtual idea workshop, as we all begin to learn from one another and share our successes with the world. I know that some of the amazing things I’ve seen going on in our school’s classrooms would make fantastic blog posts in the future. It’s intimidating staring at a blank computer screen and trying to get your words to make sense for a post. However, it can also be liberating. I think blogging can make a difference in an organization or school and that, in 2014, we need to use all the tools at our disposal to share our teaching stories. We have the ability to put our stories out to the entire world with the click of a button. I hope more educators begin to do so.

Thanks to the following educational bloggers who have inspired me to start (and continue) this journey:

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All the countries that have clicked to our site




Our Department’s iPad Initiative


This post is by Bree Valvano, an English teacher at Randolph High School

file.aspxI feel very fortunate to be one of five teachers selected to be part of the iPad initiative program in the Randolph High School Humanities Department. Our school recently purchased a number of classroom sets of iPads that are housed in Tech Tubs, a locking and recharging solution for tablets or Chromebooks. Since being selected, I have thought about how I can share some of the tools I find with others. I thought the best way to share this experience would be to post entries, outlining my findings, to the humanities blog. So here is my first entry.

After downloading some of my “go to” tools, such as Nearpod and Showme, I started to do a little research to find other apps I can use in the classroom. Over the long weekend I found two interesting apps that I will be trying out in my English IV classroom.

The first app is called Smule Auto Rap. This free app allows the user to record a short Auto_Rapspoken clip and the app turns the clip into a rap that can be shared via email. I thought this would be a great way to make “do nows” and/or “exit tickets” more fun and relevant for the students. I plan on trying it out when students start reading The Kite Runner. I am going to have students record their reactions to pivotal events in the book, and after recording their responses and turning them into raps, they can share their recordings with other students and eventually email them to me. I feel like this could end up being a fun way to share their reactions and check for understanding.

Trading_CardsThe next app I found this weekend is called Trading Cards, and it is made by the people who run the ReadWriteThink web site. This free app allows the
user to create a trading card of information. This information could be about a character, a historical event, a novel, or a concept. Students are able to add up to 120 characters of information for each question asked and a photo. The trading card can be saved to use later when studying for a test and/or shared with others.

Again, I am so excited to be part of this initiative, and I look forward to sharing more information about helpful apps as I continue to find them.

Power Posing


Two years ago, Amy Cuddy gave one of the most famous TED talks ever. Viewed by over 20 million people, her video currently ranks as the #2 most watched TED talk ever (Sir Ken Robinson’s “How Schools Kill Creativity” is #1). In her talk, Amy discussed the science behind nonverbal communication–basically, how our body language can help shape who we are. In a series of studies, Any found that people who sit in high-power poses for a few minutes show an increase in testosterone and a decrease in cortisol, which is a hormone small-changes-in-body-language-change-your-body-chemistryreleased in response to stress. So, her findings indicated people who sit or stand in high-power positions are generally more confident, assertive, and do better in stressful situations than people who sit or stand in low-power positions. Standing in power poses for just two minutes can have a big impact on how you feel about yourself. “So it seems that our nonverbals do govern how we think and feel about ourselves,” concluded Amy in her talk. Check out Amy’s talk below. I think it would be interesting to have students practice their power poses before taking a test. Would it help them feel more confident? Would they do better on their assessments? Would they feel better about themselves?

Amy’s TED talk, however, is about more than just posture. It’s about rising to challenges and believing in yourself until everyone else knows you belong. This weekend I tried my own “power pose” and agreed to give a talk for The Educator Collaborative’s first ever day of online professional development. The Collaborative is a think tank and professional development provider founded by the educator, Chris Lehman. In all honesty, I was worried I didn’t belong. Some of the people presenting yesterday are beyond impressive. I mean, Donalyn Miller and Rafranz Davis andand-thats-the-key-message-for-all-of-us-professor-cuddy-says Jen Serravallo! What a group! I couldn’t help but think: “Am I supposed to be here?” But, I had to do it. As Amy says in her talk, if you do something that makes you uncomfortable you have to go for it. And you have to keep trying. “Don’t leave that situation feeling like, oh, I didn’t show them who I am,” she says in her closing. “Leave that situation feeling like, oh, I really feel like I got to say who I am and show who I am.” So, I stressed for days and days, but went for it. I gave my talk. It’s on YouTube forever. I had never talked to my computer for 45 minutes before but I did it. I wasn’t perfect but it’s done. I think I showed who I am…and here it is:

I’m glad I did it. The next time your students feel uncomfortable or think they don’t belong, share Amy’s story and have them do a power pose.

All the sessions from yesterday’s professional development opportunity can be found here. There are about 12 hours of free professional development to be had whenever you need some inspiration. Just use the drop down menu on the top of your screen to select which presenter you would like to see.

Big History

Nasa/JPL-Caltech via Big History Project

It’s not every day that history is the cover story of The New York Times Magazine. This weekend, however, saw the cover devoted to Bill Gates and his dream to reimagine how students are taught world history. It’s called the Big History Project and is a collaborative project between Gates and a professor from Australia named David Christian. As Andrew Ross Sorkin details in the story, Gates became enchanted by a series of  48 lectures Christian had put together for “Great Courses” on world history, called “Big History.” To Gates’ surprise, Christian did not take a conventional approach to teaching the history of the world. Instead, as Sorkin writes, Christian “put forward a synthesis of history, biology, chemistry, astronomy and other disparate fields…into nothing less than a unifying narrative of life on earth.” You can get a sense of Christian’s style and what Big History is about by watching his 2011 Ted Talk:

What Gates and Christian hope to do is to bring their vision of history–this mixture of the sciences and the arts–to classrooms everywhere. A free curriculum with resources are available online for schools to use. According to Sorkin, about 1,200 schools throughout the country will offer the course to students this year. While this doesn’t seem like much, considering there are over 35,000 secondary schools in the country, it is significant considering the project started in just five high schools in 2011. Gates has used part of his vast fortune, and Christian’s charisma, to promote this endeavor. They both hope over time to see Big History implemented in most schools, supplanting the traditional world history course that has been taught pretty consistently since the 1970s.

While I’m no expert on the Big History Project, I think it might be worth a look. Teachers can register for more information here. I just don’t know enough about the course to offer a critique at this point. At its core, I think Big History might be useful because it does what many successful history teachers do in their classes–it shows connections between events that happened in the past with what is going on today. It encourages students to make connections. It’s why when my students studied the Middle East, we’d also listen to Malala Yousafzai and learn her story. Or, when we studied the industrial revolution we would also study current revolutions, like those happening in fields like synthetic biology. When we fail to make connections and show relevance between events in the past and our own lives and passions, the study of history will fall flat. Do we need a new world history curriculum? I’m not sure, but I’m always ready to listen and learn.

Rethinking Our First Day of School

Ever read a course syllabus to students on the first day a class meets? How about outlining your grading expecations? Have you had students fill out an index card with their contact information? I know these are not great ways to start off the school year since I’m guilty of trying all three. When I first started teaching I took a rather “conventional” approach to the first day since that is what I thought I was supposed to do. I realized many years later that there were far better ways to spend my first minutes with students. With this post, I’m encouraging readers to be original and creative with how they plan their first day of school. Let’s save the course syllabus reading for a homework assignment and instead start the school year off with some student-centered activities guaranteed to set a positive tone for the entire year. Here are two examples of how to get there:

Can you guess what this is?

Hands-On Learning. One of my favorite opening-day activities was a hands-on approach to learning. My co-teacher and I set out historical artifacts in brown paper bags at different tables and had students in groups of four try to guess what each artifact was. They had about five minutes to examine the artifact, fill out a chart asking them to identify the material(s) used to create the artifact, time period they think it was from, and what they thought the purpose of the artifact was. They worked collaboratively to try to find the answers. After five minutes, groups would rotate to a new station. Students were so engaged in guessing what items were, I don’t think they realized they never got a chance to sit down. After six or seven rotations, students would share their findings with the class. Then, we had the big reveal. Have you figured out what the artifact pictured above is? It’s a glass insulator from a telephone pole. Students rarely got this one. And, since I was a  history teacher, it was a natural segue into a conversation about electrification, the industrial revolution, and westward expansion. Raid your attic,mIAnov-ZsBEFmzBKWOJrddQ go to a swap meet, or visit a garage sale. In about an hour, you’ll have a collection of artifacts that will have students scratching their heads and asking, “what is this!” To date, no student ever figured out that this was a Victorian Age knife rest.

Generative Learning. Try starting off the first day with a problem. Generative learning is at the root of problem- and project-based learning. Generative learning is a process where students attempt to solve a problem without the benefit of being taught how. They have to use prior knowledge, their experiences, and new information to arrive at an understanding or solution. Think of the first unit you’ll be teaching this year, or a larger theme, and create a problem for students to solve. Give them 20-30 minutes to work together in groups and let 7212809_origthem tackle the task. For inspiration, think of a problem around the framework of a SOLE lesson (Self-Organized Learning Environment), Sugata Mitra’s inspiring (and oft-critized) model for teaching. Can a poem change the world? Why do humans have two lungs? Why was the Gettysburg Address so important? What was Native American society really like before 1492? These are examples of problems that students will struggle with and will need to answer collaboratively. Start the school year with a generative learning task. An added benefit is that it will offer a glimpse of students’ prior knowledge and problem solving capability. For SOLE stories from around the world, visit this SOLE Tumblr.

Redesign your first-day plans to feature hands-on, authentic learning experiences for students. Think about it this way: Would I be excited by this lesson? Save time by flipping your expectations and syllabus as these teachers and school have. Have a great first day!

Here is a link to download the SOLE Toolkit.

Using Children’s Books to Engage Young (and Adult) Writers


Tucked away in The Times a few weeks ago was a short essay titled “What Writers Can Learn From Goodnight Moon.” In the piece, Aimee Bender deconstructs the classic Margaret Wise Brown children’s tale. One night, while cracking open Goodnight Moon for the first time, Bender was struck by just how brilliantly the tale was written. “I was struck and stunned,” she writes, “as I have been before, by a classic sneaking up on me and, in an instant, earning yet again another fan.” For the rest of her essay, Aimee examines the text, describing how it informs her own writing process. As the calendar flips into August, I am inspired to shake off some summer rust and deconstruct one of my favorite children’s books. My attempt won’t be as good as Aimee Bender’s, but I’m willing to try. If nothing else, you’ll see that children’s books can be used in all types of classes as a great model for teaching close reading and the writing process. Here’s my attempt:

I don’t know how I stumbled upon The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. I thinkUnknown I ordered it as a present based on an recommendation. However it happened, the book made its way into our home and quickly became a classic. Okay, it’s my classic. Something about the story just spoke to me the first time I read it. Maybe because it’s about books and this rather lonesome figure, Morris Lessmore, who wants to read and write all day. I was enthralled by the text the first time I read it and continue to be every time we pick it up at storytime. Morris Lessmore might not be my childrens’ favorite, however. There is plenty of competition in our house. As long as Waldo keeps getting himself lost in Medieval battle scenes, Brother and Sister Bear remain afraid of the sitter, dentist, and bad dreams, and the hungry caterpillar keeps eating, it’s impossible to name a true #1 in our house. Any book’s reign is short-lived. I’ve even seen a classic tale get bumped after a few days by cheap Spiderman knockoffs or by something called Pinkalicious. Books, while devoured here, can rarely dominate for long. Even so, for me, I’m continually amazed at the brilliance in The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. William Joyce’s prose and the brilliantly imaginative graphics by Joe Bluhm create a world where books and their words mean everything.

Morris Lessmore opens with the main character sitting on his porch, surrounded by books, writing in his notebook. He looks content. The book begins: “Morris Lessmore loved words. He loved stories. He loved books.” With just ten words in three short sentences, William Joyce tells the reader a great deal about the protagonist. And who couldn’t like Morris? He’s someone who just wants to read and write all day until a storm suddenly rips through the pages, turing Morris’s life upside down. After losing everything, Morris Lessmore begins his journey. “He didn’t know what to do or which way to go,” writes Joyce, “so he began to wander. And wander.”


During his wandering, Morris is met by a woman being flown by a squadron of flying books that show Morris the way to a magical library. It’s here where Morris Lessmore finds meaning. My favorite sentence happens as Morris walks into this athenaeum for the first time. The sentence reads: “It was filled with the fluttering of countless pages, and Morris could hear the faint chatter of a thousand different stories, as if each book was whispering an invitation to adventure.” It’s here, in this sentence, where Joyce captures the beauty and mystery that awaits all readers the moment they step inside a library. I hope readers can attest to the time they picked up a book and, like Morris, became lost in it, “scarcely emerging for days.” It’s during Morris’s time in the library that Joyce takes a bit of risk with his narrative, showing a double page of illustrations depicting Morris Lessmore sliding down a page of text, scattering the letters of his book in a million different directions. Inspired by his books, Morris continues to write about his life late into each night after all the other books have gone to bed. He writes and the time flies by until he becomes “stooped and crinkly.”

It’s now that Morris decides to leave his world of books and return to his former life. As Morris Lessmore leaves his friends behind at the library, William Joyce indulges his readers with a twist. Morris leaves his own book behind. Like many of us, Morris writes about “his joys and sorrows, all that he knew and everything that he hoped for.” And finally, Morris’s book that he worked on for years starts to fly. Morris has given his story wings and the book takes off. A little girls encounters Morris’s book, opens it, and it’s on the last two pages where Joyce’s story comes full circle: “And so our story ends as it began…with the opening of a book.” I never tire of reading this story as the words, ideas, and images are crafted perfectly–they continually mesmerize me.

I find, for some reason, that I can relate to Morris Lessmore’s struggle with words. For much of Morris’s life, his words just never took off. I made a decision a few years ago that I was going to stretch myself personally and professionally and start to write. At times, I feel like Morris Lessmore. Words I write fall flat. Ideas in my head never seem to appear as vividly on my computer screen as they do in my imagination. Like Morris, I sit well into the night hoping that I can capture something interesting with words. Throughout this writing adventure, I’ve had a fair share of disappointment with a bit of success. Like Morris, I think I’ll continue for awhile longer. Like Morris, I write about life and what I’ve experienced. Right now, this means teaching and learning. Will my words ever take flight? I’m not sure, but I’m hopeful.

The trailer for the Oscar-winning short film based on the book.

Additional Resources:

Scholastic’s 100 Greatest Books for Kids

New York Public Library’s 100 Great Children’s Books