QR Code Fun



I made the QR code above for this blog using a website called OunchTag. For those that don’t know, QR codes are short for “quick response code” and are barcodes that contain Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 7.38.48 AMinformation about something, usually web addresses. Typically, QR codes are black and white with little visual enhancement–kind of like the barcodes that are on the back of packages. OunchTag lets users create QR codes that are visually stunning. The process can be completed on OunchTag in three easy steps. Simply include the desired URL, add an image, and then create an attractive QR code like I did above and here:


After generating your code, you can download it to your desktop where it can be
incorporated into word documents, presentations, or student handouts. I made the sign on the left thatphoto I just hung on my office door by importing the OunchTag QR code to a Word document. To access QR codes, you’ll need a QR code reader on your smartphone or iPad. There are literally hundreds of choices on the web, many that are free.

QR codes have many uses in classrooms. Here are three examples:

1) One of our elementary principals had students record reviews of books, upload the videos, and then paste the QR code with the video link to books that were reviewed so other students could easily access a video by scanning the book with their device.

2) Add QR codes to images used during a gallery walk so students can find out additional information about what they are viewing. To make this more interactive, students can create their own explanations or compile their own resources about what they have viewed and generate a QR code that links to their research.

3) Include QR codes to student artwork or projects to allow students to add details about how something was made or its importance. Students can either link to a video explaining the item, webpages, or even an online document that contains additional details.

Here are some additional resources on how to use QR codes in classrooms:

40 Interesting Ways to Use QR Codes in Classrooms

Kathy Schrock’s Guide to QR Codes in the Classroom

Steven Anderson’s Livebinder: QR Codes in Education

Twelve Ideas for Teaching with QR Codes

Five Reasons I Love Using QR Codes in My Classroom

Thank you to Roberta Spray for sharing OunchTag with me!


InnovateNJOur school district is fortunate to be part of a new, exciting organization created by the State of New Jersey’s Office of School Innovation. Called innovateNJ, the initial community consists of 10 like-minded school districts working together “in ways that produce replicable and adaptable innovative practices.” It’s exciting to be a part of a community of fellow educators willing to collaborate about next-generation instructional practices. Personally, my PLN has grown tremendously since joining the organization and I look forward to what the future holds.

At 8:00PM EST tomorrow, November 20th, the innovateNJ community will be hosting their first twitter chat about innovation in schools. Please join the chat using the hashtag #innovateNJ. During the chat we’ll also share information about how other New Jersey school districts can join our organization. The next round of applications will become available this week. At the least, please join our chat on 11/20–we’re talking innovation!

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How Well Do You Know Google?

Screen Shot 2014-11-15 at 10.20.37 PMHow do you search Google? If you’re like me, you type search terms into the Google machine and hope for the best. What if I told you there’s a better way? This post includes three simple steps to refine your search technique in hopes of finding that perfect Screen Shot 2014-11-15 at 9.32.54 PMsource. Let’s say you’re an English teacher about to introduce Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to your students and you need some resources on the author. Like me, you probably would start your search by typing “Jane Austen” into Google and then begin searching through the first few pages looking for a useful, reputable source. However, over 2.8 million results is a lot to cull and could be A BIG WASTE OF TIME! Here are three tips to get what you need in less time.

Tip #1 Site Operators

An operator in Google is something extra you add into your query to limit a search. Let’s take our Jane Austen search to the next level. By using a site operator, I can modify my search query in one easy step. After I type “Jane Austen” I’m going to add a site operator to limit my search. I simply type “site:” and what I’m looking for. In this case I’m looking for only Jane Austen sites from colleges. So I add “site:.edu” to my search. So, it looks like this in the Google search: Jane Austen site:.edu

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Or, if I know of a particular college that has a great literature department I might limit my search to just that college. In this case I will limit my search to just Harvard. To do so, I will use this site operator: Jane Austen site:harvard.edu

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I’m glad I did that, because the fifth link down on the Google search page is a fabulous resource from Harvard University Press with a host of reputable links about Jane Austen including a Jane Austen blog and a website with digital scans of all the 1100 pages of fiction we know about that was written in Austen’s own hand. I don’t think I would have found this resource searching Google in the traditional way.

Tip #2 Site Operators by Country

Obviously, up to this point, we’ve only searched for Jane Austen sites primarily in the United States since that’s where I’m searching from. However, we all know that Jane Austen was from England. So, I’m going to limit my search to just websites in England. Every country has a two letter country code (here’s a list of all of them) so I’m going to use England’s, which is UK for United Kingdom. I will type the following to limit this search to just websites hosted in that country: Jane Austen site:uk

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That worked, but also brought a ton of commercial sites to my results. I’m going to look to modify my search to just colleges in England. It’s important to remember that academic institutions outside the United States sometimes use other letters in their web address extension. In England, they use “ac” for academic. So, to find information about Jane Austen from colleges in England I will use the following search query: Jane Austen site:ac.uk

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This search turned up many interesting results I might never have found. On the first page Screen Shot 2014-11-15 at 10.01.03 PMof results I found a collection of Jane Austen lectures from professors at the University of Oxford I could use to flip part of my introductory presentation to students.

Tip #3 File Type Operators

We’ve found some great Jane Austen resources by being smart about how we search the web. File type operators can make our searching even better. By searching for specific file types, I’m going to look for certain things like a pdf, a PowerPoint (.ppt or .pptx), or word document (.doc or .docx). Since we’re searching for Jane Austen stuff, let’s say I’m interested in finding a PowerPoint presentation on the famous author that I can modify for a presentation (giving the original creator of the PowerPoint credit, of course). To do this search, I will use this code: “filetype:ppt” to limit the search to only PowerPoints on Jane Austen. Here’s how I will do that in the search bar: Jane Austen filetype:pptScreen Shot 2014-11-15 at 10.11.34 PM

Wow, that still turned up over 1300 results. That’s too many. I’m going to combine my file type search with a site operator by typing this: Jane Austen filetype:ppt site:.edu to limit my search to just Jane Austen PowerPoints from colleges.

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So easy! My search was reduced to 150 results. On the first page I found a fabulous PowerPoint from the State College of Florida packed with information about the author and other nineteenth-century female writers. I also found a Screen Shot 2014-11-15 at 10.17.06 PMPowerPoint presentation on an interesting manor project that students in Baltimore County Public Schools complete. Just by limiting the search using file type and a site operator, I found amazing resources in virtually no time at all.


These hints are helpful for teachers but can be even more helpful and powerful for students. Imagine having students pick from a few presentations found online and having them use those resources to find the best information and create their own presentation to give to classmates. Or, having students research a topic in history class from the perspectives of writers from different countries. Simple search operators can turn a traditional Google search into a student-centered research task where students can find information from multiple countries and use their enhanced digital literacy to select only the best resources for a presentation or to create a collaborative online textbook. Using operators in Google can refine Internet searching so amazing resources are only a click away. And on the first page of results–not page 4,327.

Note: Typing a period after the colon is optional when using operators. For example, site:.edu and site:edu will return the same results.

Another note: From your Google homepage, click on settings (located in the bottom right corner of the search home screen and click on “advanced search.” This will take you to Google Advanced Search where the operators written about here can also be found.

More Ideas from our Big Read–Making It Stick

An image from a Make It Stick PechaKucha presentation

Since school started in September, teachers and administrators at our high school have been making their way through the essential book, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. The book is our Big Read this year and over the past few weeks, we have tackled chapters two and three. (I wrote about chapter one here.) When planning our Big Read with Make It Stick, we decided to space out reading and discussion over a few months to reinforce one of the central concepts from the book, what the authors call “spaced practice.”

A rapt audience listening to Make It Stick PechaKucha
A rapt audience listening to Make It Stick PechaKucha

In spaced practice, learners space out practice over a long period of time in what is ultimately the antithesis of cramming–identified in the book as “massed practice.” The authors write that “embedding new learning in long-term memory requires a process of consolidation, in which memory traces are strengthened, given meaning, and connected to prior knowledge–a process that unfolds over hours and may take several days.” Spacing out our reading of Make It Stick ensures that a little forgetting has occurred in between reading and discussing. While forgetting is often viewed as a negative in education, the authors ensure us that forgetting information and retrieving it actually has a positive effect on the learning process. “The increased effort required to retrieve the learning after a little forgetting,” they write, “has the effect of retriggering consolidation, further strengthening memory.”

Do I sound like I know what I’m talking about? I hope so! But I really owe it all to Peter cover-300wBrown, Henry Roediger III, and Mark McDaniel, the authors of Make It Stick. However, I’m not the only one dropping terms like “spaced practice” into my routine. Many of us at the high school are becoming fluent in the ideas from the book. “Retrieval,” “varied practice,” “interleaving,” and “reflection” are being casually tossed around during discussions as we dissect the text and examine how the ideas in the book can help our teaching. If you are interested in assessment theory and cognitive development in learners, I highly recommend you pick up a copy and follow along with us. Here’s what we did with chapters two and three for our Big Read:

Chapter 2

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Our questions for chapter 2

For chapter two, we used the discussion questions above in small groups to help everyone come to a better understanding of the chapter. Then, we got together to discuss each small group’s answers. One trick when reporting out answers in a large group is to assign each group a number and use a random sequence generator (like this) to select speaking order and make each subsequent group identify something new that other groups did not address. This obviously gets difficult as more groups present, but it is a great way to encourage deeper insight as each group will try to think of something unique to share with the large group during their discussions.

Chapter 3

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Group topics for Chapter 3

For chapter three, we divided into eight groups and had about thirty minutes to create short visual presentations in the style of PechaKucha. PechaKucha is a relatively new presentation style that originated in Tokyo in 2003 and is designed to ensure people give short, visual presentations. The traditional PechaKucha model is 20×20–a presenter gives a 20-slide presentation and has 20 seconds for each slide. We modified the traditional model to a 5×1 where each group had to present 5 slides with about a minute for each slide. To make presentations go smoother, each group simply added their five slides to an already created presentation outline on Google Drive so we did not have to change files in between each presentation. This is a great tip for anyone who is looking to maximize class time and is sick of losing time to computer changes during group presentations. By having all groups add slides to a Google presentation, no changing of computers or files was needed. Another benefit of PechaKucha is that text is avoided in favor of images so presenters are more inclined to engage with the audience as they won’t be staring at a presentation slide. The PechaKucha from chapter three were fascinating, and since many of the topics have been addressed at various points throughout chapters one and two, they seem to be getting ingrained into our memories.

Throughout three chapters, Make It Stick has given us all a common language to discuss how we teach our students. As I visit classrooms, I see teachers encouraging students to write reflections about what they have learned in class and to predict what will happen next in a text or history –both are important lessons from the book. Our Big Read is already paying dividends. The best part? We still have five chapters to go!

An image from a Make It Stick PechaKucha. It’s based on one of our favorite studies from the book, but I won’t give away the conclusion here!

Using Subtext in English Class

By Bree Valvano

Image Credit: https://www.renaissance.com/products/subtext

As I continued to research and discover new ways to use technology, specifically the five new classroom iPads I have been given, I came across several articles that discussed an app called Subtext. This app allows you to download eBooks and create a collaborative reading area for students and teachers. The app allows users to define words, research concepts in a reading via the web, highlight lines, link to videos and other resources, mark notes, ask questions, and comment all in real time. If you know anything about me and my teaching philosophy, you know I had to learn more about this tool.

After downloading the app on my personal iPad and playing with it for a short time, I Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 7.58.26 PMquickly saw the potential this app has for promoting collaboration and close reading of a text. Subtext allows you to create a classroom environment where students can collaborate when discussing a text. The teacher can embed information and web links for students to use while they are reading a text. The teacher can also add questions for students to answer, and/or the teacher can see the comments the students are making and add his/her own comments and answer questions. The teacher can also create specific assignments for the class that are linked to Common Core Standards. Since the Common Core focuses on close reading and using textual evidence to support arguments, this tool has great potential to assist teachers as they help students practice these skills.

As with any app, there are a few things you need to know before you get started. Students and teachers need a Gmail account to log into the app. Since most people are using Gmail and it’s free to set up an account if they are not, this doesn’t seem like too big of a deal. Also, the app itself is free, but you may need to purchase the text documents, depending on what is available. There are some free books, but not all books are free. You also need to purchase licenses so students can access the tool. The cool thing about the licenses is the fact that they can be assigned to a student for the lesson and then reclaimed, after the lesson, so you can use them again in another class. I personally think the cost is totally worth it.

I recently tried the app with my English IIH classes. They worked in groups to complete a close reading activity on Poe’s poem The Raven. Before the activity, I added questions and imagescomments to help the students analyze the use of language and literary devices to convey theme. I explained the features in Subtext, and the students got to work. While students were asking questions, I was able to add my comments and they were able to answer each other’s questions. Students were also able to use the features to look up unfamiliar words and search the web to find helpful information. At the end of the lesson, I asked students what they thought of the tool and the response was unanimous. They thought the app was both fun and helpful. They enjoyed being able to construct meaning and collaborate when completing a close reading of the text. I will definitely be using this tool again.

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.

Image from Showme.com
Image from Showme.com

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.