Sunday, August 31, 2014

Book Challenge: Ten-ish Books that Have Stayed with Me

Bewildered, I stared at my three Ikea bookshelves. An old friend had just challenged me to post 10 books that have touched me, stayed with me.

For some people it may be hard to pick ten.

For me it was hard to pick ONLY ten.

Over the past four years, I have worked as an English teacher. The four years before that, I studied literature. Eight years of reading, deconstructing, debating, writing.Essentially, books have been my business for a long time. This year I have accepted a new position teaching technology, so this blog post comes as my final nod to teaching English—for now, one never really knows.

In no particular order, here are TEN-ish BOOKS (plus honorable mentions) that have stayed with me, made me think or touched my soul:

  1. The Little Prince -- Antoine de Saint-ExuperyIf you have not read it, stop everything that you are doing (including reading this blog post) and read it! The entire book is less than 90 pages with several full page pictures; however, do not be decieved! It is not a children’s book. This book must be read with your heart!
  2. Fahrenheit 451 -- Ray Bradbury
  3.  The Harry Potter SeriesJ.K. RowlingLife changer! Don’t know what took me so long!
  4. The Fault in our Stars -- John GreenLet’s be honest, I really just love almost everything that John Green writes! If you want to cry, stick with this one. If you want to laugh, try Paper Towns instead.
  5. A Raisin in the Sun -- Lorraine Hansberry
  6. Let the Great World Spin -- Colum McCann 
    I’ve also read McCann’s This Side of Brightness which was equally as powerful.
  7. Black Boy -- Richard Wright 
    “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” was one of the most powerful historical, autobiographical sketches that I ever read. Black Boy is an expanded version, adding even more detail and insight.
  8. Caucasia -- Danzy Senna
  9. Our Town -- Thornton Wilder

  10. Number the Stars -- Lois Lowry 

Honorable Mentions:
Life in Motion: My Story of Adversity and Grace by Misty Copeland
Everything by David Sedaris (especially Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls)
Walk Out Walk On: A Learning Journey into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze

Copy the following post and tag your friends. Then list your ten (or as many as you need to)!
"Book Challenge: In your status, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way or hold meaning to you. Don't take too long and don't think too hard. They don't have to be the "right" books or great books of literature, just ones that have affected you in some way. Tag your friends, including me so I can see your list"

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

#Charity -- Lessons Learned from the #ALSicebucketchallenge

You've seen it. You've probably done it.

This summer the #ALSicebucketchallenge has swept social media. The basic concept--if you have chosen to live in a world without the internet, if that is even possible--is that a friend of yours nominates you to either dump a bucket of ice water on your head within 24 hours or donate $100 to the ALS association.

When I first heard about this "act of charity", I was appalled. The underlying tenant that has fueled this epidemic is simple:

I would rather dump freezing cold water on my head than donate to charity. 

This whole thing had me pretty worked up--and by pretty worked up, I mean spouting long lists of why I don't think this thing has worth to my husband, who very patiently nodded his head.

First Things First, There are Two Components to Charity: Awareness and Action

Those invested in service work will tell you that there are two main components to their approach. Awareness is key. People must know in order to feel empathy. Most of us live in a state of ignorance, not always because we have chosen to, but sometimes because we have not been exposed to information or become actively curious about it. NGOs and non-profit organizations spend large amounts of their time and funding to get information out, recognizing that this is essential for any change.

The second half of charity is action. Helping those in need, providing money for research or funding. This is equally essential, for what difference does it make if we all know there is a problem if no one does anything about it.

Bringing us Back to the #ALSicebucketchallenge...

The #ALSicebucketchallenge definitely did not encourage awareness in and of itself. Many who completed the challenge are unable to identify what ALS stands for (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), what the more colloquial name for it is (Lou Gehrig's Disease), or--most importantly--what happens to someone with ALS (What is ALS?).

The ice bucket challenge included an action, but the action has nothing to do with helping those with ALS.

It's not like having ALS makes you feel like you just got shocked by ice water. 

Furthermore, in order for the video to become viral, people had to do something that PREVENTED them from taking action. Dump the water so that you don't have to give money and the thing will spread.

Thankfully, there have been two lights at the end of this bucket: Human Curiosity & Social Shame

Although the challenge did not include an awareness component, some people have taken it upon themselves to learn about ALS. Since the human brain is programmed to be naturally curious, many have visited The ALS Association's Webpage. A friend of mine who is in med school posted key information about ALS when she took the challenge. Others have mentioned family members who died after years of battling ALS. These stories have led to an increase in buzz about the disease, which seems to be leading to more awareness and action.

Finally, why social media made this happen: social shame. If you are nominated for the  #ALSicebucketchallenge, everyone knows it. It is forever posted to your wall, your newsfeed and--most immortally--the cloud. If you did not complete the challenge, everyone knew it. And the pressure was on to donate.

And that worked. As of August 18th, Time reported that over $15.6 million dollars has been donated to the organization. According to the same article, the organization raised only $50,000 in the same amount of time last year (Worland, 2014).

It is clear; there is action happening.

So, Why Do I Still Fear the #ALSicebucketchallenge? 

Although there are two facets of charity, action and awareness, there is one more sublime component. One thing that governs service, separating it from mere motion, elevating it to the place where it changes us and our world.


The basic framework of the #ALSicebucketchallenge creates something that is about me when it should be about them. Many will argue that giving $100 is giving $100 dollars no matter the circumstances. They will say that the researchers won't know if that money was given essentially as a lost bet or if it was given from a place of concern, compassion and selflessness.

But for the sustainability of any service, intention matters.

Because the #ALSicebucketchallenge will fizzle, the ice will melt, and our attention will wane. But ALS will continue to plague our friends, our crazy uncles, our spouses.

If we are completing our acts of charity to contend with a fad or because we have an audience, service will be dependent on those elements. And what happens when ALS research has a huge breakthrough, but no social media stunt to regenerate attention and funding?

So, for those of you who completed the challenge with the intention of actually helping stop ALS, then #youareamazing. And for those of you who didn't, it's never too late to change your approach.

Worland, J. (2014) The viral ice bucket challenge has raised $15.6 million for ALS. Time. Retrieved from

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Visual Constructivism Visual

Open up a textbook; check out an educational webpage. Chances are within a few flips of the page or scrolls you will stumble upon a graphic. Our current teaching materials are littered with images, from frog dissection sketches to screenshots. 

We as teachers have become so accustomed to including images in our educational resources. But why? What needs are our visuals meeting? What types of visuals are we including? 

Thankfully, we have moved away from adding graphics because they are cute. We now recognize that appropriate use of well-designed visuals can lead to complex, nuanced learning. Now, as we continue to explore the use of visuals to construct knowledge, we should also consider the type of visual being used. In her article, "Visual Constructivism in Distance Learning" Kathryn Alesandrini (2002) denotes 3 categories of visuals: representational, analogical and abstract. She proceeds to explain that the majority of the visuals currently be used for educational purposes are representation images--remember those frog dissection sketches and screenshots (Alesandrini, 2002). 

As we continue to leverage technology and create constructivist classroom, challenge yourself to think of these three types of visuals. Feel free to use/share our Visual Constructivism Infographic or click on the image to see the original Piktochart! 

visual constructivism, analogical visuals, representational visuals, abstract visuals, education, teaching, tech

Alesandrini, K. (2002). Visual constructivism in distance learning. USDLA Journal. 16(1). Retrieved from

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Co-Construct This (with your students)

My husband is currently in school to be a physical therapist, and in our infinite nerdiness, we often share articles that discuss the brain, health and learning. Just last week he shared a blog post by Dr. Pat Davidson about the importance of variety for humans. The article discussed the fact that our lives have become so bland, focusing solely on one thing. For example, “What do we do all day? Sit behind cars and stare straight ahead. Sit at desks typing and staring straight ahead. Sit at our tables and eat monochromatic meals with the same consistency. Sit and watch television” (Davidson, 2014). The article argued that as humans we need to move; we need to be exposed to a plethora of things. Davidson ends his post writing “We don’t live in the world of authentic nature anymore...nature would get us closer to neutrality, and it would feed us variability” (2014).

In many ways, this post articulates some of the core principles of constructivist learning. In “Constructing Knowledge in the Classroom” (1994), the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory argues: “autonomy and initiative are accepted and encouraged.” Outlining some of the most important, underlying beliefs that govern constructivist classrooms, the SEDL argues that we must honor the individuality of each student, seeing this not as a challenge but as a right to be fostered. In doing this, we are embedding the variety necessary for success in our classrooms each day. We are also allowing students to enjoy the variability that they need to become successful.

As all children are taught to become independent, self-inspired learners, they are taught that mindlessly accepting the information others present as truth is dangerous (Teachnology, 2012). This once again highlights the development of an “individual intellectual identity” (Teachnology, 2012).

Conversely, in a traditional classroom, non-construction is key (Hoover, 1996), as students need to be willing to accept information without using their personal experiences, culture and language as lenses.

In this setting, “the constructivist teacher sets up the problems and monitors student exploration, guides the direction of student inquiry and promotes new patterns of thinking” (Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, 1995). This paradigms shifts the role of teacher from content expert to learning guide. The role of the teacher becomes two fold: to help pave the road students select--as “social interaction with more knowledgeable others is necessary if younger learners are to acquire, internalize and understand” (Pritchard & Woollard, 2010)--and to create spaces for reflection. The later role especially is often overlooked in assessment, but since learning occurs first between individuals then within an individual (University of California Berkeley, 2014), it is equally important to the learning process.

Traditionally, assessments are created by teachers in a manner that values one form of learning. This hierarchy denies variety, autonomy and independence. It ultimately stifles long-term learning, reinforcing concepts that deny students agency.

Therefore, in order to respect the variety in learning, allow space and time for collaboration with more knowledgeable others, and encourage deep reflection, assessments must be co-constructed expectations with space for reflection.

First, a rubric or checklist with clear expectations can be made by a teacher-student pairing or by a teacher-group cohort. This rubric will be used to guide learning and indicate mastery. The rubric should be flexible, allowing for new skills to be added if they arise during the natural course of learning.

Additionally, the rubric should be used during conference time to establish a common vernacular to articulate success and development. Conference time will also allow peers and teachers to provide more insight, share thoughts, send resources or correct the course if necessary.

The rubric must also value reflective practice, encouraging students to slow down and process what they are doing. The reflective component of the assessment can be demonstrated in several ways--once again allowing for intellectual identity--such as journal entries, video posts, blogs, podcasts or even sketches. This can easily be shaped by each individual learner.

In order to keep all these pieces straight, I would recommend using a classroom website. That way, each student could have a page (or more) to demonstrate her learning process. Individual reflections can also be housed here in order to manage student work in a way that in and of itself allows for additional conferencing and construction.

Finally, the ultimate challenge with the assessment--as with all assessments--is creating a meaningful task. As teachers we need to be forever vigilant, seeking opportunities for deep learning not jumping through hoops. The co-construction of the rubric should allow for close monitoring of student progress; however, it will only be able to function in a classroom where students can work autonomously. This demands a large amount of conferencing time as well as a huge investment in the learning of students. However, its results should pay off.


Davidson, P. (2014, April 21). What’s obvious and more important, how it’s connected. [Blog]. Retrieved from

Hoover, W.A. (1996, August). The practice implications of constructivism. SEDL Letter. 9(3). Retrieved from

Pritchard, A., & Woollard, J. (2010). Psychology for the classroom: Constructivism and social learning. New York, NY: Routledge.

Southwest Educational Development Laboratory. (1994). Constructing knowledge in the classroom. Classroom Compass.1(3). Retrieved from

Teachnology. (2012). Classroom applications of constructivism. Retrieved from

University of California Berkeley. (2014). Social constructivism. Learning: Theory and Research. Retrieved from

Thursday, March 27, 2014


Info(rmation) + graphic = Infographic = A picture with info

Last post, I wrote about some of the elements of a strong infographic. Our students have taken to this so well that I am actually hosting my next PD session on the topic! 

To prepare, I made the following infographic about making infographics using the amazing PIKTOCHART website! 

No use having it just take up space in the cloud, I figured I'd share it here as well! Enjoy! 
(If you have any trouble, or want to use this again, CLICK HERE for the infographic url).

Brought to you by ActiveHandprint Teacher Resources!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Let's Talk about Informational Texts

A few weeks ago, my favorite nutrition site, Precision Nutrition, sent me their latest post. I clicked on the link and found this AMAZING infographic. Not only did I love the information, but the teacher in me kicked in! This was a great example of some of the ways that we convey information using well-selected design elements.

So, as my students entered into the final days of their Somaliland presentation designs, I decided to have them analyze Precision Nutrition's visual as readers and writers.

Based upon our discussions, these are the key elements we identified. I then created the infographic below to help them remember these elements as they finalized their presentations.

Feel free to use with your students & check out Piktochart as a great tool for creating infographics! And for more great ideas, check out ActiveHandprint!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Writing Conferences


Throughout the past year, individual conferencing has served as a pedagogical cornerstone in my classroom. This practice, often lauded as a modern educational trend, harkens back to the logistics of some of the earliest American school systems. "Where the one-room school might have a fluid sense of time and no clear demarcation of 'grades,' the graded school was as tightly structured as a train schedule" (Newkirk 15). Although our classrooms are currently organized based upon age, recent educational values have returned in many ways to those of the one-room school house. The push towards differentiation has recognized the discrepancy between a child's biological age and his or her level of skill. We now recognize that, like those early classrooms, ours are filled with learners possessing a myriad of abilities, challenges and preferences. 

The writing classroom demands an appreciation of this lens more than any other subject. In order to address individual writing needs and allow for student-directed learning, individualization is essential. While teaching a group of peasants to read and write, famed novelist, Leo Tolstoy, stated, "All methods are one-sided, and that the best method would be the one which would answer best to all the possible difficulties incurred by a pupil" (Newkirk 25). Thus, as educators, we need to search for an approach that appreciates individual need, acknowledging that approaches work better for some than for others. In our recognition of this fact, we are acknowledging that it is inherently wrong to apply one form of methodology to all learners. The writing conference model serves as a powerful model through which individualization can be accomplished. 

My Personal Quest for Workshop Improvement

Fortunately, my teacher education program provided me with the philosophical underpinnings supporting the workshop model. During that time, I realized the power of providing students exactly what they need, not what you think they need. I also appreciated that workshopping avoided "teaching to the middle"--a painful method that leaves a handful of students bored, a handful of students baffled, and only a handful of students potentially gaining something. 

Throughout my years at my former district, time for workshopping was limited. Additionally, student driven inquiry was not a valued component of the curriculum. I squeezed individualized conferences in between the district mandates and required five paragraph essays. Because of the restrictions limiting student writing options, all conferencing occurred during the process or after. 

Once I learned that our district valued developing student voice through passion driven learning, I knew that I needed to learn more sophisticated techniques for my conferences. Throughout the summer, I spent time collecting data from colleagues in the district and throughout the country. Our instructional leader, Matt Daly, provided me with his comprehensive guide for conferencing. I also read research from the National Writing Project and Choice Literacy concerning the same information. 

Research Trends for Writing Conferences

Throughout my research, I noticed common threads emerging. The types of discussions the authors were outlining seemed to break the type of conference down into several subcategories that I had not been aware of before. 

1. Developmental Conferences

These types of conferences honor the idea that students have something beautiful and profound to say to the world. They allow teachers to help students find their own voices, articulating an idea of importance. Matt Daly advised, "The most important question to ask the students during conferences at this point is whether their topic or genre interests them" (1). Here he highlights that engagement is key, acknowledging that interest and passion should be allowed and encouraged to drive writing. 

I have found that many students have an inkling as to what they would like to write. Instead, more of my students wrestle with completing ideas or fleshing out concepts. These students are prompted to look deeper at their plot, character, ideas, etc. through open-ended questions. Daly continues, "This is the best time to give students a chance to explore their desires, wants, and interests" (1). This step is perhaps my favorite step. During this time, I get to watch students' imaginations take flight; I am always dumbfounded to listen to the plethora of original, abstract and profound ideas that my students create. It is this type of conferences that most allows for diversity, empowerment and engagement, highlighting the fact that student voice is encouraged, rewarded and essential. 

2. Organizational Conferences

Since "planning is the act of creating a paper's skeleton" (Daly 1), this stage is used to help students finish brainstorming, outline ideas and address format. This year, I have found that organizing and outlining is the hardest step in the process for most of my students. During this time, conferences are often filled with examples of how other authors--including myself--use outlines and brainstorms. 

These conversations help avoid the "trickling off" of ideas, common in many pieces without a developed plan. Most students begin writing because they have been inspired and are filled with energy; however, without thinking about what will happen in the long run, students often lose their energy and focus, drifting into an oblivion or blank page. This stage also allows me to debunk many myths. Struggling writers often believe that good writers sit down and write masterpieces. Although many strong writers can quickly create a mental outline, they do not create publishable works without forethought. 

A byproduct of organizational conferencing is a fluid conversation about genre. After reading initial ideas, I can often recommend other pieces of writing or genre-specific terminology that will be helpful to the student. For example, recently, one of my students came to me and told me that he had begun writing a piece which played with ideas he had been ruminating upon after reading The Hobbit. Our conference at this time allowed me to direct Will to a list of archetypal characters. We were also able to discuss how he was using characteristics that he enjoyed from The Hobbit. 

3. Technical Conferences

I consider these conferences to be my specialty, seeing as I enjoy grammar and finishing touches on a deep--awkward English major--level. During this time, teachers are free to discuss any missing components of student pieces. Additionally, they are encouraged to discuss rules of grammar and sentence structure that students may not yet understand. The majority of my conferences still hover here; they provide opportunities for me to use my expertise in grammar and analyzing literature in order to help develop student writing. 

This level of conferencing also opens itself naturally to a blended classroom. Throughout the year, I have tried to create a few essential online mini-lessons. This way, as I direct students to review the rules of sentence combination or completion, I can suggest they reference an online mini lesson about the topic. Moving forward, this is the level of conferencing on which I would like to build a blended learning environment. My vision is to record or publish all grammatical mini lessons in a format that can be posted online. I will then create a database where I can send students to access this information. 

4. Peer Conferences

Although none of the pieces I read discussed this type of conferencing, if I believe that the ultimate goal of education is to foster independent, life-long learners, it seems essential to help teach students how to discuss writing and brainstorm ideas on their own. Each piece of writing received a formal critique where students review and provide feedback to other students. 

My Areas of Continual Growth

1. Keep Conferences Short

As evidenced by this post, I am never short for words. When I meet with students, I almost always become so enthralled with their brilliant ideas, powerful prose or lessons to be learned, that I lose track of time. Although this allows me valuable time working one-on-one with a student, it is not the most efficient use of conferencing. As I move forward, I am going to continually strive to meet for shorter bursts of time, which will allow me to increase the frequency with which I meet various students during a day and individual students during the writing of a piece. It would be more productive for me to meet briefly with a large variety of students, sending each off with only a few focused tasks, than to meet with a mere handful of students belaboring the editing process. This shift will also help me avoid inundating students with corrections opposed to highlighting a few urgent trends. Students will be more focused in their revisions and will not have to worry about becoming overwhelmed with the number of edits needed to improve the piece. 

2. Teach the Writer NOT the Writing

Finally, I will continually try to remind myself to "teach the writer not the writing" (1) as Fletcher explains. In my continual effort to foster independent writers, I must remember that my students will not always have me--or any teacher for that matter. Therefore, they must be able to figure out what to do when confronted with a problem on their own. As I develop my technique, I would like to incorporate more problem solving techniques. For example, instead of telling students to revise their papers because they have several run-ons, I should discuss techniques authors use to double check their own sentences, thus avoiding run-ons or fragments. 

Other Ideas??

What else are you doing in your classrooms to promote strong conferences? What are other techniques you are using? Let us know!!


Works Cited:

Daly, M. Supplemental paper: conference guidelines 
Fletcher, R. (2001). The writing conference: breaking the silence. Retrieved from   
Newkirk, T. (2009). The teacher as schmidt. In Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones : Six Literacy Principles Worth Fighting For (13-43). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. 

Our Mission

Our Mission at Active Handprint is to inspire actions that help to meet the basic needs of all human beings--to be fed, to be clothed, to have shelter, to be respected and to be safe.