Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Humus: A 1st Grade Close Reading Moment

“Soil is made of hummus,” my daughter read.

She was reading one of the leveled reading books that her teacher sends home with her weekly. This one had to do with farming.

“Let’s look at that again,” I said, “that word is HUMUS.” I underlined the word with my finger and asked her to say it with me. “Humus is dirt with decaying plant matter mixed in with it.” We said the word together and I extended the definition by asking her to remember last spring when we first planted our seeds for our vegetable garden. “The potting soil we used is humus,” I said.

We went back to the book. I asked her to read the sentence again.

“Soil is made of hummus,” she said, pausing slightly as she got to the word and sounded out each syllable in the word as she read. She looked at me and knew it wasn’t right.

We went down to the syllable level to analyze what she was doing. Note that I didn’t tell my first grade child that I was analyzing her every move, I was simply pulling from a toolbox of improvement opportunities at the authentic moment that one of the tools was needed.

I asked her to show me how she was breaking the word apart, a strategy her teachers had taught her and her classmates to help them figure out new words. Her strategy was rooted in prior knowledge. She showed me with her finger how she separated the word:  HUM/ US/

She sees and says the known word “Hum” followed by the known word “Us.” It was apparent that just telling her the correct pronunciation was not going to do the trick. I had to ask her to re-apply the strategy. I asked her to break the word differently, after the “u,” like in human. Thus, her brain would see HU/ MUS/ instead.

She practiced a couple of times and then re-read the line.

“Soil is made of humus.” She punctuated the syllables in humus but got it right. We continued reading.

All of this happened over the course of just a few seconds. I didn’t belabor the actions nor did I repeat the correct pronunciation over and over. I recognized what she was doing and I tweaked her strategy. I didn’t focus on key ideas and details for the sake of making meaning across the entire text. I focused on making meaning of just one word in order to knock down a roadblock so that she could continue to access the rest of the text. When we were done reading, we went back to the page and re-read the sentence again, correctly and without hesitation.

I consider this a mini close reading moment, but at the word level rather than the sentence or paragraph level. The evidence for thinking what she’s thinking lies in the knowledge she gains from using known strategies and growing those strategies when she encounters new words. I asked her questions about her text and she answered them, leading her to comprehend with greater accuracy. She is becoming an independent reader and a roadblock problem solver so that there is continued improvement over time.

While this might not be a perfect match to the Close Reading standards around Key Ideas and Details, I do think it represents a quick analysis appropriate for the grade level. Even at the word level, I’m asking questions about both the text and the strategy.

The key here is that she’s reading and we are navigating both skills and processes while she’s reading. Sometimes the reading is more guiding in nature and represents an improvement zone. Sometimes it’s her reading to me so that I can hear what she’s doing. Sometimes I still read to her when she lets me, not so much anymore because I want her to hear me being a fluent reader but because I still can. I hope that lasts for a little while longer.

Image via

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Digital Microstories

Collaborative Blog Post written with friend and colleague Danielle Hardt of Starpoint Middle School in Lockport, NY. Danielle is a literacy rock star, a highly effective teacher, and a secret practical joke enthusiast (a skill I highly prize!).

It has become the rage as of late to “Close Read” everything in American Common Core classrooms. Almost all of the states that are providing curriculum resources (including NY) and many of the vendors that are selling Common Core aligned products are focusing on Close Reading as an essential strategy in their materials, overusing an instructional methodology to the point of killing the love of reading. Our students are noticing this too, and ever since the beginning of education, the students are our largest sounding board as well as our biggest obligation. We need to listen to them.
In an effort to bring a little love back to literacy (note the alliteration), we’d like to suggest a little brevity and levity and “webevity” to instructional processes with the use of digital microstories. This avenue provides a medium students are very comfortable with.  Using digital formats fosters engagement and efficiency and proficiency in the classroom, as many students either use these tools already or require limited explanation of their usage. In many modern classrooms, students are educating us as teachers in the easiest ways to utilize the technology. When this happens, the learning skyrockets! We are all partners in learning.
Digital microstories are based on short fiction pieces that range from six words to 140 characters to a couple of sentences to a couple of paragraphs. The emphasis is on brevity, certainly, but also on a student’s ability to make connections and inferences based on the few words they read--then extending those connections and inferences to a visualization using a teacher- or student-selected web tool.
Besides just sheer engagement, another attribute of this format is the instant gratification for students to complete and "turn in" an assignment in one class period or block. What middle schooler doesn't love to weave a tale about the hero/heroine that escapes a torturous conflict, barely rising to the top? Perhaps a midnight terror that shivers the spine? Maybe they’d delve into a short poem or riddle or other clever play on words. Any which way, digital microstory formats allow for these and many other options for the writers of the world to concisely demonstrate critical thinking, focusing on evaluation and synthesis without the rigmarole of days of analysis or the constant revisiting of text for the sake of answering what amounts to a bunch of comprehension questions.
Allowing students the opportunity to choose dramatically-engaging topics in relationship to the visualization within these digital formats creates a natural connection to inferencing. A relationship with close reading happens organically, rather than through a need for direct instruction. This organic and authentic version of close reading hits the heart of the way we analyze details and extend the learning beyond anything we could have imagined in traditional ways of teaching. It also extends opportunities for further discussion and reflection.
Getting back to the topic at hand though, access to resources around microfiction are numerous. You can “Google” search terms such as “Microstories,” “Microfiction,” “Microtext,” etc. and find a plethora of resources related to short fiction. Note that some of these resources might be inappropriate for sharing with kids, but would be great for sharing/generating ideas with teachers about how they might engage micro-literacy with their students.
Here are some of our favorites:
Six Word Stories:
Visualizing Famous Quotes: Make a Web2.0 visualization of your favorite quote!
Very short stories:
Extremely Short Stories:
“Tweet the gist:”
  • Tweet the plot of a favorite movie.
  • Tweet the central idea of a favorite song.
  • Tweet the main idea of a favorite poem.
  • (Note that these tweets might be physical, in-class experiences, rather than an online tweet. Just keep them to 140 characters!)
  • Then, “Instagram” the tweet: What visual would enhance the tweeted message?
There are several important task-specific functions that go along with Digital Microstories, primary among them are analysis of text and students eventually writing their own versions rather than always analyzing someone else’s writing. Both of these are aligned to Common Core standards for Key Ideas and Details (Anchor standards 1-3) in all grade levels in the reading standards and the first six writing standards around text types and production of writing. Additionally, because students are adding a visual component, they are also engaging reading standard 7 around the integration and evaluation of diverse media formats.
Now that we’ve defined the “What,” let’s take a look at the “How.”
There are many web tools available for creating visualizations of text, merging multiple types of media, and developing digital representations of thinking. For this particular instructional activity scenario, we’re looking for tools that engage the brevity factor. Those tools that let us create short, quick media productions will be the most useful for digital microstories and thus our opportunities for instant classroom gratification and analysis...and assessment...and engagement.
Here is a sampling of tools, both Web 2.0 and Device Applications, that we think would be extremely useful for digital microstorytelling:
With a vast variety of tools online and apps on devices/tablets, this short list is just the tip of the iceberg. Feel free to share your favorites in the comments section below! Additionally, these photo and image resources may help:  Stock ExchangePixabayFlickr's Creative Commons
Using some of these web tools, we created some examples here, with Ernest Hemingway’s original Six Word Story, “For sale, baby shoes. Never worn.”:
Six Word Stories: Hemingway  
Note how our choices of associated media in the different web tools creates opportunities for divergent discussions, perhaps even comparative analysis of several visualizations of the same short text. How awesome would that be to explore in class?
Since these digital microstories are dependent on both text and other media, if you need help with images to create your own visualization, check out the photo and image resources in Mike’s Diigo account: While many of these resources include free content, we would urge you to remember and model that attribution is still important and students should give credit where credit is due.
Here are a couple of useful sites to assist in providing that credit:
Some of the web tools include content that students can use without attribution because they are an embedded component of the web tool or application.
So what’s the point of all this?
Learning and engagement are extremely powerful together. High levels of both help students remember more and evaluate better. Giving students opportunities to investigate short fiction forms and create them on their own opens up a plethora of avenues to creative development and ownership of learning.
Digital microstories offer students many opportunities for creativity, textual analysis, discernment, evaluation, engagement, and choices. How powerful is that? If we’re really going to work toward college and career readiness, shouldn’t we give our students authentic tasks and tools? We think so. And we think Digital Microstories are a great way to get there!

Originally posted at

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Myths of the Common Core

In the last few weeks, I’ve published three blog posts dispelling some of the myths surrounding the Common Core Standards and their implementation around our country.

My first thought this morning was to share them individually over Twitter and Facebook but I thought multiple tweets and status updates would overly saturate the stream. I decided it would be a better idea to collect the blog posts here in one container post. What follows are just the tip of the iceberg of conversations we should be having about the Race To The Top implementation for the sake of doing what is best for children as well as preparing them to be successful in life.

The first post, entitled The Problem is Not The Standards, details the minutiae around the standards that many folks are concerned with, though the standards themselves are almost always NOT the target of the conversation.

The second post, entitled An Alternate Take on the Close Reading Standard, discusses the emphasis on Close Reading in the standards rather than opportunities for metacognition and students providing evidence for thinking what they are thinking.

The third and most recent post, The 70 / 30 Delusion, explores the oft-overlooked page 5 of the ELA Common Core Standards dealing with the balance between literary and informational text.

I write often about the Common Core standards and I hope that readers understand that I am writing from an authentic place that matters to many teachers’ professional practice. I see a lot of different versions of the way that Common Core standards are implemented nationwide and I think that teachers are to be valued for adding their professional experiences and expertise to that implementation. What we’ve all learned about instruction and children should not be displaced by what vendors say is important. All of these new resources add to the menu of instructional options but shouldn’t become a verbatim checklist of what we must “cover.”

Stay tuned, more to come on this topic! I hope to see many of you reading this at the ASCD Conference in L.A. in March!

Follow Mike on Twitter: @fisher1000

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Ephemerality: Digital Learning Strategies

Alas, poor xTraNormal, I knew you. A web tool of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.

Except you were finite. And now you’re gone.

I wrote about how awesome xTraNormal was in my new book, Digital Learning Strategies: How Do I Assign and Assess Digital Work, and then discovered, with horror, that the web tool had dried up just as I submitted the manuscript. The book came out touting the wonders of making movies just by scripting the actors textually and now it’s done for.

This blog post is meant to serve two purposes. One, the disappearance of the web tool underscores how important the task is versus the tool, and two, to offer some alternatives to xTraNormal that teachers can use.

The whole point of using a web tool like xTraNormal is to engage kids in writing, specifically writing dialogue, being able to tell a complete story while navigating conventions, grammar, figurative language and powerful vocabulary. Oh, and also to have fun doing it. Writing was the objective, and xTraNormal provided an engaging way to do it.

In the book, I wrote about xTraNormal as a brain-based application that provided a visualization of the writing. Students wrote, yes, but they also controlled (Strategic and capable use of technology and digital media, yo!) options for characters, settings, character movement, etc. Here’s an example of what it looked like from an xTraNormal video shared on Youtube:

In this example, the creator actually integrates several content pieces to create the video; there’s the historical characters that were chosen as well as the discussion of balancing equations in both mathematics and chemistry. How well would a kid have to understand the content to be able to create something like this? How awesome would it be for kids to create a bunch of these to solicit feedback about revisions or misconceptions? What changes in instruction and assessment when these digital creations are touted as viable products of value that demonstrate deep levels of learning? Also of note here: this is a new version of content area literacy - writing in a content area using domain specific vocabulary with tools of the 21st Century.

Perhaps you’re beginning to see why I think it’s such a travesty that the tool is dried up.

So, to recap, the task matters more than the tool, but in this case, the tool was a pretty cool one. Note that I’m advocating for the writing here, but I have to be mindful of engagement with the kids. In terms of that engagement and to add some new tools to your digital toolboxes, I’d like to point you toward the following posts/resources that deal specifically with alternatives to xTraNormal:

Even though it’s gone, this situation is a good reminder that web tools can be ephemeral and like puddles--could be there one day but could be gone the next. It’s never a good idea to over-rely on any one tool. Staying task-focused and pulling from a toolbox of digital opportunities, whatever is available at the time, is where it’s at.

For those that got the book already, consider this an addendum. I’m including the link to the document on so you can download as a PDF and add to your digital device. THE LINK IS HERE.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Film Canon Project

I am so excited to finally be able to share the Film Canon Project from my colleagues Heidi Hayes Jacobs and Frank Baker. (Click the Hyperlink to visit)

This website and the accompanying resources are the culmination of several years of work collecting and curating films that are valued for their timelessness and impact on culture, education, and thinking.

The website release is coinciding with the release of the new book series Contemporary Perspectives on Literacy which includes a book devoted solely to Media Literacy. In the book, Jacobs and Baker explore the role that media, specifically film, plays in the preparation of our children to be ready for college or their chosen career. Their chapter is specifically on designing a film curriculum and analyzing the impact that film has on multi-mediating content, engaging students, and a new platform for deep analysis, discussion, and research.

On the website, you can explore films by grade level, type, and release date. The films include basic information and links to resources through the Internet Movie Database. In some cases, the trailers are linked as well. Visitors to the website can also submit films to the database.

The solid gold piece of this website is in the resources section, where visitors can explore scripts from Oscar-nominated films, gain access to Frank Baker’s considerable resources in his media clearinghouse, and access multiple resources related to film in different eras and in different countries.

One of the reasons I’m so excited about this is because it supports work I’m already doing with teachers, particularly around the Common Core Standards. In the reading standards for literary and informational text, specifically standards for the Integration of Knowledge and Ideas, students are asked to consider multiple types of media to comprehend what they are reading and researching. As students get older, the standards shift from considering multiple types of media to evaluating specific mediums for impact and which are the best to emphasize the story or text. Eventually, students will speculate, with evidence from multiple sources, why a specific representation in a particular media is more effective than other representations.

Additionally, our colleague Allison Zmuda uploaded a blog post about the values that the Netflix company seeks in its employees. The timing of her blog post is awesome, considering that access to film has never been easier thanks to services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. The philosophy that the Netflix company strives for are pretty good philosophies for our students to strive for as well in the classroom.

I encourage you to visit the Film Canon Project and see the types of films that they have curated there and perhaps submit your own suggestions for films to include. As multiple types of media are increasingly available thanks to technology, websites like this one will become more and more important as we seek structure and priorities in the mountain of resources available.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Upgrading our Recipes for Learning

Back in the early 90’s, my grandmother taught me how to bake biscotti in a traditional way. She was a baker by trade and taught me about the precision of measuring ingredients to get a perfect dough consistency, how to lay out the initial loaf, cut on the diagonal and re-bake until the cookies reached their optimum crunch.
Over the years, I’ve experimented with the basic recipe, adding additional ingredients, replacing others, trying different thicknesses of the cookie, dipping the cookies in chocolate, etc. My ultimate goal is to get to the cookie, even though my path to get there changes every year.
Around this time of year, I start thinking about the biscotti (and Grandma!), and what I will modify, replace, upgrade, or delete for this year’s batch. Sometimes that decision is based on new ingredients, sometimes on the audience for whom I’m baking the cookies, or the event(s) where the cookies will be shared. There is always a modification to the previous year’s process though the goal is always to get to the cookie.

Biscotti and cookiesI’m using Grandma’s cookie procedure as a metaphor for instructional actions. The end result is always extremely important. The task, the assessment, the demonstration of learning, the product–all of these are the goals of instruction. In this day and age, though, with our new digital landscapes, we have opportunities for replacing pieces of the instructional sequence, invigorating the learning, and producing a better product—a better cookie.
The things we need to do with students, the tasks that we challenge them with, are the important factors here. It doesn’t matter that you don’t know Wordle or Socrative or Wikis or Storybird. It doesn’t matter that Padlet or Today’s Meet or Notepad is part of your everyday practice. It matters that you understand and design instruction around the outcome. The path to that outcome is what we will replace, not necessarily the outcome itself.

Digital Learning Perspectives            
In workshops with teachers, I often try to paint a mental picture of the modern student. I talk about the differences between the world this kid lives in outside of school and the one he or she inhabits in school. There should not be such a wide chasm in decades between the two. I realize that there is at least one, maybe two generations separating students from their teachers, but everyone in the classroom is in the present time. Right?
I discuss how students are used to working and interacting digitally. Sometimes school is a potential impediment to learning when traditional instructional methods are primarily favored. These modern students don’t separate technology from other activities — they don’t think about it because it’s always been there for them, always been available. Except, many times, in school.
These students can find all kinds of information but don’t necessarily know what information is important, why or how they should prioritize it, or how to make connections or creations from it. They are not discerners; they are gatherers. These modern students are not interested, necessarily, in current school constructs for separating Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic. They are looking for integrated and authentic opportunities.
I do realize that in the wake of new standards, new devices, and new ways to interact, teachers are becoming increasingly overwhelmed. So much newness is bogging them down and actually decreasing the professional actions they might ultimately take to improve their practice and work within a modern educational mindset.
That modern mindset is really about willingness, not digital knowledge. It’s about trying new things and exploring new tools and avenues for instruction. It’s about exploring WITH the students rather than FOR the students. The end result is still a cookie, but over time, that cookie gets better and better.
Let’s Take a Bite                
1 plaid cookiesWhen teachers decide to start replacing instructional actions with digital tools, they should do so with the task in mind, not the tool. Let’s take the analysis of text, for example. What does this look like in your class right now? (Aligned to CCSS Reading Standards 7.1, 7.2, and 7.3)
In a 7th grade ELA classroom, a teacher I work with in Lockport, New York wanted her students to consider how Stanley Yelnats and the other characters in Louis Sachar’sHoles deal with justice as a thematic element in the book.
She talked with them about fairness and her ultimate goal: to get them to be able to use textual evidence to write about justice as it relates to the arc of the multiple storylines in the novel. She was really excited about using a collaborative note-taking tool, Padlet, in her classroom, and we had a discussion about HOW she might go about using it.
Initially, she wanted to spend a couple of days teaching the students how to use Padlet and hold the students accountable for the depth of information they shared. She was very concerned that students might share non-instructive comments like, “That was cool,” or “OMG. LOL.” She wanted to use a rubric I had shared with her called Notice, Think, and Wonder (which I recently blogged about HERE) to enable students to think critically about the comments they were making.
I asked her what this activity had looked like in the past. She said that students, individually, would locate moments in the book where they saw incidents of justice in any form: Stanley’s day in court, Kissin’ Kate’s reputation and actions, the Warden’s losses at the end of the novel, and (spoiler alert!) the fact that Stanley is cleared of his crimes in the end.
I reminded her of her ultimate objective, the writing about justice and the connections between the types of justice described in the book. I reminded her that she can’t favor the tool over the task. The kids still had to write about justice and its interconnections and/or its relationship to advancing the plot of the novel.
She decided that short mini-lessons on using Padlet and the rubric for Notice, Think, and Wonder, were better than spending days on either of those things. Students could still collaborate using the online tools, and she would shift her expectations for their writing to include the collective thinking of all of the students and what they assembled on the Padlet Wall as a component of their end product.
In sum, she re-focused on the end-result but replaced some of the instructional sequence with a digital tool that moved what was once an individual exploration or small group discussion to a “group think” model where everyone participates in the collection of textual evidence. This, in turn, gives the students opportunities to understand what their peers believe to be important and offers them the chance to collaborate and communicate around deeper text analysis and negotiate deeper interactions than what she’s done before. She amped up the level of engagement while still holding students accountable for evidence of why they were thinking what they were thinking.
The tool, Padlet, was a new vehicle for better connections and interactions and thinking, but her lesson wasn’t a “Padlet Lesson.” It was still focused on justice as a theme in the novel. The students, in general, provided a more in-depth analysis because they were allowed to see their peers’ thinking in a way they had never seen it before. This led to deeper discussions, deeper connections, and better writing. This teacher changed the recipe and got a better cookie.

The Big Takeaway

biscotti-cup-200The big takeaway here is that the task, the objective, the demonstration of learning remain the priority and focal point of instruction. The strategy, however, can be variable while the end point remains fixed. Vary the recipe but still work toward the cookie!

Teachers need a treasure trove of strategies, a virtual toolbox of opportunities, to meet today’s student where they need to be met. These digital learning strategies don’t require the teacher to be an expert in their function; they only require a willingness to let the students try some new ways of doing things. This is an opportunity to utilize digital tools for the sake of differentiated instruction and divergent thinking, where students construct their own versions of learning and critique the work of their peers.
By the way, you can read my grandmother’s basic biscotti recipe HERE (and downloadhere). I encourage you to try out your own recipe replacements, deviations, and subversions, in the classroom and in the kitchen. This year, as a sneak peek to the reader, I can share that I’m considering some new ingredients including lime juice, cream cheese, and a blueberry/pecan trail mix that I enjoy.
If you’re interested in learning more about Digital Learning Strategies and instructional replacement ideas, my new book will be available from ASCD on December 13th. It will be available in both print and digital editions and is part of ASCD’s new short form texts called ARIAS, meaning that the book is meant to be read in one sitting, perhaps while you’re waiting on that first batch of biscotti to come out of the oven.

Michael Fisher, a former middle grades teacher, is now a full-time author, educational consultant, and instructional coach. He specializes in 21st Century Fluencies, Common Core integration, and all that modern learning entails.
Mike is the author of the new ASCD/Arias book Digital Learning Strategies and (with Janet Hale) Upgrade Your Curriculum: Practical Ways to Transform Units and Engage Students (ASCD, 2012). Find Mike on Twitter @fisher1000 and visit his website The Digigogy Collaborative.

Monday, October 14, 2013

I Want To Be A Teacher

I follow a wonderful Facebook page called Humans of New York. It’s a page that photographer Brandon Stanton put together to curate the images of the incredible cross section of humanity that resides in New York City. He talks to these people and photographs them and shares their stories on his Facebook page. You can access his page HERE.  As you scroll through his page, you’ll notice that on October 1st, he featured our own Heidi Hayes Jacobs, who shared the following:

"There's three things you can do when life sends a wave at you. You can run from it, but then it's going to catch up and knock you down. You can also fall back on your ego and try to stand your ground, but then it's still going to clobber you. Or you can use it as an opportunity to go deep, and transform yourself to match the circumstances. And that's how you get through the wave."

I’m so impressed with what Brandon does. He is visually cataloguing the people of the melting pot in New York City, but he’s also collecting their stories--sharing a positive side of humanity that is so desperately needed in our world today.

Today’s entry involved this young man:

Brandon had the following conversation with this boy:

"Why are you wearing a pilot's outfit?"
"I wear it every day."
"Do you want to be a pilot when you grow up?"
"No, I want to be a teacher."
"Why aren't you wearing a teacher's outfit?"
"I don't have one."

I thought this was a huge message for today’s teacher. We are still inspiring the next generation. We are still solidly having an effect on the future.

In this day and age of educational nitpickery, I think it’s extremely important to look for the bright spots and use them for both furthering our cause and believing that we are doing what’s best for our children.

I was going to write this week about standards based education and how we swim through the hoopla to get to the root of why we do what we do. This picture and conversation changed my whole mindset this week.

This child values our profession. What better validation do we need?

If you’d like to know more about Humans of New York, Brandon Stanton has just released a book about the portraits and stories he’s collected. You can access the link HERE. You can also follow him on Facebook using the link above or ACCESS HIS WEBSITE.

I thought it was important today to remind teachers how much of a difference they really make. I thought it was important to remind you that you are shaping the future outside of the bureaucracy and national fluff movements. You are needed, you are important, and you are incredible. Every President, every engineer, every scientist, every pilot--needs a teacher. It’s just really cool that this little pilot wants to be a teacher too.

Our value has not diminished. Your value has not diminished.

Pat yourselves on the back, teachers. You are still inspiring the next generation.

Follow Mike on Twitter:

Upgrade Your Curriculum, now available from ASCD
Digital Learning Strategies: How Do I Assign and Assess Digital Work? coming this Winter from ASCD

Picture and conversation copyright Brandon Stanton and used with permission.