Classroom Discussions: 3 Strategies to Try this Week

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Classroom Discussions play an important role in student learning. It engages students, allows them to practice important life skills and is also a form of assessment for teachers. I rely on these interactions to help me gauge student understanding of topics and concepts we are studying. The following are a few of my favorite, and more unique, discussion strategies. Many of these ideas have been borrowed and modified for my own classroom.

First Things First – 

Establish classroom guidelines or norms for discussions. Ask students for input; they always have great ideas. Limit guidelines to 5 or fewer and use accessible language for all students. Here are my guidelines, along with brief explanations:

1. No Hands – when discussing, students must negotiate their own time and not speak over each other. They are speaking to EVERYONE in the classroom, not just to me.

2. Stay on Topic – although I love when discussions grow organically if Ophelia’s death quickly turns to school gossip I step in and refocus the group if a student hasn’t already.

3. Disagree with the Comment, DO NOT attack the person – Differing opinions make life interesting and classroom discussions fruitful. One of the most difficult things for students to understand is another student’s TRUTH is just as right and as strong as their own TRUTH.

4. No yelling, swearing, throwing chairs, etc. – I teach AP Literature. Our discussions often lead to religion, politics, gender, etc. and can get heated. These rules are necessary for the safety and climate of the classroom.

5. Ends at the Bell – nothing excites me more than when students are still talking about the class as they walk out the door, toppling  into lunchroom conversations or is brought up at home with parents; but, students are not to use anything that was said in the discussion in a negative way, whether in a different class or on the athletic field.  We all agree to disagree.


1. Fishbowl Tap-out   

*4 chairs placed in the middle of the room, while all students form an outside circle around the center group, thus forming a “fishbowl” effect.

*The 4 students sitting in the middle are the only ones allowed to speak. They are having a discussion with each other about topics at hand or what they read.

*If an outside circle student wishes to speak they must “tap-out” (on the shoulder) one of the 4 people. That person must stand and move to the outside circle. There is no refusing to leave once tapped-out.

*Students on the outside can be listening, backchanneling on a TodaysMeet, or taking notes on paper.

TIPS – Students should try to be in the “hot seat” at least once during the discussion, allow students 2 min. minimum before being tapped out, the teacher may have to ask a question if the discussion is stalling (otherwise they are a silent observer as well)

2. Body Voting   

*Provide students with a list of statements. Have them silently go through each one marking if they “Agree” or “Disagree”.

*Designate opposite areas in the classroom as “Agree” and “Disagree” zones

*Teacher reads the statement and students move to the area that represents their response.

*Discussion can ensue in a team-like fashion.

TIPS – This strategy takes up a lot of time, have students mark on their paper the top 3 or 4 statements they would like to discuss. Give students one minute to organize thoughts and points as a group before starting a discussion. Make students choose a side, there is no neutral.

3. SSC (Small Silent Collaboration)

*Divide students into small groups – no more than 4 per group works best.

*Have one student create a Google doc or Padlet and share with the group members AND the teacher.

*Students silently type important topics from their reading, questions they had, surprises from the passage, etc.

*Teacher monitors all group writing noting important discussion topics found in each.

*After a designated time, students discuss as a large group. The teacher has all the student-driven discussion topics in hand.


Co-constructing knowledge through classroom discussions encourages students to make their learning social. These strategies are a few of the more “unique” ones I use in my classroom. They are also the most effective in engaging students and encouraging participation!

New Course Offering: The Tech-Savvy Teacher

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Do you struggle with effectively integrating technology into learning?

Do you wonder how your pedagogy must change to respond to the technology choices you and your students make?

Do you wonder what tools are out there other than what you’ve heard about on Twitter or read on blogs?

Influential educators Shaelynn Farnsworth and Steven W. Anderson introduce a course where you can find the answers to these questions and more. In partnership with Participate, explore what it means to be a Tech-Savvy Teacher.

From Shaelynn – In 2008, the district I worked in adopted a 1:1 Laptop Initiative. Through this initiative, every student and staff member in grades 9-12 were given a laptop. Students and staff members were not only able to use technology in the classroom but were able to bring their computer home with them each night. Ubiquitous technology shifted the educational landscape in our building. Along with reimagining learning, I also quickly learned that traditional and evidenced-based practices looked different in the classroom. Every day brought a new opportunity to provide my students relevant and engaging learning. It also helped me become a better educator as I analyzed and reflected upon my classroom and craft.

From Steven – When I was leading a large technology program in NC as Director of Instructional Technology we invited a group of teachers to spend an afternoon talking to us about a new Bring Your Own Device Initiative we were undertaking. What my team and I wanted to understand was what teachers believed would need to change when the devices are the smartest in the room? We thought we’d hear questions about how to teach or was to incorporate the technology more seamlessly. What we got were questions about the latest apps or websites that were flashy and fun.

Using technology today isn’t just about what app to use or what new website looks like fun. Technology use in the classroom requires a pedagogical shift from the traditional methods of teacher-driven learning to modern day student-driven discovery. Not only do educators need to understand how to choose the best technology for learning but the research behind the collaboration or student reflection or formative assessment. Once we understand the why of learning, the how, layered with appropriate use of technology, because fundamentally easier.

Steven Anderson and I are pleased to offer a new course through Participate. This course focuses on 6 Areas of Development we have identified on having a high impact on student learning and teacher professional learning when integrated with intentional technology.

Course: The Tech-Savvy Teacher

Length: 8 weeks

Cost: $79

Audience: Educators, Coaches, Administrators


  • Specially designed tasks blending high-impact technology with each component
  • Research supporting each of the 6 Areas of Development
  • Examples and stories from our own classrooms
  • Collaborative, reflective tasks to help you connect with other educators while engaging in low-stress, professional learning
  • Feedback from Steven and Shaelynn
  • Access to collections on the Participate Community
  • Badge upon completion of the course

We understand the needs educators and administrators have when technology is integrated into the learning environment. Our focus isn’t on the tool, it’s on the reimagining of learning and teaching. Each we week we will explore the research related to specific aspects of pedagogy and discuss what the effective integration of these tools really look like. While there will be tool and resource exploration each week, the main focus is on pedagogy and how best to be a Tech-Savvy Teacher!

4 EdTech Ways to Differentiate in a Student-Centered Classroom

2018 Blog Post Images (2)Co-Written with my friend and business partner Steven Anderson

In all the work that Steven and I do with teachers across the US and beyond we see educators creating amazing learning environments for students. From the use of 1:1 technology to enabling students to learn authentically, these really are incredible times to teach and learn.

However, among all the flash and pageantry there is a struggle. Educators are looking for ways to personalize the learning environment for every student while trying to find ways to differentiate; it can become paralyzing. On the one hand, they have the traditional methods of accessing content and assessing what students have learned. On the other, they have rooms full of technology but aren’t yet taking full advantage of that that technology can do for each student.

Carol Ann Tomlinson said it best:

“At its most basic level, differentiation consists of the efforts of teachers to respond to variance among learners in the classroom. Whenever a teacher reaches out to an individual or small group to vary his or her teaching in order to create the best learning experience possible, that teacher is differentiating instruction.”

Differentiation isn’t just something that some students need or some teachers have to do, differentiation is responsive teaching and a part of every classroom. Each student comes to the classroom with a variety of past learning experiences, prior knowledge and individual learning needs and styles. Whether it is to help a student who struggles to understand basic content, a student who just needs a little push to go deeper or a student who far exceeds our expectations and needs the opportunity to go further, differentiation should be and must be a part of every classroom.

Differentiation comes in many varieties. Teachers can differentiate into four classroom components based on student readiness, interest, or learning profile:

  • Assessment – Understanding what students know and still need to learn
  • Content – What the student needs to learn or how the student will access the information
  • Process – Activities in which the student engages in order to make sense of or master the content
  • Products – culminating projects that ask the student to rehearse, apply, and extend what he or she has learned in a unit

(There is also some evidence that differentiation of the classroom environment, the design of the learning space, furniture used, etc can also help with differentiation. If you want to learn more learning space design check out the work of Bob Dillion.)

When we layer technology into these 4 components, the process of differentiation becomes less daunting and more accessible to each student. Here are 4 Edtech Ways To Differentiate In The Student-Centered Classroom:

1. Assessment-Sometimes is seen as a four-letter word in the world of education, assessment, if done correctly can provide a mountain of valuable information that can help teachers determine where students are in their learning and where the teacher needs to go in their teaching. Particularly, formative assessment is the driver of differentiation of assessment. Formative assessment acts as a GPS, providing valuable information both the teacher and the learner. It provides timely feedback to inform instruction and make an adjustment. When the assessment is used to adjust instruction it crosses over into the “formative assessment” realm. This crossover helps teachers and students to see it, not as a test, but more as a process.

Technology isn’t necessary to do any type of formative assessment. However, if we layer in the effective use of technology into formative assessment we can not only reach students where they are in their understanding but look at trends over time and respond accordingly to our teaching.

Some Of Our Favorites:

2. Content-When many teachers consider differentiation they look to content as the way to do it for most students, and rightly so. Content is the foundation of learning and skills are applied. Therefore, if we can provide a way for students to access that content at their level, we can better meet their learning needs. Each student is (and should be) held to high standards. But we know not every student is on the same path for their learning. Through the differentiation of content, we can level the playing field for each student.

Technology has made it much easier and frankly more possible to differentiate content in new and exciting ways. In some cases, students can be given the same content, however it is tailored to their individual needs either through raising or lowering the reading level, providing more visualizations or still meeting standards but providing content that is interesting and exciting for students.

Some Of Our Favorites:

3. Process-Differentiation of the processes by which students learn is another traditional way that teachers provide different learning paths for students. For many students, the instructional practices are outdated and do not meet their needs. If we want to create an environment where each student can find success no matter their learning profile than we have to look beyond traditional pedagogy and meet students where they are at and how they want to consume information.

Technology makes the differentiation process easier. Accessibility tools built into modern devices make it easier for us all to use those devices more effectively and efficiently. And many of those tools can benefit all students. In addition, the idea of gamifying learning is gaining steam to provide an environment that is familiar to students but also is fun, challenging and rich with varied learning opportunities.

Some Of Our Favorites:

4. Product-Ultimately, students need to demonstrate their holistic understanding of the content. Traditionally that is done through a summative project. However, this method is flawed when we produce a list of items that students must include, the specific font to use, the number of cited sources, etc. That isn’t a project, that is a recipe. And recipes don’t belong in the classroom. Students need freedom of choice in how they demonstrate their understanding. That doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all. We can provide creativity, choice, and freedom within boundaries.

Technology is truly transformational and students should be able to demonstrate understanding through a variety of transformational ways. This differentiation of product can look different for each student, however, at the heart are the same learning goals. Through the effective use of technology, students can do incredible things while still demonstrating what they know and how they know what they know.

Some Of Our Favorites


Want to learn more? You can grab a copy of our resources from our FETC 2018 Presentation or inquire about a workshop on EdTech Ways to DIfferentiate in the Classroom by contacting Steven,

Part 2: 5 Quick Wins to Support English Language Learners in the Classroom

2018 Blog Post Images (1)

This post is sponsored by We Are Teachers and their partner Digital Promise. All ideas and thoughts are mine.

Data, when used in telling a school’s story, helps to paint an image in the minds of those receiving the message. From test scores to computer use, educators and administrators alike rely heavily on statistical information to help make decisions, target funding and share their school’s story with all stakeholders. While test scores or computer use may vary to the extreme ends of the spectrum, one thing that is on the rise for almost all schools is the number of English Learners (ELs) in the K-12 student population. In fact, according to US Department of Education, over 4,800,000 ELs were enrolled in schools between 2014-2015.

From interactive charts to maps, Our Nation’s English Learners offers a multitude of stories about the students we serve across the nation. Much of the information may come as no surprise to teachers in the trenches supporting English Learners in their classrooms, but what does plague the minds of many of these same educators is how best to support ELs and what best resources and learning opportunities are available to hone their own craft while their student population changes.

I have recently begun a series of posts on this matter and its intersection in literacy teaching. You can read my first post Here. This post offers how all teachers can model language learning by using these 5 techniques as well as an extension to your own learning through micro credentials offered by Digital Promise.

First, all teachers, no matter grade or content area, can apply simple techniques in the form of modeling and instruction to support students in the classroom, especially ELs.

5 Quick Wins to Model Language Learning in the Classroom

  1. Model. Speak clearly and calmly. Use a constant and predictable speech pattern while utilizing repetition and visuals of important words and phrases. This helps to cue students into recognizing cues while listening or viewing that is important to their academic discourse.

  2. Discuss. Unless a beginning language acquisition student, give all students opportunities to talk, read and write during teaching. Encourage participation through carefully selected groups, partnerships, scaffolding, etc. Language learning should involve active learning. The more students are thinking about ideas, wrestling with texts, and using each other to co-construct meaning the more powerful the understanding of the content and language.

  3. Vocabulary. All learning is partially done via words. If students do not understand the vocabulary they have problems accessing the material. In addition, ELs have to learn a new language on top of the content. Teachers should preview material and pull out vocabulary to focus on with all students. Choose words that are conceptual and topical, ones that appear frequently, or are essential for continued learning. (If you are looking for more vocabulary information check out my post here).

  4. Differentiate. Along with previewing material for vocabulary instruction, identify ways to differentiate material based on student needs, interests, and multiple learning styles. Consider difficult passages or concepts that may need to be anchored to an ELs previous background or experiences. Present material in multiple modes, audio, visual, multimedia, and provide access and choice to ELs based on needs and preference. Eliminate confusion by ELs by connecting the topics studied to content that is relevant and engaging.

  5. Support. Remember that every lesson is not only focused on content but also an opportunity to be a language lesson for ELs. Provide multiple opportunities to practice words and sentence structures or grammar usage. Encourage support from peers and other partnerships that can be fostered to help ensure success. Use the home language for difficult concepts or abstract topics but avoid constant translation by adults or other children who speak the EL’s home language.

While all teachers may not feel equipped to teach language to our growing EL population, there are many quick-wins that all educators can start doing immediately to model and promote language learning in their classroom.

Second, educators can continue their own professional learning through connecting with and learning from a variety of supports. Connecting through social media avenues, book studies with colleagues, and one of my favorites, the learning available through Digital Promise. Digital Promise has built an innovative system of micro-credentials to recognize educators for the skills they learn throughout their careers in order to craft powerful learning experiences for their students.

As student populations across the country continue to change, the more information, resources, and learning opportunities for educators will provide the best learning for our EL students. Educators need to continue to invest in their own training and understanding on how best to support all students. We can all be models of language learning each day in our classrooms!


Edtech Literacy Resources to Support English Learners

ShaeLynn Farnsworth @shfarnsworth1A common trait with the districts I work with is the increase of English Learners (ELs) in the classroom. With a focus on literacy, I am often asked to support teachers in their pursuit of providing the best resources and strategies for students. Over the next few days, I will be posting different ways to support ELs in the classroom in terms of literacy instruction. First up, Using Bilingual Books in the Classroom

Using bilingual books in the classroom is advantageous for all students and teachers. Books written in the home language of your students convey the message that you value and respect their culture, their experiences, and them as learners. It provides practice of applying and connecting reading and writing strategies from one language to another. Connecting or “bootstrapping” emergent literacy skills and strategies from a student’s home language to English is essential to the acquisition. ELs (English Learners) use “bootstrapping” when they use their home language to help them read and write English.

Teachers gain valuable insight into their EL students when noticing the connections being made and the strategies they are equipped with their home language and apply them to learning English. Bilingual books in the classroom provide these opportunities for observation as well as experiences for teachers to discern their own language acquisition when reading a text in an unfamiliar language.

The Bottom-Line is:

  • EL students are resourceful learners and use every resource and strategy available to do well in school.
  • Having books in multiple home languages helps to build relationships and honors students as learners.
  • It’s easier to learn something new when it stems from something familiar. Providing books in multiple languages for students gives access to information and choice in reading.
  • Teachers can help bring connections between languages, as well as notice strategies students already possess when providing books in home languages for students to read.

Sources for Bilingual Books

Digital Resources

  •  (Multiple audio recordings)
  • Unite for Literacy (Books with audio available in multiple languages)
  • Newsela (NF, Multiple Text-Levels, Spanish and English)
  • TweenTribune (NF, Multiple Text-Levels, Spanish & English)
  • Latinitas  (Focused on empowering young Latinas using media and technology, digital magazine)
  • ReadWorks (lessons, texts, and resources for EL students and teachers)
  • MackinVia (library filled with digital books students can read and are available in multiple languages)

Finally, here is a list of activities that educators can do to accompany bilingual books in the classroom:

  • Use for the promotion of metalinguistic awareness.
  • Prepare students for new content for an upcoming unit as a sort of preview.
  • Free reading choice.
  • Self-assessment and monitoring comprehension.
  • Compare the texts in both versions with a focus on tone, word choice in each, evaluate each text.
  • Bring books home to involve families in literacy activities.
  • Write their own companion book for a text.
  • Use picture books and work on oral language acquisition.


Source: Nancy Cloud, Fred Genesee, and Elsa Hamayan. Literacy Instruction for English Language Learners.

A Writing Activity: New Year, Dream Big!

New Year, Dream Big ...Very soon, many of us will return back to school and greet the smiling faces of our students whom we have not seen since 2017. Granted, the time spent apart is much shorter than a summer break, but brings with it an important sign of starting fresh.

It’s the beginning of a new year; 365 opportunities to dream big and accomplish something new (or something that has been an unreachable goal until this year). For many students, it will be a time to reconnect with friends and teachers that they haven’t seen for a couple weeks. Some students are beginning new coursework, attending a new school, or even planning for graduation in a few months.

As a teacher, it was always my favorite time to have students write. Write about their dreams, goals, and ambitions, plus, it went perfectly with the start of a new year. Creative titles have always alluded me, so I simply called this New Year, Dream Big.

Students (and me, I always modeled and shared my writing with students) used the following questions to help spur their writing:

New Year, Dream Big…

  1. What are my dreams? In school? Life? Friendship? Activities? Etc. (Identify one to write about)
  2. Why is this dream important to me? Why did I choose this one?
  3. Is this a new dream? Old dream? Habitual dream?
  4. What do I already know or understand about this dream?
  5. What steps do I need to take to make this happen? Have I already completed or started any of these steps?
  6. What help do I need to achieve this dream? Who or what can help me?
  7. What is my timeframe for accomplishing this dream? How will I know I succeeded? When will it be time to give up?
  8. Closing thoughts and reflections?


At times, these pieces appeared on student blogs or influenced other writing done throughout the semester. Students were proud of their Dreams and shared them with everyone who would listen. And I was proud of them.

So consider having your students write to start off the New Year. Help them vocalize their dreams and make them a reality!


Hat-Tip to Regie Routman and Kelly Gallagher for providing inspiration for this work.

Digital Storytelling: My Favorite Phone Apps for Editing, Typography, Gif-making, & Sharing


This blog post is part of the CM Rubin World Global Search for Education which poses a question each month to leading educators for reflection and sharing. This month’s question is Top Global Teacher Blogger’s guide to what’s hot in tech. What edtech tools have dramatically supported/improved learning in your classroom environment in the past few years?”

The camera is often the most powerful app on any device to capture, edit, and share learning, and the current landscape of digital storytelling allows users innovative ways to share. In a generation of selfies and Snapchat stories, it is no surprise that mobilography has made its way into the classroom. Images allow students to capture their learning and share their stories all from their phone. Phone apps add a creative element to these images through photo editing, typography, gif-making all while sharing them one image at a time or strung together as a multi-image “story”.

With the plethora of available options, I offer you my favorite FREE (mostly) apps that I use personally as well as in the classroom. Most apps are available for both Android and iOS devices and are impressive when paired with the built-in editing options on phones. 

Photo Editing Apps

  • Snapseed – a photo editor created by Google. Available for both iOS and Android Snapseeddevices, Snapseed is my favorite and most comprehensive photo editor. Tune images, apply filters, curve and rotate to change perspective; the possibilities are endless.  
  • Prisma – allows users to transform their photos into works of art based on the stylesIMG_2707 of famous artists, ornaments, and patterns. Available for both iOS and Android devices. Prisma is free and used frequently in the classroom to edit images so faces of students are not recognizable.
  • Pixlr – photo editing app that allows users to use a combination of effects, filters, and overlays. Available for both iOS and Android, Pixlr is free and also available as a Chrome Browser App!
  • Lively – Only available for iOS devices, the Lively App is perfect to create gifs, video, or different frames from Apple’s Live Photos. I have used this app multiple times to capture the perfect frame from a live photo when my eyes were open and not closed!


  • Word Swag – is one of the few apps that I pay for. It is a quick way to add text to images in seconds. It is available for both iOS and Android. Create unique text layouts that turn any image into a shareable post!  
  • Adobe Spark Post – allows users to create beautifully designed graphics. IMG_2201Templates, color palettes, sizes allow users to customize images. This free app is one of my favorites and allows you to share your message with aesthetics that match. Available for iOS and will be available for Android users soon!

New: Google recently released 3 new picture apps for phones, Storyboard, Selfissimo, Scrubbies as part of “appsperiments: usable and useful mobile photography experiences built on experimental technology.” I have recently added these apps to my phone and am excited to explore possibilities.  Storyboard is only available on Android Devices, Selfissimo is available on both iOS and Android, and Scrubbies is only available on iOS.


  • Motion Stills – originally an iOS app, Motion Stills stabilizes Apple’s Live Photo and allows you to view as a looping gif or video. Now, Motion Stills is available for Android and includes a capturing mechanism that instantly transforms it to viewable clips (aka a live photo, sorta).
  • Loop or bounce – helps your Apple Live Photos come to life. Relive the exact moment in the photo, and through a simple swipe upwards, transform your capture into a short clip, perfect for animations and gifs. Pair with Giphy (see below) and create and share your own gifs.
  • Giphy – not only does Giphy have an extensive library of gifs, it also allows you to create your own. Plus, this is web-based which means no app needed but available on any smartphone. The fantastic thing about this option is that when paired with Live Photos in loop/bounce or Motion Stills, you can create your own gif, save, and share all from your phone. (The image for this post was done in this way.) Add text, effects, and stickers to customize your gif!
  • Boomerang – created by Instagram, captures short clips and loops them automatically. Taking 10 seconds of video, Boomerang creativity loops back and forth. Share to Instagram or save to your camera roll. Boomerang is available for both iOS and Android.

Sharing  (There are many ways to share images and digital stories. Here are a few to consider, and many of these have built-in filters and editing options to share creatively.)

  • Instagram Stories – share images and videos with your followers or hashtag. Stories disappear from your profile feed after 24 hours unless you add it as a highlight. Take or upload an image to add to your story. Users can edit, add text, create stop motions, etc. and add it to their story to share throughout the day.
  • Facebook Stories – short, user-generated photos and videos that can be viewed up to times and disappear after 24 hours. You can capture and share directly from the app. Facebook stories also have editing options, overlays, and filters. Users can also share their story with the main feed once done.
  • Snapchat Stories – is a collection of snaps played one right after the other. Stories can be viewed by anyone and last for 24 hours and disappear. There is an option to download Snapchat Stories to save and share a small video. Snapchat was the originator of Stories and Instagram and Facebook quickly followed suit. Upload your own images, or capture using Snapchat and add text, filters, or create a custom filter for your school or event.  Group stories and Geo stories allow multiple users to add Snaps!

The smartphone has turned millions of users into photographers, all of which have varying levels of expertise and artistic talent. Using images to tell one’s story or demonstrate understanding can not only be done via images but via beautiful and intention images with just the download of an app. I would love to hear your favorite mobilography apps or how you use them in your classroom!