Enhancing Community and Literacy With Quality Commenting

My friend and colleague, Andrea Hernandez, and I regularly host a parental engagement program at our school, called Parent Connect. Each session focuses on a literacy-related topic, most recently on “Quality Commenting.” At our school student blogfolios (blogs + portfolios) not only serve to showcase student learning, but, more importantly, as a platform for connecting reading and writing to a specific purpose–a platform for authentic communication. It’s blogging as a pedagogy. In the continuous process of creating and nurturing a community for reading, writing, and thinking, quality comments are a important piece of literacy instruction. So our goal with this session was to entice parents/grandparents/friends to regularly dedicate some time to respond with quality comments to our students’ blog posts. In nurturing student creativity and literacy with our blogfolios, we’ve also found a means of building community!

To learn all about quality commenting, please watch this video created by our 5th grade students.

Liquid Learning: Using Subtext as a Digital Learning Enhancement

I was very fortunate to spend some valuable reading time every week during our third quarter with seven 5th grade students. Their language arts teacher, Andrea Hernandez, wanted to provide these students with a more personalized approach to close reading instruction. All seven students are excellent readers and we decided to challenge them with an unabridged classic, Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. Since these students are in our pilot 1:1 iPad classroom and because I’ve been looking for a reason to give it a try, I decided to immerse our little group in a digital reading experience of this classic novel via Subtext for iPad app.


Subtext is a product of Renaissance Learning company (yes, of Accelerated Reader software fame), designed as a “collaborative ereading experience for K12 classrooms.” I chose to use the free, basic version of the app, which provided us with enough functionality. Alternatively, for a fee, users can upgrade to the premium features, offering access to CCSS-aligned assignments, text-to-speech option, and access to leveled nonfiction and informational texts. The only premium feature I would have liked to try out is the ability to track student progress. But since my group consisted of only seven students, it probably would not have made a difference. The basic version provided us with enough adequate functionality to upgrade our novel study to a new form of a social reading experience.

The app offers access to a large collection of ebooks, some for a fee and some are free. Since our classic is available in the public domain, we all downloaded a free version of Around the World in 80 Days directly into the app. I then created a “5th Grade Reading” group, inviting all seven members to join. Instructors have the ability to “enable student restrictions”, effectively preventing students from navigating the Web and sharing notes. I am not sure what the point of such restrictions is in an ereading environment, so opted to not turn them on.


Mostly students read outside of our limited class time. To ensure students were reading more deeply and to assess understanding, I built discussion questions, multiple choice assessments, and polls directly into the text. These features allowed me to view and assess student responses prior to our next meeting in order to then focus on those parts of the text that needed clarification. As the teacher, I had the option to hide all responses until students submitted their answers.




Another value-added feature of Subtext is the ability to embed links to websites, images, or videos. To help build background knowledge, I linked to information about the author, the Suez canal, a map of the British colonies and another of colonial India, an image of a cow catcher mounted to the front of the old American locomotives, and more. Students also were able to embed links into their comments.


While reading, students highlighted words or entire passages and added notes. They then had the option to share the notes with the group. Simply tabbing a word pulled up a built-in dictionary, complete with audio pronunciation of the word and links to search both the Google search engine as well as Wikipedia.


The last feature we used is Subtext’s build-in link to Google Drive. Since our school uses Google Apps for Education, all our students have Gmail accounts and access to Google Drive. We shared a Google Doc of our schedule and this build-in link allowed us seamless access.

Would I use Subtext again? Yes! Using the app as a tool allowed students a different way of connecting with our text. Reading in groups is a social activity where students are learning with their peers. But using this digital tool elevated our small-group reading to a more inclusionary/participatory level by giving even those students who are usually not very vocal an equal voice. The lesson also demonstrates the power of liquid learning–most of the work was done outside of class. Also, the ability to build-in questions and to embed links facilitated active reading–although some students complained that the “the discussion questions…got in the way when there was a good part.” Most importantly, liquid resources like Subtext enable teachers to transcend the classroom and even school boundaries. Spending time together with a good book can include students across the room or literally across the world!

Coding: Taking On the Challenge of a New Literacy

One week last December coding was all the rage in educational institutions across the country. The Hour of Code™ effort aimed at exposing children in grades K-12 to the basics of computer programming and was spearheaded by a nonprofit organization, Code.org. This effort was endorsed by President Obama, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and many other industry and business leaders in hopes of highlighting the ever-increasing gap between demand and supply of computer programmers. But the “Hour of Code” represents so much more than a fun module of learning: it is an effort to inspire deeper recognition of the building blocks of the digital universe. I introduced my version of the Hour of Code™ to our students in March.

Basic Tynkering Around

There are many great tools available to introduce basic coding skills. Kindergarten used Kodable and 2nd grade learned with Tynker for iPad. Both apps are free in the iTunes store and are very user-friendly, introducing basic programming concepts and problem solving in a kid-friendly way. Both classes LOVED playing around.



Intermediate Dabbling

I wanted to delve more deeply into coding with my 4th and 5th grade students. My 5th graders had been repeatedly asking me over the last months about the opportunity to code. So now I wanted to know from them what they knew about coding. Turns out several of the students had a very good understanding and a couple had already dabbled with coding. To get everyone excited, I showed them the 60-second teaser created by Code.org, Anybody Can Learn.

We spent our first lesson with the Angry Bird tutorial available on the Code.org site. The tutorial uses Blockly, a graphical programming language developed by Google, requiring students to drag blocks together. It consists of 20 game-like puzzles, which increase in complexity.

Learning to Fail. So while the kids were flying through the first eight or so puzzles, many were suddenly facing some challenges. We knew from the beginning that we would never finish all the puzzles in the lesson. The goal was just to introduce students to these new coding activities. Even though we did not have enough time to work through all puzzles in our lesson, several students decided to finish the tutorial on their own time. Perhaps the key to effective instruction on coding is to borrow Carol Dweck’s term “Growth Mindset” vs. “Fixed Mindset.”  The point is to emphasize the process and not the outcome. Once the tutorial is completed (with always more to learn!), a certificate will be emailed to the students. In addition to a certificate, however, my students asked me for a badge to be added to their Badge Backpacks. We are consciously integrating badges and certificates as additional achievement markers, such as genre reading badges.  My colleague, Shelly Zavon, is currently offering badges for various math activities.

Free Reign to Logic and Creativity!

Next, I introduced both classes to MIT Media Lab’s Scratch, a different programming language which uses the same basic graphical commands as Blockly. My goal was for students to create an interactive animation using Scratch. So we watched a great introductory video that briefly shows the various creative project possibilities. The kids were immediately hooked and ready to “scratch”.

My 4th graders were tasked with creating an interactive virtual pet animation and the 5th graders were to create an interactive About Me collage showing three things about themselves. The former is a project my colleague Andrea Hernandez had done with her students a few years ago and the latter is an adapted lesson from the Scratch Curriculum Guide Draft (2011). In all, students spent three 40-minute lessons “scratching”. Judging by their motivation and engagement, they could have easily spent even more time.

Transferrable Skills

So why did I decide to integrate coding skills into my library and media curriculum? Aside from the fact that my students had been bugging me about it, I was very curious about all the hubbub during the Hour of Code™ week. Both the Code.org site and MIT’s Scratch made it easy for me to learn some very basic coding skills. Coding is actually a lot of fun! Moreover, after witnessing my students in-action, from an educator’s perspective, coding empowers students with new literacy skills that:

  • engage students in new ways of thinking
  • develop problem-solving skills
  • strengthen mathematical and computational thinking skills
  • teaches sequencing
  • fosters creativity

All are transferrable skills.

In the meantime, several students created their own Scratch accounts to continue scratching–the biggest testament to student motivation and engagement!

The 4th and 5th grade students posted their final products to their student blogfolios. Following are some examples. To view them all, please search the tag MJGDS on the Scratch website. Or check out the following selected creations:



Digital Citizenship: Creating Quality Products

I’ve written earlier about my 4th grade students’ completion of their digital citizenship unit, remarking that their final product was too general and failed to reflect all the different aspects of digital citizenship. So I decided to avoid this pitfall by offering my 5th grade students more structure in creating their final product.

Common Sense Media’s Digital Passport™


First, we began with a review of all the different lessons we learned using Common Sense Media’s  Digital Passport™ app for iPad. Through videos and games, the app aims to reinforce key concepts about digital citizenship in five different modules: safety and security, privacy, cyberbullying, responsible cell phone use, and respecting creative work of others. As students work through each module, they collect a badge to ultimately earn their Digital Passport. I thought this would be a fun way to wrap up the lessons and wanted to give it a try after learning the app won a bronze medal at the International Serious Play Awards and was named a “Top 10 Educational Technology You Should Try This Year” in 2012 by eSchoolNews. The classroom version allowed me to set up student accounts and track and measure student progress.

Creating a Product

Students were tasked with creating a product to demonstrate knowledge of one of the concepts of digital citizenship we had studied (Internet safety and privacy, online communication, giving credit, cyberbullying, or digital footprint). Since my 5th grade students are in a 1:1 iPad classroom and quite savvy with a variety of tools, I wanted them to choose the tool they considered the best fit for their purpose. The idea was for them to be as creative as possible in articulating what they had learned about their chosen concept of digital citizenship.

At the same time, as mentioned earlier, I felt the process of creating a product needed to be fairly structured. So I provided the students with a worksheet to guide them by taking notes on the key vocabulary and important points about their topic. Also, students were tasked with developing a motto.

Digital Citizenship

Peer Review

Where appropriate, I’ve been incorporating peer reviews in all of my lessons. It is not only an opportunity for students to review their own work, but also to learn from their peer’s work by gaining a better understanding of the required criteria, possibly triggering further improvement and revision. The larger goal is always to give students more of a stake in their own learning and to understand the importance of quality work.

CD Artifact Checklist

Many of my students did a wonderful job, using the “Artifact Checklist” not only for peer review but first to ensure their product meets all the required criteria for a quality product. Unfortunately, not all students took advantage of this form of quality check. A few of my 5th graders’ artifacts produced less than satisfying results. In fact, it seems students rushed through the peer review process, quickly checking each box and not offering quality comments. Several of the “completed” checklists show lots of check marks but none of the boxes asking for the key vocabulary or important points filled in.

Producing a Collaborative Emphasis on Quality

Quality work is something I stress with all my students. I give them the time needed to really “go deeper” to focus on a project or product rather than to move on with less than satisfying results. Having students create their own digital products as alternative forms of assessment requires much more time than any traditional forms. So our last lesson was spent on critiquing products the students created. Equipped with the rule to point out something positive and then make a suggestion for improvement, I pulled up each student’s product and let the students provide constructive criticism. This was a great session, which produced a collaborative emphasis on quality. Students then had the option to revise their work. Since our students own blogfolios, the last step was to publish the product along with an explanatory blog post.

Overall, I am happy with the results, with special emphasis placed on going over the product one more time before pressing publish!

Please check out some of the creative products created by my students.

Griff’s Comic:

photo 1

photo 2

photo 3



Modern Classroom Learning: Creating and Publishing Collaborative eBooks

Photo Skitch Document

Photo Skitch Document-1

My 4th and 5th grade students finished creating ebooks on Fort Caroline, the first French settlement attempt in the New World, and the Lost Colony of Roanoke, respectively. This was a collaborative project with their social studies teacher, Ms. Shelly Zavon. Information sources were web-based, previously gathered, organized, and annotated using Diigo. Each student (5th grade) or student pair (4th grade) contributed a chapter to their class books.

1. Brainstorming. Drawing on their subject knowledge, students began by brainstorming possible chapter topics and then putting them in an order.

Untitled document - Google Drive

2. The Writing Process. Once topics were distributed, students began the pre-writing stage by selecting relevant websites, reading the information, and taking notes to organize their ideas. Students used Google Docs and each shared their documents with the classroom teacher and me. This allowed us to provide immediate feedback. In addition, some students also chose to share their work with friends in the class, seeking their input as well. It was particularly important to provide feedback to students at this pre-writing stage as some found it difficult to narrow information to their particular topic or to simply stay focused on their section of the book to avoid overlapping with another section. And we needed to make sure that facts were accurate. Since the writing process required several stages, including extracting relevant information from the sources, drafting, revising, and editing text, it took multiple sessions.

The Colonists - Google Drive

It was very important to me that students take ownership of this project. So, periodically, we checked our progress as a group. We read through all draft sections and checked facts, suggested word choice changes, provided syntax and grammar corrections, and incorporated transitions between the sections. Reading as a group had the added benefit of providing each student with a better idea on their classmates’ content.

Also, once drafts were complete, I provided each student/student pair with a checklist to ensure writing mechanics were in order. Checklists are a great form of self-assessment for the students that ensure learning and also provide them with a sense of project ownership.

eBook Checklist3. Images. Each section was to include at least one relevant image. This allowed me to teach a mini-lesson Creative Commons images and where and how to find them. For our history topics, we found Wikimedia Commons a great resource.

4. Information Ethics. Creating and publishing an ebook is a great tool to teach students digital citizenship. For this project, I introduced an adapted version of the MLA citation style. Students learned to create proper citations for both text and images. Their sections include in-text citations.

Photo Skitch Document

5. Product. Students used BookCreator app for iPad to create their books. Before importing text and images, students checked each other’s work one last time. For this purpose, I provided them with a Final Check sheet. Fifth grade students also compiled a glossary and editors were asked to identify words/phrases to include in the glossary during the final check.

eBook Final Check - Google Drive

The last step was to decide on a format for the ebooks. Each class brainstormed several options for font style, color and size as well as background color.Each also co-designed the book covers and wrote group reflections. Once their sections were finalized, they sent them to me via email as ibooks. I combined the books into one and added the Table of Contents, Works Cited,  Image Credits, and, in the case of 5th grade’s book, the Glossary pages. The final products are multi-modal, including text, audio, images, and hyperlinks.

6. Assessment. The classroom teacher and I informally assessed both the process and the quality of work through observation and reading of all documents at each drafting stage. If we felt we had to take a step back to bring the group together, we did take the time. For example, after reading all drafts, we realized that there was some repetition of information between different book sections. To ensure the students own this project, we then read all drafts as a class to identify repetitive information. We also continually provided feedback on all written work. Most students received comments/suggestions from both of us.


photo 3


For both my colleague, Shelly, and I this project was meant to not only deepen our students’ understanding of the time periods and historical events they researched by engaging them in the publication of a book, but from the beginning we wanted this to be a student-centered/student-owned project. Creating and publishing ebooks is a very involved process, but it is worth the time spent planning and then guiding the students.

This project promoted the development of multiple literacies. Students learned so many skills, from writing (organization, word choice, sentence fluency, transitions, and mechanics) to editing/proofreading to finding Creative Commons images to citing sources to collaborating to  fluently transition between multiple apps (Google Drive, browser, BookCreator) to publishing. This project incorporated all the hallmarks of modern learning: Creativity, Critical Thinking, Collaboration, and Communication.

Should you decide to hop on the ebook publishing train with your students, remember to be flexible and to allow time. Each stage of the project evolved slowly in accord with their own unique tasks–research, writing, publishing. Slow but deliberate work is key. In retrospect, the project was more about the process than the end product, not only for the teachers but the students as well (read the “Project Reflection” pages in their ebooks).

My students are sharing their work with a global audience and are looking forward to receiving authentic feedback — from you! Please leave them a comment.

Click to download books from the iBooks store:

The Lost Colony of Roanoke:

Fort Caroline: The First French Settlement in the New World

Or view them below:

A Lesson in Social Bookmarking in the Classroom

4th Grade Collaboration

Diigo (Digest of Internet Information, Groups and Other Stuff) is a free social bookmarking tool that allows its users to store, manage and share Internet resources. Users can bookmark, highlight, tag, and annotate selected web pages while reading online. As they are stored in the cloud, bookmarks can be retrieved from any computer anytime and anyplace. Resources may be shared with other users.

As a social bookmarking tool, Diigo clearly has the potential to make reading and research a social activity in the classroom. In collaboration with our social studies teacher, I’ve used Diigo with our 4th and 5th grade students: 4th graders were researching the pre-colonial French settlement Fort Caroline (Jacksonville, Florida) and 5th graders were gathering information on the Lost Colony of Roanoke (North Carolina). Using the researched information, students are currently in the process of creating eBooks about their topics.
Objectives for students were:

  • to research and become familiar with informational texts about their respective topics
  • to use Diigo to collect and organize their new information
  • to apply various Diigo features, including highlighting and annotating of web pages or text passages and  tagging of web pages for organization and classification


With an educator account, I created a Diigo Group for each class. Privacy settings of educator accounts are pre-set, limiting communication to assigned teachers and their students. Also, by default, student profiles are private. Each student was provided with their login information and created an avatar for their profiles using one of the following websites:

Diigo Group

In each classroom, we then created tag dictionaries to categorize websites, ensuring consistency of keyword tags. We brainstormed tags to include in each dictionary, for example “Ft. Caroline” instead of “Fort Caroline”, or “Native Americans” instead of “indians” or “natives”.

Tag DictionarySteps

Since our students already had an introduction to Web search techniques in an earlier unit, I began by focusing on annotations. The great benefit of Diigo’s annotation tool (virtual “sticky notes”) is that it allows students to summarize a website’s important concepts and main points. Annotations encourage student interaction and engagement and are central to collaborative research. The students explored: What are the elements of a quality annotation? We brainstormed and I used the definitions students gathered to create a reference sheet:

Quality Annotations

While the process may seem straightforward, students struggled with the concept of a quality annotation. I’ve blogged about this issue here.


Research is not simply about finding information, but also evaluating and synthesizing the information found. The skills necessary to evaluate and synthesize require students to read text closely and paraphrase the useful information, respectively. These are critical, transferable skills, but working with elementary students I have learned that these are often the most difficult for the students to grasp.  Thankfully, we were not under any time constraints, giving us time to model and review when needed.

For my students, Diigo is a powerful collaborative learning tool in the classroom. Students interacted with informational text and with one another and were motivated to stay on task. They read, highlighted, tagged, and annotated relevant websites for their research projects.

Best content in 4MJGDS | Diigo - Groups

The annotation process, however, was harder to learn for my 4th than my 5th graders. Fourth graders also spent a lot more time looking for relevant images than focusing on reading text. Reasons may be maturity, existing skills, class size (20 vs. 11 students), time of day (Friday afternoon classes for 4th grade), or a combination.

Overall, this was a great collaborative project. Diigo allowed my students to not only manage information, but also to hone their communication and collaboration skills — all vital to success in school and their overall future. I would like to repeat this lesson, possibly on a grander scale: Not only with a classroom at another school, but perhaps “classmates” in another country.

Quality vs Safety

I always strive for quality work. Producing quality work, however, involves stepping out of my safety zone and challenging myself. But it also involves time. In the case of research, the process of producing quality work can be quite laborious.

My 4th and 5th grade students are currently researching Fort Caroline (the first and rather short-lived French fort in the U.S. located here in Jacksonville, Florida) and the Lost Colony of Roanoke, respectively. To organize our research, we are using Diigo, a powerful social bookmarking tool. I’ve created a Diigo Group for each class via an educator’s account. Within each group, students are collaboratively collecting websites on the topics and annotating them using Diigo’s highlighting and sticky note tools.

So while the process seems pretty straightforward, it is actually quite messy. I’ve now spent two 50-minute sessions with each class searching, collecting, and annotating. Students are finding that they have to closely read each web page, evaluate it for its merit, and then offer a quality annotation. This last step is hard.

Before beginning the actual search process, we came up with a definition of Quality Annotations. I’ve compiled it as a quick reference sheet and then added annotation starters.

Quality Annotations

With each class, we’ve looked at the web pages collected and the annotations added. Students clearly love Diigo’s highlighting feature and are good about not simply highlighting large sections of text. But they do need to work on their annotations! Too many of them simply say “informative” or “descriptive”.

Diigo Screenshot

Diigo Screenshot 2

While the above are not representative of quality work, students are capable as shown in the following examples:

Diigo Screenshot 3

Diigo Screenshot 4

So the big question is: How do you ensure quality work? In this case, how do I get my students to read text or examine an image closely, evaluate the information provided, and then offer a quality annotation that contributes to the class collaborative research?

My plan is to begin our next session with something we should have done before starting our research: Brainstorming research questions. What do we want to know? Then, each student will edit their “My Library” (Diigo terminology for bookmarked web pages etc.) and evaluate their work according to the following criteria:

  • Does the web page / image provide important information that answers my research question?
  • Did I highlight the important information?
  • Did I add a quality annotation?
  • Are all my research questions answered, or do I need to search for more information?