Plickers: An Engaging Formative Assessment Tool

I was at a Digital Technology workshop earlier in the week, and I was pleased to hear the presenter talk about technology as a vehicle through which to engage students and support learning, not as a learning outcome itself. In fact, a mantra we heard frequently throughout the morning really hit home for me: It’s not about tech; it’s about learning.”

It's not about the tech; it's about the learning.

It’s not about the tech; it’s about the learning.

I can’t remember the first time I was introduced to Plickers, but I do remember the first time I actively used it; that was just a few weeks ago, as we were introducing Professional Learning Teams to three of our middle school staffs that would be collaborating across school sites. Plickers is a formative assessment tech tool. Using Plickers to pose questions and record live responses would both engage our “students” and support their learning, just what we’d hope could be replicated by teachers in their own classes. The tech tool simply enhanced what we might have done with paper and pencil. But, the more opportunities we have to purposefully and effectively integrate technology for students, the more opportunities we have for buy-in from various stakeholders.

This tool is free, easy to prep, and effective. It can be used in any content area to “take the temperature” of a class on their understanding of a concept, their perception of a theory, or their progress on a task, for example. It has its limits; you can’t ask a constructed response question with it and have a means for quick feedback, but it has a place in the assessment toolbox.

Click on the video below to get a feel for what Plickers is and how it works, then try it for yourself! After you do, drop us a note in the “Leave a Reply” box below this post, so we can all benefit from your pilot!


Warming-up: Just do it

As I age, I’ve noticed that warming up before exercise is becoming more and more important. Walking a couple of blocks before I start jogging really does help me get my body and mind ready for the task ahead and avoid injury. When I think about applying the metaphor to school, it makes sense: I may not get “injured” in the academic aerobics in which I participate, but it’s certainly helpful to take a bit of time to reset and remember, before engaging in new learning. Thus, whether anticipating physical or mental exercise, I am a proponent of warm-ups.  Like preparing myself for a run, I find them to be a way of refocusing my students’ minds on math during the first five minutes of the period.  The key word in that sentence is “five.”  Unless I set a timer for myself, that five minutes can easily turn into 10 or 12. Like when I run, if I don’t push a little harder, my progress is going to be slow.

Forty-five minute class periods do not allow teachers to be as effective as we would like to be with our students.  When trying to figure out how to structure that precious time, we have to think hard about what which pieces have the greatest impact on student learning.  One piece that is often under fire is the daily warm-up; I’m here to remind you: it’s worthy!

...but warm-ups are!

…but warm-ups are!

Beyond using warm-ups to review the concepts of the previous day and/or to preview the day’s upcoming lesson, Jessica Bogie a high school level Geometry and 6th grade math teacher (and blogger – Algebrainiac),  proposes that warm-ups are good for conversation about math ideas – a worthy idea! Jessica hosted an episode on  Global Math called Warm-ups = What Are They Good For? .    She suggests a two-week rotating schedule of warm-ups:

Two-week warm-up rotation idea.

Two-week warm-up rotation idea.

I’ve blogged before about my love for Estimation 180 here and here  and Would you Rather here, so I was happy to see both in her 10-day rotating schedule.  I love the Visual Patterns site and Math Mistakes well and will likely blog about them in the future.

With much buzz about Carol Dweck’s Mindset theory applying in education, having a Mindset Moment Monday every month is  a great way to continue the conversation all year.  Check out the list of short videos that Marisa from the blog, La Vie Mathématique, posted on the topic.

Another warm-ups resource Jessica mentions, is Lisa Bejarano’s Filing Cabinet of Warm-ups on the Crazy Math Teacher Lady blog.  Lisa teaches Geometry and blogs about the lessons she teaches. This list repeats some sources I’ve listed but offers new ones as well.

So, praise be to warm-ups; just as physical ones get our bodies ready for the exertion of exercise, these mental ones get our minds ready for the hard work of learning!

Professional Learning Opportunities

Greetings and Happy Fall! We attended a great 1/2-day session with Penny Plavala, MESD Literacy Specialist last week on Designing High Quality Professional Development. One of the things that resounded with me, the gist of which was the term professional development has garnered a somewhat negative connotation. The word “develop” suggests that negativity, as if someone needs to be developed. It might just be semantics, but Professional Learning has a much more positive connotation–we’re all in this together, collaborating and deepening our collective knowledge and understanding. Fall is a great time for Professional Learning opportunities, and without further adieu, here’s a short list of those coming our way:


This Friday, October 9th is the State Inservice Day, and ODE has several listings on their website. These range from Digital Filmmaking for K-12 Teachers to OMSI’s Teacher Pub Offering: a presentation by Astronaut Don Pettit.

In addition on Friday, Octorber 9, the IOC October 2015: “Inquiry Outside the Cube Conference” will be happening at La Grande Middle School. Sessions will be offered by grade band as well as general interest.  Topics will be best practices, STEM, CCSS, SBAC and more.

The following weekend, October 16-18, the OSTA: 55th Annual Fall Conference on Science Education at Central Oregon Community College. Strands for STEM, NGSS, Technology integration and more are on tap!

Looking for an affordable International Adventure? The 54th Annual Northwest Math Conference: Scaling New Heights takes shape in Whistler, BC., Canada October 22-24.

Friday, November 6th is the date for Oregon Reading Association’s Fall Institute with heavy literacy hitter, Carol Jago presenting on the topic of classroom rigor in Middle and High School.

Talk about real professional learning, Saturday, November 7th is the date of Wordstock’s relaunch through Literary Arts. Centralized at the Portland Art Museum this year, Wordstock is billed as the biggest 1-day book festival in the city.

I know it’s still a ways away, but for those of you with a penchant for or curious interest in storytelling, The Moth, that iconic storytelling venue of stage and radio is offering MothShop, a storytelling workshop for Teachers December 15-18. This unique opportunity is limited to just 12 participants. At last check (today), six spots remain.


In addition to live and in person professional learning opportunities, there are a wealth of online Webinar (archived and live) and video options for teachers to peruse on your own time. Here are a few that offer freebies we’ve found useful:

ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) – A wide variety of topics from Brain Research to Designing Lessons for Deepening Understanding.

Big Marker: Global Math Department Conferences Every Tuesday at 6:00pm: These are hour-long participatory conferences are hosted by teacher leaders. Goal: math teachers who share what we’ve learned, cause we don’t want our classes to suck the energy from students! – upcoming topics include: Integrating Primary Documents into Teaching & Learning (10/7), Literacy in Social Studies and Science for ELLs (10/26), and Giving Effective Feedback (10/28).

Education Week – Both live and archived, these webinars cross the gamut of topics and levels.

Illustrative Mathematics – Task Talks are virtual conversations for teachers and teacher leaders around a specific task. They convene weekly, Tuesday evenings at 5pm.

Nix the Tricks – Free ebook filled with alternatives to the shortcuts so prevalent in mathematics education and explains exactly why the tricks are so bad for understanding math.

PBSLearning – Bring PBS into your classroom with the myriad resources PBS offers.

Whatever your choice, live or living room, large group or individual, taking time for our own professional learning translates positively in the classroom.

Growing our mindset

Embracing challenges vs. avoiding them; expending effort vs. settling into complacency; learning from vs. avoiding feedback. These contrary actions describe the differences between Growth and Fixed Mindset.  Growth Mindset is becoming a popular initiative of teachers and teacher leaders around the United States and the United Kingdom. If you’ve not read  Mindset by Carol Dweck, I highly recommend it.  A quick read, it’s impactful on many levels–as an educator, partner, parent, coach, and the like.  The book, accompanied by an Educational Psychology class I took almost two years ago that discussed the Power of Yet and How We Learn, has my mind spinning about how we can help our students succeed. First, we need to believe our students can succeed.  And second, our students need to believe they can succeed.

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There are many resources I’ve looked at over the last year or two that have continued to give me insight into the importance of growth mindset. The following are three of the resources that I find exceptionally valuable:

  1.  Jo Boaler’s YouCubed  website is the first.  She has short video snippets that can be shown to students to help explain how their brains learn, why mistakes help fire the synapses in the brain, and the plasticity potential of the brain. Her website also include tasks, research, and a Mooc for students with 6 sessions on How to Learn Math.
Short Video Snipit from YouCubed about the Black Cab drivers in London.

Short video snippet from youcubed about the Black Cab drivers in London.

2.  Marissa of La Vie Mathematique shows a video (see example below) from her Mindset Moment List  once or twice a month as a warm-up to spark conversations about having a Growth Mindset. She sees value in connecting traits like perseverance, effort, and educational risk-taking to all students, regardless of content area.

Kid President with a Pep Talk

Kid President with a Pep Talk

3.  Mike Mann from Dexter McCarty shared an extensive list of resources on a google doc  last year.  In it, are  articles and videos lending themselves to close reading/viewing techniques, as well as graphics to post in your room.

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I would love to hear what are you doing in your classroom to help develop a growth mindset in your students.

Summer Opportunities Coming Your Way!

Whether you’re more of a fan of The Jamies (Summertime, Summertime) or Alice Cooper (School’s Out for Summer) or fall somewhere in the middle, one thing is clear, Summer is fast approaching! For our final post of the year, we’re offering a little something for you (check out our Events page for a host of classes/workshops), and if you read on, a little something for your students.

In my literacy world, one of the greats of summertime is the Summer Reading Program run by Multnomah County Library a cornerstone of our district’s Middle School Summer Reading Program, offering schools a variety of adventures for students!

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Why summer reading, you may ask? Well, a big reason is heading off the summer skills slide. A landmark study done by Barbara Haynes (1978) who followed 6th & 7th graders for two years revealed the following effects of summer reading participation:

1. The number of books read in summer is consistently related to academic gains.

2. Children in every income group who read six or more books in summer “maintained or improved their reading skills while kids who didn’t read any, saw their skills slip as much as an entire grade level.”

3. The use of the public library during the summer is more predictive of vocabulary gains than attending summer school.

4. The major factors determining whether a child reads over the summer were: whether the child used the public library; the child’s gender (girls read more than boys); socioeconomic status; and the distance from home to a library.

5. More than any other public institution, including the schools, the public library contributed to the intellectual growth of children during the summer. Moreover, unlike summer school programs, the library was used by over half the children and attracted children from diverse backgrounds.

There have been notable studies since this original publication, if you’re looking for additional research, such as the 1982 “Beginning School Study,” by researchers Karl Alexander and Doris Entwisle of the National Center for Summer Learning and a 2001 report, “The Role of Public Libraries in Children’s Literacy Development,” by the University of Michigan’s Susan Neuman and Temple University’s Donna Celano. The bottom line: summer reading, including free, independent reading of a student’s choice is a must! And, remember, reading doesn’t need to be limited to physical books. Some of our more reluctant readers can be turned on by an e- or audio book, a graphic novel, or Zine. There’s also a whole informational text side to reading that appeals to some, which could include anything from newsy articles to infographics to “reading” a museum exhibit. Truly, the possibilities are limitless! Check out the summer reading programs in your community and get your kids pumped to include reading in their down-time!

As we bid you adieu for the summer months, we hope you will spend 5 minutes browsing the Events page and find a class or workshop that resonates with you. If you know of anything we may have missed, send us a note and we’ll add it.

Until September….


Rigorous Reading Across Content Areas: Text-Dependent Formative Tasks

Back in February, I had the opportunity to attend the Oregon Reading Association’s Winter Institute, featuring Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey. For a self-professed literacy geek like me, this experience was akin to IT folks hearing from Steve Jobs, Classical Violinists spending a day with Itzhak Perlman, or Craft Brewers (hey, we are in Oregon) being addressed by Fritz Maytag. It’s not often we get to see our professional mentors live and in person, at the Holiday Inn PDX Airport, no less.

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Their presentation provided guidance for teaching complex texts and raising the level of rigor in the classroom, which are Common Core literacy cornerstones. A bonus of our participation in the session included walking away with a copy of Fisher & Frey’s 2013 title, Rigorous Reading, 5 Access Points for Comprehending Complex Texts. Although each access point is worthy of its own blog post , the one this post is devoted to is Access Point #5: Demonstrating Understanding and Assessing Performance. In this section of the text, the authors posit the need for after-reading “Text-Dependent Tasks” such as the following:

Perspective Writing: Perhaps too often, we teachers assume the role of audience for a student’s writing. Writing from differing perspectives or to a different audience can stretch students’ decision-making powers. Who is the audience? What then is the purpose of my writing? What register must I employ in my style?

Many teachers have heard of and have used the RAFT strategy developed by Santa and Havens (1995) requiring students to understand the Role, Audience, Format, and Topic for each piece of writing. Fisher & Frey resurrect it here as a strategy for formative assessment. In one example they cite, an English teacher learns she needs to review author’s purpose and the introduction to The Metamorphosis because her students don’t show evidence of understanding beyond the literal level when presented this RAFT:

Role – Gregor Samsa

Audience – Mr. and Mrs. Samsa, his parents

Format – Note

Topic – Why don’t you notice me?

Though, RAFT is not only for the realm of the English Teacher. Apply RAFT after reading a famous historical speech, such as Susan B. Anthony’s “Women’s Rights to the Suffrage, 1873.”

Role – Participant

Audience – Susan B. Anthony

Format – Letter

Topic – Reaction to this speech

In Science: After reading the article, “West Coast starfish are dying, but why?” convince Congress that the plight of sea stars is farther reaching than just one species:

Role – Researcher

Audience – U.S. Congress

Format – Speech Talking Points

Topic – Explanation of metaphor: “…starfish are sentinels about conditions in our oceans….”

Here are a few other Text Dependent Task ideas to include in your repertoire:

  • Admit Slips: Akin to Exit Tickets, students instead respond to an assigned topic as they enter the classroom. “Describe the water cycle.” “Why are irrational numbers important in science and engineering?”  “What factors motivated the character to commence her journey?”
  • Found Poems: As students reread a text, have them find key phrases to arrange into a free-verse poem, linked with connector words (articles, conjunctions, “to be” verbs, etc.)
  • Yesterday’s News: Summarize the information presented the day before, from a film, reading, lecture, or discussion.
  • Write a letter to people who have made a difference. Write to Albert Einstein about the negotiations for a present day nuclear deal in Iran. Write to an author about his/her influence on a particular topic (TC Boyle on the environment; Roald Dahl on imagination, for example).

Students beginning some of these tasks may need a reminder to go back to text and quote or paraphrase in their responses. Sentence frames to introduce text are helpful aids to guide students:

  • (author) states, “….”
  • In her book _______, (author) maintains that, “….”
  • X disagrees when he writes, “….”
  • According to the text, “….”

Supplemental frames to assist students with explaining their evidence can prevent the infamous “hanging quote,” when students mistakenly think that quoted text speaks for itself:

  • Basically, X is saying _______.
  • In other words, X believes ________.
  • X‘s point is that ________.

Finally, writers also need to make a distinct connection, identifying the reason for including the quote/evidence. Simple connector frames could be:

  • This statement is important because ______.
  • This relates to _____.
  • This contradicts _____ because ______.

Perhaps May isn’t the time that you’re thinking about doing “heavy lifting” in the classroom, but consider these ideas seeds. Let them germinate over the summer if you’re not ready to harvest them today. You never know what you might reap in the Fall.

Poetry: It’s Not Just for Breakfast Anymore

When I first sat down to write this post, I thought I would virtually chest-bump my English Language Arts peeps–the topic is poetry, after all, the domain of the English teacher, right? I shortly realized narrowing my audience would mean I would simultaneously be turning off other content area teachers. As I come back to revise, I’m thinking how poetry could add a dimension to literacy in Science and Social Studies while addressing CCSS Literacy Standards in the process: WHST.4, WHST.5, and WHST.10, to name a few. I’m not suggesting other content area experts start teaching poetry, but I am suggesting you might consider offering such a literacy opportunity in response to a scientific or social studies topic.

Today, April 30th, marks the end of National Poetry Month, but like many of the “month” celebrations, poetry could and should be showcased throughout the year–definitely as part of an English class and perhaps even outside of English. At Gresham High School, the opportunity to have Paulann Petersen, past Oregon Poet Laureate, lead a workshop for interested students happened to coincide not only with National Poetry Month but with prolific poet William Shakespeare’s birth/death-day, April 23rd. What you’re about to read is a chronicle of a poetry writing process. The process (minus the lesson on imagery) can remain the same, regardless of the content: Emancipation, Meiosis & Meitosis (I wrote a verse of a song about this once in high school Biology), The Holocaust, Bacteria, Imperialism, Atoms & Molecules….

Paulann Petersen, 2013

Paulann Petersen, 2013

When I joined the workshop, student writing was well underway. Petersen guided the process through Springboards. Some of us might call them brainstorms, focused freewrites, or fastwrites; her’s are a bit more involved. Ours began with brainstorming a list, but it also branched out to include reading an exemplar poem, “to know what’s possible.” With this group of high school writers, we were prompted with a common topic: food. We could list foods, describe rituals around food, categorize those we liked or disliked, etc.  Following the listing activity, Petersen introduced the poem, “Good Hotdogs,” by Sandra Cisneros (House on Mango Street). She stated she chose this poem because she wanted a “new to you” poem. Next she asked a simple question: “What do you notice?” Student volunteers responded: “line endings,” “specific details, like ‘the little burnt tips/of french fries.'”

Our lesson followed: Image/Imagery. We started with definitions. An image, Petersen defined, is something you can see/perceive visually, whereas imagery is a word/phrase that makes a sensory connection. She described that writers constantly battle the domination of sight imagery, and she encouraged us to do the same.

Often, Petersen relayed, students (of all ages) have a tough time getting started. Here are a few ideas:

  • Mimic the start strategy of the exemplar poem: in this case, the price of the hotdog.
  • Use first-person experience, “I take the first bite….”
  • Set up imagery: We take the first step through the doorway and smell….”
  • Start with a simile or metaphor: “It tasted like….” or “The steam was….”

Once we had a starting point, we were tasked to Fastwrite for 10 minutes straight. “Don’t stop; get down as much as you can. If you begin to hesitate or stall out, look back to your brainstorm list. Focus on imagery details.”

As time was called and pencils quieted, I noticed students stretching and massaging their hands, most of them smiling. Writing is hard but rewarding work! Our next job was to pause: take a moment to breathe, then determine a next step. That might mean setting the writing aside to let it percolate or re-reading and beginning to tinker. Petersen asked for volunteers to read works in progress; as they did, we celebrated their heroic bravery and their imagery.

She then moved us along to a new topic topic (Mammals that fascinate) and another writing Springboard. Before the workshop came to a close, time was set aside to simply share. Petersen bounced from table to table, asking if anyone wanted to read one of the pieces they’d written. In each and every example, there was at least a line, an image, something that provoked emotion…a smile, a gasp, a chuckle. And, that’s good poetry regardless of topic!

If you’re interested in a clear path to this process, see the steps below:

Step 1: Brainstorm a list.

Step 2: Read aloud an exemplar poem followed by “What do you notice?” discussion.

Step 3: Good place for a mini-lesson of choice.

Step 4: Jot down your starting point.

Step 5: Fast write for 10 minutes straight. Focus on imagery details.

Step 6: Pause.