Biography Project Overview


Paul Revere

Every other year our middle school students work on biography writing. This year we had an opportunity to start our biography project with a visiting author, Mary Dodson Wade. She is known for writing many biographies on persons of importance in U.S. and Texas history.

My colleague and I created a project based around her visit. The students will research a person of note from the Revolutionary War era for a target audience of grades Kindergarten through Second. The students will use the Big6 research model to organize their research and compose draft biographies using Mary Dodson Wade’s biography of Wilma Rudolph as a model. Mrs. Wade has agreed to read the student’s drafts and make comments and suggestions for them. Once the biographies are complete the students will create a presentation using a digital tool of their choice. And finally, the projects will be shared online, with the K-2 students, and with the middle school students from our sister school.



Links to documents:

Biography Project

Assignment Sheet

Peer Evaluation

5/6 Rubric

7/8 Rubric

Biography Project: End of First Week


At this point, we reviewed the biography Wilma Rudolph by Mary Dodson Wade. This title was written for grades K-2 and kept to about 350 words. I reminded the students to look for the five W’s and to note the organization (introduction, 1956 Olympics, 1960 Olympics, and life after the Olympics) and information provided in the introduction to guide them as they wrote their own drafts.

Once they felt they had enough notes to work on the project, as outlined in the assignment sheet, they filled in the same graphic organizer they used for their earlier investigation of biographies. This was so they could find any gaps in their research; several had to go back and research some missing details.

By Thursday most of the students had begun their drafts. The original plan was to wait for the drafts to be done and peer reviewed before talking about digital tools, but they needed a break and exploring tools seemed like the best idea. I reminded them that one of the objectives for this project was to present the biography using a digital tool that needed to be viewed online and allowed for comments. We went through some of the tools they had used previously. Then I briefly discussed Vuvox, Voki, and StoryJumper.  They I had about 45 minutes to explore the tools and come up with any of their own discoveries, which we added to the list.

By the end the day on Friday, all but one student had completed his or her draft, many had chosen his/her digital tool, several had begun gathering images or creating avatars, and one has peer edited with a partner (the partner was from 7th grade, thus only one from my class).

Biography Project: First Few Days


After the great kick off to our biography unit that Mary Dodson Wade gave us, we looked at several of her biographies along with a handful of others. The students were asked to read and fill in a graphic organizer, also taking note of how the information was presented (one was in verse) and point of view. We then discussed what we wanted to include in our biographies.

It was time for the students to start choosing the person they wanted to research. All of our middle school students are completing this project. The Grades 5 & 6 students were required to choose a person of note from the Revolutionary War. The 7 & 8 students were allowed to choose someone from any time period. I will be focusing on my Grades 5 & 6 students as I discuss this project.

I started out by putting up a list of 20 or so notable people from the revolutionary War. I gave the students a 30 second or less summation of who the person was and what they did. From my brief discussion they were to have a few people in mind they may be interested in.

Next the students scoured their textbooks for information; I wanted them to practice using the index, a skill they all need to improve. Once they read the information in the textbook, they were allowed to explore the Internet. Finally, they were to make a list of the top three people they were interested in researching. I was lucky and most of the students got their first choice. The two who didn’t easily worked out a compromise. I love my class.

The students then went back to their textbooks to fill in the K-W Chart from their Big6™ Research Notebooks. The information in the textbook is sparse for even the most notable characters. The plan was for them then generate questions based on the information provided, hopefully getting at who, what, why, when, where and how. The “What do I want to find out?” part was given as a homework assignment.  It did not go so well. We spent a much larger part of the next day’s lesson going over how to generate questions that will yield relevant answers. I wish I had some before and after examples, but let’s just say they were less than thoughtful. Granted these poor children were in the middle of lunch and afterschool play practices, so I should have thought better of giving them this assignment as homework. Here is an example of “after” questions. This student did a nice job working through many of the five W’s.

Revised Questions

Following the Big6™ research model, we discussed the types of resources they needed to use and where to find them. I wanted them to use a print resource, mostly to practice finding books on the library shelves, as well as websites found through our Follett Webpath Express subscription. The students spent the next two days reading and taking notes from their sources.

Sample Note Sheet

Author Visit with Mary Dodson Wade


In January, our school was contacted by author Mary Dodson Wade to see if we would be interested in having her speak to our students on March 8 & 9. Her husband is an engineer that presents workshops around the world. She often joins him on his travels, and it just so happened that they would be visiting Sumatra.

At first we were hesitant, as her visit was at an extremely busy time. We would be just finishing progress reports, virtual science fair, student-led Conferences, and all the work prior that would be necessary to prepare for the conferences. But it seemed like an opportunity to good to pass up, so we booked her for presentations to just our middle school students.

Mrs. Wade wrote her first book back in 1984 and she says she has written about one or two books a year since. Many, of her over 50, titles are biographies focusing on important characters in American and Texas history. This was the perfect tie-in, as our students would be writing biographies in the third trimester, though originally planned for later in the trimester.

On March 8th and 9th Mrs. Wade made a one-hour presentation on each day taking the students through her process of biography writing.

Mrs. Wade started out by sharing with the students where she gets her ideas for the biographies she writes. Sometimes a publisher asks her to write a title, other times she see something in the news, or a friend suggests a person.

She then reads as much as she can about the person, trying to get at what his/her personality was like, what motivated them, as much as possible looking for first hand accounts. She shared with the students interesting little details about the people she researches. My favorite anecdote being that she read somewhere that Barbara Bush reflected on raising her children by saying she spent a lot of time at the emergency room.  When Mrs. Wade was writing a biography Of George W. Bush, she sent a letter off to Barbara Bush explaining she was writing a biography and she wondered if George W. Bush was the one going to the hospital so regularly. Mrs. Wade waited and waited for a reply, but none came. She had to send the manuscript off to the publisher. Soon after, she finally got a reply. It was concise and read: If it wasn’t for him, it was because of him. She was able to call the publisher and get that detail into her book.

A key point she tried to impress upon the students was to check sources carefully and thoroughly. She says unless she can find the source, she won’t include it in one of her books. She told us how she wrote a biography of Esteban, a slave belonging to the Spanish explorer Dorantes de Carranza.  She read many accounts about how he traveled with green plates, but she couldn’t find the source. So she didn’t include it in her biography of him.  She submitted her work, and it was published. Then as she was researching something else, she found an letter that was sent back to the king of Spain explaining that the natives in New Mexico had killed Esteban; the confirmation being that the natives had his three green plates. So when the time came for a revision she felt she was able to include it.
She then talked about the actual writing and how she may need to follow guidelines from the publisher such as a certain word count or a glossary. It is important that she includes all the key details that make the person notable, but also ones that help the reader relate to the person.

Finally she submits, but her work is not always done. The publisher will often come back and ask her to make changes. Sometimes she thought she had done what the publisher wanted, based on previous work with them, only to discover they wanted something different. Other times she would rework stories already published for older elementary students as a version for a younger audience. This was another point she tried to impress upon the students: That writers complete many, many drafts of their work, even after they think they are done.

Overall our two days with Mary Dodson Wade were a great way to start off our own biography project. She gave us many things to refer to as the students completed their own research. Most importantly, her discussion gave us an idea for the student’s projects. We changed the audience, which originally would have been their peers, to our K-2 students.

More to come on this project later.

Laptop Management in the Classroom

Using laptops in the classroom has been such a wonderful experience for me. I have loved teaching these last two years having them. Little things like being able to use Schoology to manage our assignments to being able to let the students research topics as soon as their interest is peaked.  Next year is my final year at the school I am currently in; we have a five year limit. I hope with all my heart that my next school will be as enriching an environment for both myself and my students.
I start out the year setting up routines: charging station, routines, procedures, and organization.  The students have a charging station, nothing fancy, just a table I have blocked out with tape, so each student has a specific place and outlet to charge his or her laptop. This way everyone has a special place for their items, it reduces having to sort out problems later.
I also have two signs that I use. As the student come in to class I will have them posted along with the days schedule. One says: Laptops ready, Tops Down and the other says:Laptops Charging. This way they know where to put their laptops as the enter the class as well as being able to anticipate when we might use them.
My favorite thing about my classroom has less to do with managing laptops in the classroom and more to do with the space the students have to use them. Last year was our first year implementing the laptop program across our Middle school. The desks and chairs we had were, at best , minimally appropriate for paper and pencil work, and I found them atrocious for working with their laptops.
I did some research and proposed that we our purchase a new style of desk that had recently come on the market in the U.S. They are made by Safco and are called the AlphaBetter Desk. What sold me on the desk is that they are adjusted for each student at a height that allows them to work ergonomically , while standing up. Then the stool is adjusted to that height. This allows the students to stand or sit throughout lessons as they need. They don’t have to ask; they just move when necessary. And the crowning touch was a swing bar located under the desk. While sitting or standing they can swing to their heats’ content, burning off excess energy. Admittedly, I did have a couple of particular students in mind, and the anticipated satisfaction that they wouldn’t be able to slouch in their chairs, since the stools are backless. And I honestly though the students would complain, but they have been such a success. The students love them, particularly the swing bar. I chose the largest desktop at 36” x 24” giving the students plenty of room for their laptops and any books or resources they are using.
My final thoughts on managing laptops in the classroom follow the same management strategies I have always used. I move around constantly. The desks are set up in a U-shape so from the center I can easily get to everyone, and then I can quickly go around the outside of the U to make sure no one has strayed to Youtube or Facebook. I am they still do(usually my own son), but as I have said before I have a small class, just seven, so it’s really easy for me to get around to all of them quickly. I try my best to keep them organized. We have folder and files set up at the beginning of the year using Dropbox. Some students are able to continue organizing independently and other need constant help, just like binders!

Will Technology Change Education?



Thinking about how education might change due to new technology seems like such a huge topic. In many ways, technology has greatly changed the way I teach in the last year. But I do think I have been very lucky to be working in a school that has technology integration through all grade levels as a major area for growth, as well as the budgetary support that is needed to go along with that.

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My school considered purchasing class sets of iPads for our K-2 students. Already we have sets for Pre-school and Kindergarten. In the end, we upped the total number to 14, so that other classes could have a chance to use them as well. The applications I have seen used so far for this age group (I have only looked at the ones related to Language Arts) have been for teaching letter/sound associations, tracing letters, matching and interactive reading. Which brings us back to the question that this program has us looking at—is the technology allowing the students to do an old task in a new way or is it allowing them to do something new? To me, it seems, that it is the same literacy related activities that students would have done before, but now they are doing it on the iPad. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t amazing or engaging for the students, I just don’t know that it is moving them in to the realm of something new.

We are an extremely small school. I wondered what the cost would be for larger schools. Earlier this month posted an article discussing an infographic that focuses specifically on the cost of using iPads as opposed to traditional textbooks in response to the release of iBooks 2. It makes a lot of assumptions, such as students purchasing iBooks for classes, but it is an interesting way to begin getting your mind around the costs involved.

Connectivism, as described by George Siemens is learning that occurs as part of a social network with many diverse connections and ties made possible by the various tools of technology. I found this article a bit difficult to digest, so I followed some links and found this neat little video that really helped me make sense of what this means for students. And now I am sharing it here with you, in the spirit of Connectivism.


I think technology will change education in the next five, ten, fifteen years. It will be much faster for some, those schools that have the funds to purchase the technology and the students that have access to these schools. For others, I think it will be a slower process. I really have no idea how it will work out for the majority of schools that face budget constraints. Sure many students will find ways to connect themselves to their personal areas of interest and learn through the model proposed by Connectivism. I am just not sure schools for the general public will ever catch up.

So what about me? Where will I be teaching in the years to come? I hope in a school that has required laptops for students. I don’t think I can go back to teaching without them. I can’t imagine having to plan my lessons around a shared cart that may or may not be available when I need it. I love my Smart Board and document camera. I have become very dependent!

The Flipped Classroom


I have really enjoyed reading the articles on the Flipped Classroom.  I was so fascinated that I found myself following all the links and three hours have passed!

My understanding of the flipped classroom or reverse instruction is that information that would normally be shared as a lecture, is presented to students through the use of podcasts, vodcasts, movies, or PowerPoints which are made available to students online or in some other format that students can view ahead of class time. During class time, students work on labs, collaborative projects, etc. while the teacher is free to facilitate learning. For a brief history, read The History of the Flipped Class by Jonathan Bergmann.

As I was reading, I found the focus to be on classes related to the sciences or math.  Since I teach Language Arts and Social Studies, I started searching for people who are flipping outside the sciences. At the Flipped Class Network-A Professional Learning Community for Teachers Using Vodcasting in the Classroom, there are people discussing ways to flip in the humanities, though I did notice that there are hardly any current posts in this area.

Some ideas I found for Language Arts are: sentence structure, building paragraphs, topic sentences, and even peer editing. So if I just look at the idea of writing topic sentences, I can see a benefit. I find myself going over this often for some students, which takes time from other learning activities. If I had a video that students could refer to, they would be able to review the information as needed. These are a few skill specific areas I think would work well as time savers, for information students had missed for one reason or another. If I were to do this as an initial activity, how would I monitor whether or not hey had viewed the information and not understood it or just never bother to view it? I haven’t gotten my mind around that part yet.

In my search for Humanities related information I came across a site called the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation. The premise being that “engagement is at the core of student success.” You can achieve this by flipping your classroom and using the FIZZ lecture-six slide boards and a video camera to record lectures. The video No Lecture in the Classroom explains why students are not engaged by the traditional lecture and how to resolve the problem.

As I was trying to figure out how reverse instruction could be applied to Social studies, I found myself wondering how would I decide how much information to put into a vodcast. This idea of narrowing it down to six slides seems like an interesting place to start, though I am not sure how I feel about sliding boards. I think I would use a SMART Board in their place, and then I could add maps or other media.

For my 5th and 6th grade students, I could see this idea working with maybe a bit more training on their (and their parent’s) part, than older students, but I think they could do it. I am considering it for my final project.

Technology Integration












Technology in my Classroom

In my classroom, tech integration means finding ways for students to do things that will allow them to utilize their laptops as much as possible.

I have tried to apply the idea of four tiers of tool usage from Ruben R. Puentedura’s A Matrix Model for Designing and Assessing Network-Enhanced Courses, as introduced to us in our podcast meeting, to what I find myself doing in my classes. The tiers are listed below.

Substitution: the computer substitutes for another technological tool, without a significant change in the tool’s function.

Augmentation: the computer replaces another technological tool, with significant functionality increase.

Modification: the computer allows for the redesign of significant portions of a task to be executed.

Redefinition: the computer allows for the creation of new tasks, inconceivable without the computer.

I have substituted paper homework books and weekly newsletters for Schoology. It lets me manage my courses, assign homework, and it allows students instant access to their grades. Parents also have access to this information, which many have said they really appreciate.  Recently, the students have learned how to use the notebook layout in Word for taking notes. This was new to me as well, and I have found that I really like it.

At the augmentation level the computer replaces another technological tool, with significant functionality increase. When we made the transition to 1:1 laptops, one of the first things the students noticed as an improvement was being able to compose their first drafts of writing on the computer instead of by hand. They really thought this was fabulous: spellcheck! The challenge for them now is making sure they use the spell check correctly. I get a lot of “witches” in their papers.

I see our voicethread project as a modification. Once the students have published their voicethreads, their friends and family members from around the world will be able to view and add comments, something that would not have been possible had the students written a traditional essay.

As for redefinition, that’s where we are headed next.

Is it Integration?

We were asked the question: if we are working towards technology redefining the way we learn, is it integration? As I have reflected on some of the things I do in class, trying to put them into the different categories, I got to thinking that maybe it wasn’t the right term. Maybe the term integration is a reflection of augmentation and modification rather than redefinition. But then I remembered something I read from Ruben Puentedura’s article, “It is important to note that no particular “quality” label should be attached to any of the tiers,” since what is important is that expectations match the tier. A class should be using technology at several different tiers, the problem being that usage at only one tier wouldn’t provide a variety of opportunities for learning.

I looked up the definition of integrate, and this is what I found: combine (one thing) with another so that they become a whole. If I take this to mean combining the different tiers to create a whole, then using technology at the different tiers would meet the definition of integration.

Technology at my School

Generally, I see technology being used at my school as a way for students and teachers to do old things in new ways. Some examples are using online services such as Raz-Kids or Tumblebooks for reading activities in our lower elementary classes. Our Pre-school and Kindergarten classes have five iPads each, which are used for reading and math activities. The teachers often use iMovie as a way for students to make presentations at out Community Time meetings, as a way for children to present learning, without the stress of having to perform in front of a large group. I see these as being at the substitution level.

We also have several document cameras. I like not having to make overheads, which would usually require me to make a paper copy of something before I copied it onto the transparency, which reduces waste. I know ours have a record function, but I haven’t yet found a use for it yet. Although as I write this, I think maybe I could use it for our daily MUG (mechanics, usage & grammar) Shot, which is part of the Write Source program. I think I will try that next week.

Who Should Teach NETs?


I feel both the classroom teacher and the Technology Coordinator should be working towards teaching the NETsstandards.  However, this is so much easier said than done, especially at my school. Weare such a small staff, and we all have so many different areas that we teach in, it is really hard to find the time to plan together to meet standards such as the NETs or AASL.

I often create lessons and units that work towards the NETS or AASL Standards for 21st Century Learners, but because I haven’t had time to meet with our Tech Coordinator, I just plan on doing it all myself. In passing, I will mention what we are doing, and he will say, “Let me help with that.” Of course, I am so pleased to get his help. And every time I wish I’d had time to meet during the planning stage.

This happened recently with my Language Arts class. The students are creating personal narratives about a trip they took with the whole middle school. Instead of writing an essay, they are using photos from the trip to make storyboards and then using voicethread to record their adventures. We ended up having three teachers in the room, which made it so much easier to assist everyone.

Our students grades K-4 do have scheduled lab time with the tech coordinator. Grades 5-8 are expected to integrate since we run a 1:1 program for the Middle School students. It really depends on the classroom teacher how much is directly linked/integrated into the classroom and what ends up being a stand-alone tech lesson.  Tech integration across all grade levels is a school-wide goal; I think we are making progress. I also think it is reasonable that the teachers have varying degrees of interest in Tech integration. I would love for all of the teachers at my school to be required to participate in a COETAIL cohort. As I said, we are a small school, just 12 teachers. Wouldn’t it be great if we all had this experience?

I really liked this quote from this week’s reading on David Warlick’s blog post What Difference Might One “S” Make?

“It really doesn’t matter if they are covering all of the tools, or even if each student is mastering all of the same tools.  Students would simply learn how computers can help them do interesting things, and then gain the skills and confidence required to teach themselves, with the guidance of their teachers, the applications to make it happen.”

I too want my students to know that computers can help them do interesting things. I hope that I am showing them that there are so many ways to get a job done, and that they will at some point decide to learn more on their own.

Last year, a couple of my students loved making Stykz animations. They used it to create a social studies project where they took their Stykz animations and put them into iMovie so they could add dialog. When this project was over, they continued making Stykz animated movies on their own. This year, there hasn’t been anything that has particularly caught their interest. Maybe the voicethreads we are working on will be it?

Course 3 Reflection and Lesson Plan



So far Course 3 has had the greatest impact on my teaching. I was finally able to use the image I had chosen for week two’s task of finding an image to include in a lesson. I have been amazed at how interesting the students have found Diego Rivera’s Great City of Tenochtitlan. They have made some really wonderful connections between the market scene in the mural, and those that they have experienced themselves in different parts of the world, from Bali to China to right here in our own city in Indonesia. Their favorite detail has been the severed arm. They were able to discuss so many more aspects of the mural than I thought they would. I find myself wondering (and looking forward to) how I am going to find such interesting images for all of the topics we are going to cover in Social Studies this year.


Each year our middle school students go on a week-long trip that is geared toward exposing them to some sort of cultural or natural aspect of our host country. Last year they went to see orangutans in the north of Sumatra. This year they are heading to the island of Java to take in the heritage site of Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple at the time of its construction in the 9th Century. When they return they are required to share their adventure with the community at one of our monthly Community Time meetings.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I found the digital storytelling assignment to be my favorite. So with that in mind, for the final lesson plan, I have the students working on creating a personal narrative using VoiceThread as a way to share their experience of the trip.  I have taken the Language Arts aspect of the assignment, and our Performing Arts teacher has taken the same idea and tweaked it to meet his standards. My own digital story was created using VUVOX, but I chose VoiceThread for the student project because I really like the idea that their friends or family members that live back in the U.S. could leave them an audio comment.

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