Using the Backchannel in Kindergarten

When you give everyone a voice and give people power, the system usually ends up in a really good place. So, what we view our role as, is giving people that power. -Mark Zuckerberg

Have you ever had the pleasure of listening to a young child tell you a story or tell you about an event? It is usually fairly entertaining and fairly lengthy. They have definite opinions about everything and don’t mind sharing them, even when not solicited.

We work on giving our children choice in all aspects of their learning. Giving small choices early allows them to have greater voice in activities as the year goes on.  Today, we used a backchannel called Today’s Meet. Today’s Meet is a great for all students. It is also a way for older students to ask questions during instruction or share thoughts and extend the conversation in a blended environment. A first grade teacher in my school uses it to activate prior knowledge with her students. Her question posted on Today’s Meet was “What do you know about bats?” Her students all responded with bat facts. Our first time using Today’s Meet this school year involved answering a yes-no question. We are working on a Monsters unit this week.

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Today’s Meet produces a QR code for your students to scan to join the class discussion. Students simply type their name to join the conversation and then type their answer to the question. Their responses show up in real time and the students enjoyed looking at the other answers.

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Class discussions often result in some students either not answering, or not having a chance to answer due to lack of time and large class sizes. The backchannel gives everyone a chance to have their voice heard. Sometimes, it isn’t appropriate to interrupt a speaker. The backchannel allows a student to share conversation or questions without the bother of an interruption.

We will build on this activity and eventually move beyond yes-no questions as students become better writers. As the lead learners in the classroom, it is our responsibility to see that each student is given the power of their own voice.

Share your story…do epic stuff!

Phonics Strategies for Young Learners Using the iPad

Reading should not be presented to children as a chore or duty. It should be offered to them as a precious gift.-Kate DiCamillo

I am sorry for my low profile lately…for the last 10 weeks, I have been taking statistics for my doctoral program and it has owned me! There are only 2 weeks remaining so there is light at the end of the tunnel.

My school year thus far, has been one of the most challenging ones in recent memory. New district required assessments have consumed an inordinate amount of time and their results have generated different progress monitoring assessments for my lowest performing students.

Fortunately, I have iPads to assist in meeting the needs of all students, regardless of their skill level. Never has this challenge been more real than this year. Today’s post is to share some strategies I use with my most challenged learners in their endeavor to meet grade level goals in early literacy.

The majority of my struggling students are younger five year olds, with late birthdays. Their delays are mostly due to lack of exposure to literacy activities prior to starting school. This lack of exposure requires many, many repetitions to create some fluency in those critical phonics skills.

One of the interventions I use is the Wilson’s Fundations alphabet cards. These are cards that with daily repetitions, assist children in learning letters and sounds. We go through the cards each day several times. We say the letter, the picture name and the sound. For example: Bb, bat, /b/. Additionally, I have created a book in Book Creator by photographing each card and adding my voice over on each page saying the letter, picture, and sound. This way, students have the ability to practice throughout the day independently.Wilson's ABC

In addition to working with these cards and interacting with the e-book, we use the Word Wizard app. In our small group time, students open the app, I alternate calling out the letter, the word, or the sound and students find that letter and move it up to the grid. This app reinforces the child’s choice by giving the student the sound when the letter is selected.

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For reinforcement of letter sounds, we also use Starfall ABC’s app. This gives students multiple opportunities to see the letter, hear the sound, and practice interacting with initial sound activities.

Beyond phonics, I create “Just Right Books” for students that are on their independent reading level. These books are created in Book Creator and in iBooks Author. For non-readers, the text is read to the child with supporting picture cues. I have a free book in the iBook Store explaining the process here and blog posts about it here and here.

There are many apps and books available for purchase, but creating simple activities with much repetition is what our struggling students need most.

Share your story…do epic stuff!

Here We Go Again

How do you restart something that had never been turned off? -Veronica Rossi, Under the Never Sky

It doesn’t matter how long I have taught, I always have trouble adjusting expectations with a new class. Of course I know these young children are new and are not at the same level as the class from the year before…it’s just…well, that class leaves when we are in such a good groove and it is hard for me to adjust a few months later. Summer vacation doesn’t seem to turn off the “old class” switch and turn on the “new class” switch.

No worries, it’s a short learning curve. It doesn’t take long to remind me of the need to start small and slow so that I can speed up later. We just finished our 10th day of school and we are currently using our iPads to enhance phonics instruction in small groups with Pocket Chart Pro, Starfall ABC’s and Magnetic ABC apps. We are also using them in centers as a choice in the math center and the ABC center. We’ve used Drawing Pad to draw a picture of something we like to do. Here is an example. She drew a picture of playing at school.

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In math, we have used Connecting Cubes to count objects.

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As well as experiment with counting and ten frames:

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We have also learned how to take a screen shot so we can upload our work! By experimenting with different apps in the early days, the students have an opportunity to explore and free-play while we are learning the proper way to use the device.

So how do you restart something that had never turned off? In my world, at least, I have to hit the reset button and remind myself to start small. The first few weeks of kindergarten are all about exploring our environment, getting to know each other, and taking things one step at a time!

Here’s to a great new year y’all!


Share your story…do epic stuff!


Finding Your Story

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.-Maya Angelou

Well, I’ve been a little busy since my last post. Summer is almost over and I’ve been busily plugging away at my doctoral classes and have recently returned from the Apple Distinguished Educator Institute in Miami. These institutes provide me with inspiration and refill my creative cup to begin a new school year.

once-upon-a-time-719174_640Our institutes often focus on the power of story. We all have one. As a kindergarten teacher working in Charleston, SC, I wasn’t convinced I had a story…and if I did, who would want to hear it? As educators, we neglect our story and we downplay it. We use the word “just” in apologetic tones as if to say, “I’m JUST a teacher”. I found great inspiration in one of our keynote speakers in Miami.  Jason Hall, founder of Slow Roll Detroit, reminded me no story is too small. You can see his story here. My two take aways from his story is “leave no one behind” and “sometimes the journey redefines the destination”.

So, back to the idea of story. Adults aren’t the only ones with a story. My youngest students, even at age 5, have a story. Our job is to nurture that story and help them see their stories matter. Often, we relegate young children to the side because they are “too little ” and they can’t possibly have anything worthwhile to offer. How many times have you said “Yes, uh, huh” absent-mindedly as a child is talking? I’m not pointing fingers here…I’m just as guilty. We are busy people. But, when we do that often enough, we reinforce to that child their story isn’t  worth telling. They become less willing to flex their creative muscles because they don’t feel capable, they don’t have anything to say.

Jason Hall

Jason Hall

Maybe you aren’t comfortable with you whole story yet. Maybe you are working on a verse or two. Here is my current verse. I’m excited to continue to build my story one verse at a time. With a new school year 3 weeks away for me, I’m vowing to lean in more. I’m committing to nurturing the story in my students. I’m committing to nurturing my own story and the stories of others. Jason Hall has it right…roll slow, leave no one behind, and embrace the idea that the journey can redefine the destination. His story started small and as he shared it, it became epic.


In other news, I wanted to quickly share a few websites that are great for royalty free, attribution free images.



Photosforclass:  This is student safe and all images come with automatic attribution.

In the spirit of story and my new-found inspiration, my new closing line will be…

Share your story…do epic stuff.


End of Year Roundup

It’s May…teach yourself. -Jen Hatmaker

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Image by Jen Hatmaker

People, truer words have never been spoken. The countdown is on here and we are doing a serious blitzkrieg to the finish line with 10 days of school remaining. Correction, 8 full days and 2 half days. There is no kind of tired like end of the school year tired, but with active, wiggly, excited, over the top five year olds, I must forge on. This tidal wave of crazy is unavoidable so I just get on the wave and ride.

In an effort to maintain some sanity, we are busy with a lot of choice writing. Many students choose to write more about interests from our thematic studies, others gravitate toward journal writing, and some want to capture/savor moments from field trips. During choice time, when students choose to write, they not only choose the topic but they pick the genre and the tools. As students engage in authentic work, they learn more about app functionality and share features with one another. In this sense, they really are teaching themselves. When they next use the app, their work is 100% focused on the learning (the writing, the communicating, etc), not the app itself.  Even the youngest students can learn quickly how to live and think inside of an app as well as move across apps.  Our job as teacher of writers is to focus on the writers and teach writers -not apps.  We need to help them apply and share learning, and grow their skills. So, in our classroom kids often choose between Pic Collage, Drawing Pad, Feltboard, Paper Desk Pro and Book Creator.

Here are a few samples of their work from the last two weeks. None of these were assigned. It was all their choice during their free writing times.










The children are app smashing, creating, and collaborating. Their energies are currently directed toward choice writing and not toward mischief (thank goodness). By using student interests and prior experiences, students are actively and authentically writing. We have a collaboration table in the classroom where students can go and discuss writing ideas with peers. These can turn into lively, rich conversations, which in turn, produce some pretty amazing writing.

For my readers who are nearing the end of your school year, hang on and ride the wave. It’s May…they can teach themselves!

Today we will do exciting new things. Let’s get to it.

iTunes U and You

The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education. -Martin Luther King

itunes uThinking critically and intensively is not reserved for older students. We work diligently to create learning experiences in kindergarten that allow our young students to think deeply about various topics. Having iPads allows us to enrich learning experiences in a way that wasn’t possible before. One of the iPad tools that is often overlooked is iTunes U. Why iTunes U?

  • It is a free repository of classes and educational content
  • Students have access to content anytime and anywhere
  • Content is easily updated and changed
  • Discussion feature allows rich conversation between students

While there are a large number of free classes available on iTunes U, perhaps you should consider creating your own. With the end of the school year only a few weeks away, it seems odd to be thinking of adding new things to your teaching bag of tricks, but this is the perfect time to do so. You can use some of your summer to create your own courses. It is easy to do. Simply log into the iTunes U course manager using your Apple ID and add your content. What are the benefits to creating your own course?

  • Content is more meaningful to students
  • Content can be customized
  • Easy to create, easy to update
  • All resources are in one place: books, documents, videos, images, web links and apps

Here is the link to a Spiders course I created for my kindergarten students as well as one for teachers on Personalized Learning and another course created by a 4th grade colleague about my school and how we innovate instruction using iPads.

iTunes U allows you to customize the learning experience for your students, even the youngest ones. It is also a great way to create a learning portfolio for students. Up to 5 people can collaborate on a course so you and your colleagues can work together and share the wealth. If you aren’t comfortable creating a full course initially, create a chapter and keep adding. It is easy to update any time.

If you aren’t already using iTunes U, consider giving it a try. It will open a whole new world to your students for learning and engaging in content.

Today we will do exciting new things. Let’s get to it.

The Power of the iPad in Kindergarten

Technology won’t replace teachers, but teachers who don’t teach with technology will be replaced. -unknown

Last week, our school iPads were replaced.  We were very excited to exchange our iPad 2’s for the new iPad Air.  Our old iPads served us well but were suffering from frequent app crashes. The replacement took about a week…no small feat when you are talking about over 800 iPads. The excitement over the idea of new iPads was suddenly replaced with the knowledge that we would be without iPads for a few days. My kids quickly realized this and asked, “Um, how will we do our work with no iPads?”  I responded, “I’m not sure…maybe we will do some worksheets.” Puzzled, the kids responded with, “What are worksheets?” You see, they had never completed one before.

It was definitely like going back in time and I’m certain I don’t ever want to teach again without having those devices. My students were used to having choices about their day and about demonstrating their learning. I was used to personalizing their learning and serving as a facilitator while they directed themselves. Student-centered and student-directed learning is one of the keys to educational change.

So, now we have our beautiful new devices and the kids immediately went to work. Their work. We have been working on number stories in their math journals. Even though I’m providing the number stories, there is still choice. For example, Sam had 7 buttons.  Some were blue and some were yellow.  How many of each were there?

Here are a couple of samples from my kids:IMG_0004









One was being a wise-guy, but still got the right number of buttons. By making these number stories open-ended, students have the ability to use multiple pathways to get to the answer. Another student and a partner, worked together to create what we call an “incredible equation”. One of the students was stronger in math (clearly, as he is able to multiply and divide at age 5) and the other was working on grade level. Together they made this:


By letting my students work where they are, and not where a worksheet forces them to be, the sky is the limit. The iPads give my students the freedom to move on, to move up, and to be in charge of their learning.

So, yes, I am thrilled to have our iPads back. We saw first hand the power of the iPad in our classroom. Even though we have only 22 school days remaining, we are going strong to the end!

Today we will do exciting new things. Let’s get to it!

What Should We Be Doing? Using iPads to Personalize Learning

The more time you spend contemplating what you should have done… you lose valuable time planning what you can and will do -Lil Wayne.

Can you remember who you were before the world told you who you should be? We live our lives shouldering the burden of “shoulds”. Social media bombards us with images of what the perfect size is, what the perfect cupcake should look like, what the perfect home should look like and what the perfect wedding should look like. We are watching the “highlights” of people’s lives and comparing them to our “behind the scenes”. As professionals, we are held to some standard that determines what a perfect teacher or classroom should be, that often doesn’t come close to resembling the real world. It is enough to crack the sanity of even the most self-confident adults. So, how much more burdensome are these “shoulds” on our students…these little people who carry seeds of hope, creativity, innocence and wonder?

Students are so worried about what their work should look like, they miss the whole point of the activity. They don’t want to be wrong because they should know the answer. They want all of the parameters spelled out so they can produce.  This isn’t learning.  It is a recipe. As a doctoral student, I find myself looking for exact parameters on some of my assignments and find it very disconcerting when the assignment seems vague or broad. I am conditioned to want the recipe so I can produce what it is my professors want. The recipe is comforting because it lays out exactly what I should do. After all, isn’t that the whole point of the assignment?

Actually, no. The point is to problem solve, think critically, collaborate, research, think some more, write, hypothesize, write some more, and come out on the other side with a deeper understanding of the concept than before I started. Our students yearn to achieve but it is up to us to discard that recipe. It is up to us to teach and model divergent thinking, to allow students to struggle a bit, to learn to persevere when their first attempt isn’t successful and to allow for variations on a theme.

In our iPad math journals, students aren’t given a closed ended question that has one answer. Open format questions create greater potential for deeper reasoning. Students have the ability to think in flexible ways and not just provide the answer they should give. An example is: Ben has 6 buttons.  Some are green and some are purple.  How many of each?  Another is the example below. Students come up with their own addition problems.

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Giving students voice and choice to demonstrate their understanding of concepts frees them from following a recipe to produce a standardized product. Whether it is open ended activities in math journals or writing about their favorite super hero, we need to remove the “shoulds” from their vocabulary and ours… and shift toward “could”.  What could  be the answer here? What could you write about today? What could you be doing right now? Should somehow implies wrongdoing or shame but could allows room for thought and possibility.

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By using our iPads to personalize learning, give students voice and choice, and shifting our use of the word should to could, we open up possibilities, change mindsets, and give students freedom to be themselves. Heck, if adults did the same thing for ourselves, we might have a lot less anxiety and little more peace of mind!

That being said, the comic below shows my constant doctoral mindset:

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Ok…so, I have a little work to do on myself…

Today we will do exciting new things. Let’s get to it!

Building Reading Comprehension with iPads

To me one of the most important skills learned in elementary school is reading comprehension –Erik Mickelson

Are you feeling it? You know…the drag of a winter gone on a little too long and spring just slightly out of reach? Are you feeling pulled in a million different directions? Could you use just a hot minute to sit for a bit and just be? I feel your pain. It’s this time in the school year where we have to dig deep and summon our inner teaching ninja and go the distance!

3803377162_ef4b7847c8_zIn my doctoral classes, we are working on scholarly writing. This is something that doesn’t come easy for me. I like to write, just not in the scholarly fashion. What I am finding during this process is I need to visualize what I am trying to say and what the authors of the scholarly journals are trying to say, in order for it to make sense to me. Without this visualization process, it all seems like meaningless words flowing on and on. How too, must our students feel when reading something that seems foreign?


My focus lately has been on these two  ELA Common Core State Standards for kindergarten:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.K.5.C   Identify real-life connections between words and their use

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.K.7  With prompting and support, describe the relationship between illustrations and the story in which they appear

In using my own experiences of late with academic reading and writing, I decided to take a closer look at these standards and dig deeper with my students. I read a couple of pages from Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain by Verna Aardema. This text is rich with imagery and language. I didn’t show them the book cover or the pictures of the first few pages.  I read the pages a few times before I let the children draw. I instructed them to think about the words as I read them and make a picture in their minds. Then, the students used Drawing Pad to draw the images they saw in their minds. Here are a few samples of their work:

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While this activity was engaging and the students enjoyed it, what happened later was unexpected. Some students came together during their choice time and shared their pictures.  They compared them and talked about why they drew what they drew. They asked for the book so they could have a book talk.  They discussed knowing what “a plain” was since we had recently talked about landforms. They had conversations about why birds built their nests in the ground (the text mentions “grass for the ground birds to nest in”). They made a list of questions in their notes app. They wanted to know when we could research the answers to these questions. Here is one list they made:

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Who knew that a quick 10 minute activity designed to get students to visualize words and meaning would turn into so much more?

Reading comprehension is a critical skill for students to develop. Finding creative new ways to build this skill can help all students think critically.

Today we will do exciting new things. Let’s get to it.



Teacher Created Texts in Book Creator

Literacy is one of the greatest gifts a person could receive. -Jen Selinsky

My kindergarten students are becoming voracious readers and most of them are ready for some fresh book selections. I like to create books for them to read and you can read more about that here. While I love using iBooks Author to create multi-touch books, I realize not everyone has access to a Macbook to create them. A good alternative is Book Creator. This is one of my students’ favorite apps to use, and it is a great way for educators to create their own texts.

Quick and easy are two mandates from time-pressed educators in creating learning materials for students. In fact, my dissertation topic will be looking at the successes achieved in classrooms that use e-books to enhance literacy and creating an implementation model. Why aren’t more educators creating their own texts? Is it will or skill?  Or, is it a lack of awareness of the power of these texts in literacy development? (Your comments below would be very welcome here as I am starting to research my topic!)

Anyway, back to quick and easy…Book Creator meets this demand. Take a quick inventory of your students’ interests and get to work! The boys in my classroom love dirt bikes and super heroes. Ten minutes later, I have 2 books cranked out to be added to their iPads. My girls love Disney princesses and baby animals. Ten more minutes and 2 more books. I use the Add Sound feature to assist with some necessary vocabulary words. I underline the word, speak the word using Add Sound, and place the speaker icon next to the underlined word. Then I upload the book to Showbie, our workflow app. My kindergarten students are able to go into Showbie independently and download the books to their iBooks app.

Here are a few screen shots:

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My students have been independently reading and partner reading with these books.  Some have asked if they can create their own books with drawings they have created on the iPad. One student started his own Super Hero book last week because I omitted one his favorites. Way to problem solve!!

Watching their excitement each time they download a new book is satisfaction enough for me. When they ask me for more, I remind them they are able to create their own books as well!

If you have Book Creator, I hope you will work on creating some books for your students.  If you don’t, what are you waiting for?

Today we will do exciting new things. Let’s get to it!