Express-o Yourself: Adding a little caffeine to your writing

I’ve been a Hemingway user for a while. I even bought the Mac App because, though it’s not omniscient, the feedback it provides me is invaluable to the content I create. This allows me to reflect on the decisions I made while writing which hopefully lessens the number of mistakes I’ll have to have someone else help me find.

That being the case, another product I’ve begun using is Expresso, which is currently in BETA. Expresso is a little more “busy” than Hemingway and it also does a good job of spurring one to reflection. I won’t go into how to use the product as there is a “How to use” page, but the classroom uses are pretty evident.

Vocabulary Acquisition

The most obvious usage of the app is for kids to expand their vocabularies. The app can find synonyms for words used in the text that is either typed or pasted in. It turns these words green and lists possible words that are synonymous. Great for teachers with “word graveyards” in their classes or logophiles of all ages.

Parts of Speech

The app also does an analysis on the parts of speech used. Have an activity where students need to practice using a particular part of speech? This is a pretty nifty way to track it.

Twitter Chat

Looking to stream line your writing? Expresso identifies filler words for you. I quite like filler words sometimes so many times I ignore this functionality. However, if under the rule of the dreaded “Word Count,” this could be maximized to weed out words that you included in your verbosity.

Remember the app is in BETA and hopefully it will get even better. The Expresso App is currently Free.99 and waiting to be utilized in a classroom near you.

Writer’s Block: What two teachers taught me through writing

Last night, I taught an after school Professional Development class that centered on the use of mobile devices in school. I didn’t really stay on topic. I used the class as an opportunity to talk about design and Design Thinking. We used the movie Zoolander to illustrate my points. As I reflected on the class on my way home, I contemplated the genesis of my presentation style. I thought about two very different teachers from high school.

I began my high school journey at Banneker Academic High School, a rather small school in Washington D.C. After my sophomore year of high school, I transferred schools to the behemoth Parkdale High in Riverdale, MD. For my first two years of high school, I was taught social studies by a rather hip, young, new teacher, Mr. Nicholson. He got me. A Korean American from the Midwest, he was still as quintessentially urban as I was and his authenticity was impressive. He introduced me to the McLaughlin Group (which I still watch) and we had to write plenty of essays. He found ways to “humanize” our content so that it was relevant. He was also my basketball coach.

Nick was that he allowed me to write in my own voice, which I later realized was not necessarily true of all teachers. I used to fill my essays with colloquialisms and quotes from rap artists to buttress my point of view. In this “pre-blog” era, I was always assessed on the strength of my arguments and the evidence used to justify them, not the form those arguments took. I’ve always appreciated that and I strived to allow students to use their own voice when writing in my class.

When I arrived at Parkdale, I was lost in a sea of bodies. My classes were overcrowded. My ability to learn was compromised by the sheer number of people that were crammed into what seemed to be a rather limited space. I was placed in the University Program, a rather gimmicky concoction created to make parents (and students?) believe that academic rigor was occurring. It most certainly was not.

I did, however, have the good fortune of being placed in the history class of one, Thomas Vogeley. Mr. Vogeley was the antithesis of Mr. Nicholson. There was nothing “hip” about him. He wore faded jeans and a corduroy shirt daily. His hair was slicked back into a pony-tail. He would often look over his thin rimmed glasses when he spoke.

He conducted his class as if it was a story. He didn’t really lecture as much as he spun a tale about events that allowed you access them in a fashion similar to Mr. Nicholson. It was easy to grasp history because he recounted it as if he had actually been present at the events and he had a personal stake in their outcome.

Mr. Vogeley was fond of assigning essays and I, believing that my voice mattered, wrote is much the same style as I did with Mr. Nicholson. My essays came back as if they had met Jack the Ripper. He remarked that my style was not suited for academic writing and that I should “lose myself” (word to Marshall Mathers). I was initially greatly perturbed by this, but it wasn’t as if I lacked the ability to acquiesce to his demands, simply the will to do so.

I did change and that change sparked Mr. Vogeley to advocate for my inclusion in the International Baccalaureate Program. Eventually, I was placed in smaller, more rigorous classes and graduated with an IB Diploma. I had the pleasure of being instructed by Mr. Vogeley for two years. I wrote an essay about his influence and was granted a scholarship from McDonald’s during my senior year. Like Mr. Nicholson, my current teaching practice owe’s Mr. Vogeley quite a bit. I strive to make sure that my students know the rules first…then try to break them.

Mr. Nicholson and Mr. Vogeley both profoundly impacted the way that I facilitate my classroom. I take much of my fierce defense of individualism from my experience in Nick’s class, but my insistence on familiarity with form and structure from Mr. Vogeley. I am forever in the debt of both of these gentlemen.

Live and Let Die (or, what you do when you’re home with pneumonia)

So I’m home sick on the day before we head out to Spring Break. If it was just a cough or fever, I would have gone in and taught my classes. Unfortunately, I have pneumonia and the wife forbade me to leave the house. (This is why married men live longer than single men.)

On my unexpected day off, I looked for ways to keep myself busy. I woke up at about 5:30am and composed some emails. I then realized that the NCAA tournament games would be on, but not until 10 or so. So I did what any responsible person would do to kill time…I played video games.

My favorite game to de-stress is Titanfall. It’s an old game at this point, but it still gets my adrenaline pumping. What’s more fun than piloting a machine and killing other players with high powered weaponry? It’s played totally online as a multiplayer so there must have been quite a few other people with pneumonia today because I didn’t wait long to get games going. While I ran around with my Sniper rifle, Spitfire, or Shotgun, I began to reflect on the lessons playing the game had taught me.

Don’t Fear the Reaper


When I first started playing, I was rather shy. My technique was to hide in buildings and avoid dying senselessly. My movement was calculated and I would consistently score the lowest on my team. This of course made me mad as I would have liked to be an asset and not a liability when working as a collaborative. I began to look very closely at the scores. It became apparent that even those that had died more often than I had, many times still scored higher.

My risk aversive behavior was not rewarded by the scoring matrix of the game. It was I will not dying as much as the other players, but I was not killing pilots, grunts, specters (robots), and Titans as often either. My fear was stopping me from advancement. My being ‘cautious’ stopped me from advancing.

Know Your Turf

The other disadvantage to playing maps online it that the first dozen times through you can’t really strategize because you have no idea what the maps actually look like. Other players will ambush you and use your ignorance to their advantage. By soldiering through this, and endearing the often painful blows to one’s ego, one begins to understand the WHERE that allows you to do the HOW. You begin to memorize the placement of walls, where other players will respawn, and which weapons to use in which situations. There is no shortcut to this information. It has to be played through to be realized and appreciated.

It is often this way during class. Students would like things to be explained to them that have to be experienced to be understood. This is why hands-on learning is so powerful. This is why field trips are so powerful. This is why speaking to one another is so powerful. Teachers are often in a hurry for students to “get it” rather than being patient with them and allowing them to make the connections necessary for successful. Often a period of patience in the beginning will allow a student to advance far more rapidly later on.

Don’t Playa Hate, Communicate


One of the things I had to do very quickly is get over myself. I didn’t really understand this until I was playing against a team that each had their mics turned on during the game. No one on my team had their mics “hot” and though mine was plugged in, I was silent as I didn’t want to embarrass myself. The team with the microphones DESTROYED us. They coordinated their attacks and isolated the players on my team. There was no way for use to combat this as we were all silent.

If you don’t work together in a tangible and authentic way, you can’t accomplish very much. That team kicked our butts 3 more times before we got wise to their strategy and began using our microphones. Many times, we feel weak when we ask for help and the need for collaboration is often interpreted as “I’m not good enough on my own.” We often wish to suffer rather than admit that a different point of view might be what’s need to be successful. I’ve never seen a team of Pilots not using mics defeat a team all using mics since I’ve been playing. There’s got to be something to that.

BundleHunt!

If teachers buy a lot of stuff, then creative teachers buy even more. If you are a Mac using educator, Bundlehunt might be a place you drop a few bucks. Currently, they have a 10 Mac Apps for 20.00 bucks “design your own bundle” hustle that’s pretty good.

There’s something for everyone and enough of a selection that you can take a flyer on something there just to play around. Even if there’s only one app that you like, the price point makes it worth your while to pick nine more new toys to test out on your computer.

To check out the bundle, click here.

Words? Word.

Task: Write a blog about building vocabulary

Audience: Teachers in classrooms with kids

Purpose: To take something that has worked well for my students and provide instructions, ideas, and guidelines that might benefit other teachers and students

We’ve all heard that statistic about the dramatic difference in vocabulary between students of low socioeconomic backgrounds and students of high socioeconomic backgrounds. We’ve heard about how vocabulary has been linked with academic success (correlation =/= causation, though, people, keep that in mind).

I argue it is not the number of words they know but a passion and awareness for the beauty of words that we should share. Here’s how I do it:

1) Words do not exist only in school.
A major flaw in our current system is the way that we refer to and categorize the dichotomous life students have. They’re like crappy superheroes – forced to live in two worlds without the laser eyes. They have an in school life and life outside school.

DESTROY THAT CONCEPT.
I start my kids with bribery, like every good teacher.

I give them a vocabulary card (that link is to our Gumroad where you can download a template for free or throw us some change if you like the product. Just type 0 for the price.)or two every day for the first month or so of school. It’s just a slip of paper. On it, they write the word they found, where they found it, and their name. In exchange, they get an extra pull for the ones and tens chart or some classroom cash for the classroom economy.

Why?
This gets them looking. They start listening more actively when they are not at school for words they don’t know. It builds their awareness.

NEXT…

FORGET EVERYTHING YOU KNOW ABOUT BUILDING A WORD WALL.

That is THEIR word wall. Not yours. It is not for you to make it look pretty like an adult did it so you can get a gold star from the principal.

It is THEIRS. Say it with me now: IT IS THEIRS.

Do it in alphabetical order, sure. Have them make the letter headings and add their words to it. Do not predetermine a SINGLE vocabulary word. Got that? NOT A SINGLE ONE. Sure, you can look ahead and make a guess about what words they don’t know, but you do not add a word to that wall without confirming that they do not know it already.

Here’s what my word wall looks like:
[Mostly it’s my coffee, but you can see the wall in the background]

word wall

[These are some of the words we have up there.]
words

It is theirs and we use those words allllllll the time. When we speak to one another we talk about how dapper a person looks or ask why they’re acting like such a crackpot or why they’re being so aloof.

We say, “That test was horrendous!!” or “That was an egregious error on my part, sorry.”

I use those words so they use those words. I don’t dumb things down for them.

Finally, C)
Observe and STEAL.
Read for reading’s sake then go back and read through the lens of a writer.
Need help with the punctuation for dialogue?
Pull a book off the shelf and look at how Magic Treehouse does it.

Study and dissect how works are built and then steal, steal, steal. Replicate and pay homage to the works you love.

Do this as a teacher and model it for your students. If you want them to be consumers of words, YOU must be a consumer of words.

When you read aloud (which you should do often), point out the beautiful things the author does:
The plump tangerine moon rose in the October sky.
(A line poorly quoted from the novel we’re currently reading, Chasing Vermeer)
The author could have said, “The moon was orange.” Is that as good?
HECK NO!!!

Point out similes, metaphors, hyperbole, even before you explicitly teach it. Even if they can’t classify it, kids can still understand that’s what makes a text beautiful and they can replicate it.

How is nonfiction text built? If you’re trying to convey an idea, what tool is best? Chart? Graph? Timeline? How does the author do it? How can you steal that idea?

I’ve gotten a bit off track, but sometimes that’s what happens and that’s ok. That’s how real learning happens.

If you hate this, please leave comments below or tweet me @weberswords

If you love this, please share with others.

Webs out.

Economy of Class

In the words of Pink Floyd, “Money, get away. Get a good job with more pay and you’re ok.”

I chose to return to the classroom this year and one of the biggest challenges of being a classroom teacher is finding a way to motivate students.

I hesitate to say classroom management because no one wants to be managed. They want to be motivated. Maybe that’s what I’ll call it: classroom motivation plan.

To read the specifics of set up and resources, check out My Classroom Economy. In addition, I have students deposit their money into their Bankaroo. Keep in mind with Bankaroo you are limited to 1 class of max 30 students.

I want to talk more about the impact it has had on my classroom.

1) Addressing curriculum – math and social studies:
I started out giving students their balance, but after two weeks of doing banking everyday I gave students their previous balance and had them add and subtract based on if they were depositing, withdrawing, or purchasing. Likewise, when students made purchases of multiples of the same thing, they started out doing repeated addition and moved to multiplication when they were ready. Economics are a required part of 3rd grade curriculum in Nevada. When certain items became popular, I raised the price and we talked about supply and demand.

2) Building community:
One of the positive side effects to using a classroom economy is that it allows students to build up the sense of community among them. I have students who choose to loan money to other students and purchase things for their friends. Likewise, they can share ideas for rewards or fines. Students with behavior plans or point sheets, have consistent motivation. I reward my students who use point sheets by paying them for earning 9 or more positive behavior points for the hour.

3) Natural and real life consequences:
Perhaps the most obvious natural benefit to using a classroom economy is that students get to see the results of their choices and how it impacts their financial well-being. They get to experience what is necessary to get what they want and see the consequences of negative choices as well. Financial literacy is something absent from our everyday curriculum and this is one way to begin to include it in a meaningful way. This is especially beneficial for students who do not have the advantage of receiving financial education at home.

If you would like to know more about my workflow, please tweet me: @WebersWords