Digital Tools for Inclusivity

In the current edition of Literacy Today (International Literacy Association), Detra Price-Dennis and Sarah Schlessinger highlight technology that “invites all members of the classroom to participate”. These resources can allow for collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking to take place within teacher instruction & student work.

Here are three categories of tools the authors suggest teachers consider:

Tools for collaborative learning (to learn from and with each other):

Google Docs: Students work on the same document and comment on each other’s work.

Padlet: Students add images, video, text, links, etc. simultaneously to this digital corkboard.

Voicethread: Create presentations with a team and add narration to the multimedia.

Coggle: Make mind maps online with the teacher and peers.

Tools for universal design and multimodal representations (to provide multiple means of representation, action, and engagement):


Glogster: Create digital posters that can include text, video, audio, photos, and video.

iMovie: This video-editing iPad app allows students to create movies or book trailers.

Storybird: A story-writing site that gives students access to professional illustrations.

Educreations: Students can draw and narrate on a topic of their choice. (image below)

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Tools for accessibility (To accommodate and modify for students to fully participate):


Read&Write: Use this set of tools for speech-to-text, text-to-speech, and word prediction.

Newsela: A database of current news articles written at a range of reading levels.

Readability: This app removes the web ads and images for an easier reading experience.

Nearpod: A platform that allows teachers to input content for students to interact with.


The authors close the article with a few questions to consider:

  • How can I naturalize the use of digital tools?
  • Is this tool necessary and beneficial?
  • How does this tool help to develop fluency and analytical skills?
  • How does this tool position my students as producers of knowledge?

They also end their piece by noting that “apps cannot do all the work. Good teaching is always key.” If you do try out one of these tools out within your classroom instruction, let us know about the experience in the comments.

How Can I Rethink Reading Logs with High Schoolers?

This post is actually a lengthy reply I left for a reader, who asked me the question via comments in a post I published a year and a half ago. So great to see how what we share online impacts other schools!

Hi Francisco. I appreciate your honest question. I’m not experienced with high school, but I have some thoughts. My initial suggestion is to get your students on Goodreads ( If you are not familiar with Goodreads, it is a social media tool for readers. They can use their Facebook accounts to create an account within Goodreads. Readers can rate and review books, read what others are reading, and have suggestions sent to them based on their past interests ( Students can also make “to-read” lists, selecting what books they want to read next, which all readers should have anyway.

Maybe have them take the Goodreads Book Challenge (, where they select a number of books they plan to read for the calendar year. They can then see their progress as time goes on. They can also recommend books to peers through Goodreads as long as they are “friends”. In addition, the students can download the book titles they’ve read so far into a spreadsheet to share with you periodically. They could also use this list as a way to reflect about their reading, such as what genres they prefer and who has been influential in their reading lives.

I also like the “groups” function of Goodreads, which is an online community around a topic, favorite author, or a genre. Discussion boards can be created within a group. Goodreads is very mobile friendly, so they can use their smartphones and tablets for this purpose at school. One more idea: As students build a substantial list of books they’ve read, they can start creating libraries around the categories of books they have been reading.

If there are privacy/sharing concerns from families or administration, you could also have students use Google Docs to keep track of their reading and thinking, but it is not as authentic. As for strategy work with high schoolers, if they are engaged in what they are reading because they could pick the texts and talk about them with friends, older students have shown that they can teach themselves strategies because they are motivated to read. Our jobs as teachers at this age level is to educate our students about the strategies they are using, which can then lead into future instruction using more complex texts they will need to read closely today and in the future.

As I stated, I do not have a lot of background in adolescent literacy, but reading enough of the research tells me that older students’ reading instruction should be as authentic and relevant as we can make possible. Your students may continue to use Goodreads as they get older, which also helps them leave a positive digital footprint in their future. Using a social media tool would allow your students to continue their conversations with peers beyond the school day. They will be doing exactly what you ask of them with less of the griping, because they won’t see it as school work.

Good luck!


School Leaders: Take the Next Step with Technology #IPDX16

Our school’s faculty completed a building-wide technology implementation survey last year. It was based on Dr. Ruben Puentedura’s SAMR framework for determining how well technology was embedded in and had changed instruction. The results: Digital tools were most commonly used at the substitution level, with limited modification of instruction.

Image Credit: Silvia Tolisano via Flickr

This was a surprise for me. Were we doing something wrong? I don’t think so. Referencing the image above, students have experiences in a variety of activities, such as keeping artifacts within a digital portfolio. But this was apparently not enough.

Maybe it should not be a matter of what is wrong or right. Rather, we have found that when we focus on those next steps, from using digital tools to capture student learning within portfolios, to using best practice with the help of digital tools to share and to deepen student learning, that we find the most growth as a school. It’s about the process more than the product.

If this has been an arduous journey in our school, I imagine other building leadership teams have had similar experiences. Join me in three weeks at AcceleratED in Portland, Oregon on February 24, 2016 to discuss how technology can enhance student assessment, professional learning communities, and your own personal learning network. Let’s learn from and with each other! Below are the sessions I am leading at this premier event.

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Going Schoolwide with Reading Engagement: Start with Success (and lots of interesting books)

This is the third entry in a series of posts I have written about my experiences in increasing literacy engagement at the schoolwide level. Click here and here to read the first two installments.

I have been meeting weekly with a group of 5th grade boys as part of a book club. We have lunch together and talk about books, at least when it suits them.

Their teacher emailed me recently. “Do the boys have to read The City of Ember? They aren’t reading it at home. I think it is too challenging for them. Plus, I have finally got ____ reading another book independently.” We had selected, together, to read this science fiction book out of a preview stack provided by me.

Fresh Starts

Students who struggle with reading struggle for a variety of reasons. Maybe they lack reading role models, or there aren’t a lot of books in the home. Decoding, fluency, or language processing might be a challenge. The culture in a classroom or school may not conducive to lifelong reading as a habit, a shared belief that this is something “we all do”.

I think all of these situations can be traced back to a common theme: Lack of success. Students who are nonreaders do not equate reading with positive consequences. Their previous attempts to become better readers have resulted in perceived failure due to the reasons listed previously. As these nonreaders grow older, their peers too often do not value reading, and therefore it becomes cool to not read.

Nah, I don’t read on the weekend. It’s the only chance I get to play on my PS4!

I doubt the validity of this student’s response. Even so, reading has never had more competition in students’ lives than in today’s connected world. So how do we connect reading with a student’s reward center?


I am not a big fan of house projects. “Hate” would be too strong a descriptor, but let’s just say my family knows not to bother me when I am trying to fix an appliance or a household item.

One area in which I do feel confident regarding home repairs is light fixtures. I’ve successful replaced three different ceiling fans/lights in our current house. This didn’t happen by accident. My father-in-law helped me with the initial projects. These forays into home repair were easier tasks: Uninstall the old fixture, rewire the new one, and secure it to the ceiling. What is important is that I was doing the lion’s share of the work. My father-in-law was there to help hold up the light fixture and offer suggestions for tools, but I was doing the repairing and installing.

Scaffolding in reading obviously looks different than a home project, but the premise is the same: Offer opportunities for initial success, and then gradually raise the complexity for the tasks with the right amount of support. With this idea in mind, I had the three students in our book club read the graphic novel adaptation of The City of Ember. They devoured it within a day or two. I also suggested the movie adaptation, which one of the students watched over holiday break. In addition, the audiobook version was made available to them through our school library.

Our conversations blossomed after their initial exposure to the story line. “Do you think it was a good idea for Doon to trade jobs with Lina?” one student asked a friend. We had a lively debate about how the story might have been different had Lina not been a messenger and subsequently did not discover some of the secrets of Ember. No, we had not read the original novel. But our group still enjoyed the story itself. How we experienced the story was what changed.


While the story was known to our club, they still had not “read it” in its truest form. The little details that only a novel can provide were still left uncovered, unknown, and unappreciated.

However, our group’s purpose was not to read The City of Ember, but to become more habitual about reading. They now had a connection between a story and enjoyment, so we decided to capitalize on this.

I brought in a box of books from a local children’s book store. The owner was familiar with high-interest texts that were also accessible for many readers. Over break, I read a number of the books both with my own children and independently to become familiar with them before making recommendations to the book club and the students’ peers.

This led into our first project: Bless a bunch of books. Two copies of each book from the Joey Pigza and City of Ember series were purchased, along with a variety of other texts. Most were fiction. A few of the novels, such as Zero Tolerance, contained content that were appropriate for a middle level audience. These “edgy” books was sure to pique students’ interests.

Our group’s jobs included stamping the books with the Howe Elementary School logo and discussing how we might present these texts to our classmates.

Student 1: I will share the first City of Ember and then you two can do the second and the third.

Student 2: You haven’t read the first one yet? How can you share it?

Me: Maybe not having read all of the book could be a benefit? I mean, he’s (Student 1) not going to give anything away, plus he can show how much he wants to finish it.

Student 2: Hmm…good point. Mr. Renwick, you can share the fourth one in the series?

Our conversations were very informal, yet authentic and directly related to our goal of increasing reading engagement. How often does this happen in classrooms? My guess is not a lot. We are busy doing so much of the work for students, such as cataloging and blessing the books, activities that really belong to them. Giving students ownership in the entire reading process in a classroom can increase their self-concept because we show them – not tell them – that we trust their judgment.

Supply and Demand

In a blog post on Stenhouse a few years back, Peter Johnston summarized the findings he and Gay Ivey observed when adolescent students are given few reading requirements other than to read a lot of books and talk about their reading with peers. One of the tenets of this research was to intentionally limit the number of high-interest titles available to students to 1-3 copies. The purpose was to create an artificial demand for these books, forcing students to have conversations about what they were reading and how far they were along in them, i.e. “When you are going to be done with that book?”.

On our big day, the students took center stage.


Standing at the front, these three students were now seen as readers. How might this have changed their perceptions about themselves?

Once all of the books were recommended, we let the 5th graders have a look at what was available now in their classroom library.


The few remaining titles was evidence that our student-led book talk was a success.


Following Up

As I saw students from this classroom in school after our book talk, I asked them about how their current reading was going.

I couldn’t get Zero Tolerance right away, so I am reading Jungle of Bones instead.

Right now I am reading Sunny Side Up. Michael let me read it next because he was already done with it.

Can we read the Joey Pigza books out of order? Someone said I shouldn’t, but the first one isn’t available yet.

These comments served as helpful data to assess the level of engagement students were experiencing with independent reading.

So…where do we go from here? First, this is one snapshot. Today’s success is not necessarily tomorrow’s results, although this classroom is set up to let readers read with abandon. Second, what happens in one classroom does not translate to the entire school. It certainly doesn’t mean that these practices aren’t happening in other classrooms. But for a school to go building-wide with any change, there has to be a level of dissemination among faculty, a sharing of ideas that will lead to building a collective capacity for increasing reading engagement.

Until next time!



Technology for the Sake of Technology: Consider the Why and the How

For many reasons, technology is very tempting to embed into classrooms without a lot of thought behind our intentions. Its newness piques students’ interests, it connects learners with the wider world, and it can provide a seemingly limitless number of resources for communication, information and entertainment.


But does it lead to learning? It depends not on what a teacher is using, but how it is used and why it might be needed. In my recently published book, I highlighted the conditions John Hattie found in his research about effective use of technology in schools, from his seminal resource Visible Learning: Maximizing Impact on Learning (Routledge, 2009, p. 221-227):

  • When there is a diversity of teaching strategies
  • When there is teacher training in the use of computers as a teaching and learning tool
  • When there are multiple opportunities for learning (e.g. deliberative practice, increasing time on task)
  • When the student, not the teacher, is in “control” of learning
  • When peer learning is optimized
  • When feedback is optimized

Beyond these situations, I also suggest that teachers make the purpose for implementing new technology into classrooms to revolve around some type of real world project or to address a community problem. For example, one of our teachers wants to replace her desktop computers with Chromebooks. 

Here were two ideas we discussed for this integration:

  1. Create an official Howe Elementary School welcoming website via Google Sites for new students and their families, where maps of the school, informational videos, and important information would be posted and kept current.
  2. Train the students to teach residents at an assisted living center how to use Google Apps for a variety of reasons, such as communicating via Gmail and Hangouts with family members who don’t visit them often enough. 

As I think about these possibilities, I feel a sense of enthusiasm for what could happen in this classroom with access to mobile technology. But just bringing in Chromebooks: Not the same. It is so easy to state “I need technology in the classroom” without thinking about the why and how. The shiny new pencil tends to lose its luster when its potential is not realized. We can do better.

School Leaders as Readers: The Winter 2016 Book Choice

In a very close vote, the book selected for Winter 2016 is Peer Coaching by Pam Robbins (ASCD, 2015).


I am excited to read this with you. Our school is preparing to implement this professional learning practice in mid-March. The information gathered here will be helpful. The related discussions with other school leaders will enhance this text and our work.

One change to the School Leaders as Readers group: We will be using a Google+ Community instead of the Goodreads Group. While I liked the connection between a literacy-based social media tool and the online discussion component, it seemed like other readers were not engaged in using it to share their thinking regarding our fall book.

To access our book club, click here. You will be asked to request access to the group, moderated by me. If you want to post your thinking in the group, you can do so right within the community as text, link a blog post, or add multimedia related to the text. For example, I plan on sharing the peer coaching materials we have developed for conducting them in our school.

Looking forward to learning together! Conversation starts anytime. The timeline for reading this text will be shared within the Google+ community.

Recommended Read Alouds During the Winter Months

I shared this content with my staff in my weekly Friday Focus today. Thought it might work on the ol’ blog too.  -Matt

When it’s this cold outside, I find reading aloud a good book to my kids to be even more inviting than usual. Here are some favorites from home and the classroom. Several were suggested by Mary Lou Manske from Book Look in Stevens Point. Maybe you will deem them worthy of sharing with your own children and/or your students.

The Adventures of a South Pole Pig by Chris Kurtz

If you liked Charlotte’s Web and Babe, you will enjoy this story. A pig named Flora is looking for an adventure. When the opportunity presents itself to join a team of sled dogs for a trip across Antarctica, she takes advantage of it. Little does she know that her purpose on this adventure is not what she initially had in mind. Finn and Violet keep wanting me to read the next chapter.

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos

An essential read aloud for classrooms grades 5 and up. The story is told through the perspective of Joey Pigza, a student who suffers from ADHD. Many discussions around the topics of school discipline, the human brain, and empathy can be facilitated through this story.

Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny by John Himmelman

From Goodreads: “Introducing Isabel, aka Bunjitsu Bunny! She is the BEST bunjitsu artist in her school, and she can throw farther, kick higher, and hit harder than anyone else! But she never hurts another creature . . . unless she has to.” It would be a great read aloud for those short moments during school. Each tale has a life lesson to offer. Very funny and full of wisdom.

Jackaby by William Ritter

This young adult work of fiction, the first in a series, is a lot of fun. The pacing of the narrative, along with references to classic mysteries that came before plus the supernatural aspect, made this a challenge to put down. Jackaby is a Sherlock Holmes-type character with the ability to sense people’s auras and “see” creatures in human disguise. It will keep you guessing.

Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm

In 1976, Sunny visits her grandfather in Florida. But why? The authors go back and forth in time to tell an important story about family dynamics and our vulnerabilities. An accessible text for a wide range of readers. The Holms also include lots of humor related to this era and demographic. My favorite scene is when two of “grampa’s girls” tell Sunny to take home that extra roll from the restaurant. “In case you get hungry later.” Spot on!

Roller Coaster by Marla Frazee

A sparse text describing a memorable time in a young girl’s life, this everybody book works well as a mentor text for teaching small moment writing. The illustrations serve as a companion to the language, providing clues about the main character’s feelings about the roller coaster. With some modeling by the teacher first, students can take their personal experiences to create small moment writing.

Zero Tolerance by Claudia Mills

This middle level novel offers a compelling situation – a successful student who accidentally brings a paring knife in her lunch is considered for expulsion because of a zero tolerance policy about weapons. I could see this book sparking some good conversations in class about discipline and the decisions we make in school. The suggested age range is 8-12, but I would recommend it for students 5th grade and up due to the content and language.

The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade by Justin Roberts

From Goodreads:

“Hardly anyone noticed young Sally McCabe.

She was the smallest girl in the smallest grade.

But Sally notices everything—from the twenty-seven keys on the janitor’s ring to the bullying happening on the playground. One day, Sally has had enough and decides to make herself heard. And when she takes a chance and stands up to the bullies, she finds that one small girl can make a big difference.”