Teaching Tip: Try Google Classroom

ARRRGGHHH!  That’s what you could hear me screaming one Sunday night last month.  I was hoping to set up my students on Doctopus, so that I could send out a document, but our grading program wouldn’t let me download their email addresses.  Just when I was about to throw my computer out the window, I remembered an email that I received about joining Google Classroom.

Each year, I “fall in love” with some new technology program that makes my teaching life easier.  Two years ago, it was Edmodo.  Last year, it was Doctopus.  This year, I have fallen in love with Google Classroom.  Not only was it easy to set up (obviously, since I was able to figure it out one Sunday night), but it is much easier than Doctopus.  I didn’t need to upload any email addresses; I received a classroom code much like Edmodo.  My students were able to sign up on their own.

The greatest part about Google Classroom is that it creates a template of your assignment for you and you are able to send it out within seconds.  Your students don’t have to “share” the document with you, nor make a copy of the document that you send them.  It also gives you the choice, like Doctopus, whether you want students to be able to just view the document, edit it as whole class, or allow each student to write on it individually.

I also love that students have to “turn in” their assignment on the Google Doc once they are finished.  This way, you aren’t grading a paper before the student has fully completed it.  At a glance, you can also see how many students have completed the assignment and who hasn’t.  Once they have “turned it in,” the student loses editing rights so that no further changes can be made.

You can leave them a grade and comments, and it will email the student to let them know their assignment is graded.  When you “return” the assignment to them, it gives them the ownership back.  I love this part because they are able to make the changes and “resubmit” it to raise their grade with the changes that the teacher has recommended. 

Students can view upcoming assignments, along with assignments that are also late now.

There is also a place to put announcements for students, but since I use Edmodo for communicating with my students, I don’t use this feature.

Of course, every program isn’t perfect.  I wish that there was a timer on when I can send out an assignment, like there is on Edmodo. In other words, I could set it up now, but it wouldn’t send it out to the students for another two days. I wish that I was notified that a student resubmitted their assignment for another check in from me. I also wish that I could create small groups, so that I could differentiate a little more with the assignments.  Maybe there is a way to do all of this, and I just haven’t learned it yet, but if there isn’t, can someone contact Google for me? :)

I’m sorry, Doctopus, but our love affair is officially over.  I appreciate the joy that you brought me last year, and but I am moving on.  It isn’t you, it’s me (the dreaded break-up line)!  I just need to move on with my life.

Edmodo?  You are still number one in my teaching life.  You let me send text messages to my parents and students.  You let me keep a library of notes for my students.  You also give a place for our students to collaborate and ask each other questions.  Even Google Classroom can’t replace you.

So, instead of throwing your computer out the window, be open to trying new ideas.  Who knows?  You might fall in love with a new program to make your life easier.

Teaching Tip: Ice-Breaker - College Application Committee

It drives me insane when an 8th grader says, “It doesn’t matter this year.  I will work harder when I get to high school.”  When did they ever get the idea that this year in school isn’t important?

I decided to start the school year with an activity that would get my students collaborating in groups, along with “encouraging” them to realize that you have to plan for college NOW!  Okay, that may sound a little harsh, but I think that my students were surprised when they learned that I make their high school class recommendation in December!  No, my students, you shouldn’t wait until May to start trying in school.

I found this activity on the englishteachersfriend website one year, but I had never used it before.  I started with having the students in groups, and I told them that they were the Gator College Application Committee (our team is called, “The Navigators”).  I passed out a sheet with the information about the the ten applicants, and I told them that they could only choose six. I didn’t give them any more directions than that…I let them go. 

It gave me a chance to sit back and observe who were the leaders in the group.  Did the groups establish the requirements for their college first?  How were they going to decide on the applicants?  Who was talking?  Who wasn’t participating?

It was interesting to see which groups made academics their priority, while other groups thought about who would bring money to the college or who was the most motivated. Of course, there wasn’t one class where everyone agreed.

When they had their top six applicants, I had them stand if their group chose the applicant’s name that I called.  They had to give me a reason as to why they chose that applicant.  I also had other groups, that weren’t standing, have a chance to argue why they didn’t choose that person.

When they were finished, I had them reflect on the activity.  Did I really care who they chose for their applicants?  No!  I cared that they thought about the process they used as a group.  I cared that they started thinking about what it takes to get into a good college, even in 8th grade.  I also cared that they paid attention to how important it was for everyone in a group to participate.

I am not naive enough to think that this will make all students turn in their work and start working toward college this year.  However, gentle reminders throughout the year about what it takes to get into a good college will give them something to think about.  Maybe I will even go a little less insane this year.

If you would like to use the materials created by others and myself, you can access them here:

College Application Committee Process

Gator Graduates College Instructions

Gator College Reflection



It was hard to contain my excitement when I opened my mailbox, and there was a box from Amazon.  At first, I thought, Oh no, what did I order that I forgot about? But then I realized that it was a gift.  Who doesn’t love gifts?  I was touched that someone went to my wish list on Amazon and bought me the Mentor Author, Mentor Texts resource book by Ralph Fletcher and the young adult novel called The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate.  I quickly sat in my lounge chair and started marking ideas in the teacher resource book.  It will help me with my writing program this year.  The young adult book is one that my students have talked about, but I have never read.  They will be excited to see it in our library…well, when I am done with it.Thank you so much. You made this teacher’s day.  And thank you, Redditgifts.com for helping teachers in the classroom. High-res

It was hard to contain my excitement when I opened my mailbox, and there was a box from Amazon.  At first, I thought, Oh no, what did I order that I forgot about? But then I realized that it was a gift.  Who doesn’t love gifts?  I was touched that someone went to my wish list on Amazon and bought me the Mentor Author, Mentor Texts resource book by Ralph Fletcher and the young adult novel called The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate.  I quickly sat in my lounge chair and started marking ideas in the teacher resource book.  It will help me with my writing program this year.  The young adult book is one that my students have talked about, but I have never read.  They will be excited to see it in our library…well, when I am done with it.

Thank you so much. You made this teacher’s day.  And thank you, Redditgifts.com for helping teachers in the classroom.

Who Doesn’t Love Playdough? = An Ice-Breaker Activity

Today was the first day of school with 162 eighth grade students.  As a team, did we go over our rules?  Did we have them attend a regular class?  Did we send them home with homework?  NO WAY!  We decided to let them play with playdough.

It doesn’t matter how old you are…playdough is always fun…even if you’re 13 or 30.  We decided that we wanted to do an activity that gave students a chance to get to know some new people, have a chance to chat with them, and use their creativity during this process. 

First, we took four decks of playing cards and randomly passed them out to students.  They had to find the group that had their same exact card (ex: all 3 of hearts made up one group), and then they sat at a table in the classroom.  Next, they had to find one thing that everyone in their group had in common.  Some found that they all loved sushi; some found that they had all moved to CO from CA; one group found that they all liked the Broncos and Peyton Manning.  Each group was given one small cup of playdough and a paper plate.  They had to form something with their playdough that symbolized what they had in common and put it on their paper plate with their names. 

It was so fun to walk around and listen to their conversations, and it was a great way to have them meet some new people, in a risk-free environment.  While they were working, we randomly asked them a “get-to-know-you” question.  A good place to come up with some questions is this site.  This helped them to talk to each other while they were working.  Their answers to some of the questions cracked me up.

When they were done, they did a gallery walk to see what others had created.  Two students left the group to do the walk, and two students stayed to answer questions.  After five minutes, they switched. 

So, if you are looking for a fun ice-breaker activity, try doing something with playdough.  It definitely brought back memories of my early days of teaching kindergarten, and the students seemed to enjoy it just as much.  Throw away the rules list for now, and let your students be creative.  They are more likely to remember this activity than if you just told them about your class.

Teaching Tip: Learn by Doing

Some say you shouldn’t read your work email when you are on vacation. Boy, am I glad I didn’t listen to this advice. This summer, I received an email by the editor of AMLE magazine (Association of MIddle Level Education) asking if my teammate (Ms. S) and I would write an article for the magazine about our cross-curricular debate unit. After doing the happy dance, (I mean I contemplated this email with much professional trepidation…not), I quickly replied that we would be honored.

Every teacher resource book says that you should try writing what your students are writing. Truth alert: I admit, sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t. I wouldn’t ask my students to do anything that I couldn’t, but I don’t always take the time to write the assignment the students are working on also. (Why do I always feel the need to do a truth alert on my blog?) However, after working on a collaborative article with my teammate, I can now relate this experience to my own classroom. This is the first time that I have ever had to write collaboratively with another person.

1. Collaborative writing is difficult.

My teammate and I have two very different styles of writing. We are both strong writers, but to make our article cohesive, we had to approach the article in our own way. For example, my part of the article comes in the middle, but I had to write out her part also in order to make my part flow. Student terms: Let students learn and work in a way that is best for them. Don’t always try to control the process.

2. It’s easier to work with a friend.

When we worked on the article, I worried about her feelings, but in a good way. I wanted to make sure that we were both heard. It was also easier to tell my friend if I didn’t like her suggestion, and it was easier to hear suggestions about my writing from her. Student terms: When it comes to collaborative writing, let the students choose their partner. This might apply to their peer revision groups also.

3. Revision is important.

We were asked to keep our word count to around 1500 words. I now understand my students’ frustration when I tell them to keep their debate speech to 2-3 minutes. I understand why they want to hit me when their speech is at five minutes, and they have to cut out half of it. However, by our fourth attempt at the article (yes, we tried to write it four different ways), we found that cutting the word count down actually made it sound better. We also asked the help of others (thank you Mr. M and Aunt Agatha for your contribution), and their advice was wonderful. Student terms: Offer suggestions on student writing WHILE they are writing. Don’t always wait until they turn in the final copy. Their final paper will be more of a pleasure to read.

4. Mentor text is extremely helpful.

Before we started writing, I took out all of my AMLE magazines and studied the articles. I had already thoroughly read the magazines (they are my favorite), but I never studied them for structure. Seeing the layout of what was expected for an article was helpful. Student terms: Show the students mentor texts BEFORE they start writing. Teach them the structure; it will help with their writing confidence.

5. Positive feedback works wonders.

My teammate and I anxiously awaited a response from the editor after we sent in our article. When she replied in an email with, “(It) was engaging and well-written,” I couldn’t have been happier. If she had returned it with a bunch of red marks or only negative criticism, I would have been crushed. I am sure that it will still be edited, but I now have the confidence to write future articles, as well. Student terms: Students need positive feedback also. Focus on what they are doing well, and only pick one or two skills for them work on in the future. This will help with their confidence.

Our article will be published in the Nov/Dec issue of AMLE, right before we present at the AMLE conference. I couldn’t be more excited. Now, I can finally tell my students that I am a published author, and then spend November, during Nanowrimo, helping them to become published authors also.

So to the people who don’t read their work email over the summer, you might be missing out on an exciting adventure. Either read your email or ask your spouse or child to screen it for you. It isn’t always bad news.


Hi, I love the idea of a cool poster. Could you create one that says, "Believe You Matter" for me? It is my theme all year. It would need to be appropriate for an 8th grade classroom. Our colors are purple, black and silver, if that is helpful. I would even barter something from my own classroom to send you. ;) thank you.

Asked by


Hi there! I know this is a little plain, but I felt like everything else I put made it look too frilly and took away from the message. Let me know if you want me to spice it up a bit (I can!), I just kind of liked it plain.

Exciting Stuff!

These were my dance moves when my past student and her mom gave me a special surprise the other day:


Recently, they went to a book signing by Veronica Roth (Divergent series) and Margaret Stohl (Beautiful Creatures), and they gave me signed copies of the authors’ new books.  Veronica Roth even personalized it! 





It’s great to be a language arts teacher at times! Thank you, Miss A and Mrs. R, for being so generous.  You made my day! I can’t wait to read the books.  Wahoooeeee!

Answer to Renee’s Question: Students Publishing Books

Question: I am a new teacher about to start teaching 8th grade ELA. Last year I taught 7th grade ELA as a long term sub for most of the year. Our district supplies the units we are to teach, so I am not sure how to fit something like this into the school year, but I am very interested in knowing how you help the students publish books. I think it would be just the thing my students need to motivate them to want to become great readers and writers.

Answer:  Hi Renee, Congratulations on your new job.  I absolutely love teaching 8th graders.  Here are two resources to get your started.  During the month of November, my students participate in Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month).  The goal is to write their novel during the month of November.  The website provides lesson plans for teachers:  Nanowrimo’s website.  You can also join my Nanowrimo group on Edmodo for resources.  I have a folder in the group that contains many of the resources that I use.  In the Spring, I have the students edit and revise their book; they can then have it published and sell it on Amazon.  Here are links for some of the books that have been published on Amazon:

Alana’s books

Layla’s book

Molly’s book

Ally’s book

Ali’s book

If your students meet their writing goal (they can set whatever word goal they want), they get a code for five free published books from createspace.  One of my past students and her sister have given two presentations for teachers about publishing their books.  Feel free to access their presentation. 

In their current presentation, they also give you a link to their first presentation.  The old presentation gives you step-by-step directions for how the students can publish their books.

It is well worth the time, and the best part is seeing the student’s face when they bring in their published book to show you.  I am not sure if I would do this with all of my 8th graders, however.  Currently, it is required of my advanced class, and I make it optional for my regular education students.  Last year, I had around 60 students participate.   I am happy to answer any questions you have once you get started.

Good luck this year!

Forget “21st Century Learning:” Make it “Real World Learning”

It’s July.  It’s the month where my mind slowly starts moving again.  I turned off all aspects of my educational brain during June, but now I only have a month left of summer vacation.  Don’t get me wrong, my thinking is done while I’m relaxing, but it doesn’t turn off again for another eleven months.  It’s the time when I start picking up my teaching magazines again, cruise through the tweets of my PD people on Twitter, and start reading teacher resource books.

Here is what I have noticed, though.  Everyone is still talking about “21st century learning” like it is something new.  I teach thirteen/fourteen-year olds; they were BORN in the 21st century.  That’s right, we have been in the 21st century for a while now.  So when I start planning my lessons for the 2014-15 school year, I want to make sure I am teaching "Real World Learning." 

The real world…this is what matters to kids.  Yes, they like technology; yes, they like games, but what do they really want?  They want to know that what they are learning is important to their world and their future, and they want to be able to show what they have learned to the real world. 

Having kids ask how they are going to use this in their life isn’t new; I remember that I asked that of my Geometry teacher.  Any good teacher better be prepared with an answer for this question for every lesson that they teach.  If you can’t, then ditch the lesson.  More importantly, however, teachers should be asking how the students are going to show their learning to the real world.  When teachers ask me to help them plan a lesson, or a teammate asks if I will do some cross-curricular lessons with him/her, the first question that pops into my mind is, “How is it real-world learning?"  How can I make sure that this lesson will apply outside of my classroom, and how can I make sure that I am not their only audience?

I admit, my teaching hasn’t always followed this philosophy.  In fact, I ditched two projects this past year because I couldn’t fully answer those two questions.  I now apologize to my past students.  However, teaching is an ongoing-learning process, and it’s okay to recognize that.

I realize that my teaching evaluation asks how I am using 21st Century Skills in my classroom.  The question I prefer to be asked is how am I making it “real-world learning” for my students.  That is what my students care about in today’s world.  Hopefully, one of my students will never be the guy in this comic:


A Letter to My Students Before They Go to High School

Since I only have 1 1/2 days left with my students, I’ve been thinking about what I have taught them this year. I’m proud of how far they have come in their reading and writing skills; their final writing assessment has actually been a pleasure to grade.

But now, I feel like I will be chasing them as they go out the door yelling, “Wait, there are still things I want you learn.” No, it’s not about commas or reading strategies, it’s about life. So, my students, here is my last lesson for you.

Dear Students,

As you head into high school, you will learn many life lessons on your own. Chances are…your heart will be broken at least once, you’ll wonder how someone trusted you enough to put you behind the wheel in a car, and you’ll learn what the outside world is like when you get your first job. Since I won’t be next to you to hold your hand through those times, here is my list of lessons for you.

10. Don’t be afraid to fail. No, I don’t mean your classes. In high school, take risks and try new things. My biggest regret from high school is that I never tried out for a high school play. I was too scared. I didn’t want to fail. During my senior year, I saw how close the people had become in the play…and I was jealous.

9. Ask questions. Question your friends if they are heading in the “wrong direction” in life; in fact, you might even question if you should stay friends with them. Question what is in your drink that someone handed you at a party. Question your teachers if you feel something isn’t right; if you think of a project that you would like to try, ask your teacher if they will support your new idea.

8. Keep reading and writing. Well, of course, this has to be in my list of advice. In fact, reread what you have written before it becomes public. I don’t care what anyone else says, if your writing is filled with mistakes, people automatically assume you aren’t intelligent. Read all sorts of genres…who knows you might discover a new author that becomes your favorite. Better yet, write a book (or two) of your own.

7. Be kind. Be kind to each other in high school. What do you want people to remember about you at your 25th reunion? If you pass away, what will people say at your funeral? (Okay, morbid, I know.) Become friends with people from all different cliques and all different cultures. You get invited to more parties that way. :)

6. Get to know your teachers. Yes, we actually like when students share their private lives with us. Most of us also like to share our lives with you. It is those people that come in to talk with me because they want to, not because they have to, that I will stay close to for the rest of our lives.

5. If you have a problem, find an adult to help you. I know that as teenagers, you will always turn to your friends first. But don’t forget, most teenagers haven’t already lived through the problem you are experiencing. There is always an adult that will be able to relate to what you are going through. Even if it seems like we have forgotten what it’s like to be a teenager, trust me, we haven’t. Those times are ingrained in our minds. Also, as teachers, sometimes it helps to be reminded that our students have problems outside of our little classroom. I tended to be more understanding if a student shared a problem they were having because of the outside-world circumstances.

4. Work to become financially independent. I know that sounds like strange advice now, but getting a job might teach you more lessons than you will ever get in a classroom. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying you shouldn’t go to school. I’m saying that you should find a part-time job, even if it’s only during the summer. I’m saying that you need to learn how to treat other people, how to save your money, and how to take care of yourself BEFORE you graduate college.

3. Read and Write. Wait, I already said that one.

2. Trust yourself. Trust your instincts. If it seems like it’s a sheep in wolves’ clothing….run! :) Don’t wait to find out if it’s a sheep or a wolf. Okay, that was random. My point is that you are a great group of people. I trusted you to not steal candy out of my room; I trusted you in a classroom with my purse sitting right there; I trusted you to walk around the school, as long as I knew where you were. I did all of this because my instincts told me that you are a great group of people. Yes, we had some rough patches along the way, but in the end, I trusted that you would make the correct decisions in the long run.

1. Believe. This has been my theme for you this year. During our “This I Believe” unit, you wrote about a belief that was important to you. Go into high school keeping your same belief. BELIEVE YOU MATTER…all of you learned that even a thirteen or fourteen-year old can make a difference in the world. During our “Pay it Forward” community service project, you learned that even a little act of kindness can make someone’s day. During our “Project Bliss” unit, you learned how powerful it can be to try to make a change in the world. Personally, I believe that all kids can make a difference in a world…someone just has to guide them on how to start.

So, my students, it is time. Time to let you go. Time to let you fly. Time to share you with the high school teachers. I keep telling them how much they are going to love the freshman next year…don’t let me down. As much as I would like to have you return as my student next year, I know you must move on. As I always say, “Once my kid, always my kid.” Remember to come visit me next year. And don’t forget….show respect, own it, and be kind! You R.O.K!


Ms. Holst


Okay, I couldn’t resist!