The 4 R’s of Collaborative Writing: Reading, Rating, Remixing, and Revising

A new post by Jill Castek

For the past several months I’ve been working with fifth and sixth graders in two urban schools in Berkeley and Oakland, CA. The project is designed to enhance integrated literacy and science learning and to explore how iPads can be used to support student engagement, self expression, and learning.  Although I’ve been involved in using laptops extensively with students in classrooms, shifting to explore science learning through iPads has been a true learning experience.

I’ve discovered that many applications and strategies for collaboration I’ve always drawn from aren’t directly transferable to working with a small touch screen.  However, because collaboration is a vitally important part of learning,  I’m dedicating this post to  approaches for facilitating collaborative writing.

One free platform I’ve used for collaborative writing is Mixed Ink  This educator friendly tool allows small groups or the whole class to reflect on several versions of a text written on the same topic and to weave ideas  from peers’ work into a single text that credits multiple authors.  An overview of how the Mixed Ink tool works can be seen in the short video clip below entitled Mixed Ink for Educators.

Collaborative Writing with Mixed Ink:  A 5th Grade Example

Ms. Kretschmar’s students completed a waste audit to analyze the waste their school produced. Prior to beginning the collaborative writing assignment, students discussed their experiences with the waste audit and shared ideas about how to communicate the surprising results they found to the school and community at large.  The five phases  the class engaged in as they documented and shared their experiences included:  1) writing;  2) reading; 3) rating; 4) remixing; and 5) revising.  Not only is each aspect an important part of productive collaborative writing, these steps also address the Common Core State Standards that emphasize the use of digital technologies for reading and writing as support process skills such as collaboration, listening, and speaking.

Ms. Kretschmar’s students draft their waste audit letter to the school community.

With the aim of helping the school and community become more mindful about their output of trash, Ms. Kretschmar structured a five paragraph writing assignment for her students and assigned each table group to complete one paragraph.  Once she distributed Letter4School (a set of graphic organizers to support students when drafting), she encouraged table groups to discuss ideas before writing their paragraphs as individuals. Then,  students used the graphic organizers and iPads to complete a first draft.

Next, students learned about online collaborative writing using Mixed Ink and discussed the process of peer support for adding content, revising language choices, and reorganizing their presentation of ideas.

Then, students read each other’s work (staying within their original paragraph groups).  After presenting the purpose of reading and rating, Ms. Kretschmar had students rate each other’s work using a system of stars which ranged from 1/2 star (needs more development) to five stars (very well developed).   As students read their peers’ work, they looked out for ideas  and language they could incorporate into their own piece to improve it.

Using their peers’ pieces as mentor texts, students remixed new drafts  by incorporating in elements of each others’ wording and language into their own piece (creating co-written pieces with multiple authors).  The image on the left shows how the crediting process works (with each author recognized as contributing an element to the piece).

Students then rated each of the new paragraphs again.  Mixed Ink uses a specially designed algorithm that surfaces the most complete and well-written piece based on student ratings.  This featured “featured” version can then be discussed in terms of its organization, use of language, organization, or other characteristics.

With help from the students, Ms. Kretschmar compiled the top rated five paragraphs into a completed piece that incorporated all students’ voices.    The final version can be accessed by clicking on 5thLetter2Community.  It takes advantage of the collaborative writing process in the creation of a well-organized, well-structured final product.

A full set of slides documenting  Ms. Kretschmar’s collaborative writing lessons can be viewed here.

Collaborative writing in a digitally enhanced way has several benefits.  First, it is a process that draws upon the strengths of the collective. Although one student may be stronger in critical thinking skills, another may excel in organizing or adding detail to a piece. By working in groups, students learn from each other while they complete an assigned task in ways that benefit the whole group.  In addition, students working in collaborative groups can take advantage of other group members for  peer review as they complete writing projects.  More and more workplace activities involve working in these sorts of collaborative project teams. Giving students opportunities to work collaboratively can help prepare them for the advantages and pitfalls of collaborative work on the job.  I’ve seen collaborative writing activities such as the one featured here, support students’ abilities to work together and problem solve while providing the context for content-rich conversations.

We are eager to promote an exchange of ideas on this forum.  We invite you to please add a comment to share experiences you’ve had with collaborative writing.

Cultivating An Online Community of Literacy Learners in Your Classroom

A Post from Jill

The RAND Reading Study Group (2002) drew attention to the importance of reading comprehension as a social activity and asserted that text, the activity, and the reader are all situated within a larger socio-cultural context. The social context, in particular, influences how learners make sense of, interpret, and share understandings.

Over a period of years, Rafael, Florio-Ruane, & George (2001), Daniels (2002), and Guthrie & McCann (1996) guided teachers’ implementation of social reading activities such as book clubs, literature circles, cooperative book discussion groups, and idea circles. No matter the structure these reading activities take in an individual classroom, the purpose is the same – to create a community of learners who construct understandings together.

Group participation motivates students to read and write for a range of purposes, utilize knowledge gained from previous experience to generate new understandings, and actively engage in meaningful social interactions involving literacy. These activities tangibly illustrate to students that sustained reading and writing has an authentic, social purpose and are more than solitary, self-fulfilling activities.

Socially-oriented learning activities fulfill an important need since many students, especially adolescents, are driven by social interaction. One such indication is the proliferation of teen activity on social networking sites (Lenhart, Smith, & Magill,2007). Many adolescents spend their time connecting with friends by texting on cell phones, instant messaging, and using websites such as Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter and are highly skilled in creating their own communities and establishing affinity groups within those networks to connect with others and exchange ideas.

Despite the proliferation of skilled Internet use among adolescents, the majority of students attend schools where they are required to “disconnect” (Selwyn, 2006) and rely solely on face-to-face communication as the primary means of sharing ideas.  This paradox brings to mind several important questions:

1)    What benefits to literacy and learning could be realized if students were encouraged to merge their powerful social networking skills to support their academic pursuits?

2)    In what ways could social networking skills, and the strong desire students possess to develop vast social networks, be used to positively impact literacy learning and academic achievement?

Integrating the resources shared in this post into your classroom can help cultivate an online community of literacy learners who collaborate, problem-solve, and negotiate multiple perspectives as they learn today’s important skills for reading, writing, and communication.

Developing an Online Community of Readers in Your Classroom:  Ideas for Implementation

The Epistemic Games collaborative (see is an innovative collective that is made up of researchers, educators, and game designers who create games in which players learn ways of thinking that matter in the digital age.  One of the games they’ve developed is a simulated journalism community called (see Participants in work as reporters publishing online news magazines on community-based topics.  Within the game, they work with professional journalists, learning skills like interviewing and copyediting and become part of a simulated professional community. By participating in, students develop an awareness of community happenings, discover local scientific issues, and extend their writing, reviewing, and critiquing skills as they begin to see the world as journalists, all while capitalizing on the thrill of publishing their own work to inform the public.  Creating an online classroom newsletter as a space for students to report on what’s happening in your classroom, school, community and beyond serves a similar purpose (and is both fun and easy to get started).  Visit TeXt, a  free eZine and Blogging Tools for Schools to get started.

Edmodo is a platform you can use to create a secure, school based social learning network for your classroom.   Edmodo provides a safe and easy way to connect and collaborate offering a real-time platform to exchange ideas, share content, access homework, and promote learning related student-to-student communication. Accessible online and from any mobile device via free smart phone applications, through Edmodo students can be connected everywhere they go – whether using a computer, phone, iPod, or tablet. Capitalize on the fact that technology is an integral part of kids’ lives and extend learning by implementing an educational network like Edmodo in your classroom.

Twiddla is a tool for co-browsing the Internet with other learners. This tool allows collaborators to co-browse websites in a shared, real-time whiteboard, while marking them up, sharing files, and chatting along. It’s called co-browsing; all the cool kids are doing it. It’s perfect for school use because you don’t need an account to use Twiddla. No plug-ins or downloads, are needed and students whom you invite to collaborate do not need to login to any system to share content in real-time with you.

Wridea – Wridea makes it easy for students to become a part of a learning community.  Here students can collaborate and share ideas within a shared space. This brainstorming tool organizes and categorizes ideas onto different pages, provides unlimited storage, and allows users to comment on topics and ideas.

GroupTweet– GroupTweet is designed for Twitter users who want to be able to communicate and collaborate privately.  A perfect option for networking a classroom community to promote reflection and learning.

A Fundamental Shift From Page to Screen

The Internet has become today’s technology for literacy and learning, offering classrooms a wide-range of online reading, writing, and communication options that extend new opportunities for social interaction and collaboration. Developing communities of literacy learners online in your classroom broadens students’ perspectives and exposes them to different ways to approach and solve problems.  The tools featured here, when chosen thoughtfully and fully integrated into your classroom, can become fertile ground for students acquiring the skills necessary to communicate and collaborate in the 21st century.


Daniels, H. (2002). Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups. Maine: Stenhouse Publishers.

Guthrie, J. T., & McCann, A. D. (1996). Idea circles: Peer collaboration for conceptual learning. In L. B. Gambrell and J. F. Almasi (Eds.), Lively discussions! Fostering engaged reading (pp. 87–105). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Lenhart, A., Madden, L. Smith, A.  Macgill (2007). Technology and Teens. Pew Research Center Publications.

Raphael, T. E., Florio-Ruane, S., & George, M. (2001). Book Club Plus:  A conceptual framework to organize literacy instruction. Language Arts, 79(1), 159-168.

Rand Reading Study Group. (2002). Reading for understanding: Towards an R&D program in reading comprehension. Retrieved from

Selwyn, N. (2006).  Exploring the digital disconnect between net-savvy students and their schools. Learning, Media and Technology, Vol. 31, No. 1. (2006), pp. 5-17.

Using Multimedia to Support Students’ Generative Vocabulary Learning

A post from Jill

In our April 26th post we shared that Bridget, Dana, and I have written a chapter for the second edition of Vocabulary Instruction: Research to Practice (forthcoming, Guilford Press) to be published in 2011. In our chapter, Using Multimedia to Support Students’ Generative Vocabulary Learning we highlight ways to use digital media to support vocabulary learning.  In the chapter, we include multimodal examples, which are reproduced as figures.  However in static manuscript form, we found ourselves limited in showcasing these creations, which are meant to be interacted with digitally.

This post features each of the examples. What follows is a brief description of teaching ideas from the chapter  along downloadable files. These files allow you to click on links and interact with the content to get a better sense of the potentials and possibilities.  We hope these creations spark your creative ideas for ways to use digital media to support vocabulary learning!

Multimedia Hypertext Versions of Poems, Quotes, or Short Text Excerpts

Students often find it difficult to unpack the meaning of words and figurative language within a poem or passage. An alternative way to dive deep into word meaning is to engage them in creating hypertext versions of the text that include links to other media. The original text represents the first layer, and their personal connections and interpretations represent the second, hyperlinked layer. This activity works well in partner groups because it encourages students to talk about and use the targeted words as they design their linked text.

PowerPoint, or other multimedia presentation software, can serve as the hypertext medium. To introduce this kind of vocabulary and figurative language exploration, create a 3 slide PowerPoint template.: slide 1 explains the task and introduces how to make a hyperlink within a slide show, slide 2 introduces an example, and slide 3 provides the actual text to be expanded with vocabulary hyperlinks.

The example below demonstrates how key words and phrases in the opening of Martin Luther King Jr.’s  I Have a Dream speech can be hyperlinked to students’ elaborations and connections in different modes.

Click Hypertext to download and interact with this example.

Compose Multimodal Word Webs

Creating a multimodal word web is probably one of the simplest and most effective ways to use language and media to express word meanings and explore the relationship between words.  To begin, create a basic template that students can customize. At a minimum, the multimodal word web should include the target word or concept, an explanation, and examples of the word in a context. Further, at least two modes should be used such as text, sound, graphics, and video. For example,  a word web for the target word ‘habitat’ might include descriptive information that defines what a habitat is, as well as photographs of different habitats, video of wildlife in their habitat, and audio clips that offer a chance to hear sounds within a given habitat.

In the example below, words come to life. You can listen to whale sounds from the arctic and watch a video clip showing how the polar bear learned how to survive in the arctic, a habitat that offers few comforts.

Click Habitat to download and interact with this example.

Pictures Worth 1000 Words

You know the saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words”; the same can be true of a word – what information, memories, images, and sounds are evoked when you hear the word ‘celebrate’ or ‘grandmother’? While we share cultural understandings of some visual symbols, the ways that visual representation can be connected to words is limitless. Even for something as specific as a car, our image memories will vary. To develop both visual literacy skills and vocabulary, challenge students to connect words to images or images to words.

The example below begins with the key word “challenge” together with images that match with it.  After students complete such as collage, ask them to add a title and explain why the images are a good representation of the word. This offers an excellent opportunity to teach how to critically read images on the Web.

Click “Challenge” to download and interact with this example.

Vocab Vids (see Bridget’s post “VocabVid Stories: Developing vocabulary depth and breadth through live action video“)

Bridget and Christian Ehret partnered to create an example that illustrates the power of video to illustrate word meanings. The video opens with a shot of a desk piled high with books. Ehret is sitting on the floor, hidden by the desk. Suddenly, his hand appears, pulling a book off. More books disappear as he pops up repeatedly, looking increasingly distressed. At the end, Ehret appears with a sign displaying the word “overwhelm,” saying, “I’m distressed, drowning in a deluge of books. This is an overwhelming amount of books to read! Can you tell I’m feeling totally overwhelmed?!” Note that all of the italicized words were found on a thesaurus during a Web search the pair did to prepare for the video. They used different forms of the word (overwhelm, overwhelmed, overwhelming) and incorporated related words (distress and deluge) to aid in the development of word concepts.

View the Video Example

We hope these examples have gotten your creative juices flowing and introduced some new possibilities.  We welcome you to share additional ideas for ways you’ve used digital media to enhance vocabulary learning. Please add a comment or send us an email.

Making a Difference: Extending Digital Literacy Through Participation in Online Advocacy and Social Action Projects

A Post from Jill

I’m excited to be heading to see Lara Lee’s new feature film Cultures of Resistance on Thurs. June 30th at City College in Berkeley, CA.  The film takes viewers on a journey across five continents as it documents the personal stories of creative change makers who aim to inspire engagement and social action around issues of social justice worldwide. The idea of this film caused me to stop and think about our efforts to educate students in meaningful ways that make a lasting impact in our collective lives.  It occurred to me that the Internet should be used not only as a source for information  but also as a means and a vehicle to spark action in our communities and around the world. When I reflect on social media use during the recent revolution in Egypt, I am struck by  how globally connected and interdependent we are locally, nationally, and globally. It brings to the forefront of my mind the need to prepare students with an orientation and a commitment to using online information and advocacy to improve our global community.

To help achieve this aim, this post focuses on several school-friendly social action projects that make strategic use of the Internet to connect people around the world.  These projects provide a promising means for engaging students’ intellectual potential, curiosity, and social networking skills to make a lasting change on important issues of the day.

Global Climate Change

To help kids better understand global warming, the Pew Center recently collaborated with Nickelodeon to research kids’ and parents’ attitudes and behaviors toward the environment and have made several great resources available (see Such efforts have helped sparked several action campaigns led by adolescents and young adults.  One such effort is iMatter (see iMatter began as a simple video, created by a 13 year old, that covered the problems, consequences and solutions of climate change. Now, it’s grown into a global campaign meant to unite the voices of a generation on the most urgent issue of our time.

Additional efforts such as Young Voices on Climate Change showcase the many creative and innovative ways young people are shrinking the carbon footprint of their homes, schools, and communities. This effort began as a series of short films from Lynne Cherry, author of The Great Kapok Tree, and  feature the inspiring work of young people who seek to increase climate change awareness and action. It then expanded to a book entitled How We Know What We Know About Our Changing Climate: Scientists and Kids Explore Global Warming.  Both the iMarch and Young Voices websites feature several ways students can get involved and make a difference. The inspirational trailer for Young Voices can be accessed here.

Cyberschool Bus Global Teaching and Learning Projects

The United Nations Cyberschool Bus Global Teaching and Learning Projects website encourages students and their teachers to engage in world wide social action projects. This portal offers curriculum resources to support finding solutions to combat world hunger, ending racial and ethnic discrimination, and providing universal human rights. Through collaboration with classes worldwide, students can participate in finding solutions that may impact the realities of tomorrow. Placing students in the role of problem solvers empowers them to find ways to use what they are learning in school and their communities to change the reality of the world around them.  The quizzes and games section includes interactive simulations such as Against All Odds (aimed at increasing students’ awareness and knowledge about refugee situations by putting players in the position of a refugee) and Stop Disasters (that encourages problem solving by teaching players how to respond to different disasters) are excellent ways to increase students’ awareness about global crises and ways to combat them.

Bucket Buddies

Bucket Buddies  is a curriculum-based inquiry project available on the Internet for elementary level students. In this project, students team up with other students from around the globe to test fresh water samples in their community. Students collect samples of water from local ponds to answer the question: Are the organisms found in pond water the same all over the world? In this project, students attempt to determine whether or not the same fresh water macro-invertebrates will be found in different locations. Participating classes collect samples from ponds near their schools and use a variety of resources to identify the macro-invertebrates (animals lacking a backbone and visible without the aid of a microscope) in the samples. The students then share their identifications with other project participants and use the collected data to answer the central question: Did classrooms sampling fresh water sources around the world find the same organisms? Finally, the students publish their conclusions in a report, which is posted to the project web site. Additional collaborative project ideas that address water quality and water conservation issues can be found by visiting

International Schools Cyberfair

International Schools Cyberfair is an international learning program that encourages youth to connect the knowledge they learn in school to real world applications. This project has brought together more than one million students across 100 countries. Its purpose is for students, their schools and their local communities to use the Internet to share resources, establish partnerships and work together to accomplish common goals. Students work collaboratively to research and then showcase online what is special about their local community. Local and international collaboration through information and communication technologies is a key aspect of the program. Students are also encouraged to serve as “ambassadors”, sharing what they’ve learned in a way that contributes back to their local communities. Award-winning projects showcase people and programs that are actively providing solutions or solving problems.


Projects within iEARN are designed and facilitated by participants to fit their particular curriculum and classroom needs. Upon membership, the iEARN network is open to all teachers and students at a school, with resources available for finding iEARN projects across age levels and disciplines. iEARN features a Learning Circle, which contains highly interactive, project-based partnerships among small numbers of schools located throughout the world. All iEARN projects involve a final “product” or exhibition of the learning that has taken place as part of the collaboration. These have included magazines, creative writing anthologies, websites, letter-writing campaigns, reports to government officials, arts exhibits, workshops, performances fund raising, and many more examples of youth taking action as part of what they are learning in the classroom.

Participation in social action projects provides opportunities for young people to transform the world around them and makes it possible for them to see themselves, their abilities, and the activities at school in a different light. Not only does this give students the opportunity to affect change in the world and gain valuable experience with the new forms of online communication and social networking that are quickly defining our world, but it also builds confidence that the skills they are learning have value beyond the classroom.

Reflections from the International Reading Association Conference in Orlando May 8-May11

Jill, Bridget, and Bernadette @ the Peabody Hotel Duck Fountain (Dana is present in spirit!)

It was a fun and fulfilling IRA conference – a great opportunity to gather inspiration from some of the most innovative thinkers in the literacy field! We’re so glad to have had the chance to catch up with friends, meet new colleagues, and attend several amazing sessions. The Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-Sig)  session (see was well attended and sparked many new ideas for using digital tools to support literacy learning.  As last year’s recipient of the Outstanding Research Award, David O’Brien (University of Minnesota) gave the keynote entitled Bridging Traditional and Digital Literacies: From Apprehension to Affordances which he skillfully presented from his iPad.  His talk sparked thoughtful reflection about the break-neck speed of change in the range of digital media and its potential to support and enhance learning. The keynote was followed by six round-table sessions that were both engaging and interactive.  Tons of new teaching ideas for using digital tools in the classroom were shared.  Many of the resources featured, as well as the best list we can find of the latest new online resources, can be found on the cool tools page  On the same TILE-Sig wikispace, check out the slides and resources shared from the Pre-conference Technology Institute 

We each attended Literacy & Science: Exploring Connections that Promote Engaged Learning and met many new colleagues who focus on connections between science and literacy (and technology, too!)

The pre-conference institute entitled Science and Literacy:  Exploring Connections that Promote Engaged Learning (see was chalked full of new ideas for addressing content learning.  Bridget’s delivered an outstanding presentation that addressed Reading and Learning Science with Digital Text and Media. The talk bridged research and practice and challenged participants to explore what it means to be a reader in the 21st century. Using a Universal Design for Learning framework, she shared several tangible examples that illustrated the power of digital tools to support literacy and content learning.   Laurie A. Henry and her colleagues from University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville connected 21st Century Literacy and Science in the Middle School Using the 5e Learning Model and showcased a range of effective teaching techniques.  Bridget’s and Laurie’s slide, as well as other resources, can be downloaded from the institute website! Videos of all the sessions will be added soon.

Bernadette was a finalist for the IRA Dissertation of the Year award!

We love that IRA brings us in touch with international perspectives that expand our literacy viewpoint.  Bernadette’s  poster summarized her dissertation study entitled Scaffolding Internet Reading:  A Study of a Disadvantaged School Community in Ireland and drew attention from numerous interested participants.  Bernadette skillfully described her development of an integrated inquiry-based curriculum which included cross curricular units that linked literacy, science, and the Internet in an authentic classroom-based study. She monitored in-depth the progress of three triad groups within each class cohort during Internet workshops and also conducted a series of Internet Inquiry Progress Tasks across the study. We congratulate Ber on her groundbreaking study.  Her findings have helped the literacy community worldwide better understand the nature of collaboration in Internet-inquiry and online learning.

If you’re looking for a high quality professional development experience that links literacy and technology, the New Literacies Teacher Leader Institute is holding an event that can be attended virtually or in person on July 25 – 29, 2011. To register for this exciting professional development experience go to:

Active Word Learning Using Web 2.0 Tools

A post from Jill

Jim Baumann (University of Missouri) and Ed Kame’enui (University of Oregon) are editing a second edition of Vocabulary Instruction: Research to Practice (forthcoming, Guilford Press) to be published in 2011. Bridget, Dana, and I were invited to submit a piece that addressed special topics in vocabulary instruction.

In our chapter, Using Multimedia to Support Students’ Generative Vocabulary Learning (Castek, Dalton, & Grisham, in process) we suggest that the use of digital media in vocabulary learning should not only be receptive (e.g., viewing vocabulary graphics), but also generative (actively engaging students in using language and media to express themselves and to create products that represent their new knowledge). We assert that the act of creation supports ownership, introduces authentic reasons for learning, and tangibly links reading, writing, and communication in ways that mirror learning outside of school. This post draws ideas from the chapter and suggests ways to promote students’ active word learning using Web 2.0 tools.

Create Vocabulary Videos:Today’s students have grown up with YouTube as part of daily life. As a way of extending word learning, consider having students’ produce their own vocabulary videos — 60-90 second videos that situate word learning in a specific context.  The varied student-created examples found at VocabAhead (e.g., the entry for amble, for headstrong, and fecund) illustrate how video creation and multimodal expression make the word learning experience more memorable for both the video producers as well as the viewing audience. For tips and tools for creating videos, see the VocabAhead Teacher Page.  Suggestions for video creation include incorporating visual cues and adding humor, dramatization, or emotions to help learners remember the word and its meaning more easily. There are plenty of free web tools available which can be used to create vocabulary videos such as Xtranormal (if you can type, you can make movies) and GoAnimate (make your own cartoons and animations using free tools that you don’t need to learn Flash to use).

Simulate Twitter to Promote Target Word Usage: Today’s widespread twitter phenomenon tells us something important about language use and engagement. In 140 characters or less, information about “what’s happening now” can be shared instantly with an online community. The defining characteristics of a ‘tweet’ are brevity, timeliness, and the ability to instantly respond to others. Educators can bring twitter-like experiences into the classroom to expand vocabulary learning, without actually creating twitter accounts. To simulate twitter, try Wallwisher. Once the topic themed-wall is set up, this free online application does not require individuals to login and everyone can post together in a shared space. Like tweets, comment space is limited (Wallwisher allows 160 characters).

To model a vocabulary related twitter, provide a target word or concept and challenge students to keep a related stream of tweets going as long as they can. Set the expectation that both target words and related words must be used in each post. Provide a context such as a breaking news event, a topic you’re studying in class, or a book you are reading.

The following interchange may serve as a tangible example. Imagine reading and watching online news reports about an oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. Students could then create a twitter- like stream to express reactions and questions, using the target words pollution and disaster. Before beginning, discuss the words’ meanings. Then talk through a few examples, as follows.

Twitter-like stream

Student 1: Bad news. An oil rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico. Pollution is going to be a problem.

Student 2: Oil will pollute the beaches. What a disaster!

Student 3: You can’t swim in polluted water.

Student 4: The seagulls and pelicans will be hurt by the oil. It gets on their feathers.

Twitter-like stream (examining the news event from the perspective of different stakeholders)

Shrimper: Major disaster. Oil rig blew and oil gushing in Gulf of Mexico. Pollution might wipe us out.

Oysterman: What about oyster beds? I have to fish. Polluted oyster beds mean no oysters. What a disaster for me and my customers.

Beach lover: Gulf Shores beach has black oil washing up. Seagulls coated. Can’t swim in polluted water.

Clean up crew: Dish detergent is the best thing to clean oil pollution from birds. Who knew?!

Oil company: The faster we cap the oil rig, the faster the pollution stops. 

Have Fun with New Slang: The dynamic and inventive nature of language is dramatically evident in the torrent of new words we manage to create each year. While we all may feel the need to chillax (calm down and relax) in the face of students’ often unconventional vocabulary use, seize the opportunity to build word curiosity and playfulness. Two excellent Internet resources for learning about words and language are the Visual Thesaurus and the Oxford Dictionary of English. The latter posts a list each year of new words added to the dictionary. Another excellent resource is the Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary.  Also, at Wordspy, Paul McFedries tracks published neologisms (new word creations, many of which are slang and/or linguistic blends).

Technology and media can play an important role in developing students’ vocabulary through generative, multimodal expression. Giving students experience with the digital technologies required in the 21st century will be motivational as well as academically beneficial. 


Castek, J., Dalton, B., & Grisham, D. (in process). Using multimedia to support students’ generative vocabulary learning. In J. Baumann and E. Kame’enui (Eds.) Vocabulary Instruction: Research to Practice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Google Customized Search Engine

A Post from Jill

I recently had one of the most powerful learning experience of my professional career.  It came as I was piloting an integrated science/literacy project with a group of sixth graders in inner-city Oakland, CA. This Earth Science unit was designed to help students learn about climate change.

For six weeks, students explored science content using a range of disciplinary literacy strategies such as annotating text, analyzing evidence based arguments, and writing evidence-based explanations.  The first four weeks of the unit was teacher guided and involved students in reading articles, examining trends in graphs, working with animations/simulations, and discussing new understandings in pairs and small groups.

Drawing on the notion that deep, engaged learning occurs when students explore self-selected, open-ended questions about which they are genuinely interested, the last two weeks of the unit involved students in completing an inquiry project.  This project challenged the students to build on what they had learned during the first part of the unit and take it further by designing a tool, technique, or campaign to combat climate change.  Each group chose a focus (from a bank of five choices), conducted online research, and went about inventing a way to lessen the effects of climate change.  The design challenge Google site spells out the project parameters and the assignment guidelines.

To help scaffold students’ inquiry as they gathered information online, I opted to try out the free service Google offers for building a customized search engine (see  The customized search engine limits the Web sites that come up in search results, listing only those that are pre-selected by the designer/teacher.  Given the sheer volume of information on the Internet,creating a customized search  can be highly supportive option for novice Internet users.

Since a teacher can choose the sites she wants students to search, she can guarantee students’ searches will yield limited number of highly relevant search results, making the time learners spend online more efficient and purposeful. The advantages of narrowing searches to a more targeted and manageable size ensures that students gain valuable practice sifting through a limited amount of search results, freeing up time to put the information to use.

Having explored the use of a customized search engine, I can attest to its efficacy as a viable scaffold for online research.  I observed even the most novice Internet users successfully locate relevant, reliable information in a short amount of time.  I was elated to see students spend quality time digging into the resources they found, following the links to related sites, and  making a range of inter-textual connections to content within and beyond the unit.

To set up a customized search engine, simply set up a Google educator account, choose the Web sites and resources you would like students to access, then follow a few simple steps to create the search engine.  An example customized for sixth graders studying ways society can lessen the effects of climate change can be found at Combating Climate Change

Students spent three days gathering online information using the customized search feature, another two days synthesizing ideas, and two more days creating a Glog to share what they had learned. Finally, students made an oral presentation showcasing their ideas. The confidence students’ displayed as they discussed their final products with their peers was truly amazing.  Feel free to browse students’ work at the URLs below:

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