Tag Archives: ELA

A Brief History of the Evolution of the Presidential Debate

by Tom Klonoski

The debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump occur at a critical time during the 2016 presidential campaign. With opinion polls showing a close race, the debates have the potential to swing the race in the favor of a single candidate.

Debates have not always been important factors in presidential general elections. They became significant only after the arrival of television in U.S. households in the mid-1900s. Prior to that, newspaper stories on campaign speeches played a much more important role.

The first presidential debate during a general election campaign occurred in 1960. Most people listening in on radio felt that Vice President Richard Nixon, a skilled debater, had triumphed. But those watching on television felt that Senator John F. Kennedy was the victor. Democrat Kennedy appeared calm and poised, whereas Republican Nixon appeared sweaty and nervous. It didn’t help Nixon that he applied his own makeup before the debate.

Youtube feature on Nixon-Kennedy debate

Another campaign in which debates played an important role in the public’s perceptions of the candidates occurred in 1976. In the second debate that year, President Gerald Ford, running against former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, declared that the Soviet Union had “no domination of Eastern Europe” at a time when the USSR had military control throughout the region and dominated Eastern European governments. Ford, a Republican, had meant that the spirit of the Eastern European people would never be dominated by the Soviets, but he did not make this clear. Carter pounced on the apparent error and was deemed to have won the debate. He surged ahead in the polls and was able to hold off late gains by Ford to win the election.

In 2000, presidential debates swung the general election campaign in the Republicans’ favor. Going into the first of three debates, Vice President Al Gore, a Democrat, had an 8 percent lead in the polls over former Texas Governor George Bush. But in the debates Gore came off as condescending while Bush appeared more likable. After the last debate, Gore’s lead had disintegrated and the campaign ended with one of the closest elections in U.S. history, with Bush winning in a controversial manner.

Photograph from 2000 presidential debate

Although the outcome of the first Clinton-Trump debate was widely portrayed as a Clinton victory, this result alone is unlikely to determine the election. There are still two debates to come, and unexpected developments in domestic and international affairs could also play a key role in separating the candidates in the minds of undecided voters. Only a major error in the debates would be likely to be an important factor in the election results on November 8th.

Photograph from 2016 presidential debate (image from www.wbur.org)

Writing for an Authentic Audience: How to Get and Apply Great Feedback

by Amber Wilson

writing for an authentic audience

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Whether or not your curriculum is aligned with the Common Core, you know that good writing is well suited to its purpose and its audience. Likewise, you know that giving, receiving, and responding to feedback is an essential skill inside and out of the classroom. How can you incorporate these real-world practices in your pedagogy?

An authentic audience helps your students . . .

Write for a reason: To inform, to persuade, or to entertain. We often focus on teaching readers how to differentiate between text types, but writing assignments are sometimes less specific. Good writers are able to identify the traits of the writing modes, choose the best mode for the occasion, and create texts that are clearly and obviously persuasive, informative, or entertaining.

Get motivated: As discussed here and here, students are truly motivated by writing for real people.

Write to learn: Engaging fully with content (in all subject areas) requires a certain degree of processing. Encourage students to write before, during, and after projects and learning goals. In addition, your students will probably find that during the course of a unit or project, writing in multiple modes and for multiple audiences helps them process and connect information, leading to fuller engagement and deeper understanding.

Publish! One way is to have a class blog. See this previous post to learn more about getting started. You could also check out an alternate way to publish student writing, like pen.io.

Get feedback: Get on Twitter and tell the world that your kids have something to say. Use the #comments4kids hashtag and start the ball rolling. Then take the next step and guide students to read, understand, and respond to comments. For instance, ask students to perform self-assessment, then compare their assessments to feedback they received in comments. Or, encourage students to take feedback from comments into consideration as they revise and draft their writing.

Want to take it to the next level? Post about a book review and tag the book’s author, or post about a science project and tag a scientist!

Give feedback: Have student writers experience both sides of interacting with an authentic audience. Your students are probably already familiar with trading papers and giving feedback in class. You may also have worked with pen pals, or some other form of long distance communication. Get the best of both worlds by having your kids engage in a conversation about someone else’s published writing. Use #comments4kids to find student writing on a topic that your class is also writing, and invite your class to leave comments.


Let us know how you’re using online publishing and writing for an authentic audience in your class! Find us on Facebook, Twitter, or leave us a comment below.

 AmberAmber Wilson is a consultant for Green Light Professional Development.

5 Great Sites for Student-Friendly Informational Texts

by Helen Beyne

sites for informational texts

You already know that one main mission of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) Initiative is to help students comprehend a wide variety of informational texts—nonfiction texts that inform readers about a topic. But with the vast amount of information available online, you might not know where to go to find appropriate informational texts for your students. The five websites described below are a great place to start.

1. Time for Kids
(primary, elementary, and middle school)

The articles on Time for Kids have been created specifically for students in grades K–6, introducing them to “high-quality nonfiction writing to build reading and critical thinking skills.” Topics include national and world news, science, and health. The articles address high-interest subjects, and many have appealing text features—such as “Are We Alone?,” which ponders the existence of alien life. (Note: Access to the site’s special features requires a subscription, but the full text of many articles can be accessed for free.)

2. Newsela
(elementary, middle, and high school)

Newsela presents daily news articles from a number of well-known media outlets, including the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press. You can choose from topics including war and peace, science, law, health, arts, and sports. Articles are CCSS-aligned and are written at five Lexile levels, allowing students with varying levels of reading proficiency to analyze the same content in class. The free version includes student quizzes and one-click assignment of articles to class; a professional version (Newsela Pro) is available for a fee.

3. The Library of Congress
(middle and high school)

The Library of Congress (LOC) is one of the definitive online resources for primary-source documents. Oh, and it’s all free! Browse the site by topic to find materials on a range of different subjects, including American and world history; science, technology, and business; news, journalism, and advertising; and much more. A blog on the site describes how to use the LOC’s primary sources to address the CCSS; it also features teacher tools and a primary-source analysis tool for students. Also check out this article, which explains why primary sources are integral to the CCSS.

4. The National Archives
(middle and high school)

Another excellent place to access primary sources is the National Archives. This independent agency of the U.S. federal government has an entire Teachers’ Resources section devoted to helping educators use primary sources in the classroom. Use the online DocsTeach tool to find thousands of primary sources from different historical eras, including the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Great Depression and World War II, the postwar United States, and contemporary America. Find and create activities to “bring history alive for your students.”

5. The New York Times Learning Network
(middle and high school)

Need to find an engaging way to help students understand what’s going on in the world? Then check out The Learning Network blog from the New York Times. This resource features weekly lesson plans that use the newspaper’s content to teach current events. All content from The Learning Network, including any Times articles that are linked to, is free. To get started with The Learning Network, begin by reading How to Use Our Blog This School Year.

Have any thoughts on the sites above? Are there other favorite informational-text sites you’d like to share? Leave a comment below, or find us on Facebook and Twitter!

Helen bioHelen Beyne is a consultant for Green Light Professional Development. She has years of experience in creating innovative curriculum materials in reading, ESL, science, and social studies. She writes about IWBs and free online resources for teachers.

Use Technology to Develop and Celebrate Fluent Readers

by Helen Beyne

Are you looking for activities to boost your K–4 students’ reading fluency or ways to extend and enhance your classroom reading centers? Do you want to plan a special event to celebrate your students’ developing reading skills? Use the online resources and technology ideas below to help students build fluency skills and get excited about reading.

  1. Expand students’ opportunities to listen to fluent readers.

Record yourself reading a variety of texts, put audio books on iPods, download ebooks, or invite parent volunteers or older students to record themselves reading class favorites. (Fluency expert Dr. Timothy Rasinski has put together a great list of titles, “Fabulously Famous Books for Building Fluency.”)

In addition, create classroom listening centers where students can listen to examples of fluent reading online. Two excellent sites—both free—that feature celebrities and authors reading classic picture books are Storyline Online and Online Storytime. Encourage students to notice how readers vary their voices and pace to read expressively and portray different characters. Help them understand that reading fluently is more than just reading fast.

  1. Have students read along with online text.

Set up an independent or partner read-aloud center where students can see online text as they hear it read. In addition to downloading ebooks and reading apps, give students access to free online resources such as those at PBS Kids, Starfall, Reading Is Fundamental, and Scholastic’s Listen and Read. The sites include a wide variety of genres, engaging music and visuals, and easy ways to pause or hear a word or sentence repeated multiple times. Students can do repeated assisted or independent readings, timed or untimed, until they can read accurately, expressively, and easily.

  1. Have students record themselves reading.

Hearing themselves read aloud can be a great motivator for many young readers. After students practice reading a poem or brief passage several times, invite them to a recording center to record themselves. You can choose from a wide variety of recording options. For some classrooms, an inexpensive tape recorder with a microphone makes the most sense. Other teachers and students might use apps, software, or web platforms like Audio Memos, GarageBand (see Using Garage Band to Work on Fluency video), Audacity, Audioboo, or Evernote (see Increase Fluency with Evernote video).

Have students—alone or in pairs—listen to their recordings, evaluate their fluency, set new goals, practice some more, and then re-record. When students are happy with their reading, you might upload the recordings and feature these podcasts on a class or school website, store them on class MP3 players for classmates to enjoy, or email them to parents.

  1. Plan a special reading performance.

Showcase your students’ increasing fluency by having them read orally for an audience. Knowing that they will be reading aloud might be just the thing to keep your young readers motivated to practice reading. Below are several ideas for class-only, grade-level, or all-school events. And don’t forget—all these performances could be recorded and transformed into podcasts or become part of students’ digital portfolios.

  • Reader’s Theater: With a focus on expressive reading, gestures, and facial expression, these dramatic presentations provide wonderful opportunities for students to develop fluency. Choose a script that fits your students’ interests and talents—from the budding actor or actress who enjoys the spotlight to a shy or struggling reader who would prefer being part of a chorus. Find reader’s theater resources and free scripts at PBS Kids, Reader’s Theater Scripts and Plays, and Aaron Shepard’s RT Page.
  • Book Talk: Students share their ideas about a favorite book—what it’s about, why they like it, and so forth. Have students read aloud a brief passage that illustrates a key event or illustrates the author’s writing style.
  • Poetry Read: The short lines and interesting sounds and rhythms of poetry make it a great read-aloud choice. Two helpful online resources for using poetry to develop reading fluency are the Shell Education Podcast The Poet and the Professor: Poems for Building Reading Skills and Kathy Norris’s Performing Poetry: A Study Guide for Teachers at PoetryTeachers.com.

Helen bioHelen Beyne is a consultant for Green Light Professional Development. She has years of experience in creating innovative curriculum materials in reading, ESL, science, and social studies. She writes about IWBs and free online resources for teachers.

5 Sites to Publish Student Writing Online

by Helen Beyne

websites publish student writing

image courtesy arinas74 | freeimages.com

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) require students to “use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing” beginning in Grade 4 and continuing through Grade 12 to publish digital content. Google Docs are a great way to encourage collaboration and to pique students’ interest in publishing their writing online. However, what are the best tools for your students to use to share their work safely with a broader digital audience? Here are 5 great sites to publish student writing online.


Blogger, one of the most commonly used blogging tools, is free and fairly intuitive. It offers a number of basic, colorful templates, and advanced users can customize their blogs even further. In the classroom, students can use Blogger to create their own individual blogs, or teachers can create a class blog and invite students to contribute. This user-friendly site is Google’s blogging tool, so students must create a Google account before they can use Blogger (if your school already uses Google Apps for Education, Blogger is an easy addition to the arsenal).


For young students, Kidblog might be the way to go. Because teachers create accounts for each student user, students do not need email addresses to sign up. Teachers also have the option to assign and reset passwords, so instructors will not need to worry about younger students forgetting this sensitive information. The basic version of Kidblog is free, but its premium features are available for an annual fee.


Edublogs is one of the safest places for students to publish their writing online. The site is equipped with content filters to keep their blogs student-friendly. Teachers also have total control over privacy settings, so they are able to share students’ work safely and responsibly. One drawback to Edublogs, however, is that its free version is rather limited. Users must pay a monthly free to enjoy all that the site has to offer, including embedded videos, mobile blogging, and custom domains.


Penzu is a free online journaling site students can use to reflect privately or share their thoughts with others. If users choose to share their journals, commenting enables viewers to turn a static journal post into a conversation. Penzu Classroom makes it easy for teachers to start a collection of journals for students. Teachers can then use their own Penzu accounts to create assignments for the class, give comments, and grade students’ entries.


Pen.io is the easiest way to post writing online. It is one of the few sites that do not require students to create an account. Instead, they simply create a unique URL, assign a password, and start publishing content. This barebones blogging tool lacks the fancy templates and other customizable content that comes with other blogging tools, but its anonymity is a plus for teachers who don’t want their students to publish their names online or those who require their students to publish their writing only few times a semester.

What do you think? Which online publishing tool is right for your classroom? Do you know any other safe sites for sharing? Add them in the comments!

Helen bioHelen Beyne is a consultant for Green Light Professional Development. She has years of experience in creating innovative curriculum materials in reading, ESL, science, and social studies. She writes about IWBs and free online resources for teachers.

Banned Books Week 2014

How are you using technology + literature to celebrate the Freedom to Read?

by Helen Beyne

banned books week

image courtesy of ddpavumba | freedigitalphotos.net

As you probably know, the last week of September is Banned Books Week, and this year the focus is on graphic novels. It’s possible that your classroom library already includes one or more titles that have been banned or challenged. (Challenging refers to an attempt to remove materials from libraries, or otherwise restrict access, based on objection to content. Banning refers to the actual removal of materials.)

Electronic books and digital or online annotation can be powerful tools. Anyone who has ever lugged an eight-hundred page anthology from home to school and back again can surely appreciate the portability of e-readers, tablets, and laptops. Likewise, no one who flipped through pages and pages of highlighting, marginalia, and sticky notes trying to recall that one particular a-ha moment can deny that searchability is a real time saver.

Project Gutenberg is a great source for free downloadable (or read-online) books. Their catalog includes titles that are in the public domain in the United States. Use Gutenberg texts on e-readers with highlight and note-taking capability, or invite students to mark them up using an annotation program such as Diigo.

Try searching Curriculet for a title you’re teaching; for instance, The Call of the Wild—a favorite among middle school teachers—has been challenged or banned many times since its 1903 publication. Curriculet lessons are correlated to CCSS, and more importantly, you can make or add your own questions and notes. In addition to answering questions, students can add their own notes!

Auditory learners fear not: If you are looking for yet another non-print way to access great books, Librivox to the rescue. Listen online, or download files of audio recordings of books in the public domain.

Is your class participating in the Virtual Read Out? How is your community celebrating the Freedom to Read? Leave us a comment, send us a tweet, or find us on Facebook!

Helen bioHelen Beyne is a consultant for Green Light Professional Development. She has years of experience in creating innovative curriculum materials in reading, ESL, science, and social studies. She writes about IWBs and free online resources for teachers.

Classroom Libraries in the Digital Age

by Tom Nieman

classroom library

Classroom library | image courtesy Lizmarie_AK via Flickr (CC BY)

Last year, in an effort as a consultant to help a school with huge reading deficits among its students, I suggested that they look closely at Dick Allington’s What Really Matters for Struggling Readers, which recommends that students spend 300 minutes a week just reading. Like so much other advice in this world, it was ignored.

After all, to reach that amount of reading would require a huge effort and redirection of what schools normally do. They had other plans already slotted in place. Besides, to reach 300 minutes each week, here was the kind of commitment that was needed:

  • 30 minutes each day of “sustained silent reading” (SSR) in reading/ELA (for a total of 150 minutes a week)
  • one day each week reading trade books in either social studies or science to complement the core instruction (for a total of 50 minutes)
  • 20 minutes each day after school as homework or as an after-school program (for a total of another 100 minutes)

To many educators, this quantity of reading seems unachievable. It is also out of sync with today’s digital classroom, where students are spending time making movies, mastering Google Docs or Edmodo, or playing “educational” apps on their tablets. (And, no, I don’t think reading on websites and apps is the same as reading Charlotte’s Web or Old Yeller.)

Why Is a Classroom Library Needed?

Years ago, schools worked to build classroom libraries sufficient to instill a love of reading in their students. In “The Importance of the Classroom Library,” Susan Neuman cites the research that supports the building of classroom libraries—namely, the time spent reading increased 60 percent and the number of literacy-related activities doubled. According to different authorities, the recommended size of classroom libraries was around 300 different titles in each classroom, or about 10 titles per student. The wide selection and high literary value of these titles were important to their effectiveness. Students like to choose what they read, and they like to read good stuff (at least by their standards).

Yet the classroom library in today’s tablet-laden schools is still largely paper. Digital classroom libraries have proven hard—read “extremely difficult and expensive”—to come by. Why? Because creative works such as children’s books are controlled by authors who hold the copyright, and acquiring the rights to large libraries of titles has become very difficult. Digital ebooks cost anywhere from $9.50 (Lois Lowry) to $12 (David Macaulay) per copy—about comparable, in other words, to what it cost to buy a paperback book.

What Are the Options for Digital Reading?

Many of the new education startups offer a digital reading experience, but few of them do so with literature. For example, Newsela and Achieve3000 license news stories and rewrite them to different readability levels. ThinkCerca offers lessons woven around provocative topics, but the reading isn’t exactly literary.

Scientific Learning Reading Assistant boasts more than 300 titles, but I do not believe any of them are what teachers would call “authentic” literature. Likewise with Learning A-Z, with more than 1,000 leveled titles, the books are of good quality but definitely not authentic trade books like the ones that constitute most classroom libraries.

The book distributors—Follett, Book Source, Perma-Bound—who once supplied many of the classroom libraries with paperbacks, have yet to provide compelling ebook solutions, and the ones they have are pricey. Much the same can be said for the traditional educational publishers, who license rights from trade books for their anthologies but do not own the titles outright.

From my perspective, one good option is MyOn, a digital program available from Capstone, that now claims more than 6,000 predominantly nonfiction titles and seems reasonably priced. Another option is OverDrive, an app that allows borrowing of digital books from the local library, just like with paper books, except popular titles Skylark and Island of the Blue Dolphins are usually checked out (by the vociferous reading types like my nephew who brings books to the college football games we “watch” together in the fall).

Other options exist but seemed to me very difficult to use—for example, Scholastic’s Storia or Subtext, where teachers need to bring their own literature. One could get worn out simply trying all of the new digital solutions out there. I tried last year at the International Reading Association conference, but found few real solutions currently exist. “Free” books—the ones in public domain—are readily available, yet these titles are appropriate mostly for older readers age 12 and up.

But Is Having Class Libraries Really that Important?

The short answer is “yes.” Students need authentic literature to read, and teachers know that. They are not giving up their multiple paper copies of Number the Stars, Holes, or Homeless Bird. Paperback libraries still exist in classrooms around the country because an adequate digital substitute has yet to appear. What is important to understand is the educational value of these libraries. The multitude of books in them generates interest in and a love of reading; they create conversations about books among students who share titles they have read; they serve the all-important function of building students’ vocabularies and reading fluency; and they extend the school day by being portable and accessible in and out of class.

With so much emphasis now on innovation, flipped and 1-to-1 classrooms, it is easy to forget that the majority of student reading occurs from paper books in classroom libraries. The 300-minutes-a-week will not come from apps or Google Docs that teachers post for their students to read. The real reading of students has, and probably still will be for a while, in the paperback libraries they sit next to every day and cart around back and forth from school in their backpacks.

Tom bioTom Nieman is president of Green Light Professional Development and Nieman Inc., a privately held company that specializes in developing curriculum materials for educational publishers.