4 2014 Favorites, plus 2015 Ventures

Welcome back to HGU for a fresh year!  We hope you enjoyed a restful and relaxing holiday break, and that you are feeling rejuvenated for school.  Here to offer some inspiration for your classroom New Year’s resolution-making are a few of our readers’ favorite posts in 2014, along with some suggestions for low-stress, high-impact goals.

Best of 2014

#4: Review: Pam Allyn’s Core Ready Lesson Sets for Grades 3-5

If you are currently researching language arts programs, you won’t want to miss this teacher-tested review!

A long way from Chicago (1)#3: 10 Read Alouds for Upper Elementary Grades

Research continues to back up the fact that reading to your children–even older children–provides literacy benefits. So don’t skimp on read-aloud time just because you teach preteens!

#2: Foreign Language Programs: A Basic Review

Several members of our HGU team tried out and reviewed Fluenz, Pimsleur, and Rosetta Stone to help give some guidance in choosing a foreign language program.

#1: Top Online Games for Elementary

30 different math, science, and art games–all free, student-tested, and teacher-screened!

Possible Goals for 2015

*Become a Google Educator:

With the abundance of free professional development opportunities online, there’s no reason not to start taking your PD into your own hands in 2015!  What we especially like about Google Courses for Educators is that they help teachers fully harness Google resources in the classroom, broken down into bite-sized 5-30 minute lessons.

DonorsChoose*Create a Donors Choose project:

Math board games, a document camera, 2 iPad Mini’s–these are just a few items I received through the generous donors on Donors Choose over the past few years.  Be sure to watch for match offers or Chevron’s Fuel Your School to increase your chances of funding!

*Write personal notes to every student:

Cut up card stock and reserve just a couple minutes of your prep time each day to write a couple of meaningful letters to students each day. Express your admiration for their perseverance, confidence in their potential, and enthusiasm for their progress.  Not only will you foster a positive class atmosphere, but you’ll help beat out the gray midwinter blues to which so many of us are susceptible.

*Pick just 1 new edtech to integrate:

Instead of getting overwhelmed by the many choices for technology integration in the classroom, choose just one this year.  Student blogging, Twitter, flipped classrooms, and virtual field trips are a few of our favorites.

Photo Credit: 

Featured Image (visible on mobile layout only this version): BazaarBizarreSF vis Flickr

Assessments: How to Increase Accuracy, Efficiency, & Transparency

B+, 4, O, 73%–these marks and the like are terrible storytellers.  After all, how can one impassive mark describe a student’s chronicle of small triumphs, daily perseverance, and long-term growth? On the other hand, is it even possible to record and convey complex learning journeys in a way that isn’t cumbersome?

If any of this sounds familiar, explore Google Drive as a possible solution to strike the balance!  Increase your accuracy, efficiency, and transparency by checking out some examples and tips below.

Increasing ACCURACY

Your clipboard and pen still have a place in certain formative assessment note-taking. But for more in-depth situations, a Google Form with prefilled lists to choose from can help you generate much more comprehensive–and accessible–notes.  In a recent #5thchat, @Mr_Ullman shared his forms for writing and reading conferences.  We especially love his use of drop-down menus to easily select student names, writing cycle stages, and comprehension strategies, and more.

Other Accuracy Possibilities:
  • Use the Scale feature (ie 1 to 5) to record students’ confidence in their book selections.
  • Use the Checkboxes feature on which outcome(s) students are currently working toward.
  • Use the Grid feature for assessing progress in a class-generated science rubric.


benchmark data sheetMost schools require benchmarks assessments, typically at the beginning, middle, and end of the year.  Ready-made benchmark programs often come with assessment sheets, but why not create your own multifunctional and tailored document?  For example, I decided to consolidate reading, writing, math, and behavior benchmarks all into one Google Document.  I also made student-friendly alterations so we could use the same sheets during our student-led parent teacher conferences (see extra resources & how-to here); I also added grade-level-specific rubrics, tables, and data.

Other Efficiency Possibilities:
  • Take items directly from your school’s report card (such as behavior descriptors), and turn them into a Google Form. Then, convert your quarter-long formative notes into summatives as you observe patterns and/or calculate averages in the responses spreadsheet.
  • Using tables to record data across the year saves you more than just time and paper–it also allows students and parents to better track and discuss growth themselves.
  • Share a form with students as a quick exit ticket after a lesson or unit.


Sharing assessment data with students can be accompanied with uncertainty–how much should we share? How do we keep them from becoming preoccupied with numbers? Will they feel defined by scores?  However, I’ve come to realize that as long as we discuss data in the context of process over product, it can become yet another way to empower students with ownership over their learning. In addition, the share features in Google Drive are ideal for fostering communication among students, parents, and teachers.  We are advocates for harnessing technology for more in-depth and authentic collaboration among all involved in student learning!

Other Transparency Possibilities:
  • Duplicate Google Documents like the benchmark data sheet so each student (and their parents) can access their own online version.
  • Share forms you use for formative assessments with parents to give them a clear picture of what’s happening in class.
  • Invite parents to leave comments for you or for their student!

How else have you used Google Documents and Forms for more accurate, efficient, and transparent assessments? We’d love to hear about them in the comments!

Photo Credits

Get a free 11-page Google Earth Starter Kit for Teachers

Google Earth Starter Kit for Teachers is our new 11-page guide to take you and your class on virtual field trips, starting today! We designed this guide for teachers wanting to find some quality examples of Google Earth trips, to create their own, or to give students new and engaging ways to share learning. If this sounds like you, sign up on the left-hand side of our page (we promise to never ever spam or share your info–you’ll just receive occasional email updates from us)! We also list the best of HGU printables and how-to’s on the confirmation page as an extra thank-you for joining our learning community!


Our new kit is packed with practical how-to tips, links to rich virtual field trips, and ways for students to harness Google Earth’s potential for discovery and sharing.

Google Earth Starter Kit Cover picLeave the Classroom Behind with Google Earth
  • Landforms Virtual Field Trip (using subfolders of placemarks)
  • Amazon Rainforest Virtual Field Trip (using the tour-guided feature)
  • Ancient Civilizations (using outlines)
Make Your Virtual Field Trip Today
  • 9 tips for making your own trip
  • Descriptions of the different tools to try in Google Earth
  • How to use simple codes for clean, neat description boxes
  • How to save & share your trip
Suggestions for Student Creations
  • 10 fun ideas for student creations in Google Earth
  • Links to additional resources

Featured Image Credit: PhotoExplorer via Flickr

Student-Led Conferences: Practical Guide & Resources

Have you ever felt parent teacher conferences become a blur of shallow compliments and trite suggestions?  Have you ever worried about the quality of students’ involvement?  Do you want parents to gain more meaningful insight on how their children spend 7 hours a day, 5 days a week?  Then consider shifting to student led conferences!


After a couple years of traditional parent teacher conferences, I began to doubt their value.  Attendance was patchy, and the bulk of meetings that did take place often felt inconsequential.  Given the vast expenditure of time and energy in preparations, conferences generally seemed to yield trivial returns–goals quickly forgotten, behavior largely unchanged, and work samples simply discarded.  All that changed when my school introduced student-led conferences.

Step-by-Step Guide

Note that this is geared toward upper-elementary.  However, it can easily be adapted for younger and older students–our entire school adopted student-led conferences. 

Stage #1: Introduce Student-Led Conferences to Students (Estimated time: 30 min)
  • Kathy Cassidy
    Kathy Cassidy

    Give a labeled folder to each student to keep conference materials organized.

  • Hand out the “During Conference Checklist” students will use.  With this, students should:
    • Write down 2 items or areas of the classroom they want to share during the first part of conferences.
    • Write down their current feelings about reading, writing, math, and behavior.
    • Choose a writing and math sample. (I had my students keep their portfolios on blogs, so I gave them the option to present digital samples as well).
  • Give students their report cards, progress reports, and/or other records that are to be shared during conferences.  Let them know they need to be familiar with everything on it, so to ask for clarification as needed.
Stage #2: Make Goals (Estimated time: 45 min.)
  • Brainstorm as a class possible areas for improvement in math, reading, writing, and behavior.
  • Teach class about writing goals according to your school or grade level standards.  Our team used SMART goals (s=specific, m=measurable, a=attainable, r=relevant, t=time-bound).  I also like Kath Murdoch’s idea of 1-word goal-making.
  • Have them write 1 goal for each subject area on the brainstorming sheet and turn them in.
  • Give back to students to write their final goals after you have reviewed them.
Stage #3: Meet with each student (est. time: 5 min. per student)
  • Make sure their conference folder has all required items in order (I gave each student this list to organize their work.  I also post it on the whiteboard, and have students sign up to meet with me once their folders are completely ready).
  • Double-check the finalized goals.
  • If your grading system has a “social skills” or behavior field, consider having the student self-grade with you.  Have a discussion on what each grade means (ie, 4 means “I rarely need reminders or help in this area,” 3 means “I sometimes need reminders and I could work on this area,” etc.).  Not only have I found that students are often harder on themselves than I am, but the increased ownership better prepares them for sometimes tough conversations with their parents.
  • Go over the “During Conference” checklist together.  Discuss any questions on how to present each area.
Stage #4: Final Preparations
  • Send letters home to parents from teacher and/or from students to prepare them for student-led conferences. If you want to provide questions in advance to help prepare parents, students, and yourself, check out our printable Student-Led Conferences Guided Questions list!
  • Have students practice going over their checklist with a classmate (tell them they can leave out sensitive items like their report cards).  Use a stopwatch to give them a realistic idea of the timeframe.
Stage #5: After Conference Tips

Student and Parent Response

After each conference, I surveyed parents and students.  Below is some of the feedback I frequently received.

Meme Binge

Students loved:

  • Removing the frightening anticipation of grown-ups discussing unknown issues during conferences (avoiding situations such as the one on the right).
  • The opportunity to “show off” some of the things they were most proud of.
  • How professional they felt as they took the lead.

Parents loved:

  • How knowledgeable students were about their own progress and responsibilities.
  • Students taking the lead with the teacher helping where needed.
  • How students explained their report cards themselves.
  • The pride and ownership students took in showing their work.

Pitfalls to Avoid

  • Time allocations: Make sure there’s plenty of time for parents to ask questions and have further, informative discussions as needed!
  • Inadequate student practice: Let students practice at least 2 times in class.  This will help them with both confidence and purposeful time management.
  • Inadequate student organization: Use the conference folder items list to go through every item as an entire class one more time right before conferences start.
  • Hesitation to Jump In: One parent voiced concern that problems were sugar-coated, and that she could not speak freely because of the student’s presence.  Let your students know beforehand that in order for conferences to be effective, everyone needs to be 100% on the same page, and that you will redirect the conversation if necessary.
  • Unengaging Parent Homework: At first, we assigned parents to write a letter to their children reflecting on their feelings about the conference.  However, very few parents completed the assignment.  We switched to emailing a Google Form survey for them to share feedback on conferences.  Some of the questions we asked included:
    • What made you feel proud?
    • Do you feel your student’s goals match the areas in which he/she can improve?  If not, what are additional areas in which you feel he/she can improve?
    • How can you help your student remember and succeed at his/her goals at home?

List of Resources Linked Throughout:

Photo Credit: 

Featured Image: Claire Burge

Kathy Cassidy

Meme Binge

5 Ways to Make Veteran’s Day Meaningful

Veteran’s Day is observed on November 11 each year, the anniversary of the day World War I ended.  Help your students to truly appreciate our veterans’ sacrifices by selecting one or more of the ideas listed here.

#1: Gallery Wall of Veteran Photos

Author's Great-Uncle Milton Brown
Author’s Great-Uncle Milton Brown

On Veteran’s Day, ask your students to bring a photo of a veteran they know.  It could be a parent, aunt, cousin, great-grandfather, or even a neighbor.  Have students bring the following:

  • An 8×10 copy of their veteran’s photo
  • An index card with information that includes:
    • Veteran’s name
    • Student’s name & relationship to veteran
    • Term of service
    • Branch of service and rank
    • Country for which the veteran served
    • Any notable information about the service

Keep the photos posted in your halls for a few weeks–not only does this beautifully honor those who have served, but it also is perfect to renew the feelings of gratitude that we seek to magnify throughout the Thanksgiving season.

#2: Poppies & Poetry

Poppies are a classic, but not all your students may be aware of their significance. Choose a way to share “In Flanders Fields” with your students, whether you simply read the text and background, watch a video, or show a picture book.  (Alternatively, share Cheryl Dyson’s poem for a piece suited for very young audiences).  Then, ask students to find meaningful ways they can express their understanding and appreciation for this poem:

#3: Letters to Soldiers

Have students write letters expressing gratitude to a soldier.  Mail these to soldiers at your closest military base or visit websites like Operation Gratitude.  Students could also share their pieces created in the above Poppies & Poetry activity.

#4: Introduce the Veteran’s History Project

The Battle of Đắk Tô was a series of major engagements of the Vietnam War that took place between November 3 to 22, 1967, in Kon Tum Province, in the Central Highlands of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). At 09:43 on 19 November, the three companies (330 men) of 2/503 moved into jumpoff positions from which to assault Hill 875. Charlie and Delta companies moved up the slope followed by two platoons of Alpha Company in the classic "two up one back" formation utilized since World War I. The Weapons Platoon of Alpha remained behind at the bottom of the hill to cut out a landing zone. Instead of a frontal assault with massed troops, the unit would have been better served by advancing small teams to develop possible North Vietnamese positions and then calling in air and artillery support.  At 10:30, as the Americans moved to within 300 meters of the crest, PAVN machine gunners opened fire on the advancing paratroopers. Then B-40 rockets and 57mm recoilless rifle fire were unleashed upon them. The paratroopers attempted to continue the advance, but the North Vietnamese, well concealed in interconnected bunkers and trenches, opened fire with small arms and grenades. The American advance was halted and the men went to ground, finding whatever cover they could. At 14:30 PAVN troops hidden at the bottom of the hill launched a massed assault on Alpha Company. Unknown to the Americans, they had walked into a carefully prepared ambush by the 2nd Battalion of the 174th PAVN Regiment. The men of Alpha Company retreated up the slope, lest they be cut off from their comrades and annihilated. They were closely followed by the North Vietnamese. All that prevented the company-strength North Vietnamese onslaught from overrunning the entire battalion was the heroic efforts of American paratroopers who stood their ground and died to buy time for their comrades. Soon, U.S. air strikes and artillery fire were being called in, but they had little effect on the battle because of th
Robert Couse-Baker

This project was started by Congress in 2000, and is sponsored by AARP.  The goal is to “collect, preserve, and make accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war.”  As a class, you could:

  • Discuss the interview questions listed in the Field Kit, and practice interview skills in class.
  • Complete the VHP preparations as a class:
    • 15-minute Field Kit Companion Video
    • Search the collections database
    • Print forms
    • Register for the VHP RSS feed (and add to your class blog if you have one!)
  • Locate a veteran to interview (either a student’s family member or someone found in a local veterans service organization), then hold the interview in class if he or she can make it, or by phone.
  • While volunteer student interviewers must be 10th graders or older, younger students can participate in interviewing family members.  Additionally, donations are welcome, so your class could alternatively hold a fundraiser for the project!

#5: Favorite Videos


Photo Credit:

What Teaching Study Skills REALLY Involves

The long term effects of learning to study can stretch much further than than the average high school sophomore may think.

Bart’s Story

When Bart started school with a half-tuition scholarship that would renew yearly pending his GPA performance, his college career future looked bright.  Once classes began, however, he says he “blew off” his classes and lost the scholarship after two semesters.  This required him to get a part time job on campus, and eventually a full time job–ultimately extending the time until graduation as he had to cut back on classes in order to function.  He hadn’t realized the thousands of dollars he could lose–beyond just the scholarship itself–until it was too late.

Declining Studying Stats

Bart’s story is becoming an increasingly familiar one for college students.  Research shows a significant decline in time students are devoting to their studies.  Until the 1960’s, undergraduates spent about 40 hours per week academically.  Today, that number is down to 27 hours each week–which includes both class time and studying.  The time spent on studying alone is comparable; in 1961, it was 25 hours per week–by 2003, it had whittled down to 13 hours.

The Math and Money of Study Time

Bart urges other students to carefully examine the monetary value of their time spent studying.  Below are some figures to consider:

  • $19 per hour: studying 13 hours per week over a 16-week, $4,000 tuition semester
  • $10 per hour: studying 25 hours per week over a 16-week, $4,000 tuition semester
  • $67 per hour: studying 13 hours per week over a 16-week, $14,000 tuition semester
  • $35 per hour: studying 25 hours per week over a 16-week, $14,000 tuition semester

Whatever the tuition rate, the value of time spent studying to keep up grades and scholarships is worth more than the $7.25 minimum wage jobs students would otherwise need to work.

Genuine Preparation for the Future

University of the Fraser Valley students and teachers. Rick Collins Photography - UFV 1-604-799-0219
University of the Fraser Valley students and teachers.

Informing our students of the numbers listed above is just one small step in preparing them for the realities of college and beyond.  We believe that it is paramount that students cultivate intrinsic motivation if we hope they will dedicate every effort required to succeed in their desired field as adults.  What do the child who has always been denied sugar and the student who always been denied opportunities for self-directed learning have in common?  Both are likely to spend their time and resources unwisely the moment they gain autonomy.

That said, we also find value in encouraging “college and career readiness” strategies to help students view the long term effects of developing study skills.  An example might be teaching a third grader to develop stamina in reading a book without distraction.

As we empower students to develop such motivation and skills, our expectations of them should remain high–not out of pressure-inducing fear that they could otherwise fail in the “real world,” but out of belief in their ability succeed.  This is key in fostering the kind of love of learning now that will truly prepare them prepare them for the future.

What are some ways you prepare students for the future while still encouraging them to live and learn with passion now?  Share in comments below!


Campo, Carlos. Jan. 29, 2013. “A Challenge to College Students for 2013: Don’t Waste Your 6,570.” Huffington Post.

Photo Credit:

Featured Image: Francois de Halleux

University of the Fraser Valley



3 Practical Formative Assessments

When you barely have time to suck down occasional gulps of air amid swells of paperwork, it’s understandable to lose some perspective.  Unfortunately, this is a condition many teachers face when it comes to approaching formative versus summative assessments.


Opportunity for impact?

But how important is it, really, to keep track of such minute details on student progress?  Well, Google defines formative as, “serving to form something, especially having a profound and lasting influence on a person’s development.”  Black and Wiliam found “that innovations which include strengthening the practice of formative assessment produce significant, and often substantial, learning gains.”  And we have discovered teacher-student relationships become elevated as students recognize just how invested teachers are in their daily progress–not just in what they produce at the end of units.

The nature of the beast

Formative assessments do not cast the intimidating shadow of their summative counterparts.  They are so authentically woven into the day, it can feel almost spontaneous as you uncover quiet learning moments, pinpointing students’ true understanding. Meanwhile, summatives are not only highly concrete and measurable, but they’re also accompanied by pressure for results–pressure that may come from administrators, parents, politicians, and even sometimes teachers themselves.

Educator’s catch 22

And so, we run into the classic teacher dilemma: on the one hand, we know part of the value of formative assessments lies their authentic, unassuming quality; on the other, it is precisely that quality that makes it easy for them to slip under the radar.   The key is to make a plan for a record-keeping strategy that works for you.  This sounds easy enough, but it does take a little trial and error as you find one or more methods that feel comfortable and easily accessible in the flow of your classroom.  Below are a few personal favorites, all of which have functioned well in various contexts.

3 Strategies

1. Confer App
Image retrieved from Conferapp.com
Image retrieved from Conferapp.com

This is the Mary Poppins carpet bag of education apps.  No matter how full I’d pack in anecdotal notes for each student, it stayed organized and easy to navigate.  It was also easy to share with parents during parent-teacher conferences.  Some details I appreciated include:

  • The option to sort notes in practical ways, including by student names, groups, and feedback.
  • A design in that’s conducive to appropriate feedback with fields like “strength,” “teaching point,” and “next step”–great to remind teachers to look for what’s going well along with what needs work.
  • The ability to apply one note to multiple students simultaneously–and the fact that it saves a previously-used note so you don’t have to type out the same phrase again.
  • The color coded flags to remind you who currently needs some extra support.

Note: At first, some students were unsure about my typing on my phone during our discussions–they worried I was texting, or otherwise distracted.  Be sure to introduce this method of note-taking to your whole class, telling them exactly how you are using your phone during your conferences.

2. Notecard Waterfalls

This one is a bit old-school, but I found it especially handy for reading groups.  I would write each student’s name on one notecard, sort them into their groups, and then tape them into a waterfall on half a piece of laminated cardstock per group.  (see photos below) I found this to be the perfect place to keep tallies for simplified running records and reading notes.  After a student would read aloud, I would say something like this:

“Ok, I’m writing that you are rocking your punctuation expression.  You paused appropriately at every comma and period!  I’m also writing that we’re working on paying attention to the endings of words, since you left off -ing and -s a couple times as you read.  Do you want me to add anything else for us to remember next time we work on reading together?”

This kind of feedback was quick and simple, but extremely effective as it kept us both on the same page.  Another bonus: when a card would fill up, I could easily throw it in the student’s file and pop in another one.

Waterfall booklet

3. Status of the Class
Image retrieved from Teacher Supply Store
Image retrieved from Teacher Supply Store

Status of the Class is the perfect tool to keep track of student-driven projects or independent work time.  Simply call out each student’s name, and then jot down their selected task on a class list.  This works well for long-term processes involving steps, stages, or centers with which the students are already familiar, such as the Writer’s Workshop, the scientific method, or math or literacy stations.  Some advantages include:

  • Stay informed of where you can coach students in their individual processes.
  • Teach students metacognition as you require them to give a brief statement explaining both the what and the why of their choice. (I would periodically model how that would sound right before taking Status of the Class to remind them how to explain their choice.  For example:  “I’m working on illustrating because I want to better visualize how to describe my characters,” or “I’m going to read to myself because I just got to a cliff-hanger in my book.”
  • Keep track of students who seem to be stuck in one place.
  • Maintain accountability for students who may get off-task during independent learning time.
  • If appropriate, give on-the-spot feedback as you help students learn to spend independent time wisely (ie, “I see you’ve chosen that 3 times in a row here.  How else could you spend your time to help you grow?”)

Tips: Use wet-erase marker to write on a laminated class list chart, such as the one pictured, and keep it posted in the room so students can also keep track of how they’ve been spending their time.  Make a key for your abbreviations on the bottom.

What are some of your favorite methods for practical formative assessments?

Featured Image: Elli Pálma via Flickr Creative Commons