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5 of Our Favorite Digital Storytelling Apps for Teachers

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Aug 29, 2014 10:01:00 AM

Storytelling is an indispensable human activity, one that we use not only to convey our identity and experience, but also to convince others of our arguments. Because storytelling is so important, we believe it’s important that we encourage students to tell their stories—and in a way that challenges and inspires them. One way to get students excited about storytelling is by using a medium that they not only love, but are completely comfortable with: technology.

As with  traditional storytelling, students must write, but what makes digital storytelling engaging—and often less intimidating—for students is that it gives them the ability to add computer-based images, text, recorded audio narration, video clips and/or music. If you’re looking for a few applications to get your storytellers started, we’ve got 5 of them!

5 of Our Favorite Digital Storytelling Apps for Teachers

tellagamiTellagami is a free app that allows users to create short animated movies called "Gamis.” Here’s how it works: After you choose your character, you can alter his or her mood, swap out backgrounds, doodle, record your voice, or add text. When you’re satisfied with your work, all you have to do is save and publish it to your favorite social media site, blog or website.


zooburstZoo Burst (free) gives students the ability to create their own 3D pop-up books. Arrange your characters and props and customize your 3D world by using uploaded artwork or items found in the Zoo Burst database, which contains over 10,000 free images and materials.

We should also mention that readers who have a standard webcam installed on their computer can also experience any ZooBurst book in augmented reality. This feature gives readers the ability to interact with the book and turn pages simply by waving their hands!

superhero_comic_book_makerSuperhero Comic Book Maker ($1.99) is an award-winning app that helps students create personalized, animated comic books with monsters and superheroes. Choose from 27 unique background scenes and over 170 animated stickers with sound effects. Students can also illustrate their work and narrate it.

puppet_palsPuppet Pals 2 (free) builds on many of the features available in the first version of the application, giving users more flexibility and a wider variety of choices. Choose from a collection over 30 unique “puppets,” which include historical figures like Shakespeare and Abraham Lincoln, or design your own character from scratch. As with real puppets, users can flex their digital puppets’ joints and alter their poses. If you have access to a microphone, you can also make your puppet speak when you tap on it.

toontasticToontastic Jr. Shrek Movie Maker (free) is always a class favorite, especially with younger students. This app allows students to “remix” and the classic Shrek movie by picking a beginning, middle, and ending for the movie, and recording their voice. Whether you choose to storm the Dragon’s castle, rescue Princess Fiona, or battle Lord Farquaad, the decision is entirely up to you.


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Tags: digital storytelling, apps for educators, Writing, writing fluency, apps for teachers, K-6 writing strategies

How zombies can keep your students from using passive voice

Posted by Ryan O'Rourke on Apr 2, 2014 11:43:00 AM

Worried about your students using passive voice? Here's a simple, zombie-inspired strategy to help them avoid it. Enjoy!

writing strategy

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Tags: writing strategies, Writing, writing fluency, writing skills

Common Core Writing Prompts for Students

Posted by Ryan O'Rourke on Mar 27, 2014 6:00:00 AM

Like any craft or trade, writing is a skill that improves when our students practice it—and practice it often. Although I’ve known many teachers who believe “bell-ringers,” warm-ups or informal writing reflections are a poor use of time, I still stand by them. Because I do not “grade” reflections in the traditional sense (students receive credit simply for completing the assignment) I find that students are often more willing to take risks. In fact, many students regularly comment that these exercises increase their confidence and get them excited about putting pen to paper.  

Writing Prompts is a site I continue to use when I’m looking for informal writing prompts. Each prompt comes with an accompanying photo and a brief explanation of how the prompt fulfills Common Core Standards. Below are a few samples of the writing exercises you’ll find on the site.

common core writing prompts
common core writing prompts
common core writing prompts

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Tags: writing strategies, Writing, writing skills, student engagement

10 Engaging Activities for Students Who Finish Work Early

Posted by Ryan O'Rourke on Mar 21, 2014 6:36:00 AM

studentsAs a student, I was rarely the first to complete my tests or in-class exercises, but when I was, I held onto my work until it was collected. Why? Because I didn’t want to be “rewarded” with more work; I didn’t want to select a time-killing ditto from the teacher’s filing cabinet.

If I didn’t want to work on dittos while the rest of the students completed their work, I know that my students don’t either.

I consider all 10 of the activities below to be creative, engaging and meaningful. Here’s the rule I used when compiling this list: If I wouldn’t enjoy working on the activity myself, it didn’t make the cut.   

10 Engaging Activities for Students Who Finish Work Early

1Newspaper Blackout blackout art
All you need is a newspaper article (or any form of print media) and a Sharpie. Say something about yourself by blacking out all of the words you don’t intend to use in your sentence.

2Write a Six-Word Story
Flash fiction has been around for a while, but it was perhaps Ernest Hemingway that dazzled us with the flash-fiction concept in the 1920s when his friends bet him that he couldn’t write a complete story in six words. Whether or not it’s true, the story goes that his colleagues each dumped 10 bucks into a pot. If Hemingway’s story wooed them, he’d pocket the money. Once the money was pooled, he grabbed a napkin off the table and nonchalantly dashed off six words:

For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.

Then he slid the napkin across the table and collected what was due to him.

Using Hemingway as an inspiration, write a story in six words.

3Read Whatever You Want
Let’s keep this simple: Grab any book, comic book, magazine or newspaper you like from the classroom library. Start reading!

Start with an article related to a personal interest. In that article, find a link to another article that teaches you something you didn’t know. Read that new article and write a summary of what you found interesting or what you learned.


Read a review about a movie, book, music or game that you like. Summarize the author’s opinion and write your response. Quote parts of the original review in your response.

6*Another Middle School
Look up a website of a middle school that you don’t already know about. Browse the pages of their website until you have learned some things about the school. Summarize what you find. Here are some questions you might answer:  What appears to be the best thing about that school? What suggestions do you have for their website that would help you learn more or make it easier to use? What do you dislike about the school based on what you see on the site?

7*World News

Use Google news to find a current world news event that interests you. Summarize the article and write your thoughts about it. Be sure to quote parts of the news article you read.

8*Found Poem - Read this article about how to write a found poem:  

After reading it, find any webpage that you want and create a found poem from it. Write your poem and list the URL for the webpage that you used. Write a sentence or two explaining why you picked the words and phrases that you did for your poem. 

9*Suggestion for Class
- Find a website, game or online program that you wish a teacher would use in class. Write the URL of the resource and explain why you think a teacher should use it and how they could use it.

10*Make a Timeline - Use this online tool to make a timeline with at least 6 events from start to end.  It can be about your life (from birth or maybe just a single season of life) or it can be about some famous person or event(s)

Get a screen capture and paste it into Word.  If it’s too long to fit on the screen, copy it in parts.

*These activities all come from blogger and technology-coordinator, Mike Petty. For more ideas, be sure to stop by his blog, Classroom Games and Technology.


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Tags: writing strategies, Writing, writing skills, student engagement, current events for students

Can Dim Lighting Make Our Students More Creative?

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Feb 21, 2014 10:43:00 AM

student writingI work in the dark. I mean, it’s not pitch black in my office, but I only flip the switch to those eye-melting fluorescents when I absolutely have to.

It’s unusual, I know—but the fact of the matter is that I work better in dim light. I can’t think or write otherwise and according to a recent study, my quirk may actually have a drop of science to it.

According to the findings of a 2013 study by German researchers Anna Steidle and Lioba Werth, darkness may actually reduce feelings of constraint and spark creativity. Here’s what they reported in The Journal of Environmental Psychology.  

One key experiment featured 114 German undergraduates who were seated in groups of two or three in a small room designed to simulate an office. The room was lit by a single fixture hanging directly over the group’s desk. The amount of illumination varied with each group: some received only 150 lux (dim light), others 500 lux (the recommended lighting level for an office), and still others 1,500 lux (bright light).

After a 15-minute acclimation period, each group was asked to work on “four creative insight problems” that required creativity to find a solution. After two minutes, groups were asked to report their level of self-assurance, how free from constraint they felt and the degree to which they felt externally controlled. Here’s what the researchers found:

Those in the dimly lit room solved significantly more problems correctly than those in the brightly lit room. They also felt freer and less inhibited than their intensely illuminated counterparts.

Interesting business. I wonder what would happen if we dimmed our classroom lights during testing, problem-solving exercises and group work. Could it make our students more creative?

To read more about Steidle and Werth’s study, you can find a summary here.

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Tags: mindfulness in the classroom, writing strategies, Writing, writing skills, multisensory learning, mindfulness exercises

Hemingway App Teaches Students the Art of Economical Writing

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Feb 20, 2014 9:33:00 AM

Hemingway AppErnest Hemingway liked his martinis dry, his cats six-toed, and his sentences economical. The new Hemingway app doesn’t come with vermouth or felines, but it does promise to make your writing as “punchy and compelling” as Papa’s.

Here’s how it works: You paste your copy into the app and an algorithm color-codes it. If you’ve pontificated, a chief Hemingway sin, the app will tell you so. 

Text highlighted in red denotes a passage that is too long and complex.

Yellow means you need a grammar lesson.

Green shows you where you’ve used passive voice. For example, “He was moved by her” should be rewritten to say, “She moved him.”

Blue text means that you’ve used adverbs. Get rid of those too!

I think students might get a kick out of this. Just to show you how it works, I plugged in a paragraph from one of my blogs. 

hemingway app

According to Hemingway, I am not quite a hack, but close. One of my sentences was overwrought; another was super overwrought. My other vice: I write at a grade 13 level. “Scrap it!” says Ernest.

If you’re teaching Hemingway, or looking for another activity to pair with your lessons about Papa, check out one of our other blogs, “Teaching Flash Fiction: A Novel in Six Words.”

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Tags: writing strategies, Writing, writing fluency, writing skills

Outlawing these 11 phrases will improve student essays

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Jan 25, 2014 6:00:00 AM

If you’ve ever spent any time with a stack of student essays, you’ve seen more than one beginning with sentences like, “Since the beginning of time,” or “In society today…”

Where students pick up these phrases I’ll never know, but one thing I do know is that they should be avoided. Below you’ll find an infographic of 11 other essay phrases your students should avoid.

student essays

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Tags: writing strategies, Writing, writing fluency, writing skills

What Do Your Students Want to Be Remembered For?

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Jan 7, 2014 2:25:00 PM

rosa parksOver the weekend, I came across an article on Time Magazine’s website and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

The article hones in on a question Peter Drucker—an author, professor and management consultant—has been asking university students, clients and himself for years: “What do you want to be remembered for?”

A question like this is certainly appropriate considering that we are only a week into the New Year. Ultimately, though, it strikes me that this is a timeless question we should all be asking ourselves. Why though?

A question like Drucker’s forces us to reflect on our daily choices and, as Phalana Tiller, the host of the Drucker Institute’s monthly podcast puts it, “places a mirror before [us] where, for a brief second, [we] have to confront whether [we’re] actually living up to [our]stated values.”

I recently shared a list of activities to help students reflect back on 2013 and I thought having students write up a reflective essay that answers Drucker’s question might make a fine addition to this list.

Should you decide to give this assignment a try, you may want to have students read the original article and, in particular, take a close look at how some of Tiller’s interviewees responded when they were asked what they wanted to be remembered for.

If you need a little help getting the discussion going with students, you might also share a few of the quotes below:

  • “I would like to be remembered as a man who had a wonderful time living life, a man who had good friends, fine family—and I don't think I could ask for anything more than that, actually.”
    -Frank Sinatra

  • “I would like to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free... so other people would be also free.”
    -Rosa Parks

  • “I do not suppose I shall be remembered for anything. But I don't think about my work in those terms. It is just as vulgar to work for the sake of posterity as to work for the sake of money.”
    -Orson Welles

  • “I would like to be remembered as someone who did the best she could with the talent she had.”
    -J. K. Rowling

  • “No legacy is so rich as honesty.”
    -William Shakespeare

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Tags: writing strategies, Writing, writing fluency, writing skills

5 Activities to Help Students Reflect on 2013

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Dec 19, 2013 11:04:00 AM

Reflect on 20132014 is less than two weeks away, but before it arrives, we’d like to share five activities that ask students to take a retrospective look at everything that has happened in 2013. We selected the following activities from a larger list put together by The New York Times, so be sure to stop by their site for 10 more lesson plan ideas.

Rap about the news
The New York Times and Flocabulary have partnered up to create a contest for students. Using this lesson plan and rubric (PDF), they are asking students to write song lyrics that incorporate newsworthy events of 2013. Winning lyricists will be featured on The Learning Network and All student entries are due by Jan. 7, 2014. Students can post their lyrics in the contest comment section by clicking here.

Go back to the future
Imagine that it’s 2038. You’re a screenwriter and a major Hollywood studio has asked you to write a screenplay that takes place in 2013. The genre of your screenplay isn’t important. What matters is that the audience knows that your film is set twenty-five years in the past.

Ask students to write the first page of the screenplay and consider the following: How will the opening scene make it clear to the audience that the setting is 2013? What music, fashions or other visual and aural clues make this clear?

Write a eulogy
The year saw the deaths of many important cultural icons. Visit The Times’s “Notable Deaths of 2013″ page, and choose someone to research and eulogize. Your class can read the eulogies aloud as a tribute to the end of an era.

Say it with images
A quick Google search for “Year in Pictures” will bring up hundreds of images from around the Web. Browse these collections and select five or ten photos that you believe embody the most important events of the year. Now write an explanation for why you selected each photo.

Most of us spend a great deal of time setting goals for our students and telling them what we expect of them—but when was the last time students reflected on their own goals?

Have your students write or type an informal letter to you. Emphasize that the content will not be evaluated for spelling or punctuation. In it they should answer the following questions as honestly and constructively as possible:

  • How is this class/this school year going so far for you?  Why?
  • What activities or classroom procedures worked best in 2013 to help you learn?
  • What activities or classroom procedures didn’t work so well in 2013? What could we do to make 2014 better?
  • How can I be more helpful to you in the New Year?

Now it’s your turn to respond.

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Tags: writing strategies, Writing, writing fluency, writing skills

Beyond The “Scary White Screen”: A Writing Strategy For Students

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Dec 3, 2013 5:44:00 PM

writing strategyBefore I started teaching, I spent five years as a writing tutor in the Marygrove College writing center. While each student had a unique set of needs, most struggled to commit their initial ideas to paper.

Like most of us, students want to get it right on the first shot. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Writing is chaotic. It’s messy. Why? Because most of us (that includes professionals) don’t really know what and how we’re going to say what we want to say until we actually start writing. 

To help students move beyond the “scary white screen,” I came to rely on a writing strategy called clustering. If you’re not familiar with this invention strategy, the student starts by jotting down a nucleus word; this should be a word or phrase that is related to the assigned topic. The nucleus word should trigger a series of other word associations that students continue to jot down quickly and without censorship.

It’s a chaotic process, but even after five minutes of clustering, most of my students were astounded by how much they knew and how many questions they had about topics they, not even five minutes before, vehemently claimed were “boring.”  

writing strategy 2While I started teaching students to cluster by having them write on a scrap sheet of paper, I eventually turned to a free web application called

During our session, the student and I would read through the clustering handout (you’ll find this below). Then I would pull up on my laptop and turn it over to the student. is convenient for a few reasons: First, there’s no learning curve. Second, it allowed me to save a digital version of the cluster and email it to the student. When we picked up the following week, all I had to do was pull up the file and I would know exactly what we discussed in our previous session.

In my experience, this exercise is helpful with students of all ages and abilities. I even use it myself. To help you teach clustering to your students, I’ve included the handout I used with my own students below.

What is Clustering? And How Can It Help Me Develop My ideas?
Most serious and experienced writers incorporate some sort of writing strategy into their habits, so you should feel no shame in using them. In the following exercise, you’ll learn how to use clustering as a way of developing your ideas.

First, you must think of a word or phrase. You can do this with any random word or phrase, but it is far more effective to choose something that is related to the assigned topic. Say you are writing an essay about your experience with the American Dream….well, “American Dream” might be the best phrase to begin with. Here’s what to do next:

  • Get comfortable with the process of clustering by letting your playful, creative mind make connections. Maintain a childlike attitude by letting whatever associations come to you fall out onto paper. Avoid judging or choosing. Simply let go and write. Let the words or phrases radiate outward from the nucleus word; draw a circle around each of them if you like. Connect those associations that seem related with lines—even add arrows to indicate direction if you feel compelled. Just don’t get caught up in organization and tidiness; it’s not important now.

  • Write down anything that is triggered by the key word—and whatever you do, don’t inhibit or censor yourself. At this point, nothing is silly, stupid, inane or unrelated. If you plateau and can’t think of anything, write, “I don’t know what to say.”

  • Every writer is different, but you should know when to stop clustering when you feel a strong, sudden urge to write—this usually happens after a couple of minutes when you feel a shift that says, “Aha! I think I know what I want to say.”

  • You’re ready to write. Scan your clustered perceptions and insights. Something therein will suggest your first sentence to you, and you’re off. Should you feel stuck, however, write about anything from the cluster to get you started. The next thing and the next thing after will come because your right hemisphere has already perceived a pattern of meaning. Trust it.



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Tags: writing strategies, Writing, writing fluency, writing skills

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