Assessment Need Not Be “Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad!”

By Karin Hallett

When I was in elementary school, assessment was all about paper and pencil quizzes and tests. I love the alternative forms of assessment technology affords us today. (Also see my earlier post on Chatterpix: Creative Assessment in the Lower Grades.) While technology integration definitely requires a greater investment of time, especially with the younger students, the possibilities are great. Best of all may be that students do not even realize they are being assessed.

With my 1st grade students, I recently worked on text-to-self connections. This class of mostly boys loved listening to a read aloud of Judith Viorst’s  Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day — exuberantly reading along the title line. After reading the story, I modeled several text-to-self connections repeating the same language.


The students easily related to all the “terrible, horrible” things happening to Alexander in the story and practiced making text-to-self connections. I then recorded them using the Tellagami app for iPad, creating a so-called Gami — an animated video, limited to 30 seconds in the app’s free version. I imported an image of the book cover to use as the background, chose a male or female character depending on student’s gender, and then recorded each student.

In the future, provided there is enough time as I am always struggling with my short 40-minute lesson allotment, I would love to have the students use the app themselves from uploading the image, to choosing a character’s clothing, hair color, and facial expression.

Infographics: Reporting Research Visually

by Karin Hallett
Media Specialist
Martin J. Gottlieb Day School

In language arts class, my 5th grade students read A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Story by Linda Sue Park (2010). The book tells the story of Salva, one of the thousands of Sudanese “Lost Boys” who was eventually airlifted to the United States in the 1990s. But it also tells the fictional story of Nya, a girl who walks twice a day to a pond to retrieve water. This pond is located four hours away. After reading the story, the students had lots of questions about Sudan and the Lost Boys, providing me with the opportunity for a perfect research project with this group of 10 kids.

Gathering General Information

Our first step was to complete a KW chart by brainstorming what we already know about Sudan and things we want to know. Then, armed with an organizer, students researched some general background information about Sudan. In library class, we had already spent time learning about credible sources, focusing on website evaluation. For this project, I re-introduced the students to the WorldBook Online and Kids InfoBits (Gale) databases as well as the Sweetsearch search engine.



Narrowing a Topic

Armed with some solid background information about the history and geography of Sudan in particular, and more questions based on this information as well as the story, each student decided on a research topic, including The Water Shortage in Sudan, The Two Civil Wars in Sudan, and The Lost Boys of Sudan, and completed a simple organizer focusing on their chosen topic.


Creating an Infographic

Rather than producing a written research report, I challenged each student to create an infographic. We looked at several infographic exemplars, noting their purpose–to present information visually while raising awareness about an issue or generate interest in a topic.

We also noted the different elements of a good infographic:

  • Layout that flows
  • Color schemes relevant to the topic
  • Focus on graphics rather than text
  • Graphics that represent the information
  • Presentation of facts and data
  • References/sources

Students used web-based Piktochart to create their infographics with most of them choosing one of the provided templates as a starting point. Having created My Life as a Reader infographics, students were already familiar with this tool.

Despite our review of purpose and design of infographics, several of my students still included lengthy paragraphs, finding it a challenge to cut the text down to its essentials and to identify a representative graphic. Clearly, creating infographics to present learning is not simply a regurgitation of information but involves the application of critical thinking skills.

While the software makes accessible a decent graphics library, most of my students imported Creative Commons-licensed maps, images, or clipart to include in their infographics. Students properly cited in MLA style their sources. Also, as part of our continuous discussion of creative ownership rights in both digital and print environments, students decided on and included a Creative Commons license on their final product.

infographics infogrpahics

The Civil Wars in Sudan by Jack H.

The Lost Boys of Sudan by Julia D.

The Water Shortage in South Sudan by Allie B.

The Recent History of Sudan by Abigail F.




Great session on STEAM.

STEAM works when standards from all subjects are being taught and learned.

One school created a Purim STEAM carnival. It included students creating games from cardboard boxes, creating costumes with secret pockets to hold candy, and creative ways to transport hamentashen.

Empowering Students With Meaningful Classroom Jobs

Alan November’s “Digital Learning Farm” was the inspiration for my classroom jobs. The idea couldn’t be more simple: people are empowered through meaningful work. Children used to be, in the times of farming, useful and necessary contributors to their families’ farms and other livelihoods. Once children’s work became going to school full-time, that feeling of usefulness and importance faded. Most teachers understand the importance of giving kids jobs to do, and many traditional classrooms do designate roles such as “line leader” and “pencil sharpener”to fulfill these needs. Digital tools offer the possibility of exciting upgrades to these jobs, allowing students to learn through doing while making authentic contributions to their communities.

I am experimenting with how to best structure this so that it becomes a deep learning experience for students. I introduced the jobs to 5th grade a few weeks ago, then introduced and started with 4th grade. I decided that students would need to apply for the job and, once “hired” would have a tenure of about one month.

Available Positions:
Global Connectors:
Tweet, look for and organize possible learning connections, manage maps
Researchers: Research information in response to questions that arise
Official Scribes: Take notes, write weekly summary post on classroom blog
Documentarians: Photo and video documentation of the week’s activities
Kindness Ambassadors: Make sure that all community members are included at lunch and recess, remind community members of habit of the month, model and recognize kindness, give appreciations and remind others to do so
Librarians: Keep classroom and virtual library shelves in order. Add books to class GoodReads shelves, keep GoodRead-Alouds wall updated, set appointments with Mrs. Hallett
Graphic Artist/Designers: Design things for the classroom and class blog- graphics, bulletin boards, displays, etc.

Job Requirements:
Previous experience is helpful but not required. You will be able to learn on the job. Most important qualities: proactive, self-motivated, desire to learn.
All classroom work must be up to date in order to be considered for a job.

Emails from Naomi Shemer

Each afternoon between 1 and 1:30 PM, I receive an email from “Naomi Shemer”.   Not the Naomi Shemer.  From the iPad in our school named “Naomi Shemer”.




One of our founding 21st century learning teachers, Silvia Tolisano, decided when we first got our iPads that we ought to name each one after a famous Jewish person and sneak a little extra learning in.  So we have iPads named “David Ben-Gurion” and “Ilan Ramon” and “Sarah Aaronsohn” and (of course) “Solomon Schechter” and so on.  Awesome idea.

And because of the way our gmail is constructed it also allows you to receive unexpected emails from from names you thought you would never see in your inbox!



Hey!  I just received an email from Naomi Shemer!  How awesome is that!

So…why is “Naomi Shemer” sending me a daily email?

Because my oldest daughter is in Grade 3 this year and according to their class blog:



And that is what happens.  Each day Eliana takes a picture with an iPad of where her clothespin ended up for the day and emails it to both me and her mother.  Besides the ease of communication the technology allows for, what I really appreciate about it is that it shifts ownership from the teacher to the student.  We typically talk about students “owning their learning” – this is an example of our students owning their behavior.

Grade Three is a pivotal year in our school when it comes to a student’s digital presence. We have blogfolios for each student in our school, Kindergarten through Grade Eight. [NOTE: We are in the second week of school here in Jacksonville and all of our blogfolios have not yet been carried on to the next grade.  They are going live as we update them.] But the teachers have primary responsibility for them in Grades K-2 – although reflection is there from the beginning, they function more like digital portfolios than true blogfolios.  Grade Three is when our students begin to assume ownership of their blogs and begin to learn how to be digital citizens.  They are beginning by learning how to comment on their own class blog.



I have written often about why we put such an emphasis on blogging in our school.  And I, myself, have been blocking off for the last couple of years about an hour a week to comment on student blogfolios.  But now I have the opportunity to view the experience wearing my parent hat.  And I can see the idea that “with 21st century learning education need not be bound by time and space” playing out before my eyes in my own kitchen. Eliana was not required to comment on her class blog and her teacher was not required to comment back.  But she was interested as we were cleaning up after family dinner and he was responsive during prep and now their student-teacher relationship has a different nuance than it otherwise would have had.

And both the father and the principal in me couldn’t be happier.

Stepping Up the Backchannel In the Classroom

Students need our guidance to use virtual platforms for ACADEMIC purposes. We can’t rely on their “so called” native status to know how and what to do. Just a few years ago, no one had heard of “backchanneling”, nowadays, it has become main stream (although most people might not associate the term “backchannel” and “backchanneling” with something they might be familiar with.

  • when you watch one of your favorite TV shows and are asked to use a twitter hashtag to interact with other viewers or the actors/participants…. you are participating in a backchannel
  • when you are listening to a live political speech and are updating your Facebook status,  “liking” of commenting on someone else’s status… you are in a backchannel
  • when you are passing a note (in the same room) or texting a colleague or classmate during a meeting or lecture… YOU are in a backchannel



Backchannel is the practice of using networked computers to maintain a real-time online conversation alongside the primary group activity or live spoken remarks. The term was coined in the field of Linguistics to describe listeners’ behaviours during verbal communication,

Think Eric Think

It’s a kind of parallel discussion, a collectively shaped comment on some ongoing conversation. An alternative channel, often with a different conversational modus.

Lee Lefever

It’s a little like passing notes in class- except via the Internet. Wireless Internet connections at conferences and lectures are allowing people to use laptops and other tools to communicate in real time during presentations. These communications occur in what is called the “backchannel”

The more ubiquitous mobile devices, among the general population and in our schools are becoming, the more we need to be exposing, preparing, supporting and teaching our students to be able to use them:

  • for academic purposes
  • collaboratively
  • with integrity and as a good digital citizen
  • focused (but at the same time multitasking)

“Backchanneling” academically is one of the skills that no one is born with. I have been thinking about, testing out and reflecting on backchanneling in the classroom for a few years now.

At last year’s edJEWcon conference, quiet by surprise, our Middle School students, who were invited to listen in to Heidi Hayes Jacob‘s keynote, created their own backchannel to document and discuss what they were hearing and understanding.Everyone was surprised and impressed, as Mike Fisher wrote in his ASCD post titled “Strategic and Capable“.

At this year’s conference, we asked attending students to participate in a backchannel again. Part of the process of backchanneling with students includes the debriefing and reflection by going over the saved backchannel log. We used the Notability app on the iPad to color code some of our observations and bring attention to skills practiced, chat-iquette, grammar, understanding, connections made, value added, quality content and depth.


What I learned:

  • just because students backchanneled one year, did not mean they could transfer the skills nor step up the quality of contributions. (… we need to practice backchanneling more… not a one time event…give them a guide to support their growth in using a backchannel tool)
  • some students didn’t understand WHY we asked them to backchannel. They could not articulate the purpose for the activity, nor pinpoint skills that were related to backchanneling. (… we need to do a better job at explaining to  our students the WHY of an activity, the skills we want to them to develop and the real world application)
  • students shared with us, that they were not able to focus, in their opinion, they would have taken “better notes” by themselves without the distractions of the other students. (…we need to make it clearer for our students, that the value of a backchannel is the collaboration, the added perspective, the sum of different voices versus their thoughts and understanding in isolation)
  • some students admitted that they were not happy with their keyboarding abilities. They could not type fast enough. Someone else posted “the exact same thing” they wanted to say. (…we need to encourage them to practice their typing/thumbing skills in their own free time)

David Kelly, on his blog,  underlines that

the value of the backchannel is in the sharing, not in the technology.  In much the same way that a person can not really appreciate the joy of riding a bicycle until they can do so without consciously focusing on balance and pedaling, getting the full value of a backchannel requires an understanding of what the backchannel is and how you use tools to participate in it.

I went back to the drawing board to create a framework, a guide to help teachers AND students understand the value, purpose, skills and steps of growth.


The purpose of using a Backchannel with students is multifold. From collaborative note taking, to curating information, capturing quotes, gathering and Linking resources, sharing notes and adding one’s own perspective to others.



  • Active
  • Substantive
  • Timely


  • Respond to questions
  • Initiate questions
  • Make connections

Digital Citizenship:

  • Leadership
  • Respect
  • Network

Evidence of Learning:

  • Connections made
  • Development of skills
  • Quality of Content:
    • Relevance
    • Depth
    • Added Value


  • Language
    • Clarity
    • Spelling
    • Full sentences
    • In context
    • Grammar & Syntax
  • Multitasking
    • Listening
    • Thinking
    • Writing
  • Multimodal
    • Curating
    • Note-Taking
    • Conversation
  • Recall
    • Remembering
    • Restate
    • Summarize
  • Logistics
    • Typing
    • Backchannel Syntax/Format


What Kind of Backchanneler Are You?


  • I have a hard time multitasking and can only concentrate on listening to the conversation.


  • I recall and reproduce exact words that I hear


  • I only restate relevant information and bring in selected resources


  • I question content, respond to and initiate conversation. I add my own thoughts and perspective.



Download the Backchannel Guide as pdf file.

Further resources: