3 Strategies for Engaging Online Lessons

Hey fellow online teachers! The struggle is real, I know. Lots of silent blank squares. This blog post goes along with this video to show you some of my favorite strategies for teaching online and getting students involved and excited!

  1. Flipgrid Charades

Here are the instructions I gave them. See the video for examples!

2. Book Recommendation Presentations

3. Monitor Break Out Rooms with Group Google Slides

Don’t forget to watch the video to see the explanation of all of the activities. Here’s wishing you extra focus, positivity and patience this week!

Using Canva + Google Classroom to Facilitate Amazing Student Work

Thank you to Canva for sponsoring this post!

When we were sent home for the remainder of the 2020 school year in March, most of the virtual lessons that I threw together from my at-home office (our corner kitchen nook) flopped. One week, in a last ditch effort to create a sense of community for our students, ASB hosted a virtual spirit week on social media. I was pleasantly surprised to see that so many of my students were AWESOME at Instagram stories. Like, they put me to shame!

So I decided to take advantage of their skills and create a research project for Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month where they would showcase their knowledge in an IG Story format. I gave them instructions for how to use Canva for their design so that 1) all of the projects would have the same dimensions, 2) students could create an IG story even if they didn’t actually have an Instagram account, and 3) I could share their research on my Instagram account and help to educate more people about the contributions of Asian Americans. Here are some of the amazing results:

Aren’t those incredible? They did such a great job, and this assignment had the highest submission rate of the spring. Students who seemed to have checked out during the spring completely, still did this assignment. I think the design element had a lot to do with it.

I’m going to use Canva for Education to infuse some spark back into our virtual lessons as we move into the second quarter of the year. I can add students to my Canva for Education account straight through Google Classroom, which is super convenient since I have about 200 students in my six classes. They can design on their Chromebooks–Canva is optimized for Chromebooks–or on a desktop, iOS or Andriod device.

As you scroll through all of the template options you’ll definitely be inspired to try different ways for students to show their knowledge. We are obviously big fans of the Instagram Stories templates:

I’m also excited to have my students try out the presentation templates. They can work on a presentation collaboratively in real time, so I’m going to use these to help keep track of their progress during Break Out room time.

I can assign, review and comment upon their work within my account, so it’s great to have everything in once place.

I’m also going to recommend the Class Schedule templates to my students who are having trouble keeping track of all of their assignments for seven classes in an online block schedule. This is a clumsy transition for a lot of us, and since our schedules are different literally every single day, it’s not always easy to remember what to do and when to do it.

I’m so excited to see what my creative students will design with all these cool features at their fingertips! They can even design in any language, including Spanish, French, German, Russian, as well as left to right languages like Arabic and Hebrew.

For teachers, Canva for Education is a gold mine of templates to make your life easier. I have an observation coming up, so I’m going to use one of these lesson plan templates to help me stay organized and communicate my lesson plan to my administration.

They even have virtual classroom templates–we all know what a pain those are to create for yourself!

The best part is: Canva for Education is free, forever, for K-12 educators globally! You can register for your free account at https://canva.me/megan. I can’t wait to see what you create!

Social Justice Standards by Teaching Tolerance


As I enter into my eighth year of teaching in the wake of three mass shootings, my priorities and mission are as clear as they’ve ever been. We desperately need to help students love and understand themselves and others. We cannot do this with trite lessons about being kind and treating people how you would like to be treated. We need to help students do the real work of understanding their own identities, and learning how to stand up for what is right.

All of our students need to spend time reflecting on their identities and how they move through the world in the body they are in. Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum writes about the psychological development of racial identity, specifically, in her groundbreaking book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? I highly recommend starting here in order to learn about why it is so important to understand how racial identity affects our students–all of our students. White students tend to be stunted in their racial identity development because they are not often prompted to reflect upon it, explicitly or implicitly.

It can be overwhelming to try to plan lessons that address our students’ intersectional identities on our own. In fact, I don’t recommend doing that. Teaching Tolerance is an excellent resource for professional development, lesson plans and strategies that “help teachers and schools educate children and youth to be active participants in a diverse democracy.” A project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, they have free, high-quality resources that bring truth and authenticity into your classroom.

Teaching Tolerance has developed a set of Social Justice Standards for students at every grade level that I think are incredibly powerful. As soon as I read through the 6-8 grade standards, I knew they needed to be a focus in my classroom this year. I start school next week, so I can’t tell you exactly how we will use them yet, but I will write more about it as the year progresses. For now, they are posted in my room, and I plan to focus on one of the four domains (Identity, Diversity, Justice and Action) per quarter in both my 6th grade History and my 8th grade English classes.

I formatted them so that they were easy to post on a bulletin board, and I made versions for each grade level. Take them for free and post them in your classroom. Then please go to the Teaching Tolerance website and view the free PD modules that accompany each domain. As much as I hope that teachers all over the country use these standards, I also hope that they are doing the personal work of learning about their own identities, privilege and responsibility when it comes to anti-racist work in schools. The resources are there; we just need to invest the time and effort into educating ourselves and living out the standards in our own lives authentically.

So without further ado, the bulletin board versions are linked below for you. Use them, be creative with them, and I’d love to hear about the successes and challenges you have along the way. You can tag me on Instagram at @toocoolformiddleschool and I’ll be sure to see it. Thank you for doing the difficult, important work that you do. I hope this makes it just a little bit more accessible.

Grades K-2 Social Justice Standards

Grades 3-5 Social Justice Standards

Grades 6-8 Social Justice Standards

Grades 9-12 Social Justice Standards

Fresh Perspectives with Historical Graphic Novels


I am a late convert to the graphic novels craze, but I am always pleasantly surprised by what a unique experience I have through the illustrations and organization of graphic novels. They are fast-paced and can cover more ground than a typical historical monograph or historical fiction book. Here are a few that have become favorites in my classroom.


If you teach US History this book will be incredibly useful to you. It has beautiful, color illustrations that are punctuated every so often with timelines, primary source documents and real pictures of Frederick Douglass. If you teach Douglass’s writings in an English class, this book provides important background information about his life in a gorgeous format.

The Life of Frederick Douglass


This was the first graphic novel I ever read, and it was actually assigned to me in one of my graduate History courses. The first section is a dynamic graphic history following the 1876 court case of a West African woman named Abina as she fought her wrongful enslavement. You can compare the story to the actual transcript of the case, provided in the next section. The last sections include historical context, a reading guide, and classroom resources to help you teach nineteenth-century colonialism in Africa. I would love to see more graphic histories published in this brilliant format.

Abina and the Important Men


This is my newest graphic novel purchase–I obviously couldn’t resist another Hamilton addition to my classroom! This definitely isn’t a “dumbed down” version of Hamilton’s story; it is a challenging and engaging read even for history buffs. This would make a great teaching tool for US History teachers, and your Hamil-fan students will beg to borrow it!

Alexander Hamilton


This story of Ebo, who is trying to find his way from Ghana to Europe is fast-paced, heartbreaking, beautiful and eye-opening. In my English classes we do a unit about immigration to the United States, but I think it’s important to look at migration from a global perspective as well. This story depicts the lengths that people–even children–must go to in order to survive famine, food shortages, and unemployment.



This graphic novel is probably the closest to the work that I like to do as a historian, so it was interesting to see how Max Brooks handled the story. Even though I wasn’t initially impressed with the illustrations, Max Brooks attended the University of the Virgin Islands so I knew I had to give this book a chance! It tells a story most students and teachers have never heard, and inspires readers to look for those hidden stories we don’t often find in history books.

The Harlem Hellfighters


The March books are a staple of historical graphic novels. Revered civil rights leader John Lewis chronicles his story of nonviolent resistance against segregation as a young man in Alabama with Martin Luther King Jr. Civil rights history easily becomes white-washed in classrooms as we move further away from the personal stories of resistance, so these first person accounts are essential to preserving the spirit of the civil rights movement.



Students often have a hard time picturing the Annex and the Frank family’s living situation. This beautifully illustrated graphic novel interpretation of her diary provides such useful images of the characters, the setting, and Anne’s imagination. I took pictures of pages with my phone and shared them on Google Classroom with my students to spark discussions as we read the play this year. It’s definitely one of my favorite graphic novels I’ve ever read!

Anne Frank’s Diary

I’m still building my graphic novel library! Please leave me any suggestions you have in the comments!

Leader in Me Classroom Posters


My school is in the beginning stages of implementing the Leader in Me program, which is based on Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I really love the foundations of the 7 habits, and the focus on learning to take responsibility for yourself, and then learning how to work with other people and lead by example. These are traits that we want our students to have, but it’s important to teach them explicitly.

One small step that I’m taking in my classroom is posting the language of the 7 habits so that it begins to become part of the way we speak and think in my class. I designed these posters and then printed them on card stock, laminated them, and attached them to the wall with a hot glue gun.


You could print them on any color paper you’d like and arrange them however they would best fit in your room. I’m attaching them here for free use for other Leader in Me schools. If you use them please tag me on Instagram, I’d love to see how yours turn out!

7 Habits Posters TCFMS

My Favorite History Resources

History Faves

Happy new school year! I have four sections of ELA and two sections of Ancient History this year, and I am loving only having two preps! I’m trying to post more information for you here on this blog platform since it holds more links than Instagram, and is sometimes easier to reference than a YouTube video. But check out both of those platforms for daily tips as well!

Here are 6 of my favorite resources to use in my history classes:


I started using Flocabulary about six years ago to teach the Bill of Rights to my 8th grade students with a rap song. Since then they’ve added every subject area to their site that you could ever need, including Social Emotional Learning and Financial Literacy. I currently use their Ancient History units, the Week in Rap current events videos, and of course all of the amazing English curriculum in my ELA classes.

For years I paid for a subscription and had a teacher account. I played their videos for my students and printed quizzes and Read and Respond assignments for my students. They absolutely loved the videos and learned concepts so quickly because they could memorize the songs. The quizzes and other activities were such high quality and so convenient that it was worth it to me to pay monthly for the subscription.

Now I have a school-wide subscription which is perfect since all of our students have Chromebooks. My students each have an account, so they can watch the videos as many times as they need to, and I can assign quizzes and activities for them to do online. No more printing and making copies! Talk to your administration about purchasing a school-wide subscription because it can be used in every single content area.

Our favorite feature is the Week in Rap, and we won the Shout Out contest last year! Check out this video to see how it works!


Newsela takes current news articles and levels each article so that is accessible to students at reading levels all the way down to 2nd grade. You can assign the same article to whole class, and if they are on a personal device, no one will know if they are reading it at a different lexile level than their neighbor. It’s so great for differentiation!

This is another resource that I’m able to use in both my English and history classes, but I especially love it for history. All of the articles are from reputable news sources, so I like to send my students here to do research. Newsela has amassed thousands of articles now, and also partnered with Biography.com to provide more history content. They have text sets and primary source documents that are perfect for building background knowledge.

I also love using Newsela for writing instruction. See this video for more information on how to use it for revision and editing.

Newsela has both a free and a paid version.


iCivics is free but I donate to them once a year because I absolutely love what they are doing. They have incredible, engaging games that teach students complex topics about civics and government. Your students can argue Supreme Court cases, run for office, and be a virtual immigration officer. This is another site that works especially well if your students have their own device, but I also love to pair them up and have them work together on one device.

Facing History & Ourselves

This summer I had the opportunity to attend a week-long training with Facing History on Race & Membership in American Society. It was incredibly powerful, and I loved learning the strategies and content firsthand. If you want to give your students a solid foundation in topics such as democracy, immigration, anti-Semitism, and human rights, check out this free site. All of their resources are based in primary source documents and solid historical research, and they have dozens of impactful and effective teaching strategies for reading, writing, and thinking. If you only have the time and resources to go to one teaching conference this year, make it one by Facing History and Ourselves.

Here is a video about my experience at the training.

Document Based Questions (DBQs)

Start bringing your administrators cookies this week so that next week you can ask them to purchase some DBQ curriculum for your department. If your school is in the process of phasing out history textbooks, make sure that they understand that this curriculum is much cheaper than textbooks, and several teachers can share one set. I would gladly teach all of my content through DBQ’s and give up traditional curriculum.

Document Based Questions are the closest curriculum I’ve seen to what real historical work is actually like. Students are presented with a historical question, engaging (and often conflicting!) primary source documents, and tasked with making a claim that they will defend with evidence. The curriculum provides detailed note-taking, outlining, and writing instructions, so if you have no experience as an English teacher, you’ll still be fine. I find that students like this kind of purposeful research so much more than traditional memorization and multiple-choice tests, plus they learn those dates and places so much more quickly in context. Students truly put content into practice, and they learn skills about consuming information that will serve them for the rest of their lives.

Additionally, if you teach high school, DBQ’s are excellent preparation for AP tests. They’re also excellent preparation for college, and democratic life in general.

Stanford History Education Group (SHEG)

This project by the Stanford History Education Group is quite similar to DBQ’s but it is free once you make an online account. I use the Reading Like a Historian section the most often, which contains quite a few inquiries based in ancient history. Like DBQ’s, these text sets provide conflicting primary and secondary source documents, which are incredibly fun to teach because students have to decide which evidence is the most credible. The research and investigation is purposeful because students are trying to solve a mystery. My 6th grade students especially like the unit about how Egyptian pyramids were built, and they build historical research skills in addition to knowledge about ancient Egypt.

If you teach English and history together, or if you collaborate often with your English department, this would be excellent curriculum to take on as a team.

My fellow history teachers, I hope these resources are helpful to you! We are teaching during an exciting time when historical thinking skills are beginning to be valued over trivia, and WE get to pass on those skills. It’s an honor and, truthfully, a whole lot of fun!

Structured Academic Controversies

**I wrote this post to accompany this video. They will make more sense if you use them together! **

My absolute favorite way to teach controversial topics is through an activity called a Structured Academic Controversy. I learned about this method at a civic learning seminar at the Los Angeles County Office of Education, which I was fortunate enough to attend with several of my colleagues. We participated in our own Structured Academic Controversy (SAC) and we were instantly hooked.

What I love about SACs is that they require students to practice three important skills: researching, listening, and articulating evidence. This isn’t a debate or an argument, but rather, an opportunity to present evidence from two different sides of an issue and eventually, discuss the merits of both sides.


I find the topics and evidence for SACs mainly on two sites: Stanford History Education Group, and ProCon.org. I either print out the evidence for my students to study, or provide links so that they can read it on their Chromebooks. In order to keep the process moving, I put each step on a separate slide in a presentation so that students can follow along.

Here is an example of a Structured Academic Controversy I did with my sixth grade History students this year. We had just finished our unit on Ancient Greece, and I gave them the printed resources from the Reading Like a Historian website, which is free to use when you make an account.


This was the first time I had tried a SAC with this group of students, so we went over the expectations for the activity. My students are already arranged into mixed ability groups of four, so it didn’t require any prep work on my end besides printing materials, and organizing the instructions onto slides.


The sources provided through Reading Like a Historian are excellent, and they can truly be used to argue either side of the question. Since there are so many high-quality sets of documents on this website and ProCon.org, I haven’t made my own SACs with my own research. If the research is poor in quality, the discussion will not be nearly as deep or engaging, so I’m letting the experts take the wheel here!

I gave my students a whole day to read through the documents and look for evidence to support their side. This was the fourth or fifth time during the year that we had worked with sets of documents from the same website, so they were familiar with the format and how to analyze the sources.


In the documents I gave my students there was a graphic organizer to list four pieces of evidence from each side. Since this activity requires such deep thinking and the best of their communication skills, anywhere that I can provide scaffolding to free up my students’ attention for more important tasks, I will.

The next day, we had our Structured Academic Controversy. I always hype it up and make it sound like more of an intense debate than it really is. So many students came to class excited to pretend to be lawyers.


And, go! In my class, eight or nine students begin speaking once I set the two minute timer. Students have to lean in to hear one another, and I walk around the room to make sure that everyone is paying attention to the speaker.

Each teammate on Team A should talk for about one minute. If they run out of things to say, I tell them they still need to keep talking until the time is up.


The first round is really exhilarating for students. Team B is ready to burst because they haven’t gotten to speak yet, and Team A is giggling with relief now that they articulated their evidence before the timer went off. You have to slow them down a little bit and make sure that Team B is only clarifying at this point, and not moving on to their side of the argument.


Now Team B gets to speak, and Team A gets a taste of having to sit silently while listening to the evidence from the other side. Again, they should be writing down this evidence in the space provided on their graphic organizer.


Reset your timer and allow Team A time to clarify Team B’s points. If either group has any misinterpretations, the other group is sure to set them straight. They only have one minute to do this though, which is just enough time before they begin to launch into a full debate.


Even partners who were apathetic at first are usually excited to turn to each other at this point and figure out what they want to say back to the other team. I tell them there is an invisible wall in between the two groups; they should only be talking to their partner, not the other group.

This is the perfect time for students to bring in new evidence, restate evidence they already brought up, or respond directly to arguments the other group made. They are taking evidence, arguments and rhetoric, and adapting them to the situation at hand. This requires very high level thinking, even if they don’t realize it in the moment.


Everyone takes a deep breath! This is similar to the very first round, but each partner will only speak for about 30 seconds, and there is no clarification round in between the two groups’ statements.


At this point the two groups become one larger group of four. They can speak candidly now and talk openly about what they learned, and what they really think about the issue. It’s going to get loud in your classroom during these five minutes, but the conversations are great!


I usually have eight or nine groups of four in my classes, and I ask one person in each group to report out about their conversation. That person stands and addresses the class, and I usually ask a few questions about the process and their conclusions.

With this group, most students concluded that Athens wasn’t a true democracy since so many people couldn’t vote, but there were still several students who insisted that Athens was a democracy. They explained the evidence that led them to this conclusion, and I validated their conclusions. Some students were frustrated with each other, but I reminded them that it’s okay if we disagree, as long as we’re able to listen to each other first.


The reflection piece is incredibly important to this process, and to building the skills that I want students to learn from a SAC. I always do it the day after the conversation portion, and I give students about ten minutes of quiet time to answer these questions.

This is also how I give them a grade. The fourth question is, “What grade do you deserve on a scale of 1-10? Justify this grade.” Most students give themselves a fairly high grade, and that’s fine with me because simply going through the process is valuable, whether or not they have mastered the art of rhetorical and evidence-based argument.

They’ve researched. They’ve listened. They’ve practiced self-control. They’ve spoken respectfully and concisely. They’ve weighed two arguments against each other. They’ve reflected upon this slightly uncomfortable way of communicating. I think these are all such important skills to learn while students are young, and I pray that they carry them into adulthood.

My goal for next year is for all of my classes to participate in one SAC per quarter. The topics can be based on our content, or on current events. This activity incorporates so many standards-based skills, as well ask skills that simply make us good humans. Make sure to watch this video along with this post to hear more about why I think bringing controversial conversations into your classroom is so important!


Literary Response One-Pager Activity


I was going to save this post until August when I had been properly AVID-trained, but I get so many questions about these One-Pagers on Instagram! They turned out so beautifully, and it’s such an easy strategy that I think we can all implement it with or without the full training.

A Literary Response One-Pager is an AVID summarizing strategy in which students use evidence from the text as well as graphics to convey the overall idea or theme of a story. It’s a very versatile strategy, and I’ve seen teachers use it in history and science classes as well. My co-worker had her class do this assignment for The Diary of Anne Frank and I loved how hers turned out, so I used the same strategy. I came up with my own instructions and posted them on Google Classroom for my students to refer to.

Literary Response One Pager

(I use LucidPress to create most of my digital flyers instructions, and the flat lay graphic is from Laine Sutherland Designs on TeachersPayTeachers).

The examples here are from my 8th grade English class, using the Anne Frank play from the HMH Collections Curriculum. We had engaged in so many discussions while reading the play, and my students had written so many shorter, focused writing pieces, that I didn’t want to assign another long essay at the end of this text. But because Anne Frank’s story is so powerful and so profound, especially to readers who are her same age, I knew we needed a reflection piece.


Before we started working on these One-Pagers we talked about tone. Color choices would reflect students’ understanding of the tone of the story, and would allow them to express their interpretations of the story. I love using Flocabulary’s video and resources on Tone & Mood to introduce this topic.

Similarly, the excerpts that students chose to use from the story also demonstrated both their understanding of the main ideas and theme, and allowed them to choose the sections that they connected with the most. I love when an assignment offers choices to students, but also keeps them focused on a specific task.


Clearly, the graphics on these projects are stunning! We have an amazing art program at our school, and I also just happened to have a class full of some of the most artistically talented students I’ve ever met. I also love that calligraphy/hand-lettering is kind of a thing again, and these students like to make all of their hand-written assignments look extra amazing. It isn’t necessary that all of your students have professional drawing skills in order to do One-Pagers, but it is nice if they put a little bit of effort into the details of their graphics. These girls (yes, they were all girls), looked up what the actual cover of Anne’s diary looked like, and they studied pictures of her to make sure that their drawings were accurate. I gave them two days of class time to complete this assignment, but the students who did these examples took them home to complete and spent extra time and effort.


The “Personal Response” section is always my favorite to read. Ideally the response will be connected to the quotes that the students chose to emphasize from the story. They can comment upon these quotes, make connections between them or to a larger topic, or provide their interpretation of the text. This is great with a long text like the Anne Frank play, but it also helps students to think more deeply about short stories. I haven’t used this strategy with poetry yet, but I have a feeling it would lead to some outstanding projects, and I’m definitely going to try it next year.


One requirement that instantly improves the quality of everyone’s project is banning white space. (“Fine, except for clouds and eyeballs,” I always end up saying). It forces students to think about the background of their scene, or fill in blank areas with items or symbols from the story. I tell them to add a border if they don’t know where else to start. This also helps to emphasize mood and tone since students have to make decisions about color choices and cannot just leave blank space. We are not Taylor Swift here.


My students know that I am not a fan of pencils (I always use pens!), and in my class, pencils are for practice. A project in pencil is not complete, it’s just a rough draft. For One-Pagers, students need to go over pencil in pen or marker or crayon or whatever other tool they’d like to use. When students show me their work and it’s just a few things written or drawn in pencil I say, “Oh that’s a good rough draft, I can’t wait to see how it turns out when you finish it!” I spend a lot of my own money and time acquiring plenty of art supplies for students to use because I really value good tools to help students produce work that looks high-quality and that they can be proud of.


I was so impressed with the effort and thoughtfulness my students put into this assignment, and I’m so glad that they have inspired so many teachers to use this strategy as well. I’m looking forward to participating in the full AVID training in August, and I’ll be sure to update you on other effective strategies that I incorporate into my class. Be sure to tag me on Instagram if your students create their own One-Pagers. I’d love to see them!

How to Help Your Students Improve Their Writing

improve writing

The editing process was not my favorite thing to teach middle schoolers. It was a struggle to pull a rough draft out of many of them, and then going through another lesson on editing at the end of a project used to feel like too much. I couldn’t possibly give all of my students in all of my classes sufficient feedback, and often, when they peer edited (even in guided stations), I wasn’t sure that they were truly receiving useful or applicable critiques.

Enter Newsela. I’ve used Newsela for a long time now as a reading resource. It’s great because each article is rewritten at various lexile levels, so it provides access to information for all of your students. I’d often assign the same article to a class, and then walk around the room as they read on their Chromebooks, noting the difference in vocabulary, syntax and structure between the different level of articles.

I decided to use this feature to help my students analyze and improve their own writing. I chose a high-interest, current article from Newsela (which are easy to find!), and had my students read this article at the lowest reading level, usually around the 2nd grade mark. We summarized the article and noted the length of the sentences, the vocabulary used, etc.

Then I raised the lexile level of the article up a few hundred points. We re-read the article and noted that now, the sentences were more complex, some of the vocabulary words were more sophisticated, and the author included more details in each paragraph.

Finally, we read the article at the maximum reading level and again noted the differences. I had my students choose any other article they would like to read on the site and repeat the same activity, observing the changes as the lexile level increased. I asked them to observe 3-5 specific improvements in the article, and then apply those improvements to their own writing project.

Before we tried this activity, my students would always default to vocabulary as a way to improve their writing. They would simply plug each word into a thesaurus, pick the word that sounded the most complicated, and shove that word back into their essay. Often, the connotation no longer fit the purpose of their essay, and the tone would become clunky and indirect.

I realized, however, that this was really the only strategy they had been taught to improve their writing. I’m a big fan of mentor texts and giving students as many concrete examples of good writing as I possibly can, but I tended to only use these as a jumping off point for writing projects. I see now that they are perfect resources for editing, and I no longer dread the editing phase of my students’ writing projects.

Here is a more thorough example of the kind of lesson I did with my students: