Google it: 3 Ways to Turn Students into Vocabulary Explorers

So, I’m about to make an argument that we should take a cue from Google when it comes to vocabulary instruction, but before you roll your eyes and click ahead to the next post, hear me out for a second:

A few years ago, if I were to use Google as a metaphor for vocabulary instruction, we’d probably be talking about the lowest level of learning when you analyze it with Bloom’s Taxonomy. We’d be talking about running into a word you don’t know, googling it to find a definition, then moving on. Not ideal when we equate that to our vocabulary instruction.

I think it’s fair to say, though, that in the past few years, Google has become much more than an answer-finding machine. Sure, we can still google a quick answer. But we also use it to compose emails, host virtual meeting spaces, and collaboratively design presentations. Google’s very mode of existing has extended beyond the lowest level of understanding upward through the levels of understanding to help us create.

Vocab SnipEarlier this year, as I was typing away in a Google Doc, I noticed that even their approach to vocabulary is moving upward in its depth of knowledge. Try it: Right click on a word that you’d like to look up. You get two options: define or explore.  

As teachers, we need to take this cue from Google and teach vocabulary with a similar approach. Sure, there are times when we should teach our students to find a definition, but we must also shift our instruction to really explore vocabulary in our classrooms.

How do we teach our kids to be vocabulary explorers?

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Teaching Writing Through Video Games, Part I

I’m so excited to present today’s guest post by Sarah Jones, whom I met through the Ohio Writing Project last summer. Sarah is an avid writer, reader, and gamer and is working to incorporate the workshop approach in both her Writing Through Video Games and Spanish classes. You can connect with her via email at or Twitter @jonessjteacher.

Today Sarah will share two ways you can bring video games into your writing classroom TODAY. On Friday, she’ll help us think about incorporating video games into whole units of study. 

“This is the only English class that I actually want to write for.”

I get that a lot in my small elective called Writing Through Video Games. I designed the curriculum a few years ago as a writer’s workshop and now we are adding Writing Through Video Games II next year. Now that I have established the class, the students know what to expect when they walk in: we’re not playing video games, we’re writing about them. This class came out of my desire to have my students be more invested with their writing and from my love of video games.

As teachers, we always discuss how we can get our students more engaged in our classrooms and in their writing. For some students, essays about literature they did not choose to read are not relevant and it is easy to find the “answers” on the internet. I wanted to teach craft, style, and structure in a way that was engaging. The writer’s workshop was the perfect way to be engaging with rigor and relevance but I needed a lens with which to teach my students how to write better. What were my students often engaged with? Video games!

Most research polls now say that around 97% of our students play games in some fashion, whether it’s Candy Crush or Grand Theft Auto V. I have had hours of conversations with students about a game’s mechanics and flow of story, the development of characters, the pros and cons to purchasing a game, or the profound impact a particular game had on their lives. Whether we like it or not, video games are important to our students; now what do we do?

We invite our students to write game reviews, top ten lists, autobiographical pieces, and so many more. We don’t need a class solely devoted to the study of writing through video games, especially if video games are not your cup of tea! We just need to give them the option; a way to use their interest in video games to help them practice their craft.

Here are a few small ways you can implement the lens of video games into your classroom!

Notebook Time

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An easy way to include video games in your classroom is during notebook time–or Quest Logs as we call it in our class! My students have been inspired by:


  • Images of characters or landscapes from games
  • Graphs and statistics about gamers or opinions of gamers
  • Famous quotes from games
  • Lines from great writing about video games

I find most of my images and graphs from places like Statista and Google searches for images. Gaming outlets on the internet also have a lot of the mentor texts you can use for notebook time like IGN, Gamespot, Metacritic, and PC GamerScreen Shot 2018-04-18 at 7.49.01 AM

Dungeon Forum Fridays

Video games can also be the source of great discussion and research. My students in Writing Through Video Games use NPR’s articles and stories about gaming to develop new ideas and opinions about their favorite hobby for discussions. We do what we call a Dungeon Forum on Fridays (based on Spider Web Discussions by Alexis Wiggins) where they read an article ahead of time and hold a discussion about the topic. Dungeons in many video games are designed to be cooperative, just like these discussions, and online forums are always open to everyone to jump in to say their opinion. During these discussions that are focused on the article, I always stay out of the discussion and let them lead it. I just take notes in the background and map out the web of their ideas, solutions, and references to the text!

My students also tap into TIME Magazine, The Guardian, Polygon, and Kotaku to find articles to support claims, pose discussion questions, and inform themselves about the gaming world. I generally search for articles based on topic, but I find that Keza MacDonald, a video game editor at The Guardian, has some intriguing and sometimes provoking opinion pieces. My students tend to disagree with her ideas and tone frequently and it brings up interesting counters from the students! Using an article about video games to start a discussion will spur some compelling debates and get most students involved in defending their opinions. Here are the articles that my students enjoyed the most:

What are your thoughts on adding small ideas about video games into your classroom? I would love to see your comments below!


Making the Most of the Final (Exam) Countdown: Climb the Reflection Ladder to Avoid the Senior Slide

I have two full weeks of classes with my seniors before their IB and AP exams begin, and after a semester of preparing students for those exams using methods I described in January, one of the biggest questions on my mind is this: how can I help students write as sensitively, authentically, wisely, and sophisticatedly in their traditional exam essays as they have in less traditional pieces like prompt books and additional or alternate scenes? Continue reading

But how do you start a unit of analytical writing?

SunshineOne of my colleagues just went out on a limb and had her sixth graders compose graphic essays. I’ve wanted to do this for years but haven’t had the nerve; I had a million questions! She gave me her rationale, her goals for the unit, the methods she used to scaffold the work for her students, the final products.

And yet, I still had one more question: “But what words did you say to start this?”

A reader had a similar question for us recently — “How do you start a unit of the kind of analytical writing you advocate for in Beyond Literary Analysis?” —  and it’s a really good question. How do you start? What do you say day one, minute one? What language do you use to communicate to your students what they are about to do — especially when jumping into something as challenging as analysis and as wide-open as Analyze-Anything-You-Want-In-the-World.

Although we spend the biggest chunk of Beyond Literary Analysis providing lessons for your class, we never do address the very first day or what a unit of analysis study might look like. We made this choice in part because it looks very much like the way we proceed in any unit of study (I’ve written about it here, and it gets a whole chapter of Writing With Mentors). Where our mini-lessons typically go, I use mini-lessons on passion, ideas, structure, and authority from the book based on what I think my students need most at that moment.

But I thought it might be worth spending a moment talking just about gearing up and getting going, including the language I use to explain to students what they are about to embark upon when they are writing free-choice, wholehearted, passion-driven analysis.

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Revision? Pshhh…I write best under pressure.

My husband is in a grad school program that requires a lot of writing. He likes to write, and he’s a good writer, so that’s not a problem….except he also works full time with crazy hours and we have two small-ish children. He’s just juggling way too much. So I was not surprised at all when he casually informed me yesterday that his final paper for this semester (15-20 pages, a bunch of research needed) is due next week, and he hasn’t started it yet.Copy of #tweaching

Right away I felt like I was talking to one of my students: “Trust me. I work best under pressure. I can sit for hours staring at the screen and write nothing. Then when it comes down to 2am and I have to do it, I write my best stuff.”

Though I don’t doubt that many are successful following this philosophy, I often wonder how much better they could be if they’d let their ideas marinate a little. I discussed this post with fellow Moving Writers blogger and my classroom-mate @ZigThinks and he was adamant that in the last days (or even hours!) before something is due, he really “dials in” and his thinking gets sharper.  

I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t done it myself, too, but I’d also be lying if I didn’t admit that at least a little time to think through my ideas, or revise, or rethink always makes my writing better.

So how can we get kids (and my husband) to get going and give their writing the time it needs?

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Mentor Text Wednesday: What Were Giraffes?

Mentor Text: What Were Giraffes? by Amaan Hyder


  • Descriptive writing
  • Social commentary
  • Tone
  • Poetic form

Background: As I said last week, my Twitter feed has become a pretty important source of poetry for me. I follow poets, teachers and poetry journals, and they all dump lots of great poems onto my screen. (Sometimes it feels like too many, which is a pretty good problem to have.) I’m regularly dropping poems into my analog notebooks, and filling up the poetry folder on my drive.

This has given me a resource that has been indispensable as a poetry teacher, one I can tap whenever I need to. Things are organized in various schemes, but I’m generally able to find something to use for the purposes I have in mind.

As I also said last week, I try to make it so that poetry is a frequent part of regular business in my classroom. What’s really cool about this is that it enables me to build a culture around our different approaches to poetry. We’re writing for various purposes and we’re analyzing consistently. That’s awesome, because it allows us a chance to grow as poets and readers of poetry.

WWGIt’s also cool, because it allows me an opportunity to use poems for different purposes, like I did with the poem I’m sharing this week. Kaveh Akbar, a fine poet himself, is a great follow for poetry teachers, because of the poems he shares. (He is on a bit of a hiatus from Twitter right now.) He popped this one into my feed in March, and I took it straight to my classroom.  Continue reading

Beyond Literary Analysis Q&A Winner


Thank you so much, Beyond Literary Analysis reviewers! It means so much to us to know what you think about the book and how you’re planning to use it with your students!

We were running a little contest for reviewers on GoodReads and Amazon, and the big winner is GoodReads reviewer Alison! Here is her review:

Every English teacher needs this book. I eventually put down my highlighter because I wanted to highlight nearly every sentence. I’ve long observed that literary analysis is difficult for students because they just don’t have enough experience with literature. However, I’ve also observed that students (and people in general) analyze all the time–movies, songs, restaurants, ice cream stores. Therefore, the following statement in Marchetti and O’Dell’s book hit home: “This is what we do when we give our students a task on which they cannot succeed–we water down. We control, control, control. In the absence of critical thinking and true analysis, we give fill-in-the-blank outlines, hand students thesis statements, offer up formulas until we think they can be successful. Ultimately, none of our objectives for either the literature or writing are met” (20). Yes. Yes. Yes.

This book makes the now obvious claim that if you allow students to analyze things about which they are passionate and knowledgeable, they can focus on truly learning how to write–how to make decisions as a writer and how to use writing to convey important ideas that others will genuinely care about. A happy side effect is that teachers get more interesting and varied analysis essays. Where has this book been all my life?

Marchetti and O’Dell walk teachers through various ways to help students find, explore, and develop subjects and topics for analysis. The final part of the book is a how-to for the most popular student topics: movies/tv, sports, music, video games–and they threw in literary analysis to keep teachers happy 🙂

I cannot recommend this book enough. I’ve got to get back to the classroom so I can live out its ideals. The ideas here are good for both students and for teachers.

Alison, please send us an email at so we can set up a time for a Q&A!

And other readers, please keep the reviews coming! Thanks to all who have reviewed the book so far!

On Teaching Poetry

As I traditionally do in April, National Poetry Month, I’m  dedicating my space here at Moving Writers to talking about poetry for the next few weeks.

A couple of years ago, I made a decision to become a better teacher of poetry. I felt I was a good poetry teacher, but I had a handful of plans, tricks and tools that my poetry unit relied upon. I feel like I’ve stepped up my poetry game considerably, and I’d like to share some of that journey with you.

An important first step is deciding what your goals as a poetry teacher are. This is actually a big part of the challenge, because there’s a lot of aspects to teaching poetry. Do you want to teach analysis? Is appreciation of the craft your goal? Do you want them writing poetry? Do you want them performing poetry? Are you focusing on canonical poetry, or is it spoken word? I’ll be honest, I’m at various stages with all of these things, but it all comes to a single guiding principle for me, I want them to see how powerfully language can be used in the pursuit of poetry. As well, I want them to play with words, and experiment with poetic expression. Continue reading

5 Things Your Students Can Learn From Blogging

5 Things Your Students Can Learn From Blogging

This year, my AP Literature students had the opportunity to participate in a poetry blog share with students from other AP Lit classes across the country (shout out #aplitchat squad!). I liked the idea of this writing opportunity from the get go for several reasons—students would have an authentic audience, sharpen their critical reading skills, have the opportunity to see how other students develop insights about complex texts, give and receive feedback, and have a long-term, self-directed writing opportunity.

But what appealed to me the most? The chance to turn my kids loose to write in the wild. Recently, Hattie wrote about growing independent writers through blogging and Tricia put her finger on the many ways blogging is both powerful and useful. And this week my friend Brian wrote about the ins and outs of his blogging unit.

To tailor to my students’ needs, my poetry blog requirements have remained simple and flexible: Student blog posts must analyze a self-selected contemporary poem. Easy enough, right? Right. But there’s a ‘but.’

Our quest this year has been to narrate our ideas, insights, and conclusions about literature in our own unique and authentic voices—aiming always towards engaging, effective, sophisticated, and intentional writing that is conversational (but not a conversation), and offer readers not just proof of reading, but a depth of analysis that is interesting and thought provoking.

It’s a tall order, I realize. But that’s why student blogs are awesome. It gives students a chance to practice writing in a virtually fail free zone, and they learn important lessons not just about reading and writing, but themselves as writers and what it takes to craft engaging, effective writing. But the freedom of blogging is what makes this type of self-evaluation and practice possible.

My students have embraced this, too. I love the message of Ashton’s headline.

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Here are 5 things your students can learn from blogging. (I know, because I’ve learned them, too.)

  1. Voice and style 1

Think of blogging as the anti in-class essay.

Of course, you can focus student blogs on any topic, theme, or style to meet any academic purpose, but for me, blogging frees my students from the constraints of what they believe assigned essays should sound like.

For starters, there’s no official rubric or handbook, the style is incredibly familiar, and the pressure of page length is off. Because blogs offer students creative control of layout and themes, it’s this same ownership that encourages not just a unique layout but a considered style and voice in their writing.

My students are discovering over time that who you are on paper is who you are, so they strive to show how interesting and intelligent they are with the voice and style of their writing.


  1. Mentor text habits of mind2

It will come as no surprise to you that every author I’ve heard speak this year has this one thing in common: all of them read. They have influences and mentors and other writers they aspire to.

The beauty of mentor texts is they’re all around. In our blogging project, students have taken cues from mentor texts we’ve studied in class, but just as importantly, they’ve paid attention to the writing of others, both professional and non. They’ve assessed what works, what doesn’t work, and what makes for an interesting and engaging post. And blogging provides them a safe space to play with different craft moves they might not try in class.

This risk-taking and awareness is difficult to teach. So the prize goes to blogging.


  1. Quality control3

Last month as I was drafting a post for WVCTE, I knew I was writing something that I was going to be proud of. Conversely, I’ve written plenty of posts where I’ve left it and let myself feel quite the opposite — sometimes a tinge of disappointment or even a cringe. My students are learning this, too.

Because of our blogging project requires students to comment on one another’s posts, my kids are learning what kinds of topics, format, analysis, and style elicits comments from their readers. My students are learning that depth of thought, voice, and authenticity win over their readers far more often than fancy formats or photos.

I hope my students are discovering the awesome balance of professional and personal in their writing. That yes, they write for their audience, for me, for the grade and the assignment, but that their work and their writing is far more satisfying when it’s writing they can be proud of.


  1. Audience awareness4

Speaking of readers, how great is it that blogging offers students an opportunity to be published writers? My students have shared their posts on social media, tweeted them at the poets who penned the poem they analyzed, and even extended their blogging into personal topics, as well.

What I like most about giving students a real, living, and available audience (who isn’t me) is the intrinsic drive to craft quality writing.


  1. Writing on a deadline5

Students are used to copious due dates and deadlines in their academic lives. Teachers, of course, live by deadlines as well, the bells signaling us constant reminders of what we need to do and when. But writing on a deadline? That’s its own animal.

I realize I’m going to contradict myself with Quality Control, but sometimes, you just have to crank out the words and get the job done. This is a fitting lesson for my seniors who are so close to crossing the threshold into demanding college majors.

I’ll thank blogging once again for reminding my students of the grit it takes to meet your deadlines and get the job done the best way you can.


Are your students blogging? I’d love to have you tell me more about it! 

Leave a comment below, find me on Twitter @karlahilliard, or connect with us on Facebook!





InstaPoetry: a Unit of Writing Study with Resources


Recently, I was wandering around a Target while my daughter was at Girl Scouts, and I was amazed to find six (six!) collections of poetry in the book section! Poetry! At Target! I was so moved that I took a picture and Tweeted,

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I suppose what moves me is that I don’t think it’s coincidental that we are at an unprecedented moment of social and political unrest and uprising (and renewal?) in this country and suddenly Rupi Kaur is a New York Times bestselling poet and collections of poetry are for sale to the masses at Target.

It seems poetry has gone mainstream, at least in part, because we constantly swim in a current of excess language. There seems to be some kind of universal agreement that it’s time to pare down. To distill talk until it’s just truth.

Poetry has been a bit out of vogue in education over the last few years. At least in Virginia, poetry is not longer found on state tests. So unless students take an AP or IB literature course, reading poetry has been largely erased from most classrooms. After all, why invest valuable instructional time on a cognitively challenging genre on which students won’t be tested?

Of course, we all know better. Of course, we must do better.

Rupi Kaur , r.h.sin, Amanda Lovelace, and the other poets whose collections can be purchased at airport newspaper stands write in sound bytes and Instagram posts. Their poems can often feel more like an inspirational coffee mug than classic verse. And while I don’t think that Cyrus Parker should replace Seamus Heaney, Instagram poets can open the gate for our students into a bigger world of reading and writing poetry.

So, why not create a unit of study around Instapoets — reading them, analyzing their writing, contemplating what makes them so popular, and then creating our own (hopefully viral) Instapoems.

A Unit Map:

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