Help Finalize the NJCTE High School Writing Contest Prompt

Editor’s note: The NJ Council of Teachers of English will launch our high school writing contest within the next two weeks. Our writing contest committee is finalizing the prompt. This year we’re exploring the interrelated concepts of illusion and truth. Please join the discussion.

Good afternoon, writing contest friends,

There will be a brainstorming session at Panera Bread on a Thursday or Friday (4-4:30 p.m.) or Saturday (around 11 a.m.) for those interested in promoting the high school writing contest in urban schools. This will take place the 2nd or 3rd week of September.

The rough draft of the prompt below has drawn some comments:

Illusions are false beliefs. In life, as in literature, these false beliefs might be about ways to be happy or successful or about what another person is truly like.  Much of great literature centers on the dangers – or at least the foolishness – of living with illusions.  And yet, Mark Twain, perhaps humorously, states:  Don’t part with your illusions. When they are gone, you may still exist, but you have ceased to live.  Write a personal essay about the discovery of a truth hidden behind an illusion.  This may be about your own illusion or an illusion that someone had about you.  What led to the discovery of truth?  How has this affected your life?

Comments so far:

  1. the word “truth,” has become such a loaded word recently
  2. the idea of fiction getting at deeper emotional truths- stretched truths
  3. the authentic search for truth vs politics
  4. Consider asking students to write one truth and one lie — might prompt some creative interaction in the fiction
  5. How have illusions governed your reality? How has your truth been shaped by illusions? How can one distinguish between truth and lies?

Thank you for your help!

Michele Marotta
Writing Contest Director

New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English
Help Finalize the NJCTE High School Writing Contest Prompt

Tech Tuesdays: Five Popular Screencasting Tools

Screencasting is a popular way for students to show what they have learned and it has many applications in the language arts classroom. The idea of pairing audio and visual together for the purposes of presenting writing, explaining an analysis, or providing a tutorial for someone fits easily into the demands of ELA. Screencasting is digitally recording a user’s screen, where a person maneuvers around the screen and speaks at the same time. With the popularity of this activity in the classroom, there are many options for teachers to recommend to students. This list includes my top five choices that span devices and platforms.

  1. Screencastify

Available for: Chrome browser

Screencastify is my go-to screencasting tool when I need to make tutorials for my students or create flipped classroom videos. It can be downloaded from the Chrome Web Store and will immediately appear in your browser’s toolbar. When you click on the logo, a pop-up window will appear with a variety of options, including the functions to begin recording.


Screencastify has a variety of options for recording, including only recording one tab, the entirety of the desktop, or only the webcam. Once the settings have been set, press the blue “Record” button. A window will appear asking confirmation to share your screen and, once approval is given, the countdown to record will begin. Press the logo again to select the end of the recording. The video will be saved in a Drive folder. You can export it to YouTube or download it as an MP4 file, too.

Although Screencastify has a premium paid version, the free version is sufficient enough for teachers to use in the classroom. In the years that I have used it, I’ve never had the need to create a video longer than ten minutes or created enough videos to go over the 50 per month limit.

  1. Educreations

Educreations is an Apple app that can be used on an iPhone or tablet. It is an interactive whiteboard app where you can draw, write, animate, and narrate a video to share with others. While there is a Pro account, the free option still has a lot of tools and functions that would be appropriate for students in the classroom. For teachers in an iPad classroom, automatic synchronization can occur between student accounts and the teacher device, so creations can be instantly viewed or assessed.

Images can be drawn using the pen tool on the screen, imported from the device’s photo gallery, or taken and uploaded using the camera. Text can also be typed and placed on the whiteboard surface. You can add text or write over images and diagrams while recording. When ready, the “Record” button should be selected and the app will begin counting the duration of the video. After selecting “Done” at the completion of the video, the video can be saved and made private or shared.

For classrooms that are not 1:1 and instead use a BYOD system, Educreations is a good option because it allows Apple users to complete the screencasting process on their phone or personal tablet.

  1. Loom

Loom is another tool that can be downloaded from the Chrome Web Store. It is similar to Screencastify, except it is a little easier to use, which can be helpful for students. Once downloaded, the logo must be selected from the browser toolbar to begin recording. The pop-up window offers a variety of options prior to recording.


After the recording is finished, select the logo icon from the toolbar again and the recording will immediately end. You will immediately be transported to a Loom account page, where you will be able to view your video or download it as an MP4 file. A URL for the video is automatically copied to the device’s clipboard, so it can be instantly shared with others. If someone views your video on Loom through the URL, they can select emojis to represent their feelings about different parts of the video and can comment on the work. You can also edit your work, such as trimming out unnecessary parts, within the program. The video can be password protected, if necessary.

One nice bonus is that Loom is currently working on creating an app. Once created, the program could be used as a separate app, functioning without the internet or a browser. If you refer another person to use the tool, your video duration limit moves from 10 minutes to an unlimited amount of time.  

  1. Screencast-O-Matic

Available on Windows, Chromebook, and Apple, Screencast-O-Matic is another popular screencasting tool for educators and students alike. Similar to the other tools, it offers a premium option, although the free version is sufficient. Once downloaded on the device, the tool is ready to use. When you select that you are ready to begin recording, a box will appear on your screen. You can drag the box to fit the dimensions you want to record. It will also provide your settings for recording, including the use of webcam, screen, or both. When ready, select the red button that reads “Rec” and the time will begin to count as it records the screen. The red button will have turned blue at this point and a pause icon will appear. This button should be selected when the recording is finished.


You have the option to add the video to YouTube, upload it to your Screencast-O-Matic account, or save it as an MP4 file. If you choose to upload it to YouTube, all of the information you need to create the video, such as a title and tags, can be completed within the tool. All this work will immediately be transported to the YouTube video.

  1. A-Z Screen Recorder

Another alternative for students who are in BYOD classrooms, A-Z Screen Recorder is an Android app that students can use to create screencasts from their phone. Once the app is downloaded from the Google Play store, you need to click on the app’s icon to activate it. Five buttons will appear in a semicircle shape, which provides you with your options.

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The options include settings, which allow you to change the resolution and other recording options, screenshot, recording, gallery for all of your previous work, and camera. If you select the red camera “Record” icon, the app will count down and then will immediately begin recording everything on your device, alongside your audio. There is an unlimited amount of time for recording. If you swipe your finger down from the top of the screen, there will be a notification that allows you to either pause or stop your recording. There is no limit on the number of times you can pause a video. When you have selected “Stop” and your recording is finished, you are able to share your video with others.

While these are not the only screencasting tools available for students today, these five are some popular ones that provide the same opportunity for students regardless of device or platform. Screencasting is a great way for students to explain their thinking, demonstrate what they have learned, teach others, or reflect on their learning. The possibilities are really unlimited in terms of ELA classroom application.

Tech Tuesdays: Five Popular Screencasting Tools

Ask Your Tech Questions Tonight on Twitter #NJCTEtech, 8pm EDT

NJCTE will host its first live Twitter chat, featuring Tech Tuesdays blogger Kathryn Nieves, Wednesday, 8/21, to discuss any tech questions teachers might be wrestling with as the new school year begins. Follow #NJCTEtech starting at 8pm EDT. The chat will follow the Q1/A1 format. See below for the current list of questions we plan to discuss, but don’t hesitate to suggest more in the comments below or bring them to the chat!

  1. What are the best tools to add to student devices at the beginning of the year?
  2. Should I start a new Google Classroom or just clear the work from the old one?
  3. What are the best practices to teach students to use the technology tools?
  4. How can I make sure the student focus is on learning and not their device?
  5. What are some tech tools to help students struggling with ELA?
  6. How can I use tech tools to make my workload manageable?
  7. What are the most effective technologies to communicate and collaborate with parents safely?

Don’t forget to register for the NJCTE 2018 Fall Conference: Approaches to Writing, K-12! Featuring keynote speaker NCTE President Jocelyn Chadwick, the conference will take place September 29 at Kenneth R. Olson Middle School in Tabernacle, NJ. Register today!

Ask Your Tech Questions Tonight on Twitter #NJCTEtech, 8pm EDT

Tech Tuesdays: The Hunt for the Perfect Mentor Text — Using Mentor Text Database

by Kathryn Nieves

Don’t forget to join in on Twitter with your technology questions Wednesday 8/22 at 8:00 p.m. EDT. Follow #NJCTEtech to join the discussion, and in the meantime, send us your questions! You can post them as a comment below.

It’s always a hunt to find the “just right” mentor text to fit your lesson. It has to be attainable for your students with just the right amount of difficulty to give them a challenge. It should fit into the lesson you are trying to teach and be appropriate to the age level of the students. Mentor Text Database is a website that offers an alternative to endless searching. It is created, and updated, in order to provide writers with inspiration for their own work. This website is extremely easy to integrate into the ELA classroom.

Mentor Text Database is a website, so it is accessible across devices and web browsers. Immediately users are met with a search bar to look for key words and ideas or a genre dropdown menu, where users can choose the exact type of writing they prefer. There are thirty genre or purpose options to view.

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Further down the homepage is a chronological list of the mentor texts that were added, beginning with the most recent. The genre can be seen at the top alongside the title. In the right sidebar is a “craft moves” word cloud. It is in alphabetical order, but users can see what craft moves are most common across all mentor texts.

Mentor Text Database 1

When you select a particular genre or craft move, the database shows a list of related pieces of writing, with the most recent at the top. Users get a preview of the piece and can click on the title to read the entire mentor text. The original author, publication date, and place of publication are included at the top for reference.


Teachers could look through and share these mentor texts with their students. The database provides four uses for the text on the website, including examining the impact of text structure, incorporation of ideas and details, sentence structure and variety, and word choice and tone.

While it may seem like a small technology tool, Mentor Text Database is a resource that teachers can use to find new texts to inspire their students. The ability to filter searches by specific criteria, such as figurative language or text evidence, is helpful for finding appropriate texts for students based on the lesson itself. Before you spend all your time scouring the internet for interesting texts to match your lesson needs, consider searching through Mentor Text Database first.

Don’t forget to register for the NJCTE 2018 Fall Conference: Approaches to Writing, K-12! Featuring keynote speaker NCTE President Jocelyn Chadwick, the conference will take place September 29 at Kenneth R. Olson Middle School in Tabernacle, NJ. Register today!

Tech Tuesdays: The Hunt for the Perfect Mentor Text — Using Mentor Text Database

Book Review: Personalized Reading by Michele Haiken

Personalized Reading coverby Audrey Fisch

As we enter into the final days of summer, I know I’m full of the usual feelings of aspiration and trepidation for the new school year. Weeks of course revision and planning are under my belt. Still, in these last few weeks, I’m still open to more inspiration and new ideas/tools to make my new school year more successful.

It was in this frame of mind that I turned to Personalized Reading: Digital Strategies and Tools to Support All Learners by Michele Haiken (with L. Robert Furman). I know Haiken and her excellent work on gamification (Gamify Literacy: Boost Comprehension, Collaboration, and Learning), so my expectations for Personalized Reading were high. Her newest work did not disappoint me.

Indeed, I must admit that I consumed (inhaled) her latest work nearly in one sitting. And indeed, I find the brevity, simplicity, and practicality of the volume to be its greatest achievement. Haiken has written a slim and eminently readable book on digital strategies and tools that combines references to a research base, a focus on different kinds of learners, and practical and easy-to-follow examples and suggestions. All of this is combined in Haiken’s refreshing, practical, authentic teacher voice. She is using these tools to help the young people in her world succeed and sometimes reflecting on her own journey as a reluctant reader whose own love of books and readings was not ignited until college. This book invites us to look over her shoulder, into her classroom, and learn from her. Who would turn down such an invitation?

The volume is usefully divided into chapters based on types of learners: struggling readers, reluctant readers, English language learners, and advanced readers. The final chapter, “Teaching All Our Readers at the Same Time,” reflects Haiken’s practicality and wisdom. As she notes, the “cacophony of students in our diverse classrooms benefits all student learners, because we learn from each other” (90). Classrooms are not made up of one narrowly defined group of readers, and the labels are useful only up to a point. As Haiken notes, “Bored students are at risk to become reluctant readers” (5). ELL readers can also be reluctant readers. You might select a particular idea in an attempt to support struggling readers in your classroom, for example, but Haiken reminds us that the other students may be just as intrigued and supported.

In each chapter, Haiken cites scholars in the field, but she doesn’t get bogged down in the research. She uses a choice quote or two from some of the major researchers to serve as a scholarly context for the strategies she discusses. For example, in her chapter on reluctant readers, Haiken focuses on the importance of visuals that can “serve as a bridge to print texts” (26). Here she discusses tips (from Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey) for close reading and their application with visual texts, visual literacy resources like The Jacob Burns Film Center, practical tools for uploading videos and embedding questions and interactive activities, and more.

Among many ideas in this chapter, Haiken highlights her own use of Tara M. Martin’s #BookSnaps. #BookSnaps are created on Snapchat, with photos combined with annotations, reactions, decorations, which can then be shared on social media with classmates. Included is an example from a student, so we can see exactly what Haiken (following Martin) means.

And at the end of the chapter (and for every chapter), Haiken includes a simple, useful table, pairing the teaching strategy (here, using visual texts to teach reading strategies) with suggested technology tools (like #BookSnaps) and relevant links.

There’s so much information, but again, Haiken is both wonderfully inspiring and practical. Her discussion of her Twitter book clubs for her middle schoolers includes specific directions (designate a specific hashtag for students to follow) and critical templates (like a Twitter Permission Letter and Code of Conduct for parents and guardians). And again, there is a sample of the teaching tool in practice – here, a piece of a chat about Leland Melvin’s Chasing Space among Haiken’s students, herself, and her school’s Earth science teacher.

If I were a teacher educator hoping to get my pre-service teaches to think creatively about using technology to reach the widest range of readers, if I were a novice teacher looking for a few new tools to help me reach a few more students in my classes, or if I were a veteran teacher (I am!) looking for a new innovation to introduce in the new school year, I would find Personalized Reading everything I wanted and more. If you are enjoying a few more days of personal development, check out this wonderful text.

Don’t forget to register for the NJCTE 2018 Fall Conference: Approaches to Writing, K-12! Featuring keynote speaker NCTE President Jocelyn Chadwick, the conference will take place September 29 at Kenneth R. Olson Middle School in Tabernacle, NJ. Register today!

Book Review: Personalized Reading by Michele Haiken

Tech Tuesdays: Organizing the Classroom Library with CheckItOut

by Kathryn Nieves

Tech Twitter Chat

Date: August 22nd

Time: 8:00PM

Next Wednesday we will be hosting a Tech Twitter chat. Start thinking about and sending in your technology questions so we can discuss them together. Please post your questions as a comment below.


Classroom libraries are staples of both the elementary and secondary language arts classroom. Having opportunities for students to self-select books for their reading definitely has its benefits when it comes to building motivation. However, setting up a check-in and check-out system can be difficult for teachers. There are a variety of apps that offer ways for teachers to set up their classroom libraries and the Google Forms add-on CheckItOut is one tool to consider.

As an add-on, CheckItOut only works within Google Forms. Once it is added, it is ready to use within the program. Open a new Google Form and fill in your title. Then, add a question asking for a person’s name. Make sure it is a short answer question and that it is required in order to submit the Form. You can also add a question for class period if you want to separate your classes.

Next, you need to enable the CheckItOut add-on. You can do this by clicking the puzzle piece and selecting “CheckItOut.”

CheckItOut 1

From the pop-up window, select “Add/Edit Question Set.” You can edit the check in/out name to “Book” and select the type of question you want. There are a few options you can choose from. If you select “Multiple Choice,” it means that the students can only select or take out one book at a time. If you select “Checkboxes” it means that students can check off more than one book at a time.

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When you are finished, select the blue “Add” button and the appropriate questions will be added to your Form. From there, you will have to input all of the titles from your library into the “Check out Book” section. If you do not want a huge list of books, you could always create separate Forms based on genre bins or the organizational system of your library.

CheckItOut 2

Adding titles is the most time consuming of the entire process. This list can be edited at any time. As new classroom library books are procured, you can edit or rearrange the list.

Once you are finished, you can test your Form by clicking on the eyeball icon on the top of the page.


Enter a name and check out a book in order to test your Form. Then, you need to refresh the page and you should see that the book you checked out has been removed from the “Check out” list and instead is added to the “Check in” list.

CheckItOut 3

You can view the statistics of your classroom by going back to the Form editing section (or clicking the pencil in the top right corner of the Form). You will see a second tab which indicates a numerical count of how many responses the Form has. Clicking on the “Responses” tab will provide a breakdown of the frequency to which each student checks out a book. You can see which books have been returned and are still checked out, as well.

If you want to view this information as a spreadsheet, click the Google Sheets icon at the corner of the “Responses tab.”


In the spreadsheet, you will see the student’s name, the book they took out, and the instance when they turned it in. You will also have a timestamp for when the book was checked in and out.

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This tool could be used throughout the year to keep track of books in the classroom library and also to see what types of books students are reading. When the year is over, you can clear the responses and start fresh for the following year without needing to redo the entire Form. To clear responses, go to the “Responses” tab and select the three vertical dots next to the Sheets icon. Choose “Delete all Responses” to start off the new school year.

CheckItOut 4

While the process of adding all the titles from the classroom library might seem cumbersome, the ease of using CheckItOut for classroom libraries outweighs this issue. The Form can be used year after year in the classroom and, with more schools going 1:1 with devices, is a great way for students to keep track of their signed out materials.

Tech Tuesdays: Organizing the Classroom Library with CheckItOut