What Happens When You Give a Chemistry Teacher a Cookie?

We know what happens “if you give a mouse a cookie,” but what happens “if you give a French/chemistry teacher a cookie?” She turns into a creative monster!

A few months ago, one of our Upper School chemistry teachers (who also happens to teach French) met with me in hopes to amp up a project that her chemistry students partake in annually. Traditionally, she would provide students with the same set of directions that would result in all of the students completing the same project. Her ultimate objective was to allow for more student agency within this project and provide students with alternative assessment choices. After discussing her learning objectives, we decided that creating a “Tic-Tac-Toe Choice Board” would provide students with room to be creative, demonstrate their learning, and even move outside of some of their comfort zones. We met for about 30 minutes, I planted a few seeds and ideas, and she created an amazing adventure for her students.

My favorite part of our quick meeting, was what truly came of it. Not only did she create this wonderful “pick your own adventure” project for her students, she saw creativity emerge from her students and quite possibly my favorite part – we were able to deepen our teacher/instructional coach relationship. I giggled when I received an email from her containing details of her project that was signed, “the monster you created.” I love when a 30 minute meeting results in creating creative monsters. She has seen so much success with this project that the idea of student agency has spilled over into other projects as well as her French class. My goal is always to plant one small seed at a time, one meeting at a time, step back , and watch that seed flourish into a beautiful flower. With a little watering and support along the way, that flower eventually becomes a beautiful garden filled with student choice, student voice, creativity and risk-taking. Go my little monster, go!

Chemistry Project Tic-Tac-Toe Board:

When assigning the project she explained to her students that she “firmly believes that everything you learn in chemistry builds upon previous concepts” and to “think of these projects as a review for the semester exam.” Students were asked to complete each project individually, but they were encouraged to collaborate with classmates should they want to discuss important topics, ideas or gain feedback on their project.

Directions provided to students for Tic-Tac-Toe Choice Board



High school students don’t read email, right? (BTW: Neither do teachers, but that’s a different story.) Why don’t they? Because that’s not their medium. Our students operate via text messages, Snapchat, and Vine, not email or even Facebook. If we’re going to communicate with students effectively, then we need to find a system that works for all of us.

Moreover, students don’t do websites. Personally, I’m a big fan of Canvas and Google Classroom, but LMS’s, in general, feel like static, old-school wikis that work well for people of a certain generation, but not so much for this generation.

I’ve heard a number of students complain about LMS’s, saying that they can’t believe they actually have to open a web page and click around. After using Google Classroom for nearly three quarters of the year, I still had students who were struggling to find the information that they needed.

Communication is a two-way street. Transmission of information is not communication. My beautifully organized Google Classroom pages and my articulate emails do not constitute communication unless someone out there receives it and understands it.

I’ve also tried Twitter as a communication tool, but it’s not feature rich. GroupMe and other apps and services have similar shortcomings.

In my quest to get information in the hands of students, I have to continue to try new tools, so this quarter I’m piloting Slack. (NOTE: Slack’s user agreement requires users to be at least 16 years old, so this may not work if you teach younger students.)

Slack is a cross-platform communication tool that at first, quite frankly, looks like a confusing morass of chat rooms and text messages. In effect, it’s a chat and direct message system that also has the ability to integrate with important applications (e.g., Google Drive) to give you a robust, yet simple communication environment centered on short messages distributed in a timely fashion.

Slack is used by a slew of corporations that you’ve heard of and a quick Google search or a look at their website will show you just how common it is in different companies. Since it’s something that students might encounter in higher ed, internships, or their future workplaces, I thought it would be a good idea not only to use it in class, but also to teach students how to use it.

Why teach them how to use it?

Well, this is one area where we often drop the ball. We believe that our so-called “digital natives” know how to do everything on a computer, but most high school students lack computer skills. Word processing immediately comes to mind. The idea, for example, of setting tabs to create a hanging indent for an MLA Works Cited page is absolutely obtuse to them. (I spend a great deal of time showing them how to drag the little triangle on the ruler to different positions.) I don’t believe we can, nor should we, give students a tool and then not show them how to use it.

Implementing Slack

In order to get students into Slack, I asked them all to login using their school email addresses and their real names. Then I turned them loose with an introductory assignment where they had to figure out a host of things to do. (NOTE: I stole this idea from Elizabeth Becker. I took her “Getting to Know Slack” assignment and modified it for my purposes.)

Within twenty minutes, most students had completed the checklist and managed to post a selfie of themselves giving a thumb’s up to indicate that they had completed the checklists. Students worked together to figure things out and all managed to complete the list.

What I’m looking forward to…

Quicker Messaging and One-Spot for ALL Student Communication.

Slack gives me the opportunity to fire back SMS-style messages to students in rapid fashion. I don’t need to worry about the formalities of email or logging into a website like Canvas. Student asks a question, I respond to it. Moreover, all of my electronic communication with students will happen in one app. No need to worry about whether they got my email or saw my comments on Google Classroom. It’s all in Slack and it’s all searchable.

Staying on Top of Student Work.

As students work at different paces through my Scarlet Letter unit, I hope to stay on top of giving them feedback by using Slack as a “real-time” feedback loop. I’ve chunked out much of the work of the unit into small assignments that students can complete and submit at their own pace and complete in a variety of ways. They will post their work to a certain channel in Slack. My plan is to take moments throughout the day to keep up with that.

In-Class Polls and Voting.

Slack allows me to create polls, have students vote on options, and +1 each other’s work. For example, in preparation for a class discussion, I can have students post potential discussion questions. They can then respond to those questions with emojis. The question with the most +1’s is the question that will start our discussion!

Emoji Grading.

In order to create a quick visual reference for everyone involved, I intend to respond to student work in Slack with emojis. Sounds crazy, right? Not really. As a fan of single-panel rubrics, I believe that students either meet the bar or they don’t. If a student submits something that meets the bar, then they get a thumb’s up. If it doesn’t meet the bar, then they get a question mark emoji with some more written or verbal feedback as to how they can improve. If they do an exceptional job, I give them a thumb’s up and a plus sign. My hope is that students will be able to look for their Slack messages and quickly see what work met expectations and what work didn’t.

Student Collaboration.

By instituting Slack, I am telling students that they are encouraged to collaborate on everything. I teach five different sections and I’m hoping that students will work together and use Slack to accomplish this. For example, one of my dreams is to hear about a student in an AP section pairing up with a student in a non-AP section to complete some assignment. I hope that Slack will open up a natural avenue for communication across all of my classes.

Quick Exit Tickets.

As I mentioned above, students are working through this unit at their own pace. Consequently, students spend a lot of class time doing different things. Some are working on one of the assignments while others are taking class time to read the book and still others are having conversations in the corner about what a particular passage meant. (I know. Sounds like a good dream, right?) In any case, as an exit ticket, I intend to ask students to leave me a couple of sentences in Slack telling me what they accomplished that day.

Automated Messages.

Slack apps allow you to create bots that will automatically post messages. One of the apps that I’ve integrated with Slack is Google Calendar. For each class day, I post the agenda in Google Calendar. The Google Calendar app on Slack will post the agenda for the day in advance so that students get a reminder of what to expect.

What I’m worried about…

Let’s face it: any time we try something new in our classrooms, we are destined to encounter some problems. I’m absolutely sure that something is going to happen which I haven’t foreseen, but here are a couple that I am concerned about.

New System That LOOKS Tougher Than It Is.

When you first open Slack, it definitely looks intimidating, especially for those of us that are tad bit techno-phobic. I am worried that some students will immediately be turned off by this fancy chat room.

Keeping It Organized.

Slack relies on search, plain and simple, rather than organization. I am worried that things will feel very disorganized. I tend to create classroom spaces in LMS’s that are hyper-organized. This will definitely take me out of my comfort zone.

Ideas and Feedback?

In a few weeks time, after braving my new systems, I hope to have some feedback from students that helps me to either ditch all of this or work to make it even better.

Do you have any ideas, questions, or feedback that you’d like to share? Feel free to respond in these comments or hit me up on twitter (@sbhebert).

Happy Teaching!

Stephen Hebert teaches American Literature and AP English Language & Composition at the Oakridge School in Arlington, Texas. Feel free to reach out to him via twitter: @sbhebert.

Providing Student Agency with Choice Boards in an Upper School Setting

As technology continues to evolve in the classroom, students are provided with more and more ways to represent their learning. Student agency, which “refers to learning through activities that are meaningful and relevant to learners, driven by their interests,” has become a must in our classrooms for the 21st learner. Providing students with voice and choice in how they learn has become imperative. As educators, we must continue to consider how we might allow students the opportunity to show their learning through writing, projects, videos, reflections and so on. There is no longer a “one size fits all” approach or interest level from our students. But how? How do we continue to meet our learners’ needs, follow our curriculum, and so much more, all while allowing for student agency?

Recently, I partnered with a French teacher who was looking to do just this. As part of her curriculum she has her students read “Little Prince” and in the past they have responded or reflected upon their reading through 6 various projects. For example, students would all respond to a prompt on Flipgrid. When we met, she said that her objectives were still the same (objectives first, technology second), but that she was ready to revamp the unit as a whole. She was ready to allow students to take the lead. As we dug deeper into her learning objectives, we wanted to keep student agency at the front of the process. In order to do that, we chose to create a choice board in which students would pick 4 of the 8 options throughout the unit to show their learning. One of my favorite options is the “Partner with a MS student” option. Students in her Upper School French class would partner with a student who is in French in Middle School, read an excerpt of the French novel, and reflect upon the excerpt with that student. What a great way to provide cross-divisional connections as well.   Screen Shot 2019-03-25 at 9.16.56 AM

Within our classrooms there are artists, writers, graphic designers, bloggers, athletes, performers, to name a few. Why not leverage those talents and interests in all of our classrooms as opposed to mandating the same project and outcome each time? By creating a choice board, she is allowing students to be in the driver seat of showing their learning in creative ways that interest them. We also chose to create an “other” category. Why limit them?  There may be a student who has a creative way to represent learning and growth and by providing an “other” category, we are not limiting their creativity or communication.

Throughout the unit, students are to look for two overarching themes in addition to specific themes for the set of chapters. When students choose a way to represent their learning from the choice board, they must also discuss themes, main ideas, symbols, lessons and so on. The French teacher is having her French students include English learning objectives in her projects!!! (Yes, that deserved three exclamation points.) She discussed the importance of wanting her students to recognize the fact that themes, symbols, and lessons exist in all books that we read – not just in an English class. Talk about cross-curricular!

As students work through the 6 units while reading the novel, they will work in pairs to discuss the units. However, each choice board above is completed on an individual basis. For the 2 units that the students are not choosing an option from the choice board, students will be choosing a more traditional assessment – reflection paragraph, quiz, oral presentation, etc. Upon completing the novel, students will write 2 in class essays as well as participate in class discussions.

Project Requirements/ Explanations:

all work will be done EN FRANÇAIS


  • use Canva
  • Who is your audience? How would you give them the important facts about this unit?
  • What visual representations would help support your unit discussion?

Literary Comparisons

  • Find 3 works of art (movie, tv show, song, books, etc.) that you can compare to a character, event, lesson, etc
  • Think about the themes of le découvert or la quête
  • You will write 2 reflections and give 1 oral presentation


  • Using information from the unit, create a scrapbook page that would allow your audience to reminisce upon the importance of the chapters in this unit.
  • Include quotes (and your explanation of their relevance), the lessons taught (with examples), key events, etc.
  • Your page must be aesthetically pleasing.

Travel Brochure

  • Create an additional destination for LPP as he travels – be creative in what format you use!
  • Where would he go? What would the planet look like? Who would he meet?
  • What new message would he learn OR how would a lesson from the unit be recreated while staying true to the themes from the unit?

Partner with a MS Frenchie

  • Choose a brief excerpt from the unit.
  • Create a reading discussion guide for the events, key ideas, etc.
  • Meet with and read the excerpt
  • Discuss (perhaps in a formal interview, open ended questions, or some other idea)
  • Reflect on what you observed, what the MS student expressed, what you learned from the experience
  • Hand in your written reflection on the process

Cultural Connection

  • There are so many different ways to read LPP, research the author, the historical context of the novel, a philosophical reading of the text, etc.
  • Reflect on your findings and the connection(s) to the characters, themes, ideas from the unit
  • Present your reflection ORALLY to Mme Tate


  • Choose a way to represent your learning that is not listed on the choice board.
  • Share idea with me for approval.
  • Let the creativity flow!

Board Game

  • You may work in groups (no more than 3 students) or alone
  • Create a “board game” to review the characters, events, symbols, lessons, etc.
  • You may choose this for any unit, however can only be done upon completion of the ENTIRE book

Works Cited:


Pop-Up PD Approach

PD isn’t always a teacher’s favorite way to spend their time. Which truly brings a tear to my eye; okay maybe a little dramatic, but considering the fact that trainings are one of the best ways to learn new, fun, and innovative tools to use in our classrooms, there has got to be a better way to do PD, right?!

Since providing on-site PD for our teachers is one of my responsibilities, I began to ponder PD on our campus. I wanted PD to be:

  • quick
  • meaningful
  • collaborative
  • not a “sit and get”
  • a time to truly explore the topic at hand

Considering my goals and the culture at our school, I decided that the Pop-Up PD approach would be worth a shot. Every 2-3 weeks I offer two optional Pop-Up PD dates and times. I offer an a.m. option and a p.m. option on the same topic allowing for teachers to pick which time fits best in their schedule. During this meeting I promise a 10 minute timeline to discuss the topic, explore, and share thoughts. I set a timer and stay true to this 10 minute promise to ensure trust and respect of their time. After the 10 minute timer, teachers are welcome to stay and continue chatting, or are welcome to get back to the grind.

When considering topics for the sessions, my goal was to keep it on trend with our expectations of our teachers on our campus. At Oakridge, we have a document titled “The Oakridge Classroom Environment” in which clear expectations of an Oakridge classroom are defined.

The Oakridge Classroom Environment…

  • embraces hands-on learning and authentic experiences.
  • encourages students to find their voices as they develop and share their passions.
  • engages in a meaningful and timely feedback loop.
  • facilitates the exchange of ideas and experiences within a global community.
  • fosters digital organization, literacy and citizenship.
  • inspires inquiry, creative thinking and problem-solving skills.
  • nurtures a warm, positive culture based on respect, responsibility and empathy.
  • promotes character development and leadership skills.
  • provides a variety of learning tools and resources, both inside and outside the classroom.
  • supports a blend of established and progressive teaching methods

Click here to read about my first Pop-Up PD session.

Providing Student Voice Through Mentimeter

Looking for a way to gauge student understanding, gain input from all students not just your vocal students, or a way to create an active learning experience for all students? Mentimeter might be just what you are looking for!

What is Mentimeter?

Audience interaction system

Why use Mentimeter?

  • Poll students to gauge understanding and engagement level
  • Understand student’s view on subject
  • Get input from all students, especially your quiet, more reserved student
  • Warm-up activities
  • Creates and active learning experience for all students

How can you interact with audience?

  • Multiple choice
  • Image choice
  • Word cloud
  • Quiz
  • Scales
  • Open ended questions
  • Questions from audience
  • 100 points
  • 2 by 2 matrix
  • Who will win?
  • Quick form
  • Quick slides
  • Reactions

Ideas on how to use Mentimeter:

  • One Word Splash: students submit a one-word summary of today’s lesson (note: when setting up question, choose to have results displayed as a word cloud)
  • Word cloud: teacher projects one word on screen (perhaps a vocab word or word related to a novel) and asks students to type first word that comes to mind when you see that word
    • Mentimeter generates a word cloud and the words that were mentioned the most are largest on screen
  • Icebreaker: open class with question to spark discussion relevant to what you will be discussing in class
  • Exit ticket: ask open-ended question to see what students learned that day
  • Check for understanding: ask open-ended or multiple choice questions that align with material you covered in class to see if they understood topic
  • Student choice: allow students to choose next novel or vote on next project
  • 2 Question Trivia (2Q Trivia): students do students watch a quick video for homework (EdPuzzle, screencast, flip grid…) and during your homework video lesson teacher mentions a random fact – where they ate for dinner
    • Next day, use Mentimeter
      • Q1 – random question about where you ate dinner to see if they watched entire video
      • Q2- question about the information they gained from watching video


  • Free version – limited number of questions
    • 2 questions per presentation
    • Unlimited audience size, presentations, quick slides
    • 5 quizzes per presentation
  • Basic version – $7.99/month
    • Unlimited questions per presentation, export and total ownership of data
  • Pro version – $19.99/month
    • Everything unlimited
    • Customize presentations with your brand and logotype

Hit, Stay, or Bust- What does it really mean to take risks in the classroom?

Should I hit or stay? These are questions that come to mind when playing Blackjack, a game that revolves around risk-taking. With that question comes the hopes of a big win, but at the cost of a potential big loss.

Recently, a colleague and I co-presented on risk-taking and decided to hook the audience from the get go with a quick, simple game of Blackjack. Like any good planner, we intentionally stacked the deck with cards that call for someone to hit, split, and stay. After one round, we paused and asked the players why they made the decision they did. Their responses could not have been better! First response, “I hit because of past experiences.” Bingo! That comment led us into asking her, “So you hit because you have played Blackjack before and you knew that the game called for you to hit on that particular hand? You knew that your chances were good?” “Yes!” “Would you say that students in our classrooms choose to take risks, or not to take risks for that matter, based on past experiences?” “Absolutely!” “So would you say they are more likely to take a risk again if the first time goes well?” “Yes.”

Player 2 had a perfect hand that called for them to split their cards, but they did not in fact split so we asked, “Why did you not split?! You had the perfect hand to split!” She responds with, “Well unlike player 1, I don’t have experience in Blackjack so I have no clue what I am doing,” insert a small giggle here. “Aha! So would you say that our students are less willing to take risks in the classroom if risks are not encouraged?” “Yes, I would agree with that!”

Naturally these conversations quickly led us into a debrief of why students are apprehensive to take risks inside of our classrooms and what must exist within a classroom for students to want to take risks.

Why are students afraid to take risks?

  • fear of failure
  • fear of not looking “perfect” on their resume for colleges
  • society (You get a trophy! You get a trophy!

Let’s talk about society. How many of you see this image and your blood boils a touch?


Over the past decade, society has begun to think that creating a life filled with bliss and no obstacles, is just what their child needs in order to succeed. Lawnmower parents, as they have been coined, mow down any obstacle, or struggle that stands in their child’s way thinking that they are providing a better life for their child. They take away any chance to teach grit, growth and learning from failure.

Failure. Let’s talk about that word. When a student fails a math test, fails at turning in an assignment on time, fails in the science lab, what is the outcome? Many times the outcome is that it was the teacher’s fault. “You gave my child an F!” When in fact, the outcome should be the opportunity for the student to rework the problem, to catch his/her mistake, to find the solution to the science lab and truly understand the concept behind it. Failure, I would argue, is truly when learning happens. When our brain absorbs the process and imprints it into our memory.

Safety, comfort, and space – 3 things that must exist in our classrooms in order for our students to not only feel encouraged and supported to take risks, but to then take the actual risk. Our students must know that when they fail we will respond with, “What do you think you could do differently next time?” Or, “Wow! I am so proud of your efforts and I can see your thinking. What can we change next time to have a better outcome?” Instead of, “You’re wrong! That is not how I showed you to solve this.” We, as their support system, must create an environment built around safety, comfort and provide space for them to fail forward.

What examples of risk-taking happen within your classroom?

Inspiring Inquiry with “Fakebook”

We have all heard of (and more than likely used) Facebook. Right? Well, why not adapt Facebook to the classroom in order to inspire students to inquire and think creatively in an authentic manner?

Our 6th grade World History teacher did just that. He was looking for a way to have his students research and share information about a well-known person from history in a truly authentic and higher level manner- something other than your typical history research paper. I shared with him a Fakebook template that was created in Google slides (note: I did not create this template.). Students simply make a copy of the template (pictured below) and input the information that goes along with the person they researched.

*Suggestion: Encourage students to delete one textbox/image at a time. If they delete all of the information at once then they will lose the skeleton of the template and it becomes very confusing. Our workflow looked like this: delete JKF’s image, insert new image. Delete JFK’s name and description, input new information. And so on until you have created your own fakebook.

Inspiring inquiry and creative thinking:

In your typical research project, students research and basically regurgitate the information in paper or presentation form. But, do they really think at a higher level? Do they understand why that person’s life occurred in the manner that it occurred? By having the students research and then create the Fakebook, they were forced to not only research, but to truly absorb and understand the information. How can you write a post about what that person is doing in real-time, or post a picture of that person’s group of friends if they did not absorb and understand that person’s life? The Fakebook project truly took learning to a higher level of learning in which the students truly had to own their learning.

To use the Fakebook template that we used (we did not create this template), click here. To then create your own fakebook, follow the steps below:

  1. Click file
  2. Click make a copy
  3. Rename the new copy with an appropriate name/title

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