The Hottest Posts of 2011 on the Innovative Educator

Well another year comes to an end. I am grateful to all of you have chosen to spend time here on my blog thinking and learning with me.  Here’s the roundup of the top five hottest posts on The Innovative Educator blog this past year and the top three from last year.

The hot topics of the year include listening to student voice, keeping kids engaged, Google+, and ADHD/ADD. Last years hottest posts included using Facebook in elementary school, what not to do with interactive whiteboards and strategies to break the ban on tech where you teach.

I hope there's something that looks of interest to you.  If it does, check it out, share it, and if you’re inspired, leave a comment.

The top five hottest posts of 2011
Sep 28, 2011, 49 comments                                              19,746 Pageviews
Jul 17, 2011, 16 comments                                                12,577 Pageviews
Feb 5, 2011, 22 comments                                                8,791 Pageviews
Apr 25, 2011, 20 comments                                               5,996 Pageviews
Jul 10, 2011, 32 comments                                                5,839 Pageviews

The top three hottest posts of 2010 
May 10, 2010, 37 comments                                              8,336 Pageviews
Jul 15, 2010, 20 comments                                                6,109 Pageviews
Nov 3, 2010, 7 comments                                                  5,593 Pageviews
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12 Most Useful Ways Kids Can Learn With Cell Phones

This article is cross posted in full at The 12 Most... site. If you'd like to read the entire article there, go here.
By Lisa Nielsen and Willyn Webb, authors - Teaching Generation Text.

We live in a world that is increasingly mobile. In order for adults to connect with our kids and students, we need to mobilize. Kids love their phones, they are highly motivated to use them (constantly), and they always have them right there with them (if they’re allowed). What a strong basis for an educational tool: empower students to use tools they already own as a means for better education!
The Disney Mobile Cell and Tell survey of more than 1,500 10-17 year-old cell phone users found that teens and tweens like their cell phones perhaps more than other luxuries in their lives.
“If they had to choose between their phone or something else:
● One-third would give up listening to the radio, playing video games or going to the    mall.
● Nearly one-fourth would give up their MP3 players.
● One in five would give up TV” (2007)
As a parent, imagine having the opportunity to help your child with their homework by encouraging them to text for help while waiting at the dentist office or on the way to dance class. As a teacher, imagine having a student respond quickly to a reflection-type question from the day’s lecture while checking their texts during a water break at basketball practice. For both, imagine having a mother learning through a text about the vocabulary test in her son’s biology class tomorrow so she can review with him as they drive to karate lessons.
Today’s phones can alert students to study, serve as a smart vehicle to take notes, provide instant, on-demand answers and research, and even provide a great way to record and capture student oral reports or responses to polls and quizzes. The family dinner table is fading, the homework hour is constantly challenged, and we are out and about (with our phones) more than ever.
Parents may need to take the lead in allowing their children to use their phones for learning and in educating their teachers and administrators of the value in working toward acceptable use policies. There are numerous ways educators and parents can empower students with the freedom to learn with a device they love using.
We want to share the ways you can start using cell phones to enhance learning. To follow are 12 of the most useful ways to support learning as adapted from the newly released book on the topic Teaching Generation Text ( These ideas will help adults discover how to engage youth with fun, free, safe, and easy methods using nothing more than a basic, text-enabled cell phone.

1. Pictures make it real with Flickr

When cell phones have cameras, a new world is opened. Your kids can take pictures of homework projects, research material, field work, activities, etc. for their own use or to share with others. Encouraging students to take pictures of discussion material shared on the board, on handouts if they are going to be doing homework in route, or just to make sure the material does not get lost and stays handy is a great use of the cell phone camera. Flickr provides a free, easy and efficient way to share pictures taken on your cell phone and group them into slideshows based on topic.

2. Use an online cell phone notebook with WeTxt

Most cell phones have a notepad tool themselves, but when you want to be able to print notes, organize notes, and keep a running record on your computer, a service like WeTxt offers a free way to add your online notebook and notebook sections to your contacts and you and your kids can text in notes anywhere, anyplace,

3. Capture oral assignments and thoughts with Google Voice

Google voice enables educators to capture voice messages from students without providing them with their direct phone number. The power of this kicks in when you realize that what Google Voice does is actually become a repository for oral reports, assignments, or sound bites. Not only is it a repository, but parents and teachers can write notes on each clip, share, and post them. This is obviously an effective tool for auditory learners.

4. Have an expert in your pocket with ChaCha

Imagine having an expert to turn to at any time for information, advice, guidance…for free! That’s ChaCha, an amazing service that will become invaluable to students and parents alike, works on any cell phone with every provider and enables students to ask any question and receive an accurate answer as a text message in just a few minutes.
You may want to caution students/parents that there may be advertising as part of the ChaCha message and teach them to be aware users by disregarding unnecessary inclusions. or text 242242
To discover eight more useful ways to use cell phones for learning check out the original article at The 12 Most... site.
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Prepare students with math they’ll need in the real world with YummyMath

Guest post by Brian Marks

Editor's note:  Those who have followed my math rants know that I am critical of the disconnected math skills taught in schools that take the subject out of context. I also am not a fan of the drill and kill math games like Mangahigh that are more interesting than math worksheets, but pay little attention to the real-world relevance of why these skills are necessary. In this post Brian Marks gets to the heart of the math problem by sharing a resource that puts real-world relevance at it's core.

I can still remember my own math classes as a kid.  I remember working out of a text book, listening to my teacher as she taught us three example problems so that we could do problems 1 – 43 (odds only) for homework.  Of course problems 1- 43 were all the same problem, they just had different numbers or letters in them.  At the time I thought they were just letters, but now I know they were variables.  Maybe at the time I knew they were variables, but did I know what a variable was?  

Let’s fast forward to the present.  What has changed? Often math classes still look the same as they did decades ago.  Students enter the room and check their homework, which is followed by direct instruction on some math skill that is meaningless to most of them.  Students get to practice a few problems in class and look forward to more homework full of practice problems and maybe some contrived word problems.  The only thing different today might be the availability and variety of math resources on the Internet.  Students might be using text books less and worksheets more.  The Internet is full of websites that provide teachers with skill worksheets that focus on algorithm practice, which means tediously doing the same procedure over and over again.  There are even some popular websites that help kids learn the steps to successfully work through an algorithm.  On some websites if you get ten of these problems correct in a row you get to move on to a new skill.  What is concerning is that many of the math resources on the web are simply making it easier for teachers to teach skill procedures and for students to memorize procedures.  We have yet to see sweeping changes in math education in terms of: student learning to conceptual development of math concepts, student discourse, critical thinking, number sense reasoning and a purposeful use of technology, all of which can help prepare students for the challenges of the real world.

How can we help math students to see that math is not a collection of isolated skills and procedures?  How can we help them to be better communicators, critical thinkers and problem solvers?  How can we engage them in mathematics and help them to see that math is an important tool that can be used to solve real life problems?  One online math resource,, has made it its mission to answer these questions.  The website creates and shares authentic math activities that focus on problem solving, critical thinking, intuitive reasoning, student discourse and thinking about math in context.  The creators of Yummymath write authentic math activities on sports, entertainment, world news, science, business and much, much more.  The site helps teacher and students break away from traditional math classroom routines and helps students see relevance in mathematics and better prepare students for the real world.  

Here’s how Yummymath does this and shifts the focus away from skills, procedures and direct instruction.

1.  Yummymath activities are written on a real life event, happening or situation that should be a familiar context to kids.  Instead of telling students how to solve problems, Yummymath allows students to investigate questions related to a particular real world context and then problem solve and explore concepts within that context.  This is the perfect solution for students who often ask the common math question: “When am I ever going to use this?”  

2.  Yummymath makes use of open questioning techniques.  Instead of asking students to simply solve a proportion or find a slope or calculate a mean, open questions allow student to reason, question and think deeply about a math concept.  For example, students could be given a mean and then asked to create several different data sets that would have that given mean.  Or students could be given the dimensions of an HD television screen and then be asked to give other dimensions of HD and non HD television screens.  Open questioning forces students to do more than perform a procedure. This strategy makes students think deeply about a concept.  You can learn more about open questioning from the book: More Good Questions, by Marian Small and Amy Lin.

3.  Yummymath focuses on concepts, not skills.  Procedural fluency is important, but we already get plenty of that in text books and from online resources.  A recent Yummymath activity on NFL franchise values provided the actual value of every NFL team in the league.  The data was given in several bar graphs, one for each division.  Students were asked to look at each division’s bar graph and consider how each bar would look if each team in a particular division had the same value.  Students were then asked to redraw each division bar graph, so that each team had the same value.  Students could have either transferred value around in the graph, “borrowing” from one team and giving to another or they might have added the values of each team and then divided by the number of teams.  The activity asks kids to reflect on their process and helps students to visualize and better understand the concept of “mean.”  Yummymath activities focus on conceptual understanding of math concepts.  Just as the NCTM and CCSS recommend, Yummymath believes that students should have some understanding of the math that they are doing.  Students should have time to explore concepts before memorizing the related algorithms or procedures.  This can result in students being able to better judge the reasonableness of an answer when it comes from a procedure.  It can also help students to rely less on procedures and more on a deep understanding of the concepts.

4.  Yummymath activities immerse students in real life problem solving.  Students use actual data or facts to solve problems and make decisions, a process and skill that will serve students well as they enter the real world.  Activities such as “The Light Bulbs are Almost Burnt Out” and “Diapers” ask students to use math as a tool to make smart consumer decisions.  Many Yummymath tasks ask students to enter into problems with no clear entry point.  Students have to grapple with how to make sense of the problem and how to proceed in solving it.  The problem is not clearly defined and it is not simply the same problem that the teacher told the class how to solve in the day’s lesson.  This is the same process that we go through in our normal lives.  When we encounter problems outside of school, we do not have a teacher training us on how to solve the particular problem.  We must make sense of the problem and persevere in solving it.  “If we want students to develop the capacity to think, reason, and problem solve then we need to start with a high-level, cognitively complex task.”  (Stein & Lane, 1996)  This type of math problem is called “Doing Math” and it is considered the most cognitively demanding type of math task. Implementing Standards-Based Mathematics Instruction (Stein, Smith, Henningsen, & Silver, 2000).

5.  Yummymath tasks are written in a way that will provoke different levels and types of student thinking.  For example, in the “Harry Potter Movie Franchise” activity, students use real data to determine which Harry Potter movie was the most successful.  The problem is open-ended and allows for students to solve the problem with various levels of sophistication.  Activities are set up in a way that promotes student discourse.  Students will naturally have different ways of approaching an authentic problem such as this.  When it comes time for students to share their mathematical ideas, they will have the opportunity to critique the reasoning of others and articulate their own reasoning.  This is one of the eight Standards for Mathematical Practice mentioned in the new Common Core State Standards.  Furthermore, these types of activities allow students to enter into two types of classroom discourse as described by Robin Alexander in his research.  One type of discourse is discussion, which he defines as “the exchange of ideas with a view to sharing information or solving problems” and the second type of discourse is dialogue, which he defines as “achieving common understanding through structured, cumulative questioning and discussion which guide and prompt, reduce choices, minimize risk and error, and expedite ‘handover’ of concepts and principles” (Research by Robin Alexander, UK, in 2008).
6.  Without question students need the opportunity to use technology as a tool in the problem solving process.  Several Yummymath activities are built around real life data and encourage the use of graphing calculators or similar programs.  Students use this technology in activities like “Monopoly” and “Super Bowl Commercial Costs” to better understand patterns and to make future predictions.  Other activities naturally lend themselves to using suggested Internet applications or Microsoft Excel.

Check out this video overview of YummyMath.

If you are looking for a math resource that breaks away from the norm of the traditional classroom resource, one that focuses on authentic math and problem solving, then check out Yummymath will help teachers make mathematics relevant and engaging to students. It will also help your students become better prepared to problem solve and communicate and collaborate with others in the real world.  Yummymath activities are written to reflect the CCSS and NCTM content and process standards.  If you are looking to help your students or child see relevance in mathematics or want to give them an authentic math learning opportunity, use a Yummymath activity with your child, student or class.  Check out  

Brian Marks is an instructional math coach in Newton, Massachusetts. He collaborates with and provides professional development for teachers.  Recently he has done a good deal of work with the Common Core State Standards around both the content standards and the standards of mathematical practice for his school district.  He enjoys creating timely and relevant math investigations for his students, his school district, and teachers that believe that math happens daily. He hopes these contributions will help bring current events and increased student motivation to your classrooms.        
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The Innovative Educator's Picks for the Google Chrome Extensions in The App Marketplace

I've been using Google Chrome for the past several months for two reasons. It's efficient and faaast! How fast? Faster than any other browser I've tried on the PC or MAC. Along the way, I've discovered Google Chrome Extensions in the App Marketplace which is a fantastic bonus. There are a ton of free apps that are great for productivity and education.

Here are my must-have productivity apps.
  1. Screen Capture
    Capture visible content of a tab, a region of a web page, or the whole page.
  2. Dictionary
    Double-click any word to view its definition in a small pop-up bubble.
    View the complete definition of any word or phrase using the toolbar dictionary.
  3. Scratchpad
    Scratchpad lets you take notes while you browse, and syncs notes to Google Docs. Notes are found in your "Scratchpad" folder in Google Docs. Works fully offline, so you can take notes even when you aren't connected.
  4. Aviary
    Aviary has a suite of products that enable you to edit images, create music, edit audio, and more.
  5. Picnik
    Picnik is photo editing awesomeness! There's a complete set of tools from basic fixes to professional quality effects and cosmetic touch ups.

Here are free education apps that innovative educators might appreciate.

  1. BioDigital Human
    The BioDigital Human is a 3D platform that simplifies the understanding of anatomy, disease and treatments. Interactive tools for exploring, dissecting, and sharing custom views, combined with detailed medical descriptions provide an unprecedented new visual format to learn about your body.
  2. Typing Club
    Learn how to type using all 10 fingers with this free app! No registration or installation required.
  3. Scientific Calculator
    A programmable scientific calculator.
  4. Element or Elementals
    Element is a detailed, fully-offline periodic table built for power users who need to find information quickly and want to have it at their fingertips. Elementals is a fun periodic table where every element has its own personality. 
  5. Learn Spanish with Qué Onda Spanish
    Videos by profession Spanish instructor explaining the details of the language • Interactive lessons with dynamic quizzing algorithm proven to making learning more efficient • High-quality audio by native Spanish speakers • Game-based conjugation trainer that makes the most difficult aspect of Spanish fun • Community question and answer forum
If you aren't using Google Chrome yet, you may want to give it a try. Not only is it efficient and fast, but it has lotsa neat, free and useful apps.
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My 12 Most Favorite Ways Unschooling Rules

In his book Unschooling Rules, Clark Aldrich sets out to teach those who’ve been schooled, a thing or two about ed reform with insights and lessons from the world of homeschooling / unschooling.  Aldrich and I share this passion and knowledge that there are many lessons to be learned by studying those who have opted out of school and taken ownership of their learning and their life. We had the pleasure to speak together on the topic in this webcast. The book does an excellent job of sharing what really works for quality learning by identifying and framing 55 guidelines to successful learning that home/unschoolers have uncovered.  

Here are my 12 most favorite ideas from the book.

Rule 6 - Avoid the false dichotomy of the vocational OR academic track
Aldrich points out that the two-tiered approach of an academic and vocational path is an immoral sorting system with crippling consequences that presents a false dichotomy. Instead, true wisdom comes from a synthesis of these two perspectives and more. Unfortunately, in the culture of high-stakes testing, this lesson has been lost on politicians and publishing companies looking for huge boosts to their egos and financial gains. Additionally, the new Common Core Standards is seeping its way into schools with the intent to force everyone down the same narrow academic track.

Rule 9 - Sitting through a classroom lecture is not just unnatural for most people, it is painful
Students are psychologically ravished daily by this onslaught. As a result, sadly they are often mis-diagnosed and drugged to keep sitting still and compliant.

Rule 10 - Animals are better than books about animals
When I met Peter Kowalke who is a professional filmmaker and writer I was surprised that he didn't begin reading until he was 11. He explained for unschoolers reading at an early age isn’t a big deal like it is for school children. The reason is that unschooled children get to do things, while school children read about doing things. Once he started reading he was soon on his way to a professional career that harnessed writing and filmmaking, when he, not an outside force, decided he was ready.

Rule 16 - Embrace all technology
Of course, innovative educators will agree and love this rule, but not only because we love tech. The rule makes sense because school life is supposed to prepare kids for real life and in real life there is technology. It’s time to stop keeping students trapped as prisoners of their teacher’s past and start empowering them the freedom to learn with the tools they own and love.

Rule 18 - One computer + one spreadsheet software program = math curricula
Brilliant. As someone who was forced to suffer through years of math that I never learned and loves the opportunity to tell math teachers this in #mathchat on Twitter, I greatly appreciate this advice. In her homeschooling blog, Penelope Trunk shares her experience with math that mirrors the experience so many of us have had. She explains how she excelled in everything but math throughout school and snuck into remedial classes. Her teacher told her, “When you grow up, don’t go into business." Today she is the founder of three, successful startups and a career advisor who loves building financial models. How could that be? It is because she used the real world math tool of the 21st century.  She says this: “Excel is amazing. It taught me how to think algebraically. And as I got better at Excel, the formulas showed me how to think in terms of possibilities, and the columns and rows taught me how to look for patterns in business models to evaluate feasibility.

Rule 26 - Biologically, the necessary order of learning is explore, play, then add rigor
Aldrich provides a great example of learning that most people can relate to: Swimming. It follows the best and most natural way to learn. Unfortunately, more and more our schools are ignoring this and what’s worse, recess, where exploring and play are at the core, is on a fast-track to extinction.

Rule 29 - Homework helps school systems not students
The main reason I’m not flipping over the flipped classroom is because I don’t believe in homework. The amount of homework has increased dramatically in recent years. Children are left with less time to explore their own passions because they are forced to do work they often do not care about. The time when there is daylight after school that was once used for play, time with friends and family, downtime, and/or learning about different fields through part time jobs, is often taken up with homework today. We need to release children’s hold from the curriculum when they leave school and provide them with the necessary time they need to be with friends and family, explore passions, and play. I share how teachers can help with this in #5 of this post.  

Rule 31 - Avoid the Stockholm Syndrome
It is not unusual for parents to see the traditional public school in their neighborhood as their only choice. Most recently I experienced this as I was speaking to a man in the airport when our flight was delayed two hours. After discussing my work as an educator, he shared with me that his daughter has become extremely depressed due to school and the doctors now want to medicate her saying she is bi-polar. He shared how she is smart, gifted, and creative, and wanted to know how he could get her to be okay and just finish school.  When I explained to him there were options outside of school, he just couldn’t wrap his mind around it...even though school did not lead him to the career he has today. He kept bringing the conversation back to how to make her better with school rather than consider giving her the freedom to learn outside of school. This is not unusual. I have run up against this before when parents can clearly see school is hurting their children, but come up with a million excuses to defend the school rather than consider alternatives. This is reminiscent of the Stockholm Syndrome when victims, who are under total control of a few all-powerful people, develop sympathy toward their captors.  

Rule 42 - Grouping students by age is just a bad idea
Not only is there no research to suggest that grouping kids by date of manufacture is effective, what's worse is there is research showing the detrimental effects of doing so. When we force children to move like widgets through a narrow curriculum regardless of developmental readiness, we can permanently retard their growth. Expecting all students to have the same aptitude in every subject at the same time is unrealistic. The consequence is students unreasonably left behind, perhaps because of one subject or one test and teachers unjustly being rewarded or penalized for an unreasonable standard that even our secretary of education and president admit do a poor job of assessing children.  Additionally, school life should prepare students for real life. In real life we are not grouped and sorted by the year stamped on our birth certificate.  

Rule 45 - Tests don’t work. Get over it. Move on.
School should be preparing students for real life and in real life there are very few tests. I haven’t taken one in nearly 15 years and I don’t plan on taking any in my future. If we don’t have tests in real life, we don’t need tests in school. Unschooled kids are lucky. They make it all the way through childhood without tests and can still manage to get into college should they choose. There are many more effective alternatives to standardized tests as well as better ways to know if students have acquired knowledge.

Rule 46 - The future is portfolios, not transcripts
There are thousands of young people Occupying Wall Street and beyond with nice little transcripts that got them nowhere. In the 21st century the transcript is a dime a dozen, but it doesn’t tell a college admissions officer or employer all that much about you. An ePortfolio on the other hand not only provides insight into a candidate, it also makes them searchable, potentially leading to future success. Schools need to get their heads out of the past and start preparing students with what they’ll really need for success.  

Rule 53 - Parents care more than any institution about their children
Parents often tell me about the struggles their children are having in schools that are all too quick to label children so they can be prescribed drugs that will help them sit still and comply. Unfortunately, these medications can have life-long negative ramifications and in many cases, it is the school that should be fixed to adapt to the child, rather than the other way around. This was the impetus behind writing my Fix the School, Not the Child guide. Unfortunately many parents don’t believe they should have a say in their child’s education and parents that do, like Gretchen Herrera, often fall victim to a virulent meme that Aldrich identifies. “Parents get in the way and are incapable of making intelligent decisions for their children.  Aldrich points out that this is the defense mechanism of institutions that cannot change and is as corrosive as any other form of discrimination. The reality, as this mom’s story exemplifies, is that parents care the most for their children and should have the right to inform how their child is able to learn.

Those are my 12 most favorite unschooling rules, but the reality is, I didn’t read a single rule without nodding my head in agreement. Especially when I read the conclusion to Aldrich’s book in his last very important rule which is the key to transforming education. You’ll have to buy the book to read that one though ;)

If my 12 favorite rules have peaked your interest, you can click this link to get your very own copy of Unschooling Rules by Clark Aldrich.  
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Emoticons Enhance Expression :)

Cross posted at Teaching Generation Text
Some critics of text messaging feel it is ineffective communication because it is void of emotion, lacking the message enhancements that tone of voice and nonverbal expression provide. Maybe those critics never received a love note. Yes, text messages are short, quick, and full of abbreviations. However, the back and forth nature of texting more closely resembles conversation than a note or letter. As we have seen, it is a combination of two forms of communication which has proven very appealing to teens and tweens. In addition to needing to find the right word to convey emotions A whole new means of communicating feelings and emotions has developed for use with texting called emoticons. Emoticons are symbols used to represent feelings. The use of emoticons in text messages makes them very effective in expressing the feelings that go with the words. In The Seattle Times David Silver, a University of Washington professor of communication who studies new media is quoted, “The beauty of language is that it’s infinitely morphable. The use of emoticons is amazing as a way of transmitting spoken language’s social nuances” (Dunnewind, 2003)

Of course, the nonverbals, which communicate much of the emotional content of a message, are not available in a text message. They have not been in e-mail, written letters, telegraph, or smoke signals either. Perhaps this condition encourages more expressive writing, better communication than a phone call or a face to face conversation, which can at times be too full of emotion. Rather than trying to read nonverbals, gain insight through tone of voice, or decipher feelings, in a text message we can use or see the feeling associated with the message through the use of an emoticon. 

There are websites that offer a glossary for emoticons. For example, at you can type in the emotion and search for the emoticon. This, however, can be a little time consuming, yet fun. There are shortcuts for emoticons for all of the major instant messaging and email sites, and most are also usable with cell phones. Many cell phones now come equipped with symbolic expressions such as various smileys. You may want to search around on your phone or ask your students to show you what is on their phones. You will find that any feeling necessary can be expressed in a text message, possibly more clearly than simple body cues, facial expressions, or tone of voice. Below is a list of common emoticons and the emotions they symbolize.

Emoticons and Emotions
X-( Angry
:-> Grin
Left-handed Sad Face
=) or :-) Happy
(-: Left-handed Smiley Face
O.o or :-S Confused
<3 Heart or Love
=/ Mad
B-) Cool
{ } Hug
^_^ Overjoyed
:_( or :'( Crying
:-| Indifferent
:-/ Perplexed
*-* Dazed
X-p Joking
=( or :-( Sad
:-( or :( Frown
=D Laughing Out Loud
:-P Sticking tongue out

Here is how Willyn Webb, co-author of Teaching Generation Text used emoticons in her practice as a guidance counselor. 
Text Talk: Classroom Stories

I've learned to pay attention to emoticons in students' messages. I had texted a girl I was concerned about when she was absent for four days in a row with a simple, "How are you?" She texted back: "fine :(" So I asked her why fine with the frown. She said she hadn't wanted to bother me, but she had found out she had cancer. Many times the emoticon offers enlightening information that can be addressed to fully support students.
For more ideas, resources, and workshops outlining effective ways to use cell phones in school check out Teaching Generation Text.
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