About Danielle Zipkin

Danielle Zipkin (Chicago ’12) spent two years teaching secondary English Language Arts at Schurz High School after teaching Humanities at the Boston Arts Academy. In 2014, she returned to her home state, New York, to begin her work at the Central Queens Academy middle school as a founding English teacher and Spoken Word Slam Poetry coach. She earned her Bachelors of Arts in English with minors in Secondary Education, and Theatrical Movement/Dance at Brandeis University, and most recently earned her Spoken Word Pedagogy teaching certificate through Concordia University.

Four Tips for Teaching Vocabulary (for Non-ELA Educators)

word wall

You might be wondering what an ELA teacher could possibly teach a non-ELA teacher about the classroom. I’ll be honest: not much. I can’t teach you anything about your content, your standards, or your resources that you don’t already know. However, if your job is like mine, it includes catching up students until they perform at grade-level, in addition to teaching the content that is on grade-level. Though I have only taught for a few years, I have learned one classroom-changing lesson: the achievement gap is a literacy gap.

So how do we fix this? Well, none of us can do this alone, and we won’t bridge the gap overnight. However, if a huge part of the problem is low-literacy, we need to help our students become literate. The most direct way to make an impact is to make time and space for your content vocabulary.

Tip #1: Build a Word Wall

Making space for a constant visual presence of your content vocabulary is key. Even if you don’t have time to spiral back to a certain concept, your students will gain familiarity simply by looking at the words from that concept every day. Word walls can take a variety of forms, so if your classroom is lacking in wall space, get creative and use the ceiling, furniture, or door. They are so easy to make and tend, you can even appoint a student or team of students to design and implement them. If you have time and resources, you can laminate the words to make prep even easier for next year. Not creative? Check out Google Images or Pinterest; they have you covered.


Tip #2: Develop and Teach Memory Tricks

Because we are so familiar with our content, it is hard for us to remember what it’s like to learn a new set of vocabulary words in at least four different classes each day. It is our job to help students learn the language of our classrooms. When an important word comes up in a reading, question, lab, activity, or slide, we need to stop and invest the 30-seconds it takes to teach the word.

If I’m a science teacher and I know my students need to know what a neutron is, it would be beneficial to underline the “neu” and explain that that prefix means neutral, which relates to the charge. A math teacher might write the word “axis” with arrows at the end of each point on the “x” to visually create an axis. The point is to help students remember what the words mean as they learn them so they are prepared for the performance tasks that assume they have that knowledge. Trust me: 30 seconds of explicit teaching on the front end will save time and explanation when you pass out the exit ticket.

Tip #3: Make it Engaging

There are so many vocabulary games that work well in classrooms. I’ve never taught a class from 7th-12th grade that didn’t get excited about “the flyswatter game” in which students race to slap the correct vocabulary word when the teacher reads out clues. My middle schoolers especially love WORDO, which is exactly the same as BINGO, only their cards have vocabulary words and concepts instead of numbers, and the teacher announces definitions, synonyms, antonyms, or examples. Personally, I love lessons that are low prep and high engagement. This is why I play Pictionary and Charades with my content specific words and concepts. Teachers who have block scheduling have an advantage because they can reinforce vocabulary in this way every week. For teachers who don’t have as much time, vocabulary games are easy, fun, and effective to do during a review session before unit quizzes and tests.

Tip #4: Give Them the Resources

When students can look up information, they will perform with more confidence. If your students can handle it, give them the power to look up unknown words and ideas. If you have a low-tech classroom, secure some dictionaries for students to use along with a set of expectations so that students can feel autonomous in seeking out information without disturbing the lesson. If you have technology, a class iPad or laptop (or a set of them) makes looking up words convenient and engaging. When I taught in Chicago Public Schools, I had neither option, and so I set up expectations and norms that allowed my ELL students to use their cell phones for vocabulary clarification. Not only did I never have a misused phone (this was my reward for threatening some nasty consequences), but the quality of work also improved drastically from spelling to analysis because of this tool. Resources give students the freedom to pursue knowledge, and they give you the freedom to maximize the time you would normally be wasting explaining the same words over and over.

Maimonides famously said “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Though I once instinctively agreed with this precept, I have also learned the value of giving the man a fish. After all, how can people feel motivated to fish if they don’t know if they like the taste? Give the students a fish by explicitly teaching vocabulary. Make a big deal out of it! Break down the words, put them on the wall, and use them to play games. Then, once students have a solid foundation to build upon, they will become motivated to research words themselves. Instead of picking out the only words they know in a reading, they will pinpoint and wonder about the only words they don’t know. This change of habit will prove that our kids have jumped across the literacy gap to reach the side on which they belong.

Photos via Flickr, Buzzfeed
By |February 5th, 2015|General Pop, Teaching Tips|Comments Off on Four Tips for Teaching Vocabulary (for Non-ELA Educators)|

How to Use Social Media in a Low-Tech Classroom


Sarah Varland uses Twitter to show multiple character perspectives from the same play in her 9th grade classroom at Schurz High School, 2014.

No tech? No problem. Even if you’re teaching in a low-tech school, chances are your students know the basics of popular social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. As an ELA teacher looking to engage struggling and reluctant readers, I have been able to use modified versions of social media in the classroom without any technology at all. Here are a few ideas:

1) Facebook Profile Printouts

What they are: Empty graphic organizers in the format of a Facebook profile.

Linking to Common Core: Assess understanding of characterization by having students use textual evidence to complete one of these. You can also assess basic comprehension of a biographical article by attaching one of these organizers as an accompaniment.

What to do with them: Though many of my colleagues have created their own, there are many options already available online! When creating a character portfolio or scrapbook, these are a fun addition. I have also seen them posted on walls with yarn showing which characters are “friends” with one another within a given text. I have used them in non-fiction units, too, when students researched a political leader to compare and contrast with a leader in Lord of the Flies. It was much more interesting for students to compare and contrast the created profiles of Jack Merridew and Fidel Castro than to simply complete a Venn Diagram.

2) Tweet Sheets

What they are: Slips of paper with space for a username and 140 characters, meant to simulate a tweet.

Linking to Common Core: Assess understanding of summary or theme by having students use their own name as the username and “tweet” a summary or theme of what happened in the text. You can also have students use character names as usernames and post character feelings and reactions from that character’s voice to assess characterization, point of view, tone, or how elements in a story interact.

What to do with them: One of my creative colleagues, Sarah Varland, posted the tweets (pictured above) that best fulfilled the objectives on one of her whiteboards that was sectioned by character. This helped her students visualize character experiences side by side, which was extremely helpful during Romeo and Juliet. Instead of students struggling to remember major plot points from day to day, they could simply look at the “feed” on the whiteboard for a helpful and engaging reference point.

3) Instagram Tableaus

What they are: In hard copy form, this could be a sketch of a scene or a posed photograph followed by writing space with a 2,200 character limit. If you were to go paperless, you could have groups of students tableau, or pose for a still image, while one student reads the caption aloud.

Linking to Common Core: Assess understanding of summary or main idea by having students create tableaus and posts determining the major plot points in a reading. Have students use character names as usernames and thread their feelings and reactions onto other students’ posts using that character’s voice to assess characterization, tone, point of view, or how elements in a story interact. Assess theme by having students create a series of posts and comments that are all thematically connected.

What to do with them: Like the Twitter feed can be posted in the classroom, I posted my students’ Instagram tableaus on the walls of my own. From there, students can post comments on post-its, add on using the same hashtags, or like the posts. This can work when students use their own created usernames and interact with events of fiction or non-fiction, or this can work when students interact by embodying a character and using a username based on that character. In my classroom, we posted as ourselves reacting to the events and characters within A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Though I only used examples from ELA, there are so many possibilities of modifying these activities to reach other content areas. To all of you looking to engage your learners without technology, happy modifying!


By |January 22nd, 2015|General Pop, Teaching Tips|Comments Off on How to Use Social Media in a Low-Tech Classroom|