Glogster: At Best, A Meh

Like most educators, I feel a lot of pressure to be constantly trying out new educational tools that I learn about from colleagues, Twitter, and my Google+ communities (in fact, Ramsey Mussallam posted about this very pressure today).  So, today, in spite of its ugly name, and at the urging of my school’s Ed Tech guy, I gave Glogster a try.

Glogster is a visually-appealing, web-based app that allows students to make digital posters that include video, audio and images.  The upside is that students can use teacher-made (or teacher-selected) templates to create their work using the “Re-Glog” function.

ImageSo why only a “Meh?”  As a high school teacher, I found that Glogster is, at best, a substitution activity for teachers who are currently tethered to their butcher paper projects.  While it allows students to curate materials, and thereby enhances their research skills, it doesn’t  allow students to collaborate on the same document, so effectually, students are tied to collaborating in person, in the classroom.  And, the editing interface is a bit clunky.  Additionally, Glogster doesn’t allow comments, therefore bypassing the crucial step of evaluation and student reflection.  Oh, and it doesn’t work on an iPad.  Lastly, is the fee-factor.  While many web 2.0 tools use a “Freemium” payment scheme, wherein basic function is available to students and teachers for free, Glogster charges on a per-student basis, as tied to the teacher.  So, 10 students are free; 125 cost $99 and 250 students (with up to 10 teachers), cost $399.  While I’m not opposed to paying for sound, educational products, I am miffed that Glogster sets the per-teacher student load so low, particularly given the large class sizes in most schools these days.

So, I’m all ears: what are some good, collaborative tools for enabling students to visually share information?

Creating Audience

While providing students with an Imageauthentic audience for all of their writing is something with which I still struggle, I have been broadening my approaches to allowing students to share work with one another.  What I’ve found is that asking students to move between the roles of writer and reader with their own work has drastically improved their work.  Here are two quick techniques for creating an audience for students to share their work.

Satire-Off (Competitive Writing)

In this activity, students wrote mini-satires after a flipped lesson on satire made by Mister Sato.  Then, they competed in a bracket to advance against other students; those students who have been eliminated from competition serve as the judges in each subsequent round.  ThSatire Examplee competition was fierce!  This activity, while based in writing, also required students to take on the role of listeners in order to describe which authors would progress,  in line with the Common Core Standard for Speaking and Listening 11-12.3Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, assessing the stance, premises, links among ideas, word choice, points of emphasis, and tone used. 

This activity, in which students constructed satire through writing, and evaluated satire as listeners, then transitioned into an analysis of satire in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, leading in to Common Core Standard for Literacy RL.11-12.6 where students: Analyze a case in which grasping a point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meant (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement). 

Read Around Groups

This strategy, as suggested by Kelly Gallagher in his book, Teaching Adolescent Writers, asks students to compete more informally. After removing their names from their papers, and replacing them with an identifying number,  students circle up in groups of 3 or 4; each group passes their papers clockwise.  As readers, students discuss and choose the best essay from each group.  As a whole class, then, we read the top one or two essays, taking notes on what separates them from the rest, and using these to build our rubric.

Thus, students use their informal peer feedback, their perception of their peers’ essays, and our whole-class analysis of the exemplary essays to  develop and strengthen writing as needed by… revising, editing, [and] focusing on addressing what is most significant for a specific purpose and audience as asked by CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.5.  

Permission to Create

Bloom’s tells us that the highest level of cognition is creation – that in order to create, we must first be able to remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate and synthesize.   However, in my classroom, and I would venture to say, my school site, that step of creation is viewed as far less significant than the underlying steps.  In fact, oftentimes, we view creation-driven activities as “filler” or “fluff.”    Often, in English class rooms, we stop at “analyze”.  Analyze the text, the metaphor, the character, the author’s choice.  Occasionally, we venture to “evaluate”: evaluate the argument, evaluate the text, evaluate the issue.   Rarely, though, do we make the leap to creation.  And I have to posit that this is because, oftentimes, we value students’ questions and students’ ideas less than our own.

Recently, this issue came to light for me while building a unit calendar for my 9th grade Romeo and Juliet unit.  The unit is designed around asking students to brainstorm a contemporary, parallel situation with which to update Shakespeare’s work (a la Warm Bodies or West Side Story), and collaboratively re-writing, and potentially, staging our play.  To complete this task, students will need to understand the plot and conflict of the play, analyze characters and scenes, evaluate their authorial choices, and synthesize their work with their classmates’ in writing and conversation.  But I couldn’t get over the idea that this activity was somehow less rigorous than the traditional literary analysis essay asking students who is to blame for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet.

I’m lucky to have a very supportive department chair who pointed out the merit of this creation-based assignment.  And so I realize that the biggest hurdle between myself and my students’ highest levels of cognition is me.  So, moving forward, I’ve given myself – and my students – permission to create.

… And more lucky still, Kathy Schrock has already pointed out that there is an app for that.

Read Less, Read More

Public Radio International reporter David Freudburg finds that “The consequences of elevated stress levels for students include massive cheating (one survey showed 9 of 10 students admit to cheating), high rates of angst and depression, abuse of ‘study drugs,’ etc.” In my own English Department, we have similar findings: students increasingly choose to read Sparknotes, Shmooop or other study guides in lieu of reading their novels.  In our own student surveys, more than 60% of students regularly admit to using study guides in place of reading the text itself – not even as a supplement to the text.  And,  like schools everywhere, our students report a higher degree of stress and anxiety than previous generations of students.   And, like students everywhere, they manifest this stress in an increased number of mental-health related illnesses.

So, I’ve been crunching some numbers. Each semester, we ask lower division students to read at least four books; upper division students to read five.  Over the course of our instructional days, the reading load for some classes gets as high as 65 pages a night.  Granted, we have a rotating block schedule, which means that students have longer to complete the assignment.  But my gut reaction is that we’re assigning at least an hour’s worth of reading each night before our students have written a word or annotated a passage.  Because of this high reading load, I am also reluctant to assign any other type of homework, which puts an increased pressure on class time to write, reflect, discuss, learn vocabulary and grammar.

The feedback that I’ve gotten from some colleagues is this: If a student won’t read five books a semester, why will she read four?

I’m not ready yet to answer this question. I know I have a lot of research to do to convince some of my colleagues that by reading less (in terms of quantity), my students will read more, and the work that we do can become more meaningful and more rigorous.

What I’d love to know are your thoughts.  How have your schools worked to minimize student stress, and maximize student learning?

Take Two: Putting Writing First in the New Year

The new semester stands before us (insert your favorite clean slate metaphor here); the first semester of 1:1, in my case at least, behind.  Like bloggers everywhere, I was tempted to do a year-end round up, but in the flurry of getting up to snuff, tech-wise, I still decidedly feel that the big insights are just around the corner.  But 2014 brings with it the allure of starting fresh, and my hopes for my classroom are as follows:

  1. Give students the opportunity to write every day.  My plan is to start with a 5-10 minute writing task daily.  These may ask students to reflect on their reading, to creatively incorporate our vocabulary words, to respond to a short passage, or to ask and answer a question of their choosing.  Additionally, thanks to Kelly Gallagher’s suggestion in Teaching Adolescent Writers, I intend to ask students to write (and will myself keep) a writing notebook, in which they will be asked to write at least three pages a week for the first quarter, and five pages a week for the second quarter.  You can find my Google Doc Writing Notebook template here.
  2. Give students writing instruction at least twice a week. These mini-lessons will focus on craft, editing and grammar; hopefully, foiling our opening activities, so students will be able to directly apply these skills to their work in their writing notebooks.
  3. Actually use exit tickets:  They are so easy!  Just check out Catlin Tucker’s Google Form or Socrative’s exit ticket option. Also, exit tickets provide another opportunity to seamlessly incorporate more writing for my students.  I just need to be disciplined about creating the time.

Certainly, these goals are not tech-centered.  And I think that is with good reason: the tools we have for students shouldn’t be at the center of our instructional design, nor should they overshadow the skills that we’re asking students to acquire.  Instead, the tool should support the instructional goal.  What these goals do suggest about technology is what is at the center of our digital revolution: the written word.

I look forward to posting about our successes and failures in the coming months.  Here’s to a new year!

Two’s Company: Creating Authentic Collaboration

Two’s company, right?  Certainly, my students seem to think so. I don’t know about your classroom, but oftentimes, I ask students to work together – both in the classroom and at home – because they prefer it.  In a perfect classroom, however, I would like students to authentically reach out to their peers across our Google+ Community, commenting on work, and through in-document chat, to deepen their understanding and improve their work product, not just because I’ve asked them to do so.  One of the challenges I’m looking forward to as we embrace the Common Core standards and GAFE is creating ongoing, authentic opportunities for students to collaborate because it improves their product – and because the nature of the assignment demands it.

IMG_0050One success I’ve had so far in encouraging students to engage in this ground-up collaboration is the Twain on Trial assignment for my upper division American Literature class.  Certainly, this assignment is an old stand-by of many English and History classrooms: students were asked to put Mark Twain on trial for charges of racism in his novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  What Google Docs gave us, however, was the opportunity to collaborate on research, writing and performing both inside and outside of the classroom.  Moreover, classroom time gained a new sense of urgency and purpose as students worked to solve problems, negotiate roles, assign tasks, and confer with one another.  To organize their work, both the prosecution team and the defense team collaborated on their respective Google Docs to gather evidence and provide their witnesses and lawyers with testimony, questions, and rationale.  Once the assignment was finished, students returned to these documents to gather evidence for their individual verdicts assessing the trial.

Unlike other assignments I’ve given in the past, by its very nature, this  assignment demanded collaboration from the entire class because its end product was a performance in which each student played a role.  Moreover, during the trial itself, students engaged in a Today’s Meet chat in which the questioned, critiqued, and added to the content of the courtroom proceedings, furthering the collaboration and interaction of the assignment.  Because each student was a stakeholder in the activity, they were not merely passive observers, but informed participants.

Looking forward, I’m hoping to convert all of my final assessments into whole-class collaborative projects in which all students negotiate roles, contribute, evaluate, and revise.  Future ideas include:

  • Writing a whole-class, contemporary update to Romeo and Juliet (or any other older text) with smaller student groups responsible for each scene.  Each class period could stage their best scene for the other class periods.
  • With Their Eyes Were Watching God, acting as anthropologists to observe the natural behaviors, linguistic use, and rituals of our school site, then documenting these through interviews, video recordings and pictures on a shared website.
  • Examining the effects of illegal immigration and immigration reform in our community along with The Bean Trees to create a public service announcements or to appeal to our political representatives.


Linked In – Innovative Writing

How many times have you heard that as 21st century educators, our job is to help students to become curators of content – rather than just consumers?  Even the Common Core standards ask students to draw from a variety of sources both in their reading (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.7)  and in their writing (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.2a ) .  But, in my department meetings, these skills often are dismissed because teachers assume we address them in our lengthy research project.  As far as I’m concerned, though, what the Common Core standards are asking for is not just another research paper, but assignments that  really take full advantage of all that internet publishing has to offer.

This week, I collected two assignments that challenge students to curate, format and synthesize a variety of sources.  The first, for Freshman English, asks students to write an informative essay answering the question: What is the perfect ______?,  drawing inspiration from, a site that publishes how-to guides for the 21st century.  The second, in American Lit, asked students to create an infographic synthesizing our reading of The Great Gatsby and our research about the American Dream answering the question: is the American Dream still alive today?

With the freshScreen Shot 2013-11-11 at 6.37.31 PMman, this hyperlinked assignment served as an excellent opportunity to teach basic research skills, including Google’s in-document research function,  to talk about the reliability of sources, and to discuss document formatting and titles.  Students were able to choose any aspect of their lives to discuss, thus increasing their interest in the assignment.  Additionally, the peer evaluation process using Google Forms forced them to consider their audience and the efficacy of their curating.

In their feedback on this unit, students indicated that this assignment was among their favorite assignments of the semester, because it allowed them to pursue a topic of interest to them, and because it helped them to develop skills as content curators.

While  the American Lit students had seen infographics before, they had never spent much time thinking about their purpose or their format, so we started this activity with a form that asked them to examine several infographics.  In the process of curating and constructing this visual argument, the students struggled far more than I thought they would to visually represent their research – though I’m sure this is a skill they use regularly in their science and math classes.  Additionally, students struggled to make good use of titles and subtitles to convey their arguments – rather than just to correspond to components of the assignment.  As we move into the outlining and drafting stages of our traditional research project, I hope that the skills students honed in creating their infographics transfer to outlining and organizing a traditional research paper.  These students, too, used a peer evaluation form to assess each others’ work and to revise their own.

Screen Shot 2013-11-16 at 1.39.01 PMScreen Shot 2013-11-16 at 1.36.26 PM

Taking Note:

Thank god for The Simpsons.  Their 20-year run ensured that they had the chance to parody nearly everything under the sun – including The Odyssey.   With students finishing up their odyssey through the epic poem, this week, I introduced students to several contemporary allusions to the epic, including an episode from The Simpsons, the trailer from O Brother, Where Art Thou? and some clips from Spongebob Squarepants and asked them to

  • Identify what reference(s) does this piece make to The Odyssey
  • Examine how does this text re-interpret, or reimagine The Odyssey
  • Analyze what does this reinterpretation suggest about our cultural perspective on The Odyssey and what the reinterpretation suggests about our culture, as a whole


My hesitation about the activity laid in asking students to move back and forth between video and their response, but I was pleased with the forum that the web app provide: students can choose a video and type notes side-by-side, and, because students can logon to with their Google accounts, students can come back to their work for sharing, reviewing and revision because VideoNo.tes.   An additional, awesome feature of VideoNo.tes is that it pauses the video when students start typing  – so, effectively, it allows them to tag video evidence at particular times.  So, this tool seems particularly apt for addressing CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.7: Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text.  

With the iPad class, VideoNo.tes was less reliable, so I asked students to complete the same activity by commenting on the videos in our Google+ community, which also worked well, though it did not allow students to tag particular times in the videos.

Moving forward, I’m excited to use VideoNo.tes with student-produced videos, allowing students to comment on particular features or content of each others’ work.  One feature that I hope to see from the app is an ability to work on the same video note simultaneously for several viewers.  Currently, while the document itself is sharable, students cannot collaborate from several machines.  Additionally, only allows students to upload and view YouTube videos; I hope that the platform can be expanded to include videos from a variety of sources.

I hope this post encourages you to make more use of The Simpsons in your classroom!

Google Draw in the English Classroom

By many, Google Drawing is considered the red-headed step-child of the Google Suite: at best, it is a topic of interest, but most of us have never bothered to click that “Create” button and give it a try.

For me, Google Drawing brings the possibility of mindmaps and physical manipulation into the English environment without the overwhelming visual stimuli of Glogster.  That said, I have to offer the caveat that Google Draw does not work on iPads, though a web app called Lucidchart uses our Google account logons and allows students to collaborate on documents, though it does not have the stability to host large numbers of students on the same document.

While Google Draw is useful for any sort of basic drawing or concept-mapping, I find it particularly useful because I can create a student template with instructions for the assignment, then ask students to make a copy or distribute the copies using the Doctopus script.  This step of creating the template cuts down on “busy work” time and allows students to focus on the higher-order levels of thinking, including synthesizing information, creating relationships, and evaluating information because they are no longer responsible for inputting the data.

Some recent uses include:

Additionally, I could imagine using Google Drawing to create:

  • Timelines of events
  • Show relationships between key terms or ideas
  • Mapping out project roles for Project-Based Learning assignments

Hopefully, this post has inspired you to bring that red-headed step child into your happy Google family. Happy Drawing!

Google Docs Comments + Video = Magic

With up to 35 students in any class, and having previously taught as many as 43 in a single period, one of the biggest struggles I face is giving students meaningful, personal comments, particularly when it comes to writing assignments.  It’s a constant battle between making the same remark repeatedly, and offering the student a comment that speaks to his or her needs.

With Google Doc’s text expansion feature, I no longer feel the grind of making repeated comments, especially in regards to superficial grammatical errors.  Catlin Tucker provides an excellent overview of how to make Google Docs text expansion do a lot of the heavy lifting of editing student work with traditional abbreviations.

So, while I use text expansion to tackle superficial errors like pronoun agreement and MLA formatting, the comment feature of Google Docs is where I provide students with content and organizational feedback.  As Tucker suggests, I’ll keep track of these comments to students in a single document per writing assignment, thereby ensuring that I’m providing students with consistent advice, and consistently positive feedback (I don’t know about you, but somewhere after the 40th essay, I’ve been known to get a little sassy).  Here is my This I Believe Essay Feedback.

Where this gets particularly interesting is with Tucker’s suggestion of pairing comments with instructional videos and links.   This year, I’ve been putting her suggestion to work, creating or finding instructional videos for common student errors, including:

Suddenly, it’s possible to provide nearly instantaneous, individualized feedback to all  students, and to embed an intervention in the text of their work. Moreover, many of these videos work well as flipped lessons – or act as a reminder of a previous lesson that we’ve already had in class.  Because Google Docs so easily facilitates student revision – and because it’s so easy for me to track student changes – I find that this is an easy and effective way to deepen students’ learning cycle.

But what excites me the most about this synergy between Google Docs comment feature and YouTube is the potential for department alignment for student feedback and instruction.  One complaint that our English department regularly hears – and that I’ve heard at my previous school sites as well – is that teachers are inconsistent in terms of their writing instruction and feedback.  With the potential to share grading comments and instructional videos per assignment, and between grade levels, students and faculty are ensured consistency.  Moreover, there is a greater degree of transparency for all of the stakeholders.