easy peasy: Google Page Creator

In yesterday’s post I briefly discussed how teachers can develop a web presence using blogs and wikis. Many school districts offer web pages for teachers, but they are severely limited in scope. Use what the district offers to link to your own site, where you will have much more flexibility. Price need not be an issue: blogs at WordPress.com and Blogger.com are free and come with many features. PBwiki offers a free wiki as well. I’ll talk later about these platforms, but I want to start with what I think is the easiest option: Google.

Google’s entire philosophy is based on easy-to-use, easy-peasy, as that cute British cook Jamie Oliver always says. The beauty of using Google for education is that you can integrate as many of the applications together as you need. Start by signing up for gmail. If you did nothing else on the web, you would still be far ahead with gmail, which allows your students to communicate with you, send you assignments, etc. Gmail has a very simple and efficient tracking system so that you can easily retrieve past communications, and you have enough space so that you never have to delete anything. Gmail also has an effective spam filter, and is therefore a good option to offer to your students for email communications.

Once you’ve got email under your belt, you can set up a page on Google’s Page Creator. This page would be the go-to place for your students to find assignments, syllabus, class rules, interesting links, etc. And it is very simple to set up. Google allows you 5 different sites with each gmail account, however, you probably don’t need more than one. Use the opening page to lead your students to their distinctive class or grade level pages.

It’s free, and it’s easy.

step into the net

Thursday I proposed a lesson in poetry using aspects of multimedia. The convenient thing about using technology is that you can ‘layer’ your approach, depending upon your comfort level. Time is always a factor in preparing lesson plans for the classroom. What will have the most effect for a more streamlined effort? The setup part need not be overwhelming. Okay, so how would you go about putting that poem up on the net?

Perhaps you’ve settled on a lesson to discuss the poem. You could assign a first reading away from the classroom, as homework. Then, open the next class with a freewrite about what they think it’s about. Of course, they could read the poem in the textbook, but they would lack the enhanced attributes of the version I constructed. How much better to have that appear on a website.

A blog, such as this one hosted by WordPress, is one possibility. You could construct separate blogs for each of your classes, or you may be able to simplify by using pages within a blog which link to particular information for each class. You break it into grade levels. Maybe you teach two tenth grade classes and three twelfth grade classes. Maybe you teach Composition 101, American Lit 150, and Shakespeare: the early plays. WordPress blogs are fairly flexible and can accommodate most of what you will need. Another possibility is a Blogger blog. They are both useful and are priced for teachers: free.

Another platform for your class is a wiki. I have used pbwiki as a web presence very successfully. Will Richardson, over at weblogg-ed has this to say about wikis as a means for teachers to connect with one another:

I know it would require some front end loading, but if districts were using wikis to house curriculum and encouraging teachers to work off of them as they move through the year, noting, tweaking, fine tuning, reflecting, etc., it would be one way that they could begin to make good use of a Web 2.0 tool and make it easier to connect to what other folks are doing.

He suggests this as a means to introduce the idea of using wikis for communication, a practice that would naturally expand to including students. From my own experience, I found it a great way to store lesson plans and presentation materials. It becomes a repository for information. Richardson suggests that teachers start by using wikis amongst themselves, building that repository, in order to make teaching easier.

And when you think about it even for just a few seconds longer, it’s not hard to come up with all sorts of other ways to create a rich curriculum “text” if you will that could include videos of lessons, links to resources and artifacts, and the general throwing around of ideas that could potentially deepen the impact of what’s happening in the classroom.

argument in the driver’s seat

When I taught a year of high school, I had my tenth graders write an argument essay about whether or not driving while talking on cell phones should be banned. We researched the topic, discussed our findings, held a classroom debate, and wrote the essay. It was a great assignment because the topic was something they cared deeply about, considering that most of them were close to getting their driver’s license.

For the debate, I made them memorize some of the facts and statistics from the research, so that their responses wouldn’t devolve into unsupported nonsense. It made a big difference, and I was impressed by their articulation backed by passion. By the time we held the debate, most students agreed that cell phones should be banned while driving, so I had to divide the class evenly to take each side. There was grumbling from those who couldn’t support their particular stand, but they all did a remarkable job defending the assigned positions. Even after the bell rang, I heard them out in the hallway pontificating.

One of the arguments in favor of talking on a cell phone while driving was that it was no different than talking to a passenger. I wish I had had the benefit of this study showing that not to be the case.

linking intelligence

One of the advantages of technology in education is the way in which multimedia delivers literacy. This can be as simple as portraying a poem by William Wordsworth, “The world is too much with us.” This is a static rendering, similar to what we might find in a book.

The world is too much with us
by William Wordsworth
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours.
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon !
This sea, that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers–
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A pagan, suckled in a creed outworn,
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus, rising from the sea,
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

A more dynamic use of media to enhance understanding of this poem is to use links. For example, I’ve placed a link in the poet’s name in order to provide biographical background. If you allow the cursor to linger on the link without clicking through, known as a flyover, you’ll get the briefest information about the poet. Once you’ve clicked through, you’ll find a page-long biography written by a university scholar.

The flyover feature provides a very useful function in that it answers a question that may form in the reader’s mind, without the reader having to leave the ‘page.’ [Note: not all linking mechanisms are capable of producing flyovers. Google docs does.] This feature is reminiscent of books of poems that contain word definitions placed in the margins by editors.

Clicking on the link provides a deeper level of information, but it does not stop there. The linked page itself (www.victoriaweb.org) provides many further links. Conceivably, you could follow them ad infinitum to receive a wealth of information about the Victorian Age. The point is, depth through linking is almost limitless.

Now, read the poem, allowing the cursor to ‘flyover’ each of the links as you go. Even if you know the definitions, seeing them can help you to understand the meaning of the poem. By clicking through any of the links in the poem, you can gain even greater understanding. Most of the words link to Wiktionary, an online dictionary which provides etymologies and other useful information about each word. The links for Proteus and Triton take you to a discussion of Greek gods in Wikipedia, surely not comprehensive, but a start to knowledge that will help us get through the poem. The word lea is understood better through a visual, so the link takes us to a photo (from Google images).
Has our understanding of the poem been helped by these simple tools? Perhaps. What about comprehension? Probably not. However, if we learn best by answering the questions that come up in our minds as we are reading, then the linking tool certainly provides convenience. We use intelligent linking to answer our most immediate questions.

a win for the copy detector

I’m ambivalent about using plagiarism-detection sites, but teacher friends who do use them assure me that they’re invaluable. Yes, we can design their assignments in such a way that we are familiar with all the material that is used for essay research, thereby making it more difficult for students to cheat. However, the biggest temptation is that students will use the same essays previous students turned in. To create a completely new syllabus for each class every semester is insane, yet we have so many students that we couldn’t possible be certain whether or not we’ve seen the same paper before.

Is plagiarism that much of an issue? You bet. Best selling memoir authors are frequently caught in the act, causing much embarrassment in the publishing world. Scientists steal words from each other’s journal articles. Even an assistant in the White House was recently forced to resign for his plagiarizing. Writing is hard work, and the temptations for copying must be great or we wouldn’t see such risk-taking. Furthermore, a resultant grade from such a work is meaningless.

Turnitin just won a decisive court case in which a group of university students sued them for holding and re-using their papers for the purpose of detecting subsequent misuse. Ars Technica reports on it.

could use a laugh

Garrison Keillor, a contributing writer for Salon, is one of the funniest people around, and today he takes on spelling, the financial meldown, and, well, various other issues in his brief column. Is it the grammatically-challenged who will eventually bring us to an apocalyptic end? Keillor makes a convincing-enough argument. And he certainly makes me laugh.

research on a budget

If you have access to journal articles through your university when attempting to do research, great. But if you don’t have university affiliation, and you still want to do great research, you need to be aware that there are many viable resources. Write to Done, an indispensable writer’s blog, provides wonderful information about open source journals and uncommon sources readily accessible. This is great stuff.

taking the tough route

Wired has a facile article today about the reasons it “sucks” to be an engineering student. One of the reasons is the reality of grade inflation: it’s harder to maintain a high gpa with mathematics, chemistry, and physics courses than it is with the typical liberal arts or English department education. Students from the differing disciplines receive the same level of bachelor’s degree, but there is little comparison in the effort of achievement. This does not have to be so.

I learned this lesson in a year-long experience teaching high school English. Students who had transferred out of honors classes to take “college prep” classes in their senior year–counting on an easier time–had much the same curriculum they had taken in honors, including the same readings. What I found is that they had never actually “read” the books in honors. Each work was covered briefly. Students skimmed, read the cliff notes, listened to what the teacher told them the works were about, and received high grades despite their lack of comprehension. They were tested on what reviewers said the work was about, not on the words and ideas themselves. I learned that understanding text is not the same as comprehending.

When I instituted lessons to insure comprehension, there was much grumbling, particularly from the former honor students. I even had an honors teacher tell me it was counter-productive to spend so much time on Macbeth, that students would become bored if I actually expected them to read the whole thing and attempt to understand it. Other teachers were also of the same opinion that reading comprehension efforts in the classroom were counter-productive due to time constraints. They may be right, but so what? What else should text-based courses in k-12 through university-level be teaching?

If we expect the liberal arts to live up to its claim as worthy of a university degree, comparable to the sciences, then we have to adhere to the rigorousness that comprehension requires.

The Wired article’s most interesting points come in the comments. A few responders state that, for them, understanding math is much easier than reading and writing an essay on Shakespeare’s plays. Comprehension of and writing about ideas can be just as difficult as any math problem or abstract physics problem. If only teaching methods and grading reflected that reality.


Slashdot features the Wired article above, with running content from the mathematically-minded community in the comments section, which is so very interesting. I like what this reader had to say:

In my experience, engineering school isn’t geared specifically for content. It’s designed to teach you some basics (electronics, math, logic, assembly language in my case), and everything done above and beyond that was designed to teach you how to solve problems

This is exactly how text-based courses should be taught. Rigorous training in comprehension teaches us how to solve problems, not only how to appreciate content: function as well as aesthetics.

narrative literacy

We’ve all heard the term ‘media literacy’ but what does it actually mean? My thoughts are that we are still inventing the definition, so we find many creative iterations of the term. Penguin books, ever hopeful of engendering a new generation of readers, who don’t read (according to Steve Jobs), has developed an interactive narrative in We Tell Stories: Six authors. Six stories. Six weeks.

The story starts out on a Google map of London at Pancras Station. We read the bubbles over map locations and follow the steps of the protagonist as he progresses through the story. There is a puzzle involved and we get the clues as we read. Gimmicky? A bit. And, for those of us who love traditional book literacy for how we become lost in a narrative, this is a decidedly different experience.

But it’s part of the experiment. Books, after all, are merely narrative. And, how we deliver the story can vary, as this particular vehicle demonstrates.

spring fever

Last Thursday, the first day of spring began this year, and most of us are itching to get out and about in the warmer weather. Faculty are certainly feeling it in the classroom; they don’t need a calendar to tell them it’s that time of year again. However, it’s not a far stretch to say that spring fever is the norm–a constant state–in the classroom where more and more students, if not their teachers, begin to feel that the real learning is not taking place in the classroom, that the real learning is out there, and could actually be got to if only we could get out of the classroom.

Robert Cringely, in his PBS column I, Cringely, discusses the overthrow of the school system as we have always known it, by the students who use technology constantly in every aspect of their lives except at school. Read about the revolution.

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