what’s in your portfolio?

Towards the end of the school year, many teachers like their students to compile all the work they’ve done throughout the year into one place. This portfolio is a measure of the student’s accomplishment, as well as a record of his or her progress. Why not have them create an online portfolio?

A while back I wrote about the simple and free web pages Google offers, Google Page Creator. Have each of your students sign up with page creator. They can upload their essays from Word, or they can provide links to their published essays created in Google Docs.

Of course, it would be nice for you to have a list of all the web pages your students turn into portfolios. Yes, it’s a perfect excuse for starting up the Google forms engine again! Here’s an example of what your form might look like. And now you’ve got a very convenient list in the resulting spreadsheet, enabling you to click right down the column to check out all those portfolios. Smile, it’s a compilation of all the work you’ve done this year, too.

If you haven’t been keeping up with my Google forms posts, start with this one.

throw out the textbooks!

Provocative title, isn’t it? The New York Times has an article from last week bemoaning the “outrage” parents and college students feel about the rising costs of textbooks.

Schools and districts and college students are fed up with the unreasonable costs of books. I say unreasonable because, at least in language arts classes, most of what is printed in the text is freely available dozens of places on the web–open source materials between proprietary covers. Somebody is making huge profits, and it’s not students or schools.

Maybe it’s time for a change. Consider this classroom scenario:

You’re in the computer lab with your students reading passages from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, only there is not a book in sight; your students are reading off of their computer screens. OK, you are thinking, this does away with the books, but really you’re just replacing a cheap paperback with an expensive computer. You could do this for all of your English class readings, and then you might be saving some money, but are you and your students gaining much more than cost savings?

Education 2.0 is all about learning through interactivity with each other and the world. With that in mind, let’s read Frankenstein with the addition of Diigo, a web annotator. You might want to refresh your memory with what I’ve written before about this versatile online application.

One way to approach a new pedagogical platform is to think of extending your analog habits to digital. Look at your teacher’s copy of Frankenstein, or any other text. As you thumb through it, you’ll undoubtedly find your highlights and notes in the margins, and maybe some stickies sticking out for reminders and placeholders. You’ve probably developed a list of vocabulary words from the text that you want your students to define. You may have color-coded thematic passages.

Your own teacher’s text copy is truly a wonderful teaching tool, though perhaps a bit messy. However, it only benefits you. Of course, you will try to convey all that information to your students, but the fact remains that only you will actually use this valuable learning tool. I’d argue that the very reason you became an expert about this text is not because you studied it in some class years ago, but because over the years you have added various pieces of further understanding to your teacher’s copy.

What if you could put this resource in a place where all your students could see it and benefit from it, and even add to it? They will have at their fingertips all the layers of your learning, as well as add their own.

If you have a Diigo account and have the toolbar installed, you are welcome to take a look at a few Frankenstein pages that I’ve started in Diigo to give you an idea of what you can do. Allow the cursor to flyover the comment bubbles and highlights to see some notes from my instruction copy.

There is so much we can do with this new reading paradigm. You and your students will create beautiful monsters together.

tap your iambs

I ran across an article last week from a well-known educational website, touting the glorious revolution of education . . . in instructional videos. As if they were all the rage, the new thing. They are not; videos are old-school, and while they do have their place, their benefits are likely to be minimal because they are not interactive. When I looked more closely at the site, I saw that it was plastered with ads, selling software and yes, videos.

Students like videos, anything to break up their day of typical instruction, but mainly they like them because it allows them to be passive for a chunk of time while they are entertained. If the instruction is presented well, they will pick up some useful information, but they won’t know it until they themselves present.

Take a look at how this happens. Click on this first video explaining how iambic pentameter works. This is typical old-school academic instruction, done well.

Now, watch this video: highly untypical student-centered instruction, done . . . well, see for yourself!

let them remix videos

I like to think of myself as an early adopter, not of gadgets, but of online applications. I’ll try out just about anything, but I’ll only return if it’s easy to use, solves a problem, is functional on a frequent basis, is cheap, or is just lots of fun. Animoto is an online application which creates studio-quality videos from still photos, and it is definitely all-of-the-above.

The problem this application solves is helping teenagers ‘get’ poetry. The language of many old poems is accessible only to the ardently committed, and we’re talking about seventeen-year-olds. Even some college students will take the easy way out, sitting back and waiting for you to tell them what it means.

Here’s a lesson plan. Assign several poems by the same poet, pair off your students, and give each pair a separate poem. Then tell them to create a video that expresses the major themes of the poem. Sounds interesting, but too technologically challenging and time consuming? Not at all. It’s a snap, and I’ll show you how.

First, a poem:

from, Tintern Abbey

by William Wordsworth

Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
‘Mid groves and copses. Once again I see
These hedgerows, hardly hedgerows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild; these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!
With some uncertain notice, as might seem
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some Hermit’s cave, where by his fire
The Hermit sits alone.

Wordsworth can be counted on to provide visuals that emphasize his theme of worship in natural surrounds. Have your students highlight or embolden illustrative words and terms, then set them loose online to find photos with which to capture the poem’s meaning. Save the photos (they’ll need 10-15), then upload them to Animoto, select accompanying music, then sit back while the Animoto video-making engine does its thing.

Did I mention cheap? Animoto allows you to make videos up to 30 seconds in length for free. For $3, you can create a video of any length.

My Tintern Abbey video is ready. See for yourself . . .

looking good on paper: it’s overrated

When it comes time to edit essay drafts and final copies, many of us prefer a clean paper copy to work with. We are used to wielding red ink pen (I used to use green ink if only because it wasn’t red!), flipping pages back and forth, circling, underlining, making notes in the margins. We prefer it because, despite the hassles of handling mounds of paper, we were trained to do it this way, we’re used to reading paper, it works for us, and it has always been thus.

However, reading and editing on paper does not work for our students; they do not prefer it. They know they are entering a world in which paper is not the primary method of conveying communications. For as long as we can remember, the tools of school, with the exception of the telephone, have also been the tools of business: pens and pencils, typewriters, paper. No longer. The tools of business are computers and cellphones, merely peripheral tools in the school setting, unfortunately.

Printing a paper copy of an essay is an extra step done at the teacher’s insistence, not a necessary step in the business of their lives, and our students know it. Think about the reports and essays that get to you late: they were left at home, in the car, the printer ate them, assuming the printer worked at all.

I’ve ‘collected’ Beowulf essay rough drafts from my students, and I’ve completed some basic copy-editing, utilizing those familiar tools, highlighters and green ink. Students will make the necessary corrections and ‘turn in’ a clean copy for a final grade. Check it out. No, it won’t have the crisp feel of white paper.

And that’s the way they prefer it.

More articles on Google Docs

Google docs finally offlined!

teaching with docs

visualizing google docs

input facilitates output

Your class has read and analyzed the text, and now it’s time to write the essay. In essay writing, of course, output depends on input, or pre-writing. Continuing with our Anglo-Saxon unit, we’re going to prepare for an essay on Beowulf. One of the more constructive aids can be found at Edsitement: a table for filling in the Elements of the Epic Hero Cycle (pdf file). You can make copies of the table to use as handouts for your students, but maybe you’re trying to cut down on all those handouts. There is also an interactive exercise at the same site, which is useful for the individual student, but not for you, or the class as a whole.

Why not utilize Google forms to capitalize on all that useful input.

First, create the form from Google Docs and Spreadsheets. (Click here if you don’t remember how.) Here’s an example of what your form might look like. Now, sit back and wait for the input.

Once all the students have participated, publish the results. The output from the input form is a winner in two ways. First, you have an online document which shows you at a glance whether or not your students have completed the first steps toward writing the essay. It will also be very apparent what they don’t understand as a whole, or individually. All very useful information.

Best of all, though, is how they help each other. By making the input document public, all students can see what the other students entered, and make adjustments to their own understandings, or lack thereof.

You’re going to like the output!

context and comprehension

All literature is contextual. While our students might follow the plot of a tale such as Beowulf, the story will really only come alive for them when they understand the culture of the Anglo-Saxons. This is true regarding all stories and their cultural context, but especially true for very old cultures from which we only have meager clues as to how people actually lived. Often, the clues come primarily from the stories themselves, so we can set our students to the task of being detectives, employing reading comprehension.

Attaining relevance is really just adding to previous knowledge, and, more importantly, chipping away at existing misperceptions. Here is an exercise that will help with both.

An Anglo-Saxon village has just learned that their king and his battle-weary men are soon returning from a conquest, after a long absence. In two pages, describe the details of the reunion, such as setting, characters, and the ceremony itself. What is the significance of the ceremony to the village? In such a harsh environment, what were the benefits of being well-spoken or artistic? Back up all statements with line numbers from the poem.

No matter what you’ve tried to articulate about the Anglo-Saxons, students retain a mental picture of gruff, axe-wielding barbarians, so it is critical that students find the clues by carefully parsing the text. Beowulf‘s poet would not recognize their mental construct!

Since the poem is difficult even in translation, it helps to have visuals, as well as background information, and this is where the web becomes a welcome ally. Provide specific sources, such as these, so that they don’t become overwhelmed with the varying levels of research available.

This type of assignment works well with groups or pairs. Have students open a new Google Doc, giving each member permission to edit, as well as you, the teacher. Have them send you a link to each group’s papers. Set a timeline for the project and check their progress regularly, leaving comments on their drafts. Tip: If each person in a group composes in a different color, you will see at a glance who is doing what.

Utilize the tools of our culture to explore another.

forms for earth day

For a long time I’ve been looking for ways to diminish the amount of paper used for teaching, and it’s not all about the environment. All those before-school, lunch breaks, and afterschool minutes spent at the copy machine add up to too much of the free-time in my life. And that’s when the darned machine is actually working. And then there’s always the department’s allotment of paper, which seems to run out at the most needful times, and then I’m spending my own paper money for paper copies. I’ve had enough of paper.

Think of all the times you use paper to gather information from your students, their parents, other teachers, club members, and so forth. First you spend time making the copies, then you take more time to disseminate all those copies to the appropriate people. Next, you collect all those papers, file them, check to see who hasn’t turned them in yet, make more copies for those ingrates who lost them or used them for paper airplanes instead of giving them to their parents . . . . You know all too well how this goes.

So while I’ve been looking for ways to cut down on my use of paper, here comes Google with their Google Docs forms application, whose primary utility is to gather information into one place. Without paper. I’ve been yammering on about forms for awhile now, but don’t just take my word for it. Read what a very busy and most grateful middle-school band teacher has to say:

I am a middle school band director. I teach nearly 300 students each day
and have communication with them and their parents – nearly 1000 people in

With Google Docs, my program has reduced its paper use by as much as 90%.

Instead of using hard copies, thousands of times over, we can now set everything up to work online with documents, forms, and spreadsheets. Previously parents had multiple pieces of paper for certain functions. We can now eliminate these by using separate online forms. Rather than going through so many pieces of paper, parents can now just click the next link.

Read the rest of what Matt Doublestein, self-proclaimed teacher and earth-friendly Google Docs user, has to teach us about saving the earth–and, bless him, saving us time!

Happy Earth Day!

music in the mix

Before there were ipods or CDs, before we played albums and 45s, even before the top 10 blared from pocket-sized transistor radios, people carried their music around with them. Picture a nineteenth century scholar, steeped in the curricula of Greek and Latin, sneaking peeks at a pocketbook of rhythmic poems by Byron behind his professor’s back. Think about that the next time you chastise a student for wearing those omnipresent earplugs to class!

Even before our carry-around music manifested itself in the beats and rhymes of printed poetry in a waistcoat pocket, we had oral narratives in poetic delivery to preserve memory of words, certainly, but also to mimic music where there were no instruments or players around. In every culture, we have always had music, we have always had poetry.

Three timeless themes of poetry as well as music are love, loss, and alienation, themes which are particularly favored by teens. Two Anglo-Saxon poems which exemplify these favored themes are “The Wanderer” and “The Wife’s Lament.”

Brain-based educational theory teaches us that new learning takes place when we connect to what the learner already knows, and our students definitely know music. Two somewhat recent songs which carry the themes of the poems mentioned above are Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams, and “Evanescence’s “My Immortal.” (These have worked successfully, but I’m on the lookout for more up-to-date songs.) Consider the lyrics of “Boulevard” and compare it to verses from “The Wanderer.”

[Boulevard of Broken Dreams ]
I walk a lonely road
The only one that I have ever known
Don’t know where it goes
But it’s home to me and I walk alone

I walk this empty street
On the Boulevard of Broken Dreams
Where the city sleeps
and I’m the only one and I walk alone

I walk alone
I walk alone

My shadow’s the only one that walks beside me
My shallow heart’s the only thing that’s beating
Sometimes I wish someone out there will find me
‘Til then I walk alone

[The Wanderer]
“Oft when the day broke, oft at the dawning,
Lonely and wretched I wailed my woe.
No man is living, no comrade left.
To whom I dare fully unlock my heart.
I have learned truly the mark of a man
Is keeping his counsel and locking his lips,
Let him think what he will!! . . . a failing spirit
Earneth no help. Men eager for honor
Bury their sorrow deep in the breast.

And, now, these two:

[My Immortal ]
You used to captivate me
By your resonating light
Now I’m bound by the life you left behind
Your face it haunts
My once pleasant dreams
Your voice it chased away
All the sanity in me

These wounds won’t seem to heal
This pain is just too real
There’s just too much that time cannot erase

I’ve tried so hard to tell myself that you’re gone
But though you’re still with me
I’ve been alone all along

[The Wife’s Lament]
The valleys are dark the hills high
the yard overgrown bitter with briars
a joyless dwelling. Full oft the lack of my lord
seizes me cruelly here. Friends there are on earth
living beloved lying in bed
while I at dawn am walking alone
under the oak tree through these earth halls.
There I may sit the summerlong day
there I can weep over my exile
my many hardships. Hence I may not rest
from this care of heart which belongs to me ever

I present the modern songs and discuss the themes of the lyrics, then seat the girls on one side of the class, guys on the other, and have them read the two Anglo-Saxon poems to each other. When we discuss the poems the themes are already very apparent.

You can provide the lyrics to the modern songs, but playing the music is ever more effective, emphasizing the emotional impact of poetry. It will cost you to download from iTunes, but the videos for most songs are available free from YouTube.

Google Docs finally offlined!

Since the beginning, when the Google Docs application first became available in October 2006, I have loved using it so much I’ve been able to overlook the one major detraction: it was only available online. Yes, I had a place where I could collect all of my lesson plans, class presentations, quizzes, tests, notes, everything for the classroom–and it was available everywhere I was. Anywhere that had an internet connection, that is.

I had a connection in the classroom, but it was a victim of a sloooow server, making the internet a less than dependable tool during lectures. Still, I made it my primary repository for all materials because of its accessibility and the automatic saving/back-up/revision features. Soon, sharing and collaboration made it easy for me to assess and comment on student essay drafts, a welcome development, but still I had to depend on a connection.

Some months ago I detected rumors tossed about the web that Docs would be available offline as well as online. My heart began to pound. Could this be merely a dream, or a dream-come-true?

A couple of weeks ago, the dream came true, as it was announced that Google was offering a slow release of the offline feature. I waited patiently–well, somewhat patiently–and, finally yesterday, I got my wish. A little green and white arrow icon now appears at the right-hand top of my Docs screen, such a tiny symbol for such huge functionality!

Docs offline capability is powered by Google Gears, which you are prompted to download if you haven’t already done so for offline use of Google Reader. After downloading my offline application, I immediately put it to the test. The download places an icon on my desktop so it’s very simple to access offline. All my documents came up, and it was very easy to edit. When I went back online, my modifications were instantly synchronized; I didn’t have to do a thing except beam.

The one thing you can’t do currently in offline mode is create a new document, but I have figured out an easy work-around. When you are online, create a couple of blank doucments (I titled them Blank Doc 1 and Blank Doc 2), which will then be available for you to ‘modify’ when you are offline. While you’re at it, create a couple of blank spreadsheets and presentations, too, so you won’t be caught off-guard next time you’re without an internet connection and you’ve got some serious work to do.

Here’s a video showing how the whole thing works. Enjoy!

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