striking serendipity

For a couple of months now I’ve been singing the praises of Google forms, and I’ve tried to verbally explain how to make them. As we all know, however, it is difficult to follow verbal direction alone, and I hope that I can make up for not using the multiple-intelligence modes I’ve touted in the past. That I’m now able to show, as well as tell, is due entirely to serendipity: good luck in making unexpected and fortunate discoveries. Google just announced that Google forms can now be embedded on blogs and websites, meaning that you don’t have to provide a link to the form for your students to fill out; they can simply fill out the form wherever you place it on your website, blog, or wiki. This development was both unexpected and a nice surprise.

In my next post, I’ll display a form for you to try out for yourself, wholly executed through the simplicity of Google Docs.

But first, I’d like to show you how to get a form started, and that brings me to the second piece of fortunate discovery, Jing. What I’ve needed is screen capture software that allows mark-up. Jing is the real thing. It’s got some great features and is very easy to use. Can’t you imagine about a million applications for this software to help your students better understand just about anything?

Let’s get a form started. You’ll need to open a new spreadsheet, which will be presented to you unsaved and untitled.

Once you’ve titled your spreadsheet, your entries will be saved automatically. Don’t worry about filling out the spreadsheet; instead, we’re going to build a form that will create the spreadsheet for you.

Now, the real fun begins as we custom build a form. Stay tuned!


cheat sheets

The reference yesterday in I steal learning was not about literally stealing information, of course. The passage I quoted from Margaret Drabble’s book The Red Queen, was all about the clandestine nature of accumulating forbidden knowledge. Far from being elusive, knowledge today is all but crammed down our students’ throats by schools and parents—at least, that’s how they feel about it. That’s why the idea of offering cheat sheets is so illuminating.

Have you ever watched a teenage boy seek endlessly on the web for just the right ‘cheat’ key to help him unlock a particularly frustrating level of a video game? It makes me downright envious. Here’s a kid who won’t click on spellcheck to suggest the correct spelling of a word, yet will turn down food and water to pursue another lead in his quest for the right key.

I discovered the magic of the forbidden the first time I taught Frankenstein to a class of upper-division college students. The upcoming exam included 20 quotations from the novel that they would be expected to explicate and put in context of the Romantic period. They were terrified, so I set aside an entire class period for them to work in groups on a list of 6 quotes. Before the bell rang, I hinted that a lot more quotes could be found at the class website. Over the weekend, I watched as the site’s click stats jumped skyward.

Actually, the cheat sheet at the website contained 125 quotes, and the 20 that comprised the test were on it. Even though I revealed the test to the students, I figured that if they studied all 125 quotes, they would know that book pretty well. In effect, what they were doing was over-studying, and it worked. Except for two students who failed because they never cracked the cover of the book, the rest of the class received an A or a B. It was the overall highest grade for an exam in that class.

Now, I could have distributed a hand-out of all those quotes. I have tried that on other projects with far less impressive results, but the appeal is in seeking out the keys. I promise you, it’s the lure of the forbidden, the cheat, that counts.

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 . . .

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.

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 ( 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.