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.

I steal learning

Yesterday, in ‘must reads,’ I wrote that the challenge of a reading list had propelled me to the library to check out a few of the books on the list, so that I might increase my reading score. One of those was The Red Queen by Margaret Drabble. A story within the story concerns a 200 year-old memoir written by a Korean crown princess, who admits that “learning was not forbidden to women, but nor was it freely offered to them;” therefore, she often ‘stole’ learning:

When I was young, I read everything I could lay my hands upon. I stole learning from my clever young aunt, who was willing to teach me. I stole from Prince Sado, who in those early years was willing to talk to me about history and about literature and about the Confucian texts. I was an eager and a secret scholar. I stole and stored the scraps I thought I might need. (32-3)

It struck me that this was an apt description of how I compile scraps of information from all over the web, to remix and use in these blog posts as well as lessons for the classroom.

I have several growing repositories for my loot, and I choose which one to use depending on need. For example, if I find a website I want to keep in its entirety, I sock it away in, a social bookmarker. The site provides a button to download onto my Firefox toolbar, making it very convenient to tag and bookmark sites. The social aspect of, however, encourages me to steal even more learning, as I often find articles of interest that others have bookmarked.

If I come across a site that I need to annotate or highlight as a whole or in part, Scrapbook or Diigo will ride shotgun. I’ve written about them previously here. Google Notebook is similar to Scrapbook as a means to capture information, and while it doesn’t have an annotator, you can add comments. The main difference between the two is that Google Notebook is a web application and can be shared, while Scrapbook resides in your Firefox browser, and is therefore available to only you.

Recently, I’ve been seen with a new partner-in-crime, called Google Docs Bar, and it is a real multi-tasker. Gdocsbar is a Firefox extension that downloads a button for my toolbar. When I press it, a sidebar loads a scrolling list of my Google documents, so I can access them at any time. This handy application also provides a simple drag-and-drop function that turns any website, or portion of a site, into a Google document. It’s the easiest way to grab recipes, or poems, or tips about the using the web.

No learning is safe from my thieving ways.

dependable RSS

In a recent post, teens who write, I wrote about the benefits of getting your students to start a blog. For one thing, teens who blog are more enthusiastic about writing which encourages them to write more. There is that problem, however, of checking all of the blog entries. It might seem easier to plow your way through dozens of papers once a week or more. It’s not. RSS (Real Simple Syndication) makes reading your students’ blog entries a breeze. You don’t have to go out searching the web for anything. Think of RSS as the loyal and trusty pooch who brings you the morning paper, with all the latest news first thing each morning.

Here is a quick video that explains the process in plainspeak:

The video mentions readers. I use Google Reader and love it, but I have also used Bloglines with great results. Both applications allow you to set up ‘folders’ so that the incoming feeds go to the folders you need. For instance, you might set up folders for the different periods you teach, or grades, or by class number.

The video doesn’t make clear that the most likely place to find the RSS icon is in the URL or location field of your web page. Look up at the top of your page where it says At the end of that input field you’ll find the RSS icon. Click on it once you’ve got your reader set up, and you’ll be subscribing to my blog.

I’d love it if you did that!

teens who write

Pollsters from the Pew Internet & American Life Project have a new report out about teens’ use of technology. In particular, the questions from the poll relate to how much teens write and how they perceive themselves as writers. As we already know, teens spend copious amounts of time text messaging on cell phones and on instant message chats. But they don’t consider that writing—- and neither do we. Nevertheless, technology does play a part in encouraging teens to write more, particularly blogging:

. . . there is a relatively strong association between writing and technology platforms that help teens share their thoughts with the world such as blogs and social networking sites. Teen bloggers in particular engage in a wide range of writing outside of school. Bloggers are significantly more likely than non-bloggers to do short writing, journal writing, creative writing, write music or lyrics and write letters or notes to their friends. In this sense, bloggers are even more prolific than social networking teens when it comes to the types of writing they do. Social networking teens are unusual in their relative proclivity to write short writing, journal writing and music or lyrics. Teen bloggers also write more frequently than social networking teens.

Pew reports that nearly a quarter of teen bloggers write outside of school on a daily basis. This is encouraging, and it may convince more teachers to include blogging in their lessons. When does blogging in the classroom make the most sense? Anytime you require recurrent responses from your students. Blogging’s sequential quality is especially useful for assigning frequent freewrites on reading topics. Or, maybe you’d like your students to keep a summary of daily class notes; this is the place to do it.

Do you dread having to keep track of all those blogs? Don’t. The extremely handy RSS feature makes it easy to collect all of your students’ work in one place. You will be able to easily scroll through their writings, and your feed reader will refresh each time your students make an addition to their blog posts. No paper shuffling. More about RSS feeds in a future post.

Utilizing blogs in the classroom was problematic even as recently as a couple of years ago, due to unwanted spam in the comments. New spam-targeting technology has virtually eliminated that problem, making blogs such as WordPress and Blogger excellent choices. They’re free, too.

The Pew poll contains a wealth of information about teens, technology, and writing, and tomorrow I’ll tell you what they learned motivates teens to write, and what teens think about writing for school.

More about writing and tools for the classroom

context and comprehension

let them remix videos

Fair use–what it really means

when the library comes to you

At the beginning of each school year, when I send my college students off to seek information to support their argument position essays, I include an exercise that puts them in the library. I’m always amazed at how many of them not only have not been in the library, but how many don’t even know how to get to it! I suppose I’m biased, as I was was always more interested in the library than the classroom.

Having said that, I’ll admit that the library is not the first place I go for current information, looking for support on the topics of our argument papers. However, merely conducting a Google search is not the answer, as the results are likely to be unfocused at best and overwhelming at worst. And while Wikipedia is great for an introduction to a topic, it’s much too thin for an in-depth investigation, and can’t be used as a reference anyway.

Lately I’ve become entranced with Google Alerts. When handing out your syllabus at the beginning of a semester, require your students to sign up for Google Alerts on each of the writing topics.

For instance, suppose you are writing on the topic of the FISA bill, the president’s desire for warrantless spying to combat terrorism vs. Constitutional rights to privacy. I instructed Google Alerts to inform me whenever there is a news article on the topic. Once a day, the relevant article links are delivered to my email. In a little over a week, I’ve received over 200 relevant links. By simply scrolling through the titles and accompanying excerpts, I can see which will be most useful, and which sources most credible.

Think about this. I’ve made no time-consuming trips to the library, maneuvering through traffic and parking or inclement weather. I haven’t spent endless hours searching through the library’s limited collection of newspapers or magazines. Nor have I invested all the change in my wallet for making copies.

What did I do? I went to bed. And the next morning the research I needed was collected in my email. Or, through text messages. Or, in a gadget on my Google homepage.

I still send my students to the bricks-and-mortar library. But I’m fully cognizant of the fact that oftentimes they have a few things to teach me.

More on essays, research, and tools

input facilitates output

annotating the web

wikis unwrapped

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.

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

serving up visuals

In my previous post I wrote about the importance of including visuals in slides to improve memory retention of the material you’re presenting. Where can you get the visuals? After all, time is always a factor and you can’t spend a large chunk of your ‘free’ time looking around the net for pictures to make your slides pretty. For my Elements of Anglo-Saxon Poetry slideshow, I grabbed the pictures primarily from Google images and Wikipedia. They both contain a treasure trove of images, which are generally free to use for non-commercial purposes.

You can also use your own photos, and for that you’ll need a great photo collector and editor, such as Google’s Picasa. Whether or not it is worthwhile to accumulate desktop or online tools depends completely upon the tool’s ability to solve a problem for you, or make your life more productive. Or, if it’s fun. Picasa qualifies all the way around.

There are two parts to Picasa. First, you’ll need to download the basic application. From there, you can import pictures from your computer or your camera. I use a USB connector cord that downloads pictures directly from my digital camera to Picasa. The fun part comes next, as I edit the photos. I don’t have to worry anymore about arranging the perfect composition for my picture-taking, since Picasa’s crop tool makes composing a breeze. From there, I can adjust the light, adding more where the picture is too dark, and increasing shadow for shots that are flooded with light.

There are special effects, too, such as making the photo black-and-white, or saturating it with more color, or sharpening the view to make it crystal-clear.

When I’m ready to share my photos, I click on web albums to send my edited photos into cyberspace. Why would I want to do this? First of all, it’s useful as backup storage without worry that my photos will disappear along with a broken computer. It also is a great place to share your photos with whomever you choose. You share the links through email, and your recipients can view and leave comments at your album.

Picasa’s photo-editing capability makes me a far better photographer than I really am, and with Picasa web albums I get to show it all off.

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