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My Mustache Was Made in China

28 Nov

This most excellent fake mustache was made were most everything seems to be made…China. I, like you, buy things without ever really thinking about their origins. In this case, I just thought it might be useful to have a stash of fake ‘staches in the classroom. Of course, they’ve proven to be invaluable in so many ways.

In this case, the mustache was just another item I used to illustrate our global supply chain. Allow me to explain.

A “Made in China” Scavenger Hunt has been one of the most successful “go to” lessons I’ve created in recent years. The idea is fairly simple:

  1. Divide the class into teams of 2-4.
  2. Give the teams five minutes to search anywhere in the room for a “Made in China” label.
  3. Bribe them with a wonderful and mysterious prize for the team who finds the most items. (I keep a “Bag ‘O Mystery” on hand filled with odd flea market and garage sale finds. I gave away a Chewbacca bobble-head the other day that was particularly coveted.)
  4. Step back and watch them go.

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Low Prep #Reading Quizzes that Are Quick to Grade

20 Oct

As an English teacher I must sometimes act as a gatekeeper. I care deeply about engendering a love of reading in my students, and I work diligently toward that end…but I also create situations where I just try to determine a very basic answer to a very basic question, “Did you read it or not?”

This step seems obvious, but many teachers leave this fundamental question to chance. They believe their students will read because they were told to read, but I argue that this kind of trust is actually a disservice to the learners in our classrooms. I am a very optimistic man who believes in second chances and basic human decency, but as an English teacher I am also a crusty, pragmatic troll guarding a bridge. If you didn’t read the book, you’re not getting by me. Let me explain…

I always give a reading quiz the day before I want to discuss the book. This simple step allows me time to determine who has read, and it gives unprepared students a bit of time to catch up. With these quizzes I check for basic reading completion one of three ways:

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Occam’s Razor, Summer Reading Essays, and Google Docs

1 Oct

I am ashamed. Why do simple solutions often elude me? I have been using Google Docs for five or six years now, and one of the main beefs I have with the system is the highlighting tool. It seems like such a small thing, but there is not a way to leave the highlighting tool “on.” I want—desperately—to sweep my cursor across the page, highlighting text as if I had a physical highlighter in hand. Word allows this. Google Docs, however, requires several clicks and menu choices to highlight something, and the process slows things down considerably, especially for an English teacher who reads hundreds of essays in a year and is always on the hunt for ways to shave seconds off the feedback process.

Just last week I realized I have been ignoring a simple solution. I can simply use the comments keyboard shortcut [Option+COMMAND+M] to save considerable time. Now, I highlight my selection, hit a few keys, and then type a quick note: “error #.” It’s so much simpler…and I am a bit sickened by the time I have wasted.

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Grading Essays How-To: Use Macros to Save Time

3 Sep

Here is the skeleton in every writing teacher’s closet: grading essays is soul sucking, mind-breaking work. After fifteen years of dedicating obscene chunks of personal time to the task, I wish I could reveal some cure-all that makes grading fast and euphoric. I can’t. Of course, I find many moments of joy, but the bone-weary reality of the life of an English teacher is that it takes considerable time and significant effort to create meaningful feedback. No matter how I try, I can’t seem to write comments on an essay in less than fifteen minutes. Realistically, it often takes more time. I have experimented with many methods of feedback, but when I need to leave a healthy dose of ink, I use a hybrid approach of handwritten feedback and computer editing tools known as macros. This method doesn’t help me grade more quickly, but it does ensure that I maximize my time. Here’s my basic structure for working through a stack of essays: 

  • Students turn in two copies of an essay, one printed and one electronic copy via Google Docs.
  • I write more quickly on a piece of paper than I can highlight on a computer screen (I have timed each activity), so I go “old school” and leave marks on the page. The two to five minutes I save on each essay quickly add up. I also use a set of symbols to speed this marking process along.
  • I type longer comments that I later print and attach to the essay. I use macros (more on this step below) for common comments, but I also individualize feedback. I always limit myself to one page of typed comments per essay.
  • When finished, I photocopy the completed scoring rubric (which I will use during the revision process), print the one page of typed comments, and then staple the typed comments, the marked essay, and the scoring guide into one packet.
  • I give students at least one week to revise based on my feedback. I require a revision of every major essay, and I use the electronic copy in Google Docs to track the changes. The revision history in Google Docs feature shows me when and where changes were made. Because I made a photocopy of the scoring guide before handing back the essays, I simply look through the revision history on the computer and make changes to the photocopied scoring guide (another time-saver). I do NOT write any additional comments, as the students will not revise this draft, and I am not a glutton for punishment (even though this post may make you think that!)

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Taming the Paper Beast: Time Saving Techniques for Essay Grading

25 May

As I finish my fifteenth year in an English classroom, I’m seriously thinking about tattooing the following phrase across my belly in Old English lettering ala Tupac:  “Students will write more; teachers will grade less.” I once started to calculate how many hours I have spent writing feedback on student writing, but I quickly abandoned that sadistic calculation. The number was impressive. And depressing. And not at all meaningful. Any instructor of writing who lasts for any length of time has to embrace two concepts very quickly: acceptance and efficiency.

I now accept that it takes me 20-30 minutes to write comprehensive feedback on an individual essay, and in a future post I promise to break down my system. In this post, I share some of the things my colleagues and I have done to become more efficient with our feedback.

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Jumping Jacks Teach Transitions

5 Apr

Flickr image by jasohill

When is the last time you tried to do a jumping jack? I actually do them fairly frequently. My boxing instructor is a jovial sadist, and we do calisthenics until our arms hang like fresh pasta. I also do at least one jumping jack per year to introduce transitions to my students.

I the introductory transition lesson without an explanation of WHY. Instead, I walk in the room and immediately bark at the students to stack the chairs and push the desks against the walls. I then ask them to find some clear space where they won’t hit their neighbor if they fling their arms around. (I encourage them to fling their arms and test things out.) I then tell the class I will award prestigious prizes for the MOST CREATIVE JUMPING JACK, as judged by me.

SIDE NOTE: I keep a BAG ‘O MYSTERY filled with a few good prizes (mixed CDs I’ve made…toy light sabers…a Napolean Dynamite collapsible cup) and A LOT of obnoxious junk. I regularly comb thrift stores and garage sales and keep a strict nothing-over-a-dollar-rule. The kids (I’m talking juniors and seniors) go pretty crazy over this finely curated detritus. I always hype up the prestige of getting to pull from the BAG ‘O MYSTERY, and students usually take great pride in receiving the dorkiest of prizes. One student kept a chipped garden gnome in his locker throughout his entire high school career.

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How To Make Video Tutorials For Free

25 Jan

Self-Portrait uploaded to Flickr by Scott Kinmartin

Making professional looking online tutorials does not require any fancy equipment. In fact, anyone can make slick screencasts using Jing and a presentation program such as PowerPoint or Google Presentations. Planning, revision, and aesthetics are far more important than any particular tool.

Here is an example of a recent video I made. After you watch it, I’ll explain how I made it:

The finished product you see is a result of many, many takes. I planned out the presentation ahead of time, and then I messed up…over and over again. The willingness to redo work is perhaps the most important tool.

Getting to the nitty gritty, here is how I created the video:

I hope you find this instruction useful. Better yet, I hope you make your own online tutorials and share the links with me. As you work, you might find the following points useful:

  • Download the free version of Jing first. I used it for years before moving to JingPro (at the whopping price tag of 15 dollars per year)
  • JingPro does allow me to quickly upload videos to YouTube, and I can now quickly save videos in a mp4 format which works with iMovie. (The free version of Jing saves videos in .swf format. Not a tragedy because you can embed Jings easily.)
  • Use a dark background with light lettering. The high contrast looks good.
  • You will need to add an Embed button to the free version of Jing.
  • If you don’t know how to Embed something on your blog, wiki, or website, I show you the basics here.
  • BE PREPARED TO MESS UP, and then just do it over until you get it right. The first video will take you a long time. You’ll get faster.

Down With Posters

10 Jan

I despise glitter. It’s proudly gauche and sinisterly invasive. Once a bedazzled project crosses the threshold of my classroom, the insidious sparkles permanently lodge in every nook and cranny. Months later my forehead looks like Lady Gaga’s because I’ve accidentally scratched my head after brushing up against an errant drift of pixie dust. I ban the stuff.

I’ve also moved almost entirely away from poster projects. There is nothing inherently wrong with posters. We’ve all seen effective, pedagogically sound projects carried out in this medium. Engaging visual aids, family trees in foreign languages, and movie posters for novels all make sense and can lead to critical thought. I argue, however, that this work becomes more effective and more sophisticated when teachers leverage web 2.0 tools to increase collaboration, develop authentic audiences, and extend the feedback loop.

When students put “poster” work online, there are many advantages for the teacher, and more importantly, the students. Before I give you some recommended links, allow me to convince you that I’m right in my desire to kill traditional posters. If you already agree with me, just skip to the links.

  • Organization is easier. Lugging around stacks of posters is impractical and students inevitably leave work at home. Also, posters stay within the classroom or hallways of schools. When work is posted online, the work can be accessed in many more locations and easily transported and shared.
  • More eyes on the work. Again, posters tend to stay within the four walls of the classroom. When work is posted online, more people can appreciate—and even evaluate—the work. Fellow teachers, students in other sections, parents, colleagues and peers outside of school, and even the general public can view the work. More eyes equal more opportunities for feedback, and such publication is more authentic.
  • Formative assessment goes beyond the teacher, and the feedback loop is extended. If so desired, it is much easier to offer formative assessment as the student creates the project if the work is posted online. The creation process can be more collaborative, mutable, and organic…again creating a more authentic experience. More people can offer more feedback.
  • The work can be changed. I feel wretched when asking a student to revise a completed poster because changes aren’t easy. Glue and markers are permanent; small changes can mean a complete redo. When I offer critiques, then, it feels more like a “gotcha” experience. The student is less likely to revise if the changes are difficult to make. When a poster is online, I can easily insist on revision. In the end, requiring students to create a more polished product is a more rigorous and effective practice.
  • Work posted online lives beyond the due date. My students often tell me when they receive online comments even after we’ve moved on to other units. It’s exciting to realize that quality work can attract attention months and years after it has been completed for a grade. Authentic publication of work should “stand up” over time, and students take such pride in the fact that their work can be strong enough to garner attention from the broader world.

Recommended Sites:

A site specifically designed for building online posters, finished products can be embedded in blogs, wikis, and websites. The free-for-education accounts have become less generous, but it is still possible for students to complete very sophisticated, multimedia posters for free.

Vuvox Collage Maker

Using this tool you can make stunning, mixed media timelines. These timelines/collages are easily embedded elsewhere.

The easiest and most visually pleasing way to make Venn Diagrams I have found, but this site allows you to do much more, too. It’s a free way to make stunning organizational graphics.

Another free tool for making interactive, mixed media timelines. This site allows users to create flowcharts, and video, images, and text are easily mashed together. It is still in Beta, so I have lost some student work using it, but it is free and very easy to use.  Most widely known as an alternative to PowerPoint, Prezi can easily be used to graphically organize and link text, video, and images. Creating the path can be the most complicated part of using this website, but the organizational thinking required to do so is very important for students and not always required when making a traditional poster. Essentially a free online version of Inspiration, this site makes brainstorming easy, and I especially like the ability to transform a mind map into a traditional outline.

Cmap Tools Another way to make organizational charts. I have not used it, but many colleagues have recommended it. Yes, I’ve saved my favorite for last. Many of you probably already know about—a company that seeks to obliterate the common PowerPoint. You can sign up for a free, full-access educator’s account that allows you to give students free, full-access account. I use this tool all the time and can’t recommend it enough. I like it so much, I pay for a yearly subscription. I don’t want them to go bust.

As a little treat for working your way through this list (and of course there are many, many more free, online tools we can use in much the same way we used posters in the past), here’s an epic Google Demo that demonstrates it’s not really the tool but how you use it that’s important:

Stunning Use of Google Presentation

NOTE: This post originally appeared at

Symbolics: Making Abstract Thinking Concrete…the How To

10 Jan

Watch the video for further explanation.

If you are reading this post, you have most likely read its companion that explains what a Symbolic is. If you have not, I encourage you to do so before reading on.

In this post I want to give a “meat and potatoes” explanation of how I introduce Symbolics and help students complete each step of the process. I use two fifty-minute class periods to complete these steps, with some of the work completed as homework. I also teach in a one-to-one school, so the transitions from large group discussions to individual work time are instantaneous. You may need to adapt the timing depending on your access to technology.

#1: Begin With a List of Big Questions
At the end of a unit or term, I create “Big Questions” about key concepts and skills we have covered. My examples obviously pertain to an English class, but these questions could easily be adapted to your specific subject. The idea, however, is to ask questions that require open-ended responses, answers that allow for flexibility but also require mastery of course material. Also, I always allow students to create their own questions, with my approval.

#2: Pass out the Symbolic Handout
This is the assignment explanation I give students. Please feel free to adapt it as needed. I emphasize that the process of creating a Symbolic is not a linear one. I’ve laid out the steps in a clear, chronological order, but students need not complete these steps in this exact order. I do, however, walk them through the first three steps as a whole class.

#3: Have Students Answer One Big Question
Either in class or as homework, I ask students to choose one “Big Question” and answer it as completely as possible in fifteen minutes. They might write their answers in complete sentences or bullet points. The key is to get all of their ideas down. I then ask them to identify the three to five parts of their answers. It is important to force the students to use only three to five major “parts” in their answer. You might have to help them combine or divide parts of their answers. Also, students will most likely edit these answers as they create their Symbolic. Of course, this revision process is natural and encouraged.

#4: Show Examples of Symbolics
After the students have determined their answers and categorized the “parts,” I show them what a Symbolic actually is. Regardless of the unit, I typically begin by using the mythology examples I have shared in the companion post to this piece. Of course, you are welcome to use the student examples available at our Flickr group, too. I find that using examples not associated with the unit topic actually helps students think about the process and relationship of the ideas.

#5: Discuss Different Types of Processes and Create Examples
This step might be the most confusing for you, so I have included a video explanation. I begin by drawing the following graphics on a white board. I then lead a discussion with my students, explaining that they need to give me examples of things from their world that operate in these ways. I also ask them to give me other processes not listed on the board.

Explanation of PROCESS I give my students

After a general discussion of the processes, I go back to a few of the example Symbolics and ask the class to identify the type of process at work. I then have them consider their answers to the Big Question and determine which process best demonstrates how the ideas relate.

#6: Let the Students Loose
After determining the way their ideas relate, I typically turn the students loose to work at their own pace. They will complete steps 4-9 on the Assignment Explanation Sheet on their own…in a way. I usually let students work for 10-15 minutes and float around answering individual questions. Based on the questions they have, I will pause individual work time and, using a data projector, deliver three to five minute mini-lectures, explaining how to complete various steps of the process or warning students about something that is confusing to a majority of people. The class runs, then, in blocks of 10-15 minutes of individual work time divided by three to five minute mini-lectures. I also use student examples—at various levels of the creation process—to offer formative feedback to the entire group.

#7: The Feedback Loop
After the Symbolics have been uploaded to the Flickr group, I use a jigsaw discussion format where students present their work to one another. I float from group to group and sometimes share particularly interesting examples with the entire class. After students share their examples in class, I usually make a homework assignment where, over the course of a week, students must view other examples and leave comments for their peers. As this assignment is actually in process, when viewing the examples on Flickr you may not see many student comments, depending on when you visit.

Please let me know if you have more questions by leaving a comment below. I’m happy to respond.


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