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#Flipclass with Membean: A Vocabulary System that Works

18 Jul

I would tell you how I incorporate vocabulary in my English classes, but I’m betting you already know. Chances are we pretty much do the same thing. This spring I did something different. Flipping a classroom is not really about turning lectures into videos, it’s about freeing up class time for more one-on-one interaction with students. Here’s one way I’ve done this.

Replacing a whole class vocabulary list with Membean.com was the most successful experiment of the school year. My students learned at least twice as many words, and they learned these words more effectively. I saw the language appear in their writing and speaking with more frequency and accuracy, and the students felt more prepared for standardized tests. I loved the free trial so much, I convinced my colleagues to use it, and next year we will pay for a school-wide subscription, which will cost us a little less than last year’s workbooks.

Membean is an engaging, self-paced online learning environment that allows for multiple modes of learning. It gives students more control over and accountability for their learning, and it provides teachers rich data that more accurately gauges mastery than any weekly vocabulary quiz ever could.

I know, I know…I sounds like they are paying me, but they’re not. I just know this product works really, really well, and I want a bumper new crop of logophiles out there.

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Defending Kony 2012

10 Mar

Chances are you have already seen this month’s most viral video, Kony 2012, a polished and provocative thirty-minute film produced by Invisible Children that seeks “not to celebrate him, but to raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice.” As I write these words it has already received 63 million views, and I’m sure that number will be much higher by the time you read this. If you have not yet seen the film, take the time to watch it before you read on.

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Learning From Failure

18 Feb

Many people envision a one-to-one classroom as a sterile nightmare, a room filled with distracted students glued to sickly blue screens, so constantly plugged in that they are completely checked out. The reality is quite different. The more experience I gain in a wired classroom, the more I realize how much easier it is to humanize education when students have immediate access to personalized technology.

I teach a senior elective entitled Local Living Writers. The premise of the course is simple….We study work by writers living in and around Boston and then invite these writers into our classroom. This past term, for whatever reason, brought a group of students that did not identify as readers or writers. These seniors were funny and earnest and curious…but they were not model English students. They struggled to write with the style and control. Some of my typical approaches fell flat. I typically run the elective like a college literature course, and most of my writing prompts require students to develop literary analysis skills. Such prompts, however, were not working this term.

We had just finished William Landay’s The Strangler, a suspenseful and stylish crime thriller about three brothers wrapped up in the investigation of the infamous Boston Strangler. The students thoroughly enjoyed Landay’s cinematic setting—a gritty city on the cusp of a modern future—and they viscerally related to the authentic characters the author spun to life. Yet, I struggled to get them to notice the finer points of Landay’s craft.

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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.

The True Goal of a Wired Classroom?

16 Jan

I’ve been teaching long enough to be comfortable with the fact that I’m often wrong. A lot. All the time. Daily. Yet, I’ve grown to enjoy such moments because they represent chances for me to reflect and grow. Thankfully, using technology in the classroom seems to make such teachable moments more and more frequent.Because I believe—as I’m sure you believe—that teaching effective communication in today’s classrooms means helping students navigate multiple modes of expression, I often create assignments where students must express themselves using a variety of media. The added benefit of this variety is that I gain a more authentic, developed sense of my students’ communication skills. A recent encounter in one of my American Literature 10 classes illustrates the point well.To take the course at the honors level I require students to submit an application essay where, without much guidance from me, they explicate a poem of my choosing. I use their responses to help me gauge whether or not they can handle the more complex work. After reading one boy’s response, I had real doubts. His essay demonstrated original insight but was poorly organized and riddled with language errors. While meeting with him, however, he assured me that writing has always been “tricky,” yet he was confident he could do well. He would work hard to improve his essays, and he knew he was good “with other stuff.” When I first started teaching, there wasn’t much “other stuff” in my classes. This particular student would have been in trouble. I believed writing well was the most important focus of my classes. I still do, actually. Yet, over the years, I have learned that if students are given multiple modes of expression, I gain a more accurate sense of their skills as communicators.

I began this school year with a Modern Slavery Project. I’ve written extensively about this unit at EdSocialMedia and encourage you to visit that post if you’re interested in the details: Modern Slavery Project.

Essentially, students research an aspect of modern slavery and draw connections between this research and Harriet Jacob’s INCIDENTS IN THE LIFE OF A SLAVE GIRL. The students and I develop other aspects of the project as well, and this year the students decided to create video PSAs and write a call to action letter to someone within their own circle of influence.

Here is the video that was produced by the student who—just two weeks prior—I was a bit worried about. Words fail me.

Do you see my point? By only looking at one literary analysis essay, my view was myopic. Yet, by allowing communication skills to be expressed in multiple forms—in this case a video—this student’s stage was widened. In a relatively brief time, I was able to understand, more acutely, what a deeply critical, artistic mind he has. In truth, I was able to understand that depending on the medium, this student is a more skillful communicator than me.Now, this isn’t to say a video replaces an essay. It doesn’t. (By the way, this video is accompanied with a heartfelt letter that shows a sophisticated, organized analysis of slavery and how to combat it…and we’ll spend considerable time this year in traditional essay mode.)

Check out all the Modern Slavery Projects here.

Yet, because my classroom integrates various technology tools, this student’s voice is much, much louder, and my assessment of his ability to communicate with passion and precision can be much more accurate.I’m really interested, then, in your stories. In what ways has technology “widened the stage” for your students…and you? It’s my belief that in sharing moments like these we illustrate the true power of technology in the classroom.

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:

Glogster.com

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.

Gliffy.com

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.

Dipity.com

Another free tool for making interactive, mixed media timelines.

Popplet.com 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.

Prezi.com  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.

Bubbl.us 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.

Animoto.com Yes, I’ve saved my favorite for last. Many of you probably already know about animoto.com—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 EdSocialMedia.com

Making Grammar Sticky With Google Docs

10 Jan


I spent many hours in elementary school diagramming sentences, parsing parts of speech on spidery branches of sentence trees. I must admit, though, I never found this procedure painful. For me the activity compartmentalized language. The parts of a sentence worked like Lego bricks, and once I understood the various “shapes” of grammar, I found enjoyment in rearranging them.

As an English teacher, then, I’ve always felt palpable guilt about the way I teach grammar…or more accurately the way I don’t. I teach it every year in every class, but my students don’t seem to do a very good job learning it. I was never satisfied with my approach or my students’ mastery of basic language rules…until I used Google Docs to have my students keep grammar journals. I leveraged technology to make students more accountable for their grammar work, but this technique could be adapted in any subject to keep an error analysis log.

The set-up of this classroom practice is simple. In the beginning of the year, I asked students to start a new Google Doc and then make at least one entry per week, on their own. I spent a portion of a class period leading a discussion on why grammar might be important to them, and I framed my expectations with this assignment description.

I walked students through the description, but I also used their own writing to guide this initial work. Prior to class, I had gone through the first writing assignment of the year and highlighted any grammar errors I found, limiting myself to ten.

Using the master list in the assignment description and their highlighted essays, each student made a bulleted list of grammar errors they were making. Using the comments features in Google Docs, I asked them to identify each error. They did NOT to fix the error; they simply labeled it. I imposed an “Ask Three Before Me” rule at this stage. They first had to ask themselves what the error might be. If they were unsure, they asked the student to their left and their right for help. If there was still confusion, they would call me over.

During the labeling of their errors, I was able to give feedback to each student multiple times, clarifying misunderstandings and formatively assessing each students writing skills. After the students completed their master lists, they chose two HOT BUTTON grammar issues, the two aspects of their writing that—if mastered—would have immediate and noticeable impact on their work. I had made notes as to which errors were made and which issues I considered the most pressing. The exit slip for that day’s class was to confirm with me which two HOT BUTTON grammar issues they had selected. I used this final check-in to ensure that each student was clear as to what he or she should work on.

I had finally realized that I needed to think of ways to put the burden of learning more squarely on the students’ shoulders. I needed a way to differentiate grammar instruction but still easily document the learning. The grammar journals via Google Docs proved invaluable.

I spent the rest of the school year teaching grammar as I most often do…using a hybrid of whole class instruction, online tutorials, and individual feedback. But, each week they were required to make at least one entry in their grammar journals. The entries were meant to be specific, personal, and honest….They did not, however, need to be long. I expected one entry to take between 20-30 minutes from start to finish, including research time.

I seldom wrote feedback. Instead, I completed quick face-to-face check-ins during class. While students were doing something else, I’d call up individuals and offer critique. I would offer suggestions for other sources and methods as well. Students also completed periodic self-assessments.

By using student-directed grammar journals, grammar concepts became “stickier.” In other words, by taking a more proactive approach, the students’ mastery of language increased. Also, because I set up multiple resources and activities, the students used varied modes to learn. They could come back to a tricky concept like parallelism many times in many ways. Through this differentiation, I found myself, less often, making repeated comments on essays throughout the year.

Because the use of Google Docs effectively organized their work and allowed me (and peers) to easily give feedback, I was more likely to come back to grammar every week. Grammar instruction stopped being a chore that we all agreed to avoid.

Student response was overwhelmingly positive. Even my most reluctant, disorganized students—the ones that always seemed to be missing or rushing their entries—eventually began to realize the value of patient, independent practice…and their writing improved as a result.

Sample Grammar Journal

Grammar Journal Assignment Description

BCDS Grammar Ning

NOTE: This post original appeared at EdSocialMedia.com

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.

Symbolics: Making Abstract Thinking Concrete (part I)

10 Jan

A Symbolic is a concrete representation of abstract thinking, a picture that demonstrates how ideas interact and work. I use Symbolics as an alternative evaluation tool, and I have found a way to use Flickr to make the entire process much more effective. I explain how later in this post. These videos explain the concept using actual examples.

A Symbolic Explained:

Symbolics Explained Part I

Symbolics Explained Part II

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Getting Students to Care About Copyright

10 Jan

Copyleft Flickr image by kk+

In my own classroom, I fight the good fight every day, wrestling with students who want to use copyrighted music or images in their work. I’m writing literally here. I’m not afraid to throw a kid in a headlock for slipping the latest Owl City release into a slide show.

I realize, however, students are not malicious, thieving miscreants who don’t care about fair play or giving credit where credit is due. Actually, teenagers have an acute belief in honor and fairness.

Why, then, despite what I considered engaging, varied lessons on fair use and proper citation, do they continue to use copyrighted images and music without a mention of the sources? There are many explanations, but the simplest one—let me grab Occum’s razor here—is that it’s simple.

The majority of students, when looking for a picture, complete a Google Image search and then use the first few shots they find. It’s so easy. Also, every kid already has music he or she likes in iTunes, so they go to this familiar place when creating projects. These products are user-friendly, so students use them. As I teach students to care about copyright, then, I look for simple tools that will help them create interesting work without requiring much more effort than a simple Google search. In sharing these tools with fellow teachers, I hope I make it easier for educators to help students care about copyright. Headlocks, while entertaining, don’t work.

One stop searching through CompFight: This school year I ask all my students to begin their image searches at CompFight.com. It’s the simplest tool to use. First, I have them set a filter that returns only images with a Creative Commons license; they simply click on the choices to right of the search window. Continue reading

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