Thursday, December 16, 2010

What the web does best...

I went to a workshop tonight about Web 2.0 tools. I picked up some great tips to leverage Facebook and smartphones, but the best part came from one of my students.

During the workshop she sent me a chat message in G-mail and asked for help with her paper. I opened it in Google Docs and then opened the chat window in the document so we could chat with her paper right there. She asked if she was on the right track. She missed class today, so I asked her to go look at the class blog to see the presentation from today's lesson that I had just posted there.

When she came back to Docs a few minutes later she used the chat window to explain exactly what she had learned about thesis statements from the blog. Her answer was perfect, but also totally in her own words. She confidently told me she would be fine now and thanked me for my help. All I did was make the lesson available and tell her where to find it.

You should know that this young lady is at risk. Her grades are poor, she often struggles to understand material, and the reason that she missed class today was because she was suspended for defiance when she ditched the VP as he was walking her to detention on Tuesday.

Tonight however, she was trying to do her work. She reached out to me and luckily I happened to be there.  She was able to use the blog to see what she missed in class and then use that to help her with her writing.

I went to a workshop to learn about more ways for using Web 2.0 tools, but it was my own student who showed me what the web really does best.

P.S. I actually wrote this post several months ago. I've waited to share it because it contains information about a specific student, but now I know she won't be recognized and I have her permission.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Interactive White Boards (IWB's) are coming

Last week I got to go check out the newly installed Promethean Boards at MBHS. I took pictures.  Generally I like this version better than what the IT department was putting in Math classrooms last year.

For one thing these are "portable". The stand can be moved several feet, but remains limited by the umbilical cord that connects it to the wall. This means you may be able to adjust the angle to the wall, helpful in our wedge shaped rooms in the 800.  
Another improvement is that the projector only extends about 15 inches out from the board. Much more compact and possible only because of a cool convex mirror system.

Also they look cooler. Note the nifty dark gray border with built in speakers, redundant to the sound system for the classroom, but still good backup speakers.

Note too the large platform at the bottom. I'm a little worried about tripping on that.
The silver lining of the bottom platform is (almost literally) the drawer built into it that you can use to stash secret teacher things like cables. It even has a lock.

The actual board is still going to be about 12 inches from the wall.  This creates "shadow" areas on either sides of the board that students can't see. For example students sitting on the right side of your room can't see the wall for several feet on the left of the board and vice versa. It's a problem.

The image at MBHS is still too small. Note the dark areas where the projection does not fill the board.  Supposedly that is a software problem with the projector that Promethean is coming back to fix for them. Hopefully that means we won't see it.

A big thanks to the English teachers at MBHS, and Doug McIntosh for letting me come visit with my camera. And also thanks to Dave Kootman from Promethean who showed us the basics of using the software for an English class.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Using Google Docs Chat Windows for Literary Analysis With Students

Last week my students read "The Story of and Hour" by Kate Chopin. They spent time on Wednesday reading and discussing the story with their group. They worked with the group to find the theme and the evidence for the theme. On Thursday I wanted them to write independently about the theme and evidence in their own English journal, but they needed to look back at the story of course and they ended up having discussions in the chat window of their shared document for the story. Those conversations were rich and one of them became the topic of my previous post below.

I decided to push them a bit further.  On Friday I gave them an new story, "Passing Days" as a shared document, but instead of sending them to their groups I left them in rows to read the story on their own. After some time to read it I told students to "chat" about the story using their document chat window. The room was silent, every group was discussing the story, pulling in quotes, asking each other questions, but it was all online. By having each group's document open I could see all of their conversations. Students liked it. Their conversations were focused and productive. One student said, "It was so quiet in here, so I could really concentrate on the conversation." Another added, "And we didn't get off topic the way we do when we are talking in  a group."

This week we have moved to Emerson. I wanted them to look closely at "Self Reliance", so I tried using the chat window again in combination with an audio track of the excerpts we were looking at. I played them a paragraph and let the groups "chat" to figure out the meaning of the text. It took us two class periods to listen to all four and a half minutes of the text because the student conversations were so rich. It was like running six simultaneous small Socratic seminars. At the beginning of the second day I showed the class the "transcript" of one of the groups from the day before. This was a good review of the material we read before and also became a teachable moment about how to chat online, support one another, ask questions, stay on topic and add ideas.

The chat window in Google Docs used to be an annoying distraction that I tried to keep my students away from while they were working in their writing groups.  Now I find using the chat window in Google Docs with my students has become an excellent educational tool.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Google Docs chat window is a window into student thinking

Today my students were working on their second day of trying to figure out the theme of "The Story of an Hour" by Kate Chopin.  Yesterday they worked in groups of six to read the story and try to figure out the theme and find the evidence. Each group had a document shared in Google Docs with the story where they could highlight, make comments and write on the story itself as a group.

Today they were working on their own to write a paragraph in their English Journal in GD about the theme using the evidence their group found yesterday.  They still needed to use their shared document with the story and that shared document comes with a chat window, so that the group members could still communicate with each other even though they were no longer in a group. I was monitoring the chat windows of the six documents in play and students knew they were allowed to use this for communication and even to ask questions. Talking was prohibited.

Until this point I had not seen the chat window used this much or this richly. Student dialog within the chat window gave me great information about their thinking about the task at hand. At times I commented on their questions or reminded them to focus, but mostly I just watched their thinking evolve. It was messy, but fascinating. I captured one group's chat by copying and pasting their comments into a new doc every few minutes. I changed their names and edited just a bit for clarity, but this is mostly their raw discussion.

Notice how they answer each others questions as they navigate the task. They express confusion, frustration, provide support and answers and Don even shares his final product.

Don has opened the document.
Andee has opened the document.
Don: you guys /: you guys took like ALL the evidence & I can't find any . Help meeee pls .
Sandy has opened the document.
Mrs. R: What do you mean they took it?  You can use the same quote
Don: ohhh ok nevermind (:
Arthur: There in the middle of the paper Don
Charlene has opened the document.
Sandy: hey me ayudan?
Arthur: Mrs. Roberts what are we supposed to be doing?
Charlene: no le entiendo
Sandy: your are suppose to be writing in your english journal
Andee: yea we are
Arthur: what are we suppose to write in our English journal?
Andee has opened the document.
Don: yeah but what do we write about?  :O
Sandy: something about theme
Charlene: about the theme
Sandy: yeee
Don: of the story ?
Charlene: yeaahh
Andee: yea
Don: or on what we commented on the paper
Sandy: yeee   loook this is what i wrote   I think that the theme is that they character rather be dead than not have their independence.
Don: that's what you wrote on your english journal ?
Sandy: do you guys kind of get it now?    yeee kinda
Don: yeah somewhat . how long does our entry have to be ?
Arthur: so we just write about what the theme is?
Sandy: yeah the message of the story
Arthur: oh ok i get it now... thanks kid
Don: oh , okay . It makes sense now (: lol
Sandy: member yesterday ms roberts was talking to you Arthur and you were talking just write what you said down
Arthur: oh ok get it now
Don: I N D E P E N D E N C E (:
Charlene: how much do we write ?
Sandy: AMEN Don
Don: idknow ? -_-    @Sandy , Lmfao . alrighty .
Sandy: enough like 5 sent.
Charlene: grrrrrrrr :/   im confusedd
Sandy: hhhhaaaaaaaa  how?
Don: Tiger , lol .
Arthur: so like a paragraph?
Sandy: umm yeahh
Don: (:   yessssssssssssssssssss
Charlene: whatever floats your boat :]
Sandy: Don do your work     haha stephy nd i say that
Arthur: all of you do yur work!
Sandy: HA;)
Don: stephy ? whose that ? hahaaa    & im halfway done [;
Sandy: STEPHANIE menso
Don: :O I know no such person
Sandy: Charlene helpp mee!!!
Don: hahaha
Charlene: it shows she wants to be independent ?
Sandy: thanks.
Charlene: welcom :]
Sandy: HA...
Don: ha ha ha ha ha   i laugh lol
Arthur: hahaha
Charlene: time is almost up.
Don: :O stop scaring me >___<
Sandy: hahhaa  heyy how longg??
Charlene: how long what?
Arthur: like 3 mins... i think
Charlene: not even like 1   :O
Sandy: the writing   TIMES UP
Charlene: told you
Sandy: you didnt tell me anything
Arthur: do we get more time or what?
Sandy: Don what does malluga mean?
Don: okay guys this is what I wrote, hold on BRACE YOURSELVES
In the story, “Story of an Hour” has a rare theme. The theme is Independence. The lady from the story was dependent on her husband since the day they got married. But when he died she realized that she had to be strong about things and make herself become independent. She felt free at last now that she had realized she could have been independent a long time ago, but never could be because of her husband. The author also stated that the character would rather be dead than to not be independent. I used this quote tho support my evidence, “She said it over and over under her breath: "free, free, free!" The vacant stare and the look of terror that had followed it went from her eyes. They stayed keen and bright. Her pulses beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body.”
woah lol
Charlene: sounds like an A+ to me
Sandy: its good
Don: : :D do you like it Ms. Roberts ? (:
Arthur: no she doesn't
Sandy: hahaha she put you on hold
Don: yeah she does , DAM you guys are haters .  haha .
Charlene: haha :D
Arthur: hahahahaha
Sandy has left.
Don: bye .
Don has left.
Arthur has left.
Charlene has left.
Andee has left.

Of course this is just a beginning. They have a long way to come with their discussion skills, but the interaction is authentic, academic and supportive. It's been a good day. I would be interested in your thoughts.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Smart Phones For Teachers, or "Hello? This is the 21st century calling."

I'm considered very tech savvy by most who know me, but you'd be shocked by my ancient cell phone. It's over five years old. (That's about 95 in cell phone years.) I can text from it if I have 20 minutes to spare and I can even take a picture, if you consider grayish blobs pictures. I will also admit I'm a bit cheap. My current Verizon plan covers both my husband and myself for under $50.  Switching even just me to a smart phone would more than double that. (Have I mentioned I'm a teacher with a mortgage and two kids?)

Still, I've been seriously considering upgrading myself to a smart phone for a while. But many of the motivators for the upgrade are coming from the educational applications I want to use it for, such as being able to instantly post pictures and video to a blog or get e-mail and texts from students where ever I am. A few days ago it occurred to me that what I probably really need to do is write a grant proposal.

I think giving students access to me beyond the classroom is a big part of it. During the hours right after school I am blacked out to them as I attend meetings, run errands and pick up my own kids. Often I sit down at my computer after eight and find e-mails from students asking for help that were sent at 4:30. With a 3G connection I could have taken a moment and responded sooner.

I know there are charters where teachers are given cell phones and required to be accessible to students. I love that idea. I'm willing. Sign me up.  The photo and video capabilities of the phone make it useful in class, and the 3G access makes it useful beyond the classroom.

I don't know for sure yet what it would cost or how it would work. In my dream world someone would walk into my room, hand me an iphone or droid phone and say, "We want you to pilot a smart phone for teachers program. Here's a phone. Here's the number. Use it and report on what happens for you and your students. If it works well and helps students we will give them to more teachers."  Six months later I'd be giving workshops for teachers about how they can integrate their phones into the technology they already have going.

In business the knowledge workers get issued Blackberries to increase their productivity.  Seems to me teachers are definitely knowledge workers.

Fifteen years ago, when I first started teaching, most classrooms in my district didn't even have regular land line phones. It was a big deal when the district put a phone in every classroom. It will probably be another fifteen years before they figure out that they should put a smart phone in the hands of every teacher.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Google Forms: Have you seen the possibilities?

Good morning,

I'm glad you are interested in learning more about Google Forms. Please visit the link below to get started.

Link #1: Pre-session Survey.

You can follow along with the presentation here.

Roberts' Favorite Forms

When we are done please visit the post-session survey link below and also the evaluation form from SDCUE.
Link #2: Post-session survey

Thank you for coming to learn more about Goggle Forms.

Link to form we made together.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Education Solution

You will all be happy to know I have solved education.  I don't know why I didn't see it before. It's really just a matter of simple Math. I'm an English teacher and I still figured it out.

You see there are basically three parts of my role as a teacher: plan, teach, and assess. You can give them other names or quibble with me about the semantics later, but that is basically it.  And, yes, you can add in all the other hats like counselor, nurse, psychologist, mediator, facilitator, mentor, coach, IT specialist, and on and on. We all know teachers do much more than teach. You can probably also factor in some job time spent on various meetings not directly related to planning, teaching and assessing.

I could explain in detail what each of those means to me, but the only part of that which is really relevant to my solution for education is the fact that each of the big three all require about the same amount of my time. So the problem with education is that the system is not set up to allow a full time teacher to spend equal time on all three. To do so we often work 10+ hours a day and weekends. Easily 50-60 hours a week and still don't get it all done.

Lets do the math. A full time high school teacher teaches five classes and has one preparation period. In my district teachers are also expected to work another hour and a half to make up "the balance of an eight hour work day." That's what it says in the contract. I read it years ago and it has always amused me. But, if it is really important to you I'll go look it up again and make sure it still says that.

Anyways, teachers get about 2.5 hours of non-teaching time for every five hours they spend with students. (These are rough numbers) So on a good day, when there are no meetings, no students staying for tutoring, and no technical problems to solve etc. We have roughly 15 minutes per class for planning and 15 for assessment. That's it. At that rate it would take me a month to grade each essay I assign, IF I grade nothing but those essays for a month. You can forget looking at daily homework, entering grades to the online gradebook, grading short answer quizzes or any other form of assessment. Once the class turns in those essays, my assessment time is spoken for for the next 18 school days. Deal.

Planning gets the same 15 minutes per class. Do you now what kind of lesson you can plan in 15 minutes? The kind like this, "Open your book to page 181.  We are going to read the story together [because I didn't have enough planning time to re-read it myself.] Then we will answer the questions at the end." And that is a big part of the problem with education in America.

Being an amazing teacher I can sometimes create brilliant lessons in five minutes, but most of the time, the vast majority of the time, I need way more than 15 minutes. You can see for yourself at my class blog.  The link is over there on the right side somewhere.

You probably saw this coming, but the solution to the education crisis is time. Teachers need more time for planning and assessment. Instead of five hours teaching and 2.5 hours for planning AND assessment. We need equal time for all three. Ideally, in an eight hour work day we would plan, teach and assess for 2.6666 hours each. I can see you laughing and calculating how many more teachers we would need and what that would cost. I'll compromise. One hour of planning and assessment for each hour of teaching. Four hours per day of each. Stop laughing.

All across the country exemplary teachers are getting highlighted. The one thing they all seem to have in common is an abundance of time to plan and assess amazing lessons. Sure they put in those extra hours on a voluntary basis because they are dedicated individuals.  They deserve all the awards, cheers and pats on the back we can give them. But dedicated individuals won't solve the education problems our country faces. Telling every teacher that not working 50-60 hours a week makes them uncaring slackers won't solve it either.

If you want to reform education give the teachers more time to do their jobs right. Then sure, hold them accountable, but hold the students accountable too. Give my kids a test that matters to their future and then you can tell me that their scores reflect what they learned as a result of being in my classroom for a year. Give them a long, boring, tedious test that does not affect them in any way at all and you've just got a big waste of state dollars, but that's another post.

I enjoy being a good teacher and a good mother.  I enjoy both so much that I refuse to teach full time. I have a 60% contract.  That means I teach three periods a day rather than five. I also earn 60% of the salary.  By my contract I should work 4.8 hours a day. That has never happened. I am on campus daily for seven to eight hours and I often have work to do on the weekend. But, full time or part time, all teachers need more time for planning and assessment and it's time our educational system recognized that the educational process begins way before the first bell and continues long after the last.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Shared folders to the rescue...

I've been using writing groups in my English classes for five years. The process got much better once my students all had laptops. We used Google Docs, but students still had to share their paper with each of their group members for each assignment.

Today we made a great leap forward. Writing Groups got started much smoother. Students spent more time reading and discussing their writing. I complimented my classes on their excellent first day with writing groups, but it was the shared folders that made it possible.

Late in the afternoon yesterday I wondered if it would be worth the tedium of making six group folders for each class, adding the correct student essays to each folder and then sharing each folder with everyone else in the group. Ok, perhaps tedious is an understatement, but worth it, yes, very worth it.

1. I already had every student essay shared with me in one folder. Within that folder I created the group folders labeled by period and group number. This took about five minutes per class.

2. Google Docs kindly allows a doc to exist in more than one folder. So, for example, I selected the six student documents that belonged to students in group one and then clicked the folders button. That brings me a drop down menu of all the folders I have in GD. I checked the box next to the group one folder, but I also leave the box checked for the folder where all the student docs are already. This took about 20 minutes per class.

3. Once I had a folder for each group I opened that folder and clicked "share this folder" next to the folder name. The dialog box that pops up can be dragged, so I moved it lower and then used the owner e-mail addresses on the documents to write in the e-mails of the students in the group. This was slow but still only took me about 15 minutes per class. [Google could easily automate this for me by adding an option to share a folder with the owners of all documents in the folder. I plan to ask for this.]

4. When the students came to class they found new folders in their GD accounts. Some needed to be shown the "folders shared with me" part on the left, but most groups figured it out very quickly. The decided which person's writing to look at first and got started.

Best part is that any document they add to their shared folder is now shared with their group. I won't have to repeat the folder process until next fall. (I like to keep writing groups stable.)  I will have to teach students how to add a doc to the shared group folder, but I think that should be simple.

These options might have saved me time, but cost a bit more class time:
I could have had the students create and share their group folder by pulling together one student from each group after they had collected e-mail addresses from their group.
I didn't need to add the documents to the folders. I could have shared the folders and then had students each add their own doc, but there would have been many confused looks.

Overall, I think the instant gratification of having docs already shared and folders ready to go kept the focus on the student writing instead of on making the technology work. It was worth my time to set up the shared folders that groups will use all year long.

For more on how I use Writing Groups in my classroom see my site full of resources.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Stickers, why didn't I think of that?

The best thing I did at the beginning of this school year was make stickers, ok labels. I gave every student a label printed with the name of the course, my name, the class blog address, my e-mail addresses and my phone number. It was a very simple thing that seems to have made a big difference.

Tips if you want to try it:

  1. Use the labels that come 10 to a sheet. They are about 2" by 4".
  2. Find the label template in your word processor. (This is the trickiest part.)
  3. Make one label and copy and paste into the other sections.
  4. If you teach more than one course use "find and replace" to quickly change the course name on all ten labels. I also used it to change the blog address.
  5. Before you print, be sure to go into the printer properties and change paper type to labels. This vastly improved the quality of my labels. Not sure why it matters, but it does.
  6. Distribute to students to stick in a useful place (planner, binder etc.) and keep extras for new students who join you mid year.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

My Docs Tips

A colleague, @socratech,  recently asked on twitter if anyone had any examples of the way they use Google Docs in the classroom. It turns out I had a lot to tell him, so I thought a blog post would be good.

Those of you who know Docs know that it includes forms, spreadsheets and presentations as well as actual documents. I'm going to focus the tips here just on the documents part. I promise more posts later about my tips for the other parts of docs. These tips will be most helpful for people already a bit familiar with Docs. If you are brand new to Google Docs I suggest you start with this cool guide created by Richard Byrne and follow his awesome blog Free Tech For Teachers.

Ways I use Docs in my English Classroom:
1. English Journals: Each student creates a Doc called English Journal.  They add to it (from the top) all year long.  It includes quick writes, notes, questions and answers, warm-up type activities, vocabulary they need, etc. Almost anything they would put in a regular notebook.  I grade these every 3-4 weeks on a rubric.

2. Essays: What English class would be complete without them? Students create a new Doc for each essay and do all their work for that project in that doc.  Pre-writing activities or notes get pushed to the bottom of the doc and the "final" essay is at the top.  I can use the docs "Revision History" (under file menu) to see earlier versions. (I sometimes catch plagiarism that way.)

3. Sharing: The beauty of Docs is that students share their work with me AND their peers. All students are in a writing group that stays together and they share their documents and get feedback at group meetings. For more on the ways I use writing groups (with or without docs) please visit my page on Writing Group Resources.

4. Collaboration: Because multiple students can contribute to the same Doc at the same time I have found Docs make great collaborative activities. At the end of the semester students work in groups to go back through the course blog. Each group takes a month and contributes links to relevant material from that month, but every group is adding to one Doc that I shared with all the group leaders (and they shared to their group members.) So while group one is adding material from September, group five is adding material from January.  At the end of the period the class has a co-created study guide that summarizes (with links) all the material they are responsible for on the final. Link to blog post with their results.

5. I use Docs to publish anything I want my students to see and then just link those pages in the appropriate part of my class blog, either as a static link on the right or as part of a daily blog post. I have a doc called Homework.  I add to it as needed and, because a published doc automatically updates itself, the students can always find the correct homework from the link on the blog.

Very Important Tips:
1. When teachers are using docs with students they will have hundreds of docs shared with them (sometimes all in one day). It is critical to have a good organizational system. I tried having a folder for each period and then assignment folders inside that, but It worked out better to have a folder for each assignment and lump all student work for that assignment into it. (Made grading faster for me anyway.)  Experiment with different organizational patterns, but please use folders. (Update note: Google Docs now calls folders "Collections")

2. Also crucial is to give students a consistent way of naming their docs. Mine was this: Period#, Initials, Assignment name.  So if Dave Hernandez is in my third period class his English Journal would be named  3DHEnglishJournal,  His memoir would be 3DHMemoir etc.  It is a huge waste of time to have to open a document to see which assignment it is. And, while the initials don't always tell you exactly which student, they do narrow down the search.

3. Also, I always tell my students that I grade from the bottom. When an assignment is due on say, Friday, I know I won't really get to grading them until Sunday.  Students can keep working on their papers (for me anyway). When I do sit down to grade I start at the bottom so that I am grading papers that haven't been touched recently. Therefore a student who is actively still revising gets to be graded last. (I'm in favor of kids working on their writing.) Since it can sometimes take me a week or more to grade all of the papers for a major essay my students get the extension if they are still working.

4. Make students share a doc with you the day they create it. You can watch their progress and see who needs help sooner.

5. Check to make sure ALL of them have shared their docs with you well before a deadline. This helps to hold them accountable for getting started and sometimes there are sharing issues. Many times students get my e-mail wrong and I don't get their doc, or they named it wrong and I can't find it.

I hope these tips will help you use docs with your students more confidently. If you have other tips to share please make a comment below.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

When Ripples Become Waves (Not the Google Kind)

I recently read a blog post by Tom Barrett. He wrote about seeing ripples, little bits of his teaching practice showing up in other places as a result of his interactions with other teachers. Today I realized a rather large ripple, possibly even a wave has passed through my school as a result of one very small interaction I had last November.

In the fall I attended a technology focused conference put on by the California League of Middle Schools. I went to great workshops and even delivered my own session about the way I use Google Forms, but about the ripple. I attended a session about Google Wave by Brian Van Dyck. I tried Wave, but I don't really use it. I couldn't get my students very interested in it. Brian used a Prezi as part of his session.  It was the first time I'd seen Prezi, but I only found it to be mildly interesting when compared to what I thought Wave would turn into. Wave fizzled for me, but Prezi lingered.

I made a Prezi myself to see if I could do it. Nothing fabulous, just a dynamic way to get my student's attention before their first semester final. I did not make another one and I still haven't, but I mentioned Prezi in a meeting and later sent the participants an example of one that was much better than mine. One of the senior English teachers, Michele McConnell, showed Prezi to her students, who were preparing for their senior exhibition. Some of those students showed it to their friends, who decided to use it also. A few weeks later many seniors had prepared Prezis.

My student teacher, Ms. Brandecker, had seen my early attempt and then saw a senior's exhibition that included a Prezi. She was working on a poetry unit with her class and wondered if they could use Prezi as part of their project. Working in teams they made very simple Prezis about the poems they had found and written. (Student created Prezis) They presented them today.

From a simple ripple, a small part of something I saw at a conference, something I mentioned in a meeting, the Prezi has become a wave at our school. (Not the Google Kind)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Ways with Word Clouds

Most English teachers at my school will have netbooks in their classroom next year. This opens up numerous possibilities and one of those is word clouds.
A word cloud is a group of words created from a larger text. In the cloud the words that appear larger are the words that occur most often. This is a word cloud based on the text of this blog post.

Word clouds have a lot of potential uses in the classroom.  Students can create word clouds from their own writing, from webpages, from mentor texts. The word cloud gives readers and writers another way of looking at the text.

In this article Nate Sliver used a word cloud creator to generate word clouds based on the comments of people on both sides of the heathcare debate.  Then he wrote an expository essay around his images. (Please click the link and go see his article.  It is a great example.)

Students can do the same thing with an issue related to their curriculum. They could also use a word cloud comparison to look at two different works of literature. Because a word cloud distills a text to it's largest (and smallest) ideas students are required to make inferences, see patterns in ideas, and wonder.

Word clouds can also be used to introduce a complex text. The teacher can create a word cloud before the lesson and ask students to make predictions about the text based on the words they see in the cloud. Last week I made a word cloud from the text of a chapter of The Great Gatsby and then asked students to predict from that before we read.

There are several different word cloud creators on the web. The one I used for the clouds in this post was Tagexedo. It allows you to enter text by copy and paste or to enter the URL for a webpage you want it to pull the text from. You can also play with the fonts, colors, shapes etc. of your creations.

Also check out this great post by Tony Borash about using word clouds as a pre and post assessment tool.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Two Days In The Life of a High School Teacher or Never a Dull Moment

It's Wednesday, so it hasn't even been a whole week and in many ways it's been a very average week.

Monday I broke up a girl fight in my classroom during passing period. Fights are fairly rare at my school and I haven't had one in my room for over two years. This altercation began in the hallway and then escalated. I yelled at them to stop, kept other students back and then eventually found the wits to have a student call for security. In the aftermath their were clumps of hair on the floor and a pearl earing that I took down to the office and returned to to one of the combatants.

That afternoon I spent over an hour calculating and submitting students' grades for the six week progress report, and then creating a lesson for Tuesday, before rushing to pick up my own children. Late that evening I finalized a book order for the English department that we needed to put together quickly before the budget gets frozen.

On Tuesday I had to tell two seniors that they did not pass the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) and that they would not get to walk in our school's graduation ceremony. I also got to congratulate five others who passed on their last chance and will get to walk with their class.

Later I held the beautiful one month old baby of one of my former students. The student is in the marines now and he is training in North Carolina before being deployed to Afghanistan. His girlfriend, the baby's mother, is a senior still and she came to visit campus before she returns to classes in two weeks. She knew I would want to meet her daughter. The baby closely resembles her father. His picture, in full marine dress uniform, is on my bulletin board from the day he came to tell my class about his experience in boot camp. He got to see her for a day before he left California.

In the same day I had a lunch meeting with my student teacher and her university supervisor about her excellent progress this semester. And in the afternoon on my prep period I was able to see the second half of a presentation by a comic book artist who was showing students the very sophisticated computer tools he uses to create amazing artwork.

Along the way I taught lessons, took attendance, wrote passes, counseled students about their options, reviewed student work, fixed computers, wrote e-mails, called parents, and received a really nice thank you note.

Forty eight hours is not enough to absorb the heartbreak, violence, hope, inspiration, congratulation, ordinary, and extraordinary that makes up a typical week in a high school.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Blog vs. Website-- Which will you use in your classroom?

Wow, the post below is five years old and it is all still true. I still run my classroom through a blog and most of my colleagues in my department have joined me. I teach 9th grade English now and you can follow our daily adventures at: 

In the last week three different people have asked me why I prefer to use a blog with my class rather than a website, so let me explain.

You must know that my preference for blogs does not stem from ignorance about websites. In the last fifteen years I have created, built, maintained, managed and removed numerous websites related to my teaching experiences; from my earliest webpage created as a student teacher, through those I created while teaching middle school, to the one I made as part of my masters program, one I created in a workshop about Google Sites and even the one I still maintain as part of my school's larger site. I know a lot about websites. They are great for a lot of things, but not for my classroom.

A website is rather static. Even in a world of web 2.0 a website (at least those easily created by tech novices) just sits there. You can put content up and take it down. You can add pages and take them down. A website is great for things you want to leave up for a while. It is not well suited to daily changes. A blog is.
If you don't know me then you need to know that my students have 1:1 laptops that they use almost daily in my classroom. My blog is their starting place. They turn on, log in and go to the blog. (Do not pass Go. Do not check your e-mail on the way.)

When they get there they will find the instructions I just gave them repeated in the text, the links to the resources I need them to have, and anything else I think they might need to know that day. They have access to the whole internet and we regularly use Google Docs and other sites for productivity, but the blog is the hub.

Why can't I do that with a website, you may ask. Well you can, but if you plan to change the lesson daily or at least several times a week your page is going to get quite long. It also won't come with a nice interface that will allow you to easily attach key words to each post, or automatically format the date and title of each post for you. Your web site posts also won't have a way for readers to leave you comments on each post.

The real magic of the blog is the way it automatically archives my posts. Everything I've done with my students for the last two years is archived and searchable on my American Lit blog. Want to know how I taught Walden last month? Search Walden and scroll down. You'll also find how I taught it last year and the year before that. Want to know how I've taught reading standard 2.5 about assumptions? Search that. You'll see that one year I taught it with political speeches and another year I used first person narratives. Very handy for me as I plan lessons and invaluable to my student teachers.

What about the students? Obviously, either a blog or a website can help students catch up on the work they missed if they were absent, but what about preparing for a test?  Last semester my students made their own study guides for finals by working in groups to identify the key material we covered in each month with the help of the blog archive. I published their guides in Google Docs and linked to them in a blog post. Then I used the student created study guides to tweak my final exam. One of the teachers who asked me about class blogs admitted recently that he spent over five hours on a Sunday making his students a study guide. Do you think they used it much? Even if my students never went back to their study guide they studied as they created it.

My favorite part about the blog is the gadgets. Most blog templates have a column for gadgets. These are things you can add like linked lists, polls, text boxes, and a dozen other things. They stay there until you take them down.  You can have a linked list with links to your syllabus, assignment sheets, rubrics, and anywhere else you want your students to be able to find easily. Polls let you ask your students questions anonymously; things like: How's your project going? or Did you like the last piece we read?  Text boxes give you a way to explain important policies etc. There are even gadgets that allow you to embed other functions from outside sites, like a cluster map of your blog visitors or a slideshow of images.

Blogs are made to deal with information that changes frequently. They are user friendly, easy to update, searchable, flexible and fun. They are also easy to create for teachers (and students). If you don't have a classroom blog yet you can start one in less than five minutes. There is a button at the top of this page on the right side that says "Create Blog". Click that and get started.

Addendum: For more ideas on how to use a classroom blog take a look at the slide below created by Richard Byrne. Mr. Byrne has an amazing blog you should follow

Monday, February 22, 2010

Online Text Selection Supports Standards Focused Learning

There was a time when the only texts I could give my students were those in the textbook (and anything I could legally copy). I'll call that the dark ages and we won't speak of it further.

Today I teach in a room where all my students have laptops. There are many implications of that, but lately the one that interests me has been the impact 1:1 has on what my students can read and the ways they can interact with their reading material.

I've come to a point where I really can identify which standard I need to teach and then choose texts that support that. Certainly there are texts that should be taught as classics, but this year I am much more concerned about the critical reading skills my students need to develop. I am finding that the California standards push student thinking in good ways.

Our current focus standard is Reading 2.5: Analyze an author's implicit and explicit philosophical assumptions and beliefs about a subject. Certainly there are texts in our textbook that I could use to help students master that, but those texts don't relate to each other well. They would not follow thematically or chronologically.

By using the much larger range of texts I can find on-line I am able to put together a unit that makes sense to the students thematically (views about nature), chronologically (westward expansion) and cognitively. Because the texts are online students can copy and paste key sections into their journals for further reflection. Using an online highlighter they can color code the text to identify assumptions and statements about nature.

Recently we've been following a theme of nature in American Literature. I've been able to send my students to a page with over 150 Native American stories. Each student read a different story and collectively they determined how Native American Literature views the natural world. We were also able to read William Byrd's account of the history of Virgina, classic examples from The Fireside Poets, excerpts of the journals of Lewis and Clark and Sarah Raymond's diary about her family's trip across the plains in a wagon train. None of which were in the textbook. All of which challenged student's reading skills and gave them an opportunity to search for the writer's assumptions. Blog Post to Students for Lewis and Clark Readings

Online text selection supports standards focused learning.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Poe Story

    Yesterday I asked students to write in their journals about a warm up question that related to the Poe tale we were about to read. I knew they would finish at different times and, being a good teacher, I was prepared for that.  I had provided them some links on the class blog that would give them some more background information about Poe.
    Almost immediately a boy in the back called me over. "This looks boring," he said, pointing to one of the pages I had linked him to. 
    I agreed, but I hadn't sent them there to observe fabulous web design, just to get a little more info in the few minutes they had. I told him to suck it up, sometimes school is boring etc. and walked away. But I changed my mind as I took a step and went back. "OK," I said, "if that site looks boring find a better one. You have the whole internet in front of you find me something cool about Poe. Send me the link when you get it."
    A few minutes later he called me over. "You've got to see this."
    I walked to the back of the room and was immediately struck by how boring looking the page he showed me was.  It had a small picture of Poe and a paragraph of dense small text. I chuckled and pointed out how "boring" that page seemed to me.
    "But you've got to read it."
    I did read it. The paragraph was about Poe. It described his gambling problems, his alcohol problems, how old his wife was when he married her and a few other salacious details of his life.
    My student waited with a smug smile on his face for me to finish. "Yes, I said I know all of that. The pages I sent you to tell most of the same information."
    "Oh," he said, a little deflated. "But, I didn't read those."
    I reminded him that he shouldn't be so quick to decide something is boring before even trying to read it.  He reminded me that information you find yourself is infinitely more interesting than information your teacher gives you, even when it is the same material.