Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Preparing Students for Online Testing

We are rapidly approaching the point when most students will take most standardized tests online. Of course, the nature of the computer adaptive test is that they are far from standard, as the questions students answer correctly or incorrectly are likely to determine the level and complexity of their next question. I can't suggest any tools that are computer adaptive in that way. But there are several online options for preparing students to take online assessments.

Practice tests available online indicate new tests will likely include multiple choice questions with more than four choices, questions with more than one correct answer, listening passages, questions where students have to explain why they chose that answer, and even questions in a grid format.

Obviously, the first hurdle in preparing students for online testing spaces is getting them online. I can't help you much with that. The access part is up to you. Once you get students online though these are some tools you can use to approximate the experience they may have with an online test. All of them can be customized to the content you are teaching, so none of this should be viewed as test prep. These are just ways of adding more online assessments to your curriculum, so your students will feel comfortable, reading, writing, and thinking critically with a screen and a keyboard.

Thinking with a keyboard. Many students who are not used to using computers struggle to compose writing pieces on a keyboard. Any platform that asks students to type their answers will help with this. Try starting with short answers and working up to longer pieces. If your usual method is to have students write drafts by hand and then type them up, you should consider adding more opportunities for students to compose writing directly on the computer.

Google Forms
These are a great way to introduce students to online assessments. You can create multiple choice questions, as well as a variety of other question types. The one I want to be sure my students practice is a checkboxes question with more than one correct answer. Consider asking your students for the definition of a word that has more than one definition. I made a sample form with a few examples of the kinds of questions you can ask with a Google Form. (Ignore the content, focus on the format.) Paragraph answers in Google Forms are a place students can practice writing answers on the computer. You can also embed pictures and videos into a Google Form for visual literacy practice and some listening practice. More about Google Forms

Listen Current
Listening passages, where the student hears the text, but does not read it are another type of assessment I've seen on practice tests. To give students practice with this we need to give students things to listen to. TED talks are popular, but the video component means it's not purely audio. Listen Current is a site that creates curriculum materials to match audio content from NPR. With a wide range to choose from, there is bound to be material that matches the content you are teaching and gives students practice with listening.
Reading from a screen is another skill students may need to practice. is a way to give students practice reading non-fiction and for many of the articles there are also quizes that give students more experience with online assessment. (And don't miss the lexile level adjustment buttons.)

Other Useful Tools
There is a proliferation of online tools teachers can use to customize online formative and summative assessments, give students practice reading on line, and encourage a digital comfort zone that will reduce the technical challenges of measuring student achievement with computerized assessments.
Socrative, Nearpod, and Formative

Monday, February 23, 2015

Photo Apps for Sharing Classroom Pics

I like to share pictures from my classroom, but I am also very aware that I don't want to post pictures of student faces. These are my favorite apps for modifying photos from my classroom to obscure student faces before I post them.

Tangled FX ($1.99)
With lots of options and customizations, TangledFX is my go to app for creating stylized versions of my classroom.

Percolator ($2.99) Beautiful circles create an abstract version of life in my classroom.

Bokeh Lens ($.99) Quickly mask off an area to remain sharp and then blur the rest. Intensify the blur strength until the student is not identified. This works best if what you are trying to show is in the foreground of the picture.

Prisma App (Free) Prisma lets you take your photographs and apply filters linked to famous paintings. There are new options all the time and they come out looking quite artsy. Some of the filters are not stylized enough to really conceal faces so you may need to try a few. 

Touch Blur (Free)  It's a little creepy to blur out their faces, but sometimes that's just what you need.

Oil Painting Effect (Free)

And my favorite...

CatBomb (Free)

With a little app practice you can share beautiful images of the learning in your classroom, without actually using student faces. 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Potential Plot and Plot Profile: Two organizers helping my students with challenging fiction

For several years my PLC has been fond of Probable Passage, a pre-reading activity by Kylene Beers that helps students become familiar with some of the words in a story and also engages them in predicting what the story will be about. With Probable Passage students get a list of words and then sort them into categories like characters, setting etc. (You can find more about this and more great pedagogy in her awesome book, When Kids Can't Read: What Teachers Can Do: A Guide for Teachers 6-12.)

I was getting set to show my students this activity, when I reflected on fact that data from their first semester final showed that many were still struggling with basic elements of plot like, exposition, rising action, climax and resolution. I began to wonder if I could re-imagine the probable passage activity to reinforce those concepts. What I came up with is the Potential Plot version.

This is a Google Drawing. You can use this link to get a "view only" version of the activity. Use File/make a copy to create your own version to use with your students. You can print it out or share it with your students digitally.

I had my students complete this in partners and then I asked each partnership to write their gist statement on a sticky note. That made it easy to post them all on a chart in the classroom.

Later in the unit, I used another version of this for my students who were still struggling with the main events of the text. By rearranging some of the boxes I created a blank Plot Profile that guided them through a structured summary of the main events. You can use this link to get a "view only" version of the plot profile.

These were popular with the other teachers in my PLC, but they immediately set me up for my next challenge, creating a similar activity that will work with the non-fiction texts coming up in our next few units. I will share those when I have them figured out.

Just made some adaptations to work for non-fiction arguments. Get it here> Likely Argument

Friday, February 20, 2015

Doc to Form and Save as Doc: My Two Favorite Google Add-ons This Week

This week I have found two new Google Drive Add Ons that are making my digital life as a teacher more functional.

Doc to Form and Save as Doc are similar in that they both help you convert information in one type of Google file to another type.

Doc to Form, as it says, helps me easily convert questions written on a Google Doc to a Google Form ready for people to fill out and answer. Late last week our school nurse asked me if I could transform the quiz teachers have to take about blood borne pathogens and convert it to a Google From. She sent me a Word file. I uploaded it to Google Drive and used Doc to Form to make the transformation process faster. This tutorial video shows you how it works in about 90 seconds. Doc to Form is free for up to 10 questions. If you need more, there is a really easy process to donate $3 to the developer via paypal and use up to 50 questions. (I highly recommend donating, and I have no financial stake in that suggestion.)

Save as Doc is an add on for Google Sheets. It lets you quickly convert rows in a spreadsheet to a Google Document. You can even have it automatically page break between each row, so that each entry ends up on it's own page. You can select which rows you want converted. I'll be using this to generate reader friendly versions of some applications we are collecting with a Google Form. (And yeah, I made that form with Doc to Form.)  I figured out Save as Doc without having to watch a tutorial video, but if you want the two minute lesson, Richard Bryn has a great one.

I know I'll be using both of these a lot to make forms and documents from docs and spreadsheets.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Models of Learning: A team building intersubjectivity activity

Models of Learning
This semester I am teaching a graduate course for pre-service teachers aptly called, Learning and Technology.

I had a wacky idea for our first class about models of learning. I wondered what would happen if I collected a wide range of random art supplies and asked my students to build their own three dimensional models of learning. You see, all the graphics about models of learning are flat, but learning isn't flat, why shouldn't the models be three dimensional? Some of my groups even created four dimensional models with an element that changed over time. They ranged from wacky to profound, however all of the groups had rich conversations about how learning works as they built their models. I did this with graduate students, but I also think it would a a wonderful process for teachers to try at a staff meeting, especially at the beginning of the school year.

You will need: A wide range of craft supplies, the stranger the better. Chop sticks, styrofoam balls, balloons, fuzzy balls, clothes pins, tape, glue, pipe cleaners, and more were all in the bag of supplies I dumped on the table. You may also want your own copy of the slides below.

Step 1: Building the models. 15-20 minutes is plenty of time for this.
Step 2: Explaining the models. Split teams into groups and have them gallery walk to view each team's creation. Have one person from each team stay with their model to explain it. (Don't skip this step.)
Step 3: Make a video. (We are bringing in the technology now.) The gallery walk gave teams practice explaining their model; now just get out the phones and make it a video. The narrator can remain off camera.  (Remind them to shoot horizontally. I forgot that part.) Provide a Google Form or other method for participants to share the link to their video. Then create a playlist of their creations.

This slides I used for this activity. You can get a copy of them here.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

In a few words: Short form writing

Often there is power in saying less.

When friends first gave my parents a copy of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg in the 1980's the inscription they wrote on the inside said, "Often the elegance of an idea is revealed by the small number of words necessary for it to blossom in the minds of others." Clearly, a memorable thought if I am recalling it thirty years later.

Then I remember the words of my former writing tutor, David Colloff, who told me that if you can't say what you want to say in one sentence, you'll never be able to explain it in a longer piece of writing. That advice has been with me for 25 years now. (In hindsight, I realize he was probably trying to get me to write a decent thesis statement. As a writing teacher myself now, I can empathize with his struggle.)

So in the spirit of saying less I will get to my point. There is great value in asking students to distill their ideas, information, and arguments down to a single sentence, tweet, meme or phrase.

Say it in one sentence:
When David was teaching me to say it in one sentence he used an example from the Dustin Hoffman movie Tootsie. David said that script went through several writers and floated around Hollywood for a while until someone (I wish I could remember who) said, "This is a movie about a man who puts on a dress and becomes a better man." With that arc and a goal for the character the script came together and the movie was a hit.

Tweet it:
One hundred and forty characters is not a lot to work with, but it can be a lot of fun. In 2012 Nicholas Provenzano (@thenerdyteacher) tried live tweeting The Great Gatsby as his class read the famous novel. He had a hashtag for each character and often included their reactions to events in the tweets. Even with only 140, students can capture the essence of a moment, comment on it and share their thinking.

Meme it: 
Memes combine a few words with and image. They are expected to be funny or make a point. Students can use memes to show their understanding of a topic and also make it a bit irreverent. Memes also get students' attention. They don't have to rhyme, but I do enjoy using this one after we read Cask Of Amontillado.

I've seen students use memes to show their understanding of the Constitution, the Black Plague and The Crucible. To make a meme project more academic have students swap memes and explain in writing what their partner's meme means and what you need to know to get the joke.

Say it in six words: 
Think 140 is short, try six words. The six word memoir is a favorite activity for the first week of school. It helps me get to know my students and also gives them a low stakes first computer project as they type and format their memoirs on a single page. Along the way, we learn the importance of proofreading; it's short, there are no excuses for mistakes on this one. And, it's public. It's going on the wall, so make it look good.

Skip the words altogether:
My favorite end of novel assignment for The Great Gatsby is the art project that represents the novel. (I always offer a range of project options for the end of the novel, but I love when students pick this one.) Students always produce pieces rich with the symbolism of the novel, often creating striking artwork. Then along with their art they must write an explanation of the rationale for all of the details they have included. For some students this becomes their best writing of the year, as they are writing in response to a subject they have thought deeply about, and they are already invested in it.

Short form writing is a wonderful way for students to figure out what they want to say and then expand their thinking either orally or with additional writing.