Here We Go Now

go---In my previous post, I offered up a reflective exercise on using technology to enhance basic skills, and I began the thinking exercise here.  I left off with the question, “What technological tools exist to help students learn about and master these skills?”  From my list of 13 skills, I decided to focus on several issues that overlap: reading comprehension, vocabulary, and critical thinking.

One of the biggest issues I’ve had thus far this year is getting my students to understand that there are multiple ways of saying the same thing.  Often my students get a question wrong on a test and argue that, “That’s not what you said in class, or that’s not what it said in the book.”  Well, it’s true that I didn’t use those exact words.  In fact, I purposely used different words on the test to say the same thing to see whether the students actually understood the material or simply memorized it.  Do you ever run into this issue?  It’s a case of lack of comprehension, poor vocabulary, and memorization versus critical thinking.

So I did some thinking, some Internet-perusing, and some talking with the technology integrationists at my school.  (Shout out to Karen and Frank.  Oh, and you should check out Karen’s blog here.)  I wanted to make sure that I got this post out rather quickly to prove that one can, in a relatively limited amount of time, come up with possibilities for tackling this issue and others.  In other words, no excuses for not having the time to integrate the technology.

Here’s one possibility I’ve come up with so far with some caveats at the end.

Use VoiceThread.  Post either a short paragraph or a multiple choice test question on VoiceThread.  Have the students read the post.  Ask them to respond by paraphrasing the paragraph or restating the question in their own words.  You can tell them which words they can’t use from the original in their own response, forcing them to think about the original words and consider words or phrases that mean the same thing.  Because you don’t want one student to post and the remaining students to just copy, you must plan ahead and place certain limitations and parameters on the assignment. For instance, you could have students do this in smaller groups because it is true that you can only say the same thing in so many different ways.  Students will eventually run out of ways to say the same thing.  But if the groups are small enough, you can make it so that no one can simply say the same thing as someone else without some variation. You can also coach them not to view others’ responses until they’ve completed their own.  Grading based on effort and completion rather than on accuracy (at least in the beginning) will take away some of the temptation for students to cheat off of and copy others.  Require that each student provide an original example, analogy, or anecdote in their response to make sure that they are not simply copying.  Require students to critique one another’s responses in addition to crafting their own.  I can envision something along the lines of Johnny saying, “Jenny, that’s not what I got out of the paragraph.  I thought it was saying such and such.”

Is this better or easier than doing this verbally or on paper in class?  Yes!  Here’s a few reasons why I believe so.  Doing this in class takes up time you may not always have for these kinds of basic skills, particularly at the upper school level where content matter is so important.  Also, doing this activity in class does not give students enough time to reflect and makes it easier for some students to fall through the cracks.  In addition, this way requires no paper, which does in fact save time in the end.  Finally, students can view one another’s responses for as long as it takes.  The responses are in the cloud rather than on a piece paper in someone’s binder.

Now for the caveats…This does take planning on your part.  You can’t have 20 students using VoiceThread all at once on the same short paragraph and get quality responses.  So as I said, your best bet is to break your class into smaller groups.  In addition, you probably don’t want to grade 80 responses per week, but the good thing is, you don’t have to do so.  You could set your small groups up on a rotating basis throughout the term so that only 5 to 8 students are responding in any given week, or you could make them all do it every time but randomly choose who gets graded on any given week.

Now, for the final excuse that may be running through your head.  “Some students still won’t do what I’m asking,” you say.  Yes, unfortunately, that’s true.
But I think more students will than not.  And who are we here for really?  So a few won’t get anything out of it.  Is that a good enough reason to abandon a quality and necessary assignment or activity?  Not in my opinion.

So I am putting my money where my mouth is.  I am starting the 1920s and 1930s next week with my AP European history students.  This is always a tough unit because students have a difficult time understanding fascism, communism, etc.  I plan on using VoiceThread in the way that I have described next week with my students to help them understand what they are reading regarding these different concepts.  I will post how it goes next week.  Do I think it will work perfectly?  No way!  But you’ve got to start somewhere.



A Baker’s Dozen

AEZQ4XA2JMKAE4D5In a previous post, I explained how one way to effectively integrate technology in the classroom is to ignore the technology for the moment and concentrate instead on the critical thinking and writing skills that you find lacking in your students. What skills, regardless of the technology, do you want your students to have at their disposal?

Well, I made my own list. Here are the skills I think are most important in no particular order.

1. Reading comprehension – being able to read something and explain in one’s own words what was read, paraphrasing

2. Summarizing – identifying the most important points versus the supporting details

3. Vocabulary – being able to determine the meaning of words from the context, reading the same thing in different words and recognizing it’s the same thing

4. Note-taking – from lecture, from a text

5. Annotating – interacting with a text, asking questions about the text, commenting on the text

6. Argumentative writing – crafting a thesis and offering logical, sufficient support

7. Explaining – providing thorough explanation and evidence in writing to support one’s claims

8. Persistence – grit, sticking with something even when it is hard or not particularly entertaining

9. Attention to detail – learning how to comb through something and make sure all the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed

10. Geographical literacy/awareness

11. Research – effective searching, determining whether a source is credible

12. Study skills

13. Problem solving – critical thinking, using a variety of sources and information to propose and test solutions

This is a longer list, and most likely, I will have to do some prioritizing. No teacher can tackle everything all at once. But I think it’s reasonable to assume that all these skills could be tackled to greater and lesser degrees within a given school year. Also, depending on the particular subject matter and grade level, the list may be slightly different.

So now that I have identified my skills, my next question is, “What technological tools exist to help students learn about and master these skills?” As I have written previously, the technology isn’t going away and neither is the need for the above skills. So how do we marry the two, how do we integrate the technology to support the teaching and learning of these skills? My next few posts will address this very question. In the meantime, if you think of some important skills that I have missed, I would love to hear them. Please feel free to leave a comment.

Monday Morning Roundup #16

1206557741582718836a_sanyal59_Sunrise.svg.medThe benefit of being laid up with a cold and cough is the time one has to play on the Internet and read without feeling guilty. So I managed to find quite a few resources for this Monday Morning Roundup. Enjoy.

1. Go Social Studies Go! – This site is pretty cool. Right now, it covers World History, United States History, World Geography and World Religions. It could be very useful for middle schoolers and 9th and 10th grades. Students can read short essays that come with pictures, videos and maps. There are also links to outside resources like games. After each essay, there are questions to consider. This could be a good way of introducing a topic by assigning the essay and questions for homework, allowing the teacher to go deeper in class the next day once the students have the basics. FREE.

2. ePals – I can’t recall if I’ve already mentioned ePals or not, but even if I have, it’s well worth another look. ePals allows students from K-12 to collaborate with students from around the world. Teachers and students can join projects that others have created or start their own. These projects can range from 2 weeks to several months. They can cover any subject or topic. FREE.

3. Geosense – Some of my social studies colleagues and I have recently been bemoaning the lack of geographical awareness our students have. One way to help students learn the countries and cities of the world might be with this free online game. Students can play alone or against someone else. You can pick between world geography, European geography, or U.S. geography. FREE.

4. VoiceThread – I think I’ve mentioned VoiceThread before this, but I thought of a new application for it. With VoiceThread, you can embed a picture, video, or document. Then, students can leave a voice message or written response. Other students can then listen to or read these messages before responding themselves. I thought this might be a way to have kids debate a topic or discuss an issue in a different way. FREE.

5. Simple Booklet – This is another way to create electronic books. Students can upload PDFs, and create their own flippable book. Then, they can share their work with others. FREE.

6. Glossi – Similar to Simple Booklet, Glossi allows users to create digital magazines, another creative way of doing research and presentations. It’s in it beta phase right now, and you have to sign up for an invitation. FREE.

7. History Today Historical Dictionary – From the site itself: “The dictionary is a compendium of facts, figures, mini-biographies and definitions of historical terms. It covers people, places, key events and epochs. Each entry is concise and expertly written, and the dictionary is ideal as a study tool or to improve your knowledge of history.” FREE.

8. Teaching Kids News – This site is so great for lower and middle school students, especially given the Common Core’s emphasis on reading comprehension and nonfiction texts. News stories are presented using appropriate-level vocabulary. Along with the news stories, there are questions and activities to get the students working with the material. FREE.

9. – Most of the timelines on this site focus on British history, although there are some timelines covering medical and American history. The site began in 2010, and is constantly growing. Timelines include textual information along with embedded short videos. I could see these videos being used as the introduction to a unit. The site also is available on mobile devices. FREE.

10. Living Lung – This is a free iPad app that shows the anatomy of a lung at work. FREE.

11. TimesMachine – TimesMachine is an online catalogue of every issue of The New-York Daily Times from Volume 1, Number 1, on September 18, 1851, through The New York Times of December 30, 1922. “Choose a date in history and flip electronically through the pages, displayed with their original look and feel.” FREE.

12. Classroom Aid – This site hosts a list of tons of resources for teaching social studies. FREE.

“It’s the skills, stupid!”

skillsEven if you don’t particularly favor James Carville’s politics, he has a way of zeroing in on the most important points.  And that’s what I’m going to try to do myself within this blog post.

In recent weeks, I’ve had to think a lot about professional development for the coming school year, particularly as that professional development dovetails with technology and curriculum issues.  In any school, teachers and staff members will interact with technology in various ways.  There are the few innovators, those who are constantly pushing ahead with technology, testing out the latest things and refining what they already do.  There are a greater number of users, those who use the technology once they are introduced to it but do not always seek out the latest things themselves.  Finally, there are some non-users, those who continue to resist the technology for various reasons and remain firmly wedded to the former way of doing things.

For me, however, these different categories of technology-users aren’t going away and aren’t actually the most important thing anyway.  The most important thing isn’t the technology, it’s the skills, stupid.  And I don’t mean technology skills.  I mean the basic skills and not-so-basic skills that we want our students to know to be successful in school, college, and beyond.

Try this.  Take a moment or two and list all the skills that your students are currently lacking or showing room for improvement.  Not technology skills, mind you. Just skills in general.  Things like reading comprehension, summarizing, annotating a document, etc.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait…

Got your list?  Great.  I imagine that list is pretty long.  It’s easy for teachers to see where students need improvement.  But we aren’t done yet.  Now, knowing that the laptop or iPad or whatever it is, isn’t going away, I want you to consider how that technology could be used to help you and your students work on all those skills you just listed.  What would you as the teacher need to learn how to do with the technology to help your students with the skills that you bemoan they do not have?  This is trickier, and you may have no idea what you would need to know or how you could use the technology.  I promise there are ways to do this, however.  If you are floundering with this bit of the exercise, it’s a sign that you need to talk to the technology experts and innovators at your school to help you begin to address this issue.

You see, whether you are an innovator, user, or non-user, this is a useful exercise. For innovators, by focusing back on the skills that students need, it can help them make sure they aren’t adopting some new technology just for the technology’s sake. For users, it can help them make sure that they are using the technology thoughtfully and in ways that improve student learning, not just to check off that they are using the technology to appease their principal.  And for the non-users, it takes away some of the excuses.  Besides just being unsure of how to use the technology, non-users tend to argue that the technology gets in the way of teaching the basic skills, and therefore, they can choose not to use the technology and still feel like they are doing the best for their students, still teaching them the skills they need.  This is often said without actually examining the veracity of the claim, however.  There may indeed be ways that the technology could improve student learning, but non-users will often not know this because they willfully choose to ignore the technology altogether.

This week, I’m going to be posting about my own experiences with the reflective exercise I’ve described above.  I am currently going through this process myself because I know there are ways that I could be using the technology more effectively and efficiently.  So the next post on this issue will be a list of the skills I see lacking in my students along with a way to prioritize that list according to importance.

If you decide to do this little exercise with me, I would love to hear your thoughts. Feel free to comment.

Musings on Technology

The other day I was lecturing on the 1920s in my AP U.S. history class and mentioned the Harlem Renaissance and Langston Hughes.  Three or four years ago, I found this great website called has recordings of some of the most famous poets from the late-19th and 20th centuries reading their poems aloud.  One of these poems is Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”.  I play it aloud for the students every year.  I think there’s something so wonderful about hearing the poem from the poet’s mouth, listening to how the poet emphasizes certain words and lines, hearing the writing come alive.

After I played the recording, I recounted to my students how my old AP English literature  teacher (shout out to Mr. Geier!) had done the same for my classmates and me.  I remember listening to W. B. Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” (my personal favorite) and Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”. The difference was, of course, he did not play these recordings from a website. Instead he had these recordings on an actual record, an LP.  The sound was not nearly as good as what I played for my students.  There was a scratchiness and background hum to the recordings that has mostly been removed from the digital versions.  But it has stuck with me all this time.

I’ve heard people say that it is not the technological device that matters but how one uses it and incorporates it into the classroom.  And this is true from a certain point of view. Fifteen years ago, my teacher wanted me to hear a poem read by a poet, just as I wanted the same for my students in 2013.  He used a record player, and I used a computer and a website.  Now, some teachers wedded to traditional methods and traditional technologies may take this as evidence that they don’t have to change, they don’t have to embrace the new technologies to get the same results, but that would be the wrong assumption.  You see, is better than my old teacher’s LP.  It is free and houses thousands of poems and recordings on one site.  A student whose interest is piqued in the classroom can go home and listen and read as much as she likes with a few clicks of the mouse and for little to no cost.  This was simply not true when I was in school listening to that scratchy LP.

So while the device shouldn’t be the sole driving force behind what we do in education, some devices and technologies are indeed better and should be embraced as such rather than resisted or simply ignored.  It’s a lesson I learned from my old teacher.  You see, while he still used those old LPs, he was also the first teacher I ever had who required us to use the Internet for research purposes, and this was when there was very little on the Internet!  And while I’m not in touch with him anymore, I would strongly suspect he’s ditched the LPs for like me.

Can Technology Come to My Rescue?


Last semester, I created a government unit plan on issues related to federalism that culminated in the students participating in formal debates.  It did not go as well as I’d hoped, which is a slight understatement.  See my previous post for the full story.  Yet I didn’t want to give up on the debate idea because I think debates touch on so many skills from doing research and critical thinking to speaking articulately and listening well.  So I tried to figure out what some of the specific problems were on the first go around and how I could tweak the lesson in response.

Here’s what I determined were some of the key problems:

1.  At around 20 minutes, the debates were too long for students who may never have debated before in previous classes.

2.  I failed to provide enough scaffolding when it came to finding quality resources and helping students lay out their arguments, pro and con.

3.  Debating in class in front of everyone put too much pressure on students who may never have debated before this.

So what to do?

First, I truncated the length of the debate.  I now have the students doing an 8-minute debate.*  Since I shortened the debate, I have the students working in groups of 2 rather than 4 or 5.  This also makes it easier to determine if everyone is pulling his or her own weight.

Second, I provided more specific resources (particularly the database Issues and Controversies) that help the students define the issue and think of possible arguments for and against their issue.  To be sure, I listed this as a possible resource the last time, but this time, I am requiring them start their research there.

Third, instead of doing the debates in class.  I am having the students film their debates using iMovie.  Now, I do not want highly edited debates, so the rule is that they can practice and re-film their debate in entirety as many times as they want, but they can’t stop and start and edit out whole portions of the debate.  It needs to be one complete 8-minute debate with stutters, mistakes, warts and all.

I am hoping that this improves this lesson, at least for the vast majority of my students.  And if it does, I am hoping that I can then do a “live” debate later in the semester.

So will technology come to my rescue?  I’ll keep you posted.

*2 minutes pro, 2 minutes con, 1 minute pro, 2 minutes con, 1 minute pro