Curation: Not Just for Curators Anymore

icon-30481_640When I first began teaching 10 years ago, I taught at a poor, inner-city, parochial school with few resources.  Nearly all the resources to which we had access were print resources – textbooks, workbooks, worksheets, etc.  Once I set up a system of filing, it was fairly easy.  Books were stacked neatly on my desk, and papers were sorted neatly in my file cabinet.  Upon entering my classroom every morning, the visual presence of my desk and cabinet reminded me to look into that a book or file folder when planning my next lesson, so resources were not easily overlooked or forgotten.  In addition, my classes were heavily dependent on the textbook (i.e. textbook-driven) and its accompanying resources.

Now the norm for me is digital rather than print resources.  I am free to use a textbook as much or as little as I want, supplementing heavily with as many outside resources as I can lay my hands on, which is incredibly freeing.  However, this poses a new set of problems when it comes to organizing the plethora of resources I now have access to in such a way that is efficient and in such a way that ensures that I actually use those resources rather than forget them.

Ask yourself these questions.

  • Is your desktop cluttered with links to websites and other digital resources?
  • Do you have dozens or hundreds of bookmarks on your bookmarks bar?
  • Do you find yourself searching for the same online resources because you forgot how and where you saved it the first time?
  • Do you save useful resources, perhaps using them once or twice, only to forget them later?
  • Would you like an easy way to share resources with your colleagues other than emailing links to one another?
  • When a colleague sends you a link, would you like an easy way to file it away for the future?

If you answered in the affirmative to any of the above questions, you need to consider the problem of curation.  Digital curation is the preservation and maintenance of digital assets.  There are lots of ways to curate your digital resources, and each person will find a system that works best for them.  But you must find a system if you want to make the most of all that the Internet has to offer.  The earlier you adopt such a system the better, since you will have less of a backlog to organize and curate.

As I said, everyone will prefer some form of curation over another.  I know a lot of people like to use to “scoop” online content, but I prefer Diigo.  Diigo, currently still in its beta phase, is an online curation system.  You can bookmark resources, highlight digital resources, and add sticky notes to those resources.  When you return to the webpage, your highlights and sticky notes remain.  In addition, you can tag and make lists of your bookmarks to make for easy searching.  You can share some or all of your resources with others, making it easy for groups of educators to create their own PLNs (personal learning networks).  Because your bookmarks are saved to the cloud, you can access your bookmarks and annotations from any computer, an improvement over your computer’s bookmarking bar.  Oh, and, there is an app for your iPhone and iPad as well.  Whatever you save on your iPad using Diigo will appear on your computer.  Did I mention that the basic version is FREE?

So take a look at Diigo, and see if it makes sense for you.  If not, find some other curating system that does.  And once you have a system, teach your students about organizing their own online content.


Formative Assessment Tools

icon-36969_640One of the benefits of working in a 1:1 environment is the ease with which a teacher can assign, collect, and analyze formative assessments.  Done at the beginning or end of class, formative assessments can take no more than a few minutes but can yield enormous benefits for teachers and students alike.* Teachers can learn in minutes whether students “got” the lesson, and in many cases, students can learn in the same amount of time what they (mis)understood.  Teachers can use this information to immediately tweak instruction for the benefit of the students rather than waiting perhaps weeks to find out that the students really didn’t understand that very important concept and went on to fail a large portion of a unit test.  Since such assessments are given online, there’s no paper to shuffle or file, and results are instantaneous with very little work on the teacher’s part.

The following is a list of sites that can be used to create online formative assessments of various kinds such as multiple choice, true/false, and short answer questions.  All are FREE, but some have different capabilities than others, so it’s best to play around with each.  For instance, some will give you results for each individual student, while others will give overall results for the entire class.  Once you know how to use these sites, you can create a couple of questions quickly, even at the spur of the moment. This is particularly useful when you suspect a lesson is not going well but you want to double-check the students.

1.  Gnowledge

2.  Socrative

3.  Padlet

4.  TestMoz

5.  Quizdini

6.  Edmodo

7.  Google Docs

*Some teachers argue that unless they attach a grade to a given assignment, many students will not complete the assignment.  Formative assessments, however, are not meant to be graded for accuracy because they are meant to gauge understanding rather than monitor mastery of learning.  If you run into the problem of not all students completing the formative assessment, I would suggest that you assign points for completion/participation.  Or just don’t tell the students it isn’t for a grade and let them make the assumption.  Give some participation points for some formative assessments and not others.  The point is to keep the kids on their toes!


I’m sitting in the school library as I write this, and two seniors are talking in the loft above me.  I am not eavesdropping; there’s no need since they are not trying to keep anyone from overhearing.  They are talking about how “pointless” some assignment or class is, and one student says, “Seriously, why are we here?”  I wish I could say that this is an unusual occurrence, but unfortunately, it’s all too common.  It is because of comments like these that I first picked up the book The Passion-Driven Classroom, which I mentioned in a previous post.

I’m only two chapters into the book, but several parts resonated with me despite its emphasis on elementary and middle school students.  Of all the passages I’ve found thought-provoking, however, the one that I can’t stop thinking about is this one, which they go on to back up with plenty of studies.

“For most young learners and students, there are not enough hours in the day to quench their insatiable curiosity or satisfy their need to know more.  Yet, by the time they reach secondary education, enthusiasm, engagement, and love for learning is at an all-time low.

If one teaches juniors or seniors in high school, and the students walk into the classroom after years of being disengaged, how in 50 minutes a day can a teacher re-engage those students?  It’s not that it can’t be done, but it does become increasingly difficult the longer a student has been without that passion for and curiosity about the world around them.

Please don’t get me wrong.  I’m not in any way blaming the teachers that came before a student’s junior and senior year or saying that they do not themselves deal with the same exact issues.  I am suggesting, however, that the problem becomes compounded over time, making it harder and harder to solve.  So what started as a seemingly small issue in middle school and grew to be a larger issue in 9th and 10th grades becomes THE issue in 11th and 12th grades.

But what if?  What if we NEVER let the curiosity and joy for learning stop?  Don’t stop reading, please.  I know this sounds ridiculously optimistic, but stay with me. Just imagine for an instant what it would look like to see the majority of students actively engaged, interested, and driven in their studies from 6th through 12th grades.  What would that look like?  What would it feel like for teachers and students alike?  For me, it’s the dream.

In the book, the authors talk about incorporating “passion time” into the school week, helping students to pursue their passions and teaching students how those passions relate to the rest of their schooling.  I haven’t read any further yet, and I don’t know how the authors imagine “passion time” working over the long haul, but how about this?

Imagine doing “passion time” beginning in the 6th grade and continuing on to the very end of high school.  In 6th grade, teachers would advise small groups of students and learn about their interests.  Students would engage in “passion time” each week and keep some kind of ongoing portfolio to track their progress. Their passions would change and grow over time, which is exactly what we would want to see.  At each grade level, an additional element would be added to “passion time” to increase the rigor to match the students’ growing abilities.  Now, fast-forward to 12th grade when students complete a year-long cross-curriculum project of their own choosing and design, with teacher input and monitoring of course.  These are no namby-pamby projects, mind you.  There’s no, “I learned how to make cupcakes or do Yoga” here.  These are academically challenging projects that require students to engage deeply with the material of several disciplines.  These are well-researched, well-designed, and well-presented projects. Imagine.

What would it take to get there?  More than one or two teachers on board.  A single teacher alone can’t do “passion time” and have the kind of effect we want and need in our schools.  It would also require strong support from administration, clear communication to parents and students, and a willingness to deal with the inescapable bumps on the road as the program rolls out.  It would also require an understanding that not all students will benefit equally; some will get more out of the program than others.

What could be gained?  Everything.  Students who are engaged and curious, who are willing to do more than go through the motions.  Students who see that their French class actually does have some connection to their math class, believe it or not.  Students who are willing to put the work in even when an assignment or class isn’t their favorite because they understand that it all works together, it’s all part of one important whole.


Monday Morning Roundup #18

cup-20973_640Good Monday morning!  I hope your week gets off to a great start.  Here’s a few resources to get you started.

1.  Pixabay – Recently I had to write a test for an online test preparation publishing company, and I needed to include various images to go along with some of the test questions.  Of course, those images had to be in the public domain, and it is sometimes difficult to determine if an image is in the public domain.  Pixabay is a free image search site that offers images in the public domain.  The image of the cup of coffee above was taken from Pixabay.  FREE.

2.  Coggle – Coggle allows users to easily create mind maps or webs.  There’s not a ton of features to the site, and it is in its beta phase, but it is very simple to use. Coggle could be good for brainstorming sessions, pre-writing exercises, review purposes, etc.  FREE.

3.  Opus – Opus is a free, searchable database of middle school math problems aligned to the common core.  FREE.

The Passion Gap

Relating to students is among the most essential and most rewarding aspects of teaching.  Unfortunately, it is also among the most challenging at times.   The biggest challenge for me personally is understanding the apathetic students, the students that seem to lack curiosity for the world around them and a genuine joy of learning.  The ones who consistently say things like, “I’m never going to use this,” “This is boring,” or “Do I have to do this?”

On one level, I just find these kinds of comments rude.  I don’t love every aspect of my work, but I’m certainly not going to voice these kinds of comments in a faculty meeting to my boss.  On another level, it is just plain disheartening to hear, especially when you have spent a great deal of time preparing for a class and trying to come up with interesting and challenging assignments.

My friend and colleague Karen McVay recently alerted me to a book that I’m hoping will get the wheels turning in my head as to how I can do a better job relating to students when they voice these kinds of feelings towards my class in particular or school and education in general.  (For the most part, I ignore these kinds of comments for as long as I can before getting frustrated enough to challenge a student.  Not really effective, I know.)  The book is called The Passion-Driven Classroom by Angela Maiers and Amy Sandvoid.  While the book is more geared towards elementary and middle school, I think the ideas could be adapted to high school as well.  Karen and I are going to read the book together and meet to discuss our thoughts and ideas.  And perhaps this is part of the process of creating passion for learning in the classroom – talking to other colleagues who are passionate about what they do and who can in turn spark that kind of passion in yourself.  I’ll post more as we move through the book.

Also, on a related note, if you haven’t seen the documentary Waiting for Superman about the American public education system, you should.  I show the film to my government students each semester to show the role of government in our education system, the role of interest groups like unions in terms of policy decisions, and the role of education in a healthy, productive nation.  In all honesty, it can be depressing to watch, but it can also re-energize teachers and students alike to do better.

The Follow-Up

I’ve been writing lately about how to use technology to improve student learning, particularly how to improve the basic skills of students.  Well, I followed through and had my students use VoiceThread to work on reading comprehension and summarizing.  They were assigned passages from their text about fascism, communism, and Nazism.  Then, they were to explain those doctrines and record their explanations using VoiceThread.  You can see their work here.  (Close all other windows while watching, or the videos may have trouble loading.)

Keep in mind that they had not received any previous instruction on these doctrines from me; it was their book and their brains alone, so mistakes were made.  Also, you can see they wrote out their responses and read them rather than simply discussing.  For the first time doing this, I thought they did pretty well though.

After having assessed their work, here are some thoughts.

  • Some of the students still relied too heavily on the words in the book rather than their own words.  I need to work on this with them.  How, even if they perfectly understand what the book is saying, can I get them to use their own words to explain what they understand?
  • Now that the students know how to use VoiceThread in this way, I want to add the element of discussion – responding to one another.  The next go around with this, I will require that they not only respond to the prompt I give, but they also must respond to one another in some way.
  • VoiceThread works best if you have no other windows open at the time.  Otherwise, the recordings can get stuck and you are left watching while a video loads.
  • Teacher participation may also help get the discussion going in the future.  I could record my own questions and responses as well.

All in all, I felt pretty good about the results, and I’m looking forward to trying it again.  The assignment was relatively small, they did it for homework, and we went over the doctrines in class.  It couldn’t have been easier, and at the same time, I feel like it was a useful and effective exercise.


Monday Morning Roundup #17

LK_number_17_color_greenblueA few useful resources for your Monday morning.

1.  Professor Word! – This application is in its beta phase but works pretty well.  Professor Word takes any webpage and highlights all SAT/ACT words on the page. Then, by hovering over the highlighted words, it will give the definition.  In addition, unhighlighted words can be highlighted and defined as well.  Great way to help kids broaden their vocabulary and make sure that they are reading information at a high enough reading level.  FREE.

2.  Library of Congress Primary Source Analysis Tool – Teaching students to read primary sources can be difficult.  This free site walks students through analyzing various kinds of primary sources from texts to photographs to films and audio recordings.  Once students have analyzed their document, they can print out their work or email it.  Given that the Common Core places a heavy emphasis on critical reading, analysis, and writing, this is a good way to get students working with primary documents.  FREE.

3.  Docs Teach – Using resources from the National Archives, you can create activities that get students to think historically.  Choose one of 8 tools such as “Making Connections,” “Mapping History,” or “Weighing Evidence,” and embed primary sources.  Then, students complete the activities.  Another great way to get students thinking critically and working with primary source material.  FREE.