Friday, September 19, 2008

table of contents

Google docs presents: Table of Contents!

If you assign reports or long essays, a table of contents is crucial:

Set up the table of contents in the format menu, which provides hierarchical entries for heading, subheading, and minor heading. Next, go to the insert menu to place it on the first page. Read more about it at Google docs help center.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


TestToob is a new Web 2.0 interactive application geared specifically towards middle and high school students. They are able to upload videos of their science experiments, and hold online discussions with other students and teachers about the results. TestToob explains:
TestToob is a place exclusively developed to showcase experiments done by school-age scientists. It offers the most up-to-date tools, fosters wonder, and gives youth an opportunity for creative self-expression. Simply, it’s a place to learn, to grow and to have safe fun.
The creators stress that the application filters users for safety purposes, requiring parental confirmation at registration. Teachers are encouraged to use it as a means to enhance their lessons.

Web 2.0 for the classroom is at its best with applications like this.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

where is the learning?

There is fascinating dialogue ongoing at The Chronicle Review, with professorial commentators Mark Baurlein, and Siva Vaidhyanathan. They are discussing and debating the efficacy of technology as a medium for learning in a series of blog posts. Siva points out that we can't simply fall for the stereotypical view that technology acceptance and use is a generational thing. Just because they're young doesn't mean they know how to access information through the computer. Baurlein argues that there isn't any proof that technology is improving the educational experience, since students claim to spend less time than ever on their studies, and much more time socializing through MySpace and Facebook.

I completely agree with Siva's point about the broad spectrum of web knowledge amongst our students. Many of them don't know much because they're not taught how to use the web beyond Google and Wikipedia for school. They learn fast, however, very fast. And they're rarely unwilling to explore online, whereas some adults simply won't go there.

And, I agree with Baurlein: students see the internet primarily as the great socializer. Again, the problem is that they haven't been taught how to use it properly as a learning tool.

It explains why we're so upside-down education-wise. The students know real education is "out there," rather than packaged in a redacted textbook. The educational system as a whole has yet to acknowledge this fact. The system is still trying to 'contain' education, protecting traditional modalities.

Be sure to read the comments on these posts, which add so much to the discussion. Open up a dialogue at your school.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

more Lord of the Flies

One of the most frequent questions I get from readers regards questions about web resources to enhance their teachings of the Lord of the Flies by William Golding.

In a previous post I recommended an online game from the Nobel prize website and a survival quiz, both of which are very popular in my classes. Presenting the quiz before reading even starts is very effective, because students learn that they know far less about the fundamentals of survival than they realized. It helps them to walk in the footsteps of the boys on the island, once they get into the story.

Two more online sources that may be of help:

What else can I help you with? What other web resources are you looking for?

Monday, September 15, 2008

young reviewers contest

Get your students fired up with a contest that will introduce them to the real world of publishing and scholastic recognition, not to mention real prize money.

The Virginia Quarterly Review is sponsoring a contest for young book reviewers. All writing contestants must be under the age of 30. It's a formidable project with the minimum word count at 2,000 words, up to a maximum of 3,500 words. Read about the requirements here.

Your students will probably be most interested in reading about the prize:
The prize for the winning entry is $1,000, publication in our Winter 2009 issue, and a publishing contract for three additional reviews worth up to $3,000. Finalists (up to five) will receive a complimentary one-year student or associate membership in the National Book Critics Circle, a one-year subscription to VQR, and may also be offered paid publication in VQR (in print or online).
Move fast on this one, as all reviews must be uploaded to the VQR website by September 30.

Here are two sites to assist with the fine points of writing book reviews:

Sunday, September 14, 2008

animated poetry

Billy Collins, former US poet laureate, presents his poems in animated videos. These are wonderfully imaginative devices to help us visualize words in verse. Here is my favorite, "Now and Then":


Friday, September 12, 2008

on the road with wanderlust

Summer's over, but that rarely dampens the wanderlust of the traveling spirit. We're left to read about others' accounts, and now we can follow some of the greatest journeys in history and literature with Wanderlust.

The site maps out many of the world's great historical expeditions, such as the Northwest Passage, the voyages of Marco Polo, and the Lewis and Clark expedition, as well as a few found in novels. Commentary and pictures accompany notable points in each journey, such as the origination point of Kerouac's iconic road trip:

The skies outside my window are foggy right now--a perfect time for armchair travel with a Wanderlust map to the opposite coast, where I'll set sail on the Pequod, dogging the route of that elusive white whale.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

playacting as active learning

Edutopia (George Lucas's educational blogsite) encourages active learning through playacting in Writing Aloud: Staging Plays for Active Learning. The article points out that due to budgeting constraints, many school districts pay scant attention to drama, especially to productions written, directed, and staged entirely by students themselves. 

Yet, what better way to get students actively involved in learning about any topic?
The aim of the Arena Stage program, like that of similar theater-education programs across the country, is to offer the benefits of arts education at a time when schools are increasingly putting the subject on the back burner. Playwriting teaches kids how to construct a plot, write dialogue, and tell a story through action. But the benefits go far beyond that. Students also learn how to conduct research, perform in front of an audience, collaborate with their peers, and express themselves, says Adrienne Nelson, the Arena Stage teaching artist who worked with the class of thirty-two Stuart-Hobson students this year.

 The Edutopia article highlights a lesson in dealing with racism from a historical perspective, but drama can also be used to help students understand literature. You don't have to upset your entire curriculum to do it either. Keep productions small--limited to a scene or two--for big impact.

One of the most fun lessons in my 10th grade classroom is a re-enacting of the original Pyramus & Thisbe storyline from Ovid's mythology, during a study of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Of course, we play it all in fun, in the spirit of Bottom & Co.'s production. By the time we read Shakespeare's play-within-a-play, the students are thoroughly warmed up, and ready to enjoy the players' version, as well as the lovers' critique. Students (in groups) write the dialogue, create mural settings, and paper-and-glue props. Their acting rivals Bottom's group!


Monday, September 8, 2008

World Names Profiler

One of the most rewarding projects in the classroom is exploring and sharing family heritage. Take your students to the World Names Profiler, which shows them where people are who share their surnames.

World Names Profiler holds an enormous database of names:

"We hold data for approximately 300 million people in 26 countries of the world, representing a total population of 1 billion people in those countries. In our database there are 8 million unique surnames and 5 million unique forenames."

Entering your surname will bring up a map in graduated shades of blue to denote the density of population sharing the name. Below the map is more information, such as the root of the name in group and subgroup. Finally, there are lists detailing how many per million live in specific countries and cities.

It's always fascinating to find out where in the world we come from.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

uncommon craftsmanship

So you're a teacher and you're a techie. But do you really feel comfortable teaching your students how to use all those Web 2.0 tools that you want them to become familiar with?

Of course, their tech expertise was nurtured in the womb. Kids and teens just seem to get it, when it comes to figuring out how to use applications. However, they may not fully understand the purpose of the tool or why they should use it. They will look to your for that explanation.

Fortunately, you can look to Common Craft, which claims that their "product is explanation." And their language is "plain English." Using conspicuously non-techie graphics, Common Craft explains the why? of web 2.0 tools. Two of their most popular videos explain how to use RSS (my personal favorite) and wikis, both of which are common tools for the classroom.

Whew! I can hear those sighs of relief all over.

Even if you don't use any of their videos (many are freely available), you'll want to watch one for a tutorial in how to give a concise and comprehesible presentation. This one explains, in plain English, how to use Google Docs:

Thursday, September 4, 2008

follow me to readerville

One of the most difficult aspects of assigning reading journals is, well, everything. Collecting the notebooks, reading the entry, grading, returning. I wish I had known about Readerville Note:books, because I would have taken my students there a long time ago.

Readerville is a book lover's website with a journal-keeping feature. Set up a notebook for jotting down your thoughts as you read a book. Enter as often as you like, a maximum of 750 characters for each entry.

You can set up your notebook to view each of your student's journal entries. If you or your students have websites, you can embed the journal entries, as I've done here, in the sidebar. Currently, I'm reading Everything is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer.

This is a lot less back-breaking than carrying all those notebooks around.

chrome's tabs and windows

In yesterday's post, I wrote about the features of Google's new browser, Chrome. As a longtime cruiser with Firefox, I'd have to find compelling reasons to switch. Ultimately, beyond all the features I highlighted yesterday, only one reason stands out:

Chrome lets me work more efficiently.

When I research, I take notes. Chrome makes it very easy to open several articles at a time all in separate windows, as well as Google docs, so I can jot down impressions, capture links and quotes, etc.  With Chrome I can easily pull contents from a tab into separate windows, which resize beautifully for easy reading. Scrolling is consistent from window to window, and I can work with as many open windows/tabs as I wish without worrying that they might slow me down or crash. I can highlight any word or term by right-clicking to do a quick Google search in a new tab. Just to write this post, I have four windows open for reference.

I often use Google Alerts in my research, so I keep gmail in a separate window in the background to watch for new information from the web to add to my topic.

Need to grade essays? Pull up the spreadsheet with the links to your students' docs, and put it in a separate window. Next, bring up your gradesheet. Since these are essays, you may also want to bring up your rubric, also in a separate window. Now, you're all set to grade. Click to open in a new window the first student's essay for evaluation and to add comments, enter rubric scores, enter grade, and click out of the essay. Click on the link from the spreadsheet to the next student's essay, and so on. Everything you need is on one screen in front of you.

This process works equally well if, rather than essays, you've collected quiz results using Google forms.

Daily lesson plans
When you click on the new tab button, Chrome highlights your most visited websites in snapshots, as well as sites recently accessed and closed. This makes it very easy and quick to get to your next period's site before they walk through the door, to bring up the day's lesson plan or opening exercise. You can also have ready the course standards for your state in a separate window, all set to project onto a whiteboard or screen.

one negative: no add-ons
The new Chrome is almost perfect for the way I work. The one caveat for me is that I will miss Firefox's add-ons, one of its most useful features. However, Chrome is so intuitive in its search bar, that so far I haven't missed much.

It's always fun to play with new toys. I'm looking forward to putting this one to work.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

shiny new chrome

Google surprised us this week with Chrome, a new browser for the web. Maybe you don't pay much attention to which browser you use, but you drive one every time you access the internet. Think of it as the platform on which you cruise, the chassis, so to speak. 

About 77% of my readers currently use the Firefox browser to get to this site, according to Google Analytics. I have used Firefox faithfully since its initial release in 2004. Today, it enjoys nearly 20% share of web use, steadily chipping away at Internet Explorer's domination, and for good reasons: safety, tabs, and customization. Firefox's innovations forced all browsers to drive better and safer.

Google has financially backed Firefox development for years, so why build their own browser? It seems to come down to a difference in architecture philosophy. The things Google wants to do on the internet will be better served by building their own browser from scratch. They claim to not be at odds with each other, encouraging competition with this new entry into the browser market. Both are built upon open source platforms, and are freely available to anyone who wants to improve the browsing experience.

I've only been using Chrome for about 24 hours, but so far I'm impressed. Here's why:
  • speed: windows and tabs render very quickly
  • stability: if something on one tab goes whack, only that tab goes down. It doesn't freeze up and crash any other windows or tabs.
  • tabs technology: this (and safety) is why I moved to Firefox to begin with. Tab innovations changed how I used the internet, allowing me have several applications and reference website up at the same time. 
  1. Tabs in Chrome are placed above the url bar, not below, gaining me more viewing real estate. 
  2. I can move tabs from window to window as needed, and easily open them in separate windows. 
  3. Scrolling seems much improved, more consistent from page to page. 
  4. Having several tabs and windows open at the same time is significantly streamlined, making it easier for me to work. 
  • safety: incorporates strong anti-phishing technology, and fights malware with a hierarchy of read/write permissions, allowing entrance only to trusted sites, or sites you request.
  • intuitive? Very! Seems to know exactly where I want to go. Huge wow factor.

Why does any of this matter to you, the educator? Is it worthwhile for you to switch from Firefox to Chrome? I'll write more about that in my next post.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

how to collaborate?

The Official Google Docs blog has a guest post from a teacher in Great Britain about how his students collaborated using Google docs. When Tom Barrett initially tested the idea, he found that the problems encountered were not intrinsic to docs, or any of the technology, but rather to the act of collaboration itself:
With hindsight it is easier to recognise that the children were not only being introduced to a new piece of technology (the Docs tool) but also their traditional way of working was to be challenged by the new concept of working collaboratively in an online document.
When asked about their biggest challenge, the students were quite direct while describing their thoughts on the collaboration process:
  • The biggest challenge is to stop arguing.
  • The thing I find hard would be the working together.
  • It is hard to work with other people.
  • When we are all not talking and people move stuff and people shout.
Collaboration for any group of any age can be difficult, especially, as Barrett wisely proclaims, their traditional way of working was to be challenged . . . . As we are all too aware, students learn how to be students; they learn how to get good grades. Collaboration upsets their normal procedures for doing so, as it introduces the unknown of how the other students will affect their output.

The arguments for collaboration center on the help it provides for weaker students, as it incorporates ideas and discussion from everyone. My experience has been that these students definitely benefit by a greater understanding of the project, since they are able to discuss it with others who will help them parse the instructions and gather resources. However, weaker students are often intimidated, letting stronger students do the greater portion of work.

Barrett provides an excellent solution to assuage discomfort of the unknown:
I found it very useful to model the process. Just as I would if I were showing the children a style of writing in Literacy or a type of stretch in PE. I worked with a colleague on an example document and gave the class a running commentary as to what we were doing. As we worked we talked to each other and I underlined some of the key features of what made that short demo collaboration successful for us.
Watching two people interact while creating a document together is a great idea, as it shows students what's expected from them, as well as how the process of collaboration can be successful.

Another method I've found to work well is to make certain each student in the pair or small group has a distinct writing portion to complete, at least for the first draft. Each student could be responsible for a particular topic discussion, subordinate to the overall thesis. One student can write the introduction, another the conclusion. Google docs makes it easy for you to see who writes what, which is very important for grade evaluation, even if you plan to assign an overall grade. Students are highly attuned to the 'fairness' of the grade with regard to their input or the lack of it from others.

Once you have evaluated the first draft and provided your comments directly on the document, the students can take on more group-centered activities for revision: suggestions to beef-up weak arguments and insufficient support, spelling, grammar, punctuation use, uniform paragraph transitions, etc.

Collaboration, done right, can truly show us and our students that the sum is greater than the parts alone.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

dragons and such

If you're teaching Beowulf or other middle English and medieval works, you'll appreciate the online Medieval Bestiary: Animals in the Middle Ages.

A Bestiary is by definition a compendium of all the animals, but of course, we're most drawn to the fantastical. The online source has translated passages from a variety of Bestiaries. Here's what the Harley manuscript in the British Library has to say about the dragon:

The dragon is the greatest of all serpents, or of all living things upon the earth. The Greeks call it "Dracon," whence the Latin name is derived, so that it is called Draco. And this creature often stealing forth from its caverns mounts into the air, and the air is violently set in motion and glows around it. It is also crested and has a small mouth and narrow passages through which it draws its breath and thrusts out its tongue. Moreover its strength lies not in its teeth but in its tail, and it injures by a blow rather than by a bite. It is harmless as to poisons, but they say poisons are not needful to this creature for dealing death, because if it has caught any one in its coils, it kills him.
There are links to ancient manuscripts presented in PDF files, such at this 13th century Arundel Middle English Bestiary, which begins with the description of a lion's behavior when he gets a whiff of humans about:

Ðe leun stant on hille, .
and he man hunten here,
Oðer ðurg his nese smel,
Smake ðat he negge, 4
Bi wile weie so he wile
To dele niðer wenden,
Alle hise fet steppes
After him he filleð,

The Lion stands on a hill
If he hears a man hunting
or scents him approaching,
in fleeing he erases his track
on the ground with his tail.
But it's not all Old English and musty manuscripts. The site has its own blog; that's right, Chimaera, the Bestiary Blog. It's become one of my favorite subscriptions because of enlightening articles such as "Why Kill the Unicorn?"
Why, indeed? I can't think of a single reason why, but it does explain why there are so few around anymore.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

a page of grammar

Daily Writing Tips offers one page of grammar, which just might be the perfect amount to give to your students in any class that assigns writing. As you'll see, the one page is comprehensive, yet not overwhelming. Here's an example:
The language is simple and clear for easy comprehension, and there are examples, though they are limited. Assign your students to come up with more.

Divide students into groups to present the different sections, maybe one section per week. Put together a quiz through Google forms after each presentation to make certain they understand the grammar terms and uses.

Place the link on your website for a quick reference throughout the school year.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

diablogging: open discomfort

Are you concerned about someone stealing your syllabus or other class materials off the internet? This is not something I'd given much thought to until I read "When a Syllabus Is Not Your Own," a blog on the Chronicle of Higher Education site. Author Jennifer Sinor recounts her discomfort at discovering her syllabus, slightly redacted, put to use for another professor at a different institution. It had been lifted off the internet and customized by the new user.

I understand Sinor's unease, but I always assume anything I put on the internet is available for others to use. The whole point is that we are sharing information. Nevertheless, I can see how some teachers might want to preserve the authorial integrity of their work. Academhack provides an excellent suggestion:
What about syllabus stealing you ask? Here’s your solution: publish all your syllabi on the web, give them a creative commons license. Now another faculty can use as he/she sees fit, but only if they give you credit . . . problem solved.

Obtain a creative commons license for your syllabus, or your entire website, if you like. You may choose how your work is used, and the level of attribution:
  • Attribution. You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform your copyrighted work — and derivative works based upon it — but only if they give credit the way you request.
  • Noncommercial. You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform your work — and derivative works based upon it — but for noncommercial purposes only.
  • No Derivative Works. You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform only verbatim copies of your work, not derivative works based upon it.
  • Share Alike. You allow others to distribute derivative works only under a license identical to the license that governs your work.
Licensing your work through creative commons couldn't be easier. Simply embed the license of your choice on your website.

Now, we can all get back to sharing.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Google summarizes form responses

There are lots of benefits to using Google forms to collect information from students, but the primary reason for me is that I can see at a glance how they're doing: how much do they understand? What don't they understand? What needs to be gone over again?

The old-school alternative is collecting dozens of separate pieces of paper and reviewing and grading each quiz. I end up with an idea of what they know or still need help with, but without careful, time-consuming perusal of the responses plus taking notes, it's difficult to tackle each student's individual needs.

Input to Google forms provides me with a chart with each student's responses listed down columns, making it very easy to address any misunderstandings. This is simply better instruction.

Now, Google improves how we visualize the input to forms with a summary showing total responses received, a bar chart for multiple choice responses, and other useful break-outs. You can customize the visual output and publish it with a link from your website, so all your students can see how they measured up to the rest of the class.

Classy stuff!

Related posts:
getting to forms from docs menu
assessing understanding
call forms anything you like, just call them
poetry out loud
FORMing rubrics

Sunday, August 24, 2008

to the 4th dimension

If you teach geometry, science, or geography, Dimensions, a series of nine short videos discusses the first through fourth dimensions. The videos are visually amazing, each one 'presented' by a theorist, with beautiful explanatory graphics.

The videos take a holistic approach, as each theorist in history expands the scientific knowledge of the time. Mathematical concepts are developed through exploration of physical geography in a way that makes each more accessible.

You may download the entire series of nine episodes, each 13 minutes long, or view them online. Chapters 1-8 grow increasingly difficult in concepts and mathematics. Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, and 9 are all appropriate for middle and high schoolers, while the others are geared towards more advanced secondary school courses or university level. See the teaching guide for more information.

Below is a trailer for the Dimensions series. Since it is taught in several languages including English, the trailer shows graphics with a musical background. The series chapters, however, are delivered in well-spoken English.

Friday, August 22, 2008

sports reads for teens

While the Olympics have got your students all fired up, there's no better time to list some book titles geared towards their age and interests.

Here are a few recommendations from Suite 101-Teen Fiction:

  1. Summerland - Michael Chabon. Both baseball and fantasy, one terrible baseball player is recruited by a 100-year old who wants him to play to help fairies beat an ancient enemy.
  2. The Outside Shot - Walter Dean Myers. This book follows a boy from Harlem who was recruited by a small midwestern school to play basketball, but also helps out handicapped kids.
  3. Head Above Water - S.L. Rottman. Skye has a lot on her plate in this book, as she is trying to compete in competitive swim, care for her Downs Syndrome brother and enjoy her relationship with her first boyfriend.

Read the whole list here, and post the link on your class website so students will have a handy reference. Maybe you can get your school librarian to display these books for a time.

Related posts:
diablogging: reading tools
reading room
teen literary trends
must reads

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Google moves from creator to sites

Earlier this year I recommended Google Page Creator as the easiest way to set up a web presence other than a blog. It was a great place to post instructions and links, or to have students attach their writing.

Google has moved on, however, to their feature-rich website builder, Google Sites, and has announced the decision to discontinue Page Creator. If you use Page Creator, not to worry; Google will automatically transfer your Page to a Site. Check out my @edu Google Site to get an idea of what you can do there.

Here are some instructions from Google Operating System for exporting files from Page Creator to transfer to Sites.

While I appreciated Page Creator for its ease of use in creating an attractive site, I'm thrilled with Google Sites. For my classroom, I call it home.

Related posts:
In my sites: Google sites
what's in your portfolio?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

open and scholarly

We often hear complaints about the dearth of reputable sources on the web. While it is true that most worthy source materials may still be found in bricks-and-mortar research and community libraries, or locked up in subscription-only online depositories, there are excellent sources readily, and freely, available to our students.

The Directory of Open Access Journals DOAJ should be at the forefront of sources for all research papers you assign, both as source material for references and as outstanding examples of research paper writing. The articles provide excellent lessons in reading comprehension, as well.

Subjects represented by the DOAJ are comprehensive, from the humanities to the sciences, to business and economics. Here's an article from journal Romantic Textualities that I'll definitely add to my reading list for Romantic Era studies, "Remediating Byron: Textual Information Overload During Byron's 1816 Travels":

Cultural insights into the communication phenomenon of textual Information Overload existed during the Romantic period. In 1800, for example, Wordsworth lamented the multifarious transmission and reception of information which, he found, blunted ‘the discriminating powers of the mind’ resulting in the mind becoming unfit for ‘voluntary exertion’ because the (over)saturation of print media precludes one to ‘think long and deeply’.

So we're not the only generation to experience the onslaught of information overload. How's that for relevance?

On the subject of scholarly articles, how do students tell the difference? Here's a video from the library at University of Wisconsin-Madison which spells it out so we can all understand. The video is a keeper; you'll want to show it to your classes and provide the link on your website.

Monday, August 18, 2008

teacher techies

You've made the commitment to teach from a technological platform, thereby bringing your classroom into the 21st century. You've spent the summer researching your options and trying out various teacher tech tools. Now that the new semester is gearing up, however, the time dedicated to your own learning objectives has to be put aside while you devote all your time to teaching.

Still, you think to yourself wistfully: if only I had time to figure out how to stream video from my website, so I could share a particular lesson with other departmental faculty or parents.

You need EdTech101, a quick tutorial and reference guide for educators, delivered in an easy to assimilate podcast. Your host, Brian C. Dvorak, is a California public school district technology guru, determined to provide techno-tips to "fellow educators out there in the trenches."

Each of Dvorak's podcasts accompanies a link to whatever product he's featuring. By opening that link in another tab in your browser, you can preview the application at the same time he's telling you about it.

As for that video streaming project? EdTech101 reviews, an amazingly easy method for accomplishing this feat. Dvorak is sensitive to educators' needs for security and privacy, and suggests ways to ensure both while using this application.

A couple of his more recent reviews include Animoto and Jing, two web apps I've featured in the past month. Assign EdTech101's podcasts as homework assignments for your students and they will come into class ready to create great presentations.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

poetic youth

At the beginning of every school year I ask my students--high school or college level--to respond in writing: What kinds of writing do you like to do? Without fail, every year the most common response is poetry. They like to write poems.

Now, sometimes a few students will write specifically that they create song lyrics, but by far the most common response is poetry. When I first started asking this question, I was surprised. When I tell my students the results of their written responses, they are surprised. We shouldn't be. Throughout history, the best poets have generally been young.

It probably seems surprising to us that teens would invest in time writing poetry because they have so many other ways to spend their time. We constantly hear how the bombardment of technology usurps the mental energy of youth. Yet, giving credit where credit is due, technology may be the perfect vehicle for reading, writing, and critiquing the ages-old practice of poetry.

Welcome to the Young Writer's Society (YWS):
Specifically created for young writers ages 13 to 25, we are an online community where we share a common passion for creative writing.

The poetry section accepts entries into three distinctively defined categories: dramatic, lyric, narrative, plus 'other' for whatever doesn't fit. There are rules, too. Site administrator, 25-year-old Nate, lists a few:
  1. Be sure that all the grammar is up to standard. Do whatever you have to do to post a grammatically sound story. (common courtesy!)
  2. Try not to preface poetry or fiction. If you have to explain to your critics what the piece is about, you are not doing your job as a writer.
  3. Write constructive critiques. Constructive posts do not include things like, "this was super dooper! keep writing!"
Great advice all around.

I'll leave you with the opening lines of "The Last Word," a poem posted today by Gadi:

There it is—a faux pas in society,
lying feeble on this very page,
a cube, a puzzle piece, a block—
something like a sizzling fluorescent
light in an underground chamber,
resembling a migraine in the crooks
and corners of your brain.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

tips for editing and proofreading

Most seasoned writers have a routine for editing and proofreading, so that they budget time in the writing cycle before the piece goes public. Too often, students wait until the last moment to write their papers. Once the content is down, they may (or may not) make a cursory check for errors, and call it a late night.

The techniques we use to teach writing may alter these bad writing habits, such as having our students freewrite blocks of text at a time. By definition, freewriting is writing without concerns for revision, so that editing and proofreading become the next steps in the process.

I have found it useful to begin writing projects with in-class freewriting, one block at a time, so that procrastination is not an option. We dig right into the content, skipping the introduction until later in the process, when students have a better idea of what they are writing about. Some may still wait until the last night before the paper is due to complete their final draft, but at least they will have something concrete to work with.

The blocks of freewriting form a first draft, from which editing and proofreading naturally follow. You will find very useful tips for these skills at the University of North Carolina writing center website. First, a distinction is made between editing and proofreading, encouraging writers to separate out the two steps in the revision process.

Here are a couple of my favorite tips from the site:

  • Try changing the look of your document. Altering the size, spacing, color, or style of the text may trick your brain into thinking it's seeing an unfamiliar document, and that can help you get a different perspective on what you've written. [Familiarity definitely breeds contempt for finding errors--I need to try this!]
  • Clarity-Have you defined any important terms that might be unclear to your reader? Is the meaning of each sentence clear? (One way to answer this question is to read your paper one sentence at a time, starting at the end and working backwards so that you will not unconsciously fill in content from previous sentences.) Is it clear what each pronoun (he, she, it, they, which, who, this, etc.) refers to? Have you chosen the proper words to express your ideas? [If they don't understand what their own sentences mean, no one else will, either.]
There's an interactive exercise as well: at the beginning, readers are informed that the text contains 7 errors. Have your students form pairs to find them. They'll be able to access the necessary revisions at the end of the article.

The UNC Writing Center offers great tips which, if followed, will benefit our students throughout their writing lives.

Friday, August 15, 2008

understanding torture

When I first began teaching George Orwell's 1984, I had a heck of a time getting a copy of the Stanford Prison Experiment video, which makes frighteningly clear how ordinary people can become torture agents.

Now, of course, viewing is as quick and easy as a YouTube click. I won't say enjoy.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

field trip: national library of Ireland

The National Library of Ireland offers a virtual exhibition of the life and times of William Butler Yeats. Early on, when I dreamed about the promise of the internet, this is close to the form it took.

The exhibit is built with flash technology that allows me to wander about the rooms of the library, stopping at will to look more closely at whatever catches my eye. There are various videos displaying original footage of the man and the Irish world he lived in and created.

You can also click on the interactive button at the bottom of the screen in case you think you might have missed something while maneuvering throughout the halls and rooms, such as a handwritten copy of "The Lake Isle of Innisfree' or the copy of William Blake's "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," which is heavily annotated by Yeats.

I can't think of a better way for your students to get to the know the poet and the period of Irish literary culture he inspired.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

getting to forms from docs menu

The new school year fast approaches, and now is the time to create forms for your lessons. Forms, you recall, are an excellent means of quizzing your students to find out what they know, or more importantly, what they don't understand.

Google has now made forms even easier and quicker with fewer steps. Previously, you had to start with a spreadsheet and give it a name before selecting to create a form. Now, you simply select 'form' off the 'New' docs menu, and you're off and running:
From that point, you enter in the information for your quiz and save it as before. A spreadsheet will be created to collect your students' data, all in one convenient place so you can see at a glance how your students are doing.

Get the details here.

Related posts:
assessing understanding
call forms anything you like, just call them
FORMing rubrics
input facilitates output

Monday, August 11, 2008

satyrical maps and war dogs

If you are teaching the history of World War I, or war literature from the period, BiblioOdyssey features satyrical propaganda maps that make wonderful learning tools:

Maps that featured regional stereotypes, animals and assorted symbolic imagery and mythical and historic figures associated with particular countries became a popular vehicle in which prejudices, humour and political commentary could be assembled in a visual format.

The rise of the serio-comic map caricature genre, that had really begun in about 1870 (although the roots of the tradition stretch back at least to Munster's 'Geographica'** from the mid-1500s), reached its peak of popularity at the beginning of World War One.

The humorous propaganda maps stirred nationalistic fervour, mocked and belittled enemies and even served as a mnemonic tool for students to learn their geography. In many of the above maps you can see that the more distorted or grotesque depictions are saved for the least favoured nations while the home side is of course rendered as normal or heroic. The style declined in popularity as the war dragged on and film and posters became the more dominant media of propaganda. [quote from BiblioOdyssey]

Satyrical map publishers capitalized on visual appeal to inform the citizenry, but they also engaged their readers with the interactive appeal of a riddle:

Hark! hark! the dogs do bark!
The beggars are coming to town
Some in rags and some in jags
And one in a velvet gown

See if your students can solve the riddle.

Unfortunately, war is always relevant. Have your students draw a similar map depicting the current Russia-Georgia conflict, and write their own rhyming riddle.

Teachers of literature, here's the opening verse of Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est" to get you thinking about a war poetry lesson plan with history and geography providing the structure:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares2 we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest3 began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots4
Of tired, outstripped5 Five-Nines6 that dropped behind.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

prompting creativity

Creative writing is often overlooked at school, since state testing and heavy curriculum requirements dictate how much of our teaching time is spent. This is a shame, since students generally write with great enthusiasm when encouraged to tell fictional stories, especially science fiction and fantasy.

For my tenth graders, I paired readings of Ray Bradbury's "There Will Come Soft Rains" with "The Garden of Stubborn Cats" by Italo Calvino, then assigned them to write their own sci-fi/fantasy short story. They were supposed to write 5-6 pages, but several students wrote for twice as long. Guys are especially intrigued by the assignment, even those who are typically resistant to any other writing lessons.

You can find Bradbury's story online here, and both the Italian original and English translation of Calvino's "Stubborn Cats" here.

If you'd like your students to start writing creatively on a more spontaneous basis and in a less formal manner, get some ideas (over 300!) from Creative Writing Prompts, designed to "ignite your creativity."

Saturday, August 9, 2008

animate the classroom with Animoto

It didn't take long for teachers to find the teachable moment in the Animoto video-making application. Now, Animoto has made special concessions for educators and students.

If you haven't tried Animoto, you should--it's a lot of fun to put a video together. The Animoto for Education site features some sample videos designed by teachers, but it's not fair for you to have all the fun.

The site explains how you can set up emails for your students that will enable you to have complete visibility over their creations, as well as provide for their privacy. The benefit to each student having his or her own account is that they can all create videos at the same time, and they can work on them at school or at home. With their own accounts, students can download their videos to present in class with or without an internet connection.

Here's an Animoto video I put together a few months ago to visualize Wordsworth's poem Tintern Abbey, emphasizing his themes of natural grandeur and soulful seclusion:

Monday, August 4, 2008

Google serves templates

You've been tempted to use Google docs for their online presence and offline convenience, but you'd miss your Word templates? Check out the menu for templates at Google. There's a fresh and varied list that grows all the time as users deliver their favorite templates for everyone's use.

If you are a student, you will like the customizable schedule template. Change the cell backgrounds to reflect your school's colors, or give each class a separate color that enables you to see at-a-glance where you are supposed to be and at what time:

Like all of Google's documents, doc owners can make this viewable so that selected friends or family may follow your daily activities.

Does mom schedule the dental appointments and guitar lessons? Do you need to pick up your kid sister from school every once in a while? Give mom collaborative permission to make those entries, and she won't have to call with reminders, using up your valuable cell phone time with friends.

Just don't forget to check your schedule.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Big Brother Blogger

George Orwell kept a diary that will be offered by Orwell Diaries on a daily basis starting August 9. What a great way to complement a reading of 1984:
The Orwell Prize is delighted to announce that, to mark the 70th anniversary of the diaries, each diary entry will be published on this blog exactly seventy years after it was written, allowing you to follow Orwell’s recuperation in Morocco, his return to the UK, and his opinions on the descent of Europe into war in real time. The diaries end in 1942, three years into the conflict.

Begin each lesson with a reading of the 'blog' to have Orwell reveal himself to your students, from both the personal as well as political perspective:
What impression of Orwell will emerge? From his domestic diaries (which start on 9th August), it may be a largely unknown Orwell, whose great curiosity is focused on plants, animals, woodwork, and – above all – how many eggs his chickens have laid. From his political diaries (from 7th September), it may be the Orwell whose political observations and critical thinking have enthralled and inspired generations since his death in 1950.

Mark your calendar, or better yet, subscribe to the site today.

Related post
Listen up

Thursday, July 31, 2008

diablogging: reading tools

This week, tools that enhance classroom reading are on the minds of the bloggers I read. Instructify reviews a very useful bibliography maker called BibMe, and Educamation discusses the social benefits of sites such as Shelfari and Library Thing.

Your students are going to love BibMe for its quick compilation of references in a variety of formats, including the most frequently cited: MLA, APA, and Chicago. You can upload information from almost any source, even film. Here is the MLA citation for the New York Times article I wrote about this week with regard to how online reading affects literacy:
Rich, Motoko. "Literacy Debate - Online, R U Really Reading? - Series -" The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. 31 July 2008 .

If you register at the site, BibMe will keep track of your citations, a helpful feature when preparing a long research paper. Of course, we still need to teach students how the citation process works, and BibMe helps us out with a handy Citation Guide.

Do you keep track of the books you read? I have for decades, starting out by recording in notebooks, then discs and CDs, and now Library Thing and Google Books. Edumacation has a well thought out post about the pros and cons of using social media for students to showcase the books they've read.

These tools are useful, fun to use, and cost effective. Best of all, they provide great incentives to read and write.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Jing is the thing

Got a presentation coming up that requires detailed graphics and step-by-step instructions? Want to produce a slideshow to show associates how to use a web application? Do you maintain a class blog featuring hands-on lessons?

You need a screen-capture application. Are you looking for an application that is both free and easy-to-use? You need Jing.

I always like to to try out applications before they are featured on this blog. I've been working with Jing for quite a while now, and I'm thrilled with it. Jing's creators referred to their baby as a 'project' rather than the beta designation that we're used to seeing, because they weren't sure whether or not it would actually become a real product. Now, a year later, they've announced their intentions to continue to develop and support Jing.

What I needed was an easy-to-use, free, screen capture application so that I could demonstrate how to do things on the web. Jing allows me to capture any site, crop it to the dimensions I need, and even add pointer arrows and text to get my ideas across. Here's an example:

It takes mere minutes to complete an image, and you can save it to your system or to a free online account at You can even create a video with your own soundtrack.

Jing may be just the thing you need to get your presentations and blog instructions in shape. Download the software for pc or mac, then click on the little sun that sits above your screen. You can remove it if you prefer, but who doesn't like a little sunshine in their lives? You're ready to create.

Treat yourself to Jing's video screencast, which is a enlightening demonstration in itself.

Monday, July 28, 2008

information gathering vs. reading

Hardly a week goes by when the media doesn't produce another article or broadcast questioning whether or not the internet makes us dumb. Today, the New York Times features this latest offering that has jumped to the top ten of most read articles, and is actually one of the best I've read on this issue. Media organizations are profit industries, so these angst-filled analyses must be popular topics among readers and viewers, or the question would go away. I think the question itself is dumb.

When I surf the internet, which I do on a daily basis, I don't consider it 'reading' per se. I'm gathering information. Of course, I use my reading skills, but I'm not doing the type of in-depth reading that following the plot-line or character development a novel requires. On the internet I scan or skim-read, looking for and following various nuggets of information. It is not linear reading; it's more like jumping from one thought stream to another. I love reading like that because it follows my own unique way of thinking. I feel as if I'm contributing to my own knowledge-making, rather than absorbing wholesale what a book delivers through a slow, authorial voice.

Now, I love slow, authorial voices, therefore I read novels everyday as well. Much of what I've learned about what it means to be a human being has come from novelists and poets, the best of whom provide a holistic approach to understanding. I believe wholeheartedly in the power of literary transformation and development because I've experienced it. The reason I'm comparing internet surfing to novel reading is that in the NYT article this claim is stated:
The only kind of reading that related to higher academic performance was frequent novel reading, which predicted better grades in English class and higher overall grade point averages.
Whenever I read something like this, I have to ask myself whether smart people are driven to read novels, or frequest novel reading makes us smarter. My guess is that novel readers have the skills to sit in a classroom and attentively follow the linear storyline of a lecture, as well as the linear story progression of a lesson, and make enough sense of both to maintain a high gpa. After all, life is a narrative, right?

Consistent novel reading produces the ability to view a holistic structure as well as mine underlying issues. These are wonderful abstract skills, but at some point we have to come down from the clouds to confirm the facts of what we've learned through our own experience or the experience of others. This is when life gets messy and chaotic and the facts change according to viewpoint and new discoveries. And that's where the internet comes in, an amazing tool to augment our classroom learning through knowledge-gathering and assumption-testing. These skills, however, are not being tested in any systematic way:
Elizabeth Birr Moje, a professor at the University of Michigan who led the study, said novel reading was similar to what schools demand already. But on the Internet, she said, students are developing new reading skills that are neither taught nor evaluated in school.
In fact, the entire world gathers information from the internet, and for the first time many nations' students will be tested on their digital literacy. But not the United States.
The United States is diverging from the policies of some other countries. Next year, for the first time, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which administers reading, math and science tests to a sample of 15-year-old students in more than 50 countries, will add an electronic reading component. The United States, among other countries, will not participate. A spokeswoman for the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the Department of Education, said an additional test would overburden schools.
US schools are too over-burdened to test their students for digital literacy? Instead of teaching students how to gather information to make their own knowledge, we will continue to cram the limited offerings of textbooks down their throats? How's that worked out for us? Will we allow the world to pass us by?

Excuse me while I go read another chapter of my novel.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

opposing views

If you want to get your students excited about writing, give them something to argue about, and make sure their informed opinions come from qualified sources. There are plenty of textbooks that attempt to introduce relevant topics from an academic point of view, but they generally are out-of-date by the time they come to print. I was a contributor to one such text, and today it sits on a shelf collecting dust.

Opposing Views: Issues, Experts, Answers is a web site that attempts to keep us all up-to-date on issues that matter to our lives:
Each section of is a channel, including politics, society, health, money, and religion. Our point/counter-point format gives each expert a chance to state their information and opinions on an issue. Meanwhile, the other side objects by calling out the flaws in that information, and then states their own side. Opposing Views brings together the information on the issue, the evidence on each side and their counter-points.

One of my favorite teaching sections was working in tandem with a science teacher on the topic of using animals for medical research. The students loved debating and writing on this issue; there was great passion in their views, whether they supported medical research or animal support groups. My English class wrote an essay, while the science class responded to an essay question on a midterm exam about what they had learned. Together, the students from both classes explored the issue and collaborated with their findings for the debate and essay responses. I used the internet to find relevant articles, pro and con, but the opposing views site would have been most helpful, with its point-counterpoint arguments written by field experts, all in one place.

The diablog this week centers around cross-curricular collaboration, such as the English/science section on animal testing just discussed. JustRead has an excellent, detailed post on putting together an English/history collaborative effort, in preparation for Natural History Day.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

documentary heaven

One of my favorite blogs for sources, Open Culture, features SnagFilms, a site with a large collection of documentaries for free viewing. This is great news for those of us who teach report-writing and argument-position essays.

Is your class reading Night, by Elie Wiesel? Supplement with a viewing of Paper Clips:

Whitwell Middle School in rural Tennessee is the setting for this documentary about an extraordinary experiment in Holocaust education. Struggling to grasp the concept of six-million Holocaust victims, the students decide to collect six-million paper clips to better understand the extent of this crime against humanity. The film details how the students met Holocaust survivors from around the world and how the experience transformed them and their community.

Lots of teachers I know include the popular Super Size Me video as a writing topic relevant to teens and college students, to emphasize the horrifying effects of unhealthy eating:

In SUPER SIZE ME, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock unravels the American obesity epidemic by interviewing experts nationwide and by subjecting himself to a “McDonald’s only” diet for thirty days straight. His Sundance award-winning feature is as entertaining as it is horrifying as it dives into corporate responsibility, nutritional education, school lunch programs and how we as a nation are eating ourselves to death.

SnagFilms not only provides a long (and growing) list of excellent documentaries, they make it easy to snag--or embed--the film for viewing directly from your class website or blog. Here's an inspirational story about how a tour of Africa changed the life of soulful singer Alicia Keys. Enjoy.

Friday, July 18, 2008

hi-tech sticky notes

Where would we be without sticky notes? I love them. There's something about their small size, which doesn't demand a lot, or waste much. And their lack of 'placement commitment' is intoxicating--I can put them anywhere I want. Then move them or change them around. Then put them back where they were in the first place. Or not.

I use them all the time. I encourage my students to use them for note-taking while they are reading, as placemarks with reminders, to set up timelines and mind maps.

There are digital sticky notes, and I've tried them all. My favorite at present is Awesome Highlighter, which is billed as a highlighter, but has a nice sticky note feature. The highlighter works great, too.

I'll leave you with this video which tells the story of a life in sticky notes--over 23,000 of them. It's got me thinking . . .

Thursday, July 17, 2008

the diablog: fritter away with twitter

Two posts from my blog list today converge on Twitter. I've managed to avoid Twitter involvement so far, though a few times I've come close to joining the 140-bit conversation. Usually, I'm greeted with the sinking whale. While it seems like a fun (and, possibly addictive) tool for casual dialogue, I'm not convinced of its usefulness in the teaching arena. I prefer the blogosphere, which also requires writing for skim-and-scan reading, but nevertheless, produces a more reflective and thoughtful product over time.

Will Richardson at Weblogg-ed is questioning the value of his time spent Twittering:

And I can’t help feeling like it’s just making all of us, myself included, lazy. We’ve lamented this before, this “fact” that the whole community is blogging less since Twitter, engaging less deeply, it seems. Reading less. Maybe it’s just me (again) or maybe it’s my long term attachment to this blogging thing and my not so major attachment to texting, but it feels like the “conversation” is evolving (or would that be devlolving) into pieces instead of wholes, that the connections and the threads are unraveling, almost literally. That while, on some level, the Twitterverse feels even more connected, in reality it’s breaking some of the connectedness.

I don't know that 'lazy' is the correct word, for it takes a great deal of effort to follow all the conversations that are interesting to us. But I understand what he means about 'engaging less deeply,' and 'devolving conversations.' As social beings, we are driven to 'hear' the conversations around us. It helps us to figure out where we stand in reference to the crowd. At some point, however, we have to disengage from the fragmented thoughts of others, to reflect on what we've learned, or it all becomes meaningless noise.

Most of Richardson's commenters defend their Twitter commitment, showing just how entrenched this social platform has become. Many tools have arisen to accommodate the succinct nature of Twitter, including Thsrs, which Instructify describes as a thesaurus that returns only synonyms that have less letters! The idea is that shorter words will help us say more when texting and Twittering. Ughhh; this is disturbing to an English teacher. Well, language does change according to use, so this was bound to happen.

Interestingly, the latest trend in text messaging is to forego abbreviating for spelling everything out. I've been told that it makes the texter look smarter, and it shows just how fast those thumbs can move! Also, the older crowd is on to the abbreviations, and tries to copy them, which looks a bit ridiculous.

Vowels have staged a comeback--long live the vowel!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

visual science

While I love my subject, writing and literature, I also consider myself somewhat of an observer of science, although my appreciation for science did not come until I was an adult. The internet provides ways for teachers to round-out their teaching with visual resources that aid in cementing analytical theories. I've always been fascinated by the periodic table, and now I can study it with an accompanying video for each symbol. The Periodic Table of Videos, brought to us by the University of Nottingham, are both entertaining and informative. Here's the video of P for phosphorous.

While I was watching the video, I utilized the definr button on my toolbar to look up words and confirm definitions.

The phosphorous video also has a nice reference to Brave New World for us English teachers. It seems that if the scientist can easily refer to literature, the English teacher should be able to make a smooth reference to chemistry ;)

Related posts:
Out-of-pocket dictionaries
The art of science

Sunday, July 13, 2008

teen presidents with broadband

Here's your first writing assignment of the new school semester. The Alternative Teen Services blog offers a contest to get the under-18 crowd thinking about how enhanced communication through broadband benefits people:

"Entries for the new contest, “President for a Day - How I’d Change the World With Broadband!” will be accepted until the September 30, 2008 deadline. Contestants are invited to share their best ideas for using high speed communications technology to address a wide range of issues and problems. For example, do you want everyone to have access to health care specialists, even if they are located hundreds of miles away? How about telemedicine? Do you want to help solve global warming? How about a virtual conference to connect people and ideas? Do you want all citizens to be able to participate in the political process? Do you want all students to have the educational tools necessary to compete in a global economy? How would you use high-speed communications technology to make the world a better place?"

Consider the second to the last suggested question: Do you want all students to have the educational tools necessary to compete in a global economy?

Aren't you curious to know how students would respond? In what ways would they criticize or support the existing educational paradigm?

Thursday, July 10, 2008


Blogger has a new feature for their blogs that I've recently implemented, and I really like. It's called My Blog List. Think of it as a dynamic blog roll. Every time one of the blogs on my list updates with a new post, My Blog List shifts that blog to the top of the list, showcasing the title of the post and how long ago it updated. (Doesn't have to be a blog; you can list any site that has an RSS feed). It's a feed reader in the side panel of my blog, and its convenience has me clicking away to see what my fellow bloggers are thinking about, without cranking up Google Reader.

If you operate your external classroom from a blog, and have your students set up their own blogs, you can use this feature to see who is doing what and when.

I'm going to use it to diablog. Once a week I'll report on what people are talking about that relates to learning in the 21st century. This week a theme of change reflects a sense of urgency.

You would think that summer time is when educators hit the beaches and the parks for a bit of well-earned R&R. But no, summer is when teachers prepare for the next school year, when new ideas can be considered for implementation.

Will Richardson at Weblogg-ed discusses the state of stasis in today's education, in which we know we have to change, but schools are too afraid of failure to make it happen:
Most are content with “predictably mediocre” schools because the risks associated with change are simply not worth it at this moment. It’s this risk/reward equation that I keep getting drawn to as well, and I keep feeling more and more that schools will not change until the external expectations change, and that the expectations that matter most reside in parents. We need to reframe that lens, and we need to do it fast.
Lisa Huff at JustRead takes up the discussion by emphasizing a need to understand that 21st century literacy requires 21st century tools. She provides a video of Wesley Fryer exhorting his frustration with moving the classrooms of yesterday into something that resembles the world of today. Fryer asks, how is that the tools of business have been so slow to be adopted in the classroom? He reminds us that classroom 'content' used to be contained in a textbook and in the teacher's mind. No longer. Now, content is everywhere. Our job is to show students where good content can be found and what to do with it, using appropriate tools.

The more we try to compress learning into the 19th century model of education, the more students will rebel and shutdown. They know that real learning is out there--why are we cramming them between four walls and lecturing at them?

Will educators be their guides or their guards?