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?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

sources of violence

When we assign argument papers, we look for relevant topics because we know that passionate writing depends upon it. A popular subject for an argument paper is this: Do violent video games promote youth violence? The news media can be counted on to bring us fresh rants every time there is a new release of the most frequently bashed game, Grand Theft Auto. It's easy to find opinions--everyone's got one--but, it's rare to find arguments supported by credible sources.

Duke Ferris at Game Revolution responds to the argument with an article entitled, "Caution: Children at Play--The Truth About Violent Youth and Video Games." Since Ferris is a gamer writing for a video game site, it's to be expected that he would support a position that is friendly to video games. To his credit, he doesn't merely prolong the argument, he provides sources to support his position.

If I may quote directly from the D.O.J. report "Recently, the offending rates for 14-17 year-olds reached the lowest levels ever recorded." The lowest levels ever recorded. In other words, the Playstation era has, in fact, produced the most non-violent kids ever. [Duke Ferris, quote]

Students will likely agree with Ferris's claims, since virtually all of them have experience playing video games and they don't consider themselves violent. So, the best use of this article is to model its use of sources, statistics, and charts, which come from the US Department of Justice. The DOJ site has updated its statistical charts through 2005, so have your students refer to these.

Ferris's argument is strengthened by his admission that overtly violent games are not for children; they are clearly marked 'mature' for a reason, and are rightfully not sold to anyone under 17. Emphasize to your students how this concession strengthens his argument, showing that he is willing to consider opposing arguments. He goes to the effort to link to a variety of opposing opinions, though I would point out to my students how outdated these sources are. We would also make it clear that simple links to other sources are not enough for an academic argument. Each source requires a discussion.

One of the strengths of the internet is ease in finding sources, though that ease is also its weakness: how credible are those sources? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments we find?

It's up to us teachers to show them how it's done.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Google Lit Trips

Pack your bags, grab your passport, pocket the camera. Traveling via the Google Lit Trip expressway is a window seat to vast literary worlds. Kevin Hurt of Edumacation commented on my recent post, mapping Jane Austen, about the literature mapping project at Google Lit Trips. Even some of my favorite contemporary authors, Cormac McCarthy for The Road, and Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner have been mapped and annotated using the Google Earth application.

As I mentioned in the previous post, download Google Earth first. The latest, and much-improved version is 4.3, and its new features will leave you amazed:

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Ulysses via Stephen Colbert??

OpenCulture offers a real holiday treat: Stephen Colbert playing the part of Leopold Bloom in a reading from James Joyce's Ulysses. You've got to hear this. Colbert delivers it straight--it's a great reading--but it's funny anyway!

If you're teaching any Joyce stories, start off with this podcast to get your students' attention.

Related post:
DailyLit: How to read a bit of Ulysses everyday.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

mapping Jane Austen

Maps are very useful in the language arts classroom, providing context and a grounded sense when reading literature. All those places come to life when we encounter our favorite characters in space and time. Google maps and Google Earth provide innovative ways for our students to traverse the globe, following routes mapped out by the authors we study.

The novels of Jane Austen present us with English settings that have grown large in our imaginations; now, we can apply technology to deepen our understanding.

LuciaM is our Google Earth master guide, leading us on a grand tour of the cities and towns where the characters of Jane Austen's novels have lived and traveled. First, you'll need to download Google Earth, and then download Jane Austen's Life & Works.

You'll find a map of England containing icons representing places for each of Austen's novels, as well as the placemarks of her life timeline. I was eager to view the sights from Pride and Prejudice, so I deselected everything else for the time being. Here's what the map looks like:

A single click on any of the P&P icons will pop-up information about the site and why it is relevant to the novel. A quote is also included:

A double-click will zoom you down to street level. Field trip, anyone? Do you get the feeling that it's not enough to bring literature to our students anymore? Now, we can take them to the places where novels were born.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

reading room

Where do you do your reading and writing? Do you have a set place, or do you wander the house or coffeeshops? Though I have a vision of the perfect study, in truth, I'm a house wanderer, setting up nooks for comfy reading and solitary writing all over the place.

The Guardian UK showcases the offices of several authors, both living and deceased. The picture here shows Virginia Woolf's room of her own, a toolshed off the garden. Roald Dahl also worked in a shed, though most of the writers had or have workspaces closer to what we might imagine.

Ask your students where their favorite places are for reading and writing. Have them bring in a picture of themselves in their workspace, along with a short write-up as to why that spot suits their purposes. This would make a great beginning of the semester lesson, to get them in the mood for the school year.