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