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.