Archive for January, 2012

5 ways I’m using Edmodo now

I started this school year excited about using Edmodo, but I all but abandoned it around the end of the first quarter. I was getting less than 50% completion on any online homework assignment, and I always had a few students in each class who said they did not have computers or reliable internet access at home. Much like Jennie Magiera writes about in this great article on EdWeek Teacher, though for different reasons, I decided to stop, reflect, and reassess what I was doing.

So as second semester started, I realized something simple: I was getting less than 50% homework on pen & paper assignments, too. Also, all students have at least one 99-minute study period during which they can go to the computer lab if they need to. I realized that I really wanted to bring the online component back into my instruction, and that merely 10 minutes of homework could accomplish this. My novel units were feeling so much duller than I remember them feeling. Part of this is because of how much actual reading I feel like we have to do in class. Remember that homework problem I mentioned? I don’t know if it’s school culture or what, but assigning reading for homework definitely goes nowhere. Still, there were things I was doing on Moodle back in my 1:1 days that added some richness and continuity to a novel unit.

So I’m having another go at it. I think the online component of the course will only work the way I want it to work if students get in the habit of checking it regularly, and for that to happen I have to be consistent with it. Here are some ways I’ve been using it this week.

1. Exit tickets to find best questions

I’m excited about this idea. I want my students to have some sort of threaded discussion online, but I’ve always had two major problems with it: bad discussions questions and late discussion questions (when students would rotate roles as discussion leader).

After reading a chapter in class together (but without having time to discuss it), I had all students write down their best discussion question on an index card as an exit ticket. I told them I’d pick the three best questions and post them on Edmodo. If I chose your question, your homework is already done and you earn full credit. Everyone else has to respond to one of them. I was able to scan the questions and post the three best ones in less than 10 minutes right after the bell rang.

2. Image searching homework

The opening scene of Of Mice and Men is filled with Steinbeck’s rich and vivid descriptions of the clearing by the Salinas river that proves so pivotal to the story’s ending. I want my students to really picture it (before we see the movie). In this assignment, I asked them to search for an image inspired by a specific phrase from the opening pages. Unfortunately, you can’t embed the actual image in an Edmodo post, but I was able to click on all of these during class and show them what their classmates had found – beautiful images of rivers that are “deep and green” and “sycamores with mottled, white, recumbent limbs.”

3. Getting kids to be more themselves, while also looking closely at the text

That was my intention with this assignment for seniors reading Their Eyes Were Watching God. Trust me that the students who wrote these first few comments do not speak this openly (or do not speak at all) in class.

4. Quick Polls

5. Checking in

My hope is that if I stay consistent in using it and keep varying the tasks like this, I’ll start getting more than 50% completion. Updates to come.


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The Golden Ticket

I have this foundational belief that technology can make the job of teaching easier in ways we can’t imagine. It’s not such a strange thought. This laptop I’m typing on has pushed the job of “publishing my writing to a disparate audience of readers from my couch” from laughably impossible to laughably easy.

So why shouldn’t new developments in edtech change the job of, say, teaching English from “rewarding but necessitating a martyr complex” to simply “rewarding”?

It will happen. Here’s how.

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation is holding a contest. (Doesn’t this feel Willie-Wonka-dramatic?) They’ll be awarding $100K to “the designers of software that can reliably automate the grading of essays for state tests,” according to their press release, which I read about in EdSurge. There will be a demonstration from a bunch of vendors who already make this kind of software to see how good it is, then they’ll open it up to the public to develop the best essay-grading software and win the prize money.

It’s a joint project with Tom Vander Ark’s Open Education Solutions. I like what he writes about it here.

Basically, our data-hungry, standards-driven attitude has pushed us to embrace inadequate multiple choice tests just because they give us easy data. I’m guilty of this at my current school. We have a professional learning team (PLT) of 9th grade English teachers, and we work very hard to develop a common assessment so we can review data together. But it’s a Scantron, and even though I’m to blame since I had input into the creation of the test, I don’t think it’s a great assessment. This year we added a writing component, so I feel better about the semester final we just gave, but it was hard to score those before grades were stored at noon yesterday.

From the press release:

“Better tests support better learning,” says Barbara Chow, Education Program Director at the Hewlett Foundation. “Rapid and accurate automated essay scoring will encourage states to include more writing in their state assessments. And the more we can use essays to assess what students have learned, the greater the likelihood they’ll master important academic content, critical thinking, and effective communication.”

While a “greater likelihood” might not sound like a sure thing, that’s quite a payoff, given what business we’re in.

I know English teachers will scoff at the idea of essay-grading software for a long time. How could a program possibly assess the subtleties of argument the way I can? How can it assess a writer’s voice or style or depth of analytical insight the way I can? How can it see how much a particular student has grown as a writer the way I can?

And while I have no idea how the magicians who write code will do it, I know they will. Of course they will! Especially if there are more incentives in the marketplace like the kind this competition is creating. Look at Watson. Look at Google. I remember when those things would have sounded impossible, and I’m not even very old.

Speaking of Watson, that reminds me of Ken Jennings’s brilliant take on Kent Brockman:

As an English teacher, I also welcome our new computer overlords. If they free up some time for me so I can work on an exciting new lesson (or spend time with my family) instead of grading papers, great! If they allow standardized tests to evolve into the kinds of assessments that we wouldn’t feel horrible about preparing students to take, great! Welcome to Earth!

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3 *really* simple things I do with Word

That first few days back in the classroom  after a two-week break sure are a rust-fest. I feel like a rusty teacher, trying to work with rusty lesson plans. The students are completely encrusted with the rust of two weeks, which for teenagers translates to about three months, more or less.

Blogging feels rusty, too, so I’ll just write about something I do all the time in my classroom. It’s probably the last thing that comes to mind when we think of innovative ed-tech, but it’s everywhere. Word.

No, that’s what I’m writing about: Microsoft Word.

I gave my 9th graders a practice exam and then projected the document to go over the answers. In going over the answers, I manipulated the text of the study guide to show correct answers and added notes.

This really is so much of what I do every day in the classroom. And while it’s not particularly techy, I think it’s the kind of technology usage that really helps me teach. I basically use Word instead of writing on the board. Even if my handwriting didn’t happen to be indecipherable, I’d still think this was a good idea. I can post my notes for the day on Edmodo, and, while it does entail more sitting at my desk than I would like, it keeps me from having to turn my back on the students to write on the board. I think all teachers hate that.

Here are three simple things I do when projecting Word documents that I find easy for me and useful for students.

1. Increase text size:   command+shift+> (mac)  ctrl+shift+> (pc)    

and decrease…              command+shift+<                ctrl+shift+< 

I do this so much I forget that it’s anything until I see someone highlight text maneuver the cursor all the way up the toolbar to change the size of the text. It might seem silly to think these precious seconds being wasted are really so precious, but here’s why I think they are (aside from the obvious reason that every second we have with out students is precious).

When we’re doing something as potentially boring as taking notes, we need to keep our students engaged. And while watching some highlighted text quickly increase in size may not be the most riveting theater, it’s better than watching a teacher try to locate the size menu at the top of the screen and click on a different point sizes until it looks right. I got bored just writing that sentence.

It’s also a really easy way to add emphasis, of course, so it can help students realize what’s most important. If I’m writing a lot on the board, I might end up having to cram something important into a small space.

2. Highlight

(I always show my formatting toolbar.)

It’s a pretty obvious ways to add emphasis, but I think it can be really effective if you can do it quickly. Again, it can keep kids engaged and it can make the notes clearer.

I also like how dramatic highlighting the correct answer can be. I’ll ask the question, hear various answers and rationales for each answer from around the room, wait until more students are actually curious to find out if they are right, and then show them. It’s like a magician’s great reveal, just slightly less exciting.

3. Change text color

These antecedent questions require some complicated (and boring) explanations. But I think the concept clicked (or re-clicked) for a lot of kids when I did this, judging simply from their reactions and the questions they were asking (quantitative data to come). I used the formatting tools to illustrate my thinking process when reading a question like this. First I find the pronouns – and make them red – then I determine which one is the singular pronoun (and strikethrough it). Then I read the sentence again to find what word that pronoun is taking the place of.

I conducted an informal interview with my students on how this went. I asked how other teachers go over handouts. Apparently some teachers never do that.

There are also plenty who project the Word document directly onto the whiteboard and have students come up to the board with a marker to show the class the right answer. I like doing that, too, but with so many examples to go over on this review, I didn’t want to engage in the constant erasing and repositioning that method necessitates. When I asked for feedback on this overall process, though, several students spoke up about preferring to go over handouts that way. It’s not hard to see why – they get to stand up.

Many students spoke about being “visual” people, and needing to see the answers like this to get them. They complained about teachers who simply read the right answers aloud. They said they can’t absorb those, or even really listen.

To be sure, there are much more engaging and flashy ways to do these kinds of things, whether by using interactive whiteboards or some flashier gadget or application. But we don’t all have access to those things in our classrooms. And I assume we’re all pretty comfortable with Word already, which is no small thing.

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