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Flash Feedbacks – ICTs For English Teachers

English teachers have usually found that ICTs are a good fit for creative self-expression. There are numerous multi-media authoring tools for computers or tablet devices which can be used to allow students to create multi-modal presentations of one kind or another. But it is not so easy to see how to use them when unpacking a work of literature or working on language accuracy. There are, of course, numerous drill and practice type sites online where students can fill in the missing word, or select the correct form of the verb, or answer multiple choice questions on comprehension texts, but I’m not going to consider those at this time. For the most part they are kiss of death, not too bad for the occasional exercise if you want to ring the changes, but hardly anything to get wildly excited about!

When it comes to teaching literature, however, there is very little substitute for guiding a close reading of the text and for discussion. Some of this happens in a whole class context, some of it in groups. But the essence of grappling with a text lies in the throwing out of ideas and seeing where they lead. ICTs can certainly be used in this process. Some of the discussion can happen before, and after the class on an electronic forum. Students can express their ideas about the themes or characterization of a novel in blogs or in wikis, but the heart of any literary study is in the face to face discussion in the classroom while doing a close reading. I have not yet found any digital advantage over reading a text with a class and interrogating particular words. What does this word suggest about the protagonist? What other possible meanings does this word have? It’s this process of worrying away at a text, like a dog worrying away at a bone, that produces understanding – often unexpected understandings. English teachers need to model this process, making their thinking visible to students, helping scaffold it for students, guiding their thoughts as they wrestle with a text. This process of coming to grips with a text has always formed the basis of my literature classes, interspersed with activities and exercises which aim at deepening or consolidating what students have learned from a close reading. I have tried different methods, but always come back to this as the only really effective way of engaging with a text with a class.

Snapshot - 1ICTs are no real use in this. However, I do see some use in terms of either recording discussions so they can be viewed later, or recording quick summaries of points made for later storage and retrieval. Note-taking during a discussion is not easy, although I encourage students to use the Cornell Note Taking Strategy. I have previously used quick Flash Feedback sessions at the end of a lesson, or activity, where students use their devices to record (audio or video) a quick summary of what their group decided or found. These can be shared on a LMS platform, and can form the basis for further discussion in class, or in a forum.

These Flash Feedbacks could easily be integrated into classroom discussion as well by pausing every now and then and recording a student summarising a point or points made. These recordings, posted on the LMS, can then be used as the basis for answering a question or any other activity. They form a digital record of a discussion and might help tease out some of the more interesting points made, which might otherwise have been forgotten.

Quite apart from providing some kind of record of a discussion, it also serves to help students bring together the thoughts and threads of the discussion and creates opportunities for building knowledge so that the ideas emerging from the discussion can be ordered and re-shaped into an argument about the meaning of the text.

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Thinking Digitally – The Essential Dialogic

Teaching has been defined as “casting false pearls before real swine” (Irwin Edman). Facetious as this comment may be it sums up what transpires day in and day out. Two things happen in any classroom, anywhere you go in the world. Firstly you will find teachers teaching. Some kind of knowledge transmission will be happening at some point in any lesson. Teachers know something, and they will attempt to impart it. If this is not happening one would have to seriously doubt why the students are there! This transmission model of knowledge is useful because it captures the essential reality of the world. There are things we don’t know, and one of the most efficient ways of finding things out is to have other people tell us.

But secondly you find students voicing what they know, and trying to figure things out. Until you put things in your own words you don’t really understand anything. Knowledge, in other words is constructed, and is essentially idiosyncratic. My understanding of quantum physics is probably not as sophisticated as yours, but it is the only understanding I’ve got. This divide between what has been called Instructivism, the transmission of knowledge from a knower to a knowee, and Constructivism, or how we construct knowledge in our own heads forms a common thread in many educational approaches. But essentially they are two sides of the same coin. We need to be told things, and we need to figure them out in our own minds for it to stick.

I’m not going to rehearse any heavy learning theories, because that’s not what this post is about, but it forms a necessary backdrop to everything else I want to explore. My favourite formulation of this self-evident truth, that learning involves both transmission and participation is that of Mikhail Bakhtin, who spoke about monologic and dialogic discourses: the monologic being socially agreed handed-down meanings, and the dialogic being the numerous idiosyncratic voices of individuals. In any classroom the teacher normally represents the monologic voice, teaching the received wisdom of how the world works, while students bring their numerous voices to the conversation. The monologic normally represents the voices of power, the knowledge students will need to acquire to succeed in life, while the dialogic represents the authentic power of voice, often submerged or repressed understandings of the world, which nevertheless have a validity not least because they critique the established world view.

It is my belief that teachers fail if they fall short both when it comes to giving students access to voices of power, and when they do not sufficiently value the power of voice. As an English teacher I need to be able to help my students shape and express what it is that they have to say, but I also need to teach them standard dialects, grammar and how to construct logical arguments so that they can speak the language of academia and of power.

blogDigital technologies offer some key affordances here. Not so much in terms of the monologic voice, but the ready ability to publish thoughts, just to your classmates, or the wider world is one which allows the dialogic voice to be heard in ways which the essay written on a piece of paper can never emulate. Every year I have my students write in a class blog. They join the blog site as authors and post under their handles. Their peers can read and comment on their posts almost as soon as they are published. It is best to have themed blogs with a clear focus, or student blogging quickly devolves into trivial status updates. If you are studying a Shakespeare play, for example, it is a great idea to have students blog about themes or characters in the play. Their ideas are thus immediately exposed to the view of their peers, and can be debated and revised through comment. I require each student to end off with a significant blog post, which forms their current understanding of the topic under discussion. This is the assessed portion of the activity, and motivates all students to contribute. As teacher I also contribute my ideas as one voice amongst many. I believe this is important because it conveys a message about online learning and how mentorship works in any online community. But I limit my posts to interventions rather than outright corrections. If someone claims that Shylock is not in favour of usury, for example, I step in, but grammar and logical errors I leave alone because I don’t want to be seen as too censorious.

I appoint student moderators. Anyone who contributes more than five posts is made into a moderator. This helps establish a sense of community and helps stamp out any flaming should it occur. It never does! Nevertheless I usually use a moderated blog site where access to the blog can be controlled and kept private.

Some students, in my experience, do not participate, and resist using technology. Some of these do lurk, however, and that is a benefit. I insist that anyone not posting on the blog submits their post in electronic form directly to me. I don’t understand why a small minority appear unwilling or unable to access or use a blog. It is a small minority, but is always present in any year group. They may fear exposure, may find their cultural or personal sensibilities at odds with receiving peer comment … I’m not sure. It is an issue I always have to deal with. Overwhelmingly, however, I find that students seem to enjoy the cut and thrust of online discussion.

In terms of encouraging good habits of Thinking Digitally it is vital that all students be exposed to how to use communities of practice to express their opinions and learn from others.

 

What ICTs allow English teachers to do (which they can’t do with pen and paper)

IMG_20150909_105424Larry Cuban has famously observed, and I’m paraphrasing here, that when the computer meets the classroom, the classroom always wins. ICTs have often been touted as disruptive agents of change in an education system which clearly needs an overhaul, but change has been slow and classrooms today look much as they did when I was a child. And yet it is not true to assert that the influence of ICTs has not been felt, or that subtle changes have not taken place – they have. An Interactive Whiteboard may be used in the same way as the blackboard of old, but it may also be used in radically different ways as well, and increasingly teachers are finding ways of using technology effectively and innovatively.

My own feeling is that if technology helps us to do something more effectively and efficiently, or if it helps us to do something worthwhile that we could not do before, then it is worth using. Otherwise it is not worth it simply to do change for the sake of change. The question for me then becomes, can my students do this with pen and paper? If so, they probably should. If not, then does the technology allow me to do something that I can’t otherwise do as well?

English teachers have been amongst the most enthusiastic adopters of ICTs in the classroom. Take writing, for example. Teaching writing is one of the key areas of concern for any language teacher. Writing is concerned not just with form: the different formats of transactional writing, conventions such as spelling, punctuation, and of course grammatical correctness. It is also concerned with genre, tone, register, lexis and of course meaning. How do you structure an argument? How do you communicate effectively and develop your own style? How do you inject a certain flair into your writing? All of these are really questions of process rather than product. There are teachers who simply get students to write an essay and then grade it with allegedly helpful comments in the margins, but most language teachers see the need to address writing as a skill to be learned.

One of the problems with pen and paper is that it cannot readily be subjected to review during the process of writing, and is difficult to edit. Writing a draft, then editing multiple times until you have a final product is physically challenging with a permanent medium such as pen and paper. Some teachers used to duplicate a student’s first draft and give copies out to peers for editing, so that a piece of writing could be discussed in class and the editing process made visible. Other teachers would form students into writing circles, where peer editing could be more easily facilitated. But again the medium itself gave scant affordance to the process.

Google docs, on the other hand, allows student to share a piece of writing with peer editors, or a teacher synchronously or asynchronously. Editors can leave comments, or even do collaborative editing. The affordances of this technology not only assist the teaching of writing as a process, they make it possible in ways it was not conceivable previously. In tandem with an Interactive whiteboard, or a visualiser, and any text can be visibly dissected and discussed in a similar way. These technologies give a flexibility to the process that was absent before. If you wanted to discuss a poem it had to be available in book or handout form, both of which take planning. Now you can respond as a teacher to the cut and thrust of discussion and bring up any text onto the IWB for immediate discussion.

Another classroom routine in the language classroom, the analysis of text, is also revolutionised by technology. When you are discussing a text with a class, a poem say, one important didactic move is how to make difficult concepts or words accessible to students. I used to draw pictures on the blackboard often so students could see what a particular archaic object looked like, to help make it more concrete. Google images considerably aids this process, and youtube videos can be found which immediately demonstrate to students what a Dickensian poor-house might have looked like, or how a paddle-steamer works – or whatever it is that you need to make visual in order to bring a text alive and make it accessible.

As a teacher I have thus found ways of using ICTs in ways which considerably enhance what I could do before, but this is hardly revolutionary. To misuse Larry Cuban’s maxim then: when ICTs meet the classroom, the classroom slowly absorbs them and is in turn somewhat transformed.

 

Differentiated Tasks and Flipping Foward

poetryprojectOne benefit offered by technology is the ability to offer students differentiated tasks, and to administer this relatively painlessly! You can do this on Moodle by setting conditional statements, which release particular assignments to students based on performance on other assignments, and this can be very handy, but a bit of a nightmare to set up! It also smacks of almost dictatorial teacher power!

Another approach is to allow students to choose what types of assignment they want to do – within reason, of course. In the example on the right, students can choose from any three poems on the list, and any three assignments. The only rule is that they cannot present on the same poem, or the same assignment type. They therefore need to present three assignments (on three different poems and three different assignment types).

Assignment types can vary from traditional essays, blog entries from the point of view of a protagonist, to prezis, slide-shows, videos, voicethreads, posters, quizzes and the like, I use a generic rubric which assesses the content, the structure of the assignment – how ideas are organised, and the presentation – how the technology is used. You can also get students to submit their own rubric, which forces students to think about what they are doing in a slightly different way. You can also do peer assessments (Moodle has a workshop module for this).

The great strength of this way of working is that it gives students some control over how they study the content, and how they show evidence of their learning. I think this is not only more engaging and motivating, but it also delivers a wider variety of assignments which can be used for further learning and Flipping Forward. By this I mean that the posters, slide-shows, prezis, films and so on that students produce can be used as the basis for follow-up activities, such as an in-class discussion based on the materials created. Having digital submissions really helps as everything can be stored on the LMS where it is readily accessible for Flipped Classroom purposes.

I find that students get quite excited by the idea that content they create will become the content for future lessons. They seem to take more care, and certainly turn in work of a high quality.

 

 

Using WordPress to Create a Class Magazine

acadamagWordPress is one of the most popular blog hosting sites, and allows for posting of text and images, allowing multiple users to post to the same blog. This makes it ideal for a class magazine. The fact that it is a mature open platform and therefore likely to be used by students when they leave school makes it more attractive than some of the platforms that are designed purely for students. It is also free – which is a huge plus! I can’t remember a time when I haven’t had a class working on some kind of class magazine project – sometimes linked to literature studies, publishing an edition of The Venetian Times (Merchant Of Venice) or sometimes linked to History, Madame Guillotine (The French Revolution), and sometimes just for creative writing.

I use it for literature because it seems to me that when asked to write about a Shakespeare play in class, many students either freeze or do a very perfunctory job. No-one wants, willingly, to write an essay. But creating an online newspaper in which students role play reporters reporting on the events of a play seems to work quite well. A good idea is to get your reporters to draw assignments from a hat: one to write an obituary for Duncan (from Macbeth), another to cover a story about three witches and their prophecies, a third to write-up a Your Stars Foretell section. This ensures that the whole play gets covered. As a teacher it removes the effort of collecting essays no-one wants to write, and they are easy to assess if that is required – I simply make a printout of the post.

My very first class magazine – gosh, how many years ago – involved students writing their work in columns and pasting it onto cardboard. As computers started to become more ubiquitous I quickly started using word processors. The problem was always unifying the formatting. Teenagers tend to be highly idiosyncratic in their choice of font, and the way they format a document. Sometimes so idiosyncratic I could not use the file they gave me it was so riddled with problems. Combining different files usually fell to me as teacher, by default, and this was always a pain.

The beauty of a blog is that once students have signed on, and been added to the site as authors, you can sit back and let them do all the writing, formatting and worrying about layout and the like. Students love to comment on each other’s work, and I usually give moderator status to those who make five or more posts. Students then weed out any inappropriate comments or posts on their own.

What I like about blogging in the classroom is that it serves two of my main concerns around creative writing. Firstly it encourages students to write with an audience clearly in mind. As soon as they click publish it is out there, and visible to all. It is quite unlike writing for the teacher – authors are very conscious of the fact that others will comment on their posts, and it makes the tone quite different. They write about things which interest them, rather than what they think will interest me.

Secondly they tend to strive for greater accuracy, although curiously, very few seem to remember to use the spell check facility on WordPress! I have even had students demand that I show them how to remove the squiggly line under words they have typed in – you know, the one that indicates spelling errors! The fact that what they write is instantly published on a glossy interface does not eliminate all writing errors, but it certainly does encourage accuracy. WordPress has an edit feature which allows the author to edit, or update a post even after it has been published – a very useful feature indeed!

What it does for creative writing is that it instantly adds authenticity. WordPress is a public blog site, and complete strangers can read and like your writing! I get students to take home a letter explaining this, with signed parental permission to use the blog, but it does add that sense that the publishing is real, serious and valued. That certainly is not true of most writing done in school! If you wish to keep your blog site private that can also be done – but I would recommend making it public. Students really enjoy receiving comments from strangers – and the response will overwhelmingly be positive. I have never had a bad incident.

 

Blog Based Games, Matrix Games and Student Writing

campaignDo boys write? Of course they do, but it sometimes feels not unlike enforced dentistry. I have found, however, that given the right setting, boys will write copiously, fluently, and largely grammatically! Boys will write a great deal about subjects they care about. They do so happily on forum postings and fan sites.

I run a Mind Sports Club at my sons’ school, and have found that the club members generate a great deal of writing around games played at the club on the club blog site. When the club started back in 2008, I started a campaign game – based on the wargames campaign popularized by Tony Bath. Each player takes the role of a leader in the ancient world. They receive resources and can raise armies, build roads and cities, wage war, make peace, build alliances or conquer continents. Each week players would submit a set of orders detailing what they wanted to do, and I would adjudicate based on common sense and a roll of the die. If there were battles, players would wargame this using DBx rules. Every week I would bring out a newsletter which reported the events of the previous week which were common knowledge, and players would get private reports.

I didn’t plan it, but the newsletter became so popular students started writing their own entries, and I moved the newsletter to a blog, allowing players to post their own stories. The campaign game then became more of a joint narrative creation exercise and started dominating the game itself. Players would use the blog to further their game position, spread propaganda, or simply let their imaginations run riot.

The campaign go way too much for me to handle, but was so popular that club members have resurrected it, and one of them has taken over as Games Master. Interestingly enough they have chosen to run the campaign from the blog itself, so all announcements are made on the blog, and players email the GM their orders. This shows that students saw the blog as a vehicle for their play, and enjoyment.

space truckersThe Mind Sports Club is an extra-mural activity, and I think that any attempt to bring this kind of writing into the curriculum would be doomed to failure, but one wonders if a blog-based game might not work in the English class. What I have in mind is more of a role play type game. Players would be given a character to play, and victory conditions – aims they need to fulfil, and then make arguments as to what they want to happen in their blog. Other players would leave comments tying to modify the action, and the Teacher/Games Master would use a die roll to decide which outcome was more likely.

This mechanism is based on the Matrix Game invented by Chris Engle, and in particular the thrust and parry variation of the game pioneered by Marcus Young. In this variant players make arguments about what they want to happen (the thrust) and other players make counter-arguments (parries). The GM then decides which is more likely to happen, and rolls a die (D6) to decide. A strong argument might succeed on a roll of 2-6, a weak argument only on a roll of 6. Parries that change arguments only slightly are rated very strong because both players essentially agree, whereas major changes are rated as weak. Unopposed arguments happen automatically.

Telling stories, even in this digital age, still has tremendous power to enchant, and I think this is why the campaign game at the St John’s Mind Sports Club has proven so alluring, and why a matrix type game would work well in the classroom.

 

Student Blogs – second language teaching

I have just spent a few furious hours registering students for a blog-site so that our French Second Language students can create blogs for a competition. The students were encouraged to create a blog on any site, Blogger, WordPress, etc, but we also created a secure (moderated) blog on Kidblog for those that needed a more gentle introduction to blogging. From what I could see, for many students the process of blogging is somewhat daunting.

I became involved at the level of setting up the blog, and was not able to teach students how to use a blog.

While the purpose of the competition is clearly to get students to write in the target language (French), in most cases I could see students were simply using the blog to upload a few pictures, and very little text was added at all. This confirms my experiences with my English classes as well. If they can avoid writing anything longer than a tweet or status update, they will. Clearly micro-blogging is winning out over the longer format, rather like one-day cricket seems to draw far larger crowds than the five-day format of the game.

And yet, the blogs on the Mind Sports Club that I run are lengthy and meaty. The boys use the blogs for the purpose of discussing their real interests, and seem quite happy to create hundreds of pages of arcane text. They don’t appear to have any problems using the interface, even though it is far more complex than kidblog!

There seems to be a message in these observations, and it is that motivation and mastery of technology are closely linked. The so-called Digital Natives do not display any facility with technology if they do not see a need for it. When we use technology we need to make very sure that the technology will engage students and complement the learning, rather than become an obstacle to the learning.

The other lesson is that writing is a chore, which everyone will avoid, if it does not spring from the interest and passion of the writer.

We also need to make sure that the technology is carefully scaffolded. Many teachers, especially those less technologically inclined, tend to believe that kids will be better than them, simply because they are kids. Nothing could be further from the truth!

 
 
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