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Category Archives: Interactive White Boards

A Red Wheel Barrow: Using Google Images to Teach Poetry

At the heart of poetry lies the image, that highly condensed, often deeply metaphorical carrier of the meaning of the poem.

so much depends

upon

a red wheel

barrow

glazed with rain

water

beside the white

chickens.

William Carlos Williams

One of the chief difficulties faced by any English teacher when trying to help a class learn how to read the imagery of any poem, in conjunction with the formal aspects of the poet’s craft, such as the use of enjambment by William Carlos Williams in the iconic imagist poem above, is that students struggle to lift the image off the page. It is presented to them as words on a page, and at one level they need to keep that in mind, but they also need to learn how to deconstruct an image and explore the associations and references in relation to the formal structure of the poem. Experienced readers are able to superimpose a template of one layer upon another and unlock nuggets of understanding. But most students are either too literal in their reading of the poem, or are not able to extract an image from the words on paper.

Lines of a drawing and lines of a poem.

Using pictorial representations of the imagery is one way a teacher can try to make the words come alive, and help the student make concrete what often appears as a senseless string of words. Before I had access to an Interactive White Board, I used to draw the images from a poem on the board, or ask students to draw what they saw in the lines. Google images, however, allows you to search, or get a class to search for images of what is mentioned in a poem, to discuss as a class which images best matches what the poet is presenting to us, and to build a collage of images which can be used to unlock the poem.

When students argue about which image best represents what the poet had in mind it makes a powerful statement about the nature of the inter-relationship between the poet’s voice and an individual reading of a poem. But more than that it allows a teacher to explore how images are deconstructed by devices such as enjambment. In the poem above, the way the lines are broken up presents a reader with new ways of reading the image.

The third line, for example, presents us with “a red wheel”, which changes our perceptions of the colour of the wheel from the image as a whole “a red wheel barrow”. One interpretation is superimposed upon another, and new possible readings of the poem are uncovered.

So much depends on how we read the poem.

Interactive White Boards offer ways of quickly finding and displaying images in visible forms for a class discussion. I like to select a student who is responsible for finding images of what is being discussed and displaying them for the class to see. Students will shout out advice and get far more involved in unpacking the imagery of a poem, than if only the dry words were used.

A great activity is to get students to create presentations linking the words with images they have searched. I often get students to create collages of poems they have chosen, and present them to the class with a discussion of the poem. I think it also helps students see tools such as PowerPoint or Prezi as visual adjuncts to their commentary rather than simply slides which they read out.

 
 

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.

 

The Multi-Layered Classroom

DSC01927When you are using ICTs in your classroom, the classroom automatically acquires a few extra layers. There is of course the physical layer with the teacher and students, the desks and tables, pens, paper, books and scissors. This layer is the most important layer, and sometimes it gets forgotten in the rush to adopt digital practices. Computers cannot replace teachers, at least not until they pass a great deal more than just the Turing Test! But increasingly other layers are added to this.

The second layer consists of the World Wide Web, which is now accessible via smartphones if the classroom has WiFi, and even if it has not, if the students have data bundles. Gone are the days when you needed to ask students to look something up after the class. Now you just say, “Can someone look that up!” This layer adds almost instant access to information of all kinds and is a complete game changer as the focus moves from learning content to learning what to do with all that content.

A third layer consists of your Learning Management System, which is being deployed by an increasing number of teachers. In my school Moodle, Edmodo and Google Classrooms are all used. Using an Interactive Whiteboard, or through students’ devices this layer is increasingly accessible to all students at all times. Both Moodle and Edmodo have apps for smartphones, and with iPads or laptops work can be accessed readily off the LMS. This allows for paperless submission of work from within the classroom, and for discussions and content to be available at all times. The interesting thing about the LMS layer is that it extends the physical classroom into virtual time as well as virtual space, leaving the classroom open 24/7.

A fourth layer is the Communication layer. When I was a student most classrooms had intercoms and lessons would be interrupted for announcements. These days many teachers send notifications via email or whatsapp groups! This layer runs like a vein through the life of the school. Being able to email parents straight away when there is a problem also extends the classroom into the home. I just received a whatsapp from my son at school when he got locked in a music room when the handle came off in his hand on the inside! My wife telephoned the Music Department secretary and he was liberated from his sound-proofed cell! This anecdote illustrates quite well how vital this layer can be!

The fifth layer is the back channel.While many students raise their hands in class, many do not, and yet still have questions or comments they would like to make.Back channels from useful ways of including these in the cut and thrust of classroom discussion. For example I use twitter to encourage students to ask questions or post interesting links, answer questions or polls before, during, or after a lesson. The twitter feed is available on my Moodle page, and if this is up on the Interactive White Board, using a hashtag these tweeted responses become available to the whole class effortlessly.

There is also, I believe, a sixth layer, an ill-defined entity, which will become increasingly important as time goes by, and that is the virtual reality layer, or games layer. There are some times when students are playing an educational game, or using Second Life for a pedagogical purpose where the classroom itself may host a virtual classroom environment, where students may interact with each other and the teacher via their avatars. This may sound all a bit Science Fiction, and little of the software exists currently outside of environments like Second Life, but gamification, even at a low tech level, involves the creation of a virtual games world where students and teachers role play.

What fascinates me is the ways in which these layers increasingly interconnect, through QR codes, augmented reality, in class research tasks or back channels. One of the core skills of a 21st Century teacher will surely be the ability to integrate the layers within the classroom seamlessly and meaningfully. It is going to need to become one of the core criteria in teacher pre-service and in-service education.

 

 

Using ICTs to Unpack and Repack Ideas: Part II

IMG_9705In Part I, I discussed how ICTs offer key affordances for unpacking ideas and abstract concepts, making them accessible to students. In this post I will look at that other major routine in every classroom, the re-packaging of concrete experiences and ideas into the organised expression of abstract thought. If unpacking is largely about reading of texts or experiences, re-packing is about writing. More particularly it is about learning how to express oneself in genres, in academic language, in empowering new discourses. By writing, of course, I mean thinking as well. Students studying Science or History are essentially learning how to think like a Scientist or an Historian, how to use the ideas and vocabulary of those disciplines to construct meaning.

ICTs can be very important tools in managing and scaffolding this process. Too often teachers simply set a writing task, and without any scaffolding expect students to produce results. Writing is then graded, and those who fall short receive little additional support beyond a few comments or indications where they went wrong. One of the reasons for this resides in the very labour intensive nature of assessing writing. It takes a long time for a teacher to read every piece of writing a student produces, more time to think about what help a student needs to improve, to keep track of progress and to make pertinent and useful interventions. Assisting a single student is time-consuming, a class of 30 is a nightmare! And if your teaching load includes five such classes … impossible to do justice to! This is true if you are an English teacher or a History teacher, or any discipline that involves lengthy essay-writing.

Learning is a social process, and as Vygotsky pointed out, we learn first to do things assisted by others, and then on our own. I think this is especially so with writing, which is by nature directed at a social audience. ICTs offer exciting applications both in terms of multi-media authoring tools, publishing opportunities.and in terms of connecting writers and encouraging writing.

To my mind, then, the key affordances that ICTs offer revolve around the ability to enhance multimedia authoring, and to foster communication during the writing and thinking about your writing stages.

Multi-Media Authoring

We live in an increasingly multi-media rich society, and text is no longer the only way in which students can express their ideas. There are exciting possibilities available in terms of video, sound, animation, graphic and presentation software which can be used in the classroom as an alternative to the written word. All of these tools allow expression of thought multi-modally, but to a certain extent they also help students organise their thoughts. For example, even a simple PowerPoint presentation directs the author towards the use of keywords rather than extended answers, and, if used skillfully can help students become aware of the bones of their argument, and the importance of knowing what your argument is. A PowerPoint can then be used as a first step in constructing a History essay, if followed up by a full-blown essay.

Just as a Flash animation can be useful in Science in visually demonstrating a process or idea, so getting students to create animations to illustrate processes or ideas can be very useful. Flash is a wonderful tool or this, but animations in PowerPoint can work just as well to show an electrical circuit or chemical bonds, for example.

Presentation applications, such as PowerPoint, Prezi or Voicethread are all useful too when it comes to English literature studies. Poetry works through imagery, and students can use presentations to explore the imagery of a poem, themes, or characterization using images they find on the Internet. I find that this helps them visualize the way in which the meaning of the poem is built upon layers of images. In a presentation the class discussion will focus on the extent to which the images chosen are appropriate to the poem at hand.

Videos are another fantastic way of allowing students to explore a topic. The process of editing the video down to a specified length can be used to help students select ideas or inclusion. This is an important part of the development of any argument. I also find that video encourages students to develop single ideas. In writing essays, students tend to struggle with tying generalisation to specific examples, quotes or anecdotes that develop and contextualize that idea. On video, the graphic format almost forces this to happen, so that if you foreground this process it can help them develop an awareness that any argument consists of both a general idea and highly contextualised supporting evidence or development of the concept.

The genre of the literary essay requires students to make statements about theme, characterization and so on, and support these statements with evidence from the text. Many students struggle with this in essay format, but are able to create a short video in which they find scenes from a set-work to illustrate a theme. You can then ask them to write an essay using the scenes they included in their video.

You will gather from what I have said above that my main focus is on how to use digital tools to support traditional essay writing rather than in replacing it. I honestly do not believe there is a substitute for the academic essay in building and displaying rigour of thought. PowerPoints, animations, comic strips, and videos can all be used to help develop and attain these skills, however, and a considerable part of our responsibility as teachers in the 21st Century is finding out how to do this!

Meta-Writing

When teaching writing, I have always used writing circles to encourage students to share their writing, talk about it and help each other learn to edit their work. Paper-based writing is difficult to discuss, unless multiple copies are photocopied ahead of time. Even with a visualizer, discussion of any student text can be awkward. Writing posted to a blog, or shared online, however, is much easier to manage, and a record of interchanges is preserved, making it the perfect platform for a meta-cognitive approach to writing. Using fan fiction sites can also encourage creative writing beyond the classroom walls, and is very motivating for students.

Using presentations as the basis for classroom discussion also helps build awareness of the choices made during the writing process. Students can be asked to identify the thesis statement of any presentation, or supporting evidence for any statement. Gradually students can be guided towards thinking of writing as a strategic process: what points are being made, how they are ordered and what use of examples, facts, quotes or anecdotes are made to develop and support the argument, rather than thinking about individual word choices.

Collaborative writing tasks are also very useful. Google Docs, for example, allow students to comment and collaborate on a report in real-time, and for the teacher to make editing suggestions while the report is being written! This ability to intervene even before a report has been presented in first draft is crucial in scaffolding writing tasks, and students find it very motivating as well. To be able to get feedback before turning in a report or essay is a huge advance on the traditional draft, feedback, final draft routine. It is also physically easier as students can invite you to their google doc to receive feedback, and you can comment while they are writing. In terms of the flipped classroom, I think this functionality provides a really concrete way of allowing for extended contact time and support outside of classroom hours.

One way of looking at teaching is to note the delicate balance between helping students acquire dominant discourses and academic language (voices of power), while developing their own understandings and expressiveness (the power of voice). Digital tools offer exciting new ways of managing and achieving these purposes.

 

Vine in the Classroom

A Vine is a mobile app owned by twitter. It allows users to create and post six second videos and share on social media. Now you may think that having only six seconds to express yourself would be the kiss of death for education, but as a general principle restriction is the mother of creativity, and a quick look at the following should illustrate my point.

 

Having only six seconds to make any point forces a student to summarize information concisely and succinctly. To do this successfully you need to understand the content completely. Good vines usually involve adequate planning and accurate execution, skills that we should be promoting in our schools. In the English classroom, students could create vines in the persona of a character from literature, a character selfie instead of a character sketch, if you like, encouraging a student to step into the shoes of the character and try to understand their soul.

Students could also make six second videos illustrating points of grammar, or solving a Maths problem – the applications are virtually endless. You do not have to use the app either. Videos can be made using any technology and posted on any platform. They can be put together quite quickly too. Most kids have cell-phones capable of filming short clips, and VideoPad or something similar makes for a very handy editing tool. A six second clip should not take longer than about twenty minutes to film and edit!

Best of all vines are fun to make and watch – and should become a useful weapon in any teacher’s armoury.

 

 

Flash Films

I wrote about using Flash Fiction in the English Classroom a while back, and I thought I’d follow that post up with a few words about using very short films in the classroom. I like to call these Flash Films so that the students know they are meant to be short. Otherwise students tend to turn into mini-Steven Spielbergs.

One of the salient features of online, hybrid and flipped classrooms is the need to zero in on creating meaningful opportunities for students to exchange ideas and involve in discussion. Forums and chat rooms can only go so far. By getting students to create, and upload short video messages you can enliven discussion forums on platforms such as Moodle. The students use the web cameras we have for Skype calls at the back of the computer room, or their cell phones, to record a short message. These messages are then posted on the Moodle forum, and can be commented on by other students. The picture shows a mock-up of this, with a flash-film posted to a forum, and a text reply being made. The film was created using a web-camera captured in Movie-Maker.

Students often respond better to capturing their thoughts on camera rather than writing them out. It certainly works as a great way to kick off a conversation. The time limitation (I tell students their message must be under 30 seconds) is a good way to force brevity and precise communication. Students often record and re-record their messages to meet the time limit. It also helps avoid too many bandwidth problems.

 

Using PowerPoint And Google Images To Teach Poetry

Teaching poetry in the EFL/ESL classroom can become bogged down in a vocabulary lesson, which is often so dense that students cannot begin to tackle the poem itself, not being able to see the wood for the trees. A line by line gloss is so demotivating, to be avoided at all costs.

One approach, I have found quite useful, is to focus on the imagery of the poem to unlock the meaning. I get the students to explore the imagery searching Google images and creating a PowerPoint presentation to collate what they consider the five or six key images of a poem. These PowerPoints can then be posted online for discussion by the class, or presented in class using the Interactive White Board.

Searching for the images is a useful way of circumventing vocabulary issues, and allows students to explore the meaning of a word through images rather than text. While precise meanings cannot be pinned down in this way, I do feel that most Google image searches give a good overall sense of the meaning of a word. For example, I searched the word peregrinations, and was confronted by many images of people walking. If the poem contained the word I could use this in a montage for my presentation, reinforcing its meaning in my mind. In some ways this works better than searching a dictionary because so many of the cultural connotations of a word are conveyed. It is then that much painful to discuss the meanings of words, and the imagery of the poem, using student collages to kick-start the discussion. Students will work quite hard to ensure that the images they select for their presentation accurately reflect the meanings of words in the poem.

It is useful in the brief to ask students to add text to the presentation: phrases or keywords from the poem to identify what each montage represents. What works especially well, I think is the notion that each reading of a poem is an internalisation of meaning rather than a passive reception of the received interpretation of the poem. In class discussion I ask students to defend their view of the poem by comparing it to the received view and getting them to find evidence in the poem. I think this leads to more “ah ha” moments than a Spark notes approach.

 
 
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