Category Archives: Lesson Plans

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.


Combining Cornell Note-taking with de Bono’s Thinking Hats

revised cornellI really enjoy using the Cornell Note Taking Strategy with my classes. The method involves using keywords and more expanded notes, with space for a summary at the bottom of the page. It works really well for general note-taking. I often model it on the whiteboard during class. I recently decided to combine this with the de Bono Thinking Hats to focus on particular aspects in my teaching.

I started exploring The Pearl, Steinbeck’s classic novella in class today, and wanted to find a way of helping students zero in on understanding and engaging in a character analysis of the protagonist, Kino. It struck me that de Bono’s Thinking Hats might well work as a scaffold for guiding this voyage of discovery. Students often struggle with the very notion of a character sketch, and yet no study of literature can even commence without developing this skill of reading a character. Most students, presented with the task of writing a character sketch, will either simply relate a series of facts about the protagonist, or will present a one-sided analysis, ignoring all the shades of grey!

It seems to me that the Thinking Hats are perfect cognitive tools for ensuring that students at least consider strengths and flaws in any protagonist’s make-up before commencing their sketch. I decided to use four of the hats, to include an immediate emotional response as well as a section for listing facts about the character so that I could have a conversation with students about which of these responses was relevant to the character sketch.

If you create a document as a template, as shown above, and share it on Google Docs so each student gets a copy, they can complete it, and submit it online, via Google Classroom, say. Or collaborate in groups to compile character sketches for a range of characters, which they then share with the rest of the class. This can result in a great set of class notes on any set work.


Think – Pair – Share & The Digital Classroom

To my mind the question of why, or how teachers would integrate ICTs into their classroom really boils down to whether the technology offers real affordances for common classroom routines. Can it be used effectively to help teachers explain abstract concepts, and make them more concrete? Can it be used to give voice to student’s experiences, and help them frame these ideas in more abstract ways within the academic discipline they are studying. Can it be used to help develop critical thinking skills?

One of the classic routines for developing critical thinking is the Think-Pair-Share exercise used to develop questioning skills. Students are first asked to think silently on their own about a question. This aims to ensure that no-one is let off the hook, that all students do engage with the question initially. Students are then asked to pair off and share their thoughts with a neighbour. After both students have shared their initial thoughts, these insights are shared with the whole class. A variant is to get students to report to their class on their partner’s ideas, not their own. This aims to promote listening skills, and of course collaboration.

This technique is highly effective in any classroom and requires no technology whatsoever. But once in a while I believe it is a good idea to change the way things are done. Routine is the enemy of good teaching, and adding a digital flavour to a familiar exercise is useful if only to freshen it up. The digital version of Think-Pair-Share also offers some new affordances, however, and should also be added to our armoury for what it offers.

If one is asked to write one’s ideas down, the time added to the response affords a little more reflection. While Oracy is immediate, Literacy does impose a slight pause for thought. I believe this imposed reflection is very useful. Writing something down also forces a response. Students are human, and very often will subvert a classroom exercise by not exactly staying on task. The Think-Pair-Share is particularly vulnerable to this. In the noise of a quick fire buzz group discussion the teacher cannot really monitor every pair of students, and many of the conversations do stray off topic. Getting students to jot their thoughts down means that each student is somewhat more accountable than when talk alone is used. Task compliance is a little easier to spot. To deploy technology, you can use something like Google docs, something which can work on a device, but getting students to whatsapp each other also works well. Students engage well with the idea of messaging each other and this also helps generate some excitement around the task.

When students share with the class, especially if they are sharing their partner’s ideas, they then read what the person wrote off their screens, adding their own response to that. This way of doing the Think-Pair-Share misses the affordance of summarising and reporting on another’s thoughts, but it does bring in a measure of reflection, which makes it a welcome addition to any teacher’s bag of tricks!


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!


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.


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.



The Digitally Dialogic Classroom

The Russian literary theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin has much to offer teachers who wish to transform their classrooms into places of lively debate where the voice of the student is heard rather than the monologue of the teacher. Despite a broad consensus that learning needs to be learner-centred and active, rather than authoritarian and passive, perhaps the majority of classrooms continue to reflect what Bakhtin called, an authoritative discourse. Teachers tend to give lectures, and students are treated as passive vessels being filled up with knowledge. As Irwin Edman once put it, teaching is the art of casting false pearls before real swine!

For Bakhtin all language and thought is a dialogic process. All language, and thought is social. Meaning is made, constructed by a process of interaction. The very words we use are formed under the pressures of centripetal unifying forces (something like the dictionary definition of a word) where the meaning of that word is socially agreed, and centrifugal forces, for all utterances have an individual flavour shaped by our unique experiences in this world. The meaning I invest in the word horse is similar, but different to yours. We both mean four-legged creatures you can ride, but what I mean is coloured by the fact that I was savaged as a boy by a Shetland pony anxious to wrench a sugar-cube from my hand, and your meaning may be largely shaped by more pleasant experiences of money won off the backs of Arabian stallions at the race-track.
If we wish to get away from an educational system centred on the lecture and passivity, we need to be able to introduce the voice of the student into the conversation. Not that I am against the lecture. It is often necessary and beneficial. It is an efficient way to introduce new material to students. I have argued elsewhere in this blog, that in the sage-on-the-stage vs the guide-on-the-side debate I am very much in favour of the meddler-in-the-middle! Teachers need to transmit knowledge from time to time and provide students with the knowledge and skills they need, they need to work with students’ voices as well, work collaboratively and in communities of practice. Most of all they need to roll up their sleeves and engage with student learning, constructing meaning with students, side by side. Bakhtin’s notion of dialogism is a useful theoretical underpinning for any teacher trying to explain to administrators or parents what they are doing.

One of the critical thinking approaches that I find works best in my classroom is the Philosophy For Children approach (P4C) where a lesson becomes an enquiry, and all voices are heard in the conversation that develops. I use it most often for the discussion of poetry, both in the face to face classroom, and on a forum. The question is always, what does the poem mean? I see my role as a teacher in this enquiry as being to introduce key ideas that might help sharpen the discussion, to focus attention when it is wandering and to try to draw in those who are not participating. A follow-up to an enquiry is usually an explicit lesson on some formal aspect of the discussion such as unpacking narrative voice or what irony means. As a pedagogy then, for me, dialogic pedagogy means that balance between the authoritative monologic teacher voice and the dialogic student chorus where meaning is made socially.

harnadI believe that forums, either on Moodle or another platform, are an excellent way of encouraging student voices and valorizing students’ opinions, and in terms of the Flipped Classroom represent an ideal way of flipping discussion. It allows students to continue the debate once the class is over, and provides an opportunity to maximise discussion time in class if you hold some discussion online ahead of the class. Student comments on the forum are a great way to kick off in-class discussion, for example. I love the fact that a forum post also involves more reflection. Students, because they are writing out a response rather than speaking, are able to think an reflect just that little bit more. Their response is still immediate and often in reaction to what others have said, but it is also considered, more crafted. Stevan Harnad suggests that this power of reflection and immediacy is what characterises the power of the new digital technologies to unleash a fourth cognitive revolution.

Students are often reticent about posting discussion online, just as they may be in a face to face situation, but often it is different children who are drawn into the discussion, so I would always recommend running both discussions, face to face and on forums simultaneously – get the one to feed or continue the other. Being active on the forum helps draw students in. And make it compulsory! Don’t be afraid to assess participation both quantitatively and qualitatively. When students realise that it counts they will post!


Thoughtful Lesson Planning & Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy

blooms5blooms2blooms3blooms1 blooms6bloom7As one who is generally in favour of ICT integration in education, one of my aims is to ensure that I embed the use of digital technologies into my lessons, rather than tacking them on as an after-thought. I also want to ensure that I am teaching Thinking Skills rather than just the content. I try to do this by making sure that all three, the content, (knowledge, skills, values and attitudes I am teaching), the Thinking Skills and the ICTs are all at the forefront of my mind when planning a lesson.

To do this I use a template. I currently use PowerPoint because that allows me to publish my lesson plan on my Moodle page for students and parents to access, but I have used Word documents in the past as well.. The template lists the learning outcomes I wish to include in my unit of work. I sometimes list these and sometimes just highlight the ones applicable from my curriculum standards document.

I then decide which Thinking Skills I am going to focus on. At my school we use the Habits Of Mind as an over-arching schema, and then use de Bono’s Thinking Hats, CoRT and David Hyerle’s Thinking Maps to  teach strategies students can use to achieve these objectives. Having decided what Thinking Skills to focus on, I decide at what level I need to work on, usually building capacity and alertness as to when to use each strategy.

Finally I start designing the tasks and assessments I am going to use. As I do this I reference Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy to make sure I am covering all cognitive levels through my ICT integration. This covers all work done, not just the ones using digital technology. I include my pen and paper stuff as well!

I like to pose a Big Question in each unit of work to give an overall sense of meaning and purpose to the unit. The Big Question is something to hinge all the tasks on, and the main project of the unit often seeks to answer this question. The rest of the PowerPoint is made up of a summary of each lesson’s activities, with links to Thinking Strategy resources or other documents. Students are able to reference this PowerPoint from their Moodle page, and keep track of where they are in the unit, what assignments are due or what thinking skills they need to be using for each task.

What I like about this seamless integration of my planning and what amounts to a schedule of progress for students (and their parents who have access to Moodle), is that it establishes transparency. While the resources and assignments are usually posted on the Moodle page, the Unit Planner brings it all together in a neat package for me, and my students to consult. There is no room for misunderstandings about where we are headed as a class. This is not to say there is no mystery element. The planner does not reveal details, but it does foreground the cognitive education focus of the lessons and ICT integration, and right now that is the most important aspect for me.

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