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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.

 

Using Smartphones & Twitter to Support Learning

DSC01905One of the most powerful tools afforded by modern smartphones is the ability to take a picture and upload it onto twitter to share, almost instantaneously. This functionality, the backbone of social media, is also very useful in the classroom. That picture can become available within moments, either displayed on a screen in the classroom, or on everyone else’s phones using a hashtag. This is an excellent way of sharing information quickly and having it available for discussion.

We started the year with our grade 8s by holding a workshop on Thinking Skills. One of the exercises revolved around getting the girls to find objects around the school that filled them with “wonderment and awe” and photograph it with their cameras and use a twitter hashtag to post it in a form where they could show an entire grade packed into the school hall what they had found. This combination of sharing something you have photographed and talking about it represents a very powerful pedagogical tool, bringing together observation and reflection.

twitMany students use the camera on their phones to capture their homework, or notes on the board. They can do the same to share something they have written in their books. I find twitter the best for sharing because most students have twitter accounts and access it on their phones. Getting students to create images like the one on the left is a great way to spark debate, and is very engaging. By getting students to write or draw something, and then share it, rather than calling an individual to the board to do so, ensures that everyone attempts the question or task, and allows you to select responses to discuss that address interesting teaching points.

One can also get students to create six second videos “vines” as feedback responses. Having only six seconds to play with forces students to summarise their responses into a single sentence or idea. Allowing groups to record a short piece of feedback and then post to twitter also means that you do not have to go through the often laborious, and frequently pointless process of listening to every group’s feedback on a task. You can pick out any interesting points raised for a follow-up session. I often hear it said that twitter is useless for education because it allows only a limited number of characters – but in fact that’s all you need to summarise your main point. The reflection and agreeing on a main point is where the learning happens. Twitter does allow the class to access aspects of an individual or a group’s thinking to fuel further discussion, and as such, is an invaluable tool in the classroom.

 

#AChristmasCarol by @CharlesDickens tweeting the novel – Part III

In this, the last of my look at the twitter production of A Christmas Carol that I staged with my Grade 8 English students, I would like to have a brief look at the reflections of the students. What they made of the experience. I had asked students to write up a short reflection and save it on the network drive. Most students appeared to enjoy the task:

We really enjoyed this task and found it surprising that we remembered most of the characters. We found that it as easy to tweet as our character because we remembered who he was and that made it easier for us. We found that this task was enriching and that we got a real feel of the characters from A Christmas Carol.

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There was in fact only one negative reaction:

“I personally didn’t enjoy the activity. It was kind of boring and I didn’t see it necessary. The concept was good but I don’t tweet a lot for myself never mind for someone else”

One group commented that “We enjoyed placing her (Mrs Cratchit) as a 21st century character.” Reactions I had had from teachers beforehand mainly revolved around what connection there could possibly be between twitter and Dickens, so I was encouraged to see that this didn’t seem to trouble the girls much.

We have learned a lot about the Christmas Carol characters, even the minor ones, and we’ve had a chance to use modern technology and Twitter to do so.   We were creative with applying an old story to modern hashtags and tweets that were funny and easy to do.

Most groups felt that they had been creative, and reading the archive certainly reveals some choice moments!

We liked it because it was a different type of fun – none of us have done it before! Some tweets were hilarious but others quite weird!

One reaction pointed out that the translation into the present time made it more difficult.

We knew a lot about the staves which made it a lot easier to write about, although turning into something they’d say if they lived in the 20th century (sic), is a lot harder. We liked the fact that we could express what we thought of the characters in our own way, as well as expressing them in a unique way.

Some were a bit disturbed by some of the more direct comments made by some characters, which was felt to be rude and “out of hand”. Some girls drew my attention to some rather robust comments during the production, and I appealed to everyone to remember that their comments were public, and not to get nasty. The comments in question were made by  Bob Cratchit and represented some unflattering views of his employer – fair enough, I felt, but it did offend some girls.

I liked the fact that nobody knew anybody’s identity and seeing people’s creative thoughts (#cripplecool, #yayhumbug). We wouldn’t mind doing it again. It was a good experience pretending to be the characters in the actual book. There could’ve been more accounts (e.g. Ignorance & want)

Some experiences were marred by technical problems and by some groups feeling that since they were minor characters in the book they couldn’t participate fully. I thought I had dispelled this notion in my introduction and notes, but clearly I hadn’t.

I think in the end we ran out of ideas to tweet about if we didn’t have main characters or characters with big parts like ours (@OldJoe8).

One of the virtues of a twitter production is that it should allow even the most minor character to take centre stage! Any character can tweet at any time.

DSC00183I have placed an archive of the tweets in the Dropbox of this blog so that readers can judge for themselves. I had asked students to reflect on whether what they’d created was Art or not. Most groups felt it was definitely not Art.

I think I disagree.

 

#AChristmas Carol By @CharlesDickens tweeting the novel – Part II

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In Part I of this series, I described how I set up the twitter accounts and prepared for my grade 8 English students to tweet their version of Charles Dickens’ classic novella, A Christmas Carol on twitter. In Part II, I would like to look at what happened on the day itself. I had been given two hours as part of our post-exam extension programme. I had prepared a document (which you will find in my Drop Box on this blog) in which all the usernames and passwords for the characters were available for students, with some suggestions on rules for tweeting.

I suggested to students firstly that they not try to use Victorian English. They needed rather to try to get into the heads of their characters, and then use twitter pretty much as we use twitter. In other words, if you were Bob Cratchit and twitter were around in 1834, what would you tweet? Students were told that each character, no matter how small in the original novel, were equal on twitter. They could tweet as often as they liked, but should try to tweet at least 10 times in the hour the play would run.

DSC00174I suggested two types of tweet as well, incidental tweets in which characters tweeted about their lives. Mrs Cratchit might well tweet about pudding recipes, and add links to mrsbeaton.com, for example. Tiny Tim, might tweet a picture of brand new crutches he’d seen that he might want for Christmas. Then there were a second type of tweet. Charles Dickens’ novella is organised in Five Staves, or chapters, and every 10 or fifteen minutes I would advance the plot aspect of the story from Stave to Stave. Characters involved in the plot of that Stave could then contribute tweets about what was happening in the plot-line. This would create something of a time-line to the production. I had used this same technique in The Merchant Of Twitter in 2012, and it had worked quite well.

I got students to form groups of three, and gave each group a character slip with their character, username and password. They were able to use one of the seventy or so computers in our media centre, or use their own devices to tweet.

Students seemed to catch on very quickly, and started tweeting immediately. A few groups experienced problems logging on to twitter. Two of my characters, the portly gentlemen, had their accounts blocked by twitter for “suspicious activity” probably because I was setting up so many accounts from the same IP address using bogus email addresses! Some users found it difficult to access twitter itself, probably because we were reaching our bandwidth capacity, with 30 something users (80 or so students) all logged on to twitter at the same time.

DSC00173We were able to sort these problems out quite quickly, and students quickly got into the swing of it. In Part III of this series, I would like to look at the archive and at student reflection from the task, but my impression at the time was of students who were largely engaged most of the time, who found the task stimulating and fun, and who were quite creative with the text.

Teachers who were there to help me with “crowd control” were amazed at what the students were able to accomplish with twitter, and how much fun it seemed. The comment I heard most often was, “I must look into this twitter thing!”

 

A #ChristmasCarol by @CharlesDickens – Tweeting the novel Part 1

christmascarolLast year I ran a twitter play of The Merchant Of Venice called The Merchant Of TwitterThis year I decided to do the same with Charles Dickens’ novella, A Christmas Carol. In this introduction I would like to briefly set out the steps I took to set it all up, in the hopes that it might help any teachers wanting to do something similar.

In Part II I will look at the play itself, and what my students made of it.

The first step was to create twitter accounts for all the characters in the book. This is no mean task, so make sure you set aside quite a bit of time to do it. Twitter does not allow you to create multiple accounts from the same email address, so I had to invent bogus email addresses. Happily this does not prevent one from using the account, but it does mean that the account is unverified, and therefore not fully functional. It would be great to have an educational version of twitter which allowed teachers to set up fictional accounts for educational purposes. Nudge, nudge?

I used the same password for every character and recorded each username on a document as I went along. This is something I learned from my previous endeavour. Remembering usernames and passwords really is a pain. Having a single password would allow all students to access each account more easily if desired. I was constantly reminded to Keep It Simple, Stupid, having gotten myself into quite a muddle the previous year.

I added profile pictures and brief biographies for every character. This is also quite a time-consuming task, and I sincerely hope that I did not seriously infringe on any copyright while doing so. My defence is fair use policy, but it is something to think about. I will include the document with usernames and passwords in my Dropbox so that other teachers may use these accounts should they wish. I tried to keep the tone light and humorous rather than didactic. Above all else I wanted the play to be fun and engaging – a way of exploring the characters and themes of the novella without eliciting groans all round.

cc2I then added all these characters to a List. This would allow me to create a widget I could use to display the tweets of all members of the List onto a twitter feed on a website or my school Moodle page. If you are signed into twitter you can go to https://twitter.com/settings/widgets and select the List option to create the code you can then paste into your web page. It also allows anyone following the play to simply follow the list rather than follow every character.

With the accounts set up and organised into a List, I compiled a cast list, with usernames and passwords to distribute to students. This would allow students to log on to twitter using the usernames and passwords of the cast.

The beauty of a twitter version of any literary wok is that no character is of itself  a major or a minor character. In the Merchant Of Twitter, the most active tweeter was the messenger! The play is seen from the perspective of the character, no matter who they might be in the original. I had a student body of about 80, and therefore necessarily decided to allow students to work in pairs and to choose to allocate set characters for each pair. This would ensure that all characters tweeted.

 

TwitterMOOC – Designing a New Learning Environment

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Watching the development of MOOCs over the last year, largely from the perspective of a student taking the courses, the question which has fascinated me has been to what extent any teacher could set up their own online course.

Being the Moodle fundi at my school I immediately thought of Moodle as a platform, and indeed there are Moodle servers available who will host any course you create for free, or for a small fee. But in many ways this is unsatisfactory. Moodle is a bit of an acquired taste for many. It is also somewhat clunky and lacks sex appeal! While its functionality gives it enormous power and wins devotees from amongst those who are prepared to master the learning curve required, for the average teacher it is usually one bridge too far.

As the resident Moodle Champion I speak to many teachers about the interface, and usually get the same response – it’s not very user-friendly! Many teachers do respond well to blogs. They are relatively easy to set up, and the templates and widgets that most blog servers provide supplies the necessary eye candy. There are class blog platforms, and all easy to set up and administer.

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But, the functionality of the blog is limited. You can post and you can comment. Sure you can embed videos and set up polls, but ultimately the ability to generate discussion is limited.

Nevertheless, I decided to go about setting up a small (mini MOOC) using a blogging platform. I decided to call the site twitterMOOC because I wanted to use twitter hashtags to allow students or readers to add short comments using the course hashtag as a stream on the blog page. I do something similar on my Moodle pages, and it forms a great back-channel for my classes, and is good for questions, and comments. I knew that you could add tweets to a wordpress blog using a widget. Unfortunately you cannot add a twitter feed which draws in references to the hashtag, you can only link it to a user account. I got around this by adding a link to a tweetchat.com feed using a course hashtag. Twitter provides a neat badge which allows you to set up a button the reader can press, which automatically includes the hashtag in a tweet.

I have now set up a prototype course on the site. It uses a page on the blog to embed text and video links, and a twitter feed and link to tweetchat room so that users can follow chat around the course. To my mind it looks like a promising platform. It cannot offer a course such as you might find on Coursera or Udacity, but readers can read text and watch videos on different aspects of the topic, and can comment on the blog, or tweet comments or links of their own to further material.

I am looking forward to people play-testing the site and giving feedback on the idea. Hint, hint!

If it works, it is something that any teacher could set up easily, with minimal IT skills, and maintain easily, adding content periodically.

 
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Posted by on February 20, 2013 in Blended Learning, MOOCs, Moodle, Twitter

 

The Merchant Of Twitter

This last week, a group of my grade 8 English students have been taking part in a production of The Merchant Of Twitter. Each member of the class signed up to play one of the characters from the play by Shakespeare, and then, for the next five days, tweeted as that character. Each day of the week was meant to correspond roughly with an act in the play. Students were asked not to use Shakespearean diction, but to imagine they were modern-day characters. I therefore styled the play as an Intertextual interpretation: the major texts being the Shakespearean play and the twittersphere. Students were asked to try to get inside the heads of the characters they were playing and tailor their tweets accordingly.

I had created accounts on twitter for all the characters, using profile pics from stills from the Al Pacino movie version, and a short biography. All characters shared a common password for ease of access. This meant that the students did not need to have a twitter account, or use their personal accounts. I set up a hashtag for the students to use, made posters for the play and alerted all faculty and students that the play could be followed on twitter. The fictitious characters were all added to a Twitter List called The Merchant Of Twitter. This allowed me to archive the tweets by using copy and paste, if the hashtag failed, which it did.

I then set up a Twoodle, a twitter feed on the class Moodle page, set to pull in all tweets using the hashtag to give students a quicker way of accessing the play. I have placed a transcript of the tweets that were made in pdf format in the Dropbox on this blog.

I was a wee bit nervous about how the project would go down. First of all, I wasn’t sure that the students would take to the project. Would it all be a bit of a damp squib? Would they tweet at all? In fact about 80 tweets were made by 19 students over the course of the five days, averaging some 16 tweets a day. The enthusiasm was not shared by everyone in the class, but it was certainly visible. Almost every morning when I walked into the classroom I was greeted by students eager to hear my reactions to what they had tweeted. I used this to emphasize how the tweets were exemplifying the personality traits of the characters in Shakespeare’s version of the play, and congratulate the students on capturing the essence of this or that moment in the play.

While the tweets did vary in quality, and not all of the class seemed to embrace the project as fully as others did, I do feel that the exercise was worthwhile. If you look at one of the tweets by the student playing Gratiano, for example, we can see that she has certainly grasped the fact that Gratiano has a garrulous nature, that he often jokes and plays the fool, and has a sarcastic tongue. Gratiano’s jokes, which punctuated the feed, were entertaining and witty.

Other students used the medium of twitter to explore the play with multi-media additions. The student who played Lorenzo, for example, used photobucket to upload a picture of the monkey that Jessica exchanges for a ring. This particular post was greeted by the class with much hilarity, and excitement, and showed ho willing the students were to explore the boundaries of the assignment.

My second concern was how the “play” would be received. Would anyone follow it? Would they approve? Within moments of sending out the link to the first day’s tweets to staff, I received a very negative response from one particular teacher. She felt that twitter was a diversion from proper study, and that the way the students were tweeting would have revolted William Shakespeare. She said she just didn’t get twitter. What shook me a bit was that this was from a teacher whom I greatly respect.

These concerns go right to the heart of the whole question of whether this project had any pedagogical value. In many ways I had prepared myself for these objections, and had been careful to stage the “play” outside classroom time. While doing it this way squared with my belief that we need to explore flipped classroom methodologies, it neatly side-stepped any concerns that my peers, or Head Of Department might have had around pedagogical worth.

Nevertheless, I do believe that the project did have value. While I am not so naive as to believe that students gained any great insights into the characters of the play, I do believe that it helped consolidate their understanding of what motivated these characters, and allowed them to explore some of the themes of the play in their own voice. In many ways this was an exercise in the power of voice in the classroom. And this is why i think the teacher who objected to treating Shakespeare in this way has missed the point a bit. I don’t think we ever really exercise our higher order thinking skills until we give voice to our understandings, and apply that understanding in new ways. To my mind a student stands a better chance of being able to explore the imagery, characterization and themes of the play in a meaningful way if they render it in their own voice, rather than simply swot up Spark Notes, for example. In any case, I leave it to you to read the tweets and make your own mind up about how much real learning they display.

I was also concerned about how other students would perceive the “play”. Would anyone follow it? I had meant for everyone to be able to follow the play using the official play hashtag, but from the very first tweet, students forgot to use the hashtag, or used alternate hashtags. I then sent everyone the link to the List tweet feed, so that everyone could read all the tweets.

I have no idea who was viewing the List tweets, because apart from the one teacher who felt the project was a waste of time, and one student who tweeted her approval of the play and urged her followers to follow the hashtag, I have no idea if anyone else viewed a single tweet. I had not really expected the “audience” to join in, so this was a very pleasant turn of events.

In conclusion, this was a project which worked a bit better than I had expected, and provided, at the very least, a great deal of fun for the participants. It is certainly a project I am going to repeat. I believe it has pedagogical merit, and as an art form has some potential. When allocating parts, I stressed to the students that in the twitter play minor characters could become the stars of the show. Indeed many of the minor characters did tweet more than the major parts. The tweet above being a case in point.

 
 
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