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Category Archives: Writing

Page vs Screen: Technology in the Classroom isn’t Hobson’s Choice!

CiPQ5hgWEAAm-2RIt seems to me that in any class I teach there are three distinct groups of students: one consisting of enthusiastic adopters of digital technologies; a second group of those comfortable enough with the technology, but rather less gung-ho about it; and finally a group which struggles with anything to do with a device, and is all at sea. I gave my grade 8 English class a writing task the other day, and told them they could submit digitally, or on paper. A large group reached immediately for their devices, but some put their tablets to one side, and took out pen and paper. Likewise, when it comes to reading, most of my students have a textbook, but a few use eBooks downloaded on their kindles.

This is, I believe, exactly what it should be. The introduction of technology in the classroom should never amount to an all or nothing affair. The research on the effects of reading and writing on page and screen is by no means conclusive, and with something as important as reading and writing, I believe we should be very cautious about any change. On the other hand so much reading and writing is done on devices these days, we would be ill-advised to ignore it. My common sense, unscientific intuition is that both page and screen form important modalities for literacy practices, and that we need to cultivate good habits in both.

I try to give my students opportunities throughout the year to read and write on page and screen. This has some obvious advantages. When my students are writing in Google docs I can view and comment in real-time, as the writing is happening. This allows me to engage with the process of writing in ways which are more constrained on paper. But I do worry that writing on paper may well be developing other skill sets, such as fore-planning, which screen writing might be eroding. So I make sure that we do writing on paper as well. And sometimes I give them a choice. I have to admit that this is all hope and pray for the best – I have no idea what I am doing. But I do hope that by mixing things up sufficiently, hit and miss tactics will result in more hits than misses.

The time has come to start developing a comprehensive notion of what it means to read or write on the screen, and how to teach good habits towards hypertextual reading and screen writing. here are some initial thoughts:

  • Reading Hypertext is about scanning for information and synthesising ideas from hyperlinked sources, so students need to be given tasks which call for them to browse rapidly to find relevant information, and need to have these skills scaffolded. How do you evaluate what is relevant and valid? How do you go about assessing what it is you need to find: what is your question? How do you go about assessing where to find this?
  • Reading the page is more about following a narrative or train of thought and understanding how the argument is structured. This can be practised through more searching “comprehension” style exercises.
  • Screen Writing is less about setting out your thoughts before you begin writing, planning the structure of your argument; it does afford a more exploratory style. You need a more recursive writing strategy in which you interrogate what you have written to reveal the argument that is emerging from the words. These habits can be practised.
  • Page Writing, because the ability to edit is constrained, needs more thorough planning, and a sense of the structure of your narrative or argument before you begin writing, or recursive drafting.

At the moment very little work is being done in developing ways of teaching and assessing these different modalities. I suspect language teachers are largely winging it, as I am, but we do need to start addressing these issues before we lose a generation to bad page and screen habits!

 

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.

 

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.

 

Ngram Viewer: Computational Thinking in English

I recently completed a Google online course on Computational Thinking and would like to look at one feature of CT, which I think has particular relevance for English teachers. In brief, as I understand it, CT refers to the thought processes involved in formulating problems in such a way that they can be processed using computational devices. They can be used to think about problems without any form of computation, of course, but it seems to me that one way of mixing things up, to enliven a class, is to introduce some computation into the English Class.

ngramOne tool that might be useful is Google’s Ngram Viewer, which allows you to type in keywords and see them displayed in a graph reflecting their usage over the years (from Google Books). You can enter multiple keyword searches, separating them by a comma. In itself this can show you the rise and fall in the popularity of certain words, and can be used in an English class to identify difficult vocabulary from a poem. You can look at synonyms, antonyms or explore connotation and denotation with a class using Ngram Viewer, asking students to draw conclusions from the graphs generated.

I think the most useful application of this, though is where it is combined with student writing to help students think about their word choices. In itself Ngram Viewer does not really add to a piece of writing, but if you ask students to use it to help them make decisions about which word to choose, it does help focus on the act of making a decision. By forcing students to type in a list of synonyms alone, they will probably do more than they usually do in thinking about alternatives.

 

Writing in The Cloud: the Affordances of Google Classroom

google docs

As an English teacher, I spend a great deal of my time reading what students have written, and trying to help them sharpen up on both the content of their arguments and how they go about saying something. The traditional weapons of an English teacher, a red pen with which to make annotations in the margins, pales into a poor second place when compared with the power of Google documents, though.

I have been using Google Classrooms for my grade 8 English class, and I have found that it has a number of advantages, and some drawbacks.

Google Docs represents a powerful way in which teachers can comment on student writing, and give feedback, both in real-time, as a student is busy writing, and in a more traditional way, after the assignment has been turned in. Both of these affordances, being able to comment while a student is writing, and the space a teacher is given to make comments, represent huge advances on what is possible with pen and paper. Students battle to read my handwriting – heck, I battle to read my handwriting! Since comments are typed in Google documents, it is a great deal easier both to write a comment and to read it!

When making comments in a margin, space is at a premium. Often I find myself pushed to summarise a point. Google documents, however, allows a teacher to make lengthy comments: the margins expand, if you like. You can also edit a comment, without making unsightly additions to a comment. This alone makes using Google documents preferable to analogue feedback.

But the most useful feature is undoubtedly that documents can be shared between peers allowing for collaborative writing, and feedback by peers, as well as teachers. This allows students to comment on each other’s work, and simultaneously receive feedback from the teacher both during the writing process, and after a final draft.

By contrast, Google documents is very poor at traditional grading. It’s not easy to go through a worksheet submitted on Classroom, for example, and tick correct responses, and mark incorrect responses – tallying the ticks at the end. To my mind this is a good thing! We teachers reach too readily for this type of grading, and do not use genuine feedback and formative assessment often enough. If Google makes it hard for us to do it, maybe it will discourage us!

 

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.

 

Widening the Writing Circle – student writing online

Teen Ink and the rather more strident Power Poetry are sites where students can read and share their writing online. They afford secure spaces for teens to publish their own writing and engage in discussions around writing and receive feedback from peers. While the open nature of the site may worry teachers and parents, submissions are apparently vetted for content before they are published. The opportunity for young writers to write for an authentic audience is something worth its weight in gold and the Internet is awash with sites which can be used for this purpose. Click here or here for a useful list. It is, however, harder to find a more localized arena for the students in your class to publish their creative writing. Not all students are brave and fearless writers who are ready to publish their work for the world at large. If all you want to do is give a space for less accomplished students in your class or school to get their feet wet so to speak, what can you do?

acadaI’ve been pondering this for quite a while. I’ve tried Moodle and Edmodo as platforms, and used Kidblogs and WordPress with a degree of success. Students can set up a blog on which they can publish their writing and other students can leave comments. Kidblogs can be made totally secure, with registration  only available from within your own classroom or an emailed link should you wish. Google Docs is another approach, allowing small groups to collaborate on any writing project by sharing the document with other members of the writing group, who can be given comment or even editing rights.

My approach to writing in the English classroom has always been to try to set up Writing Circles, small groups which work as a unit when it comes to supporting each other’s writing – offering editing suggestions and helpful criticism. In the past these have always been paper based, but the affordances of online tools allow for the writing circle to act more effectively and efficiently, and to become scalable. Teachers can set up tasks in which writing is shared by an audience of two to infinity. The limitations of paper are always rooted in the difficulty of sharing editing around a table beyond about two people, and sharing with a class only really possible if you have a visualizer, or if you run off the piece of writing for everyone to have a copy. Using blogs, fan fiction sites or Google docs, however, allows for varying degrees of asynchronous or even synchronous editing or collaboration.

The online blog can be set up as a class e-zine, and used for various purposes, with sections for fiction, poetry and non-fiction. The glossy look of the site you produce is a considerable lure for students, along with the appellation published author!

There is one function of the paper-based writing circle, however, that is enormously valuable, and that is the chance to talk face-to-face about a piece of writing. While Google docs does provide an opportunity for synchronous comment on a piece of writing, I would strongly suggest that every time you use online writing, you also give students a chance to discuss it face-to-face in the classroom. I find that students still need that verbal feedback. While they are writing online, they often call me over to ask advice or seek feedback on what they are writing.

“Oo, I like that!” and “Yes, that works well!” or “I don’t get that! What were you trying to do here?” has no real digital equivalent!

 
 
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