RSS

Category Archives: Writing

Five Apps that Support Student Voice in the Classroom

Essential to a healthy diaologism in the classroom is the need to foster student voice. Students need time to explore their ideas, formulate and reformulate thoughts and sharpen their understandings in their own words. Despite being perhaps the most crucial aspect of the educational process, it is often the least scaffolded and least supported. Student essays, for example are frequently corrected and handed back, but very little is done to offer students usable strategies to organize their thoughts better or focus their thinking. Digital technologies do, however, offer some affordances to help teachers scaffold student voice better.

1. Google Docs

One of the problems with paper is that teachers can only really see what students are writing after they have written it. Even if students hand in a draft version of their thoughts, the difference between a draft and a final version is often cosmetic at best. Unless time is spent on the revision process, and this time is usually not available in the classroom, thoughts and arguments are set in place by the end of an initial draft. At worst the final copy is frequently just a neat version of the draft! One of the key affordances of Google Docs, however, is that it allows the teacher, and other students, to read and comment while the document is in the process of being written. This represents unparalleled access to thoughts being formed during the process of writing, as immediate, almost, as discussion. I enjoy the ability to reflect before commenting on what a student is writing. Sometimes in a discussion moments are missed. Just a few moments of reflection allow more considered responses.

As a teacher you can also create documents which serve as templates scaffolding thinking, working towards a formulation of their thoughts, leading up to the final presentation of ideas. This offers very real opportunities for teachers to teach thinking and writing skills, beyond anything that paper can offer. Documents can be shared for class or group discussion.

2. Flipgrid

While Google Docs provide opportunities for scaffolding writing, Flipgrid provides ways for students to record brief messages using a web camera or mobile phone and posting them on a wall to exchange ideas, or reflect on a topic. Students can delete at any stage and recommence a recording. They can view what peers are posting and if you upgrade to a paid version, comment on others’ posts.

These posts are then available to further in-class discussion or as the basis for a piece of writing. Students can speak off the cuff, or prepare what they are going to say for more formal purposes. Teachers can also use the platform to introduce a topic, or to add comments at any stage of a discussion.

Flipgrid is thus a useful tool for monitoring students’ thoughts and using this to help scaffold their thinking.

3. VideoPad

VideoPad is powerful video editing software which can be freely downloaded and used by students to create and edit videos in a sharable format. Students can use footage captured on their devices or stills images. They can add narration, subtitles or animations. Even green-screen capability is included. Clips can be precisely edited to put together a presentation using dramatization or explanation.

Creating a short movie is an effective way for students to organise their thoughts and present their ideas in formats other than the essay or PowerPoint presentation. It allows students to respond to literary texts or present content in different ways. The process is engaging and fun. The ability to be creative around how narratives are structured and woven together makes this kind of digital authoring an excellent way of varying the diet in the classroom.

What I like about VideoPad in particular amongst the video-editing options available is its relatively sophisticated functionality alongside its fairly simple interface. Importing footage in different formats can be an issue, but the software is quite robust. The ability to easily add sub-titles and captions, and to overlay more than one audio track is a definite plus. Students will often spend a great deal of time creating movie projects so it is best to set time limits!

4. WordPress

WordPress is a blogging platform that provides students with an excellent platform for creating opportunities for students to write in authentic, or relatively authentic contexts, with a real public in mind. You can create an account for each student which allows them to author blog content and publish to the site. It is a great platform for a class magazine. Students will often write fairly telegraphically and you will probably need to scaffold their first contributions to ensure that they are meaty enough, and set the tone for the submissions that follow. You can create blog sites around particular themes, such as an historical period or literary work, where students will contribute pieces that appear as “newspaper” like entries exploring themes and topics being studied.

The genre of writing that can be done on a blog can vary from pure creative writing to perspective exploration or even factual discursive writing. This flexibility is useful and the same platform can be used. You can use a blog to collaborate between different classes, schools or continents, exploring a common theme, topic or problem. Students can leave comments on each other’s posts which can be very useful. Appointing moderators is a good idea.

5. PowerPoint

PowerPoints Presentations can be the worst things ever. But if done well, nothing beats a PowerPoint for supporting a well-delivered presentation. It is available on most people’s computers, has a host of functionalities and is portable and so ubiquitous as to provide few technical challenges. Students enjoy using the software and if you take the time to help them create presentations that complement their verbal presentations, for example using only keywords and images, students learn a very valuable and marketable life skill.

Most classrooms at some stage or another will call on students to make a verbal presentation, and the use of a PowerPoint can not only help a student through what for many is a nerve-wracking experience, it can also add to the presentation greatly.

Giving students an opportunity to organise and voice their ideas and receive feedback, preferably as early and as often as possible is at the heart of education. technology can help make that thinking more visible to the teacher and to peers, and thus invite a dialog between teacher and students over how best to communicate one’s ideas.

Advertisements
 

Using Algorithmic Thinking to Teach Writing

The gains being made by Artificial Intelligence are truly impressive, but we may not be at the stage where a robot can out-write Shakespeare. And yet I do believe that we can use algorithmic thinking to teach students to become better writers. One of the bug-bears for many students over the years has undoubtedly been the lack of explicit instruction in how to write. The dominant pedagogy has been to give students plenty of opportunity to practice creative writing, and to attempt to mold improvement through feedback – often woefully inadequate feedback.

This image was originally posted to Flickr by Scoboco at https://www.flickr.com/photos/62159569@N08/10546981384. It was reviewed on  by FlickreviewR and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-sa-2.0.

And yet writing can clearly be taught. At the very least students should be made aware of the overall structure of any piece of writing: how to set out a clear thesis statement and develop ideas in successive paragraphs which develop topic sentences, fleshing each idea out with anecdote, fact or quotation. If they are practising these skills quite explicitly their practice is focused and directed, it is far more likely to bear fruit.

I have found, over the years, however, that no amount of scaffolding will make this process easy to implement in whole class instruction. Most students can use conceptual maps to plan a sequence of ideas which support a thesis, but really struggle when it comes to developing these ideas in individual paragraphs. For some this process appears to come naturally. They effortlessly weave together anecdotes and observations to illuminate their ideas. Others appear incapable of marrying abstract ideas to concrete details, which is really what is at stake here.

I had a brain-wave the other day in a coding class. Could the kind of thinking used in coding (algorithmic thinking) not be employed to help bridge the seeming chasm between abstract and concrete? Algorithms, after all are sets of instructions which a machine can follow – a blue-print for successful practice. Maybe, for those who seemed to lack a muse, a blue-print was exactly what was required. And maybe, after following an algorithm for a while, the patterns and habits might stick.

I started by getting the whole class to generate a set of ideas and sub-points using a graphic organiser. We then organised these ideas into a logical sequence so that an argument was constructed. I put these ideas on a Google doc which I then shared with the class on Google Classroom so that each student had their own copy. The class then broke into groups and had to find anecdotes, facts, details or quotations. These were written out on cards and shuffled into a pile. Students were then told to start writing, using the logically sequenced outline we had developed. As they wrote each paragraph they had to come to the front of the class, dig in the pile and try to find at least one anecdote, fact or quote to use in that paragraph. When they had finished they returned it to the pile.

Individual essays were thus unique. The same anecdote could be used to support or refute an idea. We then shared some of these sequences in essays and discussed how they had been used to support the thesis statement. My follow-up, next term, will be to get students to select ideas from a pile and match these to the developing details so that each essay has a different sequencing structure.

 

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!

 
 
%d bloggers like this: