Friday, December 11, 2009

My Writing on the Educators' Royal Treatment

I've talked about it for a long time...and here it is! My writing about education, from The Educators' Royal Treatment. Check it out!


You Can't Get Too Much of a Good Thing (NOT!)

Not to brag, but I usually get good grades in school (I go to an online public school, the Washington Virtual Academies). There’s nothing wrong with getting good grades, but it can irk me when I get 100% on my writing assignment for the eighth time, without much constructive criticism. I think that it’s important to realize that even the most exemplary of students need, and want, suggestions and feedback. It’s reasonable that better work should get a higher grade, but you can also go beyond the rubric—and give your students new perspectives to think about.

There’s a danger to praising students too much and always giving good grades—the student gets a certain sense of complacency. We might be tempted to think, “Oh, the teacher will always give us 100%. We don’t have to work that hard.” On the other hand, the student might even feel a sense of powerlessness. For instance, I try to craft my writing as well as possible, but I feel like my writing is for naught—as though 100% is a guaranteed, unchanging grade, and that no matter what I do, I’ll always get that. Getting A’s might seem reassuring, but I like knowing why I got that grade—and the answer to that usually lies in the rubric.

By the rubric’s standards, I got my 100% fair and square. Since I made no mistakes in grammar, mechanics, or usage, I get a 5, and so on. But go beyond the rubric. When you read this piece of work, does it catch your attention? Is it something you would read if you weren’t grading papers? Ask yourself questions like these, find the answers, and create useful, constructive criticism for the student based on those answers.

Suggestions for Suggestions:

1.You can introduce ideas from other students. For instance, I had an assignment in my Washington State History class where I was supposed to respond to short-answer questions about the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. My WA State History teacher, who, thankfully, gives a fair amount of feedback, responded.

Question: What type of compensation did Japanese internees receive from the American government? Give your opinion of this compensation.

Answer: Each person who had been detained in a Japanese internment camp received $20,000 and a formal apology from the government. Although this was a step forward in realizing the wrong that had been done to the Japanese, $20,000 is not enough to right a wrong that was built upon illogical, racially-based discrimination. If you were torn away from a community you valued and prosperous land you had worked hard on, and then sent to the cramped quarters of an internment camp in the middle of the desert, you would probably want more than $20,000. The only way to fully right the wrong done to the Japanese-Americans in World War II would be to give them their lost time back—and that is something no government has the power to do.”

Teacher’s Comment: Great point, but at least the official apology was a step in the right direction in terms of acknowledging the injustice. I had another student parallel this issue with our treatment of detainees at Guantanamo – what do you think?

My interest was piqued by this comment—the teacher had gone beyond the rubric, and shared with me another student’s opinion.

2. Recommend additional resources for the student to consider. For instance, many of the lessons that I take at the Washington Virtual Academies come with a “Beyond the Lesson” section at the end. These may include websites, books, or extra information for students to delve into. It’s a great way to provide enrichment. If a student displays particular interest in a topic, you could suggest a resource. Here’s an imaginary question, response, and comment for an art or history class:

Question: Gothic cathedrals were built with flying buttresses, high ceilings, and many other architectural features designed to draw worshipers’ eyes to God. Can you think of other ways places of worship have drawn attention to the holy, past or present?

Answer: Mosques have tall minarets that may dominate skylines, and the call to prayer is heard by everybody. Artworks are another excellent way to draw attention; the Notre Dame cathedral in France has a huge stain-glass window, and the Sistine Chapel in Rome has intricate paintings on its ceiling by Michelangelo. I’ve always wanted to see them, and I think that they’re really effective at getting people interested!

Teacher’s Comment: Excellent brainstorming! On the topic of the Sistine Chapel, you may enjoy the book, Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel. It should be in the school library.

3.If you think that the student could expand on a topic, don’t be afraid to ask for an additional response. You can help the student finalize their ideas—and you give them the chance to share things they may not have been able to before. Below is another imaginary question sequence:

Question: You’ve recently learned about literary devices, including figurative language. Give one example of a simile in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Answer: “Her lips were red as roses” is one simile from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Teacher’s Comment: “Her lips were red as roses” is a simile, and it’s also a cliché, which means that it’s an overused phrase—people use it a lot. Would you like to share a phrase that you use a lot, one that’s maybe a cliché?

Answer: I have to admit that I use “bald as an egg” a lot. Maybe clichés develop because the circumstances around, like I know a lot of bald people. I think that we use similes when we want to make something seem redder or balder or bigger or smaller than it really is, and then it ends up being a cliché.

It can be very gratifying for the student to be able to share something they wanted to in the first place. So go ahead. Give your students 100%. But even A+ isn’t perfect—give them constructive criticism, too.


Nothing's Impossible (A Special After Thanksgiving Motivational Message)

When you were a kid (assuming that you’ve reached an aged state), did you ever get frustrated because adults had low expectations? As in “Dear, I don’t think you can read that book, it’s too hard for you” or “Are you sure you want to do that? I’m not sure you can.” Although today’s children may seem different in every other aspect, that youngster of yesteryear and the child in front of you have at least one thing in common—the desire to achieve. It may not always seem like it, but when there’s a challenge and some risk involved, we can be as impulsive as—well—kids. And that means that we can accomplish a lot.

Of course, that’s all very fine, but where’s the evidence? As the first witness taking the stand, I’d like to present my own story. When I was three-and-a-half years old, I went to the library all the time with my family. I loved reading picture books and feeling the pages slip through my hands. I progressed fairly steadily, and tried reading a chapter book. Instead of discouraging me, or saying that the book was too hard, my mom was impressed—and wanted me to read the book to her. As you can see, I have no scars from the event. In another instance of anecdotal evidence, I have a new baby cousin, and I know that it’s very important to talk to young children in order for verbal skills to develop. Imagine if parents never talked to babies because they were concerned that words were too hard for little ears. Our vocabulary would be significantly smaller.

“High” expectations can do more than help kids accomplish and learn new things. I think that they can have a motivating effect. In your life, you may have had the experience of being a smart kid in class, or you may be familiar with the student who is bored with the easiness of their work. When you challenge students’ abilities, you introduce them to a whole new world of learning (and appeal to our natural risk-taking instincts).

That said, motivational speeches should always have disclaimers, and here’s mine. Some expectations will not be met—a preschooler doing AP calculus, for instance, or a toddler talking about onomatopoeia and its appearances in South American literature. It’s why they say to have “realistic” expectations. But then again, you probably tell your students to use their imaginations. Why stay on the ground when it comes to discovering what your students can do? Let your students show you their full potential. The sky’s the limit.


Making a World of Difference

Where do companies like Scholastic, Promethean, and Tandberg share the stage with speakers including Daniel Pink, Robert Marzano, and Alan November? At Making a World of Difference, the National Middle School Association’s 36th annual conference and exhibit, prominent education vendors and presenters spoke about, and showcased, everything education. This year, the conference took place at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis. I attended to present a featured session, “A Kid’s Eye View of the Innovative Green Classroom.” I stopped by booths on the exhibition floor, watched several presentations, and thought about the differences between Making a World of Difference and other education conferences.

My own presentation took place on the first day of the conference—I had gotten up early (considering that I was flying in from Pacific Time!) to prepare. My mom had brought some breakfast up, although she reported that the site of our hotel’s complimentary breakfast was “like a zoo.” I hoped that some of those clamoring for food were teachers who would attend my session! During the presentation, I used quite a few different technologies, from connecting with three sites across the country by video conference, to displaying content on an interactive whiteboard, and recording the presentation for streaming. With so many different technologies, you have to expect a glitch somewhere. From my perch on the stage, I wasn’t able to reach the interactive whiteboard, and at times I couldn’t hear some of the sites we connected with. But feedback from the audience was positive, and I enjoyed the presentation.

After I completed my featured speech, my mom and I headed down to the exhibit hall, where the long aisles remained mostly quiet—activity was slow on the first day. In “Tech Row,” where education technology companies exhibited, we saw interactive whiteboards and video conferencing prominently on display near the 21st Century Classroom exhibit. In the 21st Century Classroom, there was a laptop on every desk and, it seemed, an interactive whiteboard on every wall. According to the NMSA webpage about the classroom, it was ““staffed” by teachers and students from Clay Middle School of Carmel Clay Schools on Thursday and School 91 of Indianapolis Public Schools on Friday.” They were watched by curious teachers and administrators while learning; it seemed almost like watching subjects in an observation room. Students from these local schools were exposed to advanced educational technology, at least for a day. Whether the exposure to new technologies would make a lasting difference in their school is yet to be seen.

Speakers at Making a World of Difference spoke on a wide range of subjects, from student engagement and service learning to technology in learning and environmental conservation. Two of my favorite presentations were those by Alan November and Ross Burkhardt. Mr. November talked about using technology in the classroom—more specifically, helping kids understand the difference between bogus websites (like All About Explorers, which says that Sir Francis Drake was born in New Jersey) and genuinely useful sources (like the Wayback Machine, which makes copies of websites every few months). Mr. Burkhardt talked about the use of creative poetry writing and recitation in the classroom, highlighting the importance of teacher involvement (don’t make your students do something you wouldn’t do yourself!), something I also talk about in my presentations. A session on Web 2.0 tools, though less memorable, stood out to me because the presenter used the same video, “Wikis in Plain English,” as Tara Seale did in her article on wikis. Seeing the video again made me think of the Educators’ Royal Treatment (and think of ideas for my article)!

I love to attend education conferences—I’ve gone to NECC, or the National Educational Computing Conference, for three years in a row, and this year I’ll be keynoting at the Florida Education Technology Conference (FETC) and Ohio eTech. Making a World of Difference differed from NECC most visibly in size, as the NMSA conference was aimed toward a specific focus group (middle school). What’s more, teachers were the main audience, rather than administrators. There were also fewer competing brands present on the exhibit floor.

The National Middle School Association will be bringing its 2010 conference, Innovate. Create. Inspire, to Baltimore next November. Meanwhile, I have many fun memories to look back on from my trip to Indianapolis.

Watch my reporting from the exhibit floor:

Thanks to Mom for asking some great questions!


No Experience is a Wasted One (in education)

Two weeks ago, my sister Adrianna was sick, sometimes with abdominal pain. Worried about appendicitis, we went to the hospital to get her a CAT Scan. While Adrianna was getting strep swabs, samples to check for influenza, and a variety of other tests, her worried family (meaning us) waited the day away. As it happened, Adrianna had nothing serious, just a virus. It might have been an utterly pointless trip except for the fact that I believe firmly in the idea that no experience is a wasted one. My experience of waiting in the hospital turned into an idea for a personal narrative assignment I had previously been stumped on. When I talk to kids about using their own personal experiences in stories, they sometimes give me blank stares and skeptical looks. The reason? Many of them may consider their experiences too mundane. But even the most mundane of experiences—sitting around in a cramped exam room—can turn into an idea.

For teachers, some of your more memorable experiences are those you’d rather go without—maybe when a projector didn’t work or a computer crashed. This week, I was giving a presentation through video conferencing to an audience at the newly opened education center at the University of Montana in Missoula. Five minutes before the presentation, my PC still refused to open it. Every time, it would give me an error message. In desperation, one minute before I was set to begin, I grabbed my mom’s Mac laptop off a desk and—voila!—it worked. Another time, I was giving a video conferencing presentation to elementary students. The presentation opened fine on my computer, but they weren’t able to see it. So I resorted to using a whiteboard instead. These experiences, while stressful, difficult, and irritating, also forced me to be quick, resourceful, and innovative—the essence, I think, of a great experience.


Adora the Video Reporter!

Do you ever wonder, looking up at the night sky on a starry evening, whether there’s someone out there, looking back? Recently I’ve been working with an online TV company,, to produce a lengthy report titled, “The Thankless Search for Intelligence Out There... Somewhere.” As you may have guessed from the title, it’s about the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, also known as the SETI Institute, and what they do. I traveled to their headquarters in Mountain View (near San Francisco), California, and also visited their telescope array in the rural, unincorporated town of Hat Creek, to talk with astronomers and see the technology for myself. It was exciting for a lot of reasons—I’d never been to San Francisco, I thought that the whole looking-for-aliens thing was pretty cool, and it was my first official foray into video journalism. Most importantly, it was a learning experience.

My older sister, Adrianna, and my mom came along with me to San Francisco. Our first day was entirely leisure, so we got to spend the day as tourists. On that day, I learned one of the most important lessons of the trip—that, although it was California, and it was summer, that San Francisco has been and will always be cold and windy. We also got lost, and learned that the iPhone is not to be trusted as the ultimate authority on walking directions. Finally, we ate dinner at a Thai restaurant and saw the city by night by riding on the San Francisco cable cars—then learned two more lessons. One was that you have to pay fare both ways on the cable cars. Luckily for us, the second lesson was that cable car operators are kinder than you think. Realizing that we hadn’t known beforehand that you had to pay, the driver let us get back on—standing room only, of course. So my daredevil older sister, Adrianna, got her dream of standing on the outside while the steep San Francisco streets whizzed by, and I just felt mildly sick.

I wasn’t that sorry to hear that the rest of the trip would be mainly work—actually, I was looking forward to it. I’d done some research beforehand on SETI’s Allen Telescope Array in Hat Creek, and I thought that it was fairly interesting. One thing Wikipedia didn’t tell me is that Hat Creek (in Northern California) is HOT. I started to get worried when I went to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website (NOAA) to check the weather and they had a little burning sun icon with “hot” in all-caps. When NOAA uses the burning-sun icon and all-caps, you know that they really mean it. And they did. We had the air conditioning in full swing by the time we arrived. It didn’t help that I was wearing long, thick black pants either. As our tour guide, astronomer Garrett Keating, showed us around the facility, I was starting to wonder if there was a real creek nearby—it seemed like it would have evaporated already in the oven-like temperatures around me.

On a more positive note, the technology that SETI uses is truly interesting. I was able to see huge antennas move, see inside an anechoic chamber, and take a look at the “Ray of Death,” which looks like a giant bladed spear but is actually used to receive radio waves of different lengths, not to impale aliens. Although the telescopes look giant and invincible, they’re actually very sensitive pieces of equipment, so we had to get the cameras and microphones tested before using them, in case they caused any damage. As it happened, our wireless microphone was judged too powerful (rather ironic, I thought—such a tiny piece of equipment could hurt such giant telescopes!) and we had to use the one on the camera instead. Sometimes, such sacrifices have to be made in the name of science. :) The scientists at SETI have made a lot of sacrifices, and overcome many obstacles, themselves. Dr. Jill Tarter, Director of the Center for SETI Research, who I interviewed for the program, has dedicated much of her life to the search. Growing up in the 1950s, there was not a whole lot of support for women in science. Although today she’s the recipient of a TED Prize and one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2008, Dr. Tarter had to work hard to get there—while taking engineering, she was the only woman in a class of 300 men.

I learned a great deal about the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence through my online reporting. I can only hope that someday, we can definitively answer the question, “Are we alone?”


A Kid's Eye View of Scholastic's 39 Clues

[Adora Svitak is the published author of three books and the world's youngest teacher. She came up with the title above mainly because it rhymed.]
How would you feel if all your extended family members kept trying to kill you? If you’re Amy and Dan Cahill, you wouldn’t be surprised at all. The young brother-and-sister team are the main characters in the wildly popular series The 39 Clues. The books follow Amy and Dan as they go around the world looking for the “39 Clues.” Oh, and did I mention that they belong to the most powerful family in the world (most members of whom do display homicidal tendencies)? The books are, needless to say, chock-full with adventure.
Now you may be wondering what a book review is doing on the Educator’s Royal Treatment, and for a series of adventure books at that. My response? The 39 Clues is more than adventure novels—it’s a motivational reading tool, pack of cards, and fun read all in one. I should know—I finally read the first book, The Maze of Bones. Written by Rick Riordan, The Maze of Bones (unflatteringly) introduces the Cahill family and its quest to find the 39 Clues.

As far as motivating readers goes, The 39 Clues is a smash hit. Suspenseful and exciting, it attracts both boys and girls with its gutsy main characters (who, luck has it, are a boy and a girl). It’s not the hardest read, so kids won’t be hugely intimidated by the wordage. What’s more, it presents a card-collecting, game-playing, prize-winning opportunity. What more needs to be said?

The books are interactive on many different levels. Each book comes with six cards, each of which has an identification code. Kids go to the 39 Clues website to enter the code and create an online card collection. Players can enter sweepstakes with prizes ranging from $250 to $10,000.

The books are genuinely fun to read. I must admit that, although the books were a little juvenile for my reading level, that I was on the edge of my seat, reading as fast as possible to find out what happened next. And I don’t even like mystery-adventures.

However, educators may find the book a little misleading to younger readers—for instance, the books say that pretty much every powerful person who ever lived on Earth—Ben Franklin, Eleanor Roosevelt, etc.—was a member of the Cahill family. Which is, I’m assuming, not exactly true. So if you plan on having your students read The 39 Clues, make sure they’re clear on the fact that it’s fiction, through-and-through.

And while the story’s main characters aren’t always role models (like any brother and sister, they fight frequently), they do behave bravely in the face of danger and do what they think is right—which, more often than not, means acting nice to other Cahills, even when it’s not the most advantageous.

Although The 39 Clues definitely isn’t a history lesson, it provides a lot of motivation to under-confident readers and gives kids role models their own age. Test-drive it before you hand it to your students—but I warn you, you may be hooked.


No More Moaning and Groaning

An Eleven-Year-Old Writer’s Tips for Getting Your Students to Enjoy Writing
“I don’t like to write.”
How many times have you heard that unfortunate mantra? I say unfortunate because writing is a huge part of most curriculums. When you have students who don’t like to write, you have students who will be groaning and moaning about assignments all through the school year.
I teach writing almost every day through distance learning. The other day I spoke to a group of third-graders in Indianapolis. I asked them, “Do you ever have a hard time coming up with ideas to write?” There was a unanimous “yes.”

Help make ideas accessible for students.

Many students I’ve spoken with seem to be under the impression that you can only think of ideas after long and laborious processes. Show students that you can come up with ideas easily. Ask students simple questions that allow them to use their observation skills, like “Tell me about your classroom. What are some of the things on the walls?” Ask questions about colors, smells, sounds, etc. so that students use the five senses.

You can use activities like word association to get kids thinking further—for instance, if there’s a poster on the wall saying, “Work hard to achieve,” ask students what words they think of from “work.” I would say factory, then industry, then pollution, then sewage, and from there I might think of an idea for a child who goes undercover at a sewage plant to find out if they’re polluting the nearby woods and river.

Break it down.

You can also use small steps to reach larger goals. When I’m working with students to try to come up with a story, I ask, “Where should we set this story? Where should it take place?” If it’s set in modern-day, I might ask something like, “What’s a place you like to go to?” Students usually have lots of ideas for settings. Then I move on to characters, and we have fun coming up with names by spelling our own names backward and turning commonly used words into names. When we come up with the needed “ingredients” one-by-one, it makes story writing seem less intimidating to students.

Work together.

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of collaboration. Many kids can be really intimidated by writing, especially when an assignment just gets thrown at them—“write a two-page research paper on the Grand Coulee Dam,” for instance. The average kid will be wondering, “But how do I do the research? And cite sources?” and a plethora of other questions. To make writing clearer and more understandable, a collaborative writing exercise is very handy. When students are working together, they learn skills of teamwork. You could choose an example topic—the orangutan, for example—and work with students to conduct research. I would go to National Geographic Animals or a similar site, search orangutan, and take notes on the information, to show students that process. Next, I would give them a topic to search and have them work on paraphrasing and quoting information together. Such an exercise would decrease student fear while increasing learning. Having seen, and participated in, an example of how research should be conducted, the student will be more comfortable with writing on their own.

Make it fun.

Just because you’re preparing for state standardized tests doesn’t mean it has to be all dry prompts and no creativity! Use fun activities like continuous free-writes (don’t take your pencil off the paper!) and pass-around stories (you write two lines on a piece of paper, fold over the first sentence, and let the next person, who can only see one of your lines, continue it) to show students that writing is—well, fun!

Share successes.

If you have especially gifted writers in your class, share their work with other students. Having professional writers speak about their experiences and why they write can be motivational to students as well. Talk about popular authors like J.K. Rowling who have succeeded spectacularly in the field of writing to show students that being a writer is special, and something to be proud of.

Make it relevant.

Maybe you’ve heard the excuse, “But I’m going to be a science professor. I don’t need writing!” Your retort? “Science professors have to write grants to get money for their research.” If your student protests that they don’t want to be a writer, that they want to be something that has no possible relevance to writing, make it relevant. Find ways that all careers use writing.

Hopefully these tips will help the moaning and groaning dissipate next time you hand out the week’s writing assignment. Next time your students say, “I don’t like to write,” I’m hoping that you know exactly what to say back at them.


Do's and Dont's of the Education Presentation


Use multimedia to engage viewers

To me, nothing wakes up an audience better than hitting the “play” button on a loud recorded scream—not that your audiences would need waking up, of course. I think that giving a presentation is a little bit like holding a banquet. If all you make is meatloaf, you’ve lost eaters’ interest. The point of a feast is to have variety—meatloaf, casserole, stir-fried rice, vegetable quiche, escargot, sashimi. Eating meatloaf after meatloaf is like viewing bulleted text on a slide after slide after slide. Why use just text if a picture is worth a thousand words? Or when a video must be a million?

Lighten it up

It might just be that I’m under 18, but I think that even oh-so-serious adults appreciate a good laugh once in a while. During a lot of education presentations I’ve seen, members of the audience can seem tense, almost intimidated. Cracking a joke helps draw people together and relax. If you’ve made your audience laugh, they’ll probably remember it fondly—more so than if it were a laugh-less, lifeless speech.

Use varied layouts on your slides

The average slide has a title at the top and bulleted text beneath. But you can mix things up and choose from many different types of layouts.
You can use different types of layouts for different purposes—a title slide emphasizes the topic; a comparison slide emphasizes similarities and differences; an image slide helps you emphasize a picture. This not only makes your presentation more exciting visually, but it complements variances in content—including, I’m hoping, more multimedia.
Make sure the technology works

If you’re giving a presentation that demonstrates technology (or uses it in any way, shape, or form) make sure that it works before you start. For instance, sometimes I’ll present at a school and my computer won’t work with the projector. The school will have another computer on hand, so I go online to get my presentation from my email—except the school filters won’t allow me to open my email account. So always, always make sure you have a Plan B, like saving the presentation onto a USB flash drive or on a CD or DVD.


Use clashing backgrounds and templates

You could have the greatest content in the world, but nobody will want to look at it—they might not even be able to read it—if it’s bright red against hot pink, or dark grey against black, or grass-green against the red of a habanero pepper. Make sure that, if you’re going beyond a simple background, that your template matches the content of your presentation—don’t use the tattered parchment template for a presentation on 21st Century technology.

Refer to hardware/software preferentially

Unless you think that one brand of hardware/software is really, truly, so much better than the competitor, you have considerably more expertise with one type, there are no competitors, or you’re getting paid by the company J, try to avoid referring to hardware/software preferentially. What I mean by this is, don’t just say, “If you want to establish educational social networking in your classroom, use MySpace.” Instead, say something like, “If you want to establish educational social networking in your classroom, there are many social networking websites such as…” and list a few. Also, schools will have different requirements and needs, so it’s up to them to determine which technology to use.


Don’t use clashing backgrounds and templates or refer to hardware/software preferentially. Do use multimedia to engage viewers, lighten it up, use varied layouts on your slides, and make sure the technology works.


Ask the audience for input: The simple act of asking a question can work wonders when it comes to engagement. Which brings me to…

What are your own do’s and don’ts for the education presentation?


Ode to the Blog

I wanted to expand more on the topic of blogging, which I discussed somewhat in my post, “Power to the Students.” The weblog is, according to the Encarta Dictionary, is “a frequently updated personal journal chronicling links at a Web site, intended for public viewing.” I think that this definition needs some modification for education. I think that a blog is more than a journal. As I talked about in “Power to the Students,” the blog offers students the chance to publish work, gain recognition, and—admittedly, in a slightly backhanded way—pressures them into improving their writing when they know they have an audience.
But I do know that blogging isn’t allowed in a lot of school districts, probably because of safety concerns. However, school blogging tools like ePals, and even mainstream blogging services like Google’s Blogger, offer you the ability to make a blog private—viewable only to certain people. Those “certain people” should include other students, teachers, and administrators. For centuries student work has been traditionally viewed only by the teacher, the student, and maybe the student’s parents. A blog, if you’ll excuse the comparison, is like a school newspaper on steroids. It offers kids the chance to circulate and distribute work and get feedback, while incorporating multimedia tools like pictures, video, and sound.
At the beginning of the school year (which it is for me here in Washington), blogging can be a great way for teachers to learn more about students and students to learn more about their classmates from topic choice, writing style, and opinion. It offers a teamwork aspect, too; when everybody collaborates over a common goal (to make the blog as good as possible), the classroom learns lessons in cooperation and working together.
All this is very fine, you may say, but what are the students actually supposed to write about on a class blog?

Here are four of my favorites:
10 Events of the Day: This activity is good practice for personal narrative; it can be used as a brainstorming activity to help students write. The title of the activity is fairly self-explanatory. Students list ten events of the day using descriptive skills.
Point of View: This activity can be used in a variety of ways. It works especially well with historical events. For instance, your students are learning about the American Revolution. Have students write from both the point of view of the American soldiers and of the British. Or you could have students write about George Washington from the point of view of one of his horses. This is just an example of writing to learn in history. If you were doing it as a purely language arts activity, you could make it simpler—for instance, write from the point of view of the bird being hunted and the cat who is hunting.
Vocabulary Poems: After teaching students vocabulary, have each student secretly select a word from the vocabulary list, then write a poem based on the word they selected. Post the poems on the class blog and have readers guess in their comments what the word means. For instance, I wrote a poem, Insolent, based on the word:

She would not listen, simply screamed

While others stared in shock;

She put her mother in the pantry

Locking every lock;

She did not do her sums at all

She made fun of her aunt

Whenever asked to do something,

Her favorite word was "can't."

She would have continued

If she hadn't packed her trunk

And set sail on a caravel

Which promptly sunk.

Becoming an Expert: Have students select a topic which they would like to become an expert on. You could have a list of topics for students to choose from, or have them decide on their own. Students will conduct research on the topic and write at least two blog posts about new things they’ve learned. It helps students learn research skills and skills for expository writing.

Honestly, I think that just looking at what the great things the Educator’s Royal Treatment has done with blogging should be persuasion enough for you to start your own classroom blog. Looking forward to seeing you in the blogosphere!


Digital Reading vs. Print Books

I live in the Seattle area, and in those long ago days of August, it rained. Yes, raining in mid-August. Even we stoic Washingtonians agree that this is not supposed to happen. But, being a stoic Washingtonian, instead of complaining about it for the whole day, I curled up with a book.
You may wonder why I am telling you this. My question is, however superficial, would it be harder to “curl up” with a Kindle (or any other type of digital reading? And, because this is an education blog, the original inquiry leads me to questions about digital reading’s applications in education. Recently I heard about Amazon trying to market to college students by putting textbooks on the Kindle. Do you think digital reading has a place in your classroom?

To use the Kindle as an example, digital reading has its benefits. Some of the K’s features (as were dutifully listed on Amazon) include text to speech, its lightness and portability, its ability to hold over 1,500 books, adjustable text size, bookmarks and annotations, and a built-in dictionary.

For those of you who teach either sight-impaired students or auditory learners, the text to speech feature could be a huge boon. Instead of having to get Braille books, which are not always available and can be hard to obtain, you are able to have books read aloud on the Kindle. This is handy for English second language learners as well; hearing the pronunciations of words, and the written read aloud, can be very helpful when learning how to read English words. However, there have been criticisms that only certain books have the audio feature, and that the voice sounds “robotic.”

The portability of the Kindle is another selling point for Amazon. At 10.2 ounces, it’s “thin as most magazines” (Amazon). Instead of lugging heavy books around in backpacks, students are able to access multiple books with the click of a button. At the same time, its thin feature could make it hard to find if—or when— it gets lost. For a thin device, the Kindle can hold a fairly astonishing number of books—1,500, that is.

One feature I would find especially handy would be the adjustable text size. I’m nearsighted and the fonts in books often seem too small to me. I’m sure that many other students share my predicament; being able to change the text size would solve that.

I personally really love highlighting words. I also enjoy the forbidden pleasures of taking notes in the margins of books. However, I carry personal responsibility for the well-being of all the books on my bookshelves, and so you will rarely find either offense detailed in any of my books. The Kindle allows students to use bookmarks and annotations, so that they can come back to relevant points in stories and read the notes they’ve taken—although recently, according to Puget Sound Business Journal, “a Michigan high-school student named Justin Gawronski [sued] Inc.—claiming that when the online retailer recently deleted the George Orwell novel “1984” from his Kindle reader, it also caused his “copious notes” to be “rendered useless.”

My favorite feature would probably have to be the built-in dictionary. How many times have kids asked you what a word means? When you read a story filled with words you don’t know, the actual plot line can be difficult to understand. Anyone who’s read anything by Dickens can testify to this, myself included. Giving students the power to look up unfamiliar words not only builds vocabulary, it builds independence on the student’s part. Instead of having to constantly rely on others, they are able to find answers by themselves—which ties into my idea of giving kids control.

Although, at this point, this would be a perfect sales pitch for digital reading, I’m not a salaried employee of Amazon—so I’m going to talk about the disadvantages of digital reading too.

The Kindle is expensive. At $299 per device, or almost $6000 for a class of 20, it’s more than most schools and classrooms can afford, especially in a time of economic downturn. There are free digital reading programs available—for instance, my mom has a reading app on her iPhone that allows her to download classics—but, of course, an iPhone costs. Digital reading through eBooks, which can be downloaded free or at low cost, still require computers, and unless your school has a 1:1 program, you’ll have to share one eBook with the masses, which has its own problems—what speed do you scroll at, for instance? Even if you are able to get every student set up with their own computer and eBook, reading on a computer, I think, is harder on the eyes—and less visually appealing—than actually flipping through a book.

And how many kid-friendly books does the Kindle actually have? With its high price, it’s more likely aimed at adults—professionals, businesspeople. Thus it could be harder finding appropriate reading material for your students.

Last but not least, there is a feeling that comes with just grabbing a random book off the shelf—spontaneity. With the Kindle, since you pay for every book, you may be more careful and selective about which books you actually download—which could be a good thing, but also a limiting one. Think what would happen if you only read the books you wanted to read. I probably wouldn’t have learned addition. J In other words, that randomness that comes with looking at a bookshelf and choosing a print book, then thumbing through it, is lost.

Besides, good ol’ books don’t need electricity. You won’t ever hear the paperback in the corner complain about low battery.

Ultimately, both print books and digital books have their pros and cons. As for me, the rainy days have ended, and the sun shines benevolently upon Seattle once more. I’m going outside to play—and I leave it to you to decide which platform for reading is best for your classroom.


The School Principal Just Friended Me?

Social Networking in Education

What pops into your head when you hear “social networking?” Teenagers and text lingo? Facebook and MySpace? Stalkers? Maybe one thing that you didn’t think of was education. I believe that education is one of the most important potential new aspects of social networking. Because sites like MySpace and Facebook are so popular with the middle-and-high school crowd, educational networking allows you to reach your target audience using tools we are comfortable with.

Social networking is all about sharing. Admittedly, some people share too much (don’t you dare give that anonymous online friend your street address!) but educators can decide what is shared, and turn the social networking site into a center of sharing educational content—so that students are learning in the process. The most basic forms of sharing on a social networking site include email and chatting, or instant messaging, both of which are available on Facebook without having to download software.

Facebook also allows users to write on a friend’s “Wall,” the public writing space in your profile. This would allow educators to post student-specific assignments, tips and tricks, or other information. Through the “What are you thinking?” type-in bar at the top of your own homepage, you can post text, photos, videos, events, and links. All of your “friends”—your pupils and colleagues—will then be able to view this update. This hugely powerful tool gives you the ability to reach out to students and staff with the click of a button.

My older sister, Adrianna, will be a ninth grader this upcoming school year. She is also an avid Facebooker. We both enjoy taking Facebook “quizzes.” These can be decidedly random, with titles such as “What Harry Potter character do you most resemble?” to “Which type of cookie symbolizes your personality?” It got me thinking, however, that educators could utilize the popularity of such online quizzes to send students the occasional pop quiz. It wouldn’t have to be all serious—you could throw in some joke questions, give the quiz a funny title, or pretend that it’s a personality quiz (“Which Renaissance Painter Are You Most Like?”) while actually including questions that test the student’s ability to comprehend the information. Such methods may seem just a little dishonest, but it ties in with my mantra of “Get ‘em by surprise!” The last place a student expects the week’s pop quiz is on a social networking site.

Besides quizzes, social networking sites have the added benefit of offering students an “easier way to communicate,” according to Adrianna. As I have said often, learning is really a two-way street. Facebook allows students and teachers to make learning an interactive, communicative, process, where both sides can exchange thoughts and develop ideas. Questions that students never can ask—or answer—in front of their peers may be less taboo online.

Adrianna also said that social networking gives you room to fine-tune your thoughts—that it’s “less stressful when you can backspace what you said if you don’t like it.” When used properly, social networking as a method of communication can actually help students develop their reading and writing skills; when students are able to express themselves in a virtual environment like a social networking site that they enjoy using, they may feel more comfortable about language arts. Social networking as a method of communication gives students more options; you can share video, pictures, links, etc., on someone’s Wall, through chatting or email—the choices are limitless. What’s more, you can be selective as to who you socialize with. Students’ Facebook pages are where they communicate with people they are comfortable with—which should include you.

I know that not every teacher is crazy about the idea of exploring yet another Internet tool. On her Facebook Wall, my mom raised the question, “Do tech tools create [more] challenge[s] for teachers to manage in the classroom?” One respondent, Karyn Romeis, replied, “Of course they do, but that’s no excuse not to use them. They form a part of the landscape of life, and excluding them from the classroom is to deny a whole world of opportunity.” The likelihood is that many of your students are citizens of the online social networking world. Why not establish a continent of education?


Power to the Students!

Power to the people! Power to the students!

You may wonder why I declare this. Today’s disenfranchised youth cannot vote; the lower grades cannot drive; we can’t drink—well, that one’s not so important, but in general, minors are not the decision-makers. Where should minors have some control? Education.

When kids of my age are told to do things, we generally are not so excited about doing it. Think in the vein of “take out the garbage” and “eat your vegetables.” When the educator is always at the head of the table, students may not be so apt to eat, or, in other words, to learn.

One of the best ways to get kids engaged in the classroom is to give us some control in our learning experience. I know this first-hand as a student and a teacher. When I teach writing, one of my favorite activities is collaborative writing. Instead of giving each student an individual assignment from the get-go, I instead have students lead the way by suggesting words, characters, and even storylines in response to questions. This gives students a feeling of accomplishment and a feeling of control in the writing process. I use technology like Microsoft Word and an Activboard to show students their ideas come alive in real-time.

As a student, I know how control gets me interested. I attend an online public school, the Washington Virtual Academies, and I am able to learn at my own pace, deciding when to learn what lessons, and where. Although the regular brick-and-mortar school might have a more standardized approach, there are many online ways to get students more involved in the learning process. These include blogs, wikis, and online document sharing.

“Writing is the mark you make on the world, and you want to make sure that mark is something you are proud of.” This is one of my favorite mottoes to share with students. Posting student work on a class blog does many things; it makes students aware that they have an audience, and more considerate of the quality of their writing; at the same time, it gives students who want their writing in the spotlight a chance to demonstrate their work. A blog allows students to reach higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, through editorials, stories, and essays. It gives students a feeling of participation and involvement, and gives them the chance to share their work with the world. A blog could act as a paperless class newspaper, and can be circulated to a wider audience on the World Wide Web. For some years, I attended afterschool classes at my home with students from around the neighborhood who needed homework help. We set up a blog,, on which we posted our writing.

A blog is also a powerful organizational tool. If you have ever seen the inside of a grade-schooler’s binder, you may reconsider giving them back that masterpiece writing assignment without making an online copy first! The weblog allows you to easily save student work—because even the most eloquent of essays can get lost somewhere in the shadowy depths of a backpack.

Another powerful tool is the wiki. Wikis allow a class to collaborate on a project or get more in-depth on a topic. I highly recommend the video, “Wikis in Plain English,” part of the “Blogs, Wikis, or Nings? Part 2” article by Tara Seale. One way to use a wiki, as the video mentioned, was to create a list. A wiki could be used effectively as a site for students to brainstorm ideas for a project.

A wiki could also be used as a writing tool. For instance, if the life science class is learning about the difference between plant and animal cells, the teacher could set up a wiki for a compare-contrast article and write a paragraph introducing plant and animal cells to get the wiki started. Next, Student A could note that plant cells have cell walls and animal cells do not. Student B could add a few lines about how plant cells have chlorophyll. And the wiki goes on. Every student becomes a part of the project.

I am a big believer in the power of free stuff in general (think dumpster diving), and my philosophy applies to education, minus the dumps. Well-respected online document sharing programs like Google Documents can be excellent collaborative writing tools. They let students exchange ideas back and forth. One plus of using Google Docs is the privacy; Documents only allows those people who have been approved by “Collaborators” to contribute to a piece of writing.

Not only do these technology options give your students control, they are all fairly user-friendly and do not require too much technological expertise. Although technological expertise should not be something you—or your 21st Century students—are lacking in.


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