Friday, May 21, 2010

I Learn Tons from These Language Blogs!

Voting for the top language blogs is currently under way at Lexiophiles, and I was tickled to learn that Paperless English got a nomination in the Language Teaching category :)

There are many awesome blogs nominated, some I've been learning from for a while and some new ones I discovered from the list of nominees. Below you'll find some of my favorites from each category. Check them out, and be sure to vote for your favorites by May 24.

Language Technology
Blogging About The Web 2.0 Connected Classroom

Language Professionals
The Grammarphobia Blog
Ken Wilson's Blog

Language Teaching
Teacher Boot Camp
Grammar Girl

Language Learning
English Raven
Larry Ferlazzo's Websites of the Day

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Uses for Word Clouds

I love word clouds. This one, made at Wordle by simply pasting in a URL, collects words used in this blog and reflects the frequency of their use.

My purpose in creating this one was twofold:

1. To reflect a little on some of the things I've learned now that this school year is drawing to a close.

2. To check my word choice. I tend to overuse certain words and phrases and should keep tabs on them more closely.

Both of these could be great uses of word clouds for students. I've also used one for a pre-reading activity by pasting in a chunk of text and asking students to make predictions. For a post-reading activity, students could use a word cloud as a jumping-off point for a summary of text they've read.

Additional word cloud options include WordItOut, Tagul, and Tagxedo (which can be used to create awesome shapes). What are some other ways to use word clouds in the classroom?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Harry Noden's Image Grammar Gone Paperless

This summer I'll be participating in the Longleaf Writing Project, our local site for the National Writing Project. Orientation for the summer program was last weekend, and one of the teacher leaders modeled a workshop on improving sentence structure using the five brushstrokes discussed in Harry Noden's Image Grammar. The five brushstrokes are as follows:

Painting with participles
Painting with absolutes
Painting with appositives
Painting with adjectives shifted out of order
Painting with action verbs

My students, like many others, are highly visual learners, and a number of them are pretty talented artists, so I thought I'd try out a paperless version of this activity. Here's the plan (pdf) for the two-day lesson.

I did this with post-exam AP Language students, and the "all brushstrokes at once" strategy worked nicely as a review of many things they've discussed before. When I plan lessons to attack the same skills with my ninth or tenth grade English students in the fall, however, I'll break it down into much smaller chunks, focusing on one brushstroke at a time.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


Animoto for Education - Bringing your classroom to live

Animoto has been one of my favorite new tools to use this school year. It allows students to use photos, text, and music to make polished video presentations, and my kids have found it incredibly easy to use.

From a language teacher's point-of-view, the text students insert into presentations can be one of the most useful sources for a lesson. The main text boxes allow for only twenty-two characters, and the sub text boxes allow for thirty.

So when, for example, my students create videos depicting excerpts from 1984 or use Animoto to reflect on their oral history projects, they must choose their words very carefully. This lends itself nicely to discussions of strong verbs and economy of language, as well as other aspects of diction and syntax.

It's also an opportunity for vocabulary building:

Student 1: " I need to say Julia was 'a rebel from the waist down,' but I have only twelve characters left!"

Student 2: "Promiscuous!"

I'd love to hear other ideas for using Animoto in the classroom. Please post if you've got any suggestions. If Animoto is new to you, here's a bit more info from Free Technology for Teachers.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

"Do We Work at the Same Place?"

Bad PD = redundant
Good PD = oxymoron

While doing my spring classroom cleaning, I found these words scribbled in the margins of an info packet I received at a workshop during the spring semester of my first year as a teacher. Less than a year into my teaching career, I'd already experienced numerous sessions that prompted me to write off most professional development as a waste of time and money.

Five years later, I know that what I experienced in that first year was not professional development at all. Instead, a district employee acknowledged a general need, got a brochure from an outside consultant or company, and sent us off to two days of...not much. Someone was paid thousands of dollars to read us a PowerPoint. While I appreciate any system's desire to provide support for teachers, it's pretty clear that it's often a big thing done badly.

This week, teachers at my school were asked to complete a climate survey. I think that my choices reflect a pretty positive outlook regarding many things going on where I work. I love my school. It's far from perfect, but there are a number of positives and many moves in the right direction. In a discussion about the survey, however, I heard, "Do we work at the same place?"

It then occurred to me that, because of my participation on a variety of committees and in real professional development, I get to discuss with my school's leaders the big problems and how to solve them. I get to see classroom teachers take on leadership roles that demonstrate their commitment to our school's improvement and our kids' success. And this makes me hopeful, boosts my morale, and increases my own commitment to do my job the best I can.

I can only imagine, however, that faculty members who aren't privy to those conversations and only receive "PD" like I got as a first-year could very easily feel like they work in a completely different place - one in which they have little to no voice and one in which lifelong learning sounds like a nice idea but an impossible reality.

This week's early #edchat (archive here) addressed the effect that professional development can have on education reform. My experience has taught me that true professional development - on-going, teacher-led, and specifically geared to personal interests and needs - empowers teachers and increases their job satisfaction. It's the way to get teacher buy-in for trying new things, and the more committed teachers we have who show up to play, the greater our chances for real change.

I'm left with questions, though. How much responsibility should be placed on teachers to seek out meaningful PD on their own? What can a school's professional development committee, department chairs, and other leaders do to change the perceptions regarding PD and to transform frustrated, burnt-out teachers into lifelong learners?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Oral History Project Resources

A couple of folks have pointed me in the direction of some awesome oral history resources since my Oral History Project post, so here they are front and center for anyone who might like to try something like it with their students:

Theatre Archive Project - Teaching the Talk: Many thanks to Dr. Alec Patton for the heads-up on this resource. Interview and transcription guidelines are available for download here. He created these materials while working with students on a project on postwar British theatre, but the guidelines could be adapted for a variety of assignments.

Story Corps: During the project, we did listen to a few selections from Story Corps to give the students a bit of background regarding oral histories. What I just learned about, thanks to my husband, is the Story Corps app for the iPhone. The app allows you to listen to other people's stories and read tips for developing questions and recording your own. You can even use the app to create a list of interview questions, record the interview, and share the story using a variety of social media. Anyone interested in violating policy on cell phone use? If my kids learn something from it, I know I am ;)

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Students and Privacy

Our school networks block things all the time to "protect" our students from big scaries in the online world, but how frequently are we teaching them to protect themselves? When I asked my kids that question last week, the general consensus was "We pretty much never talk about it, but I think we did a worksheet one time..."

I'm certain I'm not doing enough in my classroom, and that seems illogical, particularly considering my desire to move my classes in the direction of increased online activity.

So in the midst of this semester's study of 1984, I was excited to come across the following video in my Google Reader last week. It sparked a ton of great discussion among my students (especially the segment on Facebook) and a couple of writing assignments. The fact that it features Cory Doctorow and Neil Gaiman didn't hurt either, as a number of my kids are fans of Little Brother and The Graveyard Book :)

Choose Privacy Week Video from 20K Films on Vimeo.

How do you teach students in your classes to protect themselves online?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


I run two Nings - one serves as my class website, and the other connects our school to our feeders for vertical teaming purposes. So when my intern, while reading her Twitter feed one afternoon, looked up from her laptop and said something along the lines of "Have you seen that they're going to start charging?" I... well, I kinda freaked out.

My first intro to this social networking tool was through the Educator's PLN. This site is now thousands of teachers strong and offers invaluable resources and support to its members. After perusing it a bit, Ning seemed like the perfect one-stop shop to bring more of a sense of community, student ownership, and interactivity to my classes' online world. So I got to work, and within moments my slick new class site was up and ready to go.

Signing my kids up for the site was cake. I could upload/embed videos for use in class - no more worrying about whether a video would be blocked by our network. Files could be uploaded, as well. Each class had its own group, which made organizing assignments and class specific information much more manageable, and there was shared space, too, so classes could collaborate on some activities.

Next came an email from our school's librarian pointing me in the direction of English Companion. Seriously, if you teach English, you must check this site out. It rocks!

I preached the goodness of Ning wherever I could and soon set up the second site for vertical teaming.

A few days ago, the company announced that a stripped down version of Ning (Ning Mini) will be available to educators for free. This is a small bit of good news, but some of the features missing from this option seem essential to me for making the classroom community site work. Groups, for example, will no longer be available, so there goes some of my organizational infrastructure. Video uploads won't be an option either, and many videos I could embed are blocked by my system's network to prevent them, I'm told, from eating up our limited bandwidth.

A recent #edchat discussed the changes to Ning, addressed what they mean for educators' use of the site, and touched on what we can learn from the company's changes with regard to future of social networking tools in schools. One of the most powerful but daunting suggestions was that we should find ways to eliminate the middle-man by developing our own social networking tools. That makes sense to me, but social networking is still a very scary thing for many people in leadership positions. In fact, my class site is not allowed to be officially linked to our school's website because students create and add content. The fear is that a student might post something inappropriate, which could potentially make the school look bad. But which looks worse? An interactive site that shows evidence of student learning and tons of activity and is monitored throughout the day by a teacher who's iPhone is buzzing every time something new is posted? Or a glorified Word document that hasn't been updated since last August?

I know my answer, but I also know that perceptions of social networking aren't going to change overnight, and teaching teaches patience.

So I'm looking for some guidance. Do I keep the sites I have running and deal with the changes? Should I piece together what I need from a variety of other free tools and forget the idea of one tool to meet all my needs? Please post any suggestions, ideas, or alternatives you may have. I'm bummed about the Ning changes, but I'm hoping this turns out to be an opportunity to learn a little more about what else is out there.

Oral History Project

Last semester, several teachers at my school were approached by an English professor at our local university to collaborate on a project with her and her students. Her class teaches students to write oral histories and contains a service learning component, so she proposed that we work in weekly sessions to teach our kids what oral histories are, how to research in preparation for them, how to develop sound interview questions, and how to write truthful and compelling pieces as a final product.

Here's how the project worked:

My class was reading Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, so it made sense to pair the reading of that book with the research and writing required for developing oral histories.

We began by researching the context of the war - looking at different aspects from causes of the war and the anti-war movement to the Vietnamese perspective and the lives of soldiers - to give the students a foundation for developing questions for interview subjects. They used Glogster to create online presentations to showcase the knowledge they gleaned from their research. As an assessment of their understanding of the context, they wrote short essays (with access to their classmates' glogs and Twitter for info sharing).

Next, we scheduled interviews. Our interview subjects included a veteran who now works as an English professor; two class dads who served in Vietnam; and my own dad, who gave insight into the homefront point of view as a college student during the 1960s and 70s.

Our collaborating professor and her students met with us weekly, providing sessions on developing interview questions, writing an oral history, and workshopping papers to develop polished final drafts. To reflect and prepare for the exhibition, the students also created Animoto video shorts focusing on the most important things they learned over the course of the project.

On Thursday, April 29, our kids got to show off their work at a community exhibition, and I am immensely proud of the work that they put into it and appreciative of the community members who helped make the project happen.

My students now look at history in a much more personal way, and it was awesome to see their reactions in the interviews when certain pieces of interview subjects' stories matched up.

I've posted below some of their reflections on the process:

"Through this project, I learned a side of the war that goes untaught in our schools. I learned to see past the propaganda to examine the true face of war. The truth is that all wars are ugly and the civilians are the ones who suffer for the mistakes of the government." - C.B.

"I learned that the Vietnam War is not faceless. What I mean by that is I've always been completely disconnected on a personal level from any past wars, including the ones we are in now. I did not see the soldiers as people, but as robots. They fought and won and that's it. Now that I have met real veterans, I see the damage that war has done to them. I now can relate to their suffering. I have serious respect towards the military and it's all thanks to this project." - L.P.

"From our project on pop culture and the Vietnam War I learned that I don't nearly pay enough attention to what our nation is involved in...I felt privileged to have [the interviewees'] time and to hear what they had to say. Hearing their personal stories was mind-opening. Their accounts not only retold history with immeasurable depth, but also presented untold stories that remain unpublished in newspapers and history books. From this, I hope that everything I learned will help me be a better American citizen, and that the knowledge that they shared will influence all of us to strive for better understanding in our global actions." - J.J.

"I learned that it's hard to take your own research on a subject and take an interview from a personal experience and make them mesh in a way that stays true to the interview subject's belief. It's hard to make someone else understand what your trying to say through an oral history and still have it be a story." - L. T.

"From this project I learned how to listen to someone else and learn from their wisdom and experiences. Talking to people with incredible pasts and just randomly asking questions doesn't produce much result. But well thought out questions and a ear geared towards what you want to learn really helps. It has been a challenge to properly represent these people and their opinions, but it is an experience that has better helped me think through the speaker's goal." - C.P.