Monday, August 29, 2011

Focus on GoogleApps: Blogger

If you're reading this, you are seeing one of the "new" apps that we now have available for CCSD GoogleApps: Blogger.  Blogger has been around forever, but until last week, we didn't have access to it while logged into CCSD GoogleApps.  It's just one of a set of tools that we can now access, and I'll be focusing on those in later blog posts. 

So, how do you get to it and what can you do with it?

1)  To access Blogger, go under the "More' pull-down in the upper left-hand corner of your GoogleApps screen and choose "even more."
2)  Scroll down the list until you see the "Social" heading, and you should see "Blogger."
3)  Click on the "Create a blog" link and get started!

So, how would you use Blogger in the classroom?  The most common implementation is a class blog, where you record what's happening in your classroom.  However, unlike GoogleSites or Moodle, this is not the best solution for posting files for kids to download.  It's a great solution for posting announcements or assignment directions, though, because it goes in reverse chronological order (most recent posts appear first).

If you're teaching writing (and all of are supposed to be including writing in our classes), have students contribute posts to your blog.  They can comment on each other's posts, insert images or links, or respond to a question that you post for them.

As with all things Google, there are all kinds of help documents you can peruse to learn more.  If you're new to Blogger, I'd recommend the "Getting Started Guide."  If you're already comfortable but need to know some specific things, you can always click on the "Help" link in the upper right-hand corner.  Or, if you need a 1:1, contact me via email, and I'll be happy to help.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Grammar in ConTEXT: Text Messaging to Teach Mechanics

Like many other schools in many other places, our students tend to struggle with mechanics.  And we, as teachers, struggle with how to make that learning relevant and useful for them.  Well, now that our personal device policy has changed, maybe we could try teaching some mechanics using text messaging.

If you haven't seen wiffiti, it's a free online "screen" that you can create for posting text messages. I've experimented with it, and I think it's got some potential, especially for grabbing some kids that might be a bit harder to reach. Thoughts I had . . .
  • What if, for homework, we had kids text a sentence to a wiffiti screen using something we talked about in class?

  • What if, on the next day of class, we could project the wiffiti screen onto a whiteboard and take a look at the sentences everyone sent?

  • What if we could have kids "re-text" sentences if they needed to fix something? Or suggest a fix for someone else's sentence?

  • What if we could actually teach kids to differentiate their own texting language based on audience or purpose?

One thing that people mention when talking about projecting texted info. is the potential for someone to post something inappropriate. While Wiffiti doesn't have much for the classroom teacher for this, another option will be, which also allows kids to use cellphones as a clicker. We are in the process of getting our SHHS account built, and that will give us some moderation and/or management control.

I hear a lot of teachers talking about how kids will use "textspeak" for academic assignments. Bad pun alert: let's put the text into context. If we could use a piece of technology in which they are heavily invested, I think we will see them engage with writing in a totally different way. Putting grammar instruction into the context of texting may yield some interesting results.

One more bonus: kids might actually find out where punctuation symbols are on their phones. Wouldn't it be something if they could learn how to use them?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Using Diigo: Web-based Annotation

One thing our students do on a very regular basis is read on the web. Teachers at our school have spent time helping kids annotate printed text, and now there are some pretty cool tools to help kids annotate web-based text. If annotating is a strategy you use with students, you may want to extend that activity for web-based content.

The tool that we "push" the most here at SHHS is Diigo. If you want your students to be working in groups, sharing web pages, and/or annotating those pages (in addition to highlighting), is well worth your time. It has a lot of features and a lot of potential. Not only can you highlight and share page annotations, but you can collect them in one place and have online discussions. Teachers need to create an educator account ahead of time, but we can bulk create your student accounts for you before using the tool with students.

So how does this relate to comprehension? When working with web-based reading, we can guide our students in not only highlighting but also adding sticky notes to explain their choices or adding sticky notes with questions that they have as readers. They can then share that with the world, if they want, and see what others have annotated. It's a great way to help our students learn how to work with electronic text in ways similar to printed text.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Using Word Clouds for Reading Comprehension

When working with text, it can be helpful to try to ascertain the main ideas before reading the selection. I remember getting some practice with SQ3R back in the day (yeah, I just totally aged myself), but that particular strategy can be tough to pull off with a web resource. While there are other tools for helping frame a reading passage, I really like and

This was taken from an article about the 30 million word gap
This was taken from an article about the 30 million word gapCompose

Wordle helps to create a visual word cloud from either pasted text, an RSS feed, or a Delicious account. In this example, I copied all of the text from an article to see which words were repeated. This can be a great way for kids to see main ideas before reading -- and it can help those students generate questions that they think will be answered in the selection. Or, if you are reading prose, copy & paste the text into Wordle to see a graphic representation of repeated words.

This is also a great tool to use for analysis of speeches, bias, writing style, word choice, etc.

Taken from the 30 Million Word gap

The other tool that accomplishes something similar is TagCrowd. While separates TagCrowd from Wordle is that it will show you a word count, you can use other languages, and you can enter a URL as opposed to copying & pasting. It doesn't have the aesthetic choices that Wordle offers, but the other functions make this an attractive tool.

These both have some incredible possibilities for use with students. If you are working on a writing assignment, try having the students paste in their own text to see if they need to work on word choice. Or, analyze major speeches from political figures. Or, compare soliloquies from a Shakespeare play. Or, have students respond electronically to a prompt (like a blog post, for example) and paste all of the responses to see common ideas or themes.

Regardless, these both provide a nice way to use non-linguistic representation of linguistic sources. It's also a good way for students to see if there are unfamiliar words used heavily in a selection.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Finding Accessible Content

One issue that we encounter as teachers is finding material that actually suits our reading audience. Even more challenging is finding different levels of accessible text for differentiation within the classroom. What if the reading levels of your students vary quite a bit within 1 class?

One option is to try to figure out what the reading level actually is. This is pretty complicated -- the most accurate results are probably found by checking with reading specialists & librarians. However, what if you are using web-based content? There are a couple of free web-based services that will help you determine the reading level.

taken from

EditCentral has a box to paste in text and it will run the selection through an algorithm to determine the readability scale. This site uses the Flesch-Kincaid scale and the Gunning fog index, as well as some others. Some nice features are that it color codes the results of the different reading scales and it also underlines words that might be considered complex or difficult.

taken from
If you just need to quickly check the readability scale of
a particular website, you can paste the URL into this website's readability test, and it will run the page through its algorithm to figure out the reading level. This free service also tabulates how many words & sentences are in the page, as well as counting how many words have 1, 2, 3, or 4 syllables. There are explanations for what the different reading indexes reveal.

What's interesting about this site is that it is designed for web page designers. This is supposed to help webmasters see if the content of their site or page is too difficult for the "average" reader.

Finally, if your district has a subscription to Nettrekker (like we are fortunate enough to have in CCSD), you can do a search for a subject in nettrekker, and it will give you a readability scale for the different sites that match your search. Honestly, I don't find the readability numbers in nettrekker very intuitive (it's on a 1 - 5 scale), but it is based on a combination of many different readability indexes. Here's a quick overview: a "5" means grades 11-13, a "4" equates to grades 9-10, and a "3" should indicate appropriate reading for grades 7 - 8.

Any literacy or reading specialist will tell you to use these types of tests with caution. Obviously, a mathematical formula can't account for much more than syllables, word count, and number of sentences. However, if you just need a filter to make sure that a resource you've found isn't over the heads of your students, these services can be pretty helpful.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Netbooks or Textbooks?

Want to hear something sorta shocking? The average student might "use" $1000.00 worth of textbooks during their high school career! What if we looked at devoting $ to laptops instead of textbooks?

How much $ does each kid "use" with textbooks while they go through the average high school? If they're taking English, math, science, world language & social studies, my guess is that the books for those classes cost ~$40 on the average for the year. That's in the neighborhood of $200/year. That's $800 for their 4 years at a high school just in core classes. If that student is also taking business, art history, health, etc., we're talking about another $40 - $80 per year.

While textbooks served their purpose in the pre-digital/analog age, it's high time we look at other ways to engage kids with content. And I'm not talking about purchasing textbooks that come with CDs.

posted on flickr by giovanniscanavino (CC License)
cc photo courtesy of giovanniscanavin
The biggest concern I've heard relates to access. What about kids who don't have computers at home? There is amazing content that kids can now get using just about any cell phone, and that technology is constantly getting more & more advanced & versatile. Ideally, though, we need a 1:1 solution so that each kid had a device like a sub-laptop. How do we afford that?

Um, we start putting our money into something other than books.

Fiscal costs aside, though, the bottom line for me is that in most cases, it is costing our learners to not approach content differently. Textbooks are no longer sufficient to support learning. The opportunity to access interactive, engaging, current, & FREE content should be at the core of where we put our money. And it isn't in textbooks.

To that end, we'll be experimenting in the 2011-2012 school year with a couple of classes who agreed to teach without a traditional textbook: all geography classes will have a 1:1 environment as will all students taking our new science course (think CSI). My hope is that we'll see some real success here. Maybe this will spark a change in approach that our budgets (and our learners) desperately need.