Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Sidekick & The Superhero: Using Google Drive for Peer-Assessment



"The Sidekick & The Superhero: Using Google Drive for Peer-Assessment" (Originally published at GettingSmart.com on 12/26/12.)

“More efficient than an overworked teacher! More reliable than a carry-home satchel of ungraded papers! Able to simultaneously curate infinite comments from speedily working students! Look! On the computer screen! It’s an aggregator! It’s a sharing point! It’s Google Drive!Yes, it’s Google Drive…free application offered by the California-based internet giant with resourcefulness and organization more astounding than some seasoned educators of many years. Google Drive…which can offer students forms to submit comments, make students’ documents easily accessible in one location, and which, disguised as your average that-can’t-be-awesome-‘cause-it’s-free app, helps create an engaging and effective class of proficient learners through reliable and efficient technology.”All right. I know it sounds cheesy, but the above parody perfectly reflects my excitement and enthusiasm upon conceiving my latest AP Language lesson plan. It is exactly how I felt. Although I have been using Google Drive in the classroom for the past two years, the recent success and simplicity of my students’ last assignments have driven me to identify a superhero in Studio 113. And it is definitely not me.

A Challenging Task: The Impetus for Using Google Drive

Just two and half years into teaching AP Language, I oftentimes feel absolutely powerless, helpless, and overwhelmed. Creating and locating valuable content is a never-ending process, and the challenge of preparing students for a four-hour test consisting of upper level multiple-choice questions and three free-response essays is daunting. Nonetheless, backed by a colleague’s assurance that I will eventually feel comfortable teaching this course after about five years, I continually remain open and flexible to any resource that will help my students reach their goal of passing the rigorous AP Language exam.With a teaching schedule consisting of six classes ranging from AP Language to American Literature Honors and only fifty minutes of planning, I heartily accept any help I can get. Fifty minutes of planning is not enough time to punch in grades and answer e-mail, let alone respond to the bottomless in-box of students’ writings. One thing is for sure, however. Students’ educational growth should not suffer because of a lack of time and absence of any teacher super powers. Needless to say, this is where I call on a superhero.

The Lesson Plan: Using Google Drive as a Tool, Not the Toy

To succeed on the free-response section of the exam, students simply need to write more and receive constructive criticism. Quite honestly, I am lucky to return a class set of essays within two weeks, and that is assuming I grade for hours on the weekend. I needed a plan of attack that would highlight and clarify, once and for all, each student’s writing weaknesses. This strategy would allow us to open the second semester with an accurate set of data that would pinpoint areas where my lessons failed during the first semester while revealing any pre-determined, second-semester plans needing immediate restructuring.So, I asked my AP Language students to write one analytical, one argumentative, and one synthesis essay in the final three weeks preceding the winter holidays. I informed them that each essay would be peer-assessed at least twice and all feedback would be submitted via an embedded Google form on my teacher page. To keep the writers and peer-assessors anonymous, I assigned each student a number. With two classes of AP Language and the randomness of the numbers, students had no idea of the papers’ authors.

Here is the order of operations for each essay assignment:

  • Day 1: The students and I spent one class period examining the writing prompt. During this time, we used our AP Language infographic to review the guidelines of the particular type of essay, and we thoroughly discussed all accompanying excerpts and resources for each prompt.
  • Day 2: Students wrote the essay in timed fashion on the following day. Although fifty-minutes of writing after having already ingested the entire prompt is too much time according to the AP Exam timeline, the bell-to-bell setup added an appropriate level of pressure at this stage in the students’ writing development.
  • Days 3-4: Students were randomly handed a peer’s paper and asked to use the Google Form to submit their feedback. I used the free-response open rubric as a guideline when I created the survey. Students worked through their assigned papers in a systematic way that ultimately lead them into scoring the essay according to the college board’s 1 to 9 scale.
  • Homework and Downtime: Students were granted access to the live, shared spreadsheet on my Google Drive, and they were encouraged to check the feedback submitted for their personal papers during any downtime or for homework. Just before beginning the next essay assignment, I informed the students of the polished and numerically organized Excel spreadsheet of feedback on my teacher page. I used two tabs in Excel: one organized by writer and the other by assessor. For sake of easy navigation within the Excel spreadsheet, I made each row single-sized and asked students to click on the appropriate cell to read the comments in the formula bar.
  • This four-day sequence was administered three times, once for each type of essay. Obviously, this game plan left us with three remaining days before breaking for the holidays. Two of these days were spent completing diagnostic grammar and writing exercises in order to prepare the students for the final, and perhaps most important, phase of the lesson plan.

The Final Phase: The Self-Assessment

The final phase of our three-week plan was simple: complete an honest self-assessment. Using this embedded self-assessment, students were encouraged to review their peers’ constructive criticism of their three essays and to recall any challenges presented by the diagnostic grammar exercises in hopes that they would be able to submit accurate data.This is the only spreadsheet that will not be shared with the entire class. There is no need to share it, except to simply review with each student on a one-to-one basis. The spreadsheet of students’ data will act as a springboard for next semester’s highly differentiated lesson plans.

The Pros and Cons

  • Teachers are allowed to circulate the classroom and help each student as he/she struggles through understanding what constitutes a paper scored a 3, 5, or even an 8.
  • Teachers are afforded time to read essays during the writing and peer-assessing periods. Out of necessity, the reading of most papers will be prompted by the students’ continuous challenges with the text.
  • Allowing students to work side-by-side with their peers on their mobile devices (smartphones, tablets, or checked-out laptops from the media center) fosters inquisitive communication that is based entirely on determining how to accurately assess an AP Language essay.
  • Students are completely clear about what is expected on the free-response portion of the exam.
  • Students are aware of their writing strengths and weaknesses.
  • Students can be active participants in their own education while continually prescribing and requesting certain activities for their own self-improvement.
  • The cons? No Kryptonite here. I have not discovered a weakness for Google Drive, yet.
There is no doubt that I feel very confident with this lesson plan, and I cannot wait to return and begin to differentiate lessons for each student. The level of confidence is quite powerful. I feel faster and more effective than an automated essay scorer, stronger than a completely rested teacher on a Monday morning, and able to leap tall stacks of essays in a single reading.But wait a minute! That’s not how a sidekick is supposed to feel. That sounds more like the power of a superhero…the power of Google Drive, a modern-day, educational crusader.

Share Student Voices & Gather Audiences with 10+ Tech Tools

John Hardison's "Creative Gallery" Symbaloo Webmix

"Share Student Voices & Gather Audiences with 10+ Tech Tools" (Originally published at GettingSmart.com on 12/4/12.)

Let’s begin here. Think of your three favorite, most inspirational speeches of all time. If you need a little help, quickly scan over this “Top 100 List” from Americanrhetoric.com. I’ll even give it a shot, too. Hmmm. Let me see. I’ll go with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream,” Lou Gehrig’s “Farewell to Baseball Address,” and Ronald Reagan’s "Space Shuttle Disaster Address.” Besides being highly emotionally charged and exemplars of rhetorical strategies, these three famous speeches share one often overlooked characteristic: People were listening. Follow me just a bit further as we imagine Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering his beautifully written speech to a crowd of zero. Yeah, just a remarkably talented and courageous leader speaking his mind and voicing the collective conscience of our nation with not a soul standing on that hot, August day to witness. No minds altered. No hearts changed. No direction taken. Or how about Lou Gehrig honoring those he was blessed to share time with and those who modeled selflessness in order to foster the growth of such an amazingly humble and accepting human? Perhaps those unforgettable echoes from the man dubbed “The Iron Horse” would not have been so memorable had no one been present that day in Yankee Stadium. No hearts to sense the sincerity of Gehrig’s words; only empty seats in a cavernous baseball cathedral. And for sure a grieving nation would not have been consoled by such a charismatic and unwavering leader if all televisions had been turned off that tragic day the Space Shuttle Challenger lost its seven courageous adventurers. Instead, a nation was comforted in mourning, reassured of its purpose, and reminded of its brotherhood. All of this because President Reagan’s voice was heard. Someone was listening. This is precisely the pivotal point my American Literature students and I arrived at following a thorough, multi-week study of rhetorical strategies and famous speeches. The audience is powerful, we concluded. Based on this very premise, students in Studio 113 decided to think out loud and hope someone would listen. In essence, they gathered an audience with tech tools.

First Thing’s First: Writing the Essay

After successful classroom discussions, interactive and public Voicethreads, engaging YouTube videos of movie speeches, and collaborative learning structures, students were asked to write a speech that nonviolently protests a law they deem “un-American.” Students were prompted to exemplify rhetorical strategies and cite a minimum of two sources while adhering to the MLA format style. For days, students took full advantage of a classroom environment that was conducive to producing heartfelt, genuine prose. While seeking to create authentic writing, students held firmly to the MLA guidelines with the use of “The Owl at Purdue” and easybib.com. Although the students’ essays are far from perfect, the process served as an exceptional learning experience.

Seeking Feedback: Using Technology to Share Students’ Voices

Once the essays were written, students used my shared Symbaloo webmix, “Creative Gallery,” to locate an appropriate technology tool to showcase their essays. Although the majority chose Blogger, students also used Wix, Weebly, Storybird, Google Docs, Windows Movie Maker Live and YouTube to share their viewpoints. Furthermore, students were encouraged to suggest any mode of sharing their essays, whether it be an unknown app, website, or some overlooked traditional method. Take a look at my "Creative Gallery" webmix below. As students began posting their essays digitally, they were reminded to determine how they would solicit feedback. We discussed the websites that automatically allow readers to submit feedback, such as Blogger. However, a contingency plan was needed for those sites that did not offer a comment area. Enter Google Drive. For those students who needed an easy way to solicit comments, I modeled how to set up a Google form/survey. Once this was completed, I showed them how to capture the link of the live form and paste it in an obvious place just below their essays on whatever technology site they chose. Once they viewed their feedback spreadsheet (generated by Google forms) and comprehended its power and simplicity, they were amazed.

Getting the Word Out: Leveraging Technology to Share Students’ Work

Although over half of my American Literature students are completing their projects this week, we have already implemented a plan to advertise our students’ essays. One thing was for sure: our mode of sharing needed to be simple. We needed a one-stop-shop, a hub, to showcase all of our students’ methods for publishing their essays. We chose Symbaloo. By repurposing it with our students’ pictures and hyperlinks, Symbaloo serves as the starting point for visitors wanting to take a trip through our students' diverse essays and occasionally controversial topics. The process for creating our personalized Symbaloo webmix was simple. I furnished a team of three in-class, student volunteers with class rosters and a Sony Cybershot camera. While students continued to work on their projects in the computer lab, the photographers systematically took nearly all pictures within a class period of fifty minutes. Once this was completed, I instructed students to use an embedded Google Form on my webpage to submit the Internet addresses where their essays could be found. Obviously, they were encouraged to double-check the link before submitting. All I have to do is periodically check my Google Drive for any new submissions and copy the students’ links and pictures to my Symbaloo webmix. The process takes hardly no time at all. After all students and links are posted on the webmix, I will print out a picture of the entire Symbaloo webmix, assign a QR code to it, and have our school’s Graphic Arts classes print a banner containing both the picture and code. This 4’x6’ banner will be displayed in a high-traffic area at our school. Hopefully, this will generate some interest within the school and help us get the word out to others. Please take a look below at our hub for showcasing our students' essays. Of course, social media giants like Twitter and Facebook will play a crucial role as we begin to really push our products this week. But with the accessibility of all essays in one location, an explosive sharing of our students’ essays is just a “retweet” or “like” away. One thing is for sure, an audience is a powerful, crucial element in a naturally symbiotic relationship between speaker and listener. Together they share dreams, give thanks, and comfort each other in challenging times. Are these times among us now? My students think so, and they have spoken. Surely someone will listen.

Calling All Resources: Fostering the Right Time to Write


(The traffic light BYOD management system used by John Hardison of Studio 113)

"Calling All Resources: Fostering the Right Time to Write" (Originally published at GettingSmart.com on 11/20/12.)

Creating the ultimate writing atmosphere that inspires students to produce their very best level has always coincided with a constant search, a continual revamping, and an open platform for students’ suggestions. As a collective writing community, Studio 113 students and I seek the most powerful writers’ tools; they may range from Stephen King’s On Writing to the soothing writers’ website OmmWriter to a simple online dictionary. During this incessant quest, we remain open to any ideas that will help us produce a setting conducive to crafting excellent, heartfelt prose, rhetoric, and poetry. In essence, we seek to create originals, and fostering the right time to write requires a number of resources. Here’s a glimpse into our classroom writers’ sanctuary:

The Traffic Light: Classroom Management for BYOD

Students in our class are always fully aware of the availability of writing resources. In fact, all it usually takes is a turn of the head to view a specific color of the traffic light. Using a simple, homemade traffic light to manage the use of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) has been very powerful and efficient. Whereas an illuminated green allows students to appropriately use all mobile devices and desktop computers to access any writing resources, the yellow light asks all students to quickly and momentarily disengage from their tech devices by closing their laptops, turning their tablets and smartphones facedown, and directing their attention to the teacher or student who patiently waits with a raised right hand. At this time, a directive, suggestion, or creative idea is disseminated to help all writers move forward with their assignments. This seamless transition normally takes no longer than a minute or two from start to finish, and after communicating, the yellow light is switched to green. Students are then free to dive back into their writing, hopefully a bit more enlightened following a succinct statement. The red light is too simple. Although not often used, a red light eliminates the use of any student-owned mobile devices. In fact, students know to put away their smartphones, tablets, and laptops when the red light is lit. Students usually see the red light when working certain quizzes and tests or when participating in learning structures that benefit from intuitive, old school modes of class interactions.

Background Music: The Mood of the Writing Atmosphere

To set a relaxed mood in our classroom when writing, the students and I create a playlist of appropriate instrumental tunes. Students select from songs such as Alan Silvestri’s Forrest Gump and Cast Away instrumentals, and from collections of the greatest instrumental songs of all time, and from a vast array of nature tracks. To be perfectly honest, the constant favorite is a soothing track of light rain and soft piano music. Students normally relax into a state of contemplative and intuitive writing once this track has permeated the classroom. Oftentimes, students are also allowed to listen to their own music as long they use headphones and the volume does not disturb the other writers. Flexibility and understanding all students have unique ways of writing have been the keys to inspiring students to produce their very best.

Soft Lighting: The Students’ Favorite

The decision to use soft lighting while writing is always unanimous. Just ask the students, and they will tell you how annoying the overhead, way-too-bright bulbs are. Although the above video may portray a dimly lit room, please remember the video was shot with an ancient, 7 megapixel, non-HD Sony Cybershot. Trust me. The lighting is perfect, and the students’ constant input is evidence of this fact. Setting the appropriate lighting and musical atmosphere is always first on the students’ wish list, even before their concern for using mobile devices.

Writing Gadgets: Students Choose Personal Preferences

By offering the options of writing with their smartphones, tablets, laptops, desktop computers, or pen and paper, all students find their own comfortable writing zones. Some students choose to couple their smartphones and tablets with the use of powerful apps like Evernote, My Writing Spot, and Blogger, while others choose more simple apps like Notes, iBrainstormer, or Scratch to organize their thoughts and plan their essays. Of course, students also use their mobile devices and our school wi-fi to access any useful writing resource on the web. Students basically use the laptops and desktop computers in the same manner. Since students with internet-ready gadgets are able to use most of the same writing applications, there really is not much of a difference between writing with smartphones and tablets versus laptops and desktop computers. The only exception that comes to mind is the students’ mode of typing. Some like the more concrete feel of an actual keyboard as opposed to the totally flat feel of the virtual keypad. As always in Studio 113, students have a choice to use pen and paper with hardback dictionaries and thesauruses as their resources. Let’s face it. Some students still sense the power of holding a pen in their hands and watching their compositional visions come to life on paper in the form of very personal handwriting. I never want to deny students this powerful option. The bottom line is this: I want students to absolutely fall in love with their writing by any appropriate means of composition available. The end result is most important, not how they arrived.

Nonverbal Communication: Editing without Speaking

Students are encouraged to share their writing with others as a source of inspiration and as a means of acquiring constructive criticism and feedback. However, during designated writing periods of about thirty minutes, students are asked to communicate nonverbally. They should not speak a word during a silent writing session. Using websites like Todaysmeet.com, Twitter, Wiggio, or a shared Google document, students can help their peers without disturbing the writing atmosphere. By asking for all communication to be nonverbal, those who choose not to speak are not annoyed by those who do “speak.” Students are even allowed to text a portion of their essays to their in-class peers as a request for feedback. Think about it. How many times have you written something and immediately shared your new creation with a trusted friend? Pretty powerful, huh? It is no different in our class when we write. Whether they are sliding sheets of paper across the table, texting thesis statements across the room, or holding a discussion about their essays on an all-too-easy site like Todaysmeet.com, students are encouraged to increase their audience and thicken their skin by sharing their original thoughts and writing.

Breakout Sessions: Students Walk and Talk

These silent writing sessions are often separated by breakout sessions of five to ten minutes where students are invited to walk around the class and verbally share their writing with others. Just like there is power in a silent atmosphere to bring forth authentic and personal writing, there is also great strength in moving about the classroom while seeking writing advice and offering editing insight. It presents the students with much needed balance. As I finish this essay, I can already hear some of my colleagues’ agreeable comments and criticism, especially as it relates to the freedom I grant my students with their smartphones. I totally understand and welcome all comments. Simply pick up a tablet, smartphone, laptop, pen or any resource available and drop me a line. I would love to collaborate with you. Besides, it may be the right time to write, and I’m quite sure your writing will be awesome.

Need to Energize Your Class? Just Add Wax and Be Still


"Need to Energize Your Class? Just Add Wax and Be Still" (Originally published at GettingSmart.com on 11/6/12.)

There are many ways to mix things up in a classroom and inject enthusiasm. From blended learning to project-based learning to time-tested traditional methods, teachers today have nearly unlimited resources and ways of livening up a stagnant classroom. These stagnant classrooms, indicated by boredom-induced silence, constant class disruptions, or mediocre student work examples, benefit greatly from the implementation of interactive learning structures. One such learning model that is sure to invigorate any lesson is the "Wax Museum" learning structure created in Studio 113. It may sound a bit odd, but the main ingredients needed to jumpstart a group of uninterested students with this learning activity is a bit of wax and stillness. Please take a look at this example, and I'll explain.

Allow Students to View a "Wax Museum" Example

I understand the argument stating the most effective strategy for implementing this structure would be to present the students with their learning tasks before mentioning the end result, which is a symbolic and frozen pose that serves as the summation of the students’ understanding. However, since attempting our first "Wax Museum" structures in American Literature years ago, I have witnessed a profound enthusiasm from the students for any class assignment when they are shown a video example of a past class performing the learning model. Being such visual learners, they understand immediately where they are headed before determining how they will get there. Hence, a flame will be lit.

Assign the Lesson

After viewing an example of the “Wax Museum” from their peers, students should then be given the learning prompt. For the video shown above and the one immediately below, students used a Venn diagram to note similarities and differences in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” and Thomas Jefferson’s “Declaration of Independence.” Working in teams of three and totally aware of the required, kinesthetic outcome, students worked for two class periods to extract the essentials from these two famous documents. It was amazing to see such intense and engaged reading. The same enthusiasm is easily generated with any prompts. Whether it is from a math, science, history, art, physical education, or band class, the only limiting aspect of the “Wax Museum” is a non-challenging prompt or learning assignment. Make no mistake about it, however, the beauty of this structure is actually not the end product. Instead, it is the collaboration and heavy-duty thinking beforehand that is so impressive.

Discuss the Parameters of the “Wax Museum”

Inform the students of the following guidelines:
  • Each team’s symbolic pose must be class appropriate.
  • Each “Wax Museum” pose must be representative of the team’s synthesized learning. Depending on the prompt, students may illustrate a theme, a direct quotation, an essential question, a real-world connection, and just about anything imaginable that demonstrates mastery of the assignment. If appropriate, allow the students to co-create the prompt. Enlisting their help allows the students to amaze you at the beginning, the middle, and the end.
  • Students may use any appropriate props that will add to the symbolism and overall, intended message. For the first two videos shown on this post, I allowed students to use any of my classroom objects and bring any appropriate props from their homes.
  • Each team will be still, as if sculpted from wax, and hold the symbolic pose for the duration of two rounds.
  • The first round requires the students to be quiet (with the exception of thematic music) while the teacher uses a video recorder to capture the learning activity. Students are made aware of the various camera angles and close-ups.
  • The second round requires the students to remain still while adding verbal comments that shed light on the overall purpose of the team’s pose. Again, examples of these comments range from a simple theme to the relationship between the prompt and a current event. The only moving parts during the “Wax Museum” structure are the students’ lips and eyelids.
  • All students will remain still until given the cue to break out of the “Wax Museum” poses.

Share Video with Students and the World

Obviously, students will be ecstatic to see the video of their creations as soon as possible. This is perfect. How fitting is it that the enthusiasm beginning with the introduction of this interactive structure carries into the viewing of the students’ own “Wax Museum” statues? But don’t let the enthusiasm end there. In fact, share it with others via YouTube and watch the excitement cross into other schools and states. Take a look at this example from my colleague and good friend, Dave Guymon, an innovative educator in Idaho Falls. In fact, my students were so proud of his students that we put together a congratulatory video to show our appreciation. Asking students to move not at all for close to ten minutes sounds like a ridiculous demand, but with the right prompt and the freedom to create, these energetic learners can and will melt their understanding down to a brilliantly created, symbolic statue of wax. Just don’t be worried if their energy sparks a flame of excitement. The stillness will contain it.

Rise Above Classroom Walls on the Wings of a Bird

"Rise Above Classroom Walls on the Wings of a Bird" (Originally published at GettingSmart.com on 10/29/12.)

Ronald Reagan once said, “There are no constraints on the human mind, no walls around the human spirit, no barriers to our progress except those we ourselves erect.” This quotation has huge educational implications. I remembered these inspirational words the other night when participating with my students in our first-ever tweetup, a Twitter chatroom using a specific hashtag to discuss rhetorical strategies witnessed during the second presidential debate. Although a small minority of my students chose to attend the virtual classroom, I was overwhelmingly struck by the enormous potential. My enthusiasm was immediately evident by the barrage of tweets I sent out during the tweetup. One of those tweets kicked off a side-discussion with Chris Kervina (@ckervina), a high school and college English teacher in Northern Virginia. The topic involved creating a shared tweetup for the final presidential debate. The idea of extending my students’ classrooms beyond the boring cement walls made me absolutely ecstatic. Suddenly the thought of my students collaborating with other brilliant minds from different regions of the United States, from a diversity of sub-cultures, from a wide range of educational backgrounds lifted me off the ground. I felt ready to take flight, ready to transcend and rise above classroom walls on the wings of a bird.

Teachers Soar High with Twitter

I truly believe there is no educational “ceiling.” Twitter proves this theory by providing educators with a means of transportation to lift forward thinkers to new altitudes. Whereas a quick walk down the hallway to a colleague’s classroom in years past usually elicited an armful of handouts, transparencies, and lesson plans, the same sharing, only in a digital version, often occurs in the fraction of a second, or roughly the time it takes to send a tweet. Such a powerful tweet occurred the very same night Chris Kervina and I were collaborating when he invited two other educators of English, Michelle Lampinen (@michlampinen) and Sarah Mulhern Gross (@thereadingzone), to participate in a future tweetup involving our students. In just a matter of seconds, our virtual classroom without walls doubled in size. But that wasn’t the most awesome part. We needed a bit of structure, something to tie our shared vision together, and we needed an organized manner of presenting this vision to the ones who matter the most…our students. Michelle Lampinen provided this structure when she shared her lesson plan via a Google Document. From learning objectives to literary terms to dates and specifics, Michelle Lampinen had it all covered. And shared. Perhaps the best part of the lesson plan was the list of students’ options. Whether taking part in a Twitter chat, discussing the topic on Todaysmeet.com, or reflecting on the rhetorical strategies from the debate on a teacher’s blog, each student is able to take flight by engaging in a real-world, 21st Century activity that surpasses the confines of the “one-hand-at-a-time” classroom conversation.

Students’ Full Expressions Reach New Heights

No longer do students get overly excited to write an essay or deliver a presentation for one teacher and a class of peers. Sure, they still enjoy expressing themselves and sharing their thoughts and opinions with others, but compared with the many modes of connecting to a larger, worldly audience through social media, blogs, and other creative technology tools, a paper copy just doesn’t cover the same ground. Covering such an expansive area requires flexibility, an educational necessity validated by Mahatma Gandhi who once said, “I want freedom for the full expression of my personality.” With inflexible, rigid walls that restrict students’ intellectual reach and deprive them of new, diverse audiences, students often are not challenged enough. Interesting and original concepts may go untested in a traditional classroom where many students may have already reached a consensus based on boredom from predictable peer responses. Much needed and different points of view from distant students across the country may never be heard. In essence, students may be unable to fully express themselves due to a simple lack of exposure. So, if classroom confinement is the enemy of students’ freedom of expression, then surely technology tools such as Twitter are the symbols of educational liberty. Like the great American Eagle flying high above a majestic mountain range, students who post their original comments via social media and blogs have a bird’s eye view of their learning. They see the peaks and valleys and mirror images of their own original thoughts, and the path ahead from such an elevation always provides a clear view.

The Results of the Tweetup? Well, They Have Yet to Land

Just under an hour after participating in our first multi-state, multi-school tweetup, I am struggling to wrap my mind around the enormity of what I just experienced. What began as a “Let’s give this a try” educational idea turned into a ninety-minute tweetup with 155 different participants and over 1,500 tweets. Simply amazing. To grasp the concept of the virtual chatroom created through a Twitter hashtag, imagine a classroom of over a hundred participants who freely voice their detailed and focused insights without being encumbered by raising their hands and waiting for permission to speak. It was a refreshing showering of brilliant ideas and rhetorical insight. Students from schools in New Jersey, Virginia, and Georgia engaged in a real-time analysis of rhetorical strategies such as pathos, ethos, and logos used by President Obama and Governor Romney during the final presidential debate. Using the hashtag #bamrom12, students connected with peers from different areas and with various viewpoints. Students retweeted other students and replied to interesting comments. At first, the interaction was a bit slow as most were merely concerned with posting their own opinions. However, they soon caught on and began to interact with each other. As I did my best to participate in the Twitter tweetup and the todaysmeet.com chatroom, I found myself mesmerized by the sheer freedom of the students. I returned to Reagan’s quotation again and marveled at the lack of intellectual constraint, classroom walls, and obstacles that ultimately deter students from fully expressing themselves. Then it dawned on me. They were free as a bird. I can see it so clearly now. No obstructions blocking my view anymore. After all, there are no walls this high up. (Click here for a sample of the #bamrom12 tweetup.)

8 Examples of Classroom Musical Magic

Studio 113 Mic and John Hardison (The Studio 113 Microphone and John Hardison)

"8 Examples of Classroom Musical Magic" (Originally published at GettingSmart.com on 10/14/12)

I believe it was J.K. Rowling's Albus Dumbledore who said, "Ah, music. A magic behind all we do here!" This quotation comes to mind so many times when I witness the effect of catchy tunes and powerful lyrics on our creative students in Studio 113. Whether the classroom malady is a group of lethargic, uninterested students, a bulky reading assignment of seemingly ancient pages, or the misunderstanding of key literary characters, a solution often lies at the intersection of a crafty jam and a thematically connected excerpt of literature. The result? Classroom musical magic.Yeah, it sounds funny, but many times a reputable piece of writing can be much improved by the creative use of a common song. Think of Metallica’s “The Unforgiven” magnifying certain guilt-ridden characters from The Crucible, Five for Fighting’s “Superman” flying upwards with a cape of inspirational prose from Ralph Waldo Emerson, B.O.B.’s “Magic” versus Beowulf’s proud boast, or Rage Against the Machine’s “Maggie’s Garden” to capture the same determined focus found in many revolutionary documents. Music and literature are naturally symbiotic. The partnership just works. But perhaps the most influential musical force is the one created by the student. Whereas a Whose Line Is It Anyway? “Greatest Hits” skit will surely liven up the class and audibly highlight the brilliance of the written word, a scrupulously written song by talented students will move a class of learners from disinterested to amazed in the drop of a beat. A literary soundtrack is then created, and the standards carry a tune. Although the contracted and Project/Passion-Based Learning examples below stem from our Language Arts classroom, the same musical approach can be easily applied to any classroom, as confirmed by thousands of original YouTube videos.

Create a Spark: A Skit Featuring Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Getting Back Together”

Do you ever need to wake up students first thing in the morning and get them interested in the assigned standards? Try Whose Line’s “Greatest Hits” improvisational skit. Watch as this class gets primed to learn.

Showcase the Students’ Talents: A Brad Paisley Parody Covering Anne Roiphe’s Essay

When students were asked to augment their assigned teaching sections from “A Tale of Two Divorces” with a creative component, these two musicians knew exactly what to do. By embedding Google surveys on my webpage and by continually encouraging authentic evidence of learning, I was already aware of this duo’s potential.

Make a Music Video: The Crucible Rap

To fully appreciate this project, one must understand all that was involved in making the final product a reality. Tasks included writing an original song that covered the assigned poetry and literary standards, using Mixcraft software, selecting a background beat, using a live microphone to record numerous tracks as one .mp3 file, filming multiple video clips that successfully lip synced the song with the performers, and mashing all clips into one polished music video. To say the least, it’s a demanding project.

Ask & Listen: A Team’s Opinion of a 21st Century Student’s Needs

When confronted with assessing the mistakes of education in preparing teenagers for an uncertain future, these students highlighted unlimited technology resources and a strong desire to create as a demonstration of learning. Take a look at these two engaged students as they create an original rap in Mixcraft 6.

Here is the final product, a song appropriately titled “Creativity.”

Never Underestimate a Silent One: A Lyrical Representation of Dark Romanticism

I’ll never forget this student. What a talent! When asked how he wanted to represent his understanding of literature from Edgar Allen Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, this student’s wish contradicted his quiet demeanor in class. On the microphone after school? Well, that was a different story. His lyrics, tone, mood, and mastery of various poetry terms reflect the misery and pain illustrated by the Dark Romantics. Click here for his original rap.

Use What You Have: An Of Mice & Men Parody

All you have is a camera or a smartphone to record? No problem. Go with what you have. Take a look at this Bob Marley remake in the back of a cafeteria. No high technology. No musical software. Just three brave souls performing in front of their peers.

Reenact the Literature with Lyrics as the Guide: A Condensed Version of a Play Set to Famous Verses

Using household lyrics as their benchmark, this class of twenty-plus students recreated Arthur Miller’s famous play with four cameras, a catchy soundtrack, and a final, authentic song from Studio 113. The planning, props, clothing, and video editing gave rise to creative tension, but the music soothed out the rough places and left this class with a harmonious product of understanding.

Lead by Example: “The Declaration of Independence” (“The D.O.I.”) by Three Courageous Teachers

All I can say is, “Hey, we tried.” At least, the students respected our attempt at busting out a cool rap. Never mind the fact that we showed absolutely no musical talent or rhythm. We simply wanted to lead by example.

Whether teaming up with Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars, and Maroon Five to label a fictional character as static or dynamic, or carefully selecting appropriate lyrics from rap masters Jay-Z, Eminem, and Tupac to juxtapose with The Police’s poetic “King of Pain,” the connection students make with literature is palpable. The excitement of creating original tracks to show comprehension is immeasurable. In fact, the energy is enough to fully illuminate all the “a-ha” light bulb moments. Just don’t be surprised if the light flickers to the rhythm of the beat. That’s just the tune of an inspired class. It sounds something like magic...classroom musical magic.

Monday, October 1, 2012

8 Project-Based Learning Videos by Students

(Originally published at Gettingsmart.com on September 28, 2012)

I recently wrote about co-authoring and signing project/passion-based learning contracts with my American Literature students. Well, just a few days have passed since viewing the final presentation, and I must admit our experiment was an overall success. Although students in Studio 113 have engaged in this method of learning since opening our classroom doors five years ago, this particular assignment featured our most detailed and formal contract.
To say the least, I was eager to see the merging of the standards and the students’ talents and interests into cohesive and didactic team presentations. With the exceptions of only a couple of subpar presentations, all teams exhibited responsibility and efficiency when given class time for their projects, communicated outside of class to expedite their visions, worked from their contracts with the standards as the foundation, and had an absolute blast creating their 10-20 minute presentations.
With the help of a few tech-savvy students, I will surely have all recorded and successful presentations mashed-up and posted to our school’s newly established YouTube Viking Channel in the very near future. Please follow me @JohnHardison1 and our classroom @Studio113_EHHS for any updates.

A Few Tips for Projects & Presentations

I have made many mistakes over the years when facilitating a project-based learning environment. Here are just a few of my recommendations.
  • Have all students complete a rubric/checklist for all presentations. At the end of each presentation, students are encouraged to offer constructive criticism, praise, and standards-based feedback. If certain objectives aren’t successfully covered, students are directed to question the misuse or absence. Presenters aren’t finished until they are given the “go ahead” by the entire class.
  • Pick your most energetic student, one who can’t stand to sit still, and ask him/her to record the students’ presentations. To be fair to all the students, be sure to include the video recorder when critiquing and questioning the teams following their presentations.
  • Have a spare camera battery fully charged at all times. I constantly rotate between two batteries and sometimes between two cameras.
  • When necessary, use a tripod to record better quality videos.
  • Ask for student volunteers to help mash-up the videos. Once completed the videos can be placed in a repository for future classes to study as exemplars.
  • Allow the next presenting team to work out any kinks or nerves while “on deck.” We are blessed to have a second room of computers and a recording booth. However, I used the hallway as our “on deck circle” when I was located in another building my first nine years of teaching.
  • Adopt an open-door policy to allow students to continually polish and perfect their presentations.
  • Make rehearsals mandatory for any team planning a high-tech presentation. It is crucial to become familiar with any slates, projectors, volume controls, etc.
  • When possible, encourage students to present even if a team member is absent. Since each student has his/her own responsibilities, there should rarely be any problems.
Below are a number of exemplary presentations from our recent American Literature Unit 1 PBL contracts. If you decide to “skip around” while viewing the video clips, please take note of the different components for most presentations.

“I’m on a Boat” Musical Parody

This team consisted of three, very busy softball players who effectively managed their extra-curricular responsibilities with their academic assignments. Their dedication and enthusiasm for their project was validated by their attendance in one of our afterschool, open-door sessions immediately following a two-hour practice. Imagine, if you will, three female students who shake off the diamond dirt from their softball pants only to step into a recording room and rock out their understanding of Olaudah Equiano’s slave narrative in a song on MixCraft 6 and MovieMaker Live.

“I’m on a Boat” Complete Presentation

Note the effective, standards-based delivery of their complete presentation. Very mature, responsible, and well planned.

A Diverse Presentation

What makes this presentation so impressive is understanding the amount of time it took to create the green-screen effect for the video parody that merges Anne Bradstreet’s “To My Dear and Loving Husband” with a scene from The Titanic. Using a few props, hidden scripts for the actors, a Sony Cybershot, a classroom wall painted Chroma-Key green, and MovieMaker Live and Pinnacle software, these students rocked out an interesting interpretation of this famous Puritan poem. As if that were not enough, this amazing team added another video examining Edward Taylor’s “Huswifery” and an originally written rap song covering the entire reading assignment.

A Punctual Presentation with a Virtual Professor

At first, this presentation may seem a bit dull. Give it time, and you will see the ingenuity behind it. These three students wrote a script demonstrating their mastery of the standards and two Puritan poems and represented this understanding in a live conversation with a virtual character named Samuel from GoAnimate. The effect is awesome. The writing, planning, and timed rehearsal required for this project are exhausting. With the omission of one minor speaking mishap, this presentation would have been nearly flawless.

An Original Rap Song

To jump into the mind of Olaudah Equiano requires a comprehensive understanding of a slave narrative. Read these lyrics, listen to this song, and ask yourself, “Did these students understand the writer’s purpose and use of rhetorical strategies?” Also, please remember these three students sacrificed their lunchtime and worked in our recording booth for approximately three total hours. Mixcraft 6 was their creative tool of choice.

A Live Performance On-Stage

This team chose to show their understanding of two Puritan poems in a collaboratively written script performed in our theater. They did so quite fearlessly, if you ask me.

Courage on Display

Isn’t it amazing what talented, but terrified, students reveal when given the opportunities? Watch these students find the courage (with their peers’ eyes closed in a dark classroom) to triumph over fear and nervousness while allowing their true talents to speak so much louder. Please take note of the creative uses of WallWisher and GoAnimate also.

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

Want to make students think deeply and analytically? Simply have them write out thought-provoking questions and the corresponding, multiple-choice possibilities. These students did exactly just that, and they presented their understanding in “Game Show” fashion. Just to jazz it up, they even tossed in a quick commercial alluding to “A Journey Through Texas.”

Tune in two weeks from now to see the power of music within Studio 113. A dream team of talented writers, singers, and rappers is currently working on a song that highlights the necessities of a 21st Century student. As a matter of fact, I better double-check their contract. As awesomely as their project is coming along, I should make sure they didn’t sneak in a compensation clause. After all, I can’t expect talent to sign for free too long. For now, we’ll just consider standards mastery and the promise of an engaging classroom to be payment in full.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Want Engaged Learners? Sign PBL Contracts

(Originally published at gettingsmart.com)

There was a time when my sole purpose for living and breathing, my ultimate dream, was to sign a contract — a contract to play professional baseball. I simply wanted the opportunity to work hard in order to create a better me for the entire team. “Give me that pen,” I remember thinking. “I’ll sign for a Coke and a smile,” I told anyone who would listen. That day never arrived.
Thanks to two amazing educators and baseball coaches, William Booth of Hartselle High School and Joe “Jabo” Jordan of Southern Union State Junior College, I learned the meaning and value of sacrifices and team rewards. These two, highly positive and tough teachers challenged me to surrender selfish goals in order to accomplish a larger vision, one that benefited the entire team.
Ironically, however, one of their shared techniques for molding a greenhorn baseball student into a selfless teammate was to set up a creative, engaging, and rigorous learning environment that highlighted my various strengths and weaknesses. It was not uncommon to complete a multi-hour practice only to wipe away the diamond dirt and grass and reveal a truer self. Afterwards, I knew what I could do. I knew my talents. I knew my faults. I knew my place on the team.
Although I often marvel at the fact that many of my greatest classes and lessons as a student were encompassed by chain link fences and boisterous team supporters whose loud cheers were muted only by the demands of two, farsighted leaders, I try my best to create a similar environment in our Language Arts classrooms. Only without the dirt, the grass and the fences. So far, the most masterful lesson I have to offer is one that is predicated on signing a contract — a problem/passion-based learning contract.
An American Literature Contract
Recently, our American Literature class began a contract-based, project-based learning (PBL) assignment by determining the required literature and accompanying standards, while offering all students a chance to demonstrate their mastery through any appropriate project of their choice.
It’s as simple as this: The standards and literature are mastered while students ultimately learn about their talents, interests, strengths and weaknesses through student-prescribed projects that challenge, engage and invigorate our team learning environment.
Students often choose to create songs, parodies, video mash-ups, green-screen newscasts, thematic websites, fictitious products, slideshow presentations, and live drama skits. For tech projects, our creative gallery of technology links is shared via a Symbaloo webmix on my teacher page. For any non-tech project, I revert to Coach Jordan’s simple, but powerful, field directive, “Find a way to make it happen.” We do just that. Whether raiding the drama department’s closet for character clothing or bringing in our own props, students in Studio 113 are encouraged to make no excuses while finding a way to make their vision a reality.
Co-Authoring the Contract
After introducing the literature sections, related standards and literary terms, students are encouraged to suggest the structure and guidelines of the project. The decision to include the students during the drafting of the contract is powerful. By giving students a creative voice throughout the entire process, the classroom-learning environment is shared. All present are stakeholders. With their priceless input, we agreed on the following sections for the contract:
  1. An abbreviated list of the standards/literary terms
  2. An assigned literature section with matching numbers for associated standards
  3. The project and presentation grading criteria
  4. A larger area for a handwritten project proposal
  5. A contractual agreement that solidly sets a foundation for each team’s attitude, project appropriateness, responsibilities, and collaboration
  6. Materials and/or additional help needed
  7. Names of team members and their mutual responsibilities
  8. The due date
  9. A link to our Symbaloo webmix of technology resources
  10. An area for the teacher’s and students’ signatures of agreement
The Sacrifices with PBL Contracts
Anyone who says project time for students affords teachers time to catch up on grading must be a superhero. Maybe it’s my inquisitive nature, but I continually found myself involved in riveting discussions with individual teams about their shared vision for the original project.
It seems with each new seat I took, I was allowed to share in the excitement and strategic planning of a new rap song, a dramatic rendition of a Puritan love poem, or a silent film set to colorful placards. Simply put, I witnessed the inner workings of creativity. But to be perfectly honest, I would be misleading you if I didn’t list my sacrifices, all of which I will gladly relinquish for a classroom of ecstatic learners:
  1. The illusion of classroom control: On any given day, I would rather manage students’ creative energy that originates from an engaging assignment than to discipline minor classroom infractions that stem from boredom.
  2. The pressure to be the creative leader: Need a spark for a new lesson plan? Take a look at your students. They will provide the ignition for a real-world project. Just ask them.
  3. The door lock: I quickly realized last week the classroom doors were going to be virtually invisible during our project. The day after announcing the assignment, students were beating down the doors before, during, and after school. To my amazement, we had a team of three come to an afterschool help session immediately after a two-hour softball practice. How could I lock the door on such dedication?
  4. Time: Whether eating a five-minute lunch, staying after work a few hours to help students, or communicating with parents to invite them to the upcoming presentations, your time will be affected by a challenging PBL assignment.
  5. Inflexibility: Yeah, you read that one correctly. However, let’s drop it like it’s hot. Isn’t it quite challenging to work so hard on developing a golden lesson plan for several years only to have it challenged by students’ creative directions? Well, don’t hold on too long lest you get dragged. Besides, the students’ end result will be better than you could ever imagine.
As I ponder the above sacrifices, I am again reminded of my two, kick-butt, hard-nosed teachers who taught me the values of maintaining a selfless attitude in hopes of success for all. When presentation week begins, there will surely be technology glitches, unfulfilled responsibilities, and clarification of the assigned standards. In a nutshell, there will be problems. I am not worried. I’ll coach them through it.
I’m just pumped I finally got to sign the contracts, and I can’t wait to see what our team produces.

Monday, September 10, 2012

5 Apps to Lower Teacher Anxiety & Raise Student Voices

Originally published at gettingsmart.com on August 30th, 2012.

The art of teaching sure has changed since I nervously stepped into my first class of thirty-two, energetic students fourteen years ago. I remember feeling pressure from the prescribed sage-on-the-stage pedagogy. Fortunately, I soon discovered that not only was I far from an academic scholar, but I also wasn’t the most important factor. The students demanded they be a vital part of the classroom and curriculum creation. That was okay with me. Opening up the pressure valve a tad never hurt anyone.
Now, as an experienced educator concerned with implementing the new Common Core Standards, differentiating and blending instruction, collecting standards-based data, growing as a professional alongside the new TKES model, and with balancing my family life amidst the rigorous requirements of a successful classroom, my blood pressure can climb to a level that potentially mutes the very reason I chose to teach: listening to the students’ voices.
In a nutshell, leading six, fifty-minute, high school Language Arts classes (four of which are Honors or Advanced Placement) is a daunting task, especially with one, fifty-minute planning period. It is the type of scenario that has many educators feeling like they are required to be superheroes in the classroom. There is no need to worry, though. All educators have access to a superhero’s toolbelt of time-saving gadgets that lower teacher anxiety while elevating students’ voices. I like to think of them as technology sedatives.

Relax and Let Google Drive Work for You

Although I arrived a bit late to the party, I recognized the power of Google Docs (now called Google Drive) two years ago when a tech-savvy colleague persuaded me to let Google Drive collect any information I deemed important. This media center specialist walked me through the power of this free web resource and showed me how a simple shared survey would morph into an organized spreadsheet of invaluable data and information while I went about my normal day.
Her most influential, persuasive line? She said, “Create the form or document, share the link, and let Google Drive work while you go about your daily duties or while relaxing. Heck, even while you sleep.” And out of that ten-minute tutorial, I hired my trusty assistant, Google Drive, free-of-charge. Here are a few uses.
  1. Create a survey asking students to list problematic standards while offering possible learning alternatives and strategies to master those very same objectives.
  2. Embed a form on a teacher page requiring students to locate and curate content for a list of study terms.
  3. Share a slideshow presentation with students while giving them access to add/edit multimedia examples that augment the lesson plan.
  4. E-mail or share a spreadsheet link asking students pertinent questions that relate to project/passion-based learning. (i.e. students’ talents and interests, access to technology at home, ownership of smartphones, favorite technology tools, project ideas, etc.)
  5. Share a link via Twitter that “kicks” students to a webpage that allows them to rate/score their peers’ performances in real time during classroom presentations.
  6. Post a QR code that sends students to a list of writing prompts. After students have submitted their responses via smartphones or other mobile devices, go to Google Drive, print out the spreadsheet or simply use the Google Drive App on your smartphone or tablet to walk around the classroom while discussing the students’ replies as they work on other class assignments. Believe me when I say, “Google Drive really makes it too simple.”
The only dilemma with using Google Drive is how students will access and record the information. Whether choosing to e-mail a link, embedding a form on a teacher page, directing students to the shared document via Twitter, or by simply writing the address on the board and allowing students to take a cell phone picture, allowing Google Drive to work for you takes hardly no time to set up and share. See how easy it is here.

Use Socrative for Easy Standards-Based Assessment and Feedback

Socrative is a website that allows students to complete assessments via any internet-connected devices. Of course, the main catch with students is their ability to complete a class assignment from their smartphones. It is especially easy with the Socrative teacher and student apps.
While I am still exploring the burgeoning creative ways to use Socrative, one rock solid purpose is the traditional assessment. By taking advantage of the Socrative template to transfer a pre-made quiz from a Word document into an Excel spreadsheet, Socrative is immediately programmed with the testing prompts and answers. Students are given instant feedback when they take the quiz.
Perhaps the most beneficial aspect of this powerful and free website is the feedback. Socrative provides teachers with an Excel spreadsheet that color codes all correct and incorrect responses. By manipulating the columns, teachers get a glaringly obvious representation of the students’ learning and the effectiveness of the lesson. This makes it an efficient tool for formative assessments.
For example, after learning the vast majority of my AP Language students failed the “chiasmus parallelism” question on a recent quiz, a revamping of that particular lesson was much needed. The time spent determining students’ knowledge and my teaching effectiveness in the years past would have taken two or three hours. With Socrative, improving the classroom learning environment is just a downloadable, color-coded spreadsheet away. See it in action here.

Use Polleverywhere to Elevate Students’ Voices

My most valuable uses:
  1. Use as a backchannel during a class discussion. This elevates all students’ voices, even those reluctant to speak out loud.
  2. Use as real-time criticism for project presentations. Students rate classmates’ performances according to grading criteria. This real-world criticism is visible via a projected screen and encourages standards reinforcement from the audience. I promise your final presentations will be better than your first, especially if presented on different dates.
  3. Have students vote for collaborative projects and class direction. Why not encourage students’ input when planning the next unit?
  4. Analyze the writing process by posting students’ samples.
Polleverywhere is downloadable as a PowerPoint slideshow and as a .CSV file for Excel spreadsheets.

Increase Your Audience with Voicethread

Students don’t get too excited about expressing themselves to an audience of one. By sharing a Voicethread link, invite other classes from wherever to contribute to the discussion prompt. Parents and students from other classes and schools can contribute to the shared content. Before you know it, your assignment has grown into a viral lesson, but you only need to score your students. To do so, click on their profile pictures and listen. (Click here and let’s talk possibilities.)

Screencast to Teach Colleagues…Just Once

If you have a tech skill to share, whether it is tracking changes in Word or teaching colleagues how to create their own Voki class avatars, use screencast-o-matic to record your tutorial and share with interested co-workers. Teachers can click “play” as many times as it takes to understand, while you relax and let the technology sedatives work for you. All of these free gadgets should allow you to concentrate on hearing what matters most—the students’ voices.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

"11 Steps to Gamify Your Next Lesson"
(Originally published at gettingsmart.com)

With so many educators today discussing the possibilities and promises of online learning, one key aspect of education often forgotten in the quest to tear down these learning walls is the ability to create classroom magic within those very same walls. Along with blended learning, flipped classrooms, gamification and many other new instructional buzz words, virtual classrooms are unquestionably valuable educational instruments in a teacher’s pedagogical toolbox.
However, let’s remember the power of an engaging, all-inclusive, in-class learning structure within a traditional classroom. To witness one of these environments where teachers and students interact in a challenging, accountable, spontaneous, and creative atmosphere is to witness a work of art—or classroom magic.

The Game: A “Voting Chips Structure”

One game guaranteed to produce the excitement needed to engage students and achieve the assigned standards is what I call the “Voting Chips Structure,” a learning game that asks students to represent their understanding of an assigned prompt with colored poker chips. Although many of our learning models do not include competition, “Voting Chips Structure” is definitely a competitive game.
Oddly enough, the foundation of this structure in Studio 113 does not originate from the standards. The success is predicated on the students’ choice of final rewards and/or consequences for all participants. Whether it be lip-syncing to Justin Beiber’s “Baby,” performing a version of an arthritic T-Rex dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” or receiving an ice-cold Coke and fresh Milky Way from a classmate, students energetically embrace the consequences and rewards system before diving head first into creating classroom magic.

The “Voting Chips Structure” Procedures

  1. Set up the structure. Assign each student a teammate and organize the partnerships in a circle with one student as the front channel representative and the other as the back channel representative.
  2. Assign the prompt. The students and I created the “Voting Chips Structure” to apply pressure and prepare our Advanced Placement Language class for the timed, rigorous, multiple-choice section of the College Board exam. However, one excellent feature of this learning model is its “plug-and-play” flexibility. Simply plug in the standard, the algebraic problem, the science experiment, the historical fact, the literary excerpt, the conjugation of a second-language’s verb, the skills needed to perform a physical activity, or anything deemed important by the classroom’s learning family. A teacher should simply ask, “What do I want my students to learn with this activity?” Then, simply plug-in the prompts each round and witness the students play with the learning objectives.
  3. Allow thinking time. The amount of thinking time for each round should be determined by the complexity of the prompt. Since we utilized this structure in conjunction with AP Language multiple-choice questions, one-two minutes were given for each team to discuss its answer, and a digital timer was posted on the screen to keep the structure running smoothly and fairly. This may not seem like enough time, but please remember we began this structure the day after each student individually completed the very same questions as a mock portion of the exam.
  4. Poll the back channel. When the thinking time expires, the back channel students are asked to indicate their initial answers by raising their hands. If the assigned prompts are not of the multiple-choice nature, students can voice their answers by verbalizing their responses, by posting to Polleverywhere.com, by tweeting with a pre-determined hashtag, or by any other creative measure established by the learning family. The purpose of polling the back channel is to clarify the majority answer within the classroom. This usually entices all students to reconsider their previous answer.
  5. Allow limited time to change answers. Giving thirty seconds for students to re-challenge their interpretation of the prompt and their initial responses is a powerful technique that causes them to dive even deeper into the unknowns of the learning cue. Oftentimes, students resurface from the deep with a solid understanding of the assigned task.
  6. Ask front channel to announce final answer. After the final deliberation, only the students on the front channel have the authority to announce their final answers. Again, various tech resources may be used to disseminate these answers, however, the old-school method of voicing the answers one-at-a-time is the most efficient method.
  7. Ask students to vote their confidence with chips. Using a set of colored poker chips ranging in value from 1, 3, 5, 10, and 25, students match their partnership’s overall confidence of their final answer with a value determined by the offered chips stacked in front of the front channel members. The starting number of chips should be discussed prior to beginning the model. Our teams agreed upon a starting amount of one hundred.
  8. Announce/discuss the correct answer. The excitement derived from announcing the final answer is awesome. Be creative and have some fun with it.
  9. Ask students to make corrections and re-calculate. After making any needed corrections, front channel students re-calculate their chips by either adding to or subtracting from the trays of organized chips in the center of the circle. If needed, students may use their smartphones or calculators to accurately score themselves. The longer the structure is used, the more complex the numbers may be.
  10. Add any necessary clarifications. If further elaboration or clarification is needed to extend the learning moment, either the teacher or the students may be asked to validate the answer with more detail.
  11. Reset. An optional announcement of each team’s score is harmless and actually adds to the competitive atmosphere. Periodically rotating the front and back channels is also recommended. All that is left to do now is reset and move to round two.
Take a quick look at the “Voting Chips Structure” in action here.

Simply Plug-in the Standards and Play to Learn Flexibility

Whether it is Math, History, Language Arts, Health & P.E., Computer Basics, Chemistry, Webpage Design, Band, Art, or any class at all, I honestly cannot think of any limitations to implementing this structure. Sure, certain learning environments and disciplines will need to take advantage of the flexibility of this structure in order to create one that better serves them. That is the beauty of this “plug-and-play” design.
Simply determine the standards of focus, give the students a voice in creating the procedures for the “Voting Chips Structure,” and simply plug-and-play to create classroom magic. You may not pull a rabbit out of a hat, make a card “jump” from the middle of the stack to the top like David Blaine, or manipulate a Frisbee with no hands like Chris Angel. Heck, I’m quite sure you won’t solve all the educational problems in our country, but you will wipe out students’ lethargy and boredom by creating an engaging classroom full of magic. You can do it, and I’m betting your class will go “all-in” with the voting chips.
Experience “Voting Chips” and many other learning structures from John Hardison & Studio 113 at Georgia’s Educational Technology Conference in November. Please also add your comments by joining the #votingchips discussion on Twitter.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Life Is Writing: Two Apps for the Reluctant Writer

"Life Is Writing: Two Apps for the Reluctant Writer" (originally published at Gettingsmart.com)

I can’t even begin to quantify how many times I have been blessed with the challenge of working with a reluctant writer. During 14 years in the Language Arts classroom, I have heard “I hate writing” a thousand times. Sure, everybody loves those students who scan the writing prompt a couple of times just before their minds and hearts connect with the pens and bleed ink onto the paper in an effortless representation of creativity and mastery of rhetorical strategies. Taking natural writers to the next level is also a daunting task, but I will forever be grateful for those who stare at the paper with confusion and anxiety while hoping words will magically fill up the empty lines. Their apathy for writing shakes me to the core in such a way that leaves me scratching my hairless head and searching for any angle to prove how essential self-expression is to living. To me, life is writing.

How to Ignite Passion Into Reluctant Writers

Some of my attempts to ignite a passion for writing in my students have failed, and no doubt various students have left my class on the last day of school still detesting the writing process. Any teacher faces this reality at times. However, the one bona fide solution that continues to yield excellent results in our classroom is one rooted in common sense. When prompted by a student’s unintended verbal challenge in the form of “I hate writing,” I smile, take a deep breath, pull out a chair and give it my best shot.
“So, you hate writing, huh?” I ask. After hearing a courageous and honest, “yes,” I continue. “I want you to pretend you’re sitting on a front porch somewhere absolutely beautiful – near a beach watching the sunset, up in the mountains hearing rain tickle a tin roof, wherever.” I pause just before finishing the final touches on a canvas colored with Southern scenery, “And the one person you trust more than anyone in the world, a person who is a solid rock, a person you can tell anything to, is sitting right next to you on the front porch swing. You’re sipping on that ice cold glass of sweet tea, and you begin to talk about anything, whatever is on your mind. You don’t stop and wonder if your grammar is correct. You don’t stop and check your spelling. You just open up the tap and let it flow.” Usually by this time, I sense if my strategy is working, and whether it is or not, I still end with my best writing advice. “Simply talk to the paper,” I say.

How to Leverage the Dragon Dictation App for Reluctant Writers

Where students see empty lines on a paper, I want them to hear a voice – their own voice. This is exactly why the Dragon Dictation App works perfectly. Some students fight the physical part of writing but can’t seem to slow down when allowed to talk about the exact same topic. Think about it. Have you ever had a student in class who was always more than willing to give his impressive insight or opinion on any given topic only to clam up when you offered a silent writing session to the class? This need not be a problem with Dragon. Simply open the app on a tablet or smartphone and ask the student to talk. This technique serves as a kick-starter for the writing process, and a student’s confidence immediately soars once he copies and pastes his text into a writing app and views multiple paragraphs of a rough draft. The editing comes later.

Use the Tripline App to Write Everywhere & Anywhere

As my family so often points out, I am a nerd. I always want to put myself in my students’ shoes, so when possible I test all my theories before implementing them in class. Whether I am grilling burgers on the back porch, spending some quality time with my family, or riding a road bike in the North Georgia mountains, I feel like I am swimming in a sea of imagery. Every sight, every sound, every smell, every sensation is an invitation to fully participate in life and express one’s self. With this foundational belief in mind, I decided to experiment once again. I figured if students could see every present moment as an opportunity to express themselves, their love of writing would grow even greater. If they could “check-in” to the moment wherever they were and simply write about their experience, I knew they would believe in the power of self-expression.
To test my theory, I took my eight year-old daughter, my thirteen year-old son and his out-of-state friend to the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. I politely informed them that at each stop I would complete the following steps:
  1. Take pictures with my iPhone of any interesting sights
  2. Use the Dragon Dictation App to talk about our experience
  3. Copy the unedited text from Dragon and paste into the “story” section in the Tripline App; and
  4. Send pictures and writing by selecting “check-in” via the Tripline App.
Each time I selected “check-in,” the Tripline website created an interactive, GPS-located map of our travels. Just like the diver we witnessed in the Ocean Voyager tank at the aquarium who was surrounded by whale sharks, manta rays, and other aquatic life, I felt immersed again in a sea of imagery, and I could capture each moment in words and pictures. By showing the pictures, writing and exact location, viewers get a sincere account of our travels. To make my experiment as realistic as possible, I assigned myself the following writing standards during our Georgia Aquarium trip: technical, narrative, persuasive, expository, and descriptive. Furthermore, I chose to keep our trip “private” until I returned home, logged in to Tripline, and edited my writing.
Our trip, and my experiment, was a resounding success. We had an absolute blast. Not only am I excited to jump back in the classroom and offer these tech writing tools to my students, but I am eager to create more opportunities that foster students’ passion for writing. One thing hasn’t changed, however. When I hear on the first day of school, “I hate writing,” I will be prepared.
I will smile, take a deep breath, pull up a chair, and say, “Want to talk instead?” Click here to join the discussion on Voicethread or comment below.