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Saturday, January 29, 2011

Book Drum: Going Beyond the Page

Book Drum is "the perfect companion to the books we love, bringing them to life with immersive pictures, videos, maps and music." In other words, Book Drum provides multimedia annotations to many the novels you know and love, and some you may not know and love (yet).

Each book's Profile consists of:
  • Bookmarks: page-by-page commentary and illustration of the text;
  • Setting: description and illustration of the main places or themes of the book;
  • Glossary: foreign, invented and tricky words deciphered;
  • Summary: objective synopsis of the book;
  • Review: subjective analysis and evaluation of the book; and
  • Author: biographical information, interview videos, links and photos.
At the site you'll find classics including David Copperfield, The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, Frankenstein, Don Quixote, The Handmaid's Tale, The Catcher in the Rye, The Bell Jar, The Road, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, and many more. You'll also find picture books and a few favorites from children's literature. The best part about this site? It's always growing.

What readers may find most interesting is the Bookmarks. They often confirm a conclusion a reader has already drawn, as in these examples from The Road:

At other times, the Bookmarks provide additional information which, though tangential to the storyline, in nonetheless interesting, as in the case of the game of Buzkashi, mentioned in The Kite Runner:

The obvious use of this site is a resource for teachers and students to access background knowledge for a book they're presently studying.

However, I can also see students creating their own Book Drum projects informally, using Google Docs or a similar collaborative tool. Google Docs or a wiki would allow pairs or groups of students to work on the same novel by assigning each member a set number of pages or chapters. An alternative to a full would be to use the same process with shorter literature selections: short stories, interviews, current event articles, poems, lyrics.

I have to admit, I like this site. I found myself not only checking out notes on books I had read, but also investigating books I hadn't even heard of. While some of the formatting at times seems a bit clunky (because of oddly sized graphics versus the text boxes), the research and notes seem pretty solid.

Have a thought on using this resource? Can you think of another way for students to create a similar product in order to dissect what they're reading? Leave a comment below.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Dark Side of YA Literature

No, it's not your imagination.

YA (Young Adult) Literature is growing increasingly dark in subject matter.

In case you missed it, check out the New Times Opinion Page on The Dark Side of Young Adult Fiction.

Hey, at least kids are reading something.

At the same time, however, think of the novels you're reading in class with your students. How many of them aren't in some way fixated on death or loss?

I blogged on that whole issue a few months ago; I guess the NY Times couldn't reach me for comment.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

How Do You Encourage Students to Read Assigned Selections at Home?

In a previous post titled Stirring the Pot: Fueling Discussion in Reading Class, I mentioned that I'd share some ideas for ensuring that all students read assigned chapters for homework. In truth I have several methods that will increase the probability that all students will read the assigned selection. Unfortunately, you and I know that no method will guarantee it (but I certainly welcome your ideas!).

Testmoz: Simple Online Assessment

My number one strategy these days is to individually assess students online using Testmoz. If your students have one-to-one access to computers in the classroom, this might be for you.

Test Moz is a simple-to-create, simple-to-use, online assessment application. You can create interactive, self-checking quizzes in several formats (multiple choice, true/false, check boxes, and type in boxes). Detailed reports tell you who took the test, how long it took them, which questions they answered correctly, and their overall percentage score. A separate grid of corrects/incorrects also visually reveals whether one question was missed an inordinate number of times versus another.

Before we move on, take a sample quiz. You'll get a feel for the format and the ease of use.

In my own class, I typically use this tool to assess student understanding of a chapter assigned the night before. With every student on a computer, it's quick and easy. It also provides a permanent, printable record of the test.

If you don't have one-to-one computers in the class, students can complete the assessments at home. But won't they be able to look back at the reading selection and cheat? If your goal is to ensure that students read the selection, then is "looking back at the text" really a big issue? When I create quizzes with Testmoz, they're so text-specific that even a student who gets a peek at the assessment before class will still need to know the reading passage to score well.

You can also use this assessment tool in conjunction with any online reading selection. Have students open the target reading selection in one window, and the Test Moz quiz in another. With the windows side by side, students can answer questions about the reading selection as they read.
Need some reading or viewing materials? I like the online news articles at Scholastic News for younger students, and the current events articles chosen specifically for learners at The New York Times. You can also learn about and access images from the NY Times photo prompt site. Or, simply search for a daily, student-friendly article (such as this one on the Attack on Pearl Harbor) and create a quick five question quiz for a warm-up.

I will warn you, however, to RECORD your test number and your passwords carefully! There is no way to retrieve either from the site once you've created a test!

Google Docs

If you need another assessment tool that provides students with a more open-space writing environment, I'd recommend using a Google Form to collect student responses. Google Forms allow you to solicit answers of all lengths and types, and then organizes all student responses nicely into a spreadsheet. Writing prompts from the NY Times Learning Network would work nicely for this approach (the linked article about pet peeves will really get your middle schoolers writing!).

Google Forms can also be used with video prompts, such as those offered at TeachHub. Check out some lesson plans and ideas for this approach at a previous post on video writing prompts.

Other Quiz Generators

If you like Testmoz but want to see what else is out there, check out this link listing online quiz generators. You might find one there that better serves your purposes. Zoho Challenge is another you might want to check out; while it's a pay application, it does offer more bells and whistles than your typical free program.

Online Discussions

For online discussions, I'd recommend the new Collaborize Classroom site, which is a social media tool designed for specifically for education. You can read more about it in my previous post on Stirring Up Discussions. This free online portal allows students to vote on ideas, post their own, engage in online discussions, and share many types of digital media. Requiring students to respond to prompts at home eliminates the need for accessing computers at school. By asking for responses to be supported by text evidence, you're increasing the likelihood that students will read the assigned selections.

Character Dialogues

One method I used in third and fourth grade, and a bit last year in sixth, required students to take on the persona of a character from the book and converse with another.

When students read Because of Winn Dixie they didn't seem to mind that young Opal is permitted unlimited freedom to go where she wants, and to spend time with whomever she chooses. She disappears for hours at a time, unaccountable to anyone (not a mistake by the author, mind you, but a necessary element of the relationship between Opal and her father, the Preacher).

In one dialogue exercise, some students are presented with this scenario:
You are Sweetie Pie's mother. You're concerned that your young daughter has been spending too much time with the Preacher's daughter Opal. It seems to you that Opal not only roams unsupervised, but also befriends the "less desirables" in the community. On top of that, Sweetie Pie has been telling you some far-fetched stories about what happens at Gertrude's Pet Shop. You confront the Preacher with your concerns.
Students know that they'll need to not only read through tonight's assignment to get "ammunition," but also skim through previous chapters for examples to include in their dialogue.

The dialogues are unscripted, and the flow is entirely dependent on the two actors. The student who plays the part of the Preacher is likewise prompted with details, but his perspective of Opal's activities is naturally different. 

The fun of this particular exercise is its unpredictability. Halfway through one such dialogue in our classroom, "Mom" called up her daughter Sweetie Pie from the audience, and the unsuspecting Sweetie Pie had to immediately fall into character! Not to be outdone, Preacher called up his daughter, Opal, to explain her side. (By the way, all of this was done in Southern accents to match the story's setting). Students quickly learned they would need to read assigned chapters each night or be ill prepared to engage their peers the next day.

What methods have you used to encourage your students to complete reading assignments?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Promoting Literature with Technology

Sometimes on my blogs I write incredibly long, involved posts.

Other times I just say, "Hey, here's something cool! Let's go get it."

So go get this terrific list of Ways to Promote Young Adult Literature Using Technology over at edTech VISION. I love these clever ways to get students excited about reading, while at the same time incorporating technology in a meaningful way.

Here's the first idea:

1.  READ Posters: Following the format of READ posters create by the American Library Association, take photos of staff members and students dressed in costumes holding a companion book. Add the words READ and a quote. Use free editing software (GIMP, Open office, Picasa, Big Huge Labs, Aviary) to make the posters. You can also use ALA’s READ generator.

Let me know what you try out, and share your own ideas as well!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Stirring the Pot! Fueling Discussion in Reading Class

How do you encourage everyone to participate in classroom discussion?

That's a great question, and one that I'm commonly asked.

I'm still trying to figure it out for myself, but I've got a few thoughts.

The Recipe Calls for Stone Soup

Most of us recall the classic book Stone Soup. Three hungry travelers, turned away at every door in a small village, devise a plan to trick the unsuspecting townspeople. Speaking fondly of delicious stone soup, the travelers sigh in dismay at their inability to create it; after all, they're missing a few key ingredients. In their desire to sample this delicious soup, the villagers enthusiastically agree to contribute the needed ingredients, and in the end all enjoy a stew created through both collaboration and cunning.

A good classroom discussion consists of similar elements: a plan to make it happen, and students eager to bring something to the table.

Don't Come Empty Handed

Translation: Every student must read beforehand, and come prepared to share.
After all, it's key that students have a common background from which to draw during a classroom discussion. Keep in mind, however, that what they read at home the night before need not be the novel itself, but instead a nonfiction piece, poem, or other literary artifact that in some way relates to the novel.

When reading Island of the Blue Dolphins or Call of the Wild, for example, it's critical that students understand pack behavior, especially the role of the alpha. With that in mind, I would have students read a nonfiction article on that topic, and prepare to discuss the key points the next day.

(By the way, I'll talk more getting students to read beforehand in the next post and describe how I make it happen).

Drop a Pebble in the Pot

Translation: Get the thinking started.

When students turn up the next day, they'll expect to discuss what they've read. Don't disappoint them. From the second they walk in, present students with a question or task that puts the knowledge into action.

In response to the wolf selection, for example, students might find these questions awaiting them the next day:
  • Does every pack need an alpha? Why or why not?
  • Is a pack only as strong as its leader?
  • Think of a book or movie you know well in which you can identify pack behavior.
My students are likely to name movies such as Lion King and books such as Holes and The Outsiders in response to that last prompt; older students, however, might point out stories where vicious pack behavior exists on an emotional rather than a physical level.

By Drop a Pebble in the Pot, then, I mean to get the thinking started. As time goes on, students will become accustomed to this practice of jotting quick reflections into a notebook in preparation for the coming discussion; older students will, in fact, even provide their own ideas for questions to get everyone talking.

Soup of the Day

Translation: Know what you're serving up.

In every case, have an objective in mind before the discussion begins. What's to be taken away from from the dialogue? Theme, character development, literary motif, motive, metaphor? In many cases, it's a discussion of what do the individual words on the page say when they're put together in this way? In other cases, it's a matter of how did the author do that with words, and what can we as writers learn from it?

Portion It Out

Translation: Ensure that everyone participates. 

In my class, I have a deck of name cards color coded to each section I teach. When discussion is either too heated or too complacent, out come the cards. When everyone needs to throw in a quick share, out come the cards. When it's time to hear some jotted-down responses, but time won't allow hearing them all, out come the cards. It's simply too easy to unconsciously play favorites when you're pressed for time and the same hands are waving in the air.

Table Manners

Translation: Define and enforce rules for discussion.

The passion of a heated argument is no excuse for disrespecting others. Early on, implement a policy of acceptable behavior for classroom discussions (the Collaborize Classroom site, mentioned below, has an online student conduct code in its Teacher Resources section which can be tweaked to serve this purpose).

To Go Menu

Translation: Keep the conversation going.

Sometimes, there's a lot more to be said! And students want to continue the conversation beyond the confines of the class. In this case, a class wiki, blog, or social media environment would serve you well.

In the past I've written about Edmodo, which I described as "a ning for students." It serves as a secure social media site for upper elementary and middle school students, and I still dig it even now.

Recently, however, my students have been using a social media site called Verso. Like Edmodo, it's private and secure, yet the teacher can see all interactions. Unlike Edmodo, it allows more content creation possibilities for students and an easier user interface.

You can get a pretty good idea of its form and function from this recent video.

Read more about Verso here. Another option to get students interacting with texts before class time would be Insert Learning, which allows you to embed questions, videos, and teacher comments onto any page of the Internet.