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Sunday, February 23, 2014

Close Reading Through Online Annotation

In a previous post I discussed close reading, so here I won't speak as much about that process as I will about a promising site for annotating called NowComment.

Many of us use Google Docs (Drive) in the classroom for student annotation of texts. It works, but could be better. What could be better? I think many of the ways annotating could improve online have been incorporated into NowComment:

My main question in previewing this site has been, "Why don't more teachers know about this?"

Some of the main advantages of NowComment over other annotating sites:
  • Two panes scroll independently, allowing better focus on flow of text, video, images, and  comments. This feature is especially important when viewing videos or images while attempting to access all comments.
  • Annotations always appear to the right of text, never hovering above (and therefore blocking) the text, unlike many other annotation tools.
  • Teacher options control precise access dates when the text can be read, and when comments can be added. Teachers can both open and close these access dates for annotating, thus preventing students from later additions if desired. Additionally, these same time controls can be used to hide classmates' comments from individual students until a specified time; thus, students in the first round of annotations won't be able to simply copy or parrot the comments of peers, nor will they be swayed by what anyone else has said. At a later time, when all comments are revealed, students can return to interact with the comments of classmates rather than the text alone, thus creating a dialogue long before an actual classroom discussion. After all, discussions in class are only successful if everyone has read the text and reflected upon it.
  • Comments can be sorted by user which allows for easy assessment, or for students to locate the responses of select peers.
  • Notification options are customizable, allowing you schedule the "feed" from the site, and Update lets you to stay informed of every single comment that is added, which would be a huge help depending upon the importance or timeliness of a project.
  • In addition to the two-pane view, a combined view aggregates both panes into a narrative timeline, easily allowing you to note which lines and paragraphs received the most annotations. 
  • The number of simultaneous viewers/annotators doesn't seem to be issue; according to the site, over one hundred users have accessed the same document concurrently without a problem.
The following video shows the ease with which the site can be set up, as well as basic functions:

Some uses for NowComment:
  • Many teachers argue that close reading requires students to interact with only that part of the text that teachers deem important. However, NowComment offers users the option of uploading their own documents; therefore, if students have digital access to the entire work under consideration, they can upload the excerpt they choose, and then invite peers to annotate with them.
  • Likewise, students can upload their own writing to engage peers in discussion (Microsoft Word docs work extremely well in the interface). Since the source text (the left pane) isn't in edit mode, peers can't make changes to the text, but only suggest them.
  • Many classic works of literature are now available in the public domain online at sites such as Project Gutenberg, providing teachers a seemingly endless source for texts (Mashable lists some great online sites, but do check the legality of using the texts for educational purposes). Likewise, many poems are freely available at sites such as Poetry 180. To get you started, also check out the public documents already uploaded to NowComment.
  • While I'm not a lawyer, and I'm in no way dispensing legal advice, I do believe that if I own 60 copies of any given book, and that book is in the students' hands, then I'm likely permitted to provide short excerpts from those texts for commenting and criticism. If you think I'm entirely wrong in this regard, please leave a comment below; otherwise, I'll still sleep soundly tonight.
  • NowComment is especially useful for leaving responses regarding images and videos. If you're seeking a site that will let students respond to select portions of a video, I recommend you check out my previous post on EDpuzzle. That site not only allows students to leave open-ended responses to select video portions, but also allows teachers to embed quiz and survey questions as well. A site which allows a running record of notes on videos is which integrates with Google Drive.
  • If you are seeking a multi-author site, rather than an annotating site, and Google Drive isn't an option, then I highly recommend Titan Pad. Titan Pad (see a how-to video) allows multiple authors (color coded by contributor), and features a pretty cool time slider which allows the teacher (or any user) to see what contributions were made when. Titan Pad also has some great options for exporting documents. Documents can be public, or you can create a private account for free.
Finally, if you're seeking a source book for Close Reading strategies that is extremely practical, I recommend Kylene Beers' Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading, a popular book among upper elementary and middle school teachers, although it can certainly be adapted to the high school level as well.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Models for Writing from an Unlikely Source

For the longest time, science fiction and fantasy writing were considered somehow less "respectable" than nearly all other genres. The way some of my teachers wrinkled their noses at my choice of paperbacks in  middle school (Asimov, Bradbury, Burroughs, Howard) made me feel as though these books would have been better hidden under my mattress like obscene girlie magazines.

Yet at some point in time, sci fi and fantasy and all of their sub-genres became respectable, even celebrated, perhaps through their mainstream popularization in film.

What's in it for us as teachers, though, is a way to hook reluctant readers. That's a given. What's less immediately apparent is that much of the writing from these genres is actually pretty good, and could serve as models for our students' own writing.

For some fantastic character descriptions from sci fi books old and new, check out Great Character Descriptions from Science Fiction and Fantasy Books at, a daily online publication that "covers science, science fiction, and the world of tomorrow."

From that article, a description of Elrond from J.R.R. Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring:

"The face of Elrond was ageless, neither old nor young, though in it was written the memory of many things both glad and sorrowful. His hair was dark as the shadows of twilight, and upon it was set a circlet of silver; his eyes were grey as a clear evening, and in them was a light like the light of stars."

Authors Charlie Jane Anders and Mandy Curtis reflect on each excerpt they share, and it's interesting to compare their take on the character description to your own.

Also, if you're looking for some visual inspiration for your budding Asimovs, check out one of the site's Concept Art Writing Prompts, such as Attack on Kitty Titan by Park Insu. Seriously. Because if we as teachers think that we can continue to give out lame writing prompts and story starters and truly engage and excite our students, then we're mistaken.

But offer up some of the Concept Art Writing Prompts of the past few months, and you'll have some truly inspired writers. In the case of Superhero Grandma (below) by Sacha Goldberger, the true identity of the super hero is more amazing than the costumed and caped hero.

And at the very least, if you're planning out a year that include genre book reports by months, consider adding in science fiction, fantasy, or dystopian literature as a choice. Some of our greatest scientific minds (and Grade 6 ELA teachers) were once sci fi nerds.

Disclaimer: Some stories posted on the site by readers are not appropriate for school audiences. Be aware of this before allowing students free access to the site.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Video Viewing with a Purpose

So what's the point?

While this question irks many teachers, I don't mind hearing it. Not at all. I often ask it aloud to remind students that it's an acceptable response (if asked in a genuine way). The question shows me that a student is attempting to find meaning in the source material, whether it's a poem, novel, writing assignment, or video.

One fabulous tool I recently discovered for bringing purpose and focus to videos is EDpuzzle. EDpuzzle allows you to add response options within videos to make them more interactive. The site does this by allowing you to embed surveys, quiz questions, and discussion opportunities within the video itself.

Video Choice Options
Students access your video projects publicly through a URL, or via a student sign-in to your class account. Once students log on and enter a one-time class code, they are assigned to your class roster for all subsequent log-ins. Why go with this option? Because the site will keep track of all registered students' scores and responses; upon completion of a multiple choice format video, then, you will have fully scored quizzes for all students.

What the site does not allow (as of yet) is a way in which to embed the videos. So take just a few minutes to view a sample video quiz so you can get a feel for what the site can do.

More recently, in preparation for a visit from the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey to our school, I had students view a Spark Notes video of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar with embedded EDpuzzle questions and comments in order to familiarize themselves with the basic story line and characters. You can check that video out and try the quiz for yourself.

If you accessed one of my video quizzes (you can still go back and try one out) you may be wondering how the site will score open ended responses. It won't. Open ended responses are recorded, and the teacher then scores those at a later time, marking them simply right or wrong with the click of a button.

It's a simple site, but with lots of potential. Especially when you consider that you can trim a video, add voice overs, and embed comments without demanding a student response. Also beneficial is the fact that when the video has finished running, it returns to the starting point rather than showing a selection of related (and often inappropriate) videos.

If you're wondering how you might use the site in the classroom, read on.

Expand Upon Vocabulary

A recent vocabulary word in our Greek and Latin rooted list was fractal. That word is a fairly new one with an interesting history, so I shared the video below to provide a glimpse into the work of Benoit Mandelbrot, the Father of Fractals.

Build Background

Before our annual visit from a live Shakespeare company, I wanted students to understand the basic plot of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The following video gave them the basic events and characters, just enough to follow the action the next day.
For fun, contrast the use of lines from MSND in the original play to how they're used in this Levi's 501 Commercial.

Start a Discussion

Because many students' preconceptions of the Holocaust are from by Hollywood films, I wanted to begin a discussion from this perspective and branch out from there. The trailer from Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust provides students with some seeds for thought which can lead to a deeper conversation (the EDpuzzle version appears in a link below the video):
You can see how I added the opportunity for students to engage with the video by viewing that same video on EDpuzzle. Note that you can hit Continue to advance the video if you don't care to leave comments.

Tell a Story

The Internet contains many wonderful wordless videos that beg the viewer to discover the story through music and images alone. Students can narrate or paraphrase a short film such as Going Green:

Tackle a Tough Topic

I wouldn't interrupt a video like Losers (below), but might provide an open opportunity at the video's end to leave thoughts. It's a tough video to watch, with coarse language, but trust me, these are the names students call each other.

Talent Show is more PG-13 when it comes to cyberbullying if Losers is too intense for your kids.

React and Reflect

In Why Students Don't Read What is Assigned in Class, high school students share how they rarely read what is assigned in class, but steal time to read what interests them instead:

Read Closely

This graphic interpretation of the Gettysburg Address fits in well with suggested CCSS curriculum (sorry; it wouldn't embed here). Similarly, the video reading of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" below is aided by subtitles, sound effects, music, images, and the creepy voice of Christopher Walken which allow students to better understand the mood of the classic poem:

Where to Find Great Videos 
  • Check out the teacher favorites submitted to Video of the Week and Share Your Favorite YouTube Videos for Teaching at English Companion Ning (you will need to create a free account with the English Companion Ning to view these links). A terrific source since teachers will often explain how the use the video they recommend. 
  • Future Shorts is a YouTube channel containing over 400 extremely well-produced short videos. Great for discussion starters, examples of story elements, etc. You already saw one above called Losers. 
  • Videos with a message at 
  • DenĂ©e Tyler's video blog is a wonderful collection that's well organized, with videos vetted by a teacher.
  • Most lesson suggestions on Film-English are EFL, but you might find videos there which you can use in unique ways.
  • Awesome Stories is a site that is, well, awesome, in and of itself, but the lesson plans there are often accompanied by videos which reside on YouTube. Some great inspiration if you're looking to try EDpuzzle but don't have a topic in mind just yet. Recently designed, and looks great!
  • Online Video in Education is a juggernaut collection of videos and articles which will really opoen your eyes to what is freely available in media online.
  • 90+ Videos for Tech and Media Literacy features some wonderful, annotated recommendations for those topics.
  • And, of course, the usual suspects such as YouTube and TED Talks. TEDEd has its own site and opportunities for creating interactive video which you should also explore. The Art of the Metaphor is a pretty good example of the high quality stuff you can find there.

What other sites for videos can you recommend? Leave a comment below to share a favorite site for video suggestions, or to share the URL of an EDpuzzle video you've created.

Friday, February 14, 2014

How I Learned to Love Rubrics

Hi. My name is Keith, and I am a rubric hater.

I'll confess that's true when it comes to generic rubrics provided to assess writing on most standardized tests; in my opinion, those rubrics are way too general and in no way responsive enough to specific writing tasks.

So for some time, like many teachers, I tried grading writing without a rubric. My efforts were comically similar to those of Mr. D:

So I then gave paper rubrics a try, even generating custom versions using the free tools at Rubistar and Essay Tagger. Still a hater.

But just recently I've had a  lot of success with ForAllRubrics, a web and mobile app provided free of charge for teachers from ForAllSchools.

ForAllRubrics allows you to create, copy, or customize rubrics; upload class rosters (or add students individually); select indicators on the rubric; add narrative comments as needed; email or print results; and access multiple sources of student data via the teacher dashboard. Again, all for free.

This video provides an overview of the ease with which you can use the site..

Some features I absolutely love about ForAllRubrics:
  • I can create customized rubrics and store them in my library, where they can be accessed, tweaked, and recycled for new projects.
  • I can access a public library of rubrics created by others, which I can use as-is or, again, customize.
  • Once I "click through" the indicators on a rubric, the site generates the score. These scores are key when I later compare data by students, assessments, or indicators.
  • I can email results to individual students, or to all students at once. Additional email addresses can be attached to each student's account, keeping parents and other stakeholders in the loop.
  • Comments can be added below each scored attribute, allowing me to provide feedback for how writing can be improved in the future. For each rubric that I create, I also create a Google Doc containing frequently used comments. Cutting and pasting comments not only saves time, but gives me  a pretty good idea of skills in need of further instruction.
Many teachers may feel that the initial time investment seems overwhelming, but the dividends are well worth the effort. My sixth graders, for example, are required to read and respond to current events articles using TweenTribune. Those responses, however, must follow a prescribed format. I created a rubric to assess these responses, and it gets used three times each marking period. Immediately before attempting their next response, students are encouraged to open their emails and view their most recent rubrics to see which components need improvement. I've seen student success soar in this particular area due to my time spent assessing student writing, and student time spent reflecting upon results. Parents also love that my assessment methods, compared to Mr. D's, do seem to follow some quantifiable format.

Give it a shot, even if you try it with just a few students on a single assignment. I think you'll be sold!