The Polliwog Journal

A weblog about teaching English & integrating technology

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Counting What Counts

August 27th, 2013 · Creativity and the Web, Using Twitter

In these “Data Driven” days, @budtheteacher reminds us what really matters. Read the tweets at #countingwhatcounts.

I love them all, but my favorites are the ones that show kids and teachers working together at a joyful place called school. A place so full of ideas and energy and the desire to explore and create that there would be no need for common core standards or state or national test.

Thank you Bud Hunt for the very cool idea to count what counts.

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I LOVE Dropbox

February 18th, 2012 · Digital Spaces, web 2.0 tools

Dropbox-300x300I love, love, love Dropbox, which makes it so easy to store and manage documents in the cloud. No longer do I have to rely on a usb drive, which I may or may not have. Instead, I can work from either of my computers at home or from any computer at work on the same document. Syncing is a cinch, since Dropbox does it automatically for me.

I can’t imagine how I lived without it. It is a truly a wonderful tool.

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#slate2011: There but not there

December 7th, 2011 · Professional Learning Networks, web 2.0 tools

One year ago, along with five of my colleagues, I was physically present at Wisconsin’s SLATE conference (School Leaders Advancing Technology in Education). This year, I was not able to attend, but through the hashtag #slate2011, I was able to follow some of the energy through my PLN peeps who were there in person. Not only did I follow their Tweets and links, but I was also able to engage somewhat.

When I read this:


Thanks to @_msjohnson, who found the Tweet Blender widget for our NCTE presentation, I was able to suggest this widget for Jessica. I tweeted back:


(Darn that auto correct on my phone: “appear” should read “app.” I also forgot to add the #slate2011 hashtag, which should teach me to tweet more cautiously. So to fix it, I retweeted this, which also include @chadkafka in the conversation.


The point is, even though I couldn’t attend the conference in person, I could attend it virtually. Twitter allowed me to stay in touch, to feel connected, to learn, and to share.

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Why students should be blogging: two lists of ten reasons

October 27th, 2011 · Digital Spaces, Online Teacher Resources

YES! Students should be blogging.

These two teachers give their reasons from their own blogs (and YES, teachers should be blogging).

Why Students Should Blog – My Top 10 by Pernille Ripp

10 Reasons Your Students Should Be Blogging by Matt Ray

And, if you’re interested, here are some posts of mine on this subject:

Do your students blog? If so, tell us your best reasons for having them blog. If not, contact me about helping you get started.

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Excellent website for teaching letter writing

October 20th, 2011 · Online Teacher Resources, Teacher Sites

In my response to one of my online students today, I wanted a resource to guide him in writing a simple friendly letter. I was happy to find Writing a Friendly or Personal Letter from Parsley Elementary School in Wilmington, NC.

What an outstanding hypertext resource for Parsley students and for students everywhere!

envelopeThis simple webpage gives excellent information in an orderly way. The page design is welcoming to primary students. In addition, this webpage goes beyond the basics with links to other sites and even a video. What’s more, there’s a separate page on addressing an envelope and mailing a letter. I have had to teach ninth graders how to address an envelope. They would have like this page, too.

I’ve been an advocate for teacher made websites for a long time. This one reinforces my belief that a regular old html site with links and graphics can be the perfect vehicle for teachers. I appreciate that these teachers shared their excellent resource with the world and with me. Helping my student today was easier because of this page.

I’m still amazed that more teachers haven’t recognized the benefits of publishing websites for their own students. I was talking to an IT specialist for a nearby college recently, and I asked him if many of the college’s professors had websites. Some do, but not many, he told me. Providing teacher web space and instruction on how to create websites was not on their IT agenda any time soon, either. He also told me that some professors are using Facebook pages to communicate with their students. I use Facebook, and I know that with the new features (like being able to direct posts to only certain users and the ability for users to subscribe to page feeds) it could be a useful tool for educators, but I don’t think Facebook could ever be as versatile as a webpage or a blog.

Thanks again, teachers at Parsley Elementary School, for being good technology role models!

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The value of choice in student engagement

October 7th, 2011 · CyberEnglish, Improving Education, The Art of Teaching


I was not a teacher when my children were young, and to be honest, I didn’t think about education and learning much. I was just trying to be a good mom. But now, as a 21 year high school English teacher veteran and as a grandmother fascinated by how children learn, I will often ask my grandchildren directly about what and how they’re learning. Many of these conversations have been catalysts for blog posts. The one this morning, at our kitchen table, was especially profound for me.

I also want to clarify that when I use the term “games” in this post, I am referring to any Web-based media experience, such as a video, a quiz, or an actual interactive experience where users manipulate elements to achieve a goal. Ella calls them all games, because she equates the lively colors, sounds, and user engagement to the experience of a game.

This post was delivered as a speech at the 2013 Great Lakes Writer’s Festival

The value of choice in student engagement


Ella, do you still go on the computers at school?

Not during playtime, but I do when I go to the library.

Why don’t you do it during playtime?

Because there is only one game. When I go to the library I can choose the games I want.

Don’t you like what the teacher chooses?

Ella shakes her head no. It doesn’t work. I type my name in, press play, and nothing happens.

After Grandpa took Ella to school, I couldn’t stop thinking about something she said: “When I go to the library I can choose the games I want.”  It bothered me.  At first, I thought it was probably just that one game didn’t work. Surely some of the teacher selected games have to work. But then I wondered if, after just one frustrating experience, Ella would try other games later? Would she give the teacher’s chosen game another chance on another day?  Or would she conclude that the computer isn’t fun anymore.

I have a feeling it might be the latter. When Ella told me that there was only one game, her nonverbal message was that being on a classroom computer is not as fun in first grade as it had been in Kindergarten. I know she will never complain about this to her teacher. Instead, she will simply internalize her disappointment. What her teacher will see is disinterest.

If the teacher sees disinterest in the faces of most of her students, she may conclude that her class doesn’t really like to work on the computer. As a result, she will probably offer them fewer computer experiences in the future, even fewer choices in learning modes.

Let me put it this way.

The teacher announces, “Boys and girls, we’re going to the new ice cream place today.” The classroom erupts in giddy enthusiasm. The students’ anticipation is great as they climb aboard the school bus and head off to the red and white striped ice cream parlor. When they step through the doors, the vivid atmosphere designed to delight the senses does its work on them. Their little noses press against the glass of the display case and they are wild with possibility. There are over twenty flavors and they must make a choice soon. So many swirling colors. . . . Then, in the interest of time, convenience, and fairness, the teacher decides, “we’re all having vanilla today.” Vanilla. Simply by eliminating choice, the teacher has diminished this experience for her students. This day, a fun day, suddenly becomes embedded emotionally in each child’s memory as the day the mean teacher made them eat vanilla ice cream.

She might conclude that the children don’t like ice cream as they sit there with their vanilla cones, sulking. But her conclusion would, of course, be wrong. Because she did not allow her students to choose for themselves, they were less engaged and less interested.  The same is true for all educational experiences from books and toys to computer games. Vanilla is good—it’s a wonderful flavor—but if there are 19 other flavors to choose from and I am only allowed to have vanilla, I am going to be disappointed. Wouldn’t you be?

What do we know about how children learn? We know that they need to experience a concept many times to remember it—some say seven times. We know that active engagement—hands on learning—is superior to “sit and get” experiences. We know that when students have positive emotional connections to the experience they are more likely to remember it, that negative emotions produce stress -induced chemicals that interfere with the brain’s ability to remember.

The importance of personal choice cannot be underestimated. When a child chooses an experience again and again out of interest—whether that experience is a book to read, a puzzle to assemble, or a video song about the days of the week—the lessons embedded in the experience will be reinforced. The positive emotional connection the child has to the chosen experience will magnify its value and make it easier to remember. What’s more, the experience will not feel like learning.  It will not feel like school.

When I first saw Ted Nellen’s CyberEnglish classroom in March 2000, the most striking aspect of the environment he created was the extreme high level of engagement. Each student in his class was actively engaged in some learning experience—an experience that the student had chosen (from a vast menu provided by the teacher). Some were revising their writing, some were emailing telementors regarding their work, some were reading text on the computer, some were reading text on paper, some were taking notes, some were consulting their teacher; they were all engaged differently, but they were all engaged. I knew I was seeing not only a profound shift in the classroom paradigm, but also a profound shift in what it means to be a teacher as well. Since that time, I have tried to emulate his model in my own CyberEnglish classroom, embedding as many choices for students as  I can.

For most students, school feels like a place where they go to do what the teacher tells them to do, a place where they have very little say in what goes on. Ella’s disappointment in not being able to choose the Websites she visits in her first grade classroom illustrates that children, no matter what age, desire to make their own choices.

I can write daily on my board eloquent objectives based on common core standards, concepts that some agree are most important for students to learn. I can be an intelligent, driven teacher who loves kids, but if I am the only one in my classroom interested in what is going on, the only one engaged in the experience, no learning will occur.

Giving students choices is not just a good way to approach curricular design—think diversity, think differentiation, think broad scope—it may be the only way to truly engage 21st century learners who are so accustomed in daily life and culture to menus. Contemporary life is all about making choices. Our image-saturated, media-driven, razzle-dazzle world requires nonstop decision making. Want an example? Just try watching television news. You will have to decide if you will listen to the anchor’s banter, read the fast-paced news scroll, notice details in the inset image,  try to decipher the sidebar data, or even, try to think about all of that simultaneously. There’s a lot of information to manage, a lot to choose from, but that’s the world our children live in.

What if, instead of offering one teacher-selected experience, the vanilla ice cream teacher had said, “All right children, it’s play time. You can go on a computer and choose any game (from a page of over 20 choices). You can choose a book to read. You can build. You can paint, draw, or mold clay. You can do what you choose. I’ll be here to help you if you need me. Remember, you can also help each other.”

She says play time, but what she means is choice time and what she expects is active learning. We have only to imagine ourselves again as students to know, in an almost visceral way, that we would be having a lot more fun in school if learning time was play time and not lecture time.

This begs the question: what does it mean to be a teacher these days? To me, the answer is simple. A teacher is a person is responsible for creating engaging learning spaces for all students. What it does not mean is to manage that learning space down to the last detail, including the choice of what to study, learn, or especially play with, which not only diminishes the learning experience for everyone but it may also turn students away from the idea of school altogether.

Certainly there are times when it is simply more desirable to give one message to all students at once. Laying foundation knowledge, building foundation skills, and setting the context for learning is generally something we present to the whole class at one time. However,  end learning goals for students beyond that point can be met in so many ways that for a teacher to choose one path for all is at the very least hubris and at worst malpractice.

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Value of teacher websites: extending learning beyond the school year

August 5th, 2011 · Digital Spaces, Online Teacher Resources

I’ve often spoken about the value and importance of teacher Websites, and this week my message was reinforced in an unexpected way. One rainy day last week, six-year-old granddaughter Ella brought her mom’s netbook computer to our house, so she’d have a diversion.

She informed me that she knew how to get to Google and to find her teacher’s website all by herself.

“What do you do when you get to Mrs. Williams’ site?” I asked.

“She has games and stuff that I can play,” Ella said.

Sure enough, Ella could easily get to her teacher’s website. Once there, Ella navigated to the Websites for Children page to find her favorite sites. I generally think of a teacher website as an informational space for students and parents, which it is. But Ella showed me that it can also be a place for extending learning, not only beyond the school day, but also beyond the school year. Ella thought it was a lot of fun to visit her favorite teacher’s site; to her it was play. As a teacher/grandmother, I knew she was also learning.

Anita Williams created her site using PB Works, an easy and free wiki tool. Mrs. Williams teaches 5 year old Kindergarten at Fairview Elementary School, Plymouth, WI. Her site is a great example of technology integration in Early Childhood education.

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Digital storytelling for kids

June 23rd, 2011 · Creativity and the Web, Digital Spaces

Six year old granddaughter Ella created this story using Little Bird Tales. We scanned her artwork and she recorded her voice.

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Education Week article focuses on digital English classes

June 16th, 2011 · CyberEnglish, Digital Spaces, Improving Education, Technology and Education

Katie Ash’s article, Language Arts Educators Balance Text-Only Tactics With Multi-Media Skills, includes my views about CyberEnglish. I’m in some outstanding company here. Worth reading for English teachers!

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May 20th, 2011 · Creativity and the Web, Online Teacher Resources

A colleague emailed me, saying “I recently came across an artilcle about Glogster and how it might be used in instruction. Are you familiar with it and is it possible to see some explanation about it online? Have you used it and, if so, do you find it effective, or is it more “bells and whistles?”

I’m glad you asked. Glogster is a free online tool that lets users create interactive posters or collages. There is also a premium version for education that does a lot more.

Not sure what you mean by more “bells and whistles.” Sometimes it is exactly the bells and whistles that get kids excited about a project. What would you want students to do with a poster/collage on which they could put text, images, colors, video, and audio? A typical poster board can be creative, but it doesn’t move, bounce, talk to us.

Sometimes it’s the novelty in an activity that draws us to it. With Glogster, there is novelty, and fun.

The best way for any teacher to know how he or she would use a tool like Glogster in class would be to use it first, see what it does and then imagine what your students could do with it. The Glogster site has sample Glogs to see what others have done.

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