The Polliwog Journal

A weblog about teaching English & integrating technology

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Twitter and PLNs

May 10th, 2011 · Professional Learning Networks

In her article How to Use Twitter to Grow Your PLN, Betty Ray from Edutopia explains how and why educators should be using Twitter to connect with peers. Her tips are easy to follow. If you still think Twitter is only for people desperate for attention (those who want to let the world know what they’re doing every minute), I challenge you to read this article and try just one chat. Even if all you do is skim the Tweets as they cascade in, you’ll see the dynamic conversations that occur. And, if you’re brave enough, you may jump in.

Why not give it a try?

However, I do want to remind you that just like any new skill, it takes time to adapt to the way things operate. While you probably won’t be a Twitter pro instantly, within a couple of chat experiences, you should be comfortable in this new digital space.

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Poem Flow and teaching poetry

April 20th, 2011 · Online Teacher Resources

This beautiful app is just one way that helps teachers engage students with poetry. The website has many other options. See below.

The Academy of American poets offers teachers many options, and they, as far as I know, are the founders of Poem in Your Pocket Day (during National Poetry Month). Developing your online poetry resources has never been easier. Check out this page full of great links to online resources.

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The value of play

April 18th, 2011 · Creativity and the Web

My mother often wonders how her math-inept daughter ever got to be so proficient with computers. She equates computer technology with mathematic ability, I guess. I can see her point. Programming looks like math. HTML coding looks less like language and more like mathematical formulas.

I can’t really explain it other than to say, I love to play and invent using computers. I’ve told the story before about how my first home computer was a boxy looking K-Pro. The Dos program was beyond my ability or desire to understand, but that little computer served me as a functional word processor. However, when graphical user interface emerged, I realized I had my key to a digital playground. While I sometimes consulted a manual or a book on how to do something, I primarily learned what I know by simply being curious and playing with the newest tools.

I often teach adults how to use various computer programs/applications and I find them generally tentative. They worry too much about “breaking” things when they should just play. How does one learn to do anything, really? By trial and error, by experimentation, by a curious click (“I wonder what this does?”).

My advice is to leave timidity behind. Just play. You’ll be amazed both by how much fun you have and by how much you learn.

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The danger of quantifying everything!

April 18th, 2011 · writing

Well, I heard a new one today. But first, the context. I had just handed back English 11 essays, for which I did not use a rubric. Instead, I used a traditional means of feedback. I circled, underlined, and pointed out obvious errors (fragments, run ons, point of view errors, etc.). I made comments about logical omissions or organizational flaws. I commented when writers needed to give evidence for their claims. But overall, the score, the grade, came from my experience in knowing what constitutes an A paper or something not quite. Not only that, but students had the opportunity to conference with me in the drafting stage (an option that only four of the 21 in the class took advantage of). They also were encouraged to review peers’ work, to help each other draft a quality essay. They had three days in a computer lab to craft a two page essay. All in all, a pretty basic writing experience for juniors. Then, I overheard one of my students (who’d earned a 45/50 by the way) that she had gotten only one wrong, but I had taken off five points. By one wrong, she meant that I had only left one comment on her paper. She obviously thought the exchange rate was off.

I’m still somewhat stunned. I had no idea that students equated a comment or an underline on an essay with an item marked wrong, as when you do 25 math problems and you get five wrong, so you get a 20/25. Maybe I should have been a math teacher (only I don’t really love math. I love words).

Holistic grading is truly dead it seems. Everything must be quantified. Rubrics have become itemized reciepts. Every complete sentence given a point value, whether it makes sense or reads fluently or fits the paragraph or moves the argument forward. Quality lies in the fact that you spelled everything correctly, not in the relationships of the words to one another? Or am I just taking this girls’ comment (complaint, actually) too far?

What do you think?

If you are reading this and have had a similar experience, please leave a comment. This topic seems worthy of discussion.

Cross posted at Ms Hogue’s Online English Resources

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Changing Education Paradigms

April 5th, 2011 · Improving Education

This clever animation makes Sir Ken Robinson’s wise assessment of education more than fun to watch and easy to remember.

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Why I don’t love Moodle

January 26th, 2011 · CyberEnglish, Technology and Education, web 2.0 tools

A recent comment I made in Twitter about not loving Moodle prompted this post. My explanation needs more than 140 characters.

First, a bit about my Cyber English background: in 2001, freshmen at SFHS began creating their own websites, stored on a school web server. On these creative, individual, wonderful sites, they published their writing, writing that reflected various purposes and genres. But all of it was public, and that made all the difference.

The websites allowed them to fully experience writing process in an authentic, meaningful way. There was always choice regarding topic and usually choice about genre. This process of decision making included the general decisions writers make regarding organization, selection of detail, etc., but also required students to decide on elements of presentation, like color, like font, like additional images, like hyperlinks. All of these decisions were made (hopefully) with their audience in mind–their real audience, which included their peers, their parents, their teacher, and on occasion, a person from the “world.”  Peer review and revision were also easier with websites. While we use blogs now, instead of websites, the goals we have for our student writers are the same. Write for real, for real audiences. Inspiring a community of writers is much easier with technology tools.

I also recognized the value of online chat or discussion. There were some “cloud” programs about ten years ago, but very few were safe enough for student use (hard to lock down to keep out spam, etc.). But the premise behind the need for such a tool was and is valid. Students will say more with their keyboards than they will with their mouths, at least that is my experience.

The goals I have for my student writers have not changed so much in ten years. I think technology and access to the Internet are the two factors that drive high engagement. While Moodle is a technology tool (and I have used it and fully experimented with all of its functions), I do not love it. Here’s why:

  1. The main thing about Moodle that I don’t like is it’s a closed environment. It’s safe, sure, but if it’s not public (published), writing may as well be on paper (except keyboards create nicer looking documents).
  2. The writing spaces in Moodle (unless they’ve been vastly improved in the past year) are close to horrible. The Wiki is nearly impossible to use–not at all intuitive. The blog isn’t really a blog. The connectivity between them all is not good. What I mean is, it’s not easy to find others’ spaces within Moodle.
  3. The discussion forum feature in Moodle is pretty nice, and that was really the only thing I ever used there. I didn’t like that I couldn’t just clear out the responses to questions so I could start over the following year, but I found a way to manage that. I also played with the real-time chat. It was fun and chaotic, but not very productive. I don’t miss those tools much because with blogs, students can leave comments, so that sort of is like a discussion. Well, not quite, but comments on blogs help students share ideas and consider various points of view.
  4. The quiz/test feature in Moodle is time consuming and CLUNKY, though, once you spend the time on it, the resulting product is easy for students to use. Who wouldn’t love that the grades are automatic. But, if you don’t create many multiple choice tests, then you wouldn’t really use it.
  5. As for a place for teacher announcments and things, well, again, it’s a closed enviornment. I don’t like communicating in a web enviornment where I have to log in to see what I need to see. I imagine a lot of students and parents find that step annoying as well, and if they do, they won’t be reading the announcements. Besides, if we’re not making our teaching and learning transparent, we’re missing opportunities to share and learn from each other.
  6. As for Moodle being free, yes, it is. But the tech specialist at our school tells me ,that doesn’t mean it’s free to manage. Someone has to set it up, maintain the server, the updates, etc. I installed Moodle to my own domain once, thinking I could have students use it. It would have worked IF I needed only three or four students to access and use the space at a time. I quickly found out that having 28 students logging in to my own Moodle did not work at all.

So, what do I like/use instead?

  1. I miss websites, but I do love blogs. I think they’re a happy compromise. Students are publishing their writing. Their peers are reading. And the world is their audience. The ability to comment and get comments is my favorite thing about blogs. This year, one of my students got a comment on her blog from the author of the book she was reading. Needless to say, the student was excited and proud. About our blogs: We use Word Press MU (Multi user). Our school designates a server for storing student blogs and we have great support.
  2. I love cloud tools (Web 2.0). I would tell teachers, figure out what it is you want your students to do and find a tool for it, sort of like finding an app. : ) Some Web 2.0 tools are not stable. That is, they may be too experimental to use over time. But what does that matter? Use it now, learn with it, find something else later. There are so many things out there to play with.
  3. For collaborative writing, I love Google Docs. There is now a chat feature with Docs that allows collaborators to converse as they compose. It’s fantastic. Google Apps are, it seems, very stable, and Google is committed to education. There are Google sites as well, which are sort of like a blog/wiki combo. There is a lot at Google for teachers and students.
  4. Wikis are great, too, for collaborative writing. With a wiki, students can also publish their work. Ihave one or two project a year using a wiki. For myself, I use Wikispaces (great for teacher collaborative planning), but for students I prefer PB Wiki, as it’s a simpler, more intuitive space. Also, setting up accounts for students at PB Works is so easy. They do not need an email account!
  5. I am/was a huge fan of Ning, but Ning creators decided to begin charging. That is their right. There are similar web spaces, but I really did like Ning. A Buddy Press (WordPress) blog is a “sort of” substitute for Ning. You can create a small community there, each having a blog space, space for discussion, and the ability to message others.
  6. As for teachers simply communicating with students and parents, I do like my Word Press blog. It’s easy to edit, and I can make changes from anywhere. It’s public.

I am sure I have forgotten something, but these are my basic objections to what, on the surface, seems to be a great technology tool. For me, I would only use it if I had to. I’m glad I don’t have to.

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2010 review through books

January 2nd, 2011 · Literature, Reading

Inspired by Dana Huff, I thought I’d write about the books I read in 2010, which, at 23,  turns out is a lot more than I thought, not as many as Dana read, but considering that I wrote my second AP English test prep book last year also, I think it’s not too terrible an achievement.

Some stats

Fiction: 21
Non fiction: 2
Young Adult: 4
Short fiction collections: 3
Graphic novel: 1

My top five of the year, in no particular order

  • Unaccustomed Earth
  • The Help
  • Olive Kitteridge
  • Crossing to Safety
  • Beloved

About each book

  1. I began 2010 by reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett;  I really loved this book. It was one of the few all year that I literally could not put down. Her characters were real, sad, uplifting, and honest.
  2. I jumped on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo bandwagon and had a lot of fun with the first book by Steig Larsson. I loved Larsson’s detail, down to the type of hard drive on the computer. While the situation Harriet Vanger found herself in seemed unrealistic, the mystery was fun, and Lisbeth is a unique heroine.
  3. I loved the protagonist in Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. We should never imagine what might be in someone else’s heart or head. I loved the honor and respect for old people in this book, too.
  4. I did not like Chris Cleave’s Little Bee. I found the main characters (except for the refugees) to be whiny, self-centered, and unsympathetic.
  5. The most fun part of the The Girl Who Played with Fire was Lisbeth’s shopping spree at IKEA. But the introduction of an evil father and brother was interesting also. These books may not be great literature, but they are quite fun to read.
  6. I read Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov because I felt I should read it. I found it to be somewhat dense, or maybe I was overly tired when I read it, but I didn’t really enjoy it nor appreciate it like I’m sure I should have.
  7. A good friend sent me Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario. This book really helped me see the complexities of immigration in a new way.
  8. I agree with those who’ve said that The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest could have used a bit more editing, but as it was the last book in the trilogy and I knew Mr. Larsson would sadly not be writing any more books, I didn’t want it to end. Plus, I really liked the way Lisbeth could help, even though she was hospitalized for the majority of the novel.
  9. A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick was one I’d wanted to read for awhile, so I bought it. I wish I’d just borrowed it from the library. It was interesting, but just a little too sensational for me.
  10. Unaccustomed Earth by Jumpha Lahiri is a collection of stories about Indian immigrants in the United States, about culture clashes and upward mobility, and it was one of the best books I had read in a long time. It is definitely in my top five for the year.
  11. I love Sherman Alexie but didn’t know what I was in for with The Toughest Indian in the World. This collection of stories is much less about reservation life than some of his other work and more about people dealing with tough times, tough situations. The characters are gritty. The writing is brilliant.
  12. I also love Billy Crystal, but he comes across better on stage than he does on the page. I was desperate for something to read (for free) and 700 Sundays is a book someone gave my husband as a gift. Some nice moments, but overall, not a great book. Kind of just wanted to get through it.
  13. Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman was the first of several books I read on vacation. We have a 10 hour drive to my dad’s cabin in Minnesota, and my husband prefers to do all the driving, which leaves me with a lot of time. I am lucky I can read in the car. So, this was my first book. The point of view in this book is really unique, a young boy with cerebral palsy who cannot speak and thinks his dad is going to kill him. Wow. The story is heartbreaking, but also funny.
  14. Next from the vacation book bag was Anthem by Ayn Rand, a book I should have read years ago. I had no expectations for this book, except that I know a bit about Rand’s philosophical views. I really liked this little dystopian novel, especially the golden ending. I may try to incorporate it into my AP English class.
  15. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi was next. Can you tell that I took little books on vacation? I had seen the movie and loved it, so my friend lent me the graphic novel, which, like any book, was more detailed and better than the movie. I would recommend this book for anyone who wants to understand Iran better.
  16. Still Life by A.S. Byatt got me stuck in neutral. I started it at the end of my vacation, but it took me many weeks to read. I just didn’t love this book. I have read Byatt before (Posession, Babel Tower), and was used to her erudite style, but Still Life just wore me down. One thing that I didn’t know when I began the book was that it was part of a trilogy. Even so, I found the characters to be fairly uninteresting, their situations so far from my experience. The descriptions of giving birth in the 1950’s in nearly inhumane situations were riveting though. This book was lent to me, and I’m so glad I didn’t buy it.
  17. My third experience with a collection of stories was Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. I really liked this book. I had no idea what to expect, but loved the way the character, Olive, is the thread that links all of the stories, and that each one is not necessarily about her. Even so, Strout develops Olive’s character throughout, so that by the end, a woman who I did not even like at the beginning ends up being humanized. I liked reading this book as a reader and as a writer.
  18. There are some books one reads because one thinks one should, and this is the reason I checked Anna Karenina out of the school library in September. From the crispness of the pages and the stiffness of the binding, I am sure I am the first one to have pulled this book from the shelves. I am also sure that I have no right to suggest such a thing, but Tolstoy could have used a good editor. Had the book been even 200 pages less than it was, it would have been much more readable. Still, the characters and the situations were interesting and I didn’t give up on it nor want to punish myself like I did when I read Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov a few years ago. I admire Tolstoy quite a lot and have read several of his short stories. I’m glad I read it, but also glad I’m done reading it.
  19. Dope Sick by Walter Dean Myers seems to be an odd follow up to the previous book. I didn’t choose it. A young man I mentor did, and we exchanged the book each day, adding our sticky note comments. It was a nice experience. I can see how Myers appeals to boys, especially more urban boys who feel their lives are happening beyond their control. It was not, after all, that memorable–at least not for me.
  20. I heard Todd Strasser speak at the Illinois Association of Teachers of English conference and bought three of his books, one of which was Con-fidence, a book for middle school age girls. I am glad I read it. I had been looking for a high interest easy read for some of my low level readers. The girl I consequently recommended it to loved it. She read it twice. The other two I bought are also out in circulation, but I haven’t read those yet.
  21. I bought Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner at a great little book store in Bailey’s Harbor in the summer, but hadn’t read it yet. One of my favorite books of all time is Angle of Repose also by  Stegner. I really liked this book as well. The characters were so interesting and  the settings familiar (especially Madison, WI). I would highly recommend it. I think it probably is an accurate look at how people began to reinvent themselves coming out of the Depression and after WWII.
  22. In my desire to connect with my reluctant readers (especially boys), I will sometimes choose books they are reading. That’s what prompted me to read The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. I felt the book was somewhat formulaic (hero’s journey for one thing), but it was much funnier than I thought, a quality that seems to be missing in a lot of books. Plus, Percy is a good hero for kids who think they’ve got everything against them. I am not sure I’ll read the rest of the series, but I feel like I can connect better now and can more confidently recommend the books for certain students.
  23. I did not choose the last book I read in 2010, even though it had sat, unread, on my own shelves for many years. My sister gave me  a beautiful hard cover copy of Beloved, saying something like, ‘good luck,’ as she handed it to me. Toni Morrison does have the reputation of being difficult to read, and maybe that’s why I didn’t read it sooner. I’m not sure. I’ve read other books by her. But this choice was made by several junior girls who talked me into being in a book club with them.  I wonder how they’re doing with it. I found Sethe’s story to be enigmatic, at least at first, then downright heartbreaking and poetic at the end. I am glad Morrison didn’t tell me everything right away. I think I had to love Sethe before I could understand why she did what she did. One question that I would like to ask my new book club is whether or not we have the right to forgive her. I am glad I read this book, which according to Morrison is her monument to slavery, her attempt to honor those who suffered.

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“If you see the words ‘brain-based,’ run.”

December 29th, 2010 · News for Teachers

According to Daniel Willingham, there are three facts about the brain that every educator ought to know. Read the article online at: Willingham: 3 brain facts every educator should know. What he concludes is that we don’t know what we think we know. : )

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‘No fiction’ is an absurd idea

December 21st, 2010 · Literature, Reading

Sherman Alexie once wrote about people’s response to the ending of his movie Smoke Signals, which is a story about a young Indian man whose estranged father dies. Alexie realized that the ending seemed “to affect everyone’s life. It’s been astonishing: I had no idea of the huge, aching, father wound, of all genders, colors, races,” Alexie said. What Alexie concludes is that peace comes only through forgiveness, an important life lesson indeed.

If we can judge by the current divorce rate, half of our students are likely to have issues with parental separation. As for me, when I was nine, my parents also divorced. It was not easy. Not long after that, I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time, not because it was assigned in school, but because I pulled it off the shelf at home. I wanted to read it. My mother was convinced that I wouldn’t understand it. I imagine she was thinking that I would not understand what happened to Mayella, and probably she didn’t care to explain rape to a ten-year-old. But it wasn’t Mayella’s situation that captivated me. It was the idea of Atticus Finch that held my imagination. It was Atticus Finch who was the salve to my aching father wound. To this day I have a special love for Atticus, though I have come to appreciate the Finch’s story in many other ways as well. I think it is not a coincidence that thousands of people have similar connections to Lee’s iconic novel, for it teaches us not only about a father’s love, but also about respect, honor, and yes, the effect of ignorance and racism. Through Maycomb’s characters, we are enriched, we are enlightened.

In her great young adult novel Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson’s main character Melinda Sordino wishes her biology teacher would teach them about more than just biology, more than just life cycles and reproduction. She is desperate to learn about something practical, like love and betrayal. Where is it that we learn about love, betrayal, honor, truth, courage, and more? By living certainly, but we also learn through the narratives of fictional characters; through their mistakes and struggles, we can discover truth.

It was Willa Cather who said “There are only two or three human stories and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”  While she is probably right, we need new versions of old stories that we can more easily connect to. So while Sophocles warns us about the dangers of being too prideful, teenage boys may fail to recognize themselves in Oedipus and need Rick Riordan’s arrogant Ares to learn from and underdog hero Percy Jackson to be inspired by instead.

I don’t see this country’s patriarchy ending any time soon, and our boys will become the next CEOs, the next legislators. Our boys, the ones who even as juniors and seniors in high school still act buffoonish, perhaps in defense of the low self esteem they suffer from, believing themselves unworthy of their own intellect, need stories. They need heroes.

To even suggest that we remove fiction from the high school curriculum as Grant Wiggins does, seems absurd to me, for it is through narrative that we learn who we are. Through history, people have used narrative to instruct and unite, not only the old myths and oral histories, Bible parables, fables, and the like, but also our own family narratives. While Wiggins is not the first to make such a recommendation, I am concerned that his national credibility will lead some to blindly follow him. I hope that is not the case and that good teachers will recognize the folly of his notion.

So yes, as English teachers we should be incorporating interesting non fiction, thought provoking essays, and timely articles into our courses, but never to the exclusion of fiction, which, in its power to speak to our fundamental human nature, is unmatched. When parents’ influence continues to fail and aching father—and mother—wounds leave children without guidance, where else will our boys (and girls) learn the courage they will need to love and to live except through fiction?

Maybe Wiggins just wanted us to discuss the value of fiction, but I doubt it. Thanks to Patrick Higgins who got me thinking about this.

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Engagement is the only thing

December 16th, 2010 · Improving Education, Technology and Education, web 2.0 tools

If  students spend the day at school watching  teachers work, they’re not engaged and they’re not learning. When Dewey spoke of hands on learning, he no doubt meant that if one is to learn to build, one cannot discover the craft through a book but only by actually building.

Today’s technology allows us to engage all students in meaningful “hands on” creative learning, which drastically changes the teacher’s role from the lesson giver to the lessons facilliator: getting the right materials and conditions for each student to engage in and explore what he or she needs to learn what he or she needs to know.

Access to technology tools, whether hardware which gives us access to the Internet, or software (cloud/Web 2.0 tools), is key to a high level of engagement. 


Thanks to Ian Jukes for Tweeting about this video.

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