Archive for October, 2010

Who’s Doing The Talking During Class Discussions

October 25, 2010 2 comments

I had an interesting conversation in my class tonight regarding the development of discourse and hosting student conversations in (math) class. I shared with my classmates an observation I’ve had as a consultant: during most class discussions a teacher will say a few dozen words, and then a student will respond with two or three.  Teacher then affirms or rejects the students input, says a few dozen more words, and eventually elicits another 2/3 word response from a second student. This pattern continues until the conversation ends, and the teacher wraps up the ideas for students.

When I think back to my own classroom practices, I wonder if my classroom conversations were the same. I believe conversations are one of the most important activities that students can be engaged in during the learning process, but students need to actually be engaged. Sometimes we educators monopolize conversations in class in order to guide the discussion to where we want it to go.

I worked with a teacher today, John, who very successfully implemented an online discussion (shameless plug) in his social studies (grade 9) class. Students were highly engaged writing pages upon pages of ideas, pulling in evidence from online sources and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Canada) to back their opinions. John only had to add his input on occasion to gently nudge the conversation (moderating) keeping it on topic. Students were very successful and in turn, so was John as a teacher facilitating discussion.

John took it further and added something that I haven’t seen before. He told students that they were required to read through the entire conversation before the next class, and write a brief 1 or 2 paragraphs. The focus will be on how their thinking has either changed or their opinion has become stronger due to the comments of their peers. In addition to having every student participate in a conversation, John now has students reviewing the collaborative learning process and synthesizing it on their own. Brilliant!

If you value conversations as a part of the learning process you may want to reflect on what experience your students have during a class ‘discussion’. Are students listening to you state facts and ask a few questions from a handful of students? Or are they deeply engaged in a conversation, given the chance to think about their own ideas, revise them, and challenge each other?

One things for sure, the next time I host a ‘class discussion’ I’ll be considering who’s doing the talking, and who’s doing the listening.



Become an Expert with Googles Similar Search

October 23, 2010 Leave a comment

A few weeks ago I had a teacher ask me how I know about ‘every single website’ out there (her words).  Obviously I do not know every single site, but when I’m asked to do a presentation on a topic, like say creating cartoons, I look for as many sites as I can find.  As a technology consultant, I want to know which sites are favourites of my own and decide which one or two I will recommend to teachers (and for what reasons). So, I usually start with a few go to sites that I’m familiar with, and simply do a “similar” search in google.  Works great, and if you do a related/similar search for enough websites, you eventually find (almost) everything.

I started off looking for cartooning sites for my cartooning website review by searching for as shown below

Story Telling In Science Class

October 21, 2010 Leave a comment

I would like to quickly share with you this video on biomagnification. I believe is a pretty good example of how someone has taken facts and created an interesting story.  The video is fun to watch, and I bet it was fun to make.  A lot more interesting and far more valuable than a traditional report on biomagnification.

8 Reasons, 7 Tips and A Rubric: The Digital Literature Circle

October 20, 2010 1 comment

Maybe you’ve heard of a literature circle before – the idea is that students sit in small groups (maybe 4/5, depending on the needs of students), and talk about a piece of literature they’ve been reading.  It could be a long novel or a short article, but I think that longer pieces are more common.  These circles have the great benefit of students speaking out loud about their own interpretations/understandings, and gaining ideas from other students.  The draw back is that as a teacher, you can’t hear every idea when there are 4 groups speaking all at once about different topics/books.  There is also no record to assess (usually formatively) and get information for feedback and monitoring progress/growth.  But now with the technology of the last 15 years, we can easily have literature circles in a virtual environment, easing some of these issues.

Reasons to Use Digital Literature Circles

1 – Students Get Feedback Students voice their opinions and then can get feedback from their peers.

2 – Community Knowledge As others share ideas, students gain new perspectives and ideas.  The community knowledge grows, and therefore the individuals knowledge grows.

3 – There Is Something to Assess Because there is a digital record of the conversations, the teacher can monitor student progress and provide feedback.  If a proper rubric is created, you could even start considering formative assessment, as I have done sometimes.

4 – All Students Can Participate Often, in a class discussion, only a handful of students get the opportunity to speak. Online, every students can converse and share their opinions

5 – All Students Will Participate Even in a setting where students use real names, they are more likely to participate.  Students are more comfortable online.

6 – The Level of Responses is Amazaing! Students have time to think about their ideas and formulate their responses.  Keep high expectations and you will be surprised and overjoyed with what students say, and how they say it.

7 – Develop Disciplinary Discourse In a science or social students class (maybe even in math), students can discuss non-fiction that they have read, and begin to use the language of the discipline.

8 – Great Essay Prep At the end of a Literature circle, if students need to write a response or essay they have lots of ideas to build on and a record of it all to assist in their writing.  If done properly, the conversations should even include references to quotations or external sources to back up their opinions/thoughts

How To Use Digital Literature Circles

I usually treat digital (virtual) literature circles as something that happens synchronously between students and teachers during class time, but it doesn’t have to be.  On a discussion board, 5 groups of students discuss within 5 different discussion threads about something they’ve ready, and I will often use if for just short pieces of reading, both fiction and non-fiction in the content areas.  A few tips from an experienced (I’ve probably done this in over 100 classrooms) Digital Conversationalist

1 – Have Expectations and Talk About Them The very first thing you need to do is talk to your students about your expectations of them online.  Have discussions regarding digital citizenship, and what it might mean to be a good digital citizen.  Give respect to students and tell them they need to do the same to their peers.  It’s not ok to call someone stupid, or their ideas stupid.  We want to challenge each other to think about thoughts, but it’s not about the person, it is about their ideas, and we will all grow our understandings by learning from each other.

2 – Provide A Rubric You must know what you expect of students, and how you want them to respond.  Show them how you will decide if they are doing a good job, so they know what to strive for

3 – Monitor Student Conversations Just as you would monitor a class conversation that is verbal, monitor online behavior.  Correct inappropriate behaviour and talk to students, be part of the conversations and guide them

4 – Reflect on Student Work Out Loud After the first 15ish minutes of students posting online, stop them, and ask them to look up at the projector (hopefully you have one).  Read some students posts out loud, and have discussions about what is great about each post, and how they add to the conversation.  If there are inappropriate comments, call students on it (without using their names), be stern, and tell them you don’t ever want to see that again.

5- Model Be a part of student conversations (as mentioned), and model what types of comments you expect of students.

6 – Backing Up Ideas If your kids are conversing online, they have internet access so take advantage.  If appropriate, get students to look for online resources and references to back up their ideas.  Challenge students to find examples in the novel or text that they are reading to back up what they are saying.

7 – Scaffold Sometimes students lack basic skills (I’ve seen this even in IB and AP classes at the high school level). You will probably need to teach them how to ask questions and make references (See tip 6).

Example Rubric For Science Class

Very quickly, here is the science discussion rubric. It comes with teacher notes and a brief little assignment at the top.  It also comes with teacher notes on how I linked it to curriculum in Alberta.  I used it for a current events discussion I used to have my grade 10 and 11 science students take part in.  Please feel free to use and modify, but I would appreciate being credited.  If you would like to publish/present this in part or whole please contact me.

Keep in mind, as with all new ways of learning, this might be a bit of a challenge.  It usually takes me two 45 minutes blocks to get students proficient with this strategy, but it is worth the time.  Just think deeply be reflective and I’m sure you’ll figure it out.  In the future I plan to make a post about some different websites you could use to set up a discussion board for digital literature circles.

I hope I’ve given you lots to think about.  If you have any questions whatsoever, please ask in the comments below.  I would be happy to help and you with your implementation.


A great resource for scaffolding strategies is Inquiring Minds Learn to Read and Write by Wilhelm Wilhelm and Boas (2009)

A great resource on how to develop discourse in the classroom comes from Fisher, Frey and Rothenberg called  Content-Area Conversations.

6 Reasons and 3 Tips: Making Cartoons In School

October 19, 2010 3 comments

The most popular post in the short history of this blog was Get Your Students Stripping: A Simple Review of Online Comic Creation Websites back in May 2010.  I wanted to honour it by posting some practice tips for teachers on how to utilize these sites. I’m not going to get into extensive details on ‘how’ and ‘when’ to use comics in your classroom.  I’m simply trying to provide a little bit of inspiration here. I think that online comic creation sites are a great way to get students developing 21st century skills.

If you haven’t already found a site you love for creating comics, I recommend both creaza and toondoo.

Reasons To Get Your Students Making Comic Strips/Books

1) It’s Fast! Online tools such as creaza and toondoo are so simple to use that you barely even need to show students how the tool works.  It takes about 10 minutes to get a class logged in and show them the basic functions the very first time, and than they are working. If they have a good plan, it shouldn’t take very long to finish.

2) Students Have To Think! Science, Math, Social, or English, I can promise you students won’t easily find what you’re asking them to make.  Students are forced to synthesize information, and create dialogue from facts.  They also must be succinct, adding to the challenge.

3) Students Love It! I’ve gone into over a dozen classrooms to help out with doing cartooning in class. In both middle school and high school, kids love it! Now, if you make them do it all the time, I’m sure the appeal will quickly die, but it certainly is a different type of assignment for them.  Everyone likes cartoons, and these websites take the challenge out of having to draw.

4) Its Accessible! Students who might struggle with a writing-heavy assignment due to low levels of literacy can still thrive, and show off what they know!

5) They Live On! On most websites, students not only create their comics but they can get feedback from others.  It’s a whole new meaning for literacy, and a new challenge, to get people to rally around your message.

6) Rework and Reuse Old Assignments! You don’t have to come up with a brand new idea and toss out old assignments.  Sometimes the easiest way to start making change to your practice is a simple modification.  My first cartoon came from an old assignment, where I used to ask students to take on a historical figure in science and write a letter about their own thoughts/discoveries.  Now the assignment requires students to create simple dialogue that will portray the same knowledge. Students are creating new stories instead of old reports, and including a visual literacy element as well.

How To Make It Successful In Your Classroom

1) Plan In The Classroom! Get students to plan before you let them ‘play’ on the computer.  It is even better if you can give them a graphic organizer (table/chart) to help them.  Get students to consider, for each slide: the background, the characters, the prompts, the dialogue.  This is really where most of the thinking is going to occur, and so we want them to spend some time here.

2) Show Them How It Works, Before They Plan! I know, I just said planning has to happen first, and that is true, we want students to learn the value of planning ahead.  But the planning will be much easier for them if they know how the tool works, what kinds of characters they can choose, backgrounds, prompts, etc.

3) Make Them Explain! Actually, I have students do this for every kind of assignment.  When students justify choices they’ve made (and when they know that they will have to justify choices in advance of making them), they tend to put more thought into what they do.  They seem to become more conscious of their choices.

Good luck ‘stripping’ in your classroom.  If you haven’t tried it yet, I think you’ll really love it.  If you’ve used it before I hope I still have given you something to think about.  And don’t forget to check out my other blog post where I recommended toondoo and creaza to see why I liked them.


I would like to thank Susana Gerndt, who is my partner from 8am-5pm. This article was written on my own but the ideas have come from work that both her and I have done over the past year.

Presentation: Managing Your Digital Tattoo

October 16, 2010 Leave a comment

I held a session on Friday with Danny Maas for grade 5 and 6 students in our district.  We were asked to speak to digital citizenship, and so given the timeframe we focused on the idea of a digital tattoo.  We collaboratively built a presentation using prezi meeting, and in less than an hour on prezi meeting we created the basis for what turned out to be a very successful session.

Our goal was to inform students of the concept of a digital tattoo, and to empower students with some basic knowledge so that they could make informed decisions when they participate online.  We framed the session around two sub topics: respecting others and respecting self.

We wanted to talk about cyberbullying, and Danny introduced this great video to strike up some conversation among students.  We provided the focus question “how do the things I  and do online affect the people around me” to talk about the video, and students came up with great ideas about cyberbullying, how it makes the bully feel, the victim, and how it victimizes the whole community.  Students were even able to make connections with things they can do to prevent and maybe even stop cyberbullying.  We also got into conversations about how other people’s perceptions can be changed by our activities online.

Danny then shared another video to show what social media sites do with your information.  Students talked about the responsibility they have when posting information about not only themselves but others online. They came up with ideas on when it might be appropriate to post pictures/videos of others, and how it might make other people feel when you do that (in both positive and negative ways).

Overall it was about 50 minutes of mostly students talking and sharing ideas, collaborating to construct a common knowledge of how their actions online affect both themselves and the people they interact with.  Danny and I both felt confident that, generally, students left the session empowered with knowledge that would be important when making decisions and judgements when interacting online.

Thanks Danny for the great session!

REBEL: Reform IS Happening, One Classroom At A Time

October 16, 2010 Leave a comment

I think that the discourse surrounding educational reform often becomes heated because the language, the intentions and meanings of the common phrases, are still being negotiated through the process of discourse itself.  I find that when engaged in talk of reform, others are speaking about systemic change; the need to change the teachers, the physical buildings, the resources, the school boards, the funding, the students, the politics and the overall opinions of society on education.  I prefer to focus simply on the process of learning that students are engaged in.  The former is a massive undertaking perhaps better left to the politically powerful and ambitious.  The latter is doable by me, a teacher, each and every day, in a very tangible way.

Realistically, most of us aren’t going to wake up Monday morning and change the world by Friday at 3:00 pm.  What we can achieve during the week is reform for our own classroom practices.  In fact this is already happening from the efforts of many individual teachers.  As a consultant I see hundreds of individual classrooms through school visits. What I’ve noticed over the past year is; more student collaboration, increased discourse in the classroom (and beyond the classroom using the interactive web), creativity being honoured and encouraged, discovery and inquiry becoming common methods of constructing understandings, problem solving, critical thinking, and a general understanding that knowledge on its own is no longer power, but being able to use it in unique ways is!  Phew!

While it is becoming increasingly important to look at possible systemic change in education, we need to start with change in our own classrooms. For many of us, this is already happening.  We need to celebrate these individual victories, and use our own classrooms as a model for our schools, our district, our states/provinces, and eventually the entire institution of education.


For more blog posts on educational reform, please see the REBEL Education Reform WallWisher

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