How a silent discussion opened the door for my students

I sat with the group, silently observing their small group discussion. Although normally she finds ways around it, on this day,  my student who struggles with stuttering had an almost impossible time getting her ideas out. When she is nervous, the words seem to break apart in her mouth. I know she has amazing things to say, because her blog is thoughtful, sweet, and expresses the thoughts of a deep thinker, but speaking to others while being watched was making that ability to dig deep into a text and pull out the heart of an idea invisible to the others. I knew I had to do something.

Backchannel chat and Twitter to the rescue.

In preparation of a student led, Socratic discussion, students had read almost half of Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northup. They had close read passages, analyzed them for ethos and pathos, and written countless short answer responses. I had asked them to come up with open ended questions in anticipation of this discussion, but I didn’t think putting this student on display was fair to her. So I proposed a silent, Twitter style, chat instead.

First, I created a free backchannel chat at Then I created an assignment in Google Classroom with the link to the chatroom. I explained the format of a Twitter chat, with Q1 representing the first question and A1 its answer. I reviewed the norms of a good discussion, with interaction between its members, and let them appoint a student discussion leader. Students typed their favorite open ended question into the public comments on the assignment, and the discussion leader added the appropriate Q1 etc. to the question and pasted it in the chat. She monitored when student comments seemed to die down and added the next Q when it seemed to fit.

The chat was a success. Not only did the student who struggles with stuttering have success, but several of my more introverted students shone as well. In fact, if you look at the exchange they had in the above screenshot, you can just see the connections building. It was epic. I will definitely do this again.

Going far together: social annotation

I recently read a tweet from one of my favorite social media gurus: Alice Keeler. She is adamant that annotating a pdf document is not a worthwhile assignment.

I beg to differ.

Even for the students I teach, high school juniors who take my class for college credit, can struggle with how to interpret complex texts. Take “Young Goodman Brown,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, for example. Written in the 1850s, it is full of archaic language and culture alien to my suburban population. But the conflict central to the text, the struggle to decide between following an evil path or a righteous one, suspicion that those around us are not as they seem, the ambiguity and potential misinterpretation of first person witnesses, all these are interesting questions for a modern audience. It’s a college level discussion, and how do we scaffold our students to be prepared to tackle it, using text dependent evidence? The same way we teach any other skill: modeling. And it’s so much easier to model deeper thinking with digital annotations.

This year, I have stressed Kylene Beers and Robert Probst’s techniques  covered in Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading. (Interested in hearing more? See this link to the book.) Although my sophomores have worked with these techniques all year, my juniors have just started, and due to a variety of snow days, two hour delays, and days off of school so far this semester, I needed something to jump start the conversation on close reading techniques. Luckily for me, I found this awesome site called Kami.

Kami allows you to annotate pdf files online. Since I knew we wouldn’t have class time for me to model annotation, I created a series of videos that modeled how to read and understand “Young Goodman Brown.” Below is an example:

Now whereas I could have used an old fashioned overhead to accomplish a similar task, it would have taken much more than the class time a two hour delay schedule provides. And here’s where things get interesting and more 21st century: when you have students share the task of annotating a story together.

The first time we tried this, all 61 of my students read the same story and shared the task of annotating. Here’s a sample of their thoughts about one part of “Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin:


Note that the students commenting all come from different class periods. Together, they ask intriguing questions, notice how the time it was written affects the language, and come up with a plausible explanation, all without me, the teacher, having to explain. We agreed that all 61 students at the same time was awfully confusing, so for our next go around, we decided that it would be less confusing if they chose small groups and read a story of their choice. Then students shared their annotations with me in Google Classroom. The below students are discussing Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain.” Note that the students are discussing the very end of the story.


As these students think through what happened in the story, they are beginning to see the complexity of language, to wonder WHY authors choose to write as they do. This is beyond merely recalling what happened in a story. I would argue we reached DOK 3 for reading standards with this task. And as we practice how to interpret and read complex tasks by sharing the task of annotating a pdf, we are traveling far, together.


When I tweeted this blog link to Alice Keeler, this was her response:

Since 140 characters just won’t do this question justice, here is a more precise explanation:

The simplest answer is that quite often, converting a pdf changes the text. Sometimes it’s characters within the story that change (when letters are misinterpreted as other letters,) sometimes it’s the white space on the page that’s converted. Since a writer uses space and character deliberately, these changes can alter the very meaning of the text. Until pdf to doc becomes more accurate, I persist in saying that annotating a pdf is not a worthless exercise.

#OneWord Focus

To be focused, to converge a wave of light into heat, to have a center of heat or intensity, these would be a major change in how I live my life. I have always been diffuse, spread out like a thin film of water vapor, like a planner with its first commitment in that five year plan somewhere in year 3.

You see, in a typical year, I am planning about tomorrow. No, the day after tomorrow. No, two months from now. There is nothing wrong with planning ahead, nor is there anything wrong with having many avenues to pursue joy. There is a problem, however, in rushing through life, unable to see the delicate bluebell before smashing it under heel on the way to the future. I need to be able to stop, to focus, to feel the earth holding me up, the air filling my lungs. To be in the  moment, this moment, with a purring cat heavy on my lap and my family asleep.

As 2017 moves forward, I will use this focus to remind me to be mindful of the now, to know that it’s okay to say no to that which does not further my purpose. Even as I plan for November’s NCTE conference, so much must I realize that today is a gift, and I cannot waste it.

Focus” by Mark Hunter is free to share or adapt under a CC 2.0 license.

Adding a little lit to my nonfiction

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An icy wind tickles the inside of her hooded cheek. To protect her hands, she tucks them in her defiant pockets. She is resolute. Relentless lights sear her eyes, and it is not his absence she regrets. No, it is not his absence that makes tears well up, that adds weight to her steps and folds the collar of her coat up to her chin. It is merely the chilling reminder that winter is not yet over.

The above represents a literary nonfiction exercise, where my students use sensory details, imagery, simile, metaphor, and personification to make a photo come alive. Since they are interviewing a person in the community and writing an analysis of how well that community has survived conflict, and because I do not know the people that they plan to interview, this description will become vital to “hook” me into their writing. I can’t wait to read what they write!

Those who can

As I walked in the door, the gleam from Dr. L’s shiny, bald head glowed in the fluorescent lights of the computer lab. My heels tapped on the grey carpet, and I wandered over to sit on the far end of the conference table. It had already been a long day, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. You’d think after almost twenty years as a teacher that going into a classroom would hold no enigmas for me, but I wasn’t here to teach the class. No, I was back for the first time in over ten years in a face to face graduate class. Could I compete with these fresh faced English majors, with their enviable free schedules? Could I juggle a family, a full time job, and the coursework? Or would my lack of familiarity with the topic, Rhetoric, affirm the single story that higher education has about classroom teachers? 

When my fellow classmates greeted each other by name, their easy familiarity only served to increase my anxiety. I could feel sweat beginning to coil in the small of my back. With few exceptions, they all seemed so young. And when one of them turned to me and asked, “You’re new here. My name’s Adam. What’s yours?” Adam wore a faded concert t-shirt, and the gallon jug of water he set on the table felt pretentious. The hoverboard that he pulled out at the end of class just emphasized: this was not the early 90’s anymore.

Months passed. To prove to myself I could do it, I was one of the first to present my paper on Lacan, a French philosopher who contributed to the idea of rhetoric. I dug into the weekly reflections with relish, trying to make connections from ancient texts like Plato to my modern life. And for the most part, not only did I prove to myself that I could be a graduate student, I also showed those fresh faced English majors students that a high school teacher could stand shoulder to shoulder with them, bravely doing battle with the things we once thought to be true.

And the hoverboard never did catch fire.

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Save the forest: the paperless classroom

A paperless English classroom? Yes, please! It’s the unicorn of the English world–how do we empower students to think and learn for themselves without consuming a wildfire’s amount of paper? Well, these are my top tools for not only saving paper but also saving what little free time you have, if you’re an English teacher. In no particular order, my favorite tools.

Tool one: Touchcast

Are you sick of staying after school, pouring over those posters? Or wading through terrible Power Point presentations? Touchcast is a powerful tool for any content area, because it supports interactive video. Imagine: it’s not a printed and poorly glued picture, it’s a graphic that, when clicked, takes you directly to the website from which it came. Students can use their face or their voice in an organized presentation that invites the viewer to interact. Polls, a live Twitter feed, embedded videos, all hosted on not only Touchcast’s website but also on the iPad from which it came. It’s another free tool, on iPhones, iPads, and Apple desktops.

Tool two: Diigo

Have you ever taken your students to the library to print their research articles, because you want them to highlight and annotate the information they plan to use in their paper? Well, not only does Diigo, a Chrome extension, make printing articles a thing of the past, it also allows students to collaborate. They can share their annotated websites and pdfs, not just with you but with the class. Did you students forget to record the author or title of the website they visited? Well, because Diigo links to the information on the web, it’s easy for students to get back and get that vital citation information. And it’s free!

Tool three: Google Classroom

Google Classroom became my go-to tool for turning in papers last year. It is by far the easiest way I’ve found to disseminate and collect student work. I post the assignment, and students have an organized, uniform way to give it back to me. It’s timestamped, so I know if it’s late, and because Classroom does the legwork for keeping student work in one place, it’s easy for both my students and me to find it again. No more am I searching through my email to find student work. Totally free, as long as your school is a Google Apps for Education user. (If they’re not, go beg. It’s worth it!)

Tool four: Snagit

Do you spend hours marking up a student paper, only to have the student in question seemingly resubmit an identical paper, with only the minute grammar mistakes or spelling mistakes you marked changed? Or have you spent an entire week meeting face to face with students, painstakingly workshopping, only to have the student apparently ignore all your well thought out criticisms? Well, it’s not because students don’t care; it’s because they’re overwhelmed and confused. By using Snagit to create a screencast of a student’s paper, you can use your voice and your mouse to point out suggestions to students. Because you can record and because your students can replay those recordings outside of class, you not only save time, you save your sanity, because students will do a better job at revising their work. It’s a Chrome extension. And yes, it’s free.

I have used all of the above tools for several years now, and they have really done an amazing job at transforming my classroom. And now, as a bonus, the new tool I’m implementing this year:

Tool five: Goobric

Last year, the first year I used both Snagit and Google Classroom together, it took me hours to create an individual rubric for each student, which I would share in the Google Classroom comments along with the screencast. Well, Goobric is a major game changer. All I had to do was change my rubric from a Google doc to a Google sheet. Goobric not only created a rubric for each of my students, it recorded the results on a spreadsheet and copied the rubric on each student’s paper.

Have a great start to the year, and good luck in your new, paperless classroom!

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