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.

Finding my “why”

Do you know your “why”? Your reason for doing what you do? What gets you out of bed every day and helps you know your purpose on this planet?

I’m a dive into the deep end kind of a person. I’m the one who’ll stay up all night, because the book just keeps getting better and better. I’m the one who looks up, realizing it’s been hours since I started playing Skyrim and now I desperately have to pee. (I’m also the Queen of TMI, so sorry about that.) I’m the one with a plate overflowing with work that I just can’t say no to. I’m the one working full time, part time, and attending college classes, all at the same time. I rarely stop to look at the big picture, the why of my life.

Let’s admit it: I find reflection painful, like being asked to look at myself in a mirror. Reflection always makes me see the wrinkles, the silver creeping into my hair, the loose skin and persistent fat rolls that six months of Weight Watchers and twenty pounds of weight loss just doesn’t wear away. Reflect? Ugh. Do I have to?

Well, when two administrators I admire, Bobby Dodds and Neil Gupta, both independently talk about the importance of establishing just WHY you do something, I know I have to sit up and take notice. So hear goes:

The why that is in the center of all that I do as a teacher is: I want to empower students to think and learn for themselves. Knowing my why helps define my purpose going forward.

So, do you know what your “why” is?

Props to Bobby Dodds for sharing the above YouTube video, which I plan to use to help students define their “why” this year.

Image attributed to https://www.flickr.com/photos/editor/


Why Dave Burgess is (and is not) like Tony Robbins

The implication is that we can all get over whatever’s keeping us down, that even introverts can learn to walk on coals while belting out a lusty YES. -Susan Cain

Before you ask, yes, I have seen Dave Burgess in person. I have been inspired to #TLAP (Teach like a pirate) and have read his book. I’ve even had dinner with him and a select group of administrators and teachers after the ILE conference this fall. I’ve tried a variety of his hooks in my classroom, and had kids tell me they wished they could spend the whole day in my room. But Tony Robbins? Nope, sorry, haven’t had the privilege.  So how can I possibly equate these two people? Well, it’s thanks to Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

I am reading Susan Cain’s book in preparation for leading #TBookC, a teacher (mostly me, lately) driven book club that meets on Twitter, at 9 EST on Thursdays. We’ll discuss the book November 12 & 19, so anyone who’s on Twitter and wants to join in, please do! Shameless plug aside, as I was reading Cain’s book, Chapter 2 “The Myth of Charismatic Leadership” really struck me. The charisma, the focus on grabbing attention and sweeping your audience off its feet sounded exactly like Dave Burgess, a social studies teacher who has the toughest crowd of all, disinterested high school kids.

Let me give you an example: one of Burgess’s hooks involves multiple Victoria’s Secrets bags, nested one inside the other like Russian dolls, with a burnt fire engine red bra inside. He uses this to hook kids into learning about women’s suffrage. And the anticipation is palpable as he slowly reaches into the first bag, only to pull out another, smaller bag. I watched him run back and forth on stage, run back and forth in the auditorium, and energy seems to crackle in the air around him.

Dave observes the world around him and repackages it for his students. He is super engaging, high energy, and almost overwhelming. He believes that any teacher can be equally engaging. And this is where my comparison to Tony Robbins comes in. Robbins believes that you are lacking as a human if you are not super charismatic. You will lose as a person, and a teacher, if you can’t be on fire every second of every day. “Bring it!” both men seem to say.

But here’s where they deviate: Dave Burgess does not try to upsell. Although he mentions he has a book, he often gives the cow away for free online, on social media, and in person. I never felt that he was disingenuous; he truly believes in the power of the extrovert.

Here’s my problem with both approaches: nowhere in either pitch is there room for the introvert. There is no space for the person who inspires by caring deeply about the opinion of others, who seeks to promote the spotlight for the group and not for themselves. The teacher is the sage on the stage, the magician who runs 110 mph to bring them all along. And this teacher centered universe is not my comfort zone.

Image (and more information about TLAP) attributed to http://daveburgess.com/

Tangrams: Building Community from Day 1

How do we build a learning community with our students from the first day?

As I move into Advanced American Literature/College Composition, this question has kept me up at night. Up until this year, I’ve taught General English 10, one that is benignly neglected by administrators and parents alike. Zombie Survival for two weeks? Sure, as long as no one goes to the office. Persepolis for a month? You bet; just make sure that their state mandated test scores are high enough. You get the picture.

As a newly christened college composition teacher, I have been told that I must foster a learning environment that is formal. Students should know from day one that I am an expert. But serious and dry on day 1?

I recently attended a Social Justice seminar, that looked at the importance of stories to create meaning and build community. I want my new grade level and new students to know that I value them as individuals and that I find their stories just as interesting as my students in previous years. The seminar discussed the use of mosaics, made up of broken pieces, as a representation of the importance respecting each individual difference. I had planned to create mosaic pieces out of construction paper and task the students with the creation of a classroom mosaic, with students writing their names on one side and something that symbolizes them on the other. But 28 pieces of a mosaic would be difficult to piece together, especially with torn pieces of paper.

Enter the tangram. As they walk into class, each student will receive a randomly assigned geometric shape, precut out of construction paper. The colors of the paper will serve several purposes. One, it will indicate their Classcraft team. Two, it will indicate their reading groups. Three, it will be the group with which they will create their tangram.

The Tangram Day 1 Activity

  1. On one side of their paper, they will write their preferred name and last name.
  2. On the other side, they will draw a picture or write a word that symbolizes them and that they are happy to share with another student.
  3. Students will get together in color groups
  4. They will pair with another student in their group to share their info, and then report out to the class their partner’s information.
  5. Then the groups will receive some poster board and will be tasked with creating a tangram to represent their group.
  6. They’ll glue the pieces down, with the symbol hidden on the backs of the pieces.
  7. The next day, I’ll explain the significance of geometric shapes not only in Native American culture but also in Islamic culture. I’ll explain the symbolism of mosaics as honoring the sharp edges of each piece, and that not all pieces in a mosaic need be the same to be important.
  8. Each group will share the significance of their tangram.

I hope that this activity will help students get to know each other, and helps me begin to create their learning communities.

The Secret to High Performance

The science shows that the secret to high performance isn’t our biological drive or our reward-and-punishment drive, but our third drive–our deep seated desire to control our own lives, to extend and expand our abilities, and to make a contribution–Daniel Pink

In my district, I have been part of a grand experiment. We have students who have failed traditional classes, and we are trying to help them recover their credit. This concept is not new. The experiment is students take classes through Blackboard on an individual basis, with teachers as mentors to help them.

Imagine their consternation: unlike every other summer, when they’d get their “packet of worksheets” to slap together and mail away, we met in the computer lab. As each student logged in to our virtual learning site, they had individual lessons to complete. Suddenly, they were being asked to actually practice and understand concepts, some of which did not match with what they’d learned the year before. Rather than letting them drift off into failure, I sat with a different student each day, modeling for them how to learn online. I had to do it–most of them were working on math courses that I knew nothing about. As we worked through practice problems and wrote down formulas (or googled the formulas,) I showed that room full of mostly boys that I cared about their success. And most of them finished.

Fast forward to spring. This school year, teachers were facilitating Blackboard courses for students. The teacher was at another site, so “all” the mentor teacher had to do was to motivate the students to finish. That fall, I taught next door, teaching a high school class for college credit. Now it was my turn with this new group of students.

Right away, I noticed a big difference between these students and my summer school kids. They wanted to sit away from me in the room, with their computer screens turned so I couldn’t see what they were doing. They saw me as the enemy, the one who they needed to game in order to do what they wanted. Only one student had completed her coursework for the fall; the rest were barely started. There was no Motivation 2.0–no stick or carrot big enough to make them care.

Being the person I am, I couldn’t sit behind my desk and grade papers, as I suspect the teacher before me had done. I sat down with each student and quickly determined that at least four of them were all in the same course. They were supposed to be reading The Alchemist, which is a pretty great book, but no one even had a copy. So we sat together, all five of us, and started reading the book out loud. Soon our group swelled to six, as another student with the same course joined us. It was still pulling teeth, and I’m sorry to say that although my six got through one semester’s worth of credit, another student dropped out, one went to juvenile detention, and a third had to cram several courses worth of credit that summer so he could graduate. No student could be said to have high performance standards. They finished because I cared, because I was unrelenting, not because of their own desires.

It’s now a little over one year later. Teachers this year have more control, as they grade their credit recovery kids’ content, but students still have no autonomy. The work feels meaningless to them. Just another thing to check off their list. So how can we make it doing something that matters, doing it well, and doing it in the service of a cause larger than ourselves?

I’d love to see a new way to recover credit. Couldn’t we have a grand project, like a service to the community project, where they work towards their credits by doing for others? Couldn’t they, for example, create a community garden, researching and writing a proposal to the community for fundraising, using their math skills to compute how much soil, the depth of the seeds, and more? And we could can and donate the proceeds? What do you think? Could it work?

This post is in response to reading Daniel Pink’s Drive for my Twitter Bookclub, #TBookC. Join us as we discuss Part 2, The Three Elements, on Thursday, May 14 at 9 EST, or as we discuss Part 3: The Type I Toolkit on Thursday, May 21.

A quick explanation

Since I couldn’t keep up with April, the cruelest month, I’ve decided that in May I will commit to write short “post stems” with ideas that would make nice long posts when time starts to slow down. Here’s my first:

What to do when students worry more about completion than perfection:
One group’s lit circle disaster, when they “read” an entire book on curriculet in one weekend and now don’t want to discuss it with each other.

Increase Student Engagement with Poetry

I love poetry. The fact that you can layer words together to create new meaning, that you can play with language or order your thoughts and connect with your reader makes it one of my favorite genres to write. But how do you get students who think in blank and white to see the shades of mauve and deepest indigo that poetry traces in your mind?

My first year, I tried the poetry in our textbook. I liked the images included with the poems, but I noticed that my sophomores were turned off. They were disengaged and unhappy with the poems I chose. So the next year, I tried something new.

I introduced music as poetry. I found the lyrics of some of my favorite songs, like Tom Waits’s “Black Wings”, and the lyrics of some of their favorite songs, like Taylor Swift’s “Love Story.” I copied them on paper and wrote questions at the bottom. This worked okay as an introduction to poetry, but the wide variety of prior knowledge that students bring to the lowest level of 10th grade English became a problem.

One student, who had dropped down from Advanced 9th, could find and create figurative language, like metaphors, as well as sound devices, like alliteration. When we read and answered questions as a class, this student tuned me out. But I couldn’t skip the explanations of literary devices, because other students had no tool box of literary devices from previous years to open and unpack poetry.

This year, I applied technology to the disengagement and differentiation problems. Curriculet not only had a wealth of poetry with questions aligned to the Common Core already created, it also allowed me to import my own poems. Because Curriculet allows a teacher to embed their own questions and annotations, I knew I could create the ultimate poetry unit.

I started again with music, because I knew it was a way to open the doors of poetry for students. First, we looked at Taylor Swift’s “Love Story.” One improvement that jumped out right away was that students could work at their own pace. Those students who knew Romeo and Juliet from last year could bypass the video that showed the balcony scene from Romeo’s point of view. Those that had no clue about the play got the support they needed.

The next thing I noticed was that students did not know how to interact with the annotations. Although we had worked earlier in the year on how to take notes from video clips, I had to reteach taking notes from the annotations. It was worth it, though, because I was able to build on prior knowledge that I knew all students had.

We moved on to two more songs, Tom Waits’s “Black Wings” and Bruce Cockburn’s “Celestial Horses.” Now students knew how to take notes, but some were rushing through the poems and getting many of the short answers wrong. Because Curriculet’s interface was so easy to work with, I found that I could grade all 85 students’ work in less than a half an hour. This meant that the very next day, I could attempt some reteaching.

Any student who had successfully completed the short answers got some free time in class, to silently read or do other homework, while the struggling students could go through the answers with me. By differentiating using Curriculet, I could meet the needs of my students.

To bridge between pop music and more serious poetry, we looked at “Jazz Fantasia,” by Carl Sandburg, and “The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes. Again, I retaught any material the majority had missed.

Now that they had a strong foundation of basic knowledge, in an easy to digest music format, I moved on to meatier subjects. Our textbook has many poems about death, but I have really like Jean Toomer’s “Reapers” and John McCrae’s “Flander’s Fields.” Often students struggled with grasping what is happening in both poems, because they have no context for farming without power tools or for World War I. In the past, I had students read an article about World War I, but it never seemed to connect with students.

By importing informational text into Curriculet, I opened a window to World War I for my students. First, they read about John McCrae himself, to get an idea of who the poet was. Next, students read about the battle of Ypres, so they could have historical context for the poem. I could embed videos about trench foot, as well as war footage. For the first time, students began using the define function embedded within Curriculet, to look up words they didn’t know.

With all that background, they easily understood “Flander’s Fields.”  With a little help from some embedded videos, they understood “Reapers,” as well. Because I wanted them to compare themes, I put the poems together in one curriculet.

The last poetry curriculet I created was “Auto Wreck,” by Karl Shapiro. In the past, I tried to get students to focus on specific lines by numbering lines. I would still have students struggle with exactly which lines I meant. This time, I could use the highlight function on my curriculet, so students knew exactly what lines to look at.

Thanks to Curriculet’s free content, I could even include “Chicago,” another poem by Carl Sandburg, as an outside of class assignment. Even with a pre-created curriculet, you can edit the annotations and the questions. I was able to make this poem accessible to my students by modifying the content provided.

In my four classes, I saw an increase in student completion over previous years, thanks to Curriculet. Even my struggling students got the help they needed in a timely fashion, because I could easily see which questions needed reteaching. My more advanced students could progress at their own pace. I could even see the students who barely spent seat time on poems, and let them know they needed to take more time. Curriculet empowered me to reach all my students.