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.

Of Ambassadors and Blogs

This spring break I reached out to the world from the comfort of my own living room. How, you ask? Well, it’s thanks to my two favorite technology companies: Touchcast and Curriculet.


I’ve had some amazing opportunities with Touchcast. In 2013-14, my Advanced English class and I participated in an educational pilot with the company. I created a Common Core aligned lesson plan with Dr. Segal, Head of Education at Touchcast. In return, the company trained my students via Skype on using the app. They also gave us a green screen, microphone, lights, and costumes. It was a fun project, one my students will always remember.

Act 1, Scene 1, Julius Caesar


Well, in 2015 they contacted me again, this time offering me the chance to be an Ambassador. I see it as my chance to share this great platform with a wider audience. What’s so great about Touchcast? Well, first of all, it’s really intuitive to use. In 2013 during the first few weeks of school, I handed the iPad to a group of students and asked them to make a video demonstrating their mastery of literary devices from summer reading from their summer reading, to teach that device to a wider audience. They promptly put together screenshots, the whiteboard, and audio to create some great work.

Second of all, they have wonderful customer service. One time, I was struggling with the publication of a student video. We’d done everything right, but it just wouldn’t publish. No sooner had I sent an email then Touchcast got back to me, offering to help. In less than a day, my students’ hard work was online. They’ve always been responsive: I didn’t reach out to them to do a pilot, they saw me using their product and reached out to me.

Now they’ve featured me on their Ambassador channel.


This interactive eReading platform helps teachers keep track of Common Core standards while motivating students to read. I started working for them in May 2014, writing “curriculets,” which include summative and formative assessments as well as annotations for literary and informational text. I also use Curriculet in my classroom. A lot. This spring break, Curriculet blogged about how I used the platform to create an awesome poetry unit for my current 2014-15 regular 10th grade students.

What’s so great about Curriculet? Well, I love the possibility of tracking time on task and progress with Common Core standards. I love that so much of their content is free, and I can import my own material to the site. And Curriculet has book rentals of popular titles, something I plan to use at the end of this school year.



Submerging Into The 5th Wave, Riptides Optional

Today marks our third day of reading Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave. We have been exclusively chatting on Schoology, since my classes are used to that platform, and I now have a rubric that I can use to grade their interactions. I only had to revoke internet privileges for two students, and only have three students out of 11 on IEPs that need scaffolded comprehension question to replace our chat.

At first, our chats were very superficial, as we waded into the surf.  See below:


After the first two periods, I realized that they could not see each others’ comments before they posted, so they repeated the same comments or variations of the same comments. Also, you might notice that some of the comments were immature.

The second day, I explained what I was looking for again, and made sure that they could see each other’s posts before entering their own.  That day, we were up to our necks. I started to identify who was being pulled out to sea by the riptide, and who was ready to take off the life preservers.


Note that they are beginning to answer their own questions and to think a little more for themselves.

Today represents the third day of our read.


Note that is a different class. I have left first names visible, because I want to demonstrate how the interactions between the students share vital oxygen. They are beginning to make connections to their own lives, to the world, and to dive in below the surface of the novel.

I’m excited to see their progress. I can’t wait to see what tomorrow will bring.