Digital Portfolios

Circled words, arrows, spiral notebookI am thinking of using digital portfolios this year. I have a wiki for my classes, and it would be easy for students to have a page on the wiki where they can collect their pieces and also pull in other items, like Glogs, images, videos, and audio. I really liked the idea of an interactive notebook, but I’m wondering if a digital portfolio wouldn’t be easier to grade.

Do you use digital portfolios? What tool do you use to create them? What suggestions would you have for implementation? Would it be better for students to create blogs? I don’t want to use too many different tools because I don’t want things to be confusing.

Creative Commons License photo credit: juliejordanscott

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Teaching Schedule

Material escolarI received my teaching schedule for next year. I am stepping back into some comfortable areas as well as taking on some new challenges.

I will be teaching two sections (two levels) of British Literature and Composition, same as I did this year, and I will also be teaching my Hero with a Thousand Faces elective first semester and Writing Seminar II second semester. I have taught Writing Seminar II for at least second semester, if not for the whole year, ever since the course was created. The reason for that is the academic research paper is assigned for all tenth graders, including those in that Writing Seminar class, during second semester. Teaching the research paper is one of my areas of expertise, which sounds really self-congratulatory, and I’m not usually like that, but I do understand why I am consistently given the task by my principal.

I am returning to American Literature and Composition, which I haven’t taught for a few years. I already used this word, but that curriculum feels comfortable to me. It will be good to get back into again. I really did kind of miss it.

I am taking on the new challenge of teaching Journalism and running our school paper. I have taught a Journalism course before in middle school, and I feel the course was great considering the lack of support I received by the administration and the lack of materials I received. Aside from getting a local car dealership to underwrite a two-day a week subscription to the newspaper, I had no teaching materials. In my new position, I will have computer access and software, a few seasoned newspaper veterans in the class, and I would wager I’ll have all the support I will need to make a go of it.

As I gave the teacher edition of one of the 9th grade literature anthologies to the teacher who will teach the class next year, I remarked to her that I had taught that course (Grammar, Composition, and Literature CP2) since its inception at our school. Wow. That has been for the last six years. I have taught ninth grade for every year of my high school teaching career. That means teaching Romeo and Juliet and The Odyssey every year for 10 years. It was wearing thin, and when I realized a couple of years ago that I was no longer enjoying teaching even these favorites, I knew I needed a break. Maybe I won’t mind coming back to it after a rest.

I think I have decided not to buy a Teacher’s Daybook this year. I find Jim Burke’s planner to be the best I’ve ever used. It’s flexible, but one struggle I’ve had is that I have a lot of preps and a strange alternating schedule, and in my search for a planner that works better for me, I found this: Planbook by Hellmansoft. The video demonstration gives you a good idea of all the planner can do, but here’s a great description from the site:

Planbook is a lesson planning application developed by Jeff Hellman, a high school science teacher. Planbook is designed to completely replace your paper plan book with an intuitive application that lets you harness the power of the computer to make your lesson planning time more productive. You can enter the schedule that you teach (rotating and A/B schedule are easily handled), quickly enter lesson information, attach files to lessons, track standards, print hard copies of your plans and publish your plans to the web for students, parents and other education professionals and more.

Planbook is simple enough to use that you’ll get going in no time, but robust enough to deal with schedule changes, days with abnormal schedules and just about anything else that comes at you.

Given the price, and given all the strangeness in my schedule, as well as all the features and the fact that its on the computer, it just makes sense. I can use iCal or Things to manage any reminders for non-instructional tasks (such as due dates for college letters or recommendation or meetings).

I’m looking forward to next year. I think it will be a good year.

Creative Commons License photo credit: sergis blog

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Image Grammar

I have been on the lookout for books, websites, and other materials to help me teach grammar. If you have some good ideas for resources, please leave them in the comments.

A couple of things I have been trying with my students seem to be working fairly well. I used the Sentence Opening Strategy activity shared by Carol Sanders on the EC Ning to teach sentence variety. My students were fairly reflective about their writing in this activity. I also pulled out my copy of Spelling and Grammar: The Daily Spark, along with Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Devotional and have been posting grammar and writing puzzles on the SMARTBoard as a sort of journaling/opening activity while I take attendance and do other housekeeping. The students really like the grammar puzzles, and I found it sort of flexes their brains for writing.

Still, teaching grammar, and what I mean by that is correctness and variety (because everyone seems to disagree about what grammar is), is just hard. I want my students to be more fluent and fluid writers, and I want them to communicate clearly. Based on this goal, it would seem Harry Noden’s Image Grammar is an excellent choice.

I’ve read one chapter, and I like the way Noden organizes different writing techniques, such as using participles, as “brush strokes.” The accompanying CD has some good material, but in my opinion, the CD should probably be updated. The material on the CD is organized into HTML files, and they look a little archaic (think Geocities or Angelfire), but the material is solid. Noden also references a website that is no longer working—ah the joys of the Internet—as a source of images for writing prompts, but the Web does not lack examples of image sites that can be used to spark writing.

What I like best about the book so far is that Noden shows how to teach grammatical structures in a way that students will see their relevance to their own writing. I have had students who knew a great deal about grammatical structures out of context but could not apply these structures to make their own writing better. I have had students tell me that I taught them how to write well, but it’s an area in which I would like to improve.

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Dissecting Trolls

Most readers of this blog probably know that in Internet parlance, a troll is a person, usually partly or completely anonymous, who posts off-topic and usually really vicious or mean comments. Karl Fisch tweeted yesterday about the depressing nature of the comments left on a recent Huffington Post article about his influential “Did You Know?” video. I responded that I created a writing assignment based on some poor argumentation I found in YouTube.

I was looking for videos to share with my Hero with a Thousand Faces course students, and the first video I came across was one in which Tolkien discusses how he began writing The Hobbit. Essentially, a poor argument (on both sides) has developed in the comments on that video that Star Wars is a ripoff of Tolkien’s work. I read through most of them, and while I don’t advocate actually responding to comments of this sort, I did find that the argument on both sides was essentially composed of a series of ad hominem attacks. Neither side offered any support for their argument, and I kept reading to see if someone—anyone—would mention that the similarities that exist can be attributed to the fact that both stories involve heroic journeys and can be analyzed using Joseph Campbell’s theories regarding the monomyth. No one said any such thing. My own students have already studied Star Wars. They are currently reading The Hobbit. I knew that any one of them could explain the similarities between the stories based on solid evidence, which is something the commenters on YouTube either can’t or won’t do.

I created a writing assignment based on this idea, and I have full confidence that my students will be able to argue their points better than Internet trolls, but I cautioned them not to actually try it. Real Internet trolls don’t listen to reason. Or much of anything really.

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Grendel’s Ima

I have been doing some tweaking with my Beowulf unit. In the past, my performance task has been to compile an annotated résumé for Beowulf. It’s good practice for their own résumés; my students have to compile résumés for college applications toward the end of their junior year, the year in which they study Beowulf at my school. It’s also a close-reading exercise, as each item on the résumé must be supported with an annotation. What has bothered me about it is that I want it to include more writing. Sure, it’s a specific kind of writing that I think is important. Suffice it to say something about it was bugging me, so I tweaked it this year. Instead, I will ask my students to write a letter of recommendation for Beowulf. The purpose is still the same: to analyze Beowulf as an epic hero. The assignment just looks different in the end. If you’d like to download this new essay assignment, here it is: Beowulf Letter of Recommendation. You might try this PDF converter if you want to make changes.

When I read Beowulf in high school, I didn’t like it much. Well, I hated it, if the truth be told. I took a sophomore level class in college on British literature up to 1700, and we read Beowulf again. I have no idea why, but this time, I loved it: perhaps a really good teacher, a different time of life, whatever. I have loved it ever since. It’s one of my favorite works to teach, and I enjoy being able to start the year with it. I am completing a unit on Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxons this coming week. My students, for the most part, seem engaged. I won’t fool myself into thinking all of them love it as I do, but certainly they seem interested and are participating. One of the classes I teach began referring to Grendel’s mother as Grendel’s ima. This term makes sense if you know a bit of Hebrew, for it is the Hebrew word for mother. I work at a Jewish high school, and I loved it that my students made this fun connection, so I started using the term, too.

I just collected my students’ interactive notebooks for the first time, too. It was really interesting. The two British literature classes did a good job on the notebooks. I saw real reflection and thinking. I am hoping the notebooks will become a more natural reflecting tool as the year wears on. I really liked a peek at their thinking. The connections they make and the ideas they are putting down in their notebooks are insights into what they see as important. I suppose that’s why I liked the Hebrew connection to a piece of Anglo-Saxon literature.

My department chair has talked me into using the Interactive Notebooks as my professional development exploration/goal this year. It’s new, and it can be something that I can pilot and perhaps present to my colleagues after I’ve tried them this year. My goal is to help students improve critical thinking and make connections. So far, at least based on what I’ve seen in my British literature courses, it’s working. On the other hand, I have some work to do in the other courses I teach. First of all, I don’t think all of my students have buy-in. They’re used to my old notebook checks, and they’re balking at change. Second, it’s new to me, and perhaps because it’s new to me, I haven’t found that balance of support and freedom that my students need. At any rate, I’ll talk about notebooks next week, and now I have some good models to share for students who might need them.

I’d like to be able to tie all this back to my title again, but everything I keep thinking of sounds cutesy and forced, so I’ll cop to it: I really just wanted to title this post “Grendel’s Ima.” L’Shanah Tova.

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Unclear Pronoun Reference

I spent today at Barnes and Noble grading student essays, and by far the most common usage issue I noticed was unclear pronoun reference. I plan to do a minilesson on unclear pronoun reference when I hand back the papers. If your students have the same issue, you might find this lesson helpful.

First, students tend to have trouble with indefinite pronouns. If they use “someone” or “everybody,” they will often replace these indefinite pronouns with “their” later in the sentence. For example, “Someone forgot their pencil.” In spoken usage, it sounds OK to us because we use “their” to replace antecedents with an unknown gender. The person who left his/her pencil might be male or female, so to avoid saying the incorrect gender, we often say the incorrect number. Unfortunately, English has no gender-neutral pronoun we can use in these situations. We should say “Someone forgot his or her pencil,” even though it sounds formal, clunky, and awkward. I always suggest to students that they figure out a way to make the antecedent plural. It might not work in my previous example, but “Everyone forgot his or her lunch today” could easily become “All of them forgot their lunch today.”

Another more common issue in my set of papers was the unclear use of “this,” “that,” “these” and “those” to refer to an antecedent in a previous clause or sentence. Here’s an example: “Today girls are using abortions as a form of contraception, and this has become a lot more common.” Does the word this refer to abortions, contraception, or the use of abortions as contraception? It’s unclear. This sentence could be revised” “Today girls are more commonly using abortions as a form of contraception.” Of course, that’s provided the writer meant the third possible meaning of this. I’m sure the sentence could be tweaked even more to be even better, but at least in the correction, no unclear pronoun reference clouds the reader’s understanding. I tell students to avoid using words like “this,” “that,” “these,” and “those” alone instead of near a noun. “This problem” or “that character” are more specific that simply “this” or “that,” and I have found that students are often trying to use these words when unclear pronoun reference troubles arise. Students simply put the demonstrative pronouns too far away from the antecedents those words are replacing.

I can demonstrate correcting this usage problem using the example above in about five minutes, and it might help some of my students avoid unclear pronoun reference issues. Feel free to use and adapt this lesson as you see fit.

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A Mishmash of Assorted Thoughts

When you update as seldom as I have lately, it seems posts are destined to become a mishmash of assorted thoughts as I catch everyone up.

First, as you can see from the sidebar, I am supporting NCTE’s National Day on Writing. I am not sure exactly what I and my students will do, but I would like to make a big deal out of it at my school and perhaps support our literary magazine in the process. Speaking of literary magazines, my daughter is in the literary magazine class at school, and it sounds like the coolest class ever. Her teacher lets them work on whatever writing they want, and they are guaranteed to have a submission published in the magazine. My daughter loves to write, and she starts lots of projects, but I hope a class like this will encourage her to finish one. Her teacher told us on Curriculum Night that students can write poetry, short stories, or even spend the time working on their novel. I was so impressed to hear a teacher talking about students writing novels. I didn’t ask if he’s going to encourage the kids to participate in NaNoWriMo. I can’t think of a year when I’ve wanted to participate more myself, but alas, grad school will most likely make that unfeasible. There’s always next year, by which time (cross your fingers) I plan to have graduated.

Speaking of grad school, this semester finds me in Graphic Design for Electronic Presentations, Telecommunications and Distance Learning, Software Evaluation, and Digital Video. I am finding it hard to get motivated to work. The degree at the end of my studies has become my carrot. One thing I have learned from my classes, and I believe it’s possibly an unintended lesson, is that students need the clearest possible instructions before they begin an assignment and that rubrics must be clear. I have turned in quite a few assignments over the course of last spring and beginning this fall in which instructions and rubrics were not clear, and I feel I lost points because of problems with instructors rather than my own work. If I do not follow directions, I expect to lose points, but it’s a shame when it’s because an instructor is not clear. I do think it’s helped my own teaching. Who wants to play the game of what does she want? How many points do you think she’ll take off for this arbitrary thing I didn’t even know I did?

Looping back to the National Day on Writing, I have a complaint to lodge about NCTE’s website. I followed a tweet by Kylene Beers to add a badge to my blog in support of the National Day on Writing. She sent her followers on Twitter to the main NCTE page. I had to hunt around for the National Day on Writing information, and even then, I couldn’t find the badges until I used the search feature (here it is, by the way, so you don’t have to hunt). Folks, we are working with teachers of all sorts of levels of technological ability, and it’s not the first time I have had to hunt all over the NCTE website for something they’re actively promoting, which to me means it should be screaming from every page. Am I alone in this, or does anyone else find their website a bear to navigate? I also have never had a response from either Traci Gardner or NCTE about the fact that the companion site for Designing Writing Assignments is missing.

In other news, I upgraded my Mac to Snow Leopard, and I like most of the improvements, though I haven’t had a chance to play with many of them. My favorite Twitter client, Nambu, is broken in Snow Leopard and those folks move about as fast as Christmas when addressing issues like that. I understand that it’s free software, and it’s in beta, so I don’t complain, but I do miss the software. Tweetdeck just doesn’t do it for me, but I find I can’t keep up at all unless I use a Twitter client.

Aside from all these thoughts, I’ve barely had time to talk about school. I have some great classes this year. My Hero with a Thousand Faces class is full, and a lot of students who requested it were not able to get in. Considering we had about half capacity last year, that tells me the word on the street is pretty good, and that makes me happy because I designed this class from the ground up. It’s a study of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth and Jungian archetypes. So far we have learned about Campbell’s ideas. To get rolling, I had students split up the section with the three parts of the hero’s journey and present their findings in groups. Then, I used a wonderful SMARTBoard notebook file (I think you need to be a member of TeqSmart to download, but it’s free) I found by James Longwell-Stevens to review our presentations. We are currently in the midst of a study of The Iliad. I found a great portfolio with lesson plans shared by a student teacher, and the calendar has been extremely helpful to me in planning. I also used some of the student teacher’s ideas. I will let students select our next text to study. My British lit. classes are also off to a great start. We are in the middle of Beowulf. I am tweaking my performance task slightly. In the past, I’ve had students create Beowulf’s résumé as a culminating activity, but I think this year, they will write from Hrothgar’s point of view to some made up king (or queen—perhaps Queen Huffgar the Wise?) recommending Beowulf for the job of monster-killer. The premise is the same. They need to do the same close reading. The format will be different, but the audience is essentially the same, too. I can still require the annotation piece, as well. Of course, I have also totally stolen Joe Scotese’s wonderful Beowulf ideas as well. No one can put together a close-reading exercise like Joe. He’s a master. My ninth grade class is wrapping up a study of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. All in all, it’s been a good start, folks are engaged (or else they are good actors, which I don’t discount), and I am enjoying school very much.

My family and I enjoyed the Decatur Book Festival yesterday. It was exciting to be among so many book lovers. We really enjoyed the Georgia Shakespeare Festival‘s Will Power troupe, who did a production of Alice in Wonderland. It was a great day, even if I wasn’t able to see Diana Gabaldon after all. You can read more about it on my book blog.

Before I go, I will put in a plug for Plasq’s Comic Life software, which enables you to create handouts that look like comics (or, indeed, to create comics). They have some great layouts and fonts, and they have a great educational discount. I only paid $19.95 for the educators’ version of the software, which enables me to install it on Mac and Windows, or at least that’s my understanding. I downloaded it on my Mac, but I haven’t tried to put it on my desktop at work, yet. At any rate, it’s a fairly low price and a substantial discount, and if you like making funky handouts, it’s worth it.

Right. I’d better start my Telecommunications and Distance Learning homework, and I have an assignment from another class I need to resubmit now that I understand what I was supposed to have done the first time (but never mind, I’ve already complained about that).

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And the Winner Is…

Thank you all for your patience with my Back to School contest. I am pleased to announce that the winning entrant is…

Candace!

Candace submitted a lesson unit on Macbeth. You can read her blog Mrs. Follis’s Teacher Page for more.

Congratulations Candace, and thank you to all of you who submitted ideas. Candace has won a 1-GB flash drive with Word and PDF copies of handouts I have created and used in my own classes. If you would like to purchase one of these flash drives, they are available for $40, including shipping and the price of the flash drive itself. Note: the 1-GB flash drives are no longer available in my area, and I am now selling 2-GB drives.





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The Deadline Approaches!

If you want to enter the lesson plan contest, you have until midnight tonight. Over the next few days, I will read the entries and notify the winner via e-mail and announce the winner here. A reminder of what you get if you win: a flash drive packed with handouts in MS Word and PDF format that I have used in my classes, including quizzes!

What do you have to do? Submit a lesson plan for grades 9-12 English/language arts in comments of the original post.

If you have any questions, feel free to contact me today. Quick! You’re running out of time!

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Back to School Contest

For the first time ever, I am having a contest. It is my hope to help one of the English teachers who reads this blog get a bit of a jump start on the school year.

What do you have to do? Share a lesson plan in the comments.

Rules:

  • Your lesson must be appropriate for grades 9-12 English or easily adaptable for that level.
  • Lesson ideas must be your own original ideas rather than ideas published elsewhere on the Web or in print UNLESS you have sufficiently remixed the idea so that is substantially different from the source material.
  • If you have a handout that’s important, you should upload it to an online filesharing host such as Slideshare, Drop.io, or Scribd, or you can upload it to your own website if you have one. You must share the link to the handout in your comment.
  • You can enter only once.
  • You must be willing to share your lesson with all my readers; therefore, access to any additional resources should not be password-protected and must be accessible at the time of judging.
  • The contest will run until August 10 midnight Eastern Daylight Time.
  • Lessons can be grammar, writing, or literature or combine all three. Lessons can incorporate technology. If Web 2.0 tools are needed, please link to them.
  • You must use a valid e-mail address when you post. It will not appear on this site.

Award:

I will select one winner from the entrants who will receive a flash drive with a ton of my personal handouts for the various English courses I teach including quizzes, assignment instructions, writing assignments, questions, and more. I will notify the winner via e-mail and update this post after the winner has been notified.

Your comment may go into moderation if it has several links or if you’ve not commented here before. Please be patient as I post it. Feel free to contact me with questions.

Good luck everyone!

“It’s a Major Award!” image credit: Cyndie@smilebig!

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