The MOSTLY Paperless (and Increasingly Empathetic) Classroom: A Revised Technology Goal

I have always been a tree hugger, both literally and figuratively.

This is me hugging a tree that George Washington planted at Mount Vernon.

This is me hugging a tree that George Washington planted at Mount Vernon.

Three years ago when we began our iPad initiative my technology goal was to go paperless over a three year period. Predictably hippie of me, eh? I wanted to phase out paper completely by the end of THIS school year. I have been toddler-stepping toward that goal ever since.

I deliver almost all handouts and assignments digitally through email, this blog, Twitter, and now most prominently, Google Drive. Students complete and submit most of their assignments digitally. The first year the students did so hesitantly and with raucous complaint. The second year it was about half and half. Half of them preferred to submit things digitally and half of them preferred the old-fashioned way of doing things. This year students almost exclusively hand in their papers digitally, without much comment, though we do struggle with a standardized process. And there will always be Luddites, even young ones, who just want to etch their responses into a stone and call it good, (or at the very least use a pencil and paper).

All through this process I grappled with the best way to deliver feedback to students. I struggle with feedback as it is. I have still not mastered a balance between high quality AND timely feedback. The students get one or the other for me. The closest I can get to providing both is the oral feedback process I started experimenting with back in 2013, but that still isn’t ideal.

Before I use technology in the classroom, I ask myself these questions: 1. Will it help my students learn new information that will help them in this class (and life)? 2. Will it help my students learn or strengthen a skill that I want them to have? 3. Will it serve to build or strengthen my relationship with my students and/or their parents? If I can’t answer YES to at least one of those questions, then I most likely won’t be using it in the classroom during instructional time.

So, at the beginning of this school-year, as I reflected on years one and two of my three-year technology goal of going paperless, I asked myself, Why am I going paperless? Is it going to help my students to become better readers, writers, researchers, speakers, or thinkers?

Ummmm …

Is it going to strengthen my relationship with my students and/or their parents?

Errrr …

So, why did I go with this goal in the first place?

Aside from the idea that going paperless seems like the environmentally responsible thing to do, I am big into the idea that if I ask my students to do something, I should be doing it too. I’m very much against the “do as I say, not as I do” attitude, so I feel like I’m letting my students down when I insist that they submit their work digitally, but then I print off the assignment and return it with feedback written with a pen. I don’t why I feel like I’m letting them down and I have not once had a student say, “Gee Mrs. M. I was really hoping that this feedback would be written in digital ink,” so I guess I’m sort of making an assumption about what constitutes “letting my students down.”

I have taken numerous stabs at downloading every students’ writing assignment to Goodnotes and delivering painstaking feedback with my finger, a stylus, or a keyboard, and every single time I try it, I give up and print it out. Usually, by the time I break down and hit command+P, I am so flummoxed that I wait to give feedback until later when I’m in a better mood (and thereby deliver feedback much later than I intended) OR give rushed handwritten feedback that is simply not up to the standard to which I hold myself. I did successfully deliver quiz feedback via Goodnotes and Google Drive this quarter and that felt like a minor victory to me, but again, not one single student said, “Gee Mrs. M. I truly appreciated that you returned this quiz to me digitally and that you used your stylus to write your explanations for why this answer needs work or how wonderful my response was.” (Not that students are known for giving such feedback to teachers anyway. Ha!)

This is me hugging a tree  in The Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris, France.

This is me hugging a tree in The Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris, France.

So, am I attempting this goal for environmental reasons? (Sort of. Okay: Yes.) And, am I failing the environment if I continue to print student work and write my feedback out long-hand in ink? (Probably not.) It depends on who you ask. I read an article that said that really it’s not the paper-making process that’s environmentally problematic; it’s the fact that we humans don’t recycle enough of it. Now that my school district is recycling again (YAYZ!) I feel a little better about this. It seems that I should spend less time feeling guilty about things and more time reflecting on why I do the things I do. After all, I’m into the third year of a three-year goal and this is just now occurring to me … ??? (Did I just admit that aloud? UGH. True confessions.)

One of the most important things we do at the classroom level is give students feedback, so if my goal to become a paperless teacher is impeding this important thing …

I have decided to rethink my goal.

My new and improved revised goal is to run a mostly paperless classroom in which the teacher delivers high quality feedback in the most timely manner possible, even if that means sometimes printing stuff off and writing the feedback with a pen. My goal will be to use paperless methods where it makes sense and works well for all parties involved and offer alternatives when it doesn’t work well for someone (be it student or teacher). I will use paperless methods when it makes sense to do so and not just for the sake of going paperless.

The other good thing about this revised goal is that I’ve already met it! (Pretty tricky. I know …)  I feel that I’ve succeeded because most of my information level and activity level handouts are digitized and students are successfully navigating Google Drive, Goodnotes, Twitter, and their blogs to give and receive information. And, my lack of success in delivering digital feedback 100% of the time has given me another lesson in empathizing with the frustration students feel when they have to turn in work digitally and struggle with it. And I don’t think there’s such a thing as a teacher having too much empathy for her students.

iFixate (a post of gratitude)

When I find something that works, I tend to fixate on it. Right now I am fixating on my students’ blogs. I have a few “greatest hits” as far as things that I’ve tried that have gone over well in my career and I’m officially adding blogging to the top of that list. I’ve tried blogging or some form of it in the past and nothing has worked as well as this year’s blogs. One year I had students “discuss” novels in the comments of a blog I posted. Another year I had students respond to literature in their own personal blogs. In the grad class I teach in the summer, I’ve tried group blogging and I’ve tried individual blogging, and grad students will do pretty much whatever their instructor asks, but that doesn’t mean that they will do it passionately. (It doesn’t mean they WON’T either, but it is the exception and not the rule.) One thing that I did differently this time is I asked the students to generate their own topic based on their personal passions. This seems to have done the trick for most of my students.

PASSION was the missing ingredient.

How silly of me to have overlooked this precious commodity. I mean, I have meant well over the years. I’ve made attempts to INSTILL passion in students, but when you get down to it, passion is innate, it is familial, it is written in the unique code of our DNA. It CAN be contagious, but there must be a seed of interest there in order for it to grow. YES, I am passionate about reading and writing, and so are SOME of my students, but for those who have other interests (which would include nearly every single student I encounter), blogging provides an opportunity to dig into their interests whilst practicing invaluable skills! It’s a win-win and it’s going to help us meet and exceed some standards along the way too.

I don’t want to give off the impression that this has gone off without some hitches … In fact, NOTHING! … *REPEAT* –> NOTHING! I do ever turns out PERFECTLY … I’m convinced there is no such thing as “perfect” in education, and I do think we do not SHARE our failures and imperfections enough! I could blog exclusively on my daily fails, but it’s more fun to promote what goes well!

Some students are still experiencing a bit of writer’s block and some suffer from apathy or Senioritis, but for the most part, this whole blog thing has proven to be an effective way for students to practice their writing and in many cases, their research and to stretch their thinking and creativity. And frankly, this is more interesting for me as a teacher than reading 80+ canned responses on a piece of literature half the students weren’t interested in anyway. It’s pretty painful to read through so many similar pieces of writing only to discover they are nothing more than regurgitations of what I said in class or — worse yet — responses designed to appear as if they are regurgitated forms of MY thought, but it’s clear that the writer is just “faking” it because he or she DIDN’T read the text AND/OR DIDN’T listen in class. That’s REALLY painful.

These blog entries are a delight AND I’m learning things about the topics the students have chosen and more importantly about the students themselves.

So, I’ve been fixating on these blogs and my TEACHER dashboard lately. I’ve been tweeting out my students’ links like crazy! I’m just as excited as the kids when they receive a comment from outside of our classroom and I’m off-the-charts, over-the-moon excited when I see someone has made another post, on their own time, just because they WANT to do it. I stumbled into a Twitter chat last night on “visible learning.” Talk about visible learning! This is why I teach!  This is why I’m still learning!  My students’ PASSION BLOGS have reignited my passion for teaching writing and for someone who’s been in “the biz” for nearly 14 years, that is so valuable. My students have given me this gift and I am so very full of gratitude.


Zite in the Contemporary Literature and Writing Classroom

With as fast as the definition of “literature” is evolving and expanding, I have been looking for ways to inject relevant, current high interest texts into my Contemporary Literature and Writing classroom. Here is an assignment I’ve tried once and now tweaked (for a second go-around) for this class. I am going to model this for them tomorrow and then each student will have his or her chance to present an article once before the end of third quarter and second time during fourth quarter. We are using, not only Zite for this assignment, but also either Twitter (which MOST students have) or email (for those who have not yet made the TweetLeap). Last semester, I used this assignment, but made the silly mistake of NOT modeling what I wanted to see. This time around will be different. Tomorrow, my students will see me presenting exactly what I expect of them (or at least one variation of it).  This assignment works well in an ELA classroom, but I could see it working in ANY classroom (4th grade and up) really because Zite is so customizable and a teacher could give students a specific category in which to search to narrow the focus to the subject matter being studied.  Feel free to use this assignment in your classroom, with or without attribution. If you use it though, let me know how it goes! I’d love to hear some feedback on how to make it better.



1.  Read through some articles in your areas of interest on Zite.

2.  Select an article that you find interesting, relevant, and timely.

3.  On the day of your presentation, TWEET a link to your article ~ (You can do this directly through Zite, if you connect your Zite account to your Twitter account, or you can copy/paste the URL into a tweet or a URL shortener like ~ OR you can send the link via EMAIL, if you are not a Twitter user. (If you use the email option, just REPLY TO ALL to an email I sent out to the class, to ensure everyone in the class gets the link).

4.  When you present the article to the class, we will project the article from your iPad onto the screen in my room, so make sure you have your iPad here AND charged.  If you don’t, this will result in a deduction of your grade and you will have to reschedule your presentation, which will throw off the entire class’s schedule. Be courteous, and be prepared.

5.  During your presentation you MUST do the following:

A. SUMMARIZE the article. GIve us a nutshell summary of what this article is about (since most of us will not have read the article.

B. EXPLAIN why it is IMPORTANT and RELEVANT enough to share with the class.

C. PROVIDE your OPINION on the subject matter. (For example, if it is problem, provide a solution or talk about the root causes of the problem. If it is a human interest story, discuss why you believe it is so appealing. If it is about a scientific discovery, discuss how you believe this may change how we currently do things. These are just a few things you could discuss during this portion of your presentation.)

D. BE PREPARED for QUESTIONS from Mrs. M. and your peers. Feel free to ask your peers and Mrs. Morgenson their opinions as well, to encourage discussion.

When you are an audience member, please think of questions to ask the presenter.  Everyone should participate in this.  Some article shares may even result in a roundtable-style discussion. Prepare to respond in writing to each person’s article as well either via Twitter or email.

A Possible Solution for the Angst-Ridden English Teacher, Struggling to Provide High Quality, Timely Feedback to Young Writers

Hmmmmmmm …

… shall I give my students timely feedback …

… or quality feedback on their writing …

… or …

… shall I slip slowly into madness …

… and give them both …?

(Cue the DUNdunDUNNNNNnnnnn stinger.)

~ Jodie Morgenson (that’s me!) on many an anxiety-filled occasion to colleagues, mentors, and anyone else who would listen

A common lament of the English teacher is that she or he is not able to provide her or his students with timely AND quality feedback–that the two ideals are mutually exclusive. It has been on my chief list of complaints since I was a wee newb in the teaching profession. Of course there have been times here and there throughout my career when I attempted the timely AND quality feedback approach by going without sleep or sustenance for 48 hours at a time, but that got old pretty quickly and my loved ones suffered as a result because they had to pick up the slack at home, since I wasn’t around to help, AND when I was around, they had to deal with the mess of a woman who vaguely resembled someone who used to be their wife/mother, but more closely approximated Grendel’s mother in both temperament and appearance (and not the Angelina Jolie version, mind you).

I have favored the oral delivery of feedback in a one-on-one conference setting for the past few years. The face-to-face verbal delivery seemed to be most helpful to students, and it allowed for them to actively question my feedback on-the-spot. The downfall of this method was that I only have my students for 45 minutes per day, 40 if you slice off taking attendance and other daily minutiae. Take away at least another 5 minutes for transitioning between students and other unexpected but inevitable interruptions and we have–at best–35 minutes to conference. I tend to be an intense conferencer–maybe too thorough at times, and therefore inefficient for the group at large–and most last between 10 and 20 minutes … sometimes 25 … and usually towards the long-end of that estimate. Take a class of between 15 and 27 students (This year I have blessedly small classes, but in the years when I’ve had larger classes this gets even trickier.) multiply that times 2 major papers, and I had to find a way to carve out time for between 30 to 54 conferences or 300 to 1350 minutes. This translates into somewhere between 9 to 39 class periods. During a normal week, I see students 5 times, which would mean I need, at minimum, 2 weeks of solid class time to conference with students OR up to a month’s+-worth of conferencing at the high end of that estimate. That’s not realistic, so students would have to make before and after school appointments, give up their study halls or wait until it was almost their deadline before applying any teacher-generated feedback to their final(ish) drafts OR I would have to continually extend the deadline to accommodate those who had to wait on feedback. (I’m not even going to go into what to do with a large group, while conferencing with a single member of the class. That’s another blog entry just begging to be written.)

Usually what ends up happening when a teacher gives feedback on anything substantial, like a literary analysis, for example, she or he has several choices: A. give canned or surface (READ: not helpful) responses and return the feedback quickly B. give in-depth, meaningful feedback a week or more later or C. go stark-raving mad and do both. None of those options sit well with me, so in my eternal quest to become a better teacher AND remain (as) sane (as possible), I turned to my Twitter peops. I stumbled upon a conversation between Jabiz Raisdana (@theintrepidteacher) and Jim Burke (@englishcomp) regarding the frustrations surrounding delivering satisfying feedback to their students. (Jabiz, teaches in Singapore, and is someone I only recently discovered via Twitter, but immediately admired and Jim is an AP English teacher in San Fransciso, CA, and an author whom I’ve admired for quite some time, mainly because I have read and/or own and appreciate so many of the books he’s written.) It came up that Jim was working on a new idea for delivering timely and quality feedback to each of his students (and it sounds like he sees WAYYYYYY more students than I do in a given day) so my digital ears, naturally perked up. Eventually Jim posted this:

Responding to Student Writing Using the iPhone Memo App (Jim Burke)

Boom. My life changed.

I saw this as my AP students were in the early stages of writing first semester’s first major formal writing assignments–a literary analysis and mimesis–both of which would require some hefty feedback, and because it was nearing the end of the semester, that feedback needed to be timely. Doling out feedback via conferencing two or at best three per class period, would not cut it.

Jim’s proposed method works as follows: 1. reading student writing, 2. recording verbal comments with the standard voice memo app on his iPhone, 3. emailing the recording to students. In case you didn’t get to see the afore-linked video, in it, Jim demonstrated his process by recording himself doing it!

My process went a little something like this:

1. I use an app on my iPad called Highlight. The reason I like this app is because you can mark important points in your recording, if you so desire. It also give you the option of sharing your files via Dropbox or email. However, you can use any audio (or video) recording app on your iPad, phone, or computer, so long as you have a means of sharing the audio files with your students.

2. Highlight gives me the option to title the audio file, so I use the student’s first initial, last name, and an abbreviation representing the type of writing I’m assessing. (For example, if I was creating an audio feedback file for Mergatroid McFancyPants’s literary analysis, I would entitle the file MMcFancypantsMIM.)

3. With the student’s paper in front of me, I begin the recording, and read the paper entirely aloud*, adding constructive criticism as I go. My recordings lasted anywhere from 10 to 16 minutes, and I believe (okay I’m really really really really really really hoping) that I can streamline this process and get better at being more efficient with how long it takes to deliver information. Methinks I have a tendency to give too much information. Anyone who is still reading this blog post knows that … *rim shot*

4.  While I’m reading and delivering commentary, I mark the paper to indicate what I’m talking about during my commentary.

5.  I send the audio file to the student via email (but I could just as easily establish a shared Dropbox folder with my students and do it this way and I may do so in the future).

6. Next time I see the student, I hand her or him the annotated copy of her or his writing and encourage her or him to listen to the audio with the written version in front of her or him, and to ask me, email me, or tweet me with any questions.

*One reason I read the entire paper aloud is because I learn by doing and by reading with my eyeballs and hearing with my earholes, I am not only seeing what is good and what needs work, I’m hearing it as well, so I feel I am better able to give higher quality feedback. Another reason I do this is because I have found value in allowing a student to hear her or his work read out loud as well because ofttimes students’ ears catch what their eyes miss, AND, as a writer, I know that it is rawwwwther delightful to hear someone else read one’s work aloud, even if it is a little rough around the edges.

What follows is a sample excerpt of some audio and written feedback I provided to a student regarding a mimesis, which emulated the work of Flannery O’Connor. Note that I have cut out any references to the student’s name AND that this was the first time I’d ever provided audio feedback to this student, so there’s explanation at the beginning that will be unnecessary in subsequent audio feedback.

Excerpt of Sample Audio Feedback











As you could probably observe by listening to the audio file, since I am still feeling out this technique, *I* am a little rough around the edges. When I listened to some of them, I couldn’t help but assess my own verbal fluency. Always learning, am I.

The lit analyses’ and mimeses’ deadlines were staggered, so that they would be delivered unto me at different times. The lit analyses came in first. I experimented with the process by meeting face-to-face with some of the students and providing recorded audio feedback to the others. This year I have the luxury of teaching a small single-gender AP English Lit and Comp class, so this worked well. I informally polled the students who received audio feedback and heard things such as this:

  • I liked that I could go back and listen to it several times.
  • I am forgetful, so sometimes when we conference, I forget what you told me when I revise my work. I like that I could listen to it again.
  • I miss the instant back-and-forth question and answer of a one-on-one conference, but I still found it helpful.

The mimeses’ drafts were due after the lit analyses, so for that assignment, I decided to try exclusively audio feedback. Afterward, I polled the students via Twitter and received similar feedback to that listed above. It was encouraging to talk to them about it in class too. It was heartening to hear a student say, “I think you should do that every time,” and have the majority of the class agree. Even those who prefer the face-to-face conference still found value in the recorded audio feedback and understood (as mature seniors in high school do) the value in receiving feedback in a timely manner, even if it is not delivered in-person.

Despite the fact that I’m still spending 10-16 minutes (more really if you figure in set-up, sending emails, and imminent screw-ups on the part of yours truly) I can do it whenever I have time. It doesn’t cut into instruction time and, as a proud insomniac, this can include middle-of-the-night feedback sessions, which, for me, are the most productive ones. (Student marvel at why they receive emails from me at odd hours.) As I stated previously, I believe that I will become more efficient with my feedback as I get better at it and hope to cut down my time commitment to this arduous task.

 Thrilled is a good way to describe how I feel when I discover something that is beneficial to both teachers AND most importantly students, so thrilled I most certainly am right now. This technique is my greatest discovery in my quest to better serve students as of late. HUZZAHHHHH!


iTweet. #allthetime

The Twitterverse or the Twittersphere, as many clever Tweeps (an astute rendering of “Twitter” and methinks “creep” as the definition is a Twitter follower who follows a Tweeter to other social networks. Correct me if I’m wrong, interwebs.) have cleverly coined the vast digital stomping grounds of Twitter, can be–like many things described as “vast” or “stomping grounds” or “digital”–a little overwhelming, a little scary, maybe even a little outlawish**. However, it can also be an environment rich in learning, information exchange, and relationship-building.

Sadly, sometimes bad thing can happen on Twitter. People get addicted to social media. Just like in real life (IRL) people can be mean to one another within this digital realm. They can spread lies. They can circulate insults. It can even reach the level of cruel harassment. The difference here is that when something is said aloud IRL, although it is still painful, there is (in most cases) no permanent visual reminder of it. On Twitter, a vicious statement can remain indefinitely, especially if someone retweets said comment or captures a screenshot of an unsavory post and then broadcasts that image via some other digital medium, which is why we must all be cautious when posting ANYTHING online, in ANY digital space. Think news travels fast in your school? The Twitter grapevine is electrified and widespread. This can be good if you WANT to get your message out there, but if you’d rather keep it private, the internerts* is not the place to post it. What is really important to acknowledge is that it does not appear that social media is going away, so I think it is a NECESSITY that instead of forbidding our students from using it freely, that we teach them HOW to use it responsibly, and give them a process to handle things properly, if they encounter the bad stuff (which realistically, we know they will at some point, whether they are looking for it or not).

However nefarious some Tweets, some exchanges, some Twitter accounts or some backchannels can be, the Twitterverse is also a place where powerful, gritty, learning and idea exchanging takes place. My number one use for Twitter is professional development. The use of hashtags (A.K.A backchannels A.K.A. #’s)  in the Twittersphere is a way to bring people with common interests and passions together as well as providing a means of networking and building a Personal Learning Network (PLN).  (Note that there are other outlets for backchannel creation, but in this post, anywhere you see me reference one, I’m referring to Twitter backchannels.) I follow a few backchannels in particular including #nebedu (tweets from and for Nebraska educators), #edchat (tweets from and for educators from around the world), #engchat (tweets from and for English teachers), and #edtech (tweets from and for anyone interested in educational technology). When I have a spare minute, I take a peek at the tweets the people I follow on Twitter have posted, or I go to the one of the aforementioned backchannels. Conversely, if I find an article that I feel is useful or shareworthy, I tag it with one or more of the backchannels so that other people who are interested in similar topics might benefit from the article as well. Sometimes I just share funny or silly things too. I also like to tweet quotes from people whom I admire or people whom make me think. Not everything I post is tagged for a backchannel, but everything I post is broadcast to my followers, which at this point includes students, parents, colleagues, and strangers. I know some of my followers personally and some I’ve never met (and probably never will). I’ve also met people on Twitter whom I have later met in person. Weird. I know. But it makes sense since I’m involved in backchannels that focus on things in which I am interested, and I attend events about which I am interested. It is not unusual to bump into someone you “met” on Twitter at a NETA convention or an NCTE event. (Just to be clear, I’m not arranging rendezvous with strangers I’ve met via the Internet. If I meet someone IRL that I’ve first met on Twitter or some other social media outlet, it has thus far been by chance.) Many times at events such as NETA, the organizers and the participants create backchannels for people to live tweet, thus broadening the professional development experience by offering glimpses into sessions that one is unable to attend.

I have also created backchannels for all of the classes I teach. For anyone unfamiliar with the ways of the Twittersphere, this makes it sound like I have some special authority or power there. I don’t. Anyone who places the hashtag symbol (#) in front of any combination of letters–sensical or not–within a tweet for the first time, creates a backchannel. The downside to this is that once a backchannel is created, anyone with a Twitter account (including spammers–someone who sends out links that open malware or viruses on one’s computer–and trolls–people who intentionally incite the anger of others by making strategically provocative or even hateful comments) can participate in a backchannel. So, if you create a backchannel and it gains significant popularity, it is sometimes targeted by not-so-nice people. However, our hashtags are obscure enough so far that this has not been an issue. Backchannels do expire after a while too, if posts are not made on a regular basis. Also, the Twitter community is pretty good at taking care of their own in that, if a responsible user sees someone who is misusing his or her account, that person’s account will most likely not exist for much longer as he or she will be reported for spam or abuse.  My advice to you regarding trolls and spammers is to ignore them. Showering someone like that with attention of any sort is like throwing corncobs into a bonfire. It feeds them and they grow stronger. Take away your attention (the fuel) and they’ll eventually burn out OR report them and allow them to be extinguished by force.

I use my classroom backchannels as a way to not only interact with my students digitally, but also to deliver information to them. Not every student has a Twitter account, so I cannot use it as my exclusive method of communication (face-to-face communication is still number 1 in my archaic little English teachery** book.) but it can be part of my repertoire. I see it as a way to speak one of my students’ (many) languages. I don’t want to speak TEXT with them because it’s a private communication tool that cannot be readily monitored. (Would you believe that I still don’t have texting capabilities on my phone?) I don’t want to be Facebook friends with them because I use that to socialize with my own friends. An unlocked Twitter account, on the other hand, is a transparent way to communicate with my students in matters of business (school) and manners of rapport-building (meaningful but fun, light, silly or interest-driven  interactions). After this first quarter of the current school year, I have come to think of Twitter as a relationship-building machine. During our Fall play this year, I used a backchannel as a way to share updates about our production process. The students liked it because they like reading about and seeing pictures of themselves and parents liked it because they like reading about and seeing pictures of their children. For classes, I use it as a means of sharing links to articles or even embedding images of pdfs I’ve converted to jpgs–among other things.

One concern I do have about a tool like Twitter is that not every student has it. This is why I must strive to use ALL avenues–traditional and “new”–to do all of the things that I just said Twitter can do. Twitter or any digital communication tool should never replace human interaction–good ol’ face to face communication. I think this goes without saying, but I don’t want to leave it out–just in case anyone forgets.

*Internerts is my pet name for the Internet. I don’t know from where it came, but know it came from somewhere random.

**I make up adjectives sometimes.

BONUS: If you think the Twitter Terms I used in this post are ridiculous(ly wonderful), check these out: TweetTerms from GeekTerms.

A tale of Brzzz, the fly, and how he taught us to use our iPad covers at all times

Today, during Socratic Seminar in AP English Literature and Composition, something unexpected happened, in the middle of our discussion, and it involved one of the student’s iPads.

First of all, I’ll need to back up and let you know about Brzzz … the fly.  I had this fly buzzing around my room towards the end of the day on Friday and I was too skeezed out to kill him. (Squished fly corpse is so unsightly and know that I have cultivated my tolerance for annoying things over my decade plus teaching career.) So, I swatted him away whenever he landed on or near me. He was a persistent little bugger. (Pun intended.) Somehow, he lasted over the weekend and he bugged me (hahahaha) all through first hour. (How long is a fly’s life expectancy anyway? This will be my next Google search … HOLD PLEASE …  According to ORKIN, a fly typically lives between 15 and 30 days. SICK!)

Anyway … Brzzz has been bothering me since Friday, but during class today, apparently one of my students, who is less tolerant of buzzing than I am, used his neighbor’s iPad–not his, mind you–to swat and kill Brzzz.

“Why did you do that?” I asked.

“Because it needed to die” said the student.

This is a good example of the impulsive nature of the teenager and one of the dangers of handing an expensive equipment over to one or roughly five hundred of them. They don’t always think things through prior to executing a seemingly logical plan. They have teenage brains, which, as we’ve officially discovered (though I suspect parents and teachers have known for centuries) is a brain in flux, a brain unformed, a work-in-progress.

Luckily, the student’s neighbor had her solid, school-issued, protective cover on her iPad and no serious damage was done. (The piece that allows the iPad to stand up did come off, but the iPad itself was unscathed. I suggested that the fly-swatting student replace her piece with his undamaged one.) Despite all of the laughter that subsequently followed the murder of Brzzz, I believe that everyone in the room (including the swatter, who had one of those forehead-slapping looks on his face, sans the forehead slap) could see that, indeed, this was not the finest use for an iPad.

Learning is just awkward sometimes … or, if you’re me … ALWAYS.

I’ve fumbled. Twice this week.  And it’s only Tuesday.

Bumbling Fumble 1:  I assumed (I know!  I know! Anyone who was in Mrs. Pickrel’s English class ought to know what evil the act of assuming leads to …) that because I was able to read my Doodle from MY Macbook Air and from my iPad that the students would be ablt to as well. In my Contemporary Literature and Writing class, we are using the Zite and Flipboard apps–both digitally customizable personalized social magazines–on our iPads. I chose this as a way for my students to access FREE high-interest non-fiction writing. The assigned part of it is that they have to share two articles per quarter with the rest of the class. They’ll do this in person (by verbally  summarizing, analyzing, evaluating the chosen article in class) as well as by sharing the link to the article with classmates via email and/or Twitter.

So, I sent them an email with a link to a Doodle I set up.  (Doodle is a site, which also has an app–of course–in which you can create and send out potential meeting times to a group of people and they can all respond with times that work best for them. It helps to alleviate the inevitable flurry of emails or phone calls that often ensue, when a group of busy people try to set up a meeting time that works for all of them. I wanted to use it in this situation to have students select two days in which they would present their articles. Essentially, I wanted to use it as a digital sign-up sheet. I like to think of it as a creative alternative to the “traditional” Doodle.)

They ALL received my email (which is a modern miracle in and of itself — no typos!) with the link to the Doodle; they all clicked on the link and then everyone–and I mean EVERYONE–one by one–then two by two–then as an entire group–began informing me, in a cacophony of outrage: “THE LINK DOESN’T WORK!” “DEAD LINK!” “IT SAYS IT DOES NOT EXIST!”

It was the browser again. The same stinkin’ browser that garbles my pdfs. The same one that makes scrambled eggs of my Pages docs. The same browser that is the ONLY one the students are currently authorized to use on their school-issued iPads.  The same browser that is … going away tomorrow. (HOORAY!)

I told the students that we would wait to use the Doodle tomorrow. Then we listened to a podcast introducing the novel Rule of the Bone by Russell Banks through AppleTV (which is my favorite favorite favorite thing right now for sound and audio). Then, I read the first chapter of the book aloud, which is probably one of the most low-tech things I could’ve done at that point, and, frankly, it felt gooooooooooooood.

Though the assumption I made during Bumbling Fumble 1 was a classic human error, Bumbling Fumble 2 was even more of a Fumbling Bumble on MY part and less related to a lack of app or website compatibility or technology failure in general. It was a rookie error really. After twelve years in this game, I should really have known better. I wanted to use Socrative in Contemporary Lit yesterday, but instead of setting it up ahead of time, I had it in my head that it was so very easy and user-friendly that I could set it up on the fly. This is never a good approach in any arena. Don’t get me wrong, Socrative IS easy. It IS user-friendly. It does NOT take long to set up at all.  That is, unless you haven’t used it since the summer, and you’ve forgotten the basics, which describes me perfectly in this situation.

So, lesson (re-)learned: Flying by the seat of one’s pants is best saved for vacations and date nights. But, then again, failing in front of the students isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It shows my hu–manity, for goodness sakes! OH THE HUMANITYYYYY! It shows that I’m taking risks (a careless risk maybe, but nevertheless a human risk) and I didn’t let it fluster me, as I might have in my earlier years. We just broke out the dry erase markers and scratch paper and kicked it old-school for a minute.

No doubt we (students, teachers, administrators, parents) are all curving along the learning continuum this year, as we matriculate in this new digi-rich environment. I am learning something new every single day thus far, and maybe it’s just me, but true learning always includes fumbling and bumbling. For me, true learning is always delightfully awkward.

Sustained Silent Angry Birds

On Fridays in my English classes, (and in the English classes of all of my PHS Language Arts colleagues), we partake in sustained silent reading (SSR).  The students are required to walk through the door with a book in hand and to read that book for the duration of our time together. It’s a simple way to give students a consistent opportunity to read and it demonstrates how much our department values reading. Every year, since I’ve been at PHS, we have had talks about removing SSR in favor of other things, but we always come to the same conclusion: We value reading SO MUCH that SSR MUST stay.

So, my question this year is not, “Should we continue our SSR tradition on Fridays?” but rather, “Where do the iPads fit into all of this … or do they?” My answer thus far is, “We’re going to try to work it in where it makes sense for students.” There are plenty of e-reading options for the iPad and I’d like to give my students the choice to use them in lieu of the traditional book.

I LOVE books …the way they look … the book smell (you know what I’m talkin’ ’bout) … the feel of the pages against my fingertips … the sound of the spine cracking … that old familiar book taste (kidding).  If I own the book I’m reading, you better believe I’m going to be dog-earing that sucker, and chances are high that my writing will be scrawled in the margins OR especially lovely passages, sentences, or single words will be underlined.  But, I’m also in love with experimentation — my own and the fostering of it in others. I’m also in love with the idea of engaging students in reading. If that means handing over the traditional book in favor of a book served up digitally, so be it.

My top concern is that I will allow my students this option and they will make a show of opening their e-reader app at the beginning of class, but the minute I’m not looking, SSR will turn into SSAB (sustained silent Angry Birds). I don’t know how I will monitor this. (Please, if you have suggestions, give them to me.) I like to read or play catch up during SSR myself, but it would be negligent of me to believe that every student will have such a brilliant desire to read that they will be able to withstand the many temptations that iPads present. For Pete’s sake, while composing this post, I’ve checked my Twitter feed and email two or three times each, so I know how distracting (and wonderful) technology can be. For now, I think I will offer the students a TWO STRIKE and you’re out system. The first strike will require that you sit at your table with the iPad flat an in plain sight.  The second strike will mean that you have to go back to the old-fashioned means of reading — with a book.

Everyone will start with the option of downloading an e-reader app, and they will keep that privilege and my trust as long as they stay on task.  I will be duly diligent in monitoring them during SSR, which, I acknowledge, will be a challenge! I am only one woman with limited super powers. (All teachers have super powers, but I cannot reveal mine at this time.)

I’m hoping that at least a few students will take me up on this offer of reading mode variety and that different students will try out different e-reader apps, so I can report back on which ones work best for us. Of course, students will have the choice to just read a regular lovely old book. In fact, we’re going to the library TODAY for those who are traditional book-lickers like myself (Again … the book tasting is just a joke; but seriously … I ♥ books.)

If you have experience with e-reader apps and wouldn’t mind sharing, please do so in the comments OR tweet me: @morgetron. 

First Friday!

I will be brief because one of my colleagues has taken it upon himself to have an informal tech meeting at his house after school today. In all of my years of teaching, I have not ever, before today, been invited over to another teacher’s house on a Friday night for the express purpose of decompressing and discussing my week of teaching. That alone makes this year exciting.


Day 1 in a 1:1 iPad School

In a way, yesterday was day 1 of our school’s 1:1 iPad initiative because, last night, most of our students came to the school to pick up their shiny new iPads.  In a way, day 1 was a day in late May when we, the teachers received our iPads and began learning all about them (playing with them — best way for me to learn)!  In a way, day 1 was the day our school board approved the 1:1 initiative in our school and excitement began to seep into the hallways and classrooms and students and faculty in our district. In a way, day 1 was the day our current superintendent sat and watched Travis Allen’s keynote at NETA12 and it all clicked into place. But TODAY is the day that all of our students walked into class with iPads in hand.

In addition to today being our first day of school and my first opportunity to make contact with this year’s students, it was also a day of training. Arvin Ross from iSchool Initiative (@iSchoolAdvocate) was here to help with a “boot camp” of sorts.  The students though, are fearless when it comes to this tool. Unsurprisingly so, they dove in, downloading apps, using the camera (of course), and navigating the web. There was a boot camp going on, but it was a meta-boot camp and the presenter was only a small part of it. The students are going to train themselves. The students are going to train us!

Have there been kinks? Yes. Were we expecting them? Yes. Were they a big hairy deal? Nope. So far every rough spot we’ve encountered has been easily fixable and addressed with efficiency. Do we expect a little bit of chaos? Yes. Am I excited about said chaos? You better believe it. It’ll be a good kind of chaos–the kind where mistakes are made, academic risks are taken, and learning flourishes.

Let’s be realistic though.  Here is what I am not expecting iPads to do for us: perform magic. We still have to use best practice and continually learn and stretch and grow. iPads are not a cure for anything in particular that ails any of us. It is a tool that, if used well, will have a positive impact on us. Education is hard work and will continue to be so; it’ll just be more fun this year!

Here is what I do expect iPads to do for us: increase engagement, make projects more efficient, expand learning outside the classroom and outside the school, and increase communication.

Today was technically day 1, but I have feeling we have a whole year of day 1’s ahead of us.

Thoughts?  Tweet me: @morgetron.