Friday, January 13, 2017

Kindness for the New Year

Kindness in Suffering - Anne Barbour

Kindness Journals
For this new year, in the wake of a difficult 2016, I have decided to try to commit a random act of kindness every day. For me, this means quietly and anonymously doing something kind, generous, or unselfish for someone else without expecting praise or even acknowledgement. 

This is not an original idea, of course. But it somehow makes me feel like I am contributing something worthwhile to the world at large. Instead of simply tolerating the bad and ugly, I am doing my only tiny part to help counteract the growing movement of incivility in America. 

I started this on Jan. 1, but then it dawned on me: Why not ask students to do the same thing and document their efforts with a digital tool? 

This is a Random Acts of Kindness Journal!

Kindness can make you feel amazing -- or, sometimes, unappreciated, or sometimes, ashamed or guilty. All of these feelings are part of the human experience -- But my students may not know this. So, using the new GIF Maker digital tool, they can document the feelings they have while participating in a type of digital writing or storytelling. 

This tool makes creating a GIF so easy! You simply paste the URL share code from a YouTube or other video into the  large window, then the tool takes over. This is a screenshot of the window:

After the video downloads, you will get an active window with sliding bars that you can adjust to select a small clip from your chosen video. A GIF typically is about 1 to 3 seconds. You just slide the bar, watch the clip in the large window, and then scroll down to the bottom and click "Create GIF."

Once the GIF is created, you can download it to your desktop or share on Twitter or Facebook or Pinterest. (Click on the Advanced tab to access the GIF's share code.)

For the Random Acts of Kindness Journal, students TWEET a daily digital journal entry, each one marked with a note of what they did and how it made them feel. They can use a hashtag to keep them all in the same digital "bucket," such as #Katieskindnessjournal.

Here is a sample:

Here's to more kindness in 2017!

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Great Thanksgiving Listen

I am a huge fan of public radio, and one of my favorite features is the National Public Radio (NPR) program “Storycorps.” Storycorps features shorts excerpts of interviews between two people. Often the interviews are on an interesting subject or with interesting and unique people. 

Using Storycorps as part of the English classroom can be a deeply moving and affecting exercise. My own students absolutely LOVE hearing the stories of real people and their authentic experiences.

A wonderful smorgasbord of Storycorps interviews are available at the website

In addition, there are beautifully animated short films that accompany some of the most affecting interviews. My favorite one features an older couple and their demonstration of love for each other, despite the man’s diagnosis of cancer (and eventual death). You can find this short here:

I have been using Storycorps as a way to integrate writing and technology, and this year the Storycorps folks are HELPING ME OUT! (thanks, guys) They are offering The Great Thanksgiving Listen as a way to involve secondary students. How great is that?!

For The Great Thanksgiving Listen, students interview a family member or guest at their Thanksgiving dinner and then upload the interview to the Storycorps website via an app on their smart phone (or directly from the website). The interviews are logged into the Library of Congress for posterity. For students without Internet access or a mobile phone that records, you can have them interview someone at school (the lunch lady!) with a device available through school. The students then share the link to the interview with you.

I have been so humbled to hear interviews about parental love, death of loved ones, undocumented immigration, survival of war, and many more experiences.

I ask students to write out thoughtful interview questions and then write a reflection AFTER the interview. This integrates writing with critical thinking. A win-win!

There is even a PDF Teacher guide that you can download.

My students love interviewing family members and reported that they learned so much MORE about people they thought they knew. Beautiful.

Here’s to Storycorps, family stories, and a peaceful Thanksgiving!

Friday, October 7, 2016

Transcendentalists and Technology

This is the time of year when thoughts turn to...


What? Yes, Transcendentalism, the darling of English teachers, is making its way into classrooms about this time of year, according to the pacing guides of several states. Like many of you, I have always loved the Transcendentalists. The whole convening-with-nature-questioning-authority-promoting-self-actualization thing just really resonates with me. Likely, it also resonates with you.

But for our students? Well, maybe not so much. For many students, particularly those who will become engineers and businesspeople and make more money than all of us combined, Transcendentalism feels a little artsy-fartsy. A little too touchy-feely. A little too...well, English teacher-y.

This is where the Electronic English Teacher can help you. 

A little technology can sharpen the blurry edges of a study of nature writing. Here are two ideas:

1. Geocaching. 

In this activity, your students will actually get out of the classroom and into the world (like the Transcendentalists) to explore nature. Geocaching involves looking for hidden packages and treasures that others have placed and then tagged with a coordinate. Using a GPS-enabled phone, users hunt for the package/Geotagged item with the navigation program on their phone. It's as easy as asking Siri for directions to the mall.
Ask your students to hunt down a geocached package that is hidden in a local park or nature site and then write a journal entry or reflection about the experience. They also can take a photo of themselves in nature with the item. This is a screenshot of a Geocached map:

 Here is someone looking for a Geocache in a park:

2. Digital photography and online journaling.

Penzu is my favorite online journaling site. I use it with my students in my writing class. It is an easy interface that allows users to post pictures and then write about them. For this activity, you can ask your students (or take them) to convene with nature. They can take a few nature photographs, then write journal entries about the experience. Here is a screenshot from my own Penzu journal:


Friday, September 30, 2016

Remixed Trading Cards for Iliad

Since I know many of us are teaching survey courses that begin "at the beginning" and then move through literary time, I have pledged to do a few posts to get you through the first weeks of the school year. Last week, I wrote about an Internet scavenger hunt for those of you who are teaching The Scarlet Letter in American Lit courses.

This week, I am turning to those of you who might be doing the Greeks or The Iliad in a Western Lit course. Thanks to Dr. Jennifer Dail, I have been working with my own students on remixed digital compositions. Jen has a great article in The Alan Review on her own adventures in remixing. Following her lead, my students have been creating remixed trading cards on literary figures and world leaders.

 Your students can use the same idea to create trading cards on characters in The Iliad. Whether it's Hector, Achilles, Agamemnon, or even Helen... there are so many characters to keep track of! The trading cards allow students to think about characters in terms of allegiances, strengths, and characteristics.

There are several sites that allow users to create trading cards. The best ones are:
1) ReadWriteThink Trading Card Creator. Allows students to create trading cards on any character or literary figure.

2) Pokemon Trading Card Creator. This is my favorite, because it allows students to use prior knowledge of Pokemon characters and then remix that knowledge with a literary character.

3) Yu-Gi-Oh Trading Card Creator. This is another site that calls on students' prior knowledge about specific Manga characters from the Yu-Gi-Oh cartoon and applies it to the new Iliad characters.

The easiest way to allow students to save what they create is to ask them to make a screenshot of the finished product and then save that to their desktop. They can then export the screenshot into a Google Drive folder that you have created.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Scarlet Letter Scavenger Hunt

In recent conversations with English teachers, I have learned that many of us are struggling with how to integrate technology into specific units/novels/texts. One teacher said to me: "I get that I need to use technology, but I also have to teach The Scarlet Letter. I need to know how to merge technology with Hawthorne."

I can really appreciate this task. We need a lesson for TODAY that uses a TPACK framework, engages kids, and doesn't create havoc in the classroom.

Here is one idea that I have used to introduce The Scarlet Letter. A current student teacher of mine has used the film "Easy A" as an introductory tool -- which also is a great idea. If you want to go a bit further, then consider an Internet scavenger hunt that directs students to specific informational sites to provide a bit of background before they begin reading. Remember to hold students accountable for what they are reading and learning. You can ask students to simply write their answers to the questions on a piece of paper, or you can create a Google Form for them to fill in.

Here is one ready for you:

Seven Things You Should Know 

Before Reading The Scarlet Letter

1. Who is Nathaniel Hawthorne? Why do you think he wanted to write about Puritans? Click here to find out:

2. Name two interesting facts about Hawthorne. Click here:

3. Visit the House of Seven Gables. Which room is your favorite, and why? Click:

4. What happened to you if you were caught exhibiting "lewd behavior" during Puritan times? Click here:

5. Is adultery a crime in your state? Click here, then click on interactive map:

6. What was life like for Puritan women? Click here:

7. Watch the official movie trailer for a new Indy movie version of The Scarlet Letter.

Now watch the trailer for the movie "Easy A," loosely based on The Scarlet Letter. What similarities do you see?

Friday, September 16, 2016

How to Integrate Technology Into the First Weeks of School

Welcome to a new school year! For those of us who teach in higher ed, school has been in session for quite a few weeks already (five weeks for me!). For others, school is in its first week or two.

No matter when you started, though, you likely need IDEAS and SUPPORT to integrate technology into your English language arts classes! And you need it FAST! Your admin is pressuring you; your students are clamoring for it. You WANT to do it…but who has time to plan? Am I right?

I definitely do NOT have all the answers, but here are 5 INTRODUCTORY IDEAS for the first few weeks of school. Remember (and repeat after me): the tool is not the thing. It’s more about the content, your relationship with students, and how you teach. The technology is just the car that takes you on your journey – it’s not the journey (or the destination!).

1.     Padlet. ( : This is a digital bulletin board on which students can post their thoughts about a discussion, a text, or anything you want them to write about. For the first days of school, this is enough writing for most students! I LOVE Padlet and use it all the time as a type of exit ticket with my students. I ask students to post their final thoughts from a discussion on Padlet. Here is a padlet my students created last week on Stephen King’s book On Writing, which they read.

2.     Voki. ( Voki is free at the Basic level, which I find to be good enough. The Basic level limits creations to 30 seconds, but that’s okay when you have 150 students. Your students can use Voki to create avatars who speak in various accents and voices. Use Voki to ask students to introduce themselves at the beginning of the year or comment on a class discussion. Students also can create Vokis who reflect characters they’ve read in fiction or non-fiction texts. Here is a picture of a Voki I created to introduce myself to students. They had to hit the PLAY button to hear me speak.

3.     Quizlet. ( Quizlet is a free digital flashcard tool that allows users to make two-sided flashcards. I love Quizlet for vocabulary words. Research shows that vocabulary sticks best when it is taught (like grammar) in context. This means pulling the week’s vocabulary words out of the novel/text you are teaching, rather than plucking them out of thin air. The cool thing about Quizlet is that it is so simple and quick. Enter in your vocab words, then your definitions, and the software creates the flashcards. Students can quiz themselves or each other by simply pressing the space bar. 

4.     Voicethread. ( I’ve written about Voicethread before, but it bears repeating. It is a great tool for a million different uses. At the beginning of the year, I like to ask students to upload 5 images in Voicethread to help introduce themselves to me and their peers. Then, they can record a voiceover to accompany each image and tell us why it’s special. Voicethread also works well as a way to respond to a text. Students upload images that connect to the text, then record their thoughts about each image. (Ex: Upload 5 images that depict the symbols in the novel. Explain why you chose these images and how they connect to the book.)

5.     Canva. ( Canva is a digital scrapbook/flyer/poster creator. I love using it for an introductory activity in which I ask students to create a poster that depicts their name. Name activities are excellent for the first few weeks of class and help build community. I have written extensively about this project in other venues, but here is a picture of one of my students’ Canva pages. It contains symbols important to her, as well as a photo of four generations of family members in Africa.

The main thing is to keep the technology SIMPLE and LIGHT and don’t stress too much. If you are lucky enough to have iPads in your classroom or students who have their own devices – or even an occasional BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) day – you can tweak one of these ideas and make it your own. Have fun, and remember: Don’t smile til December! (just kidding).

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Virtual Reality in the ELA Classroom

I recently have become obsessed with virtual reality devices and their potential uses in the classroom. I stumbled upon a virtual reality app called Discovery VR, which is managed by the Discovery Channel. On the website (, users can have a 3D experience from a simple laptop. There are dozens of videos that provide a type of "virtual field trip" for students. The app provides a simple link to 360-degree videos from a smartphone.

Screenshot from the Discovery VR website with available videos to view.

However, this only scratches the surface!

Thanks to Google, students can use their smartphones and have an actual virtual reality experience in which they can look up, down, sideways, and behind themselves as if they were FULLY IMMERSED in an image! Imagine the possibilities for writing prompts! Students can take a tour of the bottom of the ocean and then write a short story/essay/poem about their journey! Wow!

In order to experience this fully immersive interaction, students will need a Google Cardboard viewer in which they insert their smartphone and then view one of the recorded videos (like those on the Discovery VR app) through the special viewer. 

I decided to order one of these gizmos, and I can tell you, I spent about two hours just playing and giggling to myself. It was fantastic!!

The Google Cardboard viewer.

                                             The viewer when it is fully opened.

                                      The front of the viewer. You insert your phone at the top.

You can order a Google Cardboard viewer from a vendor through Or you can visit the site for directions to make your own. I ordered mine directly from the Google store for $15 with free shipping.

In addition, Google is offering limited on-site visits from the Google Expeditions Pioneer Program (, in which experts from Google will come to your school and bring a bunch of Google Cardboard viewers with them for FREE. These visits are hard to arrange, but I know of one middle school in my area that just received a visit. The teachers said the experience was "magic."

Another phone app called Sphere - 360 Photography (available on both the iTunes and Android stores) allows students to take their own 360 pictures. They can take a 360 photo of their house (used by realtors frequently), their school, or another location. I downloaded this onto my phone, and there was a small learning curve -- but it didn't take me too long to create a 360 photo of my front yard.

I love the idea of virtual reality field trips for students. They can write about their experiences; they can talk about their experiences; and teachers can use the experiences to supplement background knowledge for texts that students are reading.

Imagine the increased engagement of students who take a virtual reality trip to the Congo before reading Conrad's Heart of Darkness! Or the deeper understanding of students who take a virtual reality trip into Muir Woods before reading an essay by John Muir.

Virtual reality is only just beginning to make its way into the mainstream -- and into schools. However, the technology shows enormous promise and potential. I can't wait to see what "they" come up with next!