11 June 2015

Creating Memes as Modern-Day Political Cartoons

Finding or drawing political cartoons to express the absurdity or irony of a historical perspective has long been a staple of history class. I remember creating a political cartoon in my study of Romeo and Juliet 18 years ago and one of the first lessons I wrote in undergrad social studies ed classes revolved around this cartoon, published after China's first manned spaceflight:

During my planning for my summer school government class last week, I wanted to think through the idea of filibuster, but I was looking for something that my students (and myself) would relate to contextually. As the print newspaper has declined in readership and influence informing the public, we've of course seen a concurrent rise in digital media and freedom/ease of expression through social media. (I did a precursory Google search before I wrote this post to see if anyone else had already written it and found this piece from journalism professor John Schacht - "Why Internet Memes May Replace Editorial Cartoons" - it didn't suggest any role in the classroom, but it exactly expressed the increasing prominence of memes beyond picture of grumpy cat.

Recently, Senator Ted Cruz gained some notoriety for reading Seuss's Green Eggs & Ham while holding the floor with a filibuster to delay vote of a funding bill for the Affordable Healthcare Act. I played this video from CSPAN of the reading, and then asked my students to create memes showing their understanding of the concept of a filibuster as part of our study of the legislative branch.

Most of my students used createameme.org - it worked well enough on the iPads - but you could use any app/website that allowed you to layer text over an image. Here's what they came up with:

The best/worst part of this activity was the giggles that ensued the rest of class because students didn't want to get off of the meme websites. :)

07 June 2015

Give Your Students "College Ready" Texts They'll WANT To Read

Its no secret that the ACT (and success in college as a whole) is dependent upon a high-level of reading comprehension. The science section on the ACT has much, much more to do with reading and understanding a non-fiction, technical text than it does your memory of mitosis or Newton's 3rd law.

That being said, it be hard to avoid the importance of raising reading skills in my ACT Prep class this summer. I haven't looked at my students' benchmarked reading scores from the school year, but given the
"don't-you-dare-call-on-me" silence of death I've gotten our 2 days of class when I asked for a reader, I'd be willing to bet they are not high. I don't think the students at my school WANT to be poor readers, and most of our low readers probably carry some shame about and would put in work to raise their skills, but putting in the hard work of catching up using reading texts that are not of personal interest to them creates a mental barrier. Rather than hurdle/climb/scratch/claw over it, many of our readers go the easier route of blaming something/someone else for their deficiencies, or they resign to "I'm not a good reader."

As I was perusing the Chrome Web Store this week looking for more utility to add to my Chromebook, I ran into Newsela, a news aggregator that promises to give my students articles that will be of interest to them at a lexile/grade level score that I can set to best support them.

I had really hoped Newsela ran on some super platform that used some fancy coding to take any article a student could throw at and replace synonyms, interpret meaning, and chunk long passages into shorter ones, but apparently I live in the future.

Newsela DOES have a respectable amount of articles to choose from (updated daily), and I was even able to find one about the dance team from a school in my district that the +St Louis Post-Dispatch profiled last fall.

Here's what Newsela allows you to do with any of the articles on the site:

  • Assign to students for reading. From their student account, they pull up their "binder" to find what you have curated for them.
  • Set a lexile level for them to scaffold vocabulary weaknesses while focusing on comprehension
  • Assess comprehension with a quiz that they put together or a writing prompt
  • Highlight and annotate passages to give your students extra insight or further scaffold their reading.

To share some of how it works, here's a few screenshots of my perusing that article:

This is the layout of an article on Newsela. You have options to assign the article (or to hide it) at the top, the text in the main column with sharing buttons above the title, and choices to differentiate reading levels and assessment on the right in blue.

Newsela doesn't ONLY replace "higher" words for lower, the editorial staff also provides subtitles and headings the lower you go down lexicles. This is the same paragraph on the 5th grade and 12th grade reading level.

Is it a PERFECT tool for getting your students relatable content? Probably not, but it gets you a long way in its ability to provide choice and scaffolding for your readers, and its faster than a classroom trip to the library for students to find and choose books on the appropriate level.

05 June 2015

Using Visual Notes for Memory and Understanding

Are you an doodler? Associating notes and terms with images is helpful for recalling information later, so doodling (or finding images that relate and then pasting in) is a good strategy for taking something mundane like note-taking and creating an "experience" that will be easier to call upon during test time. I still remember the tank I drew with icicles hanging from it in 10th grade on my Cold War notes.

This brings me to today's use of visual notes. As much as it pains me to say, "victory" on the ACT does not always go to the "smartest" students, but instead, to those who can best play the game. In a bubble, I'd much rather teach math concepts and skills, but when it comes to gaming the ACT, sometimes those get in the way.

This is best exemplified in my experience from my 2 experiences taking the ACT as a student. The first time, I had a TI-83 at my side, checking every graph and solution I could, searching for just the right formula. I didn't finish that section - I don't even remember being that close. The second time I took the ACT, I did not have the graphing calculator (I have no idea where the graphing calculator I'd been using went) - I didn't even have a scientific calculator! I told my dad on the way to the test that I needed to get a calculator, so we stopped at a supermarket, bought a 2 dollar four function calculator. The magic of my 2 dollar calculator test was that I HAD to skip around to the things I could do easiest. I was much more agile in my thinking, skipped around more quickly when I felt stuck, and actually did 5 points higher that time. My "knowledge" got in the way the first time from me showing what I definitely knew, and there were probably some questions I could have done that I never got to.

I found a list of strategies for each section of the ACT on sparknotes.com for my students and I've tasked them to make a "poster" for each section and the included strategies. My skill set and interest leans toward illustrating in any whiteboard or drawing app, but I left open the option for using the PicCollage app to bring in images and text or Haiku Deck to make a slide show with an image for each strategy.

Here's the example I created using the Paper app based on tips from this video that I showed earlier in class:

Here's a preliminary student example:
My favorite part of this one is the crossed arms emoji for "eliminate answers". :)
More visual notes resources:
6 Apps To Visualize Notes on iPad
Sketchnotes and Visual Thinking Note-taking - This page summarizes and links to many OTHER resources
Show with Media: Visual Note-taking

Happy note-taking!

04 June 2015

Enrich Class Discussions by Podcasting Them

This post describes the rationale and some nuts and bolts of the Government class podcast I'm working on this summer. You can read more about that class and listen to the episodes at governmentclass.mrcbaker.com.

This summer school I am delighted to be teaching a 2 week "credit recovery" course for Government, something I taught in my student teaching in 2005, but have not worked with since.

One of the things I'm looking most forward to is the class discussion. There are opportunities for these in math class the deeper you go with relevance, 3 Act Math Stories, and or project-based learning, but because much of studying the social sciences is how everything that has (or may) happen relates to you or others, class discussions are something that I like to do several times a week.

I used today's first podcast as a way to get the kids to reflect on what they see as the role of the federal government, if they think the government is doing well in that role, and to think of or research specific cases that exemplify their stance. Here's a link to the prewriting doc I put in Google Classroom for them.

I gave them 15 minutes to think through the doc and get some of their answers down, stressing that the idea does not have to be at its fullest fruition since we were prewriting. I moved around the room, talking through some ideas with students, clarifying questions, and encouraging that putting good effort in the prewriting was going to make them sound really smart when we started recording.

After their prewriting time was up, ordinarily, that's where you would have a class discussion, right? You, the teacher would throw out a question, the students would share their responses, you would counter with follow-up questions to help clarify their statements and summarize for everyone else, and students would respond to each other. And then with the exception perhaps of some stellar note-taking from some student, the discussion would die as soon as the bell rang, living only as a memory, and only for the benefit of the people in the room.

But if you record it, the discussion lives on! Why record (and why podcast specifically)?

  1. Recording the discussion archives it for students who were absent or want to review it later when studying
  2. Recording and pushing it out as a podcast invites parents into the classroom without having to be IN the classroom.
  3. An audio recording is less intimidating to students who may not want to be on video and less intrusive to the normal flow of the discussion. I set my Chromebook in the middle of the circle, pressed record, and then left it alone.
  4. Podcasting the discussion creates an audience for your students beyond their classmates and you, their teacher. A class discussion may have gotten blown off, but everyone was on their best behavior and best engagement while we were recording. 
  5. Letting kids know you trust and value what they say to put it on the internet is a message of trust and value in them as people. Who doesn't love to hear that?

But HOW do I do this, Chuck?

1. Get a voice recorder app for your iOS or Android device, or open up an online audio recorder. Today I used online-voice-recorder.com. When you save/export these, it will save as an .mp3 file.

2. What if you can't hear my students on the playback? I used twistedwave.com to edit individual files with fade in/fade in or cutting out any period of more than like, 5 seconds of silence, but MUCH more useful was the "normalize' tool, that allowed me to highlight the quiet sound signature from a quiet student, "normalize" it to the rest of the audio, and turn up the volume just in that one segment.
3. Ideally, things will go great and everything your students say will get recorded. :) If that doesn't happen, or you need to separate the recording between different hours (or any other reason you may have two separate .mp3 files that you want together) I used http://audio-joiner.com/ to put my files together after I had them edited how I liked.
4. Do you have the .mp3 file how you want it now? What should you do with it? You could do something like attach the file to your website, Google Classroom, Edmodo, or other LMS, or even share the link from Google Drive via email or Remind. That's by far the simplest solution. If you want to try posting your audio as a real life, honest-to-goodness podcast, you'll need a blog post the files to, generate an RSS feed, and get yourself submitted to iTunes. Here are tutorials for that.
When deciding if you need the extra layer of complication submitting to iTunes, consider your audience. Are you podcasting your class discussions for the stakeholders of your school and/or district, or are you hoping to share with a larger audience? If your answer is the former, you don't really have a need for iTunes - people you want to share with can just get the file as an .mp3 shared via email or Google Drive.

However, as I said in the Why Podcast section, I sensed that my students stepped up their game knowing that other people were going to be turning in as well, so it is worth the steps to host the podcast on iTunes and this blog.

MY next step is to start to train the students to be able to record, facilitate, save the .mp3 files themselves. My government class is less than 10 students this summer - I don't think it would have been as successful an experience if we were trying to get a "regular" class size all engaged in the same discussion at the same time. In that case, I would hope to split it into at least 2 concurrent recording sessions. The obvious advantage here is that then the teacher steps even further into the background and can just sit in a guide/contribute rather than driving the discussion.