Monthly Archives: February 2014

Visual Notes

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What we did

This will be a short post – just a note to share a small technique I think has been reasonably successful: All this past semester or so in Grade 6 Humanities, whenever we watch any kind of movie in class, I pass out blank pieces of paper and tell the students to take notes by drawing. (note: none of the pictures here are actually the results of this process – I don’t have any with me at the moment so I’m making do with some other student drawings; I hope to add some examples later)

Why we did it

A few months ago I started to notice that my previous system, taking turns at collaborative note-taking in a Google Doc, while extremely successful in its own way, was only engaging two or three students at a time. Having all the students take notes on their laptops would obviously be too distracting. Therefore, if I wanted to get notes from more people at once, it had to be on paper. Since this is 6th grade we’re talking about, I added the drawing aspect to make it more fun.

What happened


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The things that 6th graders can produce while watching a 15-minute video about, for example, the Silk Road, are incredible. I now feel like all the films we watched in class without paper to draw on were wasted opportunities.

Admittedly, some students take time to only draw one or two comic-book-style characters from what they’ve seen, with little or no text, but on the other end of the spectrum some of them will produce page after page of dense mind maps or visual reproductions of the tiniest details from the film. The balance usually seems to be on the side of students’ drawing things that are either important concepts, or things that might help them remember the content and concepts later.

What I learned

Pros – I love seeing what students come up with, and I think many of them pay closer attention while looking for things to draw. I obviously don’t have any quantitative proof, but my perception is that many of the more energetic 6th graders focus a bit better while taking visual notes, and I plan to keep giving them chances to do so in the future while observing how they fare.

Cons – I do suppose a few students might get caught up in the drawing aspect and miss some content from a film, but I think the proportion of students who fall into that trap is likely equal to or lower than the proportion who’d be staring at the wall, falling asleep, or fiddling with their pencil cases if we didn’t have the paper available. I haven’t felt like students seem to be missing out on anything, personally… and recent research on the possible benefits of taking notes by hand only adds to my positive feelings about this technique. The fact that I’ve only recently learned how to efficiently use our printer as a scanner only adds to my enthusiasm – since now these creatively scribbled-on pieces of paper could easily be compiled, shared, used in blog posts, etc., instead of getting thrown out.

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Filed under Education, Literacy, New Literacies, PGP

Shared Google Maps

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What we did

I recently tried using a shared Google Map as a prior knowledge / brainstorming / discussion starter, as part of an intro to a Grade 6 unit on the Silk Road. I asked everyone in the class to add some markers about places they’d been, and told them to add details about local, food, culture, or any other local specialties they remembered.

Why we did it

I really enjoy using shared Google Documents for all sorts of daily classwork, and I keep hoping that shared maps will eventually allow for some of the same collaborative magic. I’ve tried collaborative maps in the past and found them too slow and chaotic, but that was years ago. I realized that I hadn’t investigated this aspect of Google Maps for two years or so, and I thought I’d give it another chance.

What happened

Chaos. Madness. When I made a new map and shared it with the class, everything went wrong. Unlike Documents, the map refreshed itself very slowly and in a weird way, so that students couldn’t see the changes they’d made until 10 or 15 minutes had passed.

It didn’t help that our map immediately became unmanageably complex – many of the students decided to quickly add markers for every single place they’d been in their lives, so minutes after starting the map we had something like 135 markers.

Marker names and descriptions updated far more slowly than the actual markers themselves, so for most of the time we spent on it, it frustratingly looked like we had around 135 blank markers, even though most of them had been given names and descriptive text by the students.

After 10 0r 15 minutes of frustration, some of the students (understandably) started trying to speed the map up and organize things by deleting the dozens of apparently blank markers – except that they often weren’t blank, but were just very slow to update. This meant that some students were deleting others’ work.

Finally, one or two students figured out how to change all of the markers’ icons at once, so by the end of our time trying to collaborate on the map, we had maybe 10 or 15 informative markers and over 100 seemingly blank ones, the icons for all of which had been turned into fish heads. It was not the most productive use of class time.

What I learned

Maps are still not Documents, although they now share a similar “sharing” system. A whole class can’t work on a shared map without several major problems cropping up.

There need to be either strict limits on the number of markers that students place, or the number of people working on a map at any one time. Perhaps maps might be successfully shared in groups of 2 or 4 students, but attempting to have the whole class collaborate on a single map was not a success. The less exciting but more practical setup of ordering each student to only make one marker per map might also lead to more manageable results.

When we finally abandoned the non-updating, extremely messy map, the students seemed more upset at the “waste” of 15 or so minutes of class time than I was. When I tried to make everyone feel better by explaining that they’d helped me in a technology experiment, two of them immediately demanded payment for their services as test subjects. Unpredictable exchanges like that are part of what makes teaching middle school so fun. I did not pay them.

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Filed under Education, New Literacies, PGP