Category Archives: English

Single-Use Google Site

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What we did

Long story short: our class made a Google Site that we only intended to use as a place to display some formative work for one or two days.

Our Grade 6 English unit on “The Press” involves having students write imaginary news articles (the only limitation on their content was that they had to describe something happening at school). This was really just daily work, not a major project, but at the end of class I decided to quickly create a Google Site to post their stories on.

Why we did it

At the end of a period of students’ writing fake news articles, I realized I didn’t know how best to share and discuss them. Their articles, from what I’d seen as they worked on them, were hilarious and well-written, involving all sorts of mayhem and shenanigans ranging from a teacher being murdered to a student getting sucked down into a toilet. I wanted to celebrate this work somehow, but wasn’t sure what to do.

Reading each group’s articles one at a time in front of the class would be fun but could easily take an hour, while having them simply turn in their work to me seemed far too anti-climactic.

After a few minutes’ thought, I realized that most of our research into news articles had involved looking at newspaper or news channels’ websites, like the New York Times, CNN and BBC. Therefore, to celebrate the students’ work, the most authentic thing to do would be to make a pretend news site of our own.

What happened

I think it went really well. The students immediately liked the idea that their stories were going to be part of the PNN (Pretend News Network)’s site, and they seemed excited about posting and formatting their work, as well as clicking on and reading through everyone else’s stories.

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One surprising (and fun) thing that happened is that even though photos were not part of the assignment, students quickly got VERY involved in staging photos for their stories, for example:

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What I learned

Pros – This experiment worked out very well, in my opinion, and I plan to throw together more one-off sites for displaying student work like this in the future. It took only a minute to create the site, and the students figured out how to navigate the editing quickly.

I think there were three reasons for this: 1) The Google Site options are pretty minimal, in a good way – the only meaningful choices are “add page” and “edit page”, 2) The Google Site interface is almost identical to the Google Documents one, which helped students immediately tackle it with no problems, 3) our 6th graders are pretty fearless in terms of tackling new technology interfaces, as well as at helping each other, so the articles were uploaded within 5 or 10 minutes of my creating the site with no stress on anyone’s part.

Another advantage to throwing up this site was that it allowed stories from both of my Grade 6 English class sections to be posted in the same place, so that both classes could get ideas from each other and share the fun of reading their ridiculous news stories. I really like the fact that the site sort of parallels the sites we’d been researching – 20 years ago a similar sort of “authentic” sharing format would have been to have the class work together on a pretend newspaper, and I think this was a pretty good modern analogue to that, while also not being very time-consuming or even requiring the students to go much out of their way to upload their work.

Cons – Google Sites, in spite of a lot of superficial interface resemblances, are not Google Documents, and we quickly found that only one person can edit any particular page at any one time. To get around this, each group of students decided to write their articles collaboratively in Docs and paste them into the Google Site only after they were finished writing. This worked fine, but did represent a small extra step.

Aside from that, I don’t feel like any drawbacks to creating this “disposable” site have emerged. I feel it was a very quick, easy and positive way to share the students’ work, overall. I am, however, a tiny bit concerned by how quickly several of the groups independently came up with stories that involved teachers being murdered (!)

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Cloud Commenting

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What we did

Shared reading of an English text with comments in Google Documents. Long story short: we were studying fairy tales in Grade 6 English. I found some online texts of Brothers Grimm and other fairy tales, pasted them into Google Docs, and told the students to add comments. The only instructions I gave the students were:

Highlight text and insert a comment (command+shift+M) when you see any:

  • interesting descriptions

  • words you don’t know

  • exciting opening

  • good dialogue

  • figurative language (symbols, simile, metaphor – “x is like y”, “x is y”)

  • anything you want to comment on

Why we did it

While I love reading alone, and try to encourage students to do it as much as possible, it can be hard to have fun doing it during class time. What I decided to try earlier this year was to make the act of reading itself a bit more interactive and social.

I guess this might be categorized under “Social Learning”. Social learning is a shift to “involving individuals in processes and practices within which knowledge, understanding, and ideas are produced by participants as social accomplishments.” (Lankshear and Knobel 2011, paraphrasing Brown and Adler, 2008)

What happened

Every time we looked at a section of the text together, we had a VERY large number of comments added in a very short amount of time. Some students focused on definitions of unknown words, some looked for shocking events or descriptions, and some found connections to other things they’d read. We quickly had so many comments that they couldn’t all appear on the screen at the same time. Students answered each others’ questions and had debates about certain events or terms. It all happened a lot faster than I could follow.

 


 

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What I learned

Pros

I liked the way that this technique took a silent reading activity and made it interactive and social. It allowed us to read the same text together in class, but also let everyone tackle the same text at their own pace. I definitely got some insight into students’ different reading speeds and styles. Some students only commented on the first few paragraphs, while some raced ahead and read the ending first, or skipped around.

This approach also resulted in a document of students’ reactions to and interactions with the text which has possible future value to us as a class. For example, it easily lets the whole class see which words were difficult for which readers, and it would be easy to compile a glossary or list of hard words based on the students’ self-identified unknown words.

I also liked the way this allowed anyone to become a peer “expert” and help with definitions, etc. This peer teaching element might be a good activity for early finishers or those who are more confident with their understanding of the text, and it makes the whole process of reading a more social and collaborative act. Having this peer help available takes some of the pressure off individual readers to look up unknown words themselves, and having the whole class modeling asking for help in this way might help English language learners feel more confident when they don’t understand particular words.

Cons

I do think that this activity was distracting for some students, and in the future when we do something similar I’ll try to create some more structured guidelines for how to comment. A few people treated the comments like chat boxes and spent time writing greetings or jokes. Having all the students on the same document at the same time probably contributed to this, and I’d like to explore doing this commenting in smaller groups next time, making multiple copies of the document. Roles might also help address this – maybe one student should be the word definer, one should look for metaphors, etc.

It’s also definitely true that the act of linear, contemplative reading is disrupted by this method. Some students scrolled up and down throughout the document looking for entertainment, or got caught up in reading the others’ comments and ignoring the text itself.

Conclusion

I think the act of reading these fairy tales on paper, individually, still has a great deal of value for these students and will continue to be part of our study of them. However, for the specific purposes of:

  • finding unknown words and defining them
  • documenting our reactions to unusual, confusing or surprising parts of the text, and
  • finding and analyzing literary devices or techniques within the text,

I think this type of commenting activity seems perfect. After incorporating a bit more structure in the commenting process, perhaps by splitting the class into reading groups so that everyone isn’t using the same document at the same time, I think this would be a really valuable process to go through with any electronically-available text, and I am looking forward to future experiments.

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Filed under Education, English, Literacy, New Literacies, PGP