Category Archives: New Literacies

😀 – Emoji as Evidence of Student Learning in MYP Individuals & Societies

Can you read this?

⪫👑 ▼🌎🗻℄=🌄🌆


💪⚔❤☮💬👍👥👑🏪🌾👞 or 🐪+🐑👑⎚♚✋🌄🌆😡💂▲😵🙏🌞9👑📝👑🚯👐📚←👑⚔🌎👐💰9👑💪🌄🌆🔨💪🔨🌱🌊



Or maybe this?


(English “translations” will be revealed later)


I’d like to share the story of a short assignment we did in recently in Individuals & Societies class. It was a very simple assignment, but the way the students responded to it was so interesting and exciting to me that I feel compelled to describe it at length.

Since the assignment was thought up and executed so quickly, what follows is not really action research or anything nearly that formal, but just a narrative where I’ll try to sort out my thoughts and share what I think was interesting about the project.

🎯What we did (and why)

📚Too Many Notes

Last week I found myself with a problem. I was absent one day, and my substitute plans called for my Year 8 students to research the Incas, Mayas and Aztecs as part of our MYP I&S unit. The problem? I hadn’t realized just how well they’d been taught a varied palette of powerful note-taking strategies by the Year 7 team, including Jennilea and Caitlin, last year. When I returned to my room and flipped idly through a couple of the students’ notebooks, I was shocked to see page after page of detailed, organized notes. A few of them had taken nearly ten pages of handwritten notes on their Pre-Columbian civilizations.

What bothered me about all this almost disturbingly successful note-taking was that I didn’t feel I had an interesting enough payoff waiting for the students at the end of this research. I’d planned to just have the students who’d researched different civilizations do a little jigsaw to share what they’d learned, maybe pull out some big themes in a short discussion, and move on. But now I wanted to be respectful of all that research by letting them create something with it, to let them climb a bit higher on the Mayan step pyramid of Bloom’s Taxonomy (revised) towards the beating sacrificial victim’s heart of Creation at its apex. (I realize that’s not the official metaphor)

I only had a couple of days before the end of the semester, so I couldn’t actually have them go through a full-scale project of any kind, but I wanted to do something interesting. I racked my brains for ways students could summarize or reproduce their learning quickly, in just a class period or two, but in a way that everyone could finish and which would also be fun. Posters? Too boring. Prezi? Too dizzying. Comic books? Take too long. Puppet show? Skit? Interpretive dance?

Emoji. Remembering an epic emoji retelling of the plot of “Les Mis” I’d recently seen, I wondered if it’d be fun to tackle the story of South American colonialism in a similar way.


💩 Explaining the Bison

While the idea was obviously quite silly, I couldn’t stop wondering if it could work. I figured that if students could summarize/crystallize/retell the high and low points of the colonial encounter in a series of emoji, it might actually have some value as a record of their learning and connect to the unit’s big themes and questions. Would it really be that different than, say, creating a detailed presentation retelling the most important events from this period in history?

Well, yes it would, obviously. The first things you’d lose would be any sort of detail or subtlety. But we didn’t have much time, so that all might work in our favor.

It wouldn’t be a presentation, but they’d still have to choose what information to retell – they’d just be using a predetermined set of tiny pre-made images instead of slides. Or it’d be like creating a detailed historical timeline, only using emoji instead of those little images of Cortez’s head, etc. that are always floating above and below a timeline.

Sequential visual storytelling boiled down to its essence. The heart of a strange Venn Diagram where the serious ideas of historiography collide with the cute forms of modern hieroglyphs. If it turned out the juxtaposition and/or sequential progression of the emoji didn’t actually convey anything to viewers, then, I reasoned, the students could show their learning by explaining the sequence to others, in the same way that that poor old prehistoric cave painter must have had to patiently narrate to his or her friends what exactly was going on with all those bison.


💡The Plan

I wrote up this experimental assignment as if it were a small summative assessment, just to help students take it more seriously, and told them if they succeeded it might turn Pinocchio-style into a “real” assessment in the future. I tied it in with our larger unit questions, etc., which are about global interactions and specifically the relationships of power and resources during colonialism. Here’s what I came up with:

Objective strands:
A – Knowing and Understanding
What does this look like in this task?
Task-specific clarification
A – Knowing and Understanding
ii. demonstrate knowledge and understanding of subject-specific content and concepts, using descriptions, explanations and examples.
ii. You demonstrate knowledge of the history, motivations, and effects of the interactions between a Pre-Columbian civilization and the Spanish, using a short story of emoji descriptions and examples, supported by an explanation paragraph.

Task directions:

Tell the story of the colonial relationship between the Mayas, Incas or Aztecs and the Spanish by using only a series of emoji in a row (140 characters absolute maximum). Your story should be historically accurate, make sense (as much as possible), and answer the question “Who gained and lost from this global interaction, and how/what/why did they gain or lose?”

Plan/Outline (students were encouraged to include around 4/5 of these in their story, backed up by research and described in an explanation paragraph): 

  • Origin and early history of the Mayas, Incas or Aztecs 
  • Facts from your research about their civilization – government, infrastructure, culture, geography, population, economy, etc.
  • First meeting(s) with the Spanish, and the Spanish motivations/journey/technology, etc. 
  • Effects and changes, gains/losses (resources taken, lives lost, culture changed, etc.) 
  • Facts from research about life in this area after colonialism – government, infrastructure, culture, geography, population, economy, etc. (could include national flags, religious symbols, modern money, sports, etc.) 
  • Final thoughts / judgment on the relationship (thumbs up/down, for example) [note: nobody did a final thumbs-up or thumbs-down. As you’ll see, perhaps it was because this idea was too clumsy for the rather more nuanced stories students ended up telling]


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What happened and what we learned by doing

The first thing that happened, before the students really got down to business, was that I had way more fun than I should have had creating a Twitter account for the class to share their ideas.

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Once I had the account in place, I decided my second tweet should be about a llama.

There is no llama emoji.

This immediate standstill got me thinking that we should start a glossary of basic terms. How would you say “llama” in emoji? Would it be done through pictures of animals, or through some kind of rebus-like sound puzzle? I remembered that there are three basic types of Chinese character – pictograph, ideograph, and phonetic borrowing. This might be a useful distinction to try to make, I decided.

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I tacked all this on immediately before throwing the assignment at students, and while I didn’t expect them to use the terms like experts, I hoped they would grasp the three main ideas. If I were to do this again I’d be interested in making this linguistic angle a bigger part of the project from the start, and perhaps connecting it to some meaningful history lessons in Egyptian hieroglyphs, the story of the decipherment of Mayan glyphs, etc. In any case, after having all this thrown at them I think most of the students got the distinction, and I felt that the three types of expression proved almost immediately to be useful language for discussing their creations.

I noticed that some phonetic ideas caught on and were used by almost every student, like the instantly famous “ink-a” invented by (I think – this was in the dark ages before I realized everyone needed to sign their tweets to the shared account) Aaron:

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I myself added a phonetic definition which turned into a part of many stories (and which I would soon grow to hate), the absurd and regrettable”cone-kiss-ta-door”:

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However, I noticed that after a certain point during our first period sharing ideas, those students who had algebraic or crossword-puzzle-loving minds exhausted their glee at coming up with new phonetic expressions. As we all started to realize the power of visual storytelling, the more primitive pictographic representations started to dominate. For example, Avan started out with a lot of phonetic jokes, like the ant-des mountains…

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…but then he moved quickly to a very baroque style, where he tried to use the emoji almost as a word-for-word substitute for English, trying to cram in actual dates and specific facts from his research:

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This is the first example I used at the top of the post. Its full explanation, as Avan wrote it, is as follows:

Incas: Largest empire in pre-columbian America, covers several regions of South America, Specifically Peru, Machu Picchu, Southern Colombia, Northern Chile, Northwest Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Andes mountain range. Centered in Cusco, Modern Day Peru:

⪫👑 ▼🌎🗻℄=🌄🌆

Began in 13th century in Peru, when the Sun God Inti sent his son Mano Capac to kill his brothers and lead his followers through the wilderness settled near Cusco in fertile valley.


Incas were fierce warriors, yet prefered peaceful negotiations. Offered gifts for leaders and promised benefits, including education and crop storage. They expanded their empire to 800,000 square kilometers and included 10 million people. Was connected by roads and bridges. Usually Llama transportation:

💪⚔붙❤☮💬👍👥👑🏪🌾👞 or 🐪+🐑

Government was organized, the emperor controlled the entire empire from Cuzco. Had a fearsome army, used language of Quechua which is still spoken today by millions of South Americans. Built many pyramids, possibly for sacrifices. Worshipped the sun god who they believed started the civilization. Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui was believed to have set down the practice in which rulers were prevented from inheriting the possessions of their predecessors, thereby ensuring that successive leaders would conquer new lands and accumulate new wealth. He also focused his efforts on strengthening Cusco, the center of the empire, he expanded Sacsahuaman, the giant fortress that guarded the city. He also embarked on  an expansive irrigation project by channeling rivers and creating intricate agricultural terraces.


With the arrival of the Conquistadors (Specifically Francisco Pizarro) in 1532, the last emperor ,Atahualpa, was kidnapped and held for ransom. After paying a release fee of $50 million in gold in today’s money. Atahualpa, who was promised to be set free, was strangled to death by the Spaniards who then marched straight for Cuzco and its riches. Much of the conquest was accomplished without battles or warfare as the initial contact Europeans made in the New World resulted in rampant disease. So many of the incas died from Smallpox, and the superior warfare of the Spanish were able to defeat even the mighty army of the Incas.



While this attempt to faithfully summarize and retell facts from research was definitely the level of detail I’d hoped for when I came up with the idea, I found some of these ideas from research weren’t exactly lending themselves well to emoji form. Avan’s idea-for-idea story wasn’t that easy or fun to follow, even with the explanation.

Interestingly, Avan moved past this style and, apparently realizing that in trying to use emoji in such complex ways he wasn’t taking advantage of their strengths, he suddenly emerged with an austere and mature style, summarizing the entire colonial relationship without any phonetic shortcuts or numbers or algebraic operators, just a simple story told in a series of nine pictures. Avan had, in two hours, invented an entire language for expressing his research, and he had told his story in baffling but thoughtful detail, but then he went a step further. He came up with this artistic, brief, but meaningful distillation of his knowledge:

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That is to say, if I may dare paraphrase a masterpiece, that the Spanish traveled across the globe with steel weapons, guns and horses, and took back all the gold that would fit in their ships – to build palaces with.

I’ve described this all in a mock-grandiose way, but it really was exhilarating to watch this evolution (which not just Avan but several other students went through extremely rapidly), from playing around with phonetic ideas and puns, to trying to express complex (and research-based) concepts, to tweaking, summarizing and revising their stories in order to make them more impactful as visual stories.

By the end of just two periods or so the entire class had learned each others’ visual glossary and were borrowing from each other (“az-tech”, “ink-a” and “cone-kiss-ta-door” being three of the favorite phonetic creations, “sheep+camel=llama” being one of the most commonly used pictographic shortcuts), and almost everyone managed to post their main “story”. Most of them were recognizable as a more elaborate version of Avan’s simple summary above, with beginning, middle, and end (the looting of resources and heading back on boats). At some point, to my excitement, emoji versions of native myths began to be appended to the beginnings of the stories, and the conversion to Christianity started to become a consistent element of the ends. The Columbian exchange became a big part of many stories once we noticed that there were emoji for tomatoes, potatoes, etc., and the Japanese facemask emoji and the skull emoji started to tell the grim story of European diseases’ decimation of the American peoples.

As examples of the more mature and complete story which I saw from many students at the end of our second full period working on these, I’d like to use Uku, Aman, and finally Jiwon’s stories. Uku didn’t have time to finish his English explanation paragraph to accompany his emoji story, but by this time he almost didn’t have to. I projected it on the screen, and the class nodded in appreciation. He didn’t use any phonetic shortcuts, just a more complex version of the shared pictographic and sequential storytelling techniques the class built up over the preceding periods.

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Aman’s story, similarly, was so clear (or at least it seemed to the class and me at this point) that we didn’t ask for an English translation when he posted it. We just scanned it visually, nodded, and appreciated it. It’s hard to describe, but I feel like we’d actually created a collective visual language for telling stories about history within a few hours, and that by the end of the last period students were all able to read this language. Aman had one of the more memorable descriptions of Aztec human sacrifice at the start of his story:

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 10.56.38 PM Jiwon’s was also one of the later efflorescence of more “complete” stories, and I think she struck a good stylistic balance between use of phonetic shortcuts and the extremely effective repetition-for-emphasis of pictographic or ideographic symbols. The horrors of disease, war, forced conversion and colonial profiteering were never so starkly shown. An emoji “Heart of Darkness”.

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Again, while I realize I’ve used a mock-grandiose style to appraise some of these creations, I’m doing it with sincerity. I was very impressed by the students’ creativity, speed, sharing of ideas, and ingenuity during these two or three periods. I really do think a lot of the students, and the class as a whole, went through several stages in the evolution of their use of this new language in mere minutes, and it was incredibly fun to watch the process.

By the way, I promised the “answer” to Jiwon’s tweet above at the start of the post. It seems almost unnecessary to share it, since I hope by this point you’ll have recognized most of what’s going on in there, but here it is:

The conquistadors heard that the Incas had a lot of resources so they sailed to the Incas which triggered a war between them. The Spanish fought with horses and pistols but the Incas only had wooden weapons and llamas on their side. Also the conquistadors carried an alien disease which killed most of the population. Due to the influence of the conquistadors, most of the Incas culture switched to Christianity. The Spanish easily won the war even with smaller number of people and returned to their country with money/resources.”

A nice summary paragraph, but I’m glad we’ve got the emoji version, aren’t you?


🍔🍟Takeaways – What we learned

  • I think this assignment was a success. My students summarized and shared their learning publicly in a way that was not only fun, but also forced them, thanks to the space and intelligibility restrictions of the medium, to make very clear decisions about the biggest themes and most crucial events in our unit. In just a few class periods they used their notes and knowledge from research to create an interesting, engaging creative product – a small product, but a product nonetheless.


  • From a broader perspective, I think this shows that emoji is/are a language as flexible and able to convey meaning as any other language, and could definitely be used as a component of an academic assessment. I could easily see using assignments or small projects like this not only for history, but to summarize or retell fiction in English class, for example.


  • We learned that some students are very motivated by the idea of posting their work publicly on a forum like Twitter. Two or three people kept trying to drum up interest in our emoji tweets from a strange assortment of celebrities including Oprah and Jimmy Fallon, and I was surprised to see the rise in their level of interest once it became theoretically possible that Oprah was watching.


  • We learned that the best emoji style might need to evolve after trial and error within a group. We started with no shared vocabulary and ended up with many stories featuring a nice balance of phonetic cleverness and pictographic directness, using the glossary terms we invented together. This part of the assignment might not have been directly connected to Individuals & Societies, but I think studying, defining and codifying a group’s evolving use of a new language could definitely be part of a meaningful English project.


  • Similarly, we learned that some of the best emoji storytelling techniques might parallel good persuasive writing. Students noticed the value of stylistic approaches like brevity, repetition, metaphor, and logical progression of ideas.


  • We learned that Year 8 students could manage a Twitter account jointly without any incidents of vandalism or misuse. I tried two models of Twitter access, appointing two gatekeepers who tweeted for everyone after they submitted their ideas on a Google Doc during the first period, then on the second day moving to whole-class simultaneous posting, and since nothing major seemed to go wrong, I’m still not sure which model I think worked best. If the project lasted for a longer time, particularly if students had more access to the account outside of school hours, I would guess that the first “gatekeeper” model might work better, perhaps even with me as the gatekeeper. But for a project of this brevity, we had no problem all using the account together at the same time.


  • We learned that student interest in this topic is high. There was some actual clapping when I described the basic idea. Several students worked obsessively on several versions of their “masterpiece”, refining bits here and there. A lot of students typed the emoji very quickly on their phone (I hadn’t anticipated this) and sent the phrases to their computers, trying out new combinations. It seemed to me that a lot of the students thought the idea was as fun as I did, which definitely made it even more fun for me!

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What do you think? Is there any place you could imagine emoji storytelling in your curriculum?




Filed under COETAIL, Education, New Literacies

Fieldwork and Classwork

I’ve been extremely impressed by the variety of uses we’ve already found for the iPads in a very short time, and by how meaningful and constructive those uses have been. I don’t have a lot to say that wasn’t covered by Rebekah’s excellent post, but here are a few Vines of the 7th graders (and a few curious 6th graders) using their iPads for assorted acts of learning and creation.

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Vines in the Classroom

One new way I’ve been trying to document what’s happening in the classroom is by taking short videos with the Vine app for iOS. The results are not always pretty, but I think they’re interesting. For example, here’s what happens when a 6th grader gets hold of an iPad connected to the projector:

Here are some other Vines from the last couple months. Most of them show us trying out some new uses of technology in the classroom, but some are just silly. Either way, they usually show us having a good time and sharing what we’re learning with each other, which I think is important. I’m trying to think of ways Vine might be useful for student projects as well – I haven’t come up with any ideas yet, but it’s definitely something I think would be fun to try out as part of a project.

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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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Truncated Pecha Kucha

What we did

Another short post just to share something which I thought was unexpectedly successful: I had G7 Humanities students present short reports on inventions from the Industrial Revolution in the form of a half Pecha Kucha, that is, 10 slides which they discussed for only 20 seconds each.

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Why we did it

I was feeling a bit behind in this particular class due to some missed time after a snow day and some assemblies, so I wanted students to learn about inventions and share what they learned, but I didn’t want to take more than two days in class doing it. So I assigned them the research and slide-making on one day, then spent the entire two periods sharing their work on the second day.

The idea to limit the format of the presentations came from the fact that the last time we’d tried to present student work in a single period, it ended up taking three times as long as I’d expected and spilling over into the next week.

The biggest time waste always seems to be the transitions – switching between student files or computers, the seemingly eternal wait time when opening up PowerPoint, etc., so I told everyone to dump their 10 slides into a single shared Google Documents Presentation, and set the timer to advance the slides every 20 seconds. The transitions would thus be obliterated.

What happened

The format worked perfectly. The reports were reasonably detailed and interesting, the 10 slides each student had assembled seemed to be a good amount of space for them to share what they’d discovered and answer the prompt questions I’d given them, and it took exactly 2 class periods for 16 students to present 10 slides each, with no pauses (I think I had to keep them 1 minute after the bell rang for the final student to finish). No one’s slides were cluttered or filled with walls of text, and everyone rose to the challenge of springing from their seat and launching into their presentation when the slide advanced.

What I learned

Pros – A potentially boring and straightforward research report seemed to become a bit more interesting when I added the time and slide constraints, and we finally solved the problem of not being able to hear presentations from every single student in a single block of class time. I thought it worked extremely well and will try to use this presentation format in the future.  One key to the success of the technique might have been the list of prompt questions I gave the students, including “Why wasn’t this invention made earlier?” and “Do we still use this invention today?”, which made it difficult for the reports to be a straightforward info dump of facts cribbed from Wikipedia.

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Cons – I think I had to “hack” Google Documents Presentation’s slideshow mode to get a delay of 20 seconds. It involved publishing the slideshow publicly, then monkeying with some digits in the URL. A Google Docs presentation with ~160 slides gets pretty slow to load, as well. Aside from those two minor technical issues, I think everything worked very well.


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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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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