Shmoop Promises to "Vanquish" Dread Over Writing

For teachers and students,, a popular online study guide website, recently released a new feature called "Shmoop Essay Lab" and it's a powerful teaching/learning tool, especially for students who struggle with developing ideas and organizing their essays. Students can choose to write about literature or to develop a college entrance essay and Shmoop's interactive tutorial walks them through the process from topic selection to final edit. What's really interesting is that the literature essay tutorials are custom designed and paired with any one of dozens of books. So, for example, if a student is writing about To Kill a Mockingbird, she can select that book from the menu and follow the step-by-step tutorial for developing an essay about a theme or a topic related to that particular book. The tutorial even offers specific quotes from the text that students can use to support their ideas in the body of their essays. In the Classroom Because Shmoop offers a lot of content and analysis from the books, I don't think using this tutorial as the final assessment after reading a book would be wise. If this were the final test, students might be tempted to skip the reading and just use the examples provided by Shmoop. On the other hand, this tutorial can provide effective scaffolding to support students while they learn to write the "literary analysis" essay. Why not have them write using the tutorial a few times, and then have them write without it (remove the scaffolding) and see what they have gleaned from first using Shmoop's Writing Lab? In my experience, anything that gets students busy with the writing process is an asset, so maybe Shmoop really can "vanquish the dreaded blank sheet of paper" like they promise to with this cool application. Check it out and tell me what you think.

Alternative Resources for Flipping Your Lessons

As I have learned more about the Flipped Classroom and as I have searched for smart, innovative ways to practice these methods, I've been a little disappointed. I do like the idea that flipped lessons enable teachers to better differentiate their instruction and hone focus on mastering skills, but it seems those who are leading this movement are focusing mostly on science and math to the neglect of the humanities and language arts in particular. Khan Academy and at The Flipped Class Network, for example, have countless math and science videos but very few that are useful to us in the humanities. Given this lack of resources for language and lit, I came up with some alternative sources you might consider if you want to try flipping your middle or high school language arts lessons. Some easily overlooked places you might find these useful videos (often referred to as "vodcasts" or "webcasts) include free online course materials, collections of author webcasts, or presentation lectures like TED talks. The key is to find short, highly-engaging content to deliver online, outside the classroom, so students will arrive in class prepared to master the content with your guidance. I've linked some good stuff below.
Author Webcasts and Reading Arizona State University Literary Readings Author Webcasts

Library of Congress Webcasts

Free Online Course Lectures 500 Free Online Courses
Open Culture

MIT Shakespeare
MIT Understanding Television
Critical Analysis of Literature Arizona State University
Lectures / Presentations TED Talks (Specifically Language Arts Related)

Flipping your Classroom

I have been hearing a lot lately about the "flipped" classroom. If you haven't heard about it yet, Holly Epstein Ojalvo and Shannon Doyne of the New York Times provide a succinct definition: "an inverted' teaching structure in which instructional content is delivered outside class, and engagement with the content – skill development and practice, projects and the like – is done in class, under teacher guidance and in collaboration with peers." It all started when a couple of teachers started recording their lectures and posting them as Power Points on the net for students who were absent. And that is the essence of it really. You provide content for the students to access outside the classroom and structured exploratory activities and lessons based on that content in the classroom. This "flips" the teacher's role from class lecturer (information provider) to class guide through activities based on the pre-assigned content. Instead of viewing this as a total approach, I think both the "flipped" and the "traditional" classrooms are important tools of teaching. Good teachers don't use only one approach; instead, they create and adapt according to the needs of individual students and according to the needs of the class as a whole. Whether you think this is a total solution or not, one thing is certain…when you "flip" your lessons, access to good technology resources is essential. So I've been searching for some resources to help teachers get started with "flipped" lessons, and here is a good one: The New York Times' Learning Network: Five Ways to Flip Your Classroom with the New York Times. You can begin with a simple article related to what you are teaching, assign students to read it before class, and then build activities and discussion for the following day during class. In the Classroom The NY Times also has a great flipped lesson on the Shakespeare authorship issue. This lesson asks students to "interpret their assigned comparison or reference, drawing on background knowledge and context clues" from a series of articles all of which mention a Shakespeare character. Give each group different (opposing views) articles to take home and read beforehand. Let students know that when they return to class, they will be debating the multiple opinions about the Shakespeare authorship issue. Be sure to introduce the criteria for evaluation and the expectations ahead of time too. When the students return, your role is now flipped from providing information to guiding them through the process of forming their own ideas and opinions about important issues—higher level thinking skills. Here are a few more resources for getting started with the flipped classroom approach.
The Flipped Class Network
The Complete Guide to the Flipped Classroom
The Flipped Classroom Defined
How to Implement the Flipped Classroom

Use Online Newspapers to Meet Common Core Standards

Common Core Standards, Informational Texts, Key Ideas and Details: 2. Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text Online editions of many local, national, and world newspapers are a great place to find resources for teaching students to analyze informational texts for central ideas and how they are shaped. In fact, many newspapers now dedicate an entire section to providing teachers with ways to use the news in the classroom and some even offer alignment to standards. A quick Google search will help you find your local newspaper's NEI (newspapers in education) section. If your local paper doesn't have a specific focus for lesson planning, many of the most popular national newspapers do. Among them, The New York Times has an impressive collection of resources for using their newspaper in the classroom as does USA Today. In the Classroom Use online newspapers as an opportunity for students to collaborate in their discussion about the central ideas in articles and editorials. Encourage them to express their own opinions in contrast and comparison to those they discover in the news. One simple way to do this is to create a Google Document and have students share their ideas with you and each other by editing that document with their own paragraph responses to assigned articles. Better yet, consider setting up a classroom blog at Edublogs and have students post their responses on your blog. I've included a list of links below to a few newspapers that offer lesson plans and other ways to integrate the news into your curriculum. Whatever use you find for online newspaper is education, it is a good idea to focus on collaboration and problem-solving as a way to integrate technology effectively.
USA Today
New York Times
LA Times
PBS News Hour
Wall Street Journal

Diigo: A Powerful, Hands-On Research Tool for Students and Teachers

Informational Texts Common Core Standard #1 – Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text. Remember back when we were in school and research meant pouring over books in the library with a stack of note cards? When I was in college, I became very handy with Post-it® notes and multi-colored highlighters for finding "textual evidence." I miss those days hunched over a notebook amid piles of old books. I loved rolling up my sleeves and immersing myself in the physical work of learning. Students seldom set foot in brick-and-mortar libraries for research anymore, and they rarely flip through actual paper books or periodicals either. Most research is done with electronic resources now, and I don't know any current students who know what a library card catalog looks like (you know, the ones with the long, narrow drawers full of 3×5 index cards). It might seem like the advent of technology has meant the loss of the hands-on element of research and in some ways it has. However, I think there still can be (and should be) a tactile component to the process. That's what I love about the online application Diigo…it's a perfect research tool for the 21st Century, one that allows students to highlight, clip, annotate, organize, and even collaborate…on the internet. It's a modern tool for rolling up the sleeves and getting busy with research. It even features virtual sticky notes you can "pin" to the screen for review later. In The Classroom A very important skill students must develop for 21st Century college and careers is collaborative problem solving, so try using Diigo's groups feature. First, install the free Diigo toolbar in your and your students' browsers (I recommend Chrome or Firefox). Next, create groups and add students to the groups. This works best when you have all of the students in the classroom or computer lab with you. As the students in your groups locate useful resources while logged in to Diigo, they can highlight them, post notes about them, bookmark them, and then share these notes and resources quickly and easily with everyone else in the group. Diigo is one of the best collaborative research tools on the web and students using it can't forget their work at home because it's all in one place—all accessible from any device connected to the internet.

Bring Shakespeare to Old Time Radio–Common Core Standard 9

Most students are probably not aware that copyright protection laws are relatively new, so they might be surprised to learn just how many famous authors like Shakespeare borrowed and adapted others' ideas. They should already know (I hope) that Stephanie Meyer's books aren't entirely original vampire stories, but they probably don't know how many earlier "versions" of Romeo and Juliet you can find. Common Core Standard 9. Analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work (e.g., how Shakespeare treats a theme or topic from Ovid or the Bible or how a later author draws on a play by Shakespeare). Although there are many authors who treat themes and topics from earlier works in their own, Shakespeare is one of the easiest to approach with students simply because one can find more information online about him than nearly any other author. If you are lucky enough to have one-to-one technology with your students, the online Shakespeare editions are countless, and many include interactive elements like those in the Interactive Romeo and Juliet text. In the Classroom An excellent lesson plan for exploring Shakespeare's source material is "Pyramis and Thisbe, Page to Stage" at the Folger Library site where students can learn about the ways that Shakespeare used both themes and actual plots from earlier work by Ovid. In this hands-on lesson students not only consider Shakespeare's use of Ovid, they also decide if Ovid's story works better as a tragedy like Romeo and Juliet or as a comedy like A Midsummer Night's Dream, and they create their own dramatic scenes. Effective Tech integration is all about developing problem solving skills, so why not present your students with a challenging twist to this lesson: have them write a script for radio. has great tutorials for creating a radio broadcast and it would also be fun to explore Old Time Radio broadcasts like those at Limiting their artistic expressions to audio recordings will challenge students who are used to the highly visual culture of the 21st century to consider alternative modes of expression. Audacity is a powerful, free, cross-platform application useful for creating and editing recordings. The possibilities are endless, which is what makes integrating technology fun. Enjoy!

Blending Art, Literature, and Problem Solving at the J. Paul Getty Museum

Common Core Standard 7 for Reading presents teachers with many possibilities for mixing all kinds of art forms with literature. Music, photography, painting, sculpture, and many other media are easily brought into the classroom today because of the internet…the important thing is to use these resources heuristically. 7. Analyze the representation of a subject or a key scene in two different artistic mediums, including what is emphasized or absent in each treatment (e.g., Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts" and Breughel's Landscape with the Fall of Icarus). Teaching students to analyze subjects or scenes in comparative forms gives us an opportunity to explore with them the traditions of storytelling—the many and various ways stories can be told and have been told throughout history. Poetry, short stories, plays, and even novels and epic tales have important connections to art and present new, thoughtful ways to analyze and evaluate themes. To start, you might explore the J. Paul Getty Museum's "Telling Stories in Art" website where you will find a wide variety of art to connect to literature as well as lesson plans and other resources. The Getty Museum's stated goal here directly supports standard seven: "To build students' awareness of how stories can be told visually and how artists use color, line, gesture, composition, and symbolism to tell a story." These lessons encourage students to think critically about how writers use particular elements to tell stories compared to how artists tell stories similarly but with different elements such as color, line, and gesture. In the Classroom Though it is listed for grades 6-8, the lesson titled "Painting Europa" is especially useful for our purposes of meeting standard seven. Integrating technology effectively means teaching students to apply it heuristically—to discover ideas and to solve problems. Try approaching the lesson with students this way: Tell students to imagine they are editors for an online, multimedia textbook that will include an illustration for a selection from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Two paintings are being considered. Students must submit their choices along with a brief explanation as to why the chosen painting best illustrates the selection. Expand further by having them also choose music to accompany the selection. You might pair them and have each team create a wiki with the chosen text, images, and music. Try wikispaces…it's an excellent tool for online classroom collaboration. I hope you find the resources at the J. Paul Getty Museum and at Wikispaces useful. Standard seven is one we can easily revisit often and technology affords us the ability to make each activity meaningful and beneficial to our students.

Broaden Students' Cultural Perspectives with Project Gutenberg

Common Core Standard six of "Reading: Craft and Structure" provides an important opportunity to expose our students to different perspectives from cultures other than their own. This standard also gives us a great reason to explore some of the thousands of free texts that Project Gutenberg has to offer including many collections of short stories which can be downloaded to just about any digital device from an e-reader, a pc or laptop to a smartphone or tablet. 6. Analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature from outside the United States, drawing on a wide reading of world literature. I found some excellent collections of short stories grouped by nationality and by topic. You must scroll to the bottom of the short stories bookshelf page, to see "Other" collections grouped by themes. With Halloween coming right up, I'm working on organizing a few stories from "Famous Modern Ghost Stories" for my students. I also like "Library of the World's Best Mystery and Detective Stories," and "The Most Interesting Stories of All Nations: Real Life," so I may use those later in the year. Additionally, some of the stories are grouped by English authors writing about other cultures. These could provide some excellent insights from comparing points of view about other cultures as influenced by one's own cultural perspective and could provide cross-curricular connections to learn about topics like colonialism too. In the Classroom Before your students dive into these free collections of short stories, have them brush up their knowledge and skills regarding point of view in literature by visiting Paul Laurence Dunbar High School's "Elements of the Short Story" page. Next, have your students choose one of the themes in the Gutenberg "Bookshelf" of short stories and select three or four from those listed. You could set up your classes with small groups of those who are all reading the same selections. Students can discuss the similarities and differences between points of view in these multicultural stories using graphic organizers they prepared ahead of time (a la literature circles). Jim Burke's English Companion website has a good selection of graphic organizers for language arts. I hope you find these resources helpful for meeting standard six. Any time we can broaden our students' perspectives with multicultural literature, we encourage empathy for and tolerance of those who are different than we are.

Common Core Reading Standard #5—Analyzing Plot

Looking at CCS standard for reading #5, I am encouraged to see critical thinking required of our students. It is important to ensure that skills like problem solving, analyzing, and evaluating are at the core of our reading, writing, and speaking skills curricula. It is also essential that we keep in mind the goal of generating independent, self-directed (and self-reflective), life-long learners. 5. Analyze how an author's choices concerning how to structure a text, order events within it (e.g., parallel plots), and manipulate time (e.g., pacing, flashbacks) create such effects as mystery, tension, or surprise. For standard #5, the key term is "analyze." In Bloom's taxonomy, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation are the top tiers we strive to reach. A lesson plan from teacher Patricia Schulze provides some excellent opportunities to use technology for this standard. The technology for the lesson comes from a site you are probably familiar with—Read, Write, I've written before about how Read, Write, Think is a great source for easy-to-use interactive activities. As simple as this particular interactive is, it is very useful for students to break down a story's plot into its parts and to learn about how those parts work together. The complete lesson plan, "Teaching Plot Structure through Short Stories," can help our students analyze the structure, order, and timeline of plot effectively using technology. Its objectives include "demonstrate[ing] an understanding of plot structure by analyzing several short stories," so higher-level thinking is among the objectives. The lesson is organized into four sessions with group and independent work, class discussion, and independent writing. The focus is on the very short story "Flowers" by Alice Walker, but you could use any text. Higher-level thinking is especially required in session four of the plan where students must write about plot, but before they do they must "discuss the difference between a paper that analyzes plot and one that summarizes the story," with the goal of producing an essay that analyzes. I hope you'll explore Patricia Shulze's lesson plan toward meeting standard #5. Meaningful, authentic integration of technology results when we combine the elements of critical thinking with interactive, digital resources.

Common Core Reading Standard #4—Vocabulary in Context

This week is my last one before returning to the classroom on Monday. I have to be honest, thinking about the first day of school still makes me really queasy even after eleven years. Of course, I do plan to continue this series of posts about the Common Core through the fall. This week we begin with "Craft and Structure." 4. Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language of a court opinion differs from that of a newspaper). So this standard is all about vocabulary and author word choice, teaching students how to understand meanings in context and how to analyze diction. Usually for this blog I focus only on free resources for integrating technology, but Academic Merit's Literary Companion is worth mentioning even though it is a subscription service. We've been using it at our school for three years now, and I find it indispensable for, among other things, teaching vocabulary in context. As subscribers to LC, teachers have access to a sizable library of preselected passages of text from many classic works like Animal Farm, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Romeo and Juliet. Each selection from this library comes with passages and lessons that focus on vocabulary, reading comprehension, and writing. Even better, all of the lessons are directly aligned with the Common Core Standards. As a "veteran" user I can tell you Literary Companion is well worth the cost and their customer service is excellent. One of my other favorites for teaching vocab/reading skills is TV411 (this one is free to use). Specific to standard #4, the reading section of TV411 offers authentic interactive lessons with vocabulary words appropriate for 9th and 10th grade students in the "Using Context Clues" section. Games You might also try using online games for teaching vocabulary like those at the "Vocabulary Can Be Fun" site where they have all kinds organized by developmental levels, including analogy games and context games appropriate for teaching standard #4. Whatever technology you use in the classroom to teach definitions, tone, and diction, stay focused on vocabulary in context. In my experience, teaching vocabulary directly from their text and teaching students how to analyze the effects of that author's word choices at the same time, increases long-term retention and opens up many connections to other important concepts like dialogue, dialect, and theme. Good luck to all of you who are starting school next week!