Podcasted: Podcasts for Professional Development and in the classroom

As a teacher and lifelong learner, I absolutely love podcasts. You can find limitless inspiration and terrific resources via the talks, videos, and conversations broadcast with teachers in mind. Rita Pierson’s Talk is one of my favorites and something I believe every teacher should watch. I subscribe to a bunch of really good ones including the ones at Teacher Cast and NPR Education and Ted Talks Education.

We also use podcasts in our American Studies Class as well for example: Studio 360’s American Icons episode on Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and The History Guys episode on the War of 1812. Most of our students love the podcasts although some of them have stated that they would prefer a reading as they have a hard time concentrating for long stretches of time and are afraid they are missing key points. I am  a huge fan of audio books as with 4 children it is often the only way to satisfy my appetite for books and keep up with our crazy, busy life, so I don’t necessarily understand how hard listening or viewing at home  is for some of our kids.

I think one of the problems is that they are often listening on their phones while simultaneously being bombarded by texts,notifications, phone calls and who knows what else.  We try to circumvent distraction by giving our students listening guides  and viewing guides so they have a purpose. Learning to watch and listen with a purpose is a vital academic and life skill, and one sometimes I fear we are losing as we become more and more screen driven.  This year we  will be using VideoNot.es when our kids are assigned videos to watch like episodes of Eyes on the Prize during our Civil Rights Unit. VideoNot.es is an incredible tool that allows you to take real time notes on videos from Youtube, Vimeo, Udacity, and Khan Academy that are automatically synchronized with the video and saved directly into your google drive.  Here is a terrific tutorial on how to use Videonot.es

Again as with everything on the web the resources and available material is overwhelming. In addition to the links above here are a few other great indexes and resources if you are looking for great podcasts:

For great resources from the New York Times including podcasts visit the education blog.

Edudemic’s 10 Best Podcasts for Teachers

TeachThought’s 51 Education Podcasts for the 21st Century Teacher

Teaching in a 2.0 World: Why Tech Matters, but not as much as some would make us believe.


I am currently taking an online class offered by k12learning20 based on the 23 things program to introduce teachers to different Web 2.0 resources. Although I am already fairly fluent in many of these tools, I am very much looking forward to expanding my skill base. Our Thing 3 assignment requires us to complete a blog post on the meaning of teaching in a Web 2.0 world which is fortuitous because the questions presented have been bouncing around in my brain for a while now. This post is just the first part of what I am thinking of as a series examining my experience teaching in a web 2.0 world and the continuing relevance of the traditional tools of teachers.

First of all, I believe in technology and I believe that every teacher has not only the opportunity, but more the obligation to become fluent in the latest tools of the trade. My teaching has improved as a result of the resources and ideas I have gotten from twitter chats, my experience at edcamprva, and other professional development opportunities. Our American Studies class is very techie, and so is pretty much every class I teach. We use a variety of web 2.0 tools and our students have benefited from our increased knowledge.

All that said, I have to say that I think we are overestimating the impact of web 2.0 tools. Sure they are great and readily available, many for free even, but a good tool will never replace a good teacher and too much of the language bouncing around the educational world seems to suggest otherwise. I also worry about how quickly the standby tools of the trade i.e. lecture or even the idea of the teacher as the expert are so quickly dismissed as  20th or 19th century ideas that are some how no longer relevant in today’s 21st century world.  I disagree. I think that every teacher has a toolbox of things they do well some are cutting edge and some are older than any of us. The goal of education especially in the humanities classroom is to teach students to think critically, develop a level of cultural literacy, and frankly be able to retell the stories/histories that make up our curriculum and give each story their own slant. Web 2.0 tools definitely can help with that process, but so can great lectures, in depth reading, and other tools that have been around centuries. Furthermore, I refuse to believe that we live in a world where knowledge no longer matters.

I also believe that we have an obligation to our students to be fluent in their world and their world is certainly increasingly a web 2.0 world full of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr to just name a few. We, as teachers and really as people sharing the world with the generation of digital natives, should also understand and be able to participate in this world.

So what is the meaning of web 2.0 in the world of education? My answer: The tools available to us in the Web 2.0 world are what we make of them. It is  a world we need to own and share with our students, but not rely on to the exclusivity of all the other tools in the box. I’ll be writing on much of this in more detail in the coming weeks.

Pass it on: On The Importance of Owning Knowledge in the Digital Age


Let me start by saying, I am a fan of Tony Wagner. I follow him on twitter, and I read and enjoyed his The Global Achievement Gap. He is a wise man who makes many good observations about education, but continually I have balked at his theory that owning knowledge is increasingly less important in the digital age. Recently, in a op-ed for the New York Times. Thomas Friedman quoted him as saying:

“Because knowledge is available on every Internet-connected device, what you know matters far less than what you can do with what you know.

This sentiment is echoed throughout the modern dialog about education and exemplified in the new common core standards currently driving public school reform.  Consider this quote from The Innovation Unit:

Now that many mobile phones can access more information than is held in any library, the idea of school as the place you go to acquire knowledge is an anachronism.

Perhaps it is because I am at heart an English teacher or maybe it is just my own education, but to me the idea that we no longer need to own knowledge because we can always google the answer to any question  is depriving education and, for that matter educators and students, of soul. Of course developing 21st century skills is a vital and central part of education today, but the seeming acceptance that schools are not a place where students acquire knowledge both for its own sake and for their own edification as human beings is detrimental to the entire educational process and to our students.
Luckily, although my school is determined to educate students for the 21st century and impart 21st century skills, we have not moved away from the belief that the students do actually need to own knowledge. We are not forced simply to show children how to use the mountains of information at their finger tips. I am allowed and encouraged  to turn kids on to books, words, and histories that will inform their being and to hold them accountable for the knowledge we impart in our courses. While analysis is key and central, students are expected to leave our class knowing basic civics including the bill of rights, the separation of powers,  a few poems by heart, and the basic trajectory of all of American History. We hope they leave with more, but our goal  is to make them active, curious and engaged citizens.  To become engaged citizens, they must possess more than a device to access knowledge. They must own knowledge itself.

As Hector, the incredibly flawed yet idealistic old school teacher  from Alan Bennett’s The History Boys who believes in knowledge for its own sake, articulates:

The best moments in reading are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things — that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.

You can’t google that experience, and you can’t duplicate it by looking it up. You have to experience it, and you have to have teachers who help you acquire to knowledge to access that skill, that level of empathy. How can one truly know and love a poem if he/she can’t recall from memory two or three lines? How can you understand history if you don’t know some major dates and ideas without turning to wikipedia?

Another great moment in the play comes when one of the students expresses his hatred for poetry. Hector explains that what he is teaching these boys isn’t for any test. He tells them “to learn it now, know it now and you’ll understand it whenever” they need it. They are, according to Hector, “making their deathbeds.” It is because education is about so much more than test preparation and 21st century skills. It is about preparing for a life of meaning, and I do not think any student now matter how good their 21st century skills are can find that on a search engine.

So on this point, I have to respectfully disagree with Tony Wagner and his echoes. Students do need more than just schools that teach 21st century skills. They need schools to be places where they acquire knowledge. They need help “making their deathbeds” and preparing for a life of meaning.

Textbooks: The Value of Paper in an Increasingly Digital World


Right now in American Studies we use both traditional books like The Norton Anthology of American Literature Volumes A-E, American Spirit Vol. 2,
Masur’s 1831 and Gordon Wood’s American Revolutiona mash up of historical texts that we post in unit folders on livebinder (Here is our first unit folder).

We are about 60/40 paper to digital right now and next year we are ditching the document book and will be more at a ratio of 50/50.  Yet, while we are teaching in a digital world and moving more towards digital texts, I thought it worthwhile to provide a synopsis of why paper books still hold value in an interdisciplinary American Studies classroom, even a tech based one like ours.

Because we teach a course that combines both history and culture, I have found that basically we have evolved to a philosophy where short assignments, traditional text book readings and documents are posted online while our lengthy assignments i.e. 20 pages or more are handled via paper. This is what has worked for us, and here are a few reasons why paper books have retained their value in our classroom:

1.Books are still better teaching when students how to read closely and discuss literature.   We mainly read the literature of the course i.e. As I Lay Dying, A Streetcar Named Desire,White Noise, the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, and Claude McKay to name a few, in anthologies.  We very much like using the anthologies as it is important to us that our students learn how to mark up texts and turn many pages. Yes, students can highlight, take notes, and underline on many digital platforms, but I have yet to see students  consistently do so when reading digitally as they do when reading lengthier assignments on paper. Their digital annotations are just not as meaningful or well done. For now, the technology is just not seamless enough, and it takes to much sustained effort.

2.For literature discussions it is quite helpful to actually be able to turn to the same page, and it has been problematic for our students who do read digitally to follow along and locate passages on the electronic versions.  Our students bring their own devices and so are reading many different versions of texts which can be confusing and pull energy away from our discussions. Furthermore, there is  evidence that students have a harder time recalling and placing information especially when reading longer assignments.

3. Many of our students and some of us teachers find it easier to read lengthy assignments on paper both in terms of our eyes and our ability to focus only on the text. Books do not have pop up chat windows or internet. Furthermore, books don’t run out of power. I think it is a valuable skill that we impart to kids when we ask them to focus on something that doesn’t run off of electricity.

4. Finally,  we enjoy seeing how much pride our students take in the vast amounts they have read. I know they would be reading the same amount on a device, but there is something about holding a 2000 page anthology and realizing that you’ve read over half of it that is incredibly gratifying and  lost by our digital readers.

So while we will become even more digital in the next year, and there are certainly many benefits to digital texts, for now at least, paper still holds value for us and our students.

Marking Up Texts: Our Methodology

In our class, we regularly check our books and count book check grades when calculating our participation. We use the following 10 point scale:

  • 9-10  Significant Passages of the text are highlighted/underlined with key words circled and marginal notations are meaningful and consistent throughout the assignment.
  • 7-8 Significant passages are highlighted/underlined and some marginal notations are evident.
  • 6  Some underlining/highlighting is evident although it is inconsistent and there are few, if any, marginal notations.
  • 4-5  Student brought their book, but did not highlight or underline.
  • 0-3  Student did not bring a book.

We let students develop their own methods and are quite open to a variety of different styles. Some use highlighters, others different colored pens. Some keep notes in the front pages of their books, and some rely solely on the margins. Our guidelines are much less exacting than the method of my 11th Grade American Literature teacher and personal teaching hero Marie Stone, who would merely have us turn to a page and grade us simply on whether we had the correct passage marked, had written character names and key themes at the top, and taken notes in margins that met her criterion of what was important.

Yet like Stone, we require our students to consistently mark up their texts. We do this for a variety of reasons, and, in fact, using it as a way to hold our students accountable for the reading is perhaps the least important. We insist our students master this skill during their junior year  because it is the best mechanism we have for making them engaged and active readers.

Throughout my 10 years of teaching, I have found that there is a direct correlation between my best students and those who demonstrate active reading by annotating their texts. In fact, it is nearly always the case that our students overall grades almost exactly mimic their performance on book checks. Of course those students who consistently score well on book checks are the most diligent, but more importantly, they are the most engaged and have the best command of the material. It isn’t so much that they have an easier time recalling the text or finding salient passages to augment their points in our discussions or when writing papers, they do, but more importantly they demonstrate the critical thinking skills necessary to dig deeply beyond the surface of the text and make the broader connections necessary for success in our course and beyond. Through developing a method of annotating texts that works for them, they gain possession of the active reading skills that will serve them well as they continue the lifelong process of learning.



As a humanities teacher who regularly checks and grades my students’ texts based on how well they have marked them up, I was recently dismayed to read an article by Anna Murphy which appeared in Time Magazine seeming to denigrate the whole process of marking up a text.

 Ms. Murphy cited a comprehensive report released by the Association for Psychological Science, the authors, led by Kent State University professor John Dunlosky which argued that:

Highlighting and underlining led the authors’ list of ineffective learning strategies. Although they are common practices, studies show they offer no benefit beyond simply reading the text….Nearly as bad is the practice of rereading, a common exercise that is much less effective than some of the better techniques you can use. …Highlighting, underlining, rereading and summarizing were all rated by the authors as being of “low utility.”

I am not sure how they were testing the “utility” of this skill, but it seems to me that they missed the proverbial boat. This article suggests that the study merely examined the relationship of certain reading skills including highlighting to test performance, and I would concur that as a study aid on its own highlighting/marking a text doesn’t fully prepare students for tests absent other study skills.

But marking up a text is far more than a mere study skill; it is an integral habit of lifelong learners. It is a way to engage with a text and learn to think critically. Furthermore, it is a means by which each student can keep track of his/her own thoughts and educational development. These markings provide a snapshot of what a student thought was important at a specific moment.

I think perhaps that what the study examined were students who merely highlighted and weren’t in fact engaging actively with the text. These students seem to have been using their highlighting merely to “draw attention to individual facts,” instead of using the margins to make connections both among different ideas and different texts. In short, it seems that perhaps the study examined students who really didn’t know how to mark up a text, but instead of critiquing the methodology they condemned the method itself.

Further Reading:

All Books are Coloring Books

How to Mark a Book

“Our” American Studies: An Introduction

Three years ago after a long and deliberate process, our school adopted an American Studies to replace our traditional US History and American Literature curriculum.  The inspiration for this course which currently serves 2/3 of our junior class came both from my and my co-teacher’s American Studies backgrounds and our frustration with the apparent and unnecessary disconnect between  our US History and American Literature courses. Oftentimes, students would be studying Antebellum America while reading The Great Gatsby, and students weren’t given the opportunity to see the inherent connections between the historical period of a text and the text itself. Furthermore, they seemed to see the skills they learned about close reading and critical thinking in each class as distinct and separate and only applicable to each specific discipline. In rethinking how we could best serve our students, we wanted more than just a chronological alignment of the curriculum. We wanted to give them both the tools and resources to be able to see and understand a fuller picture of how history and culture inform and are informed by each other. Furthermore, we wanted them to see that the tools of textual analysis and critical thinking apply to all kinds of texts, and we wanted to be able to serve  all of our students, both high end and struggling learners better in a heterogeneous and team-taught class.

The course we came up with integrates a variety of web 2.0 platforms, many types of texts (including readings, images, films, and songs), and different modes of learning that enable us to differentiate and meet the needs of a diverse student body.  A sample lesson might include reading Mary Rowlandson’s Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration “To My Dear and Loving Husband” and “On the Burning of Our House”  by Anne Bradstreet while examining documents from Digital History to see points of connection and disconnection between Puritan ideals and real, lived experience. We use both traditional and 21st century types of assessments.  Students blog, write lengthy research papers on a topic of their choice related to American History, create websites about artifacts from the University of Virginia’s Special Collections, present on supreme court cases, and regularly participate in seminar discussions to name just a few of our modes of assessment.   Right now, we are currently reading Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (see lesson plan for the opening day) and studying the Great Depression using many different kinds of images including WPA posters and photographs.  Our students each analyzed contribution of the WPA for homework last night. Some of which can be found at our class blog.

The course continues to evolve and we continue to refine it, but we have been pleased with the success of our students of all levels. We have been able to prepare a significant number of our students to earn college credit worthy scores on the APUSH exam while at the same time helping students who had previously struggled in our former discipline specific curriculum really thrive. I could write pages and pages, and I will. Consider this post just a brief introduction to our program.

Sifting through the Sea: Edtech that Works

Listed below in absolutely no order of preference are web tools and applications we’ve used successfully in our class room this year.

1. Socrative– I’m pretty new to using this tool, but it has been a great addition. We’ve used it to get feedback from students about what they’ve learned from readings, lectures, and films. It has also helped us to make the  connections between the different lessons we teach during our double period class clearer to our students. The ability to give auto-graded quizzes which output into a spread sheet is a definite bonus. Students can use their phones, tablets or computers which is nice in a class where not everyone has a laptop.

2. WordPress– We created a class blog this year stabamstud.com. Students have posted information on their research paper sources, shared responses to the 2012 election, and we have also used it to share information with them. We will probably use it more next year when we plan to have students blog about all of their sources instead of handing in an annotated bibliography.

3. Livebinder– This site which allows you to create online binders to store and share material has been a godsend for us. Since I teach with a team, we have used this to share resources with each other and have shared binders with students. Here is a binder we created for our opening unit:http://www.livebinders.com/play/play/453144

4. Google Aps– As you can see from my post about using google docs to give students feedback about thier writing, we really value this platform. It makes it easy for our team to collaborate when making tests, creating lesson plans, and writing assignments. We have also used google forms to create surveys for our class and to get feedback via anonymous course evaluations.

5. Learnist– This resource was one of the best discoveries I’ve made recently on twitter.  It is much like Pinterest, but easier to navigate and with an audience that seems to involve mainly educators. It is so easy to make boards and there are already great resources on the site.  It is incredibly easy and user friendly. Here is one board I made for our upcoming unit on the Great Depression and this one on tech tools we use.

7. Prezi– Although I have to say I have not yet mastered the art of making great Prezi’s, this is a fantastic tool and one of my teammates is incredibly proficient. We have used Prezi for many different presentations and it is incredibly useful. I particularly like the ability to imbed all different kinds of media. There are also some great ready made prezis available through the search function. Here is one I am working on right now for the day we go back to school. I will be talking with the kids about the historical forces that set the stage for the Harlem Renaissance and some of the key artists/intellectuals involved. Here is one that I used when talking with students about First Wave Feminism

8. Mural.ly– This is another recent discovery. A bit like Prezi, I find it slightly easier to navigate. Like Prezi, it enables you to embed a variety of different types of media. Here is one we just started working on for the same unit on the 1930’s.

9. Dropbox– A great way to share and save documents. We also used shared folders to transfer material from one teacher to another.

10. Itunes U- We have used a variety of the resources both as ways to deliver content to our students either in class or for homework. We have also used some of the courses especially Berkley Professor Michael Cohen’s American Studies Course.

Google Docs and the Dreaded Research Paper.

Google docs  has transformed the writing instruction of the classes I teach. Prior to our school’s adoption of Google Aps, I gave significant feedback on the margins of  student papers. I also used the comment boxes in Pages or MSWord when my students began to hand in their papers electronically via email. I liked the freedom that the infinite space of the comment box gave me. This space enabled me to rework students sentences and to specifically and directly target individual words and sentences. It did take a bit longer as I found myself giving more feedback, but ultimately I liked the improvements I saw in my students writing as a result of the increase in comments I was able to give them.

Two years ago,  when I began using google docs to comment and grade my papers, I thought that it would be similar to the use of a word processing program. I thought the main benefit would be that I wouldn’t have to email my students their corrected papers. Yet, I  vastly underestimated the benefit of using google docs.  I can say without a doubt  that because of google docs our students receive better and more thorough writing instruction, and they are becoming stronger writers because of it.
Our American Studies students, I say we because I team teach, write 10-12 page research papers during the second trimester. Students submit focused thesis paragraphs, very thorough outlines, first drafts and final drafts.  For the most part( I do not require it because all of my students don’t have internet access at home), students use google docs to submit each part of their papers and I use the comment feature to give them feedback. This lengthy process has been made much richer because of the amount, quality, and responsiveness of the feedback students received on all parts of the process.

Here are some of the benefits:
Realtime Feedback: The ability to give students real time feedback on their writing is what I love most. Often times we can either sit together looking at the same screen or I can get online with them, comment and give them instant feedback as they rework their writing.

The Comment Box: The unlimited room of the comment box and the ability to tag individual words or complete sentences makes it clear to the student exactly what part of their writing you are talking about and gives you the opportunity to give them examples of ways to improve or enhance their papers.

Accountability: Students, once they share their documents, enable you to see exactly where they are with the writing process. This is especially important when they are undertaking major assignments like research papers.

Convenience: The google doc is convenient in all of the obvious ways, but the ability for students to “resolve” your comments makes their editing easier and more focused.

Nothing in the world of teaching is without its challenges. Here are a few I’ve found:

TIME: You can and do spend more time with each individual paper. Although I do think that the benefit of seeing multiple drafts means that the final draft requires much less reworking.

Organization: Difficulty keeping the documents organized. I do have folders, and I use them. Yet I still haven’t found a great method of organizing my documents yet and that makes finding documents challenging sometimes. Yes the search feature works, but keeping the titles of all of my students’ work straight is difficult. Yes I am sure there are ways to do this, but I haven’t yet developed a good system yet. (Suggestions welcome!)