Thursday, February 27, 2014

Watching Videos is Now an ACTIVE-ity

There are so many great historical documentary films out there.  PBS and Ken Burns come to mind immediately as producers of the the best ones.  However, there is a fine line between learning from a film and sitting in the classroom while a film plays.  Many students, often unintentionally, miss key parts of documentaries showed in class simply because it is hard to maintain undiverted attention to the screen.

Here are a few strategies to help solve that problem.

Backchannel with TodaysMeet

A few months ago I wrote about my first experience with backchannel in my classroom.  Since then I've used the strategy many more times and each experience has been better for my students and myself.  This strategy works best for longer screenings that last at least half the duration of a typical class period.

How to Do It

Set up a backchannel chat room on You can decide how long the transcript will be available in advance; from one day to one year.  Give students the URL of the room.  They join with their name and then start chatting live.  The benefit of TodaysMeet is that it can be access on any web browser.  Students can use smartphones, tablets, laptops, or any other mobile device with internet access.  Your students can:

  • react to what they see
  • pose questions to you and their classmates
  • note memorable information or phrases
  • respond to questions you pose to them.

Why My Students Like It

We can ask questions while we watch and the teacher can answer them right away. So we get more immediate feedback.
Sometimes when you watch a movie you forget stuff because you can't take notes all the time on your own. With backchannel you have everyone's notes right there to look at.

Check for Understanding with Socrative

Socrative is a live response app that is available via web browser or mobile app across all platforms. It behaves like an advanced clicker system that can be utilized with existing devices in the room.  I use it to facilitate class discussion, to allow students to share their ideas with each other and vote on the best one, and to check for student understanding all the time.

How to Do It

Create a teacher account on the Socrative website or using the teacher version of the app.  You can also customize your room number so that it makes sense to your students when they log in (mine is Gallagher341 - my last name and the my physical room number at my school). Students either access Socrative through the website or by downloading the student version of the app. Cue up a series of short video clips for students to watch. Instruct them to check in on Socrative and answer the questions you've prepared after each clip and before starting the next.  Students can watch the videos and take the intervening quizzes at their own pace on their mobile devices with earbuds during class or at home in a flipped model.

Why My Students Like It

It's hard to watch video and write at the same time. The breaks between short clips and Socrative questions helped me check in for my understanding.
We don't miss information during the video because we aren't distracted by taking notes while viewing.

Flipped Classroom with eduCanon

eduCanon allows teachers to use any YouTube or Vimeo video and add interactive questions.  eduCanon will automatically pause the clip and give students time to think before moving on.  If you assign this on the flip for home viewing, you can check to see who watched the video during the evening as well.  You'll also see which questions they get right and wrong and which they went back to fix.

How to Do It

Go to and create a free teacher account.  Plug in the URL of a video from YouTube or Vimeo that you would like to use with your class.  The rest is so easy.  Check out this tutorial:
You can even have students sign up to join your class and monitor their progress live in the evenings.  If there are questions that students struggle with, you can be sure to take the time to review that content in class.  Here is an example of one I created on the Restoration and Glorious Revolution.

Why My Students Like It

It felt dynamic and engaging. 
We were able to work individually at our own pace. 
It made it easier to understand the video because of the questions popping up to check on me.
All of these strategies have been road tested in my classroom.  Students have been more engaged than ever while viewing film and I have found that they retain the information better when I'm using these tools.  The student feedback you read above are really my students' words.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Apps That Give Old Words New Life

The Friday before a week-long February Break... deadly for student engagement.

Add to that a Thursday snow day that threw any momentum we had accumulated out the window, and I needed a miracle. Thank goodness for BYOD and mobile devices.

Students were learning about the American Colonization Society to wrap up our unit on Antebellum Slavery.  The racial divide that defined both the social and economic structure of the United States in the early 19th century is hard for my teenage students to comprehend.  Primary source analysis is the best way for them to learn the different perspectives of the era.

Class Set Up

After all students read a short background explanation of what the American Colonization Society was, I divided my class of 24 students in half: 12 read excerpts from James Madison's "Plan for the Emancipation of Slaves" from June 15, 1819 and 12 read excerpts of a letter from Richard Allen, Freedom's Journal, November 2, 1827 (Vol. 1, No. 34). Madison was in favor of removing free blacks from American society, the mission of the American Colonization Society, and Allen was opposed to the idea.  After they read their sources I gave them these instructions:
During the creation process students were engaged: learning the necessary apps, but more importantly, talking about the primary source text.  They were debating about the intentions of the writers, and they were preparing to defend their conclusions to their peers when they would be presenting their final creation during the last 10 minutes of class. I tweeted what I saw as I walked around the classroom monitoring their progress.

My tenth graders used a combination of school-owned iPads and their own devices on our BYOD wifi network.  There were a variety of smartphones, tablets, and laptops at work throughout the classroom.


Chatter Pix is a free app and it does not require students to create accounts for them to use.  The resulting videos can be easily saved to the camera roll of a mobile device and then shared with others via email or social media.  There is also a kids version that allows you to add more restrictions on student use.

Students in Group A for each document had to make the author come to life and explain his perspective.  Their challenge was to distill the main idea of a relatively complex primary source to something that could be read aloud in 30 seconds or less.  Here are their results with both Madison and Allen explaining their opinions on the colonization of free blacks themselves.


Word clouds are a great way to analyze primary sources because words that the author uses most often are enlarged as compared to words that are used less.  It is an interesting way to discover the priorities of that author.  Other word cloud tools require Java or Flash and are therefore impossible to use on iPads.  WordItOut works well on all devices through the web browser.

Students in Group B had to copy and paste their entire document into WordItOut and then write a short analysis of the resulting word cloud.  The captions are the students' words.
Some of the most prominent words that appeared on our word cloud were blacks, fair, society, colonizing, object, and prejudices. This is significant because it shows how much James Madison and the American Colonization Society focused on race and how they believed that white population could never overcome their racial prejudices. 
Key words from Richard Allen's source:
Country - America is now the home country of the people
People - The Africans Americans and the Africans are completely different people
Africans - They are not the same as the native Africans; they have been separated for 200 years
Free - The blacks are free, they deserve to live freely in the nation in which they have toiled for 200 years
Liberia - That is not their home, America is
Slaves - It is unjust that the free must leave and slaves must remain in the U.S.
Education - They lack the education to succeed and prosper among foreign people
Ignorant - Americans are being ignorant, thinking that the free blacks will prosper in Liberia


We have used Skitch a lot this year.  Students have annotated primary source images, artwork, maps, charts and graphs to show what they've learned from them.  Students have gotten quite good at it and have even added their annotated sources to their Evernote paperless notebooks as part of their record of learning for our history class.  We found a new way to use it for this class activity as well.

Group C found a portrait of their author and then surrounded his head with key words they chose from the primary source to demonstrate the main idea. The caption below is the student analysis.
We used the word satisfactory because he wanted to satisfy the slaves in new lives and the master after losing their property. The word oppression is relevant because he wanted to have the whites stop oppressing the black people. We used the word gradual because he believed that the change from slavery to no slavery should be gradual. Danger of collision is referring the possible negative effects free blacks and whites in the same society. Compensation was needed for whites who lost their slaves, and he thought it was good to have the consent of both parties to free the slaves.
Allen's Reasons for Staying in America:
1.) Brought up in ignorance- since most blacks are uneducated, it wouldn't be fair for them to be moved to another country because they are ignorant
2.) First tillers of the land- blacks have worked on this land and are largely responsible of all the profits made in America
3.) Mother country- blacks don't feel like Africans anymore since they have lived in America for so long
4.) Is there not land in America- there's more than enough lands for blacks and whites to live together
5.) Free men of color enjoying liberty- free blacks in America enjoy the rights we have

This was just my own little way of keeping students engaged and learning about history on a day that traditionally would have been a struggle due to a loss of momentum and an impending vacation.  They had spent 50 minutes reading, discussing, and creating.  When the bell rang, they left happy and had learned the conflicting historical perspectives on the American Colonization Society.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Now They're Animated!

Why would 14 year old freshmen care about 17th century American colonial geography and culture?

Well... they wouldn't, really.

But with an opportunity to created something animated and set to music, they just might perk up.

After learning about how my colleague, Annemarie Cory has been using Animoto to teach MacBeth...
...I was inspired. I could make a dry lesson really engaging if students had an opportunity to make tourism commercials for one of the first 13 American colonies!

(Disclaimer: Yes, I know a television-style commercial for a time and place in 17th century is anachronistic, but my students know that too.  They know the colonists didn't have TV, but they also now know why each of them was founded and how people lived day-to-day if they settled there.)

What Does a Good Tourism Commercial Look Like?

First, students watch a couple of recent commercials from YouTube.  One for Massachusetts and one for California.  I asked them to jot down a list of strategies used in the commercials to make the locations look like a place the viewer would like to go.  Answers included:

  • exciting music
  • celebrities
  • fun activities
  • colorful
  • fast moving
Soon enough they figured out they would be making tourism commercials too, but when I revealed they would be doing it for parts of America as they were 300 years ago, they were intrigued.

Setting Up the Assignment - History First

For their advertisements, it wasn't just about enticing people to visit.  They needed to convince their target audience to come and settle permanently.  They needed to research their assigned colonies.  I provided them with some general summaries from U.S. about the 13 colonies when they were first settled by the English.  They had to find out and take notes on:

  • reasons for settlement
  • leaders
  • attitudes and laws regarding religion, slavery, and women
  • economy (agriculture, imports and exports, sources of labor)

Creating the Animoto - Demonstrating Learning With Technology

Students had to find images that represented the information they discovered about their assigned colony.  They had to plan how they might use the information to make it look like a great place to settle if an Englishmen were looking for a new opportunity.  After finding and citing their images and crafting their persuasive approach, they watched a tutorial on how to use Animoto. Animoto is available via free mobile app or on any computer web browser.
Click here to see the tutorial on YouTube.
Then they got to creating!  It took most groups about 3 class periods to learn the history, organize their images and their marketing approach, and create their commercial in Animoto.

Sharing Their Success

They tried to use the strategies we discussed at the beginning of the lesson.  Founders like James Oglethorpe and William Penn were cast as celebrities.  They chose fitting music and engaging images with minimal text.  Viewers were enticed by growing economies, job opportunities, and a beautiful countryside.  They seemed to understand the importance of offering travelers choices and options.  

Students showed their commercials to one another.  Then they asked their audience what the commercial reveals about the 17th century American colonies.  Here are a few samples:
Click here to see the commercial for New York.
Click here to see a commercial for Pennsylvania.
Click here to see a commercial for Georgia.
Of course, sharing with one another in the classroom is great, but sharing with the world online is better.  Students reported about what they learned from one another on their blogs.  First we mapped out what should be included in their posts.  This way they had some ownership in how they would demonstrate their learning.

Here are some sample posts that resulted:

Megan explained what she learned about colonial New York.

Adam wrote about colonial Delaware.

Shannon's post explained what she liked about the process and some information about New Jersey.

Animoto was easy to learn.  My students were reading, researching, and citing.  All the while they were engaged and excited about the goal they were working toward and they were proud to share their results.  The technology made it fun, but the learning was focused on the history.

Student Choice and Student Voice: #EdCafe

My students and I have tried a lot of different discussion formats in my class: Socratic Seminar, informal Q & A, bean bag toss, and everything else I could think of over the years. Some were too formal and students were almost too nervous to participate. Others were in groups that were too large and not everyone was heard as much as they would have liked.  Sometimes the success depended on the time of day: morning classes were super quiet while afternoon classes were hard to control.  In all cases, discussion was framed around teacher goals and not around student inquiry.

We recently tried the EdCafe model.  EdCafe solves all of these problems.

Here's how to get started:

Learn About Being an EdCafe Facilitator

The ultimate authority on EdCafe is Katrina Kennett, she is the creator of the What is an EdCafe? website.  Within the website there is a guide for teachers and a guide for students.  There area also contributions from other teachers (like Alexandra Horelik) who have created graphic organizers, rubrics, and other resources that can help you with your EdCafe.  If you are on Twitter, follow the #EdCafe to see how other teachers are using it in their classrooms.

Choose a Topic and Let Students Develop an Independent Understanding - 1 to 2 weeks

I assigned a few readings around a common theme.  Our curriculum, in part, includes 19th century American history and so we read slave narratives and watched a short documentary with stories of real slaves' lives.  Students were given a reasonable time to complete the reading outside of school.  You could even simply teach the first half of a planned unit and then hold an EdCafe to see what questions students have about what they have learned so far.

Introduce EdCafe to Your Students - 1 class period

I gave my students a webquest-style activity to familiarize them with the EdCafe style of discussion and learning.
They watched the EdCafe video for students and read the Advice for Leading and the Advice for Attending.  Then they went to the Teenage Conference: Reflecting on EdCafe website and read a few of the student reflections.  This helped them understand what other high school students thought of the experience.  It also helped them identify common pitfalls to avoid when they had their own EdCafe.  The video helped them get a feel for how they might utilize the space in our classroom.

The Advice information and student reflections helped them learn about how they should conduct themselves and what they might expect of their classmates.  Based on what they learned the set the rules and designed the classroom layout.

Planning to Lead - 1 class period

Students decided to lead their first EdCafes in pairs.  They got together and compared their notes on the readings.  I gave them access to a graphic organizer to help them plan their EdCafe session based on this one from Alexandra Horelik. Once they had chosen their topic and written 7-10 open ended discussion questions that would help their EdCafe attendees to dig deeper, I signed them up for a time slot and location for our EdCafe day.
I made the schedule available as a Google Doc so students could look at the session topics that night and get a feel for which EdCafes they might want to attend.  Students who signed up to lead an EdCafe session near the SmartBoard or the white board in my classroom were expected to plan to use those resources.  Some came prepared with primary source images to project on the screen, some drew and filled in Venn Diagrams based on their discussion, some created concept maps. 

EdCafe Day - 1 class period

We got started immediately! 
  • Our four session leader pairs for Time Slot 1 gave 30 second introductions aimed at persuading their classmates to attend.
  • Students dragged their desks to the area with the topic that interests them and the timer begins! (Our sessions this time were 12 minutes each.)
  • Leaders launch into their 1 minute background speech to explain their topic in more detail to their attendees.
  • The discussion begins! Attendees and leaders ask and answer each others' questions.  The leader makes sure talking doesn't die down to an awkward silence with their 7 to 10 open ended questions.
  • At the end of the session, the leader gives a 30 second explanation of their EdCafe takeaway.  This could be new understandings the group reached or new questions that came up.

We repeated this process three times in one class period.  Students left with lots of notes and lots to think about.

EdCafe Reflection - 10 to 15 minutes at start of next class period plus homework

I asked students what they thought of our first EdCafe experience.
They had a lot to say and there was controversy.  The aspects that some students liked about EdCafe were the same aspects that others weren't sure about.  There was a lot of talk about how leading and attending were different experiences.  Some wanted the sessions to be longer next time.  Others wanted them to be shorter.  Some wanted to try to lead on their own, others liked the comfort of having a partner to fill in gaps.  A lot of them argued that since it is called an EdCafe, I should allow them to bring in baked goods next time (of course)!  After a 10 minute discussion I asked them to reflect on the experience and on what they learned on their blogs.  Since our class is paperless, this is how they submit most of their work and it seemed like the best way for me to assess them on it.

Here are some examples of positive reactions to EdCafe:

Some liked that small groups felt more informal and less intimidating:
"The main idea of an EdCafe was to allow students to have the chance to talk about certain topics in small, informal groups, without the awkwardness of a Socratic Seminar. In my opinion, the EdCafe went pretty well in our class."
Some thought that it really helped them learn more about the content and clarify their thoughts:
"It taught me a lot a lot about slavery and I liked that we were able to lead our own discussion, because sometimes its hard to get a chance to say what you want when you’re in a large group."
Some liked that they got to choose their own topics for leading and for attending:
"I also liked how we got to do it with a partner and how we had freedom in choosing what discussion to attend."
They also had suggestions for next time. Some are ideas for self-improvement.  Others are general suggestions on how the EdCafe should be structured.  Since EdCafe is all about student choice and student discussion, I will likely implement some of their suggestions and see if they see the improvements they're hoping for.

Group Size:
"I noticed that at certain times, one group would be overflowing with 10+ attendees, while another had only two.  Larger discussions, I noticed, flowed smoothly and were not as awkward as the smaller ones, and they did not require as much prompting.  As a future recommendation, I think that having a maximum of 8 people (for three groups) and a max of 6 (for 4 groups) would work well to help balance it out."

The Need to Be Prepared:
"What I could improve for the next time is I will have more questions. That is because this time my group finished the questions with a few minutes left and we had to repeat going over the same questions again."
Unique Engaging Topics:
"The class could have been better on coming up with different ideas on the subject, I felt that several of the ideas and subtopics were repetitive and could have been more unique." 
I will definitely use the EdCafe again.  My students have lots of questions and ideas that don't get air time during a normal class period. Students' academic experience should be just as much about what they are required to learn (based on curriculum and Common Core) as it is about pursuing the ideas and controversies that fascinate them.  EdCafe provides a place to balance all of these priorities.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Doodle Your History

I've used the National Archives document analysis sheets, the guided questions and charts from the DBQ Project, and lots of other formats of primary source analysis with my students.  They are all excellent tools, but they aren't FUN for kids.  I want students to be fascinated with evidence from history the same way I am.  I want them to see a connection between what a document says and what life may have been like for the people who wrote those words.  I've posted in the past about how non-traditional note-taking can be more valuable for student learning than previously thought.  I thought I'd apply that concept to primary source analysis.

Last week I asked them to create some kind of image representation of a primary source document and how it helped answer our essential question:

Was the Antebellum North really morally and economically opposed to slavery?

You see, my New England students have traditionally been taught that the South favored slavery and the North opposed it.  But that is not entirely true.  Our nation's history of racial discrimination is anything but black and white.  So, here are the instructions they received based on primary sources from Lowell, Massachusetts:
Students used apps like Paper, Penultimate, Educreations, and the Camera Roll to carry out this short activity.

Here are some examples of the documents and their analytical images:

Excerpts from Lowell Patriot's coverage of Lowell's Anti-Abolitionist Meeting, August 28, 1835

The article reported that Lowell's leaders disagreed with abolitionists like Garrison and Thompson, who they thought were extremists, but also felt they needed to speak out against the practice of lynching in the South.  They strove to avoid conflict with the South so they could continue to benefit from the raw cotton slaves produced. The result was complacency.
A different group's analysis of the same source shows that they did not want to deny southerners their slaves because the U.S. Constitution protects citizens' rights to own property.  At the same time, anti-abolitionists claimed they were against extreme violence toward slaves like beating and lynching. They also use the scale on the bottom to show the attempted neutrality on the issue of slavery.

"Public [Anti-Abolitionist] Meeting" Broadside, August 21, 1835

These students used the banner image from the broadside along with clipart from the internet to show how mill owners were OK with slavery because of how it fit into their business plan.  Their resulting image gives me the creeps, but that just means they really understood the motivations at work when the broadside was created in 1835.

Cotton Production in Lowell/U.S. Slave Population

This graphic shows how Lowell textile factories needed cotton, and therefore their success demanded more slaves to produce that cotton in the South.

"Lowell Cloth" 1858-1859

Students who drew this representation of the document wanted to show how factory owners bought raw cotton produced by slaves and then sold the manufactured cloth back to plantation owners to clothe those same slaves.  A cycle of economic dependence on slavery in which both North and South participated.
The class discussion about each document were more engaging and students asked each other better questions because we were looking at color images that brought history to life instead or reading and copying from notes.  It took half a class period and students were talking, creating, and thinking the whole time.  It was certainly more interactive than filling out document analysis tables.  Of course, note taking has its place, but it doesn't have to be linear outlining 100% of the time.  Students can create to show learning.  They don't have to list to show learning.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

I May Have Done a 180

I had the opportunity to observe a colleague, Gary d'Entremont, recently.  He has done a complete 180.  Literally, he has flipped his classroom for the entire unit on the Enlightenment in our school's History 9 curriculum. I actually had some of his current students in my 8th grade classroom last year.  It was rewarding to see them working at a higher level, and I experienced my own enlightenment when it came to the flipped classroom model thanks to this experience.

Here's how Gary does it.

1. Preparation
Gary set up his class website (our district uses Edline) so that all materials students will need for the 2 week unit were there before they began. Explanations on what a flipped classroom is, what student responsibilities are, and how to carry out each of the tasks are clearly labeled and easy to read.

2. Formatting
The text documents are posted in .pdf format.  This makes it easy for students to view them without awkward formatting problems, which can occur with Word Documents for example, on laptops, tablets, or smartphones of any kind.  Also, for student assignments Gary has clear directions and has modeled the product so students can see what is expected. There are some samples of these modeled products below. Finally, since some students have Macs and others have PCs at home, the videos that students watch at home as part of the flip are posted in both Windows and QuickTime formats.
Sensory Image
Primary Source Analysis & Citation
3. Consistency
Gary recommends that students watch two videos a night and take Cornell notes.  They use those Cornell notes to reflect individually at the beginning of class and then pose questions to classmates for clarification.  This way, students are held accountable for doing their work on the flipside (at home) by their classmates during the discussion.  Gary also does a nice job complementing his students who pose and answer questions during the large groups discussion so they are getting positive feedback for participating.
Student reflects on the left side of his Cornell notes at the beginning of class.
Here are a few examples of questions and answers from the class discussion that followed the individual student reflection time:
  • Q: What did they mean when they said the Enlightenment helped form democracy? (A: Freedom of speech, pursuit of happiness from John Locke)
  • Q: Why was the Edict of Nantes taken back? (A: King of France was a Catholic and didn't like Protestants, Louis XIV, Sun King)
  • Q: Why was descrimination ok before the Enlightenment? (A: Because it was habit, it was just what everyone did)
  • Q: What time frame were the philosophes reacting to (A: late 16th early 17th century)
4. Engagement
Once the class discussion time was over, students spent the remaining 40 minutes of class time working individually or together on the work portion of the flipped classroom model.  Plenty of apps were being utilized: Educreations, Evernote, Safari, Spreaker, and PicCollage to name a few.  Students were working together, posing questions to Gary and to their peers, and creating multimedia products based on Enlightenment philosophy.

Students researching. chatting, and creating together using BYOD and classroom iPads.
This student is working on a Sensory Image.
This student is finishing up a collage.  She will screenshot, crop, and send it to Gary via email.

I was grateful to have the opportunity to observe a colleague so fully committed to the flipped classroom model in action with his students.  As you can tell from this detailed post, he willingly shared everything he created to make the lesson possible and answered the many questioned I peppered him with.  He students were happy to explain what they were working on and how it demonstrated what they had learned.  Thanks to this short observation experience, I plan to use portions and parts of Gary's lesson in my own Enlightenment unit with my History 9 classes in a week or two.  I have been a bit of a critic of the flipped model, but Gary's careful preparation, formatting, consistency and engagement may have made me into a believer.  Now I have to get to work doing my own 180!