Language Arts

Source Credibility with Forms & Autocrat

Before I begin, I must give full credit to Catlin Tucker, who gave me the idea a few years ago to ask students to fill out a form arguing their source's credibility.

Helping students understand if sources are credible is not an easy task, but it's an important one as we teach them to do research. Despite being "digital natives," looking for source credibility isn't something that comes naturally to them. I think a big part of it is they want the first source they find that gives the support they need to be the one they use. Sadly, there's a lot of garbage on the internet, so that's not usually the case. 

We start by examining the CARS Checklist for credibility when finding sources. (I'd like to ask McGraw-Hill to fix the typos on this article so that my students stop telling me it's not a credible source as they read that typos often make something not a credible source.) As they read this year, I asked them to fill out a simple table to note the things they should look for in each section of CARS. 

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 10.15.57 AM.png

Now that they're writing a research paper, they're filling out this source credibility form, which asks them to shows evidence of the credibility, accuracy, reasonableness, and support. Honestly, they hate it. They think it's a waste of time, and I just had to send them an email reminding them to fill it out before they use the source in their essay. However, I believe the little bit of extra time is so important in teaching them to find a worthy source. (Make a copy of the spreadsheet of responses in order to copy the form for yourself.)

Once they fill out the form, I use my newest tool obsession: Autocrat. I know I'm a little late to the party, but I love how Autocrat can give students (and me) their form responses in a Google Doc or PDF format. It uses a template like this to match tags with form submissions. You can view a tutorial by Jay Atwood here.

Once they get their Doc of responses, there's only one blank left: the MLA works cited entry. Since they already have the source URL, my students use their Easy Bib Add-On to create this entry right within their document. And when that doesn't work, they hop onto Calvin College's KnightCite & input the information themselves. I love how easy this is and only wish they understood how much easier this is than consulting the manual and doing it yourself. 

Creating Thesis Statements

A few weeks ago, my 8th graders and I did some hexagonal thinking around the comments Suzanne Collins makes on American society in The Hunger Games. I love teaching this book because most of my students have already read it, but they haven't read it with the same depth with which we explore it in class. 

After finishing the novel this week, they did some more hexagonal brainstorming. Some worked in small groups and some worked as individuals as they tried to get ideas flowing for their essay analyzing one of Suzanne Collins's critiques. 

When we build thesis statements in my classroom, we look at this triangle: 

In this case, our context was both The Hunger Games and the United States. The subject was the area they were exploring, from poverty to fashion to government to beauty to violence. Finally, they need to make an arguable claim: What did Suzanne Collins comment about that subject? They work to craft, yes, craft, a beautiful sentence weaving those things together. 

This morning I drank my coffee, opened up their Google Docs, read their thesis statements, and was wowed. Here are a few of the beauties: 

  • In her novel The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins displays general America’s lack of privacy as a result of government agencies through the Capitol’s surveillance of Panem and the Hunger Games. 
  • In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins criticizes America’s unnatural beauty standards through the people of the Capitol’s outlandish appearances. 
  • In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins uses the Gamemakers’ hunger for action throughout the televised Games to denounce the way the American entertainment industry finds the need to captivate an audience through violence.

Boom. From eighth graders. Beautiful. It's so cool to see how much they've grown as writers (not to mention people) since they came to me in sixth grade.

As we continued to write today, I was jumping in and out of Docs, and I found myself constantly going "hmmm..." out loud. I love how students make me see new things in the literature, even though I've already taught it a bunch of times. Kids are the coolest. 

So thank you hexagonal thinking and those of you who have encouraged me in the exploration of it. The technique helped create some great thesis statements, and their topic sentences are looking just as fantastic. I'm legitimately looking forward to grading these essays.

Hexagonal Brainstorming

Back in December, I went to the Google Teacher Academy in Austin, Texas. As part of our experience, we did some design thinking, including some hexagonal thinking. It was one of my favorite ideas from GTA, but honestly, I kind of forgot about it... until last week. 

Last week was Ed Camp San Jose. I love ed camps because they generally draw some really smart people that I love, and they allow me to spend time talking with those smart people. Beforehand, Karl asked me if I had any session ideas, and after listening to a vox of his on Tracy Clark's session on hexagonal thinking at CUE, I suggested it. And so he brought some hexagon cut-outs, and we sat and thought with some awesome people about how we can encourage internal motivation in students. 

As we wrapped up, we began thinking of ways that we could use this method in our own classrooms. I really appreciated this about that day. I feel like a lot of conferences lately have been geared to tech coaches, but to me, there's something invaluable about talking to people currently in the classroom. We thought about using it for test review or thesis brainstorming or project brainstorming. 

So what is hexagonal thinking? Basically, it's using two-inch hexagons to create a web ideas, generally around some problem. So you start with a question, like, "How do we encourage students to be self-motivated," and you write an idea on a hexagon. It might say, "give an authentic audience," or "give students a choice of topic." As you place hexagons on the table, you look for how your ideas connect and place them next to the connecting ideas. So, for example, both of these ideas might connect to "create a connection between learning and a student's personal life." Over time they develop into a web like the one shown to the right.

And so today, after receiving my hexagon puncher in the mail yesterday, I tried it out.

My students are reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and we're analyzing the comments she makes on American society. I gave a 90-second tutorial of how hexagonal thinking works, and set them to work exploring these comments in groups of three or four. As they worked, I jumped in and added hexagons. I wasn't necessarily planning to get involved, but I quickly realized this was invaluable. I got to model to them finding depth in ideas and the ways that ideas are connected. 

After about twenty minutes, I polled the groups on the "main ideas" that they had surrounded by details. Almost every group had three: government, fashion, and entertainment. I had them take that section of their group's web, and move to a topic-based table. Then each student chose one of those tables that they were most interested in to explore. They found which hexagons overlapped and which ones expanded topics, and then they began to add more ideas. 

As we debriefed, we realized that we went into a lot more depth than we expected and decided that it would be really easy to create a thesis statement with all of these details fleshed out before us. Further, we realized that each of the three topics then expanded into sub topics that we could easily use as body paragraphs in an essay.

I think the biggest conclusion we came to is the power of many brains working together. As one student put it, "We found a lot more than if we were just brainstorming by ourselves or with a partner." Woot. This is totally the culture of teamwork I work to reinforce in my classroom. 

Putting Ourselves in Victorian England

Every year I teach A Christmas Carol, and every year I do it differently. I keep changing my mind on what I want students to get out of it, and I always end up with a different amount of time to do it. Last year, we made an iBook.

This year, I was inspired by speaking with Carla Dunavan & Nicole Van Wilgen, two seventh grade English teachers at Union Middle School. They do a lot of great things with the Victorian era as they teach the play version. I took a lot of their lesson plans and adapted them for my classroom.

This year I also decided to listen to the audio book instead of asking students to struggle through Dickens's complicated sentence structure. This made all the difference in the world. Not every reader is wonderful on this recording, but it was definitely engaging enough for my squirrelly seventh graders. I will definitely return to this recording.

At the end of Carla and Nicole's unit they throw a Victorian party for their students, complete with games and food and costumes. I didn't have the bandwidth (or time) for that, so I decided to do a photo project instead.

Throughout the unit, students did research on Victorian England and created a character's persona so that they could pretend that they were attending Scrooge's New Year's party. We culminated that by making a photo of Victorian England with ourselves superimposed.

We started by creating a Google Drawing and dropping a

Creative Commons

-licensed photo that was okay for us to modify. We added in a speech bubble for our character to introduce him or herself and included a proper citation of our image.

I then made a simple green screen with some felt I stole from an elementary school teacher and asked students to bring in different clothes that they thought could help with our photo booth. Not everyone brought something, but we definitely had enough for everybody to wear something. They posed, and I shot some photos with my iPhone.

As I finished the photo, I uploaded them to a folder in Google Drive that I shared with the class. They downloaded their photos and dropped them into a Keynote presentation. We instant-alpha-ed the background so that they just had the outline of themselves. They copied the image and then went into Preview and created a "New from clipboard" image. They saved that and then uploaded it to their Google Drawing. This allowed them to take their outline and move it in the picture and move their speech bubble to fit it.

I expected my students to be really overwhelmed by all the steps, but it honestly went really smoothly. I anticipate that they'll use this idea to do something for another project in the future.

They're not professional quality, but they look pretty good, and we had a lot of fun. I loved watching my students consider their character and what he/she would have worn. I think it really helped them understand the time period.

This is definitely an activity I'd do again, but I also think I'd expand it. I think it'd be interesting to have them create a variety of different photos that represented the different classes. I also considered adding QR code to a verbal introduction to put speaking into it. But I also think there's something to be said for the fun we had doing it.

(Looking back, I really could have done this all in Keynote. I'm not quite sure why I thought Google Draw was best, but it's good to know we could even do it on Chromebooks!)

Use Autocrat to Create Personalized Vocabulary Quizzes

There are a lot of parts of teaching English that I love. But there are also some that I think are stupid and that I hate. 

One of my responsibilities is to teach students more vocabulary words. Characteristically, this means giving students a list of vocab words, asking them to look them up in the dictionary, and then giving them a multiple choice quiz. However, in my experience, that doesn't at all help them learn the words. 

So a couple years ago I threw away my dictionaries and stopped spending class time or homework time having students find definitions. Instead, I have them a pre-made Quizlet deck, so that the focus could be on learning the words instead of finding them. 

However, my students still weren't learning vocabulary like I wanted. For one thing, my list made all the kids look at the same words, when in fact my students all came with different levels of vocabulary. Some students needed easier words and others needed more of a challenge. 

In a bout of laziness last year, I started having students choose their own vocabulary words and began making them individual quizzes. Instead of a multiple choice quiz, 

I gave students a question and their list of words and asked them to use the words in their response. They really struggled at first. This requires a much deeper understanding of the words. 

So last year I laboriously copied and pasted their words into a Pages document filled with lines. Today I realized how dumb that was when there's the power of Autocrat. Here's how I'm reworking it this year:

Step 1: Create Form

My students love Quizlet, and make their own decks now whenever they have something to study. I made this simple form to gather their words in addition to their Quizlet deck. 

Step 2: Decide a Question & Create Template

I like my students to use words in context. I choose questions that allow them to show their knowledge of the words and their understanding of the novel. 

I then made a word box with tags, which Autocrat will merge with the vocab words they entered in their form.

I then added a merge tag of their names so that I knew whose quiz belonged to whom. 

Step 3: Run Autocrat

I then went back over to the form responses and ran the Autocrat Add-On. I matched the tags I created with their form responses and ran the merge and voila -- individualized quizzes!

Step 4: Print Quizzes

Sadly, this is dumb, and I first need to download the folder because you can't print a folder. 

Right-click on the folder Autocrat creates in your Drive and click "Download..."

Then choose the PDF option & it will create a zipped file for you.

Open the zipped folder & hit shift+A to highlight all of the documents. Double-click and it will open them all in one document in Preview if you're on a Mac. From there, you just print the PDF of your students' individual vocabulary quizzes that actually show if they know the vocab words. {gasp}

I'm super excited for how much easier Autocrat is going to make this process for me. I really believe that these vocabulary quizzes show a much deeper level of understanding of what my students know, and that will, hopefully, make them actually apply that vocabulary outside of my classroom.