The Second Time Around

This year is the second time I’m teaching an upper school blended learning US History class. While many things about the class will remain the same, I’m also tinkering in hopes of making  the class even better than it was the first time around.

The first unit of the class focuses on American Identity. (As with several of the units I do, I’ve cribbed a number of ideas from Diana Laufenberg. She’s fab!) We talk about the questions of Who’s an American? When does one become an American? and Who should decide? by looking at current-day immigration, early 20th century immigration, and early American colonists.

Last year, I asked students to complete a project with a several different pieces- an audio evaluation of sources, a glog, and a paper. The results were ok, but not what I’d hoped. There were also numerous technical headaches- some the result of glitches with Glogster and some the result of students lack of familiarity with the class blog, Glogster, and Audacity (which we used for the audio evaluation).

When I sat down to plan the project for this year, I remembered how frustrated many of the students had felt last year while completing it. A little frustration is a good thing, but too much can really discourage students, so I decided to dial the project back. I moved the evaluation of sources and the comparative essay to other parts of the unit and asked students to focus on researching a particular early 20th century American immigrant group. Rather than create a glog, they were to create a person who might have been a member of this immigrant group and write a letter back home to the country from which he or she immigrated. Using Word or Google docs, students would then go back and add annotations to their letters to explain the significance of 8-10 pieces of information in the letters to an uninformed reader. Finally, students chose a picture that the immigrant might have slipped into his or her letter.

As students added their letters to the blog, I was pleased to see how imaginative and rich their letters were. (Click on the image below to read an example.)

Feedback from students on the project was quite positive. Whereas much of the previous year’s feedback focused on the technical difficulty, this year students wrote things such as…

I really liked the structure of the letter. Being able to add in annotations rather than try to work all of the information into it made it sound much more natural.

I liked how we used real historical facts and research to create a fictional character and situation. I thought the letter was a great representation of our creativity as well as our research skills and knowledge.

It was a little hard for me to step the project back in terms of technical whiz bang. Word and Google Docs are particularly jazzy (and some might say not particularly engaging) platforms, which garner oohs and ahhs from fellow teachers. I considered using something like Diigo, which would have allowed students to annotate web-based content in a more social way. However, by choosing a tool that didn’t require significant energy for students to use allowed that energy to be focused toward the creation of the piece. That doesn’t mean that we won’t use less intuitive or familiar tools for future work, but it seems to have been a good place to start.

Digital Tools for Formative Assessment

Links to tools discussed at  the NCTE 2010 Tech To Go kiosk


Allows for collaborative writing and the ability to “play back” writing. I suggest downloading a copy of your work because inactive pads are deleted.


Great for collaborative writing that you want to be more permanent than Typewith.me pads.

Site for managing classes and creating different types of quizzes and activities.


Create polls (closed and open-ended) for students to respond to using the web or cell phones.


Google Forms are an easy way to get student feedback or create self-evaluations. I also use them to track independent reading.

Student of the Tool

I find it interesting that many teachers feel like they must know the content they want their students to learn before they teach it. And yet, they are unwilling to use for themselves the tools they want their students to use in the classroom before they use them with students.

It’s ok if you don’t know all the content. That’s not possible in the world in which we live anyway. Discover along with students.

It’s ok if you’re not the complete master of tool before you give it to a student. But your students’ experience will be all the richer if you also have been a student of the tool.

I don’t want to make the separation between content and tool too neat. I hope teachers are guides and students of both.