Backchanneling Hamlet

I’ve tried using a backchannel before with my students, but I feel like after experimenting a little bit I’ve refined this strategy a bit more. I feel that you need to play a bit with a tool in order to find out how to use it best, but after that, you should choose the best tool for the job not the best job for the tool.

So when we were watching/reading Act 3 of Hamlet for the first time, I wanted students to really engage with the text. I know some English teachers want students to read the text before they watch the play, but I feel that since plays are meant to be seen and heard, I like to show the play first and then dig into the text. The problem with that is that sometimes students don’t really engage when they are viewing. I thought that a backchannel might be a way to encourage active viewing. So here’s what I did:

1) I created a set of guiding questions:

a. Does Hamlet really love Ophelia?

b. How do Hamlet’s views of the afterlife compare with Elizabethan views?

c. What are Hamlet’s views on acting?

d. How does Shakespeare develop the theme of appearance vs. reality?

2) I asked students to create code names. My hypothesis was that students who are normally too shy to contribute ideas during class discussions might be more willing to post anonymously. (In this case I didn’t worry about getting their codenames until the end of class, but depending on your class you might want to get them first for classroom management purposes.)

3) I told them that I wanted them to contribute at least three things to the discussion. They could ask a question (a legitimate question about something that they’re curious about, or a discussion question for their classmates), a comment, or a clarification.

4) I set up a todaysmeet room. Here it is:

5) Then we watched the film version of Hamlet (my current favourite is the Royal Shakespeare Company version featuring David Tennant and Patrick Stewart. Dr Who and Captain Picard do Hamlet. How cool is that?)

6) I paused a few times in order to let the backchannel catch up. It was really interesting to see/hear what happened when I paused. The class was completely silent but they were having fast and furious conversations in the backchannel.

What worked:

  • Students were engaged. Even those who didn’t post frequently were still engaged because they were reading the backchannel and thinking of things to contribute.
  • Pausing occasionally to let people clarify and ask questions.
  • A lot of the issues/ideas that I would provide in the form of short lectures in between scenes were brought up by the students in the backchannel. I didn’t have to do anything except steer and moderate.

What I still need to work on:

  • I still didn’t get as much participation from my “quiet” students as I’d hoped. I need to figure out why. On Monday I’m going to ask them if it was because they were still shy, or because they weren’t sure what to say and see if they have any suggestions.

The funny thing is, we ran out of time so as I look back at the transcript, I still don’t know who everyone is. I’ll find out on Monday, but in the meantime it’s interesting to read and try to guess.

I should probably add that we used a combination of school netbooks (we had 13 today) and students’ personal devices: smartphones, laptops, ipod touches in order to participate in the backchannel. Todaysmeet works quite well on all of these devices.





Teaching and Learning in the 21st Century: The Sequel

Lots of sequels come out in the summer time (I think… Just go with it), and the OTF Teaching and Learning in the 21st Century conference was no exception. I was lucky to attend the conference last February as a panelist discussing my take on the use of social media in the classroom. Then I was doubly lucky to be able to hang out with Will Richardson (who’s played a huge role in influencing my philosophy about technology in the classroom) during the Minds on Media sessions the following day.

For the #OTF21C sequel (check that hashtag on twitter to see an archive of the tweets from the past three days), I got to repeat my panelist role but also became a Minds on Media facilitator (which meant less time picking Will’s brain but more time hanging with cool teachers eager to learn about blogging).

The panel discussion was essentially very similar to the one back in February. I noticed the same tension between those people (students, teachers, consultants) who are working with social media and those people (union representatives) tasked with protecting teachers from the potential dark side of social media. And I noticed Will biting his tongue at times (Excellent restraint, Will!). I just hope that down the road there will be teachers and students and administrators who shake their heads with amusement as they look back on the “old days” when we were all filled with angst about technology. There was one question toward the end of the panel from a teacher who was very concerned that students might be spending too much time in front of screens to the detriment of their physical and socio-emotional well-being. I’ve started to get a little tired and frustrated by questions like this, but I have to exercise a little more patience. I think I replied with something like, “Maybe, but people said the same thing about books, when books became more readily accessible. Same argument; different medium.” It is the same argument, but I have to remember that this is still a new and threatening area for some people so they may not see it as being the same.

After the panel Brian and I braved the record-breaking temperatures outside the hotel to visit Melanie McBride and Jason Nolan at the EDGE lab which is part of Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone. Wow is this place ever mind blowing! Read more about it here. After a tour, we headed upstairs where all the different teams worked. It’s an eclectic group. There were teams working on everything from mobile health apps (VitalHub) to game development (HugeMonster Inc.). And then there were research teams including EDGE lab where my friend Melanie works. The EDGE lab itself was a pretty eclectic group made up of people who brought unique and often opposing perspectives. Noah and Jason demonstrated some soft circuit prototypes they had developed to help adorable little girl communicate in and interact with her peers in spite of her limited speech and motor skills. We had some great conversations (I can’t even begin to attempt to sum them up here) about school and learning (and how the two are quite often mutually exclusive!). It’s incredibly liberating to talk to people who are interested in education but are not constrained by the traditional education system. There are so many ideas we don’t even discuss in education because we know we “can’t do that” in our current system. We walked back to the hotel like zombies, although in fairness I think was 38 degrees in downtown Toronto with a breeze that felt like a gust from a convection oven.

Then there was some much-needed socializing, and that’s all I’ll say about that.

Friday was devoted to Minds on Media. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Minds on Media process (brilliantly organized by Peter Skillen and Brenda Sherry), unlike traditional PD where one might sign up for a session, sit in a chair and listen to the presenter’s agenda, teachers are free to move from station to station and the agenda is that of the participants. I had a bunch of links and resources prepared but essentially my first question when people arrived was, “So, what do you want to talk about?” It was exhausting, but very rewarding and I loved it when a teacher ran over to me, beaming, saying “I just wrote my first blog post! And I embedded a video!”

I love these conferences because they provide me with a chance to learn as much as (or usually more) than I present, but I also love them because they are, as Melanie would say, affinity spaces. These are spaces where I get to learn how I want with the people who I want to learn with. Thanks to all my friends, old and new, for the great experience.

Doug Peterson, a friend and prolific blogger has posted a number of reflections on his own blog which you can read here.

Participatory Culture and the 21st century English teacher

Social network sites are an example of the ways in which youth engage in what Henry Jenkins calls participatory culture. In his white paper, “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century”, Jenkins (2009) defines participatory culture as “a culture with low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices” (p. 3). He goes on to identify specific skills that will be necessary to engage effectively in this participatory culture, namely:
· Play
· Performance
· Simulation
· Appropriation
· Multitasking
· Distributed Cognition
· Collective Intelligence
· Judgment
· Transmedia Navigation
· Networking
· Negotiation (p. 4)

Now I know this sounds a little jargony and the one thing I want to be careful to avoid (at least in my blog posts) as I pursue graduate work is jargon. So let me break it down for you and explain what I took away from this paper.

Links from presentation:

Media Literacy

Media Awareness Network
Don’t Buy It
Centre for Media Literacy
Association for Media Literacy
Critical Media Literacy

Blogs to Read

Dangerously Irrelevant
Free Technology for Teachers
Moving at the Speed of Creativity
Cool Cat Teacher
The Spicy Learning Blog

New Teacher Resources

Tools for the 21st Century Teacher
The Educator’s PLN Ning

Follow these people on Twitter.

Channeling the Backchannel: The Power of Hidden Conversations


Yesterday my friend Ryan dropped off five netbooks for me to use in my classes and you better believe I used them today.

By combining the netbooks with the devices my students already had, I had the entire class connected to the internet.

In my grade 12 class, we were watching the movie Secret Window as an end to our horror fiction unit. I always find it touch to keep students actively viewing when we’re watching movies even though I give them something specific to focus on and build in accountability. So instead I set up a backchannel using Today’s Meet. That is the actual link to our transcript from this morning. The messages with the hashtag #secretwindow are not from our class.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit there was some uproductive stuff at the beginning and end (don’t worry. I dealt with it), and I realize that not everyone participated in the discussion, but the class was much more engaged!

We were able to have conversations about things I wanted the students to focus on without disrupting the flow of the movie. It makes me think back to the way I’d usually show films and constantly pause the movie to draw students’ attention to something (so annoying!) and laugh.

I tried it in my media class as well which is already in a lab. Still some students wanted to try using the netbooks so they could sit in a better position while watching Rear Window. I would say the conversation was less productive in this class and I had to do a lot more redirecting–but that’s pretty typical of this class. I was having some technical issues at the beginning of the film so there’s some frustration and off task behaviour there. Actually now that I scroll back, the transcript isn’t that bad (again, the hashtag comments were not from my class). A couple of inappropriate comments but then they got back on track (If you read the transcript, you should know that the “whore” comment was actually not meant to be inappropriate).

I will continue with the Rear Window backchannel tomorrow and I’d like to see if there’s any improvement in the discussion. In a quick informal chat with one of my students, she said she found that following the conversation really helped her figure out what I wanted them to focus on in the movie.

So, I would say this is a keeper.

What worked:

  • Giving people time at the start of class to try it out and get their “sillies”.
  • Using actual first names but no last names (did this with second class but not first)
  • Participating in the backchannel myself to direct or redirect if necessary.
  • Inviting people to “step out of the conversation” if they weren’t being productive.

What didn’t work:

  • anonymity: worked in some cases but not others. I wonder about telling students they can use a code name but I need to know what it is

Thoughts on bells, whistles, and frivolity


Recently, I’ve had  teachers ask me questions about teaching using social networking sites like Ning and,  and I’ve noticed a trend. They like what social networking sites seem to make possible and they want to use technology to increase student engagement, but they’ve expressed concern over the fact that the sites have a lot of bells and whistles. I think they’re concerned that students will confuse the educational sites with the social sites they use outside the classroom.

I understand this concern because I am well aware that students behave inappropriately on sites like Myspace and Facebook, but if you decide to use a site like Schoology or Edmodo (which are cool–don’t get me wrong) because you don’t want to use something that looks too much like Facebook, then aren’t you kind of defeating the purpose? Aren’t you missing out on opportunities to teach appropriate use of social media? If you want to have students create Facebook-like profile pages for characters in a novel you’re studying, but you don’t want to use a site that mimics what Facebook can do because it doesn’t look “educational” … then why bother? If the goal is to increase student engagement then you should use a tool that’s … well … engaging. Shouldn’t you?

Now, I’m not saying Edmodo and Schoology are not engaging. They are. I’ve used Edmodo and my students have thought it was cool. I’ve checked out Schoology and it looks pretty useful too, but you need to really think about what you’re trying to achieve and then choose the best tool for that task.

I’ve had teachers tell me before that they tried blogging with their students but they weren’t really into it. When they tell me what tools they’re using for blogging, then I get it. The tools are boring. Yawn…. Appearance matters, okay?

I think some of the concern comes from teachers worrying that other teachers, administrators, or parents might not think that students are learning when using a site that looks too “social”. My response? Invite those teachers, administrators, and parents to join your site. People fear what they don’t understand (duh), so let them in.

And who says education can’t be fun? Bring on the bells and whistles, I say. 

Now what?


Photo credit

After TED and Saturday’s workshops, I asked myself the above question and then quickly remembered– Oh yeah! I’m bringing two students to the Board Office (insert angelic chorus and shaft of light beaming down from the heavens–just kidding. I’ve worked there. I know.) to share their experiences with Ning and bookclubs with some intermediate teachers.

I feel like I’ve missed a lot of class lately so I was feeling a little guilty but now as I sit at home at 3:30(!) sipping a caramel machiatto and eating some cookies and reflecting on the day–guilt be gone! I did–or rather–we did good today!

My super smart and talented friend Heather who I abandoned last year to return to the classroom asked me if I’d be willing to come and speak at the final sessions of a series of Creating Strategic Readers workshops. Now while I’m thrilled to be back in the classroom there are a number of things I really miss about being a learning coordinator:

  • having time to direct my own professional learning
  • being a part of important board initiatives
  • being in the loop
  • the salad bar in the cafeteria
  • being able to go to the washroom whenever I want (!)
  • But mostly — I miss working with all the cool people (particularly Heather–or H-Dawg as I like to call her. It’s her street name. It’s a thing. … never mind)

So when Heather asked me to come in I was really excited–also because I got to share things that I’d actually tried with students–unlike last year where I had to speak in theoretical terms which was often frustrating. Heather also asked me if I could bring some students.

I chose two girls from my 4C class last semester. They weren’t the highest achievers in my class and they weren’t the stereotypical “good students”, but they were really great kids–one very outgoing and confident, and one a little shy and quiet. We drove down to the board office and I explained to the girls that I would talk for a bit, but that the teachers would be way more interested in what they had to say.

The girls rocked! It was so awesome when a teacher asked me a question and I was able to redirect to the girls. eg/ Teacher: So did you find that the boys in the class were more engaged when using your class Ning?

Me: Girls?

Superstar student #1: Oh yeah!

Superstar student #2: Totally!

Superstar student #1: Like Andrew–he’d never read a book before!

Teacher: But what about bullying? How did you find the other students were when it came to saying inappropriate things?

Me: Girls?

Superstar Student #1: Well, like Ms. Barker was monitoring everything so we know we couldn’t say bad stuff–not that we would–

Superstar Student #2: Yeah, and actually I felt like the opposite happened. Like even if you didn’t really like someone, you were still writing positive comments. It’s like were a big team and we all want to help each other out.

Me: I paid them to say that.

So cool. The girls were great. I think the coolest part was what we talked about when on the way home. The girls talked about how teachers needed to be open-minded and try new things and they liked it when teachers tried to value the things they did outside of class. I know they were only two of my students, but it was so nice to feel like all of my hunches about what made good teaching were true at least for them. Plus they were so much more credible as experts than I ever could be.

No, the coolest part was when I overheard a teacher say to another teacher “They’re awesome!”

And sure, some of the teachers were resistant, or they felt like they couldn’t do this with their students, or that it must take way too much time, but now that I’m a classroom teacher, my response is simple: Yes it takes time. Yes there are challenges. But it’s worth it to me because I see the difference it makes in my students’ learning. If you feel like you’ve got enough challenges right now, or you don’t think it’s worth the time, don’t do it. I’m just sharing.

So liberating. Seriously. Last year when teachers would push back or come up with excuses I would get really defensive. Now I smile and nod and say, “Then this may not be the right choice for you.” And I can say that because I know what works for me and it’s totally worth it–especially when I hear Superstar Student # 2 say “Wow I think we really rocked that, don’t you?”

Yep. We rocked that.


Danika Barker; live

This Friday I was lucky enough to be asked to speak at an independently organized TED event. When Jamie Weir asked me to speak way back in … October?… I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. I was flattered, but I also have a habit of saying yes to things when they seem very far away, and then deciding how to make it work later.


Well April 9th popped up pretty fast! Oh, and did I mention I also agreed to present two workshops at our board’s big technology conference the next morning? Why? WHY?

I knew that I wanted to talk about my action research project but trying to figure out how to cram all that into a 5 minute talk was quite daunting. I managed to pick out the highlights–I hope–and tell people why I thought Ning was such a great teaching and learning tool. I made cute slides. I memorized and rehearsed. I picked out my shoes. I believe my shoes were a trending topic on Twitter that night.

The night was a blur! One minute I was suggesting iPhone apps to Paul Finkelstein.


The next minute I was discussing the dubious merits of Fast Eddie’s with Dan Misener (whilst lusting after his iPad).


And then, somehow, I was up!

And the computer running my slides threw a tantrum and had to be rebooted while I tried to make small talk and considered beat-boxing to fill the dead time. Technology glitches aside, I made it through the talk, and I really appreciate all the hard work the tech team did to jump over those impossible-to-foresee hurdles. My Twitter friends were so supportive and kind and thanks to the miracle of technology, my friends and family were able to watch online. So cool!

I felt a little out of my league when I realized I was speaking at the same event as Alec Couros, Jesse Brown, Ray Zahab, Paul Finkelstein, (aw, heck, EVERYONE. Check out this roster of speakers), but what an amazing opportunity to network and be inspired.

Small confession: I was such a nervous wreck, I did a very bad job at mingling. There were so many people I wanted to meet face to face, but as soon I was done talking, I hid in the green room and scarfed a sub. There. I admit it. But I wasn’t alone. After giving a hilarious and engaging talk, Jesse Brown, co-founder of Bitstrips


joined me in the greenroom and we had a great chat about technology in schools, visual literacy, and the surprising positive side of the partial anonymity that social networking creates. He was awesome!

I also got to chat with Kathy Hibbert who I’ve followed on Twitter for a while and finally got to meet face to face. It was so nice to see that I wasn’t the only nervous one! I wish I’d been able to stick around for her talk but I had to be up early to present at Medway early the next morning.

Did I mention that I finally got to meet Jamie Weir face to face? Read her blog here.


She and the rest of her crew should be very proud.

A huge thanks to Jamie, Rodd, Ben, Kim, Sharon, Colin, and everyone else who worked to make Friday night happen. It was a night I will never forget.

Photo of the Day: TEDxOntarioEd Team

And now, here’s my TEDx talk:

Ning is the Thing: Using web 2.0 technology to encourage higher-level thinking in senior academic English classes

Ning is the Thing:

Using web 2.0 technology to encourage higher-level thinking in senior academic English classes

Danika Barker


Central Elgin Collegiate Instute
Thames Valley District School Board



The purpose of this action research project is to assess the impact of web 2.0 technology on student attitude and engagement in a secondary English classroom. Essentially, the term “web 2.0” refers to technologies that allow people to collaborate, share, and create content anywhere, anytime.  Common examples would be blogs, wikis, Flickr, Facebook, and Google apps. For the purpose of this study, I will look specifically at one type of web 2.0 platform, Ning,  that mimics social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace.


Last year, I had the opportunity to work for our board as a learning coordinator in the area of literacy. I was lucky enough to have the time to read and research about a number of different topics related to literacy, but I was most interested in a report by Kathleen Blake Yancey, called “Writing in the 21st Century,”[1] in which she explores historical attitudes toward writing and how these attitudes have changed over time as a result of changing technology. She goes on to explain that teachers of English need to acknowledge these changes in order to provide students with authentic opportunities for writing that better reflect the kinds of writing they do outside the classroom.

This year, I am back in the classroom at a moderate-sized high school in Elgin County. The school has a reputation for academic achievement, but in recent years, the population has been changing requiring staff to focus more on strategies for student success. I have been assigned grade 11 and 12 university preparation English and grade 12 college preparation English for the first semester of the school year. Although I recognize that my “clientele” are not the most high-needs learners in the school, they have presented me with some interesting challenges in terms of motivation and achievement.

Most of my students are “digital natives”[2] who have grown up with computers, the internet, cell phones, and mp3 players. Approximately 67% of my students have cell phones and 93% of my students have Facebook or Myspace accounts and use them regularly. They do a great deal of reading and writing online, but they have also grown up in a school system that is often suspicious of online technology. Cell phones and mp3 players are banned from most classrooms even though they can be valuable learning tools. Our school currently has a wireless network installed for student use, but students do not yet have access due to concerns regarding security. I know many teachers who are very concerned about our students’ lack of awareness or concern about what they may be revealing about themselves online, but, for a variety of reasons, the response has frequently been to ban, restrict, or filter rather than teach.


My administration have been very supportive of my ideas about technology in the English classroom and scheduled two of my English classes (grade 11 and 12 university preparation) in a computer lab. This resulted in a rather mixed reaction from students on the first day of class. Some students looked thrilled while others looked deeply suspicious and nervous. I have explained to my students that this semester will be an experiment.

While I had access to a huge range of web 2.0 technology thanks to the computer lab, the content that I taught was still restricted as my administration also felt strongly that different sections of the same course should still have the same content and assessment strategies. I found a way to work around this challenge by simply using the technology available to differentiate instruction and assessment. That way, no student was ever penalized for not wishing to use technology.

A typical period of my grade 11 English class looked like this: Students came into class and logged on to their computers. They went first to our class website,, and then followed the link to their class blog, They found instructions and updates and began working while I talked to individual students and completed attendance. Some students then logged off the computer and chose to sit at one of the tables, while others stay logged-on. I conducted a focus lesson on a particular topic and then had a practice assignment, usually in small groups. Students could choose to take a paper copy of the assignment or download the assignment from our class site on Edmodo[3]. We debriefed and then I assigned any individual work at which point students could choose again whether they would work online, or at their desks.

For the purposes of this study, I focused my research on one web 2.0 platform my students use regularly in my grade 11 and 12 classes. Ning is a social networking site similar to Facebook. This site allows students to form groups, add content such as video clips and music, and create discussion forums on topics of their interest. It also has a blog feature. Initially I only planned on using a Ning to support the student study of the novel, The Great Gatsby in my grade 11 class. As students worked with the application, I saw additional benefits and created Nings for a variety purposes in all three of my classes. In the end, I created five different Nings:

Ning Class Purpose
Gatsby Ning ENG3U
  • enrich student understanding of the novel The Great Gatsby by allowing students to research historical context and then share with other students
  • allow students to demonstrate understanding of character through the creation of a “Facebook” page
Othello Ning ENG3U
  • Provide students with a platform to blog as they study the play
Literature Circle Ning ENG4C
  • Extend the discussions that happen in class during our literature circle meetings
Life of Pi Ning ENG4U
  • Extend small group discussions about the novel Life of Pi
Hamlet Ning ENG4U
  • Provide students with a platform to blog as they study the play

When I initially began this project, I wanted to assess the impact of both Edmodo and Ning on student achievement and engagement. I now realize that I based my initial question on an assumption that students would enjoy and be excited by the prospect of using more technology in the English classroom. As I received some “push-back” from students, I was forced to reassess and I came to the conclusion that what I really wanted to know was this: What benefits do students gain through use of web 2.0 technology that they could not achieve through non web 2.0 tasks? Specifically, how does the Ning allow students to use the higher order thinking skills of Bloom’s Taxonomy?[4]



The methodology summarized in this section includes: demographics, research method, data collection, and ethical considerations. The main question in this study is: How does web 2.0 technology allow students to access higher level thinking in their responses to literature?


The study focused on a grade 11 university preparation English class composed of 15 girls and 12 boys. All students had internet access at home, although some had limited access due to dial-up. The physical environment of the classroom was unusual for students and most of them were accustomed to a more “traditional” English classroom with desks and a blackboard. While most of the students spent one to two hours a day outside of class time using computers for socializing, playing games, and occasionally doing homework, some of them had been uncertain and even suspicious about using computers on a regular basis for schoolwork.

Research Method and Data Collection

After experimenting with using the Ning for The Great Gatsby, many students became routine users of the Ning while others remained mechanical users. After they became fairly comfortable with the site, they were presented with an assignment that allowed them to choose to use either the Ning or a more traditional method to complete a character study of one of the characters in The Great Gatsby.

Since the purpose of my study changed over the course of the semester, the initial survey I had students complete asked questions about their attitudes and experiences with technology. As the study evolved I realized that my focus was not so much on attitude but achievement. With that in mind, I collected and examined the work of a selection of students and looked for evidence of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation level thought.

Ethical Considerations

I am aware that some students are uncomfortable with using technology for communication purposes in an English class. While the English curriculum document supports and encourages the use of technology, I wish to be sensitive to the feelings of all of the students in my class. For that reason, technology use is simply another option I provide to students in order to differentiate instruction.

I have also spent time talking to students about how to limit their personal risk when working online. The Ning is only open to students in our class so they are permitted to use their real names. Any samples of student online work used in this study will have surnames deleted to protect privacy.

Data Analysis

I took screen shots of student work on the Ning and then used the following criteria to look for evidence of different levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy in student work. Specifically I focused on analysis, synthesis, and evaluation:

Knowledge * observation and recall of information

* knowledge of dates, events, places

* knowledge of major ideas

* mastery of subject matter

Question Cues:

list, define, tell, describe, identify, show, label, collect, examine, tabulate, quote, name, who, when, where, etc.

Comprehension * understanding information

* grasp meaning

* translate knowledge into new context

* interpret facts, compare, contrast

* order, group, infer causes

* predict consequences

Question Cues:

summarize, describe, interpret, contrast, predict, associate, distinguish, estimate, differentiate, discuss, extend

Application * use information

* use methods, concepts, theories in new situations

* solve problems using required skills or knowledge

Questions Cues:

apply, demonstrate, calculate, complete, illustrate, show, solve, examine, modify, relate, change, classify, experiment, discover

Analysis * seeing patterns

* organization of parts

* recognition of hidden meanings

* identification of components

Question Cues:

analyze, separate, order, explain, connect, classify, arrange, divide, compare, select, explain, infer

Synthesis * use old ideas to create new ones

* generalize from given facts

* relate knowledge from several areas

* predict, draw conclusions

Question Cues:

combine, integrate, modify, rearrange, substitute, plan, create, design, invent, what if?, compose, formulate, prepare, generalize, rewrite

Evaluation * compare and discriminate between ideas

* assess value of theories, presentations

* make choice based on reasoned argument

* verify value of evidence

* recognize subjectivity

Question Cues:

assess, decide, rank, grade, test, measure, recommend, convince, select, judge, explain, discriminate, support, conclude, compare, summarize

Character Study Performance Task

As the project progressed it began to take on a life of its own. In my grade 11 university class, students were given a character study assignment. The purpose of this assignment was for students to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of the characters in The Great Gatsby. I wanted students to have a rich understanding of the characters’ motivations and relationships to other characters as well as their importance to the overall novel so I created a performance task that allowed them to interact in role with other students. In order to provide some differentiation, I gave students two options from which to choose:

Option A required students to imagine that Facebook was around during the time of The Great Gatsby. They could use the Gatsby Ning to create a page for their character complete with status updates, photos, blog posts, groups, etc. More importantly, this assignment allowed them to interact with other “characters” from the novel just as they interacted with their friends on social networking sites.

Option B required students to create a monologue to deliver in role. They also had to create a list of questions for the other characters in the novel. After they preformed the monologue in a small group, other “characters” asked them questions and they took turns responding in role. This assignment still allowed students to interact within role. I recorded these monologues.

I anticipated pros and cons for both assignments. While students had had opportunities to work with the Ning before trying this assignment, they were still mechanical users of the technology. On the other hand, I hypothesized that the fact that students would have more opportunities to read and consider before formulating responses would lead to richer discussion. I suspected that students who chose the monologue might write pieces that demonstrate better factual knowledge of plot and character, but that their responses to the questions might not demonstrate as much ability to apply their knowledge and understanding since they did not have as much processing time as the students working with the ning.

Twenty students chose Option A and seven students chose option B. Three of the students who chose Option B were absent on the day of the assignment which meant that they didn’t have the opportunity to participate in the “interaction” portion of the activity.


I used the same rubric to assess both options, but I found Option A very difficult to assess:

Level 1 Level 2 Level 3 Level 4


Limited understanding of character traits, motivation, relationships with other characters and history (up to the end of chapter 4)

May not contain enough information

Adequate understanding of character traits, motivation, relationships with other characters and history (up to the end of chapter 4) Thorough  understanding of character traits, motivation, relationships with other characters and history (up to the end of chapter 4) Thorough and insightful understanding of character traits, motivation, relationships with other characters and history (up to the end of chapter 4)


Weak communication of ideas and may not  be  appropriate for format chosen and / or may a number of inconsistencies Adequate communication of ideas  appropriate for format chosen may contain inconsistencies with character portrayal from the text Clear communication of ideas  appropriate for format chosen and consistent with character portrayal from the text Sophisticated  communication of ideas  appropriate for format chosen and consistent with character portrayal from the text


Limited transfer of knowledge evident through interactions with other “characters” Some transfer of knowledge evident through interactions with other “characters” Good transfer of knowledge evident through interactions with other “characters” Excellent transfer of knowledge evident through interactions with other “characters”

It was much easier to assess Option B for knowledge and understanding since Option B was a more traditional assignment. Option A was challenging because there were so many different elements that students could include as evidence of their understanding. Because I’d never done an assignment like this before, I couldn’t anticipate the types of evidence students would include. Below is an example of a page that I would use as a level 4 exemplar:


This student chose an appropriate image and page layout for his character. He also had a number of status updates that demonstrated his knowledge and understanding of the character, as did the groups he chose to join.

One of the elements I was most interested in assessing was also the most challenging. It was very time-consuming to track the conversations between students on the Ning because I had to click a number of different links to follow the conversation thread. Below is a composite of the conversation between two students, one acting as Tom Buchanan, the other as Daisy Buchanan:

Daisy Tom

While it was interesting to watch the interactions between the students “role-playing” their different characters, I also found that this particular activity did not allow them to access the more complex levels of thought. Most of the discussion and interaction took place at the Knowledge, Comprehension, and occasionally application levels. When “Tom” replies to “Daisy”: “Because, there is stuff to be done…it is none of your business don’t ask,” it’s clear that the student playing Tom has and understanding of Tom’s character. He is evasive and aggressive and the student is able to respond to “Daisy’s” request using the same tone.

When comparing this interaction to the discussions that happened in the monologues, the Ning conversations did appear to be more “authentic” because students had some time to craft their responses. There was also more of a flow in the conversation in the Ning version. That being said, some of the monologues did a much better job demonstrating knowledge of character than the Ning pages did. I have included an audio file of the conversations that you can listen to by clicking below:

Monologue and questions

While both options worked well, I felt that the Ning could be used in a more effective way which led me to the blogging project for Othello.

Reflective Blog Post Performance Task

The blogging task evolved from a desire to ensure that students would take more ownership for their learning and be aware of the ways in which their initial thoughts and impressions changed as they read Othello. Rather than posing questions for them, I wanted the students to ask their own questions and use their peers (as well as me) as sounding boards and resources. A blog seemed to be a perfect format for that.

To begin, I explained to students that there was a difference between a blog and a journal:

Untitled 2

Some students were anxious about having other students read their work. I encouraged them to share their work and explained why it was important. Then I also showed students who were particularly anxious, that they could adjust the settings on their ning so that only their “friends” could read their posts. “Friends” were people they chose to add as contacts on the ning. Not all classmates were automatically “friends.” While students knew how to use this feature, very few of them made use of it after their first post.

Below is the outline for a level four blog post.


I made use of modeled and shared writing and wrote a blog post with the students and had then provide me with feedback before they were expected to write on their own.

It took some time for students to understand the concepts of tags, hyperlinks, and inserting photographs. I thought it was important to teach appropriate use of technology and show students that they had to give credit to images they found online and that just because it was online, didn’t mean they had permission to copy it.

In the example below, Alex, a student who typically performs in the level three range, blogs about the end of the film adaptation of Othello. He begins by making a personal connection with Emilia. He then uses specific evidence from the film to support his contention that  “the director did an excellent job of showing Emilia’s emotions.” The image supports the post nicely and Alex uses a hyperlink to appropriately reference the image. He has, however, forgotten to use tags to help identify key ideas in his post

Poor, Poor, Emilia. - Othello

While I do not think this post shows a high degree of synthesis, analysis, or evaluation, it is interesting to see what happens in the comment section of the post. The first comment is by a stronger student who is able to add more ideas to Alex’s initial thoughts.  Then Alex considers the comment and responds with the new thought about divorce.[5] There is certainly some synthesis happening here that might not have happened without the comment feature. The comments about Emilia are also interesting because they were not prompted to write about Emilia. This was a topic they found interesting and chose to write about.

The next post was written by a student who performs in the level four range, provided that she finds the task engaging. Blogging seemed to be something she was very comfortable with. She even drew her own images and added them to her blog posts.

Animal - Othello

In this post, Mallory has used clear tags to help other students identify the topics she’s blogged about, specifically the idea of conscience. I find it really interesting that she also chose to include a song that she was listening to that reminded her of the play. She includes a hyperlink to the song in the comment section of her post. What’s missing from this post is a reply to the comment posted by another. It would have been interesting to see what Mallory thought about this idea of conscience. The students are—without prompting from the teacher—beginning to pose very interesting and thought-provoking questions. They are certainly working within the range of syntheses and evaluation.

I find the next example particularly interesting because it comes from a student who usually scored a level two on her assessments. What is interesting is not so much the post itself but the conversation that occurs in the comment box.

Iago Has a change In Plans (good vs Evil) - Othello

The first comment is mine. I occasionally posted questions and prompts to encourage students to extend their conversations. Another student, Ian, jumped in to the conversation and posed a new thought–that Iago is finding that victory isn’t as sweet as he had hoped. Vanessa considers this though and responds which prompts some thoughts from Jesse and Mallory. Jesse, Vanessa, and Ian’s comments cause Mallory to reexamine some initial thoughts she and then draw some conclusions.

Conclusions and Implication for Professional Practice

The value in blogging is not so much the initial post itself, but the conversations that it ignites. The real thinking occurs when students reconsider their initial ideas, change their minds, or come up with new thoughts. A conventional reader’s journal does not allow students to do this because the journal response is the finished product, whereas a blog is organic. The comment feature encourages collaboration and deeper consideration.

The tagging feature allowed students to classify their ideas. Then other students who shared similar interests could see all the posts on that particular topic which would be a great way to have students brainstorm for a culminating task such as an essay.

In the future, I would emphasize the importance of blogging at regular intervals. Some students left all their posts until the end of the unit and missed out on the “conversations” and didn’t get to see their ideas develop of change. I would also work harder on modeling the difference between a level two or three comment and a level four. Students put much more emphasis on the original posts than they did on the comment portion. I would also make this project a stepping stone to a culminating task where students used the tags to develop ideas for an essay, debate, seminar.

It would also be interesting to collaborate with students from other classes and indeed other schools. I have been experimenting with ning in my media class where my students are commenting on the blog posts of students in a different school in a town two hours away. I think this piece of web 2.0 technology presents teachers and students with very exciting and rich opportunities to learn collaboratively while encouraging students to think reflectively.

[1] Yancey, Kathleen Blake. “Writing in the 21st Century: a report from the National

Council of Teachers of English” February, 2009.

[2] The term “digital natives” popularized in the paper “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” by         Marc Prensky in 2001. Recently, David White, a social/educational media researcher at            Oxford University has argued that we should instead talk about “digital residents” and           “digital visitors,” but for the purposes of this paper, “digital native” will serve as a more      accessible if less accurate term.

[3] Edmodo is a social networking site that is specifically developed for teachers and students. They can post assignments, questions, and notes as well as submit assignments.

[4] Specifically, I wondered if I would see more analysis, synthesis, and evaluation level   thinking in the responses on student blogs.

[5] It’s also interesting to note the time of the responses. Neither of these responses happened during class time. Students continued conversations begun in class on their own time outside of class.

Digital Natives?

“Digital natives” “the Net Generation”… these are terms I hear a lot. I’m on Twitter and Facebook. I blog. I text. I create content and upload it on a regular basis. I’m not online constantly, but I do feel a need to stay connected, and I get excited about the possibilities for sharing and collaborating that exist because of web 2.0. I keep reading that this is what my students do too. It’s what they want from teachers. So when I was planning for this year, I thought about how I could make my teaching more representative of the world they experience outside the classroom. I thought about authentic writing tasks. I thought about anywhere anytime learning and created blogs and edmodo classes. I even started to think about how to use cell phones in the classroom. My new principal was so excited by this that she scheduled 2 of my senior academic English classes in a computer lab! I was so psyched! I even made a funky intro movie for my classes.

And then, at the end of my first class on the first day, it happened. A polite and friendly student said to me, “Um, it’s kinda weird being in a computer lab for English.”

My heart started to race a bit as it does when I get anxious.

“Weird good? Or weird bad?” I asked hopefully.

She smiled, not wishing to offend. “Kind of weird bad. Like, it’s English class. I don’t really think there’s a need for technology.”

My heart sunk. Literally. I found it in my left shoe at lunch.

Now I know, I know. It was just one student. I know some of them were as psyched as I was. But I got the impression from a number of them that this idea of a 21st century English class was just as threatening for them as it must be for some teachers. I really didn’t expect that.

It made me wonder. Where is this coming from? My current theory is that most students probably are digital natives. I’m not sure they’re as savvy as we’d like them to be, but most of them are comfortable using technology (that’s what they told me on the survey anyway). But I think that some of them have gotten the message from parents and teachers that technology is bad. It’s a distraction. It’s a toy. It’s something you ban. It doesn’t have a place in a serious academic classroom (maybe?). And these students are the “good” students–academic, disciplined, polite, respectful. They really listen to the messages they get from adults. And they’ve gotten the message that this is bad.

I’ve had to change my mindset about technology in the English classroom. Instead of it being the expectation, it is an option. It is another way for me to differentiate my instruction. They don’t have to post comments on the blog (but I wish they would). They don’t have to submit assignments on edmodo (but it’s usually more convenient that way). I’ve told them I never want to get an angry phone call from a parent saying, “You told my son he HAD to submit his assignments online.” It’s an option.

It’s so strange for me because, yes I’m interested in technology, but I’m doing this because I thought it would be good for the students. I thought they would prefer to learn this way. I thought I was making life easier for them–not harder.

Sigh. It’s still early. And I think some of them are coming around. The girl who spoke to me on the first day made a wordle and shared it with her classmates via edmodo. That’s kind of weird good.