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. 

Most.Shocking.Rose.Ceremony.Ever!, will you accept this rose?

It’s really hard to think about leaving my beloved Nings. Especially since they are so comfortable. But really I have to be realistic here. I can’t afford Ning Plus at $24.99 a month and even if Pearson finally agrees to sponsor my Nings (apparently they’re experiencing a high number of requests. Duh.), I will no longer have access to chat or groups. Also I’d have to moderate every blog post before they appear, and while some teachers may want that, I don’t. is not quite as slick and the kids can’t personalize their profile pages to the same extent that they could on Ning but it’s still pretty good. I’ve had a couple problems migrating my data but they’ve been very quick to respond and very helpful

But I have a confession….

And now we go to commercial.

Just kidding!

Here’s my confession: I will be cheating on with Ning. Truth be told, as exciting as the new guy is, there’s something warm and fuzzy and comfortable about Ning. As Royan so aptly pointed out it’s like I broke up with the perfect boyfriend and now I keep comparing each new guy to him.

Seriously, though, I would like to stay with Ning only because all my stuff’s already there and yes I know I can migrate to, but I already know how to use Ning and I can speak about it with a fair degree of confidence. The problem of course is that while I applied to have all my Nings sponsored by Pearson, I’ve only heard back about one. Ning says that they’re dealing with a high number of requests so I have to be patient. I’ll bet. They say:

If you already submitted a question or issue but haven’t received a response yet, please be patient. We are working as fast as we can to get to your ticket. Submitting the same question multiple times will slow our team down. If your question is related to a sponsorship or billing, please rest assured that we won’t shut down any networks after the August 20 deadline until we’ve responded to your tickets.

Okay.  So I will use for my media class and continue using my Nings for my grade 12 English classes. It isn’t absolutely essential to have chat for my two other classes and it also isn’t absolutely essential that they create subgroups for their book clubs since I want them to look at all the blogs, not just the ones on their books. I’ll just be a little more strict about use of tags. If for some reason Pearson won’t sponsor them I’ll just move over to

So that’s the plan. Two roses. You’ll never see that on The Bachelorette.

As a side note, @markhowe1982 told be about Schoology which I checked out. I think it would be absolutely ideal for teachers who are not techies and have no desire to spend hours geeking out with a new toy. Schoology was super simple to set up. It doesn’t have a bunch of bells and whistles but it’s got blogs, groups, and you can also post assignments and grades (among a few other things). In some ways it reminds me of Edmodo, but Edmodo doesn’t have a blog feature.

Ning alternative speed dating


When we last left our hero…

You may have been following my on again off again love affair with Ning. Before Ning announced that it was getting rid of its free social networks I signed on to do two workshops/talks on Ning’s applications for the secondary English classroom. Imagine my embarrassment and consternation with Ning made its big announcement. Well there was a lot of shock and dismay in the Twitterverse and Ning came back announcing that Pearson would sponsor free educator accounts. So naturally I jumped right on it and applied.

Where I’m at right now…

I have six Nings that I’ve created and LOVE. I applied to have them all sponsored but I’ve only heard back about one of them which leaves me a little anxious since I won’t be able to use the other ones after August 20 unless Ning and Pearson agree to sponsor them. I’d really like to stick with Ning if at all possible but the free educator mini version doesn’t allow me to create groups, which means that it doesn’t work as well for book clubs. It also no longer has a chat feature, which is not a huge deal for me, but it’s disappointing. In addition, if it takes this long for Ning and Pearson to respond about whether or not they will sponsor my site, I don’t know how many teachers will be game to try it. So I’m currently test-driving some alternatives:

Ning Alternatives: I’m going to use a completely unscientific rating system to assess these sites. One star is gross; five stars is “just as nice as Ning if not better.” I’ll basically be comparing the sites to the things I like about Ning. Fair? Maybe not, but it works for me.

Bachelor #1:

Look: ****Lots of nice templates to choose from.

Ease of set-up and use: ** It’s pretty complicated. I’m sure if I gave it time it would become easier but there are just so many different variables and settings.

Member Profile Pages: ** Meh. You can add text boxes that allow html so I guess it could look engaging and have interesting features.

Blogability: ** The site does have different types of pages including a blog page but as far as I can tell it doesn’t allow members to have their own blogs. They all just post to the same blog, which isn’t really what I’m going for.

Features and apps: **Most of the features seem to come in the form of different types of pages you can add. They’re okay. You can upload pictures, video, and have background music on the pages but what my students really liked was how they could customize their profile pages on our ning. Webs doesn’t have much of that.

Ads: * Pretty bad. I know that’s how these sites make money, but some of the ads that come up would be very distracting to students. One of them was for a free role playing video game site and it played obnoxious music. Not cool.

School Appropriateness: * You can choose “Schools” as a category for your site which is a good sign. Members can’t be under 13, which is pretty standard. I’m finding the privacy settings a little tricky to figure out which concerns me. It doesn’t look like I can make the site privately viewable  which means code names and hyper vigilance.

Ning Migration: Negative.

Overall: Don’t think it’s for me. Good option though if someone’s looking to set up a free website I guess.

Bachelor #2: Grouply

Look: **** Pretty nice and customizable while being simple but it’s not as nice as Ning or Webs

Ease of set-up and use: **** Since I can import from Ning, it’s pretty easy. It even kept my bookclub groups and imported them as subgroups.

Member Profile Pages: ***A little better than Webs but still not as cool as Ning.

Blogability: ** Like Webs. You can blog but it all goes to the same blog.

Features and apps: *** I’m not blown away or anything but it does have groups and a chat feature which can be moderated. That’s pretty cool.

Ads:*** All Google ads and they’re not offensive and not too distracting.

School Appropriateness: ** It would appear that Grouply members can search for other Grouply members based on similar interests, etc. This worries me because I liked that with Ning I could ensure that students’ profiles would not be visible to people who weren’t members of our group. When I joined as “Jane Barker” before I had a chance to set my privacy settings I already had two friend requests from people I don’t know. I don’t like that. Anyone can search for me using any part of my name and they would see my profile picture and name even although not my profile. So that means code names again and strict lessons about not adding friends who you don’t know.

You basically create a Grouply identity apart from the group site. In Ning, the profile only exits within this site.

Ning Migration: ***** Yes.

Overall: I need to check out the privacy concerns a little more. Maybe I’m just missing something. Because this would be a pretty good alternative other than that BIG issue.

Next up:

Bachelor #3:

Bachelor #4: Buddy Press

To be continued…

Time to start seeing other people?


Sometimes when you’re getting a little too cocky and pleased with yourself (see previous two posts) the universe decides to come along and give you a good old slap upside the head.

My slap upside the head came in the form of Marc Andreesen’s recent announcement that Ning would be discontinuing its free networks. This resulted in a veritable “twit-storm” (did I just coin a new Twitter word?) of activity, including a #bitemening hashtag and a Google Doc from the awesome Alec Couros
with some Ning alternatives.

I have created six different nings that I use throughout the school year with my English classes. My students LOVE them and I feel like I’m just tapping into the potential of this social networking platform. There’s no way I’ll be able to afford the premium account price of $20 a month for all my nings. Even if I just kept one per class and modified them, I’m still looking at $60 per month, and that would be out of pocket. Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand companies need to make a profit and if Ning’s current business model isn’t profitable, they need to make some changes but… but…

Ugh, I’m so disappointed. That’s all.

I was just getting some teachers really excited about the possibilities of using Ning in the classroom and now I know many of them will be frustrated and unwilling to try if they find out they’re going to have to pay.

I really hope that Ning will follow the lead of other companies like Wikispaces by providing free educator’s accounts, because I don’t want to have to stop using this amazing product.

So lesson learned. I’ll probably be a little more cautious next time before embracing “the next big thing”.

Here are some of the alternatives I’m just starting to explore if I have to give up on Ning:

  • kind of similar to Ning, and promises to stay “free”. But I’m bitter and jaded now.
  • Google groups-This looks okay, but my kids really like how similar Ning is to Facebook and this just doesn’t look similar enough.  I can’t tell if students can create their own profile pages.
  • This gives me hope. It has more of the look my students like.
  • SocialGo Looks pretty appealing too.
  • Yuku Very cute! But it doesn’t seem like there are many features available in the free version. Also some of the features don’t look very school appropriate.

So the good news is, there are lots of options out there. The bad news is, who knows if they’ll suffer the same fate as Ning. For me, it’s not really a big deal to switch (provided that the alternatives give me the same kinds of features) because I’d be starting from scratch at the beginning of the next school year anyway. I’d just take some screen shots for exemplars. I hope to participate in Steve Hargadon’s Elluminate discussion this Tuesday on Ning. I’m sure there are lots of good ideas out there!

But if Ning were willing to provide educator accounts for free, or even for a $10/year per site cost, they’d keep my loyalty. I still think they have an awesome product.

I still love you, Ning I just think I may have to start seeing other people.

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.

A little anonymity can be a beautiful thing


But not too much!

This semester, I’m teaching media for the first time. To say that I love it would be an understatement. I am indebted to my friend Andrew for his wonderful lesson plans. To say that he loves this course would also be an understatement. I’m also working collaboratively with Jamie Weir, a fantastic and innovative teacher in Listowel,Ontario. While our courses are not identical, we are flexible and I liken the our collaboration to jazz improvisation. The coolest part about our collaboration is that our students are members of a ning and a wiki where they are able to connect and share ideas.

And now to get to the subject of this post: Anonymity. In order to participate on the ning, students need to display the same level of respect and civility that we require them to display in class. Now, I don’t want to jinx myself, but so far so good. In fact, when I read the comments students write on each others’ blogs, I’m pleasantly surprised to find that they are not just civil and polite, but kind and friendly. I know that there is a common belief that the anonymity (or false sense of anonymity) provided by the internet promotes bullying and other types of antisocial behaviour. All you have to do is check out a youtube post or an online version of a newspaper article to see that.

On the other hand, a little anonymity can be a good thing because while students know that their comments are being tracked by their teachers, they also seem to be more willing to take positive risks that they may not take face to face. See the exchange below between a student in my class and students in Ms. Weir’s class (I’ve blanked out last names and faces).

ning comments

It’s funny to me that they’re discussing (among other things) the idea that technology creates a barrier to connections and yet without technology, they’d likely have never had this discussion.That seems like a nice note to end on.

Reflections on this semester’s love affair with technology

Othello wordle

I could use the extended metaphor of a torrid romance with a sexy bad boy to describe my experience with technology this semester, but that might a bit overblown and, some might argue, a product of my students’ obsession with Team Edward vs. Team Jacob. Zombies are also trendy right now, but I don’t think brain is equipped to fashion that metaphor right now.

So, let’s get to it.

As I finish up this semester I’ve had some hits and misses. If you’ve read some of my other posts this year (and I know, they have been few and far between. New school, new challenges, new excuses), you’ll know that I approached my classes with year with a kind of outlook that can only be described as naively optimistic. I saw rainbows and puppy dogs everywhere I looked. I assumed my students would be putty in my hands because they were digital natives and I GOT them. So, in summary:

Stumbling blocks:

  • I didn’t consider that other members of the staff might resent the fact that two English classes were scheduled in a computer lab every day when access to computer labs is already at a premium. Not my fault, but it didn’t really matter.
  • Although my students are digital natives, they were not all tech-savvy
  • Although most of my students use social networking sites and web 2.0 apps on a regular basis, a number of them balked at using these tools for educational purposes
  • Many students were opposed to sharing their work (even though many of them are okay with showing inappropriate pictures on facebook!)
  • Some of my students have adopted anti-technology positions in, what I can only assume is, a desire to please authority figures who condemn technology as frivolous or non-academic.
  • Paper: I still need paper for some things, and for some reason I feel like I’m being judged as a bad teacher if my students don’t have any paper handouts. I’m working on it.
  • Oh, and apparently I adopt every new tool that interests me.

Now, for the good news:

  • Some of my students changed their minds. I had a student tell me that initially, he was “creeped-out” by edmodo, because he didn’t really understand what it was. He is a thoughtful cautious student who has taken to heart all the warnings about the dangers of posting too much information about yourself online. As the student learned that social networking sites can be leveraged for positive purposes, he came to love edmodo because he found that he could access assignments and send me messages using a tool he was already using (um, that’s the internet if you’re wondering. Or the “the infornet” as my mother-in-law calls it).  Edmodo has been a huge success. It’s eliminated a great deal of paper–not to mention excuses.
  • Ning: I used Ning for a number of different purposes. At first I didn’t really know how I’d use it (I’m finishing my action research project on this and I’ll post it soon so I won’t go into great detail here), but eventually the most significant use became blogging. Some of my students were skeptical about the Ning at first, but their work stands for itself. They shared and read ideas they would have never otherwise encountered. They also reached much deeper levels of synthesis and analysis because their posts were not “published pieces” in a traditional sense.
  • My website and class blog. I did a pretty good job of updating my class blogs on a daily basis. Now when I scroll back through my posts, I have a wonderful series of snapshots of my semester. It’s fantastic. I never managed to update my “daybook” or planner the way I’ve kept my blog up to date.

In the immortal words of Joss Whedon, “Where do we go from here?” (Oh, Buffy, how I miss you)

  • I’m going to use Ning even more, and try to do even more with student blogging now that I have evidence that supports its effectiveness.
  • Edmodo: I need to do more training at the beginning of the semester so that students use edmodo properly. (How to submit an assignment vs. how to send a link)
  • Use less paper. I can do it!
  • Bring in Diigo. Love Diigo, but didn’t really get a chance to try it.

I think that’s plenty for now. I’ll keep you posted.

I promise.

No really!