Crowdsourcing a Lesson Plan

I would really have preferred to title this blog post “Pimp my Lesson Plan” but then I figured it might be considered inappropriate by those who are not familiar with this particular usage of the word “pimp.” If you’re still confused see “Pimp my Ride.”

Anyhow, so yesterday I started teaching my grade 12s about different schools of literary criticism, beginning with Reader Response.  I always feel like I need to do a really good job of explaining the purpose behind literary criticism right at the beginning of the unit. In the past, I’ve used analogies. Here’s the analogy I used to use:

That works, but this time I wanted to try something a little different, so instead, before I even started discussing literary criticism, I had two students come up to the front of the room and close their eyes. Then I gave each of them an object to hold and describe. One student got this:

while the other got this:

Then I asked them to describe the objects while keeping their eyes closed. As you might expect, they focused on the tactile features of the object. The matryoshka doll was hard and smooth and the student even felt the ridges of paint. The boa was light, soft, and flexible. Then I had the students open their eyes and describe the objects. This time the doll was “feminine, colourful, curvy” and the boa was … well … “red” (upon reflection the boa wasn’t the best choice). The point was that the object didn’t change, just their perception of what was important about that object. I explained that when we study a text, our perception of what is important about it changed depending on the lens we use to view it. These different lenses are different schools of literary criticism.

Then I went on to the slide with the cat. After that, I did a four corners exercise where I presented statements that either represented a “reader response” attitude toward literature, or the complete opposite. Students decided to what extent they agreed or disagreed with the statements and explained their reasons.

Finally, we did a short note explaining some of the key features of reader response theory.

In short, I’m happy with this, but I’d like to know what you’d do with it to make it better. I guess what I’m asking is, will you pimp my lesson plan?

My Toaster is Broken: An Analogy About the Current State of Education

smoking toaster

It makes a terrible cup of coffee.

I put the coffee in the toaster, pour in some water and push the lever down and then I get sparks, and smoke and, well, really gross coffee. My toaster is just terrible. It needs to work harder. Each day I try something new. I jostle the level, play around with the settings, vary the timing and the amount of water, but it still produces terrible results.When I compare the coffee my toaster makes to the coffee I get at Starbucks, it’s really quite frightening.

My point, patient readers, is that my fictitious toaster dilemma is (in my opinion) analogous to the current state of education in North America (And I must give credit to Melanie McBride for using the toaster analogy one night–although I think we were discussing a different issue). I haven’t seen “Waiting for Superman” yet, and I’m not sure I can handle it because, as a teacher, I’m feeling a bit fragile at the moment. Based on what I’ve read about this documentary, it identifies a number of problems with the American education system, including the opinions that raising test scores are a top priority and teachers just aren’t trying hard enough.

Even if I’m wrong and the documentary doesn’t suggest these points, they’re certainly not points we in education haven’t heard before. School improvement plans are consistently tied to standardized test scores, and teachers consistently get the message that they’re just not cutting it.

Just to clarify, teachers are not toasters in this analogy, but they’re part of the toaster. The toaster is our current education paradigm, and we desperately need a paradigm shift. Don’t believe me? Ask Sir Ken Robinson. He’s much more persuasive because he’s a “Sir” and has a clever British accent.

We’re working within an educational model that hasn’t changed much since the 19th century and was never designed to get all students to excel; it was designed to create factory workers with basic literacy and numeracy skills who could follow orders. We’ve got an educational model that was designed to produce well… toast!

Should we expect teachers to work hard? Absolutely. I don’t believe in dwelling helplessly on things that are out of our control. BUT, if you’re going to go talking trash about my toasters er colleagues, I’m going to come out swinging.


bring_it_onHere we go again folks. I feel the reassuring surge of confidence knowing that I feel completely unprepared for another school year, and I always feel completely unprepared for another school year, and somehow everything goes just fine.

I have had my requisite anxiety dreams: One featuring a former student named Rusty–a student whom I have not thought about in probably five years. And one involving being very very very late for school and doing something inappropriate.

I have purchased new shoes. Boots actually. Knee-high cowboy-inspired boots. Change is good.

I think I know what I’ll be wearing on the first day but that may change if this super hot humid weather keeps up.

I have been to Staples to buy new pens. Unfortunately, they don’t have my see-through plastic envelopes that I like to keep assignments in. I have some left over but they’re not in good shape. This is causing me some anxiety.

I have read the new books that are going to be added to our 4U English course. I am so psyched to be able to offer Three Day Road as a literature circle novel choice! (EEEE!) And I think I’ve figured out how the short stories and essays will function as mentor texts for the literature circle novels. This was no small feat. I hope to write out the unit plan somehow and share it, although there’s all this overlap so it’s very complicated.

I’ve got my welcome movies completed. Just need to update the website.

Really. If I fell through a wormhole and tomorrow suddenly became the first day of school, I’d be fine. Sure…. That’s what I’ll keep telling myself.

Which Teacher Archetype Are You?

So the school year’s over and I was having a funny conversation with a colleague about teachers in the media and I thought, this would make the perfect Facebook-esque quiz. And thus, I give you “Which Teacher Archetype Are You?”

1) Your philosophy on teaching:

A. Students  just need to read and experience good poetry and listen to my quirky speeches and jump around on desks and they’ll be just fine.

B. Philosophy? Let me tell you about my philosophy on teaching. Back in my day, you sat in your desk, you copied down what was on the board, and you didn’t ask questions. If you’re not learning in my class, there’s something wrong with you, not with me.

C. Oh, gosh, my philosophy? Well, I could go on for hours but based on my two years in the public school system, I can safely say that all you really have to do to be a good teacher is be a good person. Care. Listen. Give gifts. 95% of the teachers at my school are bitter angry old people who hate students. That’s the reason why students aren’t successful. Also, if you only teach one class a semester and all your students are played by 30 year olds, you’ll be fine.

D: My philosophy is constantly evolving because I’m still learning and hope to continue to learn. Basically I think that in order to be a good teacher I need to model a life-long love of learning. If I want my students to be open to new ideas I have to be open to new ideas. If I want my students to take risks, I have to take risks.

2) What is your approach to classroom management?

A. I don’t have any classroom management issues. It’s probably because I’m so darn entertaining compared to the other teachers on staff. Seriously, have you heard the impressions I do?  Basically I model the same disdain for authority my students wish they could express so they know I’m on their side. It’s us against the world!

B. You need to show them who’s boss. Don’t smile ’til Christmas. I find public humiliation is an effective deterrent. Sure, they may never contribute to the class in a meaningful way ever again, but at least they’re quiet. Writing lines on the board is good too. Or standing with your nose in the corner. Or the strap. We can’t use that any more? Pity.

C. Well, first I show them my wicked cool karate moves to establish street cred. Then I smile lots. Um…. I buy them stuff. I’m not really sure why a student would want to be mean to me anyway. I’m the only teacher who cares about them.

D. Compassion is important, but you also have to establish rules that are consistent and fair. Always give students a chance to save face. Never make it personal.

3) What do you do when you’re not teaching?

A. I think of great new stand-up routines so I can continue to be worshiped by my audience–er–students. I don’t really do lesson planning, I just go where the spirit takes me.

B. Drink. And talk to my cat.

C. When I’m not teaching? Oh well, I’ve taken on a second job to supply my classroom with the things my students need. I know I should probably spend more time with my family but I’m a good teacher and good teachers sacrifice things like family in order to help their students.

D. When I’m not teaching, I’m prepping new lessons, doing professional reading, and attending workshops. But I also have a life outside teaching. I run. I do yoga. I take my kids to soccer practice and I like to watch movies with my partner.

4) What do you think of technology in the classroom?

A. What do you mean? Like an overhead projector?

B. Technology? Ha! That’s what’s wrong with kids today. They’ve got their Mybook and their Facespace and their Atari game systems and it’s rotting their brains. They have no appreciation for rote memorization.

C. Sure! Technology’s great! Anything that helps me prove that I get my kids is great! It’s expensive though, so I’ll probably have to take on a third job to buy them all iPod touches.

D. It depends on what you’re using technology for. You need to be purposeful and mindful about why you are using any teaching tool whether it’s a computer or a black board.

5) Describe your approach to fashion.

A. Tweed jackets, elbows patched with corduroy.

B. I’ve worn the same clothes since 1975 and they still fit me. Ha!

C. Whatever the kids are wearing. That way they’ll know I’m cool.

D. I should never be confused with one of my students, but the level of formality kind of depends on the school.

6) What’s the best part about being a teacher?

A. Having a rapt audience who soak up everything you say like little sponges and then parrot it back to you. It’s so rewarding!

B. July and August.

C. Getting a movie deal and speaking gigs.

D. It doesn’t happen all the time, but every once in a while you have actual evidence that you’ve made some kind of a difference in a student’s life. That’s an awesome feeling.

Now total your results and check your archetype below:

Mostly As:

mr-keatingMr. Keating: Authority be damned! You laugh in the face of authority! You also show disdain for health and safety standards as is evidenced by this photograph. Your classroom is your stage, and your students are your audience, and if they don’t agree with your particular brand of eccentricity, you’ll win them over with wacky voices until they break. You’ve probably never looked at a curriculum document, and if you have, you ripped out the frontispiece and then used it as a coaster for your coffee mug.

Mostly Bs

Mrs-Edna-Krabappel-01-The-SimpsonsEdna Krabappel: If this is you, please, please, please do your students a favour and quit now. Actually that plea goes for many of the archetypes on this ridiculous quiz. You long for the days when teaching involved dunce caps, writing lines on the board, corporal punishment, and general humiliation with impunity.  You wear your skirt/pants hiked up much higher than is acceptable even by fashion standards of 1983 and you still don’t understand why there’s a no smoking rule in the staff room. Teaching seemed like a sweet gig to you because of the summers off but then you realized you’d have to deal with kids all day and you don’t actually like those. Oh well. Thank goodness for a strong union.

Mostly Cs

1995-Dangerous-Minds-036Louanne Johnson/ Erin Gruwell (or at least their movie counterparts): Sure, at first you were naive and you overdressed for your first day of teaching, but if all teachers could just be like you, the world would be a better place. You’ve been teaching for less than a year, but you have more insight in your baby finger than the rest of the staff at your school put together, because you get your students. You actually care about them, unlike everyone else on staff. Right? In fact, you care about your students so much, you will show complete disregard for professional boundaries. You will take a second job so you can afford to bribe your students with trips and chocolate bars. And you divorce your husband–if that’s what it takes–because you just love your students so so so much. And also you will quit teaching in a year or two to go on speaking tours, because let’s face it: No human being can sustain that level of intensity for more than two years.

Mostly Ds

madmen_iconNormal, well-adjusted, professional teacher: I’m afraid to say that you will probably never have a movie made about you, but that’s probably because you realize that what’s important is whether or not your students learn in your classroom and whether or not you treat each student equitably, and that you are accountable to parents, colleagues, and administration. You work hard every day, and continue to learn new strategies. You are reflective about your professional practice. You are a team player. You know you are accountable to all your students, and you can’t reach all of them all the time, and that doesn’t mean they get edited out of your story. You have to find a way to deal. You know that balance between your professional and private life is difficult to achieve, but important because you can’t be a good teacher if you are not a whole person.

Have a great summer, all you normal, professional, well-adjusted teachers out there. Enjoy your time off! Lord knows, you’ve earned it!

If you liked this post, you might also like Top Ten Things I Learned about Teaching from the Movies


water lilyPhoto credit

Today was the last day of classes, and frankly, it was pretty anticlimactic. I had a couple unpleasant encounters with students that made me forcefully remind myself that I am not a bad teacher, but I didn’t exactly bring my A game today, and neither did a couple of them. That’s okay. We’re all human.

So now it’s time to reflect back on the year that was.

I was so terrified in September that I’d made a horrible mistake choosing not to reapply for my learning coordinator position. I missed my friends at the board office; I missed my friends at my old school, and I felt like an outsider at my new school. I’ve never been very good at making friends and I pretty much buried myself in my work for the first few months. Now I work out with a group of teachers after school, and I’ve gotten to know the lovely ladies with whom I share a cramped and woefully unairconditioned office. And I’m delighted to find out that the other half of my brain, Heather, will be working in the same town as me next year. Look out St. Thomas!

If I were to chart my highs and lows over the year, you’d see a big spike of anticipation and enthusiasm at the end of August that started to fall quite shockingly in September. Then it began inching its way back up in December, only to plunge down again in February. Now, I’m riding pretty high. The ideas I was so enthusiastic about last summer have now been validated and I’ve learned that although it was the immediate gratification of being in the classroom I missed last year, the best things that happened to me took a long time to come to fruition.

I don’t want to run the risk of duplicating the ideas I wrote about in my end of semester blog post, so instead I’ll keep it short and sweet and say ditto. And then some.

I made some mistakes this year, and I still have a lot to learn, but I am excited to continue the journey.

Thank you to everyone in my PLN for your support this year. And thanks especially to my friends and family, particularly my dad who sent me a text last week saying “I always say my biggest contribution to education is you.” That’s awesome.

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.