Friday, May 22, 2020

Using informational text (and technology!) to help our students make sense of this strange time

Many of us are feeling fairly Zoomed out these days, but there are still those worthwhile virtual meet-ups that rejuvenate our spirits and spark new ideas. Our conversation this week about using informational texts to help our students and ourselves make sense of this strange time was definitely one of those worthy gatherings.

Our conversation focused on four primary themes/takeaways: 1) focusing on purpose and relevance; 2) fostering student engagement; 3) keeping things simple; and 4) being mindful about the difference between online and offline reading.

We started our conversation by talking about a documentary, “Most Dangerous Ways to School: Nicaragua,” that one of our participants was using with her 9th grade English students. Susan asked the teacher how she planned to assess student engagement while they watched the documentary. She said she had already received some informal responses from students about the video, but she was still thinking about what kind of writing to ask the students to produce after viewing. Susan asked what she wanted students to come away with after watching the video. The teacher responded that she wanted them to gain a greater perspective about the kinds of hardships some students around the world face in just getting to school everyday and possibly to compare those conditions to their own, either during the coronavirus quarantine or in general. Susan agreed that a comparative personal narrative, perhaps drawing upon 2-3 specific details from the video made sense. She stressed that during this time it is especially important to focus on purpose and relevance and to streamline assignments and assessments based on what is most essential as we close out this strange school year.

Susan also asked the teacher if she planned to use any tools like edPuzzle or Flipgrid that would facilitate student responses to and engagement with the video. This is where we were especially grateful that our friend Michele Haiken had joined us. She explained the different uses of the two tools: edPuzzle works well with short videos and embeds questions during the videos, while FlipGrid gives students the opportunity to respond via video.

Susan shared an edPuzzle Audrey had created for their unit on consent connected to Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel Speak. The edPuzzle featured several multiple-choice questions embedded in the short, animated video about understanding consent.

Michele then shared her screen to show us how she recently used Flipgrid to get students to respond to a multimedia unit she had built around The Diary of Anne Frank , which included 1) reading book, 2) reading or seeing the play, 3), taking a virtual tour of the Secret Annex (through the Anne Frank Museum), and possibly perusing related material on Google Arts and Culture. Her prompt for all this was quite simple: How can we take inspiration from Anne Frank during this time of isolation?

Michele also talked about using a weekly video to lay out instructions and goals for the week. And she is using Anchor to record herself reading aloud for students in a private podcast, a nice tool that brings her presence into her students’ worlds while also ensuring all students at least auditory access to the text.

Audrey then shared how she has used Perusall, a social annotation tool, to foster engagement among her college students as they navigate reading in isolation without as much classroom support. With Perusall, the instructor can add specific questions for response or the students can simply annotate on their own. The nice aspect of this tool is that it allows students to participate in a community conversation as they are reading. They can indicate questions (and upvote questions they share) and they can respond to or upvote responses they find useful. Responses can also include images and links. There’s even a computer-generated grading tool, so that instructors can assign a score to the annotation work, and easy analytics to note who is responding frequently and substantively.

Despite our excitement about the many tools available, especially right now, we all agreed that keeping things simple is the best course of action for both our students and ourselves. For Michele, this means using the same four tools. For Susan, this meant going back to GoogleDocs to create a guided reading template for a recent New York Times editorial about leadership in a crisis (which you are welcome to copy and use!) that could be shared with students so that they could add responses to the reading prompts and/or annotations via comment, which their classmates could also see and add to (similar to what Audrey did with Perusall).

Susan also mentioned a conversation she had recently with a teacher about a Using Informational Text to Teach The Great Gatsby unit. She explained that she encouraged the teacher to think about her purpose, given the rapidly approaching end of the school year, and streamline the unit according to her instructional goals. For instance, instead of having the whole class read both articles in the unit, she could assign one to half the class and have them read and discuss it in a breakout room on Zoom or GoogleMeet and then have them present their article to the class.

Michele, however, cautioned that we need to be mindful about the difference between reading in print and online and that we need to tailor our expectations for reading during remote learning. She advocated presenting smaller chunks of reading and streamlining reading assignments overall.

In response, Audrey echoed Michele (and the Anne Frank unit) in noting the importance of giving students a variety of choices and not (inadvertently or otherwise) shutting down options students might want to pursue about a topic, whether it be producing a creative response or following up on a particular aspect of a subject, through links or multimedia.

As should be evident from the above, we had a great time during this inspiring and energizing conversation. Our only regret is that we didn’t quite have enough people to do our beloved vocab skits, which we think would be easy and fun to do using the breakout rooms in Zoom. If you and a few of your colleagues and/or teacher friends would like to schedule such a conversation with us either before the end of the school year, or over the summer, please feel free to reach out to us at usinginfotext at

Stay well, everyone!

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