Category Archives: Technology

Accept No Substitute

Thinking about adding a new trick to your teaching repertoire this year? Read on…

This strategy addresses a question that every teacher has asked him or herself at some point: how do I get my students to be productive, respectful, and engaged when there’s a substitute teacher in charge? I often get frustrated with a couple scenarios that frequently play themselves out when I need to miss a day in my classroom because of a training or professional development day.

Scenario 1: The substitute teacher assigned to my classroom is an excellent educator who follows through by working with the scheduled lesson. Students generally behave, but still take advantage of an opportunity to put forth minimal effort and turn in shoddy work.

Scenario 2: The substitute teacher lacks the content knowledge and/or management skills to execute the lesson, or may not even be too concerned with what the kids are doing as long as mayhem isn’t occuring. Students leave the room discombobulated, do not bother to turn in work, and don’t even seem to know what the assignment was by the following day.

Too often, it seems that students–even the ones who are normally dynamic and just generally awesome–morph into apathetic, learning-resistant slobs when a sub is in charge. So what to do? While I certainly cannot claim to have solved this debacle completely, I can share a slightly offbeat strategy that I tried last year. I call it “ghost teaching.” It requires a sense of humor, a little prep work, and a good relationship with your students. And it works better than anything else I’ve attempted when it comes to getting students to pay attention and do great work, even in my absence.

My conceptual framework behind the ghost teaching strategy is that I want my students to feel as if I’m there in class with them, even if I’m not. Now, at this point in time you may be thinking, “Control freak alert!” But hear me out. I truly believe that the teacher sets the tone, creates the atmosphere, and defines the expectations for every day in class. Students become accustomed to the specific “auras” of their teachers, and respond to them. When this aura is done well, it can be a very positive, motivational force. The point of ghost teaching is to keep that atmosphere consistent, even when the teacher misses a day. If all goes well, it makes things easier and more enjoyable for the sub, too. Everybody wins!


1. Let the sub know what you’re doing. Take the time to write out a full note for the sub, explaining the procedure for each class step by step. Have copies of handouts made and organized. Also make the sub aware of the main rules of your classroom so that the students are getting consistent messages about what’s ok and what’s not (these are probably posted in your room already). Once students see that the sub is wise to the normal ways of the classroom, they’re primed for good behavior.

2. Leave an extensive, personal note on the board, addressed to the students. Students will pay more attention to a handwritten note on the board than the most extensive word processed printout or blog post of instructions. I like to write in all caps, use arrows, make little drawings, and throw in classroom inside jokes to get the students to read what I’ve written. The purpose of the note is to provide a step by step agenda for the class so that they can follow along and also to have that extra reminder that I am the one asking for them to do these things today; the sub didn’t just find some random handouts lying around in a drawer. I also include reminders about what they should hand in/prepare for in the coming days. I always try incorporate a message about how much I appreciate them and expect from them as well. Even the most thorny adolescents secretly want to know they are valued by their teachers. Part of my board typically looks something like this:

3. Leave a short video in which you introduce the day’s activities. It may sound a little bit strange, but this is a key part of leaving your teaching ghost behind. Students will respond to the same face, voice, and (in my case) cheesy jokes that they are used to. Really, it’s not so strange. This day in age, people use Skype video calls to chat and YouTube videos to express their thoughts about the world. It’s also extremely quick and easy to do. If you have access to a webcam-equipped laptop or a digital camera, and you have the ability to press the “record” and “stop” buttons, you’re over halfway to a video teaching broadcast of your own. I save the file to a flash drive that I leave plugged in to the computer for the sub, but a video could also be saved on your desktop, posted on a class website, or emailed. All the sub has to do is turn on the LCD projector, open the video file and press “play.” If you don’t have a projector, the students can huddle around the computer monitor. This is where the “ghost teacher” can truly emerge, and where students know, indisputably, that it’s going to be business as usual.

In my first video, I sat down in front of my webcam and envisioned my classroom and the kids in it. It actually felt pretty natural, since I said all of the same things I would have said had they been physically sitting in front of me. The first part of the transcript went something like this: “Hello, my wonderful friends from English 12! I’m sorry that I can’t be with you today in person, but you guys are so lucky, because you are here to bear witness to my very first teaching video broadcast. I’m SO pumped about that… and you should be, too. So, at this point in time, you’ve already responded to your writing prompt which was “If you were stranded on a desert island with only the people sitting immediately next to you, what rescue plan would you make?” Now I’m sure this has generated some interesting, fascinating, potentially disruptive discussion. Hopefully nobody got voted off the island. No matter how that has turned out, I will ask you to turn in your prompts as it is Friday and therefore the last day of the week. Ok. At this point in time, I’d like to explain your main activity for the day, which is something that I really think you’ll enjoy and really get into a little bit…  In keeping with the Senior Skills Scavenger Hunt unit, this activity is designed around a real life communication skill that you will need whether you’re headed for college or the workforce, and that skill is the ability to work with a group in order to solve a complex problem. Ok, so here’s what you’re gonna do…. etc. etc.” And I went on to explain the procedure for the lesson as well as several reminders and the reasoning behind the lesson as a whole.

I was very curious to see the student reaction to the first video that I did. I knew it was a success as I came into school the next day. The seniors smiled at me and shook their heads a little. They were very humored by the fact that I actually recorded a video of myself to instruct them, but I soon discovered that they definitely listened to it! One girl quoted a particular direction nearly word-for-word, and the average reaction was, “Not gonna lie: that was pretty cool, Ms. H.” In fact, I think some of my students may pay more attention to my sub day videos than my real time spoken instructions!

4. Finally, require a presentation of any assigned work on the following day. Instead of just turning in a written copy of work (which is easy to just not do, since there’s no immediate consequence), I hold my students accountable by requiring them to read aloud, explain, or otherwise present their work from the previous sub day. This allows me not only to give an immediate response with descriptive feedback, but also makes things uncomfortable for students who did not act responsibly. I’ve found that for most students, mindful of my on-the-spot assessment before an audience of their peers, do indeed deliver under these circumstances.


Ghost teaching takes preparation. Please note, it’s not for the sick days when you wake up feeling like the reaper is nigh. However, if you are like many involved teachers, you may have event coordinating, training, or professional development that takes you out of your classroom on days when you really need the students to stay productive and not lose progress. In these cases, if you can get a little time to prepare in advance, your ghost teacher will make sure that you, your students, and your substitute will all go home happy!

Teaching Visual Literacy

Ever since I realized that the definition of “text” could extend beyond print sources, I’ve been committed to including the use of visual texts in my classroom. It’s important for students to increase visual literacy alongside traditional reading skills; still, I feel that many language arts teachers never “get there,” or they give a project where kids make a collage about a book and call that sufficient. This summer, during my research with the National Writing Project, I chose an inquiry topic that dealt with this question: How do we teach students to read and author non-print texts? I had dabbled in answering this question during my first year of teaching, but never really spent the time to full-out teach it. After my summer research, I had some clarity on some techniques that seemed like they could work. This semester, I decided to give it a try.  I’ve rolled out a new visual literacy unit with my seniors. This is essentially a super-unit, with several mini-unit components: Image Analysis, Film Studies, Media Messages, and Online Identities. I’ve started implementing a blend of the methods I proposed in my summer research, things that have worked in single day lessons in my past experience, and new ideas that flow from thinking about how to connect all this together.

At first, my students seemed confused by the concept of “reading” images. I had to equip them with a whole new lexicon to help them talk about the components of an image. We had to go back again and again to reinforce skills of observing an image in an academic way and interpreting those observations as abstract themes. But then it started clicking. Suddenly, they were reading pages and pages of meaning in a text with no words. They were creating images catered to purposeful rhetorical choices. They were realizing that there can be so much more to viewing a film than just “watching a movie.” I’ve been pushing them, hard, to make meaningful observations. And you know what? They’re awake. They’re working. And I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that at least half of my students (allegedly the lowest English performers in the whole senior class) could be acing an entry level film studies course at any university. This is one of the most successful units I’ve ever taught. But what’s behind the success? Part of it is probably the class chemistry and rapport I’ve been able to build with my relatively small groups of students (about 20 per class). But, after reflecting, I think there are some key things that might help other teachers who want to try teaching some serious visual literacy.

 1. Read Picturing Texts by Lester Faigley, et. al. This is the best resource I ran across as far as working with visual rhetoric. There are many resources on how to use visual art in classroom activities, but this book is one of very few I’ve ever found that helps with using images as an actual text for study. Any art book by Sister Wendy Beckett also does a great job of breaking down and discussing traditional and contemporary art.

2. Make sure students have a foundation in literary analysis. Interpreting a still image or a film has much in common with this traditional language arts skill. If students can’t pick out literary elements and use them to support an inferred theme in a poem, they will struggle when asked to do the same with a non-print text. I began my unit with a little bit of traditional literary analysis so I could build a bridge between the two, pointing out how the operations are the same, even if the language is different.

3. Think-aloud with examples. This has been an education buzzword for a few years. Essentially, it means that you, the teacher, speak through your thought process as you interpret an image. Put an interesting one up on your screen and talk them straight through what you notice, why you notice it, why it’s significant, and how it adds to a final conclusion. Once students are comfortable, have them also think aloud with an image in front of the class. It allows them to really show that they know what they’re talking about, and it gives the class multiple examples that come straight from peers.

4. Teach them the difference between literal and abstract thinking. Help them understand that they need literal thinking to make quality observations of a visual text, but that those need to add up to an abstract idea in the end. Coming back to rhetorical choices and the concept that artists and photographers make intentional choices for a reason can help. Non-examples of image interpretations can also help, as long as a positive counterexample is also provided. I had a non-example that a good natured student let me use, where he had written that an image of a large machine next to a comparatively tiny person  “symbolized that the machine was very big.” Through his non-example and a successful example that I prepared, students really started to understand how thinking abstractly meant they needed to “see the invisible.”  Here’s the Powerpoint that accompanied some of this instruction: [The_Road_is_Not_a_Road]

5. Give them a vocabulary. My students have received glossaries for both image and film that help them intelligently identify the rhetorical choices they identify. (Terms like: composition, values, figures, juxtaposition, mise-en-scene, camerawork, cuts, casting, etc.)  Letstudents practice identifying these things before asking to apply them in written analysis. When they’re ready, they’ll talk the talk.

6. Spend some time picking quality image examples and film clips. Take some real time to locate images and film segments that hold meaning for you. Things that are extreme, colorful, surreal, or controversial tend to capture students’ attention, but it’s even better if you can truly connect to the examples you show. The more meaning you find in a visual text, the more your students will catch the fever. The internet is your friend–YouTube has film clips galore, and online photo galleries are filled with all kinds of gems. I tend to like Edvard Munch, Scott Mutter, Time magazine’s photo essays, and National Geographic’s “Visions of Earth.”

7. Don’t accept substandard work, whether it’s a result of laziness or true misunderstanding. When you get the papers that say big things symbolize how big they are, don’t move on. Go back to basics, talking about symbolism and how it works. Make them do it again until they get it right.

8. Teach them how to take notes on film. This is quite a different process than taking notes on literature, because of the speed required, and the amount of information being processed at once. I gave my students and example of my own notes on a film clip. We watched the clip, and then looked at the notes I had photocopied for them. I use a Cornell method, where I jot down quick observations on the left side during viewing, and then develop and organize my interpretations on the right side of my notes after viewing.

Expanding the definition of text beyond just print sources not only helps prepare students with 21st Century Literacy skills, but it’s also a whole new window of discovery for many kids. My favorite quote of the unit came from an anonymous senior boy I overheard in a group discussion who laughed and said, “I’ve watched like a million movies. But I never actually thought about any of them until today.” If I had any doubts about taking the time to teach this unit, they disappeared right then.

P.s. Ever since college, I’ve heard great reviews of Reading in the Dark: Using Film As a Tool in the English Classroom by John Golden as a teaching resource. I haven’t read it yet, though it is on my neverending wishlist for books. I have a feeling this book would be a great place to start for English teachers who want to get serious about using film as a text for serious study in the classroom.

Making Peace with the Pod


“Can we listen to our iPods?”

This question is one that most teachers these days will hear at one time or another. Nearly all districts have school-wide policies on most electronic devices, some condemning their use (or even possession) altogether, others offering opportunities to integrate Mp3 players into classroom instruction. I’m lucky enough to teach at a school where Mp3 player use is left up to each teacher’s classroom rules, so I get to form my own answer to this question. In my mind, there’s really only one answer here. The answer is YES. I say this because I have observed an intense boost in concentration, productivity, and even creativity among my students during music-approved classes.

Teenagers have been “tuning out” since time began. Many people feel that the addition of earbuds as yet another layer between teachers’ voices and adolescents’ ears is a recipe for disaster. But I would argue that it’s a recipe for pure harmony. Music is often a driving force in people’s lives, particularly high schoolers, who may feel like their choice of music is one of the few things that others can’t control or take away. Music can calm or energize. It plays with the brain, instigates thoughts, and helps people “get in the groove.” The idea that music aids learning is not a new one–so why do we shrink away from this technology that lets every single kid listen to what he or she prefers, all the while co-existing with a room full of others who are doing the same? It’s a miracle! It gives them another stimulus in addition to classroom activities, which actually prevents other distractions. It discourages talking with others. It creates an “auditory cubicle,” as one of my former colleages called it–a virtual private space, spun by sound, supported by the listener’s imaginings. When kids listen to music, they are mentally far, far away… and that’s ok, because it’s there that they can feel safe enough to unpack words and thoughts that might otherwise be self-censored.

Now, clearly, I don’t allow my students to be jamming out during my lectures. When I have something important to say, they are indeed required to listen! I’ve put very specific management techniques in place to facilitate the use of Mp3 players. My first rule is that Mp3 players may only be used during independent reading or independent writing time, whether in class or in the lab. I also have a ridiculous lime green magnetic sign that says “MUSIC APPROVED!” that must be posted on my board before the earbuds may emerge. Volume must be low enough that no one other than the listener can hear it, and when approached by me with a question, they must pause the beats for a moment. I have never had a kid abuse these rules. Not even once. Music is precious to them, and gives them a reason to look forward to writing. I love looking over the class, watching heads bobbing, eyes closed and squinting, fingers on one hand drumming the desk while the other scribbles furiously. They are in their own world, and when it comes to original thought, that can be the best place possible.

I may be in the minority among teachers when I say, “Hey, get those headphones on!” However, I always come back to the same conclusion… My writing always goes better with music. (Usually the louder, the better.) Why, then, would I ask my students to write in silence?

WCTE Convention 2010: Eau Claire

This year’s WCTE convention was eye-opening in many ways, and made me question a lot of things: things about my practice, things about curriculum, and things about our world in general. The central theme for the conference was “Finding a Balance: Traditional content vs. contemporary technology.” I was particularly excited because of how closely the theme corresponds to my current professional goals–I definitely came away with some new ideas about how to utilize technology in the classroom. But, as mentioned above, I also came away with a brain full of ponderings.

The day began with a keynote speech by Hilve Firek, who specializes in technology use in the English classroom. Much of her lecture was based on the premise that the Internet, videogames, and cell phones have dramatically altered the way that children think and learn. I in no way dispute this–I’ve read it in published research. I see it in my classroom every day. Firek came to the table with a “let’s use this to our advantage” type of battlecry, which came with possibilities for rapid fire lessons that cater to the endorphin-seeking, multitasking mind of the 2010 adolescent. I agreed with her, completely. But I still felt a little uneasy with some of the realities she exposed… If the next generation is physically unable to concentrate on one thing for an extended period of time, what will our society look like in the next thousand years? Is it “ok” that emotional responses to video games are becoming just as real as our responses to actual life events? Is it our duty as educators to stick to what are now the “old ways” of taking ample time to study, focus, and discuss? Or do we embrace the now and near-future world where there are constant stimuli requiring ongoing responses, leaving behind anything that takes more than 20 minutes to accomplish? Do we even continue to read books and write essays? And if we don’t, is it still possible to teach students how to think about the world, examine it, wonder at it, and change it for the better? Or does it all just become one big game? That seems frightening–I want to believe that our world will retain the ability to do detailed, nuanced, focused, meaningful thinking.

Maybe I’m reading too much Ray Bradbury, so let me lay aside my doomsday concerns to talk about one fantastic, technology-dependent, literary phenomenon that Firek brought up in her keynote: The Amanda Project. This “interactive” book features an ambiguous female character with a mysterious identity. The companion website allows readers to discuss and debate, submit Amanda-inspired artwork and poetry, read additional information about the characters, and add on to the story by writing and publishing scenes about Amanda. The book is completely alive, as the authors are using these reader-submitted stories in order to write the next books in the series. It’s a collaboration between author, reader, and character that has never been seen before. The possibilities are intriguing… Firek mentioned designing a classroom project that does the same type of thing with a traditional text. I thought it was a genius idea, and hope to attempt something like it, this year or next. Kids get to be readers, published writers, and researchers all at the same time, and can learn a ton about literature in the meantime. What’s not to like? 🙂

I went to four breakout sessions that also had good things to offer. One teacher spoke about how he utilizes Facebook in the classroom for group projects, discussions, and manging the classroom–it was actually quite similar to the Goodreads unit I did with my seniors last year. Social networking sites can be insanely wonderful teaching tools, as long as privacy is extensively provided for. Another session I attended highlighted many useful, free technology resources on the web–a list I scribbled down as fast as I could and will be exploring throughout the year. While I don’t want our world to go robotronic anytime soon, I do adore and recognize the positive effect of using website lists, wikis, blogs, video and sound editing software, and online presentation tools. The more in any teacher’s arsenal, the better.

There was an information session about Poetry Out Loud: explore their website at This is a really incredible program that I’d love to lead at my school somewhere down the line–it’s an extracurricular that requires students to memorize, interpret, and perform poetry in a public setting, from in-school contests all the way up to national competition. Check out some of the videos on the site and prepare to be blown away. I love opportunities like this, that show just how much power, emotion, and intelligence can be in one young adult. Anything that has to do with the arts is great for our society! I was thinking of possibly imitating the competition on a tiny scale, just in my classroom, during a poetry unit; this would give me a chance to incorporate it into my curriculum even before starting a team.

Finally, the session that offered me the most immediately usable and innovative resource: “Tablet PCs: Paperless Portfolios and Powerful Potential” from David Roloff of UW-Steven’s Point. The presentation was simple and pragmatic, designed to showcase the use of tablet PCs, laptops that allow the user to write on documents in digital ink with a special pen. This allows notes by hand to converge with digital documents, marrying both ways that we make meaning in our modern world. Now, admittedly, this is very fancy and financially unachievable for most educators to implement anytime soon, no matter how awesome it is. As luck would have it, there was another aspect of this presentation that could be put into effect tomorrow!

The program that Roloff and his students used with their tablet PC’s is the little-known wonder of Microsoft Office Suite, OneNote. I’ll be honest–I had heard of this program before, when my brother told me matter-of-factly, “You should put all your notes in OneNote.” He proceeded to give me a mini tutorial, but I wasn’t interested. I guess I just had too many other things to think about. But I am whole-heartedly convinced that I need to give this program another shot, especially as a classroom tool. In Roloff’s classes, students used the program to create “paperless portfolios” that were packed with content, well-organized, easily searchable, included multimedia, and were all solidified into a single document that could be e-mailed or shared on the web. The program is essentially like an immense 3-ring binder filled with notebooks and tabs, except it doesn’t weigh 25 pounds and you use a computer to create it. I love this program because it makes perfect sense, keeps things organized, and allows students to create complex portfolios available in one file. So smart. And (I think…) already available on our school computers. Excellent. Here’s a little tutorial on the program. Yet another thing I’m hoping to use this year!

All in all, my trip to Eau Claire gave me much to keep on my radar. I was also fortunate enough to be named a WCTE liason for District 1 (Milwaukee), so I hope that this role will offer me some leadership capabilities and chances to collaborate with great English teachers across the state.

Each year it’s my goal to try one completely new technique in my classroom. Thanks to WCTE, and the many other great professional development organizations out there, it’s not difficult at all.  Despite all my occasional concerns about where our way life may be headed in this wired world, I have faith in our educators and our students. There’s so much that’s good out there. It may be that we’ve just thought up some better ways to go get it.

My Virtual (and not so virtual) Classroom

My first classroom website is up and running well. This is something that I always wanted, but never seemed to have time to set up. Now that I finally have my online act together, I am really seeing the beauties of having a wired (or even just marginally wired) classroom. Take a peek at a screenshot from my site below:

This is such an excellent resource, both for the students and for me. I currently use my website to post directions, reminders, and links associated with what we’ve done in class. This way, a student can access their homework descriptions from any internet access point, from public library to cell phone. If a student is absent, there’s no more scurrying to gather materials together–it’s all taken care of with, “check the website and come back to me with questions.” I am able to post links to other websites, images, or video if I’m teaching in the lab. I was even able to put together my first attempt at a webquest (a student-driven search for information on the web based around a specific topic), which you see pictured above. Students had a choice of questions and some links to start with, but then were freed to select an area of interest and use their inherent web browsing skills to learn in a self-motivated, investigative fashion. Eventually, I hope to have students using blogs and communicating with each other and me via that channel as well.

I am lucky to be teaching at a school with a very unique freshman CyberEnglish curriculum, so my students are comfortable with and interested in using technology hand in hand with learning. This is something that I know I need to explore further, because the earth is spinning pretty darn quickly when it comes to technological advancements, and if our job is to help students learn to communicate, we’re not doing them any favors by ignoring current meaning-making media! The thing about this breakneck speed is that, even though I use video clips, interactive writing displayed on the projector, Powerpoint, Prezi, webquests, and a classroom website, I still feel like I’m just barely scratching the surface of what I could be doing with technology

Despite all that, I am reminded every day that no matter what a class is built around, even if it’s a good, old-fashioned, tattered novel with thirty names on the inside cover, the heart of a classroom comes from an impassioned teacher and students with open minds and a spirit of exploration. And even without anything that beeps, a lesson that comes from a place like that will work. As my oft-quoted teacher hero, Dewey Finn, once said: “I’m a teacher. All I need are minds for molding.” And truth be told, even with all the excitement of new technological resources to enhance my lessons, it almost makes clearer to me that, on some days, an empty room and a captivating question can be the greatest resources of all. Teaching is joy, work, and curiosity, and there’s no app for that. It needs to come from within.