Badging and Blending, Writing and Learning

HON 206 Member Badge
Badges. Writing-intensive. Active learning. Blended learning.

Oh, my.

These have been the buzzwords that have permeated professional conversations over the past few years, and have guided my path in developing the seminar course for Honors students that I am currently teaching, “Our Digital Selves.”

Offered as a course for a group of 22 freshmen while they are concurrently enrolled in a larger course that orients over 100 students to life in CMU’s Honors Program, my course meets twice a week, Mondays and Wednesdays, for an hour and fifteen minutes.

In describing the course, I begin with the following:

Without question, we live, work, and play in a digital world.

Though a divide still exists in terms of skills and access across demographics, it is reasonable to argue that the increasing ubiquity of mobile devices connected to the Internet as well as broadband in our homes, schools, libraries, and workplaces means that all of us – especially young people coming of age in the present moment – are now blending our personal, professional, and practical digital identities across multiple networks and with a variety of tools.

However, the ability to upload a picture or post on one’s timeline does not, in and of itself, assure us each a place in digital segments of academia, the workplace, or civic life. In fact, a recent Rasmussen College survey showed that 37% of millennial students see the internet as “scary” and are not confident in their digital literacy skills.

This first year seminar will challenge students to critically examine what it means to lead a digital life – personally and academically – and to rethink our understanding of what it means to be mindful, productive, and responsible users of technology.

And, as I have shared with students, those are a precious few minutes together each week in which we are trying to accomplish many goals.

As part of their undergraduate program, the course is helping them think about the social structures that undergird the Internet. What does it mean for us to lead a digital life? What spaces do we interact in, what tools do we use, and how do we represent ourselves with a variety of identities? How can we interrogate our own digital living and learning practices, discover new strategies and tools, and emerge with a better sense of our personal and professional goals as they relate to using technology? In conjunction with their Honors orientation course, my course, too, is aimed at helping them become better readers, writers, and thinkers. We are looking closely at the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy as part of this process.

As a writing intensive course, our goal is to use writing in a variety of ways, for different purposes, and to expand to new audiences. This includes writing-to-learn activities in class (polls, quick writes, guided writing in lessons, exit slips) and they are writing about their research in many informal ways (“writing to explore” essay, “immerse yourself in research” essay). It also includes some atypical forms of academic writing. Rather that producing “typical” final essays for their projects, I am asking them to engage in digital writing or — as Renee Hobbs, author of the textbook we are using, Create to Learn, would say — digital authorship. Engaged in a recursive process of reading, writing, researching, revising, and collaboration, students are producing videos, podcasts, interactive maps, and other forms of multimedia in an effort to think about the affordances and constraints of text, images, video, and other forms of media. I am asking them to move beyond words on the page, and they generally seem to be enjoying that process, though it has not been without some technical frustrations.

We are also exploring the use of microcredentialling in lieu of traditional grading practices. have adapted a “badging pathway” system from a Dr. Stephanie West-Puckett at the University of Rhode Island. We completed our first pathway, the Digital ID Narrative, together in the month of September. In October, they have been working in small groups on their own choice of pathways. I provide them feedback on their writing and work at each “level” of learning, and finally decided on using Badgr (the new for issuing badges using Mozilla’s Open Badge framework). That, too, has been a learning process for the students and for me. As we close in on our first “Teach In,” scheduled to happen next week, and I am looking forward to seeing what they produce and, subsequently, issuing the next round of badges to them.

Lastly, our class meets in one of CMU’s active learning classrooms. Each day, I aim to do something that gets them moving and talking with others outside of their “normal” groups (there is no seating chart). This has been a mix of things as simple as “stand up and find someone from another table to discuss X” to using playing cards to randomize the groups. I’ve been trying to encourage them to use the active learning stations and display their own computer screens while working on projects, but not too many of them are doing that on a regular, non-prompted basis. It is a large space, suited for about 80 students. I am fortunate to teach a small group of 22, but that presents some challenges, too, as the space seems quite spread out and distant for a group that size. Having smaller, more intimate conversations, then, sometimes feels awkward, though having plenty of room to move around and interact is certainly a blessing (compared to other classrooms I have been in on campus).

All of this has led, as with most teaching innovations and changes, to some success and some frustration. On the positive side of the ledger, I have been impressed with the ways that most students oriented their mindset to the pathways and the non-graded aspects of the course. Though I have tried, over the years, a number of different forms of contract grading and self-evaluation, I have not ever thrown grades out completely. And, yes, at the end of the semester will require some accountability, as their work from the many pathways and class activities will accumulate and (through reflection and dialogue with each student), a final grade will emerge. That said, many of them seem interested in the idea of microcredentialling and having the badge as a way to document their learning.

Also, on the positive side, most groups and individual students seem highly engaged with their work right now. Two groups are on the “Maker” pathway and are exploring the relatively inexpensive craft of making tie blankets. This has led them, however, into a much deeper exploration of the textile industry and the ways in which that global marketplace has significant consequences on the lives of millions, especially in third world countries. Another group is exploring their “writing lives,” and have been engaged in a conversations with other faculty about what it means to be a college-level writer. Another Adventurer group is exploring the role of campus myths and legends, creating an interactive story map of CMU’s campus. Other groups are still puzzling through their topics, and we are working to narrow their focus, which (of course) is all part of the process I hope that they would go through.

The blended learning piece will come soon, as the month of November will bring at least one, if not two or maybe even three virtual course sessions. I will have them meet using Zoom video conferencing software, which I imagine will be a new experience for most. During those sessions, I will ask them to engage in small group conversation and use tools for synchronous collaboration, probably starting with something straight-forward like Google Docs. I’m still thinking through exactly what that might look like in the weeks to come.

So, at this midpoint of the semester, how would I evaluate my own performance as a teacher? Probably an A for effort, but a B for execution. I’ve put in the time before and after class to create engaging activities, online and off, and I feel that I have established pretty good relationships with individual students. Also, the activities in class — and the individual learning pathways — have been moving forward in a progressive, scaffolded manner… for most students. And, that’s where the B comes in. I need to figure out a way to make things more focused. Obviously, my approach here is not working for everyone and while I can’t expect that any teaching method will be perfect for every student, I don’t want three or four students to leave the course with a very negative experience, even if the rest of it is positive.

To that end, I am trying to think through what I might do in the month of November to be more focused, as an instructor, and to help my students be more focused, too. Next week, I will have teaching and learning consultants from CMU’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning come to observe me teach and, at the end of class, talk with my students and provide a survey for feedback (without me in the room). I am very curious to hear what they are thinking, objectively, about the course and to make appropriate adjustments in the month of November.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Preparing to “Build a Better Book”

As often happens in my professional life, earlier this year, I was invited to lead a session broadly related to teaching writing and digital literacy, specifically for middle school students. Unlike my previous experiences, however, this particular opportunity came from CMU’s Center for Excellence in STEM Education‘s partnership with the Build a Better Book Project. In short:

The Build a Better Book project, based at the University of Colorado Boulder, works with school and library Makerspaces to engage youth in the design and fabrication of accessible picture books and graphics… Through the Build a Better Book initiative, middle and high school youth develop technology skills and learn about STEM careers as they design and create accessible, multi-modal picture books, graphics and games that can be seen, touched and heard!

So, in this case, I was invited to lead a session on a topic that I had quite a bit of experience with (teaching character development in writing), but needed to think critically and creatively about how to present the idea, taking concerns about accessibility into account. And, as often is the case, I turned to my PLN for help.

Originally conceived as the “Tactile Picture Books Project” at the University of Colorado Boulder, I quickly discovered that another digital literacies scholar, Bridget Dalton, was part of the research team. Reaching out to her, she shared her scholarship about the project and the four core experiences for any tactile book workshop:

  1. “Introduction to the design task and audience”
  2. “[t]actile sensory immersion”
  3. “[t]eams’ making of tactile pages to retell a picture book” (and presentation of that book
  4. “[r}eflection on the experience.”

In the sense that students will already be immersed in the process, I’m fortunate that my lesson will come on the second day of a multi-day experience, focusing mostly on steps 3 and 4. They will have had some experience understanding the design task and the audience of visually impaired readers, as well as some tactile sensory immersion. When I see them on day two, my goal will be to help them think about ways that authors describe and develop characters in picture books. So, I am working on the retelling, but also the annotating. Taking what I learned from Margaret Price at DMAC earlier in the summer about annotations for accessibility, I will ask students to both write descriptions of the character as well as to use tactile materials for creating far, mid, and close-up representations.

The challenge, of course, is that helping them figure out how to create tactile books – as well as annotations – that accurately and creatively represent those characters.

Thus, I wanted to find a children’s picture book that – both literally through images as well as figuratively through language – “zooms in” on a character. I want them to write/create three different perspectives of the character – long shot, medium shot, and close up – both in writing and with crafting materials.

To that end, I again turned to my PLN to find an appropriate picture book, and Colby Sharp suggested Mother Bruce, by Ryan T. Higgins. His suggestion did not disappoint. Mother Bruce is perfect, with images of Bruce the bear from afar, from nearby, and in extreme close-up. Coupled with a flipped lesson from Aron Meyer on “Using the Zoom-In Strategy to Enhance Narrative Writing,” I will use a series of images from Mother Bruce to then have students think about descriptive words for illustrating characters in terms of shape, size, and proximity.

So, these slides represent my general thinking about how I will approach the lesson. We will look at the generic images, do a read-aloud of Mother Bruce, then look again at the images in the book more carefully, with a lens for both annotation and tacitly illustrating them:

Build a Better Book Lesson - Slide 1
Build a Better Book Lesson – Slide 1 (Images from Mollie Bugg)
Build a Better Book Lesson - Slide 2
Build a Better Book Lesson – Slide 2 (Images from Ryan T. Higgins)
Build a Better Book Lesson - Slide 3
Build a Better Book Lesson – Slide 3 (Resources adapted from Sight Word Games and Interesting Things for ESL Students)

So, the lesson focuses on the words…

  • What would a description of Bruce need to include when we “see” him from a distance? At a mid-range? Close up?
  • How can we use different words to describe shape, size, and proximity?

And the tactile elements…

  • What would his fur or nose feel like from far away? Close up?
  • What about the additional features of his body and face? Eyebrows? Snout?
  • How can we change shapes and texture to help the reader know that the image is a far shot, mid shot, or close up?

My goal will be to have them create the three tactile representations, as well as write the annotations for the tactile books as a way to supplement the readers’ experiences. Though we will probably not have time in my workshop to invite the students to audio record these annotations and connect them with Makey Makeys, that would be one extension that could make the text even more accessible, and is in line with the Build a Better Book pedagogy.

In sum, this is an interesting way to cap off a busy summer of professional learning. When the CMU STEM Ed Center invited me to do this work at the beginning of the summer, I had no idea what I would do. Yet, the challenge was given to me, and I kept thinking about the possibilities with each opportunity that I had to learn throughout the summer. I look forward to seeing how students responds to the lesson and, in turn, what they might do to more completely and complexly represent Bruce through both their annotations and tactile pages.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Prepping for DMAC 2018

Photo by Christopher Gower on UnsplashToday, I made my way to Columbus in preparation for the Digital Media and Composition Institute, also known as DMAC. In more than one way, this has been a career aspiration of mine for well over a decade, and I’m very much looking forward to the immersive, sustained experience of working with colleagues over the next 10 days.

I first learned about DMAC, then CIWIC, when Cindy Selfe and Gail Hawisher were still at Michigan Tech, from my mentor and dissertation director, (and, eventually, co-author on Because Digital Writing Matters), Danielle Nicole DeVoss, as she had pursued her own graduate studies there. To make a long story short, I feel like part of my academic heritage is deeply rooted with CIWIC/DMAC, and in many ways I feel like I am returning “home” though I have never actually attended the workshop.

At another level, this spring is also quite important for me as a moment to pause, reflect, and refocus. Since 2003, I have had the incredibly good fortune of leading countless conference sessions, day-long workshops, and multi-day or even multi-week institutes. This has come about from my long and productive relationship with the National Writing Project. I’ve been humbled and honored to have started the Chippewa River Writing Project at CMU, and to have been invited to dozens of writing project sites – as well as other school districts and professional organization events – over the past decade.

However, one of the things that I miss is simply being a participant in a workshop, to be fully immersed so I can soak up ideas and wisdom from other participants and facilitators. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy opportunities for leadership, because I certainly do, and I’m looking forward to at least half a dozen different opportunities this summer, not least of which is facilitating our own weeklong CRWP leadership institute, returning to Rhode Island to help facilitate the Summer Institute in Digital Literacy, and also coordinating our Beaver Island Institute for science and literacy. I look forward to all of these, and to my time at ISTE and NWP Midwest, among other conference events. All this will be wonderful, too.

Still, there’s something to be said for just having one’s mind in a state of “being.” DMAC will allow me that time and space. And, I will get to meet other like-minded scholars, reconnect to my writing roots, and think critically and creatively about digital composition. In short, it will be intellectually engaging and fun.

And, I’m at a point in my career where, not needing to “pivot” or “redefine” entirely, what I really need to do over the next ten days is get refocused. I have a number of specific projects that I want to work on over the next 10 days, many of which are connected to my teaching, scholarship, and service.

With teaching, in particular, I’m trying to imagine the possibilities for a class I am teaching this fall, a seminar class for honors freshman, that I have entitled “Our Digital Selves.” There’s quite a bit of work that I need to do this summer in order to figure out exactly how I want to teach the course. First, I’m looking to a colleague and leader in the field of digital badging for composition, Stephanie West-Puckett, and the work that she has begun at URI with Writing 104. Titled MakerComp, she helps her students move toward self guided inquiry and significant projects, bundled in a system of badging.

Additionally, I’ve been “away” from writing for a significant amount of time. I have certainly been busy with some smaller projects this year, I have not gotten refocused on a book-length project since the publication of Argument in the Real World, From Texting to Teaching, and Coaching Teacher-Writers in 2017. I have a number of writing opportunities ahead of me, as well as potential collaborators with whom I would like to work, and so these next few days will give me lots of time to consider possibilities and develop project proposals.

Finally, of course, I am interested in learning how other people design professional development experiences for their peers and colleagues. I’ve been struggling to try to figure out how, exactly, to help re-invigorate our own writing project site’s work, connect to our masters in educational technology program, and consider new possibilities for CMU’s education program at large. I hope that watching the DMAC team in action as facilitators will be good for me, too.

In short, I need DMAC.

I am deeply fortunate to have a patient and flexible wife who is managing the chaos at home, as well as an employer in CMU who has given me significant financial support to attend this DMAC Institute. I am thankful for these blessings in my life.

And, I’m looking forward to the work ahead.


Photo by Christopher Gower on Unsplash

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

#MichEd Chat – 4-11-18 at 8:00 PM EST

PROFESSIONAL LEARNING NETWORKS

#MICHED CHAT 4/11/18

Wednesday, April 11th, 8-9pm EST

The idea of a professional learning network has existed for quite some time, built on some of the foundational work related to “situated learning” and “communities of practice” developed by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger in the 1990s.

With the emergence of Web 2.0, Stephen Downes described “learning networks in practice” in a 2007 paper, arguing that “The idea behind the personal learning environment is that the management of learning migrates from the institution to the learner.”

Combined with the 2006 emergence of Twitter, a new idea had taken form, and educators began using hashtags to start a variety of ed chats, including our own #MichEd which was inaugurated Nov 7, 2012.

Chat Questions

This week, we reflect on our own experiences being a part of the #MichEd network and, more broadly, what it means for each of us to develop our own PLN. We will be joined by students from CMU’s Doctorate in Educational Technology, and the chat will be hosted by Troy Hicks. During the chat we will consider:

  1. What motivates you, personally, to create and maintain a PLN?
  2. How do PLNs change with time, for you personally and across the network? Think about #michED and who was there at the start, who has joined, who has left (or is less active) and WHY?
  3. How do we keep our networks diverse in thought? We don’t want them to be echo chambers for our ideas, but to be constructive spaces for dialogue. How can we achieve that goal?
  4. Besides sharing great resources, what can a PLN teach us about how to be an educator? How does participating in a PLN become part of your professional persona?
  5. OK, let’s get specific. What, exactly, can we learn from PLNs? Along with soft skills of collaboration and sharing resources, what other digital or pedagogical skills can we learn?
  6. Finally, what’s next for PLNs? How can we nurture and sustain them? How can we invite new voices? What should a group of doctoral students studying educational technology be thinking about?

https://www.smore.com/kngch

On the LMS, Wikispaces, and Where to Next

As anyone familiar with online teaching knows, critiques of content management systems, especially Blackboard (Bb), are common.

From articles in the popular media, to critiques in peer-reviewed journals, to an analysis from an Bb itself on the way it is used by instructors and students, there are many, many of us out there who dislike the way that an LMS, especially Bb, dictates (either explicitly or implicitly) the way that we teach and learn online.

A recent conversation with a colleague about this topic reminded me of the many reasons why I, personally, dislike Bb:

  • The interface is almost entirely teacher-centric, and even the features that allow students to contribute (discussion forums, and “innovations” to the LMS like blogs and wikis) are still very didactic in nature requiring that the teacher set them up in a manner to “allow” students to contribute. For instance, look at the many options available in just the “discussion board” settings in the screenshot below from Bb and consider the levels of autonomy that the teacher can decide upon for students, leaving them with fewer and fewer decisions to make for themselves. This is not really a discussion, but an assignment.
  • Similarly, the interface is designed on a “delivery” model of content. Yes, a creative instructor could build some self-guided learning, inquiry, and even “gamification” into the system (which Bb has conveniently added as “achievements,” but it is centered again on content consumption, assignments submission, and the gradebook. Again, the premise with the LMS is that students are logging in to view content that the teacher has created (or curated), and that this content (and this content alone) is what is important. Even if students create content (and could, theoretically, do so by embedding images, videos, or other types of digital artifacts). Still, for the most part, when directed to engage with the content (and I haven’t even mentioned online quizzes/exams), students are encouraged to do so most often to earn points.
  • Even in the best possible case, where a teacher is open to multiple revisions of an assignment that allows students to engage in an iterative process of learning, the interface for responding to assignments is, again, didactic, with the student submitting a paper, the teacher using commenting tools and rubrics to reply and, perhaps, opening up another “attempt” for submission. In contrast to a more open and flexible system of collaboration (as enabled by, say Google Docs or even the most current version of Word with synchronous and cloud-based editing), this workflow in Bb still relies on discrete assignments, deadlines, and grades.
Screenshot of Bb Discussion Forum Options for Instructors
Screenshot of Bb Discussion Forum Options for Instructors

There are more critiques that I could levy, but these are the main concerns that I have with Bb. So, from my earliest experiences teaching at the university, then, I have been trying to upend the expectation that I must use an LMS to organize my courses… as well as my thinking and my teaching. It is a struggle, and I have succumbed to the convenience (and mundane normality) of Bb in my past few semesters when teaching masters and doctoral courses all online. (I’ll have to describe my (compromised) rationale for all that in another post, but suffice it to say that I have, at least in recent times).

For the moment, I want to reflect on my journey with wikis as an alternative to the traditional LMS, in particular, with Wikispaces. Eagerly heralded as one of the revolutionary Web 2.0 tools that would democratize knowledge, especially for digital teaching and learning, wikis have been a staple of my teaching and professional development work for over a decade. So, like many others in the ed tech community who were both saddened and shocked when Wikispaces announced its imminent demise (some more shocked and outraged than others), I knew that this was more than just a moment to rethink where I store my data and how I organize my teaching.

First, a quick note of thanks to Wikispaces. Yes, I know that I have lots of data to recover, and that will be a pain. But, I can’t complain. I’ve used, enjoyed, and promoted Wikispaces for over a decade, and I appreciate what they have done with and for educators. Alas, like anything that has been offered for free, I am well aware that it too could go by the wayside (and soon will be). Wikispaces, alas, is no different. People are figuring out ways to save and repurpose their Wikispaces data, and I will, too (before the end of July!).

So, instead, I look at this as an opportunity to rethink my presence on the web as a teacher, teacher educator, and scholar. I will do that in the weeks and months to come. What I want to reflect on for a moment, however, is different. I want to think about why I really used Wikispaces, and whether I was being as open-minded, collaborative, and innovative as I thought I was.

That is, even as a progressive-minded educator, opting to use Wikispaces as a substitute for the LMS, as a tool for students to collaborate and contribute to our classroom community (as well as during workshops in which I lead professional development for teachers), I don’t know that I have fully enacted or lived up to my egalitarian ideas. If I were to do an honest accounting of all the Wikispaces that I manage, and see what I have contributed versus others, I would guess that I am, at best, close to a 50/50 balance. More likely, I am the one doing most of the adding and revising, especially in my course and workshop wikis.

In other words, at a deeper, more substantive level, have any of the wikis that I have created — and the pedagogy that I have enacted surrounding those wikis — really been about the participants, or has it been about me?

For all the class websites that I have created with Wikispaces, including ones for undergraduate, masters, and doctoral students, and for all the pages that I have created for workshops and longer PD institutes, I have to wonder… was I creating things on Wikispaces because it was convenient for me?

Was this a technical choice, perhaps, because giving a wiki address was an easy to find a domain (back before shortened URLs and QR codes made it easier to get to a Google Doc?)?

Was it because I wanted the public facing interface and immediate editing as a way to fit my own style of teaching, and not so much as a tool for really encouraging substantive contributions and communication amongst students?

I’ve been wondering all of this because – as I prepare to download the data from dozens of wikis and figure out where and how to archive it – I’ve noticed that I am the main contributor to most of the wikis I’ve begun. There are exceptions, of course, including our writing project’s wiki which has existed for nearly 10 years and contains the contributions of dozens of teachers. There is also a smattering of wikis that I’ve created in a one time workshop, inviting teachers to create their own page, for a day, that then linger in cyberspace. And, of course, there are the class wikis, where I have had varying degrees of success with students creating and curating their own profile pages and contributing to other sections of the class wiki site.

Still, the challenge is taking a deep, thoughtful look at all of these wikis again and thinking about who it is that has done most of the contribution. There is the old adage that “school is the place where young people go to watch old people work.” Bb, certainly, seems to be virtual manifestation of that physical truth about schools.

My question, at least at this moment, is whether or not I have been simply recreating that truth under the guise of collaboration, creativity, and inquiry by using wikis…

… or, have I really done anything different in the space of hybrid/online learning over the past 10 to 12 years? And, to circle back to the dilemma of the LMS, this has given me pause to seriously reconsider my use of Bb, too.

I’ve started to become complacent, and that is a dangerous place to be when it comes to digital writing and digital teaching. Like most teaching dilemmas, this is a wicked problem, and one that I will need to wrestle with more and more as the July 31 deadline for Wikispaces’ imminent demise comes closer and closer. In a way, I am thankful for the the opportunity to rethink why and how I create and curate materials for the web, for students, and for other teachers. I don’t know that I will ever have the answer, but I hope to soon have some thoughts on how to approach it from a new perspective.


Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Resources from Moving Writers Forward: Using (Free) Dictation, Audio and Screencasting Technologies to Provide Feedback

Moving Writers Forward

Using (Free) Dictation, Audio and Screencasting Technologies to Provide Feedback

Webinar for CMU’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning

When they are engaged in the writing process, students need timely, specific and goal-oriented feedback. During this workshop, we will briefly discuss research-based elements of successful writing instruction that focus on feedback. We will then explore how to make textual feedback more efficient with a comment bank and voice-to-text dictation, audio recordings and screencasts to efficiently provide feedback to our writers.

Photo by Sergey Zolkin on Unsplash
Photo by Sergey Zolkin on Unsplash

Resources to Try


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

4C’s Collaborative Comprehension Activity

Image by Anna Demianenko from UnsplashThe past week has found me presenting to both pre-service teachers (three times!) and to fellow faculty (just once), and with each audience I shared the same activity: the 4Cs for Collaborative Comprehension.

Adapted from Ritchhart, Church,, and Morrison’s Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners, my spin on this particular lesson invites students to collaborate using a Google doc as a space to engage in shared reading of a particular text. As they note in their book, “[T]he 4C’s routine allows for a rich and fairly complete discussion of a text nonetheless, each step can be used as a standalone discussion,” and “[a]s students become familiar with the routine and expectations, it can act as a protocol to structure student-directed discussions of the text” (144). 

There are a number of reasons for why this particular reading, writing, and thinking strategy is well-suited for an adaptation using Google Docs:

  • We know that reading is a social experience and, unfortunately, we also know that students are not likely to read – at least with a deep level of comprehension – their homework. While this activity does not solve all the reading problems that students may have – and they most certainly should still be reading outside of class – this does emulate the types of thinking that good readers will use while engaged with the text.
  • We know that writing, too, is also a social experience and can have many purposes. With this activity, writing is a tool for thinking, and asking students to write both individually and collaboratively allows them to see one another’s thinking unfold, in real time, and in a low-stakes environment.
  • We know that thinking – and, in this sense, I mean thinking like a disciplinary expert – is a skill that must be modeled, rehearsed, and assessed. In order to help students understand the ways in which we might approach the text, we need to make the actions that we undertake explicit and clear.
  • Finally, as a way to incorporate technology in a purposeful manner, I taught this as a lesson that was designed for a collaborative group work session that students would engage in during class time. That said, once students become familiar with the routine, they could likely engage in some aspect of this protocol outside of class time and come prepared with their writing done in the Google Doc.

Thus, the idea behind the activity is to have students engage in a shared reading, document their initial thinking – in this case, by connecting to the text, challenging the text, identifying key concepts from the text, and recognizing how the text is asking you, as a reader, to change – and develop a consensus about the most important takeaways from their shared reading. And, they do so using the collaborative technology of Google Docs.

As you’ll see in the instructions embedded in the document, each group will make a copy of this initial template. What’s important to note is that you – as the instructor – could make any modifications to the thinking that you want students to do. Though I like “the 4Cs” as a nice, alliterative phrase to describe what students are doing, you could certainly invite them to do any number of other learning tasks such as interpret, examine, or evaluate.

I begin the activity by ensuring that each student in the group, typically groups of four, has a role. I talk through the different tasks with them, give them a moment as a group to decide who wants to do what during the reading, and then I ask, “Who’s my connector in each group? Who’s the challenger?” Who’s identifying key concepts?” and, finally, “Who’s thinking about changes?” Depending on the particular class, as well as the reading that I am asking them to do, I may do a little bit more of a discussion about the text in order to prime the pump. However, the main goal here is that students jump in to the reading activity with their particular lens (connect, challenge, key concept, change) in mind.

Additionally, before sending them into the reading task, I ensure that at least one person in the group is comfortable making a new version of the Google Doc template and then sharing that new version with their group mates. Thus, each group has their own copy of the 4Cs activity and are then able to write ideas in their squares while they are reading. If it is a group that I feel would benefit from the task, I may also suggest to them that they find relevant sentences or phrases from the article and copy/paste them in to the Google Doc, with appropriate quotation marks. They can then use these segments of the text to make further connections, invite other challenges, identify key concepts, or indicate where the author is encouraging the reader to change.

Then, it is time to have everyone begin reading. As they read, I set a timer for a modest amount of time (usually about 5 to 7 minutes with an article such as the one linked here: “A Month Without Sugar“).  As they read, I encourage them individually to take notes in their group’s Google Doc. Then, after they have had sufficient time to read, I invite them to continue the “silent” conversation in the Google Doc. Once it appears that most students are done with the reading as well as with their writing in Google Docs, I invite them to engage in a face-to-face conversation with one another around the table.

Depending on my goals for the particular reading and how this activity fits into the scope of our overall course of study, I may have students offer comments upon one another’s documents, I may have the groups write a summary, or I may have individuals summarize the main ideas from both their reading and the small group discussion. There are many possibilities for formative assessment, depending on whether the article is being used mainly for getting their thinking started, or inviting them to delve much deeper into a topic we have been studying for a long time.

In talking with the pre-service teachers as well as with my fellow faculty members, a number of interesting extensions and adaptations came to light:

  • The activity could be redesigned with different levels of Bloom’s taxonomy or cognitive tasks in mind for the 4Cs, it could be used for different genres of reading material, or it could be reconfigured around entirely different articles for each group that they could then bring to a larger, whole class discussion.
  • The activity could also be done out of class, inviting students to thoughtfully read and annotate the article as well as to write their brief response, then coming prepared to class and ready for discussion.
  • The activity could also be done with entirely different kinds of texts including images, paintings, charts, videos, or other forms of media as the basis for response.

Again, the main purpose of this activity is to invite all students to read actively – with a particular perspective in mind – and to bring that perspective to their shared conversation about the text.

Yes, this is an activity that could work perfectly fine with pencil and paper. Still, as many of the pre-service teachers and faculty with whom I worked this week have noted, engaging in this activity with the use of Google Docs allows them to see one another’s thinking unfold in process.

It is a very visual reminder of the fact that we all come to a text with a slightly different perspective and yet can still glean meaning from the text when engaged in substantive conversation.

Update, 4/15/17: Minor editing for a typo


Image by Anna Demianenko from Unsplash

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.