From Bland to Grand!

Next week, I will be presenting in Bangkok at the NESA (Near East South Asia) Spring Educator’s Conference. My workshop is based on the Jane Schaffer writing method, a model that I learned years ago when I was teaching HS English teacher in the inner city of Los Angeles. There, my students struggled with the same thing that most other students around the world struggle with: achieving clarity and precision in their writing.

I’ve delivered this presentation a number of times and have, more or less, used the same Google Slides presentation each time. Because I’m presenting at a fairly large conference (it’s a big deal!), I decided I needed to apply the skills we’ve been learning in COETAIL to this presentation.

Here’s the Original Presentation:

The new (and hopefully improved version):

What changes did I make? Lots. And spent a good number of hours perfecting, obsessing and simplifying the design. In a nutshell, I applied the principles of CARP (Contrast, Alignment, Repetition, Proximity) along with the ideas from Presentation Zen, specifically that the content should be “simple, balanced and beautiful.”

I also knew it was too long and I had way too many words on the page. Keeping in mind Brandon Jones’s mantra that “Good visual hierarchy isn’t about wild and crazy graphics or the newest photoshop filters, it’s about organizing information in a way that’s usable, accessible, and logical to the everyday site visitor,” I decided to cut out 6 slides and instead, have that information readily available on a handy-dandy paper hand-out. I figure it’s something tangible that the audience can hang on to. (My presentation is scheduled at 4pm on Friday – the last event of the day, so I have to do everything I can do grab their attention!)

Overall, I think I’m most proud of my new and improved presentation’s simplicity, calm aesthetic and balanced design. I’m excited to try it out!

Dreams of Gatsby

Our next unit for grade 10 English is on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. In order to focus my infographic search, I used keywords from our unit’s Essential Questions, and so ended up with an assortment on Fitzgerald’s portrayal of the American Dream. I narrowed it down to two, primarily because I really like them both and know that my students are captivated by the “new” visuality of literature. 

The first infographic is a character map which I’ll use as part of the introduction to the novel as a whole. It’s a great way to grab their attention and allows them to visualize the complexity of character development. 


The Great Gatsby Character Map
From Visually.
The second infographic is entitled “The Cost of Being Great Gatsby” and is a cost analysis of the nuts and bolts that are Gatsby’s version of living the American Dream.
The Cost of Being Great Gatsby
From Visually.

I think I’ll use this infographic towards the end of the unit, after we have made our way through most of the text and discussed the ways that Fitzgerald uses his characters to portray various aspects of the American Dream. We’ll take some time to study the infographic and discuss what is presented. Then, I’ll have them write a blog post responding to the images and follow that up with a full-class Socratic Seminar.
Lesson script:
1. Blog Post: Based on the infographic, it certainly appears that Jay Gatsby has achieved the American Dream. Write a blog post in which you respond to the content of the infographic and connect it to one of our Essential Questions: 
  1. Is the American Dream real or is it an illusion?
  2. Does success = wealth? What does “success” actually mean?

2. Socratic Seminar: Discuss the ways in which the infographic is perhaps a critique of Gatsby’s lavish lifestyle and ultimately, functions as a commentary on Fitzgerald’s portrayal of the American Dream. 

The Digital Word

How does one write a simple story anymore in this day and age of mashups, GIF’s, iMovies, and of course the omnipresent, YouTube? It’s hard to believe that writers of simple books, i.e. words on a page, are even still sought after by publishing companies. Who knows? Perhaps in this very generation, we will witness the death of the novel…or at least, the novel as we know it: Words on a page. According to NY Times writer, Kevin Kelly, “Once, long ago, culture revolved around the spoken word.” And now? Culture is shifting yet again. 

Image Credit: All Rights Reserved Streamline by Rachel Ryman
Image Credit: All Rights Reserved Streamline by Rachel Ryman

“The past is a rush of data streams cut and rearranged into a new mashup, while truth is something you assemble yourself on your own screen as you jump from link to link.” -Kevin Kelly


This begs the question (particularly for those of us whose life work is in teaching the younger generation the in’s and out’s of the written word): How will we adapt? How can we, as educators, take our students – and indeed, ourselves – from book fluency to screen fluency, from literacy to visuality” How can we maintain our validity and efficacy as classroom teachers and not end up by the wayside, discarded VCR’s & Sony Walkmen in the vast wasteland of obsolescence?  Simple. iMovies! (I jest. Of course it’s not simple, but honestly, iMovie and it’s iterations are a part of the solution!) 

As a part of our culminating task for our current English 10 unit, we are asking our students to write a 500 word essay based on the prompts from the National Public Radio program, “This I Believe“. Their job is to write the essay and deliver the content in a way that goes beyond pen and paper. Up to this point, our options included: live speech; pre-recorded “Ted Talk”; a PSA; or any other format they could come up with. But now I see that this is a great opportunity for students to try out the concepts of digital story-telling. I’m excited to share with them some of the resources from this week’s Course 3 reading list, including the wikispace, “50Ways” which provides a clearcut plan for telling a digital story.

We can also direct students to, formerly known as “The Center for Digital Storytelling” which is, just as it sounds – an online platform for regular people to share their not-so-regular stories. The goal of this organization is to “create spaces for transforming lives and communities, through the acts of listening to and sharing stories.” I plan to share the digital story below as an example for my students. And hopefully, I will return to this post with an update and perhaps, to share a student’s digital story as well!  


Video Credit:

Zen & the Art of Presentation Maintenance.

While reading through this week’s various articles and presentations, there was one idea repeated throughout – simplicity. I started thinking about my own design inclinations: jazzy, showy, colorful and busy. Basically the opposite of simple. I needed to do some serious weeding of my Google slides garden.

Looking back through my presentations, though, I decided to pick one that is actually lacking in visual aesthetics and errs on the side of basic & boring. This presentation needs some work, particularly in, as blogger Garr Reynolds refers to them, the areas of “Empathy” & “Play“. Reynolds believes that with empathy, the expert designer has “the ability to put themselves in the position of the user, the customer, or the audience member.” Being able to view my presentation through the eyes of my teenaged audience is key and will ultimately determine my efficacy as a teacher.

For the design area of Empathy, I would update the theme – make it more colorful, bold and eye-catching. I think I would alternate the use of images for whole backgrounds and include more block quotes than long lists of bullet-pointed text. (The ultimate in “Death by Power-Point“)

Garr also notes the positive effects in adding elements of “Play” into presentations. In his discussion of the power of laughter, Garr quotes the Indian Physician Madan Kataria:

“Laughing people are more creative people. They are more productive people.” 

The take-away? Laughter IS the best medicine! And when the audience is full of teenagers who want to be anywhere but in the classroom? Providing little moments of humor in a presentation can be the difference between blank stares and drooping lids to actively engaged learners. Looking back through this presentation, I can see that I need to be more purposeful in integrating those little moments of humor, whether in the form of a light-hearted slide or in my own presentation notes.

Now, back to work on weeding that garden…

Photo Credit: Deposit Photos via Creative Commons

1,000 Words

Image Credit: Miriam Morningstar
Image Credit: Miriam Morningstar

For my IB Higher Level English Literature course, we study the text In Pharaoh’s Army by Tobias Wolff. A memoir of the writer’s experiences during the Vietnam War, In Pharaoh’s Army poses the difficult question: what does it mean to be a hero? At times honest and self-deprecating, Wolff asks his readers to examine the true (often brutal) nature of war. The account is an exploration of the often blurred lines of war and the resulting ambiguities between the “winners” and “losers” of war.

The photo my teammate, Lindsay and I have selected is a Pulitzer Prize winner taken by Eddie Adams, circa 1968. The image is perhaps one of the most infamous photos from the Vietnam War and depicts the highly visceral moment before an apparent execution. The photo leaves the viewer with a profound sense of unease, as the circumstances of the photo are somewhat ambiguous and leave the viewer asking:

Who is the enemy here? Who should we be “vying” for?

Saigon Execution

Image Credit: Some Rights Reserved. Saigon Execution by Cliff 

The prompt for the discussion of this photo: “See, Think, Wonder“. First students are asked to jot down notes on what they can physically see. In other words, just the facts on the surface. Then, they are asked to jot down ideas about what they think is going on. This is their turn to speculate and make inferences based on visual evidence. Finally, they are asked to wonder, writing down any questions they have about the photo.

A picture is worth quite a few words, if not at least 1,000. In my experience, incorporating visual aids into literature-based lessons adds a new dimension to discussions and ultimately, to student understanding and engagement with the content.

Image Credit:

Fun with Fonts!

We are a Moodle school and so my goal with this week’s  is to jazz up my 10th grade Moodle page, with the hopes of scoring some artistic points from my students. Based on this week’s readings, it seems that a major part of designing a webpage (or, in this case, a Moodle page) is in breaking “down that raw information into delicious little chunks of visually relevant information that are easy on the eyes, and more importantly, effective at communicating the message behind a webpage.” I love the idea of delivering what can sometimes be boring content in “delicious little chunks” and have tried to convey this very message to my students about their own blogs. In fact, I’ve decided to have my students read a couple of the articles to add to their own digital literacy, namely “Understanding Visual Hierarchy in Web Design” & “Lazy Eyes“. 

With my own Moodle page, I’ve decided to show a “Before” & “After” screen shot. The before screen shot is from a unit a couple of months ago. I do think the information is delivered in a fairly succinct format, but there are limited attempts to achieve the concepts touted in the “Visual Hierarchy” article.


Screen Shot 2016-02-14 at 10.57.23 AM


Screen Shot 2016-02-14 at 10.28.38 AM

With this lesson, I purposefully included multiple forms of media, font colors, font sizes, hyper links and succinct directions. The result? Student engagement did not appear to be affected, but perhaps my teenagers are offering subconscious affirmation for my attempts to engage them on the hierarchy of visual aids. One thing I will for sure do with my Moodle page is to continue to practice what I preach!

The Art of the Story

Course 2 Final Project Reflection
Courtesy of 100 Pedals


This quarter, my colleague here at AIS-R and I decided to spice things up a bit in the grade 10 English curriculum. We knew we were going to be covering narrative writing, but wanted to tweak the unit to make it more 21st century-friendly. Et voila! Our grade 10 blogging unit was born. My colleague also graciously allowed us to collaborate with another HS English teacher in Los Angeles, California (who also happens to be my big brother!:) in order to fit the parameters of the Coetail assignment. So far? It’s been a truly rewarding experiment! So great to work with my brother again (we taught together a few years back) and to collaborate with a classroom halfway around the world.

A Focus on Tech Tools

We knew going in to this unit some of the things that we absolutely had to cover, i.e. specific and concise instructions on how to set up the basic tools of the unit: the blog and  the RSS reader. On the advice of our tech guys, we decided to go with Blogger and Feedly, both of which I highly recommend. They are both intuitive and relatively easy to manage. I have to say – that first class where we set-up their blog and Feedly account took a LOT longer than we had planned. It continues to surprise me just how much these kids do not actually feel at ease using technology. This whole concept of students being “digital natives” is often times not the case; I find that many of my students feel just as confused and lost in tech-land as I do!
Courtesy of Genea Bloggers

Cite what?!?!

Another area that we knew we wanted to focus on was the issue of copyright and citing digital sources. Our students are plenty familiar with MLA citations and how to create an accurate Works Cited, but when it comes to citing digital material (mostly photos), they’re lost. This lesson also took quite a bit longer than expected, and in fact is an ongoing battle of constant reminders. Their correctly cited images/videos/photos will be a part of their final product (not due until January), so it continues to be a work-in-progress.

The Final Product 

We’re excited to see how their final product comes out! Check back in January for an update and some examples of student work!


Inspiration, 101

During an after-school help session last week, I decided to do a little research for my upcoming Coetail post on empowering students to use technology to make a positive impact in their world. I wanted to first figure out how and for what purposes are my students predominantly using social media.
Design Razzi

We were having a just-for-fun read-aloud moment on an article titled, “A Teenager’s View on Social Media: Written By An Actual Teen”. The writer basically breaks down (in teenage lingo) what each of the most popular social media sites mean to teens these days. Between the conversations I was having with my students and the snarky factoids written by the “actual teen”, I learned quite a bit.

For example, I had no idea that Facebook is basically “dead” to most teens – a fact stated in the article and promptly confirmed by my little group of 10th graders. I was also informed that Tumblr is, in fact, used by more students than I had suspected and was described by one of the girls as “A great place to share videos with only our friends.” Some of the platforms mentioned by the “actual teen” – YikYak and Medium – not even my students knew about, so I didn’t feel too bad.

The most fascinating part about the afternoon though, was the candid, funny and doggonit, inspirational comments from my very own students. When asked about how they mostly used/accessed their social media accounts, they said simply: “to share cool stuff”. I asked about cyber-bullying, “sexting”, trash-talking, stalking, creeping, lurking, gossiping, etc…I don’t know if they were giving me the “teacher-answer” (it seemed authentic to me), but their answers were endearing and sweet. They said that yes, there is a bit of bullying that happens but, for the most part, their posts were either their own funny or cool photos/vines or “reshares” of some other internet star.

Finally, I got down to what I really wanted to know. I asked them: “Give it to me straight. Are your online experiences mostly positive or negative?” their answers were a resounding “positive”. This gives me hope.

Instead of using online platforms as their own personal spotlights, many kids are using social media to reach out, to form bonds, and to try to find their place in the lives of others. Instead of seeking praise, they are seeking community.”                                                                                      (Yes Magazine)

If there’s one thing that Coetail is teaching me (and there are many things, rest assured), it’s how to feel better connected to my students’ world. I now know 100% more about social media platforms than I did at the start of this semester. Those alone are exceptional statistics! I know, for example, who Alex from Target is and that he is now on tour with a variety of other internet stars. I can also discuss in detail the various subjects of Christian Leave’s Vines and know that several of my students have major crushes on this dude. Those connections – funny and priceless.

But now the talk needs to turn. The conversations need to move beyond the “who’s hot because they do funny stuff” to “who’s hot because they contribute to their community”. So the question remains: how can we empower our students to “use their platforms” to contribute positively to the community, to make an impact?

This past quarter, these same 10th graders (with whom I was engaged in the enlightening discussion) were assigned to write a persuasive speech on any topic as long as they linked it back to our school’s theme for the year: “You, Me, Community.” For inspiration, we showed them this year’s Toastmaster’s International Speech Competition winner – Mohammed Qahtani’s “The Power of Words.

The result? The speeches that they delivered were overwhelmingly positive, hopeful and inspirational. And yes, they were all written and delivered by 15-year-olds. So what’s the next obvious step? Just as Qahtani delivered his powerful message to the world, these same 10th graders get to deliver their speeches for an in-the-works Tedx talk at the end of this school year. When I told them that our Superintendent himself had made this suggestion, they were (in order): stunned, incredulous, nervous, anxious and then…excited. Really excited. Excited to share their positive messages of inspiration with their classmates, school, and global community. Excited to have their voices heard. Excited for an authentic experience. And I have to say – their excitement? It is contagious.



Whose job is it?

Me: “You studied this in your computer class, right?”

Student: “Umm, what computer class?”

Me: “Right…”

It has been my assumption for a while that most of my students either have taken, are in the process of taking or will be taking a computer literacy course. My assumption is, unfortunately, incorrect. Most of my students, actually, have never taken a course dedicated solely to computer literacy. The course is usually offered in some variation as an elective class and unless a student expresses a keen desire to learn “Gaming 101”, chances are they haven’t taken the course. They, like many of the adults in their lives, assume  that “simply because they were born in an age when these technologies were pervasive,” they are somehow savvy to all of the vast and subtle rules of the digital highway.

Bill Fry Mire


This has left me in a conundrum. I’m trying to integrate technology into my English classes, but find that with all of the other requirements of the course, namely the English 10 Common Core Standards, I’m struggling to fit everything in. 

What’s an English Lit teacher to do? I want my students to use technology as a means to furthering their interaction with literature, but I feel like I need to add a few weeks to the school year in order to teach them the skills of digital citizenship. In her book, It’s Complicated: the Social Lives of Networked Teens, Danah Boyd draws emphasis to this very point:

Teens will not become critical contributors to this [Internet] ecosystem simply because they were born in an age when these technologies were pervasive. Whether in school or in informal settings, youth need opportunities to develop the skills and knowledge to engage with temporary technology effectively and meaningfully. Becoming literate in a networked age requires hard work, regardless of age.”

So, whose job is it to teach our students how to be positive, contributing and critical citizens of the internet? Partly mine and partly that of the rest of the adults in their lives: parents, teachers, coaches, mentors, counselors. But are they getting this digital citizenship training in any other classes or areas of their lives? Honestly, I don’t think so.

I must confess – as the weeks of our blogging unit progress, I do feel a great weight on my shoulders that I think is disproportionate compared to teachers of other core subjects. I’m spending quite a bit of class time discussing various aspects of their online profiles, including videos about being careful about what they post online and those that encourage them to consider their legacy; engaging in lengthy Socratic Seminars on the merits of Snapchat vs. Instagram and the fact that Facebook is now considered by teens to be “dead to us”; and of course, the “Do’s & Don’ts” of blogging.
Commonsense Media

All of this to say that I, as an educator, am feeling slightly overwhelmed with the weight of teaching students to navigate this nebulous and still-new-to-me digital highway. For my part, I am starting to take this monolothic job very seriously and am thankful that my school has recently opened a new position for a high school technology integrator. Hopefully, next year all students will be required to take a course similar to the one Reuben Loewey has designed. Or even better, more teachers will begin to integrate aspects of digital citizenship into their own courses. And as scary as it sounds, just as we are all teachers of writing, I think we have all now become teachers of computer literacy.  

You, Me, & Copyright

One of the reasons I’m loving Coetail is that everything that I learn and blog about for the course, I’m bringing back to my students and sharing with them. This week’s readings were of particular interest to me as I continue to hash out my blogging unit with my 10th graders. So far, we’ve watched a rap video, shared with me by my amazing coworker Lindsay, titled “Oversharing: Think Before You Post”. The students loved it (thought it was hilarious & corny) and it taught them a few valuable tips, namely that being a member of the online community brings with it a variety of responsibilities.

Some rights reserved


We’ve also started to explore what it means to cite our digital sources, and they are slowly (and a bit begrudgingly, I must admit) learning to give credit for all externally sourced multimedia that they include in their posts. I’ve shared the information from Jeff Utecht’s instructional Vimeo on embedding images with my students, so now they know to go to Compfight to get all of their images.

In the upcoming weeks, we’re going to look more closely at issues of copyright and what it means to “consume media critically and, ideally, to produce it” as Greg Toppo mentioned in his USA Today article on digital literacy. I love the idea of encouraging our students to move beyond “hanging out” online and getting to the “geeking out” stage of participation.

As for the conversation on copyright laws and regulations…Living in Saudi Arabia, our access to the internet is already limited – the government bans quite a large amount – and students often complain that the only way to access certain content is through illegal means. We’ll start the conversation by watching another Common Sense video about Copyright and Fair Use and discuss how we can find ways that are ethical and legal to access content within the confines of our host country. We’ll also have a Skype session with my sister-in-law who happens to work for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) Piracy Department. She’s all over those Copyright issues! Stay tuned for a report on that conversation!

Some rights reserved