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!