Tag Archives: technology

Innovation in Education

When I found out that the Google Teacher Academy would be held here in Seattle this year, I decided that now was the ideal time to apply for it. I’ve been looking at GTA for a couple of years now and always hesitated because I didn’t want to make the trek to some distant locale for a one-day workshop. And with our district likely going forward with Google Apps in the next year, I started thinking about the application process.

Like a good English teacher, I’ve drafted and will revise my responses to the written questions, but I also want to plan out my video ahead of time. The written responses are fairly natural for me, but the video requires some serious thinking. There are two topics to choose from, and I decided that “Innovation in Education” would be a better fit for me than “Motivation and Learning.” But what do I do? What should I include in the video? What kind of video should I make? What the heck is “Innovation in Education”?Innovation

What is Innovation?

As is often the case, I begin with definitions. What is innovation? Webster’s defines it as “a new idea, method, or device.” Wikipedia points the word’s etymology to the Latin innovare, which means “to renew or change.” Good definitions, but innovation also goes deeper than that. Many inventions are new or changed, as are many theories. The difference between invention and innovation, though, is that an innovation is “put to use, is accepted by users and effectively causes a social or commercial reorganization(Wikipedia).

In other words, innovation is about taking something and using it in a new way – a way that changes the way we think about that idea, method, or device. The Chia Pet, for example, is an invention, but does it cause us to reorganize what we do? No. In contrast, the internet has fundamentally changed the way we interact with the world around us – it is an innovation. Microsoft Windows is an innovation. WYSIWYG editing is an innovation. Electronic fart machines are not.

Of course, innovation is more than just products. Ideas can be just as revolutionary as products. Based on the definitions above, republican democracy is a tremendous innovation – it has completely altered the world as we know it. Similarly, the assembly line was a tremendous innovation because it caused us to reorganize the way we did business in the 20th century.

Innovation is not change for the sake of change – it’s refining things that work and replacing things that don’t. Henry Ford saw the need for a specific change in his business, so he devised a new method that caused commercial reorganization. That is innovation. The Romans saw a need for change on the battlefield, so they devised a new method called the Testudo, which protected their legions and allowed them to move together as armored units. That is innovation. Knute Rockne and a small Catholic school called Notre Dame utilized something called the forward pass to upset powerhouse Army 35-13 and changed the way that football was played. That is innovation.

The Innovator

In addition to these definitions, there is also some research – specifically the work of Everett M. Rogers – about those people who are the innovators. In his work, Diffusion of Innovations, Rogers tries to explain how (and why) new ideas, methods, and devices take hold – how they become innovations. One of the key components in the process is the people involved in the process of adopting the innovation, of which he says there are 5 categories: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards. The innovators, he says, are the risk-takers – the people willing to try something out in the hopes that it makes their lives or work better. As risk takers, these are also the people who are willing to fail if it means they have a chance of doing something great. Typically, Rogers says, these people are young, often not wanting for money, and interact most frequently with other innovators. Comparatively, early adopters jump on board after innovators have done test runs, early majority take their time and watch what happens to the first two groups, while late majority and laggards are slow to jump on board, if they jump on at all.

Rogers’ work reveals one more interesting detail: innovators are not the group that make an innovation successful. They may be the group that tries something first, but the majority look at them as being something akin to mad scientists. It is the early adopters, however, that are also the opinion leaders; they are the group that the majority will look to and trust because they are taking a more responsible risk. While the innovators are often young and frequently considered naive, the early adopters often demonstrate prudence in the innovations they adopt and are viewed as more responsible because of it. They are typically the group refining and perfecting the ideas and methods put forth by the innovators. It is because of this that early adopters often make or break a particular innovation.

Innovation in Education

So what does this look like in education? What are the educational equivalents of the assembly line, the Testudo, and the forward pass? What does it mean to be an innovator in education? No doubt the Socratic Method was innovative in its own time and changed the way people learned. Surely inquiry learning is an innovative approach to teaching content and/or skills. And there are countless other innovations that have impacted education over time – the printing press, chalkboard, and more recently, the computer. These are all innovations.

While innovation certainly has to happen at every level of the education system, I’m not sure this is the sort of innovation the Google Teacher Academy is talking about here. I imagine they are looking for innovation on a smaller scale – individual teachers, departments, or schools that are utilizing new tools, methods, or ideas to change the way students learn about the content.

Without question, technology plays a critical role in this sort of innovation. But technology is only one piece of the puzzle. There are plenty of teachers (and schools and districts) that simply use technology for technology’s sake. And there are innumerable ways to use technology without being innovative. The question, then, is how we are using technology in ways that will change the way we teach and the way students learn?

In my experience, there is perhaps no more significant technological innovation in the Language Arts classroom than the internet. Even if only used for research, the ability to access nearly any material in the entire world is an unbelievable advance in education. Doing the research for this particular post, for example, would likely have taken months using traditional library research methods, rather than hours. Email changed how teachers communicate with students and parents – everything from quick messages to class newsletters can be sent via email. Web-based grading systems allow parents and students to track their grades on a regular basis.

Other digital tools have the potential to be equally innovative. This year, a few of us (probably “innovators” according to Rogers) have been piloting Moodle – an open-source learning management system. It’s a great tool that enables us to utilize a controlled digital environment with our students. We can use forums, wikis, online assignments, surveys, resources, quizzes – just about anything we might want. Using Moodle has helped us dramatically cut paper usage, given us opportunities to use a number of web-based resources in conjunction with activities, and changed the way I teach my classes.

Cell phones also have the potential to change how students learn. Access to the internet in students’ pockets allows them to quickly look up facts and information. Tools like PollEverywhere change the way teachers can formatively assess students. And combined with tools like Twitter, cell phones can allow students to get reminders and announcements anywhere, any time.

And while technology tools like cell phones and Moodle have innovative potential, it is often the simple adjustments or “tweaks” that become real innovations. For example, I discovered shortly after we began using digital projectors that I could simply project writing onto a whiteboard and make it “interactive” (rather than spending $5,000 on a big, digital version). This is an easily adopted change that impacts teaching directly and immediately without great expense or labor. This is the sort of change that is quickly adopted by the early majority and becomes innovation.

What About Me?

I suppose, since this is an application, there ought to be some explanation of how I have been innovative. I always hate this part because I worry about coming off as an arrogant braggart. Nevertheless, I do think that I would quickly be identified as an “innovator” by my colleagues, particularly around technology. I like to try new things, even when I don’t know if they will work out. I am quick to jump on pilot programs, such as our Moodle pilot (which has been very successful) or a Wiimote Whiteboard pilot (which failed miserably), and I’ll share my experiences with anyone who will listen. In particular, I enjoy experimenting with different technologies and how they can positively influence learning in my classroom. Honestly, even this blog is an extension of this mentality – I wanted to see what this blogging thing was all about and see how it could affect my teaching. I can live with (and learn from) failure, I enjoy taking responsible risks, and I fit Rogers’ general profile of an “innovator.”

But as an “innovator,” I also recognize that I am not an opinion leader. I am the “mad scientist” that many people will ignore. In order to turn an idea into a true innovation, I understand that I need the help of those that are opinion leaders – I have to identify and utilize the early adopters. This is why I teach workshop classes at our 10Tech Summer Conference. This is why I share things that I find to be successful (such as Moodle or Delicious) with people in my department and in my building that I recognize to be opinion leaders. I show them how a new tool, idea, or method has positively impacted my students so they can try it out and convince everyone else the idea is worthwhile. Of course, any innovation would be meaningless if it doesn’t impact the world in some way. Whatever innovations I may be trying to share will be utterly worthless if they do not accomplish one simple goal: help students learn.

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Twitter…in the classroom?

You read that correctly. I’m using Twitter in my classroom. A service that I frequently condemned as banal and self-serving is suddenly something I use on a daily basis. Before you judge me, though, please finish reading.

In case you live under a rock and don’t know what Twitter is, check out CommonCraft’s “Twitter in Plain English.” As always, CommonCraft gives the best quick introduction to a tech tool. Those that are well-informed are likely familiar with Twitter thanks to the likes of Ashton Kutcher, who won a “Race to a Million” contest with CNN. 

Aside from the inherently self-serving belief that someone actually cares what I’m doing, there was always one problem I had with Twitter – how am I supposed to use this in my classroom? I couldn’t see past the inane updates people put on there (you know the ones: “had cheerios for breakfast. off to school.”).

Fortunately, I took another chance and listened to a colleague teach at our district’s winter tech mini-conference. He shared something really great that he was doing – using Twitter to update parents on what was happening in class. I was impressed with the simplicity of the idea, and also a little disappointed I hadn’t thought of it myself. In any case, I decided to take his idea and add some of my own ideas. What follows are the many ways I have found Twitter to be useful in communicating with students and parents.

  • Class Updates. I update parents and students on what we’re doing in class. I’ll post periodic updates both during class and after school telling parents and students “here’s what we’re doing today.” This is a great way to provide people with a little window into our classroom.
  • iPhone Apps. I’ve been using the Echofon app for normal Twitter updates, but I also have been using the Twitpic app to take photos of students working in class, which I then upload to the class Twitter. In addition to that, I found the Vidly app, which lets me upload videos and share them on Twitter. So far, I’ve shared pictures of students working, photos of their work, and videos of skits they did in class. This has been a great way to let parents see what we do in class, and makes that little window into our classroom much wider.
  • Class Website Widget. Our class website has an “Announcements” page that I had to update at least once a week. After signing up for Twitter, I created a widget that now fills that same Announcements page and displays our “tweets” (that word still makes me cringe). This has been a nice time-saver for me. I just add a quick update during down time during class and don’t have to spend 15 minutes updating it during the week.
  • Reminders (by SMS!). I’ve been using Twitter to send reminders about due dates and upcoming events, and there is a really nice bonus to this. Since I teach 8th and 9th, most students have cell phones. Those that have unlimited texting are able to follow our Twitter page and, more importantly, have updates send to their phones via text message. The small handful of students using this feature have found it really helpful to get reminders texted to them about the assignment that is due this week.

That’s where I’m at right now with Twitter. I’d love to hear what people think.


Do your kids use Formspring.me?

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted, largely because I’m trying to keep up with more responsibilities than I can count at school and home. Nevertheless, I feel a compelling urge to post on a fairly new tool I came across called Formspring.me, which has the potential to be more dangerous to students than most other websites I’ve heard of. Just to give you an idea of it’s prevalence, I took a quick poll of my 8th graders. About 1/3 have a Formspring page. About 3/4 know about Formspring.me.

Usually I like to post tools that could be useful for teachers to use – either to make the administrative side of our jobs easier or to help students learn something better. In this case, however, I want to make those few readers of this blog aware of this site, which is quickly replacing MySpace and facebook as the site du jour for the teenagers I work with.

Formspring.me is a very simple site. Users like my 8th and 9th graders create accounts, which give them a formspring page. If you or I go visit that user’s page, we see a box to type in with a title that reads “Ask me anything.” You fill out this box and it anonymously asks the user any question you can come up with. The user will then post his/her answer, along with the question, for all to see. Simple concept, right?

Here’s the dilemma: anyone who works with young people can quickly point out that anonymity nearly always breeds irresponsibility. This case is no different. While doing a little research, I was (un)fortunate enough to come across a couple of former students’ pages on Formspring.me and can honestly say that I will never look at those students the same way again. After only a couple of minutes browsing around, here are a couple of things I saw that set of alarm bells in my “teacher brain”:

  • Conversations on each page quickly degenerated into some general types of questions/comments:
    • “I hate you” comments were remarkably prevalent. I saw people calling each other names that I wouldn’t use around my closest friends. Moreover, the frequency of these comments was staggering. In a lot of ways, this site more or less encourages cyber-bullying, and does it in a public space.
    • “You’re awesome” comments are much less disturbing, but encourage a pretty self-centered view on life. For example, I saw a few comments such as, “Why are people judging you? You’re so nice!” Not surprisingly, the students in question respond with statements about how they are good people that don’t judge other people but that other people actually judge them.
    • Questions/comments about sex. Every question that can be asked about a person’s sexual history, preference, etc. is being discussed in public for the world to see. Like I said – I’ll never look at some kids the same way again.
  • This site allows a space for kids to do discuss these things in an uncontrolled environment without talking about issues with parents or teachers or people who may have a little more experience and wisdom.
  • Think MySpace encouraged risky behavior? Looking at two pages on Formspring, I saw full names, cities, and cell phone numbers posted for all the world to see. At our school, we try to teach kids what information to put out there and to be responsible citizens of the internet. Apparently our lessons aren’t sticking.

Now, I’m not saying we should sue the website and get it shut down or anything like that. I’m not even necessarily saying the site should be blocked by school web filters. What I am saying, though, is that this is just another site that parents and teachers need to be aware of and, hopefully, talk to their students about using responsibly. I know I will.

Have some experience using Formspring.me? Do your children or students use it? I’d really appreciate hearing your thoughts, comments, and questions on this one.


Classroom Tech, Part VII: “Everything’s Amazing; Nobody’s Happy.”

In this, the final post of the summer-long Classroom Tech series, I conclude with a little reflection on the state of educational technology (for previous posts, feel free to click here, here, here, here, here, or here).

Our amazing librarian shared this video during a training a while back and I thought I’d share it with those few who read this blog. While I wouldn’t recommend this comedian’s other YouTube videos, this one is pretty funny (and of course it would be on Late Night with Conan O’Brien). I think it fits with what I’ve been covering this summer in the Classroom Tech series.

As I conclude this series, I am very excited about integrating some of these ideas into my classroom, whether keeping students organized with iGoogle or teaching students how to make more effective presentations. But I am now in my third year of teaching. I have two summers’ worth of excitement under my belt, and those have been greatly tempered with two years’ worth of harsh reality. The reality of our schools is that, while we may get excited about some of the new things we’re planning or some of the technology we’re using, our students likely will not be.

I am coming to realize, however, that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Do I want my students engaged in what we do in class? Of course. But I also know that not all students will be engaged in the sense that they are excited and eager to come to class every day. It is still school, after all, and no matter what teachers might do, some students will apply their paradigm that school=boring. This is true of writing, watching movies, or using cell phones in the classroom – because it’s happening at school, students’ paradigms are often negative.

But what I must continue to remind myself is that technology is not about engagement. I am not integrating technology because it will be more fun for my students. My job isn’t to make all of my students happy, no matter how amazing the technology is that we’re using. While I certainly hope this is true, it is not the goal. Instead, I am integrating technology for two much more important reasons:

  1. The technology I am choosing to use will somehow enhance and improve the lessons I am already teaching. For example, Google Docs is not useful in and of itself. It is useful because it will make the writing assessments I’m creating more relevant and more efficient.
  2. Technology is, and will be, an integral part of my students’ lives. If I choose not to use technology in my classroom, then students may not learn how to use it or use it responsibly. In addition, if they don’t learn how to use today’s technology effectively, then the technology of the future will be even more confusing. For example, if I had never learned how to use MS Word 98, and I tried to immediately jump into Word 2007, it would be much more difficult to learn.

As I continue on this teaching journey, these are the two things I feel I really need to remember about using technology. As much as I want my students to love coming to my class, and as much as I want them to have fun, it is infinitely more important that they are coming to class and learning something that is valuable, both to their future educational pursuits and to their lives in general, even if they’re not happy with the amazing things I’m trying to do with them.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this summer’s Classroom Tech series. I’d love some feedback on what you liked or what you would like to see improved. Best of luck to all of you in this upcoming school year, and stay tuned for more discussions here on Edumacation.


Classroom Tech, Part VI: Cell Phones

iX-Ray, by slowburn (on flickr)

iX-Ray, by slowburn (on flickr)

I’m nearing the end of a series of posts outlining how I plan on using technology during the coming school year. I’ll share some tools, resources, and ideas that I intend to use with students in the classroom, and hopefully you, the reader, will share some advice or thoughts of your own, either in the comments section, or on your own blog (just let me know if you do!).

As I wind down this summer’s Classroom Tech series, I want to focus a little bit of time on a tool that most students are not even allowed to use in their classes – cell phones.

Before sharing some ideas and resources, though, I have to preface this. I don’t like cell phones. I never have. I’ve always felt that they allow people to get a hold of me whenever they want, that I am on a sort of electronic leash that can be yanked back anytime I’m doing something I want to be doing. I’ve felt this way since I was in high school, when cell phones were becoming more popular (we had one cell phone in our family car for emergencies only). Since high school, I’ve had three cell phones that I have called my own. The first was a very basic flip phone that came free with our family plan. The second was also a basic flip phone, but with free calling over wi-fi. Both were simple and easy to use, but weren’t really special. I’ll share about my third (and current) phone shortly.

Last school year, I was asked to try experimenting with cell phones in the classroom by our district’s instructional technology coach, Kimberly. She was really excited about some of the possibilities and had no idea about my cell-phobia. I took her up on it, as it was a chance to try something new and get pushed out of my comfort zone. I used a couple of the tools described below – PollEverywhere and Wiffiti – to experiment with SMS polling. I asked groups to submit discussion questions via text message, which then appeared on the projector screen. I asked students to vote on who they blamed for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, and the results appeared in a nice bar graph. And I asked students to vote on whether they thought cell phones could be really useful in school, and their votes were also tallied and graphed.

In hindsight, I am very impressed with that one possible application for cell phones, but several sources have continued to push my thinking on using cell phones. The gist of what I read and hear is simple: 90% of my students have very functional, very powerful computing devices in their pockets/backpacks. Some have cell phones with internet access, others have iPod Touches, while still others have smart phones. Why wouldn’t we take advantage of this unprecedented access?

This summer, I chose to embrace this new thinking as my wife and I changed cell phone carriers. We weren’t happy with the customer service at T-Mobile, and my wife’s sister (who works at AT&T) told us about the 15% educator discount, so we decided to take advantage. I wasn’t content, however, with another simple flip phone. Instead, I decided to put a high-powered computer in my own pocket. In spite of my personal cell-phobia and even stronger Apple-phobia, I turned to the Dark Side and invested in an iPhone 3Gs.

While the iPhone isn’t without its problems, I have quickly realized the unprecedented power I now carry around with me. At any given moment, I have access to the internet, email, instant messaging, social networks, telephone, up-to-the-minute news, and a whole host of other unbelievable tools ranging from the practical (maps with GPS location) to the completely useless (my custom purple light saber, complete with Star Wars music).

The realization that I have this kind of access at any given second is yet another reason why I have to ask myself a simple question: why not? Why not use this amazing device in school? Why not take advantage of what they already have? Why not quit whining about not having a netbook cart and, instead, get students to use their cell phones for *gasp* learning? While I’m looking forward to increased computer access for more frequent computer-based writing activities, we do a lot of things on computers that kids can do on their phones.

So that’s where I’m at heading into the new school year – with a fancy new phone and some new ideas on how to use cell phones in the classroom. What follows are a couple of those ideas and some resources to check out if you’re interested in learning more about using cell phones to help students learn.

  • Obviously, I intend to continue using cell phones as feedback devices. I found it quite helpful to get student feedback over the course of a class period, and polling like this is a great way to formatively assess students as they are learning. Websites like PollEverywhere and Wiffiti are excellent resources – they provide a digital bulletin board that turns text message responses into visible results (usually either written text or tallied votes). Of the two, I prefer PollEverywhere, as it offers more options for formatting your poll. Feel free to check out a couple of polls I ran last school year to see what it looks like.
  • For students who are so inclined, most cell phones have some sort of audio-recording feature that could be used to record lessons or notes. While it may be something that students can choose to do themselves, it might also make sense for a teacher to use his iPhone to record lessons and post them to the class website.
  • As nearly all cell phones now include integrated cameras, students could use their phones to take photos pertaining to a class assignment and either bring them to class or post them (via MMS) to Facebook, flickr, or their blogs (Blogger and WordPress each have this functionality). This would work great for vocabulary – students are each assigned a vocabulary word and have to take at least 3 photos that help others understand the meaning of the word (I saw an example of this idea using the word “dilapidated” that was very cool).
  • Students could utilize the wi-fi/web functionality of their phones or iPod Touches, or even utilize educational apps, to look up words, use a thesaurus, or find an answer on Wikipedia. These are all things students do in their classes already – now they are simply using a different tool to accomplish the same goal.
  • My iPhone has an Animoto app. I can create Animoto videos anytime, anywhere. Example: visited Cannon Beach on the Oregon Coast and created this Animoto video on my iPhone from the pictures I took…on my iPhone. Think students might enjoy doing this with their free Animoto account and their iPod Touches?
  • Usage is a big issue when considering cell phones in the classroom – costs for texting, minutes, and data are relative unknowns. Why not make it an assignment for students to understand how much their use costs? Have them calculate their dollars per minute of talk time, or average their text messaging habits? This will help them develop some basic math skills, but will also help make them aware of the cost of cell phones and plans.

Before moving on to some resources, I want to mention that there are management issues with cell phones. I am not naive enough to deny this. In my own brief experience, I had a student take a picture of me and post it to his MySpace (I heard this via another student). Another student texted a rude comment about a friend instead of a discussion question. But there are management issues with anything. Students throw balled-up paper and paper airplanes and give each other paper cuts and write mean things on paper, but we don’t ban paper from the classroom because it’s a valuable tool. Instead, we try to teach students how to use paper responsibly – cell phones are no different. Like all technology, students must learn how to be good citizens with their cell phones. They need to understand the amazing possibilities, but must also realize some of the consequences of their actions (once again, all the news around “sexting” comes to mind).

It is this management/citizenship issue that I am currently learning more about. There are a number of resources I’ve used, both for the instructional and management pieces, that are out there to help others who are interested in using cell phones in the classroom. Here are a couple of great resources if you’re interested in learning more.

Just a few resources, but hopefully enough to get you started.

Only one more post remains in this summer’s Classroom Tech series, and I’d love to hear your feedback. Next time: Everything’s Amazing…Nobody’s Happy.


Classroom Tech, Part V: PowerPoint

I’m in the middle of a series of posts outlining how I plan on using technology during the coming school year. I’ll share some tools, resources, and ideas that I intend to use with students in the classroom, and hopefully you, the reader, will share some advice or thoughts of your own, either in the comments section, or on your own blog (just let me know if you do!).

This next tech tool is nothing new to any of us, and at this point, it barely counts as “technology.” The use of PowerPoint in schools has a long and sordid history, dating back at least to when I was in high school. So it’s not necessarily the tool that I’m focusing on here, but the way in which the tool is used. Over the last year, I’ve been frequently exposed to blog posts, seminars, books, and other resources on making learning visual. PowerPoint, originally, was supposed to help with this. Unfortunately, it has become a tool for presenters/teachers rather than for learners. Rather than spend a lot of time sharing ideas, I want to sum up the concepts that I’ve learned and share some valuable resources for using PowerPoint to make learning more visual.

Concepts:

  • Much of the learning I’ve done centers around using lots of images and minimizing text when using presentation software. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, check out the following two examples. First, the “old” way of doing PowerPoint (or, “what not to do):

    And now, the “new” way of doing PowerPoint (pay attention to the visual:text ratios):
  • The core concept for successfully using PowerPoint is to connect what you are saying to some simple, concrete imagery. Allow the images and visuals to add to what you are saying; let your audience make connections of their own between your words and the visuals in your PowerPoint.
  • Photos are infinitely more meaningful to audiences than clip art. Take the images below, for example. Both might connect to my main idea of “baseball,” but I think we can all agree that the photo is far more visually appealing and meaningful than the clip art.
     

 

 

 

 

 

 

Resources

  • Many of the concepts I’ve learned about are nicely captured in Garr Reynolds’ book, Presentation Zen. This is the key piece of literature for those looking to become better presenters. It focuses a little more on the theoretical aspects of presenting, but is an all-around good read.
  • Some other books and resources for the theory behind better presentations: A Whole New Mind by Daniel H. Pink, which focuses on brain research and visual thinking, and Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte, which focuses a little more on the practical side of presentation creation.
  • In addition to those books, here are a few online resources to help get you started in creating “zen” presentations:

And that’s all for this edition of Classroom Tech. Next time, in Part VI, we’ll discuss one of the most contentious pieces of classroom technology: cell phones.


Classroom Tech, Part IV: Shelfari

A snippet of my "Books I've Read" shelf, complete with ratings

A snippet of my "Books I've Read" shelf, complete with ratings

I’m in the middle of  a series of posts outlining how I plan on using technology during the coming school year. I’ll share some tools, resources, and ideas that I intend to use with students in the classroom, and hopefully you, the reader, will share some advice or thoughts of your own, either in the comments section, or on your own blog (just let me know if you do!).

Unlike the other tools mentioned in the previous three posts, Shelfari is not something I am just now starting to use with students. I’ve used Shelfari with my students for a year and a half now, with a mixed bag of success, and I’ve posted before on what it is and on some of my experiences with Shelfari. All told, it’s been a great tool, and my experiences using it with classes have yielded a couple of strategies to make it more effective.

  • I primarily use Shelfari in my English classes as a way for students to document their outside reading. To do this, I ask that they write a book review (which includes both summary and evaluation) on Shelfari. From a management standpoint, the most effective way for me to grade this is to create a group for each class period and work through each class separately. This is really nice because I can stay up to date on what kids are reading, they can recommend books to me or their peers, and their reviews can be read by anyone on the website.
  • Shelfari would also be a great resource for students who are looking for books to read, particularly if you’ve been using class groups. They could use other students’ shelves and reviews to find books that they might be interested in. This could also include an added writing component in which students have to explain why they selected the book that they did, encouraging them to use some metacognition and think about the criteria that they used to select that book.
  • There are numerous other groups on Shelfari that students could be encouraged to join, many focused on a particular literary interest such as a genre, title, or author. Students could interact with other Shelfari users in these groups and hear from like-minded people. There is an obvious safety concern here, as we don’t know who students are interacting with, so that is something that would have to be discussed thoroughly before encouraging this activity.
  • One oft-neglected feature of Shelfari is the “on loan” check box for individual books. Say you keep an inventory of all your books on Shelfari. If a student borrows or checks out a book from you, you can find that book on your shelf and go to the details page. Under the “Editions” tab, there is a check box that says “loaned to a friend.” If you check that box, you can fill in the information – who you loaned it to and when – and save that until the book is returned. While I do wish it was a little easier to access this feature, it’s pretty handy nonetheless.
  • I often use the Wish List shelf to keep a list of books that I’m interested in reading. This might be a really great way for students to build up some interest in a variety of books and let you see the kinds of books they want to read. This opens the door for recommendations, reviews, and other great interaction. You might even make it an assignment to add 2 books from different genres that the student is going to read. One additional benefit to doing this: if students have a list of books they want to read on their Wish List, they should never be telling you they don’t have a book to read.

These are just a few of, I’m sure, innumerable ideas for using Shelfari in the classroom. Unlike some of the previous tech tools, I can say with complete confidence that most students – particularly young adults – enjoy using Shelfari. They laugh and make fun of it early on, but once they start getting into the different possibilities (particularly interacting with their friends), they really do start to engage a little bit more.

Next up in the Classroom Tech series (Part V) will be an oldie, but a goodie: PowerPoint.