To Frighten, To Inspire: An Open Letter To My Students

The question from the audience was about attribution. A sophomore student asked the doctoral candidate if they needed to cite sources. Her response is what made me choke on air.

"Always! Plagiarism is a zero in my classes," says the doctoral candidate.

I would've been okay with this response if it weren't for the follow up her superior, also a guest on our campus, added, saying something like, "We don't have a fancy grading system at our school."

My blood still boils as I write about this exchange. Not because of the high level of ignorance chuckling with a wink at my students. Not because of the shame I felt as these people represented my alma mater. It was because they had no right to impress such a lack of academic professionalism on my students.

Let me explain.

The reason we cite sources is to communicate to the reader where they can find this information. It's about connecting ideas and points of view to engage in a conversation. This is the primary reason we cite sources. It allows readers to determine what's yours and what's not so they can address your work appropriately. I know this because I studied with the best.

I'm sorry that attribution is taught to you in such a negative way. It's suppose to be something that connects people and increases the value of your work. Sure, malpractice is unacceptable, especially when it's negligible. But to teach it like you're always about to do it would be like threatening to cut off your hand just in case you were thinking about stealing.

To be fair to the graduate candidate, she probably wasn't taught any differently. Fear must have been a motivator that has helped her get through academic challenges in her life. I hope at some point she, and others with this burden, wake up to the fact that real progress will come from those who aim to inspire, not frighten.

Sickened for the moment,

Kevin Zahner

5 Activities With Google My Maps

Social studies classes often provide practice with worksheets. Many of the worksheets are productive, so I'm not saying that they are a waste of time. But, honestly, find an engineer, banker, doctor, carpenter, or anyone, for that matter, who gets a paycheck for completing a worksheet. If there wasn't an alternative to the textbook approach, I wouldn't mention it.

Instead of making copies of worksheets, take your students to the computer lab and have them research a topic, make a table to organize the information, and map the findings with Google My Maps. The map can be shared via link or embedded into a website. Then, it becomes a study guide that your students, and the world, can use.

The map can be used for sorting and other analysis activities. Perhaps students could use it to categorize the data into three or four categories and write a summary analyzing for similarities and differences.

Here's what I did with our Civil War Battle study.

1. Collect information with a Google Form.

Make a Google Form (first image below) to collect the research results from students. The response submissions will be collected in a Google Sheet (second image) that is automatically connected to the Form when you make it. Include at least location and title columns so Maps can plot and label the points. You'll be prompted to choose he columns when you upload the data to My Maps.

2. Upload the data with Google Sheets.

This can be done in many layers or just one. I use a layer for each class. If the students are studying regional geography, you can make different forms for different geography themes and import them as separate layers. The map's use as a resource for future activities expands when you write assessment items that require the students to choose the appropriate layer to access the data needed to respond to the problem. Rigorous instruction does not need to be a lot of work to be effective.

3. Add images to their points.

Once the points are plotted, let the students explore while adding images to the info points. Guide them to choose an image or photo that tells the story or a critical piece of it.

4. Include links to resources for a more in-depth read.

Evaluating sources can be fun and productive when students add urls to their info point. Add a new column to the data table by selecting the "open data table" link under the layer (see image above). This is a good opportunity to teach students how to evaluate sources. Try using a strategy like CRAAP to practice evaluating Internet sources.

Other Activity Ideas 

1. World War II Battles
2. Physical Features 
3. Civil Rights Events 
4. Standard of living 
5. Rule of Law

Best Thing This Teacher Does

Teaching kids to count is fine, but teaching them what counts is best. 

-Bob Talbert
My first few years of teaching taught me how to give direction that lasts -- the kind of direction that isn't followed by the same question asked by five students every period. I guess I didn't want to become one of those teachers who complains about kids asking questions, like it's not already my job to give answers and be there for them.

This week's #youredustory topic is about the best thing I do in my classroom. The best thing I do is remind myself that I work with kids and that they need me to help them find their path to adulthood. But they are not adults, so I don't treat them as such and certainly don't impose adult expectations.

What does it mean to be a kid?

Kids are often more brilliant than they realize. They just don't know it yet because they haven't been validated enough or given the opportunity to explore their strengths. The hard part is finding out what their intelligences are if they're not obvious.

A lot of the "problematic" kids often have lots of interests that aren't valued as much in many classrooms. These kids might do well making their own map instead completing the worksheet with it already drawn for them. They might jump at the opportunity to share a series of paragraphs that represent how their point of view has changed since the beginning of a lesson, especially if it's published on their blog and receives feedback from the teacher or their peers.

My approach to minding kids requires learning about their intellectual capacities, work habits, and interests to offer better opportunities that meet them where they are and push them to achieve more. That's all I can control. Its their education. I won't force it on them.

What does it mean to be an adult? 

Our ideas about adulthood depend on whether we think about maturity in terms of ideal types. Let's face it. We're not exactly perfect. Adults need similar reminders and motivators, as do kids, to arrive on time, turn in reports, and learn about new expectations.  

Adults, however, have a more developed frontal lobe that helps decision making and problem solving. It is our job, as classroom teachers, to design opportunities for kids to develop these abilities in an environment safe from economic risk or from situations in which others are counting on them for survival.

How will they know when they've found their path?

For many kids, they come back to visit during college breaks or send a message on Facebook to tell you that they found their thing, or at least their thing for now. The fact that they mention it to you should be the feedback you need as a teacher to be reassured that what you are do is working.

Up the Down Staircase, Sovik Took the Elevator

This is my first post for #YourEduStory. I hope to not miss any weeks. It's a great idea to organize edubloggers under a common focus. 

The topic: How are you, or is your approach, different than your favorite teacher?

Mr. Brown is my favorite teacher. Or is it Ms. Ryan? Actually, I think I have about 10 or 20 favorite teachers. They all made an impact on me that stands today as I make decisions in both the classroom and my personal life.

My Favorite Teacher

If I have to choose, it's Sovik. He has a PhD but doesn't believe in all that, "Call me doctor, stuff." This guy is either a genius or totally insane. Either way, his over-the-top way of explaining music history was more engaging than any lecturer I've had to listen to for a May mini-mester. For three and a half hours, this guy would yell about rock 'n' roll, and we all loved it.

I later got to know him better when I worked as his teaching assistant in graduate school. Most of our conversations were about how to deal with people who are just trying to kill our buzz for having a good time and doing our jobs well. Beneath his casual Friday dress was a scholar who would often remind us that learning is supposed to be interesting, fun, and to not take our intelligence too seriously. 

How I am Different

Sovik taught to a different audience. It was about 100 to 200 college students face-to-face and sometimes a thousand in the online sections. He had four TAs and the most popular course that satisfied the cross-cultural diversity credit for almost all of the UNT undergraduate programs.

Although my students like my way of revealing the underlying patterns of human behavior, they would turn into zombies by the third week if all I did was lecture and hand out quizzes.

I've learned that a great history teacher knows how to set up the opportunity for students to think about historical problems. They are masters at pointing where to look but not revealing what to see. History teachers train students to do what historians do, just to a much more limited breadth. I can't say that I'm there, but every year I take steps in the right direction.  

What Did Sovik Teach Me?

It's not the pop music that I remember from Sovik's classes. It was the way he found the irony in so many cultural developments. He wanted so badly to instill in his students a sense of intellectual humility. He wanted us to develop the ability to question our own perceptions in an attempt to better understand another's.

Thanks Sovik. I could have written about so many great teachers. I could have made a list of 20 because I've been that fortunate. But I chose you because you are my favorite who I will never emulate, ever. 

4 Ways to Make Messy Learning Videos

Teachers have been asking me what I use to make videos. Here's a few tools that I use and some additional resources to get you started. I am still dialing in the video style as well as the quality. Some tools are quicker to produce, while others are better quality. 

1. Google Hangouts On Air 

I use Hangouts On Air for the reflection videos that I e-mail to parents because it's quick and easy. It includes screen sharing and works with my webcam. This allows me to connect as a person while showing the student work in video format. 

The videos are uploaded to my YouTube account where they can be editing as needed. Google does the heavy lifting so I don't have to. The drawback is in quality, but it works for now. I can live with it. 

You'll need your Google+ account activated (if it's not already). For Google Apps For Education (#GAFE), your administrator will need to add you if it's not available. Since it's a social media application, some districts keep a closer eye on Google+.

2. Screencast-O-Matic 

I use this one for instructional videos. The drawback is that it's higher quality so you need a really good microphone. When I get one, I will use this application more often. I'm currently looking at the Blue Snowflake because it's a reasonably priced USB mic, and I know that it picks up the lower mid of my voice better than the stock microphone on my laptop.

3. Flipagram 

This is my favorite to make videos for instruction because I can do it with my iPhone. It's a slide show video maker that allows you to add text to images and voice recordings. The videos can be uploaded to YouTube with two clicks. What's better than that?

4. iPad and Justand

The Justand is the red stand that holds my iPad. It has a continuous torque hinge so you can change the angle as needed without loosening or tightening anything. 

I mirror the iPad to the overhead projector so this stand turns the iPad into a document camera. It's great to display student work and project the whiteboard (because I still like using markers). All you have to do is hit record and the explanation becomes a video that can be uploaded to YouTube with two clicks. 

Additional Resources

Please comment on how you make videos or other resources that your want to share. Thanks for reading. I hope this helped. 

EdTech For Mazano's 9 Strategies

It can be overwhelming when you think about all of the educational tools we have to make the learning process more engaging and informative. Here's a list of applications based on Marzano's nine high-yield strategies.

1. Identifying similarities and differences 

It's easy to be drawn to attractive technology that appears to be better than what you already have in your toolbox. The new tool that you choose needs to do something critical that the old tool cannot.

I recommend using highlighting and table tools common in word processing programs. Highlighting notes or reading selections in a few different colors helps the analysis process, as does sorting information into tables.

To make graphic organizers, you can use Google drawing or any basic paint tool that comes standard in almost all PCs or Apple products. 

Sharing the results of your similarities and differences analysis is fun with word clouds. Poll Everywhere has a word cloud presentation setting that my students and I use to prioritize our vocabulary study. We use Poll Everywhere because it receives response from a variety of devices, from text messaging to text entry on PCs. 

2. Summarizing and note taking

In our classroom, my students and I use Google Docs for notes. We have a team of note-takers with different tasks to complete, which can be done all on the same document. 

We also do activities with paper-based materials and bring it together with a table that I make in advance on Docs. The cool thing about using tables is that if each group has a different row or column, every student can be a simultaneous contributor. Throw the doc on the big screen and the discussion is happening in record time. 

If you're taking notes, the summary piece cannot be left out. Depending on the type of summary the students need to complete, try one of the following.

One-Sentence Summaries
  • Padlet works well with Chromebooks and computers, 
  • TodaysMeet works better with smartphones (one-sentence summary), 
  • Poll Everywhere has no character limit and features multiple presentation formats. 
Paragraph Summary
  • Google Docs can be shared multiple ways (e-mail, Drive, Google Classroom).
  • Blogger is a favorite option for summaries that respond to big ideas or essential questions. 
  • VersoApp is the most effective way to engage students in discussion and critical analysis. 

3. Reinforcing effort and providing recognition

One of the worst experiences for our students is working on an essay or project without feedback until it's too late. Using the comments tool in Google Docs includes the teacher throughout the learning process.

For those students who choose to not start the assignment with enough time for feedback before the deadline, teachers can reinforce the expectations with reminders that are specific to the amount of effort the student is making (or not). When these reminders do not work, teachers can e-mail a link to parents by completing a few simple steps.

4. Homework and practice 

Let's be honest. Kids don't like homework. Teachers don't like it either. But I think we can all agree that a few minutes on each subject a few times a week makes a significant difference.

Quizlet has been a easy way to provide students with vocabulary and other background building information that they can study and practice. Students like the games and app access, and I like the performance tracking and hours it saves making learning and assessment materials. 

I use the tracking data to help students determine what they need to do before they reassess. It takes away the need for teachers or students to keep track of at least background practice and progress, which I have found is the number one reason students don't do well on an assessment the first time.

5. Nonlinguistic representations 

Drawing to convey ideas is something from which everyone can benefit. Google Drawing is an application within Drive, so we use it for the convenience of sharing, automatic cloud storage, and use of familiar tools since they are mostly the same as Docs, Sheets, and Slides.

Whether the activity is made in advance or the students are making their own visual representations, Google Drawing is our first choice because it facilitates using what we make in future activities or projects.

6. Cooperative learning

Googe Drive is your one-stop shop for cooperative learning tools. I've talked a lot about how my students use Google Docs, so it's time for Slides. This application is Google's answer to Power Point. Like Docs and Drawing, students can work on the same presentation and benefit from chat, comment, and research tools, to name a few. 

If my students are doing presentations on Post-Classical empires, each group of three or four can present a different empire, while each student can build the slides for a different world history theme. In about thirty minutes, a class can produce about six presentations and have a lot of content to critique and adjust through commentary tools, blog posts, and group discussion. 

Make sure to have students tag the slides with curriculum references so they get practice relating their work to a goal, which leads us to the first half of the next strategy.

7. Setting objectives and providing feedback  

Google Classroom's primary function is to communicate assignments and announcements to students. Both allow teachers to attach videos, documents, and links from a computer, smartphone, Google Drive, YouTube, or pasting a link.

This is all done on a stream layout that includes communication opportunities from all class members in a space that allows everyone to see the discussion. It's a great place to introduce an objective and give students a chance to ask questions.

Better yet, a more rigorous activity would be to have the students write the objective based on the activities listed. It would certainly be a strong opportunity for discussion that may empower them to take ownership for their learning.

Other feedback opportunities are possible when the students turn in assignments on Classroom. The teacher has all the commenting tools of a Google Doc when that format is turned in (other formats are accepted). But regardless of the format turned in, teachers can provide comments with each assignment along with a grade.

8. Generating and testing hypothesis

Imagine a problem presented to students, hypotheses submitted electronically, and the results anonymously displayed in a automatically generated list that can be viewed by the whole class. Now it's off the to the lab (or library) to conduct the tests.

Although this strategy is often associated with the sciences, it can be used in any content area. For example, writing history essays, like most academic papers, is about positing theories to test against a body of evidence and interpretations that may or may not have been used for support.

These skills start with reading activities that challenge learners to make predictions and find missing voice (the other point of view).

Google Forms works great for this strategy and because it provides anonymity and can be displayed in a spreadsheet, which is where the results are automatically sent. I also like Poll Everywhere for the multiple response options, including SMS (texting) from a non-smartphone.

9. Questions, cues, and advance organizers 

If I need more than the voice God gave me, Google Slides and YouTube are my favorite platforms to present new information. YouTube is something I make for students who were absent or if I need students to review the lesson for homework. If you haven't heard, kids love YouTube, and it's not going away.

Cues are simple. It's the time in the lesson when the teacher tells the students what they will learn. The questions can do the same thing while making inroads to critical thinking. Slides are great for posting the key words and images that support the cues and questioning.

Graphic organizers are the most common for of advance organizer, which is anything that you make for the students that provides shape to the concepts and ideas. A table or chart example can be placed on a slide for easy replication by the students. This saves time making copies and gives students the chance to make alterations to the graphic organizer as needed.

Thank you for reading. I hope to write shorter, more in-depth posts on my own progress with at least four of the high-yield strategies. 

Image Analysis and Providing Practice with Google Slides

It was 15 minutes into what could have been a 30-minute lecture when I realized that my students were having a tough time keeping their heads up. I'm sure it was just them adjusting to a post-winter-break sleep schedule. Whatever it was, I had to do something off the plan because their heads weren't being weighed down by the amount of knowledge they were retaining. 

Since we were finishing our study of Classical trade routes, it made sense to throw in a couple of formative assessments to fill the gaps and put a close to the review. I just didn't have anything prepared.

The Fix

To give me five minutes to throw something together, I had the students prime their brains by writing three labels in their notes, leaving space to add a few examples to each. The labels were Routes, Technology, and Goods / Other.

They listed examples for each label, following a familiar routine: work alone as long as you can before sharing with a neighbor. This is essentially a student-initiated (or casual) think /pair / share. I let it happen on its own if the class takes the initiative. Some classes don't, so I cue them.

Meanwhile, I copied image slides from other slide presentations to make the one below. I knew that I wanted the students standing and talking while having a little fun. I figured my version of pictionary / pyramid would work because they've done it with vocabulary a few times. I call it "Drawing Conclusions."

The Game
  • Working in pairs, facing each other.
  • One faces the screen and describes the image without giving away the subject of the image. 
  • The student facing away from the screen guesses as many times as needed.
  • Each image is on the screen for 30 seconds (which can be set automatically on Google Slides).
*This could also work if you have the student facing away ask "yes" or "no" questions.


As Jacob Clifford says, if you're not going to take the time to talk about how the activity went, don't do the activity. I like to start by asking a student about what worked well. I also ask questions to find out which items were easier or harder and how they worked through the tough spots.

Activities like this build teamwork, provide practice, and the debrief can become a valuable formative assessment because the students are still pumped up from the activity and want to brag and complain. Let them. They deserve it.

Student Blogging for Reflecting and Connecting

"Mr. Zahner, you have a blog?" I never forgot the awkward amazement a girl in my sophomore history class expressed when the kids started searching me on Google. While they were intrigued by all the dirt they were collecting, I wondered if it was cool to have a blog.

This got me thinking about how my students perceive blogging. I wondered if they had any preconceived notions about blogging that might inhibit their learning experience if I were to expect them to write their thoughts and publish them.

Naturally, I had several concerns for my students. Besides the possibility of them feeling forced to put themselves on the Internet, I didn't want to expose them to anything I hadn't fully explored. I eventually learned ways to address these concerns so my students would have the opportunity to grow as learners and citizens of a connected world.

Before Students Post

I suggest starting by identifying some guiding principles. Mine are based on the belief that teachers must help students grow as responsible digital citizens.
  1. Blogging is for reflecting, sharing, and learning through conversation. 
  2. Student safety must always be the priority (see notifications below). 
  3. Twenty-first century learners need to practice acceptable use of social media and learn to appreciate the importance of receiving feedback.   
Where should you start?

Whether you have blogging experience or have never clicked the "publish" button, starting off with a blog that showcases the work done in your classroom can be a powerful model that will engage your students.

I started a classroom blog to provide feedback on the activities we do in class. It was about trying a new way to provide access to our classroom. It's been great because it serves as a place to reflect on content and skills as well as an opportunity to allow students to comment on how to improve the work in each post.

TIP: Start with one activity a week or toward the beginning of a lesson cycle. Give yourself time to provide feedback. Schedule time for students to comment on the post in class. Instead of having all students respond to a post, make five or so groups and have each group post a comment.

A Documentation Routine

Note-taking and summarizing is the engineer's seat of the history classroom. It's where the forward learning gains much of its ground and the concept formation burns and sticks.

This year, we have a team of class note-takers that completes a set of notes in a Google Drive folder accessible through Google Classroom. Some classes publish the notes on a blog, but I didn't want to use that tool in such a way. Besides, we have Google Drive, now.

The question that remained was how to complete the note-taking and summarizing activity if students had dedicated note-taking roles. Since all of my students have Blogger accounts through Google Apps For Education (GAFE), it made sense to have them summarize the notes and publish as individuals.

This is an opportunity to have students reflect on the lesson and make connections between what they know and their life experience. In particular, my students are expected to include identifications and significance of events, places, developments, and people while making at least one thematic connection to their life.

Notifications and Safety

Having students blog to share their reflections is risky. They should be able to protect their identity and have confidence that what they publish is monitored by a responsible adult.

Setting up e-mail notifications is easy with blogger. You can add addresses that receive automatic messages when a blog post is published and when a comment is posted.

I use an e-mail address with a special tag (example 2) that is recognized by a custom filter in my Gmail account. If you have Gmail, play around with filters and tags. I usually set the filter to receive messages to the tagged address in a folder or label. I often set it to skip the inbox, as well.

Here's a resource for more information about e-mail addresses and how they work.

Digital Citizens

Let's face it, as Alan November asks, at what point are we going to stop saying "turn it in" and start saying "publish it"? Although not all students will become professional bloggers or technical writers, almost all of them will publish posts on social media sites. Most of them already do.

Nine Elements Of A Digital Citizen

I am making it my responsibility to teach kids how to put themselves on the Internet in ways that safeguard their identity, reputation, and the comfort and liberties of others.

This experience is something they'll need to do things as fundamental as writing effective emails. It will also open doors to doing more things like presenting their academic or professional career with an e-portfolio. It's not as much about blogging as it is about reflecting, connecting, and responsibility.

Thanks for reading.