Because You Asked: How Tech Can Transform English/Language Arts Class from Good to Great

Because You Asked: How Tech Can Transform English/Language Arts Class from Good to Great


English/Language Arts teachers often ask me what technology can do for them. After all, eBooks are revolutionizing both the weight of students’ backpacks and the local bookstore’s bottom line. But the English classroom? The jury’s out. After all, literature is as powerful on paper as it is in E-ink. Where technology can play a powerful role, though, is by offering new opportunities for engagement with texts, expanding the classroom beyond its walls and time slot, and encouraging students to pursue their reading and writing independently. Technology can help a good language arts class become great.

Students reading more and independently

To encourage students to read more than the required texts, try book recommendation engines like What Should I Read Next? or the more robust GoodReads. When a student submits a book to either site, a list of similar books is generated. In my trials, the suggestions from GoodReads were especially insightful; many matched my own list of books I’ve wanted to read and included a few with which I was unfamiliar. GoodReads has a social component too that lets students see what their friends are reading, share their reviews, and develop a reading community that would supplement a language class beautifully. What Should I Read Next? is a nice quick-fix for recommendations, but GoodReads adds a social layer to your class that students will love.

Alternatively, if your students have iOS devices or you have an iPad cart in your school, I highly recommended the app Subtext. It is an eBook reader app specially designed for the classroom. Once students join a class group, the teacher can create assessments that appear in line with the relevant text (perfect for reading comprehension), sync notes, have discussions, link to relevant content on-line, share book reviews, and more. These features all work nicely for middle or high school language arts classes. Right now, the only books available are those available through Google Books. Many works in the language arts canon can be found there, but if you want to read something more recent, a specific edition of a work, or a particular translation, you might have trouble finding it. For example, I couldn’t find my favorite book, Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, on Google Books, but it was available for the Kindle.

Subtext co-founder Rachel Thomas told me that PDF support is coming, and the company has already released their bookmarklet, which allows you to send web content to the app, much like Instapaper. The discussions, note-sharing, links, and assessment tools become available for that content. The Subtext team is also working on moving the app entirely to the web, which will make it platform-independent.

Subtext works well for professional development, too.  In our school, teachers are getting iPads loaded with Subtext and Daniel Pink’s Drive. As we discuss the book and its implications for our instruction, we’re going to use the app to foster discussion--and try out for ourselves what it’s like to use the technology. 

Analyzing Reading

Once students finish a work, teachers often assign papers or creative projects to assess understanding. Narrated slideshows (a.k.a. “digital storytelling”) is an effective means for students to demonstrate their understanding. Using iMovie or web tools like Animoto or Voicethread, students can put together a narrated slideshow that captures or responds to the argument of a text. There are quite a few alternatives, which are expertly explained in this edublog post. I’ve preferred the products that have emerged from Animoto projects, but Voicethread is ideal if students will be collaborating with each other and working mostly from home. 

A photo essay is another effective project that is relatively low-tech but can be intellectually rigorous. Some students even have high-quality point-and-shoot cameras in their pockets. If we ask students to represent the argument of a text with a series of images from their daily life, they have to think about exactly what literature means to them--the primary goal of reading literature.

Helping students become better writers

Besides teaching students more about their lives, literature also helps students become better writers. Even the best writers need editors,  though. Google Docs is a popular platform for on-line collaborative editing in real time. I’ve learned a great deal about my students’ writing and editing abilities by examining the “version history” of a document and seeing the evolution of their work.

One of the best reasons to use technology is that students can get a much wider audience for their work than just their teacher. There are a number of collaborative writing platforms that will allow students to work on a story together and to have their work critiqued by professional writers from around the world. MixedInk is one such platform specially tailored to the K-12 classroom. The premium account, which costs  $224/year, offers 150 student accounts with password-protected classroom groups and analytics on students’ participation in the site. In short, MixedInk is to writing what GoodReads is to reading--a social layer for an age-old classroom activity. With both platforms, you can extend the classroom beyond its walls and into the world in which our students already are living.

A fun way to teach creative writing is BoomWriter, which allows a teacher to start a story and then requires students to finish it. Students each submit one chapter at a time and can also vote on what chapters should be part of the final version. When the teacher decides the book is complete, you’ll receive a printed copy for $9.99. Essentially, BoomWriter “gamifies” writing. A BoomWriter project could last from September to June and give students a real sense of accomplishment and awareness of their growth as writers through the year.

A more public and professional alternative is Protagonize. Students can submit their work to the website for comments by other members of the community. I would recommend it for older students who want feedback on their writing from other authors. The quality of the feedback is unpredictable, but Protagonize can help students to act as and interact with real authors.

These tools and websites serve to extend the hallmarks of a good language arts class beyond its walls--reading, writing, and thinking. If used creatively and purposefully, they can help students become lifelong readers, better writers, and critical thinkers. Still, one thing never changes: There’s nothing better than a good book.

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