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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.