This Week @GAvirtual

this weekSaturday, October 24, I visited Woodward Academy in College Park for the Microsoft Edu Teacher Academy conducted by Educational Collaborators. A big thanks goes out to Connie White, the director of Learning Design & Innovation at Woodward, for putting the event together and for advertising it at the Atlanta Area Technology Educator’s September meeting. I was a little sad I had to choose between it and EdCampCobb, but I made the right decision. Educational Collaborators facilitated a great workshop, and Woodward Academy was a splendid host. I came away on an adrenaline high and full of inspiration. Plus, I finally had a chance to play with Sway and Office Mix.

In my last post, my goals for the week were:

  • Look ahead in the unit and come up with a collaborative activity.
  • Create and play some games during the synchronous session.
  • Make students aware of the grey area between fiction and nonfiction.

Here’s how I took my next steps and some preliminary results from the Effective Nonfiction Discussion Board topic.

Effective Nonfiction Discussion Board Pedagogy and Design

Although I included a screenshot of the doctored topic in my last post, I didn’t explain my rationale and goals for the change and the ways the new design facilitates meaningful learning. My goals were to encourage deeper thinking about what makes effective nonfiction effective and to have students reread the examples from the course content more closely.

The prompt works in four different ways to meet these goals.

nonfiction db surveyFirst, students see a list of what makes effective nonfiction effective. The original question asked this, but the course content does not really present this information, nor do students have the chance to analyze a specific piece of nonfiction to discover why and how it’s effective. Sure, the content includes the “Give Me Liberty” speech and excerpts from The Diary of Anne Frank, but their purpose is to expose students to different genres of nonfiction not analysis. To rectify this, students needed a list of things writers do in nonfiction.

The second part of the assignment asks students to evaluate which characteristic is most important in nonfiction writing. Students see the list in an Excel survey, and the submit numbers 1-5 to rank each. This tasks achieves two things: first, it verifies that students have read the list, and second, it asks the students to think deeply about each. Plus, I can see their answers and learn about any misconceptions I might need to address.

The third part of the assignment states

Choose a section (5-10 sentences / a paragraph) from “Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Death,” The Diary of Anne Frank, or another piece of nonfiction you found online (remember to cite your source by providing a link). Copy and paste that section (use a different color). Then, describe what makes that section particularly interesting or effective.

Students must revisit either example and use the criteria, which is now fresh in their minds, to evaluate a passage. This in and of itself is good, but since students are copying and pasting these passages to the DB, other students not only read their own passages, but they also see what their classmates thought was interesting and effective. Thus, students are more engaged with more course content.

Finally, the fourth part asks students to reply in one of three ways:

  1. Copy and paste another section from that same source and describe how it connects.
  2. Disagree: “Although I see why you think ________, I think ______ because…”
  3. Find a picture, video, or article online that connects to that section and describe why it connects.

Two of the three ask students to make connections and elaborate on the passage, either by adding more from the source or by offering a visualization. The second choice asks students to disagree. I purposely left out “agree” because too often students will find posts “interesting” or “cool,” or they say, “Nice post” or “Excellent work.” It’s nice that they have absorbed so much from digital citizenship lessons that they know not to instigate flame wars, but a good amount of debate is healthy in a DB. The sentence frame helps keep things civil.

But how are students doing so far? Here are some early results. I’ll know more when more students have contributed.

One Step Further with OneNote Class Notebook

onenote excelThe students’ posts show they comprehend the topic and are posting appropriately. When I check Excel, I also see their results from the form. Originally, I hadn’t thought when and how to share the data with students. But the Microsoft Edu training gave me an idea: insert the Excel results in the Content Library section in the OneNote Class Notebook. Now, students can see the results. Since the file is located in the Content Library, students can’t change the data, either. Plus, this gives them a new reason to check the notebook; there is still little buy-in from students. The model of using a survey in a discussion board and then showing the results within OneNote would be excellent for any STEM course.

Nonfiction Gray Area

When one student sent me the following in a page, I knew I should address how classifying nonfiction can be complicated.

nonfiction page

Not only does this question touch on the difference between historical fiction and creative nonfiction, but there is the larger unasked question: “How much ‘truth’ does a text need before we consider it nonfiction?”

Or, as I shared during the synchronous session:

nonfiction one

During the session, one student responded 99.9% and the other said 50% before changing to 60%.


When I think about nonfiction, some favorite authors (Mary Roach) always come to mind, but when I think about the gray area, there are two literary texts I return to again and again to frame the discussion: Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and Art Spiegelman’s Maus. I teach 8th graders and not Modern American Drama (but here is why I think of Williams when I think of nonfiction), so some of the synchronous session was spent on introduction to Maus. My goal was to introduce them to a great graphic novel and to show the different decisions authors make when telling a nonfiction story. For instance, in the picture, we see the photograph of Art’s father, which is mentioned in the speech bubbles. So, we have one thing that is clearly truth, or factual, surrounded by elements that are usually saved for fiction: drawings, talking animals, and most likely fabricated dialogue. Is Maus fiction or nonfiction? My students were undecided.

nonfiction maus

What effect did this have on their answers to the previous question? When I asked them again, how much of a text must be true for it to be considered nonfiction, the student who said 99.9% reported 80%, and the other who first said 60% said 75%. I’m not sure what this signifies, but it lets me know the lesson impacted their understanding of nonfiction, facts, and fiction.

Synchronous Session Games

As planned, I set my mind to incorporating more games into the synchronous session, and as always, I planned too much.

We began with a nonfiction genre review using this game board:

nonfiction game

Perhaps this would have been fun had more students attended. One major flaw is that if students only need to give the definition, then the second student to land in a square has it easy. During the game, I made the second student offer an example of the genre.

The second game I designed was inspired by an earlier email from another GAVS teacher. She wanted to incorporate more strategy game elements into synchronous session games. Her idea was similar to Risk: students place tokens in areas on a board when they answer questions correctly. I created my own variant here:

Soldier Island Search

Unfortunately, we ran out of time this week to play. But the nice thing about games is they’ll wait for you.

Student Collaboration

The semester is wrapping up quickly; students turn in their final question sets for And Then There Were None this week. Soon they’ll write research papers and complete final projects. Had students been collaborating on tasks throughout the semester, I might have been able to get students to work in pairs for their final projects. Say, both students work on a presentation and write their own reflections about the presentation and the process of researching and working together. Maybe next semester?

But I can still work in some collaboration with thesis building and perhaps peer editing (although, in round one, that didn’t work so well). I have an idea about having students write and revise their thesis statements within a shared Word document with the track changes turned on. The other 8th grade Language Arts teacher has some material on thesis writing, so I’m hoping to collaborate with her on this.

Weekly Wins

  • Students monitoring posts in the Effective Nonfiction DB: “You failed to provide any information about the autobiography that you mentioned in your post,” “I don’t think this is enough information,” and “Maybe try putting more info.” I don’t even have to monitor them now!
  • Having a student question inspire a synchronous session and changing minds with the Maus
  • This question from a student: Is it also okay that my excerpt from Anne Frank’s diary is only 3 sentences? I found it very interesting and powerful and was able to describe it with multiple sentences. Is it still acceptable even if it’s not 5-10 sentences? This is the excerpt: “All college students are being asked to sign an official statement to the effect that they ‘sympathize with the Germans and approve of the New Order.” Eighty percent have decided to obey the dictates of their conscience, but the penalty will be severe. Any student refusing to sign will be sent to a German labor camp.”- May 18, 1943

Next Steps

  • Reconnect with some MIA students
  • Play “Soldier Island Search”
  • Collaborate and plan a thesis building activity
  • Watch how this DB plays out:
ATTWN sway

Click to view


This entry was posted in GAVS, Weekly Reflections and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to This Week @GAvirtual

  1. Pingback: Talking Discussion Boards @GAVirtual | Kinetic ED

  2. Pingback: Talking Synchronous Sessions @GAvirtual | Kinetic ED

  3. Pingback: Building a Better DB Post with Surveys #eteachertool | Kinetic ED

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