Why I’m not preparing my students for the “real world”

We often hear education experts tell us how important it is to design learning experiences for our students that will prepare them for the “real world.” And teacher blogs, conference presentations and tweets are also full of strategies they have developed and implemented to prepare their students for the “real world.” By and large, they are good strategies worth exploring in our classes. I wholeheartedly agree that our students need and deserve a world-class education that prepares them for life, work, and citizenship in a dynamic, complex, and evolving global society. However, I no longer tell my students that I am preparing them for the “real world.” And I would encourage all of my fellow educators to also stop telling students, parents, and other stakeholders that they are preparing students for the “real world.”
Why? Lest you think that I have abandoned the greater purpose of education, let me explain. When we tell anyone that we are preparing students for the “real world,” we are perpetuating the already all-too-common belief that that our classes and everything we do in them is something other than “real.” Rather than reminding everyone of the fact that there is a purpose behind every learning event we have crafted for our students, that phrase instead invites all our stakeholders–students, parents, community members and others–to dismiss the majority of the work we do as artificial at best and irrelevant at worst. Think about it: if we tell students, “This [insert activity or rule to be followed here] is important because it will prepare you for the real world,” what are we doing the rest of the time? I have another post coming soon on whether or not our grades and policies really do reflect the “real world” but just looking at our instruction and assessment, we can do better than imply that only some of what we do is relevant. And if it is true that only some of what we do is relevant, then it may be time to take a closer look at our practice.

But if we are teaching, practicing and assessing for proficiency rather than for points on a chapter test, then it is likely that most–if not all–of what we do is exactly the preparation our students need in order to use their language beyond our classroom walls to communicate with others and comprehend the world around them. Just consider some of the most banal examples from my own classes (and probably yours as well): we look at the same documents native speakers around the world are looking at. We talk about them just like native speakers around the world to do. We compare them to other documents from the target cultures as well as to similar documents in American culture. We interact with native speakers as often as possible in person and online. And these are just the “easy” examples. My classes are not artificial and the work my students do provides them with numerous opportunities to participate just as fluidly in French outside of class as they do in class. So I’m not about sell my work–or my students’ efforts and time– short by implying that it is different from a mythical “real world” that in reality looks an awful lot like how we are already using French in my class.

Perhaps the real issue isn’t the phrase “real world” but rather that it’s not enough to tell our students that we are preparing them for the “real world.” We have to do so rather than say so because when we are doing it, there is no longer a need for us or others to say it…or question it. How do we “do real world” instead of telling students we are “preparing” them for the real world? By ensuring that the work in which students are engaged during their time with us is representative of the authentic ways the fundamental and advanced skills of our content areas are used outside of our classes in that seemingly mysterious place called “the real world.”

As a language teacher, our field offers a diverse array of opportunities to do just that. At the most simple, we invite native speakers into our rooms from our communities, as host students, or via Skype, FaceTime or Google+ Hangouts. It’s so easy and natural for us that we almost take it for granted. We also facilitate their progression from using words and structures in controlled environments and contexts to using the language to examine a variety of topics  on a range of issues and interests that reflect authentic cultural perspectives. We do that by using the same infographics, advertisements, articles, YouTube channels and news reports native speakers are reading, listening to and talking about.  We can go a step further by using community-based and online resources to connect our students with target-language speakers around the world in a discussion of those topics. Even a time difference isn’t a problem if we send our contacts abroad links to digital forums we have created for our students to virtually discuss concepts and content. For example, tools like TodaysMeet, Padlet, and Blendspace allow anyone anywhere in the world to participate in the “conversation” if they have a link to the specific thread in question. Want to “hear” them talk? Use tools like Voxopop to create “talk groups” to which anyone with the link can contribute. Use these tools to enhance  your learners’ connections and interactions with their penpals, with humanitarian workers serving in regions where your target language is spoken and with others who are interested in the topics your students are learning about.

Ready to go further? Engage your students in Project-Based Learning, otherwise known as PBL (and for language teachers, Project-Based Language Learning, or PBLL). I’ve been learning about and implementing Project-Based Language Learning for several years, although so far, I would consider my implementation of it to be fairly novice. One of the most accomplished language educators who has made PBLL a fully integrated component of his language instruction is Don Doehla, who blogs on world languages (including PBLL) for Edutopia. Here is just one of his many PBL posts. Spanish teacher Laura Sexton has also done incredible work in this arena. And here is a great overview of best practices in PBL directly from the experts at the Buck Institute for Education.

Why do I like PBL or PBLL to prepare students for a myriad of roles in a society that will define itself after our students leave us?  Through well-designed Project-Based Learning experiences–or more correctly, expertly facilitated PBL experiences–students learn through inquiry, often of their own design. Two critical components of successful PBL and PBLL are

  • the active role the students play throughout the learning, practice and assessment process, and
  • the higher purpose of assessment in PBL/PBLL

Starting with the selection of the essential question or challenging problem the students will tackle, through the cycle of inquiry, reflection, and critique and revision, student voice and choice are the primary factors guiding their work. Students move from learning language for points in the gradebook to acquiring language they will need in order to comprehend and talk about the field they are studying. They move from passively receiving instruction to determining and acting on their own learning needs with teacher support. I’ve even had students work with me to help write the grants that would fund their work and design and publish their own advertising.  And of course their involvement doesn’t end when their research does: I include my students in the choice, design and implementation of their culminating  PBL/PBLL event, which is often open to the community. It is through this event that students demonstrate their knowledge and apply the full gamut of their skills (content skills, language and literacy skills, and often numerous 21st Century Skills). It is the essentially the assessment, but really it is so much more: the culminating event evaluates students’ proficiencies much more thoroughly and authentically than a test grade. The culminating event provides students with a meaningful venue that requires demonstration of both spontaneous and prepared application of their language skills and content knowledge.

Interactions with native speakers in our classrooms and online. Discussion and analysis of authentic media. Assessment for an audience beyond the teacher and a purpose greater than a grade. For the language educator, this is–or should be–our every day, day to day. Just like in the “real world.”



Yes, they CAN understand native speakers!

I often hear teachers say that authentic videos featuring native speakers (and intended for viewing by other native speakers) are too difficult for our language learners to use as listening practice, let alone listening assessment. And yet, I think we can all agree that we would like to have our students listen to “real” products that are authentic, meaning that they were created and published by native speakers for native speakers. In addition to providing real examples of the language the students are learning, authentic videos place that language within culturally authentic contexts, thereby providing our students with windows into the cultures that speak the language and the way the cultures are reflected in the use of the language.

One approach I have found to help students better work with authentic video is to ensure we apply what we know about best practices pedagogy in general to the way we present videos and the ways in which we have students interact with the videos.

So what do we know? We know that adolescent brains benefit from multiple opportunities to pause, reflect and apply knowledge at intervals throughout their work with a written or multi-media document, rather than requiring them to read/listen through the entire document before providing them with opportunities to discuss, ask and answer questions, analyze the content, and make comparisons within the language and culture and also to their home languages and cultures. In circles of experts in reading development (even in L1), we often see the reminder for teachers to design a variety of activities for “into, through, and beyond” the reading. I believe this applies just as much to videos: hook them and prepare them to listen (into); help them process what they are hearing and respond to it at multiple intervals during the video (through) and then provide students with opportunities to personalize and extend the video by creating their own responses and products after listening and successfully completing the activities to demonstrate their comprehension of the targeted language and cultural knowledge from the video (beyond).  Today’s post deals mostly with the “through” portion of this cycle. And with another important concept in world language circles (that I cannot take credit for): Modify the TASK, not the content. In other words, provide students with real content (such as authentic videos), but design tasks that are appropriate for their stage of proficiency. In this way, their listening–and their responses–are focused on what they do know and can understand.

Before we look at one of my favorite “high” tech ways to provide this kind of ongoing interaction throughout an authentic video, it’s worth remembering that a lower-tech way to do this is to simply pause the video at various points to engage the students in conversations, personalization tasks or other work that allows them to process what they have heard, connect it to what they know and understand, and use the video as a springboard for their own communication in the target language.

I had already created three Zaption “tours” in preparation for upcoming lessons, but a few weeks ago, I finally tried one of my Zaption tours with my French 2 class. Zaption is one of MANY tools that allow you to edit existing YouTube videos and add student response activities, such as open-ended or multiple choice responses to questions you ask during the video (they automatically appear during video playback), a drawing response, and a discussion thread possibility. In this particular case, it proved to be a very effective and engaging lesson for students when I was absent (which can be the subject of a separate post and is a key concept for me: ensuring students are at least as engaged when I am absent as when I am present).

All of the tools that provide teachers with video editing and student response options differ a bit in their setup and their exact functionality in terms of what you can do with the videos and what kinds of questions we can ask. Currently, I like Zaption best for several reasons.

  1.  It allows me to crop existing YouTube videos without having to go to another program first to crop it. This is really key for language teachers because many videos are either simply too long or they only have a chunk that is usable at the students’ current level of proficiency.
  2. It allows me to make a “tour” of multiple videos on the same topic. Or…multiple crops of the same video (which is how I did it with French 2).*
  3. It has a variety of response/question types, including mulitple choice, open-ended and draw a response.*
  4. It provides me a report with overall success on each question and also with individual student responses.

*The downside is that these two items of functionality are only applicable to their paid version, which I happen to have this year. That said, I like it so much that it will become one of the very few tools I pay for!

So, I will share three samples here: two for French 2 (one we didn’t get to use this year, but I’m looking forward to using next year) and one for French 4/AP. In all cases, the process is as follows:

  1. Create your teacher account at http://zaption.com
  2. In your dashboard, select “New Tour”
  3. It will prompt you to add the Youtube URL for the video(s) you want to add.
  4. Click on “add video” above the video frame to add next clip. If you want to make multiple edits of the same video, just when you click on “add video”, the first video you added will automatically appear in the new window. Just click on it again to add another copy of it so that you can make multiple crops of the same video. So to make a “tour” of three clips from the same video, I copy it as many times as the number of clips I want to use from that video. Then I crop each of the copies to be a different chunk. They will all play together as one video activity when finished.
  5. Now you can crop your video clips. You do this by clicking on “trim”, which appears within the video window, in the upper left.

    Zaption edit screen

    Zaption edit screen

  6. In the same screenshot above, you can also see the tools for adding student responses. Just play your video to the point where you want to add your first question/activity. Pause the video and click on the question type you would like to use from the buttons at the top. Fill in the fields and then submit. Continue for the rest of the clip and then the rest of the tour. It is recommended that you have the video stop playing while students respond, but note that for the “discussion” feature, this doesn’t appear as an option. The students have to begin typing in order to stop the video. Also, you have the option for multiple choice responses to send them back to an earlier point in the video if they get an answer wrong, thus requiring them to listen again.
  7. As students complete the activities in the video, their responses are being saved for you to view. You can see an overall summary as well as individual student results. See screenshots below:Zaption_analytics Zaption_indiv_data

Here are some samples of Zaptions I have made for my classes.

Zaption’s YouTube channel: lots of tutorials here.

And here are some additional, very popular video editing and response tools to explore. Because ultimately, everyone has different styles and preferences. To me, it is less important which tool you choose. I happen to love Zaption. You may love Educanon. Do what you love. The key here is to ensure that authentic videos are not a passive experience for our learners, but rather one that engages them in active listening with multiple opportunities to demonstrate understanding and provide personal responses.

Say what? 3 tips to help novice speakers SPEAK

We all want to see our language learners leave our world language programs able to participate in spontaneous conversations on a range of topics. Preparation for this lofty goal starts in the very first years of language instruction. But, we also recognize that language students at the novice level are primarily comfortable with memorize chunks and phrases (see page 5 of ACTFL’s proficiency guidelines for speaking at the novice level). How can we facilitate spontaneous conversations with and among  students who cannot yet independently manipulate the language? The single most important thing we can do is use the target language in every class every day. Students can’t be expected to use a language they don’t hear used! But here are three additional strategies I use specifically to support my novice learners to speak spontaneously.
1. Randomize participation
I knew my very first year teaching that I didn’t want to have only my bravest, most confident students to participate on a daily basis. I wanted to know how well students were manipulating new words and structures after they had practiced with a partner or small groups, and yes, my novice classes almost always complete oral activities in pairs and small groups before I ask students to provide responses to the whole class. In my first several years of teaching. I used to use index cards to randomly select which students would speak. I had a card for each student and I would shuffle them (frequently!) to randomize their participation. For question-answer activities, I would use the index cards to randomly select one student to ask the question and randomly select another student to provide the answer. This is a small, but important, step in preparing our most novice learners for spontaneous conversations because although they may be responding to a fairly structured partner activity with only limited variations, having randomly selected students produce the questions and responses for the class after they have completed the activity with their partners gives them practice being ready to speak at any time.
Random selection provides other benefits as well. I almost never allow students to volunteer because research shows that volunteering offers very little to students in terms of engagement and equally little to teachers in terms of useable formative assessment data. But randomizing participation enhances student engagement and provides more valid and reliable data from more students regarding their proficiency with the topic at hand. Some teachers do this with Popsicle sticks, but I liked index cards better than Popsicle sticks because the cards allowed me space to mark how many times each student spoke and even make other small notes regarding their work. But, not surprisingly, technology now provides us with digital options that work from smartphones and tablets. I personally have traded my index cards for the iPhone app “Class Cards” to randomize my students’ participation. It was free when I installed it years ago. Unfortunately, it is no longer free. I like the fact that I can see who is next up in the random selection because that makes it faster to announce who will ask the question and who will provide the response. Sadly I can’t find any free randomization apps anymore. Another app is “Pick Me“. It costs less than Class Cards, but is still not free. A free web-based alternative may be “Random Student Generator“. Since I have been happy with Class Cards, I have never tried Pick Me or the web-based Random Student Generator, but for what it’s worth, I can say that I have found randomization of participation to be so instrumental to support the work we are doing as a class that I would actually buy one of the apps if I didn’t have one already (and because I use my iPad tools extensively during class, I would personally opt for an app rather than a Web-based tool, but that’s just me).
2. Add spontaneity and build on existing activities with “just one more”
Often, we choose to use some existing materials in order to provide our students with practice in the new language. In my case, I find that I can often make use of or adapt some of the practice activities provided in publisher materials. I firmly believe that textbooks do not teach and therefore, I provide all the instruction myself by designing lessons that are communicative and proficiency oriented in order to teach the variety of vocabulary and structures students will need to communicate at a stage-appropriate level. However, I can include many of the proposed practice activities in my students’ learning and practice sequence, along with numerous supplemental activities that I create. Often, the activities prepared by publishers include a several designed to be completed in pairs. It is common to find these activities already organized in a question-answer format,  simulating real life conversations, albeit very short ones. But they often stop short of providing any element of spontaneity. This can be remedied as soon as students have learned and practiced the basic question words (who, what, when, where) and at least a couple of easy ways to answer those questions. Armed with these powerful language stems, we can support novice language learners to step up the game a bit (even with very structured, text-book based question/answer activities) by asking “just one more” question. This simple strategy actually supports both partners in the question-answer format to increase their language skills by requiring the questioner to listen actively and determine an appropriate follow-up question while the respondent must listen for a question that was not part of the original activity and then formulate a simple response to it.
3. Semi-spontaneous interviews
I use this structure frequently as both practice and as one of the ways I assess my novice learners’ interpersonal communication. It is easy to incorporate on a day-to-day basis so students can have several opportunities for practice (not just assessment) throughout the year. I actually really like it when students don’t feel like their assessments are different from the communicative work we do daily in class.
The key to this strategy is to allow all students to prepare some of their questions in advance but not tell them whom they will interview. Nor can they show their questions to the person they are interviewing. Preparing questions in advance for an interview is actually more authentic than not doing so because it is rare for professional journalists and others who conduct interviews (such as researchers) to not have prepared their base questions in advance.
Once students have created questions, I have them practice. There are many ways students can practice (beyond the obvious of interviewing the students that sit next to them or with whom they are normally partners. Here are some variations that provide more randomized practice:
  • “Inner-outer circle” format. This is one of my favorites. This is done by having the class stand in two concentric circles: the students in the “inner circle” face outward from their circle and then the other half of the class forms the outer circle by standing face-to-face with a student in the inner circle. If there is an odd number of students, I stand in one of the circles to even it out. Otherwise, I stand in the middle of the two circles because it is easier to quickly listen to the various conversations from the middle than it is from the outside. Once the students are in place, I choose one group  (inner or outer) to be the ones asking the questions they have prepared to the student facing them in the other circle. That student listens, and responds. Typically, with novice classes, students can ask and answer five questions in about a minute (unless they are struggling), due to the highly “memorized chunk” nature of their language use and also their inability to provide extensive detail that would lengthen answers. So, after about a minute, I ask the outer circle to rotate to their left.  The process repeats again, but their is a new pair of students. After several rotations, I have the students switch places with their partner so that students who were on the outside are now on the inside. This also results in a change of speaking role (from interviewer to interviewee or vice versa). We then continue for several more rounds. This is a great activity to do outside if the weather permits.
  • Caterpillar: This is a variation my friend (and outstanding teacher) Christine Lanphere uses for tighter spaces. Have students stand in two parallel lines. When done, each line rotates TWO speakers to their left. Note that this will have each line appear to be moving in OPPOSITE directions. This will cause those at the end of the line to switch lines. Having them rotate two speakers (instead of just one) ensures they don’t end up with the same partner they just had before switching to the other line. In smaller classes, I have one line designated as the “question line” and the other as the “answer line” and students switch roles when they rotate to the other line. In larger classes, I have students switch roles after five rotations or so, just like with “Inner-Outer Circles.”
  • Mingling: Another variation is to designate half class as interviewers and half as interviewees. Ask interviewees remain seated, set a timer and have interviewers circulate freely in the room, attempting to interview five different students in approximately five minutes. Then switch roles and repeat.

This format can be used for quick conversation practice with many topics. And as students become more comfortable, you can even have them do completely spontaneous, impromptu conversations using this format. Furthermore, you can use the

Five exchange students were visiting from France. Students prepared some questions in advanced and asked more questions spontaneously.

Five exchange students were visiting from France. Students prepared some questions in advanced and asked more questions spontaneously.

“just one more” strategy mentioned above in combination with their personally prepared questions in order to add an element of spontaneity, increase the authenticity of the conversations and promote greater listening and speaking proficiency.

When it becomes time to move from practicing conversations to assessing their interpersonal speaking proficiency on a given set of learning targets (can-do statements) with or without the “just one more” questions (I prefer to include those in assessments, so it is important to have them practice listening for opportunities to add them and also practice responding to them), I find that the easiest way to manage randomizing students for interviews I am assessing is as follows:

  1. Print out a copy of the rubric you will use to evaluate each student’s interpersonal proficiency (you can find my draft rubric here…I’m always revising rubrics!).
  2. Make enough photocopies for the class and distribute it to students. Remember that it is beneficial to do this earlier in the learning-practice-assessment cycle rather than at the end: our “end-game” shouldn’t be a secret to students!
  3. When it is time to assess, have them write their names on the rubric and then hand it back in.
  4. Shuffle them up, and the order of the rubrics becomes the order for the interviews: I call up the student whose rubric is on the top of the pile. That person asks the questions. I also call up the student with the second rubric. This student will answer the questions. When they are done, student A sits back down (she will come back at the very end). Student B becomes the interviewer (asking the questions) and I call up the next student from the rubric pile to respond. We continue rotating roles and calling up new students from the rubric pile. The very last student called up to answer will be the one who asked questions first.

What strategies do you use to help your most novice speakers actually speak? Share your ideas in the comments!

What (my) novice language learners need

Over the years, it has become more and more clear to me that our novice learners can produce language and even have a bit of fun with it, if we remember the characteristics of novice-level production. I think a lot of teachers (myself included until just a few years ago) have expectations that are surprisingly unreasonable for novice level students. Once our expectations and the tasks aligned to those expectations correspond better to the characteristics of the novice learner, reader, writer and speaker, students experience greater success, and in some ways actually produce more content (and do so with greater accuracy) than was possible before.

According to the proficiency guidelines published in 2012 by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, a language learner at “novice high” (which is where some of my French 2 students are at in writing) can “[…] express themselves within the context in which the language was learned relying mainly on practiced material. Their writing is focused on common elements of daily life. Novice High writers are able to recombine learned vocabulary and structures to create simple sentences on very familiar topics, but are not able tosustain sentence-level writing all the time”. Similarly, ACTFL states that “novice mid” writers (the rest of my French 2 students) can “[…] reproduce from memory a modest number of words and phrases in context. […] Novice Mid writers exhibit a high degree of accuracy when writing on well-practiced, familiar topics using limited formulaic language. With less familiar topics, there is a marked decrease in accuracy”

Here are two different examples (from two different themes we considered in French 2 this semester) in which I endeavored to design assessments of their writing proficiency that reflect ACTFL’s proficiency guidelines.

1. Jobs brochure

This was actually part of an Integrated Performance Assessment (IPA) that incorporated listening, reading and writing around the concept of careers and finding careers that fulfill individuals personally and professionally. We began by examining two documents from this Web site (where careers are profiled for French children, often including interviews with real French citizens who have chosen those careers. The first document was a “practice” document on the careers of “Photographer” before using the second document on becoming a florist as the reading portion of the IPA. For both the practice and the actual reading assessment, I followed the reading comprehension assessment template provided by ACTFL. Here are the students’ comprehension questions for the florist document. It should be noted that, as recommended by ACTFL I added section numbers to the authentic document before copying it for students in order to facilitate their ability to identify the information appropriate to their level of proficiency).

After completing this task, students were ready for the writing portion, in which they would create their own short brochure for a job fair featuring the careers on the Webjunior careers Web site. For this task, they were allowed to explore the entire set of careers profiled and choose the career that interested them the most. I did suggest that they might find the task easier if they chose a career that featured an interview with someone working in that field, but it was not required. On the brochure, they were required to provide the following:

Some images from one student's job brochure

Some images from one student’s job brochure

  • a list of responsibilities for people working in this field,
  • a list of advantages to choosing this career, and
  • a list of personality traits that would be important for individuals working in this career.

So, how does this task correspond to the guidelines from ACTFL I cited above? The first two bullet items in the brochure allow them to use language provided by the original document in order to complete the task…students are demonstrating their understanding of the relevant language in the authentic document by the relevance of the items they opt to include in their brochures. Only the third item requires students to use their own bank of French language (descriptive)  to produce something and the task could be accomplished in list form for the novice-mid learners or i sentence form for the novice-high students. It is also worth noting that this task allows students to create something that is inspired by an authentic document and adds something new to it, repurposing it for a new audience (those attending a hypothetical job fair.

Example 2: writing an article

In this same class, just after examining careers, we began considering how to talk about past events. I use a murder mystery (now out of print) from a series in Quebec that was originally published for “French as a Second Language” classes, much like the programs we create for students learning English as a second language in the U.S.  The murder mystery provided a very engaging context and introduces the students to the basics of speaking and writing in the past in a way that is almost so inductive that the students figure it out for themselves, naturally, as they progress through the scenes of the mystery.

As one of the culminating activities closing out this mini-unit, students write an “article” about what happened over the course of the mystery, and of course, they name the criminal in the article. Referring again to the proficiency guidelines provided by ACTFL, I prepared a list of actions that each character did, including the victim. The actions in the list were left in the infinitive and were in no particular order, but they were organized in a table by character, as you can see here . Students selected a number of these actions, determined a logical sequence of events for these actions and then put themPhoto of sample from French 2 Murder Mystery Article into sentences in the past in order to compose their article. In past years, I had asked students to write the article as well, but only the most advanced of my French 2 students found the task manageable. Students who were still at novice mid struggled mightily when they were asked to come up with their own articles using sentences about each of the characters they created without any support beyond their memories.  Those students who were not the highest achievers typically wrote significantly fewer sentences, and exhibited more errors in the sentences they did manage to write.

This year was different. More than 75% of students achieved a 4 on this assessment, meaning that they exhibited production of language that is fully proficient at the targeted vocabulary and structures. And the vast majority of the remaining students achieved a score of 3 (mostly proficient in the targeted language and structures, but some difficulty with the more complex aspects). They had much the same experience in terms of learning and practice of the new material as last year. The difference came from the table in which I provided them the characters and the characters’ actions in the story in infinitives along with a reminder of the targeted structure at the bottom. Was this too much information? Does this somehow detract from the validity of the assessment? I don’t believe so. The reality is that this assessment provides the degree of support that corresponds to the abilities of the novice learner while still requiring them to demonstrate the desired skills. Additionally, I believe that this format respects the reality of life and work in the “real world” beyond our classrooms: the “real world” almost never requires employees to produce high quality work without access to resources, information, formulas, etc. Why do we insist on isolating students from such resources and support in the academic world? Even with the benefit of the “tool” I provided them, they still had to show that they knew how to apply the knowledge in order to effectively communicate the details of the story. Providing them access to a list of the information they might want to include and a sort of formula to use to check their work is both more respectful of their capabilities as a novice user of the language and more realistic.

How do you support your novice-level students to communicate in a variety of contexts and in realistic ways? Share your thoughts and ideas below! I look forward to hearing from you.

And the single best tool I recommend to other teachers is….?

Is the phone? a pencil? the paper? the act of collaboration? all of these?

Where is the tool? Is it an app on the phone? the pencil? the paper? the act of collaboration? all of these? none of these?

I’m often asked what my favorite educational technology tools are. The question usually goes something like this: “With all of this emphasis on education technology and 21st century teaching and learning, what is one tool you would recommend to other teachers?” My response?


Before you rush off to the app store or to your computer to try selectivity.com (which is NOT a site, by the way), remember that a tool doesn’t have to be technology. In fact, according to webster.com, the origin of the word “tool” actually comes “from Old English tōl; akin to Old English tawian to prepare for use.”

Although I have a fairly well developed list of great tools for teachers and students, none would make the grade as “one tool I would recommend.” The single best tool in the teacher’s belt is the ability to be selective: there is no ONE best tool; only the ability to evaluate all the available tools and thoughtfully select the right tool for this group of students at this time to accomplish this task–and to do so in a way better than it could be accomplished without the tool.

Let’s go back to Webster’s explanations of the origins of the word “tool.” I find that this etymology is particularly appropriate for education.  As teachers, our work is not to teach students facts, figures, dates, or even words in a new language. All of these can be looked up with a device they carry with them in their pockets. Our role is to facilitate their preparation to use information, knowledge, creativity, collaborative and interpersonal skills for life, work and citizenship. When researching content for history, science, or other classes, they need practice creating effective search terms to narrow the otherwise potentially overwhelming tidal wave of search results provided by Google. Then they need practice critically evaluating those refined search results to determine authenticity, validity and bias. They need to be selective.  When choosing how to prepare their next class presentation, students need practice navigating the dozens of available tools, ultimately selecting the best one for the job and then figuring out how to use it effectively.  Therefore, selectivity isn’t just for teachers. We must endow students with this as well. Selectivity could become the most important tool they take with them after high school to allow them thrive purposefully and conscientiously in a society inundated with information and misinformation; a society replete with great tools they want to use today being replaced by even better tools tomorrow.

Rich, Relevant, Rigorous….and completely redesigned

I have always been passionate about providing a rich, relevant and rigorous education for all learners. In addition to always practice what I teach in my work with students in my French classes, I also try to help other teachers reshape their approaches to education through my blog and through my professional learning programs at conferences and institutes by reframing the traditional view of teaching to emphasize designing more for teaching than for “covering” and more for learning than for teaching.

Through extensive work with thematic instruction centered on authentic materials and equally authentic assessment, my students have made significant gains in proficiency compared to their performance in my tentative first years as a teacher, going back to when I began teaching in 1993.

But the past two years, I have noticed a lot of talk about “learning targets” throughout the education community. And a lot more talk about assessment and grading practices. And I finally started seeing the “Can-do” statements and “Integrated Performance Assessments” (“IPAs”) from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages and many other organizations devoted to world language education everywhere.  It turns out they had been around for a while and I was just oblivious.  I realized that while I was doing “well” by most measures, and had even started on the road to reforming my grading and assessment practices, I had fallen behind. I wasn’t using “can-do” statements to guide my instruction. Until last year, I had never even seen an “Integrated Performance Assessment”, let alone designed one (I did both last year).

Over the years, I have done a lot of “teaching” both in class and at conferences, but it was time for me to learn. I went to Pearson’s Assessment Training Institute in Oregon this past summer (see many of the notes shared by myself and others on Twitter). I bought many books on assessment and grading and began reading like a teacher about to start her first semester with her own rostered class. I sought and devoured information online about IPAs and Can-do statements.

So right at the end of summer, when my week-after-week of travel finally came to an end (fun as it was, I got very little done), I did it. I changed every thing. I changed my grading, assessment and lesson design to start with the Can-do statements, not with the first unit in my textbook. To be clear, my textbook helped me sequence (although I often changed their sequence to better suit my students’ learning needs) and it provides a fair amount of well-designed practice, but the book never taught my class. I designed EVERY lesson we learn; students are never told to “turn to page 54 and study the verb chart.” Or, “turn to page 122 and copy the vocab list.” Nevertheless, I came to the realization that I could do better for my students.

I made our online student information (and grading) system do my bidding to allow all grades to be proficiency-based on not on the traditional 0-100% scale. This allows my grading to match what I’ve always wanted to do with my rubrics, but couldn’t because a 1-2-3-4 rubric ends up skewed. Why? because, by the “traditional” math the traditional teaching scale (and online gradebook) understands, a 1 is an F, a 2 is an F, a 3 is a C and a 4 is an A. Here is the document I now give students with some basic info about the class (I call it the “Path to Success”) on the front page and the grading information on the back.  I laid out year-end proficiency benchmarks for each mode of communication in each level of French and also identified the supporting Can-do statements we would develop along the way so the students achieve the benchmarks.

Last week, I began designing my first units starting with the Can-do statements, including exactly which words and structures students will need and precisely how students’ proficiency would be assessed so that I could provide that information to students and parents before the units even begin. There is a LOT of work ahead for me in order to even come close to what other teachers around the country are doing, but a journey must start with its first steps, and this is one of mine.

I don’t have any French 1 this year, and I still have to do French 4/AP

For the first time in years, my instruction is rich, relevant, rigorous. And completely redesigned. It’s an exciting journey. I’m sure that at points, I will exit the main highway. The detours may be valuable, or I may just get lost along the way. Either way, I’ll post here so you can come along for the ride.

Some of the first documents to come from my journey towards truly proficiency-driven instruction and grading

Some of the first documents to come from my journey towards truly proficiency-driven instruction and grading


P.S., if you’d like to see some of the resources and great thinkers that are informing my journey, check out the links below:

  • Interactive, online version of ACTFL-NCSSFL Global Benchmarks (and can-do statements)
  • Ohio Foreign Language Association IPA resources
  • Teacher Effectiveness for Language Learning (TELL) Project resources
  • Great thinkers in world language education: Tom Welch, Thomas Sauer, Linda Egnatz, Toni Theisen (search them on Google and on Twitter!)
  • Great thinkers in assessment and grading (search form them–and their books–on Google and Twitter):
    • Ken O’Connor (A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades, Second Edition, 2011);
    • Jan Chappuis (Seven Strategies of Assessment for Learning, 2009, and Creating and Recognizing Quality Rubrics, with Judith A. Arter, 2006)
    • Rick Stiggins (Revolutionize Assessment: Embpower Students, Inspire Learning, 2014)
    • Tom Schimmer (Ten Things that Matter, From Assessment to Grading, 2014)
    • Myron Dueck (Grade Smarter, Not Harder, 2014)
    • Ken Mattingly doesn’t have a book yet, but he is a great teacher, great speaker, and said one thing that I now say to my students: “Today is a great day to make a mistake.” Because unless we’re administering an assessment, any day should be a safe day for students to make a mistake. Find him on Twitter!

Three reasons why I blend but don’t completely flip

A review provided via video as a homework assignment

A review provided via video as a homework assignment

After having spent a couple of years reading numerous blogs on “flipped” learning, seeing posts all over social media espousing the benefits of flipped learning, and watching a few videos of how other teachers in all subjects are flipping their instruction, I decided to at least start experimenting.

But before I could flip or blend, I had to give some serious thought to the concept. I had some very basic questions first:

  • What does it mean to “flip” instruction?
  • How does “flipping” compare to “blending”

After having a bit read more, I came up with definitions that worked for me (but may not be the “official” definitions…if there are official definitions).

  • Flipped instruction means that instructors use technological tools, often videos on the Internet, for their direct instruction of content-specific concepts. Homework is now redefined as watching the videos (or completing other technologically designed lessons) and what used to be homework is now done in class, where the students can benefit from the help and interaction of teacher and peers. There may also be additional resources for extra practice, continued instruction, formative assessment, or enrichment provided online.
  • Blended learning means that instructors use technological tools, especially those available online, to provide a variety of resources to their students so that learning can continue and/or be reinforced beyond the school day. Some of these resources may include instructional videos, but not all instruction is delivered via video. Blended programs provide some instruction in class and some via video and supplement the in-class learning with extensive access to online resources for review, practice or enrichment.

For my own instruction, I came to the conclusion that blended would be more effective and more appropriate. Although I am naturally drawn to the concept of dedicating almost 100% of class time to rich, interactive application of concepts and vocabulary learned, I know my own limitations. I cannot truly flip my instruction. You may wonder why not. Especially if you know me. I’m certainly not afraid of the technology! So let me outline three reasons why I purposefully only deliver a small percentage of my lessons on video, but supplement their learning with extensive access to online practice, additional videos by other teachers on the topics we’re studying, and most importantly, numerous links to authentic documents addressing the topics about which we are speaking in class.

  1. True flipping requires that instructional content be delivered via video. To do all of my content this way goes against everything I believe about student-centered instruction: I don’t know how to do videos that aren’t basically teacher-centered “lectures” that students watch. Yes, they can watch at their own pace. Yes, they can stop, rewind, rewatch the video or even just a portion of the video that caused them difficulty. Yes, I can (and do) craft checks for understanding that are part of my video lessons so students know if they are understanding the material. But ultimately, my video lessons are still less student-centered than my in-person lessons.
  2. The ideal video lesson is short, preferably around five minutes. The material should be almost impossible for students to misunderstand. One of the main reasons  I don’t flip all of my instruction is because I am not convinced that I have the skill necessary to teach every one of my concepts in a way that is unmistakably clear and also concise enough to fit in five minutes of video. So I select only the topics that I know students will readily understand and that are easy to deliver quickly…although I still tend to take closer to 10 minutes per video. Definitely still have work to do here!
  3. Finally, we must address the issue that is unique to language classes: the content must be delivered entirely in the target language both in class and online.  When I look for related videos to add to my students’ resource pages, I am so frequently disappointed to find that the majority of videos posted online explain the language in English. This defeats the purpose of target language instruction and results in lower proficiency outcomes (research shows that students achieve higher proficiency when at least 90% of all instructional time is in the target language). For me, some topics are easier to do online in the target language than others. For year one students, thematic vocabulary works well. Most first-year courses feature vocabulary that is very concrete and for which one can find pictures that make it virtually impossible for students to misunderstand. As the students develop higher levels of proficiency, there are more options for teaching new material in the target language, but I still don’t find all topics suited to flipping. For some topics I prefer to see my students’ faces as I teach and during checks for understanding so I can modify instruction on the spot and ensure the lesson meets all of their needs. Other topics are not suited to flipped instruction because they are actually better taught in an interactive setting rather than via videos watched at home.

Ultimately, flipping (and blending) are like so many other approaches and materials available to educators: they are tools. We need to remember that no single approach is every going to be the most appropriate approach for every lesson or every class of students. We must choose from all of the tools at our disposal to craft the most engaging, productive and relevant lessons for our students. Sometimes, this means that delivering a lesson online will be the best method to address our students’ needs and our instructional goals. Other times, we know that our target objectives simply can’t be met by students viewing a video in isolation: they need to the contact and interaction with others in order to fully understand the concept and to be able to internalize it and make it part of their working language and cultural knowledge.

In spite my own limitations in terms of creating excellent learning via video, I am consistently working on increasing the number of my lessons that are available on video, adding a few videos a year across four levels of French. Why? In order to address the needs of students who were absent or who just find themselves in need of reviewing a topic. Throughout the year, I pick occasional topics for which I record additional lessons so that over the period of several years, I will have built a substantial bank of video lessons my students can consult online if they choose. Of course, this matches my definition of “blended” rather than “flipped” instruction. The videos are there as a resource, but they are not the sole source of content instruction in my classes. They also aren’t fancy. One area of improvement would be for me to include video of me talking in a window in the corner because research shows students have slightly higher outcomes if they can see the teacher in addition to hearing him/her. Another improvement would be for me to have fun with my videos. They are very straightforward and to the point right now. Almost to a fault.

I have found one more great use for blended learning: teacher absences. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t expect teachers to design flipped instruction when they are sick. But I am frequently absent for presentations, accreditation visits of other schools and other professional needs. Because I am absent significantly more than average, I need my students to be able to continue learning even if I am not in the room to teach them and even if they have a substitute who speaks no French. Bring on the flipped lessons. I don’t use them every time I’m absent, but I made great use of them on a recent two-day absence to film a promotional video for National Geographic’s Geo-Educator community. I was absent Friday and the following Tuesday for the flights to and from Washington D.C. (Monday was a holiday). For French 1, I designed a video lesson with built-in checks for understanding regarding personal possessions. My substitute is a retired teacher from my department and knows my technology, so she ran the lesson from my computer and LCD projector. That lesson was delivered on the first day of a two-day absence and it ensured that students were prepared to engage in even more practice activities the second day. Additionally, I purchased in-air wi-fi and I was available to answer students’ questions during my flight to Washington D.C. I only received one question, but I was so happy to be able to be in contact with the class even if I couldn’t be there physically. Students could reach me through the messaging portal of our class network on Schoology (a free tool similar to Edmoto). On the second day of my absence (which was the day of my flight home), I had a different type of flipped learning event ready for my French 4/AP students: I organized a series of authentic documents (video and print media) about important inventions into a folder in Schoology. Students started the lesson by viewing the documents and noting the different inventions as well as their opinions of the inventions. Once they had reviewed the documents, they were instructed to participate in an online discussion (like a forum) I had set up in Schoology. This proved to be very effective. I was online with them in real time for the entire lesson, interacting with them in the discussion from my seat on the plane. I could see how well they understood the documents and could also observe their facility or difficulties with French as they discussed the various inventions in French.

Blending or flipping…or neither. The approach is up to you as long as your decision is always grounded in the approach that will result in the best learning experiences and highest proficiency for your students. If you would like to get started, here are just some of the free tools you can use to record (Google any of these tools to find more information and even tutorials).

On computers

  • Jing by Techsmith. Limited to five minutes. Also does great screenshots.
  • MyBrainshark is an online tool that allows you to add narration to PowerPoints with a microphone or even a telephone. The result is then converted to a movie that anyone can watch on almost any device. This is great for teachers who already use PowerPoint to design lessons and therefore have a lot of material already in that format. Here is a sample for French 1 with the numbers 60-79 taught with photos of the numbers being used in authentic ways (such as highway signs) around the French-speaking world.

On tablets

  • Educreations (iPad) gives you a whiteboard with a voice record feature.
  • Touchcast (app and desktop versions)

You’ll also want to explore ways to check for understanding, especially ways that you can embed into your videos. One of the easiest is to create a quick formative assessment in Google Forms. Another option, is to use the quiz features in many learning platforms, including Edmodo and Schoology. Such a learning platform will probably become a necessity if you begin to flip or blend anyway because you will need a robust Web space to organize and share all of your content.

A third option for building in checks for understanding is to create a lesson series that includes your video and other content. You can then sequence all of the material in an online tool such as LessonPaths (formerly Mentormob) or BlendSpace (formerly EdCanvas), both of which allow you include quiz features and/or other activities. It should be noted that the conversion from Mentormob to LessonPaths is not complete yet and new users cannot use it yet. If you have an existing Mentormob account, you can still use that.

Blending provides our students with 24/7 access to instructional content, tutorials, extra practice and enrichment. It is not really an instructional strategy as much as it is a complex system of instructional resources organized for use in class or out of class, during the school day or after hours. Blending may (and often does) include some flipped lessons (meaning they were never delivered in class, only online). Students and parents have responded very favorably, particularly regarding the accessibility of resources. When students have been absent, they have always appreciated it when video lessons were available.

I’ve already crossed the bridge from delivering all content in class to delivering some content online. There really is no going back: over time, more and more of my lessons will be available online and some of those will only be delivered online. In addition, the bank of additional resources available to students will also become more diverse. Maybe I’ll see you occasionally appearing on the flip side as well.

Tips for working with large (language) classes

The other day, a friend wrote me and some other French teacher colleagues on Facebook asking how to handle large classes in the lower levels. Over the course of my Facebook conversation with her, I realized I was sharing some tips that could be appropriate to a lot of teachers’ situations. Not all of the tips are uniquely mine. They come from years of experience, talking to colleagues, a lot of reading, and more than a few presentations I’ve attended that inspired me while I learned from others.

Here is my reply to her:

I’m sure you actually know all this, but coming from someone who routinely has 35+ in the lower levels, I recommend routines: seat them in partners; give them a warm up every day (it doesn’t have to be written–they can warm up with short question-answer segments related to previous teaching). They do this while you take roll. Try to do at least one out-of-seat mingle activity in the language every couple of days. Design board games they can play in groups of four for vocabulary and grammar practice. Also effective are dice games, index card games, versions of tic-tac-toe and battleship to practice language.

To meet students’ need for resources and help away from the classroom, try to provide to provide reteaching, review and formative assessment resources online so that if they had questions and you weren’t able to answer (or they didn’t feel comfortable asking) or if they were absent, they can still catch up or keep up. And of course, target language immersion with lots of gestures, visual support and modeling will actually help with classroom management.

If you are allowed to use phones and other devices, I highly recommend designing some practice and formative assessment using online tools such as PollEverywhere, Socrative, InfuseLearning, and Google forms. This way, you and the students can efficiently get (and discuss) a lot of data about their understanding and progress. Socrative and InfuseLearning provide multiple, interesting ways for your students to respond.

To get speaking samples from all of your students quickly, set up a Google Voice phone number and they can leave you a voice message in French. They can even do it all at the same time from your room (turn off the feature that forwards Google voice to your cell phone first otherwise they cannot all leave a message at the same time). Within five minutes, you can have an audio response from each of your students that you can later listen to in order to give feedback—this is great in large classes! But, be sure to remind them to state their names in their messages if you wish to give individual feedback.

If you have the whole class preparing a presentation, consider having the students use an online presentation creator such as SlideRocket, Google presentation, or Prezi.  When the students are ready to submit their presentations, create a Google form with just two questions:

  1. What is your name? and
  2. Paste the link to your presentation here. Be sure your presentation is “public”.

When the students complete the form, it will automatically create a spreadsheet for all of the responses. When you want students to give their presentations to the class, you won’t lose time opening, closing and ejecting hard drives; you will merely open the spreadsheet from your Google Drive and you can click seamlessly and efficiently from one presentation to the next. This saves enormous amounts of class time. The larger the class, the more time it saves. You can also easily access their presentations later from any computer with Internet for more detailed grading.

To manage the task of answering numerous students’ questions in a large class, start an “ask three then me” system to make it easier to address student questions during independent and group work.  In this system, before they can raise their hands for your help, they must have first sought help from three different students. If none of them know the answer, chances are it is a question you should address with the class anyway.

Do you have tips for maximizing instructional time with large classes? Post them in the comments!

Check out teaching activities created in MentorMob and EdCanvas

UPDATE: since publication, both tools have changed their name and also their Web addresses.  MentorMob is now LessonPaths and can be found at http://www.lessonpaths.com. EdCanvas is now Blendspace and is found at http://www.blendspace.com.

After completing my “Side-by-Side” post comparing online thematic content curation on MentorMob and EdCanvas, I ultimately chose to create student learning experiences using both tools.

As noted in the original post, I used MentorMob to create a multi-media introduction in to hunger in the world for my French 2 students to set the stage for an article from the United Nations that they would be reading. Students are exposed to statistics in the form of videos, infographics, running counters and other online resources, all of which are organized into “steps” in the MentorMob playlist.

For my French 4/AP class, I needed something different. With the Peace Corps’ World Wise Schools program, they have been corresponding with a Peace Corps volunteer in Bénin (a French-speaking country in West Africa) since the beginning of the year, but I’ve found that they have struggled to craft thoughtful, detailed responses to her letters to us. So, I decided to use EdCanvas as the platform take her last two letters (yes, we did fall behind!) and chunk them into smaller pieces, including some additional Internet content along the way. And of course, there are activities and other prompts for students to compare, analyze, reflect and respond to what they are seeing in both her letters and in the related content I put at their disposal.

In order to provide the most fair comparison for readers about the two tools, you should see finished activities created for student use. Both MentorMob and EdCanvas provide excellent options for teachers to lay out a rich, multi-media presentation that includes interactivity and is sequenced to enhance student understanding. You can see both the French 2 and French 4/AP activities at the top of the home page of my class Web site.
Class Web Site

Feel free to try the activities out for yourselves…of course, they are all in French 🙂 In my classes, both of these learning experiences are leading directly to a more focused student language production activity. After doing the activities on MentorMob, French 2 students will work in groups to read a chunk of the the U.N. article, write a summary of their section and create a visual representation of the statistics in their section. Then, all the groups will circulate to examine the work of the other groups and rank the different statistics in order of importance. Ultimately, they will create their own infographics using the statistics in the entire article and they will have the option to also include information from the content they will have viewed on MentorMob.
The French 4/AP students will reply to Megan, write introductory letters to the students in the village school, and begin a collection drive for the art and school supplies our Peace Corps volunteer had earlier indicated were lacking in the school.

Side by Side: comparing EdCanvas and MentorMob for curating online content for students

This week, my students in French 2 are continuing their study of food and nutrition. In order to further their study and take it beyond lists of foods to memorize, I wanted to use an article I tried with French 2 last year. The article, Ten Things You Need to Know About Hunger, 2013 comes from the World Food Program (funded by the United Nations)– and is available in French and English  as well as in other languages. The article is redone every year with new statistics. Those statistics that haven’t changed are used again the following year. The article is broken into 10 small chunks, making it very easy to work with in a world language class, although the students do need some vocabulary support.

Last year, I had students work in groups with just one “chunk” from the article. They read and discussed their assigned part and then converted the statistics printed in that part into some kind of visual representation for the rest of the class: a bar graph, pie chart or other representations. They also wrote a summary sentence about their statistics in simpler French. Students then circulated, visited all the groups and ranked the different statistics in order of importance (based on their own opinions. The activity went quite well, but I wanted to expand on it for this year, so I decided to provide an introduction to the article by first having students examine online, multi-media information about hunger in the world (some of which is the same information in the article they will see). I needed tools that would allow me to organize and annotate the resources so that the students can progress meaningfully through the various photos, videos and infographics I had found.

I chose two tools that are both designed for education for this purpose and created essentially the same curated site of online documents and activities in both tools. The first tool I tried was EdCanvas and the second tool in which I organized the same resources was MentorMob.  And the idea for a side-by-side comparison was born. So, here is my first side-by-side tool review: MentorMob and EdCanvas.

What they do

Both tools allow you to select web content, images, and files you want your students to examine and experience. Both tools also help you to put those resources in order so that students see them in the order you would want them to experience them, even if you are not the one clicking “next”. This allows them to view the content anytime, anywhere and still experience it in the order you intended.

Here are images of the two home screens (what you see when you sign in). You will see any items you have created using the tools in a list.

Ease of use from a desktop or laptop computer

MentorMob is very intuitive for both teachers and students, especially if users have experience with Web 2.0 tools that allow online editing. Content you add to MentorMob is organized in a playlist. Each item in the playlist is called a step. Students click “Next” in order to proceed to the next item in the playlist. Once they have moved to step 2 or beyond, students can also click on “previous” to revisit content they have already seen. EdCanvas is also very intuitive, especially if users have experience with Web 2.0 tools that allow online editing.    The content you add to EdCanvas is organized into “tiles” and the students will view the tiles in the order you have prescribed when creating the canvas. Students click on the left or right arrows that appear on the sides of the content to navigate to additional items.

Ease of use on phones and tablets

Here, there is a distinct difference between the two products. I tested them on an iPhone and an iPad, knowing that Flash objects are usually problematic with that operating system. MentorMob definitely came out on top in that regard. MentorMob (below, left) does a better job optimizing the pages for viewing on the mobile devices. In EdCanvas, the user has to move the image around in order to see the whole thing, as displayed in the two images on the right, below.

One issue that did come up with MentorMob on iPhone and iPad deals with “challenge questions” and “pop quizzes”. These will be discussed in more detail below, but users need to know that neither option currently works on mobile devices. I contacted MentorMob and they are working on making this available for mobile. For now, students need to be on desktops or laptops to respond to these activities.

Ease of creating and editing content for one’s project

MentorMob has an easy interface for adding content, but you have to have already identified any online content you wish to add. You can’t search from within MentorMob (although you can always open a new window/tab and search from there). You will notice that you can create a “step” that is a “quiz”. This feature is discusse da bit later. You can add links, upload files, write new content directly into a MentorMob step (as an “article”) or create a “pop quiz”, as shown in the image on the left.  In addition to adding your own documents (as in MentorMob), EdCanvas allows you to search for content for your project from within EdCanvas and the results appear in a window on the right of your current EdCanvas project (see below, right). You can also preview videos from within this search.  The Google button has a toggle switch to choose to search Google Images or Web search.  You can also upload documents from your Dropbox and Google Drive accounts.

Annotating your content

MentorMob gives you two ways to annotate your content: you can “write an article”, which becomes its own step (see the photo above), or you can edit the “details” for a step and those details are available as students look at the content for a step.

EdCanvas also has two ways to annotate content: you can create a description or add a comment. If you create a description in advance, it will appear as the first comment, to the right of the “canvas” when students are viewing it.If you choose to add a comment while watching an EdCanvas presentation, you may record 30 seconds of audio by clicking on the microphone, or you may type a comment, as indicated in the photo. The comment that is already there was added by creating the description of the tile in advance.

Creating student response activities

MentorMob has a clear advantage here if students will be viewing the playlist on a desktop or laptop computer rather than on a mobile device. You can create a “challenge question” for any step in the playlist. Challenge questions will pop up when the student clicks to go to the next step after viewing a step with the content on which the challenge question was based.


You can also create a “pop quiz” or “test”. These are actually the same thing, but the name changes depending on how you access it within MentorMob. When you want to create one, you choose “pop quiz” as the type of content you wish to add. When you’re actually editing/creating it, it is called a “test,” as you’ll see here:

One downside is that tests and challenge questions can only have multiple choice or true-false options in MentorMob. However, users can get around this by also using other online tools, such as Google Forms, PollEverywhere or Socrative to create an activity, and then they could make a new “step” with a link to that activity. Another downside, as mentioned earlier, is that neither quizzes nor challenge questions will appear if students are using mobile devices. If teachers know that students will be using mobile devices, they should plan to include these types of activities using other online tools such as Google forms, PollEverywhere or Socrative and inserting the links.

When it comes to creating activities for students to do as they view your curated content,  EdCanvas is at a clear disadvantage. There are no built-in options for student interaction with the content. Teachers using EdCanvas have the following options:

  • to type directions for some kind of activity either in the description or the comments (see above),
  • to provide an activity on paper,
  • or to use another online tool, such as Google Forms, PollEverywhere or Socrative to create an activity and then they could insert the link to that activity as a new tile. This can also be done in MentorMob and  is discussed further below.

Adding other types of content from online tools

MentorMob and EdCanvas both do this very easily. In MentorMob, you find (or create) the online content you want and then choose “Paste link” to put the URL for that content into your play list. In EdCanvas, you find or create your online content and then choose the “Web search” icon to put the URL for that content into your playlist.

Adding content while browsing the Web

If you use Chrome as your browser, you can install an extension for MentorMob that will allow you to add an online resource to any playlist you have already created just by clicking the MentorMob extension. EdCanvas has a “bookmark this” snippet so that you can bookmark any Web document to EdCanvas while you are browsing.  Simply drag it from the bookmarked resources onto the new tile. It does not require you to specify which canvas you wish to add the bookmark to. Instead, you will later select that bookmarked item while you edit the canvas in which you would like to place the item as a new tile.

The nitty gritty….MentorMob or EdCanvas?

So after all of this, which one did I choose for my students? Both were easy to use. Both are free. Both are promising in terms of curating content for students and guiding them in their interactions with the content. Both also have glitches and quirks. But in the end, although I was impressed with the in-program search, drag and drop features of EdCanvas, I ultimately chose MentorMob for the following reasons:

  1. With “challenge questions” and “test/pop quiz” features, MentorMob allows for more fluid and intuitive creation of student activities to help them process the content you’ve curated and interact with that conten. In fact, just having these features present reminds teachers to engage their students with the content rather than have them passively view it. Admittedly, this will be an even bigger selling point when it works on mobile devices, given how many schools (including mine) depend on student devices in order to increase students’ access to the Internet at school. Our one computer lab form 2,000 students is almost always reserved and we do many of our online activities using students’ phones and tablets.
  2. With both EdCanvas and MentorMob, when students explore links you’ve provided, they also have access to all other hyperlinks on those pages, which merits a cautionary note by itself: those links may lead to content you did not intend for your students to see. I highly recommend that teachers “play student” and click around on the pages they are linking to their MentorMob and/or EdCanvas activities. That said, MentorMob has a helpful feature that is missing in EdCanvas: when students click on a link within a page in MentorMob, a message pops up at the top of the page letting them know they have left the original page and giving them a hyperlink back to the original page. Better still, this message appears even if the students click on two, three or several links that appear on a page.
  3. With mobile devices, the page layouts were typically more correct on mobile devices with MentorMob than they were were with EdCanvas.
  4. The interface of MentorMob is generally more attractive (this is opinion, but then again, a lot of decisions we make are at least partially driven by opinion). For example, the “Double Click to Add Text” feature in EdCanvas doesn’t have any formatting options for that text. I only wanted to type a small description, but a full-screen white page appears in the student view with tiny type at the top.  There is no way to designate a header or do any other formatting.


In MentorMob, this same option is achieved by inserting an “Article”. When you do, you are prompted for a title, description and then content. Although you may still have a lot of white space on the page if the content is not long, the ability to designate separate titles, headers and descriptions provides students a more authentic and natural way to receive content in a format that is generally more attractive.


Unfortunately, in the mobile version, the “article” view in MentorMob would benefit from a programming adjustment: it currently places the article too high on the page so the title of the article is difficult to read.That said, it does still possess more formatting than is present in EdCanvas mobile or desktop, making it easier for students to process the information presented. But, there is a lot of white space…scroll down to see the rest of the article.

Stay tuned for the next article in my “Side By Side” series: Using PollEveryWhere and Socrative to create engaging student activities and formative assessments they can access on their mobile devices.