An Open Letter to the Google Classroom Team

First of all, I want to just put it out there: I LOVE Google. I love how they are constantly not only creating new products, but updating and (usually) improving existing products. Through their impressive suite of tools and apps including Google Drive, Google Classroom, Google Cardboard/Goggles, and more, Google has revolutionized the way people work, communicate, and interact with our world and other people. I recognize that. I was a Google Certified Teacher (London Google Teacher Academy, 2012) and will be applying for their upcoming Certified Innovator community (with NO guarantee of being accepted, of course). If this makes it to the Google Classroom product team (and I REALLY hope it does), please know that my comments below come from a place of love. I want Google Classroom to be the site for teaching and learning that I believe Google intends it to be.

Google is known for constantly updating and improving its products. When it comes to Google Classroom, however, a visit to their product update page reveals that the updates have been relatively few and unsubstantive in terms of improving the experience for teachers and learners and creating that digital teaching and learning space I mentioned above.

So, in case your were wondering, Google Classroom Team, I have a list of suggestions that come from my own experience, as well as the experiences of teachers I work with, that I think would improve the user experience for your many, many Classrooms around the world–and more importantly, create a more dynamic, engaging, and robust online learning community.

    • Rather than “templating” documents that are “assigned” with each student receiving their own editable copy in Classroom, treat those documents like anything else in Google Drive and update them automatically in Classroom if they were updated by the teacher. Or at least be more upfront and TELL us that what we are uploading is a template whose future edits won’t be received by students. Currently, if you update the source document AFTER posting the assignment in Google Classroom, the thumbnail of that document will be updated and reflect your changes, but the document itself–the one the learners received DOES NOT update or change. This is misleading to the teacher for two reasons. First of all, Google is known for its real-time updating and collaboration and this seems at odds with the way Google products function. But users are also misled because the thumbnail that is viewable in classroom DOES actually update. As a result, users are inclined to think that the students receive the most updated version, but they don’t. There isn’t a warning anywhere to tell you that if you update that document, the students won’t receive the updated version. If the teacher happens to look in the Google Drive folder associated with the assignment, they will then see “[TEMPLATE]” next to the document title, but the teachers have to run across that in the particular Drive file associated with the assignmet–a file they didn’t even personally create–in order to notice it. Google Classroom guru (and noted teacher and author) Alice Keeler explains the logistics and use of the “templates” really well in this post, but I still think Google Classroom could improve the user experience by making it more clear to teachers when they attach a document they intend to be distributed to each student as individually editable copies. They shouldn’t have to stumble upon Alice’s post or upon the assignment folder in Google Drive in order to know that this will be the result, especially not when the thumbnail picture DOES update. 
    • Give teachers the ability to create threaded discussions in Classroom, The “Questions” feature is a great start, but it has some serious limitations. First of all, teachers cannot currently “moderate” the students’ responses before they become visible to the other students. As a result, teachers often opt to post a question, but not allow students to see or reply to other students’ responses. In addition, the even if one allows the students to post and reply to each other, the result isn’t in a threaded discussion format, which makes this much less effective as an asynchronous tool for students to share and reply to thoughts, ideas, and questions they are exploring as their learning community is working through a content-area objective. But Google already has the solution for this:
      • Resurrect Google Moderator; it was ahead of its time and Google pulled it a while ago, but it is PERFECT for the Google Classroom environment! The code for this exists somewhere in Google’s vaults. Just bring it back and add it to the “post” options for Google Classroom. 
    • Allow teachers/owners of Google Classroom to create sub-pages in Classroom for navigation and especially for organization of multiple classes. The “topics” feature simply isn’t robust enough for the kind of organization teachers and learners need if they really are going to use this space as a virtual learning environment. The current ability to drag classes into a new order on the Classroom home page also isn’t enough. Teachers often not only have their own rostered classes loaded in Google Classroom, but numerous other “classes” they created or belong to for professional learning, for collaborative group work they do on behalf of their schools and districts and more. In my case, I have 15 (yes FIFTEEN) different Google Classrooms just for our district’s “Equity through Leadership” collaborative teams alone. On top of that, I also have multiple “Classrooms” for leading professional learning on the use of Google Classroom, and many additional classrooms. And I am NOT unique in this.

      screenshot of Google Classroom home page.

      We can’t create folders for classes on similar themes or create a navigation system (similar to sub pages), so the result for people with many classes is this.

      As a result, many of us have Google Classroom Home Pages that are completely unmanageable because we can’t create a navigation system that links related classes together so that they can be collapsed into a category and “unclutter” our page. Nor can we create new groups within one class and just post to those groups (which would also be a nice way to reduce the cluttering problem on the homepage if designing a navigation system isn’t possible). The current options for choosing which students will be included in an announcement or assignment isn’t sufficient, because in the case of professional development, the “students” haven’t enrolled yet. For that to work (so that I could create just ONE class for my Google Classroom professional development for example), I  would need to be able to create announcements, assignments and questions for specific groups of learners within the same “Class” from the beginning, even before they arrive. Since I can’t do that, I have no choice but to create numerous Classrooms on the same topic so that each group of teachers with which I am working only receive the posts when the posts are relevant to them. Clearly, the “topics” feature doesn’t help with this either. 

    • On the subject of “topics,”  it turns out that learners and educators don’t explore subjects and objectives in isolation! They constantly build upon previously-learned material. Teachers purposefully “spiral” content from previous weeks, months, or even years into lessons. And they also purposefully connect lesson content and resources to multiple learning targets and themes within their own subject areas, but also across subject areas. As a result, we need to be able to select MULTIPLE topics for each announcement, question, and assignment rather than be limited to only ONE topic.
    • Please, please, please can we have more robust text formatting using a Rich Text tool bar/ribbon in Google Classroom so that teachers can craft detailed instructions right on the classroom page instead of requiring students to click on a document to view formatted directions? We need to be able to number, add bulleted lists, or put statements in bold or even another color. But in Google Classroom right now, the ONLY formatting option we have is the “return key.” This is simply insufficient for teachers really trying to use Google Classroom as a robust learning space.
    • Educators need to be able to drag and drop posts in Google classroom to change the order in which they appear. The current option (and only option we have) to “move” one post “to the top” simply isn’t sufficient for the needs of educators and others who use Google Classroom, such as facilitators of professional learning. For example, a couple weeks ago, I was creating an online PD course called “Teaching Digital Citizenship” in Google Classroom. But I had to start on a piece of paper and design the entire course in reverse order so that the content and assignments would appear in chronological order to my audience when they take the course.
    • Allow teachers to add information to the calendar. And/or, add an option that can be toggled whenever teachers add an announcement: “add to calendar?” Sometimes, teachers want to “announce” a test on the calendar. Currently, they have to make that announcement an “assignment” in order for it to appear in the calendar.
  • And finally, to enhance the way we can communicate with families and guardians (as well as students) through Google Classroom, I have two additional “asks” of Google:
    • Add links to resources that are shared in Google Classroom to the view that parents have in the guardian summary so that parents can view and/or print out a resource, for example, if necessary. Currently, the “guardian summary” is a static document that includes what was due and what is upcoming. But announcements aren’t visible. Links and resources that are shared via Classroom aren’t included in the Guardian Summaries. 
    • Enable two-way communication for the Guardian Summaries. Why can’t parents email back? 

I’m not the only one asking for these features and more. Here’s another blog with some of the same requests and some additional ones.

If you also use Google Classroom, and you would like to increase the chances that some of these improvements might be made, click on the question mark in the lower right hand corner of your classroom homepage (the one where all your classes are listed). Choose “give feedback” and share any of the above requests with the Google Classroom team. They really are reading all the feedback. In fact, Google Classroom is the ONLY Google product that has its own team of people reading only the feedback from that one product (all the other Google products share a team whose members review feedback from across the entire span of the rest of the Google product line).

Thanks in advance for listening, Google. I really, really do love your products!



Another cross post?

Well, it’s been a quiet year on my personal blog (I do hope to change that in 2018), but that’s partially because I have been guest blogging, both with Alice Keeler for whom I did one post, and also for KQED “In the Classroom.” So, here is my latest post on “In the Classroom,” all about how you can put the digital portfolio tool Seesaw to work for you and your students. See you in the New Year!

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
  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.

Harnessing the REAL power of technology

I started teaching French in 1993. At that time, the technology to which I had access consisted of a Brother word processor I shared with my husband at home, a high-speed duplicating machine that used a drum and pushed out volumes of paper with blue ink that smeared and faded, a slide projector with carousel for showing dozens of slides, an overhead projector with plenty of overhead sheets and wet-erase markers, a tape player in the classroom (not even a CD player in the classroom yet), and …wait for it….a reel-to-reel film projector.

reel to reel

Photo credit: accessed on “Classic Technnology” Flikr page:

So when the Internet first became available to me in 1995, to say it transformed my practice would be an understatement. For the first time, I could log onto a computer and within a few keystrokes and clicks, I could see what native speakers around the world were reading in real time, at the same time that they could be reading it. My students didn’t yet have access to a computer lab connected to the Internet at school, but I could print out the documents to share with students. I was ecstatic and took long virtual (and largely text-based) journeys nightly from my AOL account. And this was with static Web pages: text and a few images, no interaction within and among the creators and the users of the content. But I could see the potential.

Fast forward 10 years. By 2005, YouTube and Google Search had both hit the scene…and redefined the Internet as we knew it. The content didn’t just look different. It was different. More dynamic. Audio-visual. Enhanced search capacity. Commenting and interaction between the creators and users of content. And in fact, the line between creators and users started to blur at this point in our collective cyber history: anyone who could figure out how could upload a video to Youtube. Wikipedia turned everyday citizens into content creators and curators. Today, the line between creators and consumers of online content has disappeared completely. We all can be creators if we choose to. And we continue to be users. We can create, publish, edit, republish, share, collaborate, comment, and more.

The true power of technology does not lie in any one tool, suite of tools or newest, glitzy capacity. Instead, the real power of technology as an educational tool lies in its ability to provide ongoing, diverse and dynamic opportunities to inform and connect anyone, anywhere.

As a world language teacher, I am inspired and energized by the possibilities technology affords to help my students become not only more knowledgeable, but more connected to the communities of target-language speakers all over the world.

  • Tools like ExplainEverything, Doceri, myBrainshark and Educreations that make it possible for teachers to ensure that learning, practice and enrichment available to students 24/7.
  • Skype and Google + Hangouts connecting my students to classes elsewhere to talk in French, in real time.
  • Video editing tools like Zaption, Educanon, EdPuzzle and Blubbr that let teachers add questions and other activities to existing YouTube videos.
  • Twitter to share their work to a real audience and to engage in global dialog around current issues.
  • Dynamic tools like Padlet and TodaysMeet where students can quickly post thoughts on any topic and see what others (local and global if the links are shared with others) are posting as well.
  • Collaborative tools, such as those in Google Drive (and, for those schools that use it, Google Apps for Education) thatsymbaloo_pic allow students to collaborate, create and publish–locally and globally.
  • Rich tools like Blendspace that allow users to organize all kinds of content into an interactive, multi-media presentation in which users all over the world can use the commenting feature to dialog about every item in the presentation.
  • Creative multi-media tools like Storybird, Wordle and Tagxedo, Voicethread, PowToon, Animoto and more that help students build capacity to use and ultimately publish their work in their new language creatively.
  • Mobile tools like Toontastic, Tellagami, ShadowPuppet and others that allow students to quickly and effectively combine their own spoken audio with video and images on their mobile devices and publish to an audience with one tap on their screen.
  • Free mobile and online tools, such as WhatsApp, Snapchat, Viber, and more that allow students to foster one-to-one connections in real time with native speakers around the world–allowing them to communicate authentically when and where they want.

I’m fortunate to teach in a place where technology is seen as an ally in students’ education. Virtually nothing is “blocked,” thereby allowing my students to learn, explore, communicate, collaborate, create and publish using a variety of media and tools, right from my classroom. Yes, we have an obligation (legally as well as ethically) to protect our students from nefarious content and people on the Web. But we are also responsible for preparing students to become productive, responsible, and media-literate global citizens: these tools allow my students to learn and practice, but also to produce and share and get feedback from real audiences. More importantly, these tools allow my students to make real connections with French speakers around world right from their residences in suburban Northern California where French is rarely heard on TV and virtually never on the radio or in person. Through their interactions and their experiences with a rich array of authentic documents now easily accessed from their pockets, they increase both language and cultural proficiency by interacting with a variety of people from diverse communities where the language is spoken. As technology continues to shape how we work and interact, it truly empowers teachers and students to transform what it means to “study” a language or to “learn” a language by taking their voices and their experiences out of the book and out of the classroom to the global community.

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 (which is NOT a site, by the way), remember that a tool doesn’t have to be technology. In fact, according to, 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.

Using Google Art Project, Google Cultural Institute to build proficiency in CCSS speaking and writing

Using Google Art Project, Google Cultural Institute to build proficiency in CCSS speaking and writing

Check out my guest post on the EdTechTeam blog about annotation tools I found in Google Art Project that give students more practice in speaking and writing for specific purposes and audiences.

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.

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 EdCanvas is now Blendspace and is found at

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.

Google Teacher Academy….the next few hours

Now that you’ve had some time to digest my experience of the first couple of hours of the Google Teacher Academy in London, here are some of my favorite takeaways from the subsequent (but still not all of the remaining) hours.

    • Use “street view” in Google maps to give context to literature and historical events and to facilitate students’ pre-thinking before doing written tasks. Want to go even further? Turn your students’ annotated Google maps into videos (including their own narration) using a tool such as I hope to use this as one of the main tools students use to complete the “Through their eyes” project referenced in the last post. I hoped to embed a sample, but it didn’t work so here’s a link to a quick example I did using Jing to narrate and record the street-view of my high school. This is just a sample; I don’t have anything special to say. But your students might! Just imagine going on street view to “tour” the sites where history and literature took place!
  • Video creation tools students and teachers can use are already compiled in a list provided by YouTube: With carefully crafted goals, objectives, directions, and rubrics, you may find your students demonstrating their knowledge in ways you had never dreamed. Or you could present your own material in new ways. I would encourage you to play with the tools first, however, if they are new to you. It will help immensely in your planning for the first day the students use the tools. On a related note, I almost always plan “play time” first with a new tool before assigning a “high stakes” project to be completed using the tool. This way the students are given the time and support they need to understand the tool before also trying to demonstrate content knowledge using that tool. This is especially true of online animation tools. The students are still speaking French when they “play”; they simply aren’t also worrying about the “project.”
  • I’m starting to teach myself some basic Java scripting in order to maximize the potential of certain Google tools, including Google Forms and Google Sites. One of the most useful scripts allows students to click a button on your Google Web Site to submit their assignments (created in Google Docs) directly into a collection in your own Google Docs folder.
  • One online tool with great potential–especially for collecting data on how well students are understanding and applying concepts, you can use Flubaroo (which includes the scripts you need) to create self-grading quizzes you can insert into a Google spreadsheet
  • The Chrome store could be its own source of great tools for teachers. It is a lot like the iTunes store, but for the Chrome Web browser–the link I provided to the Chrome store will probably only open if you’re in Chrome. Since I haven’t brought this up yet, it’s worth saying here: in case you didn’t already know, Gmail and Google Docs (and probably other Google tools) don’t play nicely with Internet Explorer. Those of you who are experienced Chrome users can skip to the next section, but for the rest of you who are new to Chrome, read on: A few months ago I caved and downloaded Chrome browser in order to increase the functionality of both Gmail and Google Docs. I was very pleased with how well both tools worked once I wasn’t using Internet Explorer. But it wasn’t until Google Teacher Academy that I realized how much more one can do with Chrome browser compared to traditional Web browsers. Imagine you’re on Chrome on your home computer and you find an application or extension  you like. Extensions are buttons you ask Chrome to install that appear to the right of the address bar allowing you to access certain tools or carry out certain activities with just one click no matter what Web page you currently happen to be looking at.
    The red arrow in the picture below is pointing to two extensions that are installed on my Chrome Browser. The first one (the “plus” sign in the orange background allows to easily share and bookmark. I didn’t have to look for that extension because it is part of Chrome when you install Chrome. But the red box with the “@” symbol I installed. It is discussed below.
  • Anyway, you find an extension you like, and you install it in Chrome on your home computer. Then you get to work and open up Chrome on a different computer. Once you sign in (with the same account information you have for Gmail or Google Docs),  everything you installed at home is also installed on the work (or other) computer. For example, I added the red “@” extension above that allows me to send any Web page I’m viewing to Evernote just by clicking on it. For fun, I also downloaded apps from the Chrome store just so I could see how this worked. I tried an online typing test from the Chrome store and I also put my WordPress account on my Chrome home page. When I logged into to my computer at work, everything was there for me–the apps, the bookmarks, and the extensions!
  • Gmail has “translation bots”.  First, find the email address of the language(s) you want. For example, for a translation bot to go from English to French, the address is Add that address to your Gmail contacts.  Start a “chat” and invite the bot for the language you want as a participant. Then students can then type in English, and it will do a passable translation into French. As a language teacher, I won’t be using this, but I could see other classes using this if they have collaborative projects going on with classes in other parts of the world. In playing with the French-to-English translation bot, I did find that spelling matters. Some language teachers might find this useful because the students would in theory know what they were trying to say when they typed the sentence in French, but if the English result comes back garbled, there is clearly an error somewhere in the sentence, and the students would have to find out where that error is. But this only has limited application and usefulness in the modern, proficiency-oriented language classroom, the same way students can test their pronunciation by trying to get the French Siri on the iPhone 4S to understand their questions.
  • Ngram viewer: this tool is part of the Google books suite. It does a comparative analysis of search terms and works in English, Chinese, French, German, Russian, Hebrew and Spanish. I ran a sample search in French, comparing the terms “holocauste” and “Shoah” from 1920 to 2000. While most English speakers refer to the deportation, imprisonment, torture, and killing of Jews (and other populations) as the “Holocaust,” the term has been replaced with Shoah in French (and I actually heard on NPR recently that the term Shoah is starting to come into usage in English as well). Holocaust technically refers to any destruction or slaughter on a mass scale and originally was a religious term coming from ancient Greece, meaning “whole offering” or “burnt sacrifice”. The Hebrew word Shoahmeans “calamity” or “destruction” and some feel it is more appropriate when applied to the campaign of genocide that occured in WWII. When you look at the results of the Ngram viewer, you can see the change in language usage occur in French literature over time.

If you click on one of the dates in the table displayed below the image, it will bring to you search results in Google for books using those terms.

For example, I clicked on the box on the top left (1920-1989). Here was the result:

I’m still sorting out my own thoughts on the conversations we could have in class regarding the results of carefully selected search terms. I can only imagine the implications in literature and social science courses!

More Google Teacher Academy reflections coming soon…..