Create a Form and Get the Homework You Want

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In which Jotform saves my sanity….

One assignment in my semester-long vocabulary project asks students to create a handout for the class.  The handout must include the word they are going to teach the class, part of speech, definition, context example, etymology and a mnemonic to help their classmates remember the word.

I have rarely gotten a submission that included all those components, and the project loses time as I have to either return the work to be completed or provide the missing parts myself and grade accordingly (yes, I know that is enabling but there are days ….)

As I was working my way through the ever-informative FreeTech4Teachers blog, I was pondering how I could use Dropbox to streamline receiving assignments online.  Asking for homework to be emailed creates several problems: I rarely get it in the “attached document” form I request, and my inbox swells to an alarming size.  It is also too easy to miss a single submission if it doesn’t arrive with the rest of the flock.

Dropbox seemed to be an attractive alternative, but I didn’t want to have to invite each individual student to Dropbox to give them access, so was poking around FreeTech4Teachers to find other possibilities.  Lo and behold, not only could I create a form and bypass email altogether (with a little help from the folks at Jotform), but I could create the fields I wanted and increase my odds of getting an assignment that gave me what I asked for.  Huzzah.

I created a form on Jotform with a field for each piece of information I wanted.  I linked that form to Dropbox, but couldn’t figure out how to not get email as well as the Dropbox submission.  Apparently there is an email wizard page that allows you to set such preferences, but I wrote to Jotform and got a prompt reply and solution removing email as the default option.

So, I posted a link to the form on our online classroom management system (Blackboard) and watched the pages roll in.  I got a little notification each time a new submission arrived, and at the due time I went to Dropbox and printed them out.

Every single assignment had every component – it was a miracle!  They weren’t all right, or even coherent at times, but all the pieces were there!  The pairing of Jotform and Dropbox created a delightful solution to the problem of incomplete homework assignments, and I am forever grateful.

2011 © HeyTeach101 & toreadtowrite.com

Don’t Trust the Dictionary

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photo by Joelk75 @ flickr

I have found a new site that solves a major vocabulary-teaching problem.

When teaching new words to my students, I used to struggle with the gap between dictionary definitions and common usage.  If students create a sentence based solely on the dictionary definition of a new word, nine times out of ten (made-up statistic) the sentence will sound wrong.  Trying to explain why it sounds wrong was a challenge I often struggled to meet.

So I started requiring the students to use online dictionary sites that include context examples.  It is surprisingly obvious when the students have made up sentences rather than copied legitimate example sentences, which taught me that the dictionary definition is not enough to help them learn to use new words appropriately.

Last semester we used a variety of dictionary sites, and I had the students rate them according to their usability.  I wanted sites that included context examples, but there wasn’t a lot of consistency about whether or not a site included context examples.  Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t.

Well, eureka!  I just discovered Wordnik, a site that exists to provide definitions and a multitude of example sentences.  I have revised my computer lab assignment, and now the students will be required to use Wordnik first, then find a similar definition and context sentence (if available) at another dictionary site.

Check out Wordnik – way cool!

2011 © HeyTeach101 & toreadtowrite.com

Key Words, Wiki Summarizer & College Reading

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One of my favorite blogs, Free Tech for Teachers, turned me on to Wiki Summarizer, which allows you to enter key words for a subject, get  a list of relevant articles, then request a summary and get  a brief description of the article with key words highlighted.

I can see using this with my college reading classes this fall, but I have to be careful to give them an adequate introduction to it first.  My failures to get students to use technology have mostly been because I did not give them time to figure the software out first with the support of their classmates and me.  For any new piece of software I want them to use, I HAVE to give them at least one class period in a computer lab where we can experiment and stumble and figure it out together.  Only then will any assignment using the software have a reasonable chance of being successful.

Summarizer could be very useful in helping students identify key words – a skill that almost everyone in a reading class needs to improve.  Key words pop out for skilled readers, and we often assume that they pop for everyone.  Not so.  In lessons on identifying key words reading students often choose words that don’t have much to do with the main idea.  Their choices help me understand why they struggle so to identify the main idea.

I want to spend more time this fall  in my basic reading class on key words as the beginning stage of identifying main ideas.  I think that most of the semester will be spent just on vocabulary and identifying the main idea by learning to recognize and connect key words and details, and I think Wiki Summarizer may provide a useful tool to help me with that.  Thanks again, Free Tech for Teachers.

2011 © HeyTeach101 & toreadtowrite.com

Overwhelmed by the Avalanche

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As I move from collecting blogs to actually writing one, I am fighting the debilitating sensation of being utterly overwhelmed by all the information out there.  So many wonderful, useful, full-of-even-more-fascinating-links blogs, twitter, personal learning networks (PLN’s), new software, new technology.  Yikes!  I want to learn it all and do it all and use it all, but even more than that I want to just climb into bed and pull the covers over my head.

However, a moment of calm and stillness has arisen thanks to the voice of sanity in a new blog I just discovered. Although the title of the blog, “Teacher Challenges,” does not sound particularly calming, the post on starting your own PLN, written by Sarah Poling, delivered some much needed encouragement and reassurance.  I love her description of herself as “a digital immigrant teaching digital natives” which is a perfect way to describe me and most of my peers in college reading and writing at my university.  She preaches starting small, and her tips for starting a PLN  are so encouraging.  This list is going to be a part of everything new I want to learn and be and do:

1.  “Learning Styles and Personal Preferences.” Pay attention to your learning style, your preferences and zones of comfort.  You don’t have to do everything – start where you are most comfortable, and grow from there.

2.  “Set a goal.”  She sent herself a note on futureme.org.  What is that?  Another site to explore (stay excited but calm, dear.)

3.  “Set a routine.”  Right now I have a lovely routine: I am working on my blog in the mornings and on the rest of my life in the afternoons, but I wonder what is going to happen when classes start.  Fall is always extremely busy, as we don’t have enough staff to cover our classes, I am the department chair and have to hire and supervise woefully underpaid and often under-qualified call staff plus teach too many students packed into too many classes….  oops, heading towards overwhelmed again.

4.  “Find resources that help.”  She recommends Google Reader, which has been a game-changer for me – I suddenly have all the interesting and encouraging and useful blogs I want to follow in one place.  And I am going to explore another site she recommends, livebinder, to collect resources I hope to use.  It looks easy, and I would LOVE to get a grip on all the fascinating resources I touch once and never see again.

5.  “Decide what works best for you.”  This is where my spirit breathed a sigh of relief.  Relax, pick one thing to do, and don’t worry about the millions of choices I didn’t make.

6.  “Don’t force it.”  Follow others, see what is being done and how people are doing it, and move forward as you can.

Oh, I love this list!  Thank you Sarah!!

2011 © HeyTeach101 & toreadtowrite.com