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Go Set a Watchman…A Book Review

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Go Set a Watchman

Nothing new needs to be said about Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. From the time it was published in 1960, it has been hailed a masterpiece. It has always been my favorite book of all time, and as a former English teacher, it was also my favorite book to teach.

When news broke that a “lost” Lee manuscript had been found, the publishing world was abuzz like it hadn’t been in years. Folks like me who absolutely love TKAM have always wanted another Lee novel, but until then we figured we’d either never get another or Lee had written more but decided not to publish until her death. So when I heard that Go Set a Watchman was set to be released, I was excited.

Now that the book has been published and lots of people have had time to read it, it has received many negative reviews. I have consciously never read a review of the book because of the fear it would be tainted for me. Oh, I’d heard about Atticus, all right, but that was not enough to spoil it.

After reading the book, I decided to let it percolate for a while before I wrote my review. So here’s what I think:

The first chapter had me hooked. Jean Louise “Scout” Finch is on her way to Maycomb, Alabama, for her yearly visit from New York. We ride with Scout as she travels through Alabama to her hometown. We learn a little about the history of Maycomb just like in the first chapter of TKAM. It was like an old familiar friend I hadn’t seen a long time telling me how his life had gone since we last spoke. Although Scout isn’t telling the story, the narrative voice is definitely Lee’s. The cadence of the sentences is definitely Lee’s. The way the narrator describes Maycomb is definitely Lee’s. 

It must be noted here that Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel in the sense that it was designed to be so, even though the setting is 1950s Alabama, approximately 20 years after TKAM. The publisher explained that it is actually a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. While reading Watchman, however, it was easy to forget that it was not a sequel. We readers want to find out what happened to characters that we came to consider family members and dear friends.

This is probably why it was a shock to the system that we find out Jem has died of the same affliction that killed his mother at a young age. Thankfully, Scout never lets us forget about Jem with her many references to him; at the same time, a sense of sadness permeates the narrative by our knowing how full of life and energy he was in TKAM but was robbed of his adulthood. Good old Dill is also mentioned but never seen except in flashbacks.

Henry “Hank” Clinton is a character absent from TKAM. He is “her lifelong friend, her brother’s comrade, and if he kept on kissing her like that, her husband.” Being introduced to Henry was jarring to me because he had never been mentioned in TKAM. Henry believes that Scout will eventually move back to Maycomb and become his wife. Scout isn’t so sure. She cannot quite picture that scenario after having lived in New York City.

We see Atticus in his 70s. Old age has finally caught up to him, and he needs assistance from Henry and his sister Alexandra, yet still practicing law, his mind is as sharp as ever. But it is Atticus, the moral force in TKAM, who surprises readers the most. Scout comes to find out that something about him and his beliefs that shocks her to the core and forms the basis for the latter part of the novel. She forces a showdown between Atticus and herself regarding his beliefs. Readers who feel particularly let down by Go Set a Watchman cannot reconcile this version of Atticus with their memories.

The showdown is foreshadowed about halfway through the novel as she reflect on what she had believed about her father: “She did not stand alone, but what stood behind her, the most potent moral force in her life, was the love of her father. She never questioned it, never thought about it, never even realized that before she made any decision of importance the reflex, ‘What would Atticus do’ passed through her unconscious; she never realized what made her dig in her feet and stand firm whenever she did was her father; that whatever was decent and of good report in her character was put there by her father; she did not know that she worshiped him.”

Seeing one’s parents as a people who have no flaws and are on the proverbial pedestal versus seeing their parents as human beings with real flaws is the true core of Go Set a Watchman. Atticus Finch is the best father in the world to not only Scout, but also by readers and viewers of TKAM. Seeing her father in any other light makes her physically ill. Seeing Atticus in any other lights disappoints and devastates readers who loved the original novel. Without spoiling the ending, Scout learns a very important lesson about life that enables her to move on in her own life.

This does not make Go Set a Watchman a bad novel. The novel does have plenty of faults. One of the primary faults is that the novel is too episodic. Flashbacks may be expected in a novel, but the flashbacks here are extended to the extent that the point is soon lost on why the flashback exists. I did enjoy the story of Scout’s thinking that she was pregnant, but was it necessary? To Kill a Mockingbird is also an episodic novel, but the difference is that those episodes were not flashbacks and led to very important lessons for the Finches and Dill, all of which were tied thematically together. If readers understand that Watchman is the work of an inexperienced and young writer, and if they understand that this is supposed to be a draft, then that can be overlooked.

While I will not give Go Set a Watchman five stars, I will give it two and a half. Expectations were so high for this book that it would have taken a perfect effort to attain those expectations. I see this novel for what it is: an early effort at something that would become a masterpiece. What I find amazing is how much this effort changed into To Kill a Mockingbird. How much editing and revamping had to be done is awe-inspiring. It makes aspiring authors see what must be done to become an accomplished writer.

Be empowered,

Scott

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Ready Player One by Ernest Cline…A Book Review

readyplayeroneReady Player One by Ernest Cline (Random House, 2011) comes along at just the right time. Virtual reality has become a reality. The Oculus Rift virtual reality headset is due to hit the market in 2016. Take everything you know about Oculus Rift and multiply that times one thousand. You’ll have the technology capabilities demonstrated in Ready Player One.

Cline sets his novel in the near future of the 2040s, where the world has run out of fossil fuels, unemployment runs rampant, and most of the United States’s population has moved near or in cities and live in squalor. Wade Watts (a.k.a. “Parzival”), 18-years old, dirt poor, and living on the outskirts of Oklahoma City, narrates the novel. An orphan, he lives with his aunt and her boyfriend-of-the-week, along with fifteen other people, in a “stack,” trailers that have been stacked on top of one another to save space. He spend most of his time in the OASIS, a virtual reality world created by James Donovan Halliday, a famous computer game designer who was obsessed with the 1980s, the decade in which he came of age. OASIS is a completely immersive virtual reality world, where participants don visors and haptic gloves. Those who can afford it use complete haptic body suits and “immersion rigs” that allows them to experience the sensation of walking and running.

Wade is the epitome of the computer geek loner. He has absolutely no friends in the real world, attends a virtual high school where he has no friends, and really has just one friend in OASIS, another gamer named Aech.

Halliday’s death sets the plot into motion.  As a multi-billionaire, his will stipulates a contest to inherit his company and his fortune. Whoever can decipher certain riddles, locate three keys which unlock three gates, and find the hidden easter egg will be famous and wealthy beyond his/her dreams. It just so happens that after four years of millions of “gunters,” a shortened form of “egg hunters,” searching the OASIS universe, that Wade, in a moment of insight, finds the first key, unlocks the first gate, and successfully wins the challenge.

What’s a great science fiction novel without an evil antagonist? Enter IOI, Innovative Online Industries, led by the evil Sorrento. They will stop at nothing, even killing, to obtain the egg in order to take control of OASIS. IOI employs “Sixers,” a virtual army that is also on the hunt for Halliday’s egg.

That’s just the beginning.

Ready Player One has a little bit of everything thrown in: action, romance, comedy, and tragedy. If you grew up the 80’s like I did, you will get a thrill out of recognizing obscure and not-so-obscure allusions. This book will keep you engaged and turning the pages to see what is Wade’s next move.

Steven Spielberg is attached to direct the movie version of Ready Player One. What will be interesting to see is how Spielberg addresses the virtual reality part of the book, which is probably 85% of the book. I can’t wait to see.

Be empowered,

Scott

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The Martian by Andy Weir…A Book Review

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Space travel books are nothing new. They have been a staple of science fiction since the days of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon in 1865 (or possibly sooner…there is debate on what is the “first” science fiction book about space travel).

Thinking about all the space travel books that have been written since them by the likes of Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and other dead white males, one may ask, “What can possibly be new in the realm of science fiction space travel?”

The Martian by Andy Weir (Random House, 2014) certainly breaks new ground. Astronaut Mark Watney is left stranded on Mars after his fellow crew believes him to be killed in a freak dust storm only six days into the mission. Unbeknownst to the crew, he survived and now must find a way to survive until the next Mars mission, approximately fours years later. One of his main concerns is how he can do this when he has enough food for only this mission.

The reader keeps up with the novel’s events by a switching point of view from Mark’s first-person perspective (his log entries) to NASA’s third-person perspective. Weir switches points of view at just right time to keep readers engaged and in suspense.

If ever a novel was written that could be read in math, physics, or chemistry class, this is it. It contains multitudes of math, physics, and chemistry. The author states himself in “A Conversation with Andy Weir” at the end of the book that all of the science is true to life. As someone who is not a math and science person, I did not check myself to see if was true, but to enjoy the novel a reader doesn’t have to know the math and science concepts.

One of the most enjoyable parts of reading The Martian is to see how Watney “McGuivers” his way out of trouble. Suffice it to say, Watney is resourceful and intelligent. Being the mission’s botanist and mechanic engineer is a life saver. Not to give anything away, but he’s able to grow his own food (the first Martian farmer!).

This year The Martian won an Alex Award, an award given by the Young Adult Library Service’s Association (YALSA), an award given to ten books written for adults that have a special appeal to young adults, ages 12 to 18. After reading the novel, I can understand why it won this award. Young adults will be engaged in the storyline of will he or won’t he survive, and may even learn some math and science in the process.

How good is this book? It’s being made into a movie starring Matt Damon as Mark Watney. It’s scheduled to be released  in November of this year. I know that I’ll be in line early to see it.

Be empowered,
Scott

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Summer Reading Assignments…My Perspective

I just finished reading an article in School Library Journal about required summer reading lists (Carly Okyle, “Flip Summer Reading: What to do about Those Tired, Required Reading Lists,” April 2015. Being a former English teacher who gave summer reading assignments and now a high school librarian, this topic speaks to me.

The gist of Okyle’s article is that instead of assignment the same old books (re: classics) every summer, teachers should give students choice in summer reading and to not use the same easy-to-cheat-on assignments. Two sides of the issue exists: the side that says students need to read these “classics” because of Honors and AP Literature; i.e., “they ‘might’ be on the test,” and the side that says students need to relate to the books they read and that students really need a guide to help them through the classics.

My side? I was guilty on all counts to assigning boring summer reading. Come on, now, who doesn’t want to read The Chosen on a nice, hot summer day? Beowulf, anyone? My guilt being confessed, I can see both sides of this issue. The English teacher in my says students need to be exposed to the classics because they might not be exposed to them at any other time; my librarian side says student thrive when given choice.

I, however, am going to come down firmly on the side of student choice for two reasons:

First, giving students a “classic” for a summer reading assignment is giving students a license to take a shortcut with Cliff’s Notes, Sparknotes, Shmoop, or any other website like them. Unfortunately, my experience with summer reading assignments is that most teachers give students assignments that are not very creative: literal questions, vocabulary work, double-entry journal. Any of these types of assignments can be done without having read the book. I’ve had students tell me straight-up that they didn’t read the book; they just went on Sparknotes and read the summaries of the chapters.

Second, we as English teachers and librarians want our student to enjoy reading. Giving them some choice and specifically choice with current young adult literature titles is essential in having our student enjoy reading. A quote from the article, “They [students] take no enjoyment in the offerings, and I feel it kills their love of reading” (Faythe Arrendona, qtd. in Okyle) rings true. I’m pretty sure that when I assigned by students The Chosen, they were not enraptured with it. Why not? They’d have to know a lot of background information about the novel before they could truly understand how significant the setting is. This goes back to a previous point that students really need a good teacher to guide them through a difficult text. When students encounter difficulties, how many of them are going to stop and research the background on their own?

Finally, the quality of summer reading assignments needs to be improved. Okyle gives 10 suggestions on how to improve summer reading assignments if teachers must give an assignment. These are things that students cannot easily do even if there is a shortcut to the reading. If there’s one piece of advice I’d give English teachers when it comes to assignments, it would be please don’t give students a list of comprehension questions as part of the assignment. Trust that students will actually do the reading if you give them choices of quality young adult literature and an assignment that they will enjoy doing.

Be empowered,
Scott

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Web Tool Tuesday 21

Okay, I know it’s a day late, but this week’s Web Tool Tuesday is a Google doc add-on for EasyBib, the online citation generator. This is not a new tool, but if you are your school uses Google docs, it’s an essential tool.In Google docs, get the add-on for EasyBib. Once you have allowed access to your account, the tool will open down the right side of your document, as seen below.
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The default style is MLA, 7th edition (the latest), but you can change the style to APA, Chicago, or whatever style your citations need to be. For my example, I’m going to use MLA style, which is the style most often used in high schools.To change styles, click on the drop down menu for Style. As you can see, three options are available for citations: book, journal article, and website.
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For an example, let’s assume I’m researching maternal health. I found an article on Time.com that I want to use in my research: http://time.com/3847755/mothers-children-health-save-the-children-report/. To get the citation for this source, copy and paste the URL into the box for Website and click Search. The result will pop up. See below. If the result matches what you wanted, click Select.
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As you can see below, the citation will appear. A word of caution is necessary here. If I were to use this citation as is, it may not be technically correct. For example, where the citation notes “n.d.” (no date), there actually is a date that the article was published: May 5, 2015 (See image below, right.). Also, the url is no longer required in MLA style. However, if the teacher requires the URL, it is permissible. It appears, though, as though everything else in the citation is correct.If you’re happy with the citation (note that you can’t change anything here), click Add Bibliography to Doc.
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The citation will appear in your document. What I like about this is that it’s already formatted correctly with the hanging indent and double-spaced. It’s also easy from here to correct anything that needs correcting; i.e., the “n.d.” and deleting the URL address. In addition, you can change the font to match the rest of your paper’s font.
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Books work the same say. Type in the title of the book, the ISBN, or keywords. I find that the ISBN works the best because it is unique to a specific book. When I type in the ISBN to a book titled Maternal and Perinatal Health in Developing Countries, I get the following:
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Notice that it keeps my first citation as well unless I click the X to delete. Keeping all the citations is a great feature because you can wait until all of the citations are complete and then add them all to the Works Cited/Bibliography page, and it will put them in alphabetical order for you.Journals work the same way, except that you can use the DOI (digital object identifier) to search for the correct journal. The DOI is very similar to the ISBN in that it is unique to one journal title.As you can see below, I have added a journal to my citations, corrected anything needing correcting, and reformatted the bibliography in 12-point Times New Roman.

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One more cautionary note. This version of EasyBib allows you to cite whole books, journal articles, and websites. If you need to cite a particular chapter of a book where each chapter is written by a different author, you would need to use the main EasyBib citation cite. Other than that, this add-on tool is a terrific tool for anyone using Google docs.Be empowered,Scott

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Think Twice, Post Once

Technology is great. Great at catching celebrities saying stupid things on Instagram. I see that Alice Eve (Who? Apparently, she was in Star Trek: Into Darkness.) has opened her trap and posted derogatorily about Bruce Jenner.According to USA Today, she said that “if you were a woman no one would have heard of you because women can’t compete in the decathlon. You would be a frustrated young athlete who wasn’t given a chance.”

Also, “Until women are paid the same as men, then playing at being a ‘woman’ while retaining the benefits of being a man is unfair,” Eve also wrote. “Do you have a (woman’s part)? Are you paid less than men? Then, my friend, you are a woman.”

Now, it doesn’t matter what side you come down on in the argument about transgender men and women, but if you’re a celebrity, then you shouldn’t post things on social media about it when you don’t really have a clue what you’re talking about.

Of course, she backtracked later when confronted by her fans.

I heard a good comparison of posting on social media to cutting something: Think twice, post once. Let this be a warning to our students who sometimes post things without thinking. Actually know a little bit about what you’re saying before you post it. Don’t let it come back to haunt you like Alice Eve.

Be empowered,
Scott

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Web Tool Tuesday 20

Welcome to the 20th edition of Web Tool Tuesday. This week I’m going to introduce you to a Google Add-On tool that works with Google Sheets, called Choice Eliminator.

Have you ever posted a list of projects on the wall outside your class or passed a sign-up sheet around? Of course you have. Well, doing that is now passe. With Choice Eliminator, you can give students a link to what is essentially a Google form. Students sign up for their choice (or what choices are left). What I love about this is that once students have signed up and submitted the form, their choice now disappears from any other student’s view.

Here’s how it works:

  1. In Google Drive, create a new Google Sheet.
  2. Click “Tools” and then “Create Form.”
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The form should look like this:
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As you can see in the image above, start Choice Eliminator by clicking “Add-ons” and “Start.”
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You’ll notice that the Choice Eliminator box will open at the right side of the screen. You are now ready to begin typing in your form. My example is Civil War Battles where students will research a battle. You only need two questions. The first question should be the student’s name so that you know who has signed up. The second question should be something like mine: “Sign up to research one of the following battles:. From there, add a multiple choice question and add choices. (See below)
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Once you have your choices ready, look over at the Choice Eliminator side. Click the drop-down for Untitled Question. Click “Eliminate choices” and “Choice Options.”
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The Choice Options will open. Here’s what I like about this. If more than one student can sign up for a particular project, you can tell the program the number of times each choice should show up before it disappears. (See above)

Once you’ve added your choices and the number of times it will appear before it disappears, you’re ready to choose a theme for your sign-up sheet. At the top of the form you’ll see “Change theme.” Clicking on this will open some choices down the right side. Click on the theme to see how your form will appear. I choice a simple blue form (below).

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Once you’re happy with your theme, you are ready to make it live. Click “Send form” at the top right of your page. You’ll see some options on how you want to share the form.

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Choices:

  1. Give students the direct link. I would use the Short Url option if I did this.
  2. Share the link via Google Plus, Facebook, or Twitter.
  3. Embed the form in your class webpage.
  4. Send the form via email.

Students will type in their names and choose their project. You’ll get an automatic Sheets form in your Google drive that has the students’ names and their choices. It works like magic.

Be empowered,
Scott

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Web Tool Tuesday #19

Web Tool Tuesday spotlights a neat website that I think English teachers will especially enjoy. Hemingway App is a free tool where students can paste in their writing and get immediate feedback such as readability level, number of words, paragraphs, and sentences. It can also tell you the number of sentences that are hard to read and very hard to read, number of phrases with simpler alternatives, adverbs, and uses of passive voice. You can see in the below image what the screen looks like.  

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To use Hemingway App, it’s as simple as copying and pasting in text. The program will automatically calculate all the information I’ve written above. 

Currently, Hemingway App has a beta of a new version where the user can actually edit the text in the browser. I’ve pasted an example below of a blog post I wrote a couple of weeks ago.

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You can see that the readability of the post is 7th grade, which it thinks is good. It tells me that 12 of 60 sentences are hard to read, and it has color-coded those sentences. It also tells me I’ve used five adverbs and eight uses of the passive voice. Now, as a writer and former English teacher, I stress that fewer adverbs are better and that to never use the passive voice if you can help it. So, what I could do with Hemingway App is to copy and paste my posts into the program and examine the feedback it gives me.

As with any program that evaluates writing, I take everything with a grain of salt that the feedback I receive is the most accurate and best feedback. I think we need to stress this with our students as well if they used this site. I admit that as a teacher I was disappointed often with the peer feedback students received. With Hemingway App, students will receive more valuable feedback than what they generally receive from their peers. 

I mentioned that Hemingway App is free. Using the web tool is free. The makers have created a desktop version that can be used without internet access. The cost of this is $6.99 and is available for both Mac and Windows.

The learning curve is tiny. Basically, just copy, paste, and go. 

Be empowered,

Scott

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Web Tool Tuesday #18

This installment of Web Tool Tuesday spotlights a tool that is an absolute favorite of mine: Padlet

Padlet’s been around a while; it was first known as Wallwisher. What I like about Padlet is its simplicity and ease of use. Basically, it’s a big blank wall where users can “tack” a variety of things: text, URLs, images, sounds, documents, and other uploadable things. You can event take a picture with your webcam. Padlet, on their FAQ page, notes that users can use Padlet for the following:

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Let’s focus on how you can use Padlet in education.

To use Padlet, sign up for a free account. To get started, you will click on “New Padlet” in the upper right corner, and then you’ll get a blank canvas. You can customize the canvas by clicking on the gear icon.

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From here you can choose the portrait (basically an avatar for the page) and the wallpaper (background) for the Padlet. You can also give it a title and short description. You can also adjust a few of the settings, which I’ll discuss later.

Once you’ve changed the appearance, you’re ready to go. As you can see below, I’ve titled mine “Antigone” and changed the background to a scroll. Assume this is a Padlet for the drama Antigone that I’m going to use with an English class.

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To add content, it’s as simple as double clicking anywhere on the wall. What looks like a sticky note will pop up with “Title,” “Write Something,” and three icons on it. Click in the box to give the “note” a title and content. Here’s where you can also click the icons and add visuals or other file types. padlet5

See below for my example. I decided to add an image depicting Antigone’s burial of Polyneices. 

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Students can access the Padlet by your giving them the address that Padlet generates, or you can customize the extension to make the address easier for students to type. [Customize the address by clicking on the gear icon again and finding the address icon. From there, change the extension to whatever you’d like (as long as the extension is available)]. To respond, student can click anywhere on the wall. For a title, I would have students put their first name and last initial.

You can see below a sample student response I’ve created.

padlet7 Jamie R. has posted a reply to the question. Other students would also post replies to the question, so that the wall becomes a de facto discuss board. When it comes to reading what students have written, it may be a problem because they’ve posted things everywhere. To solve this, you can change the layout in the settings. Click on the gear icon, find “Layout,” and change it to “Stream.” This causes the layout to change to a more traditional discussion board in reverse chronological order. Personally, I prefer the Free Form layout for students to post and the Stream layout to evaluate their responses. Once all students have responded, change the layout to Stream for ease of grading.

As far as privacy goes, you can change the settings by clicking on the gear icon, then choosing “Privacy.” Options are to make it password protected, private so that only you and people you invite through their e-mail addresses can see it, a hidden link that won’t show up in Google searches (my preference), or totally public (which I wouldn’t do). You can also choose to moderate posts (depending on your class, this may be a GREAT idea). 

Another way to use Padlet is for vocabulary instruction. Instead of boring students with word lists, I prefer to pair students and give them one word. See below for an example with the word sagacity.

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As the teacher, you can require different types of information. For this example, students must give a definition, the part of speech, other forms of the word, an authentic sentence from the news, an image that represents the word, and an original sentence that goes along with the image. Students can customize the background to their liking.

Now that each pair is responsible for just one word, you can get vocabulary finished more quickly. All of the other students are the audience for this word. Once students have completed their word, it’s time to share them the other students so that all students will have the information.

You can see the sharing options. Focusing on the “Export” options, you see that the page can be downloaded as an image or PDF. You can also print the page. 


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What I like, however, is the ability to embed the page into another page. If you have a class website that can embed objects, I would embed all of the pages so that students can see all of the Padlets at once. You can also see a QR code for the Padlet. One might consider making a handout with the QR codes on it so that students can scan the QR code and see the page. Obviously, this method would probably work best with a BYOD or 1:1 program.

So there you have it. I think Padlet has a myriad of creative uses for the classroom, but here some specific areas:

  • vocabulary
  • discussion board for small or large groups
  • collaboration board for students working together on projects
  • student project platform

Use your imagination for other creative uses of Padlet. 

Be empowered,

Scott

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A New Presentation Artifact

Today, I presented two sessions at the quarterly Librarian Professional Development Day. I spoke about Web 2.0 and Critical Thinking tools, giving my audience some ideas on how to incorporate Web 2.0 tools in which students would think critically. The focus is on the three higher order thinking skills levels in Bloom’s Taxonomy: analysis, evaluation, and synthesis. 

I’ve posted the presentation slides in this blog’s Presentation page. 

Be empowered,

Scott

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