May 29

Note Taking – Handwritten Versus Computer Aided

I received an email from Katie this morning that got me thinking about the way that we teach our students to take notes. Here’s an excerpt from the email:

“I’ve always been a huge believer in (wait for it) handwritten note-taking.  Although I haven’t had scientific data to support my contention, I’ve just noticed over the years that my adult students, and now my adolescent kiddos, retain more when they hand-write their notes.  To me, it seems that the information flows through their hands and somehow closes a circle to cement the learning in the brain.  Take a listen to the last 1:30 of this podcast from NPR’s Morning Edition this past Wednesday:

Also, check out this piece in The Atlantic last year. 

Now, it may mean that we, as teachers, need to do a better job of helping students take thoughtful notes using laptops?  Or, do students gain a deeper understanding through handwriting their notes? Would love to hear your thoughts.”

The majority of the research that I have read agrees that hand-writing notes leads to better retention. After seeing adults and students take notes in a variety of formats for many years now, I would attribute a large portion of the difference between handwritten and electronic notes to the fact that when you have a screen in front of you, your brain is more likely to wander off-task because so many different distractions are available at the click of a button. And like The Atlantic piece mentions, note-taking on a computer frequently leads to verbatim notes, where the note-taker may or may not be truly processing the information that they are writing down.

However, I want to highlight one particular quote from The Atlantic piece.

A new study—conducted by Mueller and Oppenheimer—finds that people remember lectures better when they’ve taken handwritten notes, rather than typed ones. 

The key word for me here is remember. If I am trying to remember something on a short term basis, I find that handwritten notes are more useful. They are quick, easy, and the physical nature of manipulating the pen or pencil does seem to trigger something to help the information stick.

But if I am trying to process information or make connections,  I find that electronic “notes” are better for me  – This is the reason that I blog and keep lists of ideas in Google Drive documents. I find that many of my thoughts and observations are tied to specific images, audio, video, or written articles that I’ve encountered. When I blog, I can not only write down my thoughts, but I can directly attach that thought process to the URL of the “item” that triggered the connection. Here’s an example.

Additionally, my best thoughts and ideas come when I have the ability to easily quickly brainstorm, delete, revise, and reorganize my thoughts. For me, digital is better in this case because of the nature of word processing. Although I could do all these things on a physical piece of paper, it is much more time consuming to do so and would interrupt my “flow.” On a computer, I complete these tasks without thinking, allowing my brain to stay focused on the ideas, and not the task of writing.

When I hear the term, “notes” used in a school setting, it is most frequently used in the context of remembering information. But the best notes allow the writer to not only remember information, but make connections with the material and develop new ideas. Ultimately, when thinking about the “best” way to take notes, I think it’s important that we teach students this difference, expose them to a variety of tools and strategies that help with these different skills, and then allow the students to choose what works best for them.

May 19

Home Appliance Data Visualization

GE’s Home Appliance Data Visualization provides some interesting data on the cost and energy consumption of different household appliances. You can check/uncheck different appliances to see an updated total of dollars used/energy spent.

GE Data Visualization

Image Links Directly to Data Visualization

This seems like it could lead to some interesting math tasks:

  • Create a list of the appliances you/your family uses. If you had to reduce your electricity bill by ____ %, how would you suggest doing so? Explain your choices.
  • Create a list of the appliances you/your family uses. If you had to reduce your energy use by ____%, how would you suggest doing so? Explain your choices.
  • What’s the ratio of “necessary” to unnecessary spending  (this could be money or energy) in the average household? This could also lead to an interesting discussion about the definition of “necessary.”

I’m sure you guys can think of some even more interesting tasks!


May 15

Emojic 8 Ball

Here’s a fun lesson starter for a creative writing activity…

  • Have the students ask the Emojic 8 ball an interesting question.
  • Students receive a response back in emoji form.
  • Students write a paragraph or two describing what the response means.

Update: If XKCD is blocked on student computers, have the teacher project the 8 ball to the class and get the class to ask one question. Have each student write a response to the same question and then compare/contrast the stories.

I could have a field day with this question and response…

Emoji 8 Ball

Image Links Directly to Emojic 8 Ball


Jan 21

State of the Union in Context

The “State of the Union in Context” tool (Created by Ben Schmidt) allows users to “read Obama’s State of the Union in the context of all the other State of the Union messages given by American presidents.”

When the user clicks on a word or highlights a 2-word phrase within the text of the speech, a bar graph compares how often that word or phrase is used in comparison to other State of the Union speeches.

State of the Union in Context


Clicking the bar graph takes the user to specific instances of the chosen word or phrase being used by the President they have selected:

Words in Context

This is an interesting tool, and could provide for a useful discussion topic for a Civics or history classroom:

  1. Ask students to brainstorm some words or phrases that they would expect to be mentioned in the President’s State of the Union speech. Ask the students to explain and justify their choices.
  2. After developing a large list of words and phrases as a class, allow the students to “Control F” to find the word(s) of their choice and display those words in the comparison graph.
  3. Ask students to compare Obama’s use of that word/phrase with another President of their choice:
    • How are they similar/different?
    • Based on the context of these words, what does that say about the state of the country in both scenarios?

Another idea is that after completing this discussion, students could research historic legislation or executive actions on the topics of their choice in order to review the various functions of the government.

This tool and activity also could be useful in helping students develop answers for the following essential questions:

  • How has America changed over time?
  • Have we made progress?

Dec 10

Chronicle – Visualizing Language Usage of the New York Times

This morning, Gillian sent me an interesting data visualization tool called Chronicle, which visualizes language usage of the New York Times over time.

Just type in a term and the tool displays how frequently that word or phrase has been used in New York Times articles over the course of its history:

education chronicle


Click on a specific year and you will be taken to the articles that contain your search term. You can click on these articles and access their full text if they are recent articles (older articles require an archive fee).

education results chronicle

I don’t yet have any specific ideas about how structure a lesson around this tool, nor have I developed an idea of what a final student product would look like, but I do know there are a ton of possibilities here. Off the top of my head, here are several questions that students could use the tool to explore and answer:

  • How has news coverage changed over time?
  • How does news coverage reflect a community’s culture?
  • How does news coverage reflect historical context?
  • How does word meaning change over time?
  • What role does slang play in news coverage?


Here was my first search with the tool:

chronicle image

  • What does this following graph make you think/wonder?
  • What conclusions could we draw from this visualization?
  • How could we further explore our conclusions?


Oct 10

A Modern Tale of Two Cities

This morning, my colleague Jessica asked for some resources regarding A Tale of Two Cities. One of her teachers will be reading the book with her students this semester, and wanted some ideas for helping her classes develop a context for the book since many of the students are unfamiliar with the French Revolution. Additionally, the teacher wanted to focus some time on the theme of income inequality.

I immediately started to think about some of the interactive income inequality maps I’ve seen in the past few years. These tools break income levels down to the state and county level, and sometimes even to a block by block basis:

Census Explorer

Image Links to Census Explorer Interactive Map

Here are several of these resources:

I thought the following assignment prompt might provide students with an interesting context for a creative writing assignment (since this is English class after all!) and provide the students with a little context to work with when reading and discussing A Tale of Two Cities. However, this activity does not focus on historical context and background of the French Revolution.

Prompt For Students:

“Tell the story of two individuals who live in close proximity to each other but have very different lives and upbringings. Use the income maps to narrow your search to specific counties, blocks, and/or communities that interest you (maybe focus on the Richmond area?). After finding two areas that contrast with each other, use the Google Streetview tool within Google Tour Builder to help tell your story.”

Students could focus their story around the following questions and have a discussion about the following after viewing several of their classmates stories:

  • How did your characters life stories depend on their geographic location/community?
  • How does an individual’s community effect his/her life and/or opportunities?
  • Imagine what would happen if your two characters interacted:
    • In what circumstances would these individuals possibly interact?
    • What would this interaction look like?
    • How would your character’s different communities and/or geographic locations shape this interaction?

This topic also got me thinking about The Wire. Although David Simon doesn’t like the comparison, both the Wire and A Tale of Two Cities focus on social class issues and the juxtaposition of various communities within the same geographic area.

And now Season 1 of The Wire is at the top of my Netflix queue…

Sep 24

Humor and Persuasion


Image Via Romanna Klee on Flickr

This morning, after reading a McSweeny’s article and thinking about how it could be used in a History classroom, I came to the realization that the majority of  “news sources” in my Feedly reader are all either satirical or could be considered at least somewhat humorous.

After thinking about why that is the case, I started brainstorming how a Language Arts class could connect the concept of humor into a writing unit through an essential question phrased something like following:

“Is humor an effective form of written communication and persuasion when compared to other forms of writing?”

I’ve started to brainstorm some big goals, lesson ideas, and resources for this unit. I’d love some feedback!

Sep 23

Staying Informed


Thanks to technology, it is easier than ever to stay up to date about current events. One way that I stay informed is by using Feedly, an RSS reader, to subscribe to a variety of blogs, newspapers, and magazines. Feedly allows me to easily access a variety of viewpoints on a diverse range of topics with several easy clicks.

Along with staying up to date about current events, Feedly (or any RSS Reader) is a great tool for teachers to use to conduct their own professional development. Teachers can follow the blogs of other educators and look for possible lesson ideas, activities, and resources.

But Feedly is not just for adults. With Feedly, students can..

  • Follow a series of articles relating to the same current event and then develop a point of view argument on the topic that uses specific evidence. These written arguments could be submitted to a newspaper/magazine OP/ED and lead to a discussion on citizenship.
  • Compare and contrast articles on the same topic to discuss viewpoint, perspective, and bias.
  • Become more informed about current events for classroom discussions.

I will be facilitating training sessions for Feedly on Tuesday, October 7th and Wednesday, October 8th in the library at various times throughout the two days. These sessions will help you set up your own Feedly account, introduce you Feedly’s tools, and offer you some suggestions of initial sources to follow based on your content area and interests. Please let me know if you plan to attend by filling out this short form.

If you would like to learn Feedly on your own, please feel free to use these directions.

Being informed is an important responsibility of a citizen and a teacher. How are you staying up-to-date?

Aug 26

“Our Stories”

Now that USI and USII no longer have an end of course SOL, my colleague and I started discussing how excited we are that teachers won’t feel obligated to spend multiple weeks at the end of the school year reviewing the year’s content. In thinking about this new “extra time” at the end of the year, we began to discuss digital archiving and how the technology we have today allows us to preserve history in a way that would not be possible decades ago.

Based on this idea, and our mutual love for NPR’s “StoryCorps” and “This I Believe” projects, we brainstormed this assignment. This assignment is still in draft form, and we would love some feedback. Here are some specific questions we’re still wrestling with:


As far as “housing” the archives, I  am leaning towards creating a blog as the repository for all of the audio files. Each students would initially upload the final MP3 audio file onto Soundcloud and share the link for the audio file with his/her teacher.  During the last nine weeks, each student would create a new post on the blog and embed their audio into a post that would then look something like this…

I like Soundcloud for this purpose because we could have the student upload an image of the individual telling the story (we would have people sign waivers allowing this) and have the audio directly embedded into the site (so that it’s click and play with no download). In their posts, the students would also pick out a quote or two that provides a summary and/or hook for the story.

This activity would also be preceded by a short lesson on “tagging” and digital archiving. We would have students explore some crowd-sourced attempts at archiving historical material. Using these resources, we can discuss the purpose and effective use of tagging and then have students tag their posts with the most relevant concepts, events, people, etc.

So, here are two questions:

  • Anyone see any flaws with this structure? Would your recommend another method of sharing and housing the information?
  • Does anyone have any recommendations for other crowd-sourced attempts at archiving history that may be interesting for the students to explore?


Ideally, we will be having all history students at our school complete this assignment (so 1000+ entries and stories). At the end of the year, we will have students search the repository (using tags and other search features) for a story that interests them. Then, we want the students to complete a research assignment based on their chosen story. Each student will find a primary or secondary source that can be compared/contrasted to the audio story (the two sources should discuss similar events, people, themes, etc.) Each student would use specific examples from the primary document and the audio story to help answer the question: “How does perspective influence our understanding of the past?” This essay and link back to the accompanying primary/secondary documents could be completed in the comments section of the relevant audio post.

  • Any other thoughts on how to finish the assignment and bring it all together? Are there some big picture themes that we’re missing?


We are extremely excited about this project. If you have thoughts as to how to make it better, please let us know!


Jun 19

His Watch Has Not Yet Ended: Jon Snow and the Monomyth (Show and Book Spoilers)

Warning – This post and the links within contain serious “Game of Thrones” spoilers. This post discusses the entire storyline of the series up to the end of “A Dance with Dragons” and it also delves into theories about Jon Snow’s parentage. If you haven’t finished reading/watching the series and/or you are unfamiliar with the the “R+L=J” theory, read and click at your own risk!

Why I’m Writing This Post:

In my spare time recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about “Game of Thrones.” A number of my coworkers have read the books and are hooked on the show, and we enjoy discussing our own predictions about what will eventually happen. After these conversations, I often visit the Song of Fire and Ice forums to see how our ideas compare the theories of other fans. In my forum readings last week, I stumbled across this thread about whether or not Jon Snow is dead (after being stabbed multiple times at the end of the last book). Rather than read the contents of the thread immediately, I wanted to develop my own theorycrafting post for once, as I have strong feelings about this topic. I also wanted to write this post as a #thoughvectors exercise. This post seemed to fit the idea of the “inquiry project” pretty well, as the topic is personally intriguing to me, is based upon an “argument,” requires a decent amount of research and investigation, and can be made much more visually appealing through the variety of media that the internets has to offer.

My Argument:

Although some of my wife’s students may disagree with me, I believe Jon Snow is the closest thing that the “Game of Thrones” series has to a protagonist. In a world of “gray” characters, John Snow has a lot of white to him, often acting in the best of the majority even when it conflicts with his own personal and familiar interests. However, the more compelling reason that I believe Jon Snow to be the protagonist of the story is because his character arc closely corresponds to the stages of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth.


Image Source – Wikimedia

George R.R. Martin has no problem killing off main characters, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jon die towards the end of the story. But ultimately, I believe that Jon will be alive in some way, shape, or form at the start of the next book. He has progressed through a large portion of the “Hero’s Journey,” but still has a few more stages to go through that could seriously impact the conclusion of the series.

The Call to Adventure:

“The hero begins in a mundane situation of normality from which some information is received that acts as a call to head off into the unknown.”

(This and all following quotes regarding the stages of the Hero’s Journey have been taken directly from the Monomyth Wikipedia Entry)

From the beginning of the story, the reader/viewer sympathizes with Jon and his role within the Stark family. Jon is the bastard child of Ned Stark, and despite his father’s best efforts to raise him as member of the family, Jon does not receive the same treatment as the rest of his siblings.

As the King’s entourage prepares to leave Winterfell for King’s Landing, Jon sets out on a separate path. Realizing that he will never be a true Stark, Jon meets with his uncle, Benjen, and decides to leave Winterfell for the Wall.

Refusal of the Call:

“Often when the call is given, the future hero first refuses to heed it. This may be from a sense of duty or obligation, fear, insecurity, a sense of inadequacy, or any of a range of reasons that work to hold the person in his or her current circumstances.” 

Almost immediately after deciding to become a member of the Night’s Watch, Jon has second thoughts about his decision to leave behind his family. We sense Jon’s unease in his conversation with Tyrion and his insecurity intensifies after spending time at the Wall with the other new recruits. Even after making friends with his new brethren, Jon runs away from the wall after taking his vows, but is convinced to return by his his closest friends.

Sidenote: Interestingly enough, in this stage of his journey, Jon receives a burn wound on his hand while protecting Commander Mormont. Does this sound like another well known monomyth to anyone?

Supernatural Aid:

“Once the hero has committed to the quest, consciously or unconsciously, his guide and magical helper appears or becomes known. More often than not, this supernatural mentor will present the hero with one or more talismans or artifacts that will aid them later in their quest.”

Jon has a direwolf companion. And although he may not have the same level of ability that Bran does, it becomes obvious to readers that Jon is a warg.

“You’re telling me this puppy is my superpower? Lame!”

And we can’t ignore Jon’s “meeting with the mentor,” where he receives advice about his journey. In the books, this discussion occurs with Mormont, but the show lays out Jon’s conflict in a conversation with Maester Aemon. Interestingly enough, this advice involves a story about an individual with a personal connection to the Iron Throne. Could that be foreshadowing?!?

Crossing the Threshold:

This is the point where the person actually crosses into the field of adventure, leaving the known limits of his or her world and venturing into an unknown and dangerous realm where the rules and limits are not known.” 

Jon goes through the Wall, a literal threshold between his old life and his new vows.


“Are you a brother of the Night’s Watch or a bastard boy who wants to play at war?”

Belly of the Whale:

The belly of the whale represents the final separation from the hero’s known world and self. By entering this stage, the person shows willingness to undergo a metamorphosis.”

It is easy to see Jon’s “metamorphosis” after passing through the wall. Jon kills Qhorin Halfhand and leaves his Night’s Watch brothers behind in order to integrate himself into wildling society. But as Ygritte points out, and as we see through Jon’s internal monologue, Jon never forgets the vows he has taken. Jon’s metamorphosis is not that he becomes a wildling. Instead, his trials prepare him for a role of leadership and a desire to work for the greater good.

The Road of Trials:

“The road of trials is a series of tests, tasks, or ordeals that the person must undergo to begin the transformation. Often the person fails one or more of these tests, which often occur in threes.”

While in the company of the wildlings, Jon faces a number of physical and emotional ordeals. Jon meets Mance Rayder and pledges allegiance to the wildling cause. On Mance’s orders, Jon climbs the Wall with a group of wildlings that will serve as a raiding party on Castle Black. Notably, Jon fails in one of his trials as a man of the Night’s Watch when he falls in love with Ygritte. But ultimately, Jon’s time with the wildlings strengthens his devotion to the cause of Night’s Watch. When faced with the decision to kill an innocent man and break his vows again, Jon leaves the wildlings behind, warns the Night’s Watch of the impending attack, and ultimately protects the wall and the realm.

 Meeting with the Goddess:

This is the point when the person experiences a love that has the power and significance of the all-powerful, all encompassing, unconditional love that a fortunate infant may experience with his or her mother. This is a very important step in the process and is often represented by the person finding the other person that he or she loves most completely.” 

Jon learns unconditional love in his relationship with Ygritte. Interestingly enough, as much as I’ve read about Game of Thrones, I haven’t read this following idea (I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it’s out there – I just haven’t read it). Personally, I think Ygritte is an incredibly important plot device, as she teaches Jon what humans are willing to do for love. This lesson will help Jon eventually reconcile with what many fans assume to be his true identity. Although Jon may initially be angry that he is the son of Rhaegar and Lyanna, his experiences with Ygritte will help him reflect on love, come to understand his parents feelings for each other, and help him to accept his true past.

Woman as Temptress:

“In this step, the hero faces those temptations, often of a physical or pleasurable nature, that may lead him or her to abandon or stray from his or her quest, which does not necessarily have to be represented by a woman. Woman is a metaphor for the physical or material temptations of life, since the hero-knight was often tempted by lust from his spiritual journey.” 

You could initially read Ygirtte as the “temptress,” as she leads Jon astray from his vows, but I don’t think this is the correct interpretation of the story. The real temptation for Jon comes when he is offered the life that he dreamed of growing up, to be Ned’s true son and the heir to Winterfell. Stannis offers Jon a “return to the known world,” but Jon refuses. Instead, Jon continues on his path to the “unknown” and becomes the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, learning a variety of leadership skills along the way.

Atonement with the Father:

“In this step the person must confront and be initiated by whatever holds the ultimate power in his or her life. In many myths and stories this is the father, or a father figure who has life and death power. This is the center point of the journey. All the previous steps have been moving into this place, all that follow will move out from it. Although this step is most frequently symbolized by an encounter with a male entity, it does not have to be a male; just someone or thing with incredible power.”

Hey, John Snow. Who’s Your Daddy?


“I Have No Idea…”

Jon has serious Daddy issues. Giving up the position at Winterfell fits into the stage of the journey as well, as Jon must make peace with the fact he will never be the Lord of Winterfell, which should be his, given that he believes he is the only surviving son of Ned, who he still believes to be his father. By reconciling his past, Jon can become Commander of the Night’s Watch and protect the realm.

However, the big reveal has yet to come, and Jon will eventually need to reconcile the fact that Rhaegar is in fact his real father.


“When someone dies a physical death, or dies to the self to live in spirit, he or she moves beyond the pairs of opposites to a state of divine knowledge, love, compassion and bliss. A more mundane way of looking at this step is that it is a period of rest, peace and fulfillment before the hero begins the return.”

This is where our story ends for now. And like a number of other individuals, I believe Jon will warg into Ghost’s body (Supernatural puppy!) and it is in this state that he will learn about his true parentage. Melisandre has an obvious role to play, and we already know that Red Priests can raise the dead. A little foreshadowing perhaps?


Jon has progressed through the majority of the hero’s journey stages up to this point, and I just don’t believe that his story will abruptly come to an end at this point. If you look at the characters that Martin has killed off up to this point, they may be well developed, and you could consider many of them to be “main” characters for their roles in important plot lines, but their story lines do not have the depth nor the cyclical nature of Jon’s. I’m not going to pretend I know what’s in store for Jon Snow, I’ll leave others to make those predictions. But I do know that his watch has not yet ended.


Before I started this post a few days ago, I did some initial Googling of “John Snow Monomyth” and “John Snow Hero’s Journey” just to see if this idea was out there to any extent. I found a few pages and forum posts that discussed this topic, but I promised myself that I would not read them until after I finished my own post. The most interesting and thoughful post I found was this one, which went into a good amount of depth and shares many of the ideas that I have mentioned here. So as Tom Woodward once told me, “There’s nothing you can do that’s not already on the internet somewhere.”  However, I do feel like my analysis is slightly different from this author’s, and adds a few more interesting pieces to the discussion.

Applications for Education:

I see a lot of value in the “inquiry” project for students in middle school and high school. According to my wife, I spent too much time writing this post out, but I did learn the following/complete the following while writing this post:

  • I practiced my gif making. Although the quality of these gifs is not much better than the first one I made, I made them in a much shorter amount of time (2 minutes or so each) than the first one. Next, I would like to work on the quality of my gifs next and learn how to add text to gif in Photoshop Elements.
  • I developed a thesis and supported my argument with specific examples, a skill that’s important for any subject, but especially relevant in language arts. And the finding the “support” for my argument involved looking at Youtube videos. How awesome is that?
  • I made a product (this post) that I can use as teaching tool for a lesson on the “Hero’s Journey.” Students could find their own “monomyths’ in literature and popular culture and explain them in a similar fashion.
  • While writing this out, I convinced myself that Jon Snow is definitely not dead – I’m at least 99.999999% sure of that. I was at maybe 95% beforehand…