Supporting our Students with “Talking Text”

Over the past few years, I’ve had some of my students use the Livescribe or Echo smartpens for various oral assessment pieces. These smartpens contain a camera at the tip of the pen which read the unique pattern of dots on the special dot paper which the user of the smartpen has written on. By creating a pencast, this pattern is replayed as it tracks your handwriting.

The dot paper is regular paper which can be reproduced using a colour laserjet printer. Students using a smartpen can write as much or little as they need with the pen. The built-in microphone allows the students to record audio, adding details to their answers that might have otherwise been lost due to their struggle to write. The audio recording of their voice is added to what they write, creating a pencast. This pencast is uploaded to the computer where the teacher can see and hear the student’s thinking.

This year in my classroom, there is an increased need for accommodations during assessment, specifically reading the test to the student. While all the students had initially been trained on programs which provided text-to-voice, the students weren’t using them, finding them “glitchy, took too many steps”. Without extra support in the classroom, it’s difficult to meet the students’ needs. For this reason, I was determined to learn how to add an audio recording of me reading the test which the student could easily follow and replay as much as they needed.

Here’s how:

1. Convert text to pdf: I write my test in Google Docs, then download it as a PDF (File, download as..). Save where you can easily find it.

2. Print the test onto the dot paper: Make sure your bottom margin is large enough (1 “) so your text doesn’t overlap the record/stop buttons on the bottom of the dot paper).

3. Record your reading of the text: Use this printed test to complete your audio recording using a smartpen. I draw a circle or star beside each question as I read the test so students know where I am. You could also click stop after each question was read, then record. Regardless, students can replay as much as needed before moving on.

4. Upload pencast to Livescribe: Connect the smartpen to the computer and the recording is uploaded. The only visuals that appears on the page are the circles that I drew (see below – no printed text).

5. Convert recording to a pencast pdf: right click on the page, choose computer, choose audio pdf. Save.

6. Add the text to the pencast: Open Adobe Acrobat Pro, then find and open the just saved pencast.

7. Add the text as a watermark: Click – Document, watermark, add.  Browse – find your text pdf on your desktop. Unclick “scale to relative target page”, OK.

8. Email the file(s) to your students. They open it with Adobe Reader (version 10 or higher should be loaded on their computer (free)).

Link to the actual pencast. Download, then open in Adobe ReaderCellular Transport Quiz pg 1 final pencast pdf (1)

So what did the students think?

photo (14)

“It was easier.”  “I could just click the download, and it started.” And the surprise comment (and my favourite)..

 “I liked hearing my teacher reading to me.”   :)

Steering our Students Towards Poetry

Graphic organizers, templates, frameworks, checklists. Sometimes they really fit the need. Most of my intermediate students and I appreciate the guidance when it comes to connecting, creating, and, most importantly, falling in love with poetry. The latter was missing when I was in school, and so teaching poetry is out of my comfort zone.

Poetry prompts are my salvation.  Last year it was “Where I’m From”. Today @HeidiSiwak tweeted this bentlily site. So while it’s not completely original, models help our students taste the beauty of poetry, embedded with their own voice. We model for our students. So here’s my version:

The Art of Noticing My Life

I used to worry I was too candid
I used to believe life was frenetic
I used to wish I was linguistic
more observant.

Then one day
I looked out my window
and saw a cat
a silky-soft
perfect cat.

I nearly choked
on the epiphany

we arrive inside
an envelope
of bones

there is nothing to be done
about this
so fill it with confidence
let it brim
with empathy.

I was literally looking out the window while writing this. Here’s Luna, the silky-soft cat. My students are going to love this. Thanks, Heidi.

cc licensed ( BY NC SD ) flickr photo shared by hdurnin


Powerful Holocaust Learning Experiences & Connections

My class recently finished reading the non-fiction novel, Ten Marks and a Train Ticket: Benno’s Escape to Freedom. It’s the story of Benno (9) and Heinz (13), two brothers who were put on a train in 1939 Berlin, by their parents, as a desperate gesture to send them to safety, away from Nazi Germany. This first-person narrative, told by Benno, chronicles their heartbreaking struggle to survive their travels across a continent on the brink of war, and the pain they confronted when learning of the loss of their parents and young brother, Charlie, at Aushwitz. Benno eventually moved to Toronto, Ontario, a few hours drive from where my students live.

The story is written by Benno’s three daughters, Susy Goldstein, Gina Hamilton and Wendy Share. After watching this video interview with the authors and their father, we learn how important they felt it was to have a story about the Holocaust told from a boy’s perspective, since so many stories feature female protagonists. Please take the 9 min. needed to view this video – you will understand why my students were so moved by Benno’s story.

As a follow-up activity, students blogged about the most powerful moments for them. They used Timetoast to create a timeline, and included images with the appropriate Creative Commons license. One student, Brad, found a very relevant photo on flickr which did not fit in the “free to use” guidelines. The image showed the interior of a German train from that era, the same type of train that Benno took to escape Germany. In the book, there is a harrowing scene where Benno and his brother hide under the wooden seats as the Nazi soldiers search the cars. With my help, we contacted the owner of the image and asked for permission. Not only did Brad receive permission from Henry Law, but Henry posted a comment on Brad’s blog with more information about the Kindertransport. From Sweden to Ontario, a student connected and the sharing continued.

When I showed the students the video interview with Benno and his daughters, you could have heard a pin drop. They were clearly relieved that Benno was still living, and amazed at how young he looked for someone in their 80’s. Afterwards, I told them I’d been in contact with Benno’s daughter, Susy Goldstein. Their eyes widened even more when I explained that any questions we had for Benno would be forwarded onto him by Susy. We would make a connection. In groups, students created and presented their questions to the class, and the class chose the ones they felt were the best.

Within in a week, we had a response back from Benno.

Dear Heather,

I was delighted to receive your email and of course somewhat taken aback by the apparent interest of your class. I will try and answer the questions as best as I can.

1) Are you still connected to some of the friends you made in Birmingham and London?

Yes I am still in touch with a few of the friends I made in Birmingham and in London, however many have already passed away.

2) What were your daughters’ reactions to your story when you told them at age 9?

I think my daughters couldn’t imagine having to go through what I did when I told them that the last time I saw my parents and little brother Charlie was when I was 9 years old. I know that they all have told their children when they were 9 years old as well my story.

3) How hard was it on you, and on your friends (Jewish and non-Jewish), when Hitler enforced his unfair laws?

The non-Jews of course were not affected. My school was closed as were many Jewish schools and we had a temporary school that I had to go to. It was awful not being able to play outside or go swimming in the local pool All because I was Jewish. I didn’t really understand why but I remember that my parents were really worried at the time.

4) We were shocked to see the swastika on your car in Toronto so many years after WW II. Why do you think people would still feel that way?

I was most certainly shocked to find a swastika on my car. To this day I don’t know who did it. Unfortunately, there has been a lot of graffitti found in Toronto aon buildings and I cannot believe that it is still happening.

5) There are so many important messages in your story. What is the key one you wanted to get across to adults and students?

I think that bullying and hatred for any other religion or group can lead to the terrible things which happened in Germany. We must make sure that this never happens again and if you ever see anyone being bullied you should try and stop it so it never gets to such a terrible situation.

6) If you could go back and say one thing to yourself when you started this journey, what would it be?

When we left to go on our journey I don’t think I ever really said goodbye to my parents and little brother because I believed that we would all be together very soon. I feel awful when I think about what happened to my brother and that we never said a proper good-bye.

Finally, my students knew this may be too private of a question, and so they asked me if it would be all right to ask. I said I’d pass it on, and let Susy decide. They’ve grown close to Benno and Heinz, and so they wondered,

How did Heinz pass away?

My brother passed away from natural causes, but I am sure the incidents described in the book were a contributory factor.

Today is November 9th, while I am writing this, and it is the day that I will always remember, when our home and shop were ransacked and severely damaged by the Nazis in 1938. Please remind your class that I hope my story will allow them to learn that to hate anybody because of their religion or because they are part of any group can create a world of horror.


I now wish I’d waited for them to post their blogs after they had received these comments back from Benno. Based on their reactions when I shared the email response from Benno, I can only imagine how much voice and passion would have been added as they wrote.

I’m grateful for the willingness of people to share their experiences in authentic ways with my students. I’ve learned that I just need to ask. As a result, our small, rural and remote student community continues to connect far beyond our classroom walls. Our students experience rich and powerful learning.

Using Yodio for Digital Storytelling & Poetry

During the last few weeks of school, I had my students play with a few new-to-us web 2.0 storytelling tools that Alan Levine introduced in his 50+ Web 2.0 Ways to Tell a Story wiki. Although we first tried JayCut, many of the students couldn’t get the program to load, so we moved onto Yodio.

When students registered for a free account, they were asked to provide their email address (yes) and a cell phone number (NO!) which the user is expected to record from.  Instead, I had my students record what they wanted on each image as an mp3 using Aviary (part of their Google Apps) or Audacity.  The mp3 can then be uploaded and added to the appropriate image.

As students discovered the steps needed to create the mp3 and upload it to their Yodio, they added their “how to” steps into a shared google docs.  This is the part that I loved the best about discovering new programs – students sharing their learning.

We used Yodio to visualize their poetry. As part of our science unit on ecosystems and watersheds, our class had the opportunity to plant trees for our local conservation authority and a farmer. Afterwards, students wrote free-verse poetry on the experience, then chose relevant royalty-free images for their Yodio.  Students were guided to choose a an appropriate number of images based on the length of their poem, and then record their poem as an mp3.

Tyler’s Branches of Hope (embedded in his blog)

Kori’s Caring Hands (posted on the Yodio site)

We also used Yodio to digitalize a shared writing story.  Students were shown an image taken by Colin Jagoe and as a class we brainstormed ideas for the beginning, middle and end in a shared google doc (another Alan Levine idea). Students then moved into their chosen groups of 2 or 3 and wrote their story based on Colin’s image and any ideas from the shared google doc.  After the shared writing was completed, each group found additional royalty-free images for their story.  Next, they divided their story into a script and recorded it as an mp3.

Colin Jagoe: Holding the Line

Ed, Tanner & Tyler’s narrative: The Forest Race

Yodio provides embed codes that do not work however smoothly with WordPress.  It does however allow you to autopost, but that wasn’t my preferred option, since the entire blog post was published online as soon as you hit post.  I’d prefer it to be saved as a draft first for further editing.  As an alternative, you can do what I did, add a hyperlink to the Yodio site.

Now that we’ve got a good idea of how to use this program, and the students like it, I’ll add it as another option for my students to use in order to support their learning and presentation skills first term.

Author of “The Book Thief” Visits the Idea Hive Classroom

The Idea Hive classroom is almost out for the summer. But just before the year ends, the students had, as one of them described, the “opportunity of a lifetime” – a Skype visit from the award-winning author of  The Book Thief, Markus Zusak.

Clarence and I have written about the Idea Hive class activities surrounding The Book Thief in previous posts. The story is set in the fictional town of Molching, Germany during WW II.  It’s a beautifully written story of a young girl’s relationship with her new foster parents and neighbours. Narrated by “Death”, it’s full of humour and heartbreak. A few of my favourite passages..

As Liesel attempts to explain the reason for her first stolen book to Hans, her foster father: The soft-spoken words fell off the side of the bed, emptying to the floor like powder.

The scene where Liesel intrudes upon her step-mother, Rosa, as she cradles her husband’s accordion after he’s sent to war. Mama was snoring again.  Who needs bellows, she thought, when you’ve got a pair of lungs like that?

And of course, the last quote from “Death”: I am haunted by humans.

Our classrooms connected via skype almost daily as Clarence and I read the story aloud to our students. While one teacher read, the other was in the TodaysMeet backchannel room, helping students as we answered questions or posting compelling phrases. After the book was finished, the students wrote their first book, A Field Guide to Molching, which is inspired by the characters and events in The Book Thief. Using Google Docs, and working in groups of 4 (2 from Manitoba, 2 from Ontario) the students came up with the topics that should be included before moving into this two month project.

After presenting the books to our students, we contacted Markus Zusak, from Sydney, Australia, who graciously agreed to a group skype call with our students. It took some planning, as we all live in different time zones. So with a willingness to make it work for everyone, Markus agreed to an 11:00 p.m. call, while Clarence’s students in Snow Lake agreed to come to school an hour earlier.  Each class had previously prepared questions, and two students from each classroom wrote as the event unfolded in the TodaysMeet chat room.

Unfortunately for Clarence’s students, skype was not connecting that morning for them.  As we got started, we assumed Clarence and the students in Snow Lake would be joining in shortly. But when we got towards the end of the call and still no Snow Lake, I had some of my students ask the questions that Clarence’s students had planned.

One of my students had videotaped most of what was happening in the classroom in three sections. I was able to upload the first section, which was under 300 MB in size, and share it with Clarence via Dropbox. Not so easy with the next two sections which were over 357 and 959 MB. Even the Dropbox upgrade still wouldn’t allow those size of files. My call for help on Twitter was answered by my son’s friend, who recommended sending the large files through Mediafire. Thank-you James!

Luckily, the audio quality from the videotaped files was clear, so the Snow Lake students could hear the discussion. Markus spoke very openly as he answered many questions from the students, including one on what it takes to gain success as a writer. His philosophy on the value of failure and making priorities could apply to many goals in life.
1) Embrace failure.  It means you will grow as a writer.
2) Make writing a priority. You need to enjoy that time alone and being alone with your characters.

Markus emphasized the importance of time in the writing process – time needed to develop and revise ideas, which often means moving sections around. He shared, he inspired, and he made kids laugh. Student reflected on their linoit sticky notes

“It was like he was right here with us. It was so much fun to listen to the answers that he gave. Markus put a lot of thought into each answer. It was a great experience.”

“After reading his book and getting to know all the characters it was nice to know how they came to life.”

“I am glad that Markus gave out some advice on how to be a good writer. Now I am thinking of writing a fly-fishing book over the summer.”

“I hope that when I’m in grade 9, and the Idea Hive is still working away, I get to hear about what is going on. I would never trade away this experience.”

After reciting the opening to his new book, Markus asked the students about their next publication. While they didn’t have a specific answer, the students hope to publish another book next year as our classrooms continue working together in the Idea Hive. Our soon-to-be grade 8 students already have a solid foundation to build upon.

While not without its share of struggles, our goal of creating a connected classroom has changed how our students learn. They value the fact that “we learn better together”.  They’ve learned that the definition of “teacher” has moved beyond being just the one in their classroom. In their connected classroom, “teacher” can be anyone in the world, including Mr. Fisher in the chat room or even an award-winning author of a beloved book.

The Sum of the Whole is Greater Than its Parts: A Field Guide to Molching

As the students move towards the end of this year’s collaboration in the Idea Hive, Clarence and I presented our students with the book they wrote together, while living 2 700 km apart. A Field Guide to Molching came into being after we read aloud, via Skype, Markus Zusak’s novel, The Book Thief. Set in the fictional town of Molching, Germany during Hitler’s reign, it’s the story of a little girl’s relationship with her foster parents, friends and neighbours. Filled with humour and heartbreak, the story is told from Death’s point of view.  It opens with a train headed for Molching, the death of Liesel’s brother and a track-side funeral. We knew our students would fall in love with the characters. They did. At the end of the story, the students didn’t want to leave Liesel, Rudy, Max, Rosa, Hans, and Frau Holtzafel – they were connected. Clarence and I chronicled the journey throughout the year.

So what if we traveled to the fictional town of Molching? What would “A Field Guide to Molching” look like? To help them visualize it, Clarence and I showed our students online travel guides. They determined the most relevant people, places and events to write about if  touring this town.

Using Google Docs and its chat room, students signed up for the writing topic of their choice in a google doc. Clarence and I dropped in and out of each chat room doc to give feedback and advice if needed. When we needed advice on the use of images from that era, Rodd Lucier (@thecleversheep) provided guidance. As a final step, the 84 page document was uploaded and published at

By the end of this event, students had learned much about the arduous writing process. I was reminded of the line, “The sum of the whole is greater than its parts.” That’s the big picture. It’s not about marks or report cards. It’s about helping students develop their collaborative learning and shared writing skills. It’s that simple, and that complex.

This week students were presented with the hard copy of “A Field Guide to Molching”. While Clarence and I had planned to Skype during the presentation, Skype had other plans (not) and it wasn’t meant to be. So with our Twitter connection, Clarence and I decided to go ahead. Even though we had told the the students this was the goal, their shock and joy was evident. After receiving their books, students posted their reactions on a web 2.0 tool they’ve become quite comfortable with – linoit. Many of the comments posted focused on how proud the students are of their work and how much they enjoyed writing together with new friends living so far apart.

I feel like an author and it feels good. We should have this book published. I bet people would buy it when they buy the real book to get to know about the town Liesel lives in.  Tanner M.

While we were writing the books there were disagreements and different opinions but at the end everyone was happy and the book turned out good. :D   Heaven

We should so do something like this again next year for all of the Gr.7s going into Gr.8. I think we should give Mr. Zuzak a tweet about this, see what he thinks!  Tyler P. (great idea  – we’re working on that, Tyler!)

I’m so glad we actually finished… I’m a real writer!  Hailey

If I was ever given the chance to read that book again I would never let it down.   Justin S.

It makes me understand how many hours of hard work it actually takes to accomplish something. One of the things that i enjoyed the most was when we got to think of the ideas for the book and we got to talk to each other in the chat room.  Riley

One of my experiences that was everlasting was the feeling of being very important. Sometimes during the book I would close my eyes and think how good the story was. It was one of the best books that was ever read to me.  Sully

Sully, right back at you!  This has been one of the best teaching experiences that I’ve had the pleasure of being involved in.  Clarence and I have shared this story with Markus Zusak through his Twitter and Facebook account.  With any luck, the Idea Hive student authors will hear from the author who inspired them.

Facebook Book Club: Engaging Intermediate Readers

As spring rounds the corner, most intermediate students take on a new focus, which often does not include classroom work.  So it’s important to find activities that keep these adolescents engaged in their learning.  As a result, Marc Westra, from Brussels P.S., and I have introduced our students to the “Facebook Book Club”.

Last term, Marc’s intermediate class and mine completed a collaborative book club using VoiceThread, which I wrote about in a previous post.  With the year-end approaching, we wanted something equally engaging, but with a change.  Our classrooms are located 11 km. apart so we needed a tool that allowed communication and collaboration between our students’ group.

I had previously read about the Facebook idea from other educators and it seemed like fun.  Marc and I decided to have each book club set up one shared Facebook page for the protagonist in their novel.  On a weekly basis, each student will post a comment in the voice of the protagonist, as a friend, and add a reply to a comment.  In addition, they’ll add all the necessary “Personal Information” as they became that character.  Students are encouraged to customize their pages as they add extras such as video links or quizzes.

Some versions I have come across use an online tool (Fakebook, Fake Convos) or a Google Presentations template.  While the Presentations template is easier for the students to change, it lacks the sidebar “chat room” available in a Google Doc.  To me, the chat room is necessary as students discuss, plan and create together.  Other Google Docs templates I’d come across were broken into several documents.  Because this is a group activity where students are at different schools and communication is limited, I thought it easiest to keep the Facebook page as one doc.  The template I created is flexible, yet provides enough guidelines for those students who don’t have a Facebook page.  It’s important to remember that not all parents allow their children to use Facebook, so these students needed a completed example.  With this in mind, I created an example Facebook page, featuring my pet cat!

Today Marc and I introduced the project to our students via Skype.  As per our previous book club, we let the students choose their books after spending some time reading bits of each.  To start, we shared the Facebook Club doc which includes the outline and rubric.  This doc also includes the links to the template doc and the example.  During the skype call, Marc and I took turns explaining the project.  At first, I wasn’t sure how it was going over – the kids were speechless.  However after they had some time to digest the idea and muck around in the two shared docs, they were thrilled.  Those students who don’t have Facebook accounts looked a little nervous, but soon they were hooked as well.

Since Marc’s students didn’t have access to computers at their school today, I didn’t want to proceed too quickly into the project.  My students were asked to post an image of the protagonist in the collaborative doc.  In the next few days when the groups “meet” again in the doc, students can discuss and agree on the image and some of the “personal information”.  I have stressed with the students the importance that all group members work towards an agreement on some of the initial page information, and not “take over” the Facebook page doc.  “The process is just as important as the product.”

This project will take us to the end of the school year.  Based on the excitement displayed by the students today, reading is a task that they should enjoy with renewed focus!