Non-Teaching, Social Media, Technology

Fun with Dumb Memes

Last spring while teaching about World War I and the Russian Revolution, I was struck by a phonetic similarity between the term for the leaders of pre-Bolshevik Russia and a song that was particularly popular from mid-2015 through early-2016.


For the song in question (which had the chart trajectory depicted above), click here at your own peril.

With this inspiration, I quickly went to one of the internet’s many meme generators, plunked in some pictures, typed up a dopey pun in 72 pt. Impact font, et voila!

And now (in order to delete this silly file off my desktop), I present to you the fruits of that very poorly expended labor:


Pedagogy, teaching, Technology

Reconceptualizing Course Planning with Canvas, Part II: “The New Single-Site Paradigm”

In my last post, I outlined some of the major challenges of and problems created by the LMS that I’ve used for the past four years. However, as a means to work around some of these problems, I had created a series of “Cycle Schedules” in Google Docs that I could embed into the LMS. These documents essentially served as my lesson plans and were much more detailed and robust than anything I’d created in my first eight years of teaching.

In the course of piloting Canvas in some limited ways last school year, one feature that quickly became apparent to me as a major improvement over the status quo was the way that it integrated assignments into an actual calendar.

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 10.25.50 PM

Rather than having two separate places to post and track assignments—1) in my Cycle Schedules and 2) in the grade book (only for those assignments that got graded)—Canvas instead attaches each assignment to a specific date on the calendar. From my experience thus far, it’s clear that the calendar occupies a central place within Canvas.

As a result, when assignments are clearly anchored to the calendar, it clearly communicates what will happen when and saves students the work of transferring assignments and homework from the Cycle Schedule onto an actual calendar. In fact, Canvas will automatically push upcoming assignments with a due date onto students’ (and faculty’s) “To Do” lists on the Dashboard.

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Moreover, the interface for scheduling these assignments makes it very easy to create different due dates for the same assignment to different sections of the same class. And even better still, I can easily select to have these assignments not count toward the final grade, which would keep my grade book free of “actively read pp. xx-yy” detritus.

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So, having explored these features last spring, it quickly became clear that my old system of embedding Google Docs into the LMS wouldn’t take advantage of Canvas’s powers to communicate assignments and their due dates clearly to students in one centralized location. Yet, I had made all these really detailed (and useful for me) Cycle Schedules that included embedded links to readings, video clips, study guides, and other resources that I hope are helpful for my students.

All of these facts meant that as I sat down this summer to rethink how I wanted to structure my courses on Canvas, I realized that the time-unit of the “Cycle” would no longer be helpful. I had adopted that system as a way to deal with my school’s rotating schedule and the fact that I didn’t see every class on every day and it was easier to communicate what would happen for all students within that seven-day rotation. But with Canvas’s more powerful and convenient calendaring features, it now seemed a hassle to preserve that system that I’d used over the past few years. You know, one of these deals:


Instead, I began exploring Canvas’s “Modules” section and thinking about how to divide my class into Units based not on the time-unit of the Cycle but around the content that I’d cover. I had, in fact, always had some of my materials organized into these pretty traditional content-focused “Units”; that remains how I organize all my files on Google Drive, for example:


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Over the past few years, I’ve taken to printing off my Cycle Schedules so that I could make notes on them about adjustments, how lessons went, things to change, etc. This resource proved immensely helpful this summer as I worked through last year’s classes and re-divided them according to “Unit,” deciding what days that used to fit into the different “Cycles” should now be grouped according to “Module.”


With these notes in hand, I was able to sketch out the trajectory of the year, figuring out how many days I spent on each unit and what content that I’d previously put into all of my Cycle Schedules could now fit into individual assignments. I always find that this type of large-scale rethinking happens best when done by hand, so I went full-Moleskine-hipster and did it!


Then, once I’d sketched out the year, named all of the different class days, and determined the dividing points between different Units/Modules, I built out that same framework within Canvas.

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 10.59.07 PM

As I did this, I also figured out when I wanted to have various formative and graded assignments and used the “indent” feature within the Modules to visually indicate when a particular day also included a separate quiz, discussion, or practice AP activity. Building out these “Units” in the Modules page was especially convenient because I could include assignments, quizzes, discussions, external URLs, etc. within the Module and have them conveniently grouped in one place.

So, once I’d built out the framework of for each of the days in the year, I began going into these individual assignments and copying-and-pasting material I’d previously had in a Cycle Schedule day into a new Canvas assignment.

For example, here’s my day on the “Varieties of Protestantism” that previously looked like this within my Cycle Schedule:

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 11.07.23 PM

Now it looked like this within Canvas:

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 11.07.34 PM

With the exception of re-embedding the video using Canvas’s YouTube integration tool, I more or less copy-and-pasted the material that I previously had included in the old Google Doc. The links—and most of the formatting—transferred pretty cleanly. (Though, as my friend and colleague (hereafter “friendleague”), Kate, and I were discussing, we wished that Canvas would use proper Harvard outline format to vary the symbols at the different levels of indentation. Sigh.)

After I’d created the assignment and included all the details, I then figured out where that day fit on the actual calendar by manually scheduling it in the Cycle Calendar Book that the school provides to faculty (and freshmen…for what that’s worth).

IMG_2693 2

I then included the appropriate dates for each class section on each assignment and voila! I’ve now got my schedule, homework, and grade book filled (with only the material that needs grading) in one fell swoop. (I’ll concede that it’s a pretty involved swoop, but at least Canvas won’t delete all this work at the end of the school year!)

You may perhaps have noticed that I added one new section to the top of each day’s assignment: the “Due Today” section. For that section, I’ve simply copied and pasted the prior day’s homework (in this case, 2.1 – “Foundations of the Protestant Reformation”).

This solution, devised by my friendleague (ugh…that neologism is awful. Sorry about that), Kody, helps address the one major shortcoming of having each day be a separate assignment: it’s no longer possible to scroll up and down the Google Doc and easily see what the prior day’s homework assignment was.

So, while including this info does require some extra copying-and-pasting, and requires changing two different assignments if you decide to change the homework for a particular day, I nevertheless think that it removes potential confusion for students about when something is due.

Finally, I’m hopeful that this new structure for communicating assignments will also prove superior because it makes the same content accessible in some many different places. If need be, students can find the information about “Day 2.2 – Varieties of Protestantism” in the Module [see above], on the calendar, in the Assignments section, on Canvas’s auto-generated Syllabus [see below], or on the “Upcoming” section of the Dashboard [see above].

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In contrast to the isolated location of assignments under the old LMS’s paradigm, I’m hopeful that students will find the multiple means of accessing assignments within Canvas and seeing them all at a glance through the calendar to be much simpler and ultimately a time-saver.

My school year starts this Wednesday, so we’ll find out how good a soothsayer I am soon enough!


teaching, Technology

Reconceptualizing Course Planning with Canvas, Part I: “The Old Paradigm”

Late last school year (and after a series of meetings and trial investigations of different Learning Management Systems), my school decided to shift from our previous LMS (which, in classic Voldemortian fashion, I shall not name) to Canvas.


In my experience of using the previous LMS, there were two major problems:

  1. At the end of a school year, all the work you’d put into the LMS (uploaded assignments, files, pages, resources, etc.) were all purged and deleted. This functionally (or lack thereof) meant that you had to recreate work you’d already done every single year.I learned about this “feature” from a former colleague, who had spent countless hours building out her class only to discover in July that all that work had gone down a series of tubes (or was it a dump truck?), thereby spurring very understandable and appropriate Sturm und Drang.
  2. To get something to appear on the calendar for students to see, you had to create that item as an assignment, which would then appear in the grade book. In practice, this might not sound like such a big deal, but as a history teacher who assigns mostly reading, having a bunch of “Actively read pages 332-339 in McKay and annotate for …” assignments appear in the grade book (and which didn’t need grading) was a big pain in le derrière.

On the positive side, however, this LMS had the ability to easily create Pages where one could embed HTML code.

So, as a workaround for the first problem, I decided to create all of my lesson plans/student schedules in Google Docs, where I (or, more accurately, our benevolent overlords in Mountain View, CA) maintained control of the material from year to year. So instead of recreating all this material anew on Voldemort LMS each year, I could instead just re-create Pages and then embed my lightly updated schedule of class assignments, homework, and useful resources.

Essentially, students logged in, navigated to my class page, then navigated to a page (which I organized by Cycle [see more on that below] and titled after whatever material we were working on and where that fell in the schedule) that had the in-class schedule, homework, etc. Here’s what those pages looked like:

While this method worked well in terms of allowing me to preserve my work from year-to-year, update it in one place and have those changes pushed to the students, and easily embed that material on the LMS, it created some new problems:

  1. None of the material that I included on that Google Docs was pushed to the calendar on the LMS itself. If I wanted something (usually something that was graded) on the LMS, then I had to go back and create that as a specific assignment in the LMS’s grade book.
  2. Students had to figure out when a particular day would take place. Because we have a rotating schedule (see snapshot below and try to keep the gray matter in your head within the confines of your ears), not all classes have the same in-class assignment or homework due on the same calendar day.
    Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 4.17.08 PM
    My Cycle Schedules gave them all the details for my class (and on what day of a Cycle it would take place), but students then had to map that information into their own schedules/planners to determine when it would actually occur and where it would fit with their other work. While I’m not opposed to having students do this organizational work, it was unfortunate that my solution to solve one problem created superfluous additional work for them.
  3. My colleagues and I often devised separate solutions for how we communicated work within the LMS. Some folks adopted the system that I was using by embedding Google Docs into the LMS. Others included links to their class pages on Google Classroom. Others used the calendaring features within the LMS.In practice, this meant that students couldn’t gain access to all their work in a single place and had to navigate to each individual teacher’s class page to get resources, information about their assignments, etc. and then transfer this information to a calendar where all the information would show them exactly when in the real world all this work would be due.
    lms_disconnects (2)
    Again: redundant (and superfluous) work for students.

Now that I’ve outlined the array of problems and challenges posed by the old system, in my next post I’ll talk about how Canvas addresses those with its more robust calendaring feature and how I’ve gone about transferring my old Cycle Schedule into the Canvas’s “Modules” feature.


Research, Technology

Thinking about Digital Workflow

I came across an interesting blog post last night by Michael Hattem, a History PhD student at Yale, addressing his digital workflow that he uses in his research and writing. Hattem explains that Papers2 and Scrivener are his go-to tools, and he provides a nice, clear explanation of his use of both tools. He also includes some really clear screenshots of the programs that give a sense of how he sets them up and what one can include in each of the programs’ different parts.

I’ve also read another compelling review of Papers2 by Josh Braun that outlines many of its redeeming qualities, but without focusing particularly on its application to historical research.

As I’m deep into research and writing this summer, I’m thinking about my own process of working with sources, taking notes, and using those materials to then put together my argument. I’ve spent the past two days working at the Haverford College Special Collections and taking notes on both manuscript and print sources for my dissertation. With this period of extended research time (vs. teaching during the school year), I’ve started refining many of my note-taking techniques and hone the organization of my notes so that I can draw on them effectively when it comes time to write.

At this point, I’m deeply invested in Zotero, which I really like, and have used for a number of years. Given this longevity, I’ve built up a very extensive library in Zotero and have grown accustomed to how well it pulls metadata from websites and how nicely it integrates into Microsoft Word.

However, I was pretty compelled by Hattem’s explanation of how Papers2 dealt so well with PDFs and allowed one to annotate them and then search those notes. That’s one aspect of Zotero that I’d love to see, but at present doesn’t have. In fact, the aspect of my Zotero library and my larger workflow that feels most discombobulated is my annotations for PDF files. So, given this functionality, I downloaded Papers2 and started playing around with it this afternoon.

In terms of the PDF annotation, the program definitely fits the bill. It manages the files very nicely and allows me to annotate them easily and then search through both the text of the PDFs and my notes. Zotero lets me search my notes very easily, but doesn’t dig into the text of the PDF itself. I also like how Papers2 allows me to easily insert citations into any program and doesn’t require a plug-in to Microsoft Word. (However, via a helpful contact on Twitter, I’m aware that Zotero does offer integration across apps that extends beyond just Word).

There are some things about Papers2 that I’m still confused by or haven’t yet figured out. Some of these deal with grabbing citations easily with correct metadata (as Zotero does), formatting citations correctly (as Zotero does), and easily create and organize research folders (as Zotero does). Notice a theme?

I think I’ll continue to play around with it, and I really like the idea of having a centralized program for reading and annotating PDFs that will allow me to effectively scour my secondary source reading, in particular. However, I’m not sure exactly where it will fit in my current workflow given the amount of time I’ve invested in Zotero and many of the systems I’ve developed for my own effective use of the program.

Does anyone out there use these two programs in conjunction with one another? What does your workflow look like with these programs? Are there ways to pull PDFs and their metadata from Zotero in bulk to Papers2? I’d love to get some insight on any or all of the above questions.

Here’s an example of how I’m experimenting with the citation tools connected to Papers2 and using it easily insert a formatted bibliography entry.1

  1. Ekrich, Arthur A, Jr. “Thomas Eddy and the Beginnings of Prison Reform in New York.” New York History 24, no. 3 (July 1, 1943): 1–17.
Social Media, teaching, Technology

Whither the Pen and the Lesson Planning Book?

One of the many new adjustments I made this year in transitioning to a new school was adapting to a new set of expectations and practices for how to communicate and share class materials online. For my first few years of teaching (from ~2004–2006, or so, I’d say), having a class webpage and posting homework, readings, and other resources was a decision left up to individual teachers. However, since that point, it seems as though all independent schools (granted, I have a very small sample size on which to draw, so don’t take my baseless speculation as gospel), have moved toward institution-wide content management systems (CMS) that all teachers must now use.

I personally enjoy using these CMSs and having a centralized place for my students to go to get assignments, resources, and connect with one another in ways that go beyond the classroom. I often post materials there that I find interesting and are related to what we’re studying, but which I don’t have the time to share in the course of a class. Certainly, this blog has been an important part of my process of figuring out what methods and resources work the best to facilitate the type of classroom interactions and intellectual growth I strive to foster. However, much of the work that goes on within a CMS seems CYA-(I’ll let you look that one up for yourself)-oriented and administrative. Certainly, having up readings, PDF files, a calendar, nightly homework, and a venue for students to ask questions is undoubtedly important, and CMSs facilitate that. Nevertheless, they also change one’s workflow and can create new time pressures for teachers.
All the transitions I made over this past year gave me a good opportunity to figure out whether and how I wanted to restructure the way I worked with my school’s CMS and what outside resources, if any, I wanted to incorporate.

For the prior five or so years at my previous school, we had class webpages through a centralized CMS that also connected to the school directory, had gradebooks, and allowed one to bulk email students and parents. While this system was comprehensive, there were some aspects about it I found arduous and cumbersome. In response, I worked around those by using a cocktail of other websites and gradebooks. For a brief overview, here’s essentially what I did.

Main CMS: Edmodo

I’ve written about, or at least mentioned, Edmodo a lot on this blog. The site was my go-to tool for communicating with students, posting assignments, posting resources, receiving and responding to questions, and having students communicate with one another from ~2009-2012. The layout of the site, its functionality, and the sophistication of what one could do with it really impressed me. Jeff O’Hara, the site’s founder, and the whole tech team at Edmodo worked incredibly hard to respond to user’s requests and suggestions.

The aspect of the site I found most useful was the fact that students could configure their cell phones to receive text messages from Edmodo when I posted a new assignment or sent them a direct message. From my perspective, this accessibility created a higher degree of accountability for students, as I knew they had and used their cell phones frequently. The aspect of the text messaging feature students liked least my habit of posting all my weekly assignments en masse, which meant that students’ cell phones were barraged with a series of text messages they assumed were exciting, friend-related gossip, but just ended up being me preemptively harassing them about their upcoming work for the week. Ugh!

However, when I planned my weekly assignments, I tended to do it in a traditional lesson planning book by hand first, which allowed me to figure out the pacing and sequence of the week. After I’d hand-written a general set of assignments and activities, I’d then post each night’s assignment and relevant links on Edmodo. For some reason, I found the process of hand-writing that material first more helpful in thinking through the week then just typing out the assignments on Edmodo and posting them directly.

So, with such a glowing recommendation, why would I consider switching to something else?
Here are a few reasons:

  • Using both Edmodo and my prior school’s official CMS essentially was double work for me. Certainly, I chose to do this double work, but so many of the features of Edmodo were things that I wasn’t able to do with my official CMS, so I was willing to do all the copying, pasting, and clicking in order to mesh the two systems as best I could and get the features of Edmodo I really liked.
  • While Edmodo was great, posting material in weekly bursts led to some odd features on the website that made things difficult if you wanted to change an assignment mid-stream. Because Edmodo is set up like a Facebook-style newsfeed, my system of posting daily assignments was thrown out of chronological whack if I changed one day’s assignment or posted a new one out of order because that would move to the top of the news feed and displace assignments that were actually due later in the week. While this isn’t an issue if one uses the calendar feature of Edmodo, it proved occasionally confusing for students when work changed mid-stream.
  • If I happened to change an assignment, I’d have to change it not only on Edmodo, but also on my old CMS…it’s that darn double work-bind that I created for myself again!
  • I was moving into a new situation with a new CMS and I hoped to work within the system in a way that replicated as much of Edmodo’s functionality as I could in a way that didn’t entail double work for me in posting my assignment.

**Primary Gradebook: Engrade**

Engrade is a nice, cleanly designed, and highly functional gradebook. I used it because it didn’t involve all the clicking of my school’s CMS-linked gradebook and it always preserved all the data I entered. Plus, it had a very logical set of keyboard shortcuts and would auto-refresh within the window when you entered grades to show how those affected a student’s overall average. Engrade is a lot more than what I’ve described (e.g. calendar, student correspondence, homework posting, and a host of other features that make it a fully-fledged CMS), but given that I was already using Edmodo for that, it didn’t make sense to delve into those features of Engrade.

Engrade also allowed me to experiment with giving students real-time access to their grades, which I wasn’t required to do at my previous school, but is a feature of my current school’s gradebook. Using Engrade in this way at my prior school gave me a taste of how that access shapes student perception about their work.

However, much like point three for Edmodo above, I was happy to avoid any redundant work, and given that I have to maintain an open gradebook at my current school, it didn’t make any sense to host an off-site gradebook just for fun.

New Arrangement: Veracross and Google Drive
Some of the technology features my current school uses helped dictate what my new approach to running my class webpage would be. For instance, the school uses Google Apps for Education and Gmail accounts throughout the institution, so it simply made sense for me to harness those resources as my colleagues and students would already be using them as well. My challenge was to figure out how to work with them in way that approximated (or perhaps bettered) the dynamic that I had established at my prior school with Edmodo and Engrade.

One of the great features of Veracross that I didn’t have access to with my previous CMS centered on embedding media from other sources seamlessly. Once I discovered that I could easily connect my homework page on Veracross to Google Docs, my homework posting and communication solution became quite clear.

What I began to do was write all my lesson plans and homework assignments in Google Drive, using a template I created at the beginning of the year that listed the week, the days, and what would happen each day both in class and for homework.

Rather than keeping my lesson plan notes to myself, I typed them out on these weekly assignments in a way to make it clear to all parties involved (students, parents, colleagues, administrators, substitutes, the NSA, etc.) what was happening on a daily basis. Moreover, in these lesson plans I embedded links to YouTube videos, assignment sheets, PDF readings, etc. that were easily accessible in case anyone missed class or lost a handout that I distributed.

I then collected all these files in folders organized according by Trimester. As a result, I now have one of the most thoroughly organized set of lesson plans and homework assignments that I’ve ever assembled.

I would then publish each of these files and embed it into Veracross. The only trick I needed to figure out was that I had to resize the frame by adding a “width=600 height=600” before the URL of the Google Doc.
The major benefit of embedding these Google Docs directly into Veracross was that I no longer had to make edits to my assignments in multiple places. If my plans or homework changed based on a unique schedule or discovering that the day didn’t go as I anticipated, it was supremely easy for my to make those changes just on my Google Docs and then have those changes echoed on Veracross instantaneously.

For the students, my class webpage looked like this. From this centralized page, students could access the lesson plans, homework, and resources from any of the prior weeks. This feature proved particularly useful for my AP European History students, as they could access any of the older Chapter Review Sheets later in the year as they reviewed for the AP Exam. Based on some of the feedback I got from my students at the end of the year, they seemed to find this method useful and were confident that they’d be able to find the materials they needed for class or homework easily through this set-up.

As an added bonus to this approach, when Veracross clears off all the webpages at the end of a prior school year, I don’t lose the work I’ve done, as I merely embedded the webpage into Veracross but didn’t invest tons of time typing homework and/or posting resources and links on Veracross itself. Instead, all the resource links I’ve compiled are embedded within my own Google Docs that I can revise and republish later.

While this work took a lot of time this year, I anticipate that I’ll be able reuse much of it in future years. Moreover, I’ve often felt that I end up re-searching for many of the resources that I’ve used in previous years, and used but never wrote down in my planning book. With these Google Docs, which are riddled with hyperlinks, I now have a set of lesson plans that are a very thorough recap of what I did each day of the year.

I’m eager to look at and think about these documents critically in upcoming years as I tweak my approach, the materials I use, and the way I sequence both the skills and the content. So while the pen-and-paper lesson planning method has gone by the wayside, I think I’ve developed a workflow method that certainly helps me both lesson plan and post materials for students in a streamlined way that avoids all the redundant aspects of my previous CMS-approach.

So, in the optimistic hope that others have some thoughts on this issue, I’ll pose the question: what techniques, resources, websites, or other insights do those of you who use school webpages have for making your class’s online presence serve both your pedagogical goals and (ideally) make your life and classroom experience smoother?

Academic Skills, Technology

Timeline Wizardry!

External Timeline

External Timeline (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been searching for an easy, collaborative, and sharp-looking timeline generator for a number of years now and hadn’t had success in finding anything until a few weeks ago. Previously I checked out Dipity, XTimeline, and some clever solutions for using Google Spreadsheets to create a visual timeline; however, all the commercial sites had limitations in terms of number of users and I didn’t (at least when I experimented with it last spring) have the technical horsepower to make Brian Croxall‘s Google Spreadsheets approach work.

So, when I encountered Timeline.Verite.Co‘s timeline website and their Google Spreadsheet template I was really intrigued. Not only is the end result of their timelines stunningly attractive, but the process for inputting the data that then gets visualized is also very intuitive. The other major bonus, as I realized, is that this was my solution for a truly collaborative timeline generator, as I could have all my students simultaneously adding data, links, analysis, and images to the timeline and then get Timeline.Verite.Co‘s embed generator to spit out the final version with a minimum of technical haggling.

I experimented for the first time using the Google Spreadsheet template with my classes last week as they worked collaboratively to build a chronology of the European Age of Exploration and Colonization in the late 15th and 16th centuries. For the most part the data entry worked well and the end result was visually appealing as the students selected some nice images and maps to highlight the new nature of Atlantic and global interactions that emerged in the wake of these voyages.

Here’s what the raw material of the spreadsheet looks like:

Google Spreadsheet data for timeline

And here’s what Timeline.Verite.Co turns it into:

Screenshot of one date from student timeline of exploration and colonization.

However, in the midst of working on these timelines, I made some discoveries that might make using them in class easier.

  • I broke up sections from the reading and had small groups working on different sets of pages at the same time. However, I didn’t cordon off any specific areas of the spreadsheet for each of those groups to input data into. In a few instances this led to different groups trying to enter data into the same rows in the spreadsheet, which created confusion and slight consternation. I’d suggest designating specific sets of 10 rows for each different group.
  • Initially a few of my timelines didn’t generate in Timeline.Verite.Co and I couldn’t figure out the problem. It turned out that (after reading the very accessible FAQ), that if there are any blank rows between sets of data, the timeline generator won’t create a timeline for all the dates. As a result, I found myself having to go back once the students had finished adding the data and deleting any blank rows in order to get all the dates to appear on the timeline.
  • Related to that last point, it doesn’t matter what order you input the dates in the timeline, Timeline.Verite.Co will end up re-sequencing them automatically, which is really nice.
  • In the “tags” field, Timeline.Verite.Co allows you to select up to six different labels to categorize different events. In lieu of any specialized labels, I think it might make sense for students to use some of the popularly-used historical categories to label different events and construct further significance. Thankfully, the Gods of Historical Acronyms seem to believe that six is the perfect number for such categories, so using either SPRITE (social, political, religious, intellectual, technological, economic) or PERSIA (political, economic, religious, social, intellectual, artistic) would work well with Timeline.Verite.Co’s tagging features.
  • The “headline” column lends itself well to identifying the event, while the “text” column seems perfect for identifying significance. One of the nice things about being able to watch students build the timeline collaboratively and in real time is seeing how well students are doing with explaining the historical significance of each of these events. If some of the explanations are lacking, it’s easy to check with the student working on that event to push them to add more analysis.

I’m talking about the Thirty Years’ War with my classes this week, and as it’s an event that has a lot of different players, a number of distinct phases, and a complicated set of momentum shifts amongst the different combatants, I thought that a Timeline.Verite.Co-generated timeline would be a good tool to use in our discussion. To that end, I scoured the reading I assigned on the Thirty Years’ War from Richard Dunn’s The Age of Religious Wars, 1559-1715 and used it to create this timeline.

Here’s a look at the opening event in the chronology we’ll be discussing:

Screenshot of Thirty Years’ War Timeline

Finally, for those who are interested, here’s the link to the full version of my timeline for the Thirty Years’ War based on the Richard Dunn reading. I’ll hopefully be able to pass along a follow-up on how this activity worked, but in the meantime I hope that this advice is helpful for some others as I think Timeline.Verite.Co visualization tool is a really great one for history students and classes.

Pedagogy, teaching, Technology

Wither the popsicle stick?

Popsicle Sticks for the Classroom – Image courtesy of

For the past few years, I’ve taken to using popsicle sticks as a central item to facilitate discussion and create groups in my classroom. At the beginning of the year I’d put every student’s name on a popsicle stick, group those sticks into different cups according to which period the students were in, and then as I needed to cajole responses or create small groups for working on a problem, I’d pull them out and arrange them as need be.

I always really liked the popsicle sticks for a number of reasons. Firstly, they were easy to use in an impromptu manner. Need to get feedback from a student but no one is raising his or her hand? Don’t worry….you’ve got popsicle sticks! The beauty of calling on students via this method is that it avoids any concerns that particular students were being picked on, as you drew from the impartial repository of the popsicle stick cup and it wasn’t up to you as the teacher who responded, but instead up to the fates of plastic containers and small pieces of wood.

Similarly, they were great for quickly creating groups and not having to worry about perfectly engineering social dynamics on the fly. In this way, the fates of the popsicle sticks could land you as the teacher with a group that might not be as productive as you’d like, but that risk tended to not be a huge deal as one day’s unproductive grouping would be a thing of the past at the end of the period.

However, in my first few weeks of school this year I hadn’t located any popsicle sticks on campus, and so I went a-Googling for digital alternatives to the popsicle stick and think that I’ve come up with two websites that serve both purposes for which I previously used the popsicle sticks.

The first website (though actually they both are through the same URL – is called the “Random Student Selector” and works pretty much exactly as it sounds. Plop your students’ names into the field…

Random Name Selector

…and then click away.

Random Name Selector – Burl Lescavage

You’ll generally get a good degree of variation in terms of who the Random Name Selector chooses, though unlike popsicle sticks, the website doesn’t remove the person from the pool of names once it has selected them. As a result, you occasionally have to do more clicking than you’d like to get a wide variety of participation from your class.

The other site is the “Random Group Creator,” which is also aptly and self-evidently named. Thus far, I like this one better as it’s much faster (which is a very marginal difference, in all honesty) than organizing groups of popsicle sticks by hand. And even better, if you don’t like the groups it gives you on the first go-round, just refresh the page and you’ll get to try again!

Random Group Creator

This site has some more variability in terms of how it creates groups for you (e.g. do you want balanced numbers? do you want a certain number of groups?), and those features are very straight-forward and easily customized.

Random Group Creator – now with groups full of wacky names!

Now, you might be thinking…isn’t it a huge pain and much more time intensive to type all your students’ names every time you want to use this site? While manually typing all your classes would in fact be a pain, my work-around was to create a Google Spreadsheet with the names of all my students organized by class, so that when I want to use these sites I simply call up that spreadsheet, copy all their names, paste them into the field, and then generate random groups.

You might also be worried about the potential privacy concerns raised by my screenshots of all my students’ names. Well, rest easy because I used yet another “Random” page, the “Random Name Generator,” to come up with the list of hypothetical students and thereby protect the privacy of real students. Nevertheless, I should offer an apology to the real version of any of the people who unwittingly lent their names to this blog post.

My sincerest apologies to:

Bradly Dockum
Lyndsay Deconti
Carin Trusello
Ahmed Buder
Thomasina Tanzman
Mikel Sobeski
Waldo Sierzenga
Jamison Sessin
Kip Sean
Noble Volpa
Hedwig Fanzo
Burl Lescavage
Mikel Hamidi
Bradly Papiernik
Ashely Vence
Brendon Marchionni
Zula Magdalena
Florencio Sietz
Bailey Seckletstewa
Fredric Gacia

Thank you for the use of your personage and I’m sorry to inform you that your names are 82% obscure – especially yours, Hedwig Fanzo.