Combining Edublogs and Edmodo to Connect Classrooms

When I was a teenager, back in the days of the blue aerograms, when letters still arrived with colorful stamps, I had pen pals from around the globe. I used to listen to a special program on BBC World that helped connect teens from distant countries. In high-school I had pen-pals from Iceland, Malaysia and China. I still have their pictures in one of my photo albums.

Photo by Gil Epshtein

When our high school got the first computers connected to the Internet, (in a room kept specially cold, that one had to reserve in advance) I tried to recreate the excitement. There were a number of attempts, some lasted longer than others, but they all suffered from the same two problems:

* After the initial stage of students expressing curiosity and writing about their hobbies, their motivation to participate petered out.

* It was a lot of work. I was devoting time and energy to create activities that would cause them to stay on board and learn something about the country we were corresponding with. I seemed to be the one learning the most. I still remember how amazed I was when our friends from Finland wrote about the huge number of lakes they have and wanted to know how many we had. Eh, ahem, one… The kids weren’t particularly awed though.

So when the AWESOME teacher of deaf students from Conneticut, Arlene Blum, contacted me about a global project I was excited and nervous. Adjusting to the new school curriculum is difficult and time consuming and I was worried about the extra work. In addition, I was concerned about the repeated pattern of students losing interest. But how could I miss this opportunity?

Global Friends Blog

Arlene started us off with a blog on Edublogs. Since we are both on Edublogs I believe that is how she found me. The blog has the advantage of being open and accessible (the comments and posts are moderated, of course!!!) . It is easy to work with and it has helped Arlene attract more schools. There are now 3 schools in the US, one in Australia, one in South Africa and one in Italy, not all equally active (and our school in Israel, of course!).  Writing on the blog is good practice for the students and  an excellent place to post videos that promote global feelings of friendship such as the one Arlene recently posted here or the summary of facts we have learned along with a moving video promoting friendship we sent in.

But the main disadvantage of the blog is that because of a need to protect our students, we don’t post pictures of students on the blog. Students with a hearing loss really want more visual modes of communication. They wanted to chat with the other students too but we can’t do that in any case because of the time differences. We also don’t share a common sign language!

So I suggested, following my experience with Edmodo with my course for adults, that we open a secure group for us there. The Facebook-like feel of Edmodo attracted the students and a large number of them wanted to sign up.  We moderate the posts and comments there too. Some of them uploaded profile pictures. Not many actually write though. But I’ve decided to be pleased about the ones who do. I write updates about tales from our Global Friends on the board, so at least everyone is exposed to some information. I’ve also decided to be happy with the goal of having students expand their world knowledge. The benifits for their English is rather limited because most students take advantage of Google Translate and read the posts in Hebrew…

Since Edmodo supports videos, we’re currently trying to add a new component – students upolading videos of themselves. Not the same as chatting but will bring those foreign students to life! Some of my students suspect I’m making all of this up!

Saturday’s Book: “The Heritage” by Siegfried Lenz – Vol. 1

Yes, that’s right, volume one. This book, at least in its Hebrew translation (from German), comes in two volumes. I read much slower in Hebrew than I do in English, however the book itself is not a “slow read” at all. In fact it reads just like a screenplay, I don’t think it needs much adapting for the cinema at all!

The book begins by the burning down of the Heritage Museum of an area in Germany called Mazuria. This is not a spoiler as this is the event on which the rest of the book is based – a tale of the reasons why such a dramatically violent act of obliterating the past are called for. In Hebrew it is not called the Heritage Museum but rather “The Homeland Museum”. I understand the author wants to give the word its proper meaning, not the one of slogans, of parties that came later. His main message is not clear to me yet, but I understand from the recommendations I  got that it will most certainly be.

The narrator of the book, who is the one who burned the museum, lies in his hospital bed, describing to a visitor how he came to do what he did, beginning in his child.  The descriptions are vivid, detailed and rich,  of a world long gone, not necessarily a beautiful one either. At times the tales remind me of films by Emir Kusturica – a combination of squalid life, poverty and ignorance combined with extraordinary events and humor. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t have the wonderful music that the Kusturica films have!

Will write again about this book when I get to volume two. A pity I didn’t get a hold of the book in English though, the translation is a pretty old one. It doesn’t matter – couldn’t have read the original version in any case!


Name One Surprising Thing

I’m teaching the poem “Count That Day Lost by George Elliot to some of my high-school students at the moment. The English literature curriculum I’m following dictates teaching the “Higher Order Thinking Skill” (HOTS) known as  “comparing and contrasting” when teaching this poem. Since the weaker students needed the concept “hammered home”, I prepared two versions of an exercise comparing the following two pictures. For the more advanced students I included a review of the previously taught thinking skill of inference.

Photo by Gil Epshtein
Photo by Gil Epshtein

One thing that surprised me was that the following question turned out to be the hardest one:

“Name one surprising thing about the man in this picture? (hint – how old do you think the man is? What is in his hand?)”

It’s not that the students didn’t notice what was surprising about the man in the photo. In fact they immediately commented on how strange it was to see an elderly man with a cane walking with a big hikers backpack, before reading the questions. But many of them had trouble answering the question properly. I think the hints actually threw them off. A common answer was:

“The surprising thing is that the man is old” (“old” was mostly defined by the students as being between 40 -50 years old!). I had to emphasize that seeing someone who is not young is not surprising, it is only surprising when we compare it to what we expect. To do that we must include another detail  – he is old but has a  heavy hikers backpack. They were quite surprised by that! They thought it was obvious, no need to state it. One can see that in the picture, right?

It was an interesting discussion.

Here is the more difficult worksheet:

Travellers Skills 5

Here is the easier version:

Travellers Skills 4



Saturday’s Book: Listening to “The Red Notebook” by Paul Auster

I downloaded this for free at the Open Culture site.  It is read by the author. I can’t really comment on their selection as I really wanted a book to listen to and got as far as the letter A…

I had my misgivings as whether Paul Auster was a good choice. I had loved “Mr Vertigo” and the “Music of Chance” when I read them years ago. But I did not like “Leviathan” and couldn’t finish “the New York Trilogies” (too much of the same!).

But it turned out to be an excellent choice. The Red Notebook is a collection of short, odd tales, that the author collected over the years from his own experiences and those of his friends. Each tale stands on its own so its fine when  you need to stop frequently and listen to it in pieces.

My only regret is that it is only an hour! Now to look for another one!

Instructions vs. the Online Course

Please answer the question at the bottom of this post.

Photo by Omri Epstein

“If all else fails, read the instructions.”

Everyone knows that one, right? People in general, not to mention teenagers, don’t read instructions unless they have to.

I took particular note of that when working on my online course for deaf and hard of hearing teens that opened yesterday.

I made short (average of 1 minute!) simple  screencasts to explain such things as:

* how do I log in? * how do I find the assignments? * how do I use the flashcards?

Nothing beats visuals, right?

Except for the fact that the students (and the guest teachers) still have to read the instructions that say there are visual screencasts available…



*** Now admit it: Are you reading this part because you just noticed it or are you following  the instructions written under the picture?

And the question is:

Can you guess what this is a picture of? I wish I could send the winner some sunny local weather but you’ll have to settle for a big “shout out”!



Saturday’s Book: “Murder Over the Border” By Richard Steinitz

Not only am I reading this fast paced murder-mystery novel set in Israel in the early 1990’s,  the author has kindly agreed to be my first guest on my Saturday’s Book Posts! So, without further ado, please welcome Richard Steinitz!

Richard, in the almost 30 years I’ve known you, you have always been surrounded by books. What made you, a “book exhibitionist” (your term, not mine!) of ELT materials, decide to take the plunge and write a novel?

I never even thought seriously about writing a book, until the Army stepped in!

I had the good fortune to do Reserve service one summer at a small outpost near the triangle border – the junction of Israel, Jordan and Syria, at the meeting of the Jordan and the Yarmukh rivers.

The physical location was beautiful, and nature stepped in with a band of gazelles that wandered around the base. They were small enough and light enough so that they didn’t set off the mines that were scattered outside the barbed-wire fencing, and so they could come very close to where we were. One of our jobs was to sit in a little bunker on the side of the hill, with a tin roof over our heads to keep the sun off, and a huge telescope inside it. The job was to watch the movement of Jordanian Army vehicles, going up and down the road that parallels the border on the Jordanian side, and write down in a notebook every one that drove past. The job was boring, to say the least, since only half a dozen or so army vehicles drove down that road in a given day (and not many more civilian ones). The telescope was for us to be able to see whether they were military or civilian vehicles, and if possible, to identify the units they belonged to, by the flashes painted on them.

So I spent a bit more time watching the gazelles than I probably should have, and really regretted not having a camera with me to photograph them.

This combination of gazelles, telescope and boredom rattled around in my mind for a long, long time. It seemed to me to be a great idea for a story of some kind, even though I had no experience in story-writing and no intentions of doing any writing.

One day, and I cannot even remember when, the seed germinated and I started to write – without any real plan or outline. I had no idea what the final story would look like, or what would happen in it. It took me seven years to write what became “Murder Over the Border”, though I did do a few other things too.

You chose to write a murder-mystery novel. Who are your favorite murder-mystery writers?

That’s easy – Robert Parker is definitely Number One. He wrote quite a long series of books about a private detective called Spencer – with no first name. I love these books, because they are very sparsely written, with very neat text and no superfluous words at all. The stories are really gripping, and you have a great feeling of identification with the main character.

I really like Dorothy Sayers, the English author of the Peter Whimsy series. She is out of favor these days, due to some anti-semitic remarks in some of her books, but that does not detract from their quality – or so I think. And lastly, John Sandford, the author of the “Prey” series, which take place in Minnesota and feature Lucas Davenport as an on-again, off-again police detective. These are quite violent in part, but the violence is always a legitimate part of the story – it is not there just to titillate the reader. His Minnesota settings make me want to visit there as soon as I can.

 You write in English and have lived in the USA , England and in Israel. What made you decide to place the setting in Israel?

Well, Israel is the place I know best, having spent over two-thirds of my life here. And the events that inspired the book took place here. I think writing about my life in the USA, or about the UK, would be much more difficult, but that is not to say it could not be done – it just would require a lot more research.

 Are you working on another book already?

Yes, I am. It is quite different in many ways – I’m writing it in the first-person rather than in the third person narrative, and it is only partially concerned with Israel. It does have a Jewish theme to it though and it takes place is several locations – so what I said in the previous question really is true. I’ve had to do a lot of research on locations and events, and to tell the truth, I really like that.

 Thank you, Richard, for being such a pleasure to interview. And a big:”thank you” for lending me a hard copy of the book– I don’t own an e-reader! Off to continue reading – have read more than half and am in suspense!

Building an Online Course – Setting the Limits

For starters, I’m not sure if I’m using the term “Online Course” correctly.

The course I’m building (opens this SUNDAY!!!) is certainly online. I’m not meeting the students face-to-face at all.

Photo by Gil Epshtein

On the other hand,  I WILL be actively interacting with the students – checking their tasks, commenting and assisting during the three week course. Its not a self- study course. While quiz -like tasks on the Edmodo platform, whichI’m using, give immediate feedback, all other tasks require interacting with me.

In addition, it is an enrichment course, for 11th and 12th grade high-school students with a hearing loss, preparing for their national finals. It’s goal is to highlight, review or emphasize, not cover a topic from “A to Z”.

I don’t know what exactly to call this course but setting the limits of how much material to put up for each of three groups (the exams are taken at three levels; 3 , 4 and 5 point level, a group for each one) is not a clear cut manner. I don’t know the students. I’ve taught Face-2-Face enrichment days for many years and I know the strongest students, the high achievers, are the ones who tend to show up (or in this case, sign up) for such things. So I want there to be enough material for them to find it challenging but not overwhelm them.

Then there’s the question of setting limits on how far to go to make the material special and attractive. I adore activities using photos and short films. I just saw the latest gem “Paperman” on Film English          (6 min., no dialogue – perfect!) and my head is already buzzing, looking for a way to incorporate it into the course.

Yes, I haven’t finished preparing all three weeks for all three groups. Yes, I have spent HOURS on it. So who had the bright idea of having an enrichment course that spans three weeks?

Oh right. That was me!


It’s Saturday! Powerful Article & Powerful Movie

Every year, from the second week of the month of December until mid January,  delivery service of my beloved New-Yorker magazine goes berzerk. I usually get two to three magazines around January first and  then another two or three (depending on the previous delivery) around Jan 15th.

Which is why you shouldn’t be surprised that I’m still thinking about the very powerful article in the December 24 & 31 combined issue (which, by the way, was a particularly awesome issue, one of the absolute best!) called : “Stage Mothers: A women’s theatre in rural Turkey” by Elif Batuman. The article ties in so well with the excellent Moroccan film “La source des femmes (called “The Source” in the US and “Water/Love” in Israel).

Both the article and the book talk about women in poor rural areas where traditions restricting women are strong. The litercay level is low. While the film relates to women’s battle to improve their lives in general, beautifully and movingly told, the article gives it a surprising twist. Not only is the article a true story (can’t write the names for you, I don’t know how to write the Turkish Symbols! See the link) but it is amazing that women with such dismal literacy rates turned to theatre as their medium of expression. The driving force behind the theatre is a woman who saw her first play when she was in her forties and is the only one of her female siblings that got to go school. The women rehearse after working 10-12 hour days on farms! But it turns out that theatre is the perfect media for making these rural women aware that life doesn’t have to be this way and the theatre is having a big impact.

The movie is set in rural Morocco, not rural Turkey, but there are enough similarities to have the movie help one imagine how one woman can set a chain reaction into motion. I hope you can get a hold of it where you are!