Zombies in the Writing Classroom

Six warning signs, all stating 'Keep Out - Zombie Infected Area'I kicked off Spring semester with some discussion questions meant to work as icebreakers. Two of the prompts are fairly typical: one asks students to talk about an object significant to their careers, and the other asks students to brainstorm characteristics of technical writing based on their experience and observations.

As an alternative to those two fairly customary discussion topics, I devised this third, more playful prompt, “Your Career and the Zombie Apocalypse”:

Imagine that the Zombie Apocalypse is upon us. The walking dead are bearing down upon your part of the country, and everyone in the world is working to stop them and preserve life in the world as it was before the zombie awakening. As a way to introduce yourself to the class, write a reply that tells us the following: 

  1. your major and career goal (i.e., what do you want to be when you graduate?).
  2. what one thing people in your career can do right now* to stop the zombies.
  3. how that one thing will be effective.

*In other words, this one thing needs to be a capability that your career already has. You cannot make up some solution that does not exist. That would be too easy :)

I’m delighted to report that the Zombies Discussion has been the most popular by far. Even more significant to me, students’ responses are showing a wonderful level of creative and analytical thinking. For instance, one computer science major suggested creating programs that analyze live video streams, comparing appearance and movements to what zombies look like and the ways that zombies walk in order to determine when zombies are near. Not a bad solution, I think. Even better, however, were the replies . One student asked how the program would tell the difference between zombies and people in zombie costumes. Another wondered how the program would differentiate between zombies and people with mobility issues, like senior citizens or people with injuries or disabilities.

Other students have talked about military drone strikes, protecting information systems, security of the water supply, crowdsourcing reports of outbreaks, social media survivor networks, cures and vaccinations, DNA modification, landscape barriers, and more.

Zombies aren’t really my thing, but the success of this icebreaker has convinced me that they have a place in this course. I am even wondering about an all-Zombie section of technical writing. Imagine the assignment opportunities:

  • Technical Description of a Zombie
  • Instructions for Trapping a Zombie
  • Directives for Zombie Safety
  • Zombie Sighting Field Report
  • Zombie Incident Reports
  • Recommendation Report on a Zombie Apocalypse Solution

There are so many options—and a good bit of fun to be had. I swear I would try this next term if we had a way to advertise a special focus section of technical writing on my campus. Who knew that an icebreaker would be so inspiring?

What kinds of icebreakers do you use? More importantly, are there zombies in your writing classroom? Leave me a comment below to tell me about your classes. I’d love to hear from you.

Photo Credit: Zombie Zone by Michel Curi on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

What Counts as Academic Dishonesty?

Sad Kitten, with its head leaning on its paw, and the caption, What a Cat-astrope! Why did I plagiarize?!Every term, I end up turning in a few students for violations of the Honor Code. It sucks. I don’t like filling out the paperwork. I don’t like the feeling that students try to trick me. The students involved are all definitely unhappy.

The most typical violation has been copying passages from sources word-for-word without any citation—without even quotation marks for that matter. When challenged, most students have responded that they didn’t realize citations and quotation marks were required. I certainly understand errors in bibliographic format. That kind of error is easy to make, especially when citation styles change every few years. It concerns me, however, that students can get to Junior and Senior standing at college without understanding how basic documentation of quotations works.

Given what I have been seeing, I have stepped up my documentation lessons to take on the issue directly. Students read the information on research and documentation from their textbook. In my case, that includes the following from Markel & Selber’s Technical Communication:

  • Chapter 6: Researching Your Subject
  • Chapter 7: Organizing Your Information
  • Part A: Skimming Your Sources and Taking Notes
  • Part B: Documenting Your Sources

I also have students review the resources available on the Virginia Tech Honor System website:

In addition to this basic instruction, I asked students to discuss the intricacies of academic research in the class’s online forum. To get the conversation started, I asked students to read through the questions and answers on the Academic Honesty Quiz from the University of Rochester. After reviewing the quiz, I asked students to consider these questions, noting that they did not need to address every quiz question in their responses:

  • Do your agree with their results?
  • Would you offer a different answer?
  • Are there more options than the quiz suggests? What are they?
  • What would you do if you were the teacher involved?
  • What questions about plagiarism (or other academic dishonesty) do you have that aren’t discussed in the quiz?

Some of the situations in the quiz are relatively straightforward, but others led students to question policy and academic responsibility. The questions related to notes falling out from under a desk and failing to log off a computer in particular resulted in engaged conversation.

I will definitely use this discussion strategy again next term. I may also add some infographic representations of some of the basic principles that students should follow. The textbook and Honor System readings are long and dense. Highlighting some of those points in a more visual format should help emphasis the concepts. What do you do to help students understand the principles and ethics of academic research? How do you demonstrate and discuss documentation? Tell me about your practices or leave a question in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you!

Image credit: Meme generated on the ICanHasCheezburger site.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

What’s the Story in Your Data Stream?

[This post was originally published on September 25, 2012.]

Your average student has developed a significant collection of digital work. There are Facebook updates, Twitter posts, YouTube videos, and Flickr and Instagram photos. I’ve been thinking about how to use this collection of artifacts since Antero Garcia reminded me that there is a “huge stream of student data to look for growth in.”

[Photo: text message by sffoghorn, on Flickr]

What are positive ways to use all that data? I’m not interesting in mining that data for indications of what strategies do or do not work. Instead, I’d like students to find their growth and changes in that stream of data themselves. Happily, I’ve found inspiration for an assignment that I think will do just that. I simply need to ask students to look for the stories in their data stream.

Oddly, this idea came to me when I read a story in the Georgia Southernalumni magazine. I’m not an alumnus of Georgia Southern, so I almost threw the paper into the recycling unopened. It only ended up in my mailbox because I have donated to the Graduate Research Network (GRN). Curiosity got the best of me, and I decided to skim it in case the GRN was mentioned inside.

Instead, I found a story about Jessica Hines, a photography teacher at Georgia Southern. Hines searched through her own data stream to learn more about her brother Gary, a Vietnam War veteran who took his life. The story from the alumni magazine isn’t online, but you can read more about Hines in My Brother’s War: Professor Acclaimed for Images of War Experience.

Two things caught my imagination from the piece. First, my eye tripped on the title, “Hines teaches students to tell story of themselves through photography.” The grammarian in me either wanted to add the word the, change story to stories, or perhaps both. Still the idea of telling stories with photographs drew me in, since I’ve been searching for multimodal assignments recently.

My interest piqued, I read on and found my second inspiration. Hines talked about her teaching as an introduction to her own search to learn more about her brother:

“I explain to my students that the camera is a device that, by pressing a button, shows them what they are interested in,” explains Hines. “The potential for self-discovery is high if one pays attention.”

What would happen, I wondered, if I sent students off to look through their data stream for their stories with the intention of learning more about themselves and their interests in the process? I knew I had found a positive way to use that “huge stream of student data.”

The assignment I have in mind asks students to look back through their data stream for recurring themes or topics and to compose a text about how their ideas have changed over time. I want them to consider questions like these:

  • Has your interest in the topic or theme deepened over time?
  • Have you slowly lost interest?
  • Have you learned increasingly more over time?
  • What has influenced how you feel about the topic?
  • What have you noticed as you look back at how you’ve documented the topic or theme over time?
  • What stories have you found?
  • What discoveries have you made about yourself?

For now, I’m leaving the medium for the text open. The piece could be a traditional text, but the assignment also lends itself to video, photography, and multimedia compositions. I’ll also leave the places students search for these stories open, rather than limiting the activity to just photographs, for instance.

Finally, I am hoping that I can avoid the Creepy Treehouse effect, since students choose the stories that they tell. They will pull their stories together in an independent piece that won’t require me or the class to visit their private postings. Students will curate the collections only with data they feel comfortable sharing.

In addition to reflecting on their own stream of data, I hope this assignment will also help students learn more about finding and analyzing how images or themes develop in a body of work. The assignment reminds me of the skills that I use when I trace how a poet uses a specific motif through a series of poems or how a novelist develops an image over the course of a novel.

What do you think of asking students to explore their own data stream? Do you have ways to tap the stream of student data? Do you have an assignment to share? I’d love to hear from you. Please leave me a comment below!

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

A Writing Assignment Time Capsule

[This post originally published on November 13, 2012.]

One of my all-time favorite assignments is to ask students to create a time capsule focusing on their writing and themselves as writers. I’m not sure if it’s because of my obsession with archives, my love for scrapbooking, or my fascination with the things that go into writing a text that draws me to the activity. Whatever it is, the assignment helps me learn more about how each student writes while at the same time encouraging students to reflect on their writing and how it changes.

To begin, I explain the basic assignment. The goal is for students to create time capsules for themselves as writers. The audience for the activity varies. I’ve asked students to create time capsules that they will open later in the term or at some point in the future. It can be interesting to do the assignment early in the term and then open the time capsules at the end of the term as part of their final project. I’ve also asked students to create time capsules at the end of a term as a way to reflect on the work that they have done during the course. With students’ permission, I’ve opened some of these time capsules at the beginning of the next course I teach as an overview.

I set up the assignment as early in the term as reasonable. If I wait too late, students may well have discarded artifacts that they would like to include. Most students will understand what a time capsule is, but to be sure, I always kick off the activity with some background. Now that Apple has a back-up solution called Time Capsule, it is crucial to make sure everyone understands what we’re talking about. Wikipedia has a Time Capsule entry, which I use as a basic explanation. I play this YouTube video of the Westinghouse Time Capsule, buried in 1939 and to be opened in the year 6939, to provide a concrete example:

I also share some news articles on time capsules, like these:

The assignment I ask students to complete is not as complex as the time capsules in the news and video nor do students wait as long to open them, but these examples are a good way to review the characteristics important to time capsules. If I have time capsules from a previous course to share, I open them at this point too.

After exploring the examples, we create a class list of characteristics. I like to make sure students understand these details about time capsules:

  • The goal is to show someone in the future what life was like when the time capsule was assembled.
  • It’s not meant to showcase buried treasure or priceless artifacts. Money and artifacts can be included, but they normally are not remarkable treasures at the time when the time capsule is assembled.
  • The items in a time capsule should be long-lasting. They need to survive a long time without decaying in some way.
  • The items also need to be things that will not damage one another and/or they need to be specially packaged so they won’t damage one another.
  • The time capsule can include items that predict what life will be like when the capsule is opened, like letters to a future self or messages to future generations.

I ask students to brainstorm a list of the items in time capsules as well, so that they have a working list of the kinds of artifacts they will gather for their own time capsules. I also review the documentation included with the Westinghouse Time Capsule, and ask students to include similar explanations and reflections with their time capsules.

Beyond these instructions, I like to leave the specifics up to the individual students. They can choose the kind of container and what goes into it. They can include digital artifacts as well as analog materials. I prefer not to dictate requirements like the number of items or the kinds of things to be included. This assignment is very personal, and I want students to reflect on themselves as writers. If I provide a checklist of what to include, the assignment won’t do what I want it to. The only specific item I require is some explanatory, reflective pieces that help identify the items and their importance.

Opening these time capsules is always informative. I learn so much about students every time I use the assignment. It’s tempting too to think about what my own time capsule might look like, as a writer and teacher. If I were in the position to do so, I’d love to ask new graduate teaching assistants to gather time capsules after orientation that they will open at the end of the academic year as part of a final reflection on their teaching.

Do you have assignments that ask students to reflect on the writing they have done in the past? What artifacts do you save from your own writing and teaching? I’d love to hear from you. Just leave me a comment below!

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

Convert Handouts to Videos with Lumen5

This weekend, I have been exploring the capabilities of the online tool Lumen5, a web-based tool that you can use to convert any written text to a video. Lumen5 offers to “Transform articles into videos in minutes” on their company website. The end result, Lumen5 explains, is “Social videos made easy.”

How Lumen5 Works

To use Lumen5, you create a project and then begin producing your video. Lumen5 gives you three choices, shown in the screenshot below:

Screenshot of Lumen5 Options for creating a video

As the image shows, the interface is clean and easy to understand. You add the required information by clicking on one of the three options:

  1. You can use an article or blog post by pasting in the link to the document.
  2. You can copy and paste text from any document you have access to.
  3. You can start with an empty video and add text and resources as you go along.

For this post, I am going to focus on what happens when you choose the first or second option. Whether you have pasted in a link or the text for your video, Lumen5 next adds your content to a series of video panes, similar to slides in a slide deck. Each sentence in your content is displayed on a pane. If your sentence is long, it is divided into two panes.

In addition to sorting the text onto the panes, Lumen5 pairs the content with an image (either in public domain or free to use) based on the keywords it finds in the text. For example, if the text talks about writing a paper, Lumen5 will add a photo that shows something related to writing. It might be a photo of a person writing, an image of hands on a keyboard, or a picture of a notebook and pen on a table.

Once the first draft of your video is auto-generated, you can spend time editing the draft by changing the text on the panes and choosing a different image, video, or icon to represent the content. To change the text, you just click on the pane and type. For the images, you choose the media tab, and then you can either search the libraries available in Lumen5 for an image or you can upload media of your own. You can also choose from one of the free-to-use soundtracks or upload your own.

Once you are happy with your video, you click the Render button and wait about ten minutes for the video to process. Once the video is ready, you download the MP4 file and upload it wherever you’d like to share it with your students. Lumen5 even provides a help page on downloading and sharing your video to a various social networks.

A Sample Lumen5 Video

I decided to experiment with a digital handout on my course website that explains the labor-based grading system to students (See Inoue, 2014), paired with a tip-filled infographic on how to do well in the course. The result of my project is the following video:

All in all, I’m quite happy with the results. I spent about three hours on the video, most of which was spent being overly picky about images and the background music.

Constraints of Lumen5

There are some limitations in Lumen5. I used the free version of the tool, which allows you to create an unlimited number of videos in 480p video quality. The free videos do have a Lumen5 logo at the end. If you want to remove that logo or record in a higher resolution, you have to pay a hefty fee of $49/month. For the work that I would do, the free version will likely suffice.

Lumen5 does not allow for voice-over, only the soundtracks as background music. Since the finished video is downloaded as an MP4 file, it is easy enough to open the downloaded file in another program, like Camtasia, if you want to add a voice-over. As there is no voice-over, you do not need to add a closed caption file. All of the text is already on the screen.

Students with visual impairments do need a transcript of the text of the video however. The text in the video is not readable by a screen reader. I created a transcript for my video by copying the text out of Lumen5 and pasting it into a Word document. After applying formatting to make the file easy for a screen reader to navigate, I saved it as a PDF and uploaded it to my own website. Making the transcript took me less than ten minutes overall.

There are some other minor limitations. You have little control over the color of the content on the screen, for example, and it’s difficult to deal with awkward line breaks. Given that the slick tool is free, however, I find these constraints quite bearable.

Final Thoughts on Lumen5

If you are interested in adding some simple videos to your course, I encourage you to experiment with Lumen5. It was a simple enough tool that I would use it with students as well, if you are working on a video assignment. Go visit the Lumen5 website and give it a try; then, please come back and tell me what you think. I’m eager to hear your thoughts about this exciting tool!

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

Using Pop Culture to Inspire Group Collaboration

Supercharge Your Teamwork! InfographicWhen students are asked to work in groups, they may not know what good teamwork looks like. Like anything in the writing classroom, models can help them understand how to collaborate effectively. The challenge is modeling the process for them. I can demo any number of writing strategies as well as provide step-by-step instructions on technology questions. Modeling group work, however, is not a one-person job.

 

Pop culture to the rescue! The infographic to the right analyzes the teamwork strategies of six pop culture teams. It describes the team, identifies the team members, outlines their strategies, and suggests some debriefing notes. It is long and detailed, so you need to click the image to read the full-sized image or view the original on the Inloox site.

 

As students begin working together in their writing groups, I share the infographic above and ask them to compare their own teams to those in the infographic. I invite them to respond to these discussion questions:

 

  • How accurate are the characterizations of the teams in the infographic? Would you change them?
  • Does your team match any of those in the infographic? How well does the infographic team compare to your team? Tell us how.
  • How do the characteristics of teams in the infographic relate to those in the readings for this week?

 

After discussing the infographic, I ask students to brainstorm a class list of other pop culture groups that they are familiar with. If they have trouble getting started, I offer some examples of television shows that feature a team of characters that works together to meet a goal, like NCIS, S.W.A.T, or SEAL Team. If students need additional inspiration, I throw out some categories like teams in anime, teams in movies, and teams in literature.

 

With a list compiled, the class can talk about how the various teams compare to those in the infographic and hypothesize why some groups are more successful than others. The ultimate goal is to find teamwork strategies that students can use as they work together, so I close the discussion by asking students to create a list of techniques to use in their own groups.

 

As an extension activity, students can apply their list of strategies by working in groups to choose a team from the class list and collaboratively design an image that presents the team, modeled on the infographic.

 

Do you have an activity to improve student group work? Please share your ideas in a comment below. I’d love to try your strategies in the classroom.

 

 

 

Infographic from InLoox

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

Online Trip Report Assignment

null by Beryl Chan on Flickr, used under public domainIn the workplace, employees write trip reports to document what happened during a business trip. Some companies use those reports to show how the goals for the trip were met. Others use them to share what happened with the rest of the organization. I use a Trip Report assignment in my Business Writing and in my Technical Writing classes, and it can be adapted into a website analysis assignment for a first-year composition or digital literacy course.

The trick to transforming the assignment is to rethink the idea of trips, making the excursion the writer takes into a visit to an online site, rather than a geographical destination or event. With those changes, the rest of the assignment needs only some minor phrasing adjustments.

The Assignment

This assignment is modeled on trip reports, which are used in the workplace to tell coworkers what happened or was achieved on a business trip. For this assignment, you will choose a website that you will share with everyone in the class and then report on your visit to that site by writing an online trip report.

You’ll begin the activity by deciding on a website and choosing a specific reason(s) to visit it. Think of your reason(s) to visit as your research question(s). Next, you will visit the site, looking for the information you identified as the reason for your visit. After you explore the site, you will write a trip report that explains how well the site is likely to meet the needs of people who visit it for the same reason(s) you did. You will share your trip report with the entire class. Your report will provide an analytical review or recommendation.

Step 1: Identify your search questions.

Brainstorm a series of questions related to your online visit. These questions will guide your project. Your research questions do not have to be complicated, but they should require more than a simple answer. You should be able to break the guiding question down into a series of sub-questions. Here is an example:

Instead of This Try This
Guiding Question
How much is admission to Disneyland during the first weekend of June?
Guiding Question
How much should I budget for a trip to Disneyland during the first weekend of June?

Sub-Questions

  • How much does it cost for admission?
  • How much does it cost to stay at a Disney resort? Are gratuities included?
  • How much should I budget for meals?
  • What special events will be taking place during the time I am thinking of visiting?
  • How much should I budget for special events?
  • How much should I budget for other expenses?

Step 2: Choose a website for your project.

Once you have your search questions ready, choose a site where you believe you will find the answers. You can choose any website that includes both visual and text content. Your site must meet the following criteria:

  • Appropriate for the classroom.
  • Free and open (no login required).
  • Professional (not a personal site).

Good choices for this assignment include these kinds of sites:

  • an official university site.
  • a university-related site (such as a club site).
  • a professional association’s site.
  • a nonprofit organization’s site.
  • a corporate site for a company you might work for.
  • a news media or journal site.

If you are unsure whether the site fits the questions that you have identified, skim through the site to determine whether it includes the kind of information that you are looking for.

Step 3: Familiarize yourself with the characteristics and format for your report.

Read the following resources for information on writing trip reports:

Additionally, read the details on memo format, since your project should look like a trip report from the workplace. You can also read about memo format in The Business Writer’s Handbook or The Handbook of Technical Writing.

Step 4: Go on your trip: visit the website, and gather information for your report.

With the preliminary work taken care of, you can begin work researching the questions you identified above in Step 1 on the website. Check out the pages linked to the site’s main navigation. Browse the information on the site, looking for the answers to your question and paying attention to the supporting details and other related information.

To provide evidence of the answers to your search questions in your trip report, you identify specific details. Take notes on what you find and gather any materials that you can use as you write your report. For instance, you might take some screenshots, copy important passages, and note important page links. Remember to keep track of where your information comes from so you can cite your sources in your report.

Step 5: Write your Trip Report.

Write your trip report in your word processor, using memo format. The length of your report will vary, according to your search questions and the information you found on the website. There is not a minimum or maximum page length. Write as much as you need to, but be sure to include all of the required information.

Your trip report should include the following information:

  • the goals for the trip (your website visit).
  • what you actually found during your visit.
  • the lessons learned from your visit:
    • What made the site a good (or bad) resource for your search questions?
    • What features on the site indicated that the creators were thinking of you as an audience?
    • What about the site worked well?
    • Would you recommend the site to someone with similar questions? Why, or why not?

Include concrete details from the notes you took during your website visit to support the information in your trip report. You can quote or paraphrase information from the site. Insert the screenshots you took to illustrate your points (be sure to crop out irrelevant information in the images).

Once you have a complete draft, check the information in your report to determine whether you have included the answers to your search questions and the information required for the report, listed above. When you are sure you have met the requirements, proofread your report and turn it in.

                                                                                                                                                                                               

Closing Thoughts

This trip report assignment upgrades the basic analytical essay. Students will still complete an analysis project, but the trip report format adds interest for students already looking ahead to the workplace. Further, by asking them to work with a different genre, students necessarily get beyond the comfort of the five-paragraph theme.

You can further adapt this assignment if you ask students to take online field trips. For instance, you might ask students to explore a genre or period of art on an art museum website. They can report their findings in a trip report.

Do you have unusual writing assignments that work well for you? I would love to hear about what you have tried and what’s worked for you. Just leave me a comment below!

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

Remembering Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou visits YCP! 2/4/13Poet and author Maya Angelou died Wednesday, May 28, in her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Angelou is considered one of the finest poets of her generation. In addition, she authored several books chronicling her youth and adolescence, including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Find related web resources and lesson plans on Angelou on the ReadWriteThink calendar entry for her birthday. For excerpts from an interview with Angelou, consider sharing ‘Fresh Air’ Remembers Poet And Memoirist Maya Angelou with students.

A simple way to remember Angelou in your classroom this week is to ask students to explore some resources about the author and then use one of ReadWriteThink’s interactives or mobile apps to write about her:

 

[Photo: Maya Angelou visits YCP! 2/4/13 by York College ISLGP, on Flickr]

Finding Persuasion in Unexpected Places

SLC2As I did last summer, I spent twelve days this month with my sister on a road trip from Virginia to Utah, with a stay in Salt Lake City for the Stampin’ Up convention in the middle. I learned a number of interesting ideas at the convention, both for my hobby of scrapbooking and cardmaking and for teaching and creativity in general. The most interesting thing that I came upon, however, was the garbage and recycling bins (shown right) in the Salt Palace Convention Center where the event was held.

Read my full post on the Bedford Bits site.

A Definition Assignment from a Super Bowl Commercial

I wasn’t blown away by the Super Bowl commercials this year. There were a couple that seemed cute to me. The GoDaddy commercials, as usual, annoyed me. WWE fan that I am, I enjoyed The Rock’s Milk commercial, and like several of my friends, I teared up over the Clydesdale commercial.

The most immediately useful commercial however was this farmer commercial for Ram Trucks, which uses Paul Harvey’s “So God Made a Farmer” speech as its text:

Play this commercial in the classroom and talk about writing extended definitions. It’s a wonderful example and can inspire students to create their own video definitions.