Ten Active Learning Strategies Using Word Clouds

Last week, I reviewed several word cloud generators and suggested a few ways that you can use word clouds in the classroom. This week, I am sharing some ways that you can use word clouds in your classes to engage students directly in the learning process. The ten active learning strategies below ask students to move beyond the absorption of ideas typical of a lecture-based class to deep engagement with the ideas and development of relevant content area and critical thinking skills.

1. 25-Word Summaries

With 25-word summaries, students summarize (or otherwise discuss) their reading in 25 words or less. Students must concentrate their ideas and make every word count. Once students submit their summaries, combine them in a single document, and generate a word cloud that reveals the 25 words that students mentioned most. For nonfiction readings, the resulting word cloud can show the main points of the reading, significant facts that are included, and key issues that stand out for students. For fictional readings, the word cloud can reveal significant features from the reading, such as themes and symbols.

The word cloud below is the collected response to the discussion question “What are the main themes in A Raisin in the Sun?” For accessibility purposes, include the table of word frequency, which screen readers will be able to read.

Word Cloud on the themes in A Raisin in the Sun

Word Frequency
family     21
african     16
people     14
dream     10
dreams     10
abortion       8
act       8
knowledge       7
raisin       7
africa       6

2. Icebreakers with Survey Responses

Choose your favorite icebreaker question: What’s your favorite food? What’s the last book you read? What kind of texts have you written in the workplace? Ask students to respond with online survey software, like Poll Everywhere or Mentimeter. Both of these tools allow you to present the survey responses in a word cloud, so you do not need any additional software. The cloud appears on the survey website as the responses are added.

3. Directed Paraphrase

Check students’ comprehension by asking them to paraphrase the most recent lesson or activity that the class has completed. Encourage students to put the content of the lesson into their own words, rather than parroting back what they have seen or read in the class. Collect all of the responses in a single document, and generate a word cloud of the most commonly repeated words. Share the cloud with the class and ask them to consider why certain words showed up and why others were missing. Be sure to ask them to comment on how well the word cloud represents the lesson or activity they paraphrased.

4. Prediction

Before students read the next section of an article or chapter of a book, ask them to suggest what they think will happen next. As with other activities, gather the responses in a single document and create a word cloud, which will identify the most popular predictions. Ask students to discuss why certain predications were popular, connecting to the available evidence from the reading they have completed.

5. Muddiest Point

Ask students to write down whatever is most unclear about the lesson, in a word or two, before leaving the classroom for the day. Collect students’ responses and assemble them into a single document, from which you can build a word cloud of the points that most students noted. Open the next class session with the word cloud, and address the concepts that students have identified.

6. Focused List

Build a focused list by asking students to respond to a question about a topic. This strategy can be used to stimulate prior knowledge by asking a question such as “What have you learned about the topic already?” Give students time to brainstorm a list of concepts that they recall, and create a word cloud of the ideas they have shared. Use the word cloud to extend discussion of prior knowledge by asking students to explain the concepts that appear in the word cloud.

7. Version Comparison

As part of a research project, ask students to find two articles on their topic, ideally two that focus on different perspectives. Have students make a word cloud for each of the articles and then compare the two clouds. Specifically, ask which words that the two versions have in common as well as what their most significant differences are. Have students determine which of the most frequently used words communicate facts and which communicate opinion. If there are terms in the word clouds that students have not found elsewhere in their research, encourage them to examine these words further as they relate to the topic.

8. Role Play

Again, set up a survey using online survey software, like Poll Everywhere or Mentimeter, but this time ask students to answer from another perspective. In literature courses, you can ask students to answer as they think one of the characters would respond. The activity can be used as a Prediction activity (#4 above) by asking students to predict what someone in a reading might do next or a decision the person would make. For any reading that students complete, they might respond as the author would. If you are studying argument, students can answer as someone on a particular side of the issue might. These role-playing surveys will result in interesting word clouds that reveal how well students understand whatever they are reading or studying.

9. Quiz-Style Games

For this activity, you create the word cloud yourself. You could choose keywords from a text and manufacture a cloud, or paste in the text of a reading to create a cloud. Ensure that your cloud does not include the title of the piece or other words that would make the source immediately obvious. The word cloud above for A Raisin in the Sun would work for this activity. Use the resulting word clouds to quiz students: By looking only on the cloud, can they identify the piece that the cloud represents? Students could work individually or in teams to propose their answers, similar to a game show. This activity would work particularly well as a review exercise before an exam.

10. List-Cloud-Group-Label

With this modification of the List-Group-Label strategy, you can stimulate prior knowledge as you introduce a reading, a unit of study, or a course theme. Write a word or phrase related to the subject area on the board. For instance, if the course will explore popular culture, you might focus on the word popularity or the phrase popular culture itself. Have students brainstorm related words and phrases using online survey software, like Poll Everywhere or Mentimeter (or in an open Google Doc). Make a word cloud of students’ responses. Next, arrange students into small groups, and ask each group to examine the word cloud closely. Groups can add or remove words or phrases as well as decide on whether particular items on the list should have been larger or smaller in the word cloud. Once they have considered the words, ask groups to arrange the words into several related subtopics and to provide a label for each subtopic. Have groups present their subtopics to the whole class and explain their arrangement. The whole class can compare the different subtopics that groups have created. Later in the course, after you have begun your exploration of the reading, unit, or theme, ask students to return to the labeled groups of words and consider how well they relate to the topic as it has evolved during the course.

Final Thoughts

As you can see from these ten ideas, word clouds can be a versatile tool in the classroom. They can be used for analysis, description, summary, and more. Perhaps my favorite thing about these uses of word clouds is that the results are always different. Although my classes may study the same topic or readings from one term to the next, the way that they create and analyze word clouds is always unique—and every so often, they reveal an idea that surprises me.

What are your thoughts on word clouds now that you have seen some ways to use them? Do you have additional strategies to try? Would you complete one of these active learning strategies in a different way? Tell me your thoughts in a comment below. I can’t wait to hear from you.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

Updating Your Word Cloud Tools

Word clouds can give writers helpful information as they revise their work. As I explained in my previous post Word Clouds as Revision Tools, “Word clouds highlight the most frequently used words in a text, using larger font sizes for the words used most often and smaller sizes for those used less often.”

Using Word Clouds

In the writing classroom, word clouds can help students identify words that they have overused or identify themes in their writing. In technical writing classes, I ask students to create word clouds from their job application materials and then evaluate whether the words that they use the most project the image that they want potential employers to see.

In classes that focus on reading, students can use word clouds to analyze passages from poetry, essays, fiction, and other readings. The resulting word clouds can help students identify themes and symbols in the texts, just as a concordance might. Here’s the word cloud for the 50 most frequent words in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:

Word Cloud for T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land

Once a word cloud like the one above is generated, students can talk generally about the frequently-used words, and then search for the words in the original text to see how they are used.

Problems with the Most Commonly Used Word Cloud Generator

So word clouds can be a fun tool to use in the classroom; recently, however, I have run into trouble when assigning word cloud activities. My go-to tool, Wordle, is no longer working consistently. When I follow their troubleshooting instructions, I end up finding this Java error:

Java error: The Chrome browser does not support NPAPI plug-ins and therefore will not run all Java content. Switch to a different browser (Internet Explorer or Safari on Mac) to run the Java plug-in.

Wordle has been my favorite and the tool that I have seen other teachers use most frequently, but with the end of Java support, I can’t rely on Wordle anymore. I need to find tools that students can use easily and reliably.

Word Cloud Alternatives to Try

After testing several options, I found three alternatives that seem useful:

These three tools create word clouds easily, giving the user the same basic settings. Word Cloud Generator (for Google Docs) is limited in the ways that you can manipulate the layout of the words. For instance, to switch to the landscape layout shown for The Waste Land example above, I had to open the image in Photoshop and rotate it. It’s not a hard change to make, but it is an extra step. Word Cloud Generator includes the unique ability to add a table of the most frequently used words and their frequency of use to the end of the analyzed document. To share this add-on with students, use the How to Create a Word Cloud in Google Docs video and instructions.

Pro Word Cloud (for Microsoft Word and PowerPoint) does allow you to change the layout of the words, giving you a range of options that includes Higgledy Piggledy. I love anything that offers me the chance to make things “Higgledy Piggledy.” This Word add-in falls short, however, since it has no option to exclude words from the cloud. There is a check box to “Remove common words,” but no option to customize the words that are removed. To share the add-in with students, you can use the Create a Word Cloud in a PowerPoint Presentation video and instructions. The instructions are generally the same to install and use the add-in in Microsoft Word.

WordClouds (for web browsers) is the best choice if the source text for your word cloud is a web page or PDF. You can upload a file or enter a web link, and the tool will make a related cloud. WordClouds also includes the largest number of options of the three tools. In addition to the customary settings for the color, font, and the layout of the words, you can change the shape of the cloud (e.g., a heart, an apple, a cat), set the distance between words (or the gap size), and add a mask. The shape option includes not only basic shapes, but also the ability to choose a letter or number as the shape of the cloud and the ability to choose a colorful icon (such as a rainbow). There’s even a sneaky way to track multi-word phrases (e.g., writing center). Just add a tilde (~) between the words (i.e., writing~center). While there is no page of instructions for WordClouds, students can use the Wizard on the site to get started and find the answers to any questions on the FAQ page.

Final Thoughts

I am always looking for more ways to use word clouds in the classroom. They are so easy to create, and they quickly reveal keywords and themes in the analyzed texts. I am working on some additional word cloud activities for next week’s post. If you have an activity to share, please leave me a note below, and be sure to come back next week for those additional assignments that use word clouds.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

24 Free Audiobooks to Download This Summer

Sync IconIf you like audiobooks, check out the free young adult audiobook downloads from Sync YA Audiobooks. It’s 24 books—two each week starting on May 30.

I’ve downloaded these books the past two summers, and they are excellent books each year. It’s a great way to build your audiobook library. Each week, they post one recent title, and one classic text that explores similar themes. For example, the first week, they are pairing Of Poseidon by Anna Banks, read by Rebecca Gibel (AudioGO) with The Tempest by William Shakespeare, read by a Full Cast (AudioGO). So even if you aren’t working with teens (or don’t have teens at home), you may find the classics each week worth downloading.

Get more info on their website and check out the Tool Kit for posters, bookmarks, and other graphics that you can download to spread the word about the books.

There’s a linked version of the full schedule on the site, but to
get you excited, I’ve pasted it in below too:

May 30 – June 5, 2013
Of Poseidon by Anna Banks, read by Rebecca Gibel (AudioGO)
The Tempest by William Shakespeare, read by a Full Cast (AudioGO)

June 6 – June 12, 2013
The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book 1: The Mysterious Howling by
Maryrose Wood, read by Katherine Kellgren (HarperAudio)
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, read by Wanda McCaddon (Tantor Audio)

June 13 – June 19, 2013
The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, read by Will Patton (Scholastic
Audiobooks)
Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya, read by Robert Ramirez (Recorded Books)

June 20 – June 26, 2013
Once by Morris Gleitzman, read by Morris Gleitzman (Bolinda Audio)
Letter From Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr., read by Dion Graham
(christianaudio)

June 27 – July 3, 2013
Rotters by Daniel Kraus, read by Kirby Heyborne (Listening Library)
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, read by Jim Weiss (Listening Library)

July 4 – July 10, 2013
Carter Finally Gets It by Brent Crawford, read by Nick Podehl (Brilliance
Audio)
She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith, read by a Full Cast (L.A. Theatre
Works)

July 11 – July 17, 2013
The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann, read by Peter Altschuler (HarperAudio)
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, read by Simon Vance (Tantor Audio)

July 18 – July 24, 2013
Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, read by Erin Moon (Recorded Books)
Hamlet by William Shakespeare, read by a Full Cast (L.A. Theatre Works)

July 25 – July 31, 2013
The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen, read by Charlie McWade (Scholastic
Audiobooks)
The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain, read by Steve West (Blackstone
Audio)

Aug 1 – Aug 7, 2013
Death Cloud by Andrew Lane, read by Dan Weyman (Macmillan Audio)
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle, read by Ralph
Cosham (Blackstone Audio)

Aug 8 – Aug 14, 2013
Enchanted by Alethea Kontis, read by Katherine Kellgren (Brilliance Audio)
Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll, read by Miriam Margolyes
(Bolinda Audio)

Aug 15 – Aug 21, 2013
Sold by Patricia McCormick, read by Justine Eyre (Tantor Audio)
Let Me Stand Alone by Rachel Corrie, read by Tavia Gilbert (Blackstone
Audio)

30 Poems You Can Write for National Poetry Month

Magnetic Fridge PoetryApril is National Poetry Month, sponsored by Academy of American Poets and other poetry organizations. Last year, we posted thirty poetry activities, one for each day of the month of April—and the good news is that we’ve got an updated poem-a-day activity for you this year too!

Each day has a link to a different kind of poetry writing, either a specific poetic form, like sonnets or acrostics, or poetry focused on a particular topic, like seasonal haiku or color poems. The materials range in grade levels, but can usually be adapted for any age (even college students).

So here’s the challenge for you and students: I found a different poem for every day of the month. How many different poems can you write? And remember that even if you don’t have time in class to write a poem each day, these poetry activities will work any day of the year!

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
1: Acrostic Poems 2: Seasonal Haiku  3: Nonsense Poems 4: Catalog Poems 5: Shape Poems 6: STEM Poems 7: Bio- Poems
8: Riddle Poems 9: Nursery Rhymes 10: Color Poems 11: Two- Voice Poetry 12: Headline Poems 13: Diamante Poems 14: Rebus Poems
15: Parody Poems 16: One-Sentence Poems 17: Name Poems 18: Magnetic Poetry 19: Letter Poems 20: Bilingual, Spoken-Word Poetry 21: 5Ws Poems
22: Free Verse 23: Alphabet Poems 24: Concrete Poems 25: Found Poems & Parallel Poems 26: Cinquain Poems 27: Limericks 28: Traditional Sonnets
29: Astronomy Poetry 30: Sports Poetry          

 

Cross-posted to the NCTE Community ReadWriteThink.org Group and the Reading and Language Arts Group on the Thinkfinity Community.

 

[Photo: Magnetic Fridge Poetry by Minimalist Photography, on Flickr]

Bits Week in Review for November 28

Catch up on your reading with this round-up of posts from last week on teaching composition and rhetoric from Bedford Bits, on teaching English language arts at the secondary level in High School Bits, and on teaching literature and creative writing from Bedford Lit Bits.

A Few Extra Links

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Bits Week in Review for November 6

Here’s the round-up of posts from last week on teaching composition and rhetoric from Bedford Bits, on teaching English language arts at the secondary level in High School Bits, and on teaching literature and creative writing from Bedford Lit Bits. I hope you find something you can use in the classroom or your research!
 

A Few Extra Links

For regular updates from Bedford Bits, be sure to sign up for the Ink’d In newsletter (and other resources), like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.
 


Cross-posted as a Note on Bedford/St. Martin’s page on Facebook.

Award-Winning Sentences

Stormy nightOne day, Edward George Bulwer-Lytton sat down and wrote what have become one of the most infamous opening lines of his novel Paul Clifford (1830): “It was a dark and stormy night.”

Bulwer-Lytton wrote other memorable lines. He penned “the pen is mightier than the sword” too, but chances are that if you know his name, it’s because of “It was a dark and stormy night.” Part of that sentence’s familiarity is thanks to Snoopy, who works so hard on that first sentence of his novels. If you’ve never quite understood the problem with that sentence, it’s likely that you’ve never read the full thing:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Quite the sentence, isn’t it? Since 1983, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest has honored that epic sentence with a competition to write an equally spectacular sentence. This year’s winner, Sue Fondrie, teaches at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. The Guardian has more details, including the award-winning sentence which compares memories to wind turbines and sparrows and a groaner of a winner from the Fantasy category.


This post is the introduction from the Bits Flashback for July 31. Read the rest of the post on Facebook.

 

[Photo: Stormy night by Andrew J. Sutherland, on Flickr]

Reading, Writing, Eating

Lemon CakeAlyssa Rosenberg wrote about Food in Fiction and How Cooking Brings You Closer to Characters this week in The Atlantic. The article asks readers to think about how cooking and eating the same foods as fictional characters strengthens the connection between reader and the text.

Rosenberg describes some lemon cakes she made as a connection to Sansa, a character the books by George R.R. Martin that are the basis of HBO’s Game of Throne:

The cakes weren’t anything like I’d imagined from reading about them in the book—they were spongier and less sweet, and hard to imagine as a dreamed-of delicacy. But they were delicious, a powerful visceral connection to the people on screen and the world in which they live.

Such connections between reader and text reminded me of the potential writing about food has in the composition classroom. Jay Dolmage has written two entries this year that include assignments and discussion ideas. Take a look back at Writing About Food and Food Rules for ways you can connect with students just as Rosenberg connects with those fictional characters.


This post is the introduction from the Bits Flashback for June 26. Read the rest of the post on Facebook.

 

[Photo: Lemon Cake by Charles Haynes, on Flickr]

Write a Poem a Day for National Poetry Month

Magnetic Fridge PoetryApril is National Poetry Month, sponsored by Academy of American Poets and other poetry organizations. ReadWriteThink includes links to poetry lesson plans, websites, and classroom activities on the calendar entry for April 1.

I wondered, however, if we had enough resources on the site to write a different kind of poetry every day. I began with student interactives and then hit the site’s search engine to come up with the list below.

Each day has a link to a different kind of poetry writing, either a specific poetic form, like sonnets or acrostics, or poetry focused on a particular topic, like seasonal haiku or color poems. The materials range in grade levels, but could usually be adapted for any age (even college students).

So here’s the challenge for you and students: I found a different poem for every day of the month. How many different poems can you write?

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
          1: Acrostic Poems 2: Seasonal Haiku
3: Nonsense Poems 4: Catalog Poems 5: Bio- Poems 6: I-Am Poems 7: Shape Poems 8: Riddle Poems 9: Nursery Rhymes
10: Color Poems 11: Two- Voice Poetry 12: Headline Poems 13: Diamante Poems 14: Rebus Poems 15: Parody Poems 16: One-Sentence Poems
17: Name Poem 18: Magnetic Poetry 19: Letter Poem Creator 20: Bilingual, Spoken-Word Poetry 21: 5Ws Poems 22: Free Verse 23: Alphabet Poems
24: Concrete Poems 25: Found Poems & Parallel Poems 26: Cinquain Poems 27: Limericks 28: Traditional Sonnets 29: Astronomy Poetry 30: Sports Poetry

 

Cross-posted to the NCTE Community ReadWriteThink.org Group and the Reading and Language Arts Group on the Thinkfinity Community.

 

[Photo: Magnetic Fridge Poetry by Minimalist Photography, on Flickr]

Thanksgiving Classroom Discussion: The Meaning of Thanksgiving

TurkeysStill looking for that last-minute classroom activity to keep the class occupied before the Thanksgiving break? Mark Twain’s newly released autobiography includes a comment on the meaning of Thanksgiving that is bound to lead to a lively classroom discussion.

Begin the classroom discussion by asking students to brainstorm or freewrite about the meaning of Thanksgiving. To help focus their comments, you might first ask them to reflect on what Thanksgiving means to them by sharing some of their personal experiences.

Next, ask them the talk about the cultural and social messages related to the holiday. It’s likely you can arrange their shared responses into a handful of categories like family, tradition, patriotism, thankfulness, and shopping.

Once students have recorded their ideas on the meaning of Thanksgiving, turn to Twain. The New York Times published some Excerpts From the ‘Autobiography of Mark Twain’, (found via Chris Boese on Facebook) that included this vitriolic rant “On the Meaning of Thanksgiving”:

Thanksgiving Day, a function which originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for — annually, not oftener — if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians, during the previous twelve months instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors the Indians. Thanksgiving Day became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all on the white man’s side, consequently on the Lord’s side, consequently it was proper to thank the Lord for it.

Twain’s syntax is a little complex, so you might start by breaking down that passage and unpacking the words. Ask students to look in particular at the word choice Twain is using to establish his opinion on the meaning of Thanksgiving:

  • It’s a function, rather than a holiday or celebration
  • The pilgrims are “those people.”
  • The function marks “exterminating their neighbors.”

There’s no whitewashing in Twain’s account of Thanksgiving! Those are some tough words, and Twain’s meaning is very clear.

Have students think about the religious and cultural references in the quotation, and challenge them to think about how Twain’s personal experiences may have influenced his opinion. Have students compare Twain’s comments to the ideas they brainstormed at the beginning of the activity, and encourage class discussion of the accuracy of Twain’s statement. Are there ways that Twain’s take on the meaning of Thanksgiving could be seen as accurate?

As an extension, ask students to adopt Twain’s structure and tone and apply it to Black Friday or Cyber Monday. What would Twain say was the meaning of those commercial events?

 

[Photo: Turkeys by Hey Paul, on Flickr]