Voicing Literature: Engaging 21st Century Learners Through 19th Century Literature


Eric Sargent has an unenviable job, from a certain perspective.  He has a range of learners to reach, teaching classic literature to restless freshmen and honors seniors, and Walt Whitman and Herman Mehlville aren’t exactly writers who call to the teenage boy.

But from another lens, and one that Eric himself embraces, he has the best job in the world — introducing young men to deep thinkers from every age, challenging his students to debate and defend ideas that still shape our world and our own identities.

On this blog we’ve highlighted a number of engagement strategies St. John Vianney High School teachers use to engage students.  Young men in Eric’s classes are no stranger to competitions and playful brain breaks in his courses, but one unique element Eric has woven into his class is a strategy he terms “voicing literature.”

For students in Eric’s classes, “voicing literature” is the process of shaping our understanding of poems and prose (which can sometimes seem a bit dusty) by breathing our own voices into it and broadcasting those to the broader world.  Eric has challenged his students to engage in “voicing” in the following ways:

The Monkey Rope



Eric and Doug Storm, Eric’s former English teacher and mentor, run a collaborative blog called “The Monkey Rope,” an allusion to the seafaring tool used by protagonists in Herman Mehlville’s Moby Dick.  As his students wrestle with challenging material, Eric will post reflective prompts and audio samples on the blog, assigning these as homework.  The beauty of these prompts is their open-ended nature, driving a conversation that bleeds into class time.

In Eric’s words,

“Our goal is to encourage thinking in as many guises as possible through the medium of the technology. Our title, taken from chapter 72 of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, suggests a collaborative experience, both metaphorical and literal, much like that shared by Ishmael and Queequeg on The Pequod [the whaling vessel].

A tug pulls us out to hang above the oceanic maw; a counter-pull swings us back above the deck. We are all tethered to only one end of the monkey-rope trusting our very being in a kind of blind attachment to who or what is at the other end.

The blog, in my opinion, is a low-profile, informal way of ‘sounding off’ on complex texts and ideas.  It becomes a safe place for reflection and brainstorming… the genesis of higher-level thinking.”

In addition to promoting students’ voices as they work out their thinking, Eric regularly drives his students to produce more polished products, posting those to Vianney’s own literary magazine as well as in class-specific collections.


These finished projects live online through a service called Issuu, which allows them greater visibility and a more authentic audience as they are shared to parents, relatives, and strangers around the world using the power of social media.

For Eric, publishing finished work online “allows our students yet another way to showcase their talents and interests.  [Publishing] reminds everyone that art and literature must be showcased and framed just as we do with our sports’ teams, chess team and theatre program.”

Reinventing for the Stage

Finally, “voicing literature” isn’t only tied to the online world.  Recently, Eric, together with Vianney’s Theater director, Mr. Al Book, opened up an opportunity to his seniors to turn a storybook into the second act of Vianney’s most recent theater production, Aesop’s Oh So Slightly Updated Fables.

Reflecting on this atypical writing project, Eric observes,

“Being able to watch the process from brainstorming to draft (to more drafts) to stage is a marvellous journey.  So often, students view their work as an obstacle to overcome and complete.  This was a way for them to view the final product, so to speak.

Final products too often end up in a folder or binder or even in the trash.  This assignment landed on the stage and will continue to tour the local grade-schools throughout the early Spring.”


For students at St. John Vianney High School, Eric’s approach to “voicing literature” has stretched them to produce work for audiences outside the four walls of their classroom.  “The bottom line,” Eric says, “is less about the product and more about students buying into something that is larger than themselves.”

“Voicing literature” also seems to be less about analyzing antique texts and more about applying one’s own voice to the conversations of our modern world.


Cross-posted on the Vianney Learning blog.

Maker Culture in #STL – a mapping project

It has been such a great year of meeting so many people involved in bringing Makerspaces and Maker experiences to students around St. Louis. I’m trying to wrap my head around the variety of places and people building this Maker culture for K12 kids in my hometown.

Would you be willing to help me?

If so, please visit this Google Map sometime before Friday, February 6, and add a Makerspace or Maker activity / camp that you’re aware of in STL: https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=zAFGxvqRSgS4.k1kqF8wisayg

map of St. Louis

Adding a pin is pretty quick and straight forward, and you can consult this short GIF for help:

adding  a pin in google maps

After Friday, I’ll be changing the editing rights to “View only”. If you don’t make it in by the deadline and would still like to share, please shoot me a note and I’ll open editing access to you directly.

I hope you’ll take a few moments to mention someone near you who’s promoting a culture of Making!




Update (8 Feb 2015): Since creating this map, it seems that it fits a need for the larger K12 maker community in STL.  If you know of someone who wants to learn more about Making in #STL, or you want to add your space, activity, or event, please use the link in the map description to do so!


Makerspaces in Public Libraries

In January and February, I have had the privilege of working with youth librarians of the St. Louis County Library system around the topic of Makerspaces.  Agendas and resources can be found below:

January 8, 2015

  • What is a makerspace?
  • What’s currently happening at SLCL in terms of Maker culture?
  • What questions would you like answered?
  • Possible resources (Blendspace below):

February 5, 2015

Agenda below.  Resources will be updated closer to the event.

  • Recap of questions from last time
  • Google Hangout with Patrick Dempsey, middle school teacher at Hixon Middle School in Webster Groves and creator of a “mobile makerspace”.
  • Create a personal “maker” plan — what would you like to learn? what would you like to see children served by your branch learn?  Share these and discuss partnerships among branches.  There seem to be resources at one branch that other branches were not aware of.
  • Potential contacts beyond libraries for future learning / partnerships

Flipping Instruction – Best Practices from Vianney Teachers

Young men in Chemistry class now enjoy one of teacher Nick Kheriaty’s favorite labs — one he’s been meaning to teach for years.  Math teacher Will Thomas sees more thinking, more collaborative conversation, more hard work in ACC Algebra.  Freshmen in Jillian Hoge’s classes practice pig grunts — laughing and learning their way through tough but vital grammar concepts.

What’s going on?  A “flip” has happened.  A new instructional pattern has been emerging as educators around the world leverage video tools to “flip” instruction — assigning direct instruction as “homework” and guiding practice during class time.

In August 2012, Keith Touzinsky and I were chatting about our plans for the school year.  He had decided that this year he was going to involve his kids with hands-on investigations more than ever, but he needed to buy time for these interactive lessons.  His solution?  “I’m going to flip my classroom,” he said.  Keith recorded a video for each of his units and posted them to this blog.  The result? Keith bought the time he needed and more.

Then, he shared his idea with Nick Kheriaty.

Nick did the same with his Chemistry class, but shortened his videos, cutting them into 5-8 minute segments.  He doesn’t flip the entire semester, but chooses where flipping makes the most sense with his style of teaching.

 “Where I anticipate roadblocks, that’s where I flip,” he says.  “As a teacher, you get a sense of where students will make mistakes.  Pre-loading [students] with a warning to ‘Watch out for this!’ didn’t work.  I had to be there when the roadblock happened.  It’s much more effective to allow kids to encounter the mental conflict and then be there.”

Stress can deepen associations within our brain, but an excessive amount can shut down our ability to learn.  Flipping instruction allows Nick the ability to walk students through that stress in the moment, rather than waiting almost a full day to resolve a student’s question.  This means students see repeated success in a challenging subject more often.

For his ACC Algebra class, Will Thomas sees flipping as a way to allow students the freedom to walk through the process of problem solving over and over until they understand it.  Will is in the process of flipping his entire course, a daunting task, but one that he says is “worth it.”

“[Students] work together, they collaborate, they work very hard.  This new format gives me more class time to assess them and answer questions as well.  Also, if they need a refresher, they can always go back and re-watch any video they need to.  My students are now spending class time doing instead of “absorbing.”  I’m a huge believer in doing it this way for math and I wish I had started doing it this way a long time ago.”

Will’s videos are short, organized according to chapter titles, and all available on his website.

Not Just for Math and Science

The two playlists below are examples of single units (rather than courses) flipped by social studies teacher Brandon Lewis and English teacher Jillian Hoge.  Flipping direct instruction of grammar concepts allows Jillian to focus on application in her writing class, while Brandon’s flip of his Nationalism unit bought valuable time for a collaborative project for his sophomore world history class.


Tips from Our Teachers

For educators who might make be interested in trying out a flipped approach to a lesson, unit, or entire course, the following tips have helped students succeed in flipped classrooms at St. John Vianney High School:

Making the videos


  • Shorter is better - Nick Kheriaty encourages shorter videos, not only because research suggests they are better for student engagement, but also because they allow a teacher to teach without worrying, “Have I covered everything they need before they watch the video?”  With shorter videos, you can skip some and use others without guilt.
  • Ask students to do something as they watch – Jillian Hoge peppers her videos with jokes or asks students to make silly noises when they see certain slides, breaking up what might be a monotonous subject.  She also provides students with a video “guide”, which students fill out at specific parts of the video.
  • Set aside the time – Will Thomas suggests that teachers who are the “all-in” type might want to start making videos over summer break, or at least be ready to be just a step ahead of the kids.  “There definitely is a lot of work on the front end,” he says, “but it’s worth it.”
  • Coach for comprehension – Nick also suggests that teachers give students instruction on how to engage with instructional videos.  Students often watch on their phones, sometimes without turning on the sound.  Student understanding can increase when teachers take the time to coach students how to productively use these new instructional materials.




  • If they watch it, you will ask – A common thread among all the teachers above is the importance of holding kids accountable for this work.  “You can’t assign a lecture and then not return to it,” Nick Kheriaty observed.
  • Quizzes and cards – That assessment can take multiple forms.  Keith, Brandon and Jillian give open note quizzes, based on the guides students fill out as they watch the videos.  Nick has a set of note cards with student names and will ask randomly selected kids review questions that connect with the video students just watched. Regardless of the mode of review, teachers at Vianney have found this an essential element to the flipped experience

For our teachers, the flipped approach to instruction is buying time, increasing student engagement, and providing more flexibility to lesson and unit design.  If you’d like additional information, or would like simply to connect with some great teachers, seek them out online: Keith Touzinsky, Nick Kheriaty, Will Thomas, Brandon Lewis, Jillian Hoge.

Debating Twain: Arguing with Literature


Dawn Finley was looking for a way to hook her Junior Honors English students into early American literature.  Certainly students could read the book, take the typical quiz, and then discuss with one another, but Dawn was hoping for something more.  She was hoping for students to care about the book.  She was hoping for an argument.

Arguments, Dawn says, force students to have evidence that supports their opinion, a critical skill for literary analysis, and for life.  What better story to stir up a few arguments than a detective novel?  Even better, the first American detective novel, Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson.  Written by one of early America’s most well-known and talented writers, Pudd’nhead Wilson also bears the mark of being the origin of modern police fingerprinting practices.

File:PuddnHeadWilson.JPG“This book builds on our students’ prior experience with Forensics [a class all Vianney freshmen take],” Dawn relates.  “I wanted our boys to become part of that world, to take a stand, and to have practice refuting arguments.  I decided that they should put the characters on trial.”

Also Vianney’s debate coach, Dawn pulled from her experiences getting students ready for competitive speaking environments.  She organized students into teams and set out parameters for the debates.

Students …

  • worked in groups of around 6 people: 3 working on the character’s defense, 3 on his or her prosecution
  • crafted an opening statement of their position
  • wrote and performed the testimony of 3 witnesses supporting each side
  • created 3 pieces of “evidence”, physical or digital, that supported their assertions
  • presented to their peers, who acted as a jury in the case

On the technology side, students …

  • used Google Docs to co-write opening statements and testimony
  • gathered raw material for digital evidence from a Google Image search
  • filmed “surveillance videos” (in a moment of breaking from the historical feel) on phones and posted to YouTube
  • displayed digital evidence through Google Slides

A sample evidence Slide deck:

As her students were putting these arguments together, it wasn’t uncommon to hear “No, he wouldn’t have said that!” or “She should say it this way!”  Dawn points to interactions like these as indications that students were doing the important work of stepping into a character’s shoes.

When a student is able to speak as another character, accounting for the person’s personality, emotions, and relationships with others, he builds something that transfers far outside the classroom.  He builds a capacity for empathy.

Empathy.  Argument.  Collaboration.  The combination engaged sixty young men who thought they were simply going to read a detective novel.  Early American literature, yes, but also some enduring lessons for modern American life.

Questions about the project?  Reach out to Dawn on Twitter, @dk_finley .

Digesting Data – moving toward meaningful conversations around the ACT

This January, our faculty began a work of understanding data we regularly collect in order to strengthen student skills and evaluate our curricula.  Myself, two math teachers, and our head of guidance put the following presentation together to lead a 1-hour development that will set the tone for further work this summer and into next year:

Our teachers will voluntarily reconvene in May to examine data from the incoming 8th graders as well as our present 9th, 10th, and 11th grade students, looking over comparison data within a specific graduating class as well as general score reports.

In August, we will begin conversations about how departments can move the needle for our students.  Craig Kennedy, math teacher at Vianney and former data specialist for the Rockwood School District, said it best during the presentation:  “The most powerful thing we can do for these kids is change what it means to be ‘normal’ for Vianney.  ‘Normal’ here ought to be exceptional everywhere else.”

I am excited about the future of this work.

Making Effort Visible: Wearable Tech in PE Class


In the last three years, adoption of wearable fitness technology has exploded.  According to the Consumer Electronics Association, adoption rate tripled from 2012 to 2013 and wearable fitness exhibitor numbers at the International Consumer Electronics Show (one of the world’s premiere technology showcases) increased by at least 30%.

One of the most powerful aspects of this technology is its ability to give personalized feedback that meets a person where he or she is, and to give that feedback regularly, allowing the individual to make incremental changes in order to improve.  Small goals and regular success is addicting — wouldn’t that be great in a PE class?

It’s this personalized, visual motivation that Dave Gauvain and Eric Brown, PE teachers at St. John Vianney High School, had in mind when they selected curriculum-specific technology for their department.  Instead of laptops or tablets, Dave and Eric chose the Polar GoFit program, an integrated way for students to keep track of their own progress during workouts and athletic exercises.

I caught up with Dave Gauvain during a dodgeball unit and he walked me through three elements of the technology he thought held the most merit.

Regular Feedback

“We want guys to learn what it feels like to be in their target heart rate,” Dave comments.  The longer and more regularly they stay in that target area, the easier it will become to maintain without the devices.  That’s the transfer goal: a physical perception our young men can work towards outside of class.

Each boy is outfit with a heart rate monitor on a chest strap and a wristwatch.  The boys put in their height and weight into the watch at the beginning of every period.  The heart rate monitor broadcasts to both the boy’s watch as well as to the iPad Dave carries throughout the period.  Teacher and student each have an easy way to measure a student’s effort in class.

Objective assessment 

The Polar GoFit program not only shows a real-time display of student effort – it also tracks this over time.  Each student’s performance throughout the period is graphed and stored in a password-protected online service.  On his iPad, Dave can see these graphs, and he periodically calls students over to chat about how much (or how little) they are working themselves on the field.  Off the court, students can log in to the Polar website to see their performance across multiple class periods.

While he’s not sure how the technology will impact his grading system just yet, Dave does believe he’ll begin using this data to inform how he judges how successful students are in his class, and how effective certain activities are at helping his students meet their heart rate goals.


This objective measure of effort gives a different feel to a PE class.  “It allows students to feel good about their athletic work, even if they might not identify themselves as athletes,” Dave observes.

To an extent, it levels the playing field.  Students involved in regular athletic programs must work harder to keep their heart rates up.  Students who may not be involved in regular activity see incremental successes earlier and more often.

Polar even has special badges students earn for staying in the target heart rate area for certain amounts of time.  Students compete against themselves as well as others in the class for more badges, and the bragging rights are available to anyone who’s willing to put forth the effort.

Dave and Eric’s application of the Polar GoFit technology sends a positive message about the benefits that data and computing can have on our behavior and our health.  We are excited to see how our teachers use the GoFit to help our Griffins get fit and stay fit.

Trends and Technologies: A Review

Over the past few months, I have been reading a trilogy written for those looking to design or aid in the design of online courses or blended learning experiences. Grounded Designs for Online and Hybrid Learning, edited by Atsusi “2c” Hirumi and published by ISTE, consists of the following titles: Design Fundamentals, Designs in Action, and Trends and Technologies.

Trends and Technologies:

The final volume, Trends and Technologies attempts to describe larger movements in the online learning space. These are addressed in a brief overview of each of the four topics below:

  • Managing Large Online Courses
  • Podcasting
  • Virtual Worlds
  • Online Schools

I appreciated the narrative approach of the contributing author who wrote the chapter on managing online courses. His description of pitfalls, strategies, and successes read like an experienced advisor speaking to a new teacher. The other chapters are overviews of the remaining topics, with descriptions of related tools and technologies.

While I appreciate the topics themselves, I’m afraid the tools mentioned seemed to give these chapters a hint of obsolescence, as many were “new” at the time of drafting but are now well-used or no longer used by teachers in the k12 environments near me. I would have appreciated access to the authors’ thoughts on current technologies that relate to those they were observing in 2013. I believe this volume in particular could have benefited from digital supplementary material.

Overall, these three volumes represent a compendium of research on the topic of online learning.  In my opinion, they serve less as a guidebook and more as reference texts for teachers or designers who want to compare their progress with models and processes used in other online courses.

For the new designer, the middle volume may provide the most applicable, near-term guidance, while the bookends can provide a richer picture of the design process and factors affecting online learning.

My thanks to Education Plus and the METC ISTE Affiliate for the opportunity to review this series.

Designs in Action: A review

Over the past few months, I have been reading a trilogy written for those looking to design or aid in the design of online courses or blended learning experiences. Grounded Designs for Online and Hybrid Learning, edited by Atsusi “2c” Hirumi and published by ISTE, consists of the following titles: Design Fundamentals, Designs in Action, and Trends and Technologies. I’ll address each in its order.

Designs in Action:

Hirumi refers to this volume as “the heart” of the Grounded Designs series. I heartily concur. Of the three volumes, Designs in Action comes closest to a practicable guidebook for designing learning activities for an online course. The chapters may be grouped into three categories: general instructional models, subject-specific strategies, and general strategies.

General Instructional Models

Designs in Action includes descriptions and examples of four different instructional models: Gagné’s Nine Events of Instruction, the 5E Instructional Model, Guided Experiential Learning, and InterPLAY Learning Landscapes. Those familiar with the WHERETO instructional model within the Understanding by Design will find similar themes within and among these models. When talking about WHERETO, Wiggins and McTighe describe learning activity design in these words, “There is no ideology to it: do what works in Stage 3 to meet the objectives of Stage 1” (2005).

In my opinion, all of the above models moves my planning through a process that generates ideas and rewards creativity. For those who are looking for a model to spur their imagination or those who would like to examine the WHERETO acronym through a different lens, these chapters will reward the reader.

Subject-specific strategies

Curriculum specialists who support science or social studies may appreciate the chapters on the Scaffolded Vee Diagrams (Science) and Authentic Historical Investigations (social studies). Each approach scaffolds the professional practices of physical and social scientists into steps that students can manage. In addition to helpful question sets and design templates, these chapters also include effective, interesting lessons built with each respective strategy. I will be sharing many of the resources and tools mentioned in these chapters to colleagues teaching these subjects.

General strategies

Two additional general purpose strategies make up the remaining two chapters: Webquests and Game-based Learning. The Webquest chapter is detailed, reflecting the quantity of research available on this topic, but I was hoping for a deeper treatment of moving webquests into tasks that push higher order thinking. For someone new to facilitating a webquest with students, this may be a good introduction, but my one word of caution is that a webquest can quickly become an exercise in “seek and find” rather than synthesize and argue. Crafting meaningful tasks and challenging questions is critical when designing one of these activities.

The chapter on game-based learning is also an introductory chapter for what has developed into a leading topic among teachers and instructional designers. The contributing author mentions a number of case studies that are well-worth investigating, and I am especially interested to learn more about Ko’s Journey, a game-based approach to middle school math objectives.

Design Fundamentals: A Review

Over the past few months, I have been reading a trilogy written for those looking to design or aid in the design of online courses or blended learning experiences.  Grounded Designs for Online and Hybrid Learning, edited by Atsusi “2c” Hirumi and published by ISTE, consists of the following titles: Design Fundamentals, Designs in Action, and Trends and Technologies.  I’ll address each in its order.

Design Fundamentals:

This text provides a broad introduction to how instructional design principles might be transitioned into an online space, especially in post-secondary environments. For those familiar with the ADDIE instructional design framework, the topics addressed by the contributing authors will read more like a review than new information. For those in a k12 context, or unfamiliar with ADDIE, the number of tables and rubrics to fill out during this systematic design process might seem daunting. Regardless of context, I found at least three valuable tips for those looking to lead an online course.


A regular reminder throughout the text is that the online environment is a persistently disorienting experience for students. Elements of the face-to-face classroom that most of us take for granted must be explicitly outlined, communicated, and assessed for comprehension within an online space.

No process or expectation should be taken for granted. From the process of turning in work to the protocols involved in crafting civil, productive discussion online, the professionals designing and facilitating an online course cannot afford to assume that participants will be able to step in to the course and succeed from day one.


A strength of the ADDIE design framework is its focus on assessment throughout the progress of a course. I appreciated the reminder that many and varied assessments are appropriate, including multiple choice, checklists, and rubric-based evaluations.

From a k12 perspective, I often forget that a checklist can be an empowering tool to help students see progress. With online courses, checklists are especially important to help students see processes that would be more implicit in the face-to-face classroom.

Learner Interactions:

The designer of an online learning experience must account for the sometimes invisible interactions that each learner experiences. Hirumi creates an exhaustive list of these interactions and the describes the effect their interplay has on the learning process.This resource alone would be a great help to the teacher working towards a positive learning experience for her students.

In addition to the resources and reminders above, this volume includes outlines collections of web resources available to the instructional designer, a helpful introduction to Universal Design principles, and planning templates for each stage of the ADDIE design process.

fleeting thoughts about education and technology