Course 5 Project

I’m thrilled to be writing my last post for the COETAIL program!  I can’t believe that we’ve reached the end already.  I signed up for COETAIL kind of on a lark, not really knowing what I was getting myself into.  And I have to say that it’s meant more for me, both personally and professionally, than I ever expected.  I’m honored to have had the opportunity to learn with such an incredible cohort of peers, and indebted to our teacher, Robert, for being our ever enthusiastic and knowledgeable leader through this process.  I’m proud to count myself as a soon-to-be COETAIL graduate!

Course 5 Project – Gender in Advertising

I’m going to be relatively brief in my discussion of the 10 points, since I feel like I’ve covered a lot of them in previous posts (follow the links to read them). For my project, my Grade 7 students studied Gender Stereotypes in Advertising.  My goals for the project were to develop media literacy skills by analyzing and creating digital media, in addition having students collaborating on a complex task.

My unit consisted of first guiding students to become aware of the high volume of ads they are exposed to every day.  We then analyzed the messages that ads send to an audience- both explicitly and implicitky- as well as the specific techniques that they use to persuade.  We talked in depth about how ads target particular audiences in order to sell products more effectively.

Next we talked about the concepts of gender and gender stereotypes.  What is gender?Where do we get our ideas about what it means to be male or female in our society?  We took a close look at advertisements through this new lens.  How are males and females portrayed in print ads? Is this realistic?  We determined that the answer is no.  After analyzing several ads, students determined that women in ads are mostly light-skinned, slender and beautiful, while men are handsome and muscular.  Women are featured in static poses, while men are shown doing active activities like climbing a mountain or playing sports.  Even their clothes are different; men are shown in business suits while women  are shown in party clothes.  We tried, but could find very few women in ads wearing anything that would be suitable for the workplace (Even the pseudo business clothes feature plunging necklines that no one I know dare show up in at the office.)

When do these messages start?  We took a look at toy ads to see what types of messages about gender were being sent to kids.  Students analyzed the grammatical structure of these ads and found that overwhelmingly, commercials aimed about boys use use dark colors and intense music to convey ideas about action, violence and competition while ads aimed at girls emphasize homemaking, beauty, cooperation, and of course, the color pink.

In response to these ads, students created their own spoof ads that played on these same stereotypes.  They had to choose a typical boys’ or girls’ toy and market the product to the opposite gender.  In other words, they had to take a doll, for example, and create a commercial persuading boys that they just can’t live without it.  By creating these ads, students demonstrated an ability to read and write using the grammar of new media. They worked together on a complex task, solved problems, and developed technical skills.

However, simply observing that ads use gender stereotypes wasn’t enough.  I wanted my students to understand that these ads messages have serious implications for how we come to view men and women in the real world.  I created a Google survey containing questions about both the impact of ads and ideas about gender, which my students and I shared via a variety of social media platforms.  In one week, we tallied 327 responses.  We found that ads affect everyone, but that women reported being being affected by them far more than men.

I used a variety of digital tools in the completion of the unit.  Throughout the project, I used Wikispaces as a place to collect and display student work. It served as a central hub to showcase students’ learning.  It’s where they posted ads they collected, their video projects, survey results, and reflective posts that they completed along the way.  I used Google forms to create a survey and analyze the results.  I was able to graphically map those results using Google Maps.  Students were free to use whatever vide-editing software they chose, however most opted to use iMovie, which they were able to access in the school’s Mac Lab.

If I were to do the project again, I would make better use of the class wiki.  Rather than simply posting their reflections, I’d encourage students to read and respond to one another’s posts.  Once their videos were posted, I’d have encouraged students to share them far and wide, perhaps setting up some sort of contest wherein people vote on their favorite.  We could have begun by asking other classes in the school to visit the wiki and check out their work.

I would have also included students in the process of gathering and analyzing the data.  It would have been interesting to see what kinds of questions they came up with for the survey, and I’m sure that if they had, they would have been more invested in sharing it.  While several students did share the survey, I think they would have made more of an effort had it been something they had had a hand in creating.

Finally, I would have created some sort of culminating action piece at the end of the unit, wherein students develop a plan to raise awareness about gender stereotypes in ads.   This could have been anything from creating a hosting a screening of their films, to surveying the school, to teaching workshops to classes in other grades.  While I think that my project did reach the redefinition stage of the SAMR model through the survey (tapping hundreds of people from around the world for their ideas about gender and advertising- and then sharing the results- would be inconceivable without technology), I think this piece could have been a lot stronger.

All in all, I had a great time teaching this unit with my students.  I think they learned a lot and had fun doing it.






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Spoof Ad Projects: Finding Meaning in the Absurd

The Project

For their final project, my students flipped the script on gender stereotypes in toy ads by producing their own gender remix commercials.  After studying the specific (and ridiculous!) ways that advertisers use these stereotypes to market toys to boys and girls, students created spoof ads playing on these techniques.  In other words for example,  students had to select a toy for girls (like a doll) and, using the grammatical language of typical toy ads, convince boys that they just can’t live without it.

I had several goals in mind in assigning this project.  By both analyzing and creating media texts, I wanted students to immerse themselves in the grammatical language of digital media to experience the level of effort and forethought that go into creating even a short text, as well as the way that deliberate choices about color, camera angle, etc. can shape the message being communicated.

Media Literacy Goals

In addition, I wanted to teach students specific ways that ads work to persuade; to make them aware that ads send implicit messages about society; and to change the nature of their awareness about gender stereotypes.

Project Goals

 Check out my students’ commercials below:

BarbieBot – She’ll help you do your chores!  

Lewis Vutton Purse for Men – The thing that will lead you to victory!

To see them all, visit the Gender Remix Commercials page of our class wiki.

The Process

In designing this project, I assigned my students to mixed-ability groups.  Some of the students had had experience using editing software, while most had not.  I allowed them to use any editing software they chose, although most opted to use iMovie, which is available in the school’s Mac Lab.  I gave them about a week and a half to do the project, with class time dedicated first to brainstorming ideas and then to creating a script, storyboard, and work plan.  Each group was required to submit their planning documents, which counted as 50 percent of their grade, along with their final video.

I did not offer any explicit instruction in how to use video editing software.  Instead, I allowed my students class time to work in the computer lab, and made myself available as a resource when and if they needed help.  What I found was that I was far from the most knowledgeable in the room, and that students skilled in video editing soon emerged as leaders, offering  guidance to other groups who had questions.  It was awesome to see them take on this role, and they freed me up to meet with students about other issues like story, pacing, etc.

The Take-Away

After completing the project, I asked my students to reflect on the process they went through in creating their commercials.  I asked them what they learned, what was difficult, what was surprising, and what they enjoyed.  In reading their reflections, I noticed four themes emerge from their comments:  planning, teamwork, tech skills, and ideas about gender stereotypes.

Here is what they had to say:


I learned how can we make a plan what can we do, what do we need to do to set up things to be able to make a commercial. What would our message be and it really needs to be clear, so on….If I’m making another commercial, any type of commercial, as long as I have the topic, I can do it because the plan is there.   -Chi

I learnt that we should think deep and careful in something so we will have a good result. Because after 10 times thinking about the script, we have the best one.  -Andrew

I experience the hard work a person can put just to make a video editing all the planning they need to do, how must all spend a lot of times to do this. And it is not that easy to do like everyone thought, doing 1 minutes video need a lot of effort to be a good one.  -Ben

I also experience the true power of planning, this is the reason why everything must be planned before you work. If you not planning, the structure can easily be change and soon enough everything we start to messed up causing your project to lack of organization making it hard to keep track of what you suppose to do.  -Sarah

Things were going as expected, we thought that the storyboard was great, it completely show strong emotion and gender stereotypes. But that one thing that broke our heart while working on this project was that our plan of perfectly completed storyboard broke. The story line was suggested that it wasn’t connect as a whole, the fighting scene we thought that was perfect doesn’t really relate with the flow of the video.


I enjoy filming the most because there were scenes that was really humorous and we can’t stop laughing, it was the part that we get along and compliment each other the most so i really like that part, filming.  – Chi

I learned we should be getting along to every teammate that we have in the group. Don’t be like, eww, i don’t like him and i don’t want to work with him. But think, you’re not better than anybody, don’t always pick the all star team, adapt to every situation and even if you’re good, help each other out.  – Tina N.

I have learnt that with teamwork things are so much easier to get done. Together in a team, we achieved most of our goals and came up with amazing ideas that I can’t think of on my own. I’ve learnt that teamwork divides our tasks and multiplies our accomplishments. I’ve learnt that we can do so much more if the people in our group cooperates and work together instead of each person doing different parts of their own.   -May

Things did not go as expected. Tina H and I were not very close before this project. But when I came to her house to try and work with her, we had fun. I never knew that we could actually bond and doing something well together for once in a lifetime.  – Bethany

Tech Skills

I knew how to edit on iMovie and Movie Maker. I got confused at first with all this different buttons and pictures and graphics, but after a while, I knew how things work out and I can use most of it now without help. I also learned how to film correctly without shaking my hands. The trick is to hold still and when you move, try to keep your hands steady.  – Bethany

This was the first time I edit a video so it made me feel a bit discouraged. I had to go online and find how to edit the video good enough, and that wasted much time.  But after I finished with the editing, I felt proud of myself.  – Suzy

I experience the ability of how a video is filmed can affect a video greatly. The way how a video is film completely stable, how the angle the video is filmed, can make a bad video into a good video. – Jason

I felt like I learn a lot of video editing in this project. Working with this make me understand more about filming industry and how much effort and how hard is it to make that perfect commercial. – Timmy

Gender Stereotypes

The aspect of the project I enjoyed the least was wearing pink shirt and acting girly. I didn’t like the pink color and acting girly made me feel so different. I feel that’s what I don’t do in my daily life. In my daily life, I like to play action figures, lego and sport, not wearing pink shirt and playing dolls. However, it’s still not a bad experience. Somehow it was kind of fun to be a little different.  – Peter D.

I learned that Gender stereotypes stimulate us into buying the product and making us think that we are ugly and bad looking so that we buy the product to look better.  -Timmy

It’s important to talk about ads to understand that things on the ads are not reflect our real life so that we know we shouldn’t try to achieve something that’s not realistic and then judge other people based on what we understand about gender.  – Peter P.

Gender stereotypes in ads affect us a lot.  It can change the way that people think men or woman should be.  For example, you are a girl but you have a passion in building things.  One day, you saw an ad indirectly that says girls should care about beauty and appearance, but not building things.  From that day, you might quit your passion and care about your appearance just because you don’t want people to think you are a tomboy.   -Cindy

It makes the world being limited. Boys can only have these choices when growing up.  They can do business or building, other things are not acceptable.  For girls too, they can only grow up to be a housewife, or do jobs about cooking or fashion.  But what if a guy likes fashion?  He wants it, but its not like what the ads show.  If you do it then we will tease you.  That’s how its so affected to us, by limiting hobbies, interests and ambitions.  -Chi

Forgive me for including so many of their comments, but I’m really proud of the work they did and what they took away from the experience.   They proved that talking about advertising in the classroom- something that many people may view simply as pop culture or “fluff”- can actually have meaningful consequences for student learning.


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Kids Around the World Weigh in on Gender and Advertising

For my course 5 final project, I studied the effects of gender stereotypes in advertising with my students.  Over the course of the unit, we talked in depth about how advertisements do more than just sell products- they send resounding messages about gender roles in society.  However, merely pointing out that ads represent males and females in different ways was not enough; I wanted my students to understand that these messages have a powerful affect on how we come to view males and females in the real world.

I thought it would be important to reach beyond the walls of our classroom, or even our own community, to find out how people around the world view gender and advertising in order to understand how these concepts might be related.  So, I created a survey using Google Forms that my students and I shared through a variety of social media platforms.  This post details what we found.

First, the numbers in general:  326 people completed our survey-  206 women, 117 men, and 3 who checked the gender category “other.”  The largest group of respondents was middle school students (58%), followed by high school students (20%), adults (19%) and elementary school students (3%).


Here is what they had to say:

While models of both gender are largely unreflective of the people we see in the real world, female models are viewed as being slightly more unrealistic than males.  However, despite this, females are far more likely than males to compare themselves to the the models they see in advertisements.

Unsurprisingly, women and girls who compare themselves to unrealistic images of females report that these images make them feel bad about themselves.  Ten percent of women checked “often” in response to the prompt, “An ad has made me feel that I would like myself more, or that others would like me more, if I could change my appearance with the product the ad was selling,” compared with only 3 percent of men.

Ads affect all of us, but more females than males reported that an ad has made them feel like people would like them more, or that they would like themselves more, if they owned a particular item.  I find this unsurprising. “Retail therapy” – i.e. easing one’s mind through shopping-  is a common and particularly female pastime in America.  Movies and TV shows featuring girls and women on gleeful shopping sprees help to send this message as well.


Out of curiosity, I included some open-ended questions about gender at the end of the survey. I created four paragraph boxes for people to record their responses to the prompts, “women/men/boys/girls should…”  My students and I discussed in class how gender expectations are not necessarily the same across cultures.  I wanted to see what kinds of answers people from all over the world would come up with.  The word clouds below were created from their responses.


Women should…


Wordle Men

Men should…


Wordle Girls

Girls should…

Wordle Boys

Boys should…

In looking at the clouds, it’s interesting to consider the five largest words in each one. These are the words that appeared most frequently in people’s answers.  The top five words for each cloud (minus “like,” which was one of the largest words in all four clouds) are as follows:

Women – care, look, men, want, take  

Men – women, work, strong, family, respect

Girls – stop, look, good, want, people

Boys – girls, play, look, sports, respect

It’s important to remember that the clouds don’t indicate whether the words are used negatively or positively.  For example, the phrases “girls should care about their looks” and “girls should not care about their looks” will both register the words “care” and “looks” on the chart.  However, even negative mentions are important because they show the association of ideas with a certain gender.  In other words, why bother pointing out that girls shouldn’t care about their looks if you don’t believe that most girls either do so, or are under pressure to do so by society.

Another interesting thing to look for is unique words, or words that appear only in one cloud, and not in another:

Unique Words – Women vs. Men

Women:  treated, beautiful, appearance, worry, self, ads, independent, chores, shopping

Men:  treat, brave, protect, objectify, leader

Unique Words – Girls vs. Boys

Girls:  appearance, beautiful, clothes, make-up, study, learn, perfect

Boys:  mature, active, games, cool, strong, handsome

What’s striking to me is how much more important one’s appearance is for women and girls than it is for men and boys.  Whereas words relating to men’s looks are mostly absent, words like “appearance”, “beautiful”, “confident”, “worry”, “ads”, “models”, “compare” and “self” point to the importance that is placed on a woman’s looks- either by asserting that women should be beautiful or by exhorting women not to compare themselves to the models in ads (which, judging by the survey results, they do frequently).  Similarly, the girls cloud not only includes the word “appearance,” but mentions several different aspects of it, including “fashion”, “make-up”, “clothes”, “beauty”, and “hair, whereas the boys cloud contains only the single word “handsome” in reference to looks.

It’s telling that the word “confident” makes a prominent appearance in the female clouds but not the male.  In a society where women are frequently judged by their looks while held to impossibly high standards of beauty, it makes sense that people would urge women and girls to be confident.  Men, who aren’t held to these same standards (as we can see from the fact that the majority of them report “never or rarely” comparing themselves to models in ads) don’t need to be told they “should” be confident when many of them already are.

An even closer look at the charts reflects a very real power differential between men and women in our society.  The men and boys clouds both prominently feature the words “respect”, “women” and “girls”, whereas their counterparts on the female charts (respect, boys and men) appear in very small letters.  In thinking about what males and females “should” do, it makes sense that those who wield the power in a society be respectful of those who are comparatively powerless.  This idea is further underscored in that men “treat” while women are “treated.”  These words make clear who has the agency in a patriarchal society.

To see individual responses, click the icons on the map below.

While the survey doesn’t tell us a lot about how ads influence males, I think it shows a clear correlation between ads that emphasize females’ looks, and a societal belief in the importance of a woman’s appearance.  While it’s impossible for anyone- myself included- not to be influenced by the media environment in which we live, my hope is that my students will at least stop and think before they judge themselves or others for not living up to an airbrushed image of unattainable perfection.


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What’s the Big Deal? Students’ Reactions to Ads Show Impact of Gender Stereotypes

So, what’s the big deal about gender stereotypes?  In my last post, I wrote about the differences in advertisements that market toys to boys and girls, and how they send stereotyped messages about how boys and girls play.  In addressing this issue, two toy companies have recently taken very different approaches to subverting gender stereotypes.  I showed both of the ads to my students and asked for their reactions.  What they had to say was illuminating, and gives clear evidence of the power of stereotypes to shape our perceptions of males and females in the world.

Two toy companies break the mold


Swedish toy company Top Toy aims to avoid sexism in its ads by swapping gender roles; in it’s 2012 catalogue, a boy is shown nursing a baby doll while a girl grips a blue Nerf gun, coldly eyeing an imaginary target.  This line of marketing is not surprising considering that Sweden has long fought for a culture of gender neutrality and has actual laws against what it perceives as sexist advertising.  While it might surprise some Americans, speaking of “cars for boys, and princesses for girls,” falls squarely under this category, as Top Toy discovered when it received criticism from a regulatory group for producing a television commercial featuring these words.  The new catalogue came as a result of “training and guidance” the company received from regulatory experts in the wake of its offensive ads.  “With the new way of thinking about gender there is nothing that is right or wrong. A toy is not a boy or girl thing; it’s a toy for children,” said Jan Nyberg, sales director at Top Toy.


Using a different approach, GoldieBlox, an American toy company, ditches the dolls altogether in favor of a toy that encourages girls to get creative and build things.

The CEO, Debbie Sterling, studied engineering at Stanford, where she was dismayed by the lack of women in her program…As the GoldieBlox website attests, only 11 percent of the world’s engineers are female. Sterling wants to light girls’ inventive spark early, supplementing the usual diet of glittery princess products with construction toys “from a female perspective.”  – Slate

The toy she created is a “spinning machine,” and in the ad three girls – bored and utterly unimpressed by the glittery princesses they see flouncing on TV, use it to build an awesome Rube Goldberg machine (think of a huge version of the board game Mousetrap, if you’re of a certain age).  In building the machine, they use an assortment of household items and girly toys (including a baby doll and a tea set) whose intended uses clearly hold no interest.

As if the image of the girls creating this incredible machine isn’t enough, the ad is set to a repurposed Beastie Boys song (can you guess which one?) that drives home the message.  Here are just a few lines of the song:

You think you know what we want – girls!

Pink and pretty it’s girls!

Just like the Fifties it’s girls!

You like to buy us pink toys!

And everything else is for boys!

 Unfortunately, I think GoldieBlox must have run into some copyright issues with the song because the none of the current videos on YouTube have it.  Instead, they all play an instrumental song in the background, which seriously detracts from the overall awesomeness of the commercial.  Luckily, I know one place it still exists- to see the original ad, click here.

Students react

 I recently showed my 7th grade students both of these ads and asked for their reactions.  What they had to say speaks directly to the problem with gender stereotypes, and addresses one of feminism’s central questions:  are males and females the same, or are we different?  Is gender completely a “social construct” as some believe, or are there aspects of our gender that are rooted in biology?  Are we born as blank slates, or are there fundamental, biological differences between the ways that boys and girls think and behave?  Whereas Top Toy seems to insist that there’s no difference between boys and girls (a toy is a toy, they say), GoldieBlox seeks to celebrate girlhood while at the same time expanding upon current notions about what’s acceptable for girls.

As I pointed out in my last post on gender in advertising, the problem with kids’ toys today is not that different toys are marketed specifically to boys or to girls, but that, even when they’re sold the same toy, different skills are emphasized in each.  For example, Lego commercials aimed at boys emphasize the building of the set as one of the key aspects to enjoying the toy, while for girls the sets seem to magically appear, the fun centering instead on the role play that happens only after the set has been constructed.

These messages- about what boys and girls can do, and about how boys and girls should play- are absorbed by kids.  Nowhere was this more apparent than in my students’ reaction to the GoldieBlox ad.

 Many were shocked and inspired to see girls using their brains in play:

It’s much smarter than playing with dolls.  – Cindy

This toy, you must have smart to play it, and Barbie you just sit there and playing it.  – David

 I think Goldieblox is more effective [than the Top Toy ad] because it show girl can build stuff and they can use their brain like boy.  – Lucy

I feel shocked and happy…I would want to play with the toy because I’m tired of pink princesses but I want to use my brain when playing with toys. – Chi

I can’t believe my eyes because I see very rarely girls that wants to be engineer.  But these girls in commercials were totally smart, and I am surprised that girls like doing those things. – Jason

I feel surprised by seeing girls doing that kind of engineering.   -Gabriel

It’s very different from [other commercials, which show] that girls should like pink and care more about beauty.  But the ad I’ve just watched says that girls should be more adventurous, not caring too much about beauty like everyone advice them to, just simply follow their dreams which is to build up things. – Suzy

 My reaction when I watch this ad is I feel really impressive and fun about this ad.  This toys are really cool for girls, girls like us would try something new, it also help us to improve our IQ.  I want to play with this toy.  It’s really fun and cool. – Sarah

Others were confused by seeing girls engage in this type of play, and described the ad as showing girls playing with a boys’ toy:

It shows girls playing with boy stuff like technology. – Lucy

 Girls do things boys should…girls are playing with boys toys.  – Gabriel

This product is for both boys and girls. – Andrew

However, most picked up on the fact that this toy is unabashedly for girls.  This succeeded in turning several boys off of a toy that they conceded looks pretty cool otherwise, while inspiring girls to see that “girly” and “smart” aren’t mutually exclusive.

From the boys:

I feel pretty awkward, strange, pretty confused.  It actually make me feel a little bit curious because I wonder what it is, how do we play.  I don’t want to play this because it is for girls.  – Michael

I like the creative idea, it is good that finally some toy commercial show that.  I still don’t like it because it’s still pink. – Jack

I still don’t like pink, and this toy is full of pink. – Peter

 From the girls:

 [The GoldieBlox ad] combines two types of toys to make a creative activity for girls.  When girls play it [they] can be both girly and active. – Sarah

After watching the ads, I was very impressed by the toy company’s creation.  I think the toys are very cool.  Even though they are equipments for engineers, they still don’t lose the girly in them, because they have pink.  If I have this toy, I’ll play with it because I want to try something new like building things.  It can even increase my IQ. – Suzy

It encouraging girls that they can do a boy’s job even though you’re a girl because it shows that girls can be who they want, and there are girls that like engineering.  Not every girl likes taking care of dolls.  -May

Almost universally, the students’ reaction to the Goldieblox ad was much more positive than to the Top Toy ads.  Their negative response to the Swedish ads echoed this writer’s view that doing away with gender can be just as oppressive as rigid conformity.  While the GoldieBlox ad celebrates being a girl and works to expand our views of what girls are capable of, the Top Toy ads- which seem to insist that gender is something to be tamped out or done away with- seem unnatural.  Sure, some boys enjoy playing with dolls, but most?  The idea struck many of my students as bizarre.

I think GoldieBlox is more effective, because you can’t just directly struck kids mind.  They already had in mind about the gender stereotypes, they would reject [the ads] right away.  But the GoldieBlox was really smart by sending the message…that not only boys are creative.  – Tina

After looking at these ads I feel freaking of what those toy companies have done.  Well, boys and girls could play with each other but the toy must include characteristics of both boys and girls.  Dolls and guns?  One is too girly and the other one is too manly.  -Suzy

I feel very surprised and ashamed at looking at boys playing with dolls.  If I was younger I would not play with dolls because I would look different and I did not like to play with girls’ toys. – Gabriel

Teaching students about gender stereotypes walks a fine line- on the one hand, there are very real differences between the ways that girls and boys engage with the world.  Studies have shown that across cultures, boys play with toys meant to represent weapons and girls play with toys that represent cooking and parenting.   On the other hand, problems arise when these are the only options that are presented to kids as means of play.  I want my students to know that there is nothing wrong with playing with pretty pink princesses, as long as they can choose to build castles as well.

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Why Ads Matter

It’s no shocker to state that advertising is everywhere.  In 2007, the New York Times reported that the average person living in a city is exposed to 5,000 ads per day.  With the rise of internet use and the increased sophistication of marketers – targeted ads popping up in our email and Facebook streams is now commonplace- this number has surely increased since then.  

kids food adIt’s also true that children are a primary target of advertising; in 2006 companies spent $15 billion on marketing to children under 12- twice the amount they spent 10 years prior.  In addition to spending billions of dollars, marketers are becoming sneakier in advertising to children; by creating games and other social media apps that market products and encouraging kids to share, they are turning kids themselves into mini-marketers.

But its not just billboards, internet and TV where kids are exposed to ads.  In America, financially struggling schools are “increasing the volume of advertising that children see in the halls, at football games and even on their report cards.”  Yes, you read that right- ads are showing up on kids’ report cards.

The impact of all of this marketing to kids is enormous.  Research shows that children’s exposure to television advertising for non-nutritious food products- the majority of ads targeting kids- is a significant risk factor contributing to childhood obesity.  The effect of exposing ads to kids is so powerful, in fact,  that the brands we come to love as kids remain positive well into our adult lives.

This is largely because young kids aren’t mentally capable of recognizing the persuasive intent of advertising, and tend to accept it as accurate and unbiased.  Studies have shown that children don’t develop the ability to discern commercial from non-commercial material until ages 8-11.  Because advertising to children is qualitatively different from advertising to adults, some countries have gone to great lengths to protect the minds of their young; in the UK, Greece and Denmark advertising to children under 12 is severely restricted, and in Quebec, Sweden and Norway it’s illegal.

In the face of all this, I talk about advertising with my my middle school students because I want to give them the tools they need to critically engage with today’s complex media environment, rather than simply consume it.

Gender stereotypes in advertising

You can tell the ideals of a nation by its advertisements.  – Norman Douglas

Ads do more than sell products – they, like all mass media, communicate cultural ideas about lifestyles and self-image that instill attitudes and beliefs in a mass audience.  These ideas often present an idealized version of reality that invites consumers to believe that the life they aspire to- the life represented in the ad- can be achieved through purchasing the product.  These messages are powerful, and often aimed at a particular gender.  In the divide-and-conquer world of advertising, narrowing the target audience to focus on men or women (even when it makes no sense) helps sponsors sell their messages more effectively.  (And as  I’ll discuss below, nowhere is this done more blatantly than in toy ads.)

The problem is that the messages commercials send about men and women (as well as girls and boys) are cloaked in gender stereotypes.  They portray narrow, idealized versions of what men and women “should” be, rather than reflect the rich diversity of actual human experience.


photo (2)

A collage created by my students, made of magazine advertisements they collected aimed at men and women.  

Almost universally, the women in the ads are beautiful, slender and light skinned (light-skinned women are especially prevalent in Asian ads) while the men are muscular and handsome.  The women are portrayed in static poses, often with their faces featured prominently (as is customary in make-up ads), while the men are more often shown doing active and adventurous activities, like playing sports or driving a motorcycle.

tiffany adWhen we see these types of images of men and women depicted over and over again, literally thousands of times a day, every day, we can’t help but be affected by them.  These ads sell products by cultivating feelings of desire, which consumers come to equate with the brand.  Advertising is the main reason that luxury brands are exponentially more desirable- and thus more expensive- than other middling brands, even when the quality of their products aren’t so different.  The messages these brands send through their ads about money, lifestyle and beauty play a large part in imbuing their products with this conferred value.

However, by regularly depicting an idealized version of beauty that is literally impossible to achieve, ads also instill feelings of inadequacy in the viewer, fueling the desire to improve oneself through consumerism.  This narrow, unrealistic and standardized portrayal in the media of what counts as beautiful is highly problematic.  It’s what feeds the multi-billion dollar industry of beauty products, and what caused the beautiful and talented Lupita Nyong’o, now an Oscar-winning actress, to pray as a child each night to wake up in the morning lighter skinned.   For a more in depth analysis of the deleterious effects of gender stereotypes in advertising, check out Jean Kilbourne’s excellent documentary series Killing Us Softly:  Advertising’s Image of Women.

The retrograde world of toy ads



Word clouds depicting vocabulary in toy ads reinforces gender stereotypes, courtesy of Crystal Smith

However, if you think the gender stereotypes in magazine ads are bad, take a look toy ads aimed at children.  While there has been some pushback recently against gender stereotypes in ads aimed at adults- see Dove’s controversial Campaign for Real Beauty, for example- ads for toys have only gotten worse.  In fact, today’s toy ads are more steeped in gender segregation and stereotyping than they were 30 years ago.

We’ve made great strides toward gender equity over the past 50 years, but the world of toys looks a lot more like 1952 than 2012.  – New York Times

This issue was highlighted recently by the group Let Toys Be Toys, which released this photo comparison of toys from the Seventies and from today.

toys comparison

Since the Seventies, toys have become more segregated by color, clearly delineating them as being intended for a particular gender.  Visit any toy store and you’ll find an overwhelming tide of pink in the girls’ section and a variety of darker, “masculine” colors in the boys’.


Image courtesy of Rachel and Ellen at

In addition to being segregated by color, the toys for boys and girls also differ in function, with toys for boys encouraging activity and adventure (and, increasingly, violence) and toys for girls emphasizing beauty, domesticity, and nurturing.

This is why, in 2012, when Lego- a company that makes building sets which encourage creativity and construction and which, over the years, has placed more and more emphasis on marketing exclusively to boys- announced that they were going to create a line of sets aimed at girls, people were excited.  Finally, a toy that has been proven to help develop spatial skills, motor skills, and creative divergent thinking- for girls!  The resulting Lego Friends series, however, was less than impressive.

Compare it with this ad, geared towards boys:

Both ads depict an imaginary Lego world that invites kids engage in creative role play scenarios, but the worlds themselves are vastly different.  The girls inhabit a place called Heartlake City, where 5 friends regularly meet up to do baking, cooking, hairstyling, decorating, and caring for pets.  (Sound familiar?)  The boys’ sets, on the other hand, feature a wide variety of earthly and intergalactic settings where they perform heroic feats such as fending off “evil space bugs” and fighting “cosmic crime.” (Which, admittedly, being centered on violence and competition, have their own issues.)

In addition to the deeply stereotyped roles that kids are encouraged to enact when playing with the sets, the language in the commercials is also problematic.  While boys are repeatedly told, “you can build X!” the act of building the set is almost completely ignored in the Lego Friends commercial.  In the ads aimed at girls, the sets are treated as if they magically appear out of nowhere, focusing instead on the roleplaying that ensues after the sets have already been created.

Feminist Frequency, a video webseries that critically explores the representations of women in pop culture, created a fantastic two-part series explaining the history of the Lego brand, their marketing strategies, and the implications and complications inherent in Lego Friends.  They are definitely worth checking out if you have a spare 20 minutes.

For more examples of over-the-top gender stereotypes in toy ads, check out this collection of youtube videos, curated by the site   This website highlights the absurdity of the way toy ads portray gender by allowing users to take the audio from one advertisement (say, Battleship) and lay it over the video of another toy advertisement (say, My Little Pony).  The results are are pretty hilarious, and got big laughs from my students.  This collection of ads has been really helpful in introducing them to the concept of gender stereotypes.  As is demonstrated by the collages they created from magazine ads, stereotypes are the type of thing that remain invisible until viewed as a collection.  While one ad showing boys battling evil doers and shooting rockets from here to oblivion may not seem worth noting,  when viewed en masse, ads reveal patterns that speak volumes about the ways we view gender in our society.   

For my course 5 final project, I will work with my students to first notice the extraordinary number of ads they are exposed to on a daily basis, and then to examine the gender stereotypes they portray, question their purpose and validity, and consider their impact.  My two overarching goals with this project are to encourage my students to recognize how ads work to persuade and to change the nature of their awareness about gender roles.

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Tips for Teaching Media Literacy

Why teach media literacy?

This quarter, I’m teaching media literacy units to both my 7th and 8th grade classes.  The 7th graders are exploring gender stereotypes in advertising, and the 8th graders are analyzing bias in the news.  Why?  I’m not the first, nor will I be the last, to note that digital media is becoming an increasingly important part of our culture, and central to the way that we communicate.  Yet, as filmmaker George Lucas points out in the clip below, many of us are still teaching literacy solely in relation to the written word and in doing so, ignoring the rich and complex grammatical rules- i.e. color, perspective, camera angles, etc.- that govern other, digital forms of communication.   These rules are one important facet of media literacy, a topic of study meant to give students the tools to “think critically about, and express themselves through, the media they are immersed in every day.”

Media literacy teaches people how to think. Like any type of media, we can’t take what we see as an automatic truth. We need media literacy skills to understand and decode media messages.  Media Literacy Project 

What is media literacy?

Media literacy is considered a subset of 21st century skills.  As depicted in the infographic below, overlying a foundational understanding of core subjects and 21st century themes (like global awareness and civic literacy) lie the skills that students need to develop in order to be true digital citizens.  These skills encompass media and tech literacy skills, as well as creativity, collaboration, adaptability and responsibility.  For an in-depth explanation of each section, visit Route 21’s P21 Framework.

As with traditional notions of literacy, media literacy involves both reading (analyzing) and writing (creating).   P21 breaks down both facets of media literacy this way:

Analyze Media

    • Understand both how and why media messages are constructed, and for what purposes
    • Examine how individuals interpret messages differently, how values and points of view are included or excluded, and how media can influence beliefs and behaviors
    • Apply a fundamental understanding of the ethical/legal issues surrounding the access and use of media

Create Media Products

    • Understand and utilize the most appropriate media creation tools, characteristics and conventions
    • Understand and effectively utilized the most appropriate expressions and interpretations in diverse, multicultural environments

Tips for Teaching Media Literacy

5 Media Principles

In thinking critically about media, it’s important for students to realize that all media share certain principles, no matter what form they take.  In my class, these underlying principles form the foundation for analyzing any media, from advertisements to newspaper articles.

The five principles are:

  1. Messages are constructions
  2. Messages have embedded values and a point of view
  3. Messages have purposes
  4. Different people respond differently to media messages
  5. Messages use unique elements to communicate

Below is a slideshow I created to introduce these principles to my students:

 5 Key Questions

“At the heart of media literacy is the principle of inquiry.”                                                        – Elizabeth Thoman, Skills & Strategies for Media Literacy

Teaching media literacy involves encouraging students to critically examine the myriad of messages they encounter every day, rather than accepting them at face value.  Because the 5 principles of media can be a bit daunting, especially for younger students, using questions is a powerful way of encouraging students to grapple with these concepts.  Regularly encouraging students to ask these questions about a variety of media texts also helps them to build a habit of critical reflection when confronted with these texts in their daily lives.  

Here are 5 key questions to ask when viewing media:

  1. Who created the message?
  2. What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?
  3. How might different people understand this message differently?
  4. What lifestyles, values and points of view are represented in, left out of, this message?
  5. Why is this message being sent?

Recently when discussing these questions with my 7th grade students, I asked them to think about the ad below, which I selected due the fact it contains few words.  Contrary to traditional printed text, the messages we receive through digital media are structurally complex, often mixing and layering sounds and images over words, sometimes omitting words completely.  It’s important to teach students that images can send messages just as powerfully as words can, sometimes even more so- since our brains process images so much faster than words,  their messages often slip deftly underneath our conscious radars, quietly lodging in our brains without our being fully aware of them.

One of the messages that my students took from the ad is that Beyonce uses True Star perfume.  Some went so far as to say that it’s her favorite perfume (judging by her big smile).  After some discussion around the 5 key questions, however, they determined that Beyonce is in fact a paid spokesperson for the fragrance and that we have no evidence of whether or not she actually uses it.  Upon reflection, it seems like an obvious conclusion, but that’s the point- students don’t often reflect on the messages they receive from the images that surround them every day.

 Media Literacy and the Common Core State Standards

While the Common Core State Standards do have some specific references to media, I think the strongest push for teaching media literacy can be found on page four of the CCSS-ELA Standards pdf, in which a “key design consideration” calls for research and media skills to be blended into the Standards as a whole:

To be ready for college, workforce training, and life in a technological society, students need the ability to gather, comprehend, evaluate, synthesize, and report on information and ideas, to conduct original research in order to answer questions or solve problems, and to analyze and create a high volume and extensive range of print and non-print texts in media forms old and new. The need to conduct research and to produce and consume media is embedded into every aspect of today’s curriculum. In like fashion, research and media skills and understandings are embedded throughout the Standards rather than treated in a separate section.

Although I’m currently teaching specific media literacy units with both of my classes, the discussion of media in my classroom does not begin and end with these units.  Rather, I weave media literacy lessons into my teaching throughout the year, often using the 5 key questions as a jumping off point.  Since media literacy is about creation as much as it is analysis, allowing students the opportunity to create projects using a variety of media tools – such as digital book trailers  as part of our short stories unit, or podcasts as part of our memoir unit- builds media literacy skills as well.

As a side note, for a comprehensive list of standards for 21st century learning, check out the American Association of School Librarians’ Standards for the 21st Century Learner.  Not only is it one of the best lists of these standards I’ve seen, but the document itself is beautifully laid out.  It breaks down targeted skills into four broad categories:

  1. Inquire, think critically and gain knowledge
  2. Draw conclusions, make informed decisions, apply knowledge to new situations, and create new knowledge
  3. Share knowledge and participate ethically and productively as members of our democratic society
  4. Pursue personal and aesthetic growth

Because they relate to 21st century learning as a whole the categories are broad, but I think it’s clear to see how they relate to media literacy.

Media Literacy Resources

National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE):

Media Literacy Project:

Media Smarts:

Common Sense Media:

Center for Media Literacy:

The CML MediaLit Kit™:

“Media Smarts: From Consumers to Critics and Creators”:

Media Literacy Clearinghouse:

The Story of Movies:

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MOOCs, Moonshots, and the Future of Education

One of the newest trends in higher education, capitalizing on the democratizing properties of the Internet, is the MOOC, or Massive Online Open Courses.  MOOCs began in 2011 as free online courses taught, through a combination of video lectures, online discussion forums, and individual assignments, by leading professors at prestigious universities.  One of the first creators of the MOOC was Sebastian Thrun, a celebrated professor at Stanford who dreamed about reaching beyond the lecture hall to educate- for free- students all over the globe.  With this vision in mind, he sat down in his living room with a camera one day to record a lecture on Artificial Intelligence for whoever wanted to hear it.  He posted it to the web, and seed of MOOCs was sowed.

According to Max Chafkin, who wrote a lengthy profile of Thrun for Fast Company magazine, some 160,000 people from ages 10-70 signed up for that first class, and many did well.  These students were receiving the same lectures, readings and homework assignments as the students at Stanford, minus the $52,000 per year tuition.  After this initial success, Thrun had no problem rounding up investors in his project, and Udacity, the first free, online high-quality education was born.  Soon prestigious universities all across America, from Harvard to Berkeley to MIT- were offering their own MOOCs as well.  Millions of people signed up to learn just about everything- including history to biology to design.

Suddenly, something that had been unthinkable–that the Internet might put a free, Ivy League–caliber education within reach of the world’s poor—seem[ed] tantalizingly close. “Imagine,” an investor in [Thrun’s] company [said], “you can hand a kid in Africa a tablet and give him Harvard on a piece of glass!” …A New York Times headline declare[d] 2012 the “Year of the MOOC.” “Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty,” its star columnist Thomas Friedman enthuse[d], terming the new category “a budding revolution in global online higher education.”

It looked like the ivory tower was crumbling and high-quality higher education was on its way to becoming affordable and accessible to people all over the world.  However, now that the dust is settling after the initial storm of interest, a look at the data indicates that MOOCs are not quite the torch bringing education to the masses that they were first imagined to be.  According to Udacity’s data after one year, out of the hundreds of thousands who enrolled,

the shockingly low number of students who actually finish[ed] the classes…[was] fewer than 10%. Not all of those people received a passing grade, either, meaning that for every 100 pupils who enrolled in a free course, something like five actually learned the topic.

To make matters worse, it turned out that the vast majority of people who signed up for MOOCs already held Bachelor’s degrees.  So much for bringing education to the global poor.

“But for Thrun, who had been wrestling over who Udacity’s ideal students should be, the results were not a failure; they were clarifying.”  Thrun realized that he needed adapt his company to fit his target audience, and that “students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges to their lives,” were not it.  So, he changed his model.

Starting with Google (where Thrun is currently employed), Udacity recruited over a dozen companies to team up with in designing courses that prepare graduates for skills they’ll need in the workforce.  The companies pay to produce the classes and pledge to accept the certificates awarded by Udacity for the purposes of employment.  The courses are still offered in conjunction with participating universities, which award students with university credits upon course completion.  Only now, rather than being offered for free, they cost about a third of what an in-state student would pay for a traditional degree.

Thrun, ever a master of academic branding, terms this sponsored-course model the Open Education Alliance and says it is both the future of Udacity and, more generally, college education. “At the end of the day, the true value proposition of education is employment,” Thrun says, sounding more CEO than professor. “If you focus on the single question of who knows best what students need in the workforce, it’s the people already in the workforce. Why not give industry a voice?”

So, are MOOCs dead?  Or at least doomed?  If we think about Udacity as being a revolutionary democratizing force for education, it looks like it was pretty much a failure.  Not only are its courses no longer free (although they are much more affordable than traditional university courses), but it has narrowed its view of education to a sort of training program for industry.  Even Chafkin can’t contain his disappointment at this turn of events:

Still, I couldn’t help but feel as if Thrun’s revised vision for Udacity was quite a comedown from the educational Wonderland he had talked about when he launched the company. Learning, after all, is about more than some concrete set of vocational skills. It is about thinking critically and asking questions, about finding ways to see the world from different points of view rather than one’s own. These, I point out, are not skills easily acquired by YouTube video.

True, a YouTube video in of itself is not going to revolutionize education, or inspire critical thinking or problem solving or encourage collaboration, all of which are key components of a meaningful education. So where does that leave us in thinking about the future of education?  Do MOOCs have a role to play?

Some argue that MOOCs, rather than challenging traditional brick and mortar institutions, augment students’ experience at universities with high “value proposition,” pointing out that “students [at those schools] have actually been using [the] library more, not less, since technologies like MOOCs have become available.”  At these schools, online lectures and activities are being used to flip the classroom experience, sending students to watch lectures on their own time and reserving class time for more active learning experiences such as group discussion and inquiry-based collaboration.


Counterintuitive as it may seem, online instruction may mean even more students benefit from the collegial spirit, though one that looks quite different from the residential experience of today…[Take, for example], The Minerva Project, a start-up headquartered in San Francisco that aims to provide an affordable liberal arts education… Minerva anticipates that most of its students will be from outside the United States. To serve them, it will enlist operators to create mini-campuses around the globe where clusters of its students will live and socialize together in residence halls, as well as take online courses and work together on projects.

The people benefiting from MOOCs aren’t limited to those formally enrolled in colleges and universities.  I first heard about MOOCs from my mom, a teacher and avid quilter who has long dreamed of starting a small quilting business on the side.  She took a MOOC course in entrepreneurship and loved it.  In fact, a quick glance at the comments section of Chafkin’s piece tells a far different story from the article itself.  It turns out that lots of people love MOOCs, not because they hope to use the free courses to earn degrees, but exactly the opposite- they are, in essence, learning opportunities with no strings attached.  “MOOCs are great precisely because they don’t force you to do anything – you are free to choose whatever you want and learn it as throughout [sic] as you want.”

Moonshot Thinking

Now Thrun is working at Google, where he founded Google’s X lab, home to innovative ideas like the self-driving car and the Lune Project.  He’s also the man behind “moonshot thinking.”

Again voicing his dismay at the failure of MOOCs to realize their initial promise, Chafkin writes,

but building a company is different from building a research lab. It requires compromises, humility, and, crucially, taking in more money than you spend. And it’s why Thrun might be giving up the moon–free education for all! Harvard on a piece of glass!—in favor of something far more pedestrian…So much for his moonshot- educating millions of people around the globe.”

If this were all I had read about MOOCs, I might be lead to believe that Thrun’s idea was a failure.  As it turns out, however, moonshot thinkers know a thing or two about failure.  In fact, moonshot thinking is grounded in failure (as is any truly creative endeavor).  To call MOOCs a failure after their first iteration is naïve.  Even Thrun seems unperturbed by their lack of “success.”  He readily admits that MOOCs can’t offer students “’anything as rich and powerful as a traditional liberal-arts education would offer [them],’ and that Udacity’s current courses could only realistically augment- not replace- it.”

In other words, it’s like he set out to do one thing, and in the course of doing that thing- putting the plan in to action, monitoring progress, gathering data, reflecting, and then revising, he realized that what he initially set out to do is not the best idea and that MOOCs are actually better positioned to serve a somewhat different purpose.  Any teacher of experiential learning will tell you that this process is built into the foundation of their classroom.  Why should we expect real life to be any different?

Rather than being over, I would argue that Thrun’s moonshot has only just begun.  Moonshot thinking is never about more of the same.  Whether we’re using lectures and online quizzes to teach 200 people or 2 million people, we’re still operating within the same system.  Real moonshot thinking involves dismantling the system itself.

The Future of Education

I think we’re entering brand new era in education and the way we structure learning opportunities, and MOOCs are but a small part of this bigger revolution.  The idea that education is necessarily a one-size-fits-all situation is a thing of the past.  As technology allows for more personalized approaches to learning, it will necessarily become more learner-centered and less teacher-directed.  This will affect not only the learning and instruction happening in individual classrooms, but our very educational paths as technology provides us with more and more opportunities for self-directed learning, whether on our own or through collaborating with others from around the world.

So what does this mean for secondary teachers?

It means that we must teach our students about learning how to learn, and work to instill in them a desire for life-long learning.  In his video Teaching for Perplexity, Dan Meyers argues that in order to inspire wonder in students, we need to avoid teaching them answers and instead focus on posing irresistible questions about the world around them.  Then we need to empower them with the skills to discover the answers on their own.   Jeff Utrecht inspired his students (and thousands of other people, including adults) to become skilled at using Google Apps through gamifying the learning process with his Google Apps Ninja program.

No matter how we go about it, it’s important for educators to keep in mind that, since the world is changing so rapidly, we need to focus on teaching students the one skill that is never going to disappear, or change, or become less important.  And that is learning to learn.  One could argue that encouraging life-long learning has always been a goal of education, and I would agree.  Only now, as we know less and less about what our future looks like, it’s more important than ever.

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Technology Integration and the Paperless Classroom

For a while now I’ve dreamed of operating a paperless classroom.  In today’s digital world, it feels quaint somehow to still be collecting and passing back piles of paper every day that eventually become lost in the dark, inner reaches of middle school backpacks.

However, the reality of making this work turns out to be more difficult than I imagined.  First, the logistics:  I don’t work at a 1:1 school, which means most days (unless we head down to the computer lab) my students do not have access to computers in class.  Some are able to bring their own laptops and tablets to school, but not everyone.  This means that not all students who submit their work digitally have the ability to view that work in class the next day, which becomes problematic when I want students discuss their homework or review each other’s assignments.  (I’ve tried asking students to print their work and bring it with them to class, but this opens up a Pandora’s box of printer issues, and also misses the point of a paperless classroom.)

Diving In:  Experimenting with tools

Despite these setbacks, I forged ahead with my dream.  I don’t have students review every single homework assignment together in class, and for those to which I knew they wouldn’t need to refer the next day, I asked them to be submitted digitally.  (If you’re wondering whether this was at all confusing to my students- sometimes submitting work on paper and other times turning it in online- the answer is a resounding yes.  But, like I said- I forged ahead anyway.)

Google Docs

First, I followed the example of one of my colleagues and asked students to complete their work in a Google Doc and then share it with me.  He is super organized and had worked out a whole (in my mind, very complicated) system with his students for how they should they create, store and submit their work properly.  (This is important, because without a tight system in place it’s easy for your Google account to become rapidly buried in a mess of automatically generated submission notifications and cryptically named documents.)  I tried to follow his advice but, as with implementing any new system in the classroom, it required close monitoring and an immediate corrective response when students didn’t adhere to the guidelines.  This all proved a little much for me, since I struggle sometimes with being diligent about grading and timely feedback.


Next, I tried using Edmodo, a learning management system similar to Moodle.  This helped with sorting the work, but I found it annoying that I couldn’t comment directly on the assignments themselves, and was required instead to type my feedback into a separate comments box on the site. Not only would students miss out on seeing exactly which sentences or ideas my comments referred to (unless I specified, which takes time going back and forth to check and then explain), but grading actually took longer, since rather than writing my thoughts as they occurred to me, I’d read through an assignment completely, and then have to sit and recollect those thoughts (which often involved re-reading the assignment) before summarizing them in the comments box.

Rethinking the Goal:  What’s so good about a paperless classroom, anyway? 

I’ve responded to these frustrations (not least of which was the confusion generated around simply knowing how to submit which assignments) by reverting back to accepting student work on good ol’ fashioned paper which, in reality, suits just fine.  Overall though, the experience has lead me to examine the underlying reasons for my wanting to go paperless in the first place, and how this switch might (or might not) actually be beneficial.

What I discovered is that I didn’t really have a solid reason for wanting to go paperless beyond wanting to be environmentally friendly, enable students to store their work in a place it won’t get lost, and having vague sense that it’s simply how a 21st century classroom should be run.

However, when I considered my experiments with Google Docs and Edmodo in light of the SAMR model (see below), I realized that my lofty goal of operating a super modern “paperless” class was really not so revolutionary after all.  Asking students to submit their work online falls squarely within the realm of Substitution, which is why it was so easy to abandon these attempts when they didn’t work out.

Image the creation of Dr. Ruben Puentedura, Ph.D.

In order to truly revolutionize my classroom, I need to think bigger.  If I want to move up the SAMR ladder- from substitution to redefinition- It’s not the mode of submission that needs to change, but the assignments themselves.  When classes resume after the holidays, I’ve got two new strategies I’m going to try out:

G Class Folders

In a recent post I wrote about my plan to use G Class Folders to encourage learning through peer-to-peer feedback.  The difference between G Class Folders and regular Google Docs is that the folders are designed to automatically take care of organizing and sorting student work, making it easier to access and collaborate on documents.  For me, this is huge.  Beyond taking care of the basic goal of storing work, it means that- as long as I plan ahead and reserve time in the computer lab- I can begin to utilize the best part of Google Docs, moving up a step to Augmentation on the SAMR model.  Students will still complete assignments just as they would on paper, but they’ll be able to easily collaborate with and learn from multiple classmates at a time.

Class Wiki

For my Course 5 project, I’m going to try creating a class wiki for the first time.  I’ll be teaching a media literacy unit on advertising to 7th graders, and the wiki will serve as the central hub for ideas throughout the unit; it’ll be a place for students to post their work and reflections about their learning, collect commercials and print ads that exemplify various advertising techniques, and finally post their own filmed commercials- the final project for the unit.   Because the class wiki will serve as a public space for students to collaborate, interact with a variety of media, and share their projects, I’ll finally be moving into Transformative zone of the model, in which the technology allows for a significant redesign of tasks (i.e. creating and categorizing a collection of images and videos) and possibly even redefinition, as students post their work publicly and (hopefully!) garner a response from people outside the class.

Finding Peace through Compromise:  The importance of intentionality in tech integration

With these goals in mind, I’m ok (for now) with accepting student work on paper when suits the situation.  Technology tools can be wonderful, but not if we’re substituting tech simply for the sake of using the tool.  It’s important to remember to be thoughtful about when and how we choose to integrate technology, and remember that “the old fashioned” way of doing things isn’t necessarily a bad thing.   I know myself and I know that there is no way that I am going to be capable of operating a fully digital classroom anytime soon (particularly in my current school environment).  However, as long as I remember to be intentional about when and how I choose to integrate tools that enhance my students’ learning experience, I think that’s perfectly fine.



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5 Tips for Managing Computers in the Classroom

If there is anything I’ve learned at COETAIL so far, it’s 1) that technology in the classroom has an amazing capacity to revolutionize learning, and 2) that teaching with technology is not optional.  That being said, anyone who has used computers in the classroom knows that it can be quite frustrating when the tools malfunction or students don’t use them responsibly.

Several years ago, I was asked to pilot the new laptop program at my school in the States and my room became the storage site of one of two computer carts in the school. Hardly any other teachers ever requested to use the laptops, so I had free reign to use them pretty much whenever I wanted. I learned a lot about behavior management during those laptop cart days, and although I don’t work in a 1:1 environment now, those lessons serve me well any time my students and I take a trip to the computer lab.

Here are some highlights from my experience (for a more in-depth list of helpful tech-management tips, click here):

1.  Be positive!  These two words describe the heart of my management style, with or without technology.  Highlight the behaviors you want to see, and students will quickly catch on, eager to please.  With laptops, this means thanking students for listening with full attention, praising them for being on task, or congratulating someone for figuring out how to solve a problem.  I love the idea one teacher had to share screenshots of a student’s desktop when she sees they’ve organized their work in a particularly effective way.

2.  Circle the room.  This one’s another tip from the school of general management, but with technology in the room (and all of the possibilities for distraction and silent transgression that come with it), it’s especially important.  The teacher needs to be active so that students know they are being monitored at all times.  From the same list, I love the “Hands-up Pop Quiz” idea in which the teacher, at a random moment during the lesson, asks all students to freeze with their hands in the air.  He checks their screens to confirm that they’re on task, and all students who are doing what they should are rewarded with extra credit towards their quiz average.  (I like that this idea centers on rewarding students for being good, rather than punishing those who aren’t following directions.)

3.  Require that students pay full attention during critical parts of the lesson.  This is impossible for students to do with a visible screen in front of them.  (I’d ague that it’s impossible for almost anyone; for some reason our eyes are preternaturally drawn to screens.  In fact, it’s one of the reasons I dislike sports bars; I couldn’t care less about the game flickering silently in the corner, and yet I find every time I’m in one that I can barely tear my eyes away.)  Ask students to lower their screens anytime there’s something important they need to hear.

4.  Be sure students have access to explicit written instructions.  Especially if students are working through a multi-step task like setting up a blog or completing a webquest, they shouldn’t have to rely on listening to a complicated series of instructions in order navigate it successfully (nor should anyone- this is difficult for adults to do, too).  Simply stating, “Read the directions,” is a much more efficient way of answering “Wait, what website again?  What do I do next?” than explaining it fifty times over.

5.  With that being said, when students do have questions (and they always do!), they should be required to ask at least 2 classmates for help before the teacher.  Once you’ve distributed clear, written instructions to a class full of digital natives, there is really no reason whatsoever for students to assume that the teacher is the sole fountain of knowledge in the room.  Encouraging students to rely on each other for help empowers them take ownership of their learning, and- equally as important- it frees the teacher up to have meaningful conferences with students about their work.

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Teaching for Understanding with Technology


Teaching for Understanding

Teaching for Understanding is a pedagogical framework that was developed at Harvard University in the 1980’s, when educational researches noticed that students who performed very well on written assessment tests often failed to apply their new knowledge in novel situations.  They began questioning the very notion of what it means to “understand” content, and they soon realized that transfer, applying one’s knowledge successfully in a new and different context from the one in which it was acquired, lies at its core.

Understanding is being able to carry out a variety of actions or ‘performances’ that show one’s grasp of a topic and at the same time advance it… It is being able to take knowledge and use it in new ways.  -Perkins & Blythe 1998

Developed as a guide for teachers to facilitate students’ deep understanding of a topic, Teaching for Understanding can be applied in classrooms from elementary school through higher education.  It has four central components:

  1. Topics are authentic and interesting.  They connect to students’ lives and can be learned in a variety of ways.  They are central to the discipline, and build on previous topics.
  2. Overarching goals guide learning.  Students understand how topics and themes in a course hang together.  Learning is focused around driving questions with complex and discoverable answers.
  3. Students demonstrate understanding.  Learning activities both develop and demonstrate students’ understanding of the goals by requiring them to use what they know in new ways.
  4. Ongoing assessment drives instruction.  Regular assessments are used to give students feedback about their performances of understanding in order to improve them.

 Teaching for Understanding with Technology 

We’ve been talking a lot in COETAIL about how infusing technology into the curriculum is not an end goal in of itself, but that our focus as educators needs to be on how to seamlessly integrate technology in a way that supports larger educational goals.  If our goal is to get students to truly understand material through using and interacting with it in new contexts, technology not only supports this but opens up a wealth of possibilities for students to engage in deep thinking and demonstrate their learning

Topics are authentic and interesting.

Technology allows for us to expand beyond the walls of the classroom to tackle real-world problems and connect with others around the globe.  Students can investigate local issues about things that matter to them in their community.  In his talk “Teaching for Perplexity,” Dan Meyer does a wonderful job of explaining how he uses technology in his classroom to open up his students’ eyes to the wonder of their world and light the fires of inquiry that drive them to become explorers and problem-solvers in their own right.  With technology, classrooms become learner-centered, allowing for different learning styles, levels, and interests to flourish as teachers work alongside students on the path to understanding.

Students demonstrate their understanding.

In the digital age, students have a million tools to choose from when it comes to demonstrating what they’ve learned.  These tools allow for the creative expression of ideas beyond anything possible with mere pen and paper.  Creating digital stories or podcasts, blogging, and using Minecraft are just a few of ways that kids all over the world are working together, developing skills, and honing content knowledge.

Besides the performer, the other necessary part of any demonstration is the audience, and technology revolutionizes that area, too.  No longer limited to an audience of their teachers or classmates, students are sharing their work publicly and collaborating globally (click here for an example), with profound results.  Not only are students more motivated (and no longer- as one thirteen-year-old author of fan-fiction was, in explaining the reason for her missing homework assignments- forced to choose between “writ[ing] for [her] teachers, or publish[ing] for the world”), but it turns out that they’re also more caring.

Ongoing assessment guides instruction.

Quick, online quizzes give students real-time feedback while programs such as Flubaroo and Class Dojo help teachers manage grading and track student data.   Cloud-based tools like Google Docs and G Class Folders (which I posted about here) allow students to share their work with each other and get feedback from their peers.  Teachers can use these programs, too, to monitor students’ progress as they’re working and provide feedback throughout the learning process, rather than waiting until the end.  These types of thoughtful discussions show students that how they think is just as important as mastering the details.


These are just a few ways that technology enhances Teaching for Understanding.  As my classmates’ presentations proved, it’s not the only pedagogical theory that benefits from the incorporation of digital tools in the classroom.  No matter what your views on education, the bottom line is that technology allows for authentic learning to happen, which naturally creates purpose for students.  And, as Daniel Pink says, “Purpose is everything.”

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