Tag Archive for english

Of Mice, Men, and Instagram

Originally published on edSocialMedia


How can middle school students begin to recognize complexity and empathize with characters in literature? In a conventional approach, a teacher might pose thought-provoking questions to students and draw their attention to key passages in the story. However, this approach does not guide all students to deepen their understanding of the characters. Young adolescents are often still developing empathy during the middle school years, but the ability to appreciate the thoughts and feelings of a character is essential to understanding literature.


University Prep English teacher Carl Faucher uses social media to help students think about the characters in Of Mice and Men. To begin, students select one character to follow through the book and then create a new account in that character’s name on their preferred social media platform. As students read the book, they pay special attention to the character’s thoughts and inner dialogue. Students then write one post online for each chapter of the book.


Students choose a variety of platforms: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. They tend to like the familiar format and enthusiastically go about their work. Some post the minimum number required, whereas others write far more. Instagram users in particular find an opportunity to communicate visually, either by selecting stills from the movie version to accompany each thought or selecting more abstract, evocative imagery. Some choose to make the assignment social, following their classmates and liking or commenting on their posts.


Faucher asks students to avoid summarizing the text but rather write what the characters were actually thinking at different points in the book. Those who adopt the persona of the character show the most evidence of learning. Faucher notes, “students developed empathy for the character better than if they had answered conventional questions about the text. They got through the black and white of good and bad and explored complexities of the characters and their relationships.”


Conventional reading questions are grounded in the language of the discipline — academic discourse. Students better learn to think analytically and identify literary conventions such as themes and foreshadowing if they are provided with accessible steps to build upon. The social media introduction allows students to apply an established strength, “to speak the language that they are speaking outside of school.” Having gained some understanding, students are better able to build up to the more complex assignments later in the unit: a mock trial in which George is taken to court, and an expository essay that focuses on character analysis.


“With the advent of social media, our paths of communication are changing the ways we speak, communicate, and express ourselves.” While some may bemoan the decline of long form writing, Faucher takes advantage of the popular microblogging medium to help students achieve the learning goals of seventh grade English.

Mixing media for a powerful writing experience

Our sixth grade language arts teacher has done it again, inventing a multimedia writing project that has captured kids’ attention and produced some passionate, authentic writing. Last year, his students composed and recorded Reconstruction-era songs and then held a follow-up discussion via online forum. This year, students wrote, acted, and recorded short video skits about gender stereotyping and physical education.

Why video? Carter comments.

Video is important to get kids’ attention and provide fun. There is an element of drama and play. Tracking visually turns on some part of their brain, helps them understand better.


It must be even more effective to have the kids write, stage, and record the video. There are likely to remember every detail of the prompt that leads to all of the subsequent writing.

A comment thread provides the subsequent discussion space.


Kids who struggle with expository writing can really shine in a more argumentative/discussion format. [One student] cares about people listening to her points, being respected. She likes the slangy sound [of kid talk] — it has a nice ring to it. She is also really good at this dialect.

In other words, let us recognize that people demonstrate a number of authentic literacies in the real world, not all of which are represented in schools.

To spice up the discussion, Carter invited eighth grade students to join the conversation. That sure motivated the sixth grade students to write compelling responses!

Students love the forum medium, because they know they are not going to be asked to produce a lot of text, and the topic is going to be relevant to their lives. It is not authentic to write longer pieces — just an artifact of school.

The five-paragraph essay is still a critical student writing competency. It is just not the only one.

Want to join us?

Do you teach middle school students? Would you like them to join the conversation about gender stereotypes in physical education? Go to the conversation web site and submit your comments. Please ask students to identify themselves by first name and school.

Junior English as Moodle site

Here is another great Moodle design that two teachers are trying for the first time.

Entire course home page

The teachers wanted a course site to replicate as much of their current course design as possible. Of all the different Moodle tools, Forum ended up being the most versatile, because it respects groups and allows students to easily upload files to share with the entire class (unlike Directory or Assignment).

The two faculty members teach six sections between them, which we created as groups. This will keep the class discussions sorted, just to make it easier to find the work of your classmates. If you give each group and the course unique enrollment keys, then the students will automatically sort into the correct section when they log in for the first time. You only tell the students the enrollment key for their section. No one ends up using the course enrollment key.


Throughout the course, students write each paper using the same writing and peer editing process. Moodle discussion forums allow each student to both make their work available to the entire class and specifically to the individual who will be reviewing it. The reviewer then writes a formal response paper and uploads it to the same forum. This keeps the original and review paired together (using Reply in the Moodle forum).

writing process

When the time comes to submit the final draft, the student uploads the file to the Assignment object rather than the forum. Why? This is the “instructor reviewed” draft, intended for the teacher instead of their peers in class. This is set up as an “advanced file upload” assignment object, though I renamed this type “Upload multiple files” in the English language file, because that more specifically indicates what our users will be using it for. Students upload their instructor reviewed draft and metacritical essay, and then the teacher responds using the Moodle grading interface, not to mark grades, but rather to upload a Word file that includes teacher comments as floating notes. This exchange between the teacher and student remains private.

Students complete WEDGE (Writing Every Day Generates Excellence/Ease) activities to start each class. These are posted to a separate forum. We take advantage of a nice feature of Moodle that allows any participant in the class to start a forum topic. This way, the students take charge of the operation of the class, creating the new container for the day.


Of course, the teachers also use the site for routine class management, posting syllabi, links, and calendar events to help the course run smoothly. They chose to use the Topics course format and organize the page by assignment type.


Most announcements will simply be posted as text to the front page or sent via email — no need to take the extra steps to post to a News forum when the teachers are seeing the students most days of the week.

We considered using the Glossary activity for Word of the Day and then decided that a simple Forum would be just as easy to use and more familiar to the students. The teachers did not need the auto-linking feature that the glossary provides.

word of the day

We only ran into two issues using these features. If the teacher creates a single forum prompt for all sections, then the students cannot reply to it! This Moodle “feature” is documented on Moodle.org but there do not seem to be any plans to change it. So, either the teacher posts the same prompt to three sections, the students post the prompt, or the teacher starts a thread to which you cannot reply and the students start a new thread to reply to it. A minor inconvenience that we will hopefully solve one day.

The other issue was the sharp dividing line between forums and assignments in terms of privacy of replies. Wouldn’t it be ideal if one could post a “private” forum reply that only the author of the original post could see? Or if a student could submit an assignment but allow the rest of the class to view it?

Do you have experience setting up a high school English course in Moodle? What other features have you leveraged to make your course hum?